Wednesday was a somber day around here for many longtime members of the National Dragster staff. It was Jan. 23 and marked what would have been the 100th birthday of NHRA founder Wally Parks. It's hard to believe it has been more than five years since we lost him, but I get the sense that he's smiling down on us as we continue his mission.
In case you missed it, NHRA is honoring Wally's birth date with a special Wally's 100th ticket promotion for the upcoming O'Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals and the Amalie Oil NHRA Gatornationals, but we continue to honor him every day in our efforts and our dedication, remembering an amazing man who led hot rodding from the dark shadows of scorn into the bright sunlight of national acceptance.
I can't begin to imagine how difficult that work was then, how they had to convince law authorities, politicians, and neighborhoods that a lot of the hot rodders were not the black-jacketed thugs of movies but hardworking Joe Lunchpails who liked cars and fixing them up. Today, I think we all take for granted that the NHRA will be accepted wherever it goes, that we'll roll into a community somewhere and be greeted with open arms by merchants and civic leaders and local fans, but it certainly wasn't always that way.
Unless you lived it, most of us probably can't imagine a time when dragstrips didn't dot the country and organized activities were difficult to find. Imagine, then, the sheer audacity (perhaps even the naivete) of organizing a small band of Johnny Appleseeds, loading them up in a station wagon and a little tow-along trailer and sending them off across the country to help sow the seeds of the sport.
That's the visionary kind of guy that Wally Parks was, and I shudder to think how much longer it would have taken us to get to where we are if not for his sheer tenacity and ability to dream big and act bigger.
It's hard for me to reconcile that when I first sat down across the conference-room table from Wally more than 30 years ago at the NHRA headquarters in North Hollywood, Calif., to interview for a bottom-of-the-rung position on Dragster's editorial staff that he had already lived a full life and then some, that he was then 58, six years older than I am now, and seemed as if he was just hitting his stride.
Wally never met an opportunity that he didn't think deserved to be explored and expanded, and woe be it to the person who missed getting NHRA on that boat. I have a thick folder filled with examples of the infamous and feared "Wally memo" that would land on your desk from time to time reminding you of your transgressions. He was a hard guy to work for only in that he expected from everyone the same incredible vision and attention to detail that he possessed.
Usually, your “Wally memo” arrived on your desk in the morning, sealed in a crisp white NHRA-logo envelope with your name written in his very distinct (and quite handsome) handwriting. At that point, you had a decision to make: Do I open it now and ruin the rest of my day, or do I let it sit until, say, after lunch – all the while the anxiety of its unknown contents eating you up – and open it later in the day? Either way, it usually ruined your day. Sometimes, if the matter was urgent, he would send a fax; remember faxes? He called them “Okie email” because he never was big on the other popular form of electronic communication.
(Above) My first "Wally memo" and (below) some of the many I received in the years that followed.
I was less than four years on the job when I got promoted to editor, and I know that Wally had his concerns. I think I’ve shared this story before, but the first “Wally memo” I ever got came the first week after my promotion and began – and I’m not making this up – with “Congratulations (I think).” He then detailed what he thought was wrong with the publication and what I should do to fix it. I know ... no pressure, right?
Looking back, I guess I can’t really blame him for his skepticism. Compared to him and his lengthy and decorated journalistic career as longtime editor of Hot Rod, I was still a wet-behind-the-ears kid taking the wheel of his beloved publication with what probably seemed to him to be a learner's permit.
As he had done with every editor before, we butted heads on a number of topics. Wally was “old school” on a lot of things, and I was semi-“new school” and trying to help put an uptick in the somewhat stagnant member count, and we clashed a few times. I attempted to counter his eloquent memos with logic and candor (and a dash of contrition), but as good as I was with words, he was always better, and, hey, it was his train set, and I had to play with it how he wanted.
The most famous of those arguments was a long-running battle known around here as “stars vs. cars.” Having been in on hot rodding’s ground floor and seeing throughout the 1950s and 1960s the incredible innovations and handiwork performed on the first hot rods, Wally believed that the editorial focus should be on the machines themselves and not those who drove them. “The cars are the stars” was his mantra. The writing staff, on the other hand – with the agreement of the Marketing Department – wanted to sell the drivers. Granted, the cars weren’t as cookie-cutter looking as they are now, but there was a period when it seemed as if almost every winning Top Fueler came from Al Swindahl and every Funny Car was a Trans Am, and we had great new stars we wanted to promote plus the older fan favorites like Shirley Muldowney, Don Prudhomme, and Don Garlits (I sometimes wonder if Wally’s long-running feud with Garlits made him shy away from selling the stars).
Wally and I weren't always crossing swords in those early days. He posed with me in Columbus in 1987 for this special Young Racers issue of Dragster. Wally was a huge champion of NHRA's youth movement.
Anyway, in the end, we did what we could to focus more on cars – adding more tech, car features, and sidebars about the mechanical parts – and tried to make nice while trying to move the membership needle (we were successful on both counts).
Even though Wally had become less involved in the day-to-day NHRA business – or maybe because he had more time on his hands not shepherding what had become an established sport – and he wasn’t in the office as much, the frequency of the “Wally memos” to me increased, and, again, it's hard to blame him for that. He had, after all, conceived and birthed in 1960 a wonderful and versatile tool to promote his NHRA, and he still had an ownership of its success. I was more than happy to enjoy that with him.
As the dialogue increased, so did our kinship. I never expected him to respect me the way I was in awe of him, but as the years went on and National Dragster evolved and grew, the memos still came but were almost exclusively congratulatory, lauding a particular issue or article or the precise cropping of a photo.
NHRA threw a surprise party for Wally's 80th birthday in 1993, luring him to what he thought was a dedication for the new Pomona tower. When he walked into the room, we all donned these Wally masks and sang "Happy Birthday" to him. He was touched. I still have my mask.
As NHRA prepared to embark on its 50th Anniversary celebration in 2001, it was decided that a companion website should be created, and I embarked on an immense undertaking to tell the story of NHRA’s founding based on old issues of Hot Rod (NHRA Museum curator Greg Sharp painstakingly photocopied relevant articles for me from his collection of Hot Rods spanning 1951-60) and National Dragster.
(Ironically, that website, located here, was built by our then webmaster, Brent Friar, with whom I just recently reteamed to build the new NationalDragster.net site. Brent doesn't work for NHRA anymore, but I knew that with the passion he developed while working here, he was the perfect guy to help us on the new project to keep the National Dragster story alive.)
It occurred to me even in 2001 that someday we would lose Wally, and with him would go a part of the oral history of NHRA’s founding, and I was determined to have one last shot at getting that story, or at least Wally’s version of it. It was during this period that I really won him over and gained what I consider the full and complete respect and trust of the living legend, which thrilled me to no end.
He became obsessed with making sure that I had the story down right, asking to review reams of material and making minute yet crucial changes to sentences and sometimes even words. He knew that I wanted it to be right, and I think that was important to him, perhaps because he knew that the book on the same subject that he had long (and off-again, on-again) labored on might never see print before he was gone. I was his proxy to see that the history survived him. Again, no pressure, right?
As Wally's health began to decline, I used any excuse I could to engage him for details of his life outside of drag racing, about his upbringing, his years in the military, and anything else I could think of. I was trying to be sly, prepping for the inevitability of his passing, and although I knew I was interviewing him for what would eventually become part of his obituary, I tried not to make it that transparent, but I'm pretty sure he knew.
After he died in late 2007, I was able to take the work we had done together in 2001 and help create, in pretty quick fashion, a mini book about his life. It all came together pretty well, and once it was nearly done, all that was left was the design for the back cover. We had the photo we wanted, of Wally overlooking the racetrack at Indy, but we struggled for the epitaph to accompany it.
I remember a handful of us sitting in someone's office bouncing around keywords and sentiments that we wanted to express, and finally it came to me, and as I said those words aloud and everyone else smiled at them, I felt that Wally himself had reached down and blessed me with them.
“Your vision remains our mission.”
And that's pretty much the way we think of what we do. We miss ya, Wally. We wish we were celebrating your 100th with you but are so happy about and proud of the time we did have with you.
By now I’m sure you’ve all seen the big news on the home page about the pretty significant changes surrounding the National DRAGSTER publication schedule and the creation of the companion NationalDRAGSTER.net website, so you probably have a good idea how I’ve spent my last couple of months.
Because this column is an extension of National DRAGSTER – those of you who were here in the beginning may remember that it started as a column about the magazine itself before morphing into its current history-based subject material – I wanted to address the changes here this week. (Back to regular column business next week, I promise!)
There's no doubt that this marks an important milestone in the long and storied 54-year history of this publication, and the decision to shift to a biweekly printing schedule certainly was not taken lightly nor was made quickly by anyone within the NHRA. We agonized over it for several months, mulling over options and discussing pros and cons before we finally arrived at the only decision that made sense.
We’re all very aware that, initially, it’s a pretty big shock to the system. After all, National DRAGSTER has been printed weekly since 1964 after four years on a biweekly basis. But long gone are the days when NHRA fans huddled by their mailboxes waiting for National DRAGSTER to arrive and tell them who had won the most recent national event or to keep them abreast of the latest news of their favorite racers. We realize that, and we're sure you do, too.
It's also no secret that these are extremely challenging times for print publications, and National DRAGSTER certainly is not immune. Just as challenging has been the work to find ways for a weekly publication to remain relevant in a digital world where consumers want their news quickly. No print publication -- even a daily -- can compete with the immediacy offered by the Internet and television. Believe me, we've tried.
So we scoured the results of member surveys from the past two years to see what our readers wanted. And what they didn't want. And we opted to play to our strengths.
While we certainly have the capability to produce a weekly digital-only version, readers overwhelmingly said they preferred to have their National DRAGSTER in print. So, unlike some giants of the print medium such as Newsweek that opted for a pure digital format, we listened to our members and remained committed to a print product, but one that would stand the test of time from printing to delivery.
Our readers wanted more tech and how-to articles and more and varied Sportsman content, so those became a focus for the future. They said they liked big colorful photos, and we took note. They also said that they were disappointed in how long it took to receive the news via traditional mail and that, despite the rich details we offered, they had already read most of the news and results online before their issue arrived. We get that; it's a valid concern.
So we created what we think is an elegant solution to all of these needs: a twin-engine information machine that's streamlined and fast and fully featured, too. On the one hand, to serve the immediate news, we created NationalDRAGSTER.net, which is where you'll find all of the latest news, analysis, and results within minutes of them happening. It's our expectation that this website will more than capably bridge the wait between issues and deliver to you the news you want when you want it.
I can’t begin to guess how many of the loyal readers of this column are actually NHRA Members, but I think that some of the content we’ll be offering on the new website will please the history buffs here and make your membership more valuable or your decision to become a member much easier. In addition to the breaking news and live event coverage, I think you will find the Daily Features especially interesting as three of them have roots in the stuff you love to get here.
First there’s Time Travel Tuesday, where we’ll take a look back at how National DRAGSTER covered a major story from our history. I always get a kick out of those in-the-moment reports, where the author was writing without the benefit of the hindsight that history affords people like us.
Thursdays will be for the popular Where Are They Now? feature that has long been a staple of National DRAGSTER. We've put a little different spin on it to tell as much about a racer's present as his or her past.
Finally, there's my contribution, My Favorite Fuelers, in which each Friday I'll share my views about some of the finest and coolest nitro-burning machines from our sport's history. All in all, I think that the new website has a lot to offer, and, when combined with the print issue, I think in the long run will provide more and better reading.
When National DRAGSTER does arrive in the mail, we think you'll find it was well worth the wait. Because we're more or less out of the breaking-news and results game, you'll find it instead packed with feature-oriented stories about your favorite racers and classes. We'll still serve up a healthy dose of results, and though that coverage will look different, we think that what we have to offer will still please you.
Take a second to check out the free preview issue on the NationalDRAGSTER.net website and see where we’re headed. I think it’s beautiful, and I think you will, too. Of course, like any “car owner,” we’ll continue to fine-tune it as we go along, but I already think we’re off the line in good fashion.
For those of you surprised or disappointed or worried about the moves we’ve made, I ask you to take a few issues to check us out. I know change is hard and usually unwelcome, but, as I said earlier, it was done for all the right reasons. Even if you don’t agree with us right now, we hope you’ll give us a chance to prove you wrong. I think we will.
Thanks for reading and, as always, for your support.
Before we go, I wanted to acknowledge the passing two weeks ago of noted engine and crankshaft builder Joe Reath, who died Jan. 4. Reath, a founding member of the Road Rebels Car Club of Los Angeles in 1937, ran Reath Automotive in Signal Hill, Calif., for 50 years (1956-2006) with his wife, Dellie, who survives him.
Reath also was well-known as a partner with Jim Dunn on his Funny Cars in the 1970s, so I wasn't surprised to hear from the Dunn family.
“Reath Automotive is the place where all the racers went to hang out and share stories,” said Jim Dunn. “Joe was a good friend, and I have a lot of wonderful memories.”
“Joe gave me my first real job when I was 15,” recalled Mike Dunn. “I detailed cranks (used a body grinder and sander to clean up the weld on the stroker cranks) and worked the hot tank (disassembling engines and cleaning for work to be done on them). And obviously, he was my dad’s partner for a number of years, including the rear-engine car [pictured above] when he won the Supernationals.”
As mentioned, Reath’s wife, Dellie, survives him, and I’m sure she would love to hear from old friends and acquaintances or just to hear your appreciation of her husband. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Force females joined Brittany, far right, at yesterday's press conference. From left is John's eldest daughter, Adria (wife of team Funny Car driver Robert Hight), as well as Ashley, Courtney, and mom Laurie.
Most of the National DRAGSTER editorial staff and photographer Marc Gewertz attended yesterday’s John Force Racing press conference at the team’s HQ in Yorba Linda, Calif., where not only did they announce an internal shake up for Funny Car crews — headlined by Mike Neff leaving the cockpit to tune John Force’s car — but they also took the wraps off of middle daughter Brittany Force’s new Castrol Edge Top Fueler in front in an overflow crowd in the team’s theater.
As you all know, Brittany has been testing on and off all last year, and although it was widely understood that she’d be competing this season in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, this made it official. She, of course, will be considered one of the front-runners in the derby for the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award as the season’s top rookie — probably battling Leah Pruett and Chad Head for starters — looking to joins sisters Ashley and Courtney and brother-in-law Robert Hight as winners of that prestigious award.
By our records, she and fellow Top Fuel newcomer Leah Pruett, who will drive a part-time schedule for the Dote Racing team, will become just the 17th and 19th women to compete in NHRA Top Fuel competition, following (in alphabetical order) Vivica Averstedt, Dannielle DePorter, Vicky Fanning, Gina Ferraro, Rhonda Hartman-Smith, Lori Johns, Kim LaHaie, Lucille Lee, Shirley Muldowney, Shelly Payne (Anderson), Cristen Powell, Sue Ransom, Joanne Reynolds, Rachelle Splatt, Melanie Troxel, and Hillary Will.
Of that list, of course, Muldowney is the premiere name, having captured three world championships and 18 national event wins, including her breakthrough triumph at the 1976 Springnationals in Columbus, which marked the first NHRA Professional win for a woman.
Muldowney is far and away the most successful female Top Fuel pilot; the next most-prolific winners — three of them — have just four wins: Troxel (in 15 finals), Johns (in six finals), Anderson (in five finals). The other three winners — Will, Lee, and Powell — each have just one score.
The Funny Car list is of almost equal length with 14 women having made a run in NHRA competition, including dual-nitro licensees Muldowney, Troxel, Powell, Pruett, and Fanning, joined (again, in alphabetical order) by Alexis DeJoria, Courtney Force, Ashley Force Hood, Rodalyn Knox, Paula Martin, Paula Murphy, Susie Spencer, Della Woods, and Carol Yenter. Of those, only Force Hood (four wins), Troxel (1), and C. Force (1) have reached the winner’s circle.
The NHRA Media Guide devotes a large section to the success of women in the sport, from which I have cribbed these facts.
NHRA founder Wally Parks was among the first to congratulate Shirley Muldowney after her breakthrough Top Fuel win at the 1976 Columbus event.
Although Muldowney owns the Top Fuel list, former Pro Stock Motorcycle champ Angelle Sampey is the career leader among females with 41 wins, the last coming in Houston in 2007. Sampey is the runaway leader in No. 1 qualifying spots, too, with 45; Ashley Force Hood is second with 15, just ahead of Muldowney’s 13.
Muldowney (Columbus 1976, Top Fuel), Sampey (Reading 1996, Pro Stock Motorcycle), Force Hood (Atlanta 2008, Funny Car), and Erica Enders (Chicago 2012, Pro Stock) are the respective barrier beakers for first class wins in their eliminators.
Shirley Shahan was the first woman to win an NHRA national event, in Stock at the 1966 Winternationals in Pomona.
Muldowney was the first female to advance to a final round in Top Fuel, 1975 at Columbus, where she lost to Marvin Graham. She also was the first female to qualify No. 1 in a Pro category, at that historic 1976 Columbus event with an e.t. of 6.031 seconds. Muldowney also was the first driver of either gender in NHRA history to repeat as Top Fuel champion, scoring first in 1977 and following with tittles in 1980 and 1982. She also was the only woman on the now-famous Top 50 Drivers list compiled in 2001.
Splatt, an Australian driver who made a short but memorable stint in NHRA competition in the Luxor casino dragster, was the first female to clock a 300-mph run with a speed of 300.00 mph at the 1994 event where she also became the 16th and final — and only female — member of the Slick 50 300-MPH Club. Splatt isn’t the only non-North American to compete in NHRA Top Fuel competition. Fellow Aussie Sue Ransom, a respected multitalented driver Down Under, drove the early McGee Quad Cam dragster at several events, and Averstedt, who was a Swedish champion, competed only at the 1998 Gatornationals, where she finished a very impressive third alternate just outside of what was then the quickest field in Top Fuel history.
Melanie Troxel is the only woman to have won in both of NHRA's nitro classes, with four wins in Top Fuel and this Funny Car triumph at the 2008 Bristol race.
Although Force Hood beat Troxel to the Funny Car winner’s circle by just two events in 2008, Troxel was the first female to qualify No. 1 in Funny Car later that season (Chicago), and when Troxel won in Bristol, she also became the first (and still only) woman in NHRA history to post victories in both nitro categories, having scored previously in Top Fuel. Troxel has won in four NHRA categories, the most for a female in NHRA history, including (in order) Top Alcohol Dragster, Top Fuel, Funny Car, and Pro Mod.
Talking to John Force yesterday, he was highly optimistic of Brittany’s chances this season, noting that she tested extremely well — runs into the low 3.80s — with a soft tune-up. Whether or not she can join her sisters as national event winners remains to be seen, or whether another female driver — Pruett and DeJoria already have wins in other classes — can get there first.
We’ve certainly come a long way from when NHRA barred females from competing at the 1960 Nationals in Detroit and even from Shirley Shahan’s breakthrough female victory (in Stock at the 1966 Winternationals) to the point where a woman hoisting a Wally in the winner’s circle — clear through to the Sportsman ranks — is no longer earthshaking news. There’s no other motorsport — nor, as I think of it, in any sport where they compete against one another with identical rules — where female drivers have had the level of success they’ve earned in the NHRA, which, along with NHRA’s impressive record of racial and age diversity, makes ours a pretty special sport.
But then, you already knew that. Good luck to Brittany and Leah in 2013.
Although the Mayans were wrong and the world didn’t end on Dec. 21, the road did end for a number of our friends since I last wrote a column here before the Christmas break, so before we move further into 2013, I’d like to acknowledge those we lost during the holidays.
Obviously, the biggest shock to the system for someone like me who has been a part of the NHRA family for more than 30 years was the loss of Dale Ham, NHRA’s longtime former Division 4 director. We lost “the Hammer” Dec. 23, and though I can’t say it was unexpected, it nonetheless was painful to lose another of the old guard upon whose sweat and hard work the NHRA was founded.
Ham was named a regional adviser in the South Central region in 1954 and then Division 4 director by NHRA founder Wally Parks in 1961 and stayed at that post until the end of 1986. He was one of the original division directors whose name and reputation is well-cemented in the NHRA annals. When I look back at all of those early DDs whom we have lost, it’s truly heartsickening – guys like Buster Couch, Bob Daniels, and Bernie Partridge, and, of course, irreplaceable characters like Parks, Bill “Farmer” Dismuke, Jack Hart, and others who helped forge the path.
Ham was the personification of the Division 4 motto: The Good Guys. Glenn Menard, longtime Division 4 track operator and announcer and one of the many people taken under Ham’s wing, wrote to me, saying, “He was THE major force in D-4 and in many of our racing lives. I remember going back to their motel room after a points race as a college student to write in the winners names on the DRAGSTER sheets, placing the roll of undeveloped film into an envelope, then going to the post office with Dale to put it into whatever ‘express’ mail there was in the late ‘60s so that the results would make it to the paper. Then he drove me home (no car). How times have changed.”
Here's a great 1960s "family" photo from NHRA's early days. In front, from left, were Bill "Farmer" Dismuke, Wally Parks, and Jack Hart. In the rear were the current division directors, many of them the originals appointed by Parks. From left, Divisions 1 through 7: Darwin Doll, Buster Couch, Bob Daniels, Dale Ham, Darrell Zimmerman, Terrell Poage, and Bernie Partridge. Of the group, sadly, only Doll and Zimmerman are still with us.
Longtime NHRA Competition Director Steve Gibbs added, “Division 4 was referred to as The Land of the Good Guys, and Dale was truly the gang leader, the best of the good guys. Much could be written about his contributions to drag racing, his amazing family, his accomplishments in the world of Native American art, and how to have a damn good time.”
Longtime drag racing photographer and chronicler Forrest Bond added, “Dale signed my first NHRA press pass, in May of '65, and it's framed with a handful of other passes that still hold special significance for me. I was 21, green as could be, and I'll never forget how much he helped me get up to speed and how generous he was with his time, which was always in demand. Dale was just a great guy to know, the racing aside, and with respect to doing the business, the epitome of a division director. Most of all, I always thought Dale was incredibly fair and balanced in dealing with the inevitable contentious situations and always the voice of calm and reason, though one needed to be careful not to push him too far.”
Longtime Division 4 campaigner Bob Gibson added, "Dale Ham was a friend to all racers and fans, and for sure, he could be a hard-ass to a racer that didn't want to follow the rules. He would take the time to visit with you regardless if you were a famous racer or a nobody. He was free with his good advice. His advice and encouragement helped me get involved in drag racing in the mid-'60s when we were just wild teens that loved drag racing. I always thought Division 4 was known as The Land of the Good Guys because of Dale's character and leadership. After we won the Springnationals in '70, he and [wife] Glynanna made a point to come to our celebration party and even brought a bottle of booze for the bar. How's that for supporting the Division 4 racers? Something he didn't have to do but wanted to share the enthusiasm."
Ham’s passing comes less than two years after the love of his life, the effervescent and charming Glynanna, passed away in April 2011. Ham, who had been in hospice care since September, suffered a heart attack about a week before his passing and died as a result of complications from the attack, according to Beth Ham, wife of Ham’s son, Brad, and a physician herself, who chronicled his past few years for me and his declining health after the passing of his wife.
“We thought he would last about six days, but he lasted 20 months,” she wrote. “You may remember, 22 years ago, he had a massive heart attack and lived through that one! After that, he really did change his lifestyle dramatically and got another 22 years! After Glynanna died, he really just wanted to go be with her. There were personal reasons for wanting to hang on as long as he did, but once he got things straightened out, he went with hospice.”
At Ham’s request, there was no service, and his and Glynanna’s ashes were spread together above Red River, where they dated as teenagers.
Tony Waters' famed roadster
Another pretty major passing was the death of Tony Waters, who died Dec. 22 at age 85 after an extended illness. Waters, who drove fuel-burning altereds and dragsters throughout the 1950s and 1960s, was most famously runner-up to Art Chrisman at the first U.S. Fuel and Gas Championships in Bakersfield in 1959. In that historic final, Waters -- driving the Waters-Sughrue-Guinn A/FMR – got out on Chrisman (who was wheeling the Chrisman Bros. & Cannon dragster) but got loose farther downtrack, allowing Chrisman to blast by for the 9.36, 140.50-mph final-round win. Waters was an original member of the Smokers Car Club that staged the event. Waters, who also drove the roadster on dry lake beds, had remained active in the sport and most recently was the owner and tuner of a nostalgia A/Fuel Dragster driven by his son, Darrell, in NHRA’s Hot Rod Heritage Racing Series.
In an article on the Bakersfield.com site titled “Famoso, Hot Rods and Hot Potatoes,” author George Gilbert Lynch reported that Waters won the Smokers first big event, in 1954. “The Smokers membership voted to incorporate their Club, then presented their first Famoso two-day meet in March 1954. It was touted as ‘The West Coast Championships.’ Eight to ten thousand fans attended the big meet, and most of the fastest cars on the Pacific Coast were competing. After this race, the Smokers Inc. realized they had become ‘THE drag strip of the West Coast.’ Tony Waters of the Smokers Club was the top eliminator of that show. Waters, in his six-cylinder GMC track roadster, ran against ‘Jazzy’ Nelson, driving a nitro-fueled flathead Ford; winning speed was 127 mph. Tony Waters removed all doubt he was West Coast champion by winning the next five monthly Famoso Drags with his consistent and reliable GMC roadster.”
After he left the cockpit, he had a number of quality cars driven by others, including John Edminds and Butch Maas, as can be seen in the mini gallery of photos generously sent by Steve Reyes.
Ted Austin packs his chute.
We also lost jet-car pioneer Theodore "Teddy" Austin, who died Dec. 27 at age 74 at his home in Lenoir City, Tenn. Austin, a U.S. Navy veteran, is best remembered as a driver for Walt and Art Arfons, for whom he wheeled the jet-powered Cyclone Mercury Comet and the final entry in the line of famed Green Monster dragsters in the late 1960s and early 1970s. After his retirement from racing, he owned his own alignment shop, worked with cutting horses on a ranch in Texas, and drove 18-wheelers across the country. He is survived by his longtime companion, Mary Williams; son Teddy; grandson Harley Austin; "daughter" Kristi Sherrod; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Thanks to Dennis Warren for getting me the info and the photos at right.
The sport also lost Roy Steen Dec. 28. He was best known as chassis builder partner with Frank Huszar at their fabled Southern California Race Car Specialties shop – both were members of the famed Throttle Merchants car club -- but also was involved significantly on a number of cars, most notably with Chet Herbert, including on a twin nitro-burning injected F-85 Olds-powered dragster driven by Jeep Hampshire and the "Herbertliner" land-speed car.
Mike Golightly contacted me to let us know about the passing of his father, Roy, a pioneer in Colorado drag racing from the mid-1950s, on Dec. 13, the result of advanced Alzheimer's disease. He was 84. Golightly laid claim to having the first dragster in Colorado to reach 160 mph in 1955 with a car that he built himself. He was a charter member of The Strippers, a Denver-based car club. He retired from racing in 1965 and was inducted into the Colorado Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 2004. The U.S. Army veteran of the Korean conflict is survived by his wife of 39 years, Lucille; his son; stepdaughter and son-in-law, Carol and Michael Jess; and stepgrandson, Adam Jess. The family requested that in lieu of flowers, memorials be made to the Alzheimer's Association-Great Plains Chapter.
On the other side of the racing spectrum, we also lost Aaron Green, a promising announcer and racer from the Division 2 area. I met Aaron on the job here in the early 1980s, and we stayed in contact for some time about this, that, and the other thing. A family tragedy a number of years ago sent ripples through his life, and he had been ailing for some time before we lost him on Christmas Eve.
So, as you can see, it was a rough December for the history of our sport. It wasn’t my desire to begin the new year with this type of entry, but I wanted to pay respects to those we lost and not let their accomplishments and contributions be forgotten.
I’ll see you next week.