Deconstructing the vote: 14-17Friday, June 24, 2016
Another month in the books, and another four cars have been revealed in the Top 20 Funny Car fan vote, with another coming Saturday, which will bring us up to No. 12.
 
Here’s what has been revealed so far:
 
14. Ed McCulloch Revellution Demon
15. Danny Ongais/Mickey Thompson Mustang
16. Kenny Bernstein Bud King Tempo
17. Don Prudhomme Pepsi Challenger
18. Jim White/Hawaiian Punch Dodge
19. Gene Snow Rambunctious Challenger
20. Jack Chrisman Comet
 
We discussed Nos. 18 through 20 when they were unveiled, but I got some frowny faces about Prudhomme’s Pepsi Challenger – famed for its otherworldly 5.63 blast at Indy 1982 and the barrier-breaking 250-mph pass earlier that year at the Cajun Nationals – ending up No. 17. As you can see in the chart below, the Insider Nation actually had the car ranked much lower (No. 19).
 
Opined Eric Widmer, “Prudhomme's 5.63 was about two-tenths quicker than the quickest Funny Cars of the time. It was akin to John Mulligan's 6.43 when the quickest of the other fuelers was 6.73 at the time in, where else?, Indy. In my opinion, it would make ‘the Snake’ head and shoulders above everyone else at that moment in time.”
 
I wrote a pretty in-depth column about that incredible 1982 U.S. Nationals event -- including the “nitrous or not” controversy -- that you can find here. I interviewed many of the major players, including Prudhomme, Dale Armstrong, Billy Meyer, Austin Coil, and Ken Veney; it’s some interesting reading about an interesting point in the class’ history.
 
Insider readers conversely ranked Bernstein’s 1984 Bud King Tempo several places higher than its fan ranking, obviously understanding the car’s role in the growing aero wars that would follow. I remember the first time I ever saw this car, at preseason testing at then Firebird Int’l Raceway outside of Phoenix, where Bernstein and Armstrong had granted Leslie Lovett first crack at the wild piece. It ran as a cover story, complete with a multipage story inside from extensive interviews that I did there and, later, on the phone with Armstrong. From its rounded fenderwells to belly pans, lip splitters, enclosed side windows, and more, it was one sexy piece and set the standard going forward. (Remember when Funny Car aerodynamics were some small front fender bubbles to lower the front end a few inches?)
 
The Ongais/Thompson Mustang at No. 15 was pretty shocking to some of us – the Insider faithful had it ranked much, much higher – and as we have discussed here, the car was perhaps as important for its contributions – some might argue more important – as many cars on the list.
 
“I don’t think a single car made more far-reaching technical changes to the sport,” said Insider reader Mark Watkins. “The chassis, the headers (the original ‘new’ header design), the exotic powertrain. Mickey Thompson was a noted free thinker and had a keen eye for engineering talent. These converged into this game-changing car. If Thompson had Bernstein's or Prudhomme’s focus, this could have been the start of a decade-long domination.”
 
As a huge fan of “the Ace,” I was disappointed that the Revellution Demon wasn’t ranked higher, either by fans or by the Insider voters. The car was a killer in 1972 – maybe the only car that could rival the famed Pat Foster-driven Barry Setzer Vega? – and, in my opinion, is easily the most identifiable car on McCulloch’s résumé. Because I would include “the Ace” on any Funny Car top-10 drivers list (maybe even in my top five), it stands to reason that this signature car ranked higher on my personal list.
 
Rabid Funny Car fan Mark “Hog Wild” Elms’ email expressing his disappointment on “the Ace’s” place began with the subject line “I Can’t Believe It” and went from there. “I believe Phil y'all should have set age limits on the voting,” he wrote. “I feel that many, many fan voters just didn't have the experience that you and I and many of your contributors have. Ed McCulloch was a badass, great driver and I believe he won the U.S. Nationals a few times, too. I figured Bernstein, Nicholson, or Beckman was next. I watched Ed many times, and I have that 1/18th model of his car still in the box."
 
So here’s a quick recap of the fan vs. Insider vote.
Car Fan Vote Insider Vote
Ed McCulloch Revellution Demon 14 16
Danny Ongais/Mickey Thompson Mustang 15 Higher
Kenny Bernstein Bud King Tempo 16 14
Don Prudhomme Pepsi Challenger 17 19
Jim White/Hawaiian Punch Dodge 18 18
Gene Snow Rambunctious Challenger 19 15
Jack Chrisman Comet 20 17
 
As I’m sure you’re aware, Tony Pedregon, in his role as NHRA FOX analyst, also has been offering his personal top-20 list, though his criteria seems to be more personal than analytical, which makes for a cool juxtaposition with the other voting. Here are his picks so far:
 
14. Joe Pisano/Tom Ridings Arrow (1978)
15. Dale Pulde War Eagle Trans Am (1977)
16. Jim Green/Richard Rogers Green Elephant Vega (1977)
17. Gordie Bonin Bubble Up Trans Am (1977)
18. Al Segrini Black Magic Vega (1974-75)
19. Dale Armstrong/Mike Kase Speed Racer Omni (1980-81)
20. Tom Prock Detroit Tiger Monza (1975-76)
 
I broke down his 18 to 20 previously, and, on a pure fan basis, I love his 14 through 17 picks. I’ve been a big Pisano fan since I built my first Revell model, the 1973 Pisano & Matsubara Vega. “Papa Joe” always had the coolest paint schemes in the 1970s, and the Arrow certainly was one of them with its bold flames graphics.
 
The War Eagle Trans Am is the first of Pedregon’s picks that also is on the fan-vote list, but substantially higher. Like the Pisano cars, Pulde and partner Mike Hamby’s rides were always sharp, and combined with the ultra-sleek profile of those Trans Am bodies, it looked fast even standing still.
 
I’ve also always had an affection for the Green Elephant machines, hard-running cars (despite their mythologically “bad luck” green color) that reached a couple of final rounds, including in Indy in 1977. That is the Vega that Pedregon singled out, though they also had success with Frank Hall, Rob Bruins, and Mike Miller behind the wheel. I did a wonderful interview a few years ago with Jim and Betty Green to talk about their history that you might enjoy. Check it out here.
 
And finally, Bonin’s Bubble Up Trans Am, another car that I was sad did not make the Top 20 list. Bonin was a personal friend of mine, a kinship forged during his post-driving years working in NHRA’s Marketing Department. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was back then, being able to work side by side every day with Bonin and former Top Fuel ace Carl Olson, who also worked at NHRA then. How cool to work with guys you had watched and cheered for! Bonin’s car was also a ’77 Trans Am (Pedregon sure likes cars from 1977!), and the green and red, white, and blue graphics made the car look even more sleek. We lost Gordie a few years ago, but I’ll always be a fan of his.
 
We’ll unveil both the fan-vote and Pedregon's pick for No. 13 this weekend, so watch for it on the FOX show Saturday or on NHRA.com Sunday. Much discussion to follow, I’m sure.
A Kean memoryFriday, June 17, 2016

Response to last week’s column full o’ photos was deliciously marvelous, with lots of my pals here digging my amateurish attempts because, after all, even a bad photo of a great Funny Car is worth seeing, right?

As I’ve said numerous times, sometimes the quality doesn’t matter as much as the fact that A) sometimes we’re seeing an image that has never been shown in public, retrieved from some old shoebox in the attic, and B) we’re all seeing the past through one eyewitness’ exact view, how he or she saw it and is helped to remember it, which either stokes the memory, refreshes the memory, or even brings the memory to light from the dark corners of Forgottenville.

(Images are powerful. My kids are always telling me they remember somewhere we went or something they said we did from when they were 1 or 2, but it’s really just that they’ve seen the video I took and made the memory theirs because of it.)


Kean's photo in my office, below an OCIR poster

The story of my forged photo credential resonated with longtime Insider reader and contributor Al Kean, who, when just a teen like me, captured one of the most dramatic – and certainly one of the wildest – photos ever taken when he caught Don Prudhomme’s fiery Hot Wheels 'Cuda nearing takeoff at the top end at the 1971 Hot Wheels Northwest National Open in Seattle. Prudhomme was racing Dave Condit in the L.A. Hooker Maverick in the final race of the day.

"I was watching everything through my camera’s viewfinder," Kean told me a few years ago in a column about the photo. "The cars staged and launched. I was following the cars, and I thought I saw flames coming out of 'the Snake’s' windows as he neared the finish line. I remember thinking that it must just be glare off something – he couldn’t really be on fire, could he? I kept following the cars and clicked the shutter when they crossed the finish line. I then took the camera away from my face and looked downtrack to see Prudhomme’s car, with NO body on it, still in a wheelstand. It was at least 300 feet after the finish line before the car’s front wheels returned to earth.

"I had no idea what I had gotten in the photo. I had to wait several days for the color slides to get developed after we got home. It was pretty exciting to finally see the photo that I had taken.”

Kean, who last year at the Gatornationals presented me a copy of the photo with a personalized inscription plaque, wrote me again this week to recall how track manager Bill Doner used the photo in the centerfold of the 1972 program and offered Kean a season photo pass as payment. (Good ol’ “Dones” … the photo could have commanded some big bucks, but he got it from Kean for a photo pass that cost him nothing; the man is legend.) Doner also made a copy of the photo for his wall.

“His directions were to report to the will-call trailer to pick up my credentials when I arrived,” Kean remembered. “Upon arrival, there was no photo pass waiting for me, but the person there called Bill on a radio, and he said he would be right there. A couple of minutes later, he showed up, got my pass and tickets taken care of for me, and gave me a program that had my photo in the centerfold. He then drove me to the pits in his new Datsun 240Z and introduced me to Prudhomme and [Tom] McEwen. Wow! For a 15-year-old kid, this was awesome!

“I then used my (rather nondescript; would have been easy to forge!) photo pass to check out some spots along the guardrail. I made my way to the finish line just as Top Fuel was getting ready to start qualifying. I stood a couple feet outside the guardrail just past the finish line. The first car down was Hank Johnson in the front-motor Daily & Johnson car, now with a wing over the engine. I was not prepared for the noise and huge gust of air produced by a dragster at 230 mph, and it blew me onto my behind. I am sure anyone there would have found this scene very funny. I can imagine that one seeing this would have thought something like, ‘Stupid kid is going to get himself killed.’ And that photo didn't even turn out!

"Common sense prevailed, and I found some good spots closer to the starting line to get photos like the one above. Steve Evans was once again the announcer at this event and several times talked on the PA about my photo in the centerfold of the program, probably to increase program sales. All in all, a great weekend for that kid named Al Kean. 

“Doner will be back in Seattle for this year's Northwest Nationals (for the 50th Funny Car anniversary) and has suggested I look him up, which I will try to do. Thanks for letting me share my experiences.”

Quite a story, Al; all I ever got from my teenage photo pass was a 35-years-in-the-coming scolding from Pat “Ma” Green, who handled credentials at Irwindale back in the day. After reading my confession of that counterfeit job a few years ago, she wrote to tell me that she would have kicked my butt right off the starting line if she had caught me. Love you, "Ma."

Thanks to all of you for sharing and enjoying these great stories of the day.

More of Phil's Foto FolliesFriday, June 10, 2016

Ask someone if they want to see your old family photos, and they’ll probably come up with an excuse to go do something less painful; root canal comes to mind. But ask any drag racing fan if he or she would like to look at your old drag racing photos, and you’re likely to find a ready and willing audience.

This thought comes to mind after discovering a treasure trove of my own old photos that I took as a teenage fan in the mid- to late 1970s. I had been assigned the unglamorous task of cleaning out the cabinets below the china hutch, and between admonitions to “Be careful not to shake it!” and “Be careful with those plates!” I found a trio of old photo albums – you know the kind, with the clear plastic sheets and the sticky pages.

Being a SoCal kid, naturally they were all from Pomona, Orange County, or Irwindale, and they brought back fond memories. I had shared some of them in late 2007 in this column but had apparently filed them away after that. Not the greatest of photos, but hey, I was just a teenager with a crappy Ricoh camera. Some kids take out their first personal loan to buy a car; mine was for a camera. 

 
  Orange County Int'l Raceway was known for many landmarks, including its signature tower and starting-line scoreboards, but I always loved this sign, which towered over the pit entrance so high that those in cars passing on the adjacent freeway could certainly see what was in store that day.

Top Fuelers, Funny Cars, jets, and rocket cars for less than $10. Yes, please.


The aforementioned starting-line scoreboards in the background said "Spect" on half and "Tower" on the other (expertly cropped out by me), to designate either the spectator or tower lane. The first time I went there, I read that as one word, thinking, "Oh look; it's the Spectator Tower." OK, so I was 11 at the time. That's local favorite "Smoky Joe" Lee rolling through the burnout box to show how he got that nickname. The little structure next to him contained the barrel of water for teams to scoop from and pour beneath the rear tires. At the Last Drag Race, starter Larry Sutton backed two jet dragsters up to it at an angle to try to burn/blow it down, much to the displeasure of track owner Charlie Allen.


This seemingly innocent photo of Lil' John Lombardo's car parked in the pits resonates with me for two reasons: First and foremost, it shows just how easy it was to get an up-close and unblocked view of the cars in the pits back then. Truly another world from today. Second, anyone who spent any time in the OCIR pits remembers those trees in the background that dotted the pits and gave it a nice touch as more than a parking lot. Notice also how I deftly sliced Lombardo crewman Randy Scoville -- who would go on to become a rep for Champion Spark Plugs -- in two as he sat in the trailer door. Good work, ace. 

 
  Even a knucklehead like me could have a front-row seat to greatness as Don Prudhomme and crew chief Bob Brandt discussed the tune-up on the Army Funny Car. The 1976 Manufacturers Meet at OCIR was billed as the last hurrah for the famed Army Monza, and, true to form, Prudhomme won the race, his first victory at the prestigious event. The night couldn't have gone any better as he not only beat Gary Burgin -- whose final-round victory over "the Snake" in Indy prevented an otherwise unbeaten season -- but also longtime rivals Tom McEwen and Ed McCulloch.

And, of course, there were autographs to be had as "the Snake" obliged this young fan after his OCIR victory. I wonder if this kid is an Insider reader. Or if he still has the autograph.

Of course, today the kid would be asking for a selfie, the death of the autograph.


The 1976 Manufacturers race did not end up being the Monza's swan song; Prudhomme's new Arrow was not ready for the New Year's Day Nitro Bowl at Irwindale Raceway, where somehow I and my buddy Van Tune were able to get out onto the starting line with homemade but apparently authentic-looking photo passes (they had the word PHOTOGRAPHER on them in big letters ... too funny); don't try this at home, kids.

I learned later that National Dragster's own Leslie Lovett was there covering the event for the paper. Odd to think that we may have stood side by side -- him probably looking askance at my "credential" -- neither of us knowing that about five years later, we'd be working together and that he'd be showing me how to be a real PHOTOGRAPHER.
 

I had virtually no idea who John Force was and certainly no idea of who he would become when I snapped this stunningly average pic of his Brute Force Monza.


Sure, you can tell me that this photo of one of my favorites of that era, "Big Mike" Halloran, is out of focus, but I will quickly refer you to the Howards Cams lettering on the far guardwall. Photography just doesn't get any more crisp than that, folks.


At that same New Year's Day race at the 'Dale, Shirley Muldowney came to town to take on our local hero, James Warren. She terrorized the Ridge Route Terrors by winning three straight in their match race and stole Warren's track speed record to boot with a blast of 243 mph.

 
  Meanwhile, back at OCIR, where security was similarly lax enough to allow me, a long-haired, hippie-type punk teenager, to stroll out next to the guardrail to snap parachute shots, I grabbed some photos of one of my other favorite cars of the era, the Chicago Patrol Mustang II. (Ooooh, and look, there's the "Spectator Tower" in the background!).

I thought that the Chicago Patrol, with its revolving "cop lights" on the roof, was one of the coolest things ever. Little did I realize at the time, but the coolest thing about the car was the driver, Pat Foster, shown packing the chutes at left.


It's a pedalfest! Henry Harrison, near lane, dueled at OCIR with Tom Ridings in Joe Pisano's entry in this battle of Arrows. Harrison was driving the Amos Satterlee-tuned Super Chief, which, according to FC expert Danny White, was no longer owned by Nelson Carter. Harrison and "Famous Amos" were a familiar pairing in the 1970s, working together on cars such as the Vulture Funny Car and the Sheep Herder fuel altered.


OK, so that's clearly John Force and the Wendy's Corvette in the far lane, but why the heck is he paired with the late, great Lou Gasparrelli and his Trans Am Top Alcohol Funny Car? For the record, I'm pretty sure that I snapped this photo as they were backing up from their burnouts.


And finally, there's so much for me to love about this photo. It was my first trip to Irwindale, in the fall of 1971 (a month or so after my first trip to the drags, at OCIR). This is the Stone, Woods & Cooke Mach I, dubbed Swindler IV, which "Mighty Mike" Van Sant drove. I believe it's the last S-W-C car to race. Also worth noting is the trailer -- hard to believe that car even fit in there! -- and I'm pretty sure that's Tim Woods, second from left, talking to someone who might have even been Van Sant. Also worth noting is the "e" at the end of "Cook"; the original team had been Fred Stone, Woods, and driver Doug Cook. After Cook stopped driving, Woods carried on the S-W-C name by adding the last name of his secretary, Abie Cooke, to the car. Clever, no?

OK, kids, there's just some of my collection to go with the many of yours that I've showcased throughout the years and will continue to share if you send them to me (with notes, please!). I'll see you next week.
New England Funny CarsFriday, June 03, 2016

As the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series tour heads back to New England this weekend, the 2016 season is about to get real busy with four races in as many weekends, keeping us all on the fly, so to speak, traversing the East Coast and surrounding regions for all of June.

I attended the first New England Nationals waaaaay back in 2013, and it was a kick for me to see. It still has that match-race-track feel: no three-story VIP tower and no skyboxes lining the top of the grandstands, and a pretty humble entry point. After years of rolling into places like Pomona and Indy and Gainesville, I was so taken by the approach that I snapped the photo at right, which I keep on my cellphone for when I want to get a little nostalgic. It’s not the greatest photo ever taken, but it definitely set the mood for me that great weekend.

It also brought to mind a column I did back then for the National Dragster site that noted that even though it was the first NHRA national event ever held in the New England area, the region itself had a strong history of great cars and drivers from Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. I thought it would be fun to share the Funny Car portion here.

Bill Lawton, of Cranston, R.I., was the fine wheelman for the high-performance, East Providence, R.I.-based Tasca Ford dealership entry. This Mustang followed the team’s successful Thunderbolt and was the scourge of the Factory Experimental and Funny Car wars. Dubbed Mystery 8 for its goal of breaking the eight-second zone, perhaps the car’s biggest victory came at the 1965 NHRA Winternationals, where it won Factory Experimental honors.

Bob Tasca III, whose grandfather ran the Tasca Ford empire, continues the family’s winning ways today on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series tour with his Hope, R.I.-based Mustang. Tasca had dubbed the car Mystery 4 for his dream of breaking into the three-second zone. He just missed that mark in Topeka two weeks ago with a 4.000.
Bill Flynn, of New Haven, Conn., waged war with the Tasca Fords in the 1960s with his Yankee Peddler Barracuda and had a competitive heart from the beginning. The former New England Junior Archery champion and two-time minor-league batting champ was working in the service department of an auto agency and fixing up his car on the side. A trip to Connecticut Dragway in 1962 ended in a humbling defeat and an “I’ll show them” attitude, and he did.

Flynn, in his Yankee Peddler Charger, took on his former driver, Enfield, Conn.’s Al Hanna, in this 1970 match race at Maple Grove Raceway. Hanna had a long and successful string of Eastern Raider Funny Cars (below) before transitioning to jet cars, with which he’s still involved today.

 

Flynn, right, also partnered with tuner Tim Kushi, left, of Pittsfield, Mass., and Kushi eventually took over the wheel of their rechristened Flynn & Kushi Racing machine, then went on to field his own line of Yankee Sizzler entries into the early 1980s.
Warren, R.I., was the home base for the famed King & Marshall team of driver Jimmy King and tuner Don Marshall, who together competed in 1969-71 with a slingshot Top Fueler (known for its infamous overbackward wheelie at the 1970 Nationals) before transitioning into Funny Car with this Duster, which did not meet NHRA specs and raced only (but prolifically) on the match race trail. They were inducted into the New England Hot Rod Hall of Fame in 2006.
Rodalyn Knox, of Weare, N.H., impressed fans and fellow racers in a relatively short stint in Funny Car racing in the 1970s with her Country Girl entries. She raced first in the injected-nitro ranks before she and husband John bought this ex-Bill Leavitt Monza and went blown-nitro racing in 1978. The Knoxes left drag racing the next year but rekindled their passion for performance in the National Tractor Pullers Association. Rodalyn was named rookie of the year in 1990 and son Brian earned Mechanic of the Year honors, and the next year, she became the first woman to win any class at the NTPA’s famed Indy Super Pull. In 1995, she won her first of three NTPA Grand National points titles in the Unlimited category (the first woman to win a title in NTPA competition). She retired after winning her third title in 1998 and 10 years later became the first woman inducted into the NTPA Hall of Fame.
Kosty Ivanof, of Brighton, Mass., began racing Funny Cars in the late 1960s with his Tuff Enuf Corvettes and became a crowd favorite with his Boston Shaker Funny Cars. He almost pulled off a major upset when he was runner-up (to Gordie Bonin) at the 1979 U.S. Nationals. Five years earlier, Ivanof had reached his first NHRA final round but lost at the 1974 Grandnational to that year’s world champ, Shirl Greer. He also was the low qualifier at the 1974 Gatornationals and the 1980 Winternationals.
Long before he transplanted to Florida and became a regular winner on the NHRA tour and a thorn in John Force’s side, Al Hofmann was running his low-buck Funny Car out of Southbury, Conn. The China Syndrome cars, sometimes as volatile as their namesake, never gave a clue about what he ultimately would be capable of. Hofmann scored 15 times in 32 final-round appearances and was a regular in the NHRA top 10 from 1991, when he finished seventh, through 1996, highlighted by a five-win 1995 campaign in which he finished second in the standings to Force. He finished third in 1992 and 1994 and fourth in 1993 and 1996. Hofmann was the second Funny Car driver to exceed 300 mph. He recorded a run of 301.10 mph Feb. 19, 1994, in Phoenix to become the 13th member — and only one of two Funny Car drivers — of the Slick 50 300-mph Club. He died March 20, 2008, of a heart attack at his home in Eustis, Fla. He was 60.
As you probably read in this column earlier this year, Al Segrini, of Easton, Mass., was a hugely successful driver in the 1970s and 1980s with a number of cars, including his own Super Brut machines, sponsored by the cologne maker. He scored his first national event win at the wheel of Jim Beattie’s Black Magic Vega at the 1974 Summernationals, where he defeated “Jungle Jim” Liberman in the final. Although he also won the NHRA Cajun Nationals (1983), he’s best remembered for winning the NHRA Winternationals three times in four years (1982, 1984, and 1985, the latter two in explosive fashion in the final). He drove for a number of Funny Car owners, including the aforementioned Ivanof and Leavitt, the Castronovo family, the Hill brothers, the Petosa brothers, Joe Pisano, and Steve Plueger, and even competed in Top Fuel later in Billy Lynch’s dragster, which was based in Quincy, Mass.
Chuck Etchells may well be the New England area’s most successful racer. The Putnam, Conn., resident began as an independent in 1979 with a line of Future Force entries, and the name proved apt as he ultimately scored 13 NHRA national event Funny Car wins and 13 runner-ups and at the 1993 event in Topeka became the first Funny Car driver to run in the four-second zone. He finished in the top 10 seven straight years (1992-98), including a career-best second-place showing behind John Force in 1993. He also was the 1990 IHRA champ.

 

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