Features

In King Richard's courtSunday, September 05, 2010
Posted by: Phil Burgess
Tharp then ...
... and now

We had a surprise guest yesterday in the pressroom, former U.S. Nationals champ "King Richard" Tharp, who stopped by to chat with me about the ongoing ramp truck thread in my DRAGSTER Insider column here on NHRA.com.

Tharp was looking for a copy of the photo that "Beserko Bob" Doerrer had contributed of Funny Car rigs parked in the lot of the famed Marco Polo motel in Anaheim, including his then ride, the Harry Schmidt-owned Blue Max Mustang.

He saddled up here for the long run to watch Funny Car qualifying with the DRAGSTER staff, wearing his trademark white cowboy hat and looking every bit as fit and trim as he did in his driving days. He's currently in the wholesale car business and doing quite well, but keeps tabs on the sport on a regular basis. He's a close neighbor and still good friend with the later owner of the Blue Max heritage, Raymond Beadle, who he says is recovering well from a near-fatal heart attack earlier this year.

Tharp's memory is sharp as a tack, which became obvious as I peppered him with questions about the old days. As we chatted, he was looking over a list of final Pro Stock qualifiers and noted that it wasn't too long ago that nitro Funny Cars were running 6.50s at 210 mph … needing blowers and nitro to do what today's gas and carbs machines do.

He recalled how the Max and the Pat Foster-driven Barry Setzer Vega were the top performers of the 1972 season, and that both cars had been built by the late, great Lil John Buttera and both had Ed Pink power.

(Above) The 1971 Blue Max/ (Below) Tharp, far lane, winning Indy in 1976.

He recalled wistfully the days when the Max would run as many as seven match race dates in six days and about the fun of traveling the country with guys like "Jungle Jim" Liberman.

DRAGSTER Senior Editor Kevin McKenna worked up the nerve to ask him about a long-rumored story from those wild and crazy days, that Tharp, on a bet – and if you're squeamish, please skip this next part … seriously – had swallowed a live bird. He confirmed that the deed, but not that he was the guy who actually claimed the $900 up for grabs. I guess when you're on the road for extended periods, you'll do anything to pass the time.

Although Tharp did the lion's share of his winning in Top Fuel – he won Indy in 1976, defeating John Wiebe in the final and was runner-up the next year, and was world champ in 1976 in the candies & Hughes dragster to upstart Dennis Baca – he said he loved driving the Funny Cars more.

Tharp finished his career in Funny Cars, ironically in the Blue Max, and, unfortunately, in a car that was underfunded and trouble-plagued, and not a fitting end to "King Richard's reign, but he's still a hero and legend in our sport. He promised to stay in touch and share more stories with me in the future, and I'm truly looking forward to it.
 

 
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