I was a Teenage Drag Racer – Merek Chertkow
Merek Chertkow went from teenage drag racer to a full-blown professional shoe. His story is quite remarkable in many ways.
Back in 1963, Dante Duce persuaded Dean Moon to let him take the Mooneyes dragster to England for some exhibition runs. Mickey Thompson tagged along on the trip and helped launch British drag racing. In 1964, Dante was back with Moon’s Devin-bodied Moonbeam and an impressive team including Don Garlits, Tommy Ivo, Bob Keith, Tony Nancy, George Montgomery, KS Pittman, Sox & Martin, Dave Strickler, Doug Church and bikers Don Hyland and Bill Woods.
A huge success, the tour was repeated in 1965 with Bob Keith, as captain, along with Tony Nancy, Danny Ongais, Gary Casady, Chuck Griffith, Nick Colbert, Buddy Cortines and 19-year-old Merek Chertkow. I remember the day because I was there and took one poor photo of Moonshot with my trusty Kodak Brownie. Now, more than 50 years later, I spoke to Merek who remembers the trip like it was yesterday.
“I drove an Olds-powered AA/Modified Fuel Roadster (shown above) for Ed Taylor who owned ET Auto Parts in Pomona, CA. He got me a job at Dean Moon’s in 1963 and in ’65 Moon decided to send me to the 2nd International Dragfest in England. He purchased a 150-inch chassis from Jim Davis and Ed and I put the car and the nitro-burning 392 Chrysler together. Dean had it painted yellow, of course, named it Moonshot and gave it the number 007 in honor of James Bond. Since Ed and I had done all the work, and Dean knew that I had experience driving, Ed and I were the logical choice to take the car to England as part of the US Drag Team.
“Ed and I trailered the car to New York City from where it was shipped. Two weeks later, we flew to London where we stayed at the Grand Hotel. We were also flown to Paris for a few days of sightseeing and the sponsors: Goodyear Tires, Valvoline Oil, and Sydney Allard Motor Car Company in England, paid for all this.
“Finally, late in the day on Sunday, after seeing the faithful fans sitting in the rain waiting for us, a few of us agreed to put on a show. I thought I would make an ‘easy pass’ so the fans could at least hear the cars. Because of the rain, I could not wear goggles. Once on the track, however, I decided to just go for it and I ran a 10.44 at 128 mph. In the photographs taken just before the parachute was deployed, you can see the water coming off all four tires—it is not smoke. You can also see the left rear tire is off the ground. The fans were amazing, and the fact that they stayed in the stands in the rain impressed and touched all of us on the team. This would not have happened in America. Incidentally, that photo of me getting air in the rain was used on the cover of Wally Parks’ book Drag Racing Yesterday and Today.
“After Blackbushe, while navigating the interesting but somewhat confusing English roads, coupled with my learning to drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the street, I was involved in an accident. I landed in the hospital with two broken vertebrae, a few days before the next event. I did not call Ed, or my family. On Wednesday, my second day in hospital, the doctors informed me that they would not release me, that I needed surgery and would have to stay there for two to three weeks. Since I was not about to do that, because I would miss the second race at Woodvale on Saturday, I called Sydney Allard to rescue me. I left the hospital on crutches, just one hour after the doctor left. The Allards picked me up and I accepted their gracious invitation to stay at their house.
“The Woodvale event was that Saturday and Sunday more than 200 miles north of London in Lancashire. The Allards got me to the track, but my back was hurting so badly that I asked the Carroll Brothers team if their driver, Buddy Cortines, could make a run in my car for me. They offered to have Ben Griffin, who had driven dragsters in Dallas, and who was also on their team. We talked for a few minutes, and he was happy to drive for me and made a qualifying run, however, he clipped the clocks at the end of the run and was placed #8 in the field.
“This was the only pass Ben made in the Moonshot because I was so upset that I decided that I would try to get in the car and drive it myself. As Ben helped me prepare the car, the track medical team approached me and advised me not to drive but I convinced them that I was okay. Two men from the track helped me into the car and in the video below you can see me struggling to get into the car but I drove the next race. My excuse for losing was that it was hard to concentrate because of the intense pain, so we lost that race, but had a great time and ran 9.80 at 174 mph. Ben is and was a very capable driver and proved it many times throughout the years, winning many races in his career.
“Woodvale was the last race and the cars were picked up and shipped back to New York. I flew to Philadelphia and stayed with Nick Colbert until the cars arrived. I then set off for Pomona but on the way, I stopped in several places where I was paid to make exhibition runs. I also stopped at the World Finals at the newly opened Southwest Raceway (now Tulsa Raceway Park) where I qualified to race, but lost in the second round—all with a broken back. Luckily, Connell Miller was there with his camera and shot me and Gordon ‘Collecting’ Collett strapped in his AA/GD. I look pretty dejected but my best run was a 7.66 at 204 mph.
“Back in Pomona, Moonshot was sold and I resumed driving Ed Taylor’s Fuel Roadster until the following year when I drove the Ramchargers dragster. I quit racing after that, in order to build high performance racing engines but I’ll never forget that trip to England.”
Thanks to Merek, his wife Cathy, Connell Miller, Shige Suganuma at Mooneyes and Jon Spoard of www.ukdrn.co.uk for help make this story happen.