Top Fuel Wormhole: The “Wild Bill” Alexander Interview

THE CRASH, BURN AND RESURRECTION OF A WORKING CLASS HERO

The “Wild Bill” Alexander Interview

by Cole Coonce

"Wild Bill" Alexander (photo by Ron Lewis)

"Wild Bill" Alexander (photo by Ron Lewis)


This story is one of growth, transformation and alchemy as metaphor. Defined as “a medieval chemical philosophy having as its asserted aims the transmutation of base metals into gold,” the process of alchemy involves the charring of metal, a procedure that the man who came to be known as “Wild Bill” Alexander witnessed repeatedly from the cauldron of a cockpit. Indeed, nobody has encountered—and dodged—more molten metal than the bold and angry prince who answered to the name “Alexander.” Every trip down the drag strip was a potentially explosive exercise in metallurgical sorcery, which saw the alchemist himself grow and mutate from Hot Rod Hooligan into hell-bent Speed King and Conqueror to, finally, Elder Statesman of the Nitro Wars.


Alexander began his ascent into adulthood with a bad mojo. As a dyslexic schoolboy from a broken home, Bill sought comfort and camaraderie in the Bel Airs, one of the many ubiquitous car clubs that sprouted up in SoCal during the 1950s. Concurrent with leaving home at 16, he finally found a field he excelled in—and a potential outlet for his prodigious anger: Speed.


His buddies talk about Alexander’s precocious aptitude for wrestling with a hot job. “He was racing my ‘34 Vicky and it had a 3-speed on the steering column,” one Bel Air member remembers. “The gearshift lever broke off in mid-shift and he never even blinked. I was riding in the passenger seat and I couldn’t believe it. He just tossed it aside and continued shifting with a nub on the column.”


In one of the great symmetries of the era, the unsavory street racing favored by the Bel Airs thrived in an impromptu arena that was nothing if not a civic embarrassment: the concrete banks of the Los Angeles River. Traditionally, rivers are florid metaphorical tableaus upon which life and culture flourish. Think of the Nile and its fertile lands which gave rise to the Pharaohs of Egypt, among them Alexander the Great. Then think of a narrow piece of muck and concrete that serves no larger purpose than that of a glorified drainage ditch. Yes, although it is known as the breeding ground of nothing except perhaps a case of dysentery, the L.A. River gave rise to the career of “Wild Bill” in the same way that the Nile enabled a rampaging young Pharaoh also known as Alexander to conquer entire empires.


At the concrete delta, Alexander’s reputation grew while outrunning not only car clubbers but also the fuzz. One night, Law Dogs surprised the river-bed drag racers and attempted to broom the juvenile ne’er-do-wells into paddy wagons. The hot rodders peeled rubber and commenced to scattering like excited particles in a science experiment. Forced to improvise, Alexander resorted to scampering in his coupe like a coyote up the dusty bridle trails of Griffith Park and up into the Hollywood Hills. . .


The chaotic, dirty gear-jamming of the L.A. River ultimately yielded to properly sanctioned speed contests at El Mirage, Bonneville and San Fernando Raceway. While operating a drill press during the week, the drag strip was where Alexander’s star shone brighter still. Part working-class hero, part ultimate cockpit chimp, “Wild Bill” was subjected to and rode out the effects of imperfections in tire technology, as well as structural, metallurgical and thermodynamic failures. But he survived the frequent bouts with carnage in style: Shoeing Ernie Alvarado’s Shudder Bug, Bill stood down the notorious and fabled Greer, Black & Prudhomme AA/Fuel Dragster for Top Eliminator at Lions December 8, 1962, a dragster eliminated by only 7 other drivers. After crashing at Fernando in ‘63, he returns to the strip and, under the aegis of horsepower-monger Jim Brissette, is newly christened “Wild Bill” Alexander as he sets Top Speed of his career in his first lap back.  Later he sets Top Speed of the Universe, arguably at 202 mph, and then indisputably at 205.


Occasionally back in the 60s the drag racing press referred to Bill as Alexander the Great. This was apropos, as the precocious terror who became king of Macedonia at the prime age of twenty had an insatiable appetite for destruction and decimation. “Wild Bill” similarly had a scorched-earth policy. For reasons he wouldn’t understand until much later in life, he was anti-social, misunderstood and kinda’ mad at the world. Nobody escaped his agitation: competitors, officials or even teammates.


But, heck, after leaving a wake of wanton bloodshed and genocide, even Alexander the Great eventually mellowed and could be found dancing nude at the tomb of Greek poets. And after retiring as a journeyman in 1971, as the sport of drag racing took a turn Bill wasn’t comfortable with, Alexander returned to the drag strips in the ‘90s with the genesis of California’s front-motored “Prostalgia” Top Fuel wars. But his comeback is distinguished by the same jones for speed that characterized his first tenure in the hot seat; moreover, it is enhanced by a kinder, gentler demeanor and a new lust for life. Indeed, as runner-up at this year’s March Meet at Bakersfield, while driving for “Root Beer Frank” Hedge’s Mastercam AA/Fuel Dragster, Bill posted his career best elapsed time of 6.08 seconds.

"Wild Bill" Alexander and his Nitronic Research 5-Second Club shirt (photo by Cole Coonce)

"Wild Bill" Alexander and his Nitronic Research 5-Second Club shirt (photo by Cole Coonce)


*****

So some of the guys in the Bel Airs tell me you used to race on the L.A. river bed.

Alexander: Oh yeah (nonplussed). Generally on Friday night. At the time I didn’t haven’t a car. My buddy, Gary, had his ‘34 Victoria. Stan had a ‘57 Chevy—brand new—and we’d go down there and race with Tony Nancy, Floyd Lippencott, Jr. and Tommy Ivo, and all these guys and just street race in the river bed. It had this green slime down there so we had to find a spot with the least amount of green slime in order to race. Whoever’s side had the least amount of green slime won, usually.


Then we went to the River Road—which is Forest Lawn Drive now. We’d get 4 or 500 spectators down there, pit areas, the whole thing.

But it was more than just the L.A. River. It was Glenoaks Blvd…

Alexander: When we were street racing there was a Frostee (Foster’s) Freeze where everyone hung out. That’s when I had my ‘34. You’d park yourself and if some guy came by with a hot car, there was a signal right there. He’d have to stop and you’d just pull out next to him. You’d race down Glenoaks as far as Brand Blvd, turn around and pull back into the Frostee Freeze.

How did you make the leap from street racing and running from the law into climbing into a digger?

Alexander: My brother had built a ‘41 Willys to run the lakebed (El Mirage). He got drafted and left the car at home. Of course, I wasn’t supposed to touch it but instead I—whoop—took it out to the lakebed. It was kind of a dog; it ran 127 mph. A friend of mine said, “Let’s get the rulebook and check it.” We looked at the rulebook and we could take a 265 Chevy and de-stroke it 1/8th of an inch and get it down to 259 inches, put a blower and an injector on it and we could run it in the same class, C/Altered. We did. The record at the time, if I’m not mistaken, was 129 and we took it out and ran 155. Just shattered it. Then we went to Bonneville and ran 172 and then it took back to El Mirage and ran 181—in a ‘41 Willys coupe that went everywhere but where you pointed it. It was the most ill-handling thing—of course, I didn’t know any better because I had never driven anything out there.


After El Mirage one day, on the way back we went to San Fernando to run it and Ernie (Alvarado) was there. The next weekend they came and said, “Hey, you want to go to Long Beach?”  Ivo runs 8.99—it was the first 8 second time (on gas)—in a dual engined, unblown Buick. Ernie, who was a roundy-round guy, went, “Oohh, I like this.” The next weekend they came by and said, “Hey, you want to go to Long Beach again? And how would like to drive a dragster?”


When I was 14 my brother-in-law, Marty Elvehoff, had a slingshot altered that he was doing body work on at his house. I sat in it and I told myself, “Someday I’m going to drive one of these.” So when Ernie asked, I finally had the chance. So we go to Kent Fullers’ and we start building an aluminum body for it. We go down to the river road, fire it up and we had put the main jets in backwards. It was trying to hydraulic the motor. I’m down there trying to turn the fuel shut-off valve on and off, trying to make it run and it goes Ka-Blooey! and kicks the rods out of it—steel rods!  We oiled down the river road… never even got it to the race track.

That had to be a portent of things to come.

Alexander: Oh yeah. So we build a new motor for it, we’re getting ready to go to the races at San Fernando, loading the car up and the phone rings. Ernie’s dad had just died. Obviously, we didn’t run. That lasted almost a year. Ernie and his dad had just gotten close—it just devastated him.

Oh no.

Alexander: Finally, we got around to running it.  We take it to San Fernando, I leave the starting line and you talk about a shock. It probably went out about 400 feet and I’m off the throttle, out of it, dead player. Get down to end and the guys come down and ask, “How was it? How was it?”  I said, “Aw, bitchin’.” Lying through my teeth. . . ly-ing through my teeth. “You want to make another one?” “Yeah!” Lying again. We go back and cool the motor down (we were running on gas), make the next run, go about 700 feet and the comfort zone is gone—I’m petrified—CLICK! It ran 145 or 147 and I’m making the turnoff and I’m thinking there is n-o way I will EVER get this thing to the end of the track.

A blown Pontiac on gas?

Alexander: A blown Pontiac on gas. Probably at that time, the most state of the art car built—Kent Fuller built it. So after the second run, they come down and ask, “How was it?” “Bitchin’! I loved it!” Still lying through my teeth. “You want to make another one? “Yeah, okay… (under his breath) Oh, God. . .”


We go back and r’n’r the thing, cool it down. We go up to make the last pass. The gas record at that time was 168 mph and it turned 165 mph—and I got it down to the end. I shocked myself. Doing that convinced me that I could do it.

Were there any other pivotal moments?

Alexander: Well, shortly thereafter I met my first wife. The only reason she went out with me was because I drove one of those cars with a parachute on ‘em. We got married soon thereafter. So now I’d ask Ernie, “Are we going to run the car this weekend?” and he’d say no. This went on four or five weeks in a row.
What had happened was Ernie didn’t want a married guy driving for him. He didn’t want the responsibility. So he pulled the plug on me and put Tommy Ivo in. Tommy drove it that winter until the March Meet.

Was it still a hobby at that point or were you able to actually get some grocery money out of it?

Alexander: It was strictly a hobby. But after the March Meet, the car sat in Ernie’s garage for four months and I got the brilliant idea to tell him, “Give me your garage, give me your push car, give me your trailer, give me the race car and I will turn it into a Top Fuel car—with my money, it won’t cost you a penny.” Duh. Dumb idea, right? I didn’t have a pot to piss in, I’m married with one, soon to be two kids. He said, “Okay.” So every penny I could beg, borrow and steal went towards converting the injector over: new nozzle, new barrel valve, all that stuff so we could run it on fuel. Edgar Hugglebuss and I went out to Long Beach every Saturday night and that thing would go 200’ and it would turn right. So I’d get out of it. Edgar said if he had insurance he’d drive it. Right. That really pissed me off. So I told him, “I’m getting this (expletive) down there. It’s either going to the end or it is going to crash—one or the other, I don’t care anymore.” So I legged it on down there and about the 300’ mark, it turned right and I turned left and it went right through it. It did the same thing on every pass I ever made with that car. It was just one of those idiosyncrasies. From then on we went down for a long time and set Top Time or Low E.T. and then we’d get beat. Until a 32-car showdown there where we went and beat Greer, Black & Prudhomme. That was our first win and it seemed like we almost couldn’t get beat after that. Until it crashed.

So from late ‘62 and into ‘63, you were among the elite fueler guys
.

Alexander: None of us felt that way. At that time we were a bunch of kids having fun—a bunch of kids who knew we weren’t going to live past 35. With Ernie’s car, I never took a penny, although it made a ton of money.

So you didn’t quit your day job at this point?

Alexander: It never dawned on me it could be possible. All the money went into the racing account which Ernie ended up keeping after I crashed. But after that I always took 33%. I did not drive for anything less.

Tell me about the crash.

Alexander: Mickey Thompson saved my life. The very first time we tried to run at Long Beach the inspectors looked at what was one of the first over-the-head hoop rollbars and they didn’t like it. So they called Mickey on the radio and he said, “If you put two bars halfway up the rollbars down to the rear-end mounts, I’ll let you run it.” So we put two “sissy rails” on it. That’s what prompted the body to be designed the way it was. Ernie hated those sissy rails so much. Lujie Lesovsky (Indy car builder) built the body up on the sides and into the parachute pack to hide the sissy bars. He said, “I can’t just stop here,” like most of the guys did.

So you’re saying this actually precipitated the design of, say, Stellings & Hampshire.

Alexander: Ernie’s car was something that everybody went off of and made better. Ernie’s car was kind of boxy. The Greer, Black & Prudhomme car was a little slicker—it looked a little smoother and nicer. Everybody smoothed ‘em out, but Ernie’s was the first of its kind.

Until that Sunday at the Pond in April of ‘63.

Alexander: Right. In those day we ran 15 or 16 pounds of air in the rear tires. We made the first run and broke the track record—mile an hour and E.T. Came back for the first round and instead of 15 or 16 we ran a pound less. “If that was good, this ought to be better.” Same thing, Low E.T., Top Speed, track record. Come back the next round, it’s a pound lower. So screw it: “If that was good, this ought to be really good.” Went out and did the same thing. Come to the final round and one of the last things I remember is that we were another pound lower. My theory is that the tires finally got so low that it spun the wheel in the tire and at half track started spitting tire out and kicked the right hand tire off, blew it up, it drove it into the dirt, nosed in about 1000 feet and ended up clearing the flags over the finish line and then all hell broke loose. It just dug in and catapulted. Flat out, it blew a right tire.


After it catapulted, it came apart like a cheap watch. The front end broke off, the engine took off. People told me that the chutes came out when it was 20 feet in the air. When I got stopped, my hand was still on my shoulder like I had pulled the chutes. They did a magnificent job of getting me out of the car. Dave Wallace and Harry Hibler (track personnel) saved my life. Harry looked at me and said, “Goddammit, don’t you die.” I rolled my eyes back in my head and he said, “You son of a bitch.” He thought I had died. They hauled me off to the hospital—we called it the butcher shop. Meanwhile, a friend of my wife’s called her and said, “You and Renee can come live with us.” My wife said, “What are you talking about?” “I just saw on teevee that Bill got killed out at San Fernando.”

(silence)

Alexander: Yeah, heavy stuff. Ernie’s damn near dead—he’s in shock and was in the next room.

Besides that dark day at the Pond, how was it getting the Shudder Bug down the strip?

Alexander: That car taught me everything I know today. It was an evil car—I didn’t know that at the time. At that time, it was state of the art. But it was an evil little bastard. It taught me how to feel the car, rather than let the car act and then I react. It taught me to turn the wheel before the back of the car ever reacted. It taught me to be ahead of it—to feel the car. Ernie’s car taught me so very much—but it also taught me that life is very precious.

Maybe that’s the car they should use in the drag racing schools. So when you came back, that was the advent of “Wild Bill”?

Alexander: When I first drove again I went faster and quicker than I ever went in my life.

Out of the box?

Alexander:
Out of the box. I was worried that I would have this big flashback where I was upside down and on fire. It didn’t happen, I just legged it on through there like it was no big deal. I don’t remember the guy’s name who was in the tower, but he said, “Oh, that’s old ‘Wild Bill’ for ya’.” I got stuck with the name.

This was with Hippo (Everett Brammer) and Jim Brissette, right? How did this partnership come together?


Alexander: Hippo went to Jim Brissette and said, “Would you put your motor in my car if I get Bill Alexander to drive for me?” He said, “Sure.” Then he asked me, “Would you drive my car if I get Jim Brissette to put his motor in the car?”


We started out with a 354 and would smoke the tires, went to a 331 and would smoke the tires, and finally ended up with a 300-incher and the thing ran good. We could finally control the horsepower. But through all of that Jimmy decided, “Screw this.” He ordered a brand new Woody Gilmore car, 144-inch-long come-catch-me-throw-me-down-top-of-the-line, with the engine about 3 inches off the rear end. It didn’t have immediate success. Fastest car in the world for maybe two years, quickest car in the world for maybe four months.

The reputation was that the car would stay together for maybe three rounds.

Alexander: It would haul ass in qualifying. The first round nobody wanted us; second round everybody wanted us because they knew the rods were coming out at half-track. It was because Jimmy was making so much more horsepower and the car worked so good that it worked the motor that much harder. It would have main bearing problems, which became rod bearing problems. Jimmy tried everything—we drilled the main caps and had extra lines going into the main caps—and then the fingers started pointing. “Bill is driving it too hard.” For the last eight months it was finger pointing, not by Jimmy so much, but by his friends and people at the races. Yeah—we’re running 206 and a tenth of a second ahead of the field sometimes and “he’s driving the car too hard.”

What was your deal with Brissette?

Alexander: 33 percent, bottom line. I packed the parachute and drove.

The consensus was that Brissette wouldn’t settle for anything but big numbers.


Alexander: Exactly. Blowing the engine up and catching it on fire—that didn’t bother me. Blowing the rods out, getting oiled in, I’m okay with that. Ernie’s car, every run we ever made, I got oiled in. But then we started blowing blowers off—this became rather serious. Actually, it became very serious.


We went to Fremont one night and whistled the sucker down through there, get about 900’ and ka-blooey: We split the blower right down the middle. Come back, put the spare on it, go out there and whistle it through…  ka-blooey: We split the blower right down the middle. Some guy who had already qualified goes over and pulls the blower off his car and goes “plink!” “I want to see you guys run over 200 mph.” Jimmy throws that sucker on the motor, run it down there till’ about 1100 feet, it sneezes and splits that blower. Somebody else walks over with another blower. Etc., etc. By the final, we leave the starting line, I’ve got the other guy covered and the thing is really hauling ass. I’m thinking, “All right!” And I’m whistling down there…  Ka-blooey! It goes off. The blower lifts and comes back and hits me right between the eyes. The entire blower and the injector. It falls in my lap, it pulls my hands off the wheel and into my lap. This all takes place in a millisecond. I lift the thing out of the car, throw it out on the cowl, grab a hold of the steering wheel and I’m still trying to drive. There is oil on my goggles—they are all cracked by now. I take one hand off, wipe off my goggles. “Okay, I’m still fine.” The blower goes, “clink, clink, clink” hits the tires, goes back in the air and hits me right back in the eyes again. This all sounds like bullshit, but it went “boink, boink.” I went, “Aww,  s-s-h-h-it.” It hit the tire again, came back and hit me in the face and that is the last thing I remember until the ambulance guys were taking me out of the car.


When I became conscious the first thing out of my mouth was, “Did I win?” “No, you lost.” “Aww, s-s-h-h-it.” It ripped my finger from the knuckle down and split my nose from my forehead down. It was going, “phfffllttt. . . phfffllttt. . . phfffllttt.”

And it was more of a mercenary deal at this point?

Alexander: If it hadn’t have been for drag racing, I wouldn’t have been able to have a wife and raise two kids. I worked during the day and I made more on the weekends than I did during a whole week. I was able to take care of my family and provide for them much better than I ever knew.


Who did you drive after Brissette?

Alexander: I didn’t drive for a couple of years. Then Bob Sbarbaro called me from San Francisco. I would commute—all expenses paid. Plus 33 percent. I started driving for him but we didn’t get along. Bob was very outgoing and loved everybody. I was very withdrawn and really a homebody. (At this point) I did racing for a living—not because I enjoyed it.

So it would it be safe to say that you enjoyed being in the cockpit, but not socializing.

Alexander: The only thing I liked about racing was driving the car. As far as socializing, I didn’t do it. Maybe people got the wrong impression of me. But that was me and has been me—until not long ago.


I couldn’t tell you why I was the way I was. I didn’t know any different; I didn’t know any better.

Why were you so mad at the world?


Alexander:
I had a shitty childhood—a gawd-awful childhood. Walking the streets when I was 7 or 8 years old. (Details deleted at Alexander’s request). I hated the world and I was an angry, very upset young man who took my anger out on anything or everything.

But driving a fuel car had to be the ultimate release.

Alexander: It was the ultimate release, but as soon as I got out of the car the anger came back. It was a lousy way to live. It ruined my first marriage.

With a co-efficient of drag racing.

Alexander: Not really—that’s what I thought. But in hindsight, I ruined that marriage. I was a pissed off young man who didn’t know why he was angry. I didn’t realize this until six or seven years ago. I have been trying to turn my life around for six or seven years.


Isn’t it interesting that the front-motored fueler thing has come back and you have a chance, perhaps, to undo some things?

Alexander: This is where you are exactly right. This is where I have a chance to make up for a lot of the bad things I said and the bad things I did. As far as moaning and bad-mouthing of sanctioning bodies—I made a lot of mistakes.

So there you were in the late ‘60s and the sport is getting more professional. How come you didn’t ride that wave? Did your outspoken manner make it difficult?

Alexander: I had a wife and two kids I had to be responsible for. I had an opportunity to go on tour but I was afraid I couldn’t make enough money to support them. My marriage was shaky, so I thought I should stay home and try to salvage it—which wasn’t salvageable.

Do you regret that choice?

Alexander: No. I’m glad I did it. I would have liked to have taken the chance but I wasn’t about to gamble with my wife and kids.

Is what you’re doing now providing a venue for some of you guys who felt that you didn’t get a chance to ride out that last wave as you saw fit?

Alexander: This has let a lot of us do what we wanted to do when we were younger—and maybe a little more talented. But it is allowing us to fulfill maybe a dream, or maybe the reality of something we stopped doing then because of families, business or whatever.

It takes a certain kind of mind to run a nitro car, particularly to tune one…

Alexander: Now you’re out of my league. I know how to drive and pack the parachute—and mix nitro. And I try to stay away from mixing nitro because I just assume pour straight nitro in it.

"Wild Bill" Alexander, in the Ground Zero Top Fuel dragster at the 2003 March Meet (photo by Cole Coonce)

"Wild Bill" Alexander, in the Ground Zero Top Fuel dragster at the 2003 March Meet (photo by Cole Coonce)

(Originally published in Drag Racing USA)



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6 Responses to “Top Fuel Wormhole: The “Wild Bill” Alexander Interview”

  1. Interesting stuff it’s as I remember also. I’m Bill’s first wife. I was looking for information regarding his hospital stay. I have been contacted by people that know he is my ex-husband.
    I almost had forgotten my drag racing days.

    Toni

  2. I saw Bill drive the Shutter Bug many a time back in the day. I, as he said also, thought it was the 1st of the modern looking front engined dragsters and just beautiful. Love the interview.

  3. Thank you for telling your story.My father was hippo and he is in my heart and on my mind.

  4. Hello, my name is scott bishop and I was a close friend of Bill and Rod Alexander. When I was a kid, I used to live with Bill and Rod. I was hoping that someone could help me find them?

    Last time Rod and I spoke was about three years ago when Rod called me out of the blue. I have not talked with Bill for almost 30 years now?

    Toni and Bill had recently divorced when I lived with Bill and I have not talked with Toni since then.

  5. Hi Bill, Thanks for all the cool memories,We Havent talked in years, Sure miss the Hell out of the old days of Drag Racing, when you drove for my dad. Pat Johnson Jr. MoonLighters Top Fuel Dragster/ Reath Automotive Spl, 2065 Era.

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