Bruce Wheeler's
"Wheeler Dealer"
Top Fuel Dragsters

The Wheeler Dealer Story, Part 3  (1969)
The Story, Part 3 (1969)
Shortly after the unfortunate crash of the original Wheeler Dealer, at Maryland's Cecil County Drag-O-Way, plans were made to have an all-new digger built. Bruce was concerned for his ever-dwindling bank account so, despite his higher hopes, a deal was struck with California's Roy Fjastad to purchase an SPE - Speed Products Engineering - car. Although relatively inexpensive, 'Roy Cars' were highly regarded by a number of top teams who campaigned them at the time, for both safety and function.

A decision was also made to make a change to a late-model 426 hem motor. [At the time Roy Fjastad hadn't as yet built a car for the so-called 'Elephant Motor', so he went scurrying to find a junk block to use in setting up his chassis jig.]

The new WD2 was to have a wheelbase of 185-inches, so, with a somewhat longer car - the Dealer was 172-inches - a new trailer was ordered from a firm in Chicago.

At the time the true genius behind successful Elephant motors was legendary SoCal engine builder Keith Black. Black had been getting excellent results from 426's, and although Bruce didn't have the budget for a full-on Keith Black-built power plant, he did buy all of the 'right' KB parts for his new mill. Former WD head wrench Dickie Burgess was then enlisted to prep and assemble the 426 block and heads at his Precision Engine & Machine shop, a business that Bruce had bankrolled for Burgess and partner Bill Ford a year earlier. [For the record, the eventual WD2 Elephant motor ended up with a displacement of 396-cubic inches, the reduction the result of a destroked crank. According to Black, the destroker was thought to provide a better power curve, so the reasoning was sound in favor of a motor that size.]

Work on the Elephant motor was completed shortly after New Years Day. It was then placed on a heavy-duty, custom-designed engine stand, and the whole deal bolted to the rear flooring of Bruce's Suburban for the trip west. Bruce & Bub departed for California sometime around January 20th, with a stop in the Chi-Town area to pick up the new trailer on the agenda.

Their journey went rather smoothly, until, that is, they entered the Texas Panhandle, westbound on I-40. Bruce and Bub immediately encountered a nasty ice storm that slowed their pace to a near crawl. While it normally would have taken about three hours to travel the 176 miles of I-40 across the Panhandle, it took over seven hours this time! With the trailer completely empty, and a heavyweight hemi in the rear of the 'burban, that combo made for one hell of a skittish ride! Once New Mexico was reached the weather improved, and the bad road conditions quickly vanished. The trip continued on without further incident into L.A.

Bruce had booked rooms at Anaheim's Marco Polo Motel, located across Harbor Blvd. from the main entrance to Disneyland. The Marco Polo was very popular with racers as a number of touring professionals called it 'home' during the off-season.

Once settled, Bruce and Bub proceeded with their plans for the car's final assembly. This came about in the parking lot at the Marco Polo, with help from a number of semi-bored fellow racers.

Time was of the essence to Bruce and Bub, however, as they were committed to a late March match race 'back home' at Cecil County, against the K & G Speed Associate's 'Frantic Fueler'.

Blowing off any consideration of attending the upcoming March Meet at Bakersfield, Bruce & Bub did manage to run the car at two events in the greater L.A. area. The first time was at Lions Drag Strip, near Long Beach. Bruce, to this day, is unsure of what transpired at 'The Beach' during that debut outing, but new friend and first-rate photographer Tom West captured WD2 on film there, giving credence to the fact th Bruce & Bub were, indeed, at Lions during that period. Without West's photo Bruce would have bet big money that the WD2 had never attended a drag race at 'The Beach'.

Shortly before departing for the East Coast, WD2 was entered in the Hot Rod Magazine Championship drags, held at Riverside Raceway. The new car ended up qualifying in the #17 slot, not quite good enough for entry in the 16-car field. As luck would have it, one of the 16 qualifiers couldn't make the call on race day, so WD2 made the program after all.  Drawing 'Big Daddy' Don Garlits in round one, Bub left a heartbeat too early, and the ensuing red light put the car back in the trailer somewhat earlier than hoped for.

Fortunately, the trip home to Maryland was uneventful. Upon their arrival Bruce and Bub readied the new car for the start of the Eastern racing season. Although details are now somewhat sketchy, WD2 did have some early successes on the regional Top Fuel circuit. On one particular weekend the team ran at events in Maryland, at Capitol Raceway, and at Richmond, Virginia. Bub qualified the car well for the Richmond race, went back to Maryland and won the event at Capitol, and then lost in the first round at Richmond the next day.

At a May race at Englishtown, Bub nearly bought the s*ithouse. On a qualifying pass a rear tire lost air pressure, and the unloading of the chassis got the car nearly sideways, and high up on its two right wheels at 211+ MPH. Bub's quick thinking prevented sure disaster when the chute deployed at the exact split-second it was needed the most. Photos  taken of this near crash showed exactly how close to oblivion Bub got!  (Whew!)

In early June the WD2 team headed to Dallas, Texas, for the NHRA Springnationals. The car was starting to perform close to expectations at that point but, once again, luck was not with them. After qualifying okay, at around #12 or 13 in the sixteen car field, a last minute assault by cars not yet in the show suddenly had Bub and Bruce scrambling to make a last minute pass to help guarantee a position in the program. With time running out they found themselves on the bump spot, and then #17. The final, desperate qualifying run was to no avail as it wasn't quite enough to get them back in the show. Unlike at Riverside earlier that year, they remained 'first alternate', and the race went on without them.

The WD2 team - Bruce, Bub and crewman Bert Toulotte went to work helping Don Johnson's car (with 'Surfer Hank' Westmoreland driving) win the event. Not exactly what they would have wanted, but still OK.

WD2's next event was the East vs. West AA/Fuel Dragster Championships, at Cecil County, on Saturday, June 21st. This was a 'guaranteed' eight-car show featuring some of the top names in the sport - Garlits, Connie Kalitta, Don Prudhomme, Beebe & Mulligan, Creitz-Donovan-Carbone, K&G Speed Associates, Tom McEwen and, of course, the Wheeler Dealer.

As a factory car for M&H Tires, company owner Marvin Rifchin was using WD2 to evaluate his newest rubber compounds. Marvin had a new, 'trick' tire that he needed to check out, so a pair was mounted on the car. The tires worked well - perhaps a little too well, given the motor's tune-up, and on a solo pass to determine starting position in the field, Bub left the line in his usual fashion, only to find the car going into a wheel stand. When the front tires returned to the track surface the car darted left, off the pavement, and against the left guardrail just enough to cause some minor damage to the front end, and mild cosmetic damage to the car's nosepiece and paint.

It was at that very moment that Bruce proclaimed loudly, "I QUIT!"  And, with that, he did...

WD2 was subsequently sold to Tom Chastang, a salesman at a D.C. Chrysler-Plymouth agency, and that transaction concluded Bruce's career as a Top Fuel team owner.

Chastang, keeping the name Wheeler Dealer, raced the car with some degree of success, including Top Speed of the Meet at the '69 U.S. Nationals - 231.36 MPH.

WD2 is another car with a history that's vanished in the haze of time. If anyone reading this has any clue as to where this car is today, please share whatever information you may have.  (It was reportedly last seen several years ago in a barn belonging to the late Delaware T/F racer, Fred Forkner.)

Next: The Wheeler Dealer lives!
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