Jim Luikens' Thrill Ride, The Sequel

By Jim Luikens

Jim and Ken in the Cool Bus
When I began this column two years ago one of my very first feature stories was about a ride I took in a two-seat dragster. Knowing that the second anniversary of my column was fast approaching, I began thinking about how I could top all that I have experienced in the past two years. When I heard that Ken Nelson had built a new Cool Bus, one that included a passenger seat, I knew that I had found my answer. This is the story of my ride in the Cool Bus II, a wheelstanding school bus.

Ken and Anita Nelson campaign the Cool Bus II from their home in northwestern Ohio. Ken, who's been around racing for nearly 45 years, started his career by piloting a B/Fuel dragster in the early '60s. Eventually he purchased the Moonshot Chevelle wheelstander in the late '70s and the exhibition portion of his racing career was born.

Ken, a welder and fabricator by trade, discovered his true calling in wheelstanding. His success with the Moonshot caused him to consider building his own wheelstander, incorporating what he knew along with what he learned from campaigning the Chevelle. The first wheelstander he built was the General Lee, which was based on a popular TV show of that era.

He only ran the General Lee for a short time because, as he says, "Time Warner wasn't very happy about it." If they weren't too happy back then I can only imagine what they would think today. A back-up pick-up wheelstander replaced the General Lee and then a mini-semi wheelstander that was only 1/3 life size. Ken's mini-semi was modeled after a long-nose Kenworth conventional tractor and Ken ran the truck until 1990.

Anita and Ken Nelson
At that point he had nearly 30 years in the sport already and chose to step away for a few years. During the middle of the '90s however, he began to feel the itch to return. He looked around for a suitable theme to base a new wheelstander around and the idea of a school bus came to him in a dream. He debuted the original Cool Bus in 1997 and campaigned it with great success for eight years.

Last year Ken built the Cool Bus II, an updated take on his original theme. The new bus is lower and nicer to drive according to Ken and it includes a passenger seat. To date only about 10 people have had the chance to experience a ride with Bill Bader being the first ride recipient. Ken and Anita, his wife of 47 years, have 38 events on their schedule this year with many of those being multiple day events. All told they expect to perform about 60 days in 2005.

When you consider that each of their events includes one or more travel days in each direction you realize that they have a busy schedule. Throw in the programs they do for the Boy Scouts, the Salvation Army and the anti-drug programs plus the maintenance that the bus requires and you start to see how busy they really are.

C.J. Perry, the IHRA's Press and Communications Manager, was immediately receptive when I approached him about going for a ride in the Cool Bus II. Remembering how hot my ride in the two-seat dragster ride was, I was happy to hear that we would be going up after Saturday's Night of Fire final qualifying session. Although it would probably still be warm that time of night in August at least we wouldn't be battling a blazing sun.

During the afternoon on the day of the ride we had a trial fitting of all the safety equipment that I would have to wear and then I was introduced to Ken and Anita. They said we'd run right after the Top Fuelers so I should come over to their pit when the fuelers start rolling out and get suited up. Ken and Anita have some local fans that volunteer the use of their Chevy pick-up as a tow vehicle when they are at Martin. Sitting on the Chevy's tailgate, I first pulled on my fire suit pants and then donned the fire suit's coat. After putting on my helmet I was good to go.

Ken was already buckled into the driver's seat when Anita helped me in the right side of the bus. She cinched my belts good and tight and helped me pull on my fire gloves. Anita led us in a short prayer and she prayed for our safety and Ken's good judgment to see us through the run. While interviewing Ken later he told me that he has never had a serious accident while wheelstanding but that he had been out in the grass a few times during the early days. Finally, Anita took great care in adjusting the bus' west coast mirrors. I would learn the significance of that later.

Before I knew it they were starting the last pair of fuelers and we began rolling out onto the track from the staging lanes. Perched as we were, just to the left of the water box, we had a good view of Clay Millican as he backed up from his burnout right in front of us. We also got a good dose of his nitro fumes. The fumes entered through the bus' open windshield area and were confined to our proximity by the fire wall directly behind our heads.

Ken and Jim back up
Soon enough Clay disappeared down the track and then Ken was given the signal to fire up the bus. Running on alcohol, the bus started easily and soon developed the loping idle of an engine with a lot of supercharger overdrive. Easing forward under the direction of Anita, she gave the sign when Ken was positioned correctly. A quick hammer of the throttle and we were pointed skyward as we passed the christmas tree.

One thing I learned is once you're up you need to keep the throttle down or you're coming down. Which we did shortly before the eighth mile mark. As we're backing up from our burnout Ken looked over at me and gives me a questioning thumbs up as if too say, everything OK? I quickly shot back a thumbs up of my own.

While we were backing up I learn the significance of the west coast mirrors. Not just for decoration, Ken actually used them to guide himself backwards toward the starting line. After putting the bus back into forward we do a dry hop (in the truest sense of the word) up to starting line. The tree comes down and up we go. We keep it up all way to high gear when Ken has to return to earth. He's capable of going much further, and often has in the past, but safety regulations say no further than the eighth mile when you have a passenger onboard.

Jim goes for his ride.
All too soon the ride is over and we're coasting towards the turn-off area. Because the IHRA wanted to run another round of sportsman competitors that tonight, to make up some time lost earlier in the day to a rain delay, they ask us to return to the pits by the return road instead of back up the track which is Ken's normal procedure. Passing by the fans as we slowly make our way back to his pit area it's clear to me that the kids are the bus' biggest fans and that they have really enjoyed the show. We're met with a non-stop sequence of high-fives and shouted questions as we inch our way through the crowd.

For Ken and Anita it was just another day's work, albeit one that they love. For me it was the chance of a lifetime and won't soon be forgotten. However, the real winners were the hundreds of wide-eyed kids that went home with a memory to last a lifetime. Hopefully, we gained a new group of young drag fans that evening. A special thanks to Ken and Anita Nelson as well as C.J. Perry for a very special opportunity to commemorate my second anniversary with Drag Race Central.