Ask any 500 Tommy Ivo fans which of his many, many race cars is his most famous, and it’s a pretty safe bet that 495 of them will say it’s his wild four-engine Showboat. And who could blame them? With four Buick engines snorting at once and driving all four wheels, it was an unforgettable sight.
But, in the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction department, “TV Tommy” actually only got to drive his signature car about a dozen times two decades apart.
The legions of fans who tell their grandchildren about seeing Ivo drive the car more than likely saw either Ron Pellegrini (1960s) or Rick Johnson (1980s) behind the wheel of the smoke-churning beast when it did its thing at dragstrips far and wide across the country.
It’s a curious lament that Ivo must sing whenever he talks about the car, but it's one that he has accepted over time and one about which both he and Pellegrini were happy to share the details with me. Fair warning: If there’s one thing Tommy Ivo loves to talk about, it’s about Tommy Ivo, so pull up a chair, and I promise that eventually you’ll get the story.
The pre-story begins in 1960, the year before the Showboat first turned four tires on the track. As I shared here in a previous column, that was the year that Ivo took his first tour of the country with his side-by-side twin-Buick-engine dragster and an eager young crewman named Don Prudhomme in tow.
Knowing that Ivo would be far from his Southern California base, Pellegrini offered his Chicago-area speed shop (Speed Craft, located in Maywood, Ill.) as a base and a haven, and Ivo gratefully accepted. Ivo had never met Pellegrini or seen him before and was in for a surprise when he did.
“We walked through the door of his shop and there stood Herman Munster!” Ivo recalled. “Pellegrini is the only guy in the world with a ‘longer’ face than Fred Gwynne. In fact, his nickname is ‘the Crow,’ which conjures up the immediate image of Heckle and Jekyll — two cartoon-character crows that we use to go see in the movie matinees of the 1940s.
Ivo and Prudhomme ready to head out with the twin for the 1960 tour.
“His shop consisted of a small front counter sales room and a decent-sized shop in the rear where they outfitted getaway cars for the Cicero thugs of the era. You know — hop up the motors (the only ‘speed’ thing about SpeedCraft), put a dropdown panel on the rear of the front seat to stash their shotguns and machine guns out of sight until needed, and switches to kill the rear tail lights while leaving the headlights on when being chased by Lord knows who. That was pretty high tech for the day. Yee Gods, I expected to see Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and the FBI walk in the front door and carry us all off to the slumber at any moment … but, as luck would have it, ‘working on the car’ at Pellegrini's was one of the highlights of the tour, and he ended up being one of my dearest friends over the years to come. Yes, I'm a glutton for punishment!!!"
Ivo air-quoted “working on the car” because, other than cleaning up the car between weekends, they didn’t have to actually do a lot of work on the car, as it seldom broke.
“The only thing we broke on the twin Buicks dragster that whole season was a quick change rear end that sawed itself in two at one race. That could've been disastrous if the rear end wasn't offset to one side to line up with the clutch on the left-side engine," recalled Ivo, who walked away with just a bruise on his hip.
“Well, we also did ‘break’ the 180-mph barrier on gasoline at two different tracks as well,” he said, enjoying the pun. “We had already been the first to run 170 mph on the West Coast, but that was in the sandlot days, and if we had to do any heavy engine work, it was not a between-rounds fix in 45 minutes like nowadays. It took six men and a small boy to get the motors out of the car as a package of two and then split them, and I didn't even see a chain hoist in Pellegrini's place strong enough to do that.”
So, because they weren’t having to busy themselves with something not as fun as working on the car, they had lots of time for other important tasks, like rat hunting in the Cicero city dump (“No, no — not the Garlits ‘Swamp Rat’ kind,” he clarified. “Real rats, with long tails … although they both have beady little eyes, especially when I did something ‘Swampie’ didn't like — which was most of the time.” < Ivo-type grin>).
According to Ivo, Pellegrini had an in with the Cicero cops, so they’d feel pretty sure they’d stay on the right side of the law when they headed out to the dump with sawed-off shot guns and Tommy guns, with spotlights duct-taped to the guns, to blast the rodents, who were drawn by the waste dumped by the Campbell Soup company (“That was better to the rats than the hot dog stand to a starving drag racer,” Ivo noted).
Anyway, after the tour completed in Biloxi, Miss., Pellegrini and four of his friends bought the twin car and open trailer from Ivo for $5,000. Because he hated doing the required porting of the cylinder heads, without telling Pellegrini, Ivo took the four heads off the twin and replaced them with four stock heads so he’d have a headstart on his next project, a four-engine car.
Prudhomme, Ivo, and the Showboat
“I had already figured out that there was money to be made in drag race touring, and if the fans liked two motors, they'd love four,” Ivo reasoned.
Ivo had the four-engine car built in his two-car garage in Burbank, Calif., for about $4,000. Master chassis builder Kent Fuller did the framework for $15 an hour, Buick supplied the four engines, each with a displacement of 464 cubic inches (1,856 total), and a host of suppliers (led by Iskenderian and Weiand) gave him free parts. Ivo estimates that the car would cost about $250,000 to build today. Industrial chain couplers were used to tie each pair of engines together. The engines on the left side of the car faced backwards and powered the front differentia — which featured a reverse ring gear, originally engineered for the four-wheel-drive Novi Indycars, to make it run 'backwards” — and the right-side engines powered the rear differential. It weighed more than a ton and a half.
Before he even got a chance to drive the car, Ivo was hired for the male lead role as “the 10-thumbed bumbling” Haywood Botts in the television series Margie for 1961 and 1962, and the studio bosses were not keen on their star climbing into such a contraption, nor even had they given their blessing did his schedule allow him to be both television star and a “dashing, handsome touring race car driver,” as he called it. “I somehow always knew I should stay away from that 3,500-pound four-engine Sherman tank,” he says. “It was an omen I think.”
So he hired his crewman, Prudhomme, giving him his first starring role (or, possibly, as Ivo sometimes tells it, a chance to be his “test pilot” in the wild, new machine).
Prudhomme drove the car locally but only pocketed $25 (plus expenses) of the car’s $500 booking fee. Ivo promised a steady income if Prudhomme took the car on tour, but, according to Ivo, Prudhomme’s then-girlfriend (and soon-to-be wife) Lynn “put the kibosh” on him heading east for another summer tour. Mutual friend Tom McCourry, who had been helping on the car, was then offered the seat. “I had the distinction to be the first one to fire Prudhomme!” Ivo noted, with a “happy Ivo-type grin” thrown in.
Ivo got his first — and for 20 years, his only — ride in the car at the old San Gabriel track because of an oversight: They forgot to put the seatbelts into the car.
“We sent a faithful dog on a run back to the shop to get them, but we had to make the first run without them,” he said. “McCourry's back grew a big yellow streak down it, and he didn't want to hear any of it. So that became my first ride in the car. They tied me in the car with ropes to make the run. Nice! And that was really my one and only ride until I got it back again in 1982 to run it for my 30th anniversary and last match race tour.”
Pellegrini, second from right next to Ivo — you can see the height difference that Pellegrini mentions — as he took possession of the Showboat.
You could say that Pellegrini stayed in a lot of motels along the way.
Pellegrini made exhibition runs at the 1961 Nationals in Indy.
After McCourry, Pellegrini was offered the ride and says he flew out to California to pick up the car. (Ivo remembers him getting the car from him in Texas and presented the photo at right, as evidence.)
Pellegrini is sticking by his version: “I remember talking to Don when I came to get the car and how disappointed he was that he was not going on tour,” he maintains, “but that turned out to be the best thing for him as he ended up with the Greer-Black-Prudhomme ride and his accession to his fame.
“I took the car directly to Minnesota Dragway, never having driven the car, for a booked-in appearance. Because I was taller than Tom, my head stuck out above the rollbar, and I had to drive the car with no shoes as I could not get my size 12s on the pedals. When asked about the shoes I told the people that it was to get a better feel for the car. The 1961 tour was an eye opener for me as there was no format to follow. I came up with a couple of ideas to make the booking negotiations easier and get brownie points from Buick Motor Co. I would put the car on display at a local Buick dealer, and, in exchange, they would advertise that the car was on display at their show room and appearing at the race track that weekend.
“The car was great to tour with as it was almost maintenance free. All that was necessary was to change the oil and plugs and adjust the valves. Even though it was powered by four fire-breathing Buicks, it was not competitive due to its weight and drivetrain configuration. The car was a dream to drive, but due to weight transfer, it would not smoke the rear tires. Tom talked about connecting all four motors together but never followed up on it as he started fuel racing. Who knows what would have happened if all four motors were connected together?”
(Pellegrini got a chance to get even with Ivo — as Ivo sees it — for the cylinder-head swap on the twin. Pellegrini had Ivo’s gasoline credit card to fill the tow rig. “And he'd fill the tow car gas tank up, as well as all his buddy's tanks, with a cash kickback from them, every weekend,” Ivo reports. “I had so much going on at the time, I really wasn't scrutinizing my credit cards all that well, and Ron figured this out right away when I didn't ask how he put 60 gallons for gas in the tow car. Oh, I'm sure he'd have told me it was for both the dragster and the tow car. Yeah, right!!! The four-engine car used one gallon of gas a run — and the other 37 gallons went where? Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm!!!”)
Pellegrini ran the car for the 1961, '62, and '63 seasons, running at least once a week. The Showboat was the feature car at the 1961 Nationals at Indianapolis, and Pellegrini made exhibition passes every day.
“The car was booked solid, and all I had to do was make three tire-smoking runs to fulfill the contracts,” said Pellegrini. “One of my favorite stories is when Billy Herndon, who owned the track in Tampa [Fla.], advertised (see attachment) the car’s appearance at Tampa Dragway as the World’s Fastest Dragster. You can guess who resides in the Tampa area and took offense at the proclaimed title of World's Fastest. Garlits appeared that night at the track with his trusty black steed to lay down the challenge. Try as he might, we were never able to line up at the same time, but that's another story open for interpretation. Still, in its various incarnations, it was undoubtedly one of the drag racing world's most popular and enduring cars.”
Promoters were forever asking Pellegrini to match race the car against other competition, but he knew that the car just wasn’t built for speed and perhaps was losing some of its popularity; Ivo agreed and sold the car after the 1963 season to McCourry, who ran the car (and later had Tom Hanna make a Buick station wagon body for the car, renamed the Wagon Master) for the next five years before selling it to Norm Day.
Ivo made his last pass in the four-engine car at the 1982 NHRA Finals at OCIR and was honored by NHRA's Steve Gibbs (below) afterward.
Ivo and Pellegrini (and RP's ponytail) today; still pals.
Ivo did get the car back — complete with the station wagon body — for what he hoped would be an around-the-country farewell tour, complete with his famous glass-sided trailer, in 1982. He didn’t get very far. At his third stop, and after just a dozen passes, he crushed three vertebrae in his back after running over a frost heave under the track in Saskatoon, Sask. Funny Car driver Rick Johnson drove the car the rest of the year.
Not content to go out with a whimper, Ivo climbed back into the car at the 1982 World Finals at Orange County Int’l Raceway, stuffed about a dozen pillows into the cockpit to cushion him, and made his final pass. He drove the car back to the starting line, jumped on top of the car, took a pair of BBQ tongs and set alight his driving gloves with one of the portable propane track driers. “They all say they ‘burned their gloves.' I wanted to go out with some dramatic flair,” he explained. “Problem is I took a brand-new pair of driving gloves and burned them up. No one ever called me the sharpest knife in the drawer.”
Although he seldom drove it and his driving career ended with a huge bump in the road, he’s still glad he built the iconic machine.
“Had I have never built that four-engine car, I may not have ever stood the test of time to be remembered today,” he reasons. “I was dumbfounded when my book came out in 2012, and it sold like hot cakes. We went into a second printing in the second month out. I thought we'd sell 10 of them and get eight of them back. And I am completely convinced that the dreaded four-engine car had a heavy hand in making that happen.
“Both Ron Pellegrini and Tom McCourry were excellent representatives for me, and many people think to this day it was me that they saw driving it in all the early years. Only when Pellegrini told me the car was done in popularity after his two years of touring it back east did I sell it to McCourry, who it ran two more years as a dragster and several years after that. (Don't take any tips from Ron on the stock market!!!)
“And the half-full glass for me in this whole thing is that with the gypsy in my soul that made the bottom of my feet itch every six months, and I had to go somewhere, and [not continuing to drive the car] gave me the time to barnstorm the world, from one corner of the globe to the other, for all these years after my forced retirement from drag racing.
“Only people that have the good fortune to find an Aladdin's Lamp get three wishes. The movies, racing, and traveling the world. There's sure more than one way to skin a cat, but when it comes to what you get to do with your life, I found one of them!”
Major thanks to both Tommy and Ron for sharing their great memories of one of the sport's most spectacular cars; I hope you enjoyed their tales.
This will be the final regular Dragster Insider column of 2013. The NHRA offices are closed beginning today (Dec. 20) through Jan. 2. I had planned to write a season column recap column that would auto-post Dec. 27 but that was before I broke my leg playing hockey earlier this week that put me out of action. It's also highly unlikely that I'll be able to put together a column quickly for Jan. 3, but who knows? The muse may strike me. You'll just have to check back. If not, well, it's going to be a longer wait for you guys; sorry 'bout that.
In the meantime, you also can check out my columns today and next Friday on the NationalDragster.net site, My Favorite Fuelers, featuring, respectively, Jerry Ruth and Shirley Muldowney.
Praises and love continue to roll in in the wake of Gordie Bonin’s unexpected passing two weeks ago, and the level of admiration is touching. I’m sure that “240” knew he still had a lot of fans, but maybe not the depth of the attachment.
Even though Bonin primarily was a star of the1970s, I’ve read a lot of message-board and email-group praise for him from people who think that the 1960s was drag racing’s golden age or those who are modern-day fans and know only of him from the history books. By what counts as a measure of popularity today, the original story of Bonin’s death that I wrote that Friday night garnered more than 1,100 Facebook shares and more than 250 tweets. The outpouring of remembrances to my email has been impressive, and I want to share some of them now, but you'd better pull up a chair. This may take a while.
As I wrote last week, even though he was 65 -- not at all an expected age for someone to pass – Bonin still had that youthful enthusiasm that made you think he was half that age, which I think is why his passing was such a shock.
I can report now that Bonin’s death was heart-related. His mother, Marie – sadly on whose birthday he died – wanted his friends and fans to know the truth and that Bonin had been dealing with a serious heart condition the last few years of which not many people were aware because he didn't want any pity. He had several hospital stays the last couple of years and had been hospitalized not long before taking the trip to Las Vegas. He ignored friends' requests to come home to Red Deer, Alta., for further care because he wanted to make a West Coast swing to see his old racing pals. Maybe he knew what was coming, maybe he didn’t, but, like the way he lived, he did it Gordie’s way. He was cremated in Las Vegas and his ashes flown home to Red Deer.
I really wanted to hear from a couple of people, chief among them Ed “the Ace” McCulloch, who often shared top billing with Bonin at those great Northwest flopper fests and who famously won his second straight U.S. Nationals Funny Car title at the expense of first-time finalist Bonin in 1972. I had hoped to include his remembrances in the column a week ago Monday but wasn’t able to catch up to him until after that went online, but he still was happy to share his memories.
No matter the decade, Bonin vs. McCulloch at Seattle was always a battle.
“I remember the first time I met Gordie, when he and [Gordon] Jenner came down from Canada. The car ran good, but at the time, we had no idea how much of a force he was going to be once he and Jerry Verheul hooked up.
"We raced one another a lot. We had a lot of good times together and traveled together. When I moved back down to California and lived in Sanger, they’d come down with both cars – Gordie’s Funny Car and Graham [Light]’s dragster – and stay at my place. We’d grill and drink and raise hell, then go on to the next race. There was friendship, but there was always a rivalry for who’s going to come out on top. Those big races in Seattle always drew a lot of Canadian fans, so when he’d come down there, it was like, ‘You’re Canadian, I’m American,’ and it was a lot of fun, then we’d go run Calgary and Edmonton.
“I thought an awful lot of Gordie. He was always very positive and had a very cheerful way about him. Gordie always had something in the fire and something on the back burner and something he was chasing. That was just Gordie. We’ll all miss him.”
The other person I really wanted to hear from was Phil Elliott, who made an art form out of covering the Northwest scene for so many years and became a great and trusted friend to so many of the legend’s heroes. “Flyin’ Phil” came through with the nice piece of work below for us.
Gordie Bonin was just like the story of the lead singer in a local high school garage band being noticed by a record company, cutting a hit record, and instantly touring the country. He’d quickly moved from street racing a big-block Chevelle to wheeling a nationally competitive fuel Funny Car. He loved what he did – it was easy to tell – and he was good at it.
Everybody in the business has a way of rating Funny Car drivers, and they have their favorites. Each would put Bonin in the top five all time, and many (like me) would put him in their top two spots.
When I produced my magazine Drag Racing News & Views, I traveled with the Pacemaker team, usually Jerry Verheul, Steve Hutcheson, and me in the truck. If it weren’t for them, I would not have gotten to many of the events I did. I worked menial tasks around the shop during the week too.
At the big events, it was often as difficult to keep those separated who were interested in spending time with Gordie as it was to service the car. There was always a pretty-sounding musical voice asking, “Where’s Gooorrrrdddiieeeee?” His fans loved him as much as we did.
Gordie Bonin takes out John Force at Boise (Phil Elliott photo)
One time that worked exactly backwards for him was during the running of Verheul’s favorite project, the turbocharged nitro engine. It was an experiment in 1979 and 1980, not to gain horsepower but to save costs. Nitromethane had increased in cost by 100 percent, and Jerry figured he could build a turbocharged engine that would produce the same power on about 50 percent nitro.
Turbos intrigued Jerry, but not so much Gordie, who didn’t like experimentation that gave him less of a chance at winning. Verheul was a genius, and through the turbo trials, he proved it. The turbocharged nitro engine took time to develop and had a number of phases. It had several different intake manifolds, plenum designs, headers, turbo mounting locations, and several different wastegate configurations. Dave Benjamin was machinist, fabricator, and weldor on most of the many pieces.
I went to several early testing sessions, all sans body, and with Frank Hall in the seat. They were among the most boring of all -- start the engine, short burnout, back up, launch, smolder the tires, back up, shut off. The engine was very quiet and due to the header configuration spit unburned fuel straight out, which sometimes even puddled under the rear tires.
Each time, Jerry learned and changed things around until they suited him. One of the things that continued to impress him was the amount of boost the engine produced just before the tires came loose.
A trip to a Sacramento WCS came in 1980, and I didn’t go. Word had gotten around, and track operator Dave Smith requested the turbo car and was willing to pay (most nitro cars were bought in to the points races at the time). So off to Sacto they went. As I recall from Jerry’s and Gordie’s stories, there were three qualifying passes. The first was a stumbling shutoff, the second similar but better, and the third a tire-roasting, piston-melting deal that qualified the car. Race day rained out, so the Pacemaker group made an I-5 blast back to Seattle and returned with conventional setup to win the race the following Saturday. Did I forget to mention that the turbo engine was complicated and almost impossible to work on away from the Pacemaker shop?
It was a month or so later that the turbo car made its biggest impression on me.
It was at Portland for 32 Funny Cars, easily the biggest one-day motorsports event in Oregon. And Gordie was among the top fan favorites of all time there. I say that because of his competitive spirit. Although he was smiley and fun to be around to the fans, he wanted to WIN every match race, national event, and tiddlywinks competition he entered.
But that day, he was ruffled. He had made it known that he did NOT like the turbo car, and until it showed more consistency and controllability, he felt the conventional engine was the better choice. After all, he knew he could win with that, and the Pacemaker team was remarkable at Portland. But there was a second and arguably much greater reason.
Jerry knew it was a perfect opportunity to test on a well-prepared track AND get paid for it. There were even words between Jerry and promoter Bill Doner, but Verheul assured him the package was ready.
Earlier in the year, we discovered a new lady in Gordie’s life. My magazine had debuted at one of the radio-station-backed extravaganzas that were the norm — probably 16 nitro and 16 alky Funny Cars. On the way back north, Larry Pfister described a photo he’d shot of Gordie looking at a copy of DRNV with “one of the most beautiful girls” he’d ever seen. Later, I used the photo as a subscription ad.
The girl was Karen Minick, daughter of Pat Minick, part owner and driver of arguably the most famous Funny Car in history, the Chi-Town Hustler. It seems that Gordie was in the process of stealing her from Ron Colson, who had driven Chi-Town but was then in the seat of Roland Leong’s Hawaiian.
It was a rather distraught Gordie Bonin who strapped in behind Jerry’s turbocharged hemi that night at 32 Funny Cars. He was fighting for the heart of a fair maiden on a horse with weak legs.
I have always been skeptical that the first-round pairings were coincidental, for there came the Hawaiian Corvette to face the Pacemaker Firebird.
The crowd reacted negatively to the Pacemaker’s nearly silent burnout, although from a smoke standpoint, it was in the A category. There were a couple of dry hops — Verheul gave Gordie every chance he had, then the two drivers staged. Both left well, but the turbo Firebird pulled two open on the stout Corvette. My heart leaped with the thought that maybe, finally, the car was going to perform up to Jerry’s expectations. But alas, just past the transition from concrete to asphalt, right at the shift point, the big M&Hs churned, and the Hawaiian moved around for the easy win.
Still, for about a two-second moment in history, the stars had aligned.
Gordie didn’t end up with that win, but he did end up with the girl, and they remained friends.
We should have known that Bonin, far lane, would be good after he was runner-up in Seattle less than one week after he licensed. (Rich Carlson photo)
Gordie was certainly good at what he did those years. In the years of the team-up of [Ron] Hodgson, Verheul, and Bonin, they were as good as any Funny Car in the country. They won races locally, regionally, nationally. They toured. They won some more. Jerry had always wanted a deal like this, where he could run a car that thundered, be able to experiment some, match race, run national events, travel at his whim, and do it on someone else’s dollars. Ron wanted exposure for his businesses and believed Jerry could do it with a very fast Funny Car. Gordie not only drove the wheels off of anything he sat in, but his charm was a natural when it came to marketing the team.
Gordie did have some personal baggage, but he was one of the most genuine individuals I’ve ever known. Like everyone else, I’ll miss him – I’ll miss him like the brother I never had.
Bonin, second from right, with, from left, NHRA pals Brian Tracy, Don Kraushar, and then-president Dallas Gardner dirt-biking near Lake Arrowhead, circa 1985.
It has been mentioned several times that Bonin worked at NHRA for six years in the middle to late 1980s, and I remain good friends with the guy who was responsible for his hiring back then, former NHRA Vice President-Sales/Development Brian Tracy. I asked, and naturally, he had fond memories of a guy who not only worked for and with him, but also with whom he had been friends before all that.
“Bonin and I became good friends not long after I joined NHRA back in the mid-'70's,” he wrote. “At the Gatornationals one year back then, I was walking through the pits and stopped to watch him and [crew chief Jerry] Verheul and the boys in a full thrash after a run that resulted in much engine damage. Bonin saw me standing there and tossed me a rag saying, ‘Don't just stand there; wipe the body down for me!’ So I did, and the rest, as they say, is history. Given his gregarious personality and great rapport with sponsors, he really interested us when we went to the marketing-services event-staffing strategy as we increased races and added title-rights sponsors in the early 1980s.
“He was a natural at it and did a sensational job with people like Kenny Cason of Chief Auto Parts, John Dangler of Motorcraft, John Gardella of Castrol, Bud Lyons of Quaker State, Ron Winter of Budweiser, and many others as they activated their event sponsorships. Racers were always (and probably still are) wary of NHRA ‘stealing their sponsors,’ and Gordie was great at dispelling that myth, particularly because he was one of them. Probably my greatest memory of Gordie was after he went back to driving and was wheeling the Hawaiian Vacations Funny Car for Roland Leong. The sponsorship by the Hawaiian Visitors Council of the car came under great fire by a very influential and powerful newspaper columnist for the Honolulu Star. With the pressure ratcheting up by this columnist, Gordie, Roland, and I decided to have a press conference in Honolulu, invite all the local media, civic dignitaries, and particularly the columnist to specifically outline the marketing strategy and return on investment of the sponsorship. Well, the dog and pony show came off just great, with one minor problem. The columnist didn't show up. So we scouted around and found out what bar he frequented after he got off work (newspaper guys back in the day always had a bar they hung out in), and sure enough, we found it. The guy was so big in town that he had his own private booth at the bar with an old manual Royal typewriter mounted on the table. The guy comes in and at first wouldn't give us the time of day, but Bonin poured on the charm (as only he could) and by the end of a very liquid cocktail hour had the guy eating out of his hand. The end result was that the guy declared a truce and never wrote a word about the sponsorship (one way or the other) ever again. In many ways, Gordie was always a game changer, and in some ways, he was often a heartbreaker. But he was truly, truly one of a kind.”
A nice tribute posted on YouTube
Mitch Cooper, whose dad, Jim, covered the Northwest drag racing scene for Drag News in the 1960s, joined the NHRA Marketing Department in 1989 on Bonin’s departure and even inherited Bonin’s phone extension (240, of course). He shared this with me via email: “This one just hit WAY too close to home for a lot of us, mainly because Gordie was always ‘one of us.’ My meeting Gordie was very much similar to yours. I had been a fan of his since honestly I could remember going to the drags with my dad and watching his cars being built in Al Swindahl’s shop. During my first week or so working at Firebird [Int’l Raceway] in 1988, Gordie flew out for some advance planning for the Fallnationals. My head was already spinning from now being a part of the ‘community,’ and now I’m sitting in on meetings and having lunch with 240! He took me under his wing without hesitation and seemed to appreciate my Northwest drag background.
“Gordie was one of the last TRUE personalities of the sport that extended from his successful career behind the wheel to behind the desk and back again. His accomplishments may not match those of Prudhomme or Force, but the life he lived around this 1,320 feet of asphalt world seemed to be always with an eye towards squeezing the most out of every second and every opportunity he had.
“He had the utmost respect and reverence for the people that helped to create, direct, and propel the sport of drag racing: Wally and Barbara Parks, T. Wayne Robertson, all the way to legendary Tacoma [Wash.]-based chassis builder and mutual friend Al Swindahl (whom he just referred to by the nickname ‘Chassis’). Gordie NEVER lost his enthusiasm for the sport and was not shy at all in sharing his unabashed excitement with anyone and everyone whenever he had the opportunity to strap on his helmet. GB, you made us race fans in the Northwest proud, and you will be missed by all.”
Ed Eberlein, a sometime crewmember for the Bubble Up team who was on the crew when Bonin beat Don Prudhomme in the final round of the 1977 World Finals, wrote, “Just read the obit on 240 … and tears fill my eyes. He was one of the good guys in racing. I was always welcome on his team anytime: photographer and oil dumper and whatever else needed to be done. Even ended up in the winner’s circle twice; once at the Governor’s Cup in Sacramento when he had the Monza body and again later when he beat ’Snake’ at Ontario. I will always recall him reaching into ‘Snake’s’ Army car after ‘Snake’ had strapped in and wishing him good luck. Then we beat him. He, Jerry, and Chuck were always welcoming. Knowing Gordie allowed me to connect with Mike Miller and Ro[land Leong] and Ron Colson. Damn. He is missed.”
Insider regular Frankie LoCascio added, “I didn’t attend my first drag race until ’84, so I hadn’t seen Gordie in his prime, but due to my reading and watching everything I could about drag racing of years gone by, I was well aware of who he was. I was excited to see when he made his comeback in both the Top Fuel car and Funny Cars and to see him win a few more national events. I never really had a chance to speak with him until I went up to Spokane [Wash.] for the ’03 AHRA World Finals. I was working on the Neese & Knowles AA/FC at the time. Gordie was at that event, and it was cool to finally get to talk to him a time or two over the weekend. As luck would have it, we made it to the finals and raced Vinny Arcadi (RIP). At the hit, Vinny went up in smoke or had an issue of some kind. Steve Neese (our driver) was having issues of his own, but being that he didn’t see or hear Vinny, he stayed after it. Up on the right header and then back on all fours, up on the left header and back down on all fours before the eighth-mile without hitting the wall or crossing the centerline; Steve went before turning on the win light. What does all this have to do with Gordie, you’re asking. As we piled into the van to go get Steve, Gordie came up to the van, shook all of our hands, and said that was without a doubt the wildest Funny Car pass he had ever seen. Coming from ‘240 Gordie,’ that was saying something. I think that was just as cool as winning the race, having ‘240 Gordie’ pay us a compliment like that. There will never be another Gordie Bonin. Godspeed, Gordie. Thanks for the memories!”
Even the background had a smile for Bonin.
Terry Morrow, who grew up crewing on some great Northwest cars (he was with Pat Austin during his heyday) and today handles engine/fuel-systems tech and sales for Alan Johnson Performance Engineering, wrote, “Growing up in the Northwest and working on Gaines Markley’s Top Fuel car, I met Gordie in Gaines’ garage (Gaines would put Gordie’s third members together). I always liked to pit next to him because he would always have the prettiest girls around; if they put on one of his halter tops in the trailer, they would get it for free! Gordie, Terry Capp, and Bernie Fedderly would bring all of us (kids back then) some kind of Canadian booze and turn us loose in the pits after the race. Gordie was always happy, nice, and wearing a smile. If you look at the trophy pic of him in the Hawaiian firesuit, look behind him at the writing on the wall. Awesome.”
“Canadian (Manitoba) gearhead” Allen Lasko wrote that Bonin “was someone I cheered for from afar, reading of his exploits in magazines back in the day. In 2009, I went to an Indy car race in Edmonton, and they had a paddock filled with local sports cars. There, in the midst of them, was one of Bonin’s Firebird floppers. It drew me like a magnet; seeing that car was indeed a big highlight of my weekend. RIP, 240.”
Karl White, whom you may remember from the photos and old programs from OCIR he shared during the Ghost Tracks thread, had many good memories of watching Bonin race and an especially fine memory of his actual meeting with the man.
“Maybe 15 or 17 years ago, give or take, I was at a race at Pomona (Winters, World Finals, maybe one of the old Goodguys vintage races, I really forget), and ‘240’ was working at NHRA at the time. I was at the track with a friend of mine, Takaru, a Japanese national. I worked for a Japanese aerospace company at the time and enjoyed taking visitors to the drags when I could because it’s something uniquely American that they just don’t get to see much in Asia. So, we’re at the races, and at one point during the afternoon, we come across somebody’s pit area, again, I forget exactly who, long time ago. Standing there bench racing, right in front of us, is Gordie Bonin and Roland Leong and a couple other guys. My buddy starts taking pictures, mostly of the car; he didn’t know ‘240’ or Roland Leong from Adam. I spent some few minutes explaining to my friend who these guys are and why they are such a big deal in the world of drag racing. He understood and was duly impressed, all things considered. After a few moments, Gordie sees us and, of his own accord, asks if Tak would like his picture taken. Sure, great! Gordie holds up the rope, Tak hands me his camera and steps in, and I take a photo of my buddy standing between Gordie Bonin and ‘the Hawaiian’ himself. Cool beans! We say thanks and move along.
“Now, the cool part. About a month later, we get the photos developed (this is long before digital stuff), and that particular shot came out perfectly. It’s in focus, perfectly framed, great color, everyone’s smiling right to the camera, one of those lucky shots. A professional in a studio could not have gotten a better shot. I got the negative and had a color 8x10 made. I knew Gordie was working at NHRA in some capacity, so I write a quick note and ask ‘240’ if he’d autograph it for my buddy, and I’ll send it to him in Japan for a surprise. Couple weeks go by, nothing. A month, no reply. Six, eight weeks, I just forget about it; guy’s busy, some secretary probably tossed it. Oh well.
Bonin was fast on two wheels, too, beating KHJ disc jockey "Machine Gun Kelly" in this fun pairing at Irwindale during the track's KHJ Funny Car Special event in 1976.
“Musta been four or five months later, I get a call at work. ‘I’m looking for Karl White,’ and suddenly, I’m on the phone with one of these ‘legend-of-the-sport’ guys. We talk, and he’s as pleasant as can be; talks to me like we’ve been friends for 30 years. I know my mouth was hanging open. He explained that he’d left NHRA and was working at the Las Vegas Speedway as a marketing/sales guy; he’d just been going through old mail that had been forwarded from Glendora and found my photo and note. He’s apologizing for getting back to me so late. Gordie Bonin is telling me he’s sorry about getting back late on some autograph request from some guy he cannot possibly remember meeting. Really!?
“So, after we talk, he sends the picture back, signed personally to my friend, and he adds his business card and a note on the back with Roland Leong's home address. He tells me to send this to Roland and have him sign it, too. Mr. Leong also gives it a personal touch, and I was able to forward the final product to Tak back in Tokyo, where it becomes one of his prized possessions. It’s still hanging in the hallway of his house in the Shibuya-ku section of Tokyo. I still have Gordie’s business card with the note on the back, looking at it right now. Takura will be sorry to hear of the passing of ‘240 Gordie.’ I know I am.”
Thanks for all of your sharing and help in giving him the sendoff he deserved; I know that “240” would have enjoyed it, too. Obviously, we’re not the only people remembering Gordie. Check out the great tribute to him posted on the Speedzone website or read the story from his hometown paper, the Red Deer Advocate.
Here are some parting words from someone else who truly appreciates it. I was extremely pleased to hear from Gordie’s son, Scott, who agreed to share his thoughts about his dad with us.
“My dad was definitely one of a kind,” he wrote. “As he was in racing, he lived life five seconds at a time. He lived life to its fullest. He was able to put a person at ease and make you feel like you were his best friend within minutes of meeting him. His smile and sense of humor was intoxicating. When talking to people who never had met him, I used to say he was the oldest 16-year-old I knew.
“Over the past few weeks, I have been reminiscing over the memories of him; one that keeps coming to mind I guess you could call my very first driving lesson. I think I was about 5 at the time. He took me out to go kite flying in his new 1970 Chevelle SS. So we went to an open field to fly the kite. We had a great time. But when it came time to leave, he realized when he parked the Chevelle, the front wheels were in a rut. So he tried backing out, but no go, the tires would just spin. So here is where my lesson came in -- he asked me to sit in the driver’s seat, and when he pushed the front end of the car, he asked me to tap the gas pedal. But being 5 and having to stretch my legs just to even touch the pedal, the tap turned into more of a stomp. Well, the car came out of the rut … with the tires squealing and him chasing me and the car. He was able to catch up and take control of the car without any further mishaps. I was so worried I was going to be in trouble, but once the shock of what had just happened wore off, he just chuckled and said, ‘Maaan, was that fun,’ and we laughed about it all the way home.
“He will be sadly missed by fans, friends, and family. I would like to thank everyone for their condolences and sharing of stories about my dad. It has warmed my heart and has made this time a little easier. Through these stories, I was able to learn more about the man that was my dad; until this, I never knew that for the past 20 years, he has gone to Joliet, Ill., every year to play at a charity softball game that helped raise money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. These stories will also allow his grandchildren (Daniel Andrew Trey and Emily) to learn about what type of man he was.”
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.