Cleaning out the mailbagWednesday, May 30, 2012
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Welcome to the day-late-and-a-topic-short DRAGSTER Insider for this week. I’m a day behind, like most of you are, after Memorial Day, and with travel Thursday to Englishtown for one of the greatest events on the tour precluding any chance of a column later this week, this seemed like a good time to clear out the Inbox of recent items so that we can get a fresh start sometime next week. I have a couple of interesting ideas for columns just begging for the time, and I’ll have most of June off to get them launched before I hit the trail for back-to-back outings in Chicago and Norwalk. After that (lucky me), I get the summer off and won’t travel until Indy before it gets busy again in the fall.

Into the mailbag …

First, thank you, thank you, thank you to the many of you who took time to congratulate me on my 30-year anniversary with NHRA. Many of the emails were very touching and rewarding to read. I’m honored to have such a big impact on your workweek and in rekindling your drag racing memories.

I’ve grown to know many of you in the nearly five years we’ve been writing this column and heard from many old friends, too, like Dan “the Sign Man” DeLaney, whom I first met in the 1980s while driving the Mazi family Opel, who shared this great thought.

“I've personally enjoyed being a member since 1974 and still have the membership cards to prove it., but the passion started in the late '60s with that first trip to the 1320,” he said. “I, too, couldn't get enough and so wanted to be a piece of the drag racing puzzle. I mirror the fact that we both enjoy and have the passion for the sport. I believe we both have found the paths we were to take. I, too, every now and then stand in front of my building like you did in front of the headquarters and stare and wonder and with a deep breath ... put the key in the door. Your articles have brought smiles to my face and yes even tears of joy and sorrow for those we love. Look forward to the articles you write twice a week here and in newsprint. When someone can stay at their job for 30 years and still enjoy every minute of it, there is something to be said. Retirement is never an option. Like myself, it's in the blood; the love of the people, the sport, and the job are what keep it going.”

Reader Jim Dodd, who “started following drag racing when many of the Top Fuel cars still had the motors up front” and once was a neighbor of longtime NHRA Chief Starter Buster Couch, echoed many of you guys’ thoughts when he wrote, “I want to tell you how much I enjoy reading your column. It makes me happy and sad at the same time. I am saddened by my heroes passing away but thoroughly enjoy the walk down memory lane.” He went on to cover a number of topics, including his thoughts of the sport today, but what really intrigued me was his last comment: “In that 1985 photo of you sitting at your desk, I noticed that nice watch you are wearing. Is that a Casio?”

Man, the funny things people pick out in a photo. But, to be honest, when I pulled that photo out of the archives, it was one of the first things I noticed, too. No, it’s not a Casio, but from what I’ve read throughout the years, it did have an interesting history. My folks actually bought it for me on the cheap at Sears when I was a teenager; I wore the thing forever, and it never ceased to amaze me. It would take a beating and never falter, and the battery lasted forever. I never changed it in the time I wore it (I still have it, but the battery is finally dead). You won’t find this on any urban-legends website, and I only found out about this because someone remarked on it once, but apparently through some kind of misunderstanding/mislabeling, it was actually a high-end watch sold by Sears at a price way under its value. We got lucky, I guess. If anyone knows the story behind this, I’d love to hear it. I no longer wear a watch; like many of you, my cellphone keeps the time for me now.

Perhaps the highest honor bestowed upon me in congratulations on my tenure is the inclusion of the photo of me backing up Jim DePasse’s Top Alcohol Funny Car in Gainesville on Rich Venza’s Facebook page dedicated to "Drag Racing Back-Up-Girls." Wrote Rich, “I broke one of my hard and fast rules and added your backup photo to my Facebook page. I expect it will become the ONLY such photo to be included. I bet your files have thousands of Back Up Girl photos, but my page has only one Back Up Boy.” I’m so honored. Check out and Like Rich’s great page here.

Readers are still blown over by the blowovers thread, and, yes, we’ve found another addition to the list. In the October 1973 issue of Drag Racing USA, Joseph Faraci found a color photo of Jim Bucher going skyward at Great Lakes Dragaway. I had been hearing rumors about this one but hadn’t received any confirmation about it until just now. Bucher’s son, Mike, confirmed the incident, which I’ve added to the official list that appeared in the May 22 column. “My dad did have a blowover (but it was more a power wheelstand),” he wrote. “It ended up pointing straight up and twisted around while straight up, then came down. That was the end of the car that set the 6.07 e.t. record in 1973.”

Aaron Wilson from England weighed in with a European blowover that I will add to the list as well. Germany’s Rico Anthes, who competed in the U.S. for a short while, had a classic blowover at England’s Santa Pod Raceway in 1993. ”I was only 9 or 10 at the time and remember the car stopping directly in front of me,” he wrote. “I was standing on the far side of the track. The beginning of the incident looks very similar to Scott Kalitta's with the wheels up very early in the run. I remember him saying that he had lifted early but couldn't stop it in one of his interviews. He was uninjured and doing interviews afterwards. The video [at right] is in German, although I’m sure there is an English version; it may only be on tape from a season or meeting review.”

The blowover is shown from two angles, but it only takes up the first 30 seconds of the two-minute video that also includes the jet truck of Les Shockley and the jet limo of Jim Neilson. As you can see in this video of the blowover, the continent makes little difference in the outcome as it lands almost on its wheels after the half gainer.

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Jack Cambra takes flight in Pomona.
For every blowover, there probably are handfuls of “almosts” that a driver saved. Craig Sanburn remembers Butch Blair (in Joe Amato's former streamliner) standing it up in the lights in Sonoma. “Fortunately, he was downtrack enough that he was on the uphill part, and it came down just fine,” he remembered. “I'm not even sure it hurt anything, but it sure looked crazy from back by the starting line! Not a total blowover but real close!"

Speaking of which, our ol' pal Steve Reyes sent a care package of some of the "almosts" he has grabbed on film, including sequences of Top Alcohol Dragster racers Jack Cambra and Bubba Sewell in Pomona and Marvin Graham's one-wheel act, which, as I recall, was at the Popular Hot Rodding meet in Martin, Mich., in 1980 or 1981 in Marc Danekas' TR-3 Resin Glaze machine in which he became the 12th member of the 250-mph Club in Fremont, Calif., in the fall of 1981.

Buck Hujabre, whom you may know as good buddy of Captain Blog (Bob Wilber) from the cast of Jersey Boys, wrote to ask about another memorable near blowover. “I seem to vaguely remember Mike Dunn doing a fantastic job of stopping his dragster from going completely over in the late ‘80s or early '90s. I can't for the life of me remember if it was the Yankees/Gwynn years or the La Victoria salsa car.  As a matter of fact, I only remember seeing it once in a compilation video (probably a Diamond P release), so it may not be as well-known.  I just wanted to check in and see if you had any video or further information on that since you have most of the great blowovers documented in your fantastic articles.”

The incident in question was from qualifying at the 1997 Brainerd event and is especially memorable because Dunn had a camera on the front wing looking over at his qualifying mate, Jim Head (in the appropriately named Close Call entry). I’ve looked online and can’t find any footage of it (surprising!), so I did the next-best thing and called Dunn for his memories and dug out the still photo at right from our archives, which was shot by current NHRA Division 5 photographer Barry Bergeron. Dunn’s car was the Mopar entry, owned by Darrell Gwynn and tuned by Ken Veney.

The conversation with Dunn brought to light interesting things about blowovers and perhaps why he succeeded in halting his where others failed. As longtime National DRAGSTER readers will recall from his insightful The Final Take column, Dunn was one of the few “hand-brake” drivers out there, deft enough to use the hand brake to slow wheel spin and other unfortunate occurrences, and he believes it saved his bacon on this one.

“The car would carry the front tires over the 60-foot clocks a lot, and you’d just give it a little brake to bring it down, but the problem is that when it comes up in the middle [of the run] like that, air gets under the wing and carries it back. The problem comes when the clutch locks up downtrack when you still have the front end up, which is what happened here. It was driver error; I let it get too far.

“I thought it was going over,” he admitted, as did crew chief Veney, who, watching from the starting line, told ND back then, “The next thing I expected to see was the body panels flying off.”

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the brakes did save it,” said Dunn. “I grabbed the brake as hard as I could; I have a photo somewhere showing the car standing straight up, and the brake rotors are bright red. I couldn’t believe it when it started coming down. For a brief second there, I thought about feathering the throttle a bit to keep it from smashing the front end, but then I thought, ‘No; let’s just get it back to the ground …’ "

They were able to repair the car – in typical racer fashion, jacking up the middle of the chassis with the front end wedged under an immovable object like a truck or trailer to remove the bow, then clipping a wedge out of the top bars of the chassis ahead of the A-arms, jacking it up, and rewelding it to get the wing height right – and made it to Sunday’s eliminations, where they lost in round one, but, as Veney – never one to be easily impressed -- pointed out, “The only reason we could use the car again was because of our driver.”

And finally, Ronnie Lahn, whose fuel-car roots go back to the late 1960s when he crewed for the Shipman’s 'Cuda Funny Car of Wendell Shipman (crew chief: Frank Pedregon Sr.), asked, “Didn’t Larry Dixon have a blowover while testing at Bakersfield in his early days driving for ‘Snake’? I think it happened on the second pass.”

Good marks for memory, but points off for detail. Though Dixon – like Prudhomme in late 1989 for his 1990 return to Top Fuel – did crash in Bakersfield, it wasn’t a blowover like Prudhomme experienced but rather the result of a blown left-rear tire during the pre-Winternationals testing. Earlier in that test session, Dixon and the Miller Genuine Draft machine had run 4.717 – the second-quickest pass in history – and the wreck occurred on his final pass. The car was junked and a new one brought into action for the season opener, and we all know what happened after that. Dixon won in his second start, in Phoenix, then embarked on an impressive sweep of the NHRA “majors” with wins in Gainesville, Englishtown, and, of course, Indy, en route to being the runaway winner of the rookie of the year award. Here’s a pic of him and “Snake” sharing the Indy winner’s circle that year.

OK, race fans, that’s it for today and for the week. As I mentioned, I’m off to New Jersey Thursday (I’ll be the one in the airport wearing the L.A. Kings T-shirt), and I’ll have a column sometime next week, depending on travel and other intangibles. Thanks for reading.

Thirty years in heavenFriday, May 25, 2012
Posted by: Phil Burgess

(Above) Me, in 1985. Sharp-eyed readers will note the typewriter (electric at the time, but I started on a manual), the photo-sizing wheel (Photoshop? Ha!) and the pica-pole ruler by my left hand, and pen-and-paper method of designing pages. Those were the days! (Below) Me now. Moustache gone, hair thinner, waist thicker, but passion still intact deep inside.

Yesterday, May 24, 2012, marked my 30th anniversary under the employ of the big red and blue oval that has been my life for well more than half of my life. I joined the NHRA family and the National DRAGSTER staff two days after my 22nd birthday, happily taking a $7,000-a-year cut in pay to begin my dream job (don’t tell Wally Parks, but I probably would have paid him for the chance to work here).

After a roundtable grilling by the staff on my knowledge of the sport -- it was the job interview I'd unknowingly been studying for since I was 10 years old, devouring every drag racing magazine I could get my hands on -- and passing a nerve-racking one-on-one with Wally, I was invited to join the team, and I did so stoked by a burning passion to tell our sport’s story to as many people as would listen.

There certainly was nothing wrong with National DRAGSTER at the time – and I had been a loyal member/reader for years before I joined the team – but we all knew that there was a lot more we could do. The mid-1980s was a period of unprecedented growth for ND, not just in terms of readers, but also in the scope of the stories that we were given the permission – and column inches – to tell.

I’ll be honest: Wally fought us along the way. He was a pure nuts and bolts guy, and some of the crazy stuff we did – trivia contests, top 10 lists, humorous photos and captions – sometimes was not appreciated by him but drew praise from readers to the extent that he knew we were on to something and let us have our way – not that a scathing “Wally memo” was ever far from our minds.

Still, in the end, I earned Wally's trust and support in ways I never could have imagined. For the first 20 years of my editorship, he could be critical of the direction I was trying to take the paper, fretting about wasted space on this or missed opportunities on that, but the last five years, he was our biggest cheerleader and so proud of what National DRAGSTER had become. In 2000, seven years before he passed, I pleaded for and received an extensive sit-down interview with him, where I got to ask all the questions I had so that after he was gone, I could continue to share his side of NHRA’s early story, which was instrumental in our 50th Anniversary celebration in 2001.

Headquartered on Riverside Drive in North Hollywood, the NHRA staff of those early 1980s was small – probably no more than 25 – but filled with characters I’ll never forget, including ND’s photographic Frick and Frack, Leslie Lovett and the wacky Bill Crites; the grandfatherly genius Bill “Farmer” Dismuke; wheeler-dealers like Brian Tracy and John Mazzarella, who could sell you the shirt off your own back, each with a distinctly different style; and the leaders I looked up to for guidance and acceptance, like Parks, Dallas Gardner, Carl Olson, Steve Gibbs, and Bernie Partridge. As you may have heard, things were a lot looser and informal then, but, boy, we got things done. I’m proud to have been counted among that group that helped cement NHRA’s reputation in the 1980s and beyond and dearly miss those who have left us, especially Leslie.

(Above) Me and Wally. It was my honor to know and work with him. (Below) Me and Leslie, on the starting line in Pomona. I miss them both dearly.

In my first years, Leslie took me under his wing and taught me about life on the road, and it was a far different experience then. Many was the time we’d finish the edition late Wednesday, catch a red-eye that night to the event, head straight from the airport to the track, and work all the next day before we finally were able to catch some sleep. Sunday night was the reverse; we’d zip through winner’s circle photos, jump in the rental car, and haul ass for the airport, hoping to catch the last flight home so that the hundreds of rolls of film – remember film? – could be dropped off at the processor (usually around midnight) and ready for pickup bright and early the next morning.

Leslie taught me about photography and about how to interact with the racers. I’ve never seen anyone as universally loved by the racers as was Leslie. I learned from him the value of having the trust of the racers, and it’s been a strict rule here ever since, keeping “off the record” just that, verifying information before committing it to print, and zealously guarding and maintaining the trust.

As the editor since 1986, I’ve been blessed to lead some of the finest reporters, copy editors, and photographers in the sport, and their passion for the sport – for getting the facts straight and the images to be compelling – shows in every issue. I’ve been here for more than 1,400 of them, and they’ve all gone out the door without fail each week, a tribute not only to being able to meet tough deadlines with quality work, but also to the Advertising and Production staffs – the unsung heroes whose credits appear only in the Table of Contents each week – who keep the machine running, and to my many bosses along the way, who in showing faith in me instilled confidence, loyalty, and the unflinching desire to always work harder and longer  for them. Thanks, everyone.

Having a job like this, where you get to travel the country and have biweekly family reunions with the traveling band of gypsy Pro racers, was more than a hard-core fan like me could ever imagine. I’ve said it before that there were times I clung to the ropes of Don Prudhomme’s pit area, eager for just a nod or a “Hey, kid,” and now “the Snake” calls me at home just to chitchat. The list of legends in the sport whom I now can proudly call good friends – and, in some cases, confidants and advice seekers – is truly humbling and runs the gamut from Shirley Muldowney to Tom McEwen to John Force. Tuesday was my birthday, and not only did “Snake” call, but it was Bob Brandt who reminded him it was my birthday. You can't imagine what that means to the kid who grew up idolizing both of them and following their heroics. Roland Leong – who shares my birthday and somewhere along the line also took a liking to me – emailed me, and my Facebook and Twitter feeds went berserk, too.

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I was always a good listener. Frank Mazi teaches me the art of the Opel.
The job has been almost too much fun to even call a job sometimes and afforded me opportunities to see and do things and go places I never would have dreamed, many of which I’ve written about here.

I’ve been proud, on several occasions, to be entrusted to crew on various race cars and seen the highs and lows of the sport and wrote all about it. I traveled cross-country with the DePasse family to compete in Top Alcohol Funny Car at the Gatornationals (we didn’t qualify) and wrenched over a steaming engine in Dal Denton’s TAFC at the even steamier Cajun Nationals en route to a runner-up that gave Pat Austin his first win. I crewed on Brent Fanning’s rocket dragster. I warmed up Jim Head’s Funny Car. I did parking-lot dry hops in Larry Morgan’s Super Stocker. And, of course, you’re all painfully aware that I drove the wild, short-wheelbased, supercharged Opel of the Mazi family well enough to earn a competition license. (Which also led to the less-told story of how Frank Mazi convinced me that taking hang-gliding lessons with him was a swell idea, and how I ended a near-death dive in a crumpled tangle of tubing and canvas on the side of some forsaken hill in Ohio. By comparison, the Opel was safe.)

I got to attend the last few years of NHRA’s only national event outside the U.S. borders, Le Grandnational in French-speaking Quebec, which was like visiting a foreign country. And, believe me, the last thing you want to do is visit a foreign country with Crites as your guide. I think I’m still on Interpol’s most-wanted list.

I got to visit New York, something this California kid never imagined. Every trip to Englishtown included an excursion into the Big Apple, where we dined in Little Italy and Chinatown and scoured the record stores of Greenwich Village for Bruce Springsteen bootlegs. And, of course, I met my rock 'n' roll hero Bruce at Raceway Park but was too cool (read: stupid) to even ask for an autograph or a photo op.

The Big Apple was cool from a touristy standpoint – and, honestly, we seldom get the chance to sightsee while we’re at the races anymore – but from a drag racing fan standpoint, there’s no forgetting that first trip to Indy, which for me came in 1983, and I haven’t missed one since. Just to be able to walk onto those hallowed grounds and see the Valhalla that I’d only seen in photos (the original Hurst Bridge and original four-story timing tower were still in place that first year) gave me goose bumps that I still get every time we pull into the gates.

Slip-sliding down the Lake Placid bobsled course with Phil Burkart Jr.

I’ve been places and seen things a guy can only dream about – like the Playboy Mansion for Prudhomme’s retirement party in 1994 – and been on fun trips like my journey to Lake Placid a few years ago for the NHRA vs. NASCAR bobsled competition. After an overnight stay at their amazing home, I flew with Jeg and Samantha Coughlin in their private jet right into the local airport and enjoyed two days of fun, including a few rides down the historic Olympic sled course. During Jerry Toliver’s years with the WWF as his sponsor, I got to be the coolest dad on earth by getting my son, Chris, backstage at one of their big shows to meet his hero, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. I shot trap (and didn’t embarrass myself or accidentally shoot anyone) with Robert Hight.

Naturally, I’ve seen amazing moments on the racetrack, from incredible performances like Don Garlits’ shocking 1984 Indy win, Austin’s near double at the 1991 U.S. Nationals, and Tony Schumacher’s “The Run” at the 2006 Finals. I witnessed both ends of Shirley’s tragic 1980s; I was in Montreal when she crashed and in Phoenix in 1989 when she made her return, and I saw Darrell Gwynn’s triumphant last win in Gainesville in 1990 and flew to Miami for his first public appearance after his career-ending accident; I was touched and amazed by the grace and strength of them both.

I flew once to Noble, Okla., to see fire-wary Force test perhaps the most gadget-laden Funny Car in existence, equipped with pneumatic cylinders to unlatch and toss off a burning body (linked by cable to the chassis), an extra parachute under the body, and aluminum casters on the chassis in case he lost the rear tires. I’m surprised it didn’t have an ejection seat. In the summer of 1984, I flew to Kansas to spend the weekend with the Patterson family and Kip Martin, then drove to Bartlesville, Okla., to do a feature on the rare Mustang Super Stocker of Lloyd Bray and D.G. Gillam, two of the many great people I met along the way. We lost Lloyd earlier this year, and even more than 25 years later, D.G. kindly thought to call me to break the sad news.

The DRAGSTER staff celebrated with Wally in the Indy winner's circle after producing the Daily DRAGSTER at the 1988 U.S. Nationals. That's me, third from right, in the back row.

I keep this little sign -- from ND's 50th Anniversary display at the NHRA Museum -- on the wall in my office to remind me of all of those before me who have helped make National DRAGSTER what it is today.

Although my heart and soul for the last 30 years has been the weekly thrill of National DRAGSTER – I’ll always bleed blue and yellow – I’m proud of the other work we’ve done in the Publications group. In 1988, the National DRAGSTER staff went daily with a groundbreaking publication at that year’s U.S. Nationals, Daily DRAGSTER, published each night and delivered free to the racetrack and area hotels. It was a logistical nightmare – remember, this was before digital photography – yet the hard work, diligence, and planning that went into each year meant we never missed an issue. It was unprecedented work and gave hard-core fans at the race in-depth daily coverage they never imagined possible in those pre-Internet days.

In 1995, I obtained permission to explore this wacky little craze just beginning to gain steam – a little something called the World Wide Web – and helped build what is now NHRA.com, and for the past 17 years, I’ve helped feed its voracious appetite for content. Like the Daily, it has evolved with the times – including the addition of the world-famous audiocast in 1998 – and, again, it’s been a tremendous team effort. There is not a dedicated staff for the website, but so many from the Editorial, Photography, and IT departments double up on their jobs to ensure that it runs smoothly. Early on, we partnered with the group now known as Summit FastNews to provide our results, and the work they’ve done throughout the years (beginning in 1997) has given fans around the globe better access to the sport.

Then, of course, there’s this little column you’re reading, a twice-weekly endeavor that, through your kind and generous contributions and enthusiasm, has far exceeded what I ever imagined it could be. The praise that is heaped upon me each week is truly humbling, and yet the honor and privilege of doing it is all mine. The thrill of uncovering some lost facet of our history and continuing to honor those who have created the history is matched only by the joy of being able to share it with such an appreciative audience.

Again, thank you.

Yesterday, as I walked to the doors of HQ, I actually stopped and stared up at the NHRA logo on the front of the building, the same way I did so many years ago in front of the HQ building on Riverside Drive in North Hollywood. Back then, I’m sure I took a deep breath and nervously stepped through the front door, uncertain of what may lie ahead but excited at the prospects.

Yesterday, I walked through the front door, thankful that even my wildest fantasies from that day were no match for the reality that became my life with NHRA.

Top Fuel blowovers, Part 4Tuesday, May 22, 2012
Posted by: Phil Burgess

It was more than two years between Shelly Anderson’s blowover at the 1996 Brainerd event and the next one to befall a racer, but Pat Dakin won’t soon forget when his number came up in Topeka in the fall of 1998. Racing Doug Kalitta in round one, Dakin’s mount reached for the sky, flipped overbackward, and glanced off the top of the guardwall and slid to a stop, right-side up, in the shutdown area.

“That car has never wheelstood in its life, so that was the last thing on my mind,” Dakin told me via email this week. “It went into tire shake and I pedaled, and the next thing I knew, I was in trouble. The first thing I thought of was, ‘How quick can we get the backup car ready?’ This was while the car was going over. That is all I remember until going to the helicopter on a stretcher. I woke, and the medic asked if I could move my legs and did, so no paralysis; that was good, but I broke all but three fingers on both hands and fractured my skull. It took 18 months and 12 operations before I regained all of the use of my left hand and most of my right, which did not help my golf game.”

Dakin’s crash ended a promising season; the two-time winner from the 1970s had reached the final round earlier that year in Atlanta. As serious as Dakin’s injuries were, 20 years later, he returned to the sport and the class he loved so much, relicensing after the 2008 Gatornationals, and today is a semi-regular presence on the tour.

The following year, former Top Alcohol Dragster racer Randy Parks joined the Quarter-Mile-High Club, turning his Fluke/Rydin Decal-sponsored dragster over during Friday qualifying at the 1999 Phoenix event. Parks’ car started to climb at about the 200-foot mark, went straight up at half-track, then spun around in midair and landed on all fours facing backward on the track before sliding across the finish line on an 8.46, 62.14-mph pass and grinding to a safe halt, but the team’s 35-run-old Murf McKinney-built car was a mess.

Ironically, that was the team’s first pass without a wheelie bar, which had been removed in an attempt to improve the car’s performance after a DNQ at the season-opening Winternationals. The car weighed a portly 2,215 pounds, and removing the 30-pound wheelie bar was a bid to mitigate that weight, albeit one that went disastrously wrong. Crew chief John Smith and the crew, however, thrashed all night to put their undamaged powertrain into their backup car (Gary Scelzi’s 1997 championship-winning Brad Hadman car). Their first run Saturday resulted in another disaster as two dropped cylinders led to an engine hydraulic so severe that it damaged the left framerail. Fortunately for them, Hadman was on the grounds and repaired the damage in time for the final session, but they spun the tires, leaving them outside of the field.

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Photos by Anatol Denysenko
The blowover phenomenon disappeared for more than four years before Chris Vandergriff – former NASCAR truck racer and younger brother of current Top Fuel racer Bob Jr. – went for a wild ride during qualifying at the 2003 Mac Tools U.S. Nationals.

Vandergriff’s car headed skyward at half-track, flipped, and initially landed flat on all fours but got on its side as it slid downtrack. The rear tires eventually contacted the guardwall, and the car then tumbled, barrel-rolling down the track in the shutdown area. What’s pretty clear in this fan-shot video is the effect of the air on the car; you can hear his lift and see the car just float along for quite some distance, teetering on the precipice of a blowover before finally tipping over.

This video contains the full blowover and concludes with footage of the wrecked car being returned to Vandergriff’s pit area, bent and mangled, and with the roll cage missing, having been cut off by the NHRA Safety Safari when he was extricated.

In an interview a year later with Competition Plus, Vandergriff said that, after much consultation with a lot of experts and crew chiefs, the car probably had been set up in a way not favorable to such an inexperienced driver as himself.

Two years later, all the experience in the world didn’t help Clay Millican as the IHRA hitter flipped his dragster at the July 2005 event in Milan, Mich. Interestingly, Millican’s car was bannering the Dukes of Hazzard film, and he made like the ol’ General Lee in getting airborne.

"We did a one-race deal with Warner Bros. promoting the release of the movie, and strangely enough, when I crashed the car, it happened to be orange with an 01 on it, so it was very ironic,” he admitted.

Racing against perennial rival Bruce Litton, Millican ran into tire shake and pedaled the throttle, but the car hooked hard, and the nose climbed. Millican took the blame for staying in it because he was ahead of Litton, telling himself, “You’re a macho guy; you can handle this.” The car went up and over and landed completely upside down, cushioned by the rear wing, which folded neatly yet slowly under the weight.

Millican was unhurt in the crash, as was the chassis. "We lost the body, the rear wing stand, and that was it," he said. "We did have it fronthalved before the next race. We had Brad Hadman come in, and after he looked at it, he said, 'Why am I here? The car’s not hurt.' "

Thankfully, there hasn’t been a Top Fuel blowover in the seven years since, and I asked Millican for his opinion on that matter.

“I think part of the reason we haven’t seen any lately is that wheelie bars are now mandatory, and we have a different rear tire than we used then," he said. "Will it happen again? It will if a driver makes an error like I did that day.”

Top Fuel blowovers/overbackward wheelies
Driver Location Year
Jack Martin Wilmington, Calif. 1972
Ronnie Martin Martin, Mich. 1972
Jim Bucher Union Grove, Wis. 1973
Dick Allard Montreal 1980
Jeg Coughlin Sr. Union Grove, Wis. 1980
Don Garlits Englishtown 1986
Garlits Spokane, Wash. 1987
Richard Holcomb Bradenton, Fla. 1988
Eddie Hill Pomona 1989
Don Prudhomme Bakersfield 1989
Jimmy Nix Houston 1990
Prudhomme Montreal 1990
Gary Ormsby Phoenix 1991
Russ Collins Pomona 1991
Nix Pomona 1992
Doug Herbert Dallas 1992
Doug Foxworth Bristol 1993
Scott Kalitta Gainesville 1996
Shelly Anderson Brainerd 1996
Pat Dakin Topeka 1998
Randy Parks Phoenix 1999
Rico Anthes Bedfordshire, England 2003
Chris Vandergriff Indy 2003
Clay Millican Milan, Mich. 2005
Top Fuel blowovers, Part 3Friday, May 18, 2012
Posted by: Phil Burgess

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Steve Reyes photos
Like a Top Fueler flipping overbackward and returning to earth pointed in the wrong direction, I’m back for part three of the blowover chronicles, beginning with a little historical tidying up before we continue the chronological account of all things topsy-turvy. Thanks to the keen memories, quick shutter fingers, and sheer giddiness of wanting to make me look bad, the Insider Nation has been piling on the “you-forgots” when it comes to dragsters behaving badly.

As a result, I'm going to pick up today's planned chronology continuation in Tuesday's column -- beginning with Pat Dakin's 1998 blowover in Topeka -- and concentrate on taking care of the oversights here.

First up, and way back in the chronology, is the photo sequence at right, sent by the perpetually perfectly placed Steve Reyes, who captured 1970 NHRA Top Fuel champ Ronnie Martin’s plight in Robert Anderson's Louisiana-based dragster while racing Carl Olson in round one at the Popular Hot Rodding Championships in Martin, Mich., in 1972.

Just based on the photos, this one seems weird in that the car reaches full vertical, then appears to fall onto its side, unlike most dragsters that ended up facing backward on the track. As you can see in the final photo, the car was heavily damaged, and, according to Olson, Martin did suffer broken bones in the spill.

“I saw his front end starting up out of the corner of my eye, but he disappeared as soon as he got off the throttle,” Olson told me via email this week. “I didn't know he'd had a ‘big-time’ crash until [partner Mike] Kuhl came down to get me in the shutoff area. I don't remember the extent of his injuries. As I recall, he may have had a broken arm or leg, but I couldn't be sure about that.”

In that same vein of doubt, I’ve also decided to change a bit my stance of trying to draw a distinction between what was an overbackward powerstand and what was an air-influenced blowover, so when you see my final box score, it will include both flavors, which will significantly jack up the carnage count. It’s near impossible to determine what was occurring in those milliseconds, so far be it from me to assign blame.

Reyes also reported that he witnessed an overbackward wheelie by Mickey Naylor’s Medicine Man slingshot  at England’s Santa Pod Raceway in 1978. Pete Aughton, my "correspondent" from across the pond, also remembered that incident, and though he didn't have any photos of the wreck, he did have this pic of the car, which had been campaigned on nitro by Dennis Priddle but was running on alcohol in the Pro Comp ranks at the time.

Added Reyes, "The first blowover I ever saw was at Lions, John Collins driving for Dave McKenzie. It was the final round of Top Fuel, and Collins got a single when the other AA/FD lost fire. Collins left the starting line with his right arm and hand waving a 'V' for victory. About 200 feet out, the car went into this huge wheelstand, then kinda turned in the air and came down on the guardrail. The car was history, but Collins was OK. They rebuilt and then crashed at Irwindale, and McKenzie quit."

Reyes also cited Jim Davis, who also flipped a slingshot in Bakersfield in the early 1970s, but, again, no photos are available, though I have read that Auto Imagery's Dave Kommel got his first big photo break with a shot of the Davis accident that ended up running in one of Mike Doherty's wonderful Photo Greats collections in the 1970s. I’m guessing there were more flipped front-motor cars than we’ve reported already.

Insider regular Cliff Morgan remembered, “I went to Pomona in 1963 for a two-out-of-three match race for the No. 1 spot [on the Drag News list], between [Chris Karamesines] and Weekly-Rivero-Fox-Holding. In round two, ‘the Greek’ did a big wheelie at half-track. This was not uncommon, and it was called a powerstand. Remember that AA/FD used to smoke the tires at the start, until around half-track, when the tires finally hooked up. Anyhoo, from what I understand, there were times when the tires hooked too well, and the car did a half-track wheelie. I remember seeing photos of this wheelie that ‘the Greek’ did in one of the drag papers or magazines of the time, so maybe you guys might have a photo of it in the archives. This photo would be a perfect example of a powerstand. I don't think that any powerstands resulted in a blowover, but the driver had to shut off.”  I couldn’t find that photo, but here’s a semi-related pic of the famed Frantic Four doing a tire-smoking powerstand at good ol' Pomona Raceway.

The Insider grapevine also began to bear fruit with reports that “the Captain,” Jeg Coughlin Sr., had backflipped his Top Fueler at Great Lakes Dragaway, and I was thrilled to hear from his son Mike – a regular reader of this column as it turns out – who was more than happy to give me the details of the accident, which happened in 1980.

Folks these days know of “Senior” as the guiding force behind his sons' racing efforts and the founder of the mail-order giant that bears his name, but people forget that he was a real good racer for three decades, including in Top Fuel, where he won the Division 3 Top Fuel championship three times and finished a career-high seventh in 1978’s championship race. Anyway, the year before the blowover, Coughlin’s dragster was destroyed at the 1979 NHRA Springnationals at National Trail Raceway when his parachutes ripped off and he ended up in the catch net. Coughlin returned at the Springnationals the next year with a new Al Swindahl-built car and a crew consisting of, from left, his wife, Monica, and sons, Mike, John, Jeg Jr., and Troy -- a true family-run team. (There’s a pretty cool professionally prepared YouTube video here showing the Coughlins in 1979-80.)

(Above) Jeg Coughlin Sr. successfully landed this big wheelie in Martin, Mich., but wasn't so lucky a few weeks later (below) in Union Grove, Wis.
Photos by Tom Schiltz and Ray-Mar

It wasn’t but a month after his Columbus return that Coughlin skied their dragster in round one at the Division 3 points meet at U.S. 131 while racing Gary Beck. He landed that one safely, but the car got bent up, yet the family towed west anyway to Denver for the Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway, stopping at Mark Williams’ shop for a repair job. They lost early and headed back east to Union Grove, Wis., for the next Division 3 meet.

“We got rained out Friday and didn’t run the first qualifying session until Saturday evening,” remembered Mike, the family historian. “It was mineshaft air, and the track was good. We were making so much power that it went into a serious wheelstand, and by the time my dad caught it, it was too late and did a blowover. It landed and slid down the track to about three-quarter-track. It demolished the car – it pretty much went straight into the Dumpster -- and broke his arm. He said it was on one of the best passes he’d ever made, and he just didn’t catch it in time. I think we just didn’t have enough weight on the front end, and because the cars were so much shorter then, when it started to come up, it was pretty hard to save them. Also, it was pretty dark, and he said it was hard to figure out [how high the car had gotten] because of that.”

Coughlin was laid up the rest of the year and made only a few runs in 1981 before retiring from driving.

Somehow I also forgot about the late Gary Ormsby’s blowover during preseason testing at Firebird Int’l Raceway in 1991, even though a) I was there, and b) Russ Collins referenced Ormsby's crash in the quote I printed here last week about his own blowover two weeks later. Also in attendance was an 11-year-old (!) second-generation photographer who got his first national notice when we ran photos of the blowover in National DRAGSTER; the shots also appeared in Super Stock & Drag Illustrated and, most famously, Car and Driver. You might know him today for his stupendously popular photo blog and amazing shots: Mark Rebilas, surely this generation’s Steve Reyes when it comes to being in the right spot at the right time and keeping his cool when the action heats up.

I went back through the ND files and found that issue and an interview I did with Ormsby after the accident, which occurred on just the third full pass on his new Castrol GTX dragster. He noted that they had run the previous car nearly 150 runs with the same wing configuration and added that some were blaming a dip in the track for getting the car airborne.

“That’s about all we can figure,” he said. “People have said that, but I couldn’t say. The car started coming up, and I immediately got out of it when I couldn’t see the horizon. It hung there for a long time after I shut it off. I saw a videotape; after the motor shuts off, it coasted a good 300 feet and just hung in the air. When I saw the body panels fly off, I knew it was over.”

Like so many blowovers before and after, the car landed upright, and although it backed into the guardwall, Ormsby’s injuries were limited to a cut inside his mouth and bruises to his knees and shoulders. Sadly, we’d lose him later that year to cancer.

Rebilas also pointed me to video of Richard Holcomb's 1988 Bradenton, Fla., blowover. The video is a little rough -- looks like someone's video of their TV screen -- but it gives you a look at the accident.

Also, I did hear back from Bobby Rex concerning Doug Foxworth’s IHRA blowever in Bristol in 1993. Rex, who was partners on the car with the Foxworth family from 1989 to 2002, confirmed my initial suspicions, that contact the previous day with John Carey’s car led to their blowover.

“John blew a rear tire, came across into Doug's lane, and ran over the car,” Rex said. “When we went back to the trailer, we talked about the fact that we were in a points chase with Doug Herbert, Frank Faifer [driver: Jim Bailey], and Don Garlits. The accident took off the panels and front wings. We straightened it and made body panels and put on another set of front wings, but they did not have enough angle. On Sunday, in the first round, the car left the starting line, and the front end was carried about 400 feet, which was normal for that car, but that started the blowover.”

Bret Kepner, who worked on ESPN's IHRA telecasts then, pointed me to this link, which is a good chunk of the race coverage; the Foxworth blowover, including an interesting segment on the safety crew talking to a still-stunned Foxworth in the cockpit and an interview with Rex, runs from 11:37 to 15:40.

OK, I think that catches us up with the blowover list though 1996, but I'm sure I'll be proven wrong. Coming Tuesday: The final chapter.

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