by Cole Coonce

I was roaming the Manufacturers Midway at the '92 NHRA World Finals, separated from my friends, lost and slightly overwhelmed by the crowd and hullaballoo in this sideshow/Disneyland atmosphere. Off in the distance, out by where the econo dragster guys pit, a huge white banner embossed with the phrase "Memory Lane" caught my attention. The pennant swayed in the wind, beckoning like a beacon. I weaseled my way through the throng of the midway, strains of "Nearer My God to Thee" echoing in mind as I bore my way through the multitude.

It was here that I found a small cadre of slingshot AA/Fuel Dragsters, a couple of injected small- block junior fuelers, a dry lake streamliner, and other quaint relics from the days of yore. Inside this outdoor pavillion a smattering of hard core nitro hounds had come to pay their respects at this impromptu memorial to the men and machines that mattered, this shrine to the legends and luminaries of drag racing. I was by myself, eavesdropping on the chatter and the benchracing. The conversation was good. In the center of this display was a restoration-in-progress that had the asssembled the cruster gearheads and nitro hounds all agog.

The source of their excitement: the "Winged Express" '23 T AA/Fuel Altered, replete with what looked like one of the countless trophies it had won, resting in the drivers seat. Yes, the legendary, record-breaking machine that had been masterminded and crafted by Alvin "Mousie" Marcellus and driven by his soul mate "Wild Willie" Borsch, would soon drag race again. I knew that Borsch had passed on to the great taco stand in the sky, succumbed to cancer in October of 1991. This restoration project was a tribute to the skill and genius of a fallen hero. (It was too ironic: the man who cheated death every time he climbed into his asbestos fire suit, the man who drove his race car in a style entirely too ornery for pregnant women or the faint of heart to observe, the man who held the grim reaper hisself in a chokehold, claimed by something as banal as cancer. It seemed a cruel, sick joke.)

The men and women gathered in a semi-circle around the half-finished "Winged Express," alternately laughing and listening in reverent silence to the yarns spun by Mousie. Marcellus was "in the house," as they say, working the room with the grace and panache of Swifty Lazar at Spago on Oscar night. He regaled his minions with the story of when Willie flipped and rolled the altered at Martin, Michigan in '70, one of the few times the machine got away from him. Marcellus and the crew arrived at the scene to find Borsch had become rabid with fear and anxiety. Willie was wailing and bellowing "I'm blind, I'm blind," only to be answered by roars of laughter from his crew. After the all the howling had subsided, Mousey patiently explained to Willie that he could not see because his head was wrapped and intertwined in the parachute.

Marcellus then launched into another anecdote about Borsch,and in the meanwhile I started chatting up nostalgia Top Fuel scenester Tom Hunnicutt. Hunnicutt asked me if I had said "Hello to Willie?" I told Tom I went over and tipped my hat to the newly restored "Winged Express" but no, Willie Borsch was dead, what do you mean did I go over and say hello to him? Hunnicutt then asked me to examine more closely the "trophy" sitting in the drivers seat of the "Winged Express." I walked back over and looked more discriminately at the cockpit of the roadster. That was no trophy--it was an urn...containing the ashes of William Bowen Borsch. He had come home.

...Yes, even in death, the exploits of "Wild Willie" continue to be stranger than fiction. But it was his displays of bravado and fearlessness on Planet Earth for which he will be most remembered. Consider the time he banged the car off the guardrail, crossed the centerline, bounced off the other guardrail, crossed the centerline again (to get back into his own lane), and caught and passed the guy he was racing. The fact that he denied to Mousie that he was driving the altered with one hand--Marcellus had to show Borsch photographs of him in action to prove it. Or the night at Lions Drag Strip when Willie stabbed the throttle and the entire machine leaped into the air, it landed, Willie whapped it again, she became airborn once more, it came down facing the guardrail, Willie punched the throttle anyway, straightened 'er out and consummated the run. The crowd went apeshit.

Marcellus tells of Borsch's affliction with narcolepsy. Because of which, people mistook his drowsiness for a laconic obstinance. On more than one occasion, moments before a typical over-under-sideways-down pass "Wild Willy" would nod out while strapped into the altered in the staging lanes. Marcellus would nudge the race car with the push truck, rousing Willy from his slumber. And the time the "Winged Express" qualified for Top Fuel Eliminator at the '69 Winternationals, bumping "Big Daddy" Don Garlits out of the show. Before eliminations the remaining 31 dragster shoes called an impromptu drivers meeting, threatening to boycott the event if they to race next to Willie. Garlits was reinstated.

Yes, 32 dragster drivers could not be wrong. They knew that practicality of running a AA/Fuel Altered is really an exercise in the "square-peg-in-a-round-hole" theorem, with a co-efficent of the "bigger hammer" principle. In other words, when you shoehorn a nitro-guzzling supercharged Chrysler motor betwixt a few pieces of exhaust tubing masquerading as a chassis, especially one with a real short wheelbase, you are asking for trouble. There are some basic laws of torque and Newtonian physic that must at least be acknowledged--regardless of the mounting of a giant airfoil in hopes of piledriving enough downforce to make this monstrosity go straight. Due to the short wheelbase, there is a whole lot of horsepower with no place to go--except approximately 45 degrees stage right. Then you add a stiff-necked Borsch to the equation, which is definitely tantamount to throwing gasoline into the fire. In fact, the popular platitude murmured in the cheap seats (in those days they were all cheap seats) to describe a one of his stereotypical, non-linear excursions down the 1320 was this: "Willie has to drive half a mile in order to go a quarter."

It was his uncompromising bullheadedness, however, that contributed to the conquering of the "Lions" share of Marcellus and Borsh's competition, as well as their procurement of many AA/FA performance plateaus; the first in the 8's, the first in the 7's, and the first to eclipse 200 mph in one of these highly unpredictable suicide machines.

Ironically, this same attitude that garnered these men all of the accolades (Willie was voted Car Craft Magazine's Competition Eliminator Driver of the Year in 1973; he did not even compete in that class that year) also severed a friendship and an inspired collaboration, a creative partnership worthy of Weill and Brecht, or Lennon and McCartney. After Marcellus had procured some dough from Revell Models, the duo seemed to be on their way to Easy Money, U.S.A. Before the ink was dry on the contract Borsh insisted on propelling their new Dodge funny car with a big-block Chevrolet, apropos of nothing. They had always run Chrysler hemis, Mousie insisted, why sabotage a winning combination? Unfortunately, these creative differences began to swell. They detonated when Borsch refused to put on his shirt at a photo shoot for the Revell people. Marcellus in effect handed Willie the keys to the tow-vehicle, telling Willie he had become too stubborn to work with. The Revell deal lasted a few months for Borsch, but without Mousie the combination never gelled. Their frienship was shattered, a friendship that began at a South Central Los Angeles elemetary school in the 1930s, not to be reconciled until the waning years of Willie's life.

Yes, let us applaud and bow to the spirit and zeal of Marcellus and Borsch.It was the yen and yang exemplified. But we must remember this: Neither man was the same without each other. And because of Borsch stubborn independence, many race fans never got a chance to appreciate his genius, a brilliance he showcased every time they ran their race car. When it comes to the art of drag racing I think corporate America can go fuck themselves too, Mr. Borsch. But If you had only put that shirt on, Willie...

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