Today is the annual day of thanks – thanks for the people and things we have in our life and, to me as well, thanks for the people we have had in our lives. As we sit around the table today, flanked by good company and good food, let's remember the families sitting around tables today where an empty chair marks the place a loved one shared at this time last year.
Each year for National DRAGSTER, I prepare a story called – as this column is – "Friends we lost," an acknowledgment of those who left us in the last calendar year, whether by natural or accidental causes, and it never fails to take my breath away … and not in a good way.
As we travel the 12 calendar pages, we fill certain boxes with crosses and other memorials, yet we know we will eventually turn a page and begin a new month clear of sad markers. The losses aren’t forgotten, but the hope of a better month is ahead. It's not until you sit down at the end of the year and leaf through the pages that you see the losses as more than individual tragedies but as a gaping hole in our community.
Though we can’t chronicle every passing of anyone related to the sport, certain names catch the heart and the eye, and every year, the list includes about 30 people well-known to those who love and follow the sport. Every year, another couple of our childhood heroes, another couple of pioneers and forward thinkers, another couple of close friends and mentors leave us. Sometimes the loss is so staggering because it's hard to think of this world without some of them who seem to have always been part of our scene and whom we somehow expected always would be. In the same way that entertainers such as Bob Hope and Johnny Carson were ever present on our television for as long as we could remember and how it seems implausible that they're gone, we feel the losses of those in our community.
Whether you’re an old-timer who sees the passing of a fellow pioneer who helped you carve out the history of the sport or a fan who mourns the death of racers you grew up watching, the losses are painful. selfishly, we lose a bit of the history of our sport, and the tales these guys could spin and the oral history of our sport that trumps any written piece.
Below is the list I compiled through today; it's hardly the definitive document, and the photos below don't include a few of those listed, but I hope you understand the sentiment. Please, think of those families missing their loved ones today and offer up your thanks that you knew these wonderful folks who shared our passion for the world's great motorsport.
Jon, 17, and James Herbert, 12, sons of Top Fuel racer Doug Herbert, who were killed in an automobile accident, Jan. 26.
Lew Arrington Jr., 69, one of the early stars of the Funny Car class in the 1960s and '70s, who died Feb. 24 of heart disease.
John Buttera, 67, who built a series of winning Funny Cars and dragsters, who died March 2 after a long battle with cancer.
Veteran racer John Shoemaker, 65, who died from injuries suffered when his nostalgia Top Fuel dragster crashed during qualifying March 8 at the March Meet in Bakersfield, Calif.
Former NHRA national-event-winning Funny Car driver Al Hofmann, 60, who died March 20 of a heart attack.
Legendary Funny Car racer, fabricator, and race car restorer Pat Foster, 68, who died March 27 after a short illness.
Billy Williams, 63, the 1979 NHRA Pro Comp champion and two-time Mac Tools U.S. Nationals winner, who died April 14. Williams was critically injured March 22, 2002, after a crash in his Top Alcohol Funny Car.
Paul Blevins, one of the successful campaigners in NHRA's Modified class and later a standout racer in Pro Stock, who died April 22.
Former NHRA Top Fuel world championship car owner and driver Gaines Markley, 66, who died April 24 after a lengthy hospitalization.
Jim Paoli, the 1970 and 1971 NHRA Division 3 Top Fuel champion and later Funny Car racer, who died April 3.
Leroy Chadderton, a well-known Southern California-based driver of fuel altereds and Funny Cars in the 1970s, who died April 3 after a long battle with cancer and heart problems.
Ron Correnti, 65, who raced everything from door cars to gas dragsters to nitro Funny Cars and died April 5.
Former Top Fuel racer Bobby Hightower, 72, who died April 11 after a lengthy illness.
Veteran Comp racer Doug Stewart, 52, a two-time national event winner, who died April 23 of a heart attack.
Al Eckstrand, 79, who campaigned the Lawman series of Dodge Stockers and toured them overseas to entertain U.S. troops in the 1960s, died May 10 after a short illness.
Two-time world champ Scott Kalitta, 46, who died June 21 from injuries suffered after his car went out of control and crashed in Englishtown.
Ralph Truppi, who during his longtime partnership with Tommy Kling built engines for many top Super Stock and Stock entries in Division 1 since the 1960s, who died July 27 after a long illness.
Longtime Division 6 Oldsmobile Stock racer Bill Kost, 67, who died unexpectedly Aug. 2.
Greg Weld, 64, founder of Kansas City, Mo.-based Weld Wheels, who died of a heart attack Aug. 4.
Ed Justice Sr., 87, the last of three brothers who founded Justice Bros. Inc., who died Aug. 30 of complications due to kidney failure.
David Daniels, son of Eileen Daniels and the late NHRA Division 3 Director Bob Daniels, who died Aug. 5 as the result of injuries suffered in a motorcycle accident in Florida.
Pro Modified racer Steve Engel, who died Sept. 15 in Indianapolis of injuries sustained in a racing accident.
Super Gas competitor Doug McRobie, 49, who died Sept. 21 after he was involved in a racing accident.
Longtime NHRA Director of Emergency Medical Services Dan Brickey, 58, who died Sept. 22 after a lengthy illness.
Michael F. Hollander, 62, a motorsports journalist who effectively invented online racing news reporting in 1979, who died Sept. 24 after battling mesothelioma.
Veteran racer Bobby Martindale, 65, who suffered fatal injuries Oct. 4 in an accident in Atlanta.
Famed camshaft manufacturer Jack Engle, 88, founder of Engle Racing Cams, who died Nov. 14.
Robert "Jocko" Johnson, 72, who built some of drag racing's swoopiest machines, including his notable but unsuccessful JockoLiner with Don Garlits, who died Nov. 14 of a massive heart attack.
My most enduring memory of Larry Sutton is from a cold and misty night at Orange County Int'l Raceway, where Sutton, dapper in his trademark black cowboy hat, was on his third tour of duty as the chief starter at one of Southern California's iconic quarter-miles.
It was in late September of 1982, my first year here at National DRAGSTER, and the Funny Car final for OCIR's Parade of Champions event was up – Don Prudhomme against John Force and his Mountain Dew Citation. As "Snake" is backing up from his burnout, a pretty healthy trail of oil is spewing from beneath his Pepsi Challenger Pontiac. Prudhomme stops behind the line, and Sutton leans in and tells Prudhomme to shut 'er down, but the Vipe ain't having any of that.
Prudhomme dry hops the car forward a few feet, and Sutton gets even more emphatic. Shut it off. Prudhomme raps the throttle again and jumps forward another foot. I'm not sure why Prudhomme was so intent on winning what was pretty much an inconsequential match race, but I guess that's part of what made him a four-time world champ. Sutton knows he's not going to win this man versus machine standoff by stepping in front of a nitro-snorting Funny Car.
So Sutton reaches over and grabs a couple of the starting-line mops and chucks 'em onto the ground in Prudhomme's lane. Game over. "The Snake" shuts 'er off, and crew chief Bob Brandt is immediately in Sutton's face.
"Brandt starts calling me every name under the sun," recalled Sutton, "but Prudhomme comes walking up, pokes Brandt in the ribs, and says 'Go to the truck.' Prudhomme takes his helmet off, looks me in the face, and says, 'Larry, thank you very much.' He turned and walked away about four feet, stopped, and came back and said, 'I'm serious. Thanks.' "
And that, in a nutshell, is the respect and trust that Larry Sutton has earned and commands from the drivers for whom he has turned on the green light during a six-decade career at the switch.
Off to a good start
(Above) Larry Sutton and assistant starter Bill Keys conferred with tuning master Gene Adams. The trademark black hat that Sutton first adopted at Lions was almost by accident. "My hair was already getting thin, and I just couldn’t get the rubber off my head after a day on the line," he recalled. "One day, the guys from the Magic Muffler fuel altered were giving away straw cowboy hats, and I wore one and realized that was going to stop that problem." (Below) Sutton doused his ex-ride, the Butters & Gerard fueler.
If it seems to SoCal race fans that the man in the black cowboy hat has always been "their" starter, there's a good reason. He began working at Lions Drag Strip in 1956, handing out time slips at the tender age of 13 before graduating to helping tech cars. And when regular starter Danny Larus injured his back in 1959, Sutton filled in for him and ultimately replaced him, beginning a 13-year stint at the switch at "the Beach."
Part of what made Sutton a great starter is the fact that he not only sent the cars on their way, but he drove them, too. From age 16 until just very recently, Sutton piloted a variety of machines down the quarter-mile.
"I drove my first blown car at 16, a blown small-block gas dragster that I had gone into partnership with two other guys," he recalled. "I was working quite a bit, doing whatever I could to throw money into it. My parents had no idea what I was doing at the track until I brought the car home. They said, 'What's this?' and I said, 'Well, this is the car I've been driving.' I had a small-block Chevy C/Fueler that held the record in 1962 at 8.05, 182 for a short time until Jim Brissette broke it.
"When I was driving for Butters & Gerard in Top Fuel, I invited my parents and aunt and uncle to the track to watch me race. I made a run, and right in the lights, it lifted the blower and had a major fire. I turned off, and the ambulance and fire trucks were all there. I was totally fine but covered with oil, and I had to get back to tell my parents I was okay. I walked up behind them in the stands, and they were still looking down the track at all the flashing lights. I walked up and said, 'Hi, Mom.' She looked at me and said, 'Excuse me, was that you?' and I said, 'Yes.' She said, 'This is all very exciting, but I will never come back again.' She did, of course, but by then, I was in the rear-engine cars and a little bit safer."
Sutton wheeled several injected fuel cars and even the Traveler Willys, then went into partnership with Bill Carmichael on the Joint Venture A/Gas Dragster that also was a national record holder in Comp.
Sutton quickly decided that handicap racing wasn't for him, and before long, they were in NHRA's new Pro Comp class. Their dragster, with tuning help from Dale Armstrong, became the first Chevy-powered Alcohol Dragster to run in the sixes at the 1975 Fallnationals in Seattle and won a handful of big local shows.
"I think I've driven in every category in drag racing, including a blown fuel Corvette. At that time, it was almost like 'Have firesuit, will travel' because there was always someone in need of a driver. There were plenty of opportunities. Most people didn’t realize I was driving and starting," he said with a laugh. "They would bring the car up to the line, I’d get in and drive, hop on a motorcycle, and shortly after that, I'd be back on the line. I think a lot of people thought there were two Larry Suttons."
Sutton was the starter at Lions from 1959 until its final race in 1972 and witnessed Top Fuel's evolution. Here he readied to send Larry Dixon Sr.'s slingshot and Jeb Allen's rear-engine digger down "the Beach."
(Above) In his return to the class in 1977, Sutton drove the Circuit Breaker of Bob Richardson and Mike Roberts and later the Boyles-Meredith-Bertell-Sebek Hard Times dragster (below).
Sutton's long tenure at Lions ended when the track did, on a cold night in December 1972 (legend has it that it wasn't Top Fuel finalists Carl Olson and Jeb Allen who made the last passes down the fabled Lions quarter-mile but rather Sutton and his assistant, Bill Keys, who were towed down the track while standing inside a wooden outhouse), but he wasn't idle long and quickly found a home on the starting line at Irwindale Raceway, where, as at Lions, his stint between the lanes lasted only as long as the racetrack, which closed in 1977.
The 1977 season also marked Sutton's return to Top Fuel; he stepped into a partnership with Bob Richardson and Mike Roberts on their Donovan-powered Circuit Breaker dragster when their shoe, Ken Moitoza, built his own car. Sutton licensed with an impressive 6.07 at the OCIR PDA event and drove the car to a pair of big wins in 1978, at the Nitro Championships and the PDA race.
Sutton delights in telling the story of how he won that PDA race despite barely being able to walk after rupturing a disc in his back.
"Richardson knew I was having back problems and that I had taken some time off of work, so he came to my house the week before the PDA race. I was on the couch and literally could not even walk, not even one step; I had to crawl everywhere I went. My wife let him in, and he asked if I was going to be able to drive the car and told me he'd need to see a doctor's release before he'd let me drive. This whole time we're talking, which was about two hours, I had to go to the bathroom, but there was no way I could walk there, but I couldn’t let him see that. I promised him that I could drive the car.
"Two days later, I crawled into the garage and into my 280Z, drove to the racetrack, and pulled up alongside the trailer. The crew brought a chair next to the car and was able to hoist me in and out of the car and into the chair without Richardson seeing me. I was able to pull myself into the cockpit and warm the car up and pull myself out, and this went on all day because it was a 32-car show. I'd get the crew to pull the truck up next to the chair, grab onto the doorhandle and pull myself into the cab, lay down, and pull on my firesuit, then crawl from the truck into the cockpit. At the top end, I'd crawl out and sit on the ground next to the car until the truck came, and we were able to do this all day without Richardson catching on because he was so busy working on the car. I ended up winning the show, but when we got back to the trailer, all of the stuff had been packed up, and my chair was gone. So I laid on the ground. Bob came up and said, 'Come on, let's go take the [winner's] pictures. I told him, 'You go; I can't walk.' He couldn't believe it. I told him, 'Bob, I told you I could drive the car; I didn't tell you I could walk.' Two weeks later I had back surgery, and two weeks after that, I was driving in Seattle."
Sutton also drove the Boyles-Meredith-Bertell-Sebek Hard Times Top Fueler and the Whitmore & Reed Top Fueler -- in which he was the No. 1 qualifier and runner-up to Don Garlits at the 1987 March Meet -- and a handful of Alcohol Dragsters, including a fun stint in Dave Hage's Donovan-powered Landlord and a four-year stint with Jerry Darien and the Darien-Meadows-Sutton car. Sutton almost put together a Top Fuel car in 1995 with his longtime heroes, James Warren and Roger Coburn, but Bruce Sarver brought some money and stepped into the car instead to earn his license.
Conflict of interest?
After Lions closed, Sutton became chief starter at Irwindale Raceway and stayed until it closed in 1977. (Above) Sutton between Don Garlits and Dan Richins' Iron Horse and (below) after he put two fire extinguishers in front of a none-too-pleased Garlits to get him to shut off his leaking car.
Sutton was ever resourceful. At OCIR's Last Drag Race, he duct-taped Lou Gasparrelli's broken throttle linkage back together on the starting line.
One naturally would debate the fairness of a track's starter also competing at the same track and wonder if the specter of a conflict of interest ever reared its head, but you'd be surprised to know that it was seldom a concern for those whom Sutton started and those whom he raced while the starter at Lions, Irwindale, and Orange County.
"At Irwindale one time, [track manager] Steve Evans told me that I had to choose, that I could either start or drive because he didn't want any conflicts of interest. So I told him, 'Okay, I'm going to drive; see you later,' so he quickly decided to leave well enough alone. Another time, I was driving the Joint Venture car and lost to Dale Armstrong, but Dale came up 20 pounds light for some reason, so they told me I was back in the show. Evans called me to the tower and told me, 'I have to put Armstrong back in because this is not going to look good.' Next thing you know, the racers all heard about it, and about 20 of them came charging up the return road to insist that I be put back in the show. Armstrong was a total sportsman, too; he agreed with the decision, but it was great to see that the racers all supported me."
Being one of them also earned Sutton the respect of the drivers – from the unknown to the superstars, who knew that he knew when a car was safe to run.
"Garlits had a big oil leak one time at Irwindale, and I told T.C. [Lemmons, Garlits' crew chief] to shut him off; he told me 'You tell him!' So I told him to shut it off, but he kept creeping forward, so I put both fire extinguishers in front of his front spoiler so he had no choice. I could see him throwing me a dirty look all the way down the return road. The next weekend I'm racing at Bakersfield, and I feel an arm come around my shoulder, and it was Garlits. 'Sure is a nice day, isn't it Larry?' he said. I said, 'It's a beautiful day, Don.' He said, 'Okay, have a good one!' That was Garlits' way of saying 'You were right.' He would never admit it, but that was his way of telling me I was right.
"I was filling in as the starter at Sacramento when Dwight Salisbury came up in the first round of Top Fuel and the visor of his helmet broke. I straddled the car and ripped the visor the rest of the way off. His eyes got so big like, 'It's over.' I took my sunglasses off, turned them around, and stuck them on his face. He staged, won the round, and brought me back my sunglasses and told me, 'That's the most bitchin' thing I've ever seen.'
"A lot of starters were never racers; they're up there, and they turn on the button but don't always know what's going on with the cars," he noted. "I can relate to what the drivers do, and I think that earned me a tremendous amount of respect because if I told them something was wrong with their car, it was wrong. No one wants to get shut off for no reason."
Former Top Fuel and Funny Car racer Mike Dunn, whose fuel license was signed by Sutton, recalled, "Larry was our Buster Couch. He was firm but fair and obviously loved the sport. I'll never forget what he told me after he and my dad signed my license: 'I really think you're going to go places,' he said. I thought that was pretty cool."
Randy Gillis, who raced bracket cars at OCIR under Sutton's command through the track's closing in late 1983, said, "Larry was a tough but great starter; everyone respected him, even in disagreements."
In the line of fire
Being a starter ain't easy. (Above) Sutton suffered broken ribs when he was hit with a piece of Carl Olson's flywheel. (Below) As Sutton, third from left, arrived with a fire extinguisher to put out a small blaze on Joe Rodrigues' roadster, assistant OCIR starter Ron Morse was out cold after smashing his head on the suspended Christmas Tree.
Sutton can't help but flinch as Davey Uyehara's blower backfires on the starting line at Orange County I'l Racewy.
Standing between two potential ticking time bombs primed to explode off the starting line, of course, put Sutton in a combat zone of sorts, and anyone who has spent as much time there as Sutton did in those early experimental years has the scars to go with the stories.
"I have never been hurt in a race car, but on the starting line, I've had my leg broken three times, I've had four broken fingers, six broken ribs, and all kinds of cuts and bruises and spent, all told, about a month and a half in hospital," he said, checking off the list as easily as if he were making a grocery list.
"Carl Olson broke the driveline, and the fire bottle on his steering came around and locked the throttle wide open, and the clutch exploded," he recalled painfully. "A six-inch chunk of the flywheel hit me in the chest and sent me flying through the air like Superman, broke a bunch of ribs.
"Then there was the time we had a turbine motorcycle running one night at Lions. It was running in the right lane, and I was standing just to the left of the center pole. Their tow vehicle was back by the rollers, and he took off after the motorcycle did and hit me dead center in my back with the right headlight. My right foot was flattened by the rear tire so that when I sat up, my foot was pointed straight at me."
Sutton was calm when those around him might not have been. He remembers wellwhen Joe Rodrigues' roadster caught fireon the starting line at OCIR and assistant starter Ron Morse, in his rush to help, charged headlong into the suspended Christmas Tree and was knocked out and spent two days in the hospital. "When something's wrong, you can't panic," he said.
He was on the line when Larry Dixon Sr.'s supercharger went nuclear on the starting line in January 1974 in the final round of the inaugural Cragar Five-Second Club race against Garlits, and Sutton also was the man in the middle for one of Garlits' career- and life-changing moments, his ghastly transmission explosion on the starting line at Lions in early 1970 that severed the front half of "Big Daddy's" foot. Sutton rushed to the cockpit that had tumbled to a stop just a few dozen feet downtrack but soon realized that his aid was needed elsewhere.
"I went to the car, and there were a lot of people there; I could see what had happened to Don, but there also was a young gentleman in the stands who was bleeding really bad from his arm. I got up into the stands, and, let me tell you, I've seen the good, bad, and the ugly in my years in drag racing, and this was the ugly. I reached up under his armpit and was able to stop the blood flow, but I knew I couldn’t let go. I held him all the way to the hospital and the doctors could tie him off. They told me later he was about out of blood.
"I turned around, and there was Garlits on the stretcher next to us. I could see his foot hanging off. He said, 'Larry, how's the kid?' He was worried about this fan, and I told him, 'Hey, you've got a pretty good cut yourself,' and he said, 'Well, I guess I won't have any problems with ingrown toenails.' That's Garlits for you."
Leaving a legacy
(Above) Sutton was always in control, even sitting down on the job. (Below) When OCIR closed, the late Richard Schroeder presented him with a TV Guide on behalf of the staff, but he was far from retiring.
"I have started at so many different racetracks I can’t begin to tell you all of them," said Sutton, who now enjoys a slower pace with wife Pam, who worked at tracks alongside Sutton and for NHRA for more than 40 years. "I've done pretty much everything I wanted to. I always wanted to start at Bowling Green and at Cordova, tracks back east that I'd always heard of, and even got to do that. I started three races for ADRA and got to start Cordova before that deal folded, and then [Parks NHRA Museum's Steve] Gibbs asked me to start at the [National Hot Rod Reunion] at Bowling Green, so I got to cross both of them off my list here the last couple of years.
"I've had racers call me every name in the book, but I sleep at night because I never hurt anyone by sending them down the racetrack in an unsafe car. Most of the time, they come back and thank me for shutting them off.
"The best example of that is Lew Arrington at Lions. We've all seen that photo of his car totally engulfed in fire, right? He had come up to the line for that run, and I shut him off because he didn't have any gloves on. C.J. [Hart] backed me up, and Lew goes and gets his gloves, and we all know what happened next. I put the fire out, and he climbed out of the car, laid his helmet and mask and gloves on the hood of the car, unzips his firesuit, and bends over and tells me, 'Okay, kick my ass.'
"Just a few years ago, a young gentleman came up to me and thanked me for saving his 'dumbass dad' … it was his son, Lew III, who works for John Force. It meant a lot to him all those years later. That really made me feel good."
They say that it's only the bad guys who wear black hats, but that must be only in the westerns, because as far as this longtime fan can see -- and tons of West Coast racers whom he sent safely on their quarter-mile journeys will attest -- Larry Sutton is truly one of the good guys ... black hat and all.
"Hi, this is Phil Burgess at The DRAGSTER Insider. I'm either out of the office or on another article right now, but if you leave your name and your question, I'll get right on it. Thanks for calling."
Q: Hi, Phil. Matt Benoit from Bellingham, Wash., calling. I know that Rob Bruins was the first driver to win an NHRA title without winning a national event during the season, but had he ever won any national events before 1979? Because otherwise, that would make Eddie Krawiec the only driver in NHRA history to win a championship without a single NHRA career victory to his credit, right?
A: Right you are, Matt, and funny you should ask. I just dropped Rob an e-mail the other day to ask how he felt about Krawiec joining his "club."
For the record, Bruins' 1979 championship didn't come as a huge surprise to a lot of people as he and team owner Gaines Markley had closed the 1978 season with back-to-back wins at the Fallnationals in your shared homestate of Washington and at the World Finals in Ontario, Calif. Although they were winless on the national tour in 1979, they did win several divisional races, which back then counted toward the national championship.
I asked Rob how he has viewed his unique accomplishment all these years – was it a source of pride or an albatross?
"Winning the championship without that national event win has been both a source of pride and the albatross you mentioned," he said, "but it has always been nice to hear your name come up toward the end of every season when someone is in the hunt but hasn't won an event yet (remember Tony Schumacher's championship a few years ago  when he didn't win until the next to the last race of the season?). I don't know if it is any big deal, but Eddie K. had 17 chances for a win, and we only had seven.
"The truth is I liked being the only one who had accomplished that feat. Gaines and I had a couple of magical seasons in '78 and '79 when we attended a total of 11 divisional points races and won nine of them. In '78, we only attended four national events -- Pomona, Indy, Seattle, and Ontario -- and combined with our Division 6 races, we finished third behind Kelly Brown and a guy named Garlits. In '79, we only attended seven national events and combined four races in Division 6 and two Division 5 races (that we fit into our schedule as we were crossing the country to attend national events).
"Contrary to a lot of people's opinions that guys ran the division races because the competition was easier, consider that at all the Division 6 races you had Jerry Ruth, Hank Johnson, Graham Light, Terry Capp, and Ernie Hall, plus whatever California cars would show up, like Kelly Brown, Dave Uyehara and Larry Dixon Sr. and the Utah Charger guys (Garth Widdison) that we saw in both divisions. No, the only things easier about division races were they were generally closer to home and you were only at that track for two days so you could be off match racing to make money so you could afford to go the national events."
By the way, Bruins retired in August from his civilian job with the Department of Defense, where he spent the last 25 years working with Trident submarines as a nondestructive testing test examiner, approving testing procedures and certifying inspectors to conduct inspections on the subs' welds and metals using X-ray, ultrasonics, and magnetic resonance. Since then, he has stayed pretty busy.
"I've reroofed my garage, rebuilt the decks on the front and side of the house, and found a little time to attend Bakersfield [the California Hot Rod Reunion], a couple of Northwest nostalgia events, and put some miles on my 'old school' hot rod roadster that I finally got on the road this summer," he wrote. "It's nothing fancy; I built it the way I would have when I was a kid in high school. It's a '31 coupe body, sans the top, mounted on a '32 frame with a big kick up in the back. We were able to put over 1,300 miles on it between rain showers this summer."
Q: Hey, Phil … it's Mike Bockius. I don't know if anybody has mentioned or has realized that out of the last 18 seasons there have been only three drivers to win the Funny Car championship: Force 14 times, Cruz twice, and Tony twice. Just observations.
A: Noted, Mike. Force's long reign definitely put the hurt on us stats lovers who loved the cool symmetry of the 1970s-80s Funny Car champs. Don Prudhomme won four (1975-78), then Raymond Beadle bagged three (1979-81), Frank Hawley and the Chi-Town Hustler just two (1982-83), and, finally, Mark Oswald and the Candies & Hughes team tagged just one (1984).
When Bernstein won a "Snake"-like four titles (1985-88), we wondered if the next guy would again win three and so on, but Force ended 1989 champ Bruce Larson's reign at one. Then Force won two (1990-91) before Pedregon snapped his streak, and we all began to wonder if we'd see the reverse of the 1970s rotation with Cruz winning three and so on, but Force jumped right back to the top in 1994 and stayed there. As close as Funny Car is these days, I'd be surprised to see anyone ever win three or four straight anytime soon.
Update: Stop the phone calls! Yup, both of us forgot Gary Scelzi, who won the title in 2005, Dang, the guy's not even barely out of sight and he's out of mind? Sorry, Wild Thang!
Q: Hey, buddy. Pete Davis from Clatskanie, Ore., here. Each year, I use the DragStats figures [in National DRAGSTER] to find out who the winners will be. I check the drivers' positions in e.t., mph, and r.t. and add those positions' numbers all the way across for every driver, and usually the lowest number total is your winner. Using the Nov. 7 issue, it worked at the Finals on every Pro except in Pro Stock Motorcycle. How about that, Phil? I told all my friends who was going to win. They now want to know how I know; I told them you and I were friends and you told me. You guys are killer. Now if I can only turn this into money. Ha-ha. Happy off-season.
A: Interesting stats keeping there, Pete, and probably not something you would have seen in the old days. Competition is so much tighter today that you seldom see the one who has the best e.t. feel comfortable enough to back off on the Tree as in days of yore when the No. 1 qualifier was separated from No. 16 by tenths instead of hundredths. Just look at what happened last month in Virginia, which boasted the quickest Pro Stock field of all time, where Greg Anderson qualified No. 1 with a 6.564 and in round one had to race No. 16 qualifier Steve Spiess, who had run 6.590 – just .026-second between 16 cars. The fast guys have to be fast on the Tree and the track or they'll have their lunch eaten by these hungry lower qualifiers. If you figure out how to make a living off of this, we expect some royalties.
Q: Hello, Phil. It’s Neil Marks, calling long distance from Spain. I had to write a quick message to you after reading your blog of Monday. Your comments about the bittersweet feelings of attending the last meet of the season really resonated with me, and I had to smile about your pain of the "too long" TWO-MONTH off-season. Phil, count your blessings! The European FIA championship finished this year Sept. 7 and starts in 2009 on May 22. That's an off-season of full FIA competition of EIGHT AND A HALF MONTHS. I am English but now live in much warmer and sunnier Spain. Unfortunately, the Spanish have never even heard of drag racing, so I have to travel back to the UK twice a year to get my adrenaline injection. This year, BOTH of the FIA rounds held at Santa Pod Raceway in the UK (the season opener in May and the finale in September) were decimated by rain. Over a combined period of six (expensive) days attending the track, I think I saw about three hours of racing in total. Now, don't you feel much better?
A: Much! Thanks, Neil. It's readers like you who bring sunshine to my day. Good friends (and fellow Englishmen) Roger Gorringe and Andy Wilsheer can’t stand the long Euro off-season either and are regular visitors at the Pomona events. You should try it sometime. A little three-month vacation. Take in Las Vegas, both Pomonas, preseason testing … yeah, that's the ticket.
For a little taste of Spain, check out Neil's Web site here. Pretty cool stuff.
Q: Phil, it's Robert Nielsen. I see that you are planning to do a segment with Larry Sutton. Ever see him without his hat on? He is bald as a cue ball! I was sitting in the stands at the Winternationals one year, probably about 1972 or so. Larry was driving his Jr. Fuel dragster, and they were pushing back up the return road. Larry is sitting in the car waving to the crowd. I yell down to him to take his hat off, which he did, and the stands erupted! It was quite funny, and Larry took it all in to the enjoyment of everyone.
I was at Lions one Saturday evening, and Larry was there, as usual, as the starter. I did a couple of short burnouts behind the line when my car started to fill with smoke. Turned out the battery cable in the trunk had shorted when an isolating grommet had worn out and allowed the cable to short to the car body. I opened the trunk to try and pull the cable loose. Larry calmly walks over, takes out his keys, which have a small but adequate crescent wrench on them, and disconnects my battery cable. Talk about being prepared for every eventuality!
A: Hey, Robert, here's a pair of appropriate photos, with and without the famed black chapeau, to match your question. Yes, we have seen him sans hats, but it’s more rare than seeing an albino tiger. Even Sutton admits, "I can walk though the pits without my hat on, and no one would recognize me!" I've just wrapped writing my homage to Mr. Sutton, which will appear Monday, complete with the story of how the infamous black cowboy hat came to be.
Q: Hi, Phil. Tom Hall here from Baldwinsville, N.Y. I got the drag racing bug in the early '60s, so I’ve been amazed by this sport for the better part of 50 years; it never ceases to excite me. Way back in the day, early to mid '60s maybe, Eddie Hill had a twin Pontiac-powered rail, which I think was on nitro. Now the oddity of this thing was that the Big Chiefs were mounted side by side on an angle, and to further add to its oddness, it had dual slicks. I also seem to remember that there was a piece of what looked like plywood that was mounted down at the front axle and ran up to the front of the blower drives, which I guess was supposed to deflect air. (Did it have a big Howards Cams decal on that chunk of wood?) Man, this thing was a sight to behold. He was at some track, and when he launched, the dual slicks literally tore up the blacktop on the starting line. Maybe it was a fresh pave job and couldn’t handle the width of those four Racemasters once Eddie “the Thrill” Hill stabbed the foot speeder. Seeing a picture of this rail again would sure be a treat, not to mention knowing where and when “the Thrill” actually did this deal would be the icing on the treat.
A: Your wish is my command, Tom. The famed Double Dragon ran in several configurations, but I couldn’t find one with the plywood you mention; perhaps you’re confusing it with the Howards Cams Twin Bear? Jack Chrisman drove the Bear, which was powered by two Chevys, to the win at the 1961 Winternationals and is shown here with NHRA founder Wally Parks. Below are a couple of pics of Hill's twin.
Anyway, Hill spent four months designing and seven months building the Double Dragon. The 92-inch-wheelbase dragster featured side-by-side blown Pontiac gas-burning engines, each with its own clutch, driveshaft, and ring and pinion. Hill ran four rear slicks in open competition and two rear slicks for smokier burnouts at match races.
It was with this car that Hill's tires literally dug holes in the starting line at the 1961 NHRA Nationals in Indianapolis. In 1962, two years after Chris Karamesines picked up the first 200-mph time slip running nitromethane and two years before Don Garlits would run the first official 200, also on nitro, Hill ran 202.70 mph in Hobbs, N.M.
Q: Hey, Phil. You know how in Las Vegas they have "graveyards" with all the old signs and billboards from the old casinos? Someone should have one that has all the old towers, timing boards, guardrail sections, everything. That would be one hell of a museum. Keith Litke, signing off!
A: Great idea, Keith. I imagine it might look a little something like this.
Q: Any more calls today, Phil?
A: Nope, that's it for today. The ND editorial staff is heading out for lunch for our annual Best of awards luncheon, two hours of haggling back and forth on whether we think Robert Hight's 4.00 was a better run than Tony Schumacher's 3.77 or if Hector Arana's PSM win in Norwalk was a bigger upset than Tony Bartone's flopper victory in Seattle, etc., etc. Then, as I said above, look for an in-depth look at the career of Lions/Irwindale/OCIR starter Larry Sutton next week and maybe, just maybe, some more ghost tracks.
For as long as I've been going to the drags, the Finals has always been a bittersweet affair. On the one hand, it's the defining moment for which we run the season – to see who wins the championship. For me, not going to the Finals would be like walking out on a movie before its ending or not finishing the last dozen pages of a novel. And, of course, with the Countdown to the Championship – love it or hate it – there's sure to be at least two championships still undecided when the final Sunday pulls to the line.
The flip side is that it's end of the year, and we launch into a two-month drag drought that lasts until preseason testing in January. You try to savor every snootful of nitro, every breath of rubberized air, every ground-pounding launch, and preserve it in your memory to get you through the too-long off-season.
How easy that off-season is on you depends on the balance you can strike between A) your level of fandom and B) the quality of the Finals. Because you’re here reading this, I'm guessing you have straight A's in "A," and, if you were at the Finals – heck, even if you followed it on NHRA.com or watched it on ESPN2 – you got at least a month of memories and good bench-racing material to get you halfway to Phoenix.
From a reporter's standpoint, the race was packed with all sorts of nuances that kept our brains whirring and our fingers tapping. From the tight points battles in Funny Car and Pro Stock Motorcycle to Tony Schumacher's quest to set single-season records to the number of personal win and qualifying streaks on the line, there was a lot to watch on the track, and, the Finals being one of the true can't-miss social events, the place was packed with racers who weren't even racing. No one likes to miss a goodbye party.
I scribbled into my notepad (and if you've seen my notes, you know what I mean) all kinds of random things that happened or that I heard to share with you here today.
Game on: Wednesday, of course, was the big NHRA Softball Classic game in San Bernardino, which was a lot farther than it looked on Google Maps. Of course, then again, I was following ND's resident Inspector Gadget, shutterbug Richard "Way" Wong, who was foolishly following the directions of his GPS and took us on a circuitous route to the stadium.
Arrowhead Credit Union Park, home of the minor-league Inland Empire 66ers – the single A affiliate of our own L.A. Dodgers; they used to be called the Stampeders but changed their name a few years ago to reflect (warning: major assumption follows) the stadium's proximity to Route 66, which is five or six blocks to the north — is a pretty swell place as far as minor-league stadiums go. I've been to a few, and this one clearly is a jewel.
Once we sorted out various Internet connection issues and cracked open a long-shut window in the two-spot pressroom, Senior Ed "K-Mac" and I did live play-by-play textual reports on NHRA.com – accompanied by some of Wong's photos -- that drew a surprising number of followers. The game was run at a frantic pace, and Kevin and I were constantly playing catch-up trying to figure out who of the constantly changing fielders had booted the ball to whom. The "Bob"sie twins – Frey and Wilber – did a great job announcing the game, and next time, we'd be a lot better off just simulcasting it like we do our race coverage.
I don’t know who was more tired after the game: the players or Kevin and me. Anyway, I ended up playing spotter, and Kevin did a great job of not only turning my running commentary into words but into some pretty clever and baseball-writer-worthy prose; you can read it here. The game was a blast, filled with some good plays, some not-so-good plays, and a lot of comedic relief. Brandon Bernstein definitely was the fielding MVP, and it was tough not to give it to Bob Vandergriff Jr., who slugged a pair of round-trippers.
Lachelle Seymour and Zak Elcock of the NHRA Media Department also should get a tip of the hat for their efforts in promoting not just this game but the washed-out original in Reading. I worked with the dynamic duo to brainstorm the story ideas that ran on NHRA.com the last few months, and they did the legwork. They thanked me for my work – which also consisted of a half-dozen posters I designed for them using my feeble Photoshop skills – by presenting me with a large version of one of the posters that they had signed by all of the players. It'll have a place of honor on my wall here.
Streaks end: Antron Brown may have been the winning skipper at the softball game, but he was on the losing end Saturday when his long qualifying streak – 168 races, spanning 145 in Pro Stock Motorcycle beginning in 1998 and 23 in Top Fuel this season – ended when he couldn’t qualify the Matco Tools Top Fuel dragster. It was a sad ending to one of the most impressive season debuts in recent memory in the class, and his DNQ dropped him from third place to fifth.
Angelle Sampey's 12-year streak of winning at least one Pro Stock Motorcycle race in each season since her 1996 debut – I was in Reading when she pulled off her stunning first win --- also ended when her Rush Racing Buell went lame on the line in round one with a bad fuel pump. Fans with sharp memories may also remember her bike breaking on the line in the semifinals last year in her final ride on the Army Suzuki.
Doug Kalitta had his similar 10-year streak snapped, too, when he fell to Cory Mac in round one. Kalitta didn't preserve his streak last year until Richmond – the third-to-last race – but the magic ran out this year.
Loose wheel: Jerry Toliver has always been known as a bit of a loose wheel, but even he had to be surprised when he shucked the left-rear wheel on the Rockstar flopper during Saturday qualifying in one of the weirder moments I can remember of late. He smoked the hoops, pedaled it, and the next thing you know, the slick is rolling into the other lane, bouncing off the guardrail, and beating Toliver's tricycle to the finish line. Broken wheel studs were pinpointed as the cause, but hats off to J.T. for a superb handling job, and we'll look forward to seeing him and "Big Jim" Dunn together next year.
Out among 'em: Usually I watch the racing from the cozy confines of the media center so that I can constantly update NHRA.com – Candida Benson was keeping tabs on the championship battles in a running notebook, and I was writing the recap and championship stories – but I got a chance to sit in the grandstands during the second round Sunday. I recently was reunited – after a 30-year separation – with my stepbrothers and stepsisters. They are the kids of my stepfather, Lee, whom I've written about in National DRAGSTER. I lost my biological father when I was 9, and Lee married my mom and was the father figure that every boy needs. He taught me so much about so many things that even he's not aware of what it meant, though I take great pains to try to tell him that each chance I get, especially after he suffered a heart attack a few weeks ago.
All three of my stepbrothers – Chris, Mickey, and Kevin -- had lived with us at one point or another, and all went on to become merchant seamen, so it was a rare chance to get them all together this past summer for a barbecue. I had reconnected with them in the craziest way – I was coaching high school hockey, and one of the kids on the team was Chris' stepson – and one thing led to another.
Oldest sister Leanne, who lives locally, played ringleader and got us all together then, and Mickey and Kevin, and some of their friends flew down from up north to join Leanne and her husband, George, plus nephew Chris (Chris' son), and other friends Saturday and Sunday at the races. I watched that second round – highlighted by Rod Fuller's stunning holeshot victory over Tony Schumacher – from the left-lane stands at about half-track, surrounded by family and the kind of hard-core fans that the media center keeps you isolated from.
It was great, and the roar for Fuller was overpowering. It was one of the most talked-about pairings, and Fuller, who had lost the last six and eight of 10 to Schumacher this season, definitely upset the pre-run predictions.
I used to sit in the stands a lot in the pre-NHRA.com days, and now I know I'll be back there more often in the future.
Phil Bur to Phil Bur: Ran into Phil Burkart Jr. behind the tower late Sunday. The journeyman driver, who most fans remember filled in so well at this event last year for injured John Force, says he's still trying to find a ride to return but currently has nothing cooking. Burkart was doing color commentary on the PA during qualifying.
Meet Ms. Smith: My old pal Roy Hill flagged me down Saturday and introduced me to his latest charge, Anna Lisa Smith, daughter of racetrack impresario Bruton Smith. The former Pro Stock driver runs a successful driving school – headquartered now, not coincidentally, at Smith's zMax Dragway – and has been schooling Anna Lisa in the finer aspects of race car driving. Although she has been around auto racing her whole life and was a successful equestrian rider, she fell in love with drag racing at the inaugural NHRA Carolinas Nationals at her dad's fabulous new facility. One thing led to another, and now she's hoping to make her Top Fuel debut late next year, probably at next season's event at zMax. She has already made about 60 laps in a Super Comp car, and Hill hopes to have her up to 200 mph by year's end. Nitro testing could commence as early as next spring.
I spent an hour talking with her and Hill Sunday morning, and three things are quickly clear. First, she's very serious about this. It's not some phase she's going through. Second, Hill, who has been known as a bit of a – shall we say – stern taskmaster to his students, may have mellowed some, but not much, with his new student, who's getting an intense and thorough introduction to the sport in all manner of cars. And third, she's not some rich girl doing this out of daddy's wallet; she's going to be responsible for funding the car herself through sponsorships. She will get help from her father, who has appointed Don Hawk, SMI vice president of business affairs, as her "agent," but the rest is up to her. She's also well-aware how this all looks and even admitted that she, too, might be rolling her eyes at the thought of some perceived princess who decided that the flavor of the week is Top Fuel but that she has every intention of proving to everyone her fierce desire to become a good race car driver. Look for a bigger story on her from me in the future.
Fire watch: Once the fires to the south of Auto Club Raceway at Pomona got raging, our view from the media center, looking straight down the track, was filled with columns of smoke, as evidenced by this photo.
Initially, the fire was in the Chino Hills area, but as soon as word came that a new fire had begun in Yorba Linda, it got everyone's attention because you don't have to be much of a racing fan to know that's where John Force and his team are located.
We spent a lot of time between qualifying runs watching streaming video footage on the Web and trying to compare it to Google Maps to see how close the fires were burning to Force's shop, to the family home, and to the house of Robert Hight.
Force was in the media center Saturday afternoon to accept a special comeback award from the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association, and I called him over to my laptop to give us a guided tour of what he knew.
Fire was licking up in the wash behind the shopping center adjacent to the Force compound (and ultimately claimed several businesses there) as shown in this second photo, taken by longtime Force employee Craig Hoelzel and forwarded to me by Force publicist Elon Werner. The shop escaped damage as did the Force family home, but Hight's home, on a cul-de-sac at the very northern edge of Yorba Linda and backed up to brush-filled hills, seemed very vulnerable. A small crew was dispatched Saturday to rescue pets and Hight's Wallys.
I ran into Adria, Force's eldest daughter and Robert's wife, later that evening and gave her a big hug and wished them the best. It was bad timing for everyone, what with Robert nervously embroiled in the title hunt and Adria frantically planning sister Ashley's wedding shower. In the end, thanks to a firetruck strategically parked in the cul-de-sac to prevent the possible ignition of Hight's house setting off a chain reaction, all of the homes were spared.
In the Team CSK blog, in what may be one of Wilber's last entries there before it becomes the Wilkerson blog, B.W. says that Del and Connie Worsham had to evacuate their house in Chino Hills but that they, too, were lucky.
Fans Sunday also were treated to a mini air show as the giant "super scooper" airplanes that deliver pinpoint water drops on the fires swooped in and out of nearby Puddingstone Lake, just the other side of Brackett Field, to collect another load of water to dump on hot spots.
Champ chatter: Hight gave me the good news Sunday during pre-race and said that he'd tried his best to not even think about it as he qualified Saturday and that having something to do instead of wringing his hands was probably a blessing. He was glad to have it not be a factor for Sunday's all-important eliminations.
Gary Scelzi was a popular grab during the pre-race mixer on the starting line, with fans and racers wanting to get their photo taken with him before he leaves on what we all hope will be a temporary retirement. Scelzi could have had a hand in the championship as he was paired with title hopeful Jack Beckman on the opposite side of the ladder from the other four challengers.
"Why are you on the sissy side of the ladder?" Force demanded jokingly of Scelzi. Scelzi, always the good sport when his car isn't running up to speed, later told Beckman, "Hell, I'd like to race me, too." We're gonna miss him.
Tears shed: There were a lot of tears around the place all weekend, In addition to Scelzi's departure, fan favorites Chuck and Del Worsham ended – temporarily? – their long father and son run in Funny Car in a way that no one wanted to see them go out. The CSK team, which even resorted to its previously-familiar-but-jinxed red body for its last qualifying attempt, disappointingly missed the show.
If any of the jaded media were not as impacted as the fans were by the end of Wilkerson's heroic bid for the Funny Car crown, they probably were after "Wilk" addressed them after his loss and came close to tears on several occasions. It's very clear what this season meant to Wilkerson and how disappointed he was not to be able to see it through, but he earned a ton of respect and admiration – and fear – from his peers.
Hight, too, clearly was disappointed that his bid again ended short of the number-one spot, and perhaps the toll of the previous day's uncertainty about Casa Hight added to the emotion that poured out when he came to chat with the media.
Even champ Pedregon was choked up, talking about how he and Tony lost their dad in their teen years and how they both have built great careers and taken their knocks along the way. Cruz also was clearly aware of how some may think that Wilkerson was a more deserving champ than him and planned to address his respect for "Wilk" in his speech tonight at the awards ceremony.
Insider out: And finally, thanks again to all of the readers who stopped me in the pits and elsewhere to offer thanks for this column. It's truly an honor to have an impact on people's lives and memories to the point where they seek you out to thank you.
Top Fuel pilot Troy Buff is among the readers here and grabbed me during pre-race to thank me. I've known of Buff for a long time; during my first year here, the Division 4 Alcohol Dragster war between him and Bubba Sewell was one of the fiercest rivalries going. Whatever happened to Bubba?
I also got to catch up with Insider readers and former nitro racers Jeff Courtie and Steve Kalb, who I ran into at the same time and introduced; I was an interested fly on the wall as they immediately launched into comparisons about their 1970s engine combos – and with Howard Hull, who wrote for us last week about his OCIR memories and presented me with a framed poster from a mid-'70s PDA race at OCIR (more cool stuff for the wall!) as thanks for putting him in touch with fellow trapshooter Hight earlier this year; Hight graciously donated some JFR goodies to an NRA auction Hull was running.
I also met with Karl White, who snapped some of the "now" photos of OCIR that ran in my recent column, so that I could hand-deliver to him the prized vintage souvenir programs he had entrusted to me. I was able to take him and his girlfriend – who was attending her first race – and their friends on a VIP tour of the tower.
Anyway, I just wanted to take this brief moment to again tell you all how much your comments, memories, and photos contribute to the success of this column, which is why I wanted to jump in here first thing Monday and share all of this with you before diving back headlong into a pile of National DRAGSTER work that we hope will somehow adequately chronicle what a wild and crazy race the 2008 Finals was.
I'll see you later this week.