Features

How ex-site-ing: The new NHRA.com is here!Thursday, February 05, 2009
Posted by: Phil Burgess


 1 of 5 
 
Here are several of the NHRA.com logos we've used over the years, inclding the earliest, when the site was called NHRA Online.
 
Welcome to the new NHRA.com! If you've been around this neck of the woods since we kicked off this whole dot-com craze back in 1995, you've lived through quite a few "new" new NHRA.coms, but this one represents one of the biggest – if not the biggest – wholesale changes to the site in its 15-year history.

Developed in conjunction with our new pals at AmericanEagle.com, it's quite a masterpiece and way more than just a shiny new coat of paint. With the fancy new rotating top stories, home-page video and photo galleries, and the slick race interface, it's pretty darned cool.

I won't lie to you; it's been a massive undertaking, and one that's still under way. When you consider that NHRA.com has been around since Larry Dixon was a rookie driver and that all we've done in the interceding years is add to it, both in terms of content and functionality, you can understand what a deep and wide site is. Anyone who has ever tried to move after living somewhere for 15 years can appreciate the amount of stuff you accumulate throughout the years, and we're no different.

We had to sort through all of the stuff, figure out what worked with the new décor, what didn't ,and what could be repurposed, then pack up all of the boxes of stuff and ship it to the new address, where it was unpacked, prettied up, and, in some cases, moved to a different room. Some of it still hasn't been unpacked, and some of it is still waiting to be moved to our new home.

Having been point man for the initial NHRA.com launch, it has been my baby and my master for a long time, so it has been simultaneously thrilling and chilling to watch the newest incarnation being assembled.

Web design is no longer the black art that it once was and is widely understood and practiced by many. Even the earliest teenagers get exposed to snippets of HTML code while they're endlessly rebuilding their MySpace pages (mostly to include horrible backgrounds upon which their prattlings cannot even be read), and free design templates are widely available online. All of this is fine if you're building a gallery of vacation photos or creating a small Web site, but when you're trying to tame a monster like NHRA.com, it's a whole 'nother Oprah.

During the years, as we have added features to NHRA.com, we have sought to interweave the many pieces, much in the way that a driver's most recent news items or team reports are headlined on their driver-profile pages and how the individual team reports are linked back to the driver profiles. We also worked to compartmentalize the events by adding event-specific navigation on all of the related pages so that you could seamlessly click between the results and photo galleries.

We worked hard to maintain those types of user-friendly perks, so the challenge was to find out how to do them with our new system. For the last six years, we've been using the same content-management system to post stories to the site. It started out as a pretty low-dollar program – big-time newspapers use content-management systems that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars – that did the basics, but it has been modified internally during the years by our staff. We've made it do tricks the likes of which its original programmers never conceived, and there's pretty much nothing that we couldn’t do with it.

The new NHRA.com brings with it a new content-management system and a whole new way of doing things. It's super powerful, and it's going to be fun (and a bit daunting) to uncover its subtleties and mysteries and to find new ways to do familiar things and familiar ways to do new things.

For sure, things will look and act differently. You certainly have seen that on the home page already and noticed that some things (Photo of the Week, Quarter-Mile Cuisine, Special Sections, etc.) are in different places, all of which can be easily found under the Features navigation. Heck, just look at this page. It's narrower than its predecessor and has a different background color and different headline treatment.

We'll also be able to embed slide shows in the stories and blogs if we choose and do all kinds of other fancy tricks, so be looking for that.

One of the coolest things about the new site – coming soon! – is the long-awaited live-timing component. Here's a stealthily disguised preview that allows you to get the idea, but suffice it to say that you'll be able to watch the incremental numbers pop up in real time while a simulated pair of cars races underneath the info. We hope to have it fully functional before long. In addition to the usual video highlights from the national events, we'll be co-hosting Full Throttle TV, which will be mirrored on Full Throttle's site. The Full Throttle TV crew will produce interesting features that will play both at the events and online. We're really looking forward to it.

With any project this big, there's sure to be room for improvement, and yes, even a few hiccups, despite our continual testing, known as beta testing in the computer world. Sometimes developing and beta testing complex components is a little like tuning a fuel car: You mess with the blower and get it working well, and suddenly the fuel system is out of whack. You fix the fuel system, and the clutch starts acting all possessed. I've been on beta-testing teams for a number of video games where one well-thought-out request to the developers crashed the entire game.

I had a trio of solid NHRA citizens do a little beta testing for me late last week and early this week, each bringing his own special set of skills to the scrutiny. "Bloggin' Bob" Wilber looked at it from a team-manager aspect, making sure that the drivers looked good and that all of the fan-oriented stuff jibed. "Talented Todd" Myers, publicist for Kalitta Motorsports and an accomplished graphic artist (he designed the graphics for the most recent NHRA.com Web site as well as past Web sites, such as the 50th anniversary U.S. Nationals and 40th anniversary NHRA Finals), looked at it from a graphical and functional standpoint, and former NHRA.com webmaster Brent "FlashMaster" Friar looked at things from a coding point of view. Thanks to them for their input.

(By the way, check out this way-cool image that's going on the cover of Issue 4 of National DRAGSTER. Myers had pitched me on a story about Connie Kalitta's 50th anniversary, but before I gave him the green light, I commissioned him to do this painting – no good deed goes unpunished around here – of "the Bounty Hunter." My-oh-Myers created this masterpiece in just seven hours, using acrylic-based mixed media on an 11- by 14-inch canvas.)

On Tuesday night, a small team – current webmaster Jade Davidson, ND Associate Editor Candida Benson, Director of Information Technology Jared Robison, and yours truly -- pulled a Full Throttle- and pizza-fueled all-nighter double-checking links, databases, and images and updating stories with the freshest news and blogs in anticipation of today's launch.

The plan is to just keep on truckin' from this point. I'd like to officially welcome 'Dida to the NHRA.com Web team. She'has administered NHRA's Jr. Drag Racing League Web site the last few years and obviously has a head for this stuff. She'll be a welcome addition to the small crew that keeps the bits and bytes flowing and take a little pressure off of me so that I can concentrate on making more memories for y'all here. Candida, me, ND Senior Editor Kevin McKenna, and ND Associate Editor Brad Littlefield will be the traveling NHRA.com crew this year to cover the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series events, and everyone from the DRAGSTER staff will be offering their story ideas and talents to the site.

So, here we are. Take some time to poke around and share your thoughts and constructive comments. We're all about making stuff better.

Later today, it'll be off to Pomona for the season opener, and we're sure to have our hands full there twisting all the new knobs in the right directions, so I probably won’t be posting again until next week. Once we get this monster tamed, I promise we'll be back to sharing the stories behind the stories that make this sport so great.
 

The one-day wonderFriday, January 30, 2009
Posted by: Phil Burgess

 
The 1965 Winternationals was an amazing race. All class and eliminator racing was completed in one day before a standing-room-only crowd.

 
This was Saturday's story at the 1965 opener, a nearly complete washout.

 
Other than this brief moment for the national anthem, Sunday at the 1965 Winternationals was 10 straight hours of racing.

 
Fans began entering the facility at midnight Saturday and filled the grandstands by dawn. It was a packed house for a packed day.

The Winternationals is always ripe with drama, whether it's because of new teams, new technology, or new plotlines, and few people walk away from the annual season opener disappointed. The race is that good.

Sometimes, though, fans can walk away shaking their heads in disbelief for more than just the accomplishment of the racers, and never was that more true than at the 1965 event. I mentioned in my column last week that the win by Roland Leong and driver Don Prudhomme at the 1965 race was especially memorable for more than just the fact that it marked "the Snake's" first win and kicked off an amazing two years for the Hawaiian dragster. Anyone who attended that race surely also will remember it as one of the most Herculean efforts ever expended by NHRA to complete an event.

Originally scheduled for three days, the event was reduced to just a single day by heavy fog and persistent rain Friday and Saturday. Some runs had been made between raindrops Friday, with Prudhomme's 7.80, 204.54 leading the way, just ahead of "Big Daddy" Don Garlits' 1964 Nationals-winning Wynn's Jammer, which chalked up a 7.81 at a blistering event-record 206.88 mph. But, save for a few Street-class runs, Saturday was a complete washout.

As NHRA officials glowered at the cloudy skies Saturday afternoon, they wondered if somehow they not only could allow all 612 participants to get their fair shot at Pomona glory in the seven traditional eliminators Sunday but also complete the hotly contested class runoffs – 70 classes in all – on the same day. Early estimates of the total number of runs needed to finish the race were in excess of 3,000. Can you imagine? It seemed to be a ludicrous proposition.

They ultimately envisioned – then flawlessly executed – a bold plan that will long be remembered and probably never repeated.

To alleviate expected traffic jams for an anticipated crowd of more than 60,000 fans eager to witness what would probably be the most action-packed single day of racing in history, ticket sales began at 10 p.m. Saturday, and the spectator gates were opened at midnight. Fans who had parked on the side streets adjacent to the L.A. County Fairgrounds streamed in, and by 4 a.m., most of the prime spots in the bleachers had been grabbed. Yet eager fans, primed by the Friday headlines, continued to roll in as the sun rose to reveal a standing-room-only crowd.

Event director Jack Hart lit the first engines at 7 a.m., and Chief Starter Buster Couch got 'em busy on Parker Avenue. Save for a one-minute, 45-second break as Couch and Pomona Valley Timing Association honcho John Moxley ran the Stars and Stripes up the flagpole and the national anthem played and a short downtime when an errant fueler took out the top-end lights, the Pomona quarter-mile was in use for the next 10 hours.

Among the class winners were names that would resound for years in the sport, with the likes of Cecil Yother, Dave Kempton, Bill Hoefer, Dave Strickler, Judy Lilly, Fred Crow, K.S. Pittman, "Bones" Balough, Charlie Smith, Willis Ragsdale, Kay Sissell, and Chico Breschini earning coveted class crowns.

Writer Al Caldwell noted that pairs of Top Gas dragsters were leaving the line every 67 seconds and the fuelers at a rate of two every 72 seconds. The Top Gas field was set by 11 a.m. and the fuel field by noon, and eliminations began in earnest.

By the count of National DRAGSTER Associate Editor Dan Roulston, an average of 5.2 cars went down the track each minute of the 10 hours, and the combined mileage traveled by the entries down the track was about 790 miles under full power (DRAGSTER reporters jokingly called the event the "Pomona 800"). Adding in shutdown area and travel up the return road, Roulston estimated that the combined distance traveled would have carried someone east from Pomona and well into the Atlantic Ocean.

The Jr. Stock Eliminator final, which Kempton won, was the final pair down the track at just after 5 p.m. and 3,167 previous pairings. The racers and NHRA crew were so efficient that a half-hour of daylight still remained.

The Winternationals didn’t finish until well after that as NHRA's Farmer Dismuke and his tech crew worked well into Sunday night in teardown for the 28 cars that had their innards inspected, detected, and, in two cases, rejected.

"Drag racing is a highly emotional sport, and the heat of competition builds to a fever pitch," wrote Roulston, "but the cooperation extended to officials of the National Hot Rod Association by the racers at the 1965 Winternationals will probably never again be duplicated." Amen.

 

Speaking of Leong, Steve Justice was there when the Hawaiian made his first (and only) fuel-dragster pass behind the wheel, which led to Prudhomme taking over the reins. He remembers it well.

"Roland first showed off his new Fuller car Oct. 4, 1964," he wrote. "I worked the [eighth-mile] concession stand and witnessed Roland's initial pass in the car. C.J. [Hart, strip operator] had told him to make a half pass in the car and/or keep it under 150 mph. I just think things happened faster than he was used to, and by the time he passed me, the car was still hauling ass. He was in the left lane, and at about 1,000 feet, the car got into the dirt, kissed the fence, and went airborne.

"One could not really see anything after that, but word got back that Roland had come down right side up near the railroad tracks (quite a distance to the east of the strip). Roland was okay, but C.J. was livid and told Roland he would never drive a car at Lions while he was in charge. I also recollect that this incident was the reason C.J. initiated his driver's licensing program. Leong-Black was rebuilt and returned to the strip in January 1965 as the Hawaiian with Don Prudhomme at the wheel. It just took them a week or so to set a new speed record at Lions of 204 mph (hard to do on a Saturday night when the track was cold and dewy)."

I also got a lot of other comments from people who had never seen any color photos of the Hawaiian dragster and were surprised at what a pretty car it was. That's the downside to doing all of these historical articles; there aren’t always a lot of color photos. Most of the guys who were shooting for the weeklies shot black and white film for two reasons: 1) It was cheaper because they could process the film themselves, and 2) The publications themselves had not really advanced to color photography due to its cost.

Today, although we have to manage the use of color in National DRAGSTER to create an effecient press run, its use is much more widespread, and, of course, on the Internet, color is free. Can you imagine how cool it would have been to have had the Internet in 1965? Where would drag racing be today?

Okay, that's it for the week. In a few days, it's going to be Winternationals Week and the launch of a shiny new season. I can hardly wait.

Lessons learned in PhoenixTuesday, January 27, 2009
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Lucky guy that I am, I got to bask in the glory of Arizona sunshine and shower in the nitro mists of testing fuel cars last weekend at the NAPA Auto Parts National Time Trials in Phoenix, where I filled my notebook and tape recorder with way more information than I could fit into the limited space of my National DRAGSTER coverage.

As you can probably imagine, a lot was going on there with all of the new driver/tuner/car combos, and with the shoes and wrenches not always wearing their national event best on a casual weekend, I had to stop more than once to remind myself who was working for whom before I dragged out the interview notepad. I heard that at least one crew chief pulled into the wrong pit after a run this weekend out of force of habit.

In all my years here, I cannot remember a time when virtually all of the top powers in one class would be entering the year with at least one major new cog in the machine. Four of last year's top-five Top Fuel drivers – Tony Schumacher, Larry Dixon, Cory McClenathan, and Antron Brown – are working with new crew chiefs, and, of course, the fourth member of the that top five, Hillary Will, is on the sidelines (I did exchange e-mails with Hillary this weekend, and she tells me she will be in Pomona to network or whatever it is drivers do to try to find a ride; both Tommy Johnson Jr. and Melanie Troxel were in Phoenix last weekend, probably doing the same).

It was definitely a shock to see Rob Flynn consulting with Brandon Bernstein (and equally shocking not to see Tim and Kim Richards) or to see Larry Dixon huddled with Jason McCulloch instead of Donnie Bender or Antron Brown talking things over with Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald instead of Lee Beard.

 
For some reason, our staff likes to take pictures of me talking to the drivers, and Marc Gewertz, who did an amazing job for us in Phoenix, was no exception. I think John Force and I were talking about grandbabies.

The event is always kind of a weird deal for a reporter to cover because, unlike at a national event, where you know that the teams are trying to make full passes and run the best e.t., you never know in testing unless you ask whether a team planned to only run it to 330 or 660 or if there was a problem. And sometimes the team that had the most successful outing isn’t the one with low e.t. but the one that tested the wheels off a new part and only needed to run a few hundred feet to get it right.

This year's Phoenix event made that doubly tough because the track surface was, to put it kindly, tricky. Or to put it as John Force said, "Coyote Ugly."

Although the Firebird staff toiled hard Sunday to bring the track around and have it yield the nice numbers that it did, the track was a real crapshoot Friday and Saturday. In fairness, it wasn't all about the track prep; the problem was exacerbated – or perhaps even caused by – a number of factors, not the least of which was the lack of rubber. In addition to a scarcity of Sportsman cars that normally would lay down traction-enhancing rubber, the nitro cars weren't much able to help themselves because the new, stiffer 2550 Goodyears don't leave behind as much rubber on the burnout or the run as their predecessors. I wasn't camped on the starting line, but I never saw the track scraped once during the three days, which you would never see at a national event. (After the workout it got during weekend and in the days following, the track should be at "just right" for the national event there in a few weeks.)

As a consequence, drivers never made it past 100 feet let alone 60 feet on plenty of runs, and those that made it past there often didn’t make it through the "shake zone." If you could get that far and your crew chief gave you the green light, good runs were possible, as evidenced by Del Worsham's stout 4.04 Saturday and Schumacher's and Dixon's nearly matching 3.83s.

"The Sarge" and Dixon were definitely two people whose brains I wanted to pick as they enter a new season with some interesting future matchups. You just have to know that any win that Schumacher gets against former tuner Alan Johnson will be just that much sweeter and every loss just a bit tougher than any other whether those guys admit it or not. Which they wouldn't, by the way.

Schumacher was the most candid of the two, but only because Dixon is way more modest. He always has been, and you gotta like that in a guy. Schumacher just exudes confidence, and rightly so with his accomplishments.

 
Tony Schumacher is always an interesting interview and great with a sound bite. We both play hockey, so we have that common interest, and it's always fun to talk to him. All eyes will be on him this year after 2008.

"It's going to be the ultimate battle between us and Alan," he told me. "The fans are in for a real treat. They’re going to see a battle. I think we’re both going to have extremely strong cars, and we're both going to have a lot of fun going at each other. Alan and I have talked about this before, when he was here; we don’t race for the trophy, we race for the battle itself. And now we've got a kick-ass adversary.

"A.J. did a helluva job of picking Dixon, and he's got a fantastic car and a fantastic crew, but so do we. As long as we stay focused, we'll be okay; but you know us, we're a machine over here."

I asked him specifically about racing Dixon, who with Doug Kalitta and him are generally regarded as the three best pilots in the class.

"It's going to make us both dig so deep," he predicted. "Dixon and I will both be so jacked up we'll probably both red-light. Dixon and I don't mess around. We both respect each other. We'll just pull up there and do battle and win or lose shake the other guy's hand at the other end."

Although nearly every member of the crew followed Johnson to his new deal, Schumacher says he harbors no animosity, and I believe him.

"Those guys are like family," he said. "Those guys are my brothers, and they had an awesome opportunity with Alan. I don't hold anything against them."

Dixon, as is his wont, refused to be pulled into any such comparisons – though he did bristle a bit when I told him Schumacher said they both always shallow stage against one another, and Dixon quickly cited several examples where "Shoe" didn't last year – and refused to give the other guys any inspirational "bulletin-board material."

"I don't get up more for any one driver than another," he said. "I'm pretty much an up guy already for everyone, so it's not really like I can possibly get up any more than I usually am. If you can get up for any particular driver, you can get up for everyone, and that's what we're supposed to do as drivers."

I asked how the fit has been for him, learning A.J.'s driver routine and working with all-new teammates.

 
No pressure, Mike.

"It's going great; it's different, but I don't think it's any different than what I've been accustomed to in the past with crew-chief changes. I've had quite a few crew chiefs over at Prudhomme's over the years, and I'm just trying to fit in with the team. The guys here are pretty loose; you'd think they'd be all 100 percent serious, but they're loose."

It will be interesting to see how Mike Green fills A.J.'s boots over in the Army camp; no pressure or anything, Mike. You just inherited the most successful Top Fuel team in history. I always liked Mike, and I've known him since his days working on Kirk Lawrence's Top Alcohol Dragster in the early 1980s and then with Gary Ormsby, where he worked under Beard. Green and his then cohort, Chuck Schifsky, always went out of their way to help me with info on their car, and Schifsky, son of former Funny Car racer Bill Schifsky, obviously understood the journalism world well enough to become executive editor at Motor Trend, the world's most prestigious car magazine. He worked there with my best friend, C. Van Tune, but both have moved on. Chuck's now handling PR work for Honda, overseeing all of the PR offices and activities outside of the Torrance, Calif., headquarters for the Honda and Acura brands, along with Honda Power Equipment and Honda Marine, including offices in New York City, Atlanta, and Detroit. He has obviously taken a different career path than Green, and it's cool to see them both succeed.

 
Donnie Bender, center, and Todd Smith, right, both told me that they couldn't be happier with their new pilot, Spencer Massey.

 
Just how real the Bud car's 323-mph run was will be seen in Pomona, but needless to say, expectant papa BB and Flynn got 'em all talking.

There were lots of smiles in Camp Snake, where new driver Spencer Massey has made a fine impression, and no one is more pleased with him than crew chiefs Donnie Bender and Todd Smith.

" 'Snake' couldn’t have picked a better guy," said Bender, whose U.S. Smokeless car was impressive with seven strong 60-foot times between .847 and .832. "I'd take him over any of the unemployed drivers out there. We knew the kid was good, but we didn’t know how he would adapt to us. We'll tell him how to do something, and the first time he might not be perfect, but by the second time, he's right where we want him to be. He picks things up real good.

"He's pumping up the team, and he's about the same age as the crew, so they really have a lot more in common with him than they did with Larry. We're very happy; I'd say we accomplished 90 percent of what we set out to do. Our main goal was to get the driver comfortable with us and us with him."

Massey, who will be packing his truck Thursday and moving from Fort Worth, Texas, to Brownsburg, Ind., put it succinctly: "I wish Pomona was tomorrow," he said.

Bernstein also was learning some new tricks for crew chief Flynn, whose driver starting-line routine relies a lot more on the driver than did the Richardses, who had tuned "Double-B" in all of his six previous seasons.

"B-Squared" – who told me that he and wife Tracey are expecting the newest heir to the Bud King throne in early August – had a bit of a rough go as Flynn tried to meld his combination with some existing parts on the Bud combination. Flynn's famed "Canadian horsepower" wasn't getting much of a display as the clutch wasn't functioning correctly and the car kept dropping cylinders.

Flynn didn't seem much worried about it – "You can't just take your combination from one car to another because the cars themselves are different anyway. You have to figure it out; this whole job is about solving problems." – and planned to stay early into this week to get things sorted out, but I was surprised to receive a text message from Brad Littlefield when I got off the plane Monday afternoon in Ontario telling me that Bernstein had run 323 mph.

I was very skeptical of that speed because the best 1,000-foot speed ever is just 318, set last year by Schumacher. The Bud car ran 280 mph to the eighth-mile, and it seemed a bit implausible to me that it could pick up 43 mph in the final 340 feet. I asked Brad to run the numbers, and the best final 340-foot increase he could find in Top Fuel was just 38 mph. "Little Brad" tracked down "Little B" this morning, and he swears that the numbers all line up and that the run was legit. We'll only have to wait about a week to see what they can do in Pomona.

 
Morgan Lucas showed "rookie" Shawn Langdon the ropes.

I spent a good bit of time with Top Fuel license hopefuls Steve Faria and Shawn Langdon, whose success stories you can see on NHRA.com in a little feature I wrote on Faria and the presser from the Lucas camp.

It was interesting to watch Langdon interact with Morgan Lucas and see Morgan give his new teammate advice. Seems it wasn't all that long ago that Lucas was the one getting the advice.

Although Langdon only made it down the track once when I was there through Sunday, he was pleased for other reasons, which seems to be the case for a lot of guys who are glass-half-full when the fans and others are looking at it as half empty. There's a lot of optimism early in the season.

"I have no frustration because the car hasn't gone down," he said. "At this point, anything that happens is good because it gets me familiar with those situations. I'm learning a lot with tire smoke and tire shake; I want to get as much info in me as I can before we get to Pomona so they’re not held back by a rookie driver."

 
Ron Capps was another guy whose glass was half full, especially after good runs the weekend before in Florida. Although they banged the blower pretty hard on one run Saturday – Christine Robertson got this great shot of it, tracked me down in the pits, and asked about submitting it for use in our ND coverage — and Capps and crew chief Ed McCulloch could only run a best of 4.85, making me a little uneasy after going on record in the last issue of ND picking them to win the championship this year (!), the team was another of those "there's more than meets the eyes" deals. Capps is one of those acutely aware guys who knows that the stars of Phoenix testing end up on the cover of the ND that's handed out in Pomona – he even publicly admitted that a few years ago – so it probably killed him that he wasn't making full runs.

"We were in the same boat with a lot of other teams where the numbers you see are not indicative of true performance," he said reassuringly. "For us, it was just going to 330 feet, maybe 400 feet and trying different things to make ourselves better. So, we're happy." Me too. Don’t let me down, Ron!

That's it for now; have another meeting about the new NHRA.com – coming your way shortly! – to get to. I've always said that part of the success of this column lies in the contributions of its readers, and I'd like to thank those of you in Phoenix who were kind enough to share your love of this column with me in person and those who have e-mailed me their similar thoughts. As you can imagine, with ND and NHRA.com there's a lot to clear off my plate to make the time to work on this column, but your kind words provide the inspiration and the encouragement to get 'er done.

See ya later this week.

The Hawaiian's Winters wonderlandFriday, January 23, 2009
Posted by: Phil Burgess

 
It didn't take long for the new partnership of 23-year-old driver Don Prudhomme and 20-year-old car owner Roland Leong to bear fruit as they won the 1965 Winternationals in their national event debut together. Leong's mother, Teddy, third from left, was among those celebrating.

Forty-four years ago this Winternationals, a 20-year-old car owner brought his beautiful new Top Fuel dragster and his new driver to the fabled Pomona racetrack and with a stunning victory launched them both into the limelight of the NHRA landscape, where they have remained for five decades.

"Consistency, power and performance were the key words for the Top Fuel eliminator contestants at the fifth annual Winternationals Championship Drag Races," read the opening lines of National DRAGSTER's coverage of the 1965 Winternationals, "and the entry that was on 200 plus percent in all three brackets was Don Prudhomme and the crew of the ultra-beautiful Hawaiian, owned by Roland Leong, from Honolulu."

The Pomona win began an incredible two-year spree for Leong as after he and Prudhomme won the season opener, they also won the other big national event on the NHRA calendar – a little race we call the U.S. Nationals – and then, unbelievably, Leong accomplished the same two-race bonanza the following year with a different driver, Mike Snively. Winning both Pomona and Indy back-to-back helped make Leong's Hawaiian a household name to drag race fans from coast to coast and certainly didn't hurt the careers of Prudhomme and Snively.

In 1965, Prudhomme certainly was no stranger to West Coast fans. He had carved a gunslinger's reputation with a surprising win at the 1962 March Meet with chassis builder Kent Fuller and engine maestro Dave Zeuschel, and in 1963-64 at the wheel of the Greer-Black-Prudhomme dragster with money man Tommy Greer and engine wizard Keith Black, he had run up an impressive streak of match race wins, but he hadn't won a national event to establish a nationwide rep.


Prudhomme and Leong met when the Greer-Black-Prudhomme team traveled to Hawaii for an exhibition event in 1964; when the G-B-P team disbanded later that year, Leong hired Prudhomme.


In Pomona, the Hawaiian made a dazzling series of runs between 7.75 and 7.87 to earn Prudhomme his first of 49 wins.


Seven months later at the Nationals, NHRA President Wally Parks was congratulating Prudhomme and Leong in the Indy winner's circle as Teddy beamed on approvingly.


Leong can't remember the name of the actor's son posing with him and Prudhomme in Bakersfield, in 1965, but he did point out how dirty his pants were. "You can tell who did all the work on this car," he smirked. (Update: The Insider reader experts come through again: It's Timothy Rooney, son of Mickey; thanks Paul Cuff and Cliff Morgan!)

Leong also was not truly fresh off the boat -- he had owned and driven a gas dragster both on the islands and at some SoCal tracks, and he was the owner of the winning Top Gas car driven by fellow Hawaiian Danny Ongais at the 1964 Winternationals – but it was his first foray into the nitro ranks. Leong had met Black and Prudhomme in Hawaii – where his parents ran a successful insurance business and a speed shop – when the G-B-P made exhibition runs for a track opening, though Leong (contrary to previous reports) says he already had commissioned Fuller to build him a car similar to the G-B-P entry before its arrival.

Leong's initial lap in his beautiful new blue fueler, tuned by Black himself, did not go well – much in the kind of way that the Titanic's voyage was fine other than the part about running into that iceberg. Leong, who had cut his teeth driving Dragmaster-chassised gas dragsters, got loose twice but still ran 191 mph; however, unfamiliar with the cockpit layout of a Fuller car, he couldn't find the parachute release, accidentally bumped the steering wheel with his elbow, hit a sign, and ended up off the end of the Lions track.

All these years later, Prudhomme, who buckled in Leong for his maiden voyage, still finds the incident humorous, as he told me last week. "Roland didn't have a clue as to where he was going. It was the funniest damn thing ever, and we still laugh about it; he ended up down there on the railroad tracks, and asked me, ' "Vipe," what happened?' He didn’t even know."

That incident – and a stern admonishment from Black – was all it took for Leong to acknowledge that he didn’t belong in the saddle of a car that fast.

Recalled Leong, "On Monday morning, I went to Black's, and he called me into his office. 'I can’t go to the races with you anymore,' he told me. 'You scared the [crap] outta me. If you got hurt or killed, what would I tell your parents?' But he told me he was going to give up running the Greer-Black-Prudhomme car and that I should get Prudhomme to drive my car for me and he would still tune it."

The G-B-P team was in its death throes anyway as Greer's industrial machine business had taken a downturn, and he sold the car to Black for what he owed him in winnings and wages. But Black's own engine-building business had begun to take off, and he had no time to be a team owner and a tuner, so all of the pieces fit conveniently for Leong.

"The Greer-Black-Prudhomme car was a great car, but NHRA was really starting to take off then, and the Winternationals was definitely a race that everyone wanted to win," recalled Prudhomme. "I never dreamed that things would turn out like they did, but winning those two races was probably the biggest thing that ever happened to me and to Roland and even to Keith Black."

The team first formed in late 1964 and was ready for the Winternationals, where Prudhomme had the quick time of the opening day, 7.80 at a slowing 204.54 mph, just ahead of Don Garlits' marginally slower yet much faster 7.81, 206.88. Fog and rain conspired to force a one-day, all-day finish Sunday (which I will recount in an upcoming column).

Before a packed house and the Wide World of Sports cameras, the Hawaiian dished up a series of seven-second blasts to collect the green, getting past Willie Redford and the broken Carroll Bros. & Oxman machine with a 7.87, then burying James Warren with a 7.77 in round two. (Interestingly, Warren was driving the Chrysler-powered Warren & Crowe entry that he had qualified after the Chevy-motivated Warren & Coburn entry had been bumped from the field.)

Black continued to work his magic for the Hawaiian in the semifinals, where a quicker-still 7.75 at 204.08 dispatched current NHRA Chief Starter Rick Stewart. The Hawaiian remained rock steady in the final round against "Wild Bill" Alexander with a 7.76, 201.34 to Alexander's 7.92, 198.22.

Leong convinced Prudhomme, who still was painting cars at the time, that they could take advantage of this newfound fame on the match race trail, and after agreeing to drive for a percentage of the winnings, they the road, hard and often.

"We just wanted to race; we'd race on a dirt road if you told us how to get there," recalled Leong. "I remember one night, we got rained out at Long Beach, and I was living in an apartment in the [San Fernando] Valley because that was where Prudhomme lived. When we woke up Sunday, it was sunny, so we decided to run San Fernando [Raceway] because they didn't open until noon. It was the only time I ever raced there, and I think we even won the race. Like I said, if there was dragstrip, we'd race it.

"The only thing was that if we had a race Saturday, Black would tune for us, but he couldn’t ever go on Sundays, so Prudhomme and I would be on our own, but we didn’t care. Prudhomme wasn't really an engine man, and all of my experience was with gas engines, and we were both really young. I can remember me and Prudhomme pulling out of Black's shop one time and him saying, 'There goes the blind leading the blind.' He just shook his head and said, 'I'm only a phone call away.'

"We went back East and won a lot of match races, and, of course, we won Indy, too [beating former Prudhomme mentor Tommy Ivo on the final run], but Black flew back there to help us. We won the race on Monday, and there was a race in Detroit the next night, but Black had to fly home. So Prudhomme and I ran down there – we didn’t even have time to check the bearings – and ran quicker and faster than we did at Indy and won that race, too!"

The successful partnership ended at year's end after B&M and Milodon, which were partners in the new Torkmaster transmission, built a car, had Zeuschel build the engines, and gave it to Prudhomme to run.

"It was hard to leave and quite a setback from not driving the Hawaiian because it was such a great car, but the B&M Torkmaster car ended up running pretty good," said Prudhomme, "and I was able from there to go into business and own my own team. Of course, Roland went on and did good, too. He's made a helluva lot better owner and tuner than he did a driver."

"I was a bit surprised, but life goes on," admitted Leong of Prudhomme's departure, "but it wasn't that a big a deal; we were young and wanted to race, and obviously back then, there were no driver contracts. [No one would know that better than Leong, who has had more drivers than any other team owner -- 22, by most counts.]

"I had just turned 21, and all we wanted to do was race, and to be able to go around the country and be paid to run, that was unheard of to us, so we didn’t really focus on all that other stuff. "


After Prudhomme left the team at the end of the successful 1965 season, Leong tapped Mike Snively to drive the beautiful blue car.


Snively repeated Prudhomme's 1965 performance by winning the 1966 Winternationals, then went on to also win the U.S. Nationals.


Leong won the Winternationals two more times as a car owner, including back to back in Funny Car in 1970 and 1971 with Larry Reyes and Butch Maas (pictured) at the wheel of his Dodge Charger.

Leong hired Snively, whom he knew through his contact at Dragmaster (and who six years later would run the sport's first five-second pass in Jim Annin's dragster in Ontario, Calif.), and the two partnered for the 1966 campaign. Before they headed to Pomona, Leong was on the phone to tracks back East, sure that they were eager to book the famed Hawaiian, but got a rude surprise.

"I told them that I owned the Hawaiian, and they told me, 'Oh, we've already got Prudhomme booked,' " recalled Leong. "Prudhomme had booked the car the year before because he and [Tom] McEwen were always kidding me about my accent and my pidgin English and that they should do the talking. But once we won Pomona again, the track operators started calling me again, and off we went."

Like Prudhomme the year before, Snively put the Hawaiian at the head of the pack in qualifying at Pomona with a strong run, a 7.66 at 205 mph, then had to defeat 31 other cars after Mother Nature stepped in. Heavy fog Saturday had forced the cancellation of AA/FD class racing, so NHRA decided that instead of the usual format – in which Saturday's winner would race the winner of Sunday's 16-car field – that it would simply expand the field to 32 cars and run the first round Saturday and the remaining four Sunday.

Snively got past Saturday's challenge with a 7.57 at 208.80 against Roy Thode, then opened Sunday with a better-yet 7.55 to defeat Paul "the Kid" Sutherland. A semifinal 7.63 defeated "Sneaky Pete" Robinson's SOHC-powered fueler to push Snively into the semi's against Warren, who a round earlier had set low e.t. with a 7.51. Showcasing his skills, Snively slapped a gatejob on the "Bakersfield Flash" and the Ridge Route Terrors and emerged with a 7.59 to 7.58 holeshot ticket to the final round.

Leong, Snively, and Black saved the best for last, powering to a 7.54 at 209.78 mph to defeat "Big Jim" Dunn's gallant 7.59, 207.84 to again claim the Winternationals trophy. They, too, hit the match race trail, and again come Labor Day weekend, the young Hawaiian kid was standing in the winner's circle in Indy with his feared blue dragster. To add to the duality of the accomplishment, as Prudhomme had defeated Ivo, who gave him his start in racing in 1960, Snively and Leong beat Leong's old island pal, Ongais, for the 1966 Indy win.

Those must have been some pretty heady times for a 21-year-old, but when pressed to brag about himself, Leong, now 64 and still spry and active, will only admit, "When we'd pull into the track, guys back East were pretty much saying, 'Man, we might as well just go home,' because everyone expected us to win, and, well, we always did well."

Leong and Snively didn't win any national events in 1967, but they did win in Bakersfield and at the Hot Rod Championships in Riverside, Calif., and a lot of other big match races.

"After Bakersfield, I got a new Don Long car; Snively and I spent three days and two nights working and sleeping at Don Long's shop to get it done before the Riverside race, then went out there and won the race and set low e.t. and top speed," recalled Leong.

Beyond the then-unprecedented Top Fuel back-to-back wins, the Winternationals has been kind to Leong. His Pomona successes continued into his Funny Car career, which, like his Top Fuel career, got off to a rough start when Larry Reyes kited the Hawaiian Charger in the lights at the 1969 race. Reyes came back to win the race the next year for Leong, who also was in the Pomona winner's circle the following year with new driver Butch Maas.

At the 1985 Winternationals, Leong and driver Rick Johnson set the Funny Car world on its ear in the second round with a barrier-breaking 5.58 – breaking Prudhomme's longstanding 5.63 mark – at 262.62 mph, also the fastest pass in history, supplanting Mark Oswald's 261.62 from the previous year's World Finals. Credit went largely to a Hawaiian Punch Daytona body that had spent eight hours in the Lockheed wind tunnel in Georgia and the addition of a 14-71 blower in place of the 12-71 that Leong traditionally had run.

Leong returned to the Pomona winner's circle in 1998 as a crew chief with car owner Prudhomme and driver Ron Capps; Prudhomme, too, has not done too shabby since that 1965 win, banking four straight victories behind the wheel at the season opener (1975-'78). Capps' 1998 win was accompanied by a victory by Prudhomme Top Fuel pilot Larry Dixon, making it a doubly sweet moment. Dixon also won the race in 2002 and 2003 for Prudhomme en route to their world championships.

Both will be in action again this year in Pomona, with Prudhomme unveiling new driver Spencer Massey and Leong tuning on Mike McCain's Bomb Squad Plymouth Duster nostalgia Funny Car, which will make exhibition runs with driver Mendy Fry. If their past history on Parker Avenue is any indication, it should be another memorable weekend for both the fabled "Hawaiian" and the legendary "Snake."

Previous Entries
Next Entries
 
..
TwitterFacebook