Get-togethers at the NHRA Motorsports Museum are always fun, and its Southern California location ensures an all-star cast of drag racing greats, so it’s no surprise that they showed up in force at the Orange County Int’l Raceway Reunion to talk about one of the region’s most memorable and storied tracks.
Legendary racers Don Prudhomme, Tom McEwen, John Force, Tommy Ivo, Roland Leong, and Carl Olson were joined by former OCIR owners Mike Jones and Bill Doner as well as nitro engine maestro Ed Pink and former NHRA Competition Director Steve Gibbs for the festivities this time, which again were held in a panel-discussion format, followed by audience questions.
There’s not really a lot of structure or themed “discussion” among the panel – no real bandying with one another on a given topic – but rather, each guy gets to share his thoughts and stories, prompted by questions offered by emcee “Hot Rod Bob” Beck, a longtime local writer, announcer, and racer. What that leads to is a lot of interesting soliloquies and cracked jokes, and the best way for me to share some of the fun is just to report it that way.
As I mentioned in my preface last week, Doner drew the lion’s share of attention and love, which is really saying something when you’re in the same room with guys like Prudhomme, McEwen, and Force. There’s just something very likable and open about him, and he's quick to admit that he was in many ways the prototypical all-about-the-Benjamins promoter and equally quick to skewer himself and his personality for being so. Doner and Steve Evans and the antics that they got into, paid for, or were witness to are legendary in the sport’s annals.
Doner, never one to let an easy line escape him, especially at the expense of his old pals, told how he used to go with his dad to the drags at Santa Ana when he was a kid – “I remember seeing Tom McEwen and Don Prudhomme race then when I was about 4,” he barbed (even though at 74, he’s roughly the same age as the duo) – and how, as sports editor for the local Orange Coast Daily Pilot, he went to opening night at the County. “I had never, in any dream in my life, imagined I’d end up being involved in operating the track or even in drag racing.”
Doner noted that at one point, his empire consisted of nine dragstrips that ran 1,000 events a year, and it all started at the Seattle facility, which he successfully converted from primarily a sports-car track to a drag racing mecca in the Northwest that helped spawn the outrageous Funny Cars up and down the West Coast.
“It really started with 16 cars in Seattle, and getting 16 in one place at one time at the time was a challenge,” he recalled. “We even brought up ‘Big John’ Mazmanian for a one-shot deal – Evans did the ad: ‘The candy apple legend is on its way up the freeway coming to Seattle’ – and, of course, Jerry Ruth beat him in the first round, but it worked pretty good, not fabulous. I got more tracks in the Northwest – Spokane and Portland, and Yakima and Puyallup, then Fremont, and by then, Lions had closed, so we grabbed Irwindale and later Orange County.
“By the time we got OCIR, Larry Huff had turned it into an AHRA track, but it was pretty closed. I walked out there, walked the track clear to the finish line, the wind was blowing papers, the windows were broken out in the tower; gawd, it was a mess. It was mess, but it looked better than anything else we had. The rent was $12,500 a month. I think I only paid $12,000 a year in Seattle.
“We had tried running 32 cars at Irwindale, but you can only get so many people in, so we took over Orange County. So, what’s the next increment? We went right to 64. Can’t really afford to do it, right, so we’ll just chisel … no, we can’t chisel the racers … but we went to 64 Funny Cars with my usual things like jets, rockets, wheelstanders, KiteCycles, nude women ... whatever we needed because my rent was high.”
Asked how he managed to get 64 Funny Cars into the track, Doner leaned into the microphone and pointedly said, with a raised eyebrow, “You notice in the ads that I never said ’64 Funny Cars or your money back …’ I used to tell guys, ‘If you can get the body up on that Cadillac over there, roll it out to the starting line. Anything that flops we’re counting tonight.”
Doner was asked about the famous nude skydiver who parachuted into the track during the streaking craze of the 1970s: “How do you think that came about?” he was asked.
“How do you think?” Doner responded smartly.
“He landed right on the starting line,” the questioner added.
“He wouldn’t have gotten paid if he didn’t.”
Doner’s events were known for their colorful side acts (there’s the old probably-not-true chestnut about a worker telling Doner of a woman behind the tower with her hair on fire and Doner telling the worker, “Give her $100 bucks and send her down the track”), and he recounted a story about having NHRA executives, including Wally and Barbara Parks and then-Division 7 Director Bernie Partridge, on hand one evening.
"We’re firing up all the cars on the [track], and here comes Bill Shrewsberry’s [L.A. Dart wheelstander] up the track the wrong way, but he’s not even in the car; Steve Woomer [of Competition Specialties, who sponsored the car and many others in that era] was in the car. About that time, McCulloch did a fire burnout on the return road, and my KiteCycle guy lands on Roland’s car. Bernie turns to me and says, ‘You’ve broken 41 rules, and you haven’t even started the race.’ I said, ‘Stick around because it could get worse.’ "
Prudhomme also was effusive in his praise for Doner. “He was the promoter. We had deals worked out with him to run all of the tracks he ran. He’d bring a lot of people in and have a ball. He had some parties upstairs in that tower. I was busy racing, of course, but I heard about them all.”
For all of the folly and stunts and faults throughout the years – OCIR announcer Mike McClelland, son of Hall of Famer Dave, later told me that sometimes on hot days they couldn’t announce on the PA at the same time that cars were running or it would overload the electrical circuits -- OCIR remains a legend in the minds of many.
Ivo raved, “The tracks back East weren’t as good as the return road at Orange County,” and Pink called it “the Taj Mahal of racetracks.” Olson, like many on the panel, was at Orange County the day it opened and the day it closed, but he also had the unique vantage point of being there as a crewmember, a driver, a car owner, a winner, a fan, and an NHRA official.
“Those of us who grew up in Southern California -- at places like Colton, Lions, Pomona, the old San Gabriel track, Irwindale – that Orange County Int’l Raceway was the supertrack," said Olson. "Usually when you see artist renderings of places under construction, you just know that when they open the gates, it’s not going to look like that, but when this place opened the gates, it actually looked better. Mike Jones and his crew did such a fabulous job of building, maintaining, and operating that track. It really set the standard for dragstrips in this country and around the world. It also was at the forefront of safety, not just in its original design but for the entire time it was in existence with developments like double-Armco barriers and onboard fire extinguishers.”
Jones offered a brief history lesson about the track, how originally his team had been tasked with building a racetrack outside the city’s baseball stadium, home to the then California Angels. The city had lost its bid to have an NFL team play there and was looking for other opportunities to utilize the spacious grounds.
“It wasn’t very long before we figured that we’d have to be racing around the schedule of baseball games, and we’d have to advertise every event, and that just wasn’t going to work,” he said. “But rather than give up on all of the hours we spent putting the proposal together, we went to the Irvine Co. They had just turned down Jim Hall and Carroll Shelby and even some of their shareholders for use of the land, but somehow, we got it.
“The property had a lot of opportunity due to its proximity to [Interstate 5]. When I went back East to sell the signage to the tower to Champion, that [location] was the key because the car count on the freeway offered exposure that was second to none.”
Asked about the track’s grand design and revolutionary scoreboards, he explained simply, “We wanted to set ourselves apart from the other tracks that we were in competition with,” which at the time included a lot of tracks like Lions, Irwindale, San Fernando, and many more. “The timing was perfect for the track, and I was privileged to be there at that time and be involved.”
And, of course, there were more stories and great lines.
Gibbs was managing Irwindale when OCIR opened in 1967 and was very envious of the track they built. “Of course, we all have good memories of these old places,” he said, “but when you look back at Irwindale, it probably wasn’t the garden spot of the world, what with the rocks at the top end and the guardrail that probably didn’t have a straight panel in it.”
Asked if he had won the first Top Fuel race at OCIR, McEwen self-deprecatingly deadpanned, “I don’t remember,” then, looking into the front row where his longtime pal/nemesis Prudhomme sat, added, “Prudhomme says ‘No.’ He says if I won he must not have been there that day.”
Ivo recounted a very funny story about how his “alligator mouth” got him into a bad jam while racing at the track. “I was down there for one of Doner’s spectacular 32 Funny Car races. In the first round, Ed 'the Ace' McCulloch was racing some guy, and they had some problem with the staging, and the guy thought McCulloch burned him down. So I was in the pits for the next round, and the guy comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, you watch that Ed “the Ass” McCulloch so he doesn’t screw you around on the line. My car just happened to be running pretty good that night, and we were in the staging lanes, and some troublemaker spectator came by and said, ‘McCulloch says he's going to wipe the track with you.’ I said, ‘Oh yeah? Well tell “Ed the Ass” to bring his lunch.' It went from my mouth to McCulloch’s ears, and when we got down to the other end and they lifted up [the body], I look out, and there stood the Incredible Hulk. McCulloch is a pretty stout guy who would just as soon pop you as argue with you. His fists were all rolled up, and to top that, it was a night race, and he was facing the starting line, and the downtrack lights reflected off his eyes, and they looked like they were on fire. My whole life passed in front of my eyes; I knew I was a dead man walking. He reached in and grabbed me by the firesuit and went to pull me out of the cockpit to paste one on me, but I hadn’t loosened my seatbelt yet. I can say for sure that that time, seat belts saved my life.”
Leong had mixed memories from the County. “I was there for the first race and also the last race, which Hawaiian Punch sponsored [it also sponsored his Funny Car at the time], and had a lot of times between. There was some good, some not so good,” he said, citing as good his win at the 1969 Hang 10 Funny Car meet with a brand-new car after Larry Reyes had spectacularly crashed the car at the Winternationals and not so good when driver Mike Dunn got knocked out by tire shake and motored off the end of the track, destroying the car, and the 1983 World Finals, where they blew the crank out of the bottom of the engine and Dunn ended up barrel-rolling at the finish line.
Like Leong's, Pink’s memories of the track were mixed. “I have a lot of great memories and some sad memories. I remember being on the return road with one of my customers when Mike Sorokin lost his life. That was a sad, sad night. I remember some of the Manufacturers Meets there – big, big Funny Car races --- and seeing Gas Ronda win with one of my Ford engines and Don Schumacher and Pat Foster winning with our Chrysler engines. I remember when we were doing the engines for the Super Shops fuel altered, and at the end of the night, the two quickest cars were Don [Prudhomme] and the fuel altered, and they ran off against one another. There was a lot of drama that went on at Orange County; if you never went there back in the day, you missed a heckuva show.”
Prudhomme agreed with his old engine builder, reminiscing with relish the pre-race excitement and procedures of Funny Cars of the day. “We’d do our burnouts, stop out there, back up, and the flames are coming out on 100 percent nitro,” he said, really getting into it. “You’d stage the car and do a dry burnout – rrrruppp! – and the fans would just about piss all over themselves. That was so cool to do the dry hop, then you’d back up and hit it again before you went to the starting line. It was a real show. Doner and Steve Evans are screaming over the mike, and the party’s going on … it was a helluva time.”
Once Force took the mike, the show became all his. He complained about McEwen “conning” him into coming to the reunion, relaying, in his best McEwen impersonation, “You’re going to see all of your old buddies, and they’re going to feed you good [there was no food] -- just like he did at Orange County. You think I forget that [stuff]? You and ‘Snake’ abused me.” (Earlier, McEwen had bragged that “John was the whipping boy. He got beat by everybody.”)
And turning to Pink, he said, “You ask me why I never had an Ed Pink engine? Bank of America. I didn’t have that kind of money. The first time I tried to drive to the shop of the great Ed Pink, I ran out of gas. Plus you were in the [San Fernando] Valley; I might as well have been driving to Florida. That’s how broke I was. I got most of my motors from ‘Flash Gordon’ Mineo. I’ll never forget when I got my first aluminum motor; it had rods that had been kicked out of it, but I’d never had an aluminum motor before. We [his uncle Gene Beaver and his cousins the Condit brothers] went home and threw a party. Man, I hate to say it, but I wanted to be ‘the Snake’ or ‘the Mongoose’; it’s a curse that follows me. I wrote Mineo a bad check, and he drew a gun on me. I said, ‘What is this, a John Wayne movie?’ I was a pretty tough kid – thought I could fight – and he draws a gun on me. My uncle says, ‘You’d better cover that check; they’re all nuts. These are drag racers. If you don’t pay him, he’ll put more holes in you than that block he sold you. I wrote him another check, and he took it.”
Force’s financial struggles as a neophyte racer are legendary and well-known, sleeping 10 to a room and subsisting solely on bologna sandwiches, but you never know where to draw the line between fact, fiction, and entertainment, which Force seems to mix equally. “I’d watch some of these guys throw their junk [parts] in the trash can, and me and Uncle Beav would take ‘em out,” he said. “One time at Orange County, we looked out the trailer, and there’s Ivo screaming at Prudhomme, and Prudhomme’s screaming back. They started throwing pistons at each other. When they went back into the trailers, I went down there and picked up those pistons. That’s the way we lived.
"Doner? If I told you the things he’d done to me, they could put him in jail. I used to get on the phone with him, begging him to put my name in the radio commercials with Prudhomme and McEwen and Roland. I was trying to impress my wife; we’re going out to the track, listening on the radio to the ads [screaming DJ voice]: ‘It’s “the Snake,” it’s “the Mongoose,” it’s the Hawaiian,' and he’s ripping off the names, and it’s coming ... Radici & Wise, the Blue Max, and on and on, and then it’s ‘and many more,’ and you have to look over at the girl you’re in love with and [scream] ‘That’s me!’ Doner told me that it would help if I got a sponsor, and he would put me in the ads. He said, ‘I can make you a star or leave you a leaker’; when I got Leo’s Stereo, I heard my name in the ads.”
Doner sometimes was not too kind to the problem-plagued Force at the track, either. “You smoke the tires and hit the guardrail, and you’re coasting along, kind and thinking you’re the man because you lost, but [at least] you were there, and then, in front of the lady you’re in love with who’s coming down in the pickup truck to get you, you hear [Doner] over the PA say, ‘I wish he’d take his boat fishing …’ I said, ‘Take his boat fishing? I don’t own a boat.’ It took me years to figure out what you meant, Doner … and it really hurt.”
With the main show complete, the panel members spent a long time chatting with fans and old acquaintances and signing autographs. Prudhomme was the big autograph attraction -- it’s not many places I’ve been this year where Force didn’t have the biggest line – but everyone showed a lot of love to all who made the evening special, which is a fitting coda for a place that remains special in the hearts of many.
I’m sure I caught some of you off guard with my impromptu Monday post on Gordie Bonin, but I really needed to share that. Since then, I’ve gotten a lot of other comments about “240” – I finally got in touch with Ed McCulloch, who was Bonin’s main on-track and fan-favorite opposition in the Northwest -- and I’m open for still more from fans and fellow racers alike. I’ll share those thoughts here next week.
In the meantime, if you’re an NHRA Member or took advantage of the recent posting here to buy a monthly subscription to NationalDragster.net, you can review a pictorial history of Bonin’s career in My Favorite Fuelers in the column I posted today.
It has been three days since I got the news, and I still can't believe that Gordie Bonin is dead. The death of the popular former Funny Car star last Friday took the community by surprise and by shock, the first reports coming from longtime partner Ron Hodgson that the man whom most of us just called "240" had been found dead in his hotel room in Las Vegas. His Facebook posts revealed that he had been to the ICU of a local hospital several times recently but had been released.
Black Friday indeed.
I received the news that night from NHRA's Graham Light, Bonin’s longtime friend, former teammate, and fellow Canadian, just a few hours after he was discovered. Graham knew that, primarily, on a personal level, I'd want to know -- although everyone was Gordie's friend, there were those of us who had known and worked with him who were closer -- and, secondarily, that I needed to know to start spreading the sad news to the community.
Before I could write the story for NHRA.com, I sat in stunned silence for a moment. I tweeted out my shock to my Twitter followers and was quickly met with an echo of disbelieving replies. It's not that Bonin, at age 65, should have been immune to the ravages of age like the rest of us or that he wasn't the same physical and perhaps even mental specimen that he had been in the 1970s, but in my mind, he’s still the fair-haired prince of flopperdom and forever young.
Three days later, those first thoughts still are a bit raw on my emotions, so I decided today to do what I always do for clarity in times like this, to seek understanding and comfort in writing about it, to explore not just my own feelings but those of friends and acquaintances who knew him better, so I started writing and interviewing and wanted to share it in this unplanned edition of the column where we bond over shared experiences and admiration.
Like many young Funny Car fans in the 1970s, Bonin was one of my favorites. I always thought that the green Bubble Up Monza was one of the sharpest-looking cars out there, and the subsequent Bubble Up Firebirds were truly fearsome speed machines that earned him his speedy nickname. I remember that I started drinking Bubble Up in high school just because of those cars.
Bonin seemed to have it all: a good-looking, blonde-haired driver of one of the era's best cars, respected by his peers and loved by the fans, especially the female ones. I'd see him on his treks south to OCIR and Irwindale, but mostly I knew of him from his histrionics on the national event tour, especially his odd streak of every-other-year victories at the Gatornationals (1977, 1979, and 1981). I was a fan and rooted for him.
So imagine my surprise in 1983, just a year after leaving the spectator ranks to join the National Dragster staff, to find myself working with Bonin at NHRA, where he had been hired in the Marketing Department. We were co-workers for six years, me and this Funny Car star, and became lifelong friends. Even after he left NHRA and returned to the cockpit where he belonged, and even in his roles after his driving career ended, we stayed in touch via email or Facebook. I saw him this year during the national event in Seattle. He was quite a bit heavier but still had that friendly smile. We chatted for a few minutes, I milked him for detailed information for the My Favorite Fuelers column I was writing for NationalDragster.net, and we said goodbye. I didn't know it would be the last time I would see him, or it would have ended differently.
After the story had been posted on NHRA.com, the first person I reached out to was Roland Leong. I sent him an email that night, expressing my sorrow at his loss -- Bonin was, after all, the only driver of 20 to get two stints in the Hawaiian -- and asking for an interview. I didn't want to call him that night and intrude on his grief, but I've known Roland long enough to know that he'd understand. He was my first call this morning.
Gordie Bonin, center, with Roland Leong, right, and the late, great Steve Evans, in the Irwindale Raceway winner's circle.
Leong hired Bonin late in the summer of 1973, after his operation had been stolen from the parking lot of a Holiday Inn in Gary, Ind. When Leong returned to Los Angeles to rebuild, his then driver, Leroy Chadderton, decided he had had enough of the road and quit. Bonin was available after the Pacemaker team of Hodgson and Gordon Jenner had parked their car for a short time, and Leong hired him. Bonin lived with Leong during this time, and they stayed together into the 1974 season before Bonin left to rejoin the Pacemaker team and was replaced by Mike Van Sant. They reunited nearly 20 years later when Leong signed a short-lived deal with the Hawaiian tourism board, but the sponsorship ended almost after just a half-season.
“He was a good driver, and we got along pretty good,” Leong said of his longtime friend. “When drivers left me, it was usually because of personality conflict. I have to admit that back then, I felt like I’d had enough success that I wasn’t going to let a driver tell me how to run my car. Right, wrong, or indifferent, it was my car, and a lot of times, the drivers had some strong opinions because of other cars they’d driven, but Gordie was really easygoing and upbeat, and we had real good communication. He didn’t do stupid things behind the wheel, which can be hard not to do at times when you’re driving a Funny Car. You just have a split second to make a decision, but he was pretty good at making the right decision.”
“Easygoing” was a common description that many shared. There’s no doubt that Bonin sometimes led a complex personal life – much to the amusement of his teammates at times -- but he was always upbeat and smiling through it, at least publicly.
I also spoke to Hodgson and to Light, who had both known Bonin for decades from their shared Canadian roots.
Bonin at Seattle in the first Pacemaker Funny Car
(Rich Carlson photo)
Hodgson began his long association with Bonin when Bonin bought a Hurst shifter from Hodgson’s Pacemaker Automotive speed equipment business. That eventually led to their teaming on a Funny Car and the great success that followed for more than a decade.
“Gordie just had a real feel for driving Funny Cars,” said Hodgson. “We didn’t have computers in the cars at the time, but Gordie was our computer. We had some great crew chiefs -- guys like the late Dan Ferguson, Gordon Jenner, and Jerry Verhuel – and Gordie was a big part of our success because of what he could share from a run.
“He was a drag racer from Day One. Racing was his life; even when he quit racing, he never quit racing. He’d do anything to get to the next race. We had a lot of fun together, at the track and on the road. He was off the wall sometimes but a lot of fun. I spent some time with him and Terry Capp about a month ago -- he and Terry were both incredibly popular in Edmonton – and Gordie was still talking about driving; he couldn’t get it out of his system.”
Light knew Bonin from as far back as the late 1960s, when they had competed against one another, Bonin in an injected nitro dragster and Light a blown gas dragster, in a Super eliminator-type class in Canada. Each took separate career paths, but their lives converged when Light worked for (and eventually took over control of) Hodgson’s Edmonton Int’l Speedway. In 1977, Light and car owner Bob Lawrence teamed with Hodgson, Jenner, and Bonin, adding their Top Fueler to the Bubble Up Funny Car. They enjoyed an amazing weekend at the 1977 World Finals in Ontario, where Bonin won Funny Car and Light was runner-up in Top Fuel to Dennis Baca.
“Gordie was always enjoyable to be around, always very positive, and, in my opinion, one of the best Funny Car drivers of that era,” said Light. “When I came to work at NHRA in 1984, Gordie was already here. I was new to California and spent a lot of time with him that first year and during his time with NHRA. Even after he left, we stayed in occasional contact, and the one thing about Gordie is that he wanted to be a Funny Car driver for life; even right to the end, he was talking about a comeback. He lived an amazing life to its fullest; a guy would have to live 150 years to enjoy what he packed into 65.”
Just as Bonin was Light’s tour guide when he came to Southern California, former National Dragster Editor Bill Holland took Bonin under his wing a year earlier.
“I met the two ‘Gordons’ (Bonin and Jenner) back in the early '70s and immediately took a liking to them —as did the rest of the Dragster staff,” he said. “I remember we all went to El Tepeyac in East Los Angeles and had fun watching the Canadians wrestle with those famous, monstrous ‘Hollenbeck’ burritos. When Gordie moved to California to work for NHRA, he stayed at my home until he got settled. He felt obligated to help out around the house, so it was kinda fun to watch ‘240’ mow the lawn.
“After I left NHRA to go into the advertising/PR business, I got a call from Gordie, as he and Ron Hodgson were putting a deal together with Canada Dry, who owned the Bubble Up brand, and needed help PR-wise. Back then ‘the Snake’ was at the apex of his career and dominated Funny Car racing. So we had to get creative to get noticed. I managed to convince the local Bubble Up bottler to set up a huge ‘wall’ of bright green soda pop cans, and we shot the car in front of it for what became a full-color center spread in Hot Rod magazine.
“I remember attending a function in Red Deer, Alta., where native son Gordie was honored. Noted author George Plimpton was also feted at the event, and it was fun listening to the two of them swap stories. Despite trying, Bonin couldn't convince Plimpton to try driving a Funny Car as one of his ‘Walter Mitty moments.’
“Gordie's enthusiasm and friendliness were appreciated by both the media and drag fans across North America. In the 40-plus years I knew him, he always had a ready smile. And that's the way I'll remember him. RIP, 240."
Larry Pfister, who covered the Northwest racing scene in-depth for more than 30 years, writing for local publications before founding his popular Horsepower Heaven site in 1995, has many vivid memories of Bonin.
“His Seattle fans were legion,” he wrote, “often louder than those of the Max, ‘Jungle’ or McCulloch. And they had reason to cheer as he was our wild man … our ‘Jungle Jim' of the Northwest and Canada. His 400-foot powerstands at Seattle, Mission, and Portland were insane, his burnouts as big as anybody’s, his mastery of control when there was so little, simply a sight to see. I was shooting a feature in ‘89 when he came to Seattle to test the new TF car. His first hit behind the wheel was a full pull and a great number. No warm-up, no test, just foot to the floor after many years away.
“He knew who he was, never forgot his roots, and had a well-deserved and enjoyable resurgence with the recent nostalgia craze. He told me many times he had no interest in getting behind the wheel of a nostalgia car. He would laugh and say he had his time and it could never be better today than yesterday.
"Many who knew him were aware of his demons but loved him just the same. His friendship to so many and his love for his mother were legendary. There will only ever be one drag racer known by two numbers. Two Forty. We will never forget. Thank you, my friend, for some truly unforgettable memories.”
I also heard from everyone’s favorite blogger, Bob Wilber, who first crossed paths with Bonin while Wilber was doing PR for the Worsham family and its Checker Schuck’s Kragen deal.
“He was a manufacturer's rep at the time and had a product he was hoping to get on the shelf at Checker, Schuck's, and Kragen stores, so he approached me to see if I could introduce him to the correct buyer,” Wilber remembered. “He treated me with such class and interest, I was almost taken aback (I was fully aware of his career and his illustrious history as a legend in the sport), but at the time, I just figured he was putting on the charm as a networking technique, hoping to generate some business. The only problem with that theory was the fact he treated me like a dear friend for the next 15 years, shouting my name when he'd spot me at a racetrack as if we were lifelong buddies.
“When I joined Team Wilkerson, he was among the first to reach out and congratulate me, letting me know that he now considered himself a loyal Wilk Warrior and that he'd be rooting for us from that point forward. He subscribed to my PR mailing list, and of all the many people who receive my daily email updates during races, he was the most prolific in terms of taking the time to reply to even the most mundane message. If my email blast on a Saturday night simply said ‘Wilk qualifies ninth,’ he'd shoot back a reply within minutes, wishing us luck and signing off as ‘240 - Loyal Wilk Warrior.’ I'm unable to count how many times I'd see his emails and think to myself, ‘I can't believe Gordie Bonin sends me these notes, week in and week out.’ On the day before I learned of his passing, I was actually telling my wife about all of this, to let her know about this special guy who treated me with such class, interest, and respect for so many years. For some reason, I was thinking of him that day, and I felt the need to share this story as if there was some urgency to tell it. Turns out, there was. Gordie will always remain one of my favorites in this sport, and the NHRA world is a little emptier now that he's gone and I know I won't be getting those email replies from 240.”
As Hodgson and Light alluded to, Bonin had his eye on a return to the sport even up until the time of his passing. He was working various angles, including nostalgia Funny Cars, international tours, and more. Even if it were just wishful thinking, none of it will have a chance to come to fruition now, and maybe it’s better that way, better that we can remember “240” from his glory days, for his carefree joy in life, and the way he touched ours.
Phil Burgess, liar. Yep, that’s me. I had really planned to offer a full report of last weekend’s Orange County Int’l Raceway Reunion held at the NHRA Motorsports Museum but forgot that this is a short workweek with Thanksgiving and all, meaning that I had to have all National Dragster and online business wrapped up Wednesday, which pretty much precluded me wading through more than two hours of notes and recordings in the given time.
Those of you who follow me on Twitter (@nhraphil) got a live stream of quotes as the distinguished panelists — Bill Doner, Carl Olson, Tom McEwen, Tommy Ivo, Roland Leong, OCIR VP Mike Jones, Ed Pink, Don Prudhomme, John Force, and Steve Gibbs — did their thing, and that should just be the teaser for the full report that will include mentions of Ed “the Ass” McCulloch (someone else’s words, not mine, Ed!), Linda Lovelace, the Taj Mahal, nude skydivers, digging through trash cans for used parts, and more.
Force, of course, had everyone rolling in the aisles, but with an all-star roster like “The Snake” and “The Mongoose” and “The Hawaiian” on hand, it was Doner who seemed to draw the most love from the audience of about 300 (and his fellow panelists) and certainly, with his gift of gab and quick wit, provided some of the evening’s most interesting banter. The audience was also studded with familiar faces like Chuck and Del Worsham,"Wild Bill" Shrewsberry, Bob Muravez (aka Floyd Lippencott Jr.), Bob Brandt, Jr. Thompson, Larry Bowers, Jeff Courtie, Cory Lee, and many others.
Beyond the sheer enjoyment of hearing legends of our sport reminisce about a place so near and dear to my heart, I also got to meet several loyal column readers and put some faces to the names I so often find in my Inbox. Your kind and sincere words meant even more to me in person. Thank you.
I also got to network a little to work on some future column ideas — I’ve got a funny one in the works with Ivo and Ron Pellegrini about the four-engine car — and catch up with some old friends. I promise that I’ll have the full Reunion report next Friday. Hey, have I ever lied to you before?
On a completely unrelated but nonetheless important-to-me note, we finally (and when I say “finally,” I mean it was way too long in the works) have a system on the NationalDragster.net site that allows visitors to access all of the great articles that we add there on a daily basis without being a full member. For just $5.99, you can get a full month's worth of access to all of the daily columns, Bits from the Pits, event coverage, and more. You can buy one month at a time or set up a recurring charge; check it out here.
Nostalgia freaks like you guys will definitely get your money’s worth from just two of the columns — John Jodauga’s Where Are They Now?, which publishes every Thursday, and My Favorite Fuelers, written by yours truly — which are heavily focused on the same era that we talk about here each week. Already there are 45 of each of the columns available, plus Monday Morning Crew Chief, Time Travel Tuesday, and the Sportsman-oriented The Sports Report.
Where are They Now?, which used to appear in a different form in National Dragster, takes a look back, through great old photos and current interviews, with some of the stars of the sport you know (and have read about here) and maybe some you don’t know. Here’s a look at the list so far:
||Larry Dixon Sr.
While Where Are They Now? examines the people, the My Favorite Fuelers column takes a look at the machines. I started out focusing on individual cars that were my favorites — Mickey Thompson’s Grand Am, Prudhomme’s Army Monza, Don Schumacher’s Wonder Wagon, etc. — but later, as I ran out of true favorites, I expanded it to first a regional basis based on that week’s current Mello Yello national event and then later to some career-retrospective pieces that I’m sure you’ll enjoy. They’re packed with great old photos from the National Dragster library and extensive research that I did. Here’s the list to date:
||Mickey Thompson's Grand Am
||Don Schumacher's Wonder Wagon
|Gary Beck's Export A Top Fueler
||Jim Dunn’s Rear-Engine Cuda
||Chicago Patrol Mustang II
|California Charger Top Fueler
||Budweiser King Tempo
||Hot Wheels Wedge
|Pioneer Stereo Datsun
||Pure Hell Fuel Altered
||Diamond Dave' Miller's Shorty
|Lew Arrington's Brutus
||Gary Ormsby's Streamliner
||Pisano & Matsubara Funny Cars
|War Eagle Pontiacs
||Gary Beck/Larry Minor Top Fueler
|The Blue Max Mustang II
||Barry Setzer Vega
||Candies & Hughes
||The L.A. Hooker
|Mustang II Funny Cars
||Monza Funny Cars
||Barracuda Funny Cars
|New England Fuelers
||East Coast Fuelers
|Great Indy Top Fuel Finals
||Indy's Funny Car Heroes
||Indy's Top Fuel Heroes
As you can see, there's a treasure trove of stuff just calling your name. I don't mean to get all commercial on you, but selfishly, I'd love for more people to read some of the great work we've been doing there all year. I'm hoping that the reasonable price will entice some more folks to plunk down a few bills [do it here!] to enjoy them all. All told, there are more than 200 of our daily columns, plus in-depth coverage and photos from every national event and more. The only things you don't get are the member-exclusive benefits like the audiocast, live timing, the rulebook, member discounts, and, of course, the cool online version of the never-quicker, never-better National Dragster. You certainly can (and I encourage you to do so) become a full member right there on the site, which will actually save you money over buying 12 months of site-only access and give you all of the cool member benefits.
OK guys, that's it for another week. I actually wrote this on Wednesday (you didn't expect me to get cranberry sauce all over my keyboard, did you?), and I'm getting ready to enjoy a few days off before plunging back into it next week. I hope you had a great Thanksgiving and took the time to be thankful for all of the bounties in your life. I know that I'll have been doing the same, which includes thoughts and appreciation to all of you who make what I do so very enjoyable.
It may only be Nov. 22, but it already feels like Christmas Eve for this Orange County Int’l Raceway pit rat looking forward to the OCIR Reunion tomorrow at the NHRA Motorsports Museum. Even though I never got a chance to visit Lions Drag Strip, I attended the Lions Reunion at the museum last year and got a real kick out of it, so I’m certain that hearing the legends of the sport talk about the dragstrip (home of my youth) will bring back lots of great memories. John Force, Don “the Snake” Prudhomme, Tom “the Mongoose” McEwen, “TV Tommy” Ivo, Roland Leong, Carl Olson, Ed Pink, Gary Densham, OCIR founding President and General Manager Mike Jones, and others will be on the panel sharing their memories and answering questions from what’s sure to be a packed house. I’ll have a full review of the affair next week. In the meantime, you may enjoy reliving this three-part column I did on OCIR five years ago on the 25th anniversary of its closing [Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3].
Apparently my giddiness didn’t allow me time to focus on a subject-oriented column (though I have a bunch in the works), and I noticed that the ol’ mailbox is starting to overflow again with comments about topics past and present, so I thought I’d spend this time sorting through the many contributions from the Insider Nation.
Last Friday’s column, which included mention of Don Garlits’ use of the Donovan engine in 1977, inspired Fred Gunton to send along the photo at right of “Big Daddy" and Donovan in mid-discussion in Seattle in late 1976. That’s Gunton on the right in the cap. “I was chatting with Don, and Donovan walked over and asked him if he could ask him a question. [Don] replied, ‘Go ahead,' and then the offer came!”
According to his book, Don Garlits and His Cars, Garlits writes that Donovan “offered me an engine deal I couldn’t refuse” and convinced Garlits to abandon the Dodge Hemi 426 he had run for the previous 13 years for the new Donovan 417. The deal appears to have been free parts, and, because Garlits was spending the then-whopping sum of $60,000 a year with Keith Black, he jumped all over it.
The Donovan first went into Swamp Rat 23 (the car with which he had won the IHRA championship while boycotting NHRA over disagreements about how some aspects of the 1975 title chase was handled), and the car set low e.t. and was runner-up to Jerry Ruth in its debut in his return to NHRA competition at the 1977 Winternationals. He also was runner-up (to James Warren) at the March Meet but was using up a ton of parts trying to figure out the necessary fuel volume, so with his hometown Gatornationals next up, he hauled Swamp Rat 22 (the 5.63, 250-mph car) out of mothballs and reverted back to the K-B and won the race, then returned to the Donovan project.
He and the recently departed Don “Mad Dog” Cook built Swamp Rat 24 (the blue and white God Is Love car) specifically for the Donovan. They again set low e.t. (5.771) at the Winternationals in 1978 but lost in round one to Richard Tharp, then in quick succession won the AHRA Winternationals at Beeline Dragway outside of Phoenix and the Gatornationals again in Gainesville. They ran the Donovan for all of 1978 but ultimately switched back to the K-B at the start of the 1979 season because the Donovan “was just not strong enough for the horsepower being produced in 1978.”
I got an interesting note and some photos from Dave Parsons about the “chopping down the Christmas Tree” thread from September. I had shown the first photo in the gallery at right and was only able to identify that it was an injected dragster that took out the bottom bulb of the Tree at Irwindale Raceway and had no idea what happened after that (though clearly things were not looking good for the wayward shoe).
“After a little detective work, I can name the culprit!” Parsons wrote. “What jogged something in my brain was the sinuous guardrail at Irwindale, and it summoned memories of some photos in a children’s book from 1971 titled On the Drag Strip. In it, the author describes what it is like for a driver to get ‘in big trouble’ (experience a crash) and provides a photo sequence — although the shot you have, which would be the first of the sequence, is not included. As I studied the book's images, my mind went into high gear, and my suspicions were confirmed. The first two images I’ve sent reveal the track to be Irwindale, and the push trucks in image two look to be the same and in the same position as in your photo.
Photo three shows the wavy guardrail, and we get a glimpse at the graphics behind the wheels, but in your photo, that area is obscured by the blackout panels on the Tree. Foiled! But in No. four, we get a glimpse of the graphics in front of the axle, and BINGO, it matches! Photo No. five gives us a clearer shot of the graphics with other telltale identification, like breather location on the early Hemi, headers, M&H Racemaster on the slicks, and one more thing — a picture of the driver. Well, I feel a little bad ratting him out, but the book’s author and self-confessed driver of the injected dragster is Ed Radlauer, children’s books author.”
Another mystery solved by the Insider Nation ... thanks Dave!
Speaking of Christmas Trees, I got the photos at left from Phil Rolsma, who opened Classic Gameroom Supply in Beaver Falls, Pa., after getting “downsized out of the corporate world” nearly three years ago. He now buys, sells, restores, and consigns 1940s and 1950s jukeboxes, slot machines, pinball machines, soda machines, and the like, including a like-new, five-amber Chrondek Tree with brain box, Chrondek Blue travel trunk, starting-line lights and reflectors, reaction timers, and starter-control box.
“This Tree was bought by a racer for use in his garage and purported to have been used outside at a track but once or twice, and I believe it,” Rolsma said. “The Gemini-era connectors in the thing are bad-ass on their own right, and you can eat out of the insides. It still has the Chrondek 'pass' ink stamps on the inside of the Tree. It is truly a special, once-in-a-lifetime, for-the-waiting-room-of-Hot Rod-magazine kind of piece. Or, Leno. I'm not, however, going to have it end up in an Applebee's somewhere. It just is another piece that gets that 'Where did you get that?' gasp when people walk in our appointment-only showroom.”
If you’re interested — and, for what it's worth, the Tree is one of those "If you have to ask the price, you probably can't afford it kind of things" — you can call him toll free at 888-9-PINBALL (746-2255) or check out 9PinBall.com. He's also got the cool Nitro Groundshaker pinball machine, which you can also see in the gallery.
A few years ago I ran several columns showing off some great, old dragstrip flyers [Part 1 | Part 2] and just got the image at right from my pal, memorabilia maven Mike Goyda, showing a promotional item from Augusta Int'l Speedway in Georgia. Although the flyer says it's located “south of Augusta” and “2,400 feet of Tobacco Road,” my research tells me that it was located in the bucolic town of Hephzibah, Ga., and was host not only to a dragstrip but also a three-mile-long road course, one-mile dirt oval, a two-mile-long tri-oval superspeedway, and a half-mile paved oval. NASCAR great “Fireball” Roberts won his last race there on the road course in November 1963, shortly before being killed in a fiery wreck in Charlotte.
Anyway, this flyer is advertising the appearing of “your hero and mine,” Tommy Ivo and his four-engine dragster, which makes it 1961. (The track opened in 1960 and closed in 1969.) But that’s not the real reason Goyda sent it to me. If you look closely at the image (or, better yet, click on the link below it to view a larger version), you’ll see that two weeks later, the track was holding its first Turkey Race: “25 turkeys will be turned loose for spectators to catch and carry home.”
“I thought you might do a column on the numerous whacked-out ways dragstrip promoters have found to promote attendance,” Goyda postulated. “I thought I had heard them all until this. At least they didn't insult Tommy by holding the Turkey Race in conjunction with his appearance, although being the showman that he was, he might have welcomed it.”
Great idea, Mike. So if anyone has any stories to share about crazy track promotions (like, say, if someone hypothetically had decided to drop turkeys out of a helicopter), I want to hear them. The weirder the better.
This just in: Shortly after this column was published, I got an email from Ron Pellegrini, who took over the controls of Ivo machine later that year (the movie studios didn't want their golden child driving such a wild machine). and drove the four-engined car at Augusta. "And if my memory is correct I went back on the 19th with the twin," he wrote. "I remember seeing live turkeys being thrown out of the bed of a pickup. After much pulling and tugging by the spectators some lucky (or unlucky) few went home with various parts of the same turkey."
Hint: I'm the good-looking one on the right.
Backtracking just a bit, I finally met up with Heather LeVay, daughter of the late fan-favorite Funny Car shoe Tripp Shumake, in Pomona for an update on the progress of the book she is writing about her father. You may remember a couple of stories [Part 1 | Part 2] that I wrote in this column about a year ago remembering “240 Shorty,” and to which Heather graciously shared her memories of her dad and also talked about her desire to do a book.
She’s been on the road ever since, collecting literally reams of remembrances from all kinds of folks to include in her book, which she hopes to self-publish next April. She’ll be including those two columns (including some of the great comments some of you contributed) and a treasure trove of photos she’s collected over the years. She’s been diligently trying to track down permissions from some of the photos she has, and I’ve been working with her to figure out some of that.
In the meantime, if you have any great photos of Tripp and/or his cars and you give Heather your permission to include them in the book, you can send them, plus any thoughts you want to share about him, to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
She’s poured her heart and soul and a daughter’s love into this book, and I’m really looking forward to the finished product, and I’m sure it will bring back lots of great memories from those of you who also knew Shumake. I’ll let you know when it’s available.
OK, that's it for today. Have a great Friday. I know I'll have a great Saturday, and I hope to see some of you there.