AFTER WINNING A PRESTIGIOUS WALLY AWARD IN 2012, THE OLD DRAG RACER NOW DRIVES FOR LOVE OF THE SPORT
Andy Decker got hooked on fast cars young. Over 50 years later, the old drag racer is still going strong, suping up his Nova for the 2016 season. He no longer drives for points, but for a love of the sport.
“As a kid growing up, I was always fascinated with motors,” Decker said. “Thirteen years old, I had a go-kart, and I took the motor apart. I was always mechanical, and I loved hearing the motor run. I love starting up my Nova just to hear it.”
Decker’s baby is a black 1974 Chevy Nova SS. When the engine inhales oxygen, the timber—where he hunts deer when it’s not racing season—trembles.
“I’m not some high dollar racer,” Decker said. “I’m just grassroots. I do my best on a tight budget. I do all of my own work, I build my own motors, I do my own painting—of course I ran my own body shop for several years. I do have someone else build my transmission. Other than that, I do everything. I designed the cam shafts—most people don’t do that, but I’ve learned over the years.”
After finishing his education a year early at what was then Leon High School, Decker attended trade school in Kansas City in the late 1960s. He raced at the old drag strip northeast of town, just off of Interstate 35 by the Missouri River.
“People would race out there all night sometimes,” Decker said. “You could pull in, there’d be a guy at the gate—we found out later sometimes it wasn’t even the people who owned the track—they’d charge you a dollar, and you could go in and race anybody. At least it was off the highway, a little safer.”
For Decker as a teenager, paying a Kansas City con artist a dollar was worth it.
When they built the Kansas City International Raceway, Decker competed on the new track with a 1955 Chevy.
“My first drag strip race would have been at KCIR, when I was in real competition where I could have won something,” Decker said. “Which I didn’t—I went out in the first round.”
Driving experience and mathematics—he must calculate how his engine and his car will react to the slightest change in weather—have improved Decker’s luck over the years. He does not have as much money to spend as some other drivers, but he makes up for it with veteran knowledge.
“I had a couple good mentors when I was younger that helped me,” Decker said. “Jerry Ward and Leonard Cox. Cox had a ’59 Chevy that could outrun everybody in the country. When I went to Kansas City, I met Ward.”
Ward lives in Missouri, and he and Decker are still good friends. On occasion, the 80-year-old Ward will come watch Decker race when he drives in Osborn, Mo.
For almost 20 years, Decker owned and operated Corydon Body Shop. Decker then made a U-turn, selling his business and working as an EMT at Wayne County Hospital.
“My brother [Ben Decker] was the ambulance director for 10 years and needed help,” Decker said. “He enlisted me to work part time. Being around the hospital, working the emergency room, I saw the RNs—of course they made more money than anyone else. I thought it’d be nice, that I’d sure like to become an RN someday.
“I joined the Navy Reserve as a part time job. Later on, I went to the Gulf War as a Navy Corpsman, and came out and went to nursing school to become a registered nurse. I had a lot of military training and I got the G.I. Bill—it paid for quite a bit of my schooling.”
Decker was stationed in Saudi Arabia during the three-day land war against Iraq’s Republican Army in 1991.
“I was with the group that guarded airstrips,” Decker said. “I worked in a battalion aid station. We advanced toward the activities. When the actual ground war started, we weren’t very far from Iraq and Kuwait. After the ground war, a bunch of us took trips into Kuwait City, it was just two or three days afterward, there were a lot of Iraqi bodies around the tanks and stuff.”
Working in the battalion aid station, Decker recalls treating an unusual number of respiratory infections among American soldiers.
When the season starts in May, Decker tries to race every weekend.
“I don’t win all of the time,” Decker said. “I win once in a while if I’m lucky. Very few people do. If I win two or three times a year, I feel like I’ve done pretty good. There are 1,000 things you can do to beat yourself.
“I’m kind of bragging here, but the last four years, I’ve either won the first race or I have made it to the finals.
“I race bracket racing. It’s poor man’s racing, because it’s not about who goes the fastest. You do your practice runs. I’ve got a weather station. The density altitude is determined by temperature, humidity, vapor pressure, and a combination of stuff that’s in the atmosphere. A lot of times, the information I get from the weather station, I can know within a hundredth of a second how fast I’m going to run.”
During the drag race, Decker cannot exceed his elapsed time, or ET, without being disqualified. This feature evens the field, handicapping the benefits of simply putting as much capital in an engine to make it as powerful as possible. It prevents competition from becoming an arms race.
“Bracket racing is about consistency,” Decker said. “If you can make your car run the same time every time, you’re going to be hard to beat.
“There are two things about bracket racing that are most important: getting a good reaction time [without leaving the starting line too soon and being disqualified], and running what you dialed. If you can leave quicker than the other guy without redlighting, and then run closer to your dial than he can, that’s how you can win. It’s not about who has the most money and can build the biggest, high-powered motor and outrun everybody.”
The victories that Decker earns bring in the money that keeps him going throughout racing season. A 1,000-dollar purse is a boon—last year, he won a Big Bucks race in his class.
“Last year, I won three races. But it’s tough. There are guys at Eddyville—I’ve been going there about 10 years now—that race for years and years and never win a race. And that’s the way it is with me—I’m just in it for the love of it.
“Your local tracks like Eddyville, Osborn, Bethany, they’re all just average Joes. Some of them are car dealers or something, and money’s no object for them, and they’re hard to beat, but I can still beat them. I’ve probably only got about 40,000 dollars in this car. Every year, I buy some new component for it to make it better.
“I beat 200,000 dollar cars all the time with a ’74 Nova.
“One year, I won a big purse, and I bought a set of headers for it. If I hadn’t of won, I wouldn’t have got those headers that year. That’s just the way I operate—on a tight budget.”
Three spare motors sit in Decker’s shop. Part of his job is to account for contingencies.
“If I blow this motor today, in a week I’ll have another motor in there ready to go.”
WINNING A WALLY
Decker has raced in both IHRA and NHRA competition. In 2012, he reached the pinnacle of his career at the Eddyville Raceway.
“If you can win at Eddyville, you can win anywhere,” Decker said. The farthest away he has raced is Topeka, Kan. In the midwest, there is a limited season because of winter weather conditions. Racers in places such as Florida and Arizona can compete year round. “I have thought about doing that, but it’s a big expense. The only reason I went to Topeka is because I qualified for what they call the ET Finals—the top 15 out of each class qualifies on points. Then you race against guys from all over the midwest.
“I beat my class, and then I had to run the two upper classes,” Decker said of that night at Eddyville in 2012. “I was running the sportsman class, which is all about doing everything yourself—you foot break it, you shift it—the other two classes had electronics where it did all that stuff for them. All you’ve got to do is hang on to the steering wheel and drive, and I still beat them. I was just lucky.
“The last two runs, I ran exactly my [elapsed time], and I beat them on the reaction time, too—the two top dogs who had won the pro class and the superpro class.”
In one fell swoop, Decker had earned a Wally. It is more serious than its name implies. A Wally is a prestigious award from the National Hot Rod Association. The NHRA website describes a racer’s desire for it best:
“‘It’s obviously an award all the drivers covet,' said five-time NHRA Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher. 'Not so much for what it is, as for what it represents. I’d like to grab a bunch of them before I’m done.'
"Such is the goal of every driver. However, many have spent countless hours and thousands of dollars chasing the dream, only to be denied time and time again.
"For many drivers the chase can become an obsession.
“'It’s as real as a glass of water but as hard to get as a million dollars,' explained Steve Johnson, a veteran Pro Stock Motorcycle racer who won his first Wally in 2004 after two decades of trying. 'It represents way more than a champion. I don’t have the words to describe it.'”
“They don’t just give them every week,” Decker said. “They give those at national events or specially sanctioned events. A lot of people try to get a Wally all their life—I never thought I’d win one.
“That one night in Eddyville, it was the King of the Track race. The overall winner of everything was going to get a Wally.
“I didn’t even realize I’d won it until my final run and I could see my win light—if you look close enough as you cross the finish line, you can see your light come on. It dawned on me that I won the Wally—I screamed all the way back to the pits. I wasn’t focusing on winning the Wally; I was just focusing on winning each round. You have to have a lot of focus.”
Much of that focus is based on preparation, and Decker’s skill as a mechanic is only one factor. In the trailer he hauls his black Nova, there is a notebook that looks like an MIT blackboard covered in physics equations. Math makes him go faster.
“This is my record book,” Decker said. “I keep track of everything. You have to if you’re going to be competitive. There are so many things that can change how fast your car’s going to go. You’ve got to be able to figure it out.”
RACING FOR POINTS, RACING FOR PRIDE
Before Decker raced for points in the NHRA, he fought local competition while sowing his wild oats.
“I used to do a lot of street racing,” Decker said. “And you’ve got all kinds of personalities. Years ago, I’d race anybody. There were a lot of guys that wouldn’t race you unless they were sure they could beat you.
“There was one guy, he had a brand new car all built up and everything. I had a small block in a little beat-up car. I sneaked in on him one night and said, ‘I know your car’s fast. I’d just like to see how close I could come to you.’ We went out, and I smoked him. I’d been racing since high school. It’s not about just having a big motor. You have to have the right gear ratio and the right transmission so it doesn’t spin halfway through.
“It’s the same way in bracket racing. If you’ve got your combination bulletproof, and everything works like it’s supposed to, you’re going to be a lot more successful.
“Another night, all the hot-rodders used to hang out in Conoco. There was a guy in there bragging about all the races he had won with a ’70 Chevelle, 450 horse. I’ve got my little ’65 Chevelle sitting out front. After they closed up the station, Dennis Annis, this guy and I went out and raced. I just smoked that [guy], because he had so much horsepower, all he did was spin.
“I got beat, sometimes, too.”
Decker lives east of Corydon with wife Vicky of the Seymour Herald. Vicky recently received a 2016 Distinguished Service Award from the Iowa Newspaper Association. His children, Andrea and Chris, graduated from Wayne Community High School in 1986 and 1988, respectively.
“We raced go-karts for 13 years when my son was growing up,” Decker said. “Chris got third in Nationals on a frame I built.”
Throughout Decker’s racing career—underlying the rivalries, personalities and competition—there is always family, immediate or otherwise.
“At the track, we’ve gotten to be really good friends with a lot of people,” Decker said. “It’s just like a big family. One kid blew up last year, I had raced against him, and I got in my truck and towed him back. We help each other.”
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