It may only be Nov. 22, but it already feels like Christmas Eve for this Orange County Int’l Raceway pit rat looking forward to the OCIR Reunion tomorrow at the NHRA Motorsports Museum. Even though I never got a chance to visit Lions Drag Strip, I attended the Lions Reunion at the museum last year and got a real kick out of it, so I’m certain that hearing the legends of the sport talk about the dragstrip (home of my youth) will bring back lots of great memories. John Force, Don “the Snake” Prudhomme, Tom “the Mongoose” McEwen, “TV Tommy” Ivo, Roland Leong, Carl Olson, Ed Pink, Gary Densham, OCIR founding President and General Manager Mike Jones, and others will be on the panel sharing their memories and answering questions from what’s sure to be a packed house. I’ll have a full review of the affair next week. In the meantime, you may enjoy reliving this three-part column I did on OCIR five years ago on the 25th anniversary of its closing [Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3].
Apparently my giddiness didn’t allow me time to focus on a subject-oriented column (though I have a bunch in the works), and I noticed that the ol’ mailbox is starting to overflow again with comments about topics past and present, so I thought I’d spend this time sorting through the many contributions from the Insider Nation.
Last Friday’s column, which included mention of Don Garlits’ use of the Donovan engine in 1977, inspired Fred Gunton to send along the photo at right of “Big Daddy" and Donovan in mid-discussion in Seattle in late 1976. That’s Gunton on the right in the cap. “I was chatting with Don, and Donovan walked over and asked him if he could ask him a question. [Don] replied, ‘Go ahead,' and then the offer came!”
According to his book, Don Garlits and His Cars, Garlits writes that Donovan “offered me an engine deal I couldn’t refuse” and convinced Garlits to abandon the Dodge Hemi 426 he had run for the previous 13 years for the new Donovan 417. The deal appears to have been free parts, and, because Garlits was spending the then-whopping sum of $60,000 a year with Keith Black, he jumped all over it.
The Donovan first went into Swamp Rat 23 (the car with which he had won the IHRA championship while boycotting NHRA over disagreements about how some aspects of the 1975 title chase was handled), and the car set low e.t. and was runner-up to Jerry Ruth in its debut in his return to NHRA competition at the 1977 Winternationals. He also was runner-up (to James Warren) at the March Meet but was using up a ton of parts trying to figure out the necessary fuel volume, so with his hometown Gatornationals next up, he hauled Swamp Rat 22 (the 5.63, 250-mph car) out of mothballs and reverted back to the K-B and won the race, then returned to the Donovan project.
He and the recently departed Don “Mad Dog” Cook built Swamp Rat 24 (the blue and white God Is Love car) specifically for the Donovan. They again set low e.t. (5.771) at the Winternationals in 1978 but lost in round one to Richard Tharp, then in quick succession won the AHRA Winternationals at Beeline Dragway outside of Phoenix and the Gatornationals again in Gainesville. They ran the Donovan for all of 1978 but ultimately switched back to the K-B at the start of the 1979 season because the Donovan “was just not strong enough for the horsepower being produced in 1978.”
I got an interesting note and some photos from Dave Parsons about the “chopping down the Christmas Tree” thread from September. I had shown the first photo in the gallery at right and was only able to identify that it was an injected dragster that took out the bottom bulb of the Tree at Irwindale Raceway and had no idea what happened after that (though clearly things were not looking good for the wayward shoe).
“After a little detective work, I can name the culprit!” Parsons wrote. “What jogged something in my brain was the sinuous guardrail at Irwindale, and it summoned memories of some photos in a children’s book from 1971 titled On the Drag Strip. In it, the author describes what it is like for a driver to get ‘in big trouble’ (experience a crash) and provides a photo sequence — although the shot you have, which would be the first of the sequence, is not included. As I studied the book's images, my mind went into high gear, and my suspicions were confirmed. The first two images I’ve sent reveal the track to be Irwindale, and the push trucks in image two look to be the same and in the same position as in your photo.
Photo three shows the wavy guardrail, and we get a glimpse at the graphics behind the wheels, but in your photo, that area is obscured by the blackout panels on the Tree. Foiled! But in No. four, we get a glimpse of the graphics in front of the axle, and BINGO, it matches! Photo No. five gives us a clearer shot of the graphics with other telltale identification, like breather location on the early Hemi, headers, M&H Racemaster on the slicks, and one more thing — a picture of the driver. Well, I feel a little bad ratting him out, but the book’s author and self-confessed driver of the injected dragster is Ed Radlauer, children’s books author.”
Another mystery solved by the Insider Nation ... thanks Dave!
Speaking of Christmas Trees, I got the photos at left from Phil Rolsma, who opened Classic Gameroom Supply in Beaver Falls, Pa., after getting “downsized out of the corporate world” nearly three years ago. He now buys, sells, restores, and consigns 1940s and 1950s jukeboxes, slot machines, pinball machines, soda machines, and the like, including a like-new, five-amber Chrondek Tree with brain box, Chrondek Blue travel trunk, starting-line lights and reflectors, reaction timers, and starter-control box.
“This Tree was bought by a racer for use in his garage and purported to have been used outside at a track but once or twice, and I believe it,” Rolsma said. “The Gemini-era connectors in the thing are bad-ass on their own right, and you can eat out of the insides. It still has the Chrondek 'pass' ink stamps on the inside of the Tree. It is truly a special, once-in-a-lifetime, for-the-waiting-room-of-Hot Rod-magazine kind of piece. Or, Leno. I'm not, however, going to have it end up in an Applebee's somewhere. It just is another piece that gets that 'Where did you get that?' gasp when people walk in our appointment-only showroom.”
If you’re interested — and, for what it's worth, the Tree is one of those "If you have to ask the price, you probably can't afford it kind of things" — you can call him toll free at 888-9-PINBALL (746-2255) or check out 9PinBall.com. He's also got the cool Nitro Groundshaker pinball machine, which you can also see in the gallery.
A few years ago I ran several columns showing off some great, old dragstrip flyers [Part 1 | Part 2] and just got the image at right from my pal, memorabilia maven Mike Goyda, showing a promotional item from Augusta Int'l Speedway in Georgia. Although the flyer says it's located “south of Augusta” and “2,400 feet of Tobacco Road,” my research tells me that it was located in the bucolic town of Hephzibah, Ga., and was host not only to a dragstrip but also a three-mile-long road course, one-mile dirt oval, a two-mile-long tri-oval superspeedway, and a half-mile paved oval. NASCAR great “Fireball” Roberts won his last race there on the road course in November 1963, shortly before being killed in a fiery wreck in Charlotte.
Anyway, this flyer is advertising the appearing of “your hero and mine,” Tommy Ivo and his four-engine dragster, which makes it 1961. (The track opened in 1960 and closed in 1969.) But that’s not the real reason Goyda sent it to me. If you look closely at the image (or, better yet, click on the link below it to view a larger version), you’ll see that two weeks later, the track was holding its first Turkey Race: “25 turkeys will be turned loose for spectators to catch and carry home.”
“I thought you might do a column on the numerous whacked-out ways dragstrip promoters have found to promote attendance,” Goyda postulated. “I thought I had heard them all until this. At least they didn't insult Tommy by holding the Turkey Race in conjunction with his appearance, although being the showman that he was, he might have welcomed it.”
Great idea, Mike. So if anyone has any stories to share about crazy track promotions (like, say, if someone hypothetically had decided to drop turkeys out of a helicopter), I want to hear them. The weirder the better.
This just in: Shortly after this column was published, I got an email from Ron Pellegrini, who took over the controls of Ivo machine later that year (the movie studios didn't want their golden child driving such a wild machine). and drove the four-engined car at Augusta. "And if my memory is correct I went back on the 19th with the twin," he wrote. "I remember seeing live turkeys being thrown out of the bed of a pickup. After much pulling and tugging by the spectators some lucky (or unlucky) few went home with various parts of the same turkey."
Hint: I'm the good-looking one on the right.
Backtracking just a bit, I finally met up with Heather LeVay, daughter of the late fan-favorite Funny Car shoe Tripp Shumake, in Pomona for an update on the progress of the book she is writing about her father. You may remember a couple of stories [Part 1 | Part 2] that I wrote in this column about a year ago remembering “240 Shorty,” and to which Heather graciously shared her memories of her dad and also talked about her desire to do a book.
She’s been on the road ever since, collecting literally reams of remembrances from all kinds of folks to include in her book, which she hopes to self-publish next April. She’ll be including those two columns (including some of the great comments some of you contributed) and a treasure trove of photos she’s collected over the years. She’s been diligently trying to track down permissions from some of the photos she has, and I’ve been working with her to figure out some of that.
In the meantime, if you have any great photos of Tripp and/or his cars and you give Heather your permission to include them in the book, you can send them, plus any thoughts you want to share about him, to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
She’s poured her heart and soul and a daughter’s love into this book, and I’m really looking forward to the finished product, and I’m sure it will bring back lots of great memories from those of you who also knew Shumake. I’ll let you know when it’s available.
OK, that's it for today. Have a great Friday. I know I'll have a great Saturday, and I hope to see some of you there.
Wow, what a surprise. There are a few Don Garlits and Don Prudhomme fans out there among the Insider Nation. Who knew?
Yeah, so response to last week’s partially off-the-wall comparison of the similarities between the two Dons was a pretty big hit (even “the Snake,” his own bad self, stopped me during pre-race Sunday in Pomona to tell me he’d enjoyed it) and elicited quite a few comments from the peanut gallery, but, other than Ron Bikacsan’s note that neither are related, even by six degrees of separation to Kevin Bacon, it appears that I pretty much exhausted all of the coincidental touchpoints in their lives and careers.
Terry Kickerbocker couldn’t help but note that despite my “constant protestations” that I am “stretched to the limit” and never have enough time to do all that I need to, he thinks I have “entirely toooooo much time” on my hands to research stuff like this. Maybe so, but the truly sick thing is that I pretty much came up with about 90 percent of them in my head instead of deriving them from hours of research.
Probably my largest investment was going through their voluminous photo files (each pretty much occupies a full file cabinet drawer) to look for photos of them together. I didn’t find as many as I expected, but reader Rich Perez passed along a few others, which you can see in the gallery at right.
The first image in the gallery is the cover of the February 1972 issue of Hot Rod for an article on Ed Donovan’s aluminum 417 nitro engine featuring, from left, John Wiebe, Prudhomme, Donovan, and Garlits. Wiebe, of course, got the first Donovan and made it fly, which opened the floodgates, but I was puzzled by the inclusion of Prudhomme and Garlits. Neither of them by that time had run the Donovan; Garlits, who switched to Milodon blocks in the mid-1970s, ran a Donovan briefly in 1977, but I don’t think “the Snake,” who was loyal to either Keith Black or Ed Pink, ever did.
Looking at the magazine cover my first thought was to call photo shenanigans, at least on the Prudhomme inclusion. Wiebe has his hand on a head stud, Garlits on the blower belt, but Prudhomme almost looks like he was added into the background behind the other three. So I dragged out my copy of Hot Rod Magazine: All The Covers and found the original photo as set up by HRM Photo Editor Mike Brenner, showing the foursome posed on seamless paper (second image). Hah! Shows what I know.
The third image in the gallery shows “the Snake” and “Big Daddy” posing together at what looks like Orange County Int’l Raceway for a Revell ad touting its new 1/16th-scale model. Very cool. Thanks, Rich!
I had mentioned last week that there were three times in their careers where they entered a year tied for most wins, and one of the requests that I got was to show a year-by-year accounting of each of the Don’s wins, so you can find that in the table below. I added a third column to show Pro Stock icon Bob Glidden’s meteoric rise to the top despite giving the Dons a huge head start of about a decade.
||Garlits season wins
|Prudhomme season wins
|Glidden season wins
|| Did not compete
|| Did not compete
|| Did not compete
|| Did not compete
|| Did not compete
|| Did not compete
|| Did not compete
|| Did not compete
|| Did not compete
|| Did not compete
|| Did not compete
|| Did not compete
|| Did not compete
|| Did not compete
|| Did not compete
|| Did not compete
The 1960s: Both were running in Top Fuel in the decade, and Garlits’ first win, at the 1963 Winternationals, was actually Prudhomme’s national event debut with the Greer-Black Prudhomme car. Garlits won the 1964 Nationals before Prudhomme became nationally famous by driving Roland Leong’s Hawaiian to wins at the Winternationals and Nationals in 1965.
Both went winless in 1966; it was Prudhomme’s first solo foray with the B&M Torkmaster car while Garlits was experimenting with his first 426 in the red-painted Swamp Rat 10; it’s also the year that Garlits’ father died.
Prudhomme won the Springnationals in Bristol in 1967 with sixes in the Brand Ford Special, and Garlits followed with his second Nationals win, the memorable shaving-on-the-starting-line after finally running his first six in the final with the back-in-black Swamp Rat 11. Garlits won the Springnationals and the Nationals (again!) in 1968 with Swamp Rat 12-B while “the Snake” went winless with the Shelby Super Snake.
Prudhomme won the Nationals for the second time in 1969, driving his Wynn’s Winder to victory; Garlits was driving the fateful Swamp Rat 13 and experimenting with two-speed transmissions, a combination that would maim him the following March at Lions.
The 1970s: Garlits sat out the 1970 season recuperating from his devastating injuries, and Prudhomme joined him as a three-time Indy champ that year, winning the explosively memorable final round over Jim Nicoll. Garlits was back in action in 1971 with the new rear-engine car and famously won the Winternationals in its debut as well as the Springnationals. Prudhomme was trying to run his new Hot Wheels Funny Car and the weird “slab-sided” dragster, and the split effort showed; he didn’t run but half of the events and, for the first time in his career, was first-round fodder when he did.
Prudhomme’s last full season in Top Fuel was 1972 with the Yellow Feather and the Hot Wheels wedge, and though he reached the quarterfinals on several occasions, he didn’t win. Garlits, by now heavy into AHRA and warring with Wally Parks, won the only NHRA race he entered, the Gatornationals. Garlits beat the year’s killer e.t. car, the Jack McKay New Dimension machine with Clayton Harris in the saddle, and Garlits went as far as pouring tablespoons of oil into his own headers before he fired to try to psyche Harris into thinking that his engine was wounded.
Prudhomme got back into the winner’s circle in 1973 with his first Funny Car win, at the Nationals, where he became the first to win the Big Go in both nitro classes. Garlits bookended his season with wins on Prudhomme’s California home turf at the Winternationals and Supernationals. Garlits won the combo Supernationals/World Finals again in 1974 in Ontario while “the Snake” conquered Indy again and also won Garlits’ hometown Gatornationals.
Garlits had a strong 1975 with three wins and his first championship, but Prudhomme, of course, went that far better with six wins in eight events and his first title with the vaunted Army Monza. Prudhomme’s 1976 encore was seven wins in eight races and, for the first time since the 1967 Springnationals, had more career wins than Garlits, who boycotted the NHRA tour that year. Prudhomme won three more times in 1977 (including his sixth Indy) en route to his third straight championship while Garlits only ran about two-thirds of the events and scored only (again) at the Gatornationals.
Despite three more wins in 1978 and his fourth championship, it was clear that pack was closing on Prudhomme; Garlits won the Gatornationals and Indy, the latter for the fifth time. Garlits won three times in 1979 to close the decade while Prudhomme won just once, over an eight-car field at le Grandnational in Canada, and relinquished his long-worn crown to Raymond Beadle.
The 1980s: Despite occasional forays into NHRA competition – most notably his 1982 runner-up to Shirley Muldowney at the Gatornationals (where she memorably ranked him as a “marginal” driver before a national TV audience) – Garlits wouldn’t win again on the NHRA trail until his Rocky-like comeback at the 1984 U.S. Nationals as he protested various NHRA rules he didn’t like and experimented with wild machines, like his sidewinder and turbine cars, and ran IHRA and AHRA events.
The early 1980s weren’t that kind to Prudhomme either. He still won his share but began to fall down the final standings chart: sixth in 1980, seventh in 1983, and a stunning 10th in 1984. Not that “the Snake” couldn’t still bring it – witness the first 250-mph Funny Car pass and unreal 5.63 in 1982 – but the killer instinct seemed to have been worn out as he went winless in 1983, 1984, and 1985, his first skunkings in a decade. “The Snake” sat out the 1986 season – his first sabbatical ever – looking for funding.
Garlits, meanwhile, had experienced a career renaissance and – in some people’s minds, including mine – almost single-handedly saved Top Fuel from extinction with his inspiring win at Indy and a follow-up at the Finals. While Prudhomme was struggling, Garlits put together back-to-back 1985-86 seasons of six and five wins and championships No. 2 and 3 while looking like the “Big Daddy” of old and opened 1987 with his 35th – and, ultimately, final – win. It was very cool for new fans of the 1980s to get a glimpse of how tough “the Old Man” used to be in his heyday.
Prudhomme returned in 1987 with backing from Skoal that would last through the end of his driving career and won the Gatornationals that year, defeating the car of his longtime pal Roland Leong (Johnny West driving) in the final. He and Garlits were tied then with 345 careers win. Prudhomme got some more of his mojo back and had a top-five car from 1987 to 1988 but looked like he was all the way back in 1989, especially a national-record-setting weekend in Indy when he swept the Big Bud Shootout and his seventh and final U.S. Nationals crown.
If 1987 was Prudhomme’s comeback win, it was also the beginning of the end for Garlits. He had walked away unhurt and unfazed from his 1986 Englishtown blowover but another just before Indy in 1987 broke two ribs and injured his back. Other than a guest shot in Shirley Muldowney’s car in the opening qualifying session at the NHRA event in Dallas in late 1989 in an attempt to add a 4-Second Club membership card to his already bulging billfold (he just missed with a 5.07), he wouldn’t race again until 1992.
The 1990s: With his Funny Car at the top of its game in 1989, it surprised a lot of people when he announced that he was returning to Top Fuel in 1989. He admitted he had been spooked by Don Gay Jr.’s nasty fire at the 1989 event in Denver – Prudhomme not only ran alongside him but helped pull him out of the smoldering chassis – and wanted the engine behind him, but there were other reasons.
"We had thought of doing this in 1987, but I didn't want to leave Funny Car running terrible,” he said. “I wanted to go out a winner. Now that we are running great, I can go out a winner. Top Fuel is the No. 1 class, and I want to be a part of it."
It wasn’t a warm welcome.
He backflipped his Skoal Bandit in December testing in Bakersfield and again at Le Grandnational in Canada and went winless in the season, but things got better. He opened 1991 with three runner-ups before reaching the winner’s circle in Columbus and won twice more that year (finishing third in points) and won three times again in 1992 (sixth place).
Garlits’ 1992 comeback lasted just a few runs. He competed at the Atlanta event, which Prudhomme won, but failed to qualify with his slick new monowinged Swamp Rat 32 but had unknowingly suffered detached retinas in both eyes during a two-parachute stop during pre-event testing in Gainesville. He retired (again) and turned the seat over to Bruce Larson. He’s run again this decade, just once, in a New Year’s Eve match race against Shirley Muldowney in Florida to celebrate the new millennium. He wouldn’t drive again until the 2001 U.S. Nationals, where he made his first four-second and 300-mph passes and then ran sporadically in 2002-03 before retiring (again).
Prudhomme finished out his final five seasons all in Top Fuel. After a winless 1993 campaign, his “Final Strike” retirement season was a great one with wins in Houston, Brainerd, and Dallas to take him to 49 career wins. Runner-up finishes in E-town and Topeka meant that milestone win No. 50 eluded him (although he did also win that year’s non-points Winston Invitational). He retired from driving after losing to Bob Vandergriff Jr. in round one at the Finals but went on to win Top Fuel season championships with Larry Dixon and race wins with drivers like Ron Capps, Tommy Johnson Jr., and Spencer Massey.
The Glidden factor: As you can see from the chart, it didn’t take long for Glidden to catch up thanks to his rampaging Ford Pro Stockers. After a runner-up in his first final at the 1972 Supernationals, he started piling up wins beginning in 1973 like they were going out of style. Within five seasons, he has surpassed Garlits' total and within seven had topped Prudhomme.
Prudhomme had been the first to reach the once unthinkable total of 25 wins (1978 Winternationals), but Glidden was the first to reach 50 wins (1986 Dallas) and 75 wins (1989 Reading). The fact that it took him just three seasons to go from 25 to 50 is testament to just how tough he was in that era.
Glidden’s only winless season came in 1994, but, despite a heart attack in December 1994, he came back to win his 85th and final event the next year in Englishtown.
Wow, that was a lot of fun and brought back a lot of good memories. It’s amazing sometimes to try to imagine the length of their careers and the thousands and thousands of runs they have made over their careers, all of the miles they’ve traveled, places they’ve raced, work they’ve done, and fans they have thrilled over the course of two amazing lifetimes. It's no wonder they're still regarded as gods.
While I was writing last week’s column and doing research comparing the careers of Don Prudhomme and Don Garlits, it struck as kind of interesting that two of the biggest names in our sport’s history, two of our most iconic heroes, both have the same first name. Spooky, right? As it turns out, that’s not the half of it.
They both won their first NHRA championships in 1975, and, despite a combined 84 career NHRA wins between them, they only shared the winner’s circle three times, all in that 1975 championship season. Finishing second behind them that year? Two Garys: Beck and Burgin.
It kind of reminds me of that macabre list of “coincidences” that people cite when talking about the assassinations of presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy (Lincoln was elected president in 1860; Kennedy in 1960; both of their successors were named Johnson; Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln, was born in 1808; Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy, was born in 1908; the names Lincoln and Kennedy each contain seven letters; and so on).
So, with nothing better to do on the short workweek before the launch of the Auto Club NHRA Finals in Pomona – a venue, by the way, where both drivers scored six wins in their careers – I thought I’d get a little silly (I know. Me? Seriously …) and see what other coincidences might “Don” on me.
OK, well here’s some low-hanging fruit. Each made a stupefying pass – Garlits in 1975 and Prudhomme in 1982 – for which they’ll forever be remembered, and both had the same elapsed time: 5.63. Here’s where it (read: I) gets weird. The sum of the numbers 5+6+3 = 14, which divided by two (racers) equals seven, the number of years between the two passes. Mind = blown, right?
Before they became racing superstars, both painted cars for a living.
Both married – and remain married – to their high-school sweethearts, Pat for Garlits and Lynn for Prudhomme.
Both have daughters named Donna. Garlits has a second daughter, Gay Lynn (middle name ring a bell?).
At one time both had Wynn’s as the primary sponsors of their front-engine dragsters.
Both scored their first career wins at the Winternationals (1963 for Garlits and 1965 for Prudhomme).
Both have animal nicknames (“Swamp Rat” and “the Snake”) that are eight characters long, as is Garlits’ other sobriquet, “Big Daddy.”
Each suffered two wheelstand blowovers in their Top Fuel careers (Garlits in 1986 and 1987 and Prudhomme twice in 1990).
They both were the first in their class to breach the 250-mph barrier at an NHRA national event. (Garlits also is credited in some places with the first 240-mph Top Fuel run; Prudhomme made the first legit 240-mph Funny Car pass.)
In the early 1970s, both experimented briefly with aerodynamic Top Fuelers (the Wynn’s Liner for Garlits and the Hot Wheels wedge for Prudhomme).
At three times in their careers, they entered a season with the same number of wins: 1968 (3), 1975 (14), 1988 (35).
Despite a combined 113 final-round NHRA appearances, they never raced one another in an NHRA final round.
Both suffered terrible – yet, curiously, overlapping – four-year win droughts in their careers (Garlits 1980-83 and Prudhomme 1983-86), both of which spanned exactly 55 events. Hey, I don’t make this stuff up.
Both of their championships reigns were ended by Texans driving blue cars; Garlits by Richard Tharp in the Candies & Hughes dragster in 1976 and Prudhomme by Raymond Beadle in the Blue Max in 1979.
Neither was in the habit of letting other people drive their cars, but Butch Maas drove for both. Maas tested Garlits’ Wynn’s Liner in 1972 and drove “the Snake's” Top Fueler at the 1970 Supernationals while Prudhomme was running his new Funny Car.
Good stuff, so what else ya got there, Master P? Glad you asked …
They were born 3,371 days apart (Garlits on Jan. 14, 1932, Prudhomme on April 6, 1941). 3+3+7+1 = 14. Prudhomme won 14 more NHRA Wallys than Garlits (49 to 35). Math is fun!
Black is Garlits’ favorite color; Keith Black was Prudhomme’s first crew chief.
Garlits’ middle name is Glenn. Prudhomme's mother was born in Louisiana, as was Glenn Menard, who managed Irwindale Raceway, where both Garlits and Prudhomme competed. (I know, weird, right?)
Prudhomme’s middle name is Ray; Garlits is originally from Tampa, Fla., home of a Major League Baseball team called the Rays.
Both of their full names – Donald Glenn Garlits and Donald Ray Prudhomme – have 18 letters. Coincidence? I think not.
And finally, neither driver ever picked a fight with Ed McCulloch (who, I must admit, looks pretty surly in the photo with them above).
That’s a pretty good list, no? I bet you have stuff to add to it. I look forward to reading them!
Well, I devoured my new Six Seconds to Glory book during the race weekend in Las Vegas and found it to be every bit as tasty as I had imagined. It was packed with enough mouthwatering morsels to satisfy any Don Prudhomme fan, was filled with the kind of essential nutrients necessary for any good story, and left a good taste in my mouth about my decision to buy it.
OK, so I didn’t actually eat the book (how gullible are you?), but everything else is true. I’m a quick reader and finished it in the span of two one-hour plane rides (plus runway taxi time) and even took notes along the way to share. The tasty morsels for me were not so much in the telling of the story – although I do admit it was a masterful way to spread two hours of real time, from Prudhomme’s semifinal win against Leroy Goldstein to his final-round encounter with Ed McCulloch, over 130-something pages – but in the minute details that author Hal Higdon captured and the Prudhomme quotes from 40-plus years ago.
A whole chapter is devoted to his early years and his first cars and racing experiences with Keith Black, Tommy Ivo, Tom McCourry, Dave Zeuschel, and others. Prudhomme’s first “wheels” were a Mustang motorcycle, purchased with money he earned on his newspaper route. He also worked as a gardener and collected eggs and fed chickens at a farm before settling into painting cars for a living.
Just a few of the many other interesting things I learned:
Although it was common practice for the Funny Cars to parade back up the return road with their bodies open, Prudhomme had his body down – and he “drove” -- to make getting back to the pits faster and to prevent the body from being dislodged if they hit a bump.
Before eliminations began that Monday, McCulloch looked at the ladder and predicted that he and Prudhomme would meet in the final.
McCulloch was using a foot-activated “kick shifter.”
The final round – all 6.38 seconds of it – is detailed in nine pages: Every move that either driver made is analyzed, such as how McCulloch had the early lead, but the car started drifting to the centerline, and because he had been running the car all event with the front end light to plant all of the weight on the back tires, he was forced to lightly lift to get the front wheels down, which may have led to the defeat. Cool stuff.
There are also interesting sections about Prudhomme’s physical and verbal altercations with guys like John “Tarzan” Austin, Billy Meyer, and Dale Pulde and with a group of parts thieves, with Prudhomme menacingly wielding a baseball bat to get his stuff back.
I also thought that Higdon did an excellent job of catching Prudhomme’s way of talking. I’ve spoken to ‘the Snake” so many times – and you’ve probably picked it up too from interviews you’ve seen – and he sometimes has a very interesting way of expressing himself. When Prudhomme answers Higdon’s question about whether needling goes on between drivers, “the Snake” says, “Constantly,” but Higdon beautifully added this: “He replied, slowly, as though to emphasize the word.” I instantly could hear Prudhomme’s voice in my head saying that, a bit exasperated.
Here are two other great snippets, along with my reaction:
At the time the race was under way, Prudhomme had never held a national record. “Records are kind of an ego thing,” he said dismissively. “They don’t really mean much; it’s nice when you have them, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to get one. I wouldn’t put my car through the strains of trying to get a record and possibly sacrifice a motor. I don’t need that.” Yeah, right … this is the same guy who later relished – in his own words – “ripping their throats out” with killer runs, recorded the first five and 240- and 250-mph passes, and blew up his engine going 5.63 at the 1982 Nationals.
Prudhomme is famous for his single-minded pursuit of victory at the expense of almost all else, including making nice with just about anyone (“Yeah, I was a bit of an asshole,” he concedes now), and he laid it out for Higdon. “I like the fellows,” Prudhomme said of his competitors. “I don’t have anything against them, but I don’t make a point of sitting around with them. A lot of guys think you should be over shucking and jiving all the time. I like to be alone at the races. ... I don’t want to talk to people. If I’m beat, I’d just as soon leave the track. The other drivers don’t like that because they want you to sit around and face the music, so they can look at you and grin. My attitude is that if I don’t win, I don’t want to see anybody. I hope it rains and the race is over and nobody wins.”
Higdon asked Prudhomme, who as we know would go on to win four championships and 43 more national events, what lay in his future.
“I don’t feel I’ve accomplished enough. Someday I want to really be ahead of the pack. I want to win even more. I guess Don Garlits is one of the guys who keeps me going because I want to someday win more events than he has won and surpass what he’s done, and that’s going to be a tough job.”
At the time, Garlits had nine wins to Prudhomme’s six (although three of Prudhomme’s wins had come in Indy, one more than Garlits at the time), and it didn’t take him but a couple of years to pass Garlits. (At the time, Ronnie Sox was the all-time leader at 15.) Garlits and Prudhomme entered the1975 season with 11 and eight wins, respectively. Garlits won four times (including Indy), tying him with Sox at 15, and Prudhomme six times in his first championship season, bringing him to 14. They shared the winner’s circle in Pomona and Montreal and at the unforgettable event at Ontario. Prudhomme tied Garlits and Sox when he won the 1976 Winternationals and became the all-time wins leader when he won the Gatornationals a month later. He remained No. 1 until Bob Glidden’s 31st win (1980 World Finals) passed him. “Snake” would win 19 more races to finish with 49 but never regained the top spot, now held by John Force. Today, Prudhomme sits 15th on the overall wins list.
I got a lot of nice feedback from readers about the book, including Scott Herrier, son of Jerry Herrier, who is mentioned throughout the book as the capable crewmember beside crew chief Bob Brandt.
“I am lucky enough to have an original copy of the book,” he said. “It was given to my father. Mr. Higdon was nice enough to sign it for my dad when he gave it to him. My dad’s picture is in the book a number of times. My favorite is of him running after ‘Snake’s’ car at Indy in 1973.” He also sent a couple of photos of his dad working on “the Snake’s” Barracuda.
“In the first one, he is reaching into the back of the duallie with ‘Weasel’ [Brandt] with his hands on the motor. The second one is of the first Army car (the Barracuda). ‘Snake’ was cool enough to put my dad’s name on the Vega he redid. My dad was very appreciative. I love listening to all the road stories he has told me over the years. He worked for ‘Snake’ all of 1973 into early ‘74. His last race with him was the Gatornationals in '74, which he won.”
I also heard from some runners who had no idea that Higdon had written about their other favorite sport.
“I ran marathons and triathlons for many years until lumbar surgery ended that,” wrote Luther Hopp. "When I saw the name Hal Higdon, I wondered what he could possibly have to do with the NHRA as I have read many of his books on running, and his contributions to Runner’s World magazine were often the gospel for endurance athletes.”
Mark "Hog Wild" Elms, whom I met in St. Louis after he was selected for National Dragster’s Backstage Pass perk for NHRA Members, is a big “Snake” fan (with the tattoos to prove it) who read the book when it was serialized in Super Stock & Drag Illustrated from February 1977 to February 1978. “But you ain't gonna believe this,” he added. “I never realized just who Hal Higdon was. I read his books in the ‘90s about running. I ran four marathons in the late ‘90s and real early 2000s. I would train at between 60 and 72 miles a week. I never ran to win; I was not that fast. I ran for peace of mind. I loved it and always finished in the top 25 percent; three hours and 39 minutes was my best time.”
Don Thomas and Al Kean also wrote to verify that the entire book had been published in the magazine.
Bill Anderson is one of the lucky owners of an original copy of Six Seconds to Glory, having special-ordered it through a local bookstore when it was first published, and added the ultimate accessory, a personalized Prudhomme autograph; he also had “the Snake” sign an interior page – right under a photo of Prudhomme signing autographs!
“I’ll never part with the book,” he wrote. “When I’m gone, my kids will probably dump it as one of Dad’s silly treasures!”
I heard – as expected – from my ol’ pal Todd Veney, who shares with me an almost cult-like fandom of “the Snake.” He remembers checking the book out of the Wadsworth, Ohio, library as a youngster in the summer of 1975. “My absolute favorite book ever, ever, ever,” he added. “There are so many great bits, like how McCulloch left on him big time but had to lift to set the front end down. If there’d been reaction times, I would have loved to know what the true MOV [margin of victory] was."
Todd also asked if I thought that they’d actually do a reprint if they were able to find the original photos (as mentioned by Octane Press rep Tobi Gros), but almost before I could answer him, Tobi wrote me back to say that even if they don’t ever do a reprint, they’re thinking of at least scanning the images from the original book and posting them on their website. I’ll let you know if that happens.
That’s it for this week. Thanks again for your faithful reading and constant correspondence. I’m looking forward to next week and the conclusion of the 2013 season in Pomona. Las Vegas solved half of the championship equation in the Pro classes, but we’ll have to head out to the track next weekend to see if Shawn Langdon can add his name to the historic list of NHRA Top Fuel champions and which of the six Pro Stock drivers still mathematically in contention will walk away with that title.