As told exclusively to
After modifying Al's Gasser to run consistently in Super Gas, in 1987 Al, with Lesley Digby (now Wright), started planning their ambitious tour, running in the NHRA at 21 events during the spring and summer of 1988. After winning the UK Championship in 1989, Al and Lesley returned to the States and ran a series of borrowed cars in 19 events during 1990. More UK Championships followed with a move to Outlaw Anglia and another rebuild thanks to the racing family that Al has been a part of over 50+ years.
I did a lot of alterations to Al’s Gasser after the 1986 season. I fitted Mustang independent front suspension, lowered the engine down into the chassis a bit and cut the rear wings out raising them up into the body. I just resprayed where I had done the work and then went back into Super Gas debuting the new look Gasser at the 1987 Cannonball. I’d left the garage at Wollaston and was back with Lesley.
Before we took the Gasser out to America in 1988, I didn’t even know if I’d be allowed to run out there. Lesley phoned people at the NHRA and they said yes come over but you'll have to get your licenced runs done before you start racing. We lived at Moroso Motorsports Park at West Palm Beach owned by Dick Moroso for three months and I took my licenced runs there in January 1988 but we’d been out there since October 1987. The first race was Miami Hollywood, a Divisional event, then it was straight into the Gatornationals. That was the start of it all and I would never have done it if it wasn’t for Lesley, she sorted out all the paperwork and everything else.
Lesley did a full write up of the 1988 America Tour in Drag Racing News...
Back in the UK 1989 I did the John Everett Jewellers championship and won it.
We were looking for a deal to race something in America for 1990, to go out there and race somebody else’s car. This guy came up with a car, a Chevy II. I didn't know until we got there that it wasn’t going to be up to it. it was not the car we thought it was. Then we found a Camaro and I actually ran the car for three meetings in Super gas but it just didn’t work out with this other bloke.
I’d bought a motorhome and trailer and we just went down to Floridia. Rick Salyer had an Opel GT and lived at Penney Farms; I’d met him in 1988 when I was there with the Gasser. He said you can borrow my car if you want. He ran it in Super Comp and had blown the engine up. I’d got sponsorship from Crane Cams and had a camshaft, roller rockers, pushrods and other bits and pieces. I used his engine but had to get another block. I used his cylinder heads, a single 4-barrel carburettor, headers and everything else.
We collected the car in our trailer and went to Ohio to a guy who we’d also met in 1988, Nick Iarussi. He had an altered wheelbase ‘55 Chevy that ran in Super Gas. There was a machine shop next to where he lived, Accurate Racing Engines, they found an engine block and did some machine work for us. I managed to put an engine together and we went racing.
I spent a few days at TCI Transmissions learning how to build them. TCI sponsored me with the Opel and gave me two torque converters and two Powerglide transmissions which I brought back with me to England.
We’d missed three or four meetings. I think we went to Bowling Green Kentucky and quite a few other races, did quite well and had a lot of fun. The last race we were at was the Keystones in Reading Pennsylvania. Then we ran out of money and had to come home after almost a year out there. Once again, I wouldn’t have done any of it without Lesley who did all of the organising and paperwork.
We brought back lots of stuff including the two Powerglides and converters from TCI and put most of it in the Gasser. That’s when we won most of the Super Gas stuff. I’d now got the Powerglide which worked well for Super Gas instead of the clutchless Liberty that I had been trying to get to work but wasn’t really suitable for Super Gas. In 1992/93 I won the IHRA Trophy as Santa Pod was running under the IHRA banner then.
In America it was all down to the driver rather than how much money you had; it was about learning how to get 00 reaction times. We didn’t have reaction times in England before I went to America. All we had was ET and MPH. It wasn’t until I came back home and ran in 1989 that we had reaction times.
We had a Crondek system at Santa Pod at the end of the eighties where you got a ticket with your reaction time, 60 foot, ⅛ mile times and all that. So, I had the jump on everyone as I’d learnt how to get a reaction time. Running the Liberty in the States I had a clutch and it was really hard to run against the torque converters. I could cut a good light but it wasn’t consistent with the Liberty whereas with the Powerglide Transmission and converter fitted I became consistent.
I stayed in Super Gas until 2000 then I ventured into Outlaw Anglia. If it was at Santa Pod, I’d run Super Gas and if it was the Bulldog Bash or the Hot Rod Drags at Stratford, I’d run Outlaw Anglia. I did run some Super Gas at Stratford as you had to run at three different race tracks for the points in the Championships, York, Avon Park and Santa Pod but by mid 2010 I was running mostly Outlaw Anglia. Then I had a heart attack. It was too hard to get a racing licence then so I just did Run What ya Brung events with the Outlaw Anglias.
I blew the 302 up in Memphis Tennessee in 1988. We called round Raymond Beadle’s shop; he was doing NASCAR at the time. I got an oil pan, timing gears, the bits and pieces I’d broken. Then I put the 355 together and I’ve continued to run this still today.
I was pretty quick in Outlaw Anglia then, there were a few eight second cars, but there were a lot of nine and ten second cars. I used to open it up and run 9.60s plus I had the reaction advantage as they weren’t that good at that time. I could beat a lot of the cars then but as time’s gone on, they run in the six’s now, you know, Al chuckles. The quickest the car has ever run is 9.50 seconds with the 355 which is not much quicker than the 9.54 seconds back in 1982 with the 302. Outlaw Anglia today is just so far advanced with such big capacity engines and so much more improved equipment and the cost is well out of my league. I built mine for £1600 and just kept it running.
Then I crashed it again in 2017. I was asked to go back into Super Gas, I said I’ll give it a go and it was one of my qualifying runs when I hit the wall. There were 50mph gusts and the wind just got underneath the car and lifted it off the ground, turned left and slammed into the wall. I thought that was the end of it but Phil ‘Ginner’ Middleton said he would rebuild it so I took it round to his garage, took it all apart and straightened the chassis. Dave Eady and Wayne Allman also helped with the rebuild and it’s all back together again now.
I’d taken out the gearbox and engine which was not damaged, didn't touch it and refitted it all back in the car when it came back to me after the rebuild and continued to run to this day in Outlaw Anglia debuting it at the 2019 Dragstalgia.
once again it was donations from Al O’Connor fans, that was the second car they’d rebuilt for him and being so popular and people wanted to keep him out there.
I thought that was the end of it, I didn’t have the money to rebuild it. The front end of it is now a garden feature.
John asked Al if he remembered any funny or unusual moments during his time in drag racing...
One thing I do remember is we were in Sweden. God knows what year it was, it could have been at Mantorp Park or Vargarda . My crew member was Kev Brawn. I was towing with the V8 Pilot and we were coming back home. All of a sudden it spluttered and stopped and wouldn’t run. We were about 300 miles from Gothenburg.
I figured out it wasn’t getting enough fuel. The flathead V8 had a hand primer on the fuel pump. So, Kev sat on the front wing with his legs round the headlight. I lifted the bonnet up and wedged it up. I wound down the side window and drove 300 miles looking out the side window while Kev was pumping the fuel pump using different fingers as they were getting blistered. By the time we got to Gothenburg he'd got blisters on all of his fingers.
He would pump the fuel pump for a few minutes and then stop and the car would run for a mile to a mile and a half then when he felt if dying, he’d pump again doing this for the 300 miles sitting on the front wing all this time. When we drove into Gothenburg Port there was Barry Sheavills with Stagecoach, the Pages with Panic and some bike racers as well. They saw us come in and were all laughing. We were never stopped by anyone in the 300 miles, it was summer and the weather was hot and sunny.
When we arrived back in England, we drove into the car park at the docks and took the fuel pump off. I didn't touch it when we were in Sweden because I knew we could get it to the port by pumping it, I didn’t want to take the pump off. When I did take it off it felt like there was nothing working but obviously was when you pushed the pump higher. So, I stuck a 5/16 nut in between the push rod and fuel pump lever, and it drove all the way home like that and then I fitted a new pump.
Video links (click on title)
Gallery: click on any thumbnail for a large image.