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In the pits at the 1991 international Hot Rod Association Spring Nationals at Bristol (Tenn.) International Dragway, a young wannabe goes through a familiar ritual. The 10-year-old asks one of the IHRA drag racers to autograph a cap. But this time the request has a twist. The fan is a 10-year-old girl, and her idol is an older woman—a much older woman. In fact, she's a great-grandmother. She is Cleo Chandler, 76, of Anniston, Ala., and last year she finished eighth in the point standings for IHRA's stock-eliminator division, ahead of 65 men, most of whom were less than half her age.
"Stick with it," Chandler tells the youngster as she signs the cap. "And don't wait as long as I did to get started."
That's good advice. Chandler didn't reach the staging area until she was 68. If she had started her career sooner, she says, she would certainly be rocketing down the track in a nitro-burning, supercharged dragster instead of in this souped-up Chevy. Still, she's thankful for what she has got. This cool, collected senior citizen is the IHRA's oldest circuit racer, and she and her 42-year-old son, Ed, who crews for-her most weekends, are the association's only mother-and-son duo.
The IHRA, a 21-year-old circuit operating in the eastern half of the country, is often overshadowed by the National Hot Rod Association, drag racing's oldest and largest sanctioning body. The IHRA has only half as many members (36,000) and drag strips (80) as the NHRA does, and it is viewed by many racers as a small, fun, friendly, even family-oriented hot rod organization. In other words, it's the perfect scene for Cleo and Ed.
Ed started racing at 16, and one year he won three IHRA races in the Top Sportsmen class. In 1983 he and his mom were standing in the pits at the Sylacauga ( Ala.) Dragway, watching a driver disqualify himself by red-lighting (leaving a fraction of a second too early). Ed overheard his mother say, "I could do better than that." So that Christmas, Ed presented Cleo with a '65 Chevy Malibu, her first "muscle car."
"It was more of a joke," says Ed. "I thought she'd make one or two runs, but I should have known better. Mom's never been a quitter. After her first race, she was hooked."
A career housewife, mother of four and a widow since 1978, Cleo has always had an adventurous streak. Biking, roller-skating and even surfing behind a powerboat are some of her past avocations. So when she climbed into the car at her first race in 1984, her heart was pounding with excitement, but not with fear.
Ed signaled for her to do a burnout, and Cleo shifted her automatic into low gear and stomped on the gas pedal. Immediately, the fat rear tires spun and smoked in the inch-deep water puddle. This maneuver makes even the most pedestrian of cars look like fire-breathing monsters as they heat the tire rubber to gain a better grip on the asphalt. After the burnout, Cleo brought the Chevy slowly toward the start line. She revved the engine to 6,500 rpm. When she saw the last yellow of the starting lights Hash, she released the front-brake lock. The car lurched forward and zoomed straight down the eighth-of-a-mile track, roaring and squealing.
Cleo lost that first run but soon began winning races at independent tracks throughout Alabama. Ed saw that she was getting a big kick out of racing, so he built her a new car, a '65 Malibu automatic with a hot-rodded, 327-cubic-inch V-8. Ed christened it "Mom's Toy."
Most people were astonished at her near instant success, but Cleo was unfazed. As a fan of Ed's, she had been cutting lights (practicing starts) for years from the bleachers, punching down her thumb on the grandstand railing a split second before the green light flashed. She was quick at the trigger even before she climbed into a car, and these finely tuned reflexes have become the hallmark of her driving.