Getting set to drive a top fuel dragster for the first time, Maynard Garritty was living the dream. It was 1974, and the sudden purchase of Gary Egbert’s Don Long car afforded the new team of Maynard’s brother, Gord, my father, George Sitko, and Ron Hodgson, the opportunity to plan a cross country trip to Montreal, Quebec, for the Molson GrandNationals at Sanair, near Montreal. The 40-hour trip was hastily planned, and there was still some work to do before they were ready to hit the road.
Maynard had driven a gas dragster for years, but didn’t have a license for top fuel yet. To add to the urgency, the team decided to make a stop at a Winston Championship Series points race in Winnipeg, Manitoba, along the way; at least it was 13 hours in the right direction. Problem was, the points race was in 7 days, so the Maynard’s licensing had to go quick and smooth.
To get his license, the team headed to Edmonton International Raceway, close by, in Northern, Alberta. The car was ready, but it had a lot of new, untried parts in it. Push starting the car was always a thrill. The Ford one-ton truck pushed the dragster up to about 30 mph. Maynard dumped the dragsters clutch to get the motor rotating, building oil pressure and start feeding nitro into the blower. The driver hit the mag switch and the motor burst to life, the dragster quickly pulling away from the push truck. The nitro fumes were thick and heavy in the truck behind the race car as the crew jumped out at the starting line and helped turn the car around.
Once lined up, Maynard lit the tires after pulling through the water box, after which the crew ran to retrieve the car and push it back to the starting line. There were no reverses in the dragsters back then; I guess they were trying to save 20 lbs. Pushing a nitro-burning dragster was no easy chore. I think Maynard made it even hard by dragging the clutch just a bit. The effort to push the 2,000-pound missile was made more difficult by breathing in the almost 100 percent nitro. It made your knees weak and your strength was pretty well tapped out by the time the car was back at the starting line. The crew was gasping for breath as Maynard crept toward the starting line. He lit the first staging bulb and floored it, shooting the car ahead 60 feet. This was the dry “burnout” to test the traction. Once more time, we pushed the car back and he was ready for his first run.
Staging carefully, the lights flashed on the Christmas tree and the car took off down the track like a scalded cat. Just when everyone thought this was going to be a great run, the dragster went silent at half-track. Good enough for the first run anyway. Although he had to make 3 solid passes, it was obvious that something was wrong with the car.
Upon examination, everything looked great, but the new Lenco transmission the team had installed didn’t shift into second. When we pulled it apart, the transmission disks were burned like toast, I’m not sure why. Not seeing anything obvious, we put new parts in the Lenco, and went out for another pass.
As it turned out, the same routine with the same result, although Maynard did drive it a little further in low gear, so the elapsed time was quicker. The autopsy in the pits was very similar as well, new disks went in again, the spring tension on the shifter was double checked, and they went out for the final licensing run. The team was out of time, this run had to be better! The crew chief, George, told Maynard to leg it out if he could in case there was no shift, so that’s what he did, and while the transmission failed again, the run was quick enough to earn him his license!
More Lenco parts were ordered and we started our trek to Winnipeg. The parts would be waiting for them there, but they had to figure out what was wrong! Some quick competitors were also waiting for them at Bison Dragways, Gary Beck, Graham Light, Bob Struksness, Terry Capp, Don Gillman, and Ken McLean. The team got to work on the Lenco as soon as we arrived. Though we thought we had found a problem with the shifting fork. All should be good now!
After the first qualifying run, however, we were the slowest car, and we had another burned up transmission. Two more qualifiers with the same results, and we were out of parts. We were qualified, but without much hope of even getting to the starting line, never mind having a chance to win. George had an idea though. He dug through the trailer and found some pieces, bringing them outside. It was a long-chromed tube, along with a drive shaft and some couplers. The team took the Lenco out and in no time the direct drive shaft was installed. Maynard was to race Terry Capp first round; this was going to be interesting. Will it make enough power to pull in high gear only?
The team was keeping this pretty quiet, but Graham Light happened to wander by before the car was put in the trailer for the night. He saw the chromed tube attached to the clutch can, and running all the way to the pinion, and said “You can’t run that!” “Just watch me”, George said.
Sunday morning came and everyone warmed-up for their first-round matches. George told Maynard, “you are going to be behind for most of the track, but don’t lift, you will catch up by the finish line”. George also told Maynard to leave a bit above idle, which was quite unconventional.
It was time for first round; Maynard and Terry did their burnouts and approached the starting line. Maynard brought up the RPM as he staged, and both left on the green. The direct drive car launched a little better than expected, and as George predicted, Maynard caught Capp before the finish line. The crew was jubilant, Maynard had won his first round! Maintenance was routine between rounds, and there was no transmission to worry about.
Next up was the Export A car of Gary Beck. Beck was already becoming a superstar in top fuel, but was used to the great traction afforded him at the NHRA National Event tracks. Bison Dragways was not of the same caliber, and Beck was having a bit of trouble getting all his power to the ground. Beck and Garritty pre-staged, and Maynard brought the rpm up even higher this time. They left together, and Beck’s tires were spinning, while the direct drive car was hooked solid. Maynard outlasted Beck to the finish line; they were in the final! Again, the motor looked good, the team checked bearings, adjusted valves, and mixed nitro in preparation for the final. Maynard’s opponent would be Graham Light, who was driving the Proud Canadian top fuel dragster. Graham had been running great all day, but was only about a tenth of a second quicker than the Garritty/Sitko/Hodgson car. Both burnouts were strong; the Garritty team was loose, they weren’t even supposed to be there. Both drivers left, it was hard to tell who left first because the direct drive car was a bit sluggish at the start. Graham was ahead though, and Maynard was not sure that he would make up the difference this time. 6.58 seconds later though, Maynard had caught Light just before the finish line. Graham had run a slightly quicker 6.56, but lost it on the starting line. Garritty would become one of the best leavers in top fuel in the Northwest Division.
This was a huge win for the new team. It was the first title for Maynard, in his first race. It was the first win for George Sitko. Ron Hodgson had already won a couple of division titles in Funny Car with driver, Gordie Bonin, but this one was important to him as well. Gordon Garritty had won events with former driver Gary Egbert, but winning a title with his brother in the seat was special!
Even with the stop in Winnipeg, the trip to Montreal was brutally long. It seemed to take an entire day to get through Ontario! We found our hotel, and since we didn’t have time to service the car before we left Bison, it got totally stripped on the lawn just behind our rooms. New Lenco parts had arrived again, and we were determined to find the problem. After stepping back to take a fresh look, it was determined that the drive shaft coming out of the Lenco was touching the pinion, which was applying pressure all the way through the transmission. That was definitely causing it to burn up. Lots of other work to do as well, new rings and bearings were installed, heads were serviced, and clutch/transmission freshened. It was about 3 am when we finally finished up, even Hodgson was helping. We got a bit of sleep, then headed out to Sanair. One of the first people we encountered was a French guy taking money for tickets at the track. He looked more like Sgt. Schulz from Hogan’s Heroes though, and sounded like him too. Schultz started counting everyone in the crew cab, it was packed! We even had 2 guys in the sleeper. While he was counting heads, looking a little confused, someone slipped a hundred-dollar bill into his hand (probably more than he made that day). Schultz said, “thank you very much Sir!” and waved us through the lineup. Sweet.
The temperature was stifling. 115 degrees F, and as close to 100% humidity as you could get. On the starting line, the asphalt magnified the air temperature to 125. All the professionals were there, it was a little intimidating. Gary Beck, Don Garlits, Jeb Allen, Jeg Coughlin, Jeb Allen, Pat Dakin, Graham Light, Grant Stoms in the Rampage, and the Traveler of Tony Ceraulo. and Tommy Ivo. After day 1 of qualifying, we were near the bottom of the field, we needed to break through the 6.50’s to have a chance. Our maintenance that afternoon was highlighted by the bottom end guy, Wayne Barber, getting doused by steaming hot water when the sleeve was being pulled out. In that era, we all still ran water in the block, and bottom end guy didn’t quite get out of the way fast enough. An eventful day to be sure, but it was about to get better. After taking our regiment of salt pills (to combat the heat), we piled into the truck and headed to the hotel in Granby Quebec. Driving down the 2-lane highway, minding our own business, we noticed a cop chasing a Cadillac about a mile to our right. Man, were they moving. The Cadillac was soon going to have to make a sharp left, which would be heading directly towards us. There was no way he was going to make that corner.
Well, he did, and swerved all over the road, coming straight at us. We had already pulled into the ditch and stopped, hoping he would miss us. No such luck. The Cadillac hit us head on, throwing everyone in the crew cab forward. Maynard was in the center of the back seat, and he flew forward, hitting the big Ford stick shift between the 2 front seats. My knees made 2 big impressions in the glove box, and my right hand went through the passenger window. The Cadillac was on fire, and the 2 occupants of the Cadillac had smashed their heads pretty good on the windshield. No one was seriously hurt, but a fire started under our hood, so my dad fired my brother Shawn through the side window and into the ditch. Just an automatic reaction I guess. Shawn had just turned 1, so it was a relief to find him still alive in the ditch when we got out. Maynard was infuriated that this guy had hit us, he got out of the truck and literally ripped the driver’s door off the Cadillac. Quite a feat of strength for a 150 lb guy! With the door off, we could see what had happened, the back seat was full of empty Pilsner bottles, they were both drunk out of their minds. The motor in the Caddy was pushed right up into the front seat of their car, our truck faired pretty well, as we had a 1-inch thick steel push bar bolted to the front for push starting the dragster, so other than cosmetic damage, the only real damage was to the radiator.
That behind us, we made our way to the hotel. At first, we were mad at the cops, as they seemed to not understand that we wanted the guy charged for drunk driving. We later found out that, at that time, the insurance wouldn’t have covered us in that case, so maybe they were doing us a favor. Back at the hotel, Maynard was hurting. He probably had broken ribs. I don’t remember him going to the hospital, but I do remember using a half roll of duct tape around his chest before we lowered him into the car the next day. Ouch, that had to hurt. Maynard said it wasn’t too bad, until the chutes came out. We didn’t make the show, but word got around about our crash, and we got a visit before we loaded up from Linda Vaughn. She posed for a picture with my brother Shawn, and his cake with one candle. We drove all the way back to Edmonton in our wounded truck, fixed everything and made it to a few more races that year.
George went on to be the fabricator/mechanic for Ron Hodgson’s turbo top fuel dragster, then ran alcohol dragsters with his sons Ken and Steve, and now builds mag drives for most of the top alcohol teams. Ron Hodgson won numerous titles with Gordie Bonin, Terry Capp, and Tim Boychuk, and is now at the top of the class in the nostalgia nitro funny car class with his son Ryan driving. Maynard and Gordon Garritty went on to race the DanCap top fuel dragster. Maynard has since passed away, but is fondly remembered by family and friends.