|Drag Racer Don Hardy - The Quiet Man
Don Hardy Before The V-8 Vega
By Ro McGonegal
Let's step back in the alley a little bit. It's the Pre-Vega Era, and our hero Don Hardy is busy winning the NHRA Division IV points race with his B/Gas '32 Ford. Hardy had made recon expeditions to Southern California in search of the right stuff for his hot-off-the-forge 327. He pretty much took the trickest pieces available because he was an engine builder and knew the odds. Jack Engle (camshaft), Joe Reath (rotating assembly), and Stu Hilborn (mechanical fuel injection) gave Don their best based on the parameters of his powertrain combination. He was using a B&M Hydro-Stick transmission, the darling of the Gasser set, which did not feature a torque converter or any other kind of torque multiplier. The stock GM Hydramatic had a fluid coupling with the usual driver-driven vaned structures, but it had no stator--the little aluminum blade wheel that goes in between and multiplies torque until it is overridden.
Hardy put some of the first B&M torque converters to his automatic, thus affording him stall speed when the rest of the fellows he ran against did not have this advantage. There was also an affair with a tube-frame digger that was featured in Phillips 76 TV commercials, but the first Don Hardy customer was still a few years down the pike. Hardy worked his dealership line mechanic job to make the nut and never considered building cars for anyone else.
He was drafted in 1963 and wound up dealing with Alaska for two years. Released, he set up shop near Floydada, Texas, which skirts the southern edge of Panhandle Country. More wind than sunshine, necessarily desolate, the mother bitch of wide-open spaces. A good place to pull your feet out of the clay below (with that righteous sucking sound) and ponder grander things in the sky above. Hardy glimpsed the future (his future, at least) in that great blue void, and he began to build thoughtful versions of the rudimentary Funny Car, circa 1965. At that time, typical Funny Cars were little more than a circus act, a filler when there was a lull in the program.
During his military stint, Detroit had introduced the midsize musclecar. The key to Hardy's grasp of the phenomenon, he says, were the two summers he spent in Detroit under the wings of builder/racers Jay Howell and Pete Seaton. Logghe Stamping was the premier Funny Car chassis-builder at the time, blessed by Ford and therefore the media when it was contracted to construct the first flip-top car (Don Nicholson's SOHC Comet) under the eye of Ford's racing dictator Al Turner. To Hardy, the puffs in this smoke signal went way beyond the ordinary. He formed a partnership with building contractor/racer Kelly Chadwick. As Hardy puts it: "Kelly had the money, I did the labor."
In the midst of all the whimsy and the uncharted course of the neophyte Funny Car, Hardy made damn sure that his creations didn't look funny at all. They were cleanly executed, well presented, and built as intelligently as any car of the day--on the West Coast or anywhere else. In '65, he "moved a lot of wheelbases on Plymouths and Dodges," ostensibly for the factory. His '66 Chevy II was the first of many Chevy-bodied cars actually powered by a Chevrolet engine; though the Hemi was clearly superior, there were plenty who would rather eat lung worms than entertain an Elephant. Hardy was non-denominational and proved it by building the first "Rambunctious," a '66 Hemi-powered Dart for Gene Snow. He hit the big time, so to speak, when he did '67 Camaros for Chadwick and Dick Harrell from factory-supplied bodies in white. The drag racing press was ecstatic. Hardy's cars did well and got the ink they deserved.
"I traveled with Kelley from 1966 to 1968," Hardy said. "We hit something like 33 states. By '69, though, the shop became more important than racing. I needed it to do well there so I could pay the bills." All the while, Hardy had a concern for safety. These stock-bodied cars were going much faster than they were designed to do. SEMA had no rules for Funny Cars, so Hardy and Californians John Buttera and promoter/racer/icon Lou Baney approached the organization with the first rules of construction.
His chassis design was ahead of its time and was greater than the horsepower available. "I followed dragster rules," offered Hardy. "I built my cars with chrome-moly tubing when most others did it with mild steel. The NHRA had no way to check wall thickness then. My idea was to 'build back' using dragster technology to build these new cars. I knew they would be safer." SEMA liked it and instituted the changes.
When asked whether his extraordinary shop produced any young visionaries or worthy proteges, Hardy offered, "We tried to keep our secrets at home. I didn't have many employees. We preferred country living." Don Hardy Race Cars was producing eight to twenty cars a year, which included a rolling chassis and a body reproduction from Fiberglass Limited out of Chicago. By the late '60s, he was commanding $20-22,000 per quarter-mile assassin, and it took approximately 30 working days to weld a pile of tubing into something that resembled a car. Frankly, he didn't make much money at the business until he released a catalog of mail-order goods. "The best years were '70 to '73. We did a crazy amount of mail business, and it told me that we could stay and make it work. I had 14 employees then, and that was a lot of people."
The business was on fire, and the next big thing was about to ignite. As the Funny Car evolved with laser speed, nearly overnight it lost its identity and roots, both of which were still dangling from an altered-wheelbase Dodge. The new Pro Stock Eliminator cars actually looked like something you could buy at a dealership. They had carburetors, stick-shift, Modified Eliminator-size drag slicks, and wheelbases that were in the right place. It was Hardy's take on building a Pro Stocker, but this time he "built down" from the Funny Car, applying technology he had cultivated for years.
Hardy's first Pro Stock example was a Hemi 'Cuda for Oklahoman and factory racer Don Grotheer. Initially, there was some disagreement with the NHRA about retaining the front portion of the factory framerails rather than installing custom tubing, which made the car safer. By '71, that scramble was over, but there was another one looming on the horizon.
It's Hardy's practice and conviction to supply nothing but the best possible product for the money. That was problematic around 1971 when West Coast defense contractor Boeing Aircraft took it in the shorts and there was an army of highly talented metal crafters on the streets. Many joined forces with local builders like John Buttera. In the end, said Hardy with a shrug, "he could build a nicer car than we could."
Then Don sluiced another nugget from the pan. We're not sure who first had the notion of putting a V-8 in a Vega, but we tend to think that the first eyes laid on that nicely laid-out dude could see a small-block squealing between its fenders. Chevrolet engineers did it in 1971 using an all-aluminum 302 for the assignation. We'd supervised the stab of a 350 into a Vega's panties at Dick Harrell's shop in Kansas City, Missouri, circa 1972, and the Feb. '72, issue of HOT ROD ran a feature on a conversion performed by Don Hardy Race Cars in Floydada, Texas. In 1973, we did a two-week test on a Hardy-kit LT-1 Vega built by a Rhode Island dealership. Before the whole thing was kaput, the V-8 Vega craze was enabled by at least seven engine-swappers (some using components supplied by Hardy)!
Where the first two V-8 Vega mutants were one-offs, Hardy wisely capitalized on the conversion factor: He was the first to build and package all the critical components and send them to your door. Shortly after HOT ROD's two-page featurette about the Hardy installation hit the stands, Hardy's business was ascending to its zenith. Hot rodders saw it as a worthy subterfuge against the inevitable legislative death of Detroit high performance. Wittingly or not, Don Hardy made that piece of history happen. He still sells 75 to 100 V-8 Vega swap kits every year.
There are a couple of hyenas he'd rather forget, though. He corrupted an innocent Chevette with a V-6 that scared him enough to be deemed "an accident looking for a place to happen." He also built all of the Vega conversions for Joel Rosen's Motion Performance on Long Island, then pole-vaulted over the sick-and-wrong line when he built a big-block version at Rosen's behest. I remember trucking out Sunrise Highway to Rosen's place sitting next to a Petersen ad stroke who yapped the entire way. I had a date with Frankenstein's daughter and he was making sure I kept it. Even as blase as I was then about matters of my mortality, I couldn't spend more than a few minutes in this wacky Vega without getting The Fear. It felt like a pendulum. There was a ton of weight over the front wheels and the rear tires hung proud on a 12-bolt that had never been narrowed. With the million pounds up front and a basically bound-up rear suspension, I could blow the tires off just by thinking about it. The car was as bouncy and as unpredictable as a Fuel Altered. Having slid sheepishly through one too many stoplights with the brakes on small-block conversions, I was reluctant to even try anything normal with the ones on this car, and all "testing" was done within blocks of the Motion building. And those afterthought sidepipes were a special touch. So freakin' loud they could have pissed off the cops over in Brooklyn.
The Vegas were an anomaly in an insanely busy race car schedule. In off hours, Hardy built the Tijuana Taxi four-door Maverick for Gapp & Roush, Plymouths of every iteration for Sox & Martin (including the infamous Hemi Colts), Don Nicholson's 351 Mavericks, Kelly Chadwick's Vegas, Billy Stepp's Hemi Colt, and Funny Cars for Roland Leong, Jess Tyree, and John Mazmanian. Bob Glidden had 12 Hardy cars along the way, and he wheeled five of them to NHRA Pro Stock World Championships.
Inevitably, the pace became rude and untenable. "It got to be so competitive and political and expensive and there were so few players with real money left that I felt the end was in sight, at least for me it was." He began to offer mail-order chassis and was still getting excellent results, but eventually, high-volume outfits made it unprofitable for Hardy to continue. Even if this had not been the case, Hardy fearfully conceded that the worthy, hard-core car people--the ones he sold stuff to--were quickly riding off into the sunset. "The old-timers like Kenz & Leslie could sell parts, knew where they belonged, and could work on the car, too. It was something they had done all their lives. The newcomers, the people who were in the hot rod parts business who didn't come from an enthusiast background, weren't able to do it or help the customer figure it out. It was bad business."
Don resolutely marched in the Pro Stock wars until 1983. He built his last ride, a mountain-motor IHRA Pro Stock Thunderbird for Rickie Smith. "I was getting tired," said Hardy. "My kids were growing too fast, becoming of age, and I wanted to be there." Now Don's business supplies irrigation-pump engines to a perfect clientele.