Features

Posted by: Phil Burgess
 

Welcome to OCIR Week at The DRAGSTER Insider, a triple-play week of nothing but stories of good ol' Orange County Int'l Raceway, beginning today with a look back at the fabled SoCal supertrack's final season. It will be followed Wednesday by memories from The Last Drag Race – 25 years to the day that the track closed -- and Friday by "OCIR, the ghost track." Let's get on with it.

Although the 1983 season was OCIR's last, the track almost met its end the year before. Track owner Charlie Allen got a last-minute reprieve, much to the joy of hard-core fans like me, who vowed to attend as many races on the '83 calendar as we could. After all, it was the region's major match race track, and we knew that we'd be spending 1984 and beyond craving nitro match racing goodness.

I was glad that OCIR was NHRA-sanctioned in its final years (it had been AHRA at one point) because it meant that, gosh darn it, part of my job was to cover the events there. I know, it’s a tough job, but someone has to do it. Although I had been a regular visitor as a fan, having front-row seats and interviewing the drivers brought me closer to many of them in what was a very large family of regulars. OCIR spent very little money on advertising in DRAGSTER that year but didn't need it because we were eager to promote and cover the events, most of which ended up on the front page or a scant few pages in. It was a symbiotic relationship, and, looking back now, we definitely gave OCIR well more than its fair share of prime coverage – there was still plenty of other match race action going on around the country -- but, hey, it was our home track, too.

Although OCIR also held numerous E.T. and Pro Gas events, it boasted nine Pro match races and the World Finals that year – a fitting sendoff.

The track kicked off the season with a harbinger of the gloom ahead as conditions at the Coors Grand Premiere were so cold and foggy that racing at the nearby Los Alamitos horse track had to be stopped at 8 p.m. and traction at OCIR was limited.

 
 After Kenny Bernstein moved from Texas to Southern California in 1980, OCIR became his home track. He opened the final OCIR season with a win at the Grand Premiere with his Bud King Mercury LN-7.

Kenny Bernstein won that first race of 1983 – as he would its last at OCIR – in his Dale Armstrong-tuned Bud King Mercury LN-7, extending a run of success that concluded in 1982 with a win at the Golden Gate Nationals and runner-up at the World Finals. He beat Jim Dunn's Fireman's Quickie Camaro in the final in what was the only real side-by-side Funny Car race of the night, 6.21 to 6.32. It was a pretty good field that also included Don Prudhomme and his Pepsi Challenger Firebird (which twice blew engines and caught fire at half-track), Tom McEwen's Coors Corvette, Mike Dunn in Roland Leong's new Hawaiian Punch Charger, Tripp Shumake in his debut in Joe Pisano's Omni, Gary Burgin's Orange Baron Mustang, and Billy McCahill's Dr Pepper Citation. Bernstein earned a berth in the final of the Chicago-style race with respective runs of 6.41 and 6.42 in the first two rounds.

Howard Haight drove the Cochrum & Haight entry to a win in the four-car Top Fuel field, for which 12 cars attempted to qualify. Star-crossed Rocky Epperly, in Shirley Muldowney's 1978 dragster, qualified No. 1 at 5.94, ahead of Scott Kalitta (5.99), Haight (6.00), and Steve Hodkinson in Marc Danekas' ground effects dragster (6.13). Those not making the field were Connie Kalitta, ex-Pisano Funny Car shoe Tom Ridings in the old Fisher's Fever dragster, former world champ Kelly Brown in Jim Brissette's new dragster, Gary Cochran in the Genuine Suspension machine, Mark Prudhomme ("the Snake's" cousin) in the Coors/Warren-Coburn-Miller car, Dave Braskett in R.J. Trotter's car, and former sand racers Danny Danell and Ralph Pearson. Danell, of course, would shock everyone two months later by winning the March Meet with his Dan Olson-tuned entry. Also notable was Pomona Raceway worker Bobby Baldwin, who fulfilled a longtime dream by making a pass in the Danekas car; Baldwin, of course, later got his own car. In eliminations, Haight beat Epperly and ended up taking a single pass when Scott Kalitta was unable to return after beating Hodkinson. The exhibition acts were the jets of Bill Carter and Roger Gustin and the Jumping Bean wheelstanding VW truck.

 
Brad Anderson's maroon Firebird Alcohol Funny Car was all but unbeatable at Orange County in the 1983 season.

The track's next event, the Mountain Dew East vs. West Challenge March 5, was rained out shortly after qualifying began. I remember the pits being a little bare early as a lot of guys were still coming down from Bakersfield, where the March Meet had been delayed by weather. Prudhomme had the best run of the abbreviated nitro action with a 6.04. Only six alky Funny Cars got to make qualifying passes, and "Bad Brad" Anderson led the way with a 6.56. Because the Gatornationals was the following weekend and OCIR's annual Division 7 WCS the weekend after, the race was not rescheduled.

Anderson continued to rule OCIR when the WCS rolled around March 19-20, defeating Winternationals champ Chuck Beal on a holeshot in the Alcohol Funny Car final, 6.69 to 6.60. Anderson set low e.t. at 6.57 and reset the national speed record at 214.70 in round one alongside Ed Grukul, whom we watched ram his EXP into the guardrail and turn it turtle; he was not hurt. Mark Niver took Alcohol Dragster honors over Al DeBoer's Oregonian, 6.73 to 6.78.

Golden-throated announcer Steve Evans promised that "every Funny Car driver with a firesuit will be at the County" April 2 for what looked like the final edition of the track's fabled 64 Funny Cars race, and he wasn't far off.

 
(Above) Tripp Shumake wowed the fans at OCIR's 64 Funny Cars event with a stunning 5.74 in Joe Pisano's Camaro and ended up winning the event. (Below) Bill Hoge, near lane, and Ray Romund were typical of the local competition who battled it out against the big boys each weekend.

Shumake, one of the sport's true good guys, walked away the evening's first big winner when he posted a stunning 5.74 in qualifying in Pisano's ride (by now a beautiful burgundy Camaro), the quickest Funny Car pass ever at the County and the quickest outside of Indy (behind Prudhomme's jaw-dropping 5.63 and the 5.73s of "the Snake" and Ken Veney at Indy the year before). Shumake turned out to be a winner at evening's end, too, as he beat Billy Meyer in the final; Meyer's 7-Eleven/Chief Auto Parts Pontiac was being tuned at the event by Bernie Fedderly and Larry Minor's Top Fuel crew. It was a memorable day, too, for the dad of ND's own Brad Littlefield as his pops, Mert, recorded his first five, a 5.96, in round one.

Some names from among the 64? Thought you'd never ask. In addition to OCIR regulars like Prudhomme, McEwen, Bernstein, both Dunns, Burgin, Dale Pulde, and Gary Densham, there was current Jack Beckman crew chief Johnny West in his Plan A Omni, "Mighty Mike" Van Sant's Invader, Bill Hoge (Willie and the Poor Boys), Joe Clement (in Nelson Lengle's Sno-Town Shaker Arrow), Ray Romund (Romund's Chariot Corvette), Brian Raynes (in John Lindsay's Impuse!), Rodney Flournoy, Sherm Gunn, Henry Harrison, and some guy named John Force, who was lucky to be there after burning down his Mountain Dew Camaro at the Gatornationals.

Anderson again had low e.t. and top speed for the alcohol cars at 6.54, 216.45 but crossed the centerline in round one against Hans Kuesel; a tight curfew prevented any more TAFC action; Kusel, Beal, Jack Holsey, and Steve Chrisman split the purse.

Rod Phelps' rocket Funny Car wowed the fans with runs of 4.97 and 5.01, and four jet cars (driven by Scott Hammack, Doug Brown, Bill Carter, and Doug Rose) and four Pro Stocks (driven by Jerry Eckman, Sonny Bryant, Harry Scribner, and Jack Ragan) also kept the fans entertained between nitro rounds.

The biggest news, however, was track operator Allen's mind-blowing announcement during the evening that the track would hold another 64 Funny Car race the following weekend. I remember being in the photographers area when the announcement was made and can't think of many bigger roars from a crowd than the one I heard that night. Me? I was thrilled beyond belief.

 
(Above) Billy Meyer, far lane, won the bonus Son of 64 Funny Cars race when John Force's Mountain Dew Camaro went up in smoke. (Below) Dale Armstrong made a cameo appearance in Bernstein's car after K.B. hurt his back between the two events and acquitted himself well.

 

So it was joyously back to the County the next weekend for the event dubbed Son of 64 Funny Cars, where the fields were no smaller and the crowd no less excited. This time, Meyer came out on top, beating an up-in-smoke Force in the final. Force had earlier set low e.t. at 5.91.

We also got a real treat when Dale Armstrong filled in for Bernstein at the event because the Bud King had wrenched his back during the week. Armstrong, who hadn't driven a nitro car since the 1981 Finals, ripped off a 6.12 checkout lap on his first pass. I talked to Dale last Friday about his guest appearance, and he told me that he learned a lot about the car -- which was struggling at the national event level -- just by driving it and that it helped turn their season around, leading to huge outings such as their U.S. Nationals/Big Bud Shootout double a few months later.

Anderson again proved unbeatable on his home track with a 6.63 Alcohol Funny Car victory over perennial rival Beal and set low e.t. at 6.49. Phelps' rocket flopper went quicker this time, 4.94, to highlight the exhibition cars (remember, at the time, the quickest Top Fuel car was only running 5.4s). "Smokey Joe" Douthit and Chuck Swift had their wheelstanders on hand and joined the jets of Hammack, Rose, and Carter.

The OCIR community suffered a tragic loss a few weeks later when track announcer and jack-of-all-trades Steve Crosby, 27, who helped stage Thursday night events on the track's motocross course, died when his tractor overturned.

On May 21, the track held what it had planned to be its annual  jets versus Funny Cars event, but that turned into a series of match races. Anderson beat Beal in a two-of-three Alcohol Funny Car grudge match that track operator Kenny Green called "the best match race he'd ever seen at the track," and aspiring nitro pilot Dennis Taylor drove Dave Braskett's Top Fueler to a two-straight win over Pearson. Carter's jet was the top weenie roaster with a 6.33 best, and Phelps added to his collection of four-second time slips with a 4.95.

About this time, Allen broke ground on his next venture, Firebird Int'l Raceway in the Arizona desert outside of Phoenix, but the hits kept on coming at OCIR.

 
(Above) March Meet champ Danny Danell won the Nitro Championships, one of OCIR's longest-running events. (Below) Veteran Henry Harrison was a regular at all OCIR Pro shows in Dwayne Lidtke's Camaro.

After the June 4-5 PHR Super Gas and Bracket Championships, OCIR played host to the 17th Nitro Championships June 25, where Shumake again ruled the roost in Funny Car and Danell scored a weird win in Top Fuel. Beal had the car but not the luck against Anderson in yet another classic battle between the SoCal rivals, running low e.t of 6.52 in the final … after a red-light.

Nine Top Fuelers  -- driven by Danell, Pearson, Taylor, Haight, Shannon Stuart (in the ex-Danekas car), and Epperly (in Frank Taylor's new Dago Red), Don Durbin's Favorite Thing, Arley Langlo's Zip Code, and Ray Stutz, who qualified his California Rattler (sporting a Larry Minor tune-up) No. 1 with a 5.78 – tried out for the four-car fuel dragster field. Epperly red-lighted to Pearson, and Danell beat a broken Stutz to set up a final of ex-sand draggers that went to Danell in the oddest of fashions. Pearson was unable to make the call, and Danell broke the throttle linkage on the burnout and had to be pushed into the staging beams to take the green light, though he moved nary an inch when the Tree turned.

Nine flopper competitors also were on hand for a four-car ladder: Shumake, Jim Dunn, recent nitro convert Chrisman in Steve Plueger's car, Densham, Flournoy, Gunn, Harrison, Raines, and John Martin. After Shumake beat Chrisman and Dunn shot down Gunn, "Tripper" defeated "Big Jim" for the title, 6.06 to 6.16. In jet action, Brown's Wildfire beat Rose's Green Mamba.

Firebird Int'l Raceway opened Aug. 20 with a Funny Car show won by (who else?) Shumake in nitro and Rick Henkelman in alcohol, and a week later, OCIR hosted its Summer Showdown. Race car painter Bill Carter returned from a five-year hiatus and debuted his gorgeous Jim Brissette-tuned Grizzly Top Fueler with a victory from a four-car field. A strict curfew – - a sure sign of the Irvine Co.'s stranglehold on track management – forced the final rounds to be decided by previous e.t,  and Carter's car, which was co-owned by Grizzly Adams TV star Dan Haggerty, banked the bucks after two 6.00s. Stuart, in the Harmon & Stuart car, was deemed runner-up. Others on hand were Haight, Taylor, Braskett, Butch Blair, and Mark Cornelius (Team C).

 
(Above) Romund's low-buck Corvette met its fiery end at the Summer Showdown event. (Below) At the same event, Lena Williams made history when she ran the first six-second pass by an unblown gas dragster.

 

Force got Funny Car honors thanks to his low e.t. of 5.89, and McEwen was named runner-up after a 6.01. The other flopper entires were Jim Dunn (who had put his car on its roof at Firebird the previous weekend), Harrison, Flournoy, Martin, Raines, Chrisman, and Romund. Romund's night ended horribly as his low-buck 'Vette – one of the underdogs for whom I always rooted – got up on the headers on a wild burnout and unknowingly tweaked a head gasket. After a strong launch, the car lit up like, well, a Roman candle, at half-track and burned to the ground in the OCIR shutdown area.

Ray Higley netted Alcohol Funny Car honors with his Lil Tapper Omni over Kuesel, also based on e.t.s., and Bill Holevas' Alien and Brown's Wildfire jets lit up the night and Douthit performed his two-wheeled antics.

Perhaps the night's most impressive performance, though, came from an unblown car as Top Gas West ace Lena Williams steered her and husband Frank's Lancaster Service Center injected gas dragster to a 6.98, the first sub-seven-second run for that type of car. OCIR starter Larry Sutton commented, "The 6.98 by Lena is just as much of a milestone in drag racing as the 5.30 time that Gary Beck will run in the future ... an incredible performance."

Sutton was a pretty good predicator because two weeks later, Beck would run that first 5.30, a 5.39 at the Golden Gate Nationals, and duplicate it two weeks after that at the World Finals at OCIR, but before either of those events, OCIR hosted its third-to-last drag race, the 16th annual U.S. Manufacturers Meet Sept. 24.

With the race serving as a crucial tune-up meet for both of the upcoming West Coast national events, 18 nitro Funny Cars were on hand, but the Chicago-style win went not to one of the hometown boys but appropriately to reigning world champ Frank Hawley and the Austin Coil-tuned Team Strange Chi-Town Hustler, which ran a string of five-second passes and won on a 6.08 single when Tim Grose lost oil pressure in the final with his Spirit Corvette. The usual suspects were all there -- Prudhomme, McEwen, the Dunns, Shumake, Harrison, Force, Burgin, Littlefield, Densham, Chrisman, Martin, Flournoy, Hoge – plus Meyer, who as a 17-year-old rookie had won this race in his Funny Car debut in 1972.


(Above) If you were at OCIR in 1983, you saw this a lot: Brad Anderson racing (and usually beating) Chuck Beal in the final. (Below) Things didn't always go well for "Bad Brad"; he crashed heavily at the late-season Manufacturers Meet but returned to racing within two weeks. That's fellow racer Hans Kuesel in the white shirt inspecting the damage.

 
Southern drove Bill "Capt. Crazy" Dunlap's EXP to victory in Alcohol Funny Car on a night that was marred by a nasty-looking crash by perennial winner Anderson, whose Trans Am got loose in the semi's against Southern and climbed over the guardrail and rolled before landing on all fours. "Bad Brad" walked away without a scratch. Bret Williamson was the Alcohol Funny Car runner-up.

Gary

Also notable were the debuts of 28-year-old Aussie pilot Sue Ransom and the McGee Quad Cam engine in R.J. Trotter's Top Fueler as the team shook down its car for its Fremont debut the following weekend with runs of 6.25 and 6.77.

The jet dragsters of Carter, Brown, Hammack, and Holevas, Ed "the Outlaw" Jones and his Candyland Express stagecoach wheelstander, and "Rocket Rod " (5.14) made up the between-rounds entertainment.

The 1983 World Finals, Oct. 14-16, was an amazing race. Beck ran his second 5.39, Epperly unexpectedly reset the Top Fuel national speed mark at 257.14, Prudhomme ran a 5.74, "Bad Brad" a 6.34, and Al DaPozzo a 6.38 in Alcohol Dragster. Shirley Muldowney nabbed Top Fuel, and Warren Johnson took Pro Stock honors, but the biggest cheers were reserved for hometown hero Lil' John Lombardo, who scored the first win of his long SoCal Funny Car career in his Pat Galvin-tuned Omni and, in the process, handed Force his fourth of what would be nine straight runner-ups. Mike Dunn blew the Hawaiian Punch Charger into itty-bitty pieces, Reid Whisnant ran a mystery 7.63 to end Frank Iaconio's Pro Stock title hopes, Darrell Gwynn won the Alcohol Dragster season championship, and Veney took his last ride in a nitro Funny Car … it was some kinda race.

All of this set the stage for the curtain closer two weeks later, The Last Drag Race, Oct. 25, 1983. We'll relive that sad night Wednesday.

 
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