No. 14: Eddie Hill
Whether on water or land, two wheels or four, Eddie Hill's driving skill, mechanical ingenuity, and mannered personality combined to make the Texan one of motorsports' most popular competitors.
From the first time he won with a home-built Model T-framed dragster powered by an Oldsmobile V-8 in 1956 to the last time he graced the winner's circle in Top Fuel, at the 1996 Mopar Parts Mile-High Nationals, Hill, now 65, won 12 national championships on land and water.
From 1959 to 1996, he won 86 races in drag boats and dragsters. Sandwiched between his first 10 years of drag racing on land and the six years he raced on water was an eight-year stint racing motorcycles.
Adding the more than 100 trophies he won racing motorcycles, Hill's career-win total approaches that of legendary NASCAR driver Richard Petty.
Since his first record-setting performance in 1959, Hill set many marks during his illustrious career. His most famous record -- which also was his last -- was set when he became the first to pilot a piston-engine dragster to a four-second e.t., a 4.990, on April 9, 1988.
Hill built the chassis of his second dragster in 1958 using aluminum H-beams that he scrounged from his employer while working as a sales engineer for Lufkin Foundry and Machine Co. in Wichita Falls, Texas. With a naturally aspirated, gas-burning Pontiac engine, the Texas A&M engineering graduate set the Texas e.t. record at 9.93 in 1958 with the 1,075-pound car. In 1959, he won the state championship with a time of 9.25 at 161 mph. Hill also won his first major title that year, in Top Gas at the AHRA national championships in Great Bend, Kan.
In 1960, Hill took the major step of quitting his job to race fulltime shortly after earning $500 in appearance money when he traveled to Inyokern, Calif., to race Jack Chrisman and his Sidewinder dragster. One of his four runs in excess of 160 mph at that match set the B/Gas dragster record at 163.04 mph.
That year, with a supercharger on the Pontiac, Hill lowered the A/Gas e.t. record to 8.84 and set top speed for his class at 161.29 mph at the NHRA Nationals in Detroit.
During this home-built era in the sport, when many dragsters were crude in appearance and engineering, Hill spent four months designing and seven months building his second most famous drag car, the Double Dragon. The 92-inch-wheelbase dragster featured side-by-side blown Pontiac gas-burning engines, each with its own clutch, driveshaft, and ring and pinion. Hill ran four rear slicks in open competition and two rear slicks for smokier burnouts at match races. It was with this car that Hill's tires literally dug holes in the starting line at the 1961 NHRA Nationals in Indianapolis. In 1962, two years after Chris Karamesines picked up the first 200-mph time slip running nitromethane and two years before Don Garlits would run the first official 200, also on nitro, Hill ran 202.70 mph in Hobbs, N.M.
Hill also built his first Top Fueler, a Pontiac-powered machine, in 1963. He built two more using Hemi power before he quit drag racing in 1966 after a disconcerting engine fire at Green Valley Race City in Smithfield, Texas, that not only tapped his resolve but his finances.
"It was one of those fireballs that you couldn't see through," Hill said. "I locked up the brakes, and it felt like I needed to turn the wheel to the left, but for some reason, I didn't. I had to do something that was counterintuitive, and it spooked me."
In bringing the dragster to a stop, Hill managed to stay within six feet of a straight line on a track that was lined with trees on both sides.
During his stint in Top Fuel, he continued to match race with the Double Dragon, using the money he earned to finance his Top Fueler, but he totaled the Double Dragon in a crash in Oklahoma City two months before the Top Fueler's demise in Smithfield.
"I had used up the $10,000 I had saved when I was working and all the money I had won," Hill said.
Hill opened a motorcycle dealership in Wichita Falls, Texas, which he still operates today, and it wasn't long before the business and his need to build and race something melded together. The 30-year-old Hill soon began racing in all forms of motorcycle competition - short track, hare scramble, motocross, cross country, and road and drag racing.
In Daytona in 1971, he outran the factory-supported Kawasaki riders in early qualifying with his self-built bike. His opening speed of 151 mph was initially faster than factory rider Gary Nixon. In 1972, Hill was the Texas road-racing champion, but by 1974, after having exhausted the fun of outrunning the local racers and with no time to race nationally against the Professionals, Hill sought another outlet to fulfill his need for speed and G forces.
While attending his first drag-boat race in Austin, Texas, in 1974, one of the first things Hill witnessed was a driver being catapulted from his boat in a crash. Hill thought the participants were crazy, but less than a month later, Hill was racing his own boat.
"Once I hit the water with the boat, I never went back to motorcycles," Hill recalled. "The power, speed, and acceleration were all things that I had missed since I quit drag racing."
Beginning with a non-blown gas hydroplane, Hill won on his first time out in Oklahoma City, and at his third race, he set the class speed record. In his second year, he set the Southern Drag Boat Association (SDBA) speed record at 137.46 mph. Using the same boat, Hill switched to nitromethane in 1976 and set the SDBA record at 171.81 mph, and in 1977, he set the National Drag Boat Association (NDBA) record at 170.45 mph. He also won the SDBA high-point championship and the NDBA World Fuel & Gas Championships both years.
From 1978 to 1984, Hill raced blown-fuel hydroplanes. His all-white boats soon dominated the liquid quarter-mile. In seven years, he won 55 of 103 races and won every major race at least once. He won the biggest race, the NDBA Nationals, four times, including three straight from 1982 to 1984. In 1983 and 1984, he won the World Series of Drag Boat Racing championship, a yearlong series of races that included two races from each of the sport's four sanctioning bodies. In those two years, he raced in the final round of 29 of 34 races, winning 17 times. He was American Drag Boat Association (ADBA) world champion four times and the SDBA top points earner five consecutive years.
When he returned to the solid quarter-mile in 1985 and ran the first four, Hill already had put his name in another prominent record book for an equally notorious record in boats. On Sept. 5, 1982, Hill became the fastest quarter-mile boat racer with an NDBA record of 229.00 mph in Chowchilla, Calif. The feat was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records and was not broken for 10 years. Hill also set speed records that year in the SDBA (220.76 mph), the ADBA (215.82), and the International Hot Boat Association (212.78 mph) to become the only racer to hold records in all four associations at the same time.
Hill would race boats for another two years but not before becoming the first to cover the liquid quarter-mile in less than six seconds. Later, his e.t. record of 5.16 at Firebird Lake in Chandler, Ariz., was quicker than the NHRA Top Fuel record of 5.39 set by Gary Beck.
In October 1984, Hill quit boat racing after a severe crash, not to mention the fact that the earnings from all his wins over the years had only been a break-even proposition.
He was clocked at 217 mph that fateful day at Firebird Lake when he was pitched through the hull and into the lake. He suffered seven broken bones, a concussion, injuries to his eyes, and multiple cuts and contusions. He spent five days in the hospital and wasn't fully healed for a year, but he did ride a motorcycle in pain six weeks after the crash.
"The blown-fuel hydro was a pretty thrilling ride," Hill said. "It would jump up on top of the water and dance around. You really never knew for sure if you were going to make it to the other end. Of course, a lot of guys didn't, myself included, but it was a heck of a ride."
In 1985, when Hill returned to the asphalt quarter-mile, he went from being the best drag boat racer in the world to one of the worst Top Fuel racers. Characteristically, and with the help and ardent support of his wife, Ercie, that didn't last long.
Hill reappeared in Top Fuel at the Mopar Parts Mile-High Nationals in 1985 and not surprisingly failed to qualify in only his second time driving a rear-engine Top Fuel dragster. Fifteen races later, at the 1986 Mile-High Nationals, and after almost quitting earlier in the year if not for some tuning advice from fellow Texan Gene Snow, Hill won his first round in NHRA competition. He advanced all the way to the final round, where he lost to Larry Minor when Hill's reverser failed on the burnout.
At the 1987 Chief Auto Parts Nationals at Texas Motorplex, Hill set the speed record at 285.98 mph en route to a runner-up finish to become the only person in history to hold the water and land quarter-mile speed marks simultaneously.
In 1988, with backing from Super Shops and Pennzoil, Hill won his first of 13 NHRA national events when he defeated Joe Amato in the final at the Mac Tools Gatornationals. The two faced each other in four final rounds that year with Hill winning three of them. A month later, he would run the first four at an IHRA race at Texas Motorplex. His third of four wins that year in five finals came in October at the inaugural Supernationals in Houston, where he won his semifinal match with a national record 4.990 and a ran a 4.936 in the final. The first four and the later fours in Houston were indicative of Hill's mechanical talent; he ran history's first four with a two-speed transmission and set the national record with a direct-drive.
In 1993, Hill was at the pinnacle of his long drag racing career. He won a record-tying six NHRA national events in seven finals to win the 1993 Winston Top Fuel championship, his 12th overall. From 1987, when he first finished in the Winston Top 10, Hill finished out of the Top 10 only once in the next nine years. He won two more times in seven finals from 1994 until 1999 when lack of sponsorship forced him to retire at the end of the year. The physically and mentally youthful Hill, who was 60 when he won for the last time in 1996, remains the oldest winner of a Professional eliminator in NHRA history and a member of the Drag Racing Hall of Fame. --Bruce Dillashaw
Comments from the panel
"Truly a legend!" - Dave McClelland
"Broke the 4-second barrier World Champion/event winner/record holder, popular driver." - Geoff Stunkard
"One of the sport's most beloved drivers." - Bill Pratt