Northeast Nitro Shoe
BY RANDY FISH
(Note: This article appeared in the March 2011 issue of Drag Racing Action Magazine, and is reprinted here with the generous permission of Randy Fish.)
Like many of us, Don Roberts became attracted to hot rods when he was a kid, passing the time building model cars. By his early teens, he befriended some guys from a local car club called “The Orientals,” and soon was helping them clean parts and pull engines. The bug had bitten and Roberts did whatever it took to be part of the group. Born in Stoneham, Massachusetts, Don grew up in Reading, just about 12 miles from Boston. The first drag race he attended was held at Sanford, Maine, in May of 1963.
When the 1966 season came around, Don was helping John Watson with an A/Gas Dragster that ran in the high 10s at 125 mph. Roberts noted, “I enjoyed learning about dragsters and how to make that small-block run. Aside from working on it, I drove the push car.” Powered by a blown 265-inch Chevy, it featured Model A frame rails, Hilborn injection, an Isky cam, Crane rockers, and a Chevy transmission using just second and third gear. Roberts added, “It was the last race of 1966 at Sanford when John said, ‘Hop in, it’s your turn to drive!”
After going over all the procedures, he drove it to the starting line, staged, and brought the rpm up. When the flag dropped he was on his way, until the Ford rear axle sheared just after the launch. Roberts let off the throttle and coasted through the quarter-mile. That was a short ride, but it cemented his passion to drive race cars.
For 1967, they added a Fiat body, a bigger 283 for power, and Don became the full-time driver, clicking off a 10.60/130 on his first pass. Roberts reminisced, “The car was really fun to drive and though I didn’t know it, people were watching my progress.”
Another opportunity came in 1968, when well known racer Jack Doyle was looking for a driver for his “Slider” AA/Gas Dragster. The deal became even more interesting to the 20-year-old Roberts when Doyle said he’d be fielding a brand new SPE (Speed Products Engineering) dragster with an Ellis magnesium body, powered by a 5/8-stroke 392 Chrysler. Don told us, “This meant I’d have the keys to a state-of-the-art car built by one of the most respected shops in California.”
Things clicked right away and “The Slider” won 80 percent of the time locally, while capturing Top Gas Eliminator honors at the 1968 AHRA Nationals at Long Island, setting low E.T. and top speed of the meet along the way. That win made Don the youngest AHRA driver to win a Top Gas championship event.
After a stint in Vietnam, Roberts was discharged from the Army and returned home, ready to pick up where he left off on the drag strip. He resumed his position with Doyle’s Slider until the end of the season when the car was retired, due to the pending demise of the class. Roberts had no real prospects for 1971, but he ended up in the seat of Ade Knyff’s A&J Speed Center AA/Fuel Dragster – the last front-engine Logghe chassis ever constructed. A lack of funding pushed the car to the sidelines partway through the ’71 campaign, however.
The next phone call Roberts got was from the successful Rhode Island-based team of King & Marshall. As it turned out, they were looking for a driver for their Top Fuel car, as Jimmy King kept the team’s Funny Car booked on a regular basis. Without batting an eye, Roberts hit the trail, running in Ohio, Tennessee, all up and down the East Coast and into the Midwest. His biggest victory in 1971 came at New England Dragway’s Grande American Series event, where he defeated “TV Tommy” Ivo in an exciting final.
In between dates with the King & Marshall car, Roberts also drove Jeff Gordon’s “King Cuda” Funny Car on a couple of occasions. He also subbed in Tom Dawes’ “Freedom Machine” AA/FD several times with a best of 6.63/224.
As you may have figured, Roberts had become known as a guy who could drive anything. He noted, “I don’t remember why, but I ended up driving the King & Marshall Duster Funny Car on Labor Day weekend at Oxford, Maine. I wasn’t at all comfortable in the car, since it was built for Jimmy, who was much shorter than me. Following some shakedown runs, we headed to Epping for Sunday’s eight-car show, where I beat Mart Higginbotham’s “Drag-On Vega” in the final.” It always meant more when the local guy took out the touring driver from out of state.
By the early ’70s, Funny Cars were the hottest attraction, so Roberts figured he’d rather switch than fight. In ’72, he joined forces with John Corcoran and Charlie Siegars to pilot their fresh, New England-built “Freedom Machine” Vega. Halfway through the season, the trio parted ways and Don re-claimed the seat of his familiar King & Marshall front-engine Top Fuel car, built by Don Long.
During the latter stages of 1972, King & Marshall introduced a brand-new rear-engine dragster built by Don Garlits, using late-model 426 power. In its August debut at New England’s Grande American race, it went 6.60 at 221 mph and runner-upped to Tommy Ivo the following day. Roberts noted, “This car ran 6.50s effortlessly and we never took it apart at the track. At the time, we match raced Garlits and Ivo on a regular basis.”
Touring continued on the match race trail in ’73 when an additional ride came about. Bill Lawton, Tasca Ford’s driver, contacted Roberts to be the wheelman of a Pinto Funny Car he raced on his own, in between dates with Tasca’s car. Roberts figured it’d work out, just as long as there were no conflicts. A booking at Englishtown went well and then there was a deal to race the Pinto at Epping – still with no conflict. That is, until King & Marshall were added to the lineup. Roberts pulled off the double-duty assignment, making three runs in Lawton’s Pinto and securing a runner-up effort to the Jade Grenade with his familiar King & Marshall dragster.
Later in ’73, Roberts was approached to drive Kosty Ivanof’s popular “Boston Shaker” Funny Car, after the seat had been vacated by Al Segrini. A half dozen appearances netted more seat time with performances in the 6.60 range at 220 mph.
Roberts said, “With costs rising quickly, King & Marshall decided to scale back and run only the Funny Car, so I was out of a ride for 1974. However, my last race for them was an open Top Fuel show at Englishtown, where I beat Roger Toth in the Hemi Hunter.”
As it turned out, ’74 was bleak, to say the least, with only one ride during the year. Fortunately, things seemed brighter in ’75 when Roberts showed up at the Gatornationals and learned the Jade Grenade needed a driver when Satch Nottle suffered health issues. After some discussion with crew chief and co-owner, Bill Fluerer, the call came about a month later and Don was tapped to start driving the Jade Grenade at New England Dragway on April 20, 1975. This was not only a car with a catchy name, but it had set low E.T. at the ’74 Indy Nationals with a 5.94-second shot.
“It wasn’t a bad run, but after the third flip I lost control.”
Roberts recalled, “On my first run in the car, it got out of the groove and I lost it. There was just no saving it and the car rolled badly. Once it came to a stop, my right leg was broken between the knee and ankle. After two weeks of treatment, my leg was amputated below the knee.” Following a year of recovery, Don regrouped and adapted to walking with a prosthesis, and terms it as a “minor inconvenience.”
A whole new opportunity came his way from 1976 to 1981, when Roberts became the Marketing and Public Relations Director at New England Dragway, learning the business side of drag racing. But for a driving career that lasted just under ten years, Don Roberts certainly made a name for himself. He became known as a capable handler and went from being a rabid fan as a kid, to becoming a fierce competitor as a young adult.
To this day, though, Roberts maintains that he’s never stopped being a fan of the sport. Granted, he drove during the drag racing’s formative years, as technology was constantly evolving. However, Roberts was evolving at the same time.
It’s too bad the match race scene is all but dead, as it offered real competition for up-and-coming talent.