I had a couple of jobs when I was a kid. One was selling newspapers on Saturday night in front of a grocery store. Didn't make a lot of money but I saved most of it. I also worked sweeping floors at a place named the R&R Grocery, owned by a neighbor, Roy Mellen. I was saving up my bucks to buy a go kart. I wanted to go racing. In 1962, one of dad's friends was moving to a newer, faster go kart and said he would sell me his Percival Hellcat. I had $140 to my name. He wanted $140 with one engine and ready to roll plus a second engine in parts in a box with a broken connecting rod. He said he would put the other engine together and install it for another $25. No way I was going to wait for a few more months to save up the $25 besides, dad wanted me to put that engine together. I went home and dreamed about owning that kart. I remember the day we took the pick up over to pick it up. I was almost shaking with excitement. I parted with my life savings, we loaded it up and headed home. Once it was safely in the garage, I spent maybe 4 hours cleaning it with rags, old t-shirts and even some of my mom's Q-tips. It was beautiful, mechanically sound and purposeful. Built for speed and racing, it was a dream come true for a kid my age. I think I slept sitting in it the first night.
One cool thing about the Percival Hellcat was the design, build and testing history of those karts. The design team was headed by none other than Frank Kurtis. Yep, the same Frank Kurtis who designed and built Indy roadsters! The kart design was tested and perfected by Roger Ward, winner of the 1959 and 1962 Indy 500's. How could it not be one of the best on any track? I was ready to burst into the world of racing BIG TIME. Problem is, and you never realize this when you are just an enthusiastic kid, it costs way more to go racing than just owning the kart. There was no way I could afford to race at any track in the Houston area. I would probably have not been competitive anyway with a two year old chassis that was many pounds heavier than the current versions. Dad sort of figured it would be a nice thing to putt around the yard with. We fired it up on Saturday and I made numerous donuts in the grass on the racing slicks. That was not going to work. We waited until Sunday and took it to a shopping mall (closed on Sundays in Texas back then) and took it for a few laps on an impromptu circuit we laid out. It was scary fast. Sat low enough to the ground that I could not put my hand underneath. Top speed was around 60 miles per hour. The single West Bend 580 engine would top out about 7500 RPM and it was really screaming at top speed. After a few weekends of playing around in the parking lot and honing my skills, another couple of karts showed up and we set up a little race. I won going away and felt like Fangio! I was quick, knew abut the dynamics, could pick a line thru the corners, knew about setting up someone for a pass... ...in short, all the reading I had done was paying off fast. I think we met at that place maybe 5 or 6 times and I either won or one of us had mechanical issues and it was just over. I loved every minute of it. I was certainly glad we had experimented with tire pressures and kept records of the lap times so I knew a little about set up before we got into this impromptu racing at the Sears parking lot.
After a year of running with the single West Bend 580, I bought a new connecting rod for the other engine. I put it together by myself except for getting the caged roller bearing put onto the crankshaft. Dad showed me how to hold all that stuff together using axle grease! I mounted the engine, hooked up the chain and fuel lines, connected the throttle and was ready. This would be a real test. Did I screw up somewhere? I squirted a little fuel onto the air filter and pulled the starter. The little engine jumped to life immediately. I was both proud and shocked that I had built that engine myself from a box of parts AND it worked!
Next thing was to try it out with TWO engines! My friends all said it would go twice as fast. I knew better. The engine RPM would be the same so the speed would not go up BUT it would have twice the horsepower and get to top speed in half the time. I was in for a rude awakening! We had laid out the course without a straightaway, just a slowly bending curve that connected some crazy corners. With one engine, I could stand on the throttle coming off the turn before the sweep and just pull away accelerating along the curve. First time I stood on it coming off the last turn, I spun out! The rear end just lit up, tires spun and I went around in circles. I had to learn to feather the throttle coming off the turn and keep adding power along the whole length of the sweep. Double the horsepower made the kart a handful to drive until I got the hang of having all that power!
Part Two - Coming up in a few days