John Stewart will forever be remembered by drag racing fans of the 1970s as the teenager who beat “Big Daddy” Don Garlits in his first ever side-by-side competition, but the kid from Sacramento, Calif., with the long hair and perpetually bare feet went on to become much more than just a driver in a career that has spanned five decades and continues today.
In one form or another, Stewart has been racing almost his entire life. He was racing go-karts before he was 10, became a Professional Top Fuel driver before he turned 18, and today keeps his hands busy and wrenches spinning as a crew chief, tuner, and adviser for multiple drag racing efforts. In addition to his current roles as crew chief on Bob Bode’s Funny Car on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, Dan Horan’s Nostalgia Funny Car in the NHRA Hot Rod Heritage Racing Series, and Urs Erbacher’s Top Fueler in FIA competition in Europe, Stewart is also part owner, with Aaron Brooks and the Lagana brothers, of another Funny Car and involved with both Lagana Top Fuelers, all of which have run in the NHRA “big show,” and also owns a sprint car, driven by Austin Prock, son of fellow nitro crew chief Jimmy Prock. He also runs a business specializing in clutch floaters and discs. So, yeah, he stays pretty busy.
Stewart got his first taste of competition in go-karts at age 8, and he eventually became good enough to land a factory sponsorship from Margay. When he was 15, he won the International Karting Federation’s 1970 grand enduro national championship, sealing it with a victory on the road course at, of all places, Indianapolis Raceway Park, home to NHRA’s U.S. Nationals. Oddly enough, Stewart had never even been to a drag race. Even though his karts were capable of reaching nearly 130 mph on the course’s main straight — the fabled dragstrip — a faster future awaited him.
Stewart’s uncle, LeRoy Lehman — the husband of his father’s sister — owned a Jr. Fueler and thought that his nephew might do well driving only on the straightaway. The day after he got his driver’s license, Stewart buckled into the cockpit of a carbureted front-engine econo dragster that Lehman had built for him. He quickly mastered the little 10-second car and stepped into the set of Lehman’s seven-second Jr. Fueler. Before long, that became old news, too.
Stewart, with his father, Bernie, center, and uncle LeRoy Lehman.
Seeing his nephew’s prowess, Lehman suggested they take their efforts to the next level and late in 1972 purchased Herm Petersen’s Woody Gilmore-built Top Fueler and accessories.
“I was all, ‘Yeah, that looks fun; let’s try it,’ ” recalls Stewart, whose father, Bernie, had grown up in Southern California and gone to school with Mickey Thompson and always loved racing. Bernie supplied the financial backing through his company, Sacramento Insulation Contractors, which did insulation installation for everything from commercial to home use in California, Arizona, and Nevada. And S.I.C. Racing was born.
With everything in place, they drove down to Southern California in early December to get the kid licensed and headed to Lions Dragstrip on what was most a memorable and sad occasion: It was the first weekend of December 1972, the weekend of Lions’ Last Drag Race, and although the kid licensed impressively with a 6.47 best, it was not without adventure.
“The worst part was the roller starters they used to have there at Lions,” Stewart remembers. “My uncle went through the whole program with me: Spin it over to build oil pressure, and once you get oil pressure, nod your head to let me know, then turn on the fuel and hit the [ignition] switch. The one thing he forgot to tell me was to push the clutch back in. The engine started and I was thinking ‘I’ve got this,’ but once the guy stopped the rollers, the car shot forward. My uncle had been holding the front wheels to keep the car steady — I think Larry Sutton was helping him — and they disappeared real quick when the car leaped off the rollers. He yelled at me until I reminded him he’d forgotten to tell me about the clutch.
“The biggest thing about driving the car was getting used to how fast everything happened. My uncle told me to go to 330 feet and shut it off. I stepped on the gas and lifted and was thinking I did a good job, and he gets down there and starts yelling at me again, ‘How far do you think you drove it?’ I told him that I didn’t know, that it was kind of dark. ‘You drove it to 950 feet!’ ”
Track manager Steve Evans, who oversaw the licensing procedure, was nonetheless impressed. “The kid is incredible,” he raved. “The car got out of shape once. He never cracked. He just pulled it out and got back into the accelerator.”
Stewart made his Pro debut in early 1973 at Irwindale Raceway, where he beat Don Garlits in his first head-to-head race.
Early the next January, Stewart, then still a 17-year-old junior at El Camino High School, calmly walked in to see his auto shop teacher one Thursday.
“I told him I was going to L.A. to drive a Top Fuel dragster and wouldn’t be at school the next day; he kind of laughed,” Stewart recalls with a laugh of his own. “When I came back Monday, he had the sports page taped up on the blackboard. From that point on, I was able to bring the car into the shop there and work on it. The other kids loved seeing it.”
What got his teacher’s attention — and the attention of everyone in the sport — was his performance at Irwindale Raceway’s Grand Premiere. Forty cars showed up looking for a spot in the 16-car field, and Stewart qualified solidly alongside veterans like Garlits, John Wiebe, Supernationals champ Don Moody, Dennis Baca, James Warren, Don Prudhomme, Danny Ongais, and Larry Dixon.
Garlits qualified No. 1 with a 6.37, Stewart No. 9 with a 6.52, and anyone who remembers ladder pairings back then knows that meant a first-round date, and when Garlits had to pedal halfway through his run, Stewart was right there to pounce, taking a shocking 6.45 to 6.54 upset victory.
“I totally underestimated the kid,” Garlits later admitted.
“It was the first time I’d ever been on the track with anyone else,” Stewart recalls. “It took a little while to sink in on how special that was, beating someone with Garlits’ history. I could have quit right then.”
But he didn’t. Not content with his Goliath slaying, Stewart moved on in eliminations but, before he could take on Ongais, he found that his safety belts wouldn’t latch. His uncle frantically got a replacement buckle and got it installed. Stewart remained cool throughout the ordeal and then defeated Ongais.
“Look at him,” Garlits went on to add. “He’s overcome a 20-minute problem with his seat belt, and he should be folding under the pressure, but he looks like he hasn’t a care in the world.”
“I had raced under a lot of pressure with go-karts,” Stewart told me earlier this week. “I’d have 70 guys in my class in karts and only one in drag racing, but I tried to never pay attention to who was in the other lane. But to this day, every time I see him, Garlits says ‘I hate you, kid.’ ”
Although Stewart lost on a 6.60 to 6.58 holeshot to Moody in the semifinals, the word was out, and a month later Stewart scored his first win, Feb. 25, at his Sacramento Raceway home track, qualifying No. 1 and beating Jim Herbert in the final. Herbert had beaten Garlits the round before, denying them a rematch.
With the attention also came scrutiny, but early on, Stewart got some good advice from fellow teen terror Jeb Allen.
“Me and Jeb were pretty good friends,” he said. “He told me the kind of things the other guys might say about us being kids. He just told me to be myself and don’t do anything stupid, and I’ll be fine.”
The team raced everywhere, including this memorable matchup at Orange County Int’l Raceway’s Big 4 Constructors race in May ’73, a team competition that pitted cars powered by Keith Black, Ed Pink, Sid Waterman, and a group of independents (who won). Stewart beat Ed McCulloch’s Funny Car in round one but couldn’t return for round two.
The team hit the road to take advantage of their newfound fame. Stewart, his uncle, and one of John’s high-school classmates (who was too young to drive) headed east at the wheel of a Ford truck supplied by a local dealer, sometimes caravanning with Gary Beck. It was another new experience for Stewart, who, because of his status with the factory, had always flown to his go-karts events but now found himself doing the bleary-eyed crawl across the country, with just he and his uncle splitting driving duties to hustle from race to race.
“It seems like we were running every other night somewhere,” he recalled. “We ran all over because that was how you made the money to get to the big races. We had a spare short-block, which was pretty big back then, an extra set of heads, and a few pistons. Those were the days, man. You didn’t leave your car at the track. You’d load it up and drive it to the hotel and work on it in the parking lot. You’d get up in the morning and wait for the maid to come down the hallway so you could steal some towels off her cart to take to the track.
“It was a lot of fun. I loved driving the car, but I didn’t really enjoy working on them at first. I just wanted to go hang out with my friends. It was like [to his uncle] ‘This is your car, you fix it, and when it’s ready, I’ll come drive it.’ I think that came from my go-kart years. All I had to do was show up and drive. But after a month or two, I got more into working on the dragster.”
And schoolwork still had its place alongside pitwork.
“I’d get all of my homework Thursdays and take off, then do my homework in the truck on the way to and from the races,” he explained. “The majority of the teachers were very supportive and helpful. I wasn’t a good student by any means, but I got by because if I didn’t keep my grades up, I didn’t get to race.”
Stewart joined the Keeling & Clayton team just before the 1973 World Finals in Amarillo, Texas, and drove its sleek California Charger, far lane, to round two before losing to eventual winner Jerry Ruth.
After joining the Cragar Five-Second Club during qualifying, Stewart was on his way to beating tire-smoking Gaines Markley in the semifinals of the Supernationals but couldn't hold off Markley at the big end. (Below) The race almost turned disastrous as Gaines crashed heavily and almost took out Stewart in the process.
The team had such a good season that they finished high enough in the Division 7 points to qualify to attend the World Finals, which then were held in Amarillo, Texas. But funds were low, and the team didn’t think they could go. It was at that point that Stewart really hit the big time. John Keeling and Jerry Clayton asked him to drive their stunning California Charger dragster at the event. Their driver, Rick Ramsey, had not earned enough points and also was preparing to transition into the team’s new Funny Car.
“That car was beautiful,” he marveled. “They had the Revell sponsorship. I got a percentage of models that they sold. I was hot stuff. I was 17, had moved to L.A., driving for this big team, making money. I even had a real uniform and firesuit.”
Stewart acquitted himself well, qualifying the car — tuned by Bill Schultz, also in his debut with the team — in the fifth spot among west region racers with a 6.37 and then beat strong-running Flip Schofield in round one before bowing out to eventual winner Jerry Ruth in the second frame.
Excited by their success, the team stayed together for the 1973 Supernationals a few weeks later at Ontario Motor Speedway in Southern California, where, on Nov. 16, Stewart became the seventh driver in the Cragar Five-Second Club with a 5.92. (On some lists, he’s shown as the ninth member, but that’s because it was ordered alphabetically, and he was listed behind Dixon and Dan Richins, who also ran in the fives that day, but Stewart was the first of the trio to do so.)
Stewart’s run was good enough for the No. 2 spot, just a few ticks behind Garlits’ field-leading 5.90, and the two seemed on a collision course for the final. Stewart avenged his Finals loss to Ruth, then beat Norm Wilcox in the Skyjacker in round two and was leading tire-smoking Gaines Markley in the semifinals until the car began fading. Markley got back around him by inches, 6.54 to 6.56, but at a cost, as his freewheeling engine gave out, bombing the supercharger, which took out a rear tire and the wing and sent the car careening into Stewart’s lane. Stewart deftly took evasive action, driving through a minefield of scattered parts and, with no time to pull the parachute, ended up well around the oval course runout for the pit-road dragstrip. According to Clayton, they were inexplicably not allowed back in via the break rule, and Garlits singled for the win.
The team stayed together for one more race, the Cragar Five-Second Club event the following January at Irwindale. The field consisted of the eight club members — Stewart, Garlits, Moody, Ivo, Beck, Warren, Dixon, and Richins — with Mike Snively, who was without a ride at the time, taking the role of honorary starter. (Snively, who was slated to drive the Keeling & Clayton Funny Car, took his own life not long after.)
Stewart drove out of a big wheelstand in round one and still chased down Warren to get the win, then pulled up alongside Garlits in the semifinals. No one had forgotten what had happened there just a year earlier, but history did not repeat itself. Stewart cut a better light, but Garlits ran him down to win, 6.33 to 6.37.
(Above) The Cragar Five-Second Club, ready for battle at Irwindale Raceway in January 1974. Front row, from left, Tommy Ivo, Don Garlits, John Stewart, Larry Dixon Sr.; back row, from left, Don Moody, James Warren, Gary Beck, Mike Snively, and Dan Richins. (Below) A year after their initial meeting at Irwindale, Garlits got revenge on Stewart in the semifinals. (Steve Reyes photos)
A few weeks later, disaster struck Stewart at Sacramento Raceway’s season Grand Opener. Stewart, back behind the wheel of the family car for this weekend, defeated Ron Attebury in round one, 6.20 to 6.47, but his throttle stuck at the finish line.
“Back then, you practically had to put both feet on the dash to pull the fuel shutoff, and by the time I got it pulled back, I was at the end of the track,” he said. “There was a bump there, and the car just took off, and that was the last I remember until I woke up in the ambulance, which was going through the pits. I was thinking to myself, ‘Man, I’m dead. I’m in heaven,’ but the [ambulance attendant] told me I was all right. They told me the car cleared a six-foot chain-link fence and stuck nose-first into the grass. The car broke off at the footbox like it was supposed to, but in addition to cuts and bruises, I had a broken collarbone from where the seatbelts were.”
Stewart was eager to get back to racing, though his mother had seen enough.
“I had no worries,” he remembers. “When you’re young, you don’t think about that. My mom, on the other hand, was convinced that my uncle was trying to kill me. I had to tell her, ‘Mom, be quiet; I love it.’ ”
Stewart tried it on his own in 1974 but struggled financially. The car was lost in a top-end accident at the '75 Winternationals.
By this time, Keeling and Clayton were cutting back on their racing. Clayton was an in-demand airline jumbo jet pilot, and Keeling, an aircraft ground mechanic, got married. Even though Stewart had a great reputation and probably could have found another ride, he decided he’d stage his own comeback. He had local chassis whiz John Shoemaker build him a new car.
“I wanted my own car; it one of the dumbest things I ever did,” he admitted. “I just thought it was time. I was learning more about how the cars worked and wanting to tune it. I had some potential sponsors lined up, but nothing ever came of it. I tried to run the thing myself but didn’t have enough money to keep it going.”
The car ran sporadically that year and opened 1975 at the Winternationals. At the end of a qualifying pass, the parachutes failed to open.
“It started bouncing and hopping, and I tried to make the turn down there, but it started rolling over,” he recalls of the reported triple barrel roll. “I wasn’t hurt, and when I got out, I kicked the tire, and the parachutes fell out. Typical deal, right?
(Above) Stewart got his first win as a nitro crew chief with Tim Wilkerson, in 1999, in Chicago,. It was also Wilk's first Pro win. (Below) Stewart also tuned Jim Epler to a huge U.S. Nationals win in 2000.
“The car was hurt pretty bad, and by that time, I was married and had a kid. My wife told me I needed to figure out something else to do, so I quit racing. I started my own construction and insulation business with my sister. I still wanted to go back to racing but not as a driver. I was OK with that. We were pretty fortunate and did pretty good in the short time we ran.”
Stewart returned to the sport in 1979, working for fellow Sacramento resident Gary Ormsby, and started at the bottom. He spent a couple of years there, then went to work for Shirley Muldowney until she suffered her near-career-ending crash in Montreal in 1984. Before long, he found himself working for Connie Kalitta and soaking up knowledge from the team’s new tuner, Dick LaHaie.
“That’s where I really started to learn about how to run these cars,” he recalled. “Everyone would go home or go out for drinks, but I didn’t drink, so I’d sit there with LaHaie. What better guy to teach you? I didn’t even know how to turn on the computer. I just sat down there, paid attention, asked a lot of stupid questions, and otherwise kept my mouth shut.”
By 1998, after years of apprenticing under a number of tuners, Stewart’s first crew chief gig was for a fledgling nitro racer named Tim Wilkerson. After runner-ups in Pomona and Richmond, Va., they finally struck gold together at the 1999 Chicago event, where they beat John Force to earn Wilk his first Pro win.
Two years later, Stewart was part of Jerry Toliver’s two-car WWF entry, tuning the Kane Camaro, driven by Jim Epler, while Dale Armstrong tuned Toliver’s The Rock-branded entry. Toliver won the Winternationals and Gatornationals, and Stewart kept the smackdown coming when he tuned Epler to the win at the first Las Vegas event, but the best was still to come.
After a runner-up in Brainerd, Epler and Stewart were runner-ups Sunday at the Big Bud Shootout at Indy, then turned right around and won Monday’s Big Go. Two weeks later, the car burned to the ground at the Keystone Nationals.
In the years since, Stewart has been everywhere and anywhere. He has worked for Darrell Gwynn, Cruz Pedregon, Shelly Anderson, Dean Skuza, Bob Vandergriff, Don Prudhomme, and the Carrier Boyz before starting a seven-year stretch with Morgan Lucas Racing. Smith’s son, Josh, also later joined the team (and was best man at Lucas’ wedding) and stayed for four years before moving on and, at one time, drove his dad’s late-model car and the sprint car he co-owns with the Wingo brothers.
Even though he remains a well-known face among his peers in the pits on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, Stewart is much more recognized when he’s on the nostalgia tour, with people who grew up watching him race.
“It’s surprising how many people remember me,” he said. “When they hear the name they say, ‘Oh yeah, you’re that kid that beat Garlits.’ ”
A lot of kids are born into racing families and follow their fathers into the sport, but few can claim the quick start that launched Bobby Hilton into his career as a teenage Top Fuel driver in the early 1970s.
His dad, John, drove Top Gassers when Bobby was just a tyke growing up in Cincinnati, and when Dad graduated into a Chevy-powered Top Fueler in the late 1960s, Bobby was always there, wrench and dreams in hand.
“From the time I was 10 years old, racing was all I knew and all I wanted to do,” he remembers. “I didn’t play baseball or fool with bicycles like other kids my age; I just wanted to work on cars and go drag racing. I remember being at Indy with my dad when they still had roller starters in the pits. My dad would prop me up in the car with a pillow behind my back so that I could start the race car. By the time I was 15, I was bugging the hell out of him to let me drive the car; I wouldn’t leave him alone.
“We ran a lot of IHRA and UDRA stuff, but we’d make it to Columbus and Indy,” he added. “Seems like a lot of guys around here were fooling around with the Chevys – [Jim] Bucher was from right there in Cincinnati, Powell & Burnett from South Carolina – because that was the affordable thing to do. It was all iron-motor stuff: truck blocks with stock cranks, steel heads, and stock oil pans. You could put one together for a fraction of the cost of other engines, and they ran well.”
By the time he was 16, Hilton probably knew more about racing than most kids could ever hope to. Clayton Harris had taken the ambitious youngster, then just 13, under his wing and on tour with his Top Fuel team for three seasons in the early 1970s – during the heyday of the national-record-setting Jack McKay New Dimension car -- and showed him the ropes and a taste of winning, just as Steve Carbone had done with Jeb Allen before he started driving.
He quickly became accepted by the nitro fraternity as a kid brother. California racers like Allen, Gary Ritter, Don Durbin, and Frank Bradley all stayed at the Hilton family home in Cincinnati during their Midwest match race forays.
The first race car that Hilton ever drove down the quarter-mile was his dad’s Top Fueler, which by then was sporting a Rodeck powerplant. He was 16 and didn’t yet even have his street driver’s license, but they got officials to look the other way at a late 1973 IHRA race in Miami so that he could get his competition license.
“They were clutch cars back then; you had to clean the engine out, bring the motor up and drag it into the beams, then sidestep the clutch and go,” he said. “I fell into it pretty good; it took me several runs to get it down the track, but we went pretty quick.
“I’d read about guys like Jeb Allen and John Stewart, but they were all West Coast guys, and Billy Meyer was from Texas. I was pretty much the only teenager driving a fuel car from around here. We were doing real well locally because a lot of the tracks wanted to book us because of my age.”
And yet, even while he was learning the racing ropes, his other education – the one most kids are focused on – never got neglected, thanks to his parents, who insisted that he graduate from high school, which meant long Sunday-night drives back to Cincinnati regardless of where the weekend’s racing had been.
“Getting me to school was my mom’s mission in life,” he recalled with a laugh. “Graduating from high school was her goal, race cars be damned. She’d deliver me – I was going to a vocational school – and I’d hang out as long as I could, then go right back to racing. I used to hate Sunday nights because everyone else was heading to the next drag race, and I had to go home.”
Young Bobby Hilton, sporting dual casts, made the local paper after his crash.
And while all of his high school peers were strutting their stuff on the streets with big-block Chevelles or what have you, thinking they were badasses, Hilton never let on about his ride. “I just giggled to myself whenever they started bragging about their cars,” he recalled. “I wasn’t into hot rods like the other kids; I was into race cars!”
The good times ended abruptly in August 1974, at Rockingham Dragway in North Carolina. A valve hung open in the engine, which grenaded the blower and cut a rear tire at more than 230 mph. The cost was devastating to the team: one destroyed race car and, in those days before arm restraints, two broken arms for young Bobby.
“It was really my dad’s worst nightmare,” he remembers. “Billy Stebbins had built us a great race car, and the cage held up great – it was all that was really left of the car -- but my arms got outside of the cockpit and got beat up pretty bad.”
Hilton spent weeks in the hospital in Rockingham undergoing multiple operations and nine months in matching casts, the healing slowed because, unfazed by it all, he couldn’t wait to get back to racing, helping put together a replacement car from Don Long. “I really put my parents through hell,” he said.
But even before they could get the new car on the track, Alan Starr, owner of the popular North Carolina-based Starrliner Top Fueler, at the suggestion of Harris, called John and Peggy Hilton to ask if their son could drive his race car. By the time that Hilton was ready for action, it was already 1977, and he was no longer a teenager, but his best years still lay ahead.
“We were kids, and we were racing every weekend,” he marveled. “It’s nothing like it is today. It was a duallie, one spare motor, and a CB radio. You made your phone calls at the end of the day from a phone booth.
After his crash, Hilton drove other cars, including Alan Starr's Starrliner ...
“Alan Starr was just the greatest guy,” he recalls fondly. “Just a good ol’ Southern Top Fuel racer; ‘Drive it like you stole it; don’t worry about it, man.’ It was really cool. We’d run match races at tracks that I couldn’t pronounce and had no idea where they were, just alongside a mountain somewhere. The first time I drove his car was at a match race against Clayton Harris, in the dark, in Gulfport, Miss. ‘Just go out there and drive it, man,’ he told me. I learned a lot pretty quick.”
Even John Force will tell you that learning how to drive on crappy racetracks teaches you more than any other experience, and he also had time to get behind the wheel of other cars, including the Golddigger of Bill Thornberry and Tom Seigle, the Hot Tuna of Tommy Olds, and even his dad’s car in 1978.
And it was in his dad’s car, during a great month at the Winter Series events in Florida in late 1978 where they set low e.t. at every event, that his life would change, because it’s there that his skills got the attention of veteran Top Fuel owners Jim and Alison Lee.
“By that time, I had learned a lot about fuel systems and how to make the cars run, and we just hauled ass with this car that didn’t even have any lettering on it. Along the way, I ended up beating Jim and Alison’s car two or three times.”
It just so happened that the Lees’ driver, Dale Thierer, was getting married and looking to park his career for a time, so they offered the saddle to Hilton.
Hilton, right, with Jim and Alison Lee
Their unique wedge-shaped dragster carried them to a number of victories, including a pair of IHRA national event wins.
Hilton married the Lees' daughter, Diane, in September 1982.
(Above) Hilton drove the Custom Body Enterprises Dodge Omni Funny Car in the 1981 and 1982 seasons and later drove Ronnie Capps' Top Fueler (below) in Australia, his final ride in a fuel car.
“It was definitely a fork in the road for me, and I know I took the right one,” said Hilton, who moved into a room on the Lees’ farm in The Plains, Va., and fell in love with – and, a few years later, married -- the Lees’ daughter, Diane. (Yes, that’s right; he married the proverbial farmer’s daughter.)
The Lees, who had always had their cars built by Stebbins or Long, instead commissioned Lestor Guillory to build them a trick car, complete with side pods and outward and upward tilted body panels that made it wedge-like in design.
“That car was eons ahead of its time,” he said. “I’m not sure why they did that because they usually were pretty conservative with their race cars. It ran well, but it was too heavy, and the side pods had to come off between every run so we could work on the car, so eventually we took them off."
The team had a great two-year run, winning the 1979 NHRA Division 2 Top Fuel crown and divisional events in Gainesville and Reading, scoring breakthrough victories at the 1979 IHRA Pro Am Nationals and 1980 Winston Spring Finals, and runner-upping at the 1979 Dixie Nationals.
“It’s funny because Jim and Alison liked to drive home from the races Sunday night, and I was already used to that kind of schedule,” he said. “Jim had to be home to mow the grass and feed the cows, so Alison and I would work on the car together."
Much to his disappointment, the Lees let Hilton go during the winter prior to the 1981 season. ‘’I felt like we were right on the verge of winning an NHRA national event, but they told me they wanted to go in a different direction with a new driver,” he recalled. They replaced him with Butch Osmon, who carried them to their first (and only) NHRA national event final later that year at the Springnationals.
“Things were changing quickly on the technology side – high-volume fuel systems and Crowerglide clutches and all that -- and Jim just wasn’t grasping it. I was hanging out with the Funny Car guys like Ronnie Swearingen and Billy Meyer, and they were teaching me about how to run the cars. [Jim] Duffy from Billy’s team came over and put one of those high-volume systems on our car, and it really hauled the freight, but Jimmy took it back off after a few runs. Jim was still stuck on the old rev ‘em up as high as you can and let off the clutch. He wanted it lean and mean.”
And certainly, Hilton owns his part in the rift.
“I was still just a wild-ass kid, and Jimmy was a very conservative guy: ‘That jack stand goes in that spot; that’s where it’s been going for 10 years, and that’s where I want it.’ And I was all about change and having a good time and partying a little bit. I don’t think that he liked that,” he said. “If I have any regret about those days, it’s that I wish I would have been a little more mature. I passed up a lot of opportunities because I was hardheaded. Anyway, they left for Gainesville [in 1981], and I came over with my ’66 Olds convertible and a U-Haul trailer and dragged my stuff – and Diane – back to Cincinnati. Jim didn’t talk to me for two years.”
Bobby and Diane married the following September and are still together and the parents of a new generation of racer in their son, Tyler, who’s competing on the nostalgia circuit. Any rift with Jim healed a long time ago, and Alison, as she always was, is the spark plug of the new operation. (More on that later.)
After losing his ride with the Lees, Hilton was convinced that he could make it on his own – “Because I was so damned smart and everyone else was so dumb,” he says, in self-mocking retrospect -- and teamed up later in 1981 to run the Hot Tuna Top Fueler, with help on the side from one of his young peers, Allen, whom he had met while still wrenching for Harris and grew closer to in the years when Allen raced on the IHRA circuit. The car ran well, but the cost of racing was escalating so quickly that they couldn’t keep up.
“Jeb was a great friend to me – he’d do anything for you, give you any part in his trailer -- and we did a lot together; he kept me racing,” said Hilton. “Gary Burgin had helped get me a job driving the Custom Body Funny Car for a year with Ronnie tuning it. It was one of the coolest things I ever did in my life, but, again, my head got in the way, and I left to go race with Jeb and [wife] Cindy. It was cool because they had a baby and baby carriages and cats in the truck, and we just got in the truck and went on tour. We had a big time. We dragged that whole truck and trailer all the way through Yellowstone Park on the way to Brainerd from Seattle. I can remember going to Epping with them and eating lobster and hanging out on the beach. Those are the kind of days we had. ”
Hilton’s last driving job came in a six-week tour of Australia wheeling a Top Fueler for Ronnie Capps in the winter of 1982, just months after he and Diane were married. He returned Stateside, worked on some cars at the Winternationals, then went home. He didn’t stay there long. Allen had stopping driving after the 1982 season, but the two pals got a job together building a Tempo-bodied Funny Car for Bill “Capt. Crazy” Dunlap and his driver, Gary Southern, for the 1984 season.
“It was the most insane thing I’ve ever been involved with,” he said, still a bit in awe. “He had like seven engines for that thing, race cars, tractor trailers, everything. Jeb and I just stood there looking at it all, going ‘Wow …’ We were used to having one motor and maybe a spare short block. He had a second car, and Jeb tried to talk Dunlap into letting me drive it – he offered instead to let me drive his drag boat, which I didn’t want any part of. We tried like hell to make it all work, but that deal didn’t last all that long, and one day, I just got on an airplane and went home. We were toast -- burned toast -- just worn out from years of racing, and being around the whole Dunlap deal really spelled out the future of racing: You had to have a pile of parts to do it anymore, and I didn’t have that.”
Although at age 27 he was done with driving high-horsepower cars, he wasn’t done with racing or horses. Surprisingly, he found himself charged with building a world-class steeplechase horse-racing track in The Plains for a friend of the Lees'. “I didn’t know anything about how to do it, but he told me we’d learn along the way,” he remembers, “and every bit of that drag racing experience and being around adults and growing up so fast all paid off.” The track, Great Meadow, is still in business, and Hilton is its superintendent.
The Lees flanked Tyler and Bobby Hilton as they entered the next part of their shared racing story, with Tyler, 25, driving the Great Expectations III nostalgia dragster.
Tyler, born in 1990, also developed a love for mechanical things, and his love of conventional hot rods convinced his dad to found a shop, Hilton’s Hot Rods, which has won numerous awards for its creations, including last year’s Goodguys Hot Rod of the Year award (Tony Lombardi’s supercharged '30 Model A Ford), and recently was featured in The Rodder’s Journal. They also have a good following on Instagram (@hiltonhotrods).
Tyler also decided he’d like to try drag racing and attended Frank Hawley's Drag Racing School last November – Hilton had match raced a lot against Hawley and the Chi-Town Hustler while driving the Custom Body car – and earned his Advanced E.T. license. Hilton had J. Ed Horton build them a front-engine dragster to run in NDRL’s 7.0 Pro class. Grandma Alison is heavily involved in the car, which carries the paint scheme made famous on the Lees’ Great Expectations dragsters and carries the name Great Expectations III.
Like his dad's, Tyler’s first car was powered by a nitro-burning Chevy engine, and, like his dad, he was a fast learner. “He was a natural,” said the proud father. “His first full pass was a 6.85. I can just look at him and know he knows how to drive a race car. I want to get him some seat time in a blown nitro car before we look at moving up to Top Fuel and running the [NHRA Hot Rod] Heritage [Racing] Series. We’ll be making some runs next week at Epping [at the New England Hot Rod Reunion presented by AAA Insurance] to finish his license.
“I’m just so happy to still be involved in the sport – I never thought I would be – and to do it with Alison and my son. It’s very cool. Diane said the other day, ‘We lived our whole lives before we were 20 years old; we grew up too quick,’ so it’s good to do this again. They say it all comes full circle. My dad was watching me and worrying about me driving his car, and surely, seeing Tyler drive worries me to death sometimes, but it’s working out real well. It’s going to be awesome the next couple of years.”
Next week: John Stewart
This is the first in a series of articles on teenage nitro drivers of the early 1970s, beginning with Jeb Allen, the only teen driver to win in a nitro class at an NHRA national event. He was the sport's youngest Professional-class winner when he won the 1972 Summernationals Top Fuel title at the tender age of 18 years, 1 month, and to this day remains not only the youngest Top Fuel winner, but also the youngest Professional-class winner in history. In 1981, at 27 years, 4 months, he became NHRA’s youngest Top Fuel world champ, another record that he still holds.
His was a meteoric career that spanned just a decade. He finished eighth in 1982, failing to qualify at that year's World Finals, and pretty much dropped off the radar screen. He left the sport and, detoured by alcohol and drugs, lost his way for the better part of the remainder of the decade. He became NHRA's greatest "What ever happened to?" question.
His last year on the tour, 1982, was my first on staff here, and I never really got a chance to know him. When he called me out of the blue in 2010, looking for some photos, it was great to hear from him and of the success he has become after a rather black period in his life in the 1980s. He was open and candid about his trials in life, which resonated very deeply with me as I had a family member struggling with addiction at the time. I wrote a column about him (Jeb Allen: Building a new life, one home at a time) to share that experience, then wrote an in-depth story on him that ran in National Dragster. In the spirit of full disclosure, large portions of this column are lifted from that ND article and supplemented with additional new information from interviews with Jeb in the years since.
o hear Jeb tell it, it was his mother, Betty, who got the family turned on to drag racing. She and her husband, Guy, had been together since they were teenagers and had three sons: Ed, Les, and Jeb.
Jeb Allen with his mom and dad, Bakersfield 1966 (Steve Reyes photo)
"My mom dragged me and my dad to the races," he remembers. "This was in the early 1960s. We both got hooked the first time we went out. He had that same obsessive personality that I have, and we both fell head over heels in love with it. From the time I was 8 years old, that's all I knew, every weekend."
An injected gas dragster named Night Train was followed by a pair of injected fuel dragsters for Ed and Les. Les drove the car called the Stinger, and Ed wheeled the Wasp, beginning the tradition of naming their cars after insects that led to their famed Praying Mantis Top Fuelers.
The Stinger was a great success, winning a reported 85 of 88 rounds in 1965, and in 1966, Ed won Jr. Fuel at the famed Bakersfield March Meet while Les set the national record at 199.10 mph.
The first Praying Mantis, fielded in 1969, was a front-engine Woody Gilmore Top Fueler driven by Les, though according to Jeb, Les only drove it about a half-dozen times before vacating the seat, which for a short time was filled by Hank Westmoreland in 1970.
Jeb, meanwhile, at the tender age of 16, had gone on tour with Steve Carbone during the summer of 1971 and had the racing bug bad.
"I realized that standing on the starting line wasn't enough, that for all this work and effort, I'd much rather be driving,” he remembered. “Looking at those front-engine dragsters, I never wanted to drive one. My family was actually going to quit racing. Eddie didn’t want to drive it, and Leslie was having some personal issues. But when I saw Garlits’ [rear-engine] car, I called my dad and told him I’d drive one of those. He told me to come home and get my license in their front-engine car. My dad got all excited that I wanted to race.
“I only drove the front-engine car for about 15 runs,” he remembers. “Getting licensed was the tough part. It would shake real bad. I would drive it 300 feet and shut it off. I made six or seven runs, and finally [starter] Larry Sutton came up and told me, ‘Look, we’re getting tired of this [stuff]. Reach down and grab [a portion of the male anatomy] and hang on because once you get through it, it will be fine.’ I did, and he was right, and it was fun after that.”
Allen licensed with competitive numbers, becoming the youngest licensed Top Fuel driver in NHRA history at 17 years and change. As promised, a new rear-engine car was built, and Allen went to the semifinals of his debut event, the 1971 Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway. The Allens hit the road in 1972; all the while, Jeb remained a student at Bellflower High School.
"The school was very supportive," he remembers. "They saw the magnitude of what I was trying to do and said they would work with me so I could graduate. I’d go to school for maybe an hour and a half each day."
It didn't take long for them to strike gold. Allen won the Summernationals that year, a race he would win two more times and be a runner-up at three other times. His initial victory was capped by a final-round win over the legendary "Mongoose," Tom McEwen.
"That was really something," he says, still a little in awe. "When I was a little kid, our shop was right around the corner from where they kept the Yeakel Plymouth dragster that McEwen was driving, and I’d go hang out with Lou Baney and his son and polish McEwen's car."
Allen won his first Top Fuel title -- and his first of three Summernationals scores -- in 1972, defeating Tom McEwen in the final.
He followed his E-town win with a runner-up in Montreal, and the attention that the teenage phenom got quickly attracted sponsors like Revell and English Leather, allowing Allen to get new and better equipment. As his career blossomed, with his parents' blessing, he took over control of the operation.
He scored a memorable runner-up to Carl Olson at 1972's Last Drag Race at Lions despite never winning a round – he was reinserted multiple times under the old "break rule" -- and his second-place finish meant that he was the last driver to ever cross the Lions finish line. All was right in his world.
Allen and John Wiebe tangled at the 1973 Tulsa, Okla., event. (Don Gillespie photos)
Then came Tulsa, Okla., 1973.
Paired in the first round of the PRO event with good friend John Wiebe, they became involved in one of the most terrifying two-car accidents in the sport's history. Disoriented by severe tire shake, Wiebe plowed into the side of Allen's dragster, sending both cars tumbling and disintegrating down the track.
"All I remember was that everything turned around, and I was inside a fire for quite a long time," he said. "The safety equipment then wasn't what it is today, and the fire started coming inside my visor, so I put my hands over my face and held on, and I got third-degree burns on my hands."
In a way, Allen's life also began tumbling and disintegrating. "John and I were best friends at the time. We'd share motel rooms and everything. After that happened, we kind of went our own ways. Rebuilding was a big financial burden, and I had to back things down quite a bit, and I also got a little lost trying to sort out my life," he says.
Even though his teen years ended, the winning did not. Although it took Allen three more years to get back to the winner’s circle, he did so with earnest. After a runner-up at the Summernationals in 1976, Allen won in Seattle and was runner-up to Shirley Muldowney at the 1977 Summernationals. Allen also won the 1977 AHRA season championship and match raced extensively against AHRA kingpin Don Garlits.
"We raced Garlits every opportunity we got. Mondays, Wednesdays, Saturdays … I did a lot of match racing, more so than national events," he said. "When I did run the NHRA nationals, I never pushed it too hard; I was just trying to survive. I was hard-pressed to have a complete spare motor or short block. It was a struggle the whole time. We ran on a real shoestring budget. Every year on my birthday, my dad would buy me a supercharger; maybe that's why I always did well in Englishtown. I couldn't afford a lot of parts."
Allen won the Summernationals back to back in 1978 and 1979, but those were his only NHRA successes that decade. The 1980s would be much better to him.
Allen won the Gatornationals in 1980 and was runner-up three times – at the Cajun Nationals, Summernationals (again!), and Indy, to Terry Capp -- and entered the season finale in Ontario, Calif., as one of four drivers with a championship shot, with Muldowney, Gary Beck, and Marvin Graham, but Allen was a surprising DNQ, and Muldowney claimed her second championship. There was some consolation for Allen: He had won the IHRA crown that year and had hired journeyman crew chief Lance Larsen to help tune the car.
(Above) It took more than five years for someone to better Don Garlits' amazing 5.63, recorded at the 1975 World Finals, and it was Allen who did it with a 5.62 at the 1981 Gatornationals. Allen went on to win the championship that year in dramatic fashion. (Below) Allen flew the big No. 1 on his car the following year, but dark clouds were building on the horizon of his life.
They kicked off 1981 with a huge victory at the Winternationals but made even more news during qualifying at the Gatornationals, where Allen zoomed to a 5.62, the first run to eclipse Garlits' six-year-old 5.63 pass from the 1975 World Finals. His 250.69 speed also made him the seventh member of the NHRA 250 MPH Club for Top Fuelers.
Allen went on a tear, winning the Cajun Nationals and Mile-High Nationals, then added a late-season victory at the inaugural Golden Gate Nationals in Fremont, Calif., before heading for a showdown at the World Finals with Beck.
All Allen needed to do to secure the championship was to win the first round, but a broken blower belt sidelined him, forcing him to watch Beck's pursuit. Beck had a tall order: He had to win the race and set low e.t. and top speed to pass Allen.
Beck reached the final round and faced Dwight Salisbury – ironically, the guy to whom Allen had lost. Beck needed to win the round and run quicker than 5.641 and faster than 247.93. Allen was standing in the shutdown area, probably ready to cry either way.
Everyone saw Beck's blue digger turn on the win light, but there were no scoreboards, so it was up to announcer Dave McClelland to let the world in on the details.
"He's got the time!" shouted McClelland. Beck had run the quickest pass in history, a first-in-the .50s 5.57.
As reported in ND that week, Allen was seen throwing his hands to the sky and screaming, "What's the top speed?"
"For the want of two miles per hour," McClelland intoned, "Gary Beck has missed the world championship." Beck's 245.23 wasn't fast enough, and Allen was the new champion, completing a rare trifecta of series championships.
Despite the championship, Allen's life was turning upside down. All the years of traveling and having to nickel-and-dime his way to the winner's circle had taken their toll, and he quit the sport after the 1982 season.
Allen, looking fit and happy -- he mountain bikes all over the world these days -- took part in a panel discussion earlier this year at the Irwindale Reunion.
"I was getting tired," he admitted. "There were some issues I had festering, and I couldn’t get the sponsorships I needed. English Leather said they could sponsor me again, but they couldn't give me quite as much money. I was drinking quite a bit. I never drove under the influence, but at the end of the day, I just couldn’t wait to have a beer, and I just drank too much and used drugs. Finally, I decided I needed a vacation, and all I did was 'vacation.' "
He got sober in 1988, learned how to build houses while working construction, and founded Palomar Builders – naming it after the piping company that his late father, Guy, used to run – and moved to Redding, Calif., with his wife, Sue. Today, they are the biggest home builder and largest residential land owners in the city.
"I took getting sober just as important as any drag race. For a year, I went to three meetings a day, and all I did was concentrate on doing what I was told and not drinking. Once you get your priorities straightened out, good things seem to happen. Everything I ever looked for and wanted out of booze and drugs, I get that feeling every day by being sober. It doesn’t cost me anything, and I wake up feeling good. Getting sober is my biggest accomplishment in life."
And for a guy who accomplished as much as Allen did in our sport, that’s really saying something.
Next week: Bobby Hilton
||Nitro teen terrors of the 1970s (clockwise from above left): Billy Meyer, Jeb Allen, John Stewart, Randy Allison, and Bobby Hilton
When you think of today’s young stars -- Courtney and Brittany Force, Spencer Massey, Dave Connolly, Richie Crampton, et al – they certainly make up the great future of drag racing, but at 27, Courtney is the youngest. She got her start in 2011 at age 23 – the same age as fellow Funny Car racer Blake Alexander – which is young by today’s standards, especially given the economic climate that makes entrée into the Professional ranks more challenging than it was 40 years ago.
Young fans – specifically those under the age of 20 – might have a hard time believing that for a magical period in the early 1970s, several teenage drivers not only participated in Top Fuel and Funny Car at the same time, but also were very successful.
Five of them -- Billy Meyer, Jeb Allen, John Stewart, Randy Allison, and Bobby Hilton -- really stood out from the crowd. Although only Allen won a national event as a teenager – the 1972 Summernationals at age 18 years, 1 month, which is still an NHRA record – all had distinguished careers in the sport.
In the coming weeks, I plan to share their tales of teenage life on tour, how they managed to juggle racing, school, and teenage social lives to become part of our sport’s rich history.
Longtime drag racing fans know well the story of Meyer, how the Texas lad began racing nitro Funny Cars as a teen and went on to become a huge success and today owns the fabled Texas Motorplex, but before we get to his story and the stories of the others in the columns ahead, let’s take a step back a decade earlier to another Texas teenage terror, Don Gay, who wowed fans in Funny Car and, coincidentally, also became a racetrack owner. He passed away June 30, 2007, at age 60, but his legacy lives on.
Gay’s parents, Carl and Marie, owned the successful Gay Pontiac dealership in Dickinson, Texas, on the Gulf Highway halfway between Galveston and Houston. As Detroit began focusing on high-performance cars, the Gays echoed their support by purchasing nearby Freeway Drag Strip, which they rechristened Houston Drag Raceway (and later became known as Houston Int’l Speedway, then Houston Int’l Raceway; check out a tribute to the track here).
Young Don had been a fine athlete in junior high, playing both baseball and basketball, but his interests changed the day that his father booked Hayden Proffitt and his Mickey Thompson-owned, 421-powered aluminum Pontiac Catalina factory experimental at the Houston track in 1961. Don was 14 – legal age for a driver’s license then in Texas – and within a year had not one but two race cars, an A/Stock Pontiac Catalina sedan and an A/Modified Production Catalina station wagon. At the same time, his younger brother, Roy, began running a B/Stock GTO.
(Above) The Gay Pontiac fleet consisted first of a trio of cars, an A/Stock Pontiac Catalina sedan, an A/Modified Production Catalina station wagon, and a B/Stock GTO. (Below) Don Gay won A/S class honors in Indy in 1964.
The Dickinson High School student stunned everyone by winning A/S class in Indy in 1964, back when winning class was as big as (and, for some people, bigger than) winning the national event itself.
Gay might well have stayed in the Stock ranks had his father not changed his life again by booking Pontiac powerhouse Arnie Beswick and his blown GTO into the track in 1964. The entire family was so taken by the raw power and majesty of the machine that, working with lead mechanic James Osteen, they decided to build their own, taking a ’65 GTO from their lot and moving the front wheels forward four to five inches and adding a fiberglass front end, hood, and doors. Because they wanted to stay true to their Pontiac roots, they had to track down a Pontiac intake manifold – Thompson was the sole distributor at the time – and ran it first on gasoline. They named it Infinity, from the opening lines to the popular early-1960s television show Ben Casey: “Man. Woman. Birth. Death. Infinity.” (Gay later admitted that his first choice for the car’s name was Satan’s Chariot.)
The car made its maiden voyage July 3, 1965, at the family track – the car left so hard that he lost his loosely buckled helmet on the launch – and he ended up racing legendary ”Dyno Don” Nicholson later that day. He lost when the transmission broke, but the hook was set even deeper.
Their baptism by nitro came a month later in Rockford, Ill., where they accidentally doubled the required 25 percent dose and promptly blew the engine. The learning curve was steep but not long, and within a few weeks, they were running 9.50s and beating veterans like Sox & Martin. A lot of those same veterans would run at the Houston track, with full hospitality from the Gay family.
“They'd all stay at our house," he recalled. "We'd say, ‘Hey, my mom has a two-story house. Why don’t you stay?’ We'd sit by the swimming pool on Friday night and drink and talk."
For the 1966 season, the Gays contracted famed chassis builder and racer Jay Howell to provide a new full tube-chassis car with a fiberglass body (again a GTO), and Roy got the hand-me-down original car. Infinity II, which featured a candy-apple-red paint scheme and tinted red windows, was even bigger and badder than the original. Because NHRA did not yet recognize Funny Car as an official category, Gay and other early Funny Car campaigners had to compete in Competition eliminator’s Fuel Dragster classes at national events, but that wasn’t their main focus – playing to tens of thousands of fans at wild match races across the country was.
In 1967, Don began to share driving duties with Roy, who scored an impressive runner-up finish behind “Fast Eddie” Schartman at the 1967 Manufacturers Championships at Orange County Int’l Raceway. The racing ended with Infinity V, a Pontiac Firebird, after the 1970 season as Don began to take further responsibility in the family’s newly relocated dealership. Roy was killed in a non-racing-related motorcycle accident in 1972.
As mentioned, Don Gay Sr. died in 2007, but not before seeing the return of the Gay family name to the dragstrip. In 1985, his 16-year-old son, Don Gay Jr., began racing, first in Comp, then progressed to Top Alcohol Funny Car (where he scored three national event wins) and, finally, like his dad, to the nitro Funny Car ranks. Don Jr.’s career was short-lived and ended after he suffered serious injuries in an accident at the 1989 Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals. Gay’s other son, Shane, also raced successfully for a number of years, winning in both Super Gas and Top Alcohol Dragster.
In the late 1980s, the Gay family teamed with the Angel brothers, Greg, Gary, and Glenn, to found Houston Raceway Park in Baytown on the site of an old rice farm. Today, the track known as Royal Purple Raceway is considered one of the quickest in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series and is home to the annual O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA SpringNationals presented by Super Start Batteries.
I’ll have more on drag racing’s teen terrors in the weeks ahead.