Smokey’s Darkside Nitro Funny Car – Smokey Alleman

By Al Heisley - Photos by Sherm Porter, Dean Court, Cole Coonce, Steve Ferrell, & Ted Soqui

First, I want to speak to you about your background. You know, the early days of Smokey.

“Okay.”

I understand that you’ve done Indy cars, NASCAR, and Bonneville, as well as other types of racing.

“Mm-hmm (affirmative).”

I was wondering if you could briefly tell the readers about some of your experiences with those cars. How did you come about getting interested in racing, and how did you get involved in all those categories?

“Basically, my dad had a lot to do with it.”

Okay.

“He enjoyed racing a bunch. When I was a kid he and I were into what they call Quarter Midgets. We started off running Quarter Midgets, and it’s kind of a funny story.  Back in 1957, we went to Phoenix for the Quarter Midget Nationals. We ran the race there and we were leading by a lap and suddenly, we were black flagged on the last lap because my car was leaking oil. I remember that that really irritated me.”

“After the race, I’m driving home with my dad and I said to him, ‘Hey, Dad. Would you mind if I did my own motors?’ And he said, “Well, you’d probably do a better job than I do.” So, I started doing my own Quarter Midget motors at that point.”

“When I was 12/13 years old. I was doing motors for five other guys at the same time. After racing Quarter Midgets for a while, my Dad got involved in Sprint Car Racing. If I remember right, we got involved in sprint car racing from ’64 to ’67. Then I went back to Indianapolis until, I think, 1973.”

“My first year there, I worked for Parnelli Jones. Al Unser, Mario Andretti, and Joe Leonard were our drivers. In 1973 I left there again and started my own business fabricating chassis and building engines. I started building off-road cars. In fact, I built several of them. And the cars won the off-road races in Mexico; the 1,000 and the 500, and other races, too. It was then that I decided that, ‘I might try driving.’”

“’So, I built myself a midget and started driving that, which was kind of a weird design that I came up with. We ran that car very successfully for a while. I also did some boat racing, too, and then we raced Bonneville for a while.”

Man, you’ve been around, haven’t you?

How did you get into drag racing after everything else?

“The way I got into drag racing was I was having a discussion with a guy at a restaurant and he was telling me he had this funny car that he was trying to run.  And that they were having trouble getting it down to the end of the strip! So, I asked him what they were doing? He told me that they’re running nitro in it. He went on, and on, and on about everything that was going wrong with it. I said, ‘I don’t know what you guys are doing wrong. I just came back from Bonneville, and I ran five miles on 98% nitro, so I don’t know why you guys can’t make it down a quarter mile drag strip.’ And that’s when I began to find out that there’s a lot more to it than what I thought. But that was kind of my introduction.”

“Next thing I knew he asked me, ‘If I’d like to get involved?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ve never been drag racing before other than just watching, so, yeah. It’s something I haven’t done. I’ll do it.’”

What year was that?

“That was probably 2008, something like that, ’08 or ’09.”

Okay.

“Anyway, he was with Don Nelson’s car, what they originally called the ‘Bomb Squad.’ When Mendy Fry was driving the car.”

Oh, yeah, I remember that.

“I was going to go to work with them and they offered to bring Roland Leong on as an overseer,’ and I said, ‘Well, that’d be cool.’ I said, ‘because I really have no idea what I’m doing. I know how motors work, but I don’t know this particular part of it.’ So, we brought him on. We went to one race with him, which was kind of neat, and everyone agreed to disagree, and the first thing I know, my second time going drag racing I’m the tuner on a nitro funny car. But because I had been down the road a lot of times racing, I kind of think I knew what to do.”

“For that first race, we went to Sacramento. Once there I discovered that we only had two sets of tires in a trailer, a set of Goodyears and a set of Mickey Thompson’s. I asked them how long they’d been running the Goodyears, and they said, ‘Well, since the car was built.’ I said, ‘Well, how long is that?’ And he said, ‘About two years.’ And I said, ‘Well, one thing I’ve found in racing is that fresh rubber is always better than used rubber.’ So, I said, ‘Look. Put the Mickey Thompsons on it.’ They listened, and we put them on.”

While I was at the tire truck, I just bared my soul. I said, “Hey, Mike.” I asked, ‘You know, this is going to sound like I’m bullshitting you, but here I am, and I have no idea what I’m doing. But I’m running your tires, so tell me what to do with them.’ Without hesitation, he told me what tire pressure to try and so on and so forth. And guess what, we went to that first race and we were number one qualifier at Sacramento! And we went faster and faster, and I went back and talked to Don Nelson again and asked him what else he wanted me to do!”

“You know, I’ve always found that if you bare your soul to people … “

Sure.

“… they’ll help you.”

“Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot of help from a lot of people. Growing up, I was surrounded by intelligent people because my dad and I were in the foundry business. We made castings of heads and blocks for most all the hot rod guys in the LA Area. We made pieces for Iskendarian and Airflow Research. We made probably 20 to 30 different cylinder head combinations for different people that were racing; we made two sets of cylinder heads for Bruce Crower; in fact, we made just about every competitive cylinder head that was made down there. We had many good relationships and I found that if I shut up and listened, people would help me.”

“That’s kind of the path that got me there. I don’t know where I’m at, but I’m having a lot of fun.”

Are you happy with drag racing?

“Yes. Yes, I am.”

“I enjoy the challenge because you’re never ever going to master it. You can get close and you can maybe do a better job than the guy in the other lane, but nobody has it figured out. That’s kind of the challenge I like. You’re never going to get to a point and say, ‘Okay. I got it. I got it figured out now.’ Yeah. It’s never going to happen.”

That’s for sure. Let me see. How did you come about getting your own car?

“Well, what happened was when I was working on Don Nelson’s deal and I got into an argument with the guy that was running the car. I’m trying to tune the thing, and I made the mistake of explaining to him that some of the tuning happens inside of the motor instead of just outside. And he told me that he didn’t want me inside his motor, so I decided, ‘Well, I can’t do this with my hands tied together.’ So, I backed away from it. I was just kind of kicking dirt for a year trying to figure everything out, ‘What else could I do?’ Because I really had just gotten enough of this that I knew I wanted it to do, and I couldn’t put anything together, and nobody really offered anything up. Finally, I made this deal with Nelson. He had this old car that no one wanted, and I said, “Well, let me use that thing,” and so I brought it out, and it was kind of a shame, in a way, to run it against his car.”

“It turned everything upside down because I was getting used tires, used spark plugs, used everything that wasn’t good enough for his car, and then I was still going faster than he was. That didn’t fit well. Don Nelson and I are still very good friends. We’ve gotten through this whole deal and we’re good buddies, and I think the world of him, but whoever was running his program didn’t appreciate what I did. As I went down the road with the old car, I put a 392 in it that had ran well. Unfortunately, that deal came to an end. I had known Nick Arias for probably forty years and he had this Arias Chevrolet motor, which wasn’t the top thing to run, but he says, ‘Hey, nobody has ever really given this thing a chance.’ I said, ‘Well, okay, I will.’

I said, ‘Look. If you want to, I’ll tune the thing and see what we can do.’ It took me about a year of modifying it and it was coming around. You see, they originally built it 30 years earlier and then they built a later version of it, and they parked the original version, and never did any more development on it.”

I see.

“So, after 30 years of no development to make the thing run we worked on it. And we worked on it some more. We made the thing run, but the problem was we had so many Band-Aids on it that you could hardly work on it without changing everything. But we ran a 5.72 with this 30-year-old Arias motor.”

“Okay, we tried to figure out what direction we needed to go. We were going to make a new block, and some different heads and then Nick (Arias) died so that stopped that deal. I already noticed that with this Chevrolet motor, if I made it work, because I was the only Chevrolet guy out there, they’d vote me out if I was hurting them. ‘So, I better get in line,’ and that’s when we got this 426-deal going. I’m just beginning to become comfortable with it.”

Okay, with the Hemi?

“Yeah. I ran it. I ran it and did the tuning on Don Nelson’s ‘Hustler’ car for a year, and got that running well, so I have some background in it. I’m just getting to where I can quit working on keeping it alive, and maybe work on making it run a little faster.

That’s great.

“That’s kind of where that program is now.”

Your life has just been surrounded by motorsports. Usually, one of the questions I ask is: ‘How did you get interested in racing?’ But, in your case, you were born into it.

“Yeah. I was.”

Tell me about other parts of your life up until ownership; married, kids.

“Yeah. I was one of those kids who got married very young. I was 18 years old and we had three daughters, and somehow or other we all got all of them college educated. I mean raising three kids, having a family and racing at the same time, it doesn’t sound like you could do it. People jokingly tell me that if they want me to do something, all they must do is tell me I can’t and that’s where I get all watery and jump in the middle of stuff.”

Let’s see. What’re the greatest challenges that you’ve … I know you’ve told me a little bit here but drag racing has proven to be challenging to you.

“Yes.”

What are your biggest challenges?

“I think the thing that keeps me alive is just the fact that no matter how hard a job is, I make it as good as it can be. I’ve had great, great challenges. I’ve built several sprint cars, midgets, off-road cars, and things like that, but I tell people, ‘I never learned anything when I was on top, only when I was on the bottom, because racing will take you up and down, and mostly down, and I don’t like the view from the bottom up.’ So, you work hard, and you come up with ways to make whatever it is you’ve built work. I don’t have the best stuff by any means, and I have a level that I can compete at, and I must find a way to compete at as high a level as possible on as low a budget. I’m not the only one out there doing that. There’s a lot of guys who we shouldn’t be there.”

Now, I had heard that earlier this year you got hooked up with Rich Howell who brought some money in.

“Yes. That’s correct.”

That has had to have made a big difference with you.

“It did, and, it also made the challenge harder because immediately there were greater expectations.”

I see.

“He brought equipment onboard, and it was good stuff, but it didn’t all go together. There was a piece of this and a piece of that. I had this very frustrating situation that I’m just getting straightened out. An example being on our cylinder heads. Because what he brought onboard was mostly used stuff. I have six different intake valves that fit in these heads.”

Oh, no.

“Oh, yes. They’re different lengths, use different keepers, and the head diameters are different. The problem that I’ve had is categorizing this stuff so that the guys don’t put the wrong pieces in the motor.”

Holy mackerel.

“They’re different valve lengths, so if they put the wrong valve in, then the spring tension’s going to be wrong. They’re bead lock keepers and square lock keepers, and if they put the wrong keepers on the wrong valve, well, you just created an unhappy motor. So, it’s made my job much tougher, even though I’m not complaining because I didn’t have the stuff to work with last year. I’m not crying the blues, but I’m saying, ‘Boy, it’s tough.’”

So, he’s been a great addition? An asset.”

“Oh, yes.”

That’s great. What’s his background in racing?

“It’s a similar deal to mine. He grew up around the Howard Cam group down there.”

Okay.

“It was another one of those deals. I knew those guys very well, but Rich and my paths never crossed. I didn’t meet him until he moved up to here. He was at a show that I was showing a car at, and he had the Howard Cam Twin Bear Car there. He was displaying, too. My car was sitting next to his. Well, anyway, I got to talking to him because Howard had ground the cam for me in the funny car. I had the early Vintage Round Howard Cam decal on it. While we were talking, I thought t it’d be a good idea to line these cars up and take a picture with the Howard Cams decal showing on both cars for Donnie Johansen because he’s still helping everybody. We need to do that for Donnie. Kind of a ‘thank you’ for him. I introduced myself and we did that. We’ve been getting a little tighter since then.”

“He helps financially. And he helps with parts. We still don’t have the best parts there are, but we have far better stuff than we did.”

That’s good. What have been your best finishes?

“In my own car or with other people’s cars, also?”

With the Darkside car.

“With the Darkside our only win was a Saturday Night Nitro.”

I was there for that.

“I guess it’s been a couple of years ago by now.”

Yep.

“That win was with the Chevrolet motor. We just kind of put things together and it ran well, and since then we’ve been trying to change things. Then it slipped away from us. We got a little back, and so on and so forth, but that’s the most success that the car has had. I’ve run 5.70s with three different motors in the car. The car is capable, and once you learn the motor you’re working with, they’ll all pretty much run the same.”

Sure. That’s great. 5.70s aren’t too shabby in that category.

“No, they’re not. The first race we went to with this car we put a 392 in it, and everybody said, ‘Why the hell did you do that?’ And I said, ‘Because that’s the only motor we’ve got.’ We ran a 5.78 the first time we ran the car.”

That must have raised some eyebrows.

“It did because we were the only guy with a 392 in the thing. And I still like that motor a lot. It’s just that you run out of pieces for them.”

Sure.

“Pieces for the 426 are more available.”

Yeah. Well, the 426 is a muscle motor.

“The way I look at it is that it’s capable of more abuse. A 392 runs well. Luckily, I got to work with both and the 392 taught me kind of like what the 426 needed. The 392 has a much smaller intake valve, smaller port, and so on and so forth. When I went over to Nelson’s and was trying to help him with his 426, I’m looking at this. He’s got a quarter-inch larger intake valve, and he’s got 20 degrees more timing and I’m outrunning him with a 392, and I’m thinking, “Well, he doesn’t need all that cam.” So, I pulled the cam and everything like that, and his car immediately came to life. I don’t know. Maybe I remember stuff better than other people.”

Well, there’s nothing wrong with that. My question was right on the tip of my tongue, and it slid out. Who works on your car? Who is on your team? And the spelling of their names if you can.

“Okay.”

First, how do I spell your last name properly?

“Well, it’s A-L-L-E-M-A-N.”

Okay.

“My crew chief is Ben Zorn, Z-O-R-N. Right now, we’re restructuring the crew, but I can give you the names. I can’t necessarily give you the positions.”

That’s fine.

“There is Scotty Sykes, S-Y-K-E-S, and he is a nephew of Bobby Sykes who used to work at Keith Black.”

Yeah.

“There’s Carlos Ramírez. These are all local guys that we put together on this team.”

That’s a big help, isn’t it?

“Yes, it is.”

“Next, we’ve got Richard Rea. I don’t know if you remember or know who he is.”

No. I don’t.

“He’s a local guy here that I’ve been friends with for years, but he originally teamed up with … let me think here. Tom McEwen in a gas dragster at Lions. They held the top speed record at Lions for a couple of weeks.”

No kidding?

“Everybody has been around it, not necessarily in it.”

Yeah, I understand. How do you spell his last name?

“R-E-A, Richard Rea.”

“There’s also Steve G-U-I-C-H-A-R-D, Guichard who packs the chutes, handles the bodywork and drives the line truck.”

Okay.

“Well, it’s funny. These guys were all in my area, but our paths had never crossed before I got up here. I’ve got Jeff Priest, P-R-I-E-S-T. He’s one side of the motor.”

“After Kris (Krabill) decided not to come back I considered and interviewed a few potential drivers until I offered the position to Jon Capps. He has the experience, can provide solid feedback after each round and everyone on the team knows him and looks forward to working with him. I’m looking forward to the Reunion and hopefully next year.”

I understand you have a big shop and that you do a lot of other work, too. Is that correct?

“Yes.”

What kind of work is that? What kind of shop do you have? If I were going to define your shop, it’s more than a repair shop. Is it not?

“Yeah. I’ve never done anything but race cars.”

Okay. Got you.

“To give you an example of how varied things could be, I just bored a Crosley block for a guy.”

Really?

“Yes, he called me up and says, ‘Can you do this job?’ ‘Yeah. I can.’ I said, ‘I’m not looking forward to it, but I can do it.’ He says, ‘Well, everybody else has messed it up.’ I said, ‘Well, I can do it and I won’t mess it up.’ And then he asked, ‘Well, what’ll it cost?’ I said to him, ‘Well, what it will cost is I’m going to mark my time down when I start. When I finish it’s going to be shop rate times however long it took.’ ‘Well, what do you think?’ I said, ‘Look. If that bothers you, don’t send it.’ So, it arrived the next day.’”

“I really started off building chassis. I built several sprint cars and midgets, and off-road cars. I did three different cars for Mickey Thompson for his off-road racing. I was a fabricator. I built the tubs and a lot of the suspension pieces for the Parnelli Jones Indy cars, but here it seems like more people are interested in motor work than chassis work. I haven’t built a chassis now for, I don’t know, probably three years.”

Parnelli Jones.

“I just like doing stuff.”

Yeah. I hear you. That must have been an experience. Parnelli Jones has always been kind of a hero of mine. He was the guy. He was a low budget guy?

“Yeah.”

Seemed to make things work with nothing and win races.

“Yeah and I hold the record for working for him and quitting more than anybody else. Yeah.”

Why is that?

“Frustration, different things.”

Was he a hard man to work for?

“Not really. When you go what I call big-time racing, like the big show stuff. If you look what the guys are doing in the big show, most of those guys just perform labor. They’re not really having a whole lot of fun anymore. It’s just thrashy work and when you go into car racing it kind of becomes that way.”

Yes.

“When I started with them we had five guys, all very talented guys, and we won Indy two years in a row with a team of five guys.”

Oh, wow.

“And then they got a big sponsorship from Viceroy cigarettes, millions and millions of dollars, and we had like 30 to 40 guys on the team and us guys that had won the races. They had a designer there who wouldn’t listen to us. We’re building these things and we tell him. You know, ‘This is going to be a problem.’ And he’d answer, ‘I’m the designer and you guys do it my way.’ That’s kind of when things … “

Oh, man.

“ … started to get ugly.”

Yeah. I bet.

“So, I escaped a few times. I went back the last time and I ran a midget program for his two sons. Parnelli and I we’ve always been honest. We don’t necessarily agree with each other, but we respect each other’s opinion.”

That’s saying something.

“He may not want to hear what I have to say, and I may not want to hear what he has to say, but we respect each other. He stands by his word and it puts him at an elevated position for me.”

I’ve always heard great things about him. And the kind of guy he was. I think, if you’re going to have a role model, he was it and, unfortunately, that’s all I knew about him. I wish I had known more.

“Well, I can give you an example of what he was like. I had quit working for him. But I knew how his head worked, and I could do the work he liked. And he appreciated that. I knew what he was looking for. So, anyway, I went out to Riverside at one of his sports car races out there, and I’m walking through the pits, and I look up, and I see Parnelli standing there. He’s talking to Dan Gurney, and Roger Penske. He sees me, and he excused himself from that conversation to come over and say ‘hi’ to me. I thought, ‘Well, at least that shows he’s got respect.’ We had always had that respect for each other.”

That’s great. Do you know Penske and Gurney well?

“Not well like I knew Parnelli, because I never actually worked for them. I’ve had conversations with Penske at Pocono. We were stuck there during the Wilkes-Barre, (PA) hurricane. I think it was 1972. We sat there for a month trying to race. The entire area was flooded. But, he, Penske, was just fishing for information about our cars more so than really caring who I was.”

What’s your favorite kind of racing?

I like the drag racing thing. I’ve run sprint cars and oval track cars for probably 30 years. It was very enjoyable … “

Right.

“ … but the change in it that I saw I didn’t like.”

Got you.

“It’s got money in it now, and what irritated me was you’d work on your car and you’d get your car in a winning position and, as I used to say, people would fall out of the sky on you and take you out. There’s a whole lot of that now where there’s no respect for equipment anymore. They just use it up, and a lot of young kids they just bounce cars out of the way, and you buy them a new one, and that kind of stuff, and so I kind of got sour on it. I’ve had chances to go back, and I’d look at it and think, “No. I don’t think I need to go there.” The drag race thing is much more challenging and it’s by mistake if cars get together. It’s not part of abusing the guy in the other lane.

Right.

“So, I kind of like that. If you set up the car correctly, the car will run fast. You don’t have to worry about some rich kid trying to take you out.”

Yes. Tim Richards told me one time that drag racing is the hardest kind of racing there is, the most difficult, and …

“I would agree with that.”

… because you’ve got four different tracks on Sunday, four different combinations on race day.

“Well, I tell the guys on the crew and I try to be their cheerleader, too. I said we’re all going to make mistakes doing this. There isn’t any way that any drag race car has ever made a pass down the track that when they come back everybody says, ‘Boy, that was perfect.’ They’re never quite right. Our challenge is to try to make fewer mistakes than the guy in the other lane.

Yeah, I hear you.

“That’s what we’re really trying to do here. There’s always going to be something wrong, and like with my group I say, ‘Hey, our deal here is that when it’s your day to be under the bus we’re here to support you because we’re all going to be under the bus sooner or later. We’re all going to make a stupid mistake.’ During this talk, it just so happened that I had left the throttle stop on during the run.”

Oh, no.

“Yes, but it was kind of good for me, so I said, “Okay, guys. That was me. You know, while I was laying there underneath that bus there I looked around. There’s room for everybody down there.”

That’s the truth. Okay. Well, I think that just about does it for this one. If I have more questions, Smokey, I’ll give you a call. Do you have anything that you would like to add?

“I’m going to make a statement that I’m just making to you, and you can use it whether you want to or not.”

Sure.

“I’m really concerned about where the nostalgia stuff is going right now.”

“I think we’re beginning to out price ourselves. I have a very realistic view on it. Everybody is saying, ‘Well, if they paid us more money.’ You know, all these things. The reality is the car owners have done this to themselves. It’s not the track’s fault. The track can only pay so much money.”

Sure. Sure.

“We’ve decided that if we’re going to run a car and the guy we’re running next to us buys a chrome whatever and puts it on his car, then our retaliation is to buy another chrome thing. Put it on our car plus something else to get ahead of him. So, we keep stair stepping each other, and putting more and more money in this and, eventually, I’ve seen this happen in other racing things. It ends up with maybe two or three guys at the top that can afford to do this, and all the rest of the guys quit coming, and then it fizzles. I don’t know the solution. The Saturday Night Nitro thing, I think it was a good program, but they can’t run it the way they do because it runs until early in the morning.”

“My thought was, and I mentioned it to Blake Bowser, is that maybe, if you came in and they sealed the motors, and you couldn’t take the motor apart, then everybody would back down to a certain level. It’d be kind of like the old days to where you’d set the valves. Change the plugs, and run it again, but that’s just a thought. I do think we’re eventually going to price ourselves out of existence.”

It’s an interesting concept because it costs roughly half a million bucks a year to race one of those cars. I remember when it cost a half a million dollars to race a top fuel car, and it wasn’t long until they were way out of line.

“It’s continuing like that, now.”

Oh, yeah.

“I’m not a fan of the new mags. They’ve introduced the new mag, and the guys that have the dollars want them, but all it really does if we all had the new mags, first of all, you got to buy the deal, and then if you’re going to run consistently, you need a spare, so basically you’re talking $5,000 to $6,000 and we’ve just elevated the whole cost of running one of these cars.

Sure.

“And everybody still has the same thing.”

Sure.

“I don’t know where it’s going to stop. It’s competitive so you want to do better than the guy next to you, so you must have something he doesn’t have. You put it on. Now, the rules committee at that point either says yay or nay. You can do it, or you can’t do it. It all elevates the cost.”

It goes back to what you were saying earlier. That you must find something; the driver, the owner, or the tuner that makes the difference, not the money.

“Yeah. The money makes it easier.”

Yes.

“It’s like I tell people about these valves here. ‘Oh, why don’t you just fix that? Get a piece to replace all the valves and everything like that?’ That’d be all-well-and-good except that the assembly with the valve springs and retainers, and keepers, and all that that go into a head is about $5,000 a head. That’s per head. And you’ve got to have a couple of sets of heads. That’s a minimum of $20,000 in heads alone.”

Yeah. That’s something.

“Like I say, I don’t know the solution. I know the problem.”

I’ll tell you, Smokey, you’re an interesting guy to talk to.

“Anything that you think of that you need an answer to, go ahead and give me a callback, and I’ll do whatever I can to help you.”

I appreciate it very much. It was a real pleasure speaking with you again, Smokey.

“Oh, yeah.”

“I maybe gave you more information than you wanted. I don’t know.”

No. You didn’t. I’ll tell you. It was just right, and it was a great interview. I learned a lot from you today. With that, I will let you go back to work.

“All right, Al.”

Thanks, Smokey.

  

Jon Capps

Jon and I hung out in Las Vegas a few days after he made a deal with Smokey. We talked about his past rides and all the work he’s done over the years as part of several racing teams. We also discussed his driving Smokey’s Darkside Nitro Funny Car. “Hopefully I’m going to do the job I was asked to do. Go rounds at Bakersfield. A win for these guys would be great!”

2 Comments

  • I’ve been racing (mostly road racing) since I was 16 (I’m now nearing 80)! I ALWAYS learn something when I visit “Smokey’s” shop! This interview of him bares out that he’s the type of guy that listens; to the problem (question). If he doesn’t know the answer, he’ll tell you; but he quietly thinks about; and sure as “sh.t” he comes up with a potential solution. In the case of my stuff he’s worked on, it’s usually the right one! Thanks for giving our friend “Smokey” the recognition he rightfully deserves.

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