Two weeks ago, when I started the 1975 thread with a report on Irwindale Raceway’s wild and wacky Grand Premiere, I mentioned the event’s Lions Drag Strip roots, a race that kicked off the fabled SoCal racing facility’s final season in 1972, and that I would write about it soon. I could tell that quite a few of you were eagerly licking your chops at the prospect because it was the kind of race that left an indelible impression on you whether you saw it firsthand or, like me, read about it in the magazines.
The final headline that came out of the race was the stunning Top Fuel final between Don Prudhomme and John Wiebe in which both ran elapsed times of 6.17 – the quickest in history by a fair margin – and the skepticism cast upon those numbers. The other unforgettable part of the event was that it was, as my good pal Bret Kepner would describe it, “a crashtacular” and included an overbackward Top Fuel wheelstand, an on-track collision between two Funny Cars, plus two nasty fires and a roof-removing blower explosion among the floppers. So much for getting your season off to a good start.
When the 1972 season kicked off at Lions, no one had a clue it would be the beginning of the last waltz for the track. Steve Evans had taken over management of the fabled facility the previous summer and given the place a complete makeover. The death knell – some will say sounded by neighbor complaints of an expanded racing schedule that included a new motocross track – came Aug. 30, when the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners ordered that the racing facility be vacated by Dec. 31 of that year to make way for a scheduled cargo-container holding facility for the greater Los Angeles port district.
So, when the Grand Premiere went into the history books, everyone was just calling it another unforgettable night at “the Beach,” a place that had been the site of so much history and so many great runs in its 17 previous years. No one knew the end was so near.
The track was good, no doubt about it. During Saturday’s NHRA national record session, Tony Nancy also reset the national speed record in Top Fuel to 233.16, and “Dyno Don” Nicholson lowered the Pro Stock e.t. mark to 9.54.
Gary Burgin set the NHRA Funny Car national e.t. record in the Braskett & Burgin Vega Saturday; his Sunday didn't go quite as well.
Gary Burgin, in his and Dave Braskett’s new Vega, ran 6.72 in qualifying to break the 6.80 national record set by Leroy Goldstein and the Candies & Hughes team at the previous year’s World Finals in Amarillo, Texas. As good as Saturday was for Burgin, his Sunday would be disastrous: He would cross the centerline in round one and be rear-ended by opponent Joe Winter, with near-disastrous results.
(Oddly, Burgin’s 6.72 fell well short of the track record, which had been set a month earlier at Lions’ Grand Finale by Bill Leavitt, who ran a stunning series of passes – 6.48, 6.51, and 6.53 – though national records were not available for those runs. And although Burgin got the record, he wasn’t even the low qualifier – that honor fell to Kelly Brown in the Mr. Ed Charger at 6.64 during the non-record-eligible portion of qualifying – and eventual winner Gene Snow ended up with low e.t. for his 6.54 final-round blast against Bobby Rowe’s 6.55. Weird, right?)
Qualifying was also highlighted by Jack Martin’s overbackward Top Fuel powerstand in the Penner-Beach-Martin dragster. Martin’s car launched hard, went near vertical, then pirouetted 90 degrees before slamming down onto its left side and sliding across the centerline and backing into the opposite-lane guardrail. The car was destroyed, but Martin emerged uninjured. Bob McFarland then rode out a hellish fire in his Dodge Demon flopper and was rescued by Mickey Thompson, but not before being severely burned over both legs and part of his torso.
|I was surprised to find this Grand Premiere clip from Don Gillespie's Lions DVD trilogy on YouTube. You can buy the whole series yourself in the NHRA Store.
The carnage continued Sunday with the First Round from Hell for the Funny Cars. In the second pair, Stan Shiroma defeated Tom McEwen, but a deafening blower explosion tore the roof off his Midnight Skulker Barracuda. He was not able to return for round two.
Then came the Burgin-Winter shunt. Already ahead of them, they had seen Dale Pulde get crossed up in beating Leavitt and “Mighty Mike” Van Sant and the Stone, Woods & Cooke Mustang cross the centerline to hand the win to Pat Foster in Barry Setzer’s Vega, so maybe it was the track. Burgin launched hard with the front wheels dangling but crossed the centerline on touchdown and got up briefly on two wheels, all of this right in front of Winter, who had no place to go. Winter rear-ended Burgin and pushed him out of the way in what looks like the world’s fastest PIT maneuver. Burgin’s car turned turtle and slid on its roof along the guardrail. The roof was ripped off, but Burgin otherwise emerged unscathed. Winter’s front end was heavily damaged, and he, too, could not make the second-round call. Four pairs later, Omar “the Tentmaker” Carrothers lit up his Mustang in losing to Rowe.
All of this brings us back to the much-talked-about Top Fuel final, which pitted Prudhomme and his new lightweight Kent Fuller-built Yellow Feather rear-engine dragster against Wiebe, one of the last slingshot holdouts, who was coming in hot after debuting Ed Donovan’s new aluminum 417 at the 1971 season-ending Supernationals, where he was the No. 1 qualifier with a 6.54 low e.t. and was runner-up. The week prior to the Grand Premiere, Wiebe had won Orange County Int'l Raceway's All-Pro Series opener (originally slated as OCIR's 1971 season closer in December but delayed by rain until January) with a best of 6.44.
At Lions, Prudhomme ran 6.42 against Carl Olson’s red-light and, after an easy second-round bye, ran 6.39 to defeat Bob Noice to reach the final but had done so at the expense of some of Keith Black’s finest parts. Wiebe, meanwhile, who had Donovan in his corner, had run a shutoff 6.54 to beat Jim Nicoll, then took an easy pass when teenage Randy Allison red-lighted before pounding SoCal’s other teenage phenom, Jeb Allen, with a 6.41.
Two angles of the final show that Don Prudhomme got out to a healthy lead on John Wiebe.
(Leslie Lovett/Jere Alhadeff photos)
In the final, Prudhomme jumped out to about a car-length lead, but Wiebe began to nibble away at it when Prudhomme’s engine again began to labor. Wiebe ran out of racetrack, and Prudhomme lit the win light, 6.174, 235.60 to 6.175, 236.22. Almost immediately, doubts were expressed about the e.t.s. Sure, Don Garlits had run 6.21 in Indy the year before in what was a stunning pass, but to have two cars run four-hundredths quicker was pretty unbelievable considering that neither driver had even run in the 6.30s the year before. There was talk that the staging beams had been out of kilter throughout the race so that low-slung cars like Wiebe’s stayed in the beams for the first car length.
Drag Racing USA thought so much of the controversy that a cover blurb on its May 1972 issue read "Wiebe and Prudhomme 6.17 E.T.s: For Real?"
According to the DRUSA report, Wiebe was quoted at the time as saying, “There is no possible way this car can go 6.17. It just isn’t possible.” Prudhomme, however, commented, “If you doubt it, just watch what happens in Pomona [the Winternationals].” What happened in Pomona was Prudhomme ran a best of 6.57, and Wiebe, who ran 6.78 at Orange County Int’l Raceway the weekend after the Lions event, couldn’t even crack the 6.90 bump in Pomona.
In light of Leavitt’s stunning Funny Car times at the end of 1971 and the dual 6.17s, I asked Lions historian Don Gillespie, whose seminal three-DVD history of “the Beach” is a true treasure, if it was possible that the Lions clocks were somehow “juiced” since the renovation. His answer was an emphatic “no.”
“Lions was always known as a racer's track,” he asserted. “Places like OCIR catered more to spectators. To that end, Lions always had many of the top racers, plus press and manufacturers on hand -- a tough crowd to ‘fool,’ I would think. Sorta like sneaking a starving artist’s felt painting into the Louvre and passing it off as van Gogh!”
So, after all this research, my jury was still out, but I was leaning toward the numbers being legit. So, 43 years later, here comes Mr. Insider, with the bright idea of getting to the “story behind the story.” But what will Wiebe and Prudhomme think – hell, even remember – four decades later?
(Above) Prudhomme's Yellow Feather dragster tipped the scales at 1,190 pounds, about 400 less than the wedge that preceded it. (Below) Wiebe's slingshot was running the still-new revolutionary aluminum Donovan 417.
Unfortunately but understandably, Prudhomme’s memories of the event are lost to time and the sheer number of events in which he competed in 30-plus years in the cockpit and even more as an owner. I walked him through the facts, and he thoughtfully pondered the two-tenths drop in e.t. between his best run and the final and was a bit conflicted.
“I don’t know how you drop two-tenths unless you’re falling down a mineshaft, but I don’t think Lions ever had phony clocks,” he said. “I’m sure we had it hopped up for the final, but the rear-engined car was still really new to us. We had the wedge the year before – that was a huge mistake; it was terrible – and the new car was so much lighter and better. We even milled the outsides of the block to take weight off of it. That car hauled ass.
“It’s possible we ran 6.17, but I don’t remember,” he said, then added in typical “Snake” fashion, “But the most important thing I heard in this conversation is that I won, so I like that.”
Wiebe, however, had no problem recalling the race in detail, and, contrary to the comments attributed to him at the time, he firmly believes that he ran the 6.17 and that he could have run even quicker with the right tune-up.
“We were still running the car kinda safe by the time we got to Long Beach, and I was really just out there to have fun,” he recalled. “Someone told me that Prudhomme and Black were really out to get me in the final, and I look over there, and Keith Black himself is working on the car; it looked like he had an army over there. Still, I think I was a bit nonchalant about the whole thing. I think I put a couple [more percentage of nitro] in the tank and advanced the cam two degrees and maybe put one or two [degrees of timing] in the mag to turn the wick up a little bit. Ed [Donovan] told me to put a bigger bottom pulley on to get some more overdrive for the blower. After all that, I still think we had even more room, and in retrospect, I wish I’d have laid its ears back a little further because it might have run a .12 or a .13. Even though he got the jump on me at the line, I chased him down, and I actually thought that I had won based on how much of his car I could see at the finish line. I remember that I was pretty devastated by that loss because I didn’t put more into it. We weren’t even close to smoking the tires. I just played it too safe.”
Regardless of any controversy, advertisers were all over the e.t.s in the next issue of National Dragster with Black, Fuller, and Pennzoil all touting Prudhomme’s e.t and Mondello and M&H bannering Wiebe’s performance. The numbers gained more post-legitimacy within a month when Clayton Harris drove Jack McKay’s New Dimension to a 6.16 (also at Lions) and Garlits ran 6.15 and 6.17 the next month en route to winning the Gatornationals. And, of course, by year’s end, low e.t. would be a 5.91 by Don Moody at the season finale in Ontario, Calif.
"Wiebe and Prudhomme 6.17 E.T.s: For Real?" You decide.
My chat with Wiebe, who hasn’t given a lot of interviews in the years since he quit racing in 1977, was a great chance to learn more about his career, which I’ll share next week. His time in Top Fuel was only about 12 years, but he packed a lot of racing into it.
I also was pleased to hear from Fritz Allison, the younger brother of the aforementioned Randy Allison, who with Jeb Allen, John Stewart, and Billy Meyer led a successful teenage revolt in the nitro ranks in the early 1970s. Fritz gave me contact info for Randy and his crew chief Gary (also their brother), so I hope to talk to them soon, too, to shed some light on their efforts, which haven’t received quite the ink that Allen, Meyer, and Stewart have in the years since.
So many columns, so little time. Just the way I like it. See you next week.
NHRA’s incredible 1975 season didn’t officially begin until the Winternationals in Pomona Jan. 21, but by then, a lot of nitro already had been burned. As I mentioned last week, Don Prudhomme kicked off what – at the time – was the greatest season in NHRA nitro-racing history (six wins in eight national events) with a pair of early-January match race wins in California, and though those victories may have fattened his checkbook, they didn’t earn him a point toward his long-awaited and anticipated first championship season. This week, I continue my look at the early stages of that great year, later highlights of which I will chronicle occasionally throughout this year on the occasion of the 40th anniversary.
Even before the troops assembled in Pomona for the 1975 Winternationals, a heavyweight battle was going on the weekend previous in Arizona, where AHRA staged its Winternationals at Beeline Dragway outside of Phoenix. (Interestingly, the following year, Beeline would switch to NHRA sanction and host the Winter Classic the weekend before the Winternationals as a sort of final test 'n' tune before the season kickoff.)
Although Prudhomme would win the NHRA Funny Car title and Don Garlits the NHRA Top Fuel crown, neither began the year with the car in which he’d finish and neither had great success at the AHRA Winternationals. As I wrote last week, Prudhomme ran his 1973 Barracuda at his early-year match races and didn’t debut what would become the almost invincible Army Monza until the Beeline race. Garlits, meanwhile, began the year in a dragster that he originally built for Funny Car star “Jungle Jim” Liberman; when “Jungle” decided to stick to the flops, Garlits christened the car Swamp Rat 21 and went racing with it. Later that summer, he’d replace it with Swamp Rat 22, which was the famous 5.63, 250-mph car.
Reigning NHRA Funny Car champ Shirl Greer opened 1975 with a win at the AHRA Winternationals in Phoenix with his new Mustang II-bodied entry.
Prudhomme’s new John Buttera-built Monza rolled into Beeline a little late and plenty unceremoniously, on the end of a wrecker hook, the crew cab and Chaparral trailer having broken down outside of Phoenix, and things didn’t get a whole lot better for “the Snake” and crew chief Bob Brandt. A broken rear end halted their opening pass 100 feet into the car’s maiden voyage, and they smoked the tires on their second hit. He finally nailed down a 6.40 to qualify No. 3 behind Neil Leffler’s 6.32 in Jim Terry’s Mustang and the 6.35 registered by Mike Miller in Jim and Betty Green’s Green Elephant Vega. World champ Shirl Greer, in a brand-new Mustang II to replace the aging beast he had melted down in winning the title at Ontario Motor Speedway, was fourth with a 6.53. Liberman, Tommy Grove, Pat Foster (in Lil John Lombardo’s Vega), and Bill Leavitt held down the bottom of the top eight.
Other interesting Funny Car developments in the 16-car field were Jake Johnston taking over the wheel of the Pisano & Matsubara Vega after Sush Matsubara broke his leg in a motorcycle accident the previous weekend; Billy Meyer at the controls of the Snowman Vega after Gene Snow had back surgery (Meyer had been precluded by his sponsors from drag racing in 1975 to take part in a land-speed-record effort, but the car was not ready yet); Gordie Bonin in a new, unpainted Monza; and Richard Tharp in the cockpit of “Big Mike” Burkhart’s new Satellite (in which he would win the Division 4 championship). Russell Long, in Dennis Fowler’s gorgeous new Sundance Monza, and Raymond Beadle, who won the event the previous year in Don Schumacher’s Super Shoe Vega, were among those on the DNQ list.
Marvin Graham, who won the 1974 season-ending AHRA event at Beeline Dragway, repeated with a Top Fuel win at the 1975 season opener.
Gary Read, in the C.C Dunne & Co. rail, was No. 1 in Top Fuel with a 6.18, sparking memories of unheralded Mike Wagoner’s surprising Top Fuel win at the previous year’s event (capped with a final-round 6.18 after Garlits lost his brakes on his final-round burnout and couldn’t stage), but Read would be gone after round one. Garlits was No. 2 after burping an engine on his opening pass and struggling with tire shake that twice broke the welds on his wing struts. Shirley Muldowney, who by year’s end would grab everyone's attention, was third, and Marvin Graham was fourth. Graham, who had seemingly come out of relative national obscurity to win the U.S. Nationals the previous September, was riding a curious streak. After winning Indy, he DNQ’d at the 1974 NHRA World Finals (his 6.20 was nowhere near the blistering 6.05 bump; in fact, he wasn’t even in the quickest 32 gunning for a spot in the 16-car field), then won the AHRA Finals – also held at Beeline – on his way home to Oklahoma.
Reigning Top Fuel champ Gary Beck was fifth, and Pat Dakin was sixth, but he and G.L. Rupp were fortunate to still have a car after Funny Car shoe Dale Pulde subbed for an AWOL Dakin on one qualifying pass and got wickedly out of shape at the 1,000-foot mark and nearly wrecked the car. The 16-car field stretched back to Tom Toler with a 6.50. Among the DNQs were Dick LaHaie in his and Poncho Rendon’s new car and Dwight Salisbury.
Garlits lost in the semifinals to Graham, 6.64 to 6.82, surprisingly slow numbers considering that both Beck and Warren had run 6.10 earlier in the previous round. The other semifinal went to Warren, who had been battling head-gasket problems all weekend, but he still took out Beck, who oiled the track after his own head-gasket issues. Graham, who had beaten Billy Graham (no relation) and John Wiebe in the first two rounds, kept his Beeline magic alive when Warren’s Rain for Rent Special turned into a Roman candle on the line after the head gaskets gave out yet again in the final.
Bob Glidden unveiled a "new" 1970 Mustang to take advantage of a favorable weight break for long-wheelbase cars.
Prudhomme didn’t make it as far as Garlits, falling to Meyer in round two. Meyer dropped out a round later to Leffler, who then squared off in the final with Greer. Leffler had already beaten Bonin and Pulde, and Greer had worked his way past Tharp and Jim Dunn, then took a bye in the semi’s when Miller was unable to fire the Elephant. Greer won the surprisingly slow final, 7.03 to 7.08.
Pro Stock was part of the show, too, and the event marked the debut of Bob Glidden’s 1970 Mach I Mustang, which was created to take advantage of an NHRA (and I assume AHRA) rule that afforded a favorable weight break for longer-wheelbase cars after the compact Pintos dominated the 1972 and 1973 seasons. Glidden led the field with a 8.96, just ahead of archrival Wayne Gapp and the four-door Gapp & Roush Maverick, which posted a 8.97 despite being forced to carry a lot more weight (more on that in a bit).
Glidden won Pro Stock at Beeline for the second straight year to jump-start what would be his second straight NHRA championship season, defeating Dick Landy, Don Nicholson, Kevin Rotty, and, in the final, Wally Booth and his Hornet, 8.99 to 9.12.
This flurry of January activity had everyone’s engines revved for the NHRA kickoff in Pomona, where Garlits, Prudhomme, and Glidden prevailed to launch what would be championship seasons for each, but, of course, what makes this subject so interesting to me is all of the behind-the-scenes stuff.
So many new and amazing things were happening for NHRA in 1975. For one, the season marked the end of reserved “provisional” qualifying spots for defending event champs. Two, NHRA banned the use of bleach in the burnout box as it was determined that the caustic liquid was wreaking havoc with the Sperex/VHT traction compound with which NHRA had begun experimenting in 1972 and that had led to huge performance gains between the 1971 and 1972 Supernationals (6.53 to 5.91) and between the 1973 and 1974 Winternationals in Pomona (6.60 to 5.84). The 1975 season also was the last in which Top Fuel push-starts were allowed (though many had already abandoned the procedure). Comp eliminator was running under a whole new format, with handicapping provided by a controversial new index system (so familiar to us today) that supplanted the age-old process of running off the existing national records. And, finally, the Fallnationals in Seattle was added to the schedule, making it an eight-race season.
(Although not of interest to this story, 1975 also marked the NHRA return of jet cars after a 12-year absence; Romeo Palamides’ Untouchable was the first of the new breed of what were billed as lighter and safer cars to be approved. Old jet cars typically weighed 5,000 to 6,000 pounds; the Untouchable was 2,550 pounds.)
And, perhaps most significant, although the season did not begin under its umbrella, Winston provided title sponsorship of the series for the first year in 1975 and an increased points fund that paid each of the Pro champions $20,000. (The Winston deal was announced in April, right after the Gatornationals, which Prudhomme also won, so I find it hilarious that in his championship story in National Dragster at the end of that year, Prudhomme said that, as a result of the Winston announcement, “That’s when we really got serious about winning the title.”)
But back to Pomona …
(Above) Don Garlits should have been on the trailer after round one but caught a lucky break against Don Ewald, then went on to win his fourth Pomona title.
As I mentioned, Garlits was racing a dragster that he built for Liberman, and the cockpit was built quite a bit wider than Garlits’ personal specs to accommodate “Jungle’s” larger frame. When Liberman backed out, it all kind of worked out for Garlits because his 1974 car had sold quicker than he expected, and he hadn’t had time to build himself a new car, so he painted the “Jungle” car his trademark black (because, as the cosmos-curious Garlits explained, black is a good color for Capricorns, according to astrologers) and went racing.
Despite his discomfort in the cockpit, Garlits won the Winternationals, though it took a huge break in the form of first-round opponent Don Ewald crossing the centerline after Garlits blazed the tires in the remnants of Dale Funk’s oildown. Garlits had qualified just No. 12 and had ceded lane choice to Ewald, who you all know today as the operator of the fabulous We Did It for Love website. I’ve written about this misadventure before, way back in 2008, when Ewald was magnanimous enough to relive for us one of the low points of his career (though he did win Irwindale’s Grand Prix later that year); you can read Ewald’s story here. Garlits called it “the biggest break of the whole year for me” and said that the early win gave him extra incentive to run hard that season and ultimately win his first NHRA world championship.
Qualifying was filled with surprises. Ohio journeyman Paul Longenecker led the field with a 5.93, well ahead of the 5.971 of reigning world champ Beck, the 5.973 of dark horse Read (the low qualifier at Beeline), and the equally surprising Ewald, who was driving for R.J. Trotter. Maybe even more surprising was one of the guys who didn’t qualify, West Coast powerhouse Warren, whose 6.11 was only 19th-quickest. Qualifying also was not kind to teenage sensation John Stewart, who rolled his dragster three times, and Gary Cornwall, who suffered facial lacerations after running into the hay bales that lined the top-end catch net.
After escaping the Ewald race, Garlits beat Dick LaHaie with his best run of the meet (6.00), then took out Rick Ramsey, who broke in the pretty Keeling & Clayton California Charger, to set up a final-round rematch from the 1974 World Finals against championship runner-up Dave Settles. Garlits then easily won his fourth Winternationals title when Settles’ Candies & Hughes machine went up in smoke.
Funny Car continued to be a game of musical chairs, and Pomona fans who had attended the World Finals in nearby Ontario a few months earlier really needed a program to keep track of the players at the Winternationals.
As I mentioned last week, Pulde had left the seat of Mickey Thompson’s Grand Am to drive for Joe Mundet, who had relocated the Eastern Raider Pinto to the West Coast. Larry Arnold took his place but got burned in preseason testing, so Charlie Therwanger took over the car in Pomona and reached the semifinals before falling to Prudhomme. Meyer remained in recuperating Snow’s car, but Joe Pisano asked Foster to drive his car in Pomona to replace Johnston, who had driven for him in Phoenix after Matsubara got busted up in a motorcycle accident. Foster, who had been driving for Lombardo, declined, but when Lombardo decided he wanted to drive his own car at the Winternationals and Pisano opted not to race at all, Foster was left without a ride. Johnston, meanwhile, climbed back in the California Charger Mustang but finished the season (and two more after that) driving for Pisano after Matsubara hung up his driving gloves. Finally, after they just missed out on winning the 1974 Funny Car championship, Jerry Ruth let driver Frank Hall go during the winter, then had to call him back at the last minute to drive the car in Pomona after getting his fingers mangled in the air-conditioner belt of his crew cab Wednesday night in a scary incident that resulted in a dozen stitches. Got all that? Can you imagine these scenarios taking place in this day and age?
Don Prudhomme kicked off a six-win season with his Army Monza, the first of four straight Winternationals that "the Snake" would win.
Despite a successful 1974, based on his less-than-stellar debut with the Monza in Arizona, Prudhomme’s Pomona win was hardly written in the stars, and, in fact, it took a pretty big gamble by “the Snake” and Brandt to pull it off. They had already gone into Pomona with some trepidation based on the Monza’s shaky debut at the AHRA Winternationals, and a lot of their peers were openly questioning why they would park the successful Barracuda. But, as always, they were thinking a step ahead of the game. They had left the 'Cuda ready to run – fresh engine, clutch, the entire combination – at Prudhomme’s shop in Granada Hills, which was about an hour’s drive from Pomona.
Despite those concerns, the Monza ran a stout 6.25 early in qualifying, although it did so at the cost of the engine, so they simply drove back to Granada Hills and transplanted the entire drivetrain from the 'Cuda into the Monza.
As good as Prudhomme’s 6.25 was, it didn’t lead the field. That honor went to Bill Leavitt and his “new” Quickie Too Mustang II (the body was new; the chassis four years old) with a 6.21, and “Big Jim” Dunn’s 6.45 anchored the quickest 16-car field in Funny Car history. Greer surprisingly did not qualify. Qualifying was also highlighted by the jaw-dropping backflip by Dennis Geisler’s Hindsight rear-engine Funny Car (you can read all about it in a column I wrote in late 2011: In Hindsight, maybe not such a great idea).
Prudhomme later admitted that “things looked pretty chancy on Sunday morning” because of the engine swap, but the Monza found its pace, avenging its Beeline loss to Meyer with a 6.39 that was low e.t. of the round. An early-shutoff 6.37 in round two dealt out Leffler, and, in an armed forces semifinal showdown, Prudhomme’s Army Monza beat Therwanger in Thompson’s U.S. Marines Grand Am with a 6.28.
For the second straight year, Jim and Betty Green’s Green Elephant was in the final round. In 1974, they and driver Frank Hall had lost the final to breakage against Dale Emery in Jeg Coughlin Sr.’s Camaro, and they would have to settle for runner-up honors again in 1975 when new shoe Miller went up in smoke against “the Snake,” who roared to what would be the first of four straight Winternationals victories with an emphatic 6.24, his best run of the meet.
Glidden, near lane, defeated Wayne Gapp on a holeshot in the Pro Stock final between two long-wheelbase Fords, Glidden's Mustang and Gapp's Maverick.
As I mentioned, there was some discontent in the Pro Stock ranks. The Gapp & Roush team’s Taxi had debuted in late 1974 and had run under a 6.45-pounds-per-cubic-inch weight break afforded to cars with wheelbases longer than 105 inches, allowing it to run some 100 pounds lighter than its shorter peers, but, even though Gapp didn’t win the championship, his Maverick was soon assigned a 7.10-pound break -- the same as Glidden’s “new” old Mustang -- for 1975. In 1974, Glidden’s Pinto had run on a 7.30 weight break. Wally Booth’s AMC Hornet, which also had run under the 6.45 break, got penalized, too, but only up to 6.90, so you can understand why the Gapp & Roush team was upset.
Gapp still qualified No. 1 with an 8.81, and Glidden was right behind him at 8.82. In Sunday morning’s free time-trial run (remember those?), Gapp pounded out an 8.79 to Glidden’s 8.81, sending Glidden into frantic action in the pits. Whatever knobs Glidden turned, they were the right ones: His Mustang reset low e.t. and top speed in round one with an 8.77 at 156.25 mph that bettered his own 8.81 national record from 1974. Glidden then ran an 8.78 to beat “Dyno Don” Nicholson’s similar mount and Dave Kanners’ Hornet with an 8.82. As strong as Glidden looked, it was reported that he had one cylinder leaking as much as 18 percent. By comparison, Gapp had been all over the board, from a first-round 8.81 to an 8.98 against red-lighting Bill Jenkins in the semifinals, as they fought what they thought was a tire-compound issue, but just prior to the final, Jack Roush discovered that the fault actually was in water that the Maverick was dragging from the burnout box to the starting line and had Gapp change his burnout routine for the final. As he had to start the day, Gapp actually outran Glidden in the final, 8.78 to 8.79, but lost the race on a holeshot.
Don Enriquez and Gene Adams dominated Pro Comp eliminations to win the season opener for the new AA/DA class.
The 1975 season also marked the debut of what we now know as Top Alcohol Dragster, and the new AA/DA combination was not only popular but fast. Six of the seven top qualifying spots – led by Grand Premiere winner John Shoemaker (6.81) -- went to AA/DAs; the lone exception was defending event champ Dale Armstrong, who qualified the U.S. Nationals-winning AA/Altered (on loan from pal Simon Menzies) in the No. 3 spot but went into the catch net in qualifying after a chute failure. The car was repaired in time for eliminations, where Armstrong went two rounds.
Nine of the 16 qualified spots and all four semifinal slots were occupied by AA/DAs. In the final foursome, Shoemaker beat Wayne Stoeckel, and Don Enriquez bested chassis builder Ron Attebury. Enriquez and his cagey partner, Gene Adams, dominated Sunday, running low e.t. of 6.71 in round one followed by passes of 6.78 and 6.77 and, in the final, a 6.85 that held off Shoemaker’s 6.89. The AA/DAs were so dominant that NHRA immediately adjusted their weight break from 4.15 pounds per cubic inch to 4.50 and limited them to two-speed transmissions and two valves per cylinder.
The new rules definitely helped as A/Fuel Dragsters driven by Walt Weney and Don Woosley won the Gatornationals and SPORTSnationals, then Joe Ortega won the Springnationals in his AA/DA before the BB/FCs took over with wins by Ken Veney (Summernationals and Le Grandnational), Dale Armstrong (Indy and the Finals), and Wilfred Boutilier (Fallnationals). Coughlin’s AA/DA was runner-up to Armstrong in Indy.
NHRA’s new index system for Comp, which was created using data from 10,000 runs recorded during the 1974 season, also required some tinkering after the event. Racers were proclaiming the new system The End of the World As We Know It. Jim Dale, NHRA’s national tech director, called for patience as the system was perfected, which he hoped would happen by midseason. “We’ve built the engine, and now we're involved in the fine-tuning,” he said.
IHRA held its Winternationals in Florida in March (!), where Glidden completed an impressive sweep of curtain-raising events, beating – big surprise – Gapp in the final, though both were back in their Pintos because IHRA did not offer the same long-wheelbase weight advantage. Garlits overcame some serious mechanical issues to win in his home state, going two-for-three in Winternationals, and Raymond Beadle and the Blue Max dominated Funny Car for his first national win in the car. Before long, he would reach his first NHRA final (a loss at the Springnationals to Prudhomme), then win Indy (over Prudhomme). Prudhomme did not attend the IHRA Winternationals.
The IHRA event also is worth noting because it marked (I believe) the first time that qualifying was done in sessions like we know today, instead of randomly pulling a dozen or so cars at a time from the lanes throughout the day. It was super fan-friendly and, of course, was adopted by everyone not long after.
I love this little slice of the drag racing timeline for what it showed us about how different things were and for the clues it gave us to what lay ahead. I hope you enjoyed reading and remembering it as much as I did researching it.
James Warren (above) won Top Fuel, and Don Prudhomme (below) scored in Funny Car at the 4th annual Grand Premiere at Irwindale Raceway to help kick off 1975.
Forty years ago last Sunday, Irwindale Raceway kicked off what I still think is one of the greatest and most interesting seasons in drag racing history. The 1975 campaign began in a storm of rules controversy, welcomed new cars and new classes, was highlighted by Don Prudhomme’s incredible six-win season, and ended with two of the greatest runs, Don Garlits’ awe-inspiring 5.63, 250-mph Top Fuel pass and Prudhomme’s barrier-breaking 5.97 Funny Car run, both at that year’s World Finals at Ontario Motor Speedway. In the next couple of weeks, I’ll get to all of that, but I’ll kick off this year’s Insider with a look back at that wild first race, the Grand Premiere, which took place Jan. 4.
Prudhomme won Funny Car, West Coast powerhouse James Warren won Top Fuel, and John Shoemaker blitzed Pro Comp, and there were plenty of stories behind each.
The Grand Premiere event itself had debuted at Lions Drag Strip in 1972 to kick off the fabled track’s final season. Fans with long memories will remember that race as the site of a jaw-dropping Top Fuel final between Prudhomme and John Wiebe in which both recorded 6.17 e.t.s, the quickest in history, times that were disputed. The race was a real crashfest and probably could (and probably will be) a column unto itself before this thread is done.
The Grand Premiere was moved to Irwindale in 1973 and kicked off Steve Evans’ management of the newly refurbished facility, and the 1974 edition hosted the Cragar Five-Second Club race (won by Garlits), so the event had a lot of momentum going into 1975.
Prudhomme, fresh off a victory days earlier at Fremont Raceway’s New Year’s Day event, won the Grand Premiere, too, not in his soon-to-be all-conquering Army Monza, but in the familiar Barracuda that he had raced to two wins, a runner-up, and second place in the points behind Shirl Greer the previous year (the car was actually his 1973 'Cuda, pressed into action after his new low-riding John Buttera Vega was shelved after just two events in 1974).
The event also marked the Southern California debut of the new Blue Max Mustang II with Raymond Beadle at the wheel. The car had debuted in December in Florida during the 1974 Winter Series, where it won the Snowbird Nationals with a decent 6.45 best.
The late, great “Jungle Jim” Liberman was the low qualifier in Funny Car with a 6.30, just two-hundredths off of “the Snake’s” track record but eight-hundredths ahead of the man himself. The rest of the field comprised (in order) Neil Leffler in Jim Terry’s surprisingly quick Mustang, Jim Dunn, Gary Burgin, Beadle, Gene Snow (who shortly would undergo back surgery and sit out most of the season), Mike Halloran, Gervaise O’Neil, Gary Densham, Norm Wilcox (in Roland Leong’s Hawaiian, his first Funny Car ride after a strong Top Fuel career), Clarence “Boogaloo” Bailey, Dennis Geisler (in the ill-fated rear-engine Hindsight), Dale Pulde (in his new ride in Joe Mundet’s Eastern Raider Pinto after leaving Mickey Thompson’s national-record-setting Grand Am), and Bryan Raines.
After Burgin and Geisler (who were supposed to run one another) as well as Pulde and Wilcox failed to make the first-round call, Liberman, Prudhomme, Leffler, Snow, and Dunn won their races, and Beadle and Pickett, in Pete Everett’s Pete’s Lil Demon, “singled” together for their bye runs from Pulde and Wilcox. Prudhomme’s victory came on a stout track-record 6.26 pass against O’Neil.
Then things got weird.
(Above) Milliseconds after this photo was taken, the rods exited the block, and Raymond Beadle and the Blue Max did a big ol' 180 on the starting line. Madness ensued. (Below) Prudhomme defeated Jim Dunn to capture Funny Car honors and his second match race win in the first four days of 1975. (Jack Reece photos)
After “Jungle” smoked and lost to Dunn, Beadle and Leffler fired their engines. Oil immediately began spewing from a broken oil-pump gasket on Leffler’s engine, and he was shut off. Beadle, never one to just go through the motions, waded into a monster burnout with the Max but kicked out a rod. He slid in his own oil, doing a 180-degree spin, smacked the A-board, and ended up facing the wrong way. Leffler’s crew, seeing this happen, refired his leaky mount hoping to at least stage and get the win. According to the account in Drag Racing USA, Steve Montrelli tried to stop him but was grabbed by Sid Waterman, who had built Leffler’s engine (in fact, Leffler was the shop foreman at Waterman Racing Engines). Prudhomme stepped in and grabbed Waterman. A lot of pushing and shoving and name-calling ensued before Leffler was shut off.
Asked what he thought of the scene, Evans told DRUSA’s Steve Alexander, “I loved every minute of it because nobody was mad at me.” That sentiment might not have lasted long as Evans surprisingly reinstated Beadle because he had already been declared the winner when Leffler initially shut off and didn’t even have to do a burnout. “What was I gonna do?” he asked rhetorically. “Make them push it down the track? They’d had enough trouble.” (I gotta think that the always-promotions-minded Evans saw a bigger fan appeal to keep the Max in the show.)
Once the shenanigans were complete, Snow beat Pickett, and Prudhomme, who had the bye run after the nonexistent Burgin-Geisler race, barely navigated his slick lane to a 15-flat win to end the round.
Beadle also lost traction in the semi’s against the cagey Dunn, who somehow ran 6.46 through the mess, and Prudhomme then beat Snow, 10.16 to 10.32, but nearly collected the guardrail in the process. Prudhomme saved his best for last and, despite not holding lane choice, beat a crossed-up Dunn in the final with a 6.32. Two match race wins in the first four days of the season probably should have been an indicator that "the Snake" was going to have a pretty good year, and he didn't even have his new car yet.
Top Fuel was a little more straightforward. The “Ridge Route Terrors” dominated qualifying with a 6.05, well ahead of the dual 6.24s of Flip Schofield and Leland Kolb. Stan Shiroma was fourth at 6.29, followed by Gary Read, Gary Ritter, Tony Nancy, Gary Hazen, and Danny Ongais, all in the 6.30s. Bob Noice, Tom Toler, Shorty Leventon, Frank Prock, Bill Carter, Rick Uribe, and Don Ewald (6.67) rounded out the field. About 30 dragsters tried to qualify.
Warren scored his fifth straight win at Irwindale when he defeated Walt Rhoades in the Top Fuel final. (Steve Reyes photo)
Warren got a bye run when Ongais’ crew couldn’t fire the Vel’s/Parnelli Jones mount, then reset low e.t. with a 6.04 in round two over tire-smoking Read. Warren got another bye when Toler’s team couldn’t fire his car, and he was joined in the final by Walt Rhoades, who made the field as an alternate, then beat Shiroma, Hazen, and Ritter. Despite dealing with the same oil-soaked track as the floppers, Roger Coburn spun the knobs the right way in the final, and Warren blasted to a stunning 6.01 at 239.36, low e.t. and top speed, to claim his fifth straight win at the ‘Dale. Rhoades was second through with a 6.18.
Shoemaker dominated Pro Comp from start to finish in what was the introduction of the AA/Dragster class (also known as BAD, for blown alcohol dragster). More than 50 drivers turned out looking for a spot in the 16-car field, including Dale Armstrong, who was awaiting completion of his new BB/FC and showed with a BAD after running pretty much every other configuration in 1974. Shoemaker’s 6.89 led the field by almost a tenth, and he ran 6.91, 6.96, and 6.90 to reach the final when everyone else was struggling in the sevens. The only other driver to find the sixes consistently was Don Enriquez, in his and Gene Adams' converted ex-Top Fueler, which ran 6.98 in the semi’s. Shoemaker took no prisoners in the final with a 6.87 to fend off Enriquez’s 7.00. The BADs were so, well, badass at the start of the year that NHRA changed their weight break after the Winternationals.
The Grand Premiere also was memorable because it provided the first test of NHRA’s new index handicapping system for Comp eliminator (which previously had been handicapped based on national records) and for the introduction of the C/Econo Dragster class (then reserved only for four-bangers), which later became one of the most populated in the eliminator.
The Grand Premiere was certainly that and set the stage for the dueling AHRA and NHRA Winternationals that followed a few weeks later to kick off their respective seasons. We’ll take a look at those launchpads next week.
Before Christmas and NHRA’s weeklong holiday shutdown, I promised you a column before the year was out, and here I am, back on a Wednesday (those of you who were with this column from the beginning back in mid-2007 remember that this was a thrice-weekly column: Monday-Wednesday-Friday) to close out the year and reset for 2015 and the first column of the new year, which will be posted Jan. 9.
As is the case at the end of each year, people like to make lists and, hey, who am I to go against the tide? I thought it would be fun to take a look back at the previous 50 columns I posted this year and create some short “greatest hits” types of lists from the publishing year. Turns out that I wrote about 100,000 words in those 50 columns, and I scoured them all (as well as the roughly 7,500 words that you all contributed) to create my lists, which I hope will bring back some fun memories and spark a little re-reading, and I finish the column with some housekeeping notes, all of which should send us off into 2015 with a fresh slate.
My Favorite 2014 Columns
I’d long been a fan of Funny Car racer Jake Johnston (right), but it took me years — and a random tweet by his son, Beau — to track him down for my column, Jake Johnston: Funny Car's "what if?" guy. The guy came within two hard-luck final rounds of being drag racing’s first two-time Funny Car champ four years before Don Prudhomme made it happen, drove some great and interesting cars — the Blue Max, Gene Snow’s Dodges, the Keeling & Clayton California Charger (dragster and Funny Car), the Pisano & Matsubara Vega, the Wonder Wagon Vega panel — and was on the ground floor of some potentially great breakthroughs that never quite panned out. He had a great memory and a great attitude and provided material for a follow-up column, How much Jake can you take?
The column on Johnston also led me into a great and long-running thread on the tricky Vega panel wagon Funny Cars of the early 1970s, beginning with the most famous of them all, the ill-fated Wonder Wagon machines of Don Schumacher (No more wonderin' about the Wonder Wagon). I had heard and read so much about how the deal went down — most of it is contradictory — so I went all 60 Minutes on the case and interviewed as many of the primary parties as I could — Schumacher, dealmakers Don Rackemann and Bob Kachler, drivers Kelly Brown and Glenn Way, and, of course, Johnston — for a 4,000-plus-word tell-all.
There's a show that airs on our PBS stations out here called Things That Aren't Here Anymore, which shows archival photos and videos of attractions and landmarks long gone from the landscape, and this photo got me thinking about how much things have changed — sometimes for the better, sometimes not — and things that just aren't there anymore in drag racing. It was just a list off the top of my head, without much more thought than it took to tap out the letters on my keyboard. That column was quite popular and continued into your contributions with More Things That Aren't Here Anymore.
Although I wouldn’t call them my favorites because of the subject matter and the fact that I was compelled to write them, I’m very proud of the final product, the reaction and comfort they gave, and all of the work that went into the tributes I wrote about Raymond Beadle and Dale Armstrong.
Best Stories Behind the Stories
This column has long born the motto “the stories behind the stories” because my goal has always been to uncover new tidbits about previously documented events and people and to shed new light and nuance upon both. I think I have a pretty good recall on most of the major events in the sport’s history, but through the course of researching and interviewing for the columns, I always stumble upon things that I didn’t know. Here’s a few that really tickled me this year:
It’s easy to imagine that the super-competitive Don Prudhomme would have had lots of snake venom for Raymond Beadle, who ended “the Snake's” four-year Funny Car championship run and began a three-year tear of his own in 1979, but that’s far from the case. The two were great pals back then, as Prudhomme shared with me during my long tribute to Beadle back in October. “Raymond was always a guy that I really, really liked. We used to battle each other on the track, but we used to have fun when we hung out. He was always a pleasure to be around. We used to pal around with a bunch of guys … to hang out in Dallas, go to Campisi’s; we were tight. Outside of ‘Mongoose,’ I don’t know there was anyone inside of racing that I was tighter with than Raymond.”
There was a lot of Blue Max treasure to be mined. In that same column, I found out that it was Dale Emery who bestowed upon Fred Miller his indelible "Waterbed" nickname, not for any '70s-style debauchery Miller had committed but for his repeated failed attempts to repair a leak in his water mattress. "It started out as a pinhole, and by the time I was done 'fixing' it, there was hole big enough to stick my head in," recalled Miller. "Emery would see me and say, 'There goes 'Waterbed Fred,' and it just stuck."
Billy Meyer, who was still in high school during his first two years in Funny Car, would often ride to the races with Beadle (who then was driving for Mike Burkhart) while both raced on the Coca-Cola Cavalcade of Stars circuit, and Beadle’s wife at the time, Holly, would tutor him in English.
A lot of folks remember that the Blue Max made its NHRA national event debut with Jake Johnston at the wheel at the 1970 Winternationals, but that was quickly lost in a highway accident. Car owner Harry Schmidt was at the wheel of their ramp truck when a driver going the other direction on the interstate lost control of his vehicle and swerved across the grass divider and into their lane. Schmidt swerved to avoid the oncoming car, which chucked the new Mustang off the back of the ramp, demolishing it. “We both cried,” remembered Johnston.
The bald truth finally came out about the famous starting-line fight between two guys just prior to the Modified final round at the 1970 Nationals that resulted in the toupee of one being knocked off his scalp (you can see it by his right elbow as it’s falling to the ground). According to Jon Asher, the rug-wearing rascal was a fan who had been handed off a starting-line pass by departing members of the ABC Wide World of Sports camera crew. The interloper got into the way of several photographers before starting-line regular Ted Robinson finally had enough and fists flew.
The credit usually goes to the Budweiser King Funny Car team, but the Reher-Morrison Pro Stock team of David Reher, Buddy Morrison, and driver Lee Shepherd were actually the first to run the Racepak data recorder on the dragstrip in early 1985, and that showed them some inconsistencies in Shepherd’s driving and became instant converts.
The great “Ace,” six-time U.S. Nationals champ Ed McCulloch, never really wanted to be a race car driver. After moving to Portland, Ore., and partnering with Jim Albrich on the Northwind Top Fueler, SoCal-based Dave Jeffers drove the car for them for a while, but flying him to the Northwest for dates got to be too expensive, so it had to be either McCulloch or Albrich behind the wheel, and when Albrich’s wife vetoed him doing it, suddenly McCulloch was a driver. “I never really wanted to drive,” he confessed during the legends show at the Finals. “I was always more interested in the mechanical end of the cars, building them, working on them.”
Indy hosted the Nationals for the first time in 1961, but it was “Red” Dyer, in Raymond Godman’s Tennessee B-Weevil, who officially opened the Indy dragstrip with a pass not long after the 1960 Nationals, which had been held in Detroit. Godman and Dyer had been Top Eliminator runner-ups to Leonard Harris and the vaunted Albertson Olds, but Harris and car owner Gene Adams returned to the West Coast to match race, so NHRA founder Wally Parks called upon Godman and Dyer to have the honor of making the first pass down the newly built dragstrip.
It’s no secret that Kenny Bernstein and Dale Armstrong struggled in their first season together in 1982 before winning Indy in 1983. What changed? Bernstein explained to me that their car always shook like crazy, and it wasn’t until Armstrong, who had retired from driving at the end of the 1981 season, made a guest appearance in the cockpit of the Bud King LN-7 in April 1983 while Bernstein was in traction at a local hospital with two ruptured vertebrae in his neck that things changed. “We were booked in at Orange County [Int’l Raceway], and I told Dale to go drive it. He came in Monday morning, looked at me, and said, ‘We can’t run the car the way we’ve been trying to run it. I almost crashed it.’ That, in all honesty, is what turned us around. I don’t think he realized how bad it was until he crawled in the car and tried it himself. He went in a completely different direction, and the car just took off. That was the turning point.” Everything wonderful and amazing that happened to the duo came from that point forward. I found a video of that run online and shared it with Bernstein, who had only heard Armstrong's description, and got a good laugh out of it.
Armstrong was a huge hockey fan and was pals with “the Great One,” Wayne Gretzky. He even owned the '99 Dodge Durango that was awarded to Gretzky in his final All-Star game as MVP. Gretzky even signed the glove box and called Armstrong to congratulate him when AA/Dale was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2010.
“I don’t think he hated me as much as he hated himself.” — Bobby Vodnik, on Don Garlits after “Big Daddy” red-lighted to the kid in the final of the 1963 U.S. Nationals
“It all turned to crap right in front of me, and there was nothing I could do.” — Glenn Way, on feeling sliced out of the Wonder Bread deal he helped develop
“Over a long period of time, a lot of the memories change, and the person thinks his memory is fact when they are not. I have had a lot of experience with this because I have all the records here to draw on and see hundreds of people telling me stories that are just not true. However, I do not contradict the storyteller; it just upsets them!” — Don Garlits
“There were no starter motors or any of that jazz. The way you started them was push-start. A car or truck would be behind you, you’d get going, let the clutch out, feed a little fuel, shut it off, and hit the starter switch, and it would go bahhhh-bup-bup-bup and pull away and then start idling. It was a real turn-me-on-er. The girls fell out of the stands. It was pretty cool, I gotta tell you.” — Don Prudhomme, on front-engine Top Fuel push-starts
"She never tuned an engine for Don Garlits nor did she officially belong to the pit crew, but all who knew the two of them agreed on one thing: She was his secret weapon. Now, if T.C. Lemons was still around, he would tell you in no uncertain terms, 'There would be no Don Garlits without Pat.' " — Garlits biographer Mickey Bryant, on the passing of Garlits' wife, Pat, in February
”I was 115 pounds soaking wet, and those [firesuits] were Robocop outfits I could strap on and go racing against the varsity guys.” — Tommy Ivo, on why racing appealed to him
“He was a money driver; he never got rattled. If we made it to a final, we knew we never had to worry about him being late.” — Dale Emery, on Raymond Beadle
“I loved driving that Funny Car, I really did, except when it was on fire. I had some blazers. [My crew] would try all kinds of new innovations, and I was kind of like a sitting duck and not smart enough to realize that I was probably where I shouldn’t be.” — Shirley Muldowney
“I look at the fortunate career I had and the fortunate life I have today, and I believe that Dale is 75 percent of the reason for that.” — Kenny Bernstein, on Dale Armstrong’s contributions to his career
“I always had to check the hockey schedule before I called him; he didn’t want to talk to anyone when hockey was on. He’d be pissed off if you called him when hockey was on.” — Prudhomme, on Armstrong
Here’s an incredible photo of Gary Gabelich’s outrageous four-wheel-drive, rear-engine Vega panel, caught in mid-turmoil by another legendary ace shooter, Jere Alhadeff, shortly before its demise at Orange County Int’l Raceway.
They say a photo is worth 1,000 words, and sometimes that's especially true to nostalgia nuts like us because a simple image can transport us back in time, back to the grandstands at some long-closed dragstrip, or maybe to the living room table where we sat poring over the pages of the latest drag racing monthlies.
For a writer like me, trying so hard to connect all of us to a previous time, there’s nothing sweeter to me than being able to find the perfect photo to either illustrate a story or set a mood.
While I did a standalone two-part column on the favorite photos I’ve collected from the Internet (The Photo Hoarder: Part 1 | Part 2), there were a lot of photos that I used in columns throughout the year — some from the National Dragster files and some submitted by others — that I really liked, too. At right is a little photo gallery of some of them.
It’s a Small World
When Insider regular “Chicago Jon” Hoffman shot the above photo at the 1978 U.S. Nationals and shared it as part of our “Things That Aren’t Here Anymore” thread (i.e., the Hurst Bridge), I’m sure he had no idea that more than 35 years later someone would step forth and identify the random fans in his moody photo, but after it was published, I heard from Christine Friederich, who wrote to say that’s her husband-to-be, Carl Friederich, in the yellow shirt leaning on Gary Ormsby’s car in the staging lanes. That’s his brother, Steve, standing with him. “My husband said that he was in the sixth grade when his older brother stopped on his way to Indianapolis and took him to the track,” she wrote. “He doesn't remember the picture being taken but was excited to see it and share it with our children as well as the memories of the trip.”
My Best Moments
This job has provided me opportunities to do things that I never imagined I would, to meet folks and create long-lasting and treasured friendships, and the chance write up about and interact with legends of our sport whom I grew idolizing or reading about in the pages of magazines and continues to provide pinch-me moments (I got a kick out the jealousy notes some of you sent me regarding the “Garden Party”) and 2014 was no exception. Here's a few personal highlights,
Meeting Raymond Godman and Preston Davis at Indy after interviewing both for a column on the Tennessee Bo-Weevil was a true honor. You couldn’t ask for a couple of nicer, down-home Southern gentlemen.
Being on hand for the legends tributes in Indy and Pomona this year was great because I never get tired of hearing the stories retold, and seeing “Big Daddy” recreate his starting-line shave at Indy was pretty magical, too. Kudos to “Big” and NHRA’s Glen Cromwell for being able to pull that off.
It was 30 years ago this year that I experienced a magical summer in Ohio driving the Mazi family’s supercharged Competition Eliminator Opel for a two-part story for National Dragster (relive it here: Part 1 | Part 2). The idea was not mine but borne from the fertile mind of patriarch Frank, who thought that I needed to drive the short-wheelbase, high-power car to round out my understanding of why he drove such a wild beast. I spent part of the summer of ’84 — and many more days in months surrounding it — hanging out at the Mazi home in Eastlake, Ohio, where we became like family. I eventually drove the car well enough to earn an NHRA competition license and wrote an article that is still warmly remembered three decades later. People still stop me and ask about it.
Although I’ve remained close to eldest daughter Dawn, a talented photographer and videographer who I see from time to time on my travels, it had been decades since I’d seen Frank. We missed connecting earlier this year in Norwalk, but when I found out he was coming west to the Hot Rod Reunion in Bakersfield, where he was driving a nostalgia dragster in his comeback season behind the wheel, I made sure I was there to greet him in the staging lanes. I was no longer that still-wet-behind-the-ears 24-year-old writer he’d first met, but we immediately reconnected and started blabbing on about old times. The man means the world to me for what he taught me (which was more than about how to drive his race car), and I’m glad I was finally able to tell him that.
I almost got to meet my other hero this year, but travel changes put a kink in those plans. You probably don’t know him, but Dan Greenburg is the writer I grew up idolizing as a young teenager and for years after. I read voraciously his books, which chronicled his humorous experiences with everything from the dating to the occult to fatherhood, while in high school. He went on to become a truly successful author of children’s books (The Zack Files, named after his own son) but also still wrote adult fiction. When I came across his website last year, I sent him a note thanking him for the inspiration he’d given me in my writing career. He kindly wrote back, and we exchanged a few more emails before he offered me the chance to not only preview his almost-completed new book, Fear Itself, but asked if I would share my opinions when I was through. Are you kidding me? I was on a plane a lot this summer, so I hammered through it easily and shared my thoughts and ideas, which he gratefully accepted and in some cases even implemented. When the book finally went to press, he noted my contributions in the forward. You can only imagine what they felt like. If you can’t, imagine being a Chevy fan who was inspired by magazine articles about Bill Jenkins to begin experimenting with building engines. You send a fan letter, and the next thing you know he’s not asking if you want to get a sneak peak at his new engine project but for your opinions, and then he uses one or two of your ideas and gives you public credit. Yeah. I know. We’ll try to meet up again after this year’s Englishtown event (he lives in New York City).
One of the “breaking” stories last holiday season was my leg, broken in a hockey game a week before Christmas. There was no repeat this year, but the fact that I was even back on skates as soon as June is in part due to Greg Ozubko. You know him as one of the sport’s most talented graphic artist, whose paint schemes have adorned scores of cars over the years, but I know him as well as a fellow hockey player. After I broke my leg and had a bit of a rough recovery, I really began to question whether it was time to hang up my skates, and even though I still dearly loved the game, I couldn’t imagine getting hurt again and having to go through it all over again. Ozubko, who has battled through more than his fair share of hockey injuries, understood better than even my family what I was going through. We sat together during the long rainout in Atlanta this year, and the things he shared about his own struggles and the things he reminded me about why we loved the game got me over the hump. Today, I’m playing some of the best hockey of my career. Thanks, Zubes. (Check out this story that CNN did recently on Ozubko.)
Giving Thanks Where Due
As you can imagine, it takes a lot of effort to write a weekly column like this in addition to a full-time gig as editor of National Dragster, but it’s truly a labor of love and has given me back so much more than I’ve put into it. Although mine’s the name at the top of each column, it’s a truly collaborative work with its readers and its subjects.
I’ve been befriended and accepted by so many racers — guys like Don Prudhomme, Tom McEwen, Ed McCulloch, Shirley Muldowney, Roland Leong, Richard Tharp, Tommy Ivo, Simon Menzies, Jeff Courtie, Rob Bruins, Johnny Abbott, Ron Pellegrini, Don Roberts, Jeff Foulk, Bill Pryor, Rich Hanna, and many more — who are quick to respond to my silly inquisitions about what can be some really inconsequential parts of their careers or just to serve as a sounding board or a fact check.
I’ve developed a strong core of other Insider types, guys like Steve Gibbs, Dave Wallace Jr., Jim Hill, Mike Lewis, Henry Walther, Dennis Friend, Franklin Amiano, Steve Justice, Mickey Bryant, and Todd Hutcheson, who tip me off to stories or who can point me in the right direction or provide the contact info I’ve been searching for.
I’m extremely blessed to be entrusted with the images of some great photographers, who always seem to be thinking about what I might need next or are quick and generous to respond to my requests for photos not in our files; folks like Steve Reyes, Jere Alhadeff, Bob Snyder, Tom Schiltz, Alan Earman, and Mark and Laura Bruederle.
Thanks to my similarly minded pals, Todd Veney and Bret Kepner, for their insight and continual support and respect of what I do. Thanks to the copy editors — Lorraine Vestal, Juan Torres, Miesha Zumazuma, and Jeff “See You At The Races” Sumida — for slogging through my 10,000-word columns and making them readable.
And, of course, thanks to my loyal readers of the Insider Nation. Not a column goes by where someone doesn’t drop me a kind word or two, and I try to respond to as many as I can, and I thank you all for all the contributions you add. Special thanks to some of my most active and engaging readers: Robert Nielsen, Cliff Morgan, Gary Crumrine, “Chicago Jon” Hofmann, Howard Hull, Mark Watkins, Mark “Hogwild” Elms, Richard Pederson, Terry Spencer, Bob Lukas, Tom “Fasthair” Scott, Michael Ostrofsky, and my “grammar Nazi,” Robert Doss.
Charlie Proite watches from the background as Dave Miller launches their nostlagia dragster. (All photos by Steve Reyes)
I was hoping to get through the end of the year without another notable passing from our sport’s history, but that wasn’t to be. On Sunday, Dec. 28, we lost longtime nitro car owner Charlie Proite after a massive stroke. He was 73. Proite is well-known to both longtime and new nostalgia fans for his Wisconsin-based Telstar entries that dated back to the early 1960s.
He began his nitro career in 1963 when he bought Chris Karamesines’ Chizler and put Fred Welchman behind the wheel. Together they won Cordova Dragway’s prestigious World Series of Drag Racing event in 1965 and 1967. When you learn that Don Prudhomme beat Don Garlits in the 1966 final, that tells you all you need to know about the caliber of cars that attended the event.
Proite switched to Funny Cars in the early 1970s, and in 1973, he landed a major sponsorship with Pabst Brewing Co. and experienced some great years with Russell Long as his driver of the Pabst Blue Ribbon Charger. Vic Cecelia and Doc Halladay both also drove for Proite before he got out of the Funny Car business in the late 1970s (Halladay bought out Proite and kept the Telstar name alive with his own car). Proite remained on the sidelines until teaming with former Top Fuel pilot "Diamond" Dave Miller in 1997 on a nostalgia Top Fueler that resurrected both of their careers. That car was built by the late, great Dennis Rollain, who also built Miller’s famous “shorty” Top Fueler of the mid-1980s.
A number of folks called to tell me of Proite’s passing, including “Diamond Dave” himself, who said he has lost a very dear friend.
“We got pretty close over the last 17 years,” he said. “We had a lot of good years racing together. Racing was Charlie’s life. This was a real heartbreaker. We’re still going to race the car as Telstar and see if we can get it done somehow without Charlie.”
Finally, here’s to wrapping up some late-2014 threads.
My column on the birth of data recording, at least on the Racepak side, in drag racing met with some interesting feedback.
My good pal Henry Walther, who shared in that column his experienced with data gathering on the Larry Minor dragster and has a strong understanding of the field during his own time at Racepak, added, “Your mention of racers who either accepted or resisted data recorders brought to mind my own list of those I encountered during my years with Racepak. As an early proponent of data recorders and a firm believer in their value, I sometimes felt a responsibility to awaken those who didn’t quite ‘see the light.' Without naming names, there were many well-known and respected racers who needed to be led to the water before they would drink. This group consisted mainly of older racers who had gained their knowledge the old-school way and were reluctant to stray from their hard-earned methods of success. One that I will name is the driver with which I had the longest association, Gary Beck. When Bernie Fedderly and I were pursuing onboard data acquisition, Gary wasn’t quite sure he was in favor of having this newfangled device looking over his shoulder so-to-speak. He had his concerns about its viability. However, he should have been an advocate of it as it ultimately proved to us just how talented of a driver he was. Gary would give us his feedback after a run and tell us of what he had done or was going to do on the following run. Admittedly, sometimes we questioned whether he truly had that good of a feel for the car. Once we equipped the car to monitor some of the driver functions, we stopped questioning his keen awareness or abilities in the car. If he told us that he was going to run the car out another tenth of a second before he shifted it or that the car felt soft around the 330, the data recorder would always validate his claims. Beck was amazingly computer-like in his driving.
“Finally, your explanation of the struggles of comparing one run against another in the days of the thermal paper printers again aroused old memories. I wondered if racers today who use Racepak’s interactive data-analysis software, which can overlay multiple runs at one time on their computer screens, have an appreciation of how far things have come. Just the sheer size of the roll of thermal paper from one run was a challenge to handle, let alone trying to overlay the same graph from two of these strips of paper. As the attached photo of me attempting to dissect the data off of one of these printouts will attest, you needed some room to spread these out. A good set of young eyes and a magnifying glass were helpful, too. (Note: This photo of my makeshift office in the rear of the McGee Brothers Quad-Cam trailer was shot in Sonoma. There is another of the ‘that was then, this is now’ differences. No fancy crew chief lounges back then.)”
While Ron and Dale Armstrong certainly perfected the data recorder and worked on a traction-control device, Bill Warburton insists there were many before them who tried other methods, including an East Coast racer, John Burk, of Beverly N.J., a “tinkerer” whom Warburton said had an advanced system on his car back in 1971. “In 1968, John was the A/FD national record holder who I raced with on the East Coast Jr. Fuel circuit,” he wrote. “In 1971, John installed a computer in his A/FD that would control engine rpm in relationship to rear-wheel speed. If he started to spin the tires, the computer would slow the rpm down. I would kid him and call the computer "the Univac" because at the time Univac was one of the leading computer companies in the world. I don't think that he was ever able to work the bugs out of it, but you got to admire him for being willing to think outside of the box.”
My perpetual foil, Robert Nielsen, who always smartly argues his counterpoints, believes that while data recorders “certainly were responsible for some of the big performance gains shortly after their introduction, I think many of these performance gains you pointed out would have come about, [albeit] over a longer period of time, as one of the racers’ creeds is to always look for performance improvements. All that the data-acquisition systems did was speed up the process.”
Last column’s noting of the passing of ‘70s Funny Car chassis wiz Jaime Sarté led to a funny story from Brent Cannon, who partnered with veteran driver Phil “Punky Kid” Soares on a Top Fuel car back in the 1970s, memorable for its red and yellow barber-pole paint scheme and a big victory at the 1973 Irwindale Grand Prix. Soares, like Sarté, was from Hawaii (which has a surprisingly good track record on producing talented drag racers, right Mr. Nielsen?).
Writes Cannon, “Jaime and Phil Soares had a friendship from Hawaii where they both had been racing before coming to the mainland. One night at the County, we broke a top framerail behind the clutch (tire shake). Phil asked me to find Jaime. I got him and brought him back to the car. Jamie took a look at it and saw my church key oil can opener laying in the tool tray on the bug catcher. He asked for a hammer, then beat it completely straight and welded it to the chassis. He wrapped it all the way around the break and welded it. Phil took no reserve in making another lap after the quick surgery. Phil had total confidence in Jamie. We went on to the next round. I’m sure that there were many other stories, too, but I experienced this one first-hand.”
And finally, from one Phil to another to another, I want to give a shout out to longtime pal “Flyin’ Phil” Eliott, who’s currently battling throat cancer. Because of our shared first name and love for the sport, people sometimes have gotten us confused; I’ve been greeted as “Flyin’ Phil” a few times; I hope he has been mistaken as me, too, though I’m far better looking.
Elliott has been around the drag race journalism business for a long time and for a while published his own magazine, Drag Racing News & Views, which focused on the drag racing scene in the Northwest, where he’s still deeply loved and respected by racers in all classes. He even had his own dream of building and running a Funny Car, which he has documented on his website, NitroNova.com. It’s a fun read; check it out.
Anyway, as you can imagine, the cost of fighting cancer is not cheap, and while he has insurance, it’s also probably no surprise that it won’t cover the whole bill. He was finally convinced by friends to set up a crowd-sourcing donation page, which I hope you will visit and add to the impressive total already accumulated. You can find it here: http://www.gofundme.com/is8log
My best wishes to Phil. Get well soon, friend.
OK, gang, that’s it for 2014. Thanks again for everything you do, from visiting to contributing to passing the word. That helps make this a great place for folks like us. See ya next year!