The solid yellow line cutting across Highway 169 just outside Jesup, Georgia, is old and nearly faded from view. Even regulation Department of Transportation paint, "borrowed" for the occasion, wasn't meant to stave off the elements indefinitely. A scant 1320 feet further down the arrow-straight asphalt, a second line, identical to the first, snakes across the open roadway.
Start. Finish. The distance was measured off years ago by a group of local street racers, and while it's not exactly Gainesville Raceway, legend has it
there have been nights when you'd have been hard-pressed to tell the difference.
Memories of those nocturnal side-by-side forays are nearly as dim and obscure as the paint. Nowadays, most of the speed contests in southeast Georgia take place on the area's legitimate tracks, either down south in Vidalia, or in Savannah, two hours to the north.
Then, as now, much of the action emanates from Chip Horton's '69
Dodge Dart. A semi-stocker capable of running low 12's, the Mopar embraces a typically low-buck approach to bracket racing - with results that are anything but. Savannah and Vidalia are about as unlikely a pair of locations as you'd expect to find nurturing a drag race dynasty. Perhaps "dynasty" is too strong a word to describe what's been happening there for the past handful of seasons. If Horton was throttling a faster car, it would definitely fit, but for some reason the lower rungs of grassroots racing don't ever seem to attract the attention they deserve, which is too bad. Anywhere else Horton's career record of 500-plus victories - including an unprecedented eight track championships in just seven years time - would be the stuff movies are made of.
Even so, the attraction of fame and fortune isn't strong enough for Chip to step into the limelight. Judging by the 10 years he's spent behind the wheel(he took a sabbatical in 1981-82), Horton isn't impervious to drag racing's addictive nature. Thus far, however, he's managed to maintain a rock-steady tolerance for "speed euphoria," an attitude which figures prominently in his domination of NHRA's Division Two Sportsman brackets. The grandstands are full of ex-hotshoe Sportsmen who made the jump into quicker rides and fell flat. Chip and his Dart have found a comfortable niche in the 13.00-second-and-up class, and, except for an occasional fling in the faster Pro division, they intend to stay there.
Another distinct advantage common to Sportsman bracketeers is money. Speed has always been equated in terms of dollars spent; conversely, the slower you travel, the less it costs to get there. Besides, it's a lot tougher to push a stocker past the breaking point. Chip's Mopar isn't stock, but neither is it a fire-breathing fuel altered. Horton paid $600 for the then dented and dinged Dart back in '77, and has invested a total of $3000 building and maintaining the car in the interim.
Almost immediately after taking possession, Chip improved the Dodge's bracket potential tremendously by opening up the wheelwells (patterned after the original Hemi-powered SS/BA Dart) and stuffed them with 11.5x29.5inch Firestones. It's the biggest tire the Chrysler could accommodate without radical surgery, and the Number Nine compound slicks have virtually eliminated wheelspin.
"Tires are the single most important item on a bracket car," Horton pointed out during trackside testing at Savannah. "The trick is to plant as much tire as possible. You want it to hook up on any type of surface instantly. Losing traction wastes time, and that in turn throws off your whole routine, which is what bracket racing really is: the ability to repeat the same exact procedure from one round to another."
Both the engine and transmission have likewise been moderately modified for track duty. Gene Merier rebuilt the 340-inch small-block, which still houses the original crank, rods, cylinder heads, pushrods, and rocker arms. The stock 10.5:1 compression was also retained, although Merier wisely replaced the cast slugs with forged pistons. The stock camshaft was also discarded-in favor of a Cam Dynamics 4.88-inch lift, 278-degree duration camshaft. The cylinder heads were also fine-tuned, using Direct Connection triple valve springs with the middle spring removed. The Mopar mouse peaks at 5800 rpm in 2-barrel mode, and hooking up the secondaries of the Holley 750 cfm double-pumper yields another 200 rpm. The extra carburetion is also worth about a half-second gain over the long haul.
The benefits of a well-prepared, near-stock powerplant are obvious. It's been propelling Chip's Dodge down the quarter-mile corridor for six years now without missing a beat. In fact, Horton has only been forced to the sidelines three times over the past eight years due to breakage. Good thing, too,
since he admittedly isn't what you could call "mechanically inclined."
General repairs and maintenance are handled by AI "Crash" Wilkerson.
Between the motor and transmission, however, Wilkerson is kept as busy as a Maytag repairman. When the automatic was rebuilt (using a 10-inch, 3500-rpm stall speed TCI torque converter), Chip was told the case was worn out and wouldn't survive six months. Next year will mark the automatic's 10th anniversary with its aftermarket internals - and it's never been pulled. Chip's preference for fluid drive is as much out of necessity as choice, since he lost his left leg in a motorcycle accident at age 18.
Incidentally, every cent spent on the Mopar has come out of its winnings, including the 1977 Dodge one-ton tow vehicle, and Chip's everyday driver, a turbocharged 1984 Dodge Daytona. Racing on an index, all cars are created equal. Reliability and consistency are the keys to winning in the brackets, and Horton has combined the Mopar's bulletproof driveline with excellent reflexes (hence the nickname "Holeshot Horton") to pad his bank account by an incredible $40,000 over the past eight years. Who said there's no money in Sportsman racing?
With better than 500 career kayos, Horton has won everything in sight - with one glaring exception. The eight-time NHRA track champ has yet to win a divisional title, though he's come close. The double-deuce designation on his Mopar both proclaims and bemoans his runner-up finish to Tim Butler, who was NHRA publication National Dragster's "Bracket Racer of the Year" in last year's finals. After struggling at the beginning of this season, Horton is currently on a roll, and appears intent upon putting away another pair of local crowns courtesy of Vidalia and Savannah dragstrips. Either one will gain him a pass to the NHRA E.T. Bracket Finals. Once there, Chip plans on repeating his final-round appearance - with just one script change. Horton knows how to cut a mean light, and that's an edge he hopes to ride to the top. Maybe "dynasty" isn't a bad description, after all.