The Night I Raced the Northern Pacific’s Fast Mail

Something I read last night about sharing old stories reminded me of this one.

I used to own a ’65 Barracuda; it was something of a rarity because although it wasn’t a “Formula S” car, it was originally ordered with a lot of the Formula S stuff. (Car-guy-type details follow in the next paragraphs, I’ve highlighted them in orange so you can skip ahead if you want.)

This was a fortunate thing, because the Formula S engines had problems with the cams rounding off. The first owner had put a hotter (marine) cam in it, but he was smart enough to retain the equal valve timing for the intake and exhaust, like the stock 273 had, which gave it that super-smooth idle. He’d also put duals on it (exiting in front of the rear wheels), and had the sense to have a crossover installed, plus had tuned the exhaust for good power through the entire rev range. The car had the Chrysler 300’s 4-speed in it with the Hurst linkage, and the low-ratio (4:11 I believe it was) rear axle.

Consequently, you literally couldn’t get your foot to the floor in First before you ran out of revs. You would stab the gas, and the car would literally LEAP. You could also shift to Fourth and not lug the engine at 20 MPH! Whether original equipment or a later addition by the original owner, there was a massive Stromberg 2-barrel on it. It’d obviously been correctly sized, because you couldn’t bog the engine by flooring it. It also made the car faster than the Formula S cars because they had this flow-activated 4-barrel, and their primaries were really small by comparison.

All these things made the car was what we’d call today an eighth-mile-car. Then, we knew them as ‘stoplight racers’. The ‘cuda would do the Quarter in 14 flat (or less, depending on who was slamming gears), and trap out at about 102. The problem is, it’d be to that speed about a hundred yards or so before the exit trap. It’d literally hit its top speed and stopped accelerating long before you got to the end of the strip.

Okay, back to the story:
The car was (and remains) the most lively, and the most predictable, car I’ve ever driven. And if you know me, I’ve owned a LOT of cars. I owned the Barracuda when I used to work in this freeway gas station in Centralia, and I’d close the place around midnight or 12:30. When, depended on if the local group of welders came in for gas… If they came in, they’d be joking back and forth, while I took care of them. They always smelled like burnt metal; the second time the bunch came in I asked if they were welders. “How did you figure that out?” They always stayed around about a half hour, keeping me from closing up right away.

On any given worknight, I’d leave work, too wound up to sleep, so I’d often go for a drive. I had several late-night / wee-hour adventures, and this is one…

One night I found myself on the way to Bucoda, on the old highway. At the northern edge of town, the road takes a Y, with the right leg crossing over the Northern Pacific’s mainline tracks to Tacoma and Seattle, and twisting its way on out into the darkness of the Big Hanaford Valley. The left leg, was the old highway north to Bucoda: An open, straight, long, beckoning ribbon of fairly smooth blacktop.

The night was dead-quiet, with me rumbling quietly along in the Barracuda through deserted, dark streets, the incandescent streetlights casting gentle yellow pools on the pavement. I was nearing the north edge of town, where there were a couple turns before the highway straightened out for three miles along the Northern Pacific right-of-way. It was a great place to let out the car. You just have to remember that the road has a U-shaped 20 MPH CORNER that bends around a big, tough, unfriendly, unmovable, oak tree about 3 miles in the distance. And it’s not marked well!  Several people had borne the lasting marks of a run-in with that tree, and the County wasn’t about to remove it. To do so would just invite hotrodders to use that long, straight, smooth piece of road, far away from town, for racing.

Meanwhile, I’m approaching the Y at the north end of town.

I shifted down for my approach to the corner, and as I did so, I heard the monotone call of the NP’s “Low A” horn in the distance. The crossing signals came alive, and the night along the railbed was pierced by a headlight. The NP’s Fast Mail whipped through the crossing, doing the same speed they’d been doing through Centralia – about 80 MPH. These were the days before the railroads had to observe slower speeds in town. People were expected to have the brains to pay attention at the railroad crossings, and with very, very few exceptions, they did.

The Fast Mail was led by a full set of passenger-speed-geared F units – An “A” cab unit, two “B” booster units, and an “A” cab unit. There were about 14 cars of mail and express; the tail car was mail storage and carried the markers.

This was one of their crack trains, it ran on the passenger schedules, was maintained like the passenger trains, and the engineers never spared the horsepower. Right NOW I was going the same way with a good rolling start. The tail car happened to clear the crossing as I was rounding the corner, and I had the thought, “I bet I can catch them!” I didn’t need any more excuse than that to go fast, that night.

I shifted down to Second, rolled through the corner, and on the exit, I slammed the gas. The ‘cuda’s exhaust barked as it leapt forward, its low growl snarling into a wail as the revs increased and we accelerated.

Shift to Third, slam the gas. The ‘cuda leaps again, hot to go now. The exhaust roars up through the rev range. Don’t wind it too tight. Shift to Fourth, slam the gas.

The end car is getting bigger. Hee hee hee, I’m catching them quick! They’re only doing 75!

I was doing about 90 at this point, and easily zipped past most of the train. I came up even with the Fireman’s side of the engine, and snapped my foot off the gas, pacing them.

The cuda’s exhausts snapped and crackled, spitting fire as I slowed down to match speed. That got the attention of the Fireman, who looked over at me. I turned on the dome light for a second and waved. He waved back, and turned and said something to the engineer. We rolled along, side by side, for about five seconds, speed matched at 75. I was just about to stab the gas and pull away.

Then I heard the exhausts bark on all four of those F-units, and they started pulling away. And they were pulling away FAST. I matched speeds with them for as long as I could, but just as we were getting close to 100, several things hit me all at once:

I was running out of power because I was getting close to top-end speed of the ‘cuda…

AND … the stupid oak tree with its badly-marked 20 MPH corners was somewhere not very far away 

AND it was getting a lot closer

at about 150 feet per second

oh God

I jumped off the gas. I had no idea where on that straightaway I was. I hit the brakes so as to not come up on that corner suddenly in the dark. God must have had his hand on my shoulder, because I was on the brakes in enough time to see the 20MPH sign come looming out of the dark. Stamping the brakes hard, I made a quick downshift, spun the wheel, and started a drift to put the car sideways through the corner at 45. Anything else would have me in the ditch.

I was going too fast and I was out of options. Drifting that corner is a dangerous and stupid move, because there’s always gravel everywhere on that corner from everybody else in the world hitting it too fast. You almost never get away with pushing your luck, and in addition to the car-killing oak in the middle of the corner, there are big ugly, car-eating ditches on both sides! I did manage to keep the car in the middle of the road, however, and came out the other side pretty much straight. And I did it with a 1965-vintage car with drum brakes and bias-ply tires.

Yes. Thank. God. Period. Thank God that he looks after fools.

I never was one of those guys who liked scaring myself. Never. I pulled to the side for a minute until the shakes quit and my breathing leveled off, then I found a driveway to 3-point with and headed back to town. But I did blow off the adrenalin by running down that straightaway real fast in the other direction, headed for home.

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