Features

Pro Stock wheeliesFriday, July 31, 2015
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Last week’s announcement by the NHRA concerning Pro Stock rule changes targeted the concerns of many about the class, covering everything from technological relevance – i.e., no “factory hot rod” today has a carburetor – to fan appeal, and , to me, certainly one of the most interesting parts of the rules change concerned the reduction of wheelie bar length.

You know me, I’m largely a nitro nut, but I fondly remember seeing Pro Stock back in the early 1970s when these bad boys would rip the front tires off the ground not only on the launch but often at the 1-2 gear change (done manually, of course, with a clutch). I really missed seeing that. Full credit to today’s Pro Stock teams -- they’ve made their machines into precision instruments of acceleration, with no time for the nonsense of wasted motions like going up instead of forward. I’m not sure what the new wheelie-bar rule will mean when it’s introduced – along with EFI – in 2016, but I’m sure it won’t mean bumper-scraping wheelies. Still, I thought it might be fun to grab some photos from our 1970s Pro Stock archives to look at some fun wheels-up launches in the Pro Stock class.

Of course, back in those early days of Pro Stock, not everyone even ran wheelie bars. Check out Mike Fons airing out the Rod Shop Challenge in Martin, Mich.

“The Grump,” Bill Jenkins, at the 1972 Winternationals. Doeswns;t look like he has bars on in this shot either. Actually, I found very few photos of Jenkins’ cars doing starting-line wheelies; maybe he had the “efficient” launch thing down well before his peers.

Here’s Jenkins’ Vega two years later, at Englishtown, with Larry Lombardo at the controls, picking ‘em up at the downtrack shift. Love those old-style wheelie bars.

Ditto for Wayne Gapp, rowing through the gears at Indy in 1972.

Like Jenkins’ cars, I didn’t find a whole lot of big-air launches by the vaunted Reher-Morrison-Shepherd Chevys, especially once the Texas terrors got it figured out. This is early in their Pro Stock career, in 1978 (note 444 permanent number for Lee Shepherd. By year’s end, he was able to remove two of the fours – not a bad first full season.

Ditto for Bob Glidden, shown launching in his famed Pinto at the 1972 World Finals, Ontario Motor Speedway; typically not a lot of wasted motion, but nonetheless an aesthetically-pleasing look.

“The Red-Light Bandit,” Bill Bagshaw, yanks the front tires at the 1972 Mach Meet in Bakersfield.

Great low-angle shot of Melvin Yow, driving the Duster of one of the class’ more “colorful” characters, Bill “the Kid” Stepp, at the 1974 Winternationals.

Thunder and fury as “Dyno Don” Nicholson wheels his Maverick out of the gate at the 1970 Winternationals, the debut event for NHRA Pro Stock.

“The California Flash,” Butch Leal, flashes off the line at the 1972 Gatornationals.

Paul Blevins never made it to an NHRA Pro Stock final – he won four times in Modified, and was the 1972 world champ – but his Pro Stockers always ran hard, as evidenced by this cool launch at the 1974 Le Grandnational in Canada.

And, of course, no article on Pro Stock wheelies would be complete with this photo of Herb McCandless going sky-high in his Dodge Demon running “the Grump” in the semifinals at the 1972 Summernationals. The wheelie bars broke on the run, but McCandless till managed a 10.35 pass and came back later in the year to runner-up to Jenkins at the famed Tulsa PRO event.
 

Remembering Doug NashFriday, July 24, 2015
Posted by: Phil Burgess

It’s one thing to create a legacy doing something and quite another to create two legacies while doing two completely different things, but that’s how Doug Nash will be remembered. Fans of this column certainly will remember Nash for his incredible Bronco Buster Funny Car of the mid-1960s, and many others will remember him for the eponymous transmission units he developed after he left the driver’s seat. We lost Nash July 12 at the age of 73 after a battle with cancer.

Douglas Edwin Nash was born in Detroit, where he attended Garden City High School and developed his love of cars. By 1963, he had found himself behind the wheel of a new 289-equipped Ford Fairlane that ran out of the Dearborn, Mich.-based Bob Ford dealership. According to the book, Total Performers: Ford Drag Racing in the 1960s, the car ran in G/Stock and initially was developed as a test mule for high-performance Ford parts (the car was wrenched by Ernie MacEwan, who was the engine builder for Ford’s Experimental Vehicles Garage). It was not expected to win, built merely to test parts, yet the combination of driver, tuner, and some innovative parts, including a lengthy set of traction bars and some manifold swaps, soon made the car unbeatable, even when it was moved to C/Gas.

Nash’s skills got the attention of the Detroit suits and offered him a Mercury Comet in 1964. The car, which was one of five 289-equipped Comets that Lincoln-Mercury had built that year to show off the engine’s reliability by lapping Daytona Motor Speedway for 100,000 continuous miles at an average speed of 105 mph (and just one of 15 built by the factory that year), was soon converted into a B/FX entry dubbed the Cyclone. It, too, ran amok in its class, capturing several big wins for the marquee and further establishing Nash’s name.


As the FX class that begat Funny Cars began to grow in popularity, Nash jumped in with both feet with one of the sport’s most unusual and well-remembered entries, the Bronco Buster, built around a '66 Ford Bronco. The project, which was “loosely associated” with Ford, mated the unique and boxy body with — what else? — a 289 powerplant bolted into an aluminum chassis. He reportedly was offered one of Ford’s hot new 427 SOHC cammer engines but felt more comfortable with the high-winding 289, but he did have to trade in his favored four-speed transmission for a modified C4 automatic. According to charitable published reports, the car weighed just 1,700 pounds when it debuted in 1966, but there are rumors it weighed much less (around 1,400, with Nash aiming for the 1,200-pound area). Other than being O-ringed and honed and fitted with a cast-aluminum girdle, the 289-cid block was stock, yet it propelled Nash toward the 8.60s and, with the addition of a blower later that year, into the 8.30s at 180 mph. If not for the car’s erratic handling, it may well have gone much quicker.

Here are some good looks at the car, from a car feature shot by Chester Kirk for the February 1967 issue of Drag Strip.


Looking nothing like the swoopy cars of today — or even yesteryear — Nash's Bronco Buster cut an unusual silhouette.

The body was unique, too, in that it was in two parts, as shown, to ease maintenance. Someone somewhere along the line humorously wrote on the back of this photo, "Say, did we tell Doug we put new brakes on his car?"

There wasn't a whole lot to the chassis of the Bronco Buster, leading to its light weight.

This photo was the center spread for the February 1967 issue of Drag Strip and also used as an inset on the cover.

Nash and the Bronco Buster put it to Bob Sullivan's Pandemonium VI Camaro at Michigan's Motor City Dragway.

The Bronco Buster was a big draw. Why else would the promoters of the famed Super Stock Nationals pose this photo of Nash, right, handing in his pre-entry form for the event to "the Voice of Drag Racing," Jon Lundberg?


Nash’s ride soon became a top draw with match race promoters, but it was short-lived, killed off with a double-tap when NHRA outlawed both aluminum chassis and Jeep and pickup-type bodies the following year.

Nash hung up his driving suit and gloves and founded Doug Nash Equipment & Engineering, initially doing prototype engine work for Detroit, before he went on to design and build his now-famous four- and five-speed racing transmissions, known by their straight-cut spur gears and crash shifts. So famous did his transmissions become that General Motors eventually came calling, seeking to put the Doug Nash "4+3" transmission — a four-speed manual coupled to an automatic overdrive on the top with three gears — into its epic C4 Corvette from 1984 to 1988.

After retiring, Nash and his wife, Lesli Diane, traveled extensively in pursuit of vintage model trains and to fish. They retired to the Cayman Islands for several years before returning to the United States, and they settled in the Florida Keys, where they started a boat-rental business with Doug’s brother, Dan.

In addition to his wife and brother, Nash is survived by daughter Noelle, granddaughters Violet and Emmeline, sister Darlene, and a niece and nephew. In his continuing quest to help and benefit others, Doug donated his body to science.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the American Cancer Society or, due to his love of animals, to any local No-Kill Shelter.
 

From the QuotebookFriday, July 17, 2015
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Last week, I shared some of the interesting tidbits that I’ve gathered throughout the years, little random bits of flotsam and jetsam that otherwise would have just floated around on my hard drive. Those were from my notebook; today, we delve into my “quotebook.”

It’s one thing for me to tell you a story, but it’s infinitely more interesting to hear it from the source, and so I also stockpile interesting things I hear or read, again hoping that one day they’ll make their way into one of my columns, and, again, not having the patience to wait until that naturally occurs, I’m sharing some of them with you.

Drag racers can be a quotable bunch, and I won’t rehash any of the many memorable lines we’ve heard – such as Don Garlits’ classic "Retiring is easy; I've done it dozens of times” or Don Roberts' hilarious “After the third flip, I lost control” (well, OK, a little rehash) – but instead share some you may never have heard, quotes that I hope will entertain, amuse, and enlighten you. Let’s start with a couple from “Big Daddy” himself.

“Large Father” has had an amazing career filled with incredible moments – championships, race wins, broken barriers, crashes, rivalries, and more – that are seared into our memories, but I was surprised to read this: “People often ask me what was the greatest moment in all of my experiences during a half-century of racing. That’s like picking a favorite child. Every win and every experience was very special to me, from the first to the last. But if I had to pick one, it would have to be Oct. 20, 1987, when my record-breaking Swamp Rat XXX was enshrined in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., near Charles Lindbergh’s the Spirit of St. Louis and NASA’s first manned space capsule. There were no checkered flags or trophies that October day back in 1987, but it would be tough for me to imagine another racing moment better.”
It’s no secret that longtime rivals Garlits and Shirley Muldowney have traded more than their fair share of barbed comments – who could forget Muldowney on TV famously labeling Garlits a “marginal” driver prior to their 1982 Gatornationals final? – but I always sensed that beneath the very real emotions of their heated rivalry was deep respect, so I was not overly surprised to see this Garlits quote on the espnW site last year, talking about her: "She's the greatest woman race car driver on the planet. Now somebody may come along and do better -- and this is all categories of auto racing -- but don't hold your breath for it."
And here’s an interesting one from Muldowney, talking about the reception she received upon joining the Funny Car ranks in 1971. She clearly was popular with fans, but not so some of her male peers: “Oh, god, it was brutal. I thought they were going to commit suicide. All of the guys were awful except ‘Jungle Jim’ [Liberman]. He was the most gracious, and he would constantly tell me, ‘You drive like a man.’ And I thought that was the best compliment.”
Fame has its privileges and its pitfalls. In a 2005 Sports Illustrated article on Don Prudhomme, “the Snake” talked about signing Hot Wheels cars for fans, as he had done for more than 30 years, and the weird aura of celebrity: “Signed one this morning, and the guy just about pissed all over himself. I sometimes feel like Mr. Spock at a Star Trek convention.”
Although Prudhomme came to great fame in the Greer-Black-Prudhomme fueler, tuned by legendary engine maestro Keith Black, he also was quite successful while driving for Dave Zeuschel and Kent Fuller before that – and, in fact, it was Fuller who recommended “the Snake” to Black for the new ride – but Prudhomme admitted once to me, “I had no idea anyone was even taking note of what I was doing. I didn’t really know anything. When Keith Black called, I didn’t even know who he was.”
No one in the sportswriting business will ever dispute that the late Jim Murray was the king of columnists, so when he wrote about Prudhomme in the Los Angeles Times in 1976, I clipped it out and still love this great description: “Donald Ray Prudhomme makes more money doing less in a car than any automotive genius who ever lived. Not A.J. Foyt, not Henry Ford, Gustav Daimler or the inventor of the self-starter or chairman of the board of General Motors gets as much money out of the internal combustion engine as he does: $6,000 a second. By comparison, A.J. Foyt works the black gang in the hold of a ship for his money, Franco Harris is a steeplejack walking steel beams in 100-mph winds. Foyt drives 500 miles at a crack for his millions. Don Prudhomme drives 1,300 feet. Foyt’s drives laid end to end would probably stretch around the world several times. Prudhomme’s wouldn’t take you to the drugstore. Some people take longer to back out of the driveway than he does to win 30 grand.” Priceless stuff.
Murray also had an interesting take on Kenny Bernstein in a November 1996 L.A. Times column: “What you have here is a man who walked away from a $17-million-a-year business and a four-phone desk in an executive suite to get in a flameproof suit and climb in a car that burns up a gallon of $30 fuel every 50 feet. And they call the cars ‘funny.’ "
A trio of quotes, all allegedly attributed to Roland Leong, who changed drivers like you and I change socks. “Drivers are like spark plugs. Screw one out and screw another one in" or “Drivers are like spark plugs. If one's too hot, you just replace him with a cooler one" or, of course, “Drivers are like spark plugs; you burn one out, you screw in another one.”
Speaking of the Hawaiian, everyone remembers the 1969 edition taking flight at the Winternationals. Driver Larry Reyes once told me he had a premonition something bad was going to happen after Chrysler’s “engineers” decided to add a spoiler to the front of the Charger body but not the back: “I remember sitting on the starting line, ready to stage, with the car idling, yanking the belts tight, and saying, 'Lord, please don’t let me hurt anyone.' "
“We had no money. We hustled everything that we could. It wasn’t about trying to win a race. It was trying to do something that we loved, just to be a part of it. To say that I did a burnout next to Prudhomme or Kenny Bernstein and was able to stage and go down the racetrack, you know. We were chasing a dream. I had all the struggles of no money.” -- John Force, remembering his early days
 
Tommy Ivo is renowned as a practical joker (replacing hotel shampoo with motor oil, etc.), but he met his match in this story he shared with me a few years ago: “Chris Karamesines used to treat me like a son, patting me on the head and saying, 'Now, don’t hurt yourself.' Then I beat him one time, and he was whimpering about the deal, so the next round, I carried a shop towel with me, and when we beat him to win the two out of three, I pulled out the shop towel and said, 'Here, Chris ... here's a crying towel for ya.' He reached in the glovebox and pulled out a .45 and said, 'I've got your crying towel right here.' That's the last time I practical-joked him.”
Early Funny Cars had round steering wheels, but Tom McEwen didn't take long to switch to a butterfly steering wheel: “Most all of the early Funny Cars had round steering wheels because that’s what the Super Stockers had,” he once explained to me. “I liked the butterfly because the dragsters had them, and I always liked that. Besides, round steering wheels are for going around corners.”
“Yeah, I liked the Funny Cars, but I couldn't get the smoke to come out the front wheelwells like my pal Patty Foster. Nobody could.” – Don Roberts, who drove in Top Fuel and Funny Car, on Funny Car burnouts and the P.F. Flyer
"Driving the tank at speeds approaching 140 mph is like trying to carry a piece of plywood in a 30-mph wind." – Wheelstander pilot Bob Perry, on driving his Hell on Wheels tank
Former NFL quarterback Dan Pastorini had a brief but somewhat successful career as a Top Fuel driver with his Quarterback Sneak dragster, which initially was tuned by former Funny Car great Bobby Rowe. According to a 1985 Sports Illustrated article, Pastorini’s decision to go fuel racing was not just some post-career audible: "I called the NFL Players Association at four o'clock in the afternoon and said, 'I'm retiring from football.' I called Bobby Rowe at 4:02 and said, 'You wanna go racing?' "


And, finally, this random quote from comedian Christopher Titus, a huge NHRA fan. It came from his long-ago canceled TV show, but I think it has a fine place in the drag racing pits, or maybe in the subject matter of this column: “He didn’t fail so much as he succeeded in finding out what doesn’t work.”

See you next week.
 

Note-worthyFriday, July 10, 2015
Posted by: Phil Burgess

If my computer’s hard drive were a house, I would have already starred in several of those reality TV shows about hoarders. They’d hire a crew of 10 to sort through all of the digital detritus on the computer, picking up files that to the average person might look like junk and trying to put them in the Recycle Bin while I was fighting them tooth and nail about why that file – heck, all of the files – could not be thrown away. I’d yell and cry and beg, and eventually, I’d wear them out and they’d leave, muttering to themselves. It would make a lousy TV show, but hey, this stuff is valuable, to me at least.

So what’s all the fuss about? Well, here’s a little peek behind the wizard’s curtain.

I’ve already confessed to photo hoarding, but an even more insidious addiction is collecting tidbits of notes, thinking that maybe someday I’ll use one as a bitchin’ side note in a column, amazing y’all with the depth and breadth of my arcane knowledge. I have folders full of notes, each note containing maybe just a sentence, some longer, or a quote. As I’m reading this or reading that, whether it’s online or in a printed publication, or maybe as I see something on TV, I jot it down with the hopes I’ll someday use it.

Problem is, I have so many of them stored up, just waiting for the right moment, and I’ve grown too impatient to wait, eager to unleash them on you. So I finally gave up waiting and decided to share this hodgepodge of collected factoids.

How Shirley Muldowney became “Cha-Cha”: She remembers, “I got it in the late '50s when nicknames were synonymous with the sport of drag racing. I went to a race out in Sanford, Maine, back in 1959. That’s when they wrote your class number on your window in shoe polish. I was driving a red ’58 Corvette with a white top, a convertible all lowered, pretty jazzy looking. The tech guy wrote ['Cha-Cha'] on the car in shoe polish along with the permanent number for that day. It was very small, but it looked cute, and we decided that we would stay with a nickname ‘cause it was shorter than ‘Shirley Muldowney.’ Tommy Ivo told me I was making the biggest mistake of my racing career if I didn’t keep the name ‘Cha-Cha’ on the car and paint it pink, so I took his advice.”
It took forever for me to get the relations right for the legendary Chrisman family, so here’s your quick cheat sheet: Everett Chrisman was the patriarch. Jack Chrisman was Everett’s younger brother, Art Chrisman was Everett’s son and Jack’s nephew. Lloyd Chrisman is Everett’s son and Art’s brother. Steve Chrisman is Jack’s son. Mike Chrisman is Art’s son. Jerry Toliver is the son of Juanita Toliver, who is Art Chrisman’s sister.
Famed fuel genius “Sneaky Pete” Robinson’s real name was Lew Russell Robinson.
According to Bob Brandt, Pat Foster was “the guy who first started the multiple dry hops.”
A Top Fuel dragster fuel pump delivers about 700 cans of Mello Yello worth of nitro per minute.
 
The Compulink timing system internally calculates each elapsed time to a nanosecond (nine digits) -- that is one-billionth (1/1,000,000,000th) of a second.
During his brief run as Fontana Drag Strip's operator in 1965, Mickey Thompson renamed the facility Drag City, inspired by the hit song by Jan & Dean.
Pat “Ma” Green, who handled credentials at Irwindale Raceway (managed by her husband, Ken), remembers her first encounter with John Force, who was affiliated with the L.A. Hooker, which was run by his uncle, Gene Beaver. “He came in in his street Corvette and told the gate guy he had parts for the L.A. Hooker. The guy told him to wait and came over to my credentials booth to get me. In the meantime, John went through the gate. He didn't get very far because the place was jammed with race cars. I caught up to him and had Kenny throw him out. Six months later, he showed up at Irwindale with his first Funny Car. Kenny told him to go inside the trailer and sign in and pay. Force said there was a lady there who didn't like him very much. Kenny said, ‘Yeah, I know. You'd better go in on your hands and knees.’ "
Notable rules changes: The first mandatory use of self-starters for nitro cars was 1976. … Funny Car roof hatches were required for 1977. … Arm restraints in Top Fuel were “strongly encouraged” in 1977, mandatory for 1978. ... Front-wheel fairings (“wheel pants”) were outlawed for 1977. … The 330- and 660-foot incremental timers were added in 1988. … NHRA shortened the speed traps from 132 feet to 66 feet in 1989. (The speed traps had been 132 feet straddling the finish line.).
In his last season with the Greer-Black-Prudhomme dragster, Don Prudhomme tried his hand at drag boat racing. It did not go well. This is Long Beach, Calif., October 1964. Prudhomme: "All I remember is this thing making a little left turn. Next thing I know, I'm coming up out of the water, watching my helmet float by. The day before, I'd set the class record at 136 mph, so Zeuschel tuned 'er up. The rescue boat got me over to the shore and stretched me out. Mickey Thompson rushed over, handed [wife] Lynn his billfold with money in it, and said, 'If you need anything, you've got it here.' ... The ambulance took me to the hospital. I've crashed plenty of cars, but my body never got beat up so bad. That cured my ass! I didn't even go fishin' after that, not even from the shore. Keith Black was really pissed at me."
 
GPS coordinates for the late, great dragstrip at Ontario Motor Speedway, one of the quickest quarter-miles ever, supplied by Bret Kepner -- starting line: 34.070612, -117.572396; finish line: 34.0704482, -117.568061; end of asphalt: 34.070614, -117.560290 (actually the pit-road entrance to Turn 1). Just stick those coordinates into Google Maps. Of course, there’s nothing to really see anymore, but hey, I never promised these notes were going to be useful.
 
The first commercial fuel pumps designed and built by Sid Waterman were delivered in September 1982, one to Billy Meyer and one to Gary Beck. Both cars set new elapsed time records at Baylands Raceway Park that same weekend.
 
If you look at Phil Castronovo’s car from 1972, the year after he won the Funny Car world championship, you’ll see that his Custom Body Enterprises entry carried the No. 2. What’s up with that? Simple. Back then, the Top Fuel champion got to wear the No. 1, Funny Car champ No. 2, and Pro Stock No. 3. Simple, yes. Confusing, also yes. Glad we changed that rule? Absolutely.


Next week: Some gems from my quotebook.

Before I close, I can’t go without a shout-out to my good pal Todd Veney, who won his first NHRA national event title last weekend at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals in Norwalk. As many of you may know, Todd worked at National Dragster for nearly 20 years – the last several as a contract writer while he pursued his driving dreams -- before committing to a full-time career as a driver. I wrote about Todd’s departure from the staff some seven and a half years ago in a column I titled “See you in the glue, friend” and watched and rooted for him ever since, through some heartbreaking final-round losses, some great divisional success and all the trials and tribulations that went with it – many of which T.V. has chronicled for us in his "Following the Dream” column in ND.

I wasn’t in Norwalk to share his moment of glory, but Dragster staffer John Hoven texted me this photo, showing T.V. being congratulated by his Dragster pals past and present, Brad Littlefield, Kelly Topolinski, and Kevin McKenna.

Throughout his racing career, Todd – son of 13-time NHRA national event winner Ken Veney -- had always self-deprecatingly joked, “Between my dad and me, we’ve won 13 national events,” and I’m thrilled that he can now finally update it. Congrats, buddy.

 

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