Dick Valentine has always lived on adrenaline.
From the time he grew up on a farm repairing and rebuilding equipment, to the time he and several other high school friends bought a ’57 Chevy to drag race and having nine U.S. patents, eight European patents and one in Taiwan, Valentine has lived a full life.
These days, Valentine has served as president of the Hamblen County Car Club for the last two years. But his first love was drag racing.
“I drag raced for 43 years,” Valentine said. “We had a ’57 Chevy called ‘The Invader.’ I was a junior in high school in 1967 and after school, I’d work second shift at an egg processing factory. Three seniors also worked there. We got to talking at work and we always worked Saturday and said, ‘Let’s go together and buy a drag car.’”
The boys went around to all of the auto lots in Valentine’s native Versailles, Ohio.
“The Chevy dealer had a ’57 Chevy sitting on the back of the lot and wanted $300 for it,” Valentine said. “That was probably our best option, but we didn’t want to spend $300 on it.”
The boys caught a break when the local radio station broadcast a live auction segment one Saturday. It was in the infancy of FM radio and the auction show was a drawing card for the station. Needless to say, the boys were able to get that ’57 Chevy for $75.
On Saturdays, the boys would clean up the processing machinery and the station would be broadcast throughout the plant.
“We were working in the plant one Saturday and the auction man comes on and said that he was auctioning off a ’57 Chevy from John May Chevrolet. We called in bids and bought it for $75,” Valentine said.
The boys went to pick the car up and it broke down “two or three times” before Valentine’s buddy’s dad offered the use of a barn to work on the car.
“We started working on the car and set it up for drag racing,” he said. “We put slicks on it, changed the ratio, but not a lot of major stuff.”
In 1967, one could drag race from Thursday night to Sunday afternoons with various events in the area.
“What we did was, two guys would take off work Thursday and Friday and race and the other two would race Saturday and Sunday. The car ran Pure Stock. About the fifth time out, I broke the track record in H-Stock.”
By that time, Valentine and the boys were celebrities.
“The local newspaper got hold of it and they did an article about these high school boys who set a track record,” he said. “The station got hold of it and mentioned the sale of the ’57 Chevy and setting a track record on future shows.”
The boys had 44 class wins that first year, which meant making prize money.
“If you think about it, we were making $140 every two weeks at the plant,” he said. “A class win paid $140. We were winning generally two nights a week. We’re making $280 a week just off the drag car. We did that all the way until I graduated from high school. I sold my share out to go to technical school. The guys continued to run the car for a couple of years after that.”
After Valentine sold his share, he went to technical school for two years, then was drafted into the U.S. Army and served three years. Valentine had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but his drag racing career served as a medicine for his disorder.
“I was in Vietnam at the time,” he said. “I had PTSD and no one knew what that was. When I wasn’t racing, I got really tensed up and nervous. Racing took care of that. To me, the most comfortable place I’ve ever been is sitting in a car with my fire suit on, buckled in and it’s like, ‘Hey, I’m supposed to be here.’
“The thing about being in combat was that every morning when I woke up, you were already keyed up,” he said. “It’s kind of like you were addicted to adrenaline. You’re hearing gunshots in the background and all of that. It was always weird that you woke up all keyed up. In drag racing it’s all the same with the adrenaline rush. I really think racing helped me get through all of that.”
When he came home from Vietnam, Valentine went full bore into NHRA drag racing.
“I ran a 1969 Camaro in the National Hot Rod Association points series,” Valentine said. “That was the first trip down the track at Indianapolis Raceway Park. Drag racing was big in the 1960s, I got hooked on it before I even got a driver’s license because it was on TV every weekend. To go down that track that I’d seen on TV in 1982.”
During that time, Valentine got to meet some of his drag racing heroes, such as “Dyno Don” Nicholson, Bill Jenkins and “Big Daddy” Don Garlits.
Valentine ran the ’69 Camaro for 15 years before building a Corvette and racing it for 15 years until he retired.
“There are two versions of the Corvette,” Valentine said. “A blue version, then a silver version. I quit running NHRA points because the payout wasn’t that good.”
Valentine went to the “Super Chevy Show” events starting in 1982.
“We went to Indianapolis the first year that Super Chevy ran there,” he said. “It was unbelievable. There were 85,000 to 90,000 spectators there and 1,200 race cars. I finished in the money the first year. The money was really good. We ran Super Chevy events after that. Super Chevy picked up Bristol, Norwalk, Connecticut and Columbus, Ohio.”
Eventually Roger and Phil Gustin bought the “Super Chevy Show” series in 2004. The Gustins ran the “Lava Jet” funny cars.
“Roger was the first licensed jet Funny Car driver in the NHRA,” Valentine said. “I got to know them really well.
Valentine’s Corvette had “wheelie bars.”
“When I first left the line in Bristol, they were set up for our tracks up north,” he said. “When I left the starting area, all I could see was blue sky. We had to readjust the car.”
Valentine won the “Editor’s Choice” award for his Corvette in 2004.
“There were probably 1,200 race cars there and I got it,” he said. “I’m really proud of that one.”
During the “Super Chevy Show” series, ESPN broadcast most of the races.
“I was in the finals and got a few words on ESPN,” Valentine said. “A few weeks later back home, in Ohio, I was walking through the grocery store and a guy stopped me and asked, “Didn’t I just see you on ESPN?’ Talk about your ego trip.”
Valentine used the things learned behind the wheel of his drag car to help his real career in mechanical design.
“Even though my job was designing food equipment, such as dishwashers, Hobart mixers and Hobart scales, it was amazing how what I learned in drag racing applied to work,” he said. “Hobart pretty much made me the guy that they called when there was a power transmission that needed to be designed. They moved me to that team to do the power transmission work.
“Both careers supported each other very well,” Valentine said. “When I introduced new technology to Hobart, I introduced it to drag racing.”
One of the technologies Valentine brought from drag racing was using an airbag from a drag racer to help put labels on products for Hobart.
“We used the airbags that Firestone and Goodyear makes for overload capacity to pull a vacuum to pick up the label to go on a meat package,” Valentine said. “We would print the label, pull the vacuum with the camshaft, pull off the backing, rotate it around, compress that and blow the label onto the meat pack. (Thanks to that,) I got to go to the Indianapolis 500 to the Firestone or Goodyear suites.”
When Loctite first began, the company gave Valentine a bronze badge at another Indianapolis 500.
“I pulled into the infield,” he said. “All they gave me was this bronze badge and the guy said, ‘Fella, that badge will get you in here anywhere you want to go.’”
Valentine was at Indianapolis when the last roadster attempted to qualify for the 500, driven by Jim Hurtubise, in the 1967 Hurtubise Mallard Offy.
“I was there and saw that,” he said. “Hurtubise was in a bad wreck and almost got killed earlier. He had the doctors to shape his hand so he could drive.”
Valentine continued with Hobart until he was laid off in 2009. He retired from drag racing the same year.
In coming to Morristown, he was familiar with it when he came to race in Bristol.
“When we’d get done racing, Floyd Garrett, who ran the Muscle Car Museum in Sevierville, would let us park the car on his lot. We got to run around Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. We originally started looking at houses there. To be honest, I wasn’t happy with the construction quality because they were building rentals.”
Dick and Evie saw a house in Morristown.
“We thought we’d come look at it,” he said. “We came and loved the area. We drove by the house two days after it went on the market and we bought it. We’re so glad we live in Morristown. We love it here.”
He went to a Hamblen County Car Club car show when he moved to Morristown seven years ago.
“I was never into that scene,” he said. “It’s a different group of people, but we got introduced to the club and love it.”
NHRA was a big part of Valentine’s racing career.
“I met Wally Parks, the guy who started NHRA,” Valentine said. “I have a lot of respect for the NHRA and its rules. Safety was a big part. It was a pain in the butt at times because every car had to be inspected and certified every year, your fire suit had to be up to date and as a driver in the faster classes, I had to have an FAA physical every two years. If you didn’t pass that, you didn’t drive. That was pretty cool.”
Two times, an FAA physical caught something in Valentine’s health that he was able to get corrected before he could race. That prevented major health problems later on.
Drivers had to have a new helmet every five years and harnesses had to be replaced every two years, Valentine said.
Valentine has one of 4,800 Studebaker Avanti automobiles ever made from 1962 to 1987.
“This guy near Lexington, Kentucky had an Avanti he wanted to sell,” Valentine said. “I always wanted one of those, so we stopped and talked to him. He said he’d sell it, but he wanted too much for it. I told him that I needed to see the underneath. I came back down the next day to look under it and it needed a lot more than I thought. We argued for two weeks and he called me one day and I paid $4,500 for it.”
Valentine ended up tearing everything apart on the car, except the windshield wiper motor to rebuild and modernize the car, including four-wheel disc brakes. The rebuild cost Valentine $13,000.
“The interesting thing was that I had only seen eight Avantis in my life before this one,” he said. “When I cut the front suspension off, I cleaned them up and put them on eBay. I shipped parts to Australia, Hawaii and the United Kingdom. These cars are everywhere. They’re like seven of them in Australia and those guys always get together.”
One man from Australia paid $40 for the part, but it cost Valentine $90 to ship.
“He called me when he got it and said that he was so thankful that he got it,” Valentine said. “Since then, I’ve seen 12 Avantis.”
During his high school years, Valentine saw someone race an Avanti. That racer was known as the “South Bend Shaker.”
“When Studebaker went bankrupt, the Avantis were made with Chevy motors in them,” he said. “He called it the South Bend Shaker because back then, small block Chevys were shakers.”
Years later, after Valentine made a comment about the “South Bend Shaker,” that driver befriended him online.
A fiberglass company near Cleveland, Ohio made the bodies for the Avantis and Corvettes.
“GM had more influence than Studebaker,” Valentine said. “The Avanti, which was supposed to save Studebaker, they couldn’t get enough parts. They were backordered so far because everybody was concentrating on the Corvettes. That was the final straw for Studebaker.”
Valentine said that the Avanti was ahead of its time, including a roll bar designed in 1962 and impact beams. Anthony “Andy” Granatelli took an Avanti to the Bonneville Salt Flats and set 25 speed records. He ran 167 miles per hour with an Avanti off the assembly line. Granatelli also set another speed record with the same car, modified with a second supercharger. The Avanti was the original car used by James Bond in the “007” movies.
Valentine’s Avanti has a Chevrolet engine that has fuel injection. Chevrolet introduced fuel injection into automobiles, beginning in 1957.