This 82-year-old drag racer isn’t slowing down
With its mild winters and ocean vistas, Victoria, B.C., is Canada’s retirement paradise. The traffic moves slower here, with silver-haired old folks behind the wheel, headed towards the ferry terminal for a trip over to the mainland. Here comes one now.
And the guy is driving a 770-horsepower, manual-transmission 1965 Mercury Comet that runs the quarter-mile in 9.4 seconds at 140 mph.
Bill Friend, at 82 years old, is not much for retiree pursuits like bridge, bingo, or shuffleboard. He’d rather be staged up at a dragstrip Christmas tree, sitting behind a small-block Ford that’s ready to be wrung out to the last rev. The green light illuminates and Friend drops the hammer, one hand on the steering wheel, one hand on the Comet’s six-speed Tremec manual transmission.
The Comet rears back on its haunches, Friend nudges it back into line left-handed, and then powershifts through the gears—bang-bang-bang—en route to a low-nine-second pass. There are no electronic aids like throttle stops or delay boxes to help out. This is old-school drag racing at its best, with elapsed times down to driver skill.
Then, race weekend done and a few clean runs under his belt, Friend dons his coveralls and get to wrenching. He jacks up the Comet, takes off the drag radials and swaps back on street tires, bolts the exhaust back on, and lowers the car back down. The drag tires go in the back seat, the tools go in the trunk, and then he points the Comet’s nose back towards the coast and drives home. On the street. With a 770-hp race engine and a manual gearbox.
“I always had this romantic idea,” Friend says, “that you could have a car you drive to work through the week, then go racing on the weekends.”
The ’65 Comet Caliente hardtop has long been part of that dream. It’s Friend’s second Comet, the first one having been purchased new by his brother in 1965. Friend got the car a couple of years later, and began wrenching on it as he used the car to commute to and from as a glazier.
At the time, he was also involved in sprint car racing, crewing on a local team. Later, he discovered drag racing, and began running the Comet in the Pro class, which comprised anything in the four- to eight-second range at a nearby eighth-mile dragstrip.
But as the years passed, drag racing began to evolve. Big-blocks and automatic transmissions were more common, to say nothing of the sandbagging and sleight-of-hand that is part of the game of winning at all costs. Happily, a group of local racers got together 25 years ago and founded the SuperShifter Series, preserving the spirit of heads-up drag racing.
“I wanted to race more au naturel, I guess you could call it,” Friend says. “When I heard that they were putting together a manual-only series, I was interested right away.”
The BC SuperShifters’ official motto is “Beat ’em with a stick.” Hydraulics and pneumatic shifters are prohibited. So are throttle timers and delay boxes. Most of the racers run dedicated, trailered racing cars with competition transmissions, but driver ability is still the main variable. Beyond the manual-transmission requirement, rules are run on NHRA Sportsman guidelines. Also, the cars aren’t plastered with sponsorship stickers, so they look more like street cars, albeit burly ones wearing drag radials.
Some of the racers are die-hard manual fans. One guy even has a ramp truck with a stick shift—it runs 13s. Others are more interested in the way a lack of driver assists seems to level the playing field.
The overall result is racing that’s quite different than most other drag-racing classes. There’s more of a community feel to the competition. Friend had his transmission blow up late this season, stranding him on the mainland facing an expensive tow bill. Dave Posnik, who runs a 1967 Mustang fastback powered by a 428-cubic-inch V-8, stepped in to trailer Friend’s Comet back to Victoria.
It’s not the only time the SuperShifters have helped Friend out of a jam. In 2007, he rolled his first Comet 10 times while running at the Port Alberni dragstrip on Vancouver Island. The car was destroyed, and Friend suffered a broken arm and other injuries. But there was no talk of hanging up his racing helmet.
“Peter Willie enjoyed my notion of racing a street car and started getting a fund together,” Friend says. “I knew [the crash] wasn’t driver error, so I never felt nervous about going racing again.”
The community raised enough money to buy another Comet, which was reportedly something of a basket case, and work began. Input and help came from everywhere, though the rebuild took about three years. Soon enough, the Comet was lining up against Mustangs and Fairlanes.
With the transmission out and the Comet apart, Friend has settled in for a winter prepping for next season. Just recently, Dale Posnik and Howie Stevens, who runs a Mustang in the NHRA Competition Eliminator class and added a few tricks to the Comet’s V-8, headed over to see what the engine would do on the dyno. A single-carb pump-gas setup, the V-8 is based on a 302-cubic-inch Ford small block enlarged to 394 cubic inches. It made a very healthy 770 hp at 7100 rpm and 607 lb-ft at 5700 rpm.
With a new set of tires, Friend is hoping for a 145-mph pass next season, which would represent a personal best for him.
“You’ve got to pay attention [to the Tremec six-speed],” he says. “It’s got no synchros, so you’ve got to get it just right. I get that thrill from a good, solid, kick-ass pass, through the finish line at 8000 rpm and above.”
At his age, Friend is realistic about how much longer he can keep doing this. For now, his health and his eyesight are fine, but torquing bolts and hauling exhaust pipes around feels like heavy work these days. Yet you won’t hear him put a time on retiring from the drag strip.
“I’m going to keep racing just as long as I can,” he says. A quarter-mile at a time.