A couple of weeks ago, in the wake of the story about Dale Emery’s memorable crash at the 1977 U.S. Nationals that made multiple mini-souvenir pieces of Mike Burkhart’s Camaro flopper, I solicited your photos and stories about your own post-crash collectibles, and, as always, you guys came through.
Cole Foster, son of the late great flopper star Pat Foster, sent in a photo of this great piece of history: a chunk of the original Barry Setzer Funny Car driven by his dad.
“My brother, Dan, has this piece in his office,” he reports. “The car lifted the blower off big-time and rained fiberglass. The car spun and tagged the rail. There is another piece (part of the side with Setzer’s name) that I saw hanging at the NHRA museum. Dad and Ed Pink signed it and added 'OOPS!' ”
According to the report in the September 1972 issue of Drag Racing USA magazine (which Cole also supplied), the incident came in a midst of a real hot streak for the team. On successive weekends, they won an IHRA national event in Rockingham, N.C., the Big Four Manufacturers Championship at Orange County Int’l Raceway, and another event at Irwindale Raceway before the setback at Lions. A week later, Foster and Setzer were back at it and won the Hang Ten Funny Car 500 event at OCIR. “The AA/FC fraternity figured to have a breather from the Vega’s pace. Instead, Foster shows up with a repaired racer and blows 'em off worse than ever before some 12,000 fans,” reads the article.
When I was a kid, my bedroom walls were covered with photos of race cars in distress torn from the pages of my favorite drag mags, but Nick Arias III, of the famed racing family, had us all covered. The photo above is his bedroom wall circa 1978. “I was 16 years old when I snapped this pic of what I thought was a teenager's ultimate catch: the almost complete side of Mike Kase's Speed Racer AA/FC. Steve Harris demolished their Vega-bodied flopper at the 1977 March Meet after landing hard from a wheelstand and stuffing it into the guardrail.
“I grew up in Harbor City, Calif., a few blocks from Bill Simpson's Gasoline Alley, where Mike housed his chassis shop. My dad would drop by Simpson's to make his rounds on weekends, and on one trip, I saw the fiberglass remains propped up against Kase's shop dumpster. Later that week, I made a clandestine night raid with my 10-speed bike to claim my souvenir. As I smoked it outta there with this enormous panel under my arm, I made eye contact with Willie Borsch, who was watching me the whole time through Mike's office window (where he was residing). Also in this collection are chunks of Bill Schifsky's Bear Town Shaker, which met it's explosive demise during the 1976 World Finals at Ontario Motor Speedway.”
Ted Pappacena sent in a photo of one of his memorable pieces: the left-side rocker panel of Barry “Machine Gun” Kelly's Vega Funny Car that crashed into Paul Smith’s Fireball Vega at the P R O Race at New York National Speedway in 1974. You can see it matches up quite nicely with Barry Wiggins’ great photo of the fire.
“A good friend of mine, Warren Bader, worked there and took it (as well as pieces of other Funny Cars). It was in his collection until a few years ago,” said Pappacena. “He told me he was running out of space, and it, as well as the right front fender of the Holy Smokes Satellite that also crashed at the National, had to go. So we came to a financial agreement for the two pieces, and they became mine. This will eventually be mounted on a basement wall. I have very little wall space, so the Satellite fender was sold to another good friend for his collection.”
The crash occurred in round one when Kelly, an African-American racer out of Compton, Calif., lit 'er up at the top end and then, blinded by the inferno and hampered by a blown rear tire, plowed into the back of Smith’s car, which was slowing from its pass. According to reports, the wreck resulted in “broken shoulders” for Smith while Kelly escaped with only minor injuries.
Michael Ogle has a nice keepsake on his wall that he got in a rather unorthodox manner: It’s the hood of the Cruz Pedregon-driven Larry Minor/McDonald’s Old Cutlass that Pedregon drove to his first Funny Car crown in 1992.
“In the mid-1990s, I was out in Hemet, Calif., visiting a guy who was doing some fiberglass work for me, and we were at his fiberglass repair shop when I saw this big red piece of fiberglass laying out in the weeds next to the shop,” Ogle remembers. “I wandered over to it, flipped it over, and immediately recognized it as the hood of the McDonald's Funny Car. My friend walked over and said, ‘Oh, yeah, I think Larry wanted somebody to repair this, but it was just too far gone. There are burnt areas on the underside, must've been in a pretty good fire. So we cut it up so we wouldn't be asked to try to patch it up anymore. You want that piece?’
“Of course! I stuffed it into the back of my Honda Accord and got home and hung it up on my wall downstairs. I got an autographed handout card from Cruz and taped it on the hood. The car in the pic is slightly different, but they seemed to have a season where they were poppin' quite a few superchargers, and this is one of the remnants of the Oldsmobile Cutlass bodies of that time period. Still got it!”
I couldn’t quite pinpoint where this fire may have been, so I texted Cruz; no reply yet, but I'll let you know what I find out.
Insider regular “Chicago Jon” Hoffman has a signed windshield from Tom McEwen’s 1977 English Leather Corvette, saved from the trashpile after the 1977 Olympics of Drag Racing at Great Lakes Dragaway.
“Of course, ‘the Snake’ and ‘the Mongoose’ are there, but as McEwen unloads, it was apparent that there had been some problems at their last race. In this case, they had been at U.S. 131 the night before and had sneezed the blower. The crew goes about the routine job of repairing the car, and the usual fast and furious action of the day unfolds, and Saturday ends without a hitch. Sunday, however, gets cut short by weather, but Great Lakes promised that if you came back next weekend, you could see the feature 'attraction,' that being Ken Carter jumping a car over a multitude of other cars. Well, with rain check in hand, I returned for the Carter jump. It was then that I spotted, wedged between the dumpster and the concession stand, McEwen’s tattered windshield. I ask the gal selling drag dogs, ‘Hey, there's this thing in the trash, do you mind if I take it?’ She responds with something to the effect of, ‘Take all the trash you want, kid," and you never saw someone hustle out to the parking lot so fast in your life!
“Fast-forward to 1989, our hero (that would be me) now works at Great Lakes, making videos for 'Broadway Bob' in particular and working the concession stand in general. The big event that year is the Summer Spectacular, of which the main attractions are Ronnie Sox and, you saw this coming, Tom ‘the Mongoose’ McEwen. You should have seen the look on ‘the Goose’s’ face when I showed up in his pit with this beleaguered windshield under one arm! ‘Uh, could you please autograph this for me? I'm a big 'ol fan!’ Tom graciously signs away, and to this day, it graces the wall in my studio.”
Rick Guzman has a couple of nice 1980s Hawaiian pieces in his collection. The top photo is a piece of what has to be the King’s Hawaiian Bread-sponsored machine after it shucked the roof during qualifying at the 1980 Summernationals with Ron Colson at the controls. Guzman plucked the keepsake from a garbage can and says it is part of the roof and the windshield.
Way back in 2008, I did an interview with Colson about the incident; here’s what he had to say: “The windshield posts snapped in the lights (we didn't use side windows then), and the roof came down and pinned my hands on the wheel. Obviously, I couldn't see at all, but after years in a front-engine fueler, I was used to that. I did get my right hand free, and I could get to the brake lever at about the middle, which translates to half-braking leverage. Fortunately, as the lower half of the body was exploding (we gathered up 218 pieces but not enough to put the puzzle back together), the chutes deployed from the disintegration. One tangled, and one, fortunately, opened. When the Safety Safari guys lifted the roof off of me, I could see that I was within 100 feet of going off the end of the track.”
At right is a photo of Guzman’s pal "Butcher Bob” with one of the other 217 pieces from the car, the rocker panel.
Guzman also sent in the photo below, which is from the 1983 Hawaiian Punch car after it ran off the end of National Trail Raceway and into the catch net at the Springnationals after a big fire and blown tire with Mike Dunn at the helm. It’s the front section of the body tree (you can see the two cutout loops that rest atop the chassis).
“Like the Englishtown part, we found it in the garbage,” said Guzman, who was at the event helping out Pro Stock racers Carlton Phillips and Al Waters. “After the wreck, they just threw everything away they couldn't use.”
Speaking of Hawaiians, Jim Riddiford, who lives on the big Island of Hawaii, used to live in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley and worked in North Hollywood, where NHRA was headquartered in the 1970s and 1980s. “I would go to your office for copies of DRAGSTER
,” he wrote. “On one visit in the early 1980s, Les Lovett was in the front office right after Brad Anderson crashed his car at OCIR a week or two before the Finals. I saw Les dragging the side of his car that night. When I saw him in the office that day, I asked what he did with it, and to my surprise, he took me upstairs to his office, and it was mounted on the wall, along with some others. Frank Hawley’s altered comes to mind, so don’t forget his collection if there are any pics from that time."
Right you are, Jim. Teresa Long searched through stacks of photos before coming up with this one, which shows just a small part of Lovett’s extensive collection. The Hawley piece he mentions — the nose off his Pro Comp altered — is visible, as are various other body and engine parts, many of them signed by those who turned them into souvenirs.
And finally, this. This whole parts thread began with the photo at right sent in by Eric Watkins, showing the right-front fender from the Burkhart Camaro after its famous tangle with the Indy guardrail. Now, Watkins has discovered the above photo, which I’ve never seen before, showing the body resting in the Indy grass like some airplane-crash reconstruction, missing a very distinctly-shaped portion up front, like the missing piece to some crash jigsaw puzzle. Cool stuff, Eric!
OK, kids, that’s all for today and, as you may have noticed with an absence of a new column this past Tuesday (sorry ’bout that!), all for the week. So here comes a caveat I’ve been dreading these last few weeks.
As you can imagine, with all of the events backed up after Indy and all of the stuff going on now, time has been a precious commodity in ensuring that National DRAGSTER gets out the door each week on time, and with new responsibilities and priorities, that’s not going to get any easier. As much as I love this column, it’s still my “other” job from my main gig at NHRA, so sometimes the Insider has to take a back seat to ND. The last thing I want to do is cheapen all we’ve accomplished here in the last five years and 500-plus columns by filling it with, well, filler, so I may eventually have to go to a once-weekly column (can you believe that when I started this column, I published it three times a week? What was I thinking?) more often, perhaps permanently. It’s not what I (nor you, I suspect) want, but I’ll deal with it the best I can and try to keep the good stuff coming. Thanks, as always, for your support.
After it was mentioned in a couple of the Southern California-based First Race stories, I got a few inquiries for more details about John Smyser’s Terrifying Toronado exhibition car, which, terrifyingly enough, is best remembered for hurtling the guardrail at Irwindale Raceway and scaring the bejesus out of the fans in that section.
By all accounts, Smyser was a very good Top Fuel racer. With Nando Haase driving, his 392 Chrysler-powered Radar Wheels entry won the 1965 Hot Rod Magazine Championships in Riverside, Calif., and he and Harry Hibler were runner-up to Tony Nancy at the 1970 March Meet.
The Terrifying Toronado had its street roots in Olds’ peculiar attempt at a muscle car. With gobs of horsepower under the hood and chain-driven front-wheel drive for better traction, it should have been a huge winner, right? After all, while the GTOs and Mustangs were melting the hides trying to glue their tires to the road, the Olds would hook up just fine, thank you very much. The car was so highly praised that it won Motor Trend’s prestigious Car of the Year award in 1966. Smyser’s car was a ’66 – the first year in a production that ran through 1992 – and shared the same engine as the production car, a 425-cid V-8 powerplant.
Noted speed merchant Don Ratican (of Ratican-Jackson-Stearns fame) built the two Olds engines that, while they retained the stock displacement, were pretty racy, packed with Mickey Thompson pistons with Grant rings, a Racer Brown camshaft, heads ported and polished by Valley Head Service, and, naturally, a 6-71 supercharger.
The front engine turned the front 10-inch-wide Casler slicks on Halibrand wheels through the conventional Toronado automatic transmission and differential while the rear-seat-mounted second engine used a dual-disc clutch and a Schiefer aluminum flywheel to funnel power via direct drive to a conventional Olds rear end.
While the wheelbase remained at the stock 119 inches, the track was widened 8 1/2 inches in front and 2 1/2 inches in the rear, presumably for stability and tire clearance. The rear engine sat in a subframe that was easily removable for repairs (maybe they knew something ahead of time?). The car tipped the scales at a portly 4,500 pounds.
Despite its pedigree, the car may have been one of the more ill-conceived and certainly most ill-handling race cars ever built. Or maybe it was just too far ahead of its time.
The Terrifying Toronado was unveiled at the 1966 AHRA Winternationals at Irwindale and made its first run the following week at the ‘Dale. On its fateful lone pass, Smyser lost the handle early, with the car first darting left for the centerline, then hooking up hard and plunging back to the right into and over the Armco. As the famous photos show, it didn’t make it much farther than the guardrail and fell comfortably short – easy for me to say because I wasn’t sitting in the stands – of the chain-link fence.
It ran a few other times that year but never performed well enough to merit much attention. The car’s final outing came about a year after its debut, at the 1967 NHRA Winternationals in Pomona, where the car again ran afoul of the laws of physics. During Saturday qualifying, Smyser made an exhibition pass but again the car got all terrifying on him and busted through the right-side guardrail at speed at three-quarter-track. Fortunately, there were no grandstands that far downtrack. Regardless, it became clear that the Terrifying Toronado was just too terrifying to continue, and the car was retired.
Of course, that’s only half the story because the Terrifying Toronado had a cousin from the other side of the country in the Hurst Hairy Olds. Built in a similar fashion for the 1966 season, the car (an Olds 442) reportedly was built to showcase the bulletproof qualities of the then-new chain-driven automatic transaxle of the '66 Toronado, which had its skeptics in the automotive press. After all, if it could harness the power of a supercharged engine, it should do well in stock configuration, right? (Truth be told, although the front drivetrain was essentially stock, the right-hand axleshafts were swapped for left-hand units because they were stronger, and the torque converters were beefed up, but those are minor points.)
George Hurst, wanting a companion to the wildly popular Hemi Under Glass wheelstander, signed on to the project. The tube-frame car was built in-house at Hurst under the watchful eye of Jack “Shifty Doctor” Watson, president of Hurst Performance Research. Although the car went on a diet thanks to aluminum body components (floor, inner fender panels, wheelwells, hood, interior panels, deck lid, and bumpers) and Plexiglas windows, it still weighed in excess of 4,000 pounds. Despite the hefty weight, the car suffered – as almost all front drivers do – from torque steer, making it a thrill to drive and watch as it smoked all four M&H slicks down the dragstrip. Top Fuel and Top Gas racer Joe Schubeck drove the car in its debut at the 1966 March Meet and later ran in the 11-second range.
The first version of the Hairy Olds ran off the end of a track and into a farmer’s field in 1966, and Schubeck broke an ankle bailing out of the out-of-control dreadnought. Although the car suffered significant damage, it was rebuilt and eventually ran into the low eights at more than 180 mph. It, too, end up in a ball at Niagara Dragstrip in New York in 1967.
According to the report, “the magneto on the front engine quit. This, of course, cut all power to the front end, allowing the alignment to revert back to the toe-out setting, which was not conducive to good handling. The car went off the track onto wet grass and headed toward the spectators who gathered against the fence. As they cheered Joe's performance, the crowd had no idea of the real danger they were in. Only a cable stretched down the length of the track kept the situation from getting ugly. Shortly afterward, the crew took the car back to ‘Doc’ Watson at Hurst and turned it in. From all accounts, Watson cut it up and buried it, save for the aluminum bumpers and hood,” which were used in a re-creation of the car.
Although Tommy Ivo had proven as early as 1961 that an all-wheel car could work well, the design of Ivo’s four-engine Showboat – with the left engines powering the front tires and the right side powering the rear – gave it the stability that the Terrifying Toronado and the Hurst Hairy Olds never had and undoubtedly led to its impressive longevity and popularity.
I wasn’t really planning a third installment of Your First Race, but the entries just keep rolling in and so do the cheers for the topic, so here we go with round three:
Jim Lagler: “I had an older (by nine years) brother who was into cars big time. He went to races with his friends on Labor Day in 1963 or 1964 and came back with great stories. I begged to go the following year, and he said if I had 100 bucks for a week’s expenses, I could go. I worked at odd jobs and my paper route all summer and saved the money. That year, I got to go with him and his friend who had a race car. The races: the U.S. Nationals. The car: Jim Oddy's AA/GS Austin. I did a good enough job as a gofer that Jim told me I could go to the races anytime with him when we got home. The next five years were great. I got to travel all over the Northeast in the thick of the Gasser Wars against ‘Ohio George,’ the Hill brothers, Jack Merkel, Jr. Thompson, and K.S. Pittman to name a few. I even got to rub shoulders with ‘Jungle Jim,' the Chi-Town Hustler team, and other early Funny Car greats when we were booked into eight-car match race shows. Pretty heady stuff for a 15-year-old kid.
“I was still with Jim when he graduated to BB/FC. Then college called, and it came to an end. I still followed Jim's great career in Pro Mod but now from a distance. A lot of these memories just recently came rushing back when I got to see the excellent restoration of the Austin by John Cassiol of Buffalo, N.Y. I still get my yearly dose of nitro by attending the Hot Rod Reunion in Bowling Green, Ky., every year since its inception."
Geoff McInnes: “In 1966, I was 11, in grade six at what we call primary school down here in Australia. There were lots of British migrant kids arriving at our school every few weeks when another boat would arrive. I became friendly with two brothers who had some U.S. drag racing magazines and had seen American racers in action at Santa Pod. About the same time, a local TV station started broadcasting the action from the only dragstrip near my hometown of Melbourne on Sunday afternoons during the summer (football took priority in winter). I was hooked!
“I started nagging my dad to take me but for a long time had no success. The track was way over the other side of the second-biggest city in Australia, and at that age, I had no other way of getting there even if getting parental permission had been likely. Eventually, after tipping the can on the nagging, my dad finally gave in in April 1970, and out we went to Calder Raceway. Unfortunately, we had to go in my mother’s VW Beetle as my dad’s much cooler Fairlane was out of action, which was a bit embarrassing.
“This was a great event for a first-timer as I got to see reigning NHRA Top Fuel champion Steve Carbone face off against our local hero Ash Marshall and run the first 200-mph pass (202, actually) at this venue. The braking area at Calder back then had a 30-degree bend in it about 500 feet past the finish line, and many local fuelers had failed to make the turn and shot through a fence and across a public road. For this reason, while 200 had been achieved at other Australian tracks, it had never been done at Calder. Carbone managed it and still took the bend without incident in Larry Huff’s beautiful Soapy Sales car, a car which I have to say made everything we had here look like it had been passed down from Fred Flintstone.
“My now 83-year-old dad still tells his adult grandchildren that he thought if he took me once I’d get it out of my system and that would be the end of it. How wrong he was! I still attend all the major meetings around my own country and am not long back from yours where I took in some NHRA major-event action and checked out the Wally Parks Museum at Pomona.”
Jimm Murray: “My early experiences were at Sunland Dragway in El Paso, Texas, in 1961. My dad would drop me off at the track entrance and head down the road to the horse track (where my mother did not want him to be). Factory race cars and crazy, short-wheelbase dragsters were the top of my list, with some wild gassers thrown in.
“Dick Harrell, of Carlsbad, N.M., was the king of the pack, especially with his black Chevy 409 going up against the best that Mopar and Ford could throw at him. The track had no railing to speak of, constant sandstorms that created no-visibility situations, a flag starter at one end, and dragsters that would start by push cars getting them up to speed.
"Eddie Hill was a fixture at the track with his twin-engine dragster (in a side-by-side V shape), as were Gene Snow and others. To see two dragsters take off, get lost completely in a dust storm, and have to wait a while for it to clear to see who won is crazy to think of nowadays.
“I remember Dick flat-towing in a red '62 Chevy 409 one Sunday that said ‘Hayden Proffitt’ on the doors and immediately recognized it as what Hayden had recently won with on the NHRA side of things. Harrell went on to keep winning with a white '63 427 Z-11, and then he started stuffing that engine in black ‘64 Chevy Malibus, and then started into the Hilborn injected 427s in other Novas, and finally, tube frames. All the while, the latest factory iron from Ford and Chrysler were fun to behold, as was the line of rosin that started getting poured in front of the slicks during match races. The best of times.”
Jim Tilley: “I remember when I was about 12 years old, there was a garage in Sulphur, La., called Meads. The owner, 'Shorty' Mead, and his son, Doug, had a rail they raced. 'Shorty' was the wrencher, and Doug did the driving. I would hear that Hemi fire up from about six blocks away, and I would jump on my bike and hightail it to his shop just to watch them tune on it. Most of the time, they would shut it off by the time I got there. I remember 'Shorty' with that stub of a cigar in his mouth. They would let me watch from the doorway while they worked on the car. I remember there was one stall that looked like it was for storage with about two truckloads of trophies along the walls. I am sure he did some winning for all the trophies.”
Gerret Wikoff: “As a teen living in upstate New York, I was into customizing model cars, and I really wanted to go to a drag race, though I had no idea whatsoever what they entailed. So when years later I owned a V-Dub repair shop, one of the mechanics renting a stall there was Harrison Peyton, who had a B/Econo rail. He would tune it up Friday nights before the Saturday drags -- you know the drill: Rev the motor up to the redline, the sounds of the open pipes reverberating off the Silver Lake Hills; I was so hooked. Then there was the day he decided he needed to take the rail for a pass up and down Hyperion Avenue midday. He waited for the light to turn red, stopping the oncoming traffic, and took off up the street. I'd never seen anyone run a rail with open pipes on the city streets of L.A. before or since.
“So when he asked me if I'd like to go to the drags at Irwindale with him, you couldn't stop me. We got to the strip, and he taught me the basics of bracket racing. I raced my '65 blue and yellow mutt of a Beetle with 14-inch tires, a Holley bug spray, a lightweight Karmann Ghia flywheel, and fly-cut dual-port heads. It was a quick car off the line, and I could cut a good light and was pretty consistent on the shifts (no tach) and eventually got a first over Jerry McClanahan by getting him to break out, and a semifinal win. Harrison would race the tow car in Bracket 5 and the rail in Bracket 1. It was idyllic.
“One fine day, Harrison asked me if I'd like to take the rail for a pass. Duh! He had to ask? He shows me how to work the hand brake and foot shifter without a reverse lockout. I squeeze myself into his firesuit. And wait. Finally, it is my turn to stage. I think when I went too deep and had to back up and ended up with the bottom bulb turned on, then realized, well, suddenly I was on a single. So the light comes down, and I mash the gas. I'm out there a ways, wondering what the thrill he was always talking about was, when I decide to shift into high. Brrrrrrrraaaainnngggg. The revs went through the roof as the car bogged big time. I snatch the car out of reverse and back into high, turning several shades of red. And, of course, the announcer made anybody who hadn't seen it well aware of my mistake. Sadly, I never was asked to take a pass in his race car again.”
Ron Bikacsan: “Your current topic took me back to 1968 at Kansas City Int'l Raceway. I was stationed at an Air Force base in Missouri and had been a hot rodding fan since 1959. My buddy had just bought a brand-spankin'-new '68 Road Runner for $2,920, and we just had to go to K.C. on Saturday and see the ‘big guys.’ I believe [Don] Garlits was there, along with other rails, but the one car that blew everybody's mind that night was Gene Snow's new Charger Funny Car. Still in primer, he'd get cleaned off the line, and then -- like the car was attached to a big rubber band -- that Charger would barrel past everybody in the lights. The crowd went ballistic every time. Later, the announcer told the crowd that Snow was running a direct drive (four-disc Crowerglide) rather than a transmission in his car. Made all the sense in the world but didn't dim the thrill of watching that car top-end like nothing else. I'll never forget that night.”
Don Luke: “I was reading the latest installment and happened on the photo of John Smyser and the Terrifying Toronado climbing the guardrail. Boy, does that bring back memories. I first attended a drag race at Pomona, the Winternationals in 1963. Friends from high school (Charter Oak High School) in Covina invited me. I was invited again during 1964, my senior year. Guess I was hooked because I have been going ever since. I was not really a car person but couldn't figure out why folks would cheer the Dodges and jeer the Plymouths or vice versa. I soon learned the car brands were only part of it; the drivers were the other part of the equation.
“Eventually, I got my driver's license and a 1964 Dodge. Took it to Irwindale most weekends, and it was on one of those weekends that I watched the Toronado climb the guardrail. Also, probably on a different weekend, got to watch Don Nicholson's body go airborne toward the end of a run. I was learning about cars but had fun with the Dodge: hardtop with a 383, four-barrel engine, four-speed, and limited slip rear end (3.23 ratio, though). Best run was 14.52 seconds at 97.67 mph. We lived in Glendora, near the corner of Glendora and Gladstone, way before the 210 freeway was built. Glendora Avenue went through the hills, a turning road with fairly sharp turns. I saw police lights on the road one night and went up to see what was happening. There was John Smyser's Toronado strapped to a trailer behind a motorhome and the trailer hanging over the edge of the road, still attached to the motorhome. It was eventually pulled back on the road. Don't remember seeing it run after that. Shortly after, Uncle Sam came calling, and I was obliged to answer. Nowadays, I attend events at Firebird in Chandler, Ariz., as a spectator.”
Rich Erickson: “Although I cannot remember my first race, the first race car I remember is the wagon attached. Created and campaigned by Richard Charbonneau, he won the 1970 Winternationals with the car. Clyde Birch of Chippewa Falls, Wis., had purchased the car from ‘Charby,’ and I certainly remember it well. It was ‘crew chiefed’ by my dad, Gerry Erickson.
“I spent many hours waxing that car as I was only 5, but I am hooked for life. We raced all over, but our home track was Amber Green Dragways in Eau Claire, Wis. (now Rock Falls Raceway, owned by Stock champ Al Corda). The first fuel car was 'Snake's' Army Funny Car at Minnesota Dragways in 1975. I still love the smell of nitro! I was a very lucky kid … thanks, Dad!”
OK, that's it for installment No. 3. I have several other items beginning to back up, so I'm going to stick a fork in this topic for now. Feel free to continue to send me your stories, but I'll probably wait a bit before publishing a new batch. Please also include photos; a lot of what you've seen the last three columns have been photos that I have added from our files, but I'd much rather see yours.
Thanks again, everyone, for the amazing participation. I'll see you Friday.
Here’s Part 2 of Your First Race. I have to say it has been really cool reading through the submissions. Some of you I don’t know at all, and some have been previous contributors to the column, but I find all of the stories enthralling. As I prepare them for publishing, I edit them the best I can for spelling and grammar and take a stab at shortening them a bit for the sake of clarity and brevity (before turning them over to our own Lorraine Vestal for a precision copy tune-up), but I find it very hard to trim them. I can almost feel the emotions that are poured into these stories and, in my mind’s eye, picture the scene and compare it to my own memories.
The entries below are mostly "first time at the drags,” but there are also a few that talk about early influences (from our first “brush with greatness” thread on this topic), but they all have that feel of people remembering their first touchstones to the sport.
Gary Crumine, an eloquent and frequent contributor here, said it well: “After reading all these stories of how we caught the bug, one thought came to mind. There is a thread that ties everything together. That thread is that for the most part, we all got our indoctrination to motorsports by some pretty famous and downright decent people who took the time to invite us into their world. Passing along the motorhead gene is both a privilege and a responsibility we all share. I’ll be forever grateful for the time I spent just hanging out and rubbing elbows with the greatest of people. Much is said about motorsports in general, and drag racing in particular, but I will say this: Drag racers are the friendliest people on the planet. Always ready to help when asked, always willing to lend advice, and not afraid to give you the secret formula to their success. Drag racers want you to beat them, and work hard doing it. They don’t crash you or trash you or thrash you. They genuinely celebrate your successes even if you beat them in the process. Drag racers are REAL people.”
Very well said and, I believe, a universal sentiment in the sport. OK, enough preamble, on to the stories …
Howard Hull: “My first trip to the races was in 1967 when we loaded up the station wagon and went to the inaugural race at Orange County Int'l Raceway. Because several of the founders were friends of the family, we were treated to some behind-the-scenes that most don’t get to see. Actually, we went and saw the facility under construction about five months earlier, and the tower was finished being framed, and the skin was being hung on it. The grandstands were taking shape, and the track was graded and ready for asphalt. As we walked around, Larry Vaughn, one of the founders, pointed out to us how the staging lanes were going to work and where the pit area was going to be. Now, all of this was Greek to me; five months later in August, it became a part of my DNA.
“The event featured Tom ‘the Mongoose’ McEwen. The place was filled with folks, and seeing the flames coming from the exhaust pipes from the dragsters as they inched their way up to the starting line and then watching the Christmas Tree blink down had me hooked. The bracket racing with the handicaps had the crowds going as one racer pulled up to the line in a station wagon next to a gas dragster. When the dragster caught the station wagon at the top end, the crowd went wild.
“Within a few years, I went from selling Cokes in the stands to running the concession stands and loving it. I went through the AHRA and [Bill] Doner years and Charlie [Allen] and Lynne [Rose] show. They were great people and really had the place humming at the end, and it was too bad the Irvine Co. had to develop that parcel right after Don Bren bought the company. Over the years, I was lucky enough to travel with the FRAM program at NHRA events all over the U.S. Getting to seeing the different racetracks that I had read about in National DRAGSTER and Hot Rod and comparing them to OCIR was always fun. The track was way ahead of its time for sure! I still think of the place every time I drive by!”
Kris Miller: “I grew up outside of Pittsburgh. The first time my dad took me and my friends to Pittsburgh Int'l Dragway (PID), I had no idea what to expect, but there were nitro fuel cars, which, for some reason, that sticks out in my mind 40-plus years later. The race was in the late ‘60s; I was a teenager with a limited knowledge and experience of drag racing, outside of what I read in Hot Rod magazine. One other keen memory that I have and will never forget was ‘the Greek,’ Chris Karamesines, was at the race. I wish I knew where my picture(s) from that day are located now. I find it ironic a few weekends ago in Charlotte, my 20-year-old daughter was able to have ‘the Greek’ autograph a T-shirt she purchased.”
Dick Pruett: “I used to go to Irwindale as a teenager back in the day. Lots or memories. The late, great Steve Evans used to announce as he did for the speedway motorcycle track on the same grounds. I ended up racing at the speedway for several years -- exciting and a great experience. I saw John Smyser’s Terrifying Toronado, a four-wheel-drive two-blown-motor exhibition car, jump the guardrail not more than 50 feet out of the gate. I saw Charlie Allen, Dick Landy, and altered-wheelbase nitro-injected early Funny Cars. What sticks in my mind is the really tall Hilborn injector tubes sticking through the hoods; as a youngster, they looked like they were 3 feet tall to me. This is when they did a lot of match races and used rosin during their several burnouts. I saw a bunch of others, Gas Ronda, 'Dyno Don,' Gary Densham, and Doug Nash's Bronco Buster, an injected 289 Ford Bronco, no windows and I believe a fiberglass body. He would run in the show against all the big-blocks and at times would win. I probably saw everyone of that time by going to Lions, Irwindale, and Orange County. I was able to experience so much, memories I still carry today.”
Herman Wallace: “I was 13 years old in the summer of 1963. My father had just died, and we had just moved to a home on the southeast side of Chicago. I was riding my bicycle following the sound of a roaring engine. The sound took me to a Shell gas station two blocks from home, where I saw a 1961 Chevy chained to the floor running at full throttle on what I discovered was a Clayton chassis dyno. Lettered on the sides of the car were a shamrock and the name Kelly O'Brien, along with other decals that I don't recall. I stood there in awe of what was going on, and when the engine stopped, out of the car came Kelly O'Brien, who ran the station and owned and raced the car.
“I was allowed to come in the bay when the car was turned off, and this became a hangout and my intro to hot rodding. Whenever I heard the roar, I pedaled my feet off to get to the station to get the rush of sound and power firsthand. That was only a taste of what I would see as I started high school in the fall, traveling by bus across the city to a tech school and passing twice a day, morning and afternoon, past 69th and Damen, nearly breaking my neck to see what might be going on in that garage with the sign on the roof Engine Specialists. I occasionally caught glimpses of some kind of race car, and, after thumbing through magazines in the drugstore, I figured this might be a dragster. Little did I know of what history was passing me from the bus window, but I learned quickly when my neighbor, who was a couple of years older, was allowed to take a carload of us to U.S. 30 in his dad’s ‘59 Chevy wagon. That was just a beginning as in August of 1967, I lost my summer job at the NAPA parts store when I announced I wasn't coming to work because I was going to Indy to get my first taste of the Big Go. I never got off the bus to look in or hang out; had I, I might have met then someone I would meet in the fall of 1967 when, after graduating high school, my mother bought me a 1968 Plymouth Valiant with as much as I could coax out of her, a 318 engine and a four-speed. I asked the service manager about hot rodding the car, and he sent me to the back of the garage to see 'Joe.'
“There I met Joe Krupinski, who suggested I come to his new shop a couple of miles from my home. I visited the shop and frankly was a little scared as there at my feet was Krupinski's fuel dragster, Twiggy. I couldn't get enough and found myself there several times a week. I was jealous as they loaded the car onto the trailer for a weekend race, knowing the sound and smell of drag racing, and I was determined to learn more about this nitro thing. I spent more and more time at the shop and worked my way into the back door, being allowed to wash parts and hold this or that while the engine was being assembled. I felt I really arrived when Joe allowed me to fill nitro jugs for customers like Dale Creasy Sr.
“There was an afternoon that I will never forget. It was a weekday, and I was a student in the local junior college. Joe asked that I come to the shop as early in the afternoon as I could. I did, and there on the street in front of the shop was a station wagon and a fuel dragster and a guy with a rather large movie camera. Shortly thereafter, a police car came and blocked the street, and Joe announced they were going to start the car and film a burnout for a commercial. The station wagon pushed the fueler, but it wouldn't light, so we had to back down the motor, pushing the car by hand backward to clear the fuel from the cylinders. The car lit, the burnout was made, and now came a police lieutenant hollering because traffic was backed up for blocks. Nobody went to jail, just a lot of screaming by the cops and the smell of nitro and rubber in the Chicago air. I was now an official hanger-on crew kid and was invited to travel with Joe’s car to the Olympics of Drag Racing at Union Grove. My heart was pounding as we loaded the car. The driver, ‘Animal Al’ Marshall, drove the pickup and trailered the dragster to the Grove. Joe's main mechanic and engine assembler, Alan Puchalski (pardon the spelling), wasn’t old enough to get a driver’s license. What a weekend. Garlits, Kalitta, getting the car lined up in front of the pickup for the push-off, pulling the car back after the burnout, a lifetime of excitement in two days. What I have come to learn over the years is that while I rode the bus past 69th and Damen, Krupinski was working for Engine Specialists and called Don Maynard his mentor. I have since been to ‘the Greek’s’ shop, but I wish I had gotten off the bus and wandered down that alley.”
Steve Morse: “In 1967, I would always hear the radio ads for Sundays for Balboa Dragstrip, an eighth-mile track near Eugene, Ore., and they talked about a guy named Snidely Whiplash. I knew that my brother, Vic, raced, but I did not know what he raced, so one day, my mom and I drove to the 76 station that Vic owned, and I say to Vic, ‘Why don't you beat this Snidely guy?’ I'm just 12 years old, and Vic comes around to my window and sticks his hand out and introduces himself as Snidely Whiplash. I was floored. He used the name so as not to aggravate Dad and Grandad because racing was outlaw to them. The first car I ever worked on was the Bob McCutcheon-owned, Vic Morse-driven Kent Fuller car, a 392 Hemi on 85 percent nitro. I remember us pushing him down toward the starting line, and when he let the clutch out and hit the mag switch, the entire cab of that push truck filled with The Elixir of the Gods. We had to turn the cars around by hand to point them the right way, and I'm getting hammered by the zoomies and nitro; I have no idea what's coming next. Well, the rest is history, as they say, and I've never been quite the same.”
Joe Juhan: “My first experience at the dragstrip was at the ill-fated Yellow River dragstrip in Covington, Ga. The year was 1965. My dad was a car dealer and had taken me to see Arnie ‘the Farmer’ Beswick at Tabor Pontiac in Atlanta on Thursday prior to a match race on Sunday with ‘Dyno Don’ Nicholson. Arnie was a super-nice guy and instantly became my hero. Arnie was in the Mystery Tornado ’64 GTO, 'Dyno' in the ’65 Comet, which, by this time, was sporting an altered wheelbase and Hilborn injectors, and both were on healthy doses of nitro. ‘Dyno’ took the two out of three. Also on the card that day was the 43 Jr. Barracuda driven by ‘the King’ [Richard Petty] against Huston Platt’s Dixie Twister. The next year, Arnie showed up with the Tameless Tiger '63 Tempest, ‘Dyno’ with the first flip-top car, the ’66 Logghe-built Eliminator I, but was eliminated by ‘the Farmer.’ That Tempest had no wheelie bars (maybe bumper-mounted wheels) and stood up on every pass, hauling the mail. I saw some of the wildest early Funny Car match racing there during those years. My brother and dad ran in Modified eliminator around the South, and there were some killer gassers and modified production cars in the area. That was the golden age for me as a boy. I lived and breathed drag racing, and I’m glad I was around to see it.”
Glenn Gaskey: “My first trip to the drags was like all of my trips to the drags as a little boy: absolutely awesome. I actually can’t remember my first trip because I was an infant, but as a very young boy, I do remember spending a lot of weekends at Lions and Irwindale, then later driving through south Orange County in the bed of my dad’s '56 Ford pickup tow vehicle, mostly on the side streets lined with eucalyptus trees. We would load up the altered-wheelbase Mustang (392 Hemi on 75 percent, I think) on Saturday mornings and head down Santa Fe Avenue from North Long Beach to 223rd Street and into the gates at Lions. After helping Dad and whoever else he could get to come along with us unload the car, I would run off by myself. I used to try to hang out on the bridge over the staging lanes and watch the cars head away downtrack. When I got told to get off the bridge, I would wander around the pits and get handouts from the big-time guys. It didn’t matter if I already had 10 of them from the Rain for Rent guys, I wanted 10 more. These were my baseball cards. My parents did worry a little about me from time to time, but this was a different time and a different place. All these racers were family, and they all looked out for one another and kept an eye out for us brats. My favorites were always the Funny Cars, Beebe, Dee Keaton, Ed Lenarth, Joe Pisano, and, as a young boy, I will never forget the back-window mural on the L.A. Hooker! In the later days of Lions, my dad ran with A/FC guys. Lions Dragstrip was my playground, and I had a hundred babysitters every weekend."
Pete Ross: “Years ago at the now-defunct Motion Raceway near Assumption, Ill., I was walking through the pits, and they had wheelstanders there. Bill Golden was having a hard time getting the big metal plate bolted to the tailgate of his truck. I asked what I could do, and he said, ‘Put those bolts in and start the nuts on the other end.’ Afterwards, I went back, and he signed a picture of his truck and gave it to me. I am glad to have met him.”
Craig Sanburn: "I have a great story of drag racing and my youth. The problem is, I've never been able to find out just whose house it was I lived by! While in the third or fourth grade in Dallas, a new student arrived. Her family had moved into a house across the street from my grade school, Edwin J. Kiest Elementary. All I remember is her name, Rene. I think their last name was Coslow or something close to that. While walking home, I noticed a bunch of trailers, some with dragsters inside. Rene told me her dad painted dragsters for a living in their garage. She took me inside, and there were dragster bodies everywhere. They even had the front nose off a car that had wrecked, and the driver had died from injuries. One car I totally remember getting painted was the Wienerschnitzel dragster. It was beautiful and in the following years showed up in several magazines. The paint was amazing! In the many years since, I have inquired to many a Texas racer (I now live in Northern California) and can’t find anyone that knows who Rene's dad was; I even asked Eddie Hill, and he couldn't remember anyone in Dallas painting dragsters. So I'm wondering if anyone knows the answer to this question that I've carried for over 40 years. If you could get this out there, maybe one of your readers will remember. The time was around 1965 to 1968 when we moved away. Like I said, there were always several trailers and cars around their house, so maybe there's a reader that knows!”
Joe Wiles: “It was spring 1982. My parents bought me a 1967 Firebird for my first car. My dad was definitely NOT a gearhead, but I was always fascinated by mechanical things but did not have a clue how to work on a car. One afternoon, my dad catches me with the hood up and the breather off. His exact words (minus the expletive): ‘Leave that SOB alone. It runs just fine.’ Well, you know what that did: Spark the fire.
“Flash-forward to fall 1983. Leaving school one afternoon, some in-duh-vidual turned in front of me and totaled my ‘bird. Well, we got the insurance money, and now enters the 1969 Nova, complete with a wicked 307 two-barrel, chrome reverse wheels, and air shocks. This was one BAD machine. I could spin that right rear tire like there was no tomorrow. I managed to get myself a job at the local service station (remember those?). I still didn’t have a clue how to work on cars, but I muddled my way through it. My first oil change on a customer’s car was an experience in itself. Well, time and experience progress, and I wind up with a boneyard 300-horse 327 four-barrel out of an Impala. The guys at the station kept telling me about this Tex Cooper guy that was a racer and could get me all kinds of parts for my 327. Unbeknownst to me, this guy lives around the corner and half a block from my house. I managed to muster the courage to go talk to him about getting some parts. He worked for Gaerte engines, which didn’t mean crap to me because, well, I didn’t know crap about cars. This guy’s name could have been Charlie Manson, and it would not have meant anything to me. Anyway, Tex gets me a cam, rings, bearings, and some dress-up goodies for my 327. I began to hang around the Cooper house quite a bit asking stupid questions and probably became quite a nuisance.
“I finally decided to tackle the 327 build. Remember the part about not knowing crap about cars? It didn’t matter. Well, after installing and removing the rods and pistons a few times, I finally get the engine put together. I get it dropped in the car, hooked up, turned the key. It sounded like I left the plugs out of it. Who knew you had to line up the marks on the timing chain? Well, after several trips to Tex’s house bugging him with questions, he finally caves and comes down to look (probably just to get me to quit bugging him). Apparently, he felt sorry for me. The next day, he brings me a good (not new) set of valves from the shop to replace the old bent ones. Well, I get it all fixed, and Tex starts giving me tuning tips, and I hang around and ‘help’ him in his garage. Oh, did I mention the blown 392 Hemi that sat in the corner of his garage? Pictures on the wall show that it used to sit between the rails of an old Datsun pickup. Next to the pics of the Tex’s Twister nitro Funny Car and the blown gas ‘57 Chevy, that is.
“So, I start to follow drag racing and begin to know the names of the guys (and gals) associated with the sport. So one year (1983, I think) he takes me to the Nationals. We make our way to the pits. I’m following him around like a lost puppy totally enamored with what’s going on. Then, he totally blows my mind. We walk up to Gene Snow’s pit, and he ducks under the ropes and proceeds to enter the transporter. I’m mortified. What the hell is he doing? Then out walks Gene, who says, 'Marc, how the hell are you doing?’ Marc? Who the hell is Marc? Well, not only did I figure out that Tex knew Gene Snow, his name was not Tex at all. Anyway, we proceed around the pits, and he’s talking to all these guys I read about. He was even boyhood friends with Gary Harwood. You cannot even imagine how taken back I was. As years progressed, he never ceased to amaze me how many people he knew in the sport. Over the years, I got more and more stories and met more of the guys I read about and some that I didn’t. I owe it all (or the blame thereof) to my father for doubting me and Tex for dragging me along. I’m great friends with my dad and still great friends with Tex. That friendship has lasted nearly 30 years now.”
Gary Augliera: “I grew up in West Haven, Conn., home of Macey & Suraci's Lead Zeppelin Hemi 'Cuda and Lead Zeppelin II ‘66 Plymouth wagon. It is also the town where Bill Flynn had his shop. My father, a Chrysler guy, was, I think, a gearhead down deep, but he could not show it because my two brothers and I were already car crazy.
“My father's moving company garage was about a mile between both Flynn's and Macey & Suraci's shop on the Post Road. He would come home and say, ‘Get in the car,’ and take us to see Macey doing burnouts in the street. Macey would back into the street and do burnouts back into the garage. Sometimes we would go see Flynn unload the car and drive it in his shop. Bill was not all that friendly, although late in life, he really was a good guy.
“One of most impressionable things in my life was when my father took us to Lorrello Motors, the Dodge dealer in West Haven; Flynn had his '65 altered-wheelbase Coronet on display in their showroom. It was a wooden building. When he started the injected Hemi, it shook the building; my father dragged us outside fearing the place was going to come down on us. Then Flynn did some dry hops on Campbell Avenue, about a block from the police department. That night changed my life!"
Donnie Heaton: “I feel I was the luckiest kid on the planet. For almost 20 years when Don Garlits came to the West Coast, he would stay with my family. One of my best friends during these visits was T.C. Lemons; he’d take me with him to pick up tires, fuel, and to go testing at Pomona. My dad's shop (Bud's Muffler) was a hangout for many racers -- Garlits, Jim Dunn, Gary Southern, 'Starvin' Marvin' [Schwartz], Les Ritchey (who worked on my dad's car), Les Hawkins, Norm Weekly, Nick Serino … way too many people to remember. I grew up at the drags and to this day still attend and work on race teams. My dad loved to help these racers; some had no money, but that didn't matter -- it was about racing. I still have my dad's club jacket (Ground Shakers). How lucky I was!”
I’d like to close with more words on the topic by the aforementioned Mr. Crumine (pretty soon I’m going to have to start paying this guy) that, again, I think we all can agree on: “Sitting here reading everyone’s story really takes me back. And it really highlights just how much drag racing has changed over the years. Between Funny Car and Pro Stock grudge matches, wheelstander and jet car exhibitions, and the gasser wars, there sure is a lot that I miss. Just the whine of a blower from the far end … priceless. I really miss the dry hops of the fuel cars. The pre-race rituals of laying down the rosin, and Pro Stocks making several wheels-up launches, and all while the announcer is screaming at you in an attempt to get the crowd worked up into a frenzy … as if we needed any more hype to get the juices flowing. No energy drinks needed; we ran on pure adrenaline. The absolute unpredictability of the gassers and fuel altereds. Man, things have changed. How can a person convey what this was like? To grow up and live through the golden age of drag racing, and motorsports in general. It makes us the luckiest people in the whole world. Thanks to everyone for sharing. It proves that no matter where you grew up, what your financial situation was, your ethnic background, etc. that we all lived similar experiences and were drawn together by something much bigger than politics. A little thing called the drags.”
Amen, brother. Thanks, everyone, for sharing.