|Final results for Favorite Race Car Ever|
|Stone, Woods & Cook Willys
|“Jungle Jim” Liberman Vega
|Sox & Martin Barracuda
|Don Garlits Swamp Rat XXX
|Don Prudhomme Army Monza
|Chi-Town Hustler '69 Charger
|Bill Jenkins '68 Camaro
|“Jungle Jim” Liberman '66 Chevy II
|Blue Max ‘69 Mustang
|Blue Max '75 Mustang II
|Little Red Wagon wheelstander
|The Freight Train
|Don Garlits Swamp Rat 22
|Beebe & Mulligan Fighting Irish
|Warren-Coburn-Miller/Rain For Rent
Total votes: 12,002
Well, at long last, here we are, standing in the staging lanes for the final round of the inaugural Favorite Race Car Ever Nationals. We cranked through several weeks of brutal qualifying, and now we stand ready to light off the final round.
This all started innocently enough, back on June 12, when I mused about my favorite race cars and decided it would make a swell contest if the readers submitted their favorites and everyone voted. Little did I expect my Inbox to overflow with nominations, and it took me nearly a month to weed through them all, categorize them, and pick the 16 most nominated in each category.
Before I begin, just a heads-up that this will be the week’s only column here (sorry!), for two reasons. First, I want this poll to stay at the top of the column for maximum visibility and participation, and second, NHRA is throwing this little drag race in Indiana that I’ll be attending. I fly Thursday and will have my hands full there not just with the NHRA.com race coverage I’ll be writing but also the Indy blog that I will be writing as part of taking the Daily DRAGSTER experience online. For 20 years, beginning in 1988, we published a daily paper three nights at the event, which was a huge hit in the pre-Internet days. Not so much anymore. Though the writing and presentation still were first-class, the shine was off the apple now that people could read about the event online. This year, we’ll have all the previous years’ goodies, plus not one but five blogs, one by me and one each by the reporters covering the event for National DRAGSTER: Kevin McKenna, Candida Benson, Brad Littlefield, and Kelly Wade. You can already read the opening salvos, including my fondest Indy memories; I hope our blogs will help you through the short dry spell here. You can check them out here.
Okay, back to the thrilling task at hand. Let’s pick a favorite race car! Ladies and gentlemen, your final-round combatants, beginning with the winners of each of the seven categories:
The famed Winged Express fuel altered of “Wild Willie” Borsch and “Mousie” Marcellus took top honors in the Exhibition class and racked up the most votes of any of the winners — 1,394, or more than 36 percent of the nod — though this probably was the weakest of all of the fields. Some thought that I had the car classed wrong — that it belonged in the Early Door Cars/Roadsters poll — and though, of course, AA/FA did run in national event competition, I think the cars are better known as exhibition vehicles, and it’s my poll. (So there.) Nonetheless, it’s going to be interesting to see how the venerable old monster fares against the final field.
The Stone, Woods & Cook Willys also topped the 1,000-vote mark to win the aforementioned Early Door Cars/Roadsters poll, netting more than 27 percent of the votes and finishing nearly 400 ahead of the second-place Sox & Martin Barracuda, one of the biggest margins of victory in the polling.
The fabled Freight Train twin-engine gas dragster eked out the win, 725 to 639, in a back-and-forth battle with the Beebe & Mulligan Fighting Irish Top Fueler for the gold in the Early Dragster division, and both finished well ahead of favorites such as Don Garlits’ Swamp Rat VI, the Greer-Black-Prudhomme dragster, Tommy Ivo’s Showboat, and the Surfers.
We’ve always known that “Jungle Jim” Liberman still has legions of fans 31 years after his tragic passing, and the voting bore that out as he took top honors in the Early Funny Cars class with his reputation-making ’66 Chevy II and in the 1970s Funny Car poll with his unforgettable Vega. What will be interesting to see now is how the “Jungle” votes will get split. The Chevy II collected 755 votes to edge the ’69 Blue Max by just 40 tallies in the second-closest balloting, and the Vega garnered 1,033 to easily outdistance a stellar field in which a Blue Max — this time the Raymond Beadle-driven world championship Mustang II — again finished second, and both finished ahead of the highly regarded Army Monza of Don Prudhomme.
The 1970s Top Fuelers poll turned out to be almost as thrilling as watching the two cars duel as Garlits’ Swamp Rat 22 — the 5.63 car — battled with James Warren and the Warren, Coburn & Miller Rain for Rent machine. The voting was a little slower to be completed than in the 1970s Funny Cars poll that preceded it, and I tracked it eagerly as it neared the 3,800-vote cutoff. Garlits started out strong and at one point led by more than 50 votes, but WCM slowly nibbled at that lead and got it down to 21 points before “Big” surged back ahead by 38. Garlits entered the final week of voting ahead by 26; WCM was down by just 22 by Friday but finished 21 points back. It was the closest of any of the seven polls, and Garlits’ Swamp Rat 14 (the first rear-engine car) was right there, keeping them both honest in third place.
Although the 1970s Top Fuelers poll and the 1980s and Beyond poll below did not reach the target of 3,800 votes, by tracking trends in both, I extrapolated the projected points for all the cars so that we have an apples-to-apples comparison (it might be red apples to green apples, but it’s close). This was important not necessarily for the first-place winner, which automatically advanced to the final round, but for the second-place and beyond finishers, which had a shot at making the poll, too, which I will explain in a second.
The final winner, atop the 1980s and Beyond poll, was Garlits, for his history-making, Smithsonian-sitting Swamp Rat XXX, which ran away with the balloting from the start; the “Rat Under Glass” gobbled up more than 18 percent of the 3,109 votes for an extrapolated total of 703. Eddie Hill’s Nuclear Banana Top Fueler peeled out to an early second-place lead but, appropriately, was chased down by the ultrafast and equally pretty Joe Pisano/Mile Dunn Olds, which still finished a good 250 points behind Garlits.
Okay, those are your winners, setting the first seven of 16 spots. The remainder of the field comprises the second- and third-place finishers who received the greatest percentage of votes once the winner’s total was excluded. This was done on percentage points rather than out-and-out vote tallies to try to give everyone a shot, regardless of the depth of talent in the poll.
Bill Golden’s Little Red Wagon wheelstander took the first non-winner spot with nearly 46 percent of the Exhibition-class votes that did not go to the Winged Express.
Like fans of “Jungle” and “Big Daddy,” the Blue Max faithful will have to decide between two entries, their ’69 Mustang and the ’75 model, as both finished high enough in second place to advance to the final with respective tallies of 26.7 and 23.3 percent of the votes that did not go to Liberman.
The Sox & Martin Barracuda, which finished a distant second in the Early Door Cars poll, nonetheless captured 23.2 percent of those who did not vote for Stone, Woods & Cook and easily made the final showdown.
The Chi-Town Hustler ’69 Charger, which popularized long smoky burnouts, made the final poll despite a third-place finish in the Early Funny Cars poll with 21.1 percent of the votes that didn’t go to “Jungle’s” Chevy II.
The Fighting Irish Top Fueler of Beebe & Mulligan also received enough votes to make the final tally, finishing with 20.69 percent of the votes that weren’t gobbled up by the Train.
Bill Jenkins’ ’68 Camaro, one of the earliest Pro Stockers, also made the cut despite a third-place finish behind Stone, Woods & Cook and Sox & Martin with 20.67 percent of the non-winner vote.
The final two members of the final-round poll for Favorite Race Car Ever came from the 1970s: the Warren, Coburn & Miller car, which garnered 17.45 percent of the votes that didn’t go to Swamp Rat 22, and Prudhomme’s vaunted Army Monza, which nailed down the bump spot despite a third-place finish in the 1970s Funny Cars poll, earning 17.1 percent of the votes that didn’t go to Liberman’s Vega.
So there you have it, race fans; the 16 finalists await your vote. After weeks of nominating and preliminary voting rounds, we’re down to it. Personally, I’m thrilled, excited, and eager to see how each of them do, knowing full well that how they did in their previous polls will have little bearing on this one as they face new adversaries from other regions. It’s almost as if all of the local hitters have headed for the Big Go to take on one another. How appropriate!
Okay, race fans, who will you crown the winner of The DRAGSTER Insider Favorite Race Car Ever?
Long before John Force ever saddled up in his first Funny Car, drag racing had another gregarious character that we all called “Superman,” a tough-as-nails nitro jockey who piloted fuel dragsters and Funny Cars in a 20-plus-year career.
His name is Jim Nicoll, and it’s a name familiar to any hard-core drag racing fan and a name that surfaces every time the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals rolls around on the racing calendar because he was involved in one of the hallowed event’s most spectacular moments, a scary clutch explosion and crash alongside Don Prudhomme in the Top Fuel final in 1970.
I recently had a chance to catch up with Nicoll to talk about his racing career in general and, of course, that unforgettable final in particular.
Nicoll has long since retired from the cockpit and today manages a Mexican resort, the Desert Oasis, in Puerto Penasco (Rocky Point) on the Sea of Cortez, where he’s also writing a book on his racing career, which should provide some pretty interesting reading material.
Contrary to popular lore, Nicoll did not earn his "Superman" sobriquet for walking away unhurt from nasty crashes (though it's certainly supported in an ex-post-facto kind of way). Instead, the nickname was hung on him by former NHRA Vice President Steve Gibbs – the same guy who gave Bob Muravez his famous alter ego, Floyd Lippencott Jr. -- when Gibbs was the track manager at famed Irwindale Raceway.
“Ronnie Martin and I were up in Irwindale for the races, and we were off shooting pool, and I got into a fight with two or three guys and whipped ‘em,” Nicoll recalled nonchalantly. “The next day, Gibbs started calling me ‘Superman.’ “
“That’s basically the story,” attested Gibbs. “He was one tough little son of a bitch and did not avoid trouble.”
Before he burst onto the racing scene and long before he made grown men blanch and women cover their eyes in horror when his Indy wreck was broadcast to the nation on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, Nicoll raced jalopies as a teenager and, at 17, had a flathead-powered '32 Ford coupe before graduating to a Jr. Fueler and then a blown gas dragster.
Born in San Antonio, Nicoll moved to Southern California in the 1950s to be near the hotbed of racing action and was a regular at all of the famous SoCal tracks as well as places like Holtville, Colton, and Riverside. As his reputation as a fearless wheelman grew, so did the list of those seeking his skills, which in 1962 also included Top Fuel.
“I drove for Pat Atkins, Ronnie Martin, Marv Rifchin, the Syndicate of Jack Raitt, Red Mendocino, Leonard Abbott, Ray Schultz … a bunch of them,” he recalled. “Leonard Abbott, who founded Lenco transmissions, had a speed shop in Imperial Beach. His brother got killed in a coupe they had, and his speed shop went out of business, but he still had an end mill. I had an automobile repair shop in San Diego and asked if he could move his end mill into my shop and build some parts. He built the first Lenco transmission in my shop, and I got to do all of the testing on the transmission. We raced Top Fuel together with quite a few cars, included a two-motored car. I also had a hand in designing the first Crowerglide-style transmission.
“I ran a lot of test stuff in my career for clutch and tire companies,” he continued. “When Mickey Thompson was trying to build aluminum heads for the 392 when I was driving for Pat Atkins, I used to get my hair burned off every weekend. When they’d get hot, the guides would swell up and hang open the intake valve and blow the blower off.”
Nicoll probably received his first national attention in 1967, when he obtained one of drag racing’s first non-automotive sponsorships, the backing of fast-food giant Der Wienerschnitzel, and went on tour. The next two years, he fielded a pair of Der Wienerschnitzel Top Fuelers, one driven by him and the other by Leroy Goldstein.
“I actually had first tried to get a deal with Jack in the Box because my shop in San Diego was right next to Jack in the Box headquarters, but they turned me down,” he recalls. “I was driving up to the Milodon shop in Long Beach every week and drove by Der Wienerschnitzel’s headquarters several times and stopped in one time and met a guy named Dave Beck and got their first sponsorship.
“We’d crank it up at the stores and take hot dogs with us to the races,” he recalled. “I ate more damn hot dogs than you could believe. The deal lasted for a couple of years, but they were having some financial problems, so [the corporation] gave me a Fryer Fish sponsorship instead, but it didn’t last long.”
Nicoll still was a highly respected independent by the time the 1970 U.S. Nationals rolled around and his date with destiny loomed. It had already been a frustrating season for Nicoll, who had reached the final at the Springnationals in Dallas only to break a rear end against Bob Gibson then a camshaft in the Summernationals final in York, Pa., against Pete Robinson, but the worst was still to come.
(Above) Jim Nicoll, far lane, and Don Prudhomme launched in the 1970 U.S. Nationals Top Fuel final. (Below) Just as Nicoll's dragster crossed the finish line, the clutch let loose (arrows point to exiting clutch discs).
(Above) The clutch explosion sawed the car in two just behind the engine, but Nicoll was unhurt, thanks to the blossoming parachute that deposited Nicoll and the cockpit (arrow) in the trackside grass (below).
Prudhomme had worked his way to the final with a close but nonetheless gratifying 6.62 to 6.66 first-round conquest of rival "TV Tommy" Ivo, then followed with a strong 6.43 victory over Danny Ongais’ game 6.49. “The Snake” followed with an early-shutoff 6.45 to demolish Robinson's 6.64, then advanced easily to the final on a red-light by the surprise No. 1 qualifier, class rookie Brian Budd, who had piloted John Dearmore's machine to a 6.49 for the No. 1 spot.
Nicoll, meanwhile, had ripped his way past Jim Walther, Gerry Glenn, and Marshall Love with runs of 6.57, 6.60, and 6.59, then took a soft run into the final after Indy giant Don Garlits inexplicably fouled away a strong 6.58.
Prudhomme’s 426-powered Wynn’s Winder saddled up in the left lane and Nicoll’s 392-motivated digger in the right. They launched together, and it was obvious that Nicoll had found the tune-up as they stayed locked together the length of the quarter-mile. Prudhomme’s yellow rail tripped the win light for a narrow 6.45, 230.76 to 6.48, 225.56 victory.
But just as they hit the win stripe, the clutch in Nicoll’s car let loose and cut the car in two right at his feet. The front half of the dragster, including the engine, slid in front of Prudhomme, who safely had the laundry out, and lazily and eerily scraped along minus its driver in front of a horrified “Snake,” who, thinking Nicoll had been killed, famously was captured by the Wide World of Sports microphones saying he was ready to quit.
Fortunately for Nicoll, his parachute had already begun to blossom when the clutch blew and helped slow the intact cockpit as it bounced over the guardrail and into the soft Indiana grass.
“I remember everything but the actual crash,” recalled Nicoll. “I remember doing the burnout, and it seemed like the clutch wasn’t acting right. When I left the starting line, everything was cool, and we were side by side, and about 1,000 foot, I felt the clutch start to slip. The last thing I remember was reaching over and putting my hand on the parachute handle just in case, but that probably saved my bacon.
“I remember waking up in the ambulance and then went out again and woke up in the hospital. I had a concussion, and my right foot was swelled up. They’d cut my firesuit off me, so I just left in one of those damn gowns with my ass hanging out. I went to the hotel and then to the banquet that night. When I saw the footage, I was surprised how bad it had been; I had no clue.”
(Here’s a link to some YouTube footage from Diamond P’s Decade of Thrills tape, with Steve Evans and “the Snake” talking about the incredible footage.)
Nicoll also suffered a black eye, and within a week, he had Lester Guillory build him a new car in Houston. He was back in action the next weekend, when, coincidentally, he lost again to Prudhomme. “Prudhomme said he was gonna quit after that deal in Indy, but he beat me the next weekend!” said a still-chagrined Nicoll.
Nicoll still was voted Drag News Top Fuel Driver of the Year and moved to Dallas right after the crash in Indy. He had a rear-engine car built (driven first by Billy Tidwell, then by Nicoll), but he already really had his eyes set on the increasingly popular Funny Car class.
At the end of the 1972 season, he switched to Funny Cars, partnering with Chuck Tanko, owner of Texas-based Speed Equipment World. Their first car was the Barry Setzer Vega formerly driven by Pat Foster. After the company went bankrupt, Nicoll ran under his own name, culminating in 1976 with the Good Times Monza.
Though Nicoll found some success on the NHRA circuit, he never reached another NHRA final and lived up to the "Superman" nickname with a series of nasty outings.
Nicoll's nasty fire at the 1973 Gatornationals led him to develop double-wall headers for Funny Cars, which are still used today.
Nicoll's last flopper was this Monza, which was stolen. (John Farr photo)
Nicoll, left, and John "Tarzan" Austin at the '05 California Hot Rod Reunion.
“I crashed a lot of cars at a lot of places,” he said. “I had worse crashes than the Indy one; they just weren’t caught on TV. I crashed at Cordova in my Funny Car one time when I blew a tire and did some endos in the lights; that was pretty horrible.”
One of Nicoll’s misfortunes led directly to a major safety improvement in Funny Car racing that is still used today: double-wall headers.
“I burned the Speed Equipment World car to the ground in Gainesville [in 1973], and we were having a lot of fires in the Funny Cars in those days,” he recalled. “I remembered how when I was in the Navy they shielded the water pipes that ran through the ships with pipe that was a quarter-inch bigger to keep the pipes cool because they ran right by our bunks. I talked to Jim Hill, who was with Cragar, and had him build me a set of headers just like that.
“We went to Ontario and tried them out. We put crayon markings on them before we ran to see if the crayon would melt, but they stayed cool; you could put your hands on them. Before that, at the end of a run, the headers where cherry red; you could light a cigarette on them.”
The racing end came rather ingloriously for "Superman," as it has for many, and his kryptonite was financing, not to mention a healthy dose of additional bad luck.
“By 1976, I was beat up and couldn’t find a big-dollar sponsor,” he said. "I had everything going, but then Tanko bellyed up and my rig got stolen, and I didn’t have insurance. We were getting ready to go to E-town and had the car all loaded up, and we all went home to clean up, got back at 3 in the morning, and it was gone. We never found a thing.
“I loved racing, and I loved Funny Car and Top Fuel, both the front-motored cars and the back-motored cars, but I’d probably have to say I enjoyed the dragsters more because they went the fastest. I consider myself one of the pioneers of the sport because I was involved in a lot of the early things, and now I’m just taking it easy.”
According to Nicoll, he first went south of the border to help organize sand and off-road races near the resort “and ended up running the damn place. I came to visit a friend for a weekend and have been here for three years.
“It’s a beautiful resort,” he said. “We’ve got some beautiful condos and beach rentals, and I’m staying busy trying to write a book, and I like to keep up with the racing, but the computer system down here leaves a little to be desired.”
Nicoll has been to the California Hot Rod Reunion, back in his element among loud-talking friends and good company from the past, where his name can be joyfully placed with those of legendary hell-raisers of past years, guys like Goldstein, “Jungle Jim” Liberman, Richard Tharp, John “Tarzan” Austin, Dale Funk, Chip Woodall, Dave Settles, “Diamond Jim” Annin, and others.
"Superman" may have hung up his cape 30 years ago, but his superhero legend lives on.
I'd like to start the eagerly anticipated and long-awaited final round of voting for our Favorite Race Car Ever poll Monday, so here's a little top o' the column rminder so that those who have not yet voted in the remaining two open polls -- 1970s Top Fuelers and the 1980s and beyond -- can do so. Scroll down to the Aug. 11 and July 28 articles, and get to voting.
Seeing drag racing legend Shirley Muldowney in the photos from John Force’s induction into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in Novi, Mich., last Wednesday reminded me that I haven’t run a Mondays with Murray column in more than a month, so while the 1980s and beyond balloting in our Favorite Race Car Ever poll continues (scroll down two entries), in which Muldowney’s Pioneer Special is one of the nominees, I thought I’d bust out one of the columns that legendary sportswriter Jim Murray penned about the three-time NHRA Top Fuel world champ.
As you may remember, I was given permission to reprint these gems by Murray’s widow, Linda McCoy-Murray, founder and president of the Jim Murray Memorial Foundation, which promotes his legacy by awarding annual scholarships to aspiring journalists so that his work can be remembered and appreciated and perhaps inspire a new generation of journos.
I’ve had the privilege of knowing Shirley for more than 25 years, and I’ve seen her at her best and at her worst, seen her on top of the world and down in the dumps. For all the knocks she’s taken throughout the years, deserved or not, I hold an immense appreciation for her willingness to stick to her guns and speak her mind and a genuine fondness for her. During her racing years, I sometimes was as big of a pain in her side as Don Garlits, and our relationship sometimes was rocky if she took umbrage at something unflattering or incorrect we had published in National DRAGSTER. I dreaded picking up the phone and hearing, “Phil, this is Shirley. We’ve got a problem.”
In the years since she hung up her famous pink helmet, we’ve enjoyed a wonderful friendship, communicating often by e-mail and sometimes by phone, sharing life’s little joys and its miseries, and when she does show up at the track, I make sure to find her. She’s a special lady, and it’s hard to say where the sport might be today without her.
Murray wrote this column prior to the 1983 Winternationals, and it appeared in the Feb. 11 issue of the Los Angeles Times as Shirley was preparing for the beginning of her third world championship defense, back when gas was $1.50 a gallon and nitro $34 a gallon. Man, those were the days.
No, She Is Not a Guy in Drag, by Jim Murray
Sick and tired of the family gas guzzler? Eating you out of house and home, is it, with fuel at a buck-fifty a gallon? Gets you only 10 miles to the gallon, does it?
Cheer up. How’d you like to drive a coupe that got you only 190 feet to the gallon? How’d you like it if it cost you $34 a gallon? You’d need your own oil field to go to Santa Barbara.
What would you expect in a car for $100,000? A bar in the back? Air-conditioning, velvet seats, a digital readout on the dash that’s patched into the stock exchange?
Well, the only thing this car has is a parachute. You’ll need it because the brakes don’t work too good at 250 miles an hour. It doesn’t back up, it doesn’t have Corinthian leather seats. The tires are guaranteed a week. If you’re into exterior design, you can be the first one on your block to have a car that looks like a giant insect, a praying mantis on wheels. You’ll never be able to park it. It’s just shorter than an aircraft carrier.
The only thing Honest John, your friendly neighborhood dealer, could say about this car is that it is a one-owner vehicle. And it’s only got about 11 miles on it. But it hasn’t been driven only by two little old ladies from Pasadena or a schoolteacher from Lompoc. Rather, it was driven by a lady who’s as hard on cars as a kid in a black leather jacket with an eagle on the back, or the driver of the getaway car in a bank robbery.
When you know that Shirley Muldowney is the world’s No. 1 chauffeur in the fastest and most competitive form of motor racing, you half expect her to show up smoking a cigar, sporting a butch haircut, having maybe an American flag tattooed on her bicep, drinking beer from a bottle and swearing a lot.
Shirley Muldowney looks less like a race driver than Shirley Temple. The hair is in black ringlets framing the face, the eyes are blue-gray, the face is skin-cream commercial soft. If you didn’t know better, you’d think this was Doris Day researching a part.
As a matter of fact they are making a movie of her life. You’d never guess she is the best drag racer in the world. In this macho sport of burning rubber, midcourse flameouts and speeds so high the vehicles almost take off and fly, she has three times in the past five years been world champion and is the only driver who has won that championship more than once. She has won 15 National Hot Rod Assn. championships, second only to the legendary Don (Big Daddy) Garlits, whom she defeated in his last NHRA competition.
Still, she’s a mere slip of a woman – 5-4 and 108 pounds before she quit smoking last year, and only about 120 now. She’s the only race driver who does her nails the night before a race. But only her car is pink. You color her a nice lusty red when she starts down that runway.
Her hand-eye coordination is such that she probably could have made a good living with the Dodgers if she were six inches taller and 40 pounds heavier. On a drag strip, there is .400 of a second between the yellow and green light on the “Christmas tree” that triggers the start of a race. Shirley’s reaction has been timed at .408. Competitors swear she can see the light change mini-seconds before it does. She’d have no trouble spotting a curveball.
The cars she drives are aptly named “fuel eliminators.” The fuel is a compound of nitro-methanol, which she has to buy by the drum because her 3,000-horsepower car gulps it up at the rate of seven gallons per quarter-mile race. Although the race takes only a little over five seconds, a driver must be able to trim for traction and direction at 250 miles an hour, and that’s like landing a jet with no brakes in a cornfield.
Shirley, 42, who has a grown son (John Muldowney, 25) had a hard time convincing drag-strippers she wasn’t in the game for quick publicity and a show-biz career. They dubbed her “Cha Cha” to heighten the hype, but Shirley hated it. “Made me feel like a go-go dancer on her day off,” she complained. Or a Cuban bombshell from Xavier Cugat’s band.
But she was not part of anyone’s conga line, and she will be the one to beat, as usual, at the 23rd annual Winternationals this Sunday at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds drag track in Pomona. It’s a rescheduling of the NHRA races washed out last week.
It’s an astounding achievement. If anyone told you two years ago that the foremost driver in the hair-on-the-chest sport of drag racing would be named Shirley, your reaction would be, “Oh, sure. Just about the time the middle linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers is Debbie.”
Reprinted with permission by the Los Angeles Times.
Jim Murray Memorial Foundation
P.O. Box 995
La Quinta, CA 92247-0995
I was there when Shirley suffered her horrible wreck in Montreal in 1984 -- I remember I was standing with Gary Beck, who must either have already run or was preparing to, and I'm sure the look of concern on his face mirrored mine; it was clearly a nasty wreck even from our starting-line vantage point, the car leaving the racing surface at an obscene angle and disappearing from view, the sound of a wide-open engine, and then a blizzard of parts flying through the air -- and I was there when she hade her triumphant return two years later in Phoenix.
I also was in Montreal exactly two years later. In the second round, on the track that nearly claimed her life 24 months earlier, she beat Hank Endres but broke a rod, which blew the supercharger, which took out the left rear tire. She masterfully kept the car under control and hauled it to a safe stop, and she was amazingly calm as she exited the car. I rolled up just as Steve Evans had finished interviewing her, and as she passed me, headed for the crewcab, I said, "World-class driving job, Shirl.” She said, “Thanks,” and looked over, and when she saw it was me, she stopped. “Are you all right?” she asked. “I heard you got hurt last night.”
I had spent the previous night in the emergency room of the local hospital, getting stitches above my left eyebrow after taking a racquetball-racket shot to the face courtesy of former ND Art Director Bill Crites (why do you think he’s the former art director?). It was both of our faults -- mine for trying to chase down one of his wicked shots, and his for assuming that I, in my second game ever, would never get to it and deciding to play it with a smashing follow-through that connected with my noggin – and I had a wonderful shiner and a bandage above my eye the next day.
So when Shirley asked how I was, I stood there, dumbfounded. She had just climbed out of a situation that had to provide flashbacks to 1984, and yet she was asking me how I was?
She was one cool customer.
Of course, no 1980s memories of Shirley would be complete without mentioning her beloved sidekick, Skippy, who was with her from 1973 until her four-legged friend passed away in January 1991.
Skippy was a gift to Shirley from John Zendejas, who worked on NHRA’s Safety Safari, and, according to Shirley, “Skip was a mixed breed, some kind of terrier and possibly sheltie. She only weighed about 8 to 10 pounds but had very long legs.”
Skippy definitely had her likes and dislikes.
“She loved filet, pasta (al dente), lobster, burgers, and St. Hubert's chicken (in Quebec) -- well, any chicken for that matter," recalled Shirley. "Dog food was definitely out! She also didn't like [Don] Prudhomme. And when I would sit in the doorway of the trailer or on the tailgate with a coffee, she would reach over and drink it … her way of telling me she needed water.
“One of my better stories is seeing her run across the starting line when I was pulling up to the water box in the right lane at Indy. One of the crewmembers piling out of the door of the push truck accidently forced her out, too. She ran full tilt from the left lane right past [Chief Starter] Buster [Couch] and into the arms of some photographer standing in the grass. I watched until I saw that she was safe and then began the burnout.
“Then there was the time when two Shirley-haters decided they were going to feed her to the gator that was penned at the far end in Gainesville. Steve Evans stopped them. If necessary, we would let her out to pee after a run, and that time, we just forgot her. She was just sitting at the far end waiting for the red truck to come back.
“Then there was the time she got left at a truck stop in Arizona. We realized she wasn't in the truck 25 miles down the highway. We turned around, and there she was, waiting right next to the garbage dumpster, happy as hell to see her mama. Another time, in the wee hours in the morning in the middle of winter, we forgot her out on the tarmac at Willow Run Airport. We returned and found her sitting up on the wing of [Connie] Kalitta's airplane.
“She was a great little friend that was with me through a lot of rough times. Skip was 18 years old when I buried her in the Calabasas pet cemetery on Jan. 29, 1991, headstone and all. She was born in California, so that's where I put her to rest.”
Amy, a 10-pound Italian greyhound who could run 100 yards in under nine seconds (“That’s faster than Carl Lewis,” Shirley remembers proudly), took over Skippy’s watch and was with her until she died in October 2005 at age 15.
Shirley’s newest canine companions are a pair of chihuahuas, Peanut and Midnight.
“Life would not go on without them,” she says. “It's we three girls against the world. They are the reason I don't attend more races. I can't seem to function well when we’re apart.”
Even as our Favorite Race Car Ever poll heads toward the final rounds, I’m still getting e-mails asking how I could possibly have forgotten to include this particular car or that car in the polls. The perceived slights run the gamut from obscure cars that even I haven’t heard of to some more famous cars that actually impacted the sport in different ways, and my answer is always the same: It’s not a best-ever poll or even most-important poll; it’s a poll of favorites submitted by the readers of this column. This was never intended to be a poll proclaiming the best anything, except maybe best-liked or best-remembered.
I’m brought to this point not by the derision of a few – I rather enjoy the exchange of opinions – but simply by the contemplation of what intangible makes up a favorite car in the minds of many. For many, it’s youthful memories, paint schemes, and body design, and, although a car’s “kickassedness” also is a factor (i.e., Don Prudhomme’s Army Monza), it’s not the overwhelming factor. How else do you explain “Jungle Jim” Liberman’s Vega – which won just one national event and never was a championship contender – whipping Raymond Beadle’s Blue Max and “Snake’s” Monza, both of which won multiple world titles and handfuls of events?
You’ll notice, too, that in the 1980s and beyond poll above, there isn’t a single car from the current decade, a nod in part, no doubt, to the sameness of the cars and their being limited largely to national event competition, but I wonder how this same poll would change if it were held 10 or 20 years from now. Specifically, how will Tony Schumacher’s U.S. Army dragster be remembered?
It’s undoubtedly the killer car of this year and arguably of this decade, at least from mid-2003 on. In case you missed it, Schumacher won his 50th Top Fuel title last weekend in Brainerd, bringing him to within two victories of tying Joe Amato as the sport’s winningest nitro-rail driver, a prestigious mantle that Amato has held for nearly 12 years since passing Don Garlits’ 35-win total at the 1996 Finals.
I’ve asked this question a lot, of racers and fans alike, and always received the same answer, and it seems to be indisputable that no matter the number of wins, no driver but Garlits will ever be declared as the sport’s all-time greatest Top Fuel racer. That’s certainly no knock on “Joltin’ Joe” or “the Machine” but rather a bow to Garlits’ did-it-all-myself method of racing. He built the cars, he wrenched on them, he tuned them, and he drove them. It's doubtful that Amato or Schumacher ever even briefly did more than two of those, but don’t blame them. Garlits did it in a different era; back then, that was the way you raced.
Amato didn’t have to get his hands dirty, nor did he try to be Mr. Everything; he was a millionaire businessman racer smart enough to hire very talented people like Al Swindahl and Tim Richards to do those things for him while he sought sponsors and drove a race car about as well as one could drive it. With the responsibilities that befall a guy with a huge and visible sponsor like the U.S. Army, not to mention public-relations duties for them and NHRA, Schumacher also is best left doing what he does: Driving and saluting our troops. It would be silly to see him bust a knuckle between rounds.
Still, I’m going to agree with the popular thought these days that while Schumacher may never be proclaimed the best Top Fuel racer or even driver (there is a difference), his team may certainly be the best Top Fuel team ever assembled. Sure, Garlits had Herb Parks and T.C. Lemmons and Amato had “the General,” Jeff Rodgers, and the Walsh brothers, but from stem to stern, the Army team seems flawless. The sponsor and operation are top notch, the crewmembers put the engine back together flawlessly, crew chief Alan Johnson seldom misses a tuning call, and Schumacher is one of the steadiest drivers out there.
Okay, Schumacher fans, time to haul out those old pre-crew-cut photos of "the Sarge" -- (left) as a fresh-faced Top Alcohol Funny Car rookie in 1995 and (right) enjoying his first Top Fuel win in Dallas in 1999 with father Don.
In retrospect, it’s pretty surprising that Schumacher is the guy we’re talking about to be crowned the new king of Top Fuel wins. People forget that Schumacher suffered an almost John Force-like victory drought to begin his career, finishing as runner-up in his first eight finals before finally reaching the winner’s circle at the 1999 Dallas event, where he defeated Scott Kalitta to win his first title. Interestingly, Schumacher spotted Amato exactly 50 victories before he won his first and, truthfully, has done the majority of his winning in the last five years, since hiring Johnson in mid-2003, when he has amassed 43 of his 50 wins. With seasons like his 10-win campaign of 2004 and nine victories in 2005, it’s no surprise that Schumacher collected 50 wins in 37 fewer races than it took Amato (260 to 297).
Oddly, Schumacher has won 47 of his 50 Wallys after Amato unexpectedly retired at the end of the 2000 season, one year short of his planned retirement, due to problems with his eyes, much in the same way that Amato scored the lion’s share of his Top Fuel wins – 45 out of 52 – in a Garlits-free environment after Garlits retired (again) in mid-1987 after backflipping Swamp Rat XXXI in the lights in Spokane, Wash., his second such blowover in less than a year, and just a few months after “Big Daddy” racked up his 35th and final win at that year’s Winternationals, defeating – who else? – Amato in the final round. What's the old axiom about nature abhoring a vacuum?
With wins in five of the last six events and nine overall this season, Schumacher is on course to have perhaps the greatest Top Fuel season on record and looks sure to break his 2004 record of 10 event wins and Kenny Bernstein’s 61 round-wins, set in 2001; he needs just 14 round-wins in the last eight events to do it before year’s end. Also in sight is Larry Dixon’s 2002 record of 14 final-round appearances -- Schumacher needs just four more money-round showings to break that mark – and with a win in Reading, he would tie his own class record of five straight victories, set in 2005.
Amazing also is that Schumacher and Dixon each began the year with 41 victories; as Schumacher noted after his Brainerd win, “When we started the season, Joe’s record seemed so far away. Fast-forward 16 races, and we’re knocking on the door.”
When he opens it, will he be greeted as the greatest ever?
I wasn’t around to chronicle some of the sport’s great seasons – Prudhomme notching six wins in eight starts in 1975 and seven of eight in ’76 or Bob Glidden’s one-year/two-season unbeaten streak – but I did witness John Force’s 13-victory season in 1996 and Greg Anderson’s 15-win domination in 2004, and it’s interesting to watch the reaction of both the fans and the media to domination.
When Prudhomme was on a tear, he was the king; when Anderson was doing likewise, fans were demanding the car be torn down looking for illegalities. When Force won nine of 10 championships in the 1990s, he was a god to the fans; when Bernstein dominated the Funny Car championship for four years in the late 1980s, fans made up Bernstein Buster T-shirts. It appears that, for whatever reason, one era’s dominance is another era’s nuisance. Go figure.
There hasn’t been a backlash against Schumacher’s rout – he won the Western Swing, is undefeated at the 1,000-foot distance, and has a 16-round win streak going (five shy of his own record, which spanned the 2005 and 2006 season) – or his multiple championships, but will it some day be regarded with the same reverence as the accomplishments of Prudhomme or Glidden?
I think the absence of backlash is at least partially credited to crew chief Johnson’s high regard among the fans, which began with his and brother Blaine’s dominance of the Top Alcohol Dragster ranks and their near ascension to the Top Fuel throne in 1996, and to the team's uncanny ability to reach down and gut out tough performances, as best evidenced by 2006's "The Run."
Schumacher, certainly, does his part, remaining respectfully humble of his accolades and publicly appreciative of the contributions of his entire team – he was thrilled that we chose to feature the team on the Sonoma cover (pictured at right) – and I’ve not seen any Demote the Sarge shirts.
Only time will tell.
After each national event, I look forward to chatting with former Top Fuel and Funny Car winner Mike Dunn, now serving as color commentator for ESPN2’s coverage of the NHRA POWERade Series. After going over his thoughts for his Final Take column for National DRAGSTER, Mike and I will usually chat about any number of things, from his bicycle riding to his son’s baseball practice to funny behind-the-scenes tales from the broadcast booth, but this week, I wanted to know how he felt about the inclusion in our current poll of the Joe Pisano Olds Funny Car that he powered through the 270- and 280-mph barriers in the late 1980s.
“That was a great car,” he answered without hesitation. “I still get people telling me how much they loved it, and it was my favorite car to drive, without a doubt, for a couple of reasons.
“First, it was fun to drive. We still had the two-speed transmission, and we had a manual lockup, so I had a lot to do as the driver. We had a line-loc button on the brake handle so that if it smoked the tires on the dry hop, I could set the brake pressure to stay on a little as it left the line. At 100 feet, I’d push a button to lock up the clutch and push it again to lock it up again at 400 feet -- it was just an old L&T clutch that would move forward and slam in the levers – and I would run low gear until 1,000 feet, unless it nosed over, in which case I’d shift it early. We didn’t even have an air shifter – just the handle between your legs you had to yank back. When I put it in high gear, it would really set me back in the seat; it was really flying. Joe ran it lean, but with a lot of nitro. That’s how we ran the big speed.
“We ran it like it was high gear,” he explained. “I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time. I just hung a bunch of weight on it. Leonard Hughes came by one time and saw our pressure plate and told me there was no way we could run that much weight; he was convinced that I was screwing with everyone.
“Plus Joe used to love the fact that we didn’t have a computer -- it was cool, kind of an ego thing to say we ran good without a computer -- but I’m telling you there were times it killed us.
“I remember one year in Englishtown and the car just wasn’t leaving hard. Joe kept telling me the clutch was messed up, which was a standard thing for him to say; it was either the clutch or the driver that was messed up, and both times that meant me.
“I kept putting weight on the clutch to get the car to move, but I got to the point where it was slowing down even more, so I knew something was wrong somewhere else, but Joe kept telling me the motor was fine. On the last run, I hit the throttle, and there was nothing there, so I lifted. Joe said, ‘It must be your clutch.’ So I pulled the clutch out and couldn’t find anything wrong with it, so he said, 'It must be the transmission,' so I pulled the transmission out, and it’s fine. So he said, ‘Well, it must have broken the rear end,’ and even though I knew that wasn’t it, I checked it anyway. It was fine. Finally, we checked the engine, and all of the pistons were burned. Both fuel pumps were junk! They must have been going away for a lot of runs, but because we didn’t have a computer, we didn’t catch it. So he puts two new pumps on there, and I yanked a bunch of weight back off the clutch, and first round, it blows the tires off at the hit of the throttle because we had no idea where we needed to be.”
See, Mike, it was the clutch …
“The other reason I loved that car is because it changed my career,” he added. “My career was going into the tank at that time. I drove Roland’s [Leong] car until the end of 1984, and the only thing I was known for was being upside down and on fire, so I really didn’t have much of a reputation in that car. Joe and Gene Mooneyham helped me get the deal driving [Greg Artz’s] Nighthawk car – but we only ran match races and then the last two national events of 1985 -- we qualified at Phoenix but not Pomona -- and then I picked up the ride with Pisano in ’86, and it really established me as a driver and a clutch guy, even though we only ran a handful of national events each year.
“One of the greatest compliments I ever heard about the car was Austin Coil saying he was just glad we didn’t run all of the national events.
"Man, that car was something else.”