Eddie Hill was one of the most popular Top Fuel drivers of the 1980s and 1990s, but went out with a bang – literally – on an explosive final run in late 1999 at Royal Purple Raceway in Houston.
Unless it’s through vintage video, many NHRA fans of the last decade and a half never got to know the Hill clan – spectacularly friendly Eddie, charming and supportive wife Ercie, good natured right hand man “Fuzzy” Carter and wife Jana, plus Hot Dog the dachshund and “Monkey Bat” the cat, nor how astoundingly popular they were.
They weren’t immune to pressure like anyone else, but sometimes their genial coolness under fire, Eddie had walked away from some tremendous wrecks, both in drag cars and drag boats, always seemingly emerged flashing a big smile and a thumbs up, made them seem like they were from another planet and their performances sometimes were out of this world.
They broke records on land and water like records were going out of style, and Eddie was voted to the impressive 14th spot on the 2000 Top 50 Racers of NHRA’s first 50 years.
The incident we are referring to here, which occurred during his third qualifying run at the Matco Tools SuperNationals at Royal Purple Raceway in Houston, was his second destructively massive explosion in as many events.
At the O’Reilly Fallnationals the weekend previous at Texas Motorplex, against Doug Herbert in round one, something went amiss in the #7 cylinder and led to a huge explosion that broke the top left frame rail and bent the right side and dented the rollcage, leaving Eddie with a bruised lower back and right shoulder. Hill lost the round (Tony Schumacher went on to win his first Top Fuel title in its wake) but, not wanting to disappoint their fiercely loyal Texas fans, the team quickly prepared its backup car for the Houston event.
“I would like to say running Houston will be fun, but I think I’ll wait till after the first round of qualifying before I can say anything,” he said at the time. “I’m still very sore and I’m sure it will get worse before it gets better.”
Eddie had no idea how prophetic those words were as in the midst of his third qualifying run in Houston, all hell broke loose again. We reached out to Eddie last week for his remembrances, and he was kind enough to share them with us.
“We had a brand new block in the car on its first run, and it did not go the full quarter-mile before the block basically shattered like glass at 4.38 seconds into the run,” he explained. “It was a defective cast block that was extremely porous and brittle, actually a reject block that should have been rejected/scrapped, but instead was sold to us as a good one. After this, and probably partly because of this incident, NHRA made billet blocks mandatory, no more cast blocks were allowed.
“I have frame-by-frame video showing the block coming apart, one cylinder head leaving the car with one side of the block still with it, and after the parts had all scattered into an area about three times the normal engine size. The hot parts (headers) ignited the hot oil and all that raw nitro spraying around. The engine came apart several frames before the fireball, easy to see on the video. Most people that saw the incident live, probably thought that there was an internal explosion that blew the block apart — not so. All the internal parts, crank, rods, pistons, bearings, camshaft, etc, were fine.
“The intense pressure wave from the fireball blew my head and shoulders so far forward that my butterfly steering wheel put a dent in the front of my helmet! In one frame, my head is in the normal position, in the next, it is against the steering wheel, and the next it’s back in the normal position again. And all this with my shoulder harness literally as tight as my crew guy can pull them, while I’m holding a deep breath, so my belts leave me only enough room to breathe, no more.
“So, when I got shoved/blown that far forward, it compressed my spine so much that something had to give — and it was my L-1 vertebra- 40 percent compression fracture, and the most pain I’ve ever felt. It hurt so bad I thought a piece of frame tubing or something had punctured my back.
“I told the Safety Safari to cut the cage off the car (the only time in my career that I allowed one of my cars to be cut up to get me out) and to lift me very carefully straight up and out, without flexing my back. Ercie was there watching, of course, and she said the pain was so bad that the tears were actually squirting forward, out of my eyes!
“So my last ride ever at a dragstrip was out of there in an ambulance, like it also was at my last drag boat race! I’ve never been back to a boat or a car drag race. But I’m OK now, except for the brain damage, which the doctors all said was a pre-existing condition, or else I wouldn’t have been going that fast, anyway!”
While the Hills may not be seen at the dragstrip or liquid quarter-mile these days, but the good news is that they’re still racing, albeit on road courses now. Eddie apparently knows how to not only turn left and right, but very well. He won the yearly championship in FAA (Formula Ariel Atom) four straight years (2013-2016) and this year graduated to a Pro Formula Mazda, which Ercie bought for him.
“Ercie and I are thankful to be in good health and are happy, living in our dream home/race car shop on a 500-acre ranch just west of Wichita Falls, Texas,” he said. “Ercie raises Red and Black Angus cattle, Tennessee Walking Horses, and coastal Bermuda hay. We attend The Cowboy Church in nearby Henrietta, Texas, and give thanks daily for all God has done for us.
“We work two days a week at our motorcycle dealership, Eddie Hill’s Fun Cycles and we take our two mini dachshunds Hot Rod and Lady to work with us. We’re blessed to be enjoying our 51st year in business at the same location. We’re fortunate to have the oldest Honda and Kawasaki dealership in Texas, along with Yamaha, Polaris, and Argo.
“We’d like to say a big Texas hello to our fans and say special thanks to those who helped, encouraged, and supported us during our drag racing career. They were what made racing fun for us.
“Starting with my first trophy earned with a Cushman motorscooter in 1949, and with the latest ones we’ve won with our road racing, I’ve now won trophies in each of the last eight decades, and remain the only person to have won the Top Fuel championship and held the national records on land and water.”