One of last summer's popular Insider features was Five Fabulous Favorite Fotos, wherein I contacted some of the sport's greatest lensmen and asked for their best shots. I'm proud to bring it back and equally proud to reintroduce it with Norman Blake as its subject.
(Charles Denson photo)
"Stormin' Norman" has long been considered one of the East Coast's finest racing photographers (this despite the fact that he only got his driver's license seven years ago and to this day has never even owned a car) and a longtime friend of mine, so I was proud to have him accept my offer to showcase his skills. Here's his story, in his own words, followed by his faves, which, as you will see, he found impossible to limit to five.
"I always had an interest in cars and cameras from an early age. I started making photos when I was about 8 years old with a Kodak Brownie Super 27 (which I still own). I would go to car shows and read the magazines that were out at the time: Hot Rod, Car Craft, Drag Racing USA, and any others I could get my hands on. I always liked seeing what cool and spectacular pics that were being made by people like Steve Reyes, Jim Kelly, Bob McClurg, Leslie Lovett, and others that were helping produce the images (which were plastered all over my walls) for these publications. Especially Reyes. I was always amazed at the moments he would catch on film! This would kinda stick with me down the road.
"In 1971, some older friends asked me if I would like to go to an eight-car Funny Car match race with them, and I jumped at the chance. This was at New York National Speedway out on Long Island. I was hooked at this point. So when they asked if I wanted to go to Raceway Park a few weeks later to another Funny Car show, I did not hesitate at saying yes. Once I found out I could get to Raceway Park by bus, I went as often as I could afford to. Along the way, I got a better camera and a longer lens and started to notice I could make photos like the ones I saw in the magazines and the track newspaper, Raceway News.
"I learned in school how to develop and print my own black and white film and prints and then struck up a bit of a through-the-mail Q&A friendship with Larry 'Max' Maxwell of L&M Photos fame. He was very helpful steering me in the right direction on what I was trying to do. I also started to sell some B&W prints to the gentleman who ran the souvenir stand on the spectator side of the track. Long story short, this got my foot in the door at Raceway Park. I was given a photo pass by Richard Napp, and from that moment on, I’ve been a contributor to their newspaper.
"When I finished high school, I hit the ground running. I shot the ’73 Summernationals with credentials and got to meet 'Max' and my other photo heroes. I had my first photo published in National DRAGSTER from that event. For the next 30 or so years, I basically ate, slept, and drank drag racing. I was Division 1 photographer for a year in 1980. I freelanced for all the publications that ran drag racing. I worked mostly for Super Stock & Drag Illustrated as one of their main contributors. I also contributed to Home Mechanics and Popular Mechanics. I was associate editor for a short-lived newspaper, Dragstar Racing News, and for Drag Racing Illustrated (which only lasted for one issue; the second never got to the newsstand). I also photo-edited publications for Fass/Harris and Engledrum Publishing Cos. early on. In the latter part of the '80s, I started doing freelance assisting for other photographers, doing lighting and whatever else it took to make a photo -- mostly on-location work. I also worked as a photographer (with 'Stat Guy,' Lewis Bloom, an accomplished photographer in his own right) for the N.Y. Roadrunners Club (the people who put on the New York Marathon in the late ‘80s early ‘90s) for their in-house magazine, New York Running News and also shot rock 'n' roll shows for fun. Some of that work has been published in books and magazines. Today I only go to a race on occasion as mostly I have been following and photographing the neo-burlesque and sideshow entertainment that is going on here in New York and around the country.
"I would like to thank Vinnie, Richard, and Uncle Lou Napp and their families, along with Vince Mele, for allowing me the freedom to do some of the crazy things I have done at Raceway Park to make some really cool pics. I would also like to thank Mike Civelli, Art Leong, Ray Cook, Dave Bergfeldt, Bill D'Ottavio, and the many others that allowed me to tag along for a ride on this roller coaster of a career. And thanks to my friends and colleagues for keeping me on my toes, too! Thanks everybody that has helped and supported my career to this day. Godspeed to those above that are no longer with us. You are sorely missed."
"Dale Barlet brought out his Funny Car to make a couple of test runs during a match race at Englishtown on this Sunday. Well, they fire up the car, and he pulls up into the water and proceeds to do one of the most horrendous burnouts you ever heard out of a Funny Car. He then proceeds to back up with engine sounding really horrible. I figured they would just back it up and shut it off because it sounded so bad. But lo and behold, he does a bit of a dry hop and proceeds to move toward the starting line to stage!
"Well the bell goes off in my head, and my brain says there is no way you are going to watch this thing run from the starting line. So I say 'See ya’ to my fellow lensmen that were standing there and ran as fast as I could toward the finish line. Now they all think I’m crazy. 'Stat Guy' Lewis Bloom (then announcer at the track) mentions 'There he goes' over the PA, and I haul buns! I keep looking over my shoulder to see if he is actually going to stage. He's still running, and so am I. He stages, and I stop dead in my tracks, focus my camera, and aim at the line as the car actually leaves when the green comes on!
"The car actually makes it under power to where I landed up, which was about three-quarter-track, and right about at the spot where I’m standing, the car erupts into a ball of fire. The car burns to the ground, but Barlet got out with a few serious burns. But sorry to say this just about ended his career as a FC driver. As I’m walking back to the line, Lewis asks over the PA how many frames I got, and when I got back to the line, everybody is shaking their head like 'How the heck did you know?' " (Nikon FE, motor drive, 80-200 2.8, 1/1000sec F8 ½ Tri-X film)
It’s another Pro Stock final at the last Division 1 WCS for the ’78 season at Raceway Park: Larry Lombardo (in Bill Jenkins' Monza) against Frank Iaconio in his Monza (co-owned with Ray Allen). This had been a longstanding but friendly rivalry for years. They do their burnouts, pull up to the line, and both cars get into the pre-stage beams, and they wait, and they wait, and they wait. One revs the engine, and the other follows suit. Well, this went on for a good two minutes, and then, in an instant, they both stage at exactly at the same time.
"The Tree goes green, and both cars leave the line. Lombardo fouls, but Frank shears the studs on the right rear slick and proceeds to cross the centerline and just miss the Christmas Tree, coming to a halt in the grass on the opposite side of the track, handing the win to 'the Grump' and Lombardo. I don’t remember, but I think division was decided on that pass, too. It was cool to witness. One of my all-time favorite runs." (Nikon FTN, motor drive, Vivitar 80-200 zoom, 1/1000sec F8 ½ Tri-X film)
"I’m on the line at Indy in 1984 when this Top Fuel dragster comes up to the line with no wing way up there in the wind like the rest. Instead, it has a wedge-shaped ‘ground effects’ tunnel hanging out from behind the slicks. He does his burnout and backs up, and I look at this thing and think of all the weird things that have been tried in the past that never really worked.
"So that little voice in my head says to go downtrack as far as I’m allowed to, which is about 300 feet out. The car is in the right lane, and I’m shooting from the left. The car stages and leaves on the green and starts shaking and smoking the tires. Under power, it hooks a quick right, getting the car sliding on its left side with the throttle hung wide open headed toward (thank God) the right-side guardrail with tires still blazing. Just as it gets to the guardrail, the car plops back on all four wheels just in time to go vaulting full throttle over the guardrail, turning itself into an expensive lawnmower. The car went the rest of the way in the grass, tearing up the front end and the grass pretty good.
"The driver, Phil Hobbs, got out okay, but his ego and the idea were a little worse for wear. It never ran again (that I know of) in that configuration." (Nikon FE, motor drive, 80-200 2.8 zoom 1/1000sec F11 Tri-X film)
“"Let’s get this out of the way right now: Kids, don’t try this at all, and the management here does not condone street racing. Now, back to our regularly scheduled story. Well, it’s another summer day in 1974 at the Coney Island amusement area here in Brooklyn. A display has been put together by the PRO organization (run by 'Big Daddy' Don Garlits) to show some of the cars that will be running that weekend’s National Challenge at New York National Speedway.
" ‘The Grump’ has his Pro Stock Vega, Flip Schofield has his Top Fueler, and Freddy DeName has his Camaro Funny Car. It’s the usual grip-and-grin sessions for the drivers and fans. Things were getting kinda boring, so Freddy decides 'I’m going to make a little noise.' He puts some fuel in ‘er and rolls the car away from the rest of the vehicles, then puts on his fire jacket and mask. They hook up the batteries and fire it up.
"So he’s sitting there with the body up and the engine cackling away. All of a sudden, he signals his crew to put the body down. They do so, and he backs the car up as they clear the crowd a bit. And then proceeds to do a burnout right there on the street!! This is all going on right up the street from the original Nathan’s.
"None of this was cleared with the local constabulary, but no one got in any trouble, either. (For those that don’t know -- I didn’t at the time, thank God -- Freddy was linked to some, as I will put it here, shady characters; you do the math). This pic is a bit historic for what is in the background, too, because it’s now all long gone. And what replaced it is gone now too, sad to say. As we speak, land developers are trying to get zoning to build condos and businesses that don’t belong there. It’s now just an empty lot.
"This is where I spend my free time shooting these days. Help Save Coney Island!" (Canon FTb, 50mm lens 1/1000sec F8 ½ Tri-X film)
"This was shot during qualifying for the 1976 WCS race at Englishtown. I was having an eventful day there in the lights. On this one roll of film, I shot Al Segrini collapsing a roof on the Highland Bandit AA/FC, then the Trojan Horse of Larry Fullerton lost a slick in the lights (but saved the car), then along comes Grant Stoms in the new unpainted Rampage Top Fuel car. I watched him coming down the track and all of a sudden noticed the supercharger leave the top of the motor. No bang or boom, so I thought. The car gets closer, and I see he is dragging the whole motor next to the car, held on by just the main fuel lines! All that was left in the frame was the crank still in the clutch with a rod or two on it. It was determined the cast-iron block just cracked around the main bearings, throwing it out of the car." (Nikon FTN, motor drive, 200mm Nikkor lens, 1/1000sec F8 Tri-X film)
"I learned a bit of a lesson this day: Don’t be lazy!!! I had a big old Nikon FTN with a motor drive, which was a heavy sucker. I decided I did not feel like carrying the weight around my shoulder this day, so I loaded up my Nikon EL2, which just had a winder on it and was lighter. (Note: A motor drive shoots a continuous burst of frames when the button is held down; a winder shoots a frame at a time when the button is pressed.)
"The order of the day was a match race between jet dragsters and fuel Funny Cars. Up comes Frank Mancuso in the Travel Agent Funny Car against Mike ‘Mr. Green Jeans’ Evegens in the Earthquake jet dragster. I moved out a ways to get a pic of the cars running side by side off the line after the handicap the Funny Cars got. The cars leave the line, and all of a sudden, the Travel Agent darts from the left into the right lane, where the Earthquake promptly T-bones the errant FC. I shot this picture and froze still looking through the camera. That voice in my head asks, 'Do you believe that just happened?' Meanwhile, the connected cars spun toward the grass as I watched through the camera lens. Then finally, the voice says again, 'Shoot it, stupid!' So I started rapidly pushing the shutter button. Remember … too lazy to use motor drive!! Well, I learned a lesson, and the rest is history, but at least I got the pic; the rest of the photogs there missed it!! Both drivers were injured but are around to reflect on this incident as they have in this column in the past.” (Nikon EL2, winder, Vivitar 80-200 zoom, 1/500sec F8 Tri-X film)
"Where were you when 'Big Daddy' blew over? I was at the other end of the track making pictures of the whole thing as best I could. It was a dingy day (lightwise) of qualifying at the 1986 Summernationals, so I figured I would head to the finish line and make a few high-speed-run pics, save a bit of film, and maybe even get something crazy if I could. That was the vulture in me thinking.
"Well, I guess I sort of got what I was wishing for, because here came Don Garlits with his Swamp Rat XXX up to make a qualifying run alongside Darrell Gwynn. Both cars left the line, and all of a sudden, I can see almost the whole bottom side of Garlits' car, so I start shooting a frame or so as the car comes down the track going up and up and up and over!
"I buried the motor drive as the car did a pirouette on the wing strut and was bouncing with the throttle wide open, smoking the tires, and bouncing to a stop while backwards. The car stopped for a second, then started to drive back toward the starting line through the cloud of smoke he just created. This is when my heart started to race a bit for Garlits himself. I thought he might be out cold and the car would get back to the starting line under power, but the smoke cleared in time to see Garlits pull the car in the grass next to the lane he was in, cut off the motor, and get out and wave his hands to the crowd that he was all right. Whew. Then I turned to one of the other photographers standing next to me and said, 'There is a spectator sitting on a gold mine right now and does not know what to do with it.' I ran and did a few photos of Garlits being interviewed by Steve Evans and Diamond P.
"I was lucky enough to have this series published in just about every magazine that covered drag racing plus Car and Driver. It also appeared with the car on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History (where my sequence is in their archive), but as I said, I’ve seen some spectator photos of this that I would have killed to have been in their shooting position. My hat is off to you all that recorded this moment in drag racing history." (Nikon FE, motor drive, 200mm Nikkor lens, 1/500sec F4 Tri-X film)
"This is one of my favorite photos of the late, great Leslie Lovett. It shows three of the things he loved in life: drag racing, his photography, and his love for scavenging parts for his office decoration. If you ever saw his space in the old North Hollywood HQ, you probably could have built a car with the parts he had stashed there. Thanks for the inspiration and the friendship along the way. We love you and miss you, my friend!" (Canon FTb, 50mm lens, 1/1000sec F5.6 ½ Tri-X film)
Thanks for sharing your stuff, Norman. I know the readers here will eat this stuff up.
You can see more of Blake's great and diverse set of photographs online here.
Heads-up, shutterbugs! I'll have more Favorite Fotos in the months ahead, so be sure to keep your eyes peeled, but in the meantime, I'm going to open the floodgates and accept submissions of your Favorite Foto -- note the singular use of the word as well as the use of "your." Send me your single best shot -- it must be one that you actually took -- along with the hows and whys, and I'll feature the best of them in an upcoming column. Start digging!
The 49th annual Kragen O'Reilly NHRA Winternationals is just 24 days away, almost close enough to start an official countdown, though I'm sure that if you're like me, your countdown began the day the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals ended in November.
There's always something magical about the Winternationals, and even though I am a lifelong Southern California resident who has been blessed to have the season opener in my backyard, I'd have plenty of compelling reasons to travel here if I lived elsewhere.
We all know that times are tough and people are watching their spending right now, but here are 10 reasons I wouldn’t want to miss this year's Winternationals.
Bang for the buck: This pretty much applies to any NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series national event, but if you compare the dollar value of what your admission ticket gives you to other sporting entertainment options, there's no beating a day at the drags. Take what you would pay for a seat at any of the days and compare it to what you'd get at a football or hockey game.
Obviously, the drags are an all-day affair. You can get there at 8 a.m., before the racing actually begins, and after a action-packed day of high-horsepower thrills, you can stay until well after the racing has been completed. The sheer number and variety of competition machines makes it one of the world's great car shows, too.
Of course, what makes NHRA Drag Racing so special and unique is the all-access pit area that allows fans to not only watch the teams prepare for battle but offers unprecedented access to the stars themselves. (Try to go to an L.A. Kings game and ask to watch the trainer sharpening skates or to talk to Dustin Brown and see how far that gets you.)
There's so much to do at the race, even beyond all that, with interactive displays in Nitro Alley, the Manufacturers Midway, and so much more.
Fuelers aplenty: In conversations we've had with the many Top Fuel teams the last couple of days, there will be more than enough cars to fill the field and, in fact, more Top Fuel cars in attendance than at last year's event.
Pomona has always been a Top Fuel stronghold, and now with the return of fan favorite David Baca, the first full-season schedule for the Hartley family, and news of other sponsorships coming for teams that might not normally have ventured west, there's little doubt that there will be plenty of nitro thunder come the first weekend of February.
Although the current entry list on NHRA.com does not reflect all entries received as of today, NHRA is expecting full fields in all three Professional categories.
History: The Winternationals is NHRA's second-oldest event, dating back to the inaugural event in Pomona Feb. 18-19, 1961. The sheer amount of history that has been made on the Fairplex grounds in the nearly 50 years since then makes the Pomona racetrack hallowed ground for racers and race fans.
Like Indy, it's a place where from the minute you walk into the pits, you can feel the vibe of history and hear the heartbeats of past hopefuls who came out to what used to be called the Big Go West.
Don Prudhomme's first win, the debut of Don Garlits' rear-engine Top Fueler, the flying Hawaiian, Raymond Beadle's "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," and many more incidents are engraved in the NHRA history books as unforgettable moments, and there are sure to be more in store this year. You can read more about the Winternationals mystique by revisiting the column I wrote last year at this time here.
Unique venue: If you're a regular at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, you know that the facility itself is remarkable beyond what actually happens on the racetrack. Its location, surrounded so closely by small communities, certainly makes it unique in those aspects and a far cry from any of today's stadiums that are built in more rural areas. Local race fans can literally walk to the gates or step outside and have lunch at El Merendero, a small Mexican restaurant favored by race teams for a quick meal, or go to the adjacent convenience store for ice or drinks, or even walk to nearby downtown La Verne, with its shops and restaurants.
Add to that the impressive backdrop of the San Bernardino Mountains, traditionally capped with a picture-postcard covering of snow, which give the Winternationals a wintry feel. For you cold-cursed Easterners, the weather is almost always good, and hey, would you rather be home shoveling snow or cruising down palm-tree-lined streets for days of basking in the sun and watching the drags?
New paint/cars/teams: Back in the 1970s, the Winternationals was always the event where fans eagerly looked forward to getting their first looks at new teams, new cars, new sponsors, and new paint schemes, a scenario that changed once teams began running preseason testing in Arizona and Nevada, within fairly easy driving distance for SoCal fans. But this year, a lot of teams won’t be testing locally, if at all, before the season begins. Some teams, concerned about iffy weather out West in the winter, are testing in Florida, and some are watching their budgets and, content with their 2008 tune-ups, coming to Pomona with minimal or no testing time, making for a lot of new-car debuts and first looks in Pomona.
Catching the first act: No one likes to walk into a movie late or begin reading a book at Chapter 4, which is why attending the Winternationals is so cool. It's the beginning of the season that all of us will follow, and many times the die is cast when the first blows are thrown in Pomona. It's not hard to get an idea of who's going to be tough or who's going to struggle, and for those who will return in November for the Finals, the track presents the rare opportunity to see both the opening and closing acts of one of the greatest shows on Earth.
Transfer of power: Along that same line, the Winternationals traditionally has been an event where you can see the storylines develop, and I can’t remember the anticipation for a year being as strong as this season. Many eyes will be on Top Fuel to see how Tony Schumacher will fare without championship-winning crew chief Alan Johnson. No one expects him to have a 15-win season as he did last year, but just how will he do? He won the Winternationals last year ... can he do it again? How long will it take A.J. and new driver Larry Dixon to get up to speed? How will Dixon's replacement, Spencer Massey, do in his debut in Don Prudhomme's car?
Erica's back!: Another fan favorite, former Jr. Dragster star Erica Enders, Pro Stock's most successful female racer, will be back in action after sitting out the majority of the last two seasons, and she'll be doing it in the rare Ford-powered machine of Jim Cunningham. Enders, who made history as the first female Pro Stock finalist, will be looking to become that class' first female winner; it’s the only NHRA Pro class in which a woman has never won.
European flavor: The event will have a distinct European flavor to it, so fans can cheer on more than the local heroes. Briton Andy Carter (pictured), the 2008 FIA European Top Fuel dragster champion, will drive Terry Haddock's Top Fuel dragster with backing from primary sponsor Lucas Oil and will be joined in sunny SoCal by Switzerland's Urs Erbacher (also Top Fuel) and Sweden's Leif Andreasson (Top Alcohol Funny Car). It's a rare chance for fans to see cars and drivers they probably won’t see anywhere else.
Sportsman competition: Say what you will about the other regions of the country, but I think that the West Coast has some of the finest Sportsman competitors in the nation and surely the most consistently tough field of alcohol cars. Plus, a lot of the touring heroes from other parts of the country regularly make the trip west, as they do for the Finals – many leaving their equipment here during the winter rather than having to tow cross-country and/or winterize their rides – so the competition is always topflight as everyone wants to draw first blood in the points battles.
What are you waiting for? Order your tickets today here, and I'll see you out on Parker Avenue.
Tomorrow, in nearby Azusa (motto: "Everything from A to Z in the USA"), we'll say a loving farewell to our old pal Bill Crites, the former ND photographer and art director who died suddenly about a week ago. I know that to many of you who are "just" fans, the loss of Crites doesn’t resound as strongly as it does to those who have been on the tour for the last 20 or more years – media types who were friends with him, racers who worked with him, and so on – but Bill was known and loved by so many and was such a character that he deserves a nice send-off here beyond what I wrote about him last week, so please indulge us. This is a long, long column, filled with funny stories and remembrances that might not mean as much to some of you as it does to us, but I’ll be back with something a little more conventional Monday.
From the e-mails I've received with those sharing their Crites stories, it's going to be a pretty solid turnout tomorrow at 11 a.m. at White's Funeral Home (404 E. Foothill Boulevard; drop by and find out what he was all about -- and come Crites Casual: wear a Hawaiian shirt!), and below are some of the stories and comments we're sure to hear repeated there that you might find amusing.
Bill's brother, Ken, told me that Bill will be cremated and his ashes spread at two places he loved: Maui and Wrigley Field. Crites was probably one of the most hard-core Cubs fans I knew, so the latter seems very appropriate.
Through our sadness the last couple of days, we've been smiling and laughing. ND Senior Editor Kevin McKenna reminded me of the time that Crites, so despondent about his Cubs, drew up a résumé based on his personal sports experience (a lot of softball!) and offered to take on the task of managing the Cubbies. Believe it or not, he actually got a response; unfortunately for him, they declined his generous offer.
I heard stories I never had (like DRO's Jeff Burk talking about the time that Crites locked himself inside the ND darkroom and wouldn’t let Photo Editor Leslie Lovett in and would only respond to Lovett's demands in cartoon voices) and ones I'd forgotten (former ND reporter Todd Veney reminded me of the time that Crites had laid heavy and continuously on the rental-car horn from the track at Maple Grove all the way to the hotel, a good 20-minute drive, and Dana Servaes reminded me how Crites used to sign his name to artworks in our hotel rooms, sometimes on the back but often right on the painting itself), but an awful lot of people insisted that I talk to former NHRA VP and Competition Director Steve Gibbs, who knew Crites for decades, to get "the iceplant story."
Crites in his Irwindale days; that's him, front row center (go figure!)
So that's where we'll start. Take it away, "Big Hook."
"While I was managing Irwindale Raceway, sometime between '66 and '68, I got a call from Irwindale city officials who wanted to see some modest landscaping done at the track in the space between the grandstands and the guardrail," Gibbs remembered. "About the only thing that would grow at that rock pile was iceplant - the stuff you see along freeway embankments, so I go and buy a couple hundred flats of the stuff. Bill was looking for a way to make some money, so I hired him to do the job.
"You know the speed Bill operated at, and it was no different then. After a couple of days, I went over to check on how he was doing, and it wasn't good. The stack of iceplant flats barely had a dent in it, and there sure wasn't much ground cover to be seen along the track. I got on his case about the way things were going and told him the city honchos wanted something completed, and soon. A couple of more days go by with the same amount of progress (or lack of), so I laid into him pretty good. I wanted the whole load of iceplant in the ground by the weekend, or I wouldn't pay him a penny. Well, in another couple of days, I drive over to the track to see how he's doing, and I'll be damned: The stack of flats is completely gone.
"Something wasn't right, however, as the landscaping was plenty sparse. 'Jeezus, Bill,' I said. 'Is that all the further the stuff went?' 'That's it,' he said. My gut instincts told me that something didn't add up, and I also recalled seeing Bill driving the old track pickup down past the end of the racetrack, so I decided to take a ride down there. Just off the right side of the shutdown area, there was a huge gravel pit that was a couple hundred feet deep; I hopped the guardrail and walked over to edge of the pit and took a look. Sure enough, there at the bottom of the pit was about three-fourths of the iceplants I had bought. I gave him his walking papers.
"I laid awake last night, just thinking about the 55 years we hung out together. I'm already missing him."
Steve's daughter, Cindy, who spent a lot of time with Crites and had seen him the day before he passed, wrote poignantly, "OMG, what are we going to do without him? He was family to us. I'm so thankful to have had yesterday with him. He was pissing us off, annoying us, and making us laugh all in one evening; in other words, the usual.
"We had a routine. Crites would call me, I would answer, 'Hey, whaddya doin?' and he would respond, 'Talkin' to you,' and then the word 'EAT!' would come out of his mouth. Within an hour, he'd shuffle up my driveway, get to my door, and without fail, ring it at least eight times or yell 'LET'S GO!' at the top of his lungs, announcing his arrival in the most annoying of ways. He was pleased. In fact, I believe that was his goal in life, to annoy as many people as possible each day. He loved to push strangers to the point of giving him the finger, something he cherished daily.
"We had our favorite little hole-in-the-wall Mexican-food place in Whittier. Pelo, our favorite waiter, always greeted Bill with an enthusiastic "Señor William!" Crites loved that. He and I would argue about everything; it was fun for me to play along. Rarely would he ever agree with me about anything I said, even when I KNEW he did! It was part of his schtick; again, God forbid he be anything but contrary. I'm sure people thought we were an old married couple. He would bark at me, and I would bark right back. I think I spent most of my time with him shaking my head, taking a deep breath. Or laughing. I was an easy audience; it's probably why he loved to hang here. My dad always told me, 'Order the most expensive thing on the menu, it's payment for the abuse.' I always tried to do just that; of course, the little joints we went to were hardly big-buck menus. I wouldn't have it any other way.
"We loved Bill; he was family. I've known him for 46 years; in other words, my whole life. We loved it when he showed up but were rolling our eyes at him within minutes of his arrival. He made us laugh hard, and he frustrated us beyond words. He's the most lovable misfit I've ever known; his crazy hair fit his personality perfectly. I've always imagined that he was BORN looking the way he did. He was a very talented artist, I think more talented than most gave him credit for. His bratty ways probably outweighed the ability for some to see just how artistic he was.
"Good God, the stories he has told us over the years. I think that's what I regret most, is that I don't have his stories recorded somewhere to replay them. Mischief was his mantra; I wonder if anyone has more firecracker stories than Crites. I'm sure that Leslie Lovett, my dad, and many of the original North Hollywood NHRA staff all had years taken off their life by some of Bill's antics.
Crites and Lovett; wonder if Bill's already driving him crazy.
"Bill spent Monday with my boyfriend, Greg, my boys, and me. I keep wondering if we had known he'd be gone by Tuesday if I would have done anything different. I don't think so. We had a lot of laughs; we went down to Belmont Shores and had what was an unusually so-so meal at our favorite cafe. Bill loved to harass the servers and insisted on paying. As we were leaving, he started yelling at me, 'Go down there; I want to see the sunset!' I was tired and wanted to go home, but I made the turn down PCH, and we ended up at Seal Beach pier. Crites hobbled his way out of my car and took a dozen or so pictures of what would be his last sunset. I'm so glad we did that now. We came back to my house, ate a yummy dessert, and laughed at two episodes of Two and a Half Men, a show I just turned him on to. He said, 'This show's nuts ... I like it!'
"At 8 p.m., he stood up and demanded I drive him down my driveway to his car, which was parked on the street. Once there, as always, he reached over and kissed me on the cheek. He grumbled, 'Thank you,' and I replied, 'No, thank you!'
"Little did I know how prophetic those last moments were. Thank you, Bill, for the laughter and love you brought to our lives. I imagine you are having a blast with some of your long-lost buddies, Buster Couch and Jim Annin to name a few, and that Lovett was one of the first to greet you. Let the mischief continue!"
I also heard from a lot of former NHRA employees who worked here when Bill did. Former National DRAGSTER Editor Bill Holland, who worked here with Crites in the 1960s and '70s, had his own great Crites story. "There were a bunch of us NHRA types on a waterskiing weekend at Lake Isabella," he remembered. "Crites feigned that he did not know how to water-ski but was anxious to learn. I took the bait. I showed him on land how to do everything, and we proceeded to the water. I gave him two skis -- as you would for a beginner -- but Crites said, "No, I want to use one ski like you guys." I argued with him, but he was insistent. So off we go and give it a try. On the first pull he shimmied, was mostly submerged, and flopped mightily. We encouraged him to try it again. Same basic results. More encouragement. Off we go again ... and Crites, wobbly, rises out of the water. We cheer. And in the next minute, the bastard is off cutting wakes, jumping, etc., just like a pro. We'd been had. Again."
John Mazzarella, who was ND's advertising manager at ND when I first got here in May 1982, was a road warrior back then and spent a lot of time with Crites and Lovett. He remembered one Summernationals trip where the team got lost on the way to the airport and found themselves near the Statue of Liberty. "Crites kept telling Les he was lost, and Les was yelling at him to shut up, telling Bill that we were witnessing a historic monument so 'Relax and be quiet.' I started singing 'The Star Spangled Banner,' and Bill started to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Les went nuts, stopped the car on the freeway, and tried to throw Crites out. What a riot."
On either side of that crazy moment was the story of a box of NDs that Mazzarella had grabbed as they left the track that he had planned to lay out around the airport as a way to expose people to the publication, but "Mazz" got tired of the box sitting on his lap during the car ride. "As we approached a toll booth, Les was fumbling for money to pay. I saw an opportunity to take the 15-20 NDs out of this big box on my lap and opened the back door and let them out at the toll booth. Les went berserk as we drove off. About five miles down the freeway, and after Les had tried to get rid of Bill, he finally turned around to go back to where he missed the turn for the airport. As we approached the opposite-direction toll booth, Crites was screaming out the window that it was us who threw the box out in the lane. Lovett was swinging into the back seat trying to slug Bill and screaming at me while the rest of us were laughing our asses off. What a great memory. I'm laughing as I write it."
Karen Raffa, who worked with us in the 1990s selling ads for Jr. DRAGSTER and was the wife of another late, great ND alum, former Editor in Chief "Mean John" Raffa, was one of the many who got sucked into the vortex of Crites' office, called in to chitchat with him, surrounded by his impressive collection of knickknacks and toys. She remembered fondly "the days of walking by his office and getting 'summoned in' and an hour later 'breaking out' to get my work done. He loved an audience to do his work and show you his stuff."
Felicia Lawrence, who also worked here in the 1990s, wrote of Crites, "He was one of the greatest, funniest, craziest people I ever met. I loved him. Bill was the one that helped me get a job at NHRA. After that, just working together and getting to know each other more, I just came to just love having him around … most of the time." Are you guys sensing a trend here?
Former NHRA Marketing and Broadcasting veep Brian Tracy also weighed in. "One thing that might get lost in all the tales of zaniness about Crites is how really caring he was about kids," BT wrote. "When our daughter, Megan, was going to turn 16, Bill knew that we were going to get her a little car for her birthday, so he took it upon himself to make a really big red bow for us to attach to the hood of the car to really highlight the surprise."
David Woodruff, who worked in the NHRA Marketing Department a few years ago, wrote, "I too have many wonderful memories while working with Bill on the Jr. Drag stuff. He always made me laugh, but he had the ability to get your blood boiling as well. My favorite memories are from my time on the softball field with him. I especially liked the time I convinced [fellow marketing guy] Jim Teller, who was supposed to be some stud in his early days, to race Crites around the bases. Crites crushed him; it wasn’t even a race."
Another former NHRA employee, Dana Servaes, who worked in the Marketing Department in the late 1990s and early 2000s and somehow even survived as Crites' roommate for a time, naturally had some interesting memories.
"The best was probably the battle between Bill and the gopher. We once had a gopher living in our tiny, 10- by 20-foot backyard, and you would have thought Bill was hunting a wild beast in the jungle. He had a pellet gun and was in the backyard every day for probably four months, waiting for any sign of that gopher. Rodent poison would have been way too easy – he wanted to actually shoot it and talked about his 'game' that he was going to get ALL the time. He never did get that darn thing. Watching him fume over this poor gopher was great entertainment, though.
"One of the funniest things that I ever heard, though, was when he was on the road with DRAGSTER how he would remove paintings from the walls of all his hotel rooms across the country and sign his best 'Bill Crites' at the bottom with a black Sharpie and then put the picture back on the wall. I keep hoping that I am going to find a painting someday at some random hotel that has Bill’s name on it.
"Another time I took Bill to an Angels game. He took his glove and was soooo sad when we had to leave the ballpark. He actually turned to me and said, 'Dana, I sat in my seat the whole game and not one ball came my direction!' It was the sweetest thing ever – spoken like a true child. So I decided to take him to Krispy Kreme in Anaheim to make up for it. We watched them make donuts for about an hour and then ended up getting kicked out because Bill NEEDED to know where the donut holes were. They didn’t have donut holes at that time, and Bill insisted that if there were donuts, then there must be donut holes. It was quite the scene, but hilarious."
Henry Walther, known to many for his contributing role in Team Minor's dominance in Top Fuel in the early 1980s, also knew him well, and while many of those who knew Bill well called him "Crites," Henry had another interesting name for him. "I always called him 'Jesus,' which was shortened from 'Jesus Crites.' I am sure that Crites is laughing at the fact that he checked out still owing me a dinner. Such was his sense of humor. We are going to miss him, for both his humor and his mischievousness."
Like a fortunate few of us, Alan Miller got the chance to enjoy some quality "car time" with Crites. "I had the pleasure of making a road trip with Crites, maybe his last for NHRA, to [the NHRA National Hot Rod Reunion] in Bowling Green, Ky., in June 2007," he wrote. "We left late, and Bill could drive anyone nuts, even doing nothing. He took pictures of 18-wheeler lights with no strobe while trying to drive at midnight. He was the ultimate little kid that refused to grow up. I won't ever forget my trip with him."
Crites loved the guys on the NHRA Safety Safari, and one of its members, Fred Brown, remembered him fondly. "Jim Frizzell and I spent many hours with Bill during national events. He was, as you said a 'contrarian.' Once when I told him his moustache needed trimming, he reached up and snatched several hairs out with his fingers! He always seemed to speak in his sardonic manner as if no one but he knew just what was going on in the world. The last time I spoke with him was at Bowling Green at the first or second Holley Hot Rod Reunion. While not a 'big name' to many, Crites' passing will nevertheless leave a very big hole in our hearts."
His former photography peers also had their special memories of Crites, who, as I said earlier, was a diehard Cubbie fan. Remembered Tim Marshall, "Crites and I used to go to all the Frank and Sons baseball card shows, and he would ONLY buy Chicago Cub players while I wanted to find the hot, young, up-and-coming players, for profit, of course. Bill had the largest Ryne Sandberg collection in history. That was Bill. I'll miss him so."
Richard Brady, whose long career as an NHRA division photographer and National DRAGSTER photographer included lots of times with Crites, wrote, "I'm sending along to you a photo I found and scanned, and boy, does this date us, but in this photo taken back in 1977 at the Summernationals are Leslie Lovett, Eric Brooks, Bill Crites, and, of course, me, of which the hairstyles alone are enough to cause world panic, and how about that rental car? Working with Bill was always a treat, for we never knew exactly what he would do at any given moment, which as I look back on all of it now was what made it such a treat to be with Bill. In later years before he left DRAGSTER, I remember on more than one occasion being with him, and he wanted to stop somewhere to buy something, which eventually led us to spend three hours while he looked at several choices and read and reread every word written on the box just to be sure the one he was going to buy was the same as the other! I can recall to this day the time he drove me to the Thieves Market so he could look at cowboy boots! About four hours later, he walked out with a pair he had bought, but that was only after handling each and every single pair of boots that was his size!"
Jon Asher sent out a very eloquent piece on Crites (portions of which are below) to the drag racing photography community, remembering Crites' dominance of the annual SoCal softball game that he and Carol Johnson hosted for 20 years: "The annual Kagel Canyon Fallnationals, an erstwhile softball game and who-can-consume-the-most-margaritas-and-still-drive party in Southern California, a bash with a life all its own. Winning the softball game – in which cheating was not only encouraged, but was mandatory for survival – could result in bragging rights lasting only as long as one could convince others that you were telling the truth about your exploits. Crites was always an invitee, for numerous reasons, but in all honesty he didn’t always appear. As a softball player, however, he was in high demand. While the rest of us slumped over the plate like the buffoons we were, Crites stood straight, bat upraised and ready to send the ball deep into the outfield. Since everyone who appeared at the game played, that often meant there’d be 25 or 30 defensive players standing idly around the outfield, discussing world events or merely scanning skies for aliens. Crites’ blasts would usually leave them convinced that they had, indeed, spotted a UFO ascending overhead.
"Seeing Crites at races other than the Pomona events was a treat. For me, personally, spotting him along the guardrail resulted in mixed emotions, for as happy as I was to see him, he insisted upon greeting me with a wet, sloppy kiss on the cheek, a greeting impossible to avoid or ignore.
"Crites loved nothing more than setting the late Leslie Lovett off, and I admit that the few times I did it myself it was because I’d seen how successful Bill was in doing the same. Whenever Crites would say to me, 'Watch this,' and head towards Lovett, I always followed closely behind, knowing that in mere seconds the sport’s leading photographer would be heading into emotional orbit.
"For me, and the others who knew him, Bill Crites isn’t gone. He’s standing tall over the plate up above, waiting to hit the next pitch out of the park."
Dawn Mazi-Hovsepian, whose racing family (like all of us) Crites was quite fond of, wrote, "There are a lot of funny stories that come naturally with Crites. I have been searching though my archives (stuff in my basement) for a doodling on yellow legal paper that I believe Crites did during one of the ND staff meetings back in the day. It had typical notes about what needed to be turned in for upcoming issues, but there were stick-people figures with staff names on them and goofy captions, purely reminiscent of high school doodlings on a folder or book cover. Beyond Crites' high jinks and often aloof and grumpy demeanor was a sincere and generous man. I don't think it's a secret that Crites took great pleasure in keeping people on their toes when they were around him, or at the very least confusing the hell out of them. We had the pleasure of seeing Bill at many recent CHHR and March Meet events. The first time we ran into him, we were pleasantly surprised to see him and asked what he was doing out at the event. He quickly gave us the 'Shhhhhh' signal and said, 'I'm not supposed to be out here.' That was so Crites.
"Rich Enos also told us the story about how Crites would be shooting on the opposite side of the track and then out of nowhere frantically wave him over to see him. He would hustle over to see what the problem was, and Crites just turned and yelled [an obscenity at him] and would go back to shooting. I've attached a couple of pics of Crites, one with Rich. I know Mark [Hovsepian] and Rich always busted Crites' chops about using a 30-year-old lens on a new digital camera."
Tom West, who's also been covering our sport for decades, remembered, "Bill Crites was one of those guys who were out there on that starting line in summer 1966, when I first got out there. Bill, Les Welch, Tim Marshall, Ron Lahr, Mike Mitchell, and Mert Miller all were a part of that early experience, and I felt at home with them very quickly. I spoke with Bill as he was making his Christmas phone calls on Christmas Eve, spoke to him for a long time, even though both of us said that we had to get going a couple of different times. I would have hung on to it longer if I had realized that it would be my last chance to talk to him. Hope you're getting the shot out there, Bill."
Wrote Lou Hart, "Bill was always nice to me and always had a story or two to tell. He was a special person and a class act. I'm glad to have known him. I had the opportunity to gather some photographers at the 2008 March Meet for a reunion photo." Pictured, from left, with Crites are some of his starting-line pals: Rich Enos, Tom West, and Rick Shute.
Division 1 photographer Phil Hutchison added, "I have only known Bill Crites for about five years, but even with my limited history with Bill, your story on him was so right on. I make it to Pomona for the Winters each year to get away from the East Coast doldrums, and during one of my trips, I met Crites in the media parking lot, and immediately he was giving me tips on how to shoot my pictures! The past few years, my routine is to shoot photos during the first few days from the starting line, but come Sunday, I take my long lens and sit on the top end and shoot. Bill was usually down there with his buddies, and I loved sitting there and shooting the breeze. Two years ago, he needed a longer lens, and luckily I had one to lend him for the day (one of the new 80-200 vibration-free lenses). In trade, he gave me a super wide-angle lens that I used in the pits for some great stuff. The NHRA had arranged to have In-N-Out Burger bring in a remote unit for the media, and once Crites and I found out it was there, we made a beeline to get our Double-Doubles! I will never forget sitting on the Pomona tarmac outside the staging lanes eating our burgers and shooting the breeze. Damn; Pomona will never be the same. I will miss the man."
Even former Funny Car racer Tim Grose, whose racing career about mirrored Crites' tenure here, wrote in. "This one hurts!" he said. "Immediately after reading your account, I was starting to recount the many, many times he'd make me laugh and put everything back in perspective. At first, I was starting to feel our loss that would lead to tearing up, and then my dark side conjured up the image of Crites and Lovett meeting for all eternity."
This is a good place to point out that although I (and many others) have made a big deal out of how Bill used to love to get Lovett worked up, I know there was no end to the admiration he felt for Les and his work and that the two, deep down, were good friends.
Bruce Wheeler, who lives in Hawaii and will probably help Ken in the scattering of some of Bill's ashes, wrote, "Although he and I had been acquainted with one another for quite some time, it wasn't until the 50th Nationals at Indy in '04 that we really, er, bonded. He and I (and my wife, Kolleen) spent quite a bit of time at that race chewing the fat. We were both shooting 'newish' Nikon D70s at the time, so we talked, in depth, about how to maximize our use of that camera's many features. From that point on, we would talk on the phone on a fairly regular basis. Anyway, Bill (he was always 'Bill' to me) and I spoke on the phone at length just three days before he died. While we were talking, some clients of mine showed up to pick up their wedding photos, so I told Bill I'd get back to him ASAP to resume our chat. I guess 'ASAP' wasn't quite soon enough. Damn."
Crites' friendship knew no geographic bounds, as European lensman Melvyn Eke can attest. "I first met Bill at the 1978 Indy Nationals when I was a 22-year-old freelance photog and mad drag fan working for three British magazines," he wrote. "Having arrived at the strip and gotten all my press passes from Dave Densmore of NHRA, I headed to the start-line area, which was swarming with photographers, most carrying small stepladders, which seemed very strange compared to Santa Pod in England. Once I had settled in and run off a few films, I plucked up courage to ask, 'Why the ladders?' to the guy who appeared to be the most lively, humorous, and well-liked photographer. A voice replied from under a baseball cap covering a mass of curly hair and moustache, 'Please be my guest; step up and take some shots, and you will see the difference, and, hey, are you from England?' This was Bill Crites.
"He and Les Lovett made me and my wife most welcome over the entire race weekend, introduced me to all the drag stars in the pit area, and provided great entertainment with his good sense of humor all day.
Crites, left, with current ND Photo Editor Teresa Long, Assistant Photo Editor Jerry Foss, far right, and former ND shooter Steve Bianchi.
"We arranged to call into the National DRAGSTER offices when we reached L.A. and had a guided tour by Bill, followed by an office lunch at a Mexican diner nearby. I cant remember how much salt, but some sort of jalapeño-eating test took place with much laughter at people's faces as they felt the heat. We returned in 1979 to Indy for more photos and stories and had the same great experience and fun and hoped again to return for a California event but it was not to be, but a regular read of National DRAGSTER and looking at Bill's photos kept the drag racing interest for all these years. As you rightly say about Bill, once met, never ever forgotten."
Some of the best stuff comes, too, from people who still work here and knew Crites longer than me and bowled and golfed with him.
Noting my racquetball story, Joni Elmslie (Joni's Race Shop) wrote, "I too cherish sporting memories with him. Possibly it was the shoulder-hugging ride on the freeway or the tailgating trip to the golf course or the temper-tantrum-thrown cell phone to the roof of Chaparral Lanes in San Dimas; Crites was always a piece of work and a head-scratching ride.
Joni, second from left, Crites, and their bowling team.
"One Monday night following a four-game loss for our bowling team, with Crites in the leadoff position, he proceeded to take his bowling bag -- with both bowling balls still inside -- and hurl it into the Dumpster and storm off. Knowing that he didn't have the money to replace them, Timmy Pearl (team member and avid fan of NHRA) jumped in to retrieve them. Much to Bill's surprise, he brought them to him the following Monday night so he could lead us to yet another four-game spanking."
She also fondly remembered Crites throwing a 5-iron "helicopter style" at a fairway-guarding oak tree after an out-of-bounds shot. Crites went to retrieve the club, but only after throwing his driver up there, too. "He never ceased to amaze me with what he'd do next to get a rise or chuckle out of me," she said. "Crites will be missed but, rest assured, not forgotten."
Former ND Editor George Phillips, who now works in the Broadcasting Department, had no problem hitting "rewind" for his Crites memories.
"Bill Crites was the number-two photog and art director at ND when I went to work there in 1977. Crites had a penchant for taking the new guy under his wing and showing him the ropes. As a writer, that meant helping with my photo shooting. It also meant showing me where all of the best pinball machines were in North Hollywood and how to 'professionally irritate' other NHRA staffers. But once there was a new new guy, he cut you loose. Now you were on the target list.
"It was a less structured time, and getting the job done and done right was the main goal. After that, all hell could, and usually did, break loose. And Bill was often in the middle of it. It was a couple of years after my arrival that Bill technically worked for me. Let me tell you, Bill Crites didn’t work FOR anyone, with the possible exception of Wally.
"We had the local 7-Eleven store on speed dial so we could find Crites at the pinball machines if one of the ND pages wasn’t going together right or if an ad needed to be built. Supervising Bill Crites was like herding cats or trying to capture smoke in a butterfly net. He could be hard to find all day, but then he’d work all night, putting out great product. The only better photog in those days was Lovett.
"To many, he appeared to be a gentle soul with a giving heart – all true. He would befriend a girl working at the desk of the little hotels we stayed at and for months afterwards send her little cards and gifts. For some guys that would be creepy, but Bill had a way of doing it that was okay. But Bill also was the first grown man I’d ever met who could really pout. If he got upset with something or someone, he could retreat into his own head, and God only knows what was going on in there.
"There was a time when we took free copies of National DRAGSTER to all the hotels in Indianapolis to have in their lobbies for guests. There were a couple of times that Bill and I ended up delivering the papers together – until about 4 a.m. In Bill’s mind, a rental car was something with no soul. No feeling of any kind. Something that could be tortured without consequence. The first time I realized this was upon our return to our hotel after one of those early a.m. treks. Without so much as saying 'Watch this,' he goosed it up to about 60 mph in the hotel parking lot and then grabbed the hand brake and sent us into a full powerskid right through the guest check-in area. If you were in the lobby, you would have watched us slide by with the tires blazing. Life with Crites was often like in a Warner Bros. cartoon – which he loved, by the way.
"Crites was unflappable in any situation. Once a group of us flew together into Jacksonville and then drove to Gainesville. Crites drove. I had never been to the event before and didn’t much pay attention to where we were going, but Lovett seemed a bit unsettled. We came around a bend and looked at the familiar skyline of Daytona Beach. When Lovett asked what the hell we were doing in Daytona, Crites just said, 'This is the way I wanted to come.'
"I’m sure, right now, Bill is going the way he wanted to go."
After getting a preview yesterday of this column, George's comments about Bill pouting brought to Steve Gibbs' mind a gag he played on him that set him to pout for days. "Bill had one of those tiny Hondas that was painted a nice pumpkin orange color, and I decided to decorate it a bit," he remembered. "I found some heavy black paper, cut out three big triangles, and a big smiley-mouth-shaped piece with buck teeth and taped them to the passenger-side door. A perfect jack-o'-lantern! He drove around for a few days before he realized what was going on and was crestfallen. He pouted like a little kid ... for days. In later years, when we were laughing over old 'war stories,' if I said anything about the jack-o'-lantern deal, he would clam up or change the subject. Another Crites deal that would leave you shaking your head."
Gibbs also couldn’t resist adding another tale from those wacky early years at the North Hollywood office, where, as George said (and I well remember), things were a little more loose. Remembered Steve, "In the small lunchroom, we had one of those soft-drink machines where the bottles were in slots or channels. You would slide the drink of choice down its slot to the dispenser mechanism, deposit your money, and pull the bottle straight up. They were common at that time. If Bill didn't have enough change, he would just pop the top off a bottle and help himself with a long straw. He would replace the cap, leaving an empty behind for the next customer. 'Big Mac,' Dave McClelland, had a habit of hitting the soft-drink machine every morning for a Coke caffeine fix, so Crites decided to mix him up a cocktail. He took the top off the bottle and sucked out about half the Coke and refilled the bottle with Bacardi rum. 'Mac' was still drinking in those days, so it should have provided a good laugh. The problem came when a gal from the Accounting Department came in early and ... you guessed it ... got the doctored Coke from the machine. After taking a big swallow, she went nuts! Thought she had been poisoned and raised a huge commotion. Jack Hart was the big boss at the time, and he got in the middle of the uproar. He threatened to fire Bill but was laughing under his breath the whole time."
If ever there was someone on the staff who simultaneously got Bill's humor and paid for it, it's Associate Editor John Jodauga, who worked with Crites here back in the 1970s before leaving us to open his own ad agency (which meant he still had to deal with Bill) and later returned. Here are his thoughts and remembrances.
"Over the years, I had often compared the antics of Bill Crites to those of Stan Laurel of the famed Laurel & Hardy comedy team. No matter where you were, Crites always seemed to manage to create a scenario in which anyone who was with him would eventually be forced to say in typical Oliver Hardy fashion, 'Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.'
"One such example took place in the early 1970s when we were returning from the World Finals, which then was held in Dallas. Shortly after reaching cruising altitude, Crites began lobbing ice cubes from his soft drink at me, and in self-defense, I of course had to strike back. An irate flight attendant ordered us both out of our seats into the aisle and then reprimanded the both of us in a tone for the rest of the coach passengers to hear, 'If I see another ice cube fly through the air, I’m kicking both of you off the plane -- at 30,000 feet -- and with no parachutes.'
"Sometimes I have to admit that I shared in the enjoyment of Crites’ pranks, such as the one that took place in 1969, the year that both of us joined the ND staff, when we had to drive a rent-a-truck with the souvenir issues of National DRAGSTER to that year’s NHRA Nationals in Indianapolis. We were told to take turns driving without stopping off at a motel, and initially that didn’t bother us because there were lots of wide-open spaces on the old Route 66 in which we could make up for lost time. But to our disappointment, we discovered that the truck was equipped with an engine governor that restricted the speeds to 55 mph, which meant that the trip would take about 40 hours. Crites came up with the idea of attempting to dismantle the governor by intentionally backfiring the engine, and although the ploy failed at its original goal, we both got pretty good at producing a big bang.
"As dusk was approaching at the end of the second day, we spotted a band of genuine Woodstock-era hippies thumbing for a ride while standing beneath the overpass. I shut off the engine to prepare for the backfire, and as we slowly pulled over, the hippies, who were thinking we were stopping to provide them a ride, smiled and flashed us the peace sign as they eagerly approached the truck. But when the ignition was turned back on, a huge ball of fire, enhanced by the growing darkness and the reverberating roar from being beneath the overpass, emerged from beneath the truck, and the kindly expressions on their faces were quickly replaced by eye-bulging, mouth-gaping sheer terror as they truly felt that they were facing Armageddon.
"But Crites wasn’t satisfied. Early the next morning, when we began driving through the quiet suburban areas of Indianapolis at about 7, the only other moving object on the street was a 9-year-old boy riding his bicycle on a newspaper route. I pleaded with Crites not to backfire the engine, but he replied, 'Don’t ever tell me don’t!' After the ensuing explosion caused the startled boy to fall off his bike with newspapers flying everywhere, I admonished Crites in a Hardy-like manner by saying that this well-behaved youth who was just beginning to appreciate the virtues of a strong work ethic would now most likely turn to a life of crime. But Crites was laughing so hard I don’t think he heard a word I said.
"Crites was a master at spontaneous humor, but he also excelled well with carefully planned hoaxes, especially when he collaborated with his longtime former classmate, NHRA’s Steve Gibbs. I came to work one day in the 1970s and saw a memo from NHRA founder and then-President Wally Parks on my desk. The memo, which was not sealed in an envelope, essentially stated that a number of major representatives from Detroit were going to be visiting NHRA the next week for future sponsorship discussions, and since I was the office’s worst offender in having an untidy desk, long hair, and all-too-casual wearing apparel, Wally essentially wanted me to clean up my act.
Crites sometimes found himself on the receiving end of pranks, such as when he was assigned to shoot out-of-state license plates in the parking lot at a national event for a "demographic study." Jodauga memorialized the succesful prank with this holiday gift to Crites.
"The message itself did not bother me because at the time I took pride in being National DRAGSTER’s resident rebel. But I was upset that the memo was not presented confidentially, and in a brief lapse of good judgment, I planned to express my displeasure over what I perceived to be a grievous breach of office etiquette. When Wally came in later that morning, I happened to see him as he walked up the stairs to the office lobby. After he asked me how I was doing in his typical father-like manner, I told him, 'Not so good because of these memos I’ve been getting. A quizzical look appeared on Wally’s face as he asked me, 'Memos? You’ve been getting ... memos?'
"It became instantly clear to me that Wally didn’t have a clue what I was talking about, and a vision quickly appeared in my mind of Crites, the master forger on the NHRA staff, whose specialty was duplicating Wally’s signature, signing off on a memo that was written by Gibbs on Wally’s personal typewriter after hours. Too embarrassed to admit that I had been had, all I could do was blurt out an Emily Litella-like 'Never mind,' and Wally walked off shaking his head in bemused wonderment.
"I hadn’t seen much of Crites recently, but I did manage to have lunch with him behind the VIP tower at last November’s Finals, where we had the occasion to reminisce over these and many other adventures in the past, along with our traditional exchange of well-intentioned insults. When I was informed of Bill’s passing by Phil Burgess on Dec. 30, one of the first things that went through my mind was how grateful I was to have spent some good quality time with him before he left us. Working at ND in the early days with a much smaller staff and longer hours was much more strenuous than it is today, and we needed all the levity we could get just to keep our sanity.
"Thank you, Mr. Crites, for providing all of that and so much more."
As a wonderful final honor to Crites, he's been enshrined alongside some of drag racing's greats on the "In Memoriam" page on Don Ewald's We Did It For Love Web site.
I had a whole 'nother column scheduled for today but had to move it back for a variety of reasons, but I didn't want to go too long without a new entry lest y'all forget about me. Each column generally takes two to three days to put together, though some take considerably longer depending on the length and depth I choose, the amount of research I have to do, images I have to chase down, people I can't track down to interview, etc.
Fortunately for all of us -- but mostly for me -- I keep files just for this occasion, and in this case, it's a file full of random tales that I've accumulated, either in interviews or as part of certain newsgroups, for which I'd not yet found a home. There are some great storytellers out there, and although each of these probably could have starred in its own column if fleshed out, they are nonetheless emblematic of the great bench racing stories that are told throughout the pits during the years.
And away we go …
Getting 'the Greek': Tom Jobe, a third of the legendary Surfers Top Fuel team with driver Mike Sorokin and Robert Skinner, recently regaled the Standard 1320 e-mail newsgroup with the tale of how the Surfers took a big 7.97 to 7.81 holeshot win – and the cool $500 prize money – in the final round against the legendary "Greek," Chris Karamesines, at Riverside Raceway on Dec. 6, 1964.
"The rounds go on, and it comes down to 'the Greek' and the Surfers for the money," he wrote. "We have a small problem in that we do not have enough 98 percent [nitro] to make a full pass in the final round. In those days, there was no one to borrow 98 percent from, as no one else ran anything close to 'the can' in their dragster. We talked about our dilemma amongst ourselves and decided that our only chance was to make 'the Greek' think we were so nervous that he had the race won and hope Mike could leave on him and coast to the finish line ahead of 'the Greek.' At this time, 'the Greek' was 'the Mole's' [engine builder Ed Donovan] main man, and they had all of the best stuff on that car. It was a Fuller chassis, Donovan parts everywhere, just the very best stuff you could possibly have no matter how much money you had.
"We made sure we were near 'the Greek' and 'the Mole' as we lined up for the last round and went into this whole act of being very nervous. They went for the act and must have figured they had the race won if they just did not do something stupid. Mike Sorokin put a big holeshot on 'the Greek' and coasted to the victory (just barely!). We were very lucky the blower did not come off when it ran out of fuel. We were racing for $500, and a blower explosion at that time would cost us $1,000 or more. We realized the risk, but hey, we were racing the legendary 'Greek' and figured why get worried about going broke now?"
In great bench-racing one-upmanship style, Jobe's tale inspired Roy Steffey, of the equally famous Loghhe-Steffey-Rupp team, to share an encounter with the fabled "Greek."
"It was the 1965 Springnationals at Bristol and the final round on Saturday," he wrote. "The round before that, we had burned a piston, and with the tight timeframe, we knew we didn't have time to change it. This was before having air compressors and impact guns in the pits.
"So we kept it a secret and pulled the two pushrods from that cylinder, grounded the plug out, and wrapped the breathers with rags. (The reason for the rags was with the burned hole in the piston, it created a lot of blowby in the pan, and Maynard [Rupp, the driver] really didn't care for an oil bath, but even with the rags, he still got one. If I remember correctly, he taped a piece of rag to his glove so he could wipe his face shield.)
"Maynard got a big holeshot on [Karamesines], and as 'the Greek' came out of the smoke and saw how far out Maynard was, he jammed his foot down and relit the tires. He only went 100 feet or so and his motor broke. Maynard shut it off before the 1,000-foot mark and coasted through."
The Terrible Towel': Everyone remember the big brouhaha over "the Terrible Towel" on Kenny Bernstein's Budweiser King in the mid-1980s? The rest of the Funny Car crowd was so convinced that Dale Armstrong had some gee-whiz top-secret device on the car because the crew would go to such great lengths to cover it with a towel whenever the body was raised that they even had the Tech Department investigate. Turns out that there wasn't anything really sexy about it and that it actually had its roots in Bernstein's habit of short-shifting that car that almost drove "Double A Dale" crazy.
"When I first went to work with him, I pulled my hair out for the first three-quarters of that year," he told me once. "I’d stand on the starting line and the car would be on all eight cylinders, but the car wouldn’t e.t. I kept asking him where he was shifting, and he’d tell me '400 feet.' Well, turns out he had crashed a couple of cars trying to drive through tire shake, so he learned if he shifted early, it wouldn’t shake. He even had a foot shifter installed so he didn’t even have to take a hand off the wheel to pull the shifter – this was before air shifters – but sometimes, he’d shift almost right after he left the line.
"I went to a junkyard and got a kickdown switch off an old GTO and hooked it to the foot shifter and put a light on the back of the car so I could see where he shifted. The first time he ran it, the light was on at 100 feet. Once we knew that was the problem, Kenny would force himself to drive the car farther without shifting, but sometimes he just couldn’t, which is when we put the shifter on an air timer. Then it started to haul ass.
"So I began looking for a way to put an automatic shifter in the car, but before we made it into a shifter, I tried it out as a high-speed [leanout] that would kick in at 3.6 or 3.8 seconds that would open up a jet. It was unique, so we covered it up, but it wasn’t that big a deal, really. But when everyone made such a big deal about the towel, we made an even bigger production out of it to mess with everyone’s head."
I remember Lee Beard pulling a similar trick a few years later, placing a towel over the throttle pedal in the Castrol GTX Top Fueler after driver Gary Ormsby connected on a series of telepathic lights. Again, nothing to it but shenanigans and getting in the other guy's head.
Practical joker: World-famous "T.V. Tommy" Ivo originally planned to share with me the sordid details of his first season on tour in 1960 with young novice crewmember Don Prudhomme in tow, but we never quite got around to it. Ivo, a renowned practical joker, did regale me with some tales of how he tortured the not-yet "Snake" during their journeys.
Ivo was 24 ("going on 17," he joked) and Prudhomme just 18. "He was just a good kid," recalled Ivo. " He used to have the damndest laugh – kind of a horse laugh – and if something struck him funny, the whole room would be laughing before he was done. But what a grand adventure!
"I had been back East before when we would do barnstorming appearances for my films, so I somewhat was used to the travel, but here it was, just the two of us, off barnstorming the country in my old Cadillac. We had lots of good times, but he paid his dues going with me on tour. I was a practical joker to a fault.
"One time, Ron Pellegrini took us out rat hunting in the city dump in Cicero [Ill.]. He knew the police department and told them we were going out there. They had machine guns and sawed-off shotguns with lights mounted on them. You'd catch a rat in the lights and let 'im have it. The rats all went and hid, so Prudhomme – 'the Great Hunter' – goes walking out onto the pile, so I threw a can by his foot, and he wheeled around and almost shot his foot off with a shotgun.
"Another time, we went waterskiing up in Minnesota, and I put Prudhomme out on the hook, and try as I might, I couldn't shake him. So I just shut the boat off, and he hand-over-handed it up the rope and made it to the back of the boat without sinking. He was pretty coordinated.
"The best laugh probably was at some hotel one day when I dumped out his shampoo and put 10-weight oil in there. He got in the shower, and the more he put on his head with the water, the more it turned to axle grease. He had to use bar soap and washed it about nine times because you didn't want anyone to know you’d been got. He came out, and I asked him if he noticed anything strange -- 'Nope, didn't notice anything' -- but his hair looked like he'd stuck his finger in a light socket."
Flying high, crashing low: After reading my homage to the famed Kite Cycle of Bob Correll, Glenn Menard, who just recently returned to Texas Motorplex to serve as its new president, shared a tale from his first stint with the Texas supertrack.
"In the early '90s, a photo of a 'kite cycle' in full flight came across my desk at the Texas Motorplex with a solicitation for booking the attraction. We had always programmed our July 4 event -- the Budweiser Night of Fire [not original but a great title nonetheless] -- with exotic features, and a great fireworks show. So the 'kite cycle' was booked. The pilot was one Jimmy Lynn Davis, a stuntman from L.A.
"Steve Earwood, our esteemed PR impresario, was very skeptical. He knew of Correll, and 'Jimmy Lynn was no Bob Correll.' Well, as the date approached and Earwood did more investigating, it seemed that our 'kite cycle' had recently crashed at a track in the Northeast, and although Jimmy had spent some time in a hospital, he assured us he would appear.
"On July 3, we got the whole story; he had, indeed, crashed but claimed he suffered no injuries. He said that the promoter demanded he get into the ambulance to make the show better, but when he went to the hospital and was X-rayed, the doctors were shocked at the amount of broken bones that appeared on the film. Jimmy Lynn assured the docs that, as a stuntman, the breaks were old and had to ship his old X-rays to the hospital so he could show that they were all old and he could be released. This meant that he had the X-rays with him, which came in handy later, as you will see.
"Well, on July 4, you guessed it. Earwood insisted that he would not jump, and a wager between him and I (never collected) was made. During his warm-ups for the crowd, the wind was gusting, and the wagers (and the Buds) were flowing that he would use the weather as an excuse not to perform. I went to half-track to interview Jimmy Lynn (and to be there should he decide not to jump). I knew that the crowd, who had waited all day until 10 p.m., would not take too kindly to such an announcement, so I wanted to be the one to deliver the bad news. However, as he sat on his bike/kite and the wind gusts continued, he looked up and said he thought he could time his jump in between the wind gusts.
"He made his run up to the ramp at full throttle, hit the ramp, lit the flares on the wing tips, and was airborne. It was the crosswind that did him in. He drifted over the guardwall, the return road, and was headed into the grandstands when he turned back toward the track and stalled the kite. He impacted right on the centerline, split the fuel tank, and the flares lit the spreading gasoline. There I was, watching a flaming kite cycle, at fully stuck throttle, in the center of the Motorplex all-concrete quarter-mile.
"Well, Jimmy Lynn picked up some new lines on his X-ray that night and even promised me from his hospital bed that he wanted to return the following year to complete the task.
"All together a most memorable night and one that was not duplicated, as I never heard from him again."
Supercharged sharks: Racers aren’t all business, and they like to get away for a little R&R, and, as all well know, drag racers love to fish. This fish tale got a little out of hand, however.
Former Funny Car racer Simon Menzies, no stranger to Insider readers, remembers a fateful sea trip he took out of King Harbor in Redondo Beach, Calif., with former U.S. Nationals Top Fuel champ Johnny Abbott and a few friends.
"After a few cocktails at the Sea Bucket [restaurant], we agreed that the intelligent think to do was cross the channel to Catalina for dinner. We were visiting after the World Finals in ’79 or ’80. It was October, and on a good day, you might see a whale migrating south, so we borrowed Bill Simpson's 38-foot Uniflite Coastal Cruiser and headed out to sea. Capt. Simon, girlfriend Jan (the first mate), Abbott (the engineer), and (I think) Chris Karamesines' daughter and a few others went along that fateful day.
"We were under way, about five miles out, when I heard the uproar. John came up to the bridge with a wild look in his eye, demanding I stop the boat and see a whale. Well, as I came down the steps, my whole contingent was leaning over the port side goo-gooing and petting the biggest shark I had ever seen! 'That ain’t no whale, it’s a [expletive] shark, a BIG [expletive] shark! Get your hands back in the boat!'
"The shark submerged and came back up and brushed against the boat. We were just drifting at the time, but the shark physically moved the boat as if he was playing with his new little toy. Oh yeah, the shark was longer than the boat ... a lot longer.
"We got back under way, and the shark started to mirror our moves and was playing in the bow wash, sort of surfing over it like a kid on a boogie board. It was kind of cool watching him until I realized that we were at 15 knots and he was right with us, not showing any signs of tiring. Soon after that, we were joined by two other sharks, one about the same size and the other less than half the size. For a few moments, we were flanked by these behemoths at speed and still close enough to reach out and touch them from the boat. The smaller of the three had a nasty habit of falling back into the prop wash and opening his mouth -- a really big mouth -- and ingesting water from the wash until he slowed down, only to rejoin the party a few minutes later. Sort of an open invitation to dinner, if you get my drift.
"We opted to return to King Harbor for dinner instead of finishing the trip to Catalina. The next day, I went to work at Simpson, and John went to the library. John’s whales turned out to be basking sharks, the largest sharks on the planet, growing to 60 feet in length and quite harmless. As it turns out, they feed by opening their mouths at speed, ingesting small fish and plankton and the occasional coastal cruiser. We were in a sense, as true drag racers, supercharging their evening meal with the bow and prop wash. One more episode for the book."
Mom's hot rod: After reading last year's story about San Fernando Raceway, "Hemi Dan" Sallia regaled me with a great story to which I think every would-be drag racer who ever borrowed the family car can relate.
"In 1966, when I was 14 years old, my mom wanted to go to the track to see a co-worker race," he wrote. "She asked me and my little brother if we wanted to go because we had been going to the track for a couple of years with friends. We agreed, and then put a plan in place for me to finally get to race down the track. Brother Bill's job was to keep Mom away from the stands when I was racing because I would be racing her car. My job was to try and pass myself off as older than I was so that I could test my driving skills on the track.
"Luckily for me and Bill, we had taken the time to ask Dad to bring home some plugs, points, and condenser for the wagon. He was running Auto Parts Emporium on Van Nuys Boulevard at the time. The Lark was running good, low 15s at just under 90. Dad had a feeling about our flimsy excuse for tuning up the Lark but figured if I was willing to take the chance, it was my butt on the line. He had driven enough with me to know I was fully capable of handling the car. But handling Mom's wrath? Well, I was on my own there.
"Things went well until the final in N/Stock Auto class. The co-worker had lost his race, so Mom decided she would leave him to sulk and watch the rest of the races. Bill tried every stall tactic he could think of, but they sat down just as I was staging Mom's '59 Studebaker Lark wagon. Mom took one look and told Bill, 'Look, there is a wagon just like mine.' As I went by, she realized that it was her car, and she wasn't happy about it.
"I took the win light, and when I got to the time-slip booth, a guy handed me a trophy and a check for $25 and muttered something about 'Congratulations, you won your class.' As I approached the pits, I spotted Mom coming at me with fire in her eyes. Thinking on my feet, I jumped out of the car waving the trophy and check and told Mom, 'Look what your car won!' She paused for a moment and then grabbed the trophy and check and rushed off to brag it up to her co-workers. Saved by the bell."
Great stories, great times. I'll be back later this week with some other great tales, these about another wild card, our ol' pal Bill Crites. A bunch of us will be getting together Saturday to say goodbye to "our" kid, and I'm sure the stories will be flowing there, too.