Compared to its Fancy Dan contemporaries Orange County Int’l Raceway and Dallas Int’l Motor Speedway, Lions Associated Drag Strip was a dust bowl wedged between freeways and refineries. Yet Lions left an indelible impression in the hearts and memories of the legion of faithful who called “the Beach” their home, which goes a long way toward explaining why several hundred people turned out on a rainy night last Saturday at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum to reminisce about one of Southern California’s most storied tracks.
An all-star cast of panelists – coerced and cajoled by co-emcees Dave McClelland, the longtime voice of the NHRA, and museum curator Greg Sharp – entertained and enthralled a roomful of listeners that also was high in star appeal, from legendary Art Chrisman to newly crowned NHRA Funny Car champ Jack Beckman.
The panelists – broken into two groups that each spoke for about an hour – included some of the sport’s biggest names in Don “the Snake” Prudhomme, Tom “the Mongoose” McEwen, “TV Tommy” Ivo, “Big Jim” Dunn, and Roland Leong, as well as a phalanx of famous Lions names such as injection wizard Gene Adams, engine builder Ed Pink, gasser great “Bones” Balogh, Top Fuel ace Gary “Mr. C” Cochran, and car owner Mike Kuhl, whose Carl Olson-driven dragster won Top Fuel at Lions’ Last Drag Race. The panel was not limited to drivers as both Lions biographer Don Gillespie and former track photographer John Ewald (J&M Photos) also shared memories of the facility and its two most famous operators, Mickey Thompson and C.J. “Pappy” Hart.
There were plenty of memorable reunions at the Lions Reunion, including of panelist Don "the Snake" Prudhomme, right, and Tommy Greer, who teamed on the famed Greer-Black-Prudhomme Top Fueler of the early 1960s.
Although Lions didn’t have a fancy timing tower like OCIR and DIMS, it had the one intangible that a contractor can’t cement into place: magic. Panelist after panelist explained his love affair with Lions, talking about how each Saturday night, the place was electric with anticipation, and the pits were packed with the region’s – and sometimes the nation’s – finest racers. For many, it was kind of like that bar in Cheers, a place where everyone knew your name and you knew theirs, from the ticket takers to the concession-stand workers slinging the notorious chili-covered tamales. Every Saturday night was a battle royale, and when the famous fog rolled in late at night, anything could happen.
Compared to running at other local tracks, Prudhomme said that going to Lions was like going to Yankee Stadium. “It was the all-time coolest place ever,” he said. “It was a special place.”
“Lions wasn’t a drag race,” echoed Cochran. “It was a happening. Lions Saturday night is where everyone was."
“We got pretty spoiled every Saturday to go to Lions and see cars that the folks back East only read about or saw in pictures, and they were all there every week like a regular deal,” Sharp agreed, and, noting the quantity and quality of the competition at Lions each week, Ewald added that for many, “Winning a trophy at Lions was like winning an Oscar.”
Pink added, “I loved the place. The track was nice and smooth, and the air was great. For an engine builder, you love that kind of track because you could make as much power as you could. You could pretty well put the can in it and, within reason, run it as hard as you could.”
'Twas truly a special place, and it was a special treat to hear them all reminisce about the place. Here are some of the more memorable exchanges of a magical night.
Many commented about the track’s special atmospherics, at sea level with the cool ocean air flowing in at night accompanied by a fog, which led famed Drag News correspondent “Digger Ralph” Gudahl to coin the phrase “the duels in the dew.” Cochran recalled that the fog sometimes was so thick that drivers launched into the night and couldn’t see the finish line until they were at half-track, and even then, vision was somewhat limited. “You knew if the front tire started bouncing, you were in the gravel and you needed to move over a little bit,” remembered McEwen. Doug Dryer, who mounted a lot of the nitro tires back in the day and was part of the audience, related a quote attributed to Funny Car racer Neil Lefler: “Drive into your garage with the lights off at 100 mph and stop before you hit the bench."
Balogh recounted one of master showman Thompson’s stunts, a Le Mans-style start during the “lunch break” between runs in which drivers had to run from their cars to the spectator fence then back again, snatch their keys off the hood, start their cars, and race to the other end. “I had a hard time finding the key, so I asked Mickey if we were going to do it again next week. ‘Oh, yeah; the crowd liked it.’ I said, ‘Good,’ [and put in] a toggle switch and a push button.”
Thompson certainly earned Prudhomme’s respect – and instilled fear. “We were down there at the end of the track, waiting in line to get water for the engine,” he said. “Mickey Thompson was running the place at the time – he was a big deal, y’know – and someone in line was giving him [grief], and, lo and behold, he just reached over and knocked the guy plumb out. I thought, ‘Holy cow!’ It scared me to death. He threw me out once because when I was driving Ivo’s single-engine car, I put a parachute on the back – it didn’t really need one, but Ivo had one on his twin, and I thought it would be cool to have one on my car – but it put too much weight on the back and did this big wheelstand. Mickey came up to me and said, ‘I’ll throw your ass out of here if you do that wheelstand one more time.’ We went back and put some weight on the front end, but it didn’t help, and, sure enough, he threw me out of there for six months. That was Mickey; he was a tough son of a bitch.”
Tom "the Mongoose" McEwen, right, chatted with his former car owner, Gene Adams. They teamed on the Albertson Olds entry in 1961.
Adams recounted the brief but spectacular history of the Albertson Olds dragster at Lions, a six-month period in which he and driver Leonard Harris won 12 straight races sandwiched around a win at the Nationals in Detroit; that partnership ended with the sad demise of the extremely talented Harris at "the Beach" while test-driving a car for another racer. “I guess I had some of my greatest and worst moments there,” he acknowledged.
At times, the proceedings took on the flavor of a roast. With the microphone his, the ever-energetic and evil-grinning Ivo let his buddy “the Mongoose” have it pretty good.
“McEwen’s nickname was 'Cassius,' after Cassius Clay. That was because his mouth ran faster than his car did. I used to love racing McEwen. At that time, Gene Adams was his mechanic. You know, good ol’ kind, easygoing Gene Adams – NOT. He’d get down to the other end if they lost and throw the toolbox out of the back of the truck and chew McEwen up one side and down the other. That show was better than going to the circus.”
And he didn’t let buddy Prudhomme, who began his career as a helper on Ivo’s cars, off easy, either. “Back then, he was just a garden worm, not ‘the Snake,’ and he had the darnedest laugh you ever heard. If something struck him funny, he would laugh so hard that everyone around him would be laughing because it sounded like a cross between a constipated hoot owl and someone being choked to death.” He then proceeded to give his impersonation of such, to the howls of delight from the crowd.
Dunn also had a great McEwen story: “I’d like to thank the guy who gave me the biggest help in tuning a nitro car,” he said. “I was running the Dunn & Yates car; we had just started and only had 75 percent in it. We got a chance to race McEwen. In those days, you’d flip a coin to see who got lane choice. I think he was driving for [Lou] Baney then, and I asked him, ‘Tom, you wanna flip for lane choice?’ [and he said], ‘Kid, take the side you want because there’s no way you can beat me.’ That was the wrong thing to say to this Okie boy. I go back and tell Al what [McEwen] said, and he said, ‘Drain the tank and put in 90 percent.’ I have a nice picture of me winning, and I got from [running] 75 to 90 percent in one run.”
Dunn also noted the difference between racing then and racing now. ”If two of you had a job, you could run a fuel car because you’d win $25 for first round and be able to buy enough nitro for the whole next race. Now, if you want to go to Indy, you’d better have $700,000 to get everyone there.”
Dunn also recounted a match race that he ran with his altered at Lions in which three-quarters of the stands were filled, a feat of which he was proud until Hart told him, “Dunn, I can get two guys on roller skates and fill half the stands.”
The Dec. 1 reunion also marked the 40th anniversary of Lions’ Last Drag Race (Dec. 2, 1972), and that raucous night was the subject of extended remembrances about the free-for-all nature of the evening’s final moments, when spectators climbed onto (and, in some cases, began disassembling) the guardrails, and rocks and bottles were heaved onto the track (Olson distinctly remembers crunching over several bottles on his winning pass against Jeb Allen). “It was pure chaos; all of the security guards had left an hour earlier,” confirmed Kuhl. “It took us about an hour just to get back up the return road to the starting line after we won.”
Kuhl also confirmed Olson’s story about not wanting to run the final that night because of the unruly crowd and because, by that point, their two-race-old car had literally shook itself to pieces and was partially held together by baling wire. “I told Carl, ‘The worst thing that will happen is that the motor will fall out of it and it’s behind you, so who cares?’ We crossed our fingers, and it worked.”
According to Sharp, track manager Steve Evans got a call during the night from partner Bill Doner asking about the crowd. “I’ve got about 1,500 people,” Evans told him. “Fifteen hundred people? That’s all?” asked an incredulous Doner. “Yeah, in the photographer’s area,” replied Evans.
Sharp, addressing Prudhomme, spoke about how “the Snake” got his start in Ivo’s dragster at Lions and asked, “How’d it go from there?” to which Prudhomme perfectly deadpanned: “Well, apparently, it went pretty good.”
Leong recounted his now-famous tale about his one-run Top Fuel career that ended with him off the end of the Lions track and led to Hart yanking his license and Keith Black refusing to run with him anymore because he was scared for Leong’s safety. That, of course, led to Leong – on Black’s advice -- hiring Prudhomme to begin their legendary 1965 season together. As they headed out on tour that year, the rookie fuel tuner and his new shoe, Black’s pessimistic observation was, “The blind leading the blind.”
Asked by McClelland why he had gone through 22 drivers in his years, Leong replied simply, “I guess I’m hard to get along with.”
One of the evening’s great exchanges was between McEwen, Prudhomme, and Pink, for whom both drove. As a matter of fact, Prudhomme replaced McEwen at the wheel of the Lou Baney-owned Ford cammer-powered dragster owned by the SoCal car dealer, which led to a series of “Let’s set the record straight” stories.
To back up a bit, Pink explained that the famed SOHC engine, with which he, Connie Kalitta, and Pete Robinson enjoyed great success in the mid-1960s, was designed by Ford for NASCAR competition and with just 750 horsepower on gas and carbs and not for high-powered nitro drag racing. Once Ford realized that the NASCAR rules would saddle any Ford SOHC-equipped car with a weight penalty, it turned to Pink to try it in drag racing. Pink, with his engine-building business, was the perfect guy to help expose it to the quarter-mile masses. But there were complications. For one, it oiled like crazy – usually the driver. And it was harder than a conventional Chrysler to work on.
“The Ford made more power, but it was too hard to work on,” Pink explained. “With the overhead cam on top of the head and that 6-foot timing chain, it was a lot more work and a bigger chance of an error. It really thundered, though, and made power in the right spots."
At which point McEwen self-promotionally chimed in, “You had to have a good driver in it, too …”
As McEwen tells the story, he had been driving for his good pal Baney for a while with Chrysler power, but when Baney’s dealership switched from Chrysler to Ford, it was only natural that his race car should, too. McEwen paid the oil-bath price on many an off-pace run but got fired from driving the car because he tried to compensate for the car’s performance and red-lighted quite a bit; he added that “the Snake” got the ride just as the engine was coming into its own and hopped right in and won the 1967 Springnationals with the car.
“I was like the oildown test pilot of this car. It had oil coming out of every crease. I had to wear three pairs of goggles just to make a run. It didn’t run good, it missed, so I started red-lighting because I couldn’t beat anybody. Just about the time he got the car running good, he fires me, hires this kid over here [Prudhomme]; they go down to Bristol and win the Springnationals, and everybody was happy. That’s the real story.”
Pink rebutted, “To start with, there were some problems with the Ford cammer, and it did oil, and we had the right guy in there at the particular time. I was at dinner one night with Baney, and he told me McEwen quit and asked who we should get. I said we probably ought to get Don Prudhomme because he was available. I said, ‘Are you sure McEwen quit?’ and he said, ‘Yes, the car was scaring him because it was going too fast and made his nose bleed.’ "
McEwen fired right back, reminding Pink of Prudhomme’s prior success with rival engine builder Black all the way back to the Greer-Black-Prudhomme car. “Let me tell you, ‘the Snake’ and Keith Black beat you so many times that your dream was to have Prudhomme drive for you …”
Not one to take his termination lightly, McEwen vowed revenge. “After they fired me, I’d have someone sit outside their house when they’d leave in the morning and tell him to call me and tell me which track they were going to,” he said. “I’d get in whatever I was driving, and we’d go wherever they did and try to beat them, but it was tough to do because that cammer ran really good, and he [Prudhomme] drives fair.”
Prudhomme, who had been rolling his eyes throughout the exchange – Pink was seated between the two – got a good laugh from the crowd, too. “Back in those days, Pink sort of had a short fuse, and so did I. That cammer Ford hauled ass, but it did leak pretty good. Pink’s engines were really beautiful, and the car was gorgeous, but I’d get down to the end of the track, and my goggles would be all oiled, and I would just hand my goggles to Pink. That really pissed him off.”
McEwen then thanked Pink for letting them drive the car. “Driving the cammer really made Don and me,” he said, and you could just tell the arrow was loaded. “After driving that car, you could run anywhere, night or day, lights or dark, it didn’t make any difference because we learned you could drive without seeing anything.”
In addition to display cases full of Lions memorabilia and photos, one of the visual highlights was Rick Voegelin's HO-scale replica of Lions, complete from the trademark crossover bridge to the signage on the walls with slot cars and a full timing system. The audience also got to see a trailer for the forthcoming Snake & Mongoose movie and heard from producer Robin Broidy and had the chance to win cool Lions door prizes.
All in all, it was a magical night to remember a magical place.
The Lions Reunion panelists: front row, from left, Mike Kuhl, Roland Leong, Tom McEwen, Ed Pink, and Don Prudhomme; back row, from left, Jim Dunn, "Bones" Balogh, John Ewald, Tommy Ivo, and Gary Cochran
I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving and got to spend time with your loved ones to share your thankfulness. My folks – both of them big racing fans -- drove down from Oregon, and after a couple of days of sightseeing, we met up with the rest of the family – also rabid race fans – and spent last Saturday oohing and ahhing about the season ahead while they worked me for the latest gossip. I had known about the whole Kalitta Funny Car deal for some time and had gotten wind of the Massey situation yet managed to keep most of it under wraps until it was announced earlier this week, but it was fun to tease them with what I was holding close to the vest.
Anyway, we’re back in action to finish the publishing season for National DRAGSTER with all of the annual year-end goodies and stories. We spent part of Monday at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona driving Funny Cars – OK, Traxxas radio-controlled Funny Cars – for a feature story for ND. We tried unsuccessfully to get them to go straight on the rubbery yet slick surface that made them more closely resemble fuel altereds than Funny Cars, and by the time we transferred the action to the more grippy – yet bumpy – staging lanes, they had plenty of “Pomona stripes” on their bodies.
They’re incredible little machines with multiple adjustments beneath their tilt-up bodies, and we barely got a chance to explore the wonders in the time available. We also had at our disposal the Traxxas DTS-1 timing system that allowed us to set up a scale dragstrip complete with Christmas Tree, timing lights, and more. I gotta say that if you’re looking for the ultimate Christmas present for the race fan in your life, you need to look into them. Look for my story in the year-end issue of ND.
OK, on with column business. I was delighted not only that still more memories of Tripp Shumake rolled in, but also that a couple came from those closest to him.
Daughter Heather tells me that she has been inspired to write a book about her father that will include contributions from many of those who knew him. I’ll keep you up to date as that project progresses. I also delivered to her a nice surprise from Insider regular Jim Hill, who was at Crane Cams during the days of the 250-mph Club of which Shumake was a member. For one reason or another, Hill never could track down Shumake to present him with his club jacket and incredibly has hung onto it for the last 30-plus years, and he will be sending it to Shumake’s surprised daughter.
Travis, in Tripp's arms with mom Susie and sister Heather, circa 1984
Heather may have to fight her brother, Travis, for it, though – even though it might not fit him -- as he good-naturedly weighed in recently. “Don’t let Heather fool you: Drag racing is a HUGE part of my life even though I didn’t make it in any of the winner's circle pictures as a child like she did,” he wrote. “I spent 15 years of my life in the pits and the tower at Firebird as the proud son of nice guy Tripp Shumake. I will share that one of my last memories of my dad was sitting in Paula Martin’s Funny Car in our garage; they were dating for the last three years of his life. I would put on his old Chief Auto Parts helmet, strap in, and he would lower the body. We would go through the motions of what to expect someday when I was a Funny Car pilot. He would stage me, pound the hood, and I’d open up the fuel pumps. He would sometimes go to the back and shake the body to simulate tire shake so I could practice pedaling. I was an expert at escaping out the roof hatch in a fire and even practiced a few celebratory dances on top for when I won the U.S. Nationals.
“When you lose someone at a young age, they say you forget all the bad things and remember only the good. I’ve believed for 13 years that there was no bad side to my dad, and this article and responses assure me that the image I keep of my dad is true. I wear his 250-mph ring on special occasions, and if I wasn’t 6-foot-4, I’d wear his many jackets and T-shirts on the weekend.”
Speaking of Paula Martin, the female Funny Car sensation from Arizona, I also heard from her via Facebook, and she shared memories of the man with whom she shared her life in his final years.
“I recently read the blog on Tripp,” she wrote. “Thank you for doing it. He and I lived together the last three years of his life, and he was the REAL deal. I never heard him speak badly of anyone. He was always willing to help people, and he walked the talk of the religion he practiced. He always had an easy smile, and he loved playing practical jokes. He loved his kids, and he loved racing everything. He had been over at Irwindale the Wednesday before he was killed, getting his NASCAR truck license. And, wow, did he love riding his Harley. About a year before his death, in one of those somber discussions that couples have at times, I asked him, if he had a choice, what he would want to be doing in the last moment of his life, and he responded, driving a race car or riding his motorcycle. The man that killed Tripp stated in court that he did not even remember the incident, and so it is difficult to say whether he ever felt really remorseful about the accident or not; but I do know that Tripp would have forgiven him for doing it anyway because that was the kind of man he was. The world truly is a lesser place without him.”
David Allgeier was another of Shumake’s many fans and enjoyed a fun give-and-take throughout the years. “Tripp and I were about the same size physically, and I naturally gravitated to him,” he wrote. “As has been said, he was warm, friendly, imminently patient, and funny. I forget the year and which race it was at OCIR, but I stopped by his pit, and, recognizing me from past visits, he came over for a bit. After shaking hands, I asked him who the No. 1 qualifier was. He replied, ‘That guy with the red, white, and blue car.’ [Don] Prudhomme. I don't remember where Tripp qualified, but I do remember his analysis of the qualifying pass: ‘It didn't hit the right guardrail; it didn't hit the left guardrail. I'm thinkin' to myself -- this is a pretty good pass.’ A great guy taking time out to chat with an ordinary fan and bringing with him the real flavor of drag racing. Sorely missed. Never forgotten.”
Nunzio Valerie Jr. got to know Shumake through his father while Tripp while working at Lou Patane's Dodge dealership near Phoenix. “They both helped Lou with the Top Fuel car he ran for a while; I believe Tripp made a few passes in it,” he said. “I lived out there in '95-97 and got to know Tripp myself. He wasn't a big guy, but the fact that he was an accomplished nitro racer who had set records, won races, drove for many owners, and survived several fires and crashes made him seem larger than life to me when I first met him. He always worked the tower at Firebird during the national event there, and I remember one year walking through the pits with him. We couldn't go 12 feet without a fuel racer pulling him into their pit to catch up. Everybody loved that guy, and I'll never forget learning about his passing while watching the races on TV, and I believe Joe Amato brought it up. It was a horrible shock. One thing many people probably don't know about Tripp is that before he passed, he had become an accomplished shifter kart racer; I believe he won a pretty big championship in Arizona. He routinely beat guys half his age, and his kart hit 100-plus mph on the straights! Definitely one of the good guys, and I'm glad I was able to get to know him.”
It has been a sad couple of weeks with some notable passings. Former Top Fuel racer Larry “Shorty” Leventon died Nov. 18. Leventon began his career in drag racing in the early 1960s as a driver for many Northern California-based owners and eventually campaigned his own car. Also just got word that former Funny Car driver Danny Miller died Sept. 25 after a long illness. Miller began racing in Funny Car in the late 1960s, first in an ex-Ramchargers Dart and through the early 1970s with his own line of Plastic Fantastic entries. He later founded Danny Miller’s Rear Gears, specializing in 9-inch Fords, and not long ago began competing on the nostalgia Funny Car circuit with his Rear Gears Maverick.
Just yesterday, we learned that longtime nitro wrench Dana Kimmel had passed away Tuesday night, at the too-young age of 54. Kimmel, who generously contributed to conversations in this column, was well-known and respected in the nitro community for his work with superstars such as Jerry “the King” Ruth, Shirley Muldowney, Don Prudhomme, Gary Ormsby, Pat Austin, and a host of others.
Ruth was the first to break the news to us, and, like many who knew him, he was stunned and saddened by his death.
“Dana worked for me for over 10 years,” he said. “He was extremely talented, very intelligent, one of my prized crewmembers. Dana could have had a career as a crew chief; he was that good. He chose to raise his family first. Almost had that done. Would have loved to gone fuel drag racing again. We stayed in touch all these years.”
Shirley called me next, clearly devastated over the loss of one of her best and most loyal friends. Through tears, she testified, "He gave so much to drag racing. Out of all of the people who have been with me, all the people I can even remotely put a finger on, Dana never left my side. He never dropped the ball, he never turned on me; he was always there. He was a very, very special man."
I remember him well from his time on "the Snake's" Skoal Bandit Funny Car crew in the late 1980s, a car that -- as Prudhomme liked to say of his good-running cars -- ripped their throats out, especially in Indy in 1989, where they won the Bud Shootout and the U.S. Nationals and set the national record to boot.
Word is that Kimmel was close to making his return to tuning with a very notable name -- that information may well be disclosed in the coming weeks -- that would have surprised many people and given him the chance to showcase his skills.
Kimmel, who began his career on the Jr. Fueler of Larry Klienbrook, was the crew chief for Muldowney during her final season in 2003 and stayed busy after motorsports in several non-motorsports businesses and even led the creation of a baseball field in Fife, Wash., from fundraising to helping build the complex that will benefit youth in that area for years to come. He'll be missed but not forgotten.
OK, that’s it for today. Enjoy the rest of the week and your weekend; I’ll see you next week.
Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water, more body parts began to surface. OK, sure that sounds like the beginning to a Jaws sequel, but it’s really just a toothy intro to another installment of Bits and Pieces, Part 4 by my recollection.
I'm not at all surprised by the constant influx of these treasures because they have always seemed readily available to those seeking to forage for them, and I'm certain that just one look by their owners instantly transports them back in time to their creation. The smell of charred fiberglass probably still hangs on them, with an oil chaser. They are the bits and pieces of our memory that become whole again as their stories are told.
Robert Flitsch owns the fine piece of bodywork shown at right: the entire right-rear quarter of Billy Meyer’s Chief Auto Parts Mustang from a devastating blower explosion at the 1986 U.S. Nationals. The photo above is from the camera of yours truly, from a seat in the grandstands, showing just how it ended up in little-bitty pieces.
“I had a lot of fun hauling that about two miles back to the campsite, along with handout bags, a cooler, and a 35mm Minolta with all the accessories!” he remembered. “I then proceeded to cruise around Indy with it sticking out of the trunk of my '78 Caprice, looking like I was hit by Meyer at over 250 mph! It especially was a big hit at the Indy Carhop drive-in, and everyone was welcomed to break a piece off for themselves. When Monday came, I had to hide it in the cornfield across the street until I returned after the finals as surely it would have been long gone.
"It was then taken to my mother`s house, where it remained for a couple years until one fall day my mom was burning leaves and suggested I get rid of that stupid thing BY BURNING IT in her leaf pile! Despite her being a veteran of quite a few races and national events, she had never seen a good old-style fiberglass fire. I proceeded to hacksaw off what you see now and threw the remains into the fire, touching off the biggest conflagration she or that neighborhood had ever seen! As the flames went up a couple hundred feet or more and they grew so white hot, she really began to panic and claims to this day she has never been so scared or seen anything like it.”
Meyer had to borrow a Tempo body from Kenny Bernstein to complete the race, which is why if you ever see a photo of the final round – oh, look, there’s one right here – you might think it was Bernstein in the other lane against tire-smoking Mike Dunn in the final, but it was Meyer, whose luck expired when his drivetrain did, allowing Dunn to pedal his way to victory in Joe Pisano’s entry.
John Lindsay, a familiar name to Southern California race fans as the longtime owner of the Impulse Funny Car, had an interesting follow-up about the Super Shops giveaway floppers I mentioned in Part 3.
“It was won by a fan; it did not go home with him,” Lindsay reported. “At the award ceremony at the Super Shops warehouse in San Bernardino, it was bought back by Harry Eberlin for $10,000 cash. I watched Harry work the newly married guy and his wife after the guy turned down the cash at first. Harry then offered to sell the truck and trailer, then a couple of spare motors, some spare parts, and then nine drums of nitro that were sitting there and quoting then how much it cost to run this car. He then pulled an envelope of $100 bills out of his pocket, and the guy's wife was elbowing her husband to ‘TAKE THE MONEY!’ He did, and then Harry more than doubled his money in less than 24 hours! Tom Hoover bought the rolling car. I bought the engine, transmission, and third member. I go to lunch with Jim Cowell, one of Harry's VPs, every Monday, and we still talk about some of the deals that Harry was involved with and the fact that I bought the first set of pistons that Harry ever sold. They were Jahns Power Slot for a Chevy 348. He had only been in business for a few months at that time, and I was still in high school at the time.”
Jay Postlethwait spotted this crashed-up keepsake on the wall of a tire shop in Vacaville, Calif., a portion of the body from Top Alcohol Funny Car racer Hans Kuesel’s well-documented 1997 crash at Sacramento Raceway, which has been featured on several of those amazing-crashes TV shows throughout the years; the video is at right (fast-forward to 21 seconds).
“The late Greg Maher (Wulf & Maher AA/FD), who was the track manager at the time, had asked a few of us that worked at Sears Point to come up and help them out,” he recalled. “It turned out to be a busy weekend as I think this was the same weekend that Jack Beckman was involved in a crash in his canopy Super Comp car as well. One of the tire shop’s employees was a spectator at the race and got it from Hans, who also autographed it. Somewhere around here, I had some pieces from the Muy Caliente jet dragster that also crashed at Sacramento and was driven by Dennis Geisler."
I mentioned in my Tripp Shumake article two weeks ago that he was one of the first guys to befriend me when I came to work here; Kuesel was another. Before I was allowed to hit the national event trail for National DRAGSTER (more than a year after I’d come to work at NHRA), I did the bulk of my reporting learning at Orange County Int’l Raceway, covering the big match race shows there. Kuesel was always one of the alky competitors, and he and fellow OCIR TAFC regular Chuck Beal both welcomed me and my curious 22-year-old mind with open arms. Even 30 years later, I haven’t forgotten their warmth and openness.
And finally, segueing nicely between Bits and Pieces and Shumake, here’s this crashtacular photo, submitted by our pals Laura and Mark (with a "K") Bruederle (with three "E"s), showing the leftovers of Shumake's 1973 crash in Kelly Chadwick’s flopper at Great Lakes Dragaway in 1973 that I chronicled last week. Shumake’s mount lost a freeze plug and crossed into Connie Kalitta’s lane. Kalitta’s Mustang pushed Shumake’s car up and over the guardrail, leaving him with a broken arm. I’m not sure who got this oversized souvenir.
Speaking of Shumake, I’ve received a few more comments about him that I’ll share next week along with some of the other interesting correspondence I’ve received in the past few weeks.
As tomorrow is Thanksgiving, I’d like to once again give thanks to all of you for reading and contributing to this column during the years. I’m very thankful that it found not only an interested but also very generous audience whose contributions have made it much more than I ever could alone. Enjoy your holiday; I’ll see you turkeys next week.
It’s a sad fact of life that we don’t often enough get to tell people how we feel about them or to truly appreciate them before we lose them. I’ve felt that way numerous times, and every time that I write about someone we’ve lost – be it last week or 20 years ago – I always get that same twinge.
I remember sitting down in late 1996 with Blaine Johnson’s family – Mom, Dad, sister, brother Alan -- for a lengthy series of interviews to share his life story in National DRAGSTER after we lost him, and even though I thought I knew Blaine pretty well, I learned things about him I never knew, and my appreciation for who he was away from the racetrack grew enormously.
And each time that I do a “Remembering …” column here, I get a ton of email and comments from people sharing their great memories and thoughts that only again make me wish I knew the subject better. Such was the case with Tripp Shumake. There was an outpouring of comments on my Facebook page after I posted a link to last week’s column, which included touching comments by his daughter, Heather, and, of course, the ol’ Insider Inbox runneth over with similar comments. Below are some of the best.
Al Booton sent this memorable pic of Shumake enjoying a less-than-great moment at the 1982 Southern Nationals, a year after his breakthrough win there. Recalled Booton, “After it ran in SS&DI, the next time I saw Tripp, I asked if he had seen it. He said yes and he would like to have an 8 by 10 and gave me a business card that had Johnny Loper's shop address on it. The next race, I asked if he got it, and he said, ‘Heck no; it's hanging on Johnny's office wall,’ so the next print went to Tripp's house. Now they are both gone, as are many of the great early racers.”
J.R. Ybarra had a great memory of Shumake running Loper’s car and Joe Pisano's car at Orange County Int’l Raceway.
“I distinctly remember one qualifying run in the Pisano Camaro where the car was drifting towards the centerline, and he absolutely refused to lift and legged it to a 6.03, which, if I remember, was low e.t. for qualifying at the time. I just stood there and shook my head in amazement. He is very much missed by SoCal Funny Car fans."
Conveniently, Ybarra found a video of that exact run – lensed by prolific OCIR videographer Dwight Guild in June 1983 -- which can be watched at right. Dig those dry hops! I believe that’s the late Richard Schroeder making the call.
Kim Engstfeld, who currently serves as a crewmember on Twig Zeigler’s Nostalgia Funny Car, recalled meeting Shumake in 1976 while working on Zeigler’s original Pizza Haven flopper. “He was a great guy and very knowledgeable to a cocky 18-year-old,” he remembered fondly. “No matter how much of a smart mouth I had, he was determined to be nice to me. At the 1977 Fallnationals, he was driving the Powers Steel Camaro with Dan Geare tuning it. It was only the two guys, and they needed help servicing the car. I went over to say hi, and Tripp drafted me and my brother to help with the car. They made it to the semi's and fell short, but every time he was in Seattle after that, he and Mr. Loper had my brother and me doing odd jobs for them. So just to say he was a great guy is not enough; he was a great man that left us way too soon.”
Don Thomas had a brief but similarly pleasing encounter with Shumake in the 1970s. “The thing about Tripp that really stuck with me was the quality within that time he gave to me,” he wrote. “I asked him that sort of silly, cliché question that nearly every fan asks a Funny Car and/or Top Fuel driver: ‘What's it like to drive one of those machines?’ Most drivers that I posed this question to in the past would usually give me a quick, blow-off kind of reply like, ‘Feels great’ or ‘Fast,’ but Tripp actually took the time to stand with this wide-eyed teenager and give me some reasonable explanation of what it was like.
“This is what he said: ‘Physically, they're not that hard to drive. The real skill level comes when you get into trouble. Fire, tire shake, or the car getting squirrelly and out of shape, that's when your abilities are really tested in one of these things, when something goes wrong. Outside of that, they're not that difficult to handle.’ The fact that Tripp took the time to give such an in-depth answer to somewhat of a stupid question to a young, naïve teenager really moved me. I remember how good and proud I felt that Tripp Shumake actually took the time to talk to me!
“Sure, in the win/loss column, he wasn't known as one of the superstars, but I didn't care about that. I didn't even know he'd won any national events at all until reading your article. Heck, the man drove a nitro-guzzling, fire-breathing, 1,600-horsepower freak machine, and that was more than enough to give him superstar status as far as I was concerned. Being the ultra-nice person he was only compounded that. Rest peacefully, Tripp. I’m still and forever a fan.”
I was asked by several people if the police caught the man who took Shumake from us, the reckless hit-and-run driver who fled the scene, and Heather said that they did.
“Some of the people driving next to my dad on the highway when the accident happened chased after him and got his license-plate number,” she said. “Police found him two days later, and he was sentenced to 22 years, but he was released for overcrowding after just six years.” Justice only partially served.
Shumake, during a brief driving gig for Dennis Fowler's and Don Green's Rat Trap
(Steve Reyes photo)
Even though Heather had done a pretty solid job of recounting Tripp’s racing lineage, I still was compelled to dig through the National DRAGSTER archives for more info to see if I could find any more gems because he’s not here to speak for himself, and I came across a couple of features we had done on him.
The first, in 1978 – just after he had joined forces with fellow Arizonian Loper -- recounted that in his then-12-year driving career, he had already driven 37 machines and that he had great optimism about what lay ahead with Loper. And with good reason. In their short time together, they had already challenged some track records on the match race scene and qualified No. 1 at the 1978 Winternationals. He finished the season a career-high fourth in points.
And as previously mentioned, he crewed and drove for the great Dickie Harrell until his death and wrenched Connie Kalitta’s Mustang (and once even drove it at a match race; Kalitta didn’t show up because he thought the race was going to be rained out, so Shumake saddled up but only got a red-light and a wheelstand for his efforts) and drove for the likes of Larry Christopherson and Kelly Chadwick. It was in Chadwick’s car that he suffered a nasty wreck in 1973 at Great Lakes Dragaway. A freeze plug came out of the engine, sending him across the centerline and, ironically, into Kalitta’s path. Kalitta’s mount punted Shumake’s car over the guardrail, leading to a broken arm for our hero.
He joined Dennis Fowler and the Sundance team for a couple of years and showed well in 1976; he ran at 65 match race dates and earned the championship in the Coca-Cola Cavalcade series. By mid-1977, the finances began to run dry, and he finished the season in the Powers car before Loper came calling.
Shumake had "the heater on" in Billy Meyer's Firenza at the 1988 Winternationals.
After Loper's car came the Pisano Camaro (in which he famously set the last track record ever established at Orange County, 5.749) and the aging but competitive Bill Schultz-tuned Over the Hill Gang/In-N-Out Burger Charger, then he went back to drive for Billy Meyer – in whose “blocker” car he had won the 1982 World Finals – in the Chief Auto Parts Firenza (which included a memorably toasty ride at the 1988 Winternationals). He was let go from the team in April 1988, fired by crew chief Dave Settles, who, ironically, had signed Shumake’s nitro license in 1969 when he drove for Joe McKee in Top Fuel.
Shumake later went to work for Lou Patane, both on his part-time Top Fueler and as service manager at Louis Dodge, got his pilot’s license, and enjoyed spending more time with his family.
“I had lost the drive to race seriously,” he confessed. “To be a good driver, you have to want [to drive] more than anything. You have to be willing to put almost anything else aside and concentrate on getting and keeping that ride. That was going away for me; I’ve thought about coming back, but I really don’t see it.”
I would have loved to have seen the guy people affectionately called "240 Shorty" continue his racing career. It never happened, yet he still managed to leave us all with a lot of good memories. It sure would be nice to tell him that ...