Bobby Vodnik’s first serious ride was this B/Gas dragster that he campaigned with Larry Reimer and his uncle, Jim DeVos.
Vodnik at the wheel of the Speed Sport dragster in San Gabriel, Calif.
Although Bobby Vodnik’s lasting legacy will always include his ’63 Indy win in the Hirata & Hobbs car, in which he upset highly favored Don Garlits in the final round, he certainly had a memorable career before and after that, including time under the mentorship of legendary “Golden Greek,” fellow Chicagoan Chris Karamesines.
Vodnik began his racing career with a 354 Hemi-powered B/Gas dragster with Larry Reimer and his uncle, Jim Devos, and made the move to Top Fuel in 1960 when Joe Bush, of Speed Sport Automotive fame, offered the blown fuel Chrysler he had been supplying to a former partner’s Fuel Coupe. Vodnik and Reimer had been splitting wheel time, but it was decided that Vodnik, who was still in high school and trying to fit studies between his racing, would be the driver of the new entry.
The team ran together through the middle of the 1962 season, including a trip west to the March Meet as part of an event in Oswego, Ill., where 20 cars from the Midwest received money to help with expenses for the trip to the West Coast. Although they lost in round one due to a broken blower-drive chain, the following weekend they won Top Eliminator in Tucson, Ariz., beating the Speed Sport team’s dragster in the final. Later that year, Lyle Fisher brought both the Speed Sport roadster and the Speed Sport dragster to Chicago and offered Vodnik the seat in the dragster, and Vodnik moved his base to Tucson.
During the holiday season of 1962, Vodnik ran out of funds and hitched a ride home with “the Greek” and ace wrench Don Maynard, driving through a raging snowstorm from Kansas City, Mo., back to Chicago. When they got there, there was a foot and a half of snow on the ground, and suddenly warm Tucson looked pretty good. Vodnik wrangled a ride in Gene Lang’s dragster for the 1963 AHRA Winternationals in Phoenix and rode back down south with Karamesines to run a few match races and then to pick up his new car from Rod Stuckey and prepare it to race in Phoenix. Maynard would follow a few weeks later, riding with Hirata and Hobbs, who also were going to compete at the event.
Karamesines and his young helper ran a few dates out west then headed for Phoenix to meet up with Maynard, but tragedy struck on a remote stretch of Route 66 outside of Amarillo, Texas, when their station wagon, driven by Maynard, collided head-on with that of an elderly couple who had lost control of their vehicle. Maynard and the couple all died in the accident, and both Hirata and Hobbs, who also were riding in the front seat, were seriously injured. Hirata suffered facial injuries and Hobbs a broken back, according to Vodnik.
A grieving Karamesines turned the car over to Stuckey to drive, and he set low e.t. at 7.81 and top speed of the meet at a mind-boggling 214 mph; the next-best run that year was 208 mph.
Vodnik drove for the legendary Chris Karamesines’ Chizler for a short time. Chassis builder Rod Stuckey is pictured center.
In early 1963, Vodnik began a long association with Dick Belfatti, driving his Shadow Top Fueler.
“Watching Rod make that one run taught me a lot about driving,” recalled Vodnik. “He was a clutch slider. He slipped the clutch perfectly, didn’t boil the tires, just smoked them lightly, and the car really hauled. Stuckey had already promised his wife he would never drive again, so he didn’t even show up to run eliminations, and we were disqualified.”
Karamesines also tried to book his car with Vodnik driving but found few takers for the car with “a nobody kid” (in Vodnik’s words) driving — one of the big exceptions being Vodnik sitting in for Karamesines (and winning) a Drag News Top-Ten List challenge in Alton, Ill. — but did introduce Vodnik to Dick Belfatti and to Hirata, both of whom he drove for that year and would have a great impact on Vodnik’s career.
After Hirata had repaired their dragster, which had been heavily damaged in the towing accident, neither he nor Hobbs were up to driving, but they remembered Vodnik. ”I thought the kid was a pretty good driver,” said Hirata. “I gave him a call and asked him if he wanted to drive the car. He said, ‘Oh, yeah!’ “
Vodnik drove for both Belfatti and Hirata & Hobbs that summer and, at one race over the July 4th weekend, drove both cars at U.S. 30, all of which led up to Vodnik’s memorable weekend at the 1963 Nationals, the first race to feature the use of the Christmas Tree. Undoing past stories about the event, Vodnik says he did not have any previous experience on the Tree.
“Actually, I wasn’t even really happy that we were going to Indy,” he recalled. “Originally we were going to an AHRA event in Texas, where the purse was better, and because I got 50 percent of everything we made, that’s where I wanted to go. When we got in the car, they told me they had changed their minds, and we were going to Indy instead. There was no money there; you know what I got for winning Indy? $50 from Hirata, $200 from Wynn’s and a pin with two puny diamond chips, a Craftsman electric impact wrench, and a19-inch Philco portable TV. At that time, all I was interested in was money.
Vodnik in the Indy-winning Hirata & Hobbs dragster.
(Above) Don Garlits is out in front in the 1963 Nationals Top Eliminator final, but his lead was an ill-gotten gain after a red-light start. (Below) The happy winning team.
“Anyway, on the way to the race, we started talking about the Tree being used there, and Hirata was telling me he’d read an article that it takes a half-second for your arm or hand to react to when you tell it to do something. Well, the lights were half a second apart, so I went up there and watched the Christmas Tree, and on every class or practice run, I’d leave on different stages of the last yellow light. I found out you can’t leave when the light is still coming on or you’ll red-light. You had to wait until the last bulb was bright yellow and just beginning to turn off. I also used yellow World War II aviation goggles that made everything brighter without glare.”
Garlits and his Swamp Rat V had won Saturday’s class title to earn the right to sit out Sunday and face the winner of a field consisting of the cars with low elapsed times set during class racing. They were Gordon Collett (8.50), Pete Robinson, (8.54), Vodnik, (8.70), John Kranenberg (8.73), Tony Nancy (8.79), Joe Schubeck (8.81), and Connie Kalitta, (8.82 seconds), and the final boiled down to Vodnik and Kalitta. After a near-even launch, Vodnik pulled ahead to win a super-tight race in which both ran 8.59.
Although he had won class, Garlits had been experiencing a mysterious vibration (that finally was traced to loose flywheel bolts) and had run a best of 8.64 and an average for six runs of 8.70. Vodnik, meanwhile, had improved from his qualifying pace to run 8.61 and a pair of 8.59s Sunday, despite nursing a wounded piston.
Vodnik also confided to me another tactic that helped him reach the final: choosing to line the car up outside what was becoming a bit of an oily groove. “Back then, every car dropped a few drops of oil, and when you have 1,000 cars down there three to six times a day, it adds up. So when I lined up, I almost had the front tire on the white line on the outside of the lane. The traction was better out there. When everyone else was spinning, I was moving when the clutch dropped.”
Vodnik admits that the team had plenty of inspiration to beat Garlits in the final, some stoked by “Big Daddy” but some external.
“Kenny [Hirata] had just gotten into a fight with Speed Sport Oil because they wanted him to pay for the oil even though we were in the final,” he remembers. “Then Garlits walks up and starts trying to get in my head, but he doesn’t realize I’m already pissed off over the oil deal. He asks me how I’m going to leave on the light. I just looked at him and said, ‘Don, first, I don’t care about winning the race; there’s no money here. No. 2, I’ve been around “the Greek” too long to let you bother me; and No. 3, when I get on the line and let the clutch out, that’s exactly when I’m going to leave.’ He just walked away. Hirata, who was working under the engine changing the oil, almost died laughing, but I was serious.”
Garlits, needing to make up about a tenth on the Tree, did what any driver would do, trying to shave the Tree as close as he could in the final but drew a red-light start. Vodnik made it official with an 8.62, 174.75-mph pass to Garlits’ invalidated 8.65, 177.26, but even Vodnik didn’t know he’d won.
“I didn’t know he red-lighted,” Vodnik admitted. “I went over and congratulated him, and he said, 'I think I red-lighted.’ It didn’t really sink in. Later on, I realized how big a deal it was. It made for good bookings.”
As to any potential hard feelings between him and Garlits over the stunning upset, Vodnik theorized, “I don’t think he hated me as much as he hated himself.”
In 1966, Vodnik drove The Guzzler Top Fueler and won the Drag News Invitational. He’s [pictured with, from left, Don Mattison, Bud Roche, Gail Czarnowski, Harold Brewer, and Fred Brewer.
In 1964, Hobbs returned to driving their car, and Vodnik drove the Masters & Richter car at the beginning of 1964 while Belfatti awaited delivery of a new car that was to be a clone of Karamesines' Stuckey-built car but built by Fred Allen. The new car was impressive immediately; Vodnik set the first sub-eight-second NHRA national record with a 7.96 at Cecil County in Maryland. They raced together through the end of the 1965 season, when Vodnik married his wife, Sarah. In 1966, he partnered with Don Mattison and Bud Roche on The Guzzler fueler and won the Drag News Invitational event at U.S. 30 Dragway. The birth of his daughter in August led Vodnik to take a break from racing — during which time he was replaced in The Guzzler — but he did compete at Indy in Gordon Collett’s car, with which he reached the semifinals before a warped flywheel ended his day just short of more Indy glory.
With his family responsibilities and a new job outside of racing that required six days a week, Vodnik raced only occasionally in 1967, driving Hirata’s new Hemi–powered gas dragster until that was no longer possible, and he retired from competition.
“I just couldn’t get the time off to race anymore, so I forgot about it and stayed away from it for several years because I didn’t want to get tempted to go back to driving,” he said. “A lot of guys just can’t resist.”
I appreciate the time that Vodnik spent with me on the phone as well as the use of many of the photos pictured above. He's certainly one of the many guys I've always been curious about due to his interesting place in Indy lore.
The response to my column about the Cassidy brothers was impressively strong, as the brothers, unknown to some west of the Mississippi, are still fondly remembered by fans and fellow racers, who submitted some thoughts and photos, which I shared with former team member Franklin Amiano, who had a story to go with almost every one.
Bill Warburton, who raced against the Cassidys in Pro Comp with his Brewmasters A/FD, sent along the photo at right, which shows Les Cassidy defeating him in the first round at the 1974 Summernationals. “This one still hurts,” he joked. “We qualified in the top half of the field, but I ‘black tracked’ the tires all the way down the track due to the usual hot and humid weather that was always present at the Summernationals."
Remembers Amiano, “That was the race that rained during qualifying. Lester and Dale Hall were the next pair up after the rain stopped. Les went out on his burnout, slid off the track, across the wide grass apron that E-town had at the time, and tapped the guardrail with the right rear corner of the Grand Am. He drove back onto the track and backed up, expecting Buster [Couch, chief starter] to shut him off. Instead, Buster waved him in to stage, yelling ‘C'mon Lester, let's go!’ Yup! It was just another day at the office for Lester.”
Mark Platt, who began working at racetracks in Texas in the mid-1970s when he was just 13 and has met a Who’s Who of the sport over the years, got to meet the Cassidys, too.
Chuck Muller sent me a link to some of his old Cassidy brothers photos, and I love this one, which shows just how narrow that old cattle trailer was. That license plate is also, well, um, pretty interesting ...
“I was fortunate to meet the Cassidy Bros. in 1978 in Atlanta. I was working pit parking control that day, and the Cassidys showed up late, and there wasn't much space for them to park, but we managed to get them a spot. They were so very nice and appreciative of how we accommodated them. They made the show on their first qualifying pass with ease! You mentioned that they hauled their Funny Car in a bus; well, at this race they showed up with a trailer that, at some point in time, was a horse trailer. They had converted the trailer, and it had a roof, but the sides were open and still had the side bars like a horse trailer does. The car fit really tight and barely had enough room to squeeze by on the sides. They could only lift the body so high in order to climb into the car to unload it. Needless to say it worked and makes me remember the good old days when everyone paid for everything out of pocket.”
“There are stories behind every story when John and Les were involved,” replied Amiano. “The reason they were late getting into Atlanta was because they stopped to help Dale Pulde. Pulde had smoked the transmission out of his crew cab and was stuck a few miles from the track. So Johnny dropped the horse trailer (actually a cattle trailer), hooked up to Pulde's trailer, and towed it into the track then went back and got the cattle trailer. Johnny bought the cattle trailer from our friend in Ohio, Bob Larimore. One night, we pulled into a service area somewhere, and the pump jockey asked Lester ‘How many horses are you hauling?’ Les told him ‘On a good day, maybe 2,000,’ and walked away. I heard the guy mutter under his breath ‘They must be awful small ... ’ “
I also heard from Tim Anderson, who some of you may know as the general manager at Racepak. “The Cassidy Bros. story brought back great memories,” he wrote. “I grew up in Bristol and remember watching them numerous times. They were always one of my favorite teams as Les would jump out of the car as soon as it rolled to a stop in the pits and start thrashing without taking off his fire pants and jacket.”
I can’t mention everyone who wrote in to share their appreciation of the team’s efforts, but it’s great that even a smaller team, usually far from the national event spotlight, can be so fondly remembered by so many, and I’m glad that we all have a place like this to do it.
Bobby Vodnik, second from right, consults with the Masters & Richter team after losing fire in the first round at the 1964 Winternationals.
The great thing about this column has always been the way that one story can cascade into another, and that’s especially true for today’s column.
Shortly after I posted the tale of Jack Williams at the 1964 Winternationals two weeks ago, I got an email from Bobby Vodnik, who gained national fame by upsetting Don Garlits in the final round of Top Eliminator at the 1963 Nationals and also competed in that 1964 Pomona event, asking me to call him, which, of course, I eagerly did. Even though he never reached another national event final, everyone remembers Vodnik and his place in Indy lore, and I was eager to hear his story.
Vodnik wanted to take issue with part of the report I’d written on the Winternationals, specifically his first-round race with Garlits. I was working from the report in National Dragster and Vodnik from personal — albeit 50-year-old — memory, but it was worth hearing. While he admits that he lost fire on the line against Garlits, he also swears that Garlits fouled on his winning run, and they were both disqualified and that Garlits did not run against Kenny Safford in the semifinals, where I had reported him losing on a red-light.
Vodnik, now 70 years old and feeling a bit under the weather — medically and literally after five feet of snow in the Chicago area, where he still lives — the day we spoke, was emphatic about what happened.
“I remember it clearly,” he said. “When I let go of the brake to grab the steering wheel, I tripped the mag switch. The tire never made a complete turn. I was so pissed I just turned right off the track, but Garlits red-lit. Both of us were disqualified.”
I’m not sure if the famed “first or worst” rule was in use then, which would have re-instated Garlits’ lesser infraction against Vodnik’s lane-crossing violation, and I couldn’t find any supporting material, online or in books, to support what did or didn’t happen.
“I was very pissed off that they might let Garlits back in,” he remembered. “I told Masters & Richter, ‘You get this car ready to run; if they let him back in, they’ll have three cars on the line,' and I was dead serious about it.”
With such a conflict, I was intrigued, so, naturally, I reached out to “Big Daddy,” his own bad self, for clarification. Over the years, I’ve known Garlits to be a fair and accurate historian of his own career, but, alas, he was not able to shed any new light on the subject.
In what I find to be a deliciously ironic photo, Don Garlits, near lane, squares off against Norm Weekly on a qualifying run. Garlits' own Swamp Rat VI did not qualify, but Weekly then stepped out of the Frantic Four car to let Garlits drive it on Sunday. Note that the Christmas Tree is laid down on its side between them; apparently it was not used during qualifying?
“That race has left my memory completely,” Garlits admitted. “I would tend to believe ND. Over a long period of time, a lot of the memories change, and the person thinks his memory is fact, when they are not. I have had a lot of experience with this because I have all the records here to draw on and see hundreds of people telling me stories that are just not true. However, I do not contradict the story teller; it just upsets them!”
One could hardly fault Garlits for not remembering one run out of a career that spanned thousands, especially a first round. I also don’t think he meant anything derogatory toward Vodnik.
Still, I remained perplexed. I went through the photo department’s contact sheets from the event but could not find Garlits racing Safford. The problem was somewhat exacerbated by my less-than-thorough ability to pick out cars from that era, especially when the cockpit was enveloped in smoke from the run. Safford’s car had a very unique cockpit area — squared off and heavily upholstered — but you can’t see that when it’s covered in tire smoke. Garlits was driving that day for Weekly, Rivero, Fox, and Holding after he had failed to qualify his own car (he was not alone; Don Prudhomme, Tom McEwen, Art Malone, Connie Kalitta, and other big names also failed to make the quick eight); had Garlits been driving his own Swamp Rat VI, it would have helped, but he was driving the Frantic Four car Sunday. While there are many from that era who can identify the bare bones, bodyless slingshots by their injector scoops, headers, front-wing size and placement, and other clues, I’m not one of them.
Fortunately, I have no lack of friends with great resources. I know that Bob Frey keeps incredible records on these things and has the magazine collection to back it up, so I asked for his help. I also reached out to Dave Wallace, who I knew would have the Drag News — "the Racer's Bible" — from that event.
Frey went above and beyond the call, searching through multiple sources. Here’s his report:
“I have often said that the reporting of races back then was an antiquated and flimsy as the cars that raced. It is very confusing, but I will try to do my best.
"Garlits faced Vodnik in round one, and according to most reports, most but not all, Garlits won the race and advanced to the second round. There, he faced Kenny Safford, fouled out and was eliminated. According to Car Craft magazine, May 1964, ‘ … the next round (second round) was a different story, however. Garlits came back against Kenny Safford and, gambling for an edge on the line, hit the foul lights.’ That would mean that Garlits did advance to round two.
“Hot Rod Magazine, May 1964, has a mini-ladder in their report, and it shows the #71 car (the one driven by Garlits) advancing to the second round where it fouled out against Safford. But there is no mention in their article or ladder about the fact that the car was driven by Garlits; all references are to Norm Weekly.
“To further muddy the waters, Modern Rod magazine, in their July 1964 issue, states, ' … Daddy got a red-light on a strong, smoky run, but Vodnik’s engine coughed when 50-feet out. He turned off, and both were disqualified. … In the next round, Safford made a wind-blown single to prepare for his go with Ivo in the semifinals.’
"Drag Racing Magazine, July 1964, says this about the Garlits-Vodnik race: ‘Both dropped out as Garlits got a red-light, and Vodnik’s engine coughed on the line. He turned off early and was disqualified.’ It added, ' … Winds pushed Safford to a single speed of 195.22.' The Modern Rod and Drag Racing magazine stories have the feel of being written by the same guy, which could account for the similarity in wording.”
So that seemed like a bit of a push to me, but Frey then turned to even better source material, Garlits' own King of the Dragsters book, which was published in 1967. It reads, “I got some revenge against Bobby Vodnik by putting him on the trailer with an 8.17 at 187.88. Then I went up against Kenny Safford and gambled a particle of a second too much with the Christmas Tree starting system and drew a red-light.”
Opined Frey, “That sounds like proof positive to me that he ran in the second round. [Garlits’ writing was] current enough that I think the race would be fresh in his mind, so I certainly think it's correct. I would think that stories that have him racing in round two would be more correct than ones that say he wasn't there. It easy to miss a round, as they often did in those early stories and recaps, but it's impossible to make up a round.”
Yet as they say on TV: But wait, there’s more …
Wallace scanned me the pages from the Feb. 22, 1964, Drag News coverage of the event, which reported thusly: "Next up was the M&R Special against Weekly, Rivero, Fox, and Holding with Don Garlits at the controls; the Weekly crew felt that Garlits knew the Christmas Tree best, so they let him drive ... Don was just a little too quick and got a red-light and lost the race with an 8.17 and 187.88, but M&R blew something and were unable to continue in competition." And later in the story, it reads, "Second round of Top Fuel started off with Safford making a single at 7.95 and 195.22."
So there you have it. Clear as mud. Anyone have any other evidence to add?
Just as that tidbit about the race seemed to still be spinning out of control, Frey sent me a couple of scans from the 1964 issue of Drag Racing Magazine
that also dismisses the romantic notion of the Crossley-Williams-Swan’s tow back to Bakersfield to repair an ailing engine and their police-led escort through the Grapevine snow back to Pomona.
In an article blurbed on the cover as “How I won the Winternationals,” Williams confirmed the engine damage (a cracked cylinder wall just before Saturday’s class final led to no water on that side of the engine) and, because they didn’t have a spare engine, the Bill Crossley and Don Swan headed home to Bakersfield to repair the engine. “Don and Bill sleeved the block, bored it again, and spent all night fixing it up for Sunday afternoon,” he wrote. “On the way back, they were slowed up in the mountains, because of rain, but rolled into Pomona just in time. The stories about the police escort leading them through a snowstorm made a good human-interest item, but were only a figment of some announcer’s imagination.”
Man, I hate it when the facts get in the way of a good story …
OK, that’s it for today; make of all of that what you will. Next week, I’ll talk about the short-but-very-interesting career of Vodnik and a follow-up on last week’s Cassidy brothers column.
(Above) The Cassidy brothers, John, third from left, and Les, third from right, made a lot of fans on the East Coast in the 1970s with their Funny Cars, including their rare Grand Am-bodied alky burner (below). Sharp-eyed race fans might be able to pick out other familiar faces in the photo above, including Nick Boninfante, center, and respected machinist John "Indian" Morgan, far right.
I may have mentioned a time or two (or maybe 20) that I was a big fan of the rare Grand Am Funny Car bodies of the 1970s, which is why I always had a special place in my heart for an East Coast car and a team that I never saw race, the New Jersey-based Cassidy brothers.
Brothers Les and John first competed in Top Alcohol Funny Car, first with a Barracuda, then with a Grand Am before making the leap to nitro in 1976, and they more than held their own in the tough Division 1 wars. Les, the driver, passed away in 2004 and “Big John” joined his younger brother at the great dragstrip in the sky this past Monday, passing away after a decades-long battle with diabetes.
The sad news came to me from longtime Insider follower Franklin Amiano, who was a crewmember on the brothers’ team over the years, and was able to offer some background on their efforts over the years.
According to Amiano, the brothers campaigned a number of cars over the years, including a ’32 Bantam-bodied fuel altered named Heaven Express that Les began driving when he was just 16. They stretched the altered’s chassis to Funny Car length and added a Barracuda body for a car that became the first of a series of Sundance Kid machines. They ran the blown Donovan-powered 'Cuda as an outlaw (at the time) blown alcohol Funny Car on Tom "Smoker" Smith's East Coast Fuel Funny Car Circuit.
As their skills progressed so did their cars. A new S&W chassis was commissioned and "Rapid Red” Lang called Mickey Thompson, who owned the mold for the Grand Am, and put in a good word for the brothers, who then had their own beautiful Grand Am that was circuit raced up and down the East Coast and was “a middle of the pack qualifier” at East Coast national events, according to Amiano.
The brothers had impressive immediate success when they switched to nitro (“after the usual learning curve, which included the addition of seven fire bottles and trucker-chain restraints on the blower!” recalls Amiano).
In one of their first outings with pop in the tank, they were runner-ups to “Jungle Jim” Liberman at Maple Grove Raceway’s NHRA WCS event and hit the East Coast match race scene hard. Before long they won their first match race, beating Gary Burgin (twice) and then AHRA world champ Tom Hoover in the final at eight-car Englishtown, then were runner-up to Raymond Beadle’s Blue Max the following weekend at the IHRA Pro Am at Rockingham, N.C. Later that year, they ran the quickest nitro-powered Donovan pass in history, a 6.18, at New England Dragway and closed out the year with a runner-up to Shirl Greer in Florida.
“By 1977, they were on a roll,” recalls Amiano. “Combining a trick match race combination, a new, lighter Monza body, and Les' razor-sharp reaction times, they squared off the best touring gunners in the country with extremely impressive results. Over the next couple of years, they managed to beat (at least once) every top name Funny car in the country, except Prudhomme and the Blue Max.”
Amiano recalls that Les beat Gary Burgin six times before Burgin finally got a W against them, but “Big John” didn’t give Burgin much time to gloat. “John went over to Burgin, put his arm over Burgin's shoulder, and told him, ‘The crankshaft and cylinder heads are older than the driver. What did you beat?’ "
The brothers never ventured far westward but ran all up and down the East Coast — their motto was "Montreal to Miami" — running both Division 1 and 2. They won the Division 1 crown and probably would have won Division 2, but, according to Amiano, backed off to allow Billy Meyer to win the title to gather points to compete at the World Finals. The Cassidys also swept the Winter Rebel Series, winning both the Snowbird National Open and the Turkey Trot Nationals. Les also owns the distinction of being the last driver to square off in competition against Liberman before his fatal auto accident in September 1977.
From 1974 to 1978, the brothers famously hauled their race car inside an old school bus that “Big John” had bought from a guy who had used it to haul a show car.
“It was still yellow, everything inside was gutted, but it had ramps and a Ryder truck back door,” recalls Amiano. “At the time, I was helping Joe Siti put together the original Philadelphia Flyer Monza (I named it!), so John and Les drove the bus to Joe's Custom Paint Shack and we painted it Coca-Cola red and white. Johnny finished off the inside like a motorhome with bunks, closets, and a 12-volt refrigerator. I installed the 8-track stereo.
“At the Maple Grove points race, when Lester beat ‘Jungle’ for the win, he wasn't even booked in. That was a Frank LeSeur show, but Mike Lewis told Johnny, ‘If you guys want to come out, whatever you win is yours.’ At the track, John and Les went over to Frank LeSeur to ask about getting booked in; Frank told them: ‘I don't book no school bus acts.’ That really hurt Lester's feelings and made him mad. He proceeded to march through Frank's cars, finally meeting ‘Jungle’ in the final. The bus is now being used as a storage shed in Jackson, N.J.”
The brothers raced together through the early 1980s, and Les became a hired driver for a few years after that. They finally sold the race car operation and started a taxi cab company in the Florida Keys, and life was pretty good, according to Amiano, until Les’ 2004 passing at age 50 under very sad circumstances.
“Les was on his way to see his son, Lester Jr., for Junior’s birthday when apparently he had a stroke,” said Amiano. “He finally made it to his ex-wife's house but very late. Junior had fallen asleep on the couch waiting for his dad. Les' ex told him to go sleep in Junior’s room and they'd sort everything out in the morning. When Junior went in to wake up Les in the morning, Les was dead. He had a heart attack in his sleep and died in his son's bed, on his son's birthday. How sad is that?
“ ‘Big John’ soldiered on, dealing with the complications of diabetes. He remained upbeat and optimistic until the very end. The stories of the Cassidy bros.' antics are legendary. You'll hear them whenever old fuel racers gather. Guys like Tommy Ivo, Dale Pulde, Nick Boninfante Sr., and ‘the Greek’ all have their own personal favorites.”
I’m sure they’re not alone in thinking of the Cassidy bros. as favorites, especially among the legion of East Coast fans who rooted for them against the big dogs in the 1970s.
Fifty years ago at the Winternationals, Jack Williams scored a wild Top Fuel victory that ultimately would lead to the world championship. Race queen Bobbie Hefley presented him with a "flash edition" of National Dragster proclaiming his win.
The 2014 season-opening Circle K NHRA Winternationals went successfully and speedily into the record books last weekend, with John Force running the fastest Funny Car speed and the second quickest Funny Car e.t. en route to setting both ends of the national record. Nitromethane fuel, of course, is the key ingredient in propelling Funny Cars from a standing start to more than 320 mph in less than four seconds and 1,000 feet, an exotic and wondrous fuel, a byproduct of furnace fuel that contained nitrobenzene for improved heating efficiency. It was adapted in small doses in the Formula 1 cars in the 1930s and eventually found its way to the salt flats and dragstrip in the mid-1950s.
The potent fuel boosted performances in dragsters to a level that many Southern California track owners were not comfortable with, perhaps highlighted by the stunning 166.97-mph pass at Lions Drag Strip in early 1957 — a 7-mph increase over the best gas dragster time.
On April 1, 1957, a consortium of SoCal tracks, including Santa Ana, Lions, Pomona, San Gabriel, Kingdon, and others voted to ban the use of exotic fuels and called for NHRA to support it, which NHRA President Wally Parks did. The so-called “fuel ban” officially lasted until the end of the 1963 season, although NHRA experimented with its return at the 1963 Winternationals but ran that year’s Nationals in Indy on gas only. The 1964 Winternationals marked the official end of the ban, which brings me to today’s subject.
Fifty years ago last weekend, the late Jack Williams scored a very memorable Winternationals win at those 1964 Winternationals, winning the event under some pretty abnormal conditions.
At that time, Top Fuel racing was conducted very differently than it is today. On Saturday, all of the AA/FDs would race against one another for class honors, with the winner earning the right to race against the winner of a qualified eight-car field that competed Sunday. Runs made in class eliminations also would count toward qualifying for Sunday’s field.
Williams, driver of the Crossley-Williams-Swan entry, and fellow Smoker’s Car Club members Bill Crossley and Don Swan worked their way methodically through Saturday’s field, defeating Mickey Thompson’s blower-belt-losing Hemi Ford with an 8.19, Denny Milani in Ted Gotelli’s machine with an 8.07, red-lighting Chris Karamesines with an 8.10 to reach the final, where he took on Gary Casady in the Baber & Casady entry. Williams collected the win with an 8.33 to Casady’s 8.88, but the win was costly for Williams when the slingshot’s engine blew in the lights.
This being 1964 and not 2014, there was no arsenal of spare engines waiting in the trailer, so the team loaded up their mount and trailered home to Bakersfield, about 140 miles to the north but over the Tehachapi Mountains and the Tejon Pass on the old Highway 99 Ridge Route that predated the modern Interstate 5.
The group made it home and spent all night building a new engine and then hopped back in the truck for what they hoped would be a speedy return to the track. Mother Nature, however, had other ideas.
A raging snowstorm had descended on the pass, and law enforcement officials closed the route, already one of California’s most treacherous, to traffic. Somehow, the trio was able to convince the lawmen — race fans perhaps? — to not only allow them to pass the roadblock but to provide a police escort down the slippery road, albeit at an “inches-per-minute” pace.
Against all odds, they made it back to Pomona in time to take part in Sunday’s pre-race parade with the eight qualified cars. Williams had actually run quick enough Saturday — an 8.03 — to qualify fifth, but because of Williams’ Saturday win, No. 9 qualifier Kenny Safford was inserted into the field in his place.
Eliminations were conducted under conditions that included “gale-force winds” and began with Safford taking full advantage of his reprieve and shutting down low qualifier Jeep Hampshire on a massive first-round holeshot, 8.02 to 7.85. Don Garlits, the defending Winternationals champ, surprisingly had failed to qualify in the top eight and had lost in Saturday’s class eliminations when he pulled off the track too soon after James Warren’s red-light also got a reprieve when the Weekly-Rivero-Fox-Holding “Frantic Four” team allowed him to take the seat of their third-qualified machine (again, different era, different rules) to face off with Bobby Vodnik and the Masters & Richter machine in a rematch of their final round at the previous year’s Nationals. Garlits got easy revenge with an 8.17 when Vodnik lost fire on the line. “TV Tommy” Ivo put away James Warren, 8.00 to 8.06, and Karamesines joined them in the semifinals with a stout 7.86 after Milani’s engine blew.
Williams, near lane, defeated Tommy Ivo in Sunday's final Top Fuel runoff.
Garlits then red-lighted to the Safford-Ratican-Gade machine in the semifinals, and Karamesines did the same against Ivo. The final round went to Ivo, 7.98 to 8.03, to set up the run against Williams for the overall win.
The Crossley-Williams-Swan team had been given the opportunity during the day to make a checkout pass with the new engine, and all went well, heightening expectations for the final. Ivo got the jump at the Tree — being used for just the second time in national event competition — and both cars rooster-tailed smoke down the quarter-mile before Williams eked ahead to take the win with an 8.16, 193.12 to Ivo’s close 8.24, 191.48, bringing to conclusion an amazing weekend for the boys from Bakersfield. Their haul for the weekend included not just the event purse but also a new Ford Falcon Sprint.
The Winternationals was just the beginning of a tremendous year for the team; they also won Hot Rod Magazine Championships at Riverside in June, beating Don Prudhomme and the vaunted Greer-Black-Prudhomme machine in Saturday’s class finals then besting fellow Bakersfield resident Tony Waters, in Ernie Hashim’s dragster, in Sunday’s runoff, netting them $2,000 plus another new car, this time a Mustang.
The trio went on to win the world championship, though their storybook year came one round short of an ultimate dream season when Williams reached the final round of the U.S. Nationals, too, by winning Sunday’s eight-car race off under even more bizarre circumstances than he encountered in Pomona.
With Garlits, Saturday's class winner, standing by to race the Sunday winner, Williams won his first-round match with defending event champ Vodnik, who was driving Dick Belfatti's blown Chrysler-powered Shadow entry. Norm Weekly beat George Van, and Tom Hoover took out Connie Kalitta, but both lost engines in the process. Joe Schubeck then beat Maynard Rupp and Logghe Stamping Co.'s entry but broke the rear end.
Neither Weekly nor Hoover could repair their engines in time for the semifinals, and Schubeck’s return was waylaid when a sticky-fingered fan made off with the specially made short U-joint and shaft for Schubeck's car. After repeated pleas by Schubeck over the PA, the unit was returned, but time had run out on all three of the crews, and Williams, with no semifinal opponent and no final-round opponent from the other half of the bracket, soloed to the Sunday win with a strong 7.83 at 199.54 mph but a run that left a half-dollar-size hole in one of the pistons.
Again, large crowds descended on the pits to watch the drama, but the team made the call, with Crossley putting in the final spark plug in the staging lanes.
Williams got nearly a car-length drop on Garlits at the green, but “”Big Daddy” came roaring by at the finish line to finally collect his first U.S. Nationals win, with a stout 7.67 at 198.22 mph to Williams' dual-piston-burning 7.93 at 188.66 mph.
Sadly, Williams’ driving career was cut short the following year when he was badly burned in the fire in the Warren & Crowe dragster at Southern California’s Irwindale Raceway. He remained an active part of the racing community as a track manager at places like famed Famoso Raceway and Fremont Raceway and as owner of Sears Point Int’l Raceway. He is best remembered in his later years for a 13-year career with the Goodguys Vintage Racing Association but returned to Famoso in 1995, when he took over the lease and management of the track and helped restore some of its glory.
Williams died Feb. 7, 2006, at age 69 but left behind a racing legacy and a Winternationals win that won’t soon be forgotten.