Ramping up the excitement levelTuesday, July 13, 2010
Posted by: Phil Burgess

News of Don Prudhomme's find of former partner Tom McEwen's Hot Wheels ramp truck, first reported here last week, has really ramped up the excitement, if you will, at the prospect of seeing it with Prudhomme's recently restored hauler in the near future. Here's a bit of a sneak preview of what it's going to look like. Our crack photo staff found this image among the 1970 Winternationals color slides. Save for the stupid telephone pole in the way, it's a cool photo, very clearly taken at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.

I shared it with Skip Allum, from Prudhomme's camp, who pointed out that McEwen's truck was pretty devoid of decals, meaning that this might have been very early in "the Mongoose's" ownership of the truck, whereas Prudhomme's rig had quite a few more decals.

I received a lot of responses and some neat stuff, including this other great photo, sent by Drew Hierwarter, of Lou Baney, a major industry mover and shaker who was instrumental in the careers of both "the Mongoose" and "the Snake" -- both drove his Brand Ford Top Fueler. Bill Holland, who confirmed Baney's ID in this pic, noted, "Lou was quite an incredible character. I think one of the earliest Hot Rod magazines in the '40s showed him and a team of guys building a car at a show. I also think he was involved with the old Saugus dragstrip with Don Rackemann. Once we were racing at OCIR and blew a head gasket. We started thrashing on the car, and next thing I knew, there was Baney right in the mix, helping out. He was that kind of guy. He was also quite an entertaining guy at the mic. He'd have the room in stitches in no time. Probably only Bill Doner was better."

Glenn Menard said that seeing the two trucks together brought back memories of a race at Southland Dragway in Houma, La., where Menard was the manager, and of the drawing power of the duo. "I had booked the Hot Wheels pair for a Sunday match race and convinced the track owner to let me run TV spots (how revolutionary) in the Saturday morning cartoon shows in New Orleans and Baton Rouge," he wrote. "The hook was a free Hot Wheels car with every pit pass purchased. Did it work? How about it rained all day on Sunday, but we still sold 5,000 pit tickets. The fans paid for rain checks, got their Hot Wheels, made a U-turn in the pits, and went back home to return for the rain date later."

Steve Quercio especially is looking forward to seeing the McEwen truck back in its full glory. "I remember thousands of miles sitting in that thing!" he recalled. "I was just a kid, and our friend Jack Williams talked McEwen into letting me travel with them that summer to sell Drag News at the races. Jerry Irving was the mechanic. We would run a Wednesday at U.S. 30, then a Friday in Pennsylvania, Saturday in New York, and Sunday in Epping, N.H. We would really run a ton of dates, and people loved those two match racers."

Here's a pretty cool little item. Allum sent this photo of an interesting find that the Prudhomme restoration team already has uncovered as they began work on McEwen's truck. Inside the headliner, they discovered these original pieces, which obviously were put there by the Sox & Martin team when they owned the truck. They are the team's 1968 Car Craft Magazine All-star Drag Racing Team stickers as well as a couple of photos of the team's 1968 Mopar. Noted Allum, "Given the year, it's very possible that either Sox, Martin, or someone from their team placed them there years ago!" Wow, what a find.

And speaking of restorations by Prudhomme, Allum also sent this photo of one of their other ongoing projects, the 1999 Copenhagen Funny Car that Ron Capps drove. If you remember, this gold "Snake" car was very short-lived; it only made three passes at that year's U.S. Nationals before being burned to a crisp in the first round of Sunday's Shootout bonus race.

Of my mention that Prudhomme had to negotiate mightily to get a fair price on the truck, Chuck Edwards, who remembers seeing the Sox & Martin truck at Motor City Dragway decades ago, noted cheekily, "If a guy shows up with a flatbed truck and wants to buy your hauler, and even if you don't recognize him as 'the Snake,' wouldn't you want top dollar, too?" Note to self: Always park flatbed around the corner.

Reader Jeff Mittendorf, one of the many ramp-truck-obsessed among you, passed along a link to an interesting page that's a spotter's guide to determining the correct year of those famous Dodge trucks. Check it out here. The site's history page also has some interesting factoids concerning changes to the trucks throughout the years.

With that in mind, he noted, "I've always wondered about something, and with your contacts, maybe you can answer it. Note that Prudhomme's hauler had the 1965-1967 Dodge grille. McEwen's had a 1968 grille but the 1965-1967 hood (I don't know if Sox & Martin did that or McEwen; all the pics I have of the Sox & Martin hauler show the earlier grille, but they may have upgraded at some point prior to sale). With all the publicity these two were generating, I always found it odd that Chrysler let them parade around the country with obsolete grilles and didn't upgrade them to the 1970 versions (a simple swap, I believe). During the 1971 season, Prudhomme had a grille that hadn't been on a new truck in four years. Any insight?"

I don't have any, but maybe the readers do.

Jeff also shared a link to a message board that discussed ramp trucks, where, after scrolling through several hundred messages, I stumbled on this photo of McEwen's old truck, in much better shape than when Prudhomme found it. According to the message poster, this photo was taken in Van Nuys, Calif., in 2000.

(Post-posting note: Affter a posted this entry, reader Vince Weeks wrote to say that he doesn't think this is the same truck that Prudhomme just purchased. "If you look at McEwen's truck it has four doors behind the rear tire and this one has two doors also the bed is on way more of a angle than McEwen's and appears to be shorter," he notes. "Also if you look at the roof of the ramp truck in Van Nuys it doesn't have a Kysor air conditioner on top. Actually the Van Nuys truck looks more updated with aluminum wheels in back and the big chrome bumper up front. If you look at the pictures of the truck the way Prudhomme found it and the picture that you have posted of it when it was used for a Winston west hauler the paint is the same just faded. I guess the big question is if the Van Nuys truck isn't McEwen's than whose truck was it?" Good question!!!)

Although not really related to the topic, Gary Crumine noted that the early-1970s era of the ramp truck was the beginning of a change in how teams identified their cars, from the cars' names to the drivers' names on their sides as the drivers began to have some equity.

"We used to go see the Blue Max, or the Hawaiian, or the Chi-Town Hustler, and it didn’t matter who the driver was at that time," he remembered. "I think Garlits was the first household name, along with the 'Snake' and 'Mongoose.' I also think that the Pro Stock guys actually started the shift to driver names: Sox & Martin, 'Grumpy' Jenkins, 'Dyno Don' Nicholson, Dick Landy, 'Fast Eddie' Schartman etc."

Speaking of the Hustler, I mentioned that the team probably had the longest-running ramp truck in drag racing history, though as Norman Hechtkoff noted, they modified it into a box truck that provided protection from the elements. Here's a photo of the truck from 1982, but the team ran well into 1983 and possibly beyond, even after receiving the Team Strange sponsorship. I wonder where this one is. Bet Austin Coil knows.

Back quickly to my Fourth of July Patriotic Power column, I received notes from Steve Henshaw and Mark Harmon alerting me that I'd left off the Damn Yankee flopper of Don Cook, which Pat Foster and Ron O'Donnell drove. "Absolutely the most beautiful red, white, and blue car ever," stated Henshaw. The car briefly held both ends of the NHRA national record at 6.41, 227.84, set at an NHRA WCS meet in Saginaw, Mich., in July 1972.

According to the 70sfunnycars website, O'Donnell left Cook's team to field a car named The Big Noise From Illinois but soon began running a Vega under the Damn Yankee name that was painted nearly identically to the car in this great Tom West photo. O'Donnell built a Damn Yankee Mustang II in 1977, but the car was lost after just a few passes due to a parachute failure.

Mike McCarthy dropped me a line to stump for the Freedom Machine AA/FD out of Hudson, Mass., which was owned by Tom Dawes and driven by O.J. McKenney. "While working for Artie Irwin and his Drag News column, I had the chance to photograph the car often," said McCarthy. "Unfortunately, over the years, all my files were lost, and I have been trying to collect more pics of the car. A couple of shots that I have found interesting are this black and white shot by Paul Wasilewski Jr. at New England Dragway, which has me taking pics from the other side of the fence, and this 1974 shot of the rear-engined Freedom Machine taken by Gary Edwards in California shortly before Tom's untimely passing. I've had some luck in finding pics but would love to find more of the rear-engined car in California."

OK, gang, that's it for today. As always, thanks for reading and contributing. See ya later this week.

Two of a kind: 'Snake's' new findFriday, July 09, 2010
Posted by: Phil Burgess

For a guy who created and lived a lot of it, Don Prudhomme sure digs drag racing history, especially the equipment that helped make him a megastar in the sport. He began by tracking down and restoring a lot of his old Funny Cars – six of them reside in his Vista, Calif., shop – before focusing on his old Dodge ramp truck, which he and Willie Wolter spent a year restoring to its early-1970s glory.

Then "the Snake" went on the hunt for the truck's brother, the '67 Dodge D-700 that hauled on its back the Plymouth Duster Funny Cars of Wildlife Racing partner Tom McEwen. You may have seen a note here a few weeks ago asking for clues to the whereabouts of "the Mongoose's" old hauler as I knew that Prudhomme wanted desperately to have the matched set (he already owns an ex-McEwen Duster).

Well, good news, race fans and preservationists everywhere: He found it!

I received an e-mail this week from team manager Skip Allum, and the accompanying first-look photos as proof of the rare find with the assurances from Prudhomme that this one, too, will look as it did when it wowed fans across the country decades ago.

Prudhomme's truck had been used by "King Richard" Petty, and McEwen's rig was originally ordered by Plymouth for drag racing's Sox & Martin team. After he bought it, McEwen had the truck modified, copying the features on Prudhomme’s. The era of the ramp truck lasted only until enclosed trailers became popular in the mid-1970s, and the prospect of having their precious cargo not only secure but also out of the harsh elements during their cross-country treks soon led Prudhomme, McEwen, and every other ramp-truck-owning team (save for the Chi-Town Hustler gang, which used a ramp truck well into the 1980s) to sell their trucks and place orders with companies such as Chaparral Trailers. The convenience of being able to leave their car and trailer at the track and head to the hotel or to eat in a duallie opened up a whole new world.

Many of the ramp trucks were quickly lost to history, gobbled up by circle-track racers and others, and no one really looked back until Prudhomme got the itch to find his. Remarkably, wife Lynn still had the original bill of sale with the VIN on it, and before long, they had tracked it down – it had remained in California – purchased it, and restored it. (Read my account of the restoration here.)

Prudhomme's truck has been a huge hit wherever it has been displayed, including at last year's California Hot Rod Reunion presented by the Automobile Club of Southern California and as part of this year's Golden Corral at the 50th Anniversary Kragen O'Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals presented by Valvoline, not to mention at prestigious events such as the Barrett-Jackson Auction, the SEMA Show, and the Dana Point Concours d’Elegance.

Once his truck restoration was completed, Prudhomme began the search for McEwen's rig but was not making a lot of progress until a chance encounter at the recent L.A. Roadster Show in Pomona, where he was approached by former Winston West stock-car racer Don Lowery, who said he had purchased the truck from McEwen in the 1970s. Lowery not only had the records and photos -- including the one at right -- to prove his ownership claim, but he also showed Prudhomme something even more valuable: the name of the guy in Arizona to whom he had sold it.

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Found: "the Mongoose's" truck!
With Lowery's help, Prudhomme tracked down the owner, who had moved to Riverside, Calif., 15 years ago, somewhat simplifying the process. Still, Prudhomme probably had reservations on the trip. When he found the truck, it was in far from pristine condition, and the owner, knowing its history, had asked for a princely sum. It took some negotiating before Prudhomme got his prize, and I'm sure he was wary, but he had brought along a flatbed truck … y'know, just in case.

Like his own, the former McEwen truck was "not in the greatest condition," according to Allum, but what convinced Prudhomme to buy it was a small, credit-card-sized piece of tinwork in the glove box, the original vehicle-identification Certicard from Chrysler Corp. as issued to “Sox-Martin, Burlington, N.C., April 17, 1967.”

Prudhomme's guys loaded up the truck and took it to "the Snake's" shop, where the restoration is already under way and, like that of Prudhomme's truck, is expected to take 18 to 24 months. Once completed, Prudhomme will paint the truck and car in matching colors, as on  this Hot Rod magazine cover, and display the two together, which is sure to bring tears of joy to the eyes of many people my age, who remember as teenagers seeing the two-car operation rolling into the pit gates, immediately swarmed by fans.

I can hardly wait.

Power to the peopleTuesday, July 06, 2010
Posted by: Phil Burgess

It's not as if I didn't know this would happen, but I was besieged with e-mails following Friday's Patriotic Power column, in which I foolishly made what I knew was only a partial list of cars with a patriotic theme. My original list was twice as long and a bit repetitive, so I trimmed it to a manageable size.

My "all America" list was hardly that, especially when it came to cars named All American. Though disappointed but understanding that I had not included his short-lived Art Linkletter's All-American Top Fueler pictured here, Bill Holland said that I needed Carl Casper's Gary Cochran-driven Young American dragster on the list. Note the mini Old Glory attached to the roll cage next to driver John Guedel's helmet.

Gene Adams volunteered the Rod Shop All-American drag teams as worthy of the list, Dennis Sacks pointed out that I had left Val LaPorte's All American Top Fueler from the mid-1960s -- which was the former Norm Weekly-driven Orange County Metal Processors entry -- off my list, and Jerry Farniok and Mike Burg said that I had forgotten Walt Arfons' Truly American Mustang jet Funny Car, driven by Jim Taylor. Burg pointed me to the photo at right, which he found on the American Jet Cars website.

I also heard from Marc Denner, co-crew chief on Bob Tasca III's romp-stomping Quick Lane Funny Car, who was – for a short and ill-fated time -- part of J.R. Wade's American Dream team mentioned in my article. Denner's dad, of course, is longtime racer Don Denner, and Marc noted that they hooked up with Wade and Ray Motes (Motes drove the senior Denner's dragsters in the late 1970s early 1980s). "They came to us in '90 I think and asked us if we would put the car together," he wrote. "We had been out of racing for a little bit, but I was old enough to get the spark going again. The first American Dream car was purchased from Larry Camenzind (Bionic Bitch); we took it home to Wichita, took it all apart, and cleaned it up. I learned a lot from that time. We got the car all painted and took it to Kansas City for a big unveil, then we headed for Noble, Okla., for the maiden outing. On the first burnout, a blower restraint strap got sucked in the injector blade, hung the throttle open, and Ray crashed into the wall, and the American Dream was over. We rebuilt everything and went to Topeka, missed the show, and that was it for the Denner family and the American Dream."

RIch Venza, another frequent Insider contributor, wanted to make sure that I knew that though he's sure that Mike Kosky is a proud American, his American Flyer entries probably had more to with his huge interest in model trains than patriotism. I did know about Kosky's penchant for trains – we had this photo at right in our files that shows just a portion of Kosky's collection – but couldn’t resist adding him especially in light of Kosky's recent successes. The guy continues to win races and reach finals in what has to be his fourth decade of racing.

Clayton Taylor, the former Connecticut Dragway track photographer who shot the photo of "Mad Man Marko" Hildonen's Young American wheelstander that I used in the column, noted that I had also forgotten about Nick Boninfante's Pat Walsh-driven U.S. Male Alcohol Funny Car. "We always thought the name was amusing, ‘cause Nicky was a short, round Italian, and Pat was about 5-foot-7 and 125 pounds on a good day – certainly not recruiting-poster images for the armed services," he wrote. "That was OK, though, as they were both really great guys. Heck, that group might make a good column sometime – the way you could race your alky flopper three to four times a week and actually not LOSE money!"

Taylor also added Bob Beaulieu’s Little America Vega-bodied Alcohol Funny Car (which ran on Boninfante’s BB/FC circuit), the red, white, and blue O.J. McKinney-driven Freedom Machine Top Fueler from the late 1960s, A.J. “Smiley” Smullen’s Little Patriot Ford cammer-motored A/Comp car, and Bill Flynn’s Yankee Peddler A/FXers, Funny Cars, and Pro Stockers.

Greg Gorian reminded me that his old neighbor and my ol' pal, former Alcohol Funny Car racer Jim DePasse, used to have a nitro-burning Jeep named Fuelish American in the 1970s when he was still sand racing, and Russ Ganz, who owns the Grand Illusion Super Comp dragster that competes in Division 1, reported that the first rocket-powered Funny Car of his former neighbor Slam'n Sammy Miller was the Spirit of '76 Mustang II. Tom Lachance suggested the Segrini brothers' (Al and Lou) American Express injected Funny Car, which he said got its name because the car was financed by their personal credit cards.

OK, enough forgotten fireworks for the day. I’ll see ya later this week.

Patriotic powerFriday, July 02, 2010
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Well, here we are, on the cusp of a Fourth of July weekend, a time that's known as much for backyard barbecues and fireworks displays as it is an expression of pride in the United States. Though I'm sure that there are many nations whose residents are proud of their country, they don't seem to celebrate as much as Americans. It permeates all that we do and recognizes who we are, and that distinction certainly applies to that most American of motorsports, drag racing.

For decades, drag racers have carried their love of country into quarter-mile battle, whether it be with a simple American flag adorning a cockpit window or a full-blown patriotic paint scheme. I did a quick search of the term "America" in DragList's car-name field and was rewarded with more than 20 pages of results.

Clayton Taylor photo

Former Funny Car world champ Bruce Larson has to be the standard-bearer of all things patriotic with his long-running series of cars with the USA-1 name, which adorned Funny Cars and door cars alike along with a patriotic stars-and-stripes motif.

Are there other proud Americans? You bet. In fact, Vern Anderson's rocket dragster was named Proud American, and Earl Carter's late-1960s Corvette Funny Car also bore the same name, as did Jack Weller's Corvette Pro Mod car.

Craig Breedlove had the Spirit of America Top Fueler, and Carl Casper's Gary Cochran-driven Top Fueler from the early 1970s was dubbed Young American, as was Mark Hildonen's later wheelstander.

Harry Lehman, whose streamlined American Way Top Fueler was featured here a few weeks ago, just wrote to say that he's still going to give us the backstory on that wondrous machine.

Alcohol Dragster veteran Mike Kosky has long been known for his successful string of American Flyer entries, but did you know that chassis builder Art Morrison once fielded a Volkswagen wheelstander by the same name? Me either! Likewise, the late John Shoemaker was well-known for calling his Alcohol Dragsters American Eagle, a name also later used by Steve Plueger on his Funny Car.

Norman Blake photo

Dave Arnold had the All American Rat Pro Stock Camaro in the early 1970s, Grady Bryant the All American Boys Corvette Alcohol Funny Car, and Butch Claunch (Charger Funny Car), Jimmy King (Top Fuel), and Butch Kernodle (Alcohol Funny Car) simply went with All-American.

J.R. Wade, meanwhile, was living the American Dream with a thusly named Funny Car wheeled by numerous drivers, including Bret and Vicky Fanning and Larry Gould, and Lew Arrington called his Mustang-bodied rocket flopper Captain America.

And finally, due credit to Pat Bennett for calling his Pro Mod Nova the American Bad Ass and to Vann Ivy for paying his rent with an Alcohol Dragster called American Taxpayer, and, of course, Fred Spiezio's jet Funny Car, sponsored by Fireworks USA.

OK, folks, have a safe and sane weekend. I'll see you next week.

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