Al O'Connor's story and history - Part 2

As told exclusively to

After Al's Gasser crashed in 1978, Allan Herridge built a new chassis for the car which remains in use today. Al mainly ran the car in Modified until the creation of Super Gas in the UK in 1984. Al had travelled to the US as a spectator, but in the mid 80s started to get the itch to travel with Al's Gasser, first to Germany and then to the US in 1988.

Allan ‘Bootsie’ Herridge built the chassis for the new Al’s Gasser after the 1978 crash for a bottle of Southern Comfort; I gave him two bottles as I thought that was well cheap. He was a good friend, and we’d go out drinking together. I used to go with Lesley Wright when she was about 17 and just after she passed her driving test, she drove me to Heathrow when I went out to Florida for the Gatornationals in 1976 for a month on my own. I’d split up from my wife. Later Bootsie went out with Lesley and she was still with him when he sadly got killed in 1983.

I was the only one who worked on the car, John Gowen helped me hold the car in the burnout and any lifting with anything I needed. I did all the welding, painting, engine work and everything else. I’m a jack of all trades master of none. I’ll turn my hand to anything, not keen on electrics but I will do it. Computers, you're wasting your time. I missed all that and I can’t be arsed to think about it. If it wasn’t for Lisa, I wouldn’t do anything as everything you do nowadays is on a computer, and I have no idea. I even go to the bank to get money out and I buy everything with cash.

Great news in the March 1979 Drag Racing News

Nearly ready for paint

The new Al's Gasser debuted at the May Day Meet and was back to its winning ways

Roger Gorringe pic May 1979

I’ve changed a few things since Bootsie built it and then I had another crash in 2017. The chassis got straightened out but it’s still the original Bootsie chassis even now.

From my first crash I salvaged the engine and gearbox. The rear axle was bent so I fitted another Oldsmobile axle. The rebuild was done in one of the Santa Pod workshops. Bootsie was building the Jet cars Vampire and Hellbender at the time, he had quite a few off cuts of tubing leftover and we ended up making the chassis from the leftovers. It was square box frame rails and rest of the chassis was tubular. We just robbed bits and pieces from everywhere. It had the Houndog 7 Funny Car front tube axle on it. Allan just shortened the axle sleeved it and welded it up. We used anything that worked and was lying around Bootsie’s workshop as it was built on a budget.

As I said the chassis was built for the price of a bottle of Southern Comfort. Roz Prior, Gerry Andrews and Ronnie Picardo did a collection, they went round with a blanket after the crash and collected almost £1500. Somebody donated an all-steel body and two doors. I can’t remember where the flip front came from. The boot lid and the rear wings were used from the crashed car. I was still working at Irchester garage and that’s where I painted it.

I made new headers as you couldn’t buy anything off the shelf for it, nothing fitted. Anything that I could weld I made myself. It did still have the 302 after the crash but I had changed the cylinder heads and fitted another camshaft and pistons.

It took me a long while with the new car to get into the 9 seconds. I was running 10.00’s all the time and I’d run 10.20 with the old car and I thought the new car would go straight into the 9s.

The new car was still pulling wheelstands

Ken Robbins pic Sept 1979

I used to run in C Modified then and some of the cars I was running against were Dave Mingay and Clive Mechaell. They were in A Modified and were having to give me a head start and yet I was running faster than them. It was all run to an index. It was okay for me because I was always winning but it was a complicated class. I liked it because they were the days when you could go as fast as you wanted. Like Comp Eliminator now you ran to an index.

In 1982 I put a clutchless Liberty gearbox in it which was a lovely gearbox but really hard to drive. I’d already run a 9.54 and then I went into Super Gas and slowed it all down. I was running quicker in 1982 than I am now.

Before the first accident it was heads up racing then the class structure changed and that’s when I went into Modified. I did race a few events in Competition Altered but I preferred Modified. I’d built the engine and the 302 ended up like Bill Jenkins had in Grumpys Toy. I had a long talk with Bill at the ‘76 Gatornationals. It had little gas ports in the pistons and loads of other tricks in those days trying to make it go as fast as I could. In the end it just got so expensive trying to keep up with everything.

Chris Farrant pic

Chris Farrant pic

Al had his '56 Cadillac tow car in 1981. Pascal Sarrazin pic

In 1982 Al was using his Pilot. Gary Morgan pic

When Al first used a line lock the front suspension broke

That’s also when they bought out another class called Pro Modified and people like Clive Michelle, Dave Mingay, Dave Warne fitted Nitrous Oxide and suddenly it was WOW. I’ve got a Chevy small block 302 trying to run against big blocks with Nitrous, I couldn't keep up with that. Then the Super Gas class was available, so I went into Super Gas in the mid 1980’s. I think I did for just one meeting go into Super Comp, the class which Brian Taylor set up very successfully. I ended up running Hemi Hunter, I thought, no I can't be doing this it’s too bizarre. I remember running some strange cars in those days, I didn’t like it much, it wasn't my thing.

I remember doing a burnout and the steering all went weird on it. This was when I first put a line lock on it. Bootsie had built wishbones on the tube axle and I actually drove over the front axle with the line lock on. I got towed to the top end where the scrutineering was. They wanted to have a look at the car to see what had gone wrong with it. I strengthened it up afterwards and then later replaced it with a Mustang independent suspension setup.

John asked Lisa, Al’s girlfriend if she wanted to say anything...

I was just an Al O'Connor spectator at this time. The first time I went to Santa Pod I saw Sammy Miller, that was like the Eighth Wonder of the World. But out of all the cars that were there the top car was Al’s Gasser and it was so popular, he was the one to watch with his wheelies even though I didn’t know him then. But I have known of his existence since 1978 when I was 22.

I met Al in 2000 and something. I remember talking to him at the Dinner and Dance saying you’ve got to race next year. I’ll do some press releases and we can have Al O’Connor underwear and all that sort of thing. After 10 years of resistance from me, we got together in 2010, and are still together today. I came from Southend. I was a Brain Pateman follower, but Al was the master. Brian was the only other one who could leave the line nearly as quickly as Al.

Al continues...

I used to go and see my favourite band Motorhead and had Motorhead artwork on the boot for a while, along with an ‘Arrive Stoned’ Florida plate. Those were the days of smoking dope as well as drinking beer and partying but I didn’t mix it with the racing. The 1980s were a good decade. I did three car shows in Germany organized by Dave Prior. It was a lot of driving just for car shows as I was not really into shows but I did get paid about £800 for each one, so I thought I’ll have some of that, it was really good money in those days.

Motorhead, Al's favourite band

And he had the t-shirt

I got on the ferry to Essen, Stuttgart and Berlin Motor Shows. You had to go through East Germany then to get to Berlin and it was weird driving through East Germany seeing all the motorbikes and sidecars and Germans with their guns all looking at you. I remember I had to stop for a piss and it was like they've all got the binoculars out and everything, it was crazy. I did three separate trips out to Germany just for car shows which meant being away a week at a time.

I did take a year off in 1984. I just basically ran out of money. I was on the dole and had plenty of time but not much money then.

1983 saw the Gasser in grey primer

Al took a year off in 1984 and returned at the July 1985 Cannonball with a new paint job and a bit of blue in the flames. Nick Pettitt pic

That's Al's old garage and telephone exchange that he bought for £5000

Next to Sylvia Hauser in the Super Gas pits 1986. Nick Pettitt pic

The clutchless Liberty was a hell of a gearbox, just use the clutch to launch and it was then a matter of pulling the levers which were all the wrong way round because the car was built as a right-hand drive car then. The levers system was built for racing in America. The short ones were where the long ones should be so I had to use my arm in a different place lifting it over the next lever. Later on, when I took it out to America in 1988 I changed it to left hand drive. In the NHRA rule book it said the driver had to sit on the left of the drive shaft. I thought if I get out there and they make me change it would be a pain so I did it all before I went out. It was a lot easier driving the car on the left with that gearbox. Left hand drive is also better for weight distribution off the line as it lifts the left front wheel. It’s still left-hand drive today.

Video links (click on title)

Taking on Sylvia Hauser in 1983

Taking on Tom Laffy in 1983

Gallery: click on any thumbnail for a large image.

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