It's Friday morning at Texas Motorplex, and it's good to see the old gal again. I haven’t been here in a few years, and even then it was to attend the Division 4 NHRA Summit Racing Series Finals and not an NHRA national event.
The Plex is 22 years old, and old enough for me to hoist a cool one in her direction for all she's given us over the years. Since 1986, Billy Meyer's all-concrete racing surface has borne witness to more drag racing records than just about anywhere else and plenty of moments of high drama.
When I traveled more, I always had the Motorplex high on my wish list when it came time to make our coverage assignments for National DRAGSTER. It seemed that if ever anything dramatic were going to happen, it was going to happen in Dallas. From Bob Glidden's milestone 50th win in 1986 and Eddie Hill's first-in-the-fours blast in 1988 through John Force's scary crash last year, the place has electrified fans.
Back then, I contributed photographically to our national event coverage as well, and my post was the finish line, hoping to catch the razor-thin finishes and whatever else may transpire in the final milliseconds of a race. Typically, I perched atop the finish-line camera scaffold, sitting on the leading edge, my head inches below the swinging lens of the TV camera. Wayne Womack, who for years was Diamond P's top-end camera operator, and I shared many a hot day up there with one of the best seats in the house.
All of this comes to mind now because of a project that the NHRA Publications group has been working on, an NHRA Photo Greats book – one of four planned in the next two years -- packed with some of the wildest and most unforgettable moments on the dragstrip as captured by the cameras of National DRAGSTER photographers during the past five decades. Old-time race fans will remember the Drag Racing Photo Greats magazines of the 1970s, filled with the wildest images of the era as seen through the lenses of a wide cast of photographers, but ours is all homegrown stuff.
Basically, we went through our photo files from one end to the other, grabbing everything that looked interesting, then boiled that down to about 400 of the best images. We parceled those out for the four books, making sure that each set included a good mix of old and new, color and black and white, all classes and types of mishaps, plus some humorous photos.
A lot of my work is in there, and a lot of it came from the Motorplex, as you can see here. I chose five of the more interesting shots to talk about today.
It was Thursday, it was warm in Ennis, the kind of Texas
day that was headed toward sweltering. I was working the grandstand beat at about 300 feet downtrack. My name's Burgess. I carry a camera.
I can't remember who I was working that 1990 race with, but my fellow reporter left to go to the concession stand or the restroom as the Top Alcohol Dragsters came to the line for the first qualifying passes. Jay Payne, today a Top Alcohol Funny Car and Pro Mod hero, launched his blank digger off the line in a wheelstand that simply grew and grew. I buried my finger into the camera's motor-drive button and watched in shock as it went up, up, and farther up until the rear tires left the ground and was levered into the air by the rear wing. Everyone held their breath as the car pirouetted in the air and slammed down nose first on the concrete quarter-mile. By the way, that's current Top Fuel shoe Troy Buff in the near lane.
As devastating as that crash was, Payne wasn't done. He transplanted his powertrain into fellow racer Bruce McDowell's dragster and qualified for the race the next day but didn't make thec all for the first round due to engine damage. I talked to Jay on flight yesterday and he said that the fuel pump had been damaged in the rollover but they did not discover it until later, after they had wounded the engine.
On Sunday of that same event, I was following Mark Oswald and the Candies & Hughes Probe through my viewfinder. Oswald had already won in Seattle
that year and was the No. 3 qualifier in Dallas
with a 5.20. His first-round opponent, Al Hofmann, had broken just off the starting line, so there was no real reason to hold the camera to my eye as the normally rock-steady C&H car flew down the track.
But just as the red and white rocket entered the speed traps, a catastrophic engine and blower explosion turned the Ford body to confetti before my very eyes. If you ever see video of this one, you'll see Oswald briefly waving a hand in the air as he reached for the roof-mounted parachute levers that were no longer there. Oswald barely battled the bouncing chassis to a stop after twice bouncing off the left guardwall as a light fiberglass rain continued to flutter down on Wayne and me.
What started with a rocker-arm adjuster failure led to the massive explosion that literally blew the engine into two halves.
Oswald still managed a 5.40, 256.62 clocking, but, obviously, the team could not make repairs in time to make its next-round date with Richard Hartman and the Raybestos machine. Mike Dunn, with dad Jim tuning, went on to win the race, his first for team owner Ed Abel and sponsor Snickers in just their third outing together.
Two years later, I had the best seat in the house for two more spectacular incidents. In the first round of Top Fuel, in what was becoming a bit of an epidemic, Doug Herbert suffered a blowover while racing Rance McDaniel.
The car stood straight up early in the run, caught wind, and, well, we all know what happened next. The car flipped over and ground to a halt on its side right in front of me and Wayne. Despite his Dougzilla-sized self, Herbert did a great job of wriggling out from the cockpit and scampering over the guardwall to safety.
McDaniel lost in the next round to Joe Amato, who lost in the round after that to Ed McCulloch, whose Lee Beard- and Mike Green-tuned McDonald's dragster defeated Hill in the final round.
Right before "the Ace" and "the Thrill" got it on in the final round, I was witness to one of the weirdest Funny Car finals in memory when John Force squared off with McCulloch's McDonald's teammate, Cruz Pedregon. To put the moment into perspective, you have to realize that after finally climbing to the top of the heap in Funny Car, winning championships in 1990 and 1991, Force was on the verge of losing his throne to Pedregon, who had entered the race up by about three rounds with just the World Finals remaining. In storybook fashion, they qualified 1-2, with Force on the pole, and reached the final. We all know Force's determination to win, and there was no way Force was going to let the "Cruzer" get another round up on him.
Force left first, .463 to .479, but both cars went up in smoke, Pedregon first, at about 200 feet due to a broken water hose, then Force, whose car simply overpowered the track at about 400 feet. Force lifted and nailed the gas again, but the car had over-rotated slightly, and when Force buried the gas, it picked up the front end slightly, and he bounced his Castrol Olds off the left guardwall. Race over, right? Hardly.
Pedregon had pedaled, smoked the hoops again in his own water, lifted, and nailed it again. Force, hearing all of this commotion, buried the loud pedal again, too, and hit the guardwall again another hundred feet or so downtrack. This time, Force finally gave it up, and Pedregon came streaking past in a cloud of tire smoke and still beat Force to the finish line, 7.76 to 7.85. I had a fresh roll of film in the camera and pretty much used up all 36 frames.
Force suffered a concussion and bruised chest and spent that night at Baylor Medical Center, where he would return last September, 15 years later, after his top-end crash alongside Kenny Bernstein.
Pedregon entered the Finals with an 834-point lead, but Force still had hope. If he could win the race and set low e.t. and have Pedregon exit in the first round, he could do it. Of course, it only got worse for Force in Pomona, where his Castrol Olds turned turtle in qualifying after the throttle stuck and Pedregon became the only driver other than Force to win a Funny Car championship in the 1990s.
Finally, here's an interesting pic for you from 1994. Not interesting in the fact that it's a Top Fueler making like a blowtorch and trailing a 50-foot wall of flame but in the driver. Unless you're a regular subscriber to "Bloggin' Bob's" CSK journal, you might not be aware that Funny Car hero Del Worsham also competed occasionally in Top Fuel in Roger Primm's dragster for parts of three seasons, 1993-95.
In 22 outings, Worsham and Primm DNQ'd 13 times and scored just four round-wins in the car that was sponsored by the Primm family's Whiskey Pete's and Primmadonna casinos (in Primm, Nev.).
Interestingly, the guy who took over the wheel of the car won four rounds at one event to earn his first NHRA Wally: eventual Funny Car ace Ron Capps, who won in Seattle in 1995.
Worsham has had a lot more success in his 360-race Funny Car career, racking up 22 national event titles and a 335-308 win-loss record, according to the accounting firm of Wilber, Wilber, and Wilber.
Anyway, I'm excited to be in Dallas and excited about the upcoming book and another one that is under way, a history of Pro Stock as compiled by our Pro Stock expert John Jodauga. He's been rifling through the photo files and researching the factory hot rod class from its inception, tracing the class' evolution through old issues of National DRAGSTER and Super Stock magazine. We expect to have both of these books ready for your enjoyment well in advance of the holiday shopping season, so it's time to start dropping those hints.
I've also been asked about assembling a compilation of entries from this column, maybe cherry-picking a couple of dozen of the most popular or interesting. I know that many of you are dedicated readers of my meanderings here, and because I sincerely lack the ego necessary to push a project forward like this for my own bragging rights, I'd be interested to hear from you guys if you'd buy such a publication and which columns you think ought to be included.
Okay, it's back to racing. I'll be traveling home Monday and hope to have a column for you by then; if not, it'll be Tuesday.
Thanks for visiting, and for your support.
This weekend, while I'm in Dallas getting a big charge out of covering the O’Reilly Super Start Batteries NHRA Fall Nationals presented by Castrol Syntec, I’ll be missing my 30-year high school reunion, which will take place Saturday in Culver City, Calif., where I grew up.
Voted most likely to become a drag racing editor?
We didn't have a drag racing team, so I had to settle for volleyball. That's me, number 5.
The Venice High School class of 1978 will get together to renew acquaintances, mourn lost friends, chuckle to themselves about their classmates' thickening bellies and thinning hairlines, and probably realize that a lot more of them will be missing by the 40th reunion.
I was part of a huge graduating class – 972 strong – that set off into the world to make our ways and our fortunes, and I'm sure that many of them have succeeded wildly. I was a B-plus student yet ranked just 172nd in the class, so you know we had some smart cookies. Our class name was Asahi, which is Japanese for Rising Sun (although there were plenty of jokes about us being named after the then-popular beer); it was the dawn of our adult lives, and I can’t help wondering what the class clown, the street racer, the all-city jock, the cheerleader, the Romeo, or the valedictorian did with their lives. Did they shine brightly, or did the sun set on their lives too soon? Would my old high school girlfriend still have a soft spot for me? Would my best buddies recognize me?
I'm not all that broken up about missing the deal. I remember the first and last reunion I went to, our 10th, in 1988. I had been the editor of National DRAGSTER for just two years but was quite proud of myself and my fast rise into the position, but 20 years later, I can still remember the sarcastic tone of said girlfriend's voice when we exchanged business cards. "Oh, great; if I ever need a story about a dragster, I'll be sure to call you." Ouch.
Serendipitously, I've spent a great deal of time lately "living" in the year of my birth, 1960, working with "T.V. Tommy" Ivo on tales about his nationwide tour that year with young crewmember Don Prudhomme and researching and conducting a host of interviews about the late Leonard Harris, the 1960 Nationals champ who was tragically killed just weeks after his triumph.
Harris was a Venice High grad – class of 1950 – and a national champion gymnast before he became a superstar racer, and I'm learning a whole lot more about my old hometown. Harris' car, owned by Gene Adams and Ronnie Scrima, was sponsored by the Albertson Oldsmobile dealership on Sepulveda Boulevard in Culver City, less than a mile from where I grew up. Many was the time I bicycled past Albertson Olds and its trademark parking-lot rocketship as a teenager on the way to Wheel World so we could customize our Schwinn Stingrays or a few years later sat just a block north on Sepulveda enjoying a burger at Johnny's Pastrami after a long night cruising the town, not knowing that someday it would hold a place of esteem in my heart as having been the sponsor of a big-time racing team.
Even though you can still find it via Google Maps' Street View, Albertson Olds (and later Chevrolet) closed several months ago.
I didn't realize that less than a half block down Sepulveda, at its intersection with Washington Boulevard, once sat the Piccadilly Drive-in, Culver City's answer to Burbank's Bob's Big Boy, home of the Road Kings of Ivo, Prudhomme, and crew. Alternatively, a few miles south, at the corner of Sepulveda and Jefferson, was Nineteen, named for its 19-cent burgers. From either place, it was just a short ride to long, juicy straightaways like Jefferson, which ran a mile and a half from Centinela Avenue to Lincoln Boulevard in front of the Hughes Aircraft plant, or up Lincoln Hill to Pershing Drive, which ran behind Los Angeles Int'l Airport and offered a near-mile-long run between Imperial Highway and World Way West devoid of side streets and innocent civilians, a site that was still a popular "proving ground" for tramps like us in the mid-'70s.
Despite its slightly goofy-looking mascot – the grinning Gunther Gondolier – a mildly insipid inspirational motto -- Rowing Not Drifting -- and the fact that it doubled for Rydell High in the sappy film Grease, I'm not sure any high school could match the all-star lineup of drag racing stars who received their diplomas from this hallowed institution, which opened in 1911.
John Peters, who raced his way into your hearts as owner of the twin-engine Freight Train Top Gas dragster, and his late partner, Nye Frank, are Gondo alumni, and Peters' wife, Bev, assembled for me a list of known drag racers who attended our school.
How's this for a list: Mike Sorokin, driver, Surfers Top Fueler (class of 1957, according to his son, Adam); drag racing pioneer "Jazzy Jim" Nelson; drag racer and land-speed record holder Craig Breedlove; Junior Fuel racers Hank Bender and Ron Hier (Hier was classmates with another famous VHS alum, Apollo VII astronaut Walter Cunningham); Bill Adair (Fox-Holding-Adair AA/FD); Walt Stevens of Odd Couple twin-engine gasser fame; Frank "Root Beer" Hedges, whose A&W-sponsored AA/FD Stevens drove; gas dragster ace Mickey Brown, who, like Harris, was killed at Lions while test-driving an unfamiliar car; gasser driver and chassis builder Ed Weddle and his partner, Marshall Nicols; Jim Boyd (Red Turkey AA/FD); Lester Zerbel (A/Gas Willys); Roland Dove (Street Stock); and Tom and Joe Masek and Rick and Rickie Snavley (Pro Street).
(In addition to a strong drag racing legacy, Venice turned out some pretty good athletes, especially in football, including former San Francisco 49ers cornerback Dana McLemore [a classmate of mine], former Oakland Raiders linebacker Larry Atkins, two-time L.A. Rams/Cleveland Browns Pro Bowler Leon Clarke, and Buffalo Bills quarterback J.P. Losman. Two current college stars, USC tailback Curtis "Moody" McNeal and UCLA wide receiver Jerry Johnson, are recent grads under coach Angelo Gasca, who was the starting QB at Venice during my years there. VHS also produced Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Doug Slaten, 1948 Olympic gold medalist Clifford Bourland, actors Beau Bridges, Gary Collins, and Myrna Loy, singer/songwriter Teena Marie, and legendary Disney animator Les Clark, one of Disney's Nine Old Men.)
"We had a helluva group of guys," Bender told me recently during our interview about Harris. "The Piccadilly was the hotbed for hot rodders from everywhere. You have to remember, too, that Edelbrock and Isky were in Culver City, and Engle and Quincy's automotive were just a few miles away over in Santa Monica."
Stevens recalled that he and Sorokin used to cruise both Picadilly and the Nineteen or the S&W Root Beer stand or The Clock drive-in, then head over to Culver Boulevard or by LAX to watch the street races. Custom-car designer George Barris was a Piccadilly regular and holds an annual Cruisin' Back to Culver City car show each May. Dick Kraft, whose The Bug is called by many the first dragster and now resides in the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum, also reportedly hung out at the Piccadilly.
I missed those golden years, and although my buddies and I did our best to uphold the city's fine hot rod heritage, slapping headers, shift kits, fat tires, and big carbs on our parents' hand-me-down vehicles, it just couldn't have been the same.
The Texas Motorplex is different, too, since my first visit there in 1986, and the race cars different from my first trip to the drags in 1970. I'll be missing my high school reunion but enjoying my regular reunion with my other longtime friends at the drags.
Well, your favorite drag racing storyteller (I am your favorite, right?) and my hero and his, Tommy Ivo, are a little red-faced after evidence came to light that "T.V. Tom's" reception was a little fuzzy when he shared with us photos of Concord Drag-O-Way, some of which, it turns out, were actually from Roanoke, Va., and the track where he almost went off the cliff was in Ohio, not North Carolina.
The harsh light of reality was shed upon the subject by Lee Martin of Atomic Pinup, who sent the photo at right of Roanoke, and former Concord Drag-O-Way strip operator Bill Garland, who also created the neat pencil-drawn posted pictured below, which was not actually posted around town as Ivo remembers but was an insert into their weekly mailing called Quarter Notes.
"The picture of the shed where we inspected the cars is correct, but his description of the dragstrip itself and the photo supposedly being the Concord dragstrip is greatly in error," wrote Garland. "My strip was better than this; we did not have telephone poles for guard fence posts. Our spectator fence was first class for the time and far better than any other strip. It was 110 feet back from the strip and was woven-wire fencing on correct posts. Although the shutdown was uphill and only about 800 feet of it was paved, there was 500 feet of well-maintained dirt past the paving that we kept clear and smooth.
"The picture showing what is labeled as the Concord track is actually the Roanoke strip where Ivo ran the previous Sunday. The pictures of Ivo's car over the embankment was an outlaw place where Ivo agreed to run on Friday night on his way to my strip on Saturday. When he and 'Snake' got to my place, they were late (after dark), and the car still had red mud all in the front wheels and nose from running off the end of that so-called dragstrip. We actually had running water (imagine that) and provided them with a hose, etc., to clean up the car with some of my strip crewmembers."
"Well, what can I say? Right church, wrong pew?" wrote Ivo. "Here's a picture of the 35mm slide box I had labeled sometime after we came home from the tour, when I had the pictures developed and had time to file them away. That's what I was going by. By the time I got around to labeling and filing away the pictures, I had the [My Little] Margie series going, Tommy Ivo Speed Specialties chassis shop going, the four-engine car running back East with [Ron] Pellegrini, running with the Ivo-Zeuschel fuel car, plus my father had just passed away, leaving me the 'head of the household.' Instead of being the kid my parents couldn't get to move out -- well, I owned the house. After Zeuschel was bouncing so many parts off my helmet, it was no wonder I became dazed and confused.
"We were at Roanoke on that trip as well, so that adds up. Boy, am I red-faced!"
Red-faced or not, good memory or not, I'm still eager to hear "T.V. Tom's" tales about his 1960 tour with Prudhomme. I'm not about to let the facts get in the way of a good story!
I'll check in with you guys Friday from Dallas.
The man, the myth, the legend: "Wild Bill" Shrewsberry
Shrewsberry, second from left, drove more than wheelstanders. He's pictured with crewmember Dee Catton, left, and car owner Jack Chrisman after setting the A/FX national record in 1964 in Chrisman's unblown Comet.
The first L.A. Dart, born in 1965, had the engine in the backseat.
Whether it was yanking all four wheels off the ground or driving while standing up through the windshield, "Wild Bill" lived up to his nickname.
(Above) The last L.A. Dart was this Funny Car-style entry. Shrewsberry crashed it in Ontario, Calif. (below), one of three wrecks in his career. "It bent the spindles when it landed at the top end, and the car just flipped over. What a mess. I ran it the next week, though."
Shrewsberry piloted the famed Batmobile during a promotional tour for the TV show. Click here to watch a video of the car in action at Irwindale.
Shrewsberry's final hurrah was in the early 1980s with the Berry Wagon, in association with Knott's Berry Farm.
Drag racers don’t get nicknames with the word “wild” in them for driving conservatively on the dragstrip, and in three decades of quarter-mile madness, most of it on two wheels, “Wild Bill” Shrewsberry certainly lived up to his monkeyshines moniker.
Shrewsberry is well-known and fondly remembered by Southern California race fans as the driver of the candy-striped L.A. Dart wheelstander that wowed and wheelied its way into our hearts in the 1960s and ‘70s.
The red and white Dodge, nominated by readers of this column for our Favorite Race Car Ever poll, was a mainstay of SoCal tracks such as Irwindale and Orange County, and “Wild Bill’s” rodeo was no one-trick pony. Whether it was a wild starting-line spinout into a wheelie, a spark-trailing wheelstand much longer than the quarter-mile itself, flames spouting from the headers, or his most famous trick -- driving while standing up through the car’s windshield area – “Wild Bill” was certainly that.
I was a big Shrewsberry fan growing up, and, in fact, the L.A. Dart was the first model I ever built. The thing was so outrageous looking -- with a big ol’ supercharged Hemi sticking out of the trunk -- that it looked like something straight out of Saturday morning cartoons.
It took a little bit of searching and the help of another famed quarter-miler, female pioneer Paula Murphy, and her son, Dan, to track down the wild one, who’s now a spry 70 and living in Cathedral City, Calif., near Palm Springs, enjoying his retirement and flying radio-controlled helicopters for fun.
Shrewsberry didn’t begin as a quarter-mile entertainer but as a serious racer, piloting A/FX entries for the likes of Mickey Thompson and Jack Chrisman. He won class at the 1963 Winternationals in Thompson’s factory-issue Super Duty 421 Lemans and, after Pontiac halted its racing activities later that year, took over the wheel of Chrisman’s first Sachs & Sons Comet, the predecessor to his famous supercharged model, eventually setting the national speed record at 127.53 mph in Inyokern, Calif., and making his first – and only – appearance on a National DRAGSTER cover (May 29, 1964).
Shrewsberry had moved west from his native Mansfield, Ohio, to take the job wheeling Chrisman’s Mercury, and that car paved the path to wheelstander stardom.
“We were in Hawaii in 1964 with the Comet, and I was out on a boat with George Hurst and Ray Brock of Hot Rod magazine,” recalled Shrewsberry. “Hurst kept telling me he had this new car he wanted me to drive. It was a Barracuda with the motor in the back. I could picture it, but it didn’t make any sense to me. George was getting a little inebriated by this time and kept asking me and asking me, and Ray finally told me to just tell him I would just so he would stop asking.
“I really didn’t think much of it after that, but six weeks later, Hurst called me up and told me to come pick it up. I decided I would go back and check it out, so I went back to their headquarters, which were in Royal Oak, Mich., and the thing was a mess. I had to work on it six weeks to get it race ready. It had a Corvette independent rear suspension, and the wheels would toe in when you launched and kill the motor, so I put a straight axle under it.”
That car, of course, was the legendary Hemi Under Glass (so-called for the ’68 'Cuda huge rear glass), and although the car was intended to be a straight-up race vehicle, it didn’t take Shrewsberry long to discover the car’s true talent.
“I was screwing around with it in the parking lot, the front end kept coming up, so I put some bigger tires on it, and it came right up,” he remembered. “It was never Hurst’s intention for the car to do wheelies; it was more like an experimental car with an experimental shifter.
“We took it to Bristol for the Springnationals in 1965 for an exhibition, and I put some 10-inch tires on it. It not only lifted the front tires up but also the rear tires when I hit on the bumper. Everyone went crazy. There weren’t any wheelstander cars back then -- Bill Golden had his [Little Red Wagon] truck, of course, but there were no wheelie cars.
“Originally the car was carbureted, but it would only go 300 to 400 feet before it got starved for gas, so we put injectors on it, and that solved that problem.”
Hurst originally had planned to run the Hemi Under Glass for one season and had hoped that Shrewsberry would pilot their next experimental machine, the wild Hurst Hairy Olds, but by then, Shrewsberry had already put together a deal for 1966 with the L.A./Orange County Dodge Dealers to campaign a Dodge Dart wheelstander that became the famed L.A. Dart.
“I was in heaven,” he said. “I got a push truck and motor parts and everything. That paint scheme wasn’t really my idea; Dodge colors were red, and they had a [plastic] model of a Dart, which was white. I told them I didn’t care how they painted it."
The first version of the car had an injected engine in the backseat, but the later and better-known cars, including his best-remembered car, the 1970 machine, had a full-race supercharged engine in the trunk for better weight transfer.
“Keith Black told me I should run a blower because I wouldn’t have to work the engine so hard, but I told him I didn’t know anything but blowers, and he said he would teach me everything I needed to know. I had an aluminum KB hemi with magnesium parts, all the good stuff, and a Lenco two-speed with a Crower clutch; a lot of the other wheelstander guys ran automatics.”
Shrewsberry’s trademark move was to drive back toward the starting line after a full-track wheelie and throw the car into a 180-degree spin, then nail the gas as the car was climbing the ring gear right back into another wheelie. The crowd ate it up. He’d also richen the barrel valve to produce flames from the headers and whatever else he could think of. “I did whatever I could get away with,” he admitted.
“Wild Bill’s” wildest stunt was driving his car, in full wheelstand, while standing up through the car’s open windshield area at speeds approaching 120 mph.
“I knew I could do it, and the people went crazy,” recalled Shrewsberry, who braced his right hand on the windshield frame and used his left on the wheel to keep the front tires straight for landing, all the while steering with the brake pedals. “I only got to do it three or four times before [NHRA Event Director] Jack Hart called me into the NHRA offices and told me, very politely, that he knew what I’d been doing and that I couldn’t do it anymore, but to tell everyone I got my ass chewed out really good about it.”
A sleek, Funny Car-style Dart followed in the mid 1970s, and he began the 1980s with a panel wagon truck sponsored by the berry-loving Knott family, of Knott’s Berry Farm (Shrewsberry, obviously, was a perfect fit), but by the middle 1980s, Shrewsberry had had enough of his nomadic life as an exhibition wheelstander driver.
“I just got tired of doing it and had other offers,” he says. “The traveling just kills you. We’d run Great Meadows, N.J., Saturday night and Sunday in Union Grove, Wis., from Muncie, Ind., Saturday night to Tulsa, Okla., Sunday. It finally got to be too much. I had a lot of fun and got to go to a lot of places, like Australia many times in the winter, but in the end, it was just time.”
Shrewsberry left the wheelie business and took flight in other ways, as a commercial pilot of Gulfstream jets leased to Warner Bros., whose executives probably would have gotten queasy if they had known about their pilot’s previous antics.
Shrewsberry didn’t limit his driving to wheelstanders. He won class in Indy in 1968 in Sox & Martin’s SS/E and ran a factory ’68 Dart Stocker for engine maestro Black.
He also drove another very famous vehicle, the Batmobile from the famous Batman television series, in 1967.
“George Barris built it and talked to me about driving it, and I drove it for the studio,” he remembered. “It had a good motor – a blueprinted 427 with two fours – and transmission; it was a good car, very lightweight. It ran in the low 12s at 118.”
Still, it will be the famous Dart for which he is long remembered, and fans who saw it in its heyday and those who never did will be able to view it soon when it takes up residence in 2009 in the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum presented by Automobile Club of Southern California.
“Wally Parks always said he wanted it there,” said Shrewsberry. “Garlits wants it for his museum, Petersen wants it for theirs, but I decided to put it in the NHRA museum.”
Shrewsberry says he still gets recognized when he attends the NHRA Museum Twilight Cruises with longtime pal Dave McClelland and remembers his time in the spotlight fondly.
“I probably had more fun than the people who watched me,” he told me.
Doubtful, “Wild Bill,” very doubtful.
Blog addendum: I had confessed to "Wild Bill" during our interview about my early model-building efforts with his car and how hard I tried to replicate the stripes using Scotch tape. I guess I wasn't alone because people were selling stripe kits on eBay for a hefty price. "Wild Bill" said he would send me a new kit, a reissue of the original AMT kit produced by Model King, that includes the stripes as decals, as designed by Sean Svendsen and authenticated by Shrewsberry himself, and I said thanks but didn't give it a second thought, never even gave him the address here. Lo and behold, three days later, one arrived. Thanks, "Wild Bill," for everything.
"T.V. Tommy" Ivo has always been a great self-promoter – witness his television career, four-engine Showboat, glass-sided trailer ... heck, the guy even unabashedly signs his correspondence "your hero and mine, TV Tom" – and with this weekend's NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series event in Concord/Charlotte, I wasn't surprised to hear from him about his racing trips to the Carolinas in 1960.
Ivo actually carpet bombed a number of NHRA employees and others in the news-dissemination business last week with an e-mail and photos that he first sent to me back in early July to gauge my interest (which, as you could imagine, was high), so you'll probably see some of these photos on the ESPN show this weekend from Charlotte, but, because y'all were savvy enough to come here first, you'll know the (say it with me) story behind the story.
Of course, as anyone who has ever dealt with Ivo knows, you have to work with him on "Ivo time," which means no calls before 3 p.m. (or "first thing in the morning," as he calls it), which makes writing an article a bigger challenge. Once I got him on the horn (kinda weird to say "Good morning" to someone at 4 p.m.), he was a delightful interview, full of stories and enthusiasm belying his 72 years of age. Honestly, he sounded 18 again.
The 1960 tour was Ivo's first, and the story is even more interesting because he made the trek eastward from his Southern California base with his famed Kent Fuller-built twin-engine Buick dragster with his best buddy, an inexperienced 18-year-old car painter named Don Prudhomme.
Prudhomme, who had been painting cars with his dad, Newman (aka "Tex") at a San Fernando Valley body shop, Ray Brooks Auto Body, had joined the famed Road Kings car club to which Ivo already belonged, and before long, they were, in Ivo's words, "stony-eyed bosom buddies."
Ivo had some experience traveling from his already-burgeoning show-biz career (he appeared in dozens of films as a child and teenager; filmography), but Prudhomme was eager to hit the road despite it being his first trip anywhere without his parents.
"I was Ivo's gofer," Prudhomme told Tom Madigan in his book Fuel & Guts. "Cleaning the car, wiping tires, polishing chrome, and fixing broken parts. In reality, I was going to drag racing college, learning my trade. Ivo was a hard runner, and racing was serious business. We got paid to race, and he didn't want to miss any paychecks. Ivo was a great guy to learn from, and he taught me a lot."
The two left Southern California in the last week of March on what Ivo, then 24 ("going on 17," he admits), calls their "grand adventure" and came home the first week of September. After a number of stops and adventures – including running the twin down the straightaway of a dirt track -- they arrived in Concord the first part of August, but Concord Drag-O-Way was a far cry from zMax Dragway.
"After pulling through the overhang of a barn where they gave the cars a tech inspection, you pitted in the weed-patched dirt," recalled Ivo. "Only the narrow track itself was paved with about a 30-foot approach apron that you would drag bottom on and which they kept sweeping dirt off.
"The track was on flat ground to the finish line where it went abruptly up the side of a steep hill to a very short shutoff. The grandstands alongside the track were two-tier wood-bench-type setups, and you could walk right out into the staging lanes to watch me get in the car. Where's the race control, guys?
"If you didn't get it stopped by the time you hit the small plateau at the top, it was 'Geronimo!' off the edge of a cliff! They had put up short telephone poles with steel cables running between them as a catch net, 1960s style; they were big on telephone poles at that track. The guardrails were big chains linked between poles that were there in some places and not in others.
"The light poles were spaced far enough apart and dim enough. That made it look like an old-time flicker movie when driving up the track at night, as it was getting light, dark, light, dark, light, dark, but it was touted to be the best-lit track in the South.
"Their promotion budget was awesome as well. How do you like that hand-drawn pencil poster they made up and made copies of to put around town? And a buck to get in! To see a movie star!"
Ivo found out the hard way about the shutdown area, and though he didn't quite have to yell "Geronimo," he got close.
"I had made two short shutoff runs, but, of course, you had to make one hero run for them," he said. "The chute hesitated a bit coming out, and when I leveled out on the plateau, I was almost stopped and didn't want to tear up the front of the car on the catch net, so I veered to the right and hit a long mound of dirt that they had run across the edge of the cliff. It jumped the front end over it, slid down to the rear wheels, and just hung there by them.
"When I came to a halt, I wiggled around in the seat a couple of times to see if it was going any further and then released the seat belts and bailed out."
Prudhomme rolled up with the team's push car – a Cadillac, naturally – and while Prudhomme ran around trying to figure out how to get the car back on level ground, the first thing that Ivo did -- naturally -- was to grab his camera and run up the side of the adjacent side hill to take pictures.
"With a lot of help we got off the hill, but it was one of the highlights of the trip and about as good of an example of yesterday's and today's drag racing as I can think of.," he said. "Absolutely black and white difference between this track and that four-lane, dual-track, all-concrete, behemoth that's there now. Then and now -- before and after -- the evolution of drag racing! From the pictures they showed on TV, it's got to be the one of the spiffiest, if not the spiffiest track I've ever seen."
My interview with Ivo only further piqued my curiousity about the tour, especially when the master prankster began regaling me with the tales of how he terrorized Prudhomme throughout their adventure. "He paid his dues going on tour with me," Ivo said with relish.
The good news for everyone here is that we'll be delving deeper into that story in the coming weeks; you'll get a firsthand look at life on the road in the 1960s, barnstorming across the country as Ivo and Prudhomme began to mold themselves into the drag racing heroes they would become.
Ivo has a great memory and some great photos to go with it; it's going to be fun, but I thought you'd enjoy this teaser, just ripe in timing for this weekend's event in Charlotte.
See ya Monday.