The button on Herman Petersen’s trademark brown hat pretty much sums it all up: “I’ve Survived Damn Near Everything.” It’s not an idle boast.
The Washington state nitro veteran, known as "the Northwest Terror," has stared down death on at least four occasions -- only two of which were related to racing -- and came out the other side each time with a brighter outlook on life.
To shake his hand is to touch the soul of humanity. His gnarled hands, missing at least the tips of each finger, are mute testimony to the ravages of a terrible fire suffered at the wheel of his dragster just more than 40 years ago, yet it’s a welcoming handshake.
And the smile that brightens a face that also shows the scars of that fire is testimony to the resiliency of the human spirit and to a man at peace with his place in the world, one who assigns the proper perspective to the joys and sorrows that 70 years of life can bring.
It’s pretty safe to assume that the knowledgeable readers in the Insider Nation know the basics of Petersen’s tale, of that fateful July day in 1973 at Orange County Int’l Raceway when a crash and ensuing fire forever changed his life, of his courageous comeback, and of his retirement just a few years later, but as you’ll read in the next two parts concluding next Friday, the frightening accident at OCIR was only the better-publicized portion of a wonderful life inside and out of racing.
As I mentioned last week, I had been trying to get together with Petersen for a few years, but because he’s seemingly always on the go and I hadn’t traveled to our Seattle event in more than a decade, it never happened. I added Seattle to my schedule this year, and a note from Petersen a few weeks before the event invited me to drop by his display area to see his latest treasure, a bright-orange supercharged ’52 Willys – the same make and model of his first race car decades ago – that would serve as the push vehicle for his restored slingshot dragster that would take part in Sunday’s Cacklefest. I had hoped to carve out close to an hour during Friday qualifying to sneak away from my reporting duties, but just as we sat down, it began to rain, and it continued for several hours, making for a leisurely and pleasurable trip down his Memory Lane.
Like a lot of guys in the 1960s, Petersen became acquainted with drag racing through his local car club, which in his case was the Handlers, which called Bremerton Raceway its home, but he was into cars long before then. When he was 13, he would drive the family’s old ’41 Dodge up and down the logging roads by his dad’s house in Chico, Wash., just outside of Bremerton, but the cold climes presented challenges.
“I’d have to take the spark plugs out of the flathead six, take them in the house, warm them up in the oven, then screw them back in to get it to start up,” he remembered proudly. “I’ve always liked cars.”
He started hanging out with the Handlers not long after graduating from East Bremerton High in 1961 and racing a B/Gas ’52 Willys, which was followed by a C/Modified Production ‘57 Chevy. By 1965, he was the club president. Running the drags at Bremerton was part of that responsibility and led directly to his career in Top Fuel.
“In 1967, I decided to put on a Top Fuel show: $400 to win, $300 runner-up, $100 a round. I knew I needed Jerry Ruth there because he was the star guy. So I call him up and tell him the pay schedule, and he says that I need to pay him $100 under the table or he might be ‘sick’ or something. So I agree to that, and I get off the phone, and I’m thinking, ‘Herman, what’s wrong with this picture? I’m racing for a $12 trophy – and I know it’s a $12 trophy because I bought it for the club – and this guy is getting paid $100 under the table just to show up?’ I didn’t figure he had much more money in his dragster than I had in my ’57 Chevy, so I befriended him. I’d go over to his shop on Monday nights after my job and take his car apart for him after a weekend of racing. I was working like a slave, but I had my ears open all the time. Then I’d go back on Fridays, and we’d put it all back together. By the end of that year, I decided that I could race in Top Fuel. I bought Terrell Poage’s Top Gas dragster, bought a short-block and an injector from Ruth, and some heads and a blower. I licensed in Bremerton in the next year.
“I didn’t know if I was going to like it, which is why I bought a used car, but, hell, it didn’t take long to figure out that I was in love with it,” he said.
Petersen loved it so much that at the end of 1968, he quit his full-time job at the Tide Chevrolet dealership in Poulsbo and hoped to rely on the steady income from his home-based side business, Petersen’s Auto Glass, at which he replaced windshields at nights and weekends for people who couldn’t find the time to go in on a weekday. “That business was working pretty good, so I decided to go Top Fuel racing full time,” he said.
He and wife Sandy drove down to L.A. in his brother’s new Corvette and straight to Woody Gilmore’s Race Car Engineering shop, where he ordered his first new slingshot, which he debuted at the 1969 Winternationals. He got a sponsorship from Beach Imports, a Fiat dealership in Bremerton, and went racing, and the following year, he began a long and wonderful partnership with Sam Fitz, a local restaurateur. Long after their racing days ended, they remained tremendous friends until Fitz passed away in 2000 of Huntington’s disease. “He was a great, great guy,” Petersen remembered fondly. “He didn’t know anything mechanical, but he loved the sport.”
Petersen & Fitz raced that car until the end of 1971, and the handwriting was on the wall about the future of Top Fuel. They had Gilmore build them a rear-engine car – the first such car to run in the Northwest – and raced the car throughout the year with crewmember Denny Bale. Midway through 1972, Petersen became just the second driver (behind John Wiebe) to run Ed Donovan’s new aluminum engine block (his was serial no. 004; Wiebe had 001 and 002, and Mike Kuhl and Carl Olson got 003).
They tied Clayton Harris’ 6.16 national record in June at Lions Drag Strip and won the PDA race at Orange County Int’l Raceway that year, then sold the car and trailer turnkey toward the end of the season to Bernie Stewart for his teenage son John to drive with the provision that Petersen got to drive it at the season-ending Supernationals and at Lions’ Last Drag Race. At Lions, he qualified in the top half of the field and went two rounds before shearing the input shaft.
‘The best car I’d ever had’
Jere Alhadeff sent this photo of a Petersen fire burnout that he shot at OCIR for the cover of the June 1973 issue of Drag Racing USA.
With sponsorship from Heidelberg beer, another Gilmore chassis was readied for 1973, but they couldn’t have been ready for the season that lay ahead. After a disappointing debut at the Winternationals, where they qualified just No. 20 in the 32-car field and lost in round one to Don Garlits, they trailered to Gainesville for the Gatornationals. Petersen qualified sixth with a 6.20, more than a tenth off of Olson’s polesitting 6.08, and got past Dick LaHaie in round one with a 6.19 to move him into a second-round date with Garlits, who had just sent his hometown fans into paroxysms with a 6.05 against Chris Karamesines. Petersen shut ‘em all up when he took down “Big Daddy” on a 6.08 to 6.18 score to avenge his Pomona defeat.
“You could have heard a pin drop in that place,” he remembered, still relishing the moment 40 years later. “I just beat their boy. That was very gratifying.” The best was still to come. Another 6.08 in the semifinals put the sport’s other legendary Don – Prudhomme – on the trailer. Awaiting Petersen in the final was the meet’s other Cinderella story, Jim Bucher in his Chevy-powered Kenner SSP rail, who had set the national record at 6.079 in the second round, backed up by his first-round 6.12.
What should have been a tight match between two guys seeking their first career wins in an all-6.0-second final ended before it began when Bucher’s Can Am Chevy pulled loose the head studs and backfired the blower on the burnout, leaving Petersen to solo for the win with an easy 6.22. The good times didn’t stop there.
“We went home and ran Yakima, Puyallup, and Seattle the next Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and won all three nights, set the track record at all three tracks, and never had the heads off. That motor was happy. We’d pull the plugs, change the oil, and run the valves after every run, then check bearings after each night. It was the best car I’d ever had. It was running so good.”
Moments from disaster at OCIR; you can already see the car dipping to the right as the axle breaks.
The details are firmly imprinted in Petersen’s mind. July 21, 1973. Saturday qualifying at the Orange County PDA meet, where he is the defending champ. It’s about 1:30 in the afternoon.
“I was really on one,” he remembered, his face brightening at the thought. “All of a sudden, [stuff] starts happening. It broke the right rear axle, which caused the car to go to the right. Immediately, I cranked the wheels back to the left and grabbed a handful of brake; that now pulls the car the other way, and it finally dug in and flipped. It landed upside down and slid upside down and backwards for 1,000 feet.”
The flip-top lid on the fuel tank – just behind the driver -- came off, and seven gallons of fuel poured out. With the car going backwards, it flowed right into the cockpit, and the sparks from the roll bar set everything on fire, including Petersen.
“Something snapped in me,” he remembered. “Back when I was in driver training in high school, the state patrol came around showing photos of accidents, and I remember distinctly a driver of a fuel tanker that caught fire. He wasn’t burned, but he inhaled the heat, and that killed him. That snapped in my mind, so I held my breath.
“The first [emergency worker] runs up with fire extinguisher, points at me, and I’m thinking, ‘Good, they’re going to get it out,” but the fire extinguisher was empty. The other extinguishers were on the truck but locked in a box, and they couldn’t get them off the truck. I was still holding my breath – I held it for 55 seconds – and I was just about to pass out, and I remember thinking, ‘Orange County Raceway; what a [crappy] place to die.’ About that time, they got the fire extinguishers working.
“They righted the car and helped me out. I actually raised a hand to the crowd. I didn’t think I was that badly hurt. They loaded me on a gurney and took me to the hospital. They poured a big bag of ice all over me. Fortunately for me, the Orange County Burn Center was just up the road.”
Petersen’s injuries were horrific. He suffered third- and fourth-degree burns on more than 55 percent of his body, including his back, legs, arms, hands, and face. The helmet’s plastic face shield melted onto his face – to this day, you can see the difference in the skin color in the perfect shape of the helmet’s opening. His sight was saved by the “little Benjamin Franklin-style” glasses he wore, but his nose was destroyed.
Steve Evans interviewed Petersen shortly after he got out of the hospital.
His injuries were so severe that on the third day in the hospital, doctors told his wife that they didn’t think he’d make it through the night. He did, but he spent three and a half months in the burn unit, getting numerous skin grafts from the noninjured parts of his body and reconstructive surgeries and had another brush with death.
“After five weeks, I got an infection in my skin grafts and had a 107-degree temperature for three days and fell into a coma,” he said. “The doctor told my wife that if I survived it, there was a good chance I’d have brain damage. She was staying with Larry and Pam Sutton, and she knew I wouldn’t want to live that way, so she just prayed to the Lord and said it was up to him. And I pulled through with no damage.”
The doctors at one point even wanted to amputate both hands, but retiring from the sport that had just cost him so dearly never crossed his mind – “I was fine. I always knew I’d come back to racing,” he said. “I’ve always had a positive attitude about everything.” -- and he had lots of inspiration to get back behind the wheel.
“Jerry Ruth came to visit me in the hospital, which I thought was very nice,” he said. “At the time of my accident, I was way ahead of him in [Division 6] points that year. I had been runner-up to him the previous three years. He’d already heard I’d ordered a new car, and he was trying to convince me that I needed to quit, and I’m thinking, ‘You son of a bitch. I’m gonna get out of here and whip your ass.’ Then he told my wife that he thought maybe I did have brain damage and that they shouldn’t let me race. When she told me that, I was pissed. Really pissed. Every race that I went to when I came back I wanted to beat him. [They put Petersen’s engine in Gaines Markley’s car – back when a proxy driver could earn points for another injured driver – and finished second behind Ruth.]
“Meanwhile, Sam and Denny and my wife got together and decided they were going to get me a new car to keep my spirits up. The week before the accident, we were at Woody’s, where we kept the car when we were racing down there, and he showed us drawings for the [Can-Am] streamliner, ‘the car of the future.’ We weren’t at all interested in it. In fact, when I crashed, sitting on the dashboard of my truck was an order form for a Funny Car that we were going to start racing as well. We had a good name and ran hard, so we thought we’d be able to book both cars. Sam knew that after this, the Funny Car was probably out because I’d always called them ‘fire boxes.’
“I didn’t know they did it, but Sam and my wife went ahead and told Woody to build the streamliner for me. On my first two-hour pass out of the hospital, I went to Woody’s, and the car was already in the jig. It got me charged up.”
While he was hospitalized, Petersen received about 3,000 cards and messages, which also boosted his spirits, and Sandy read each one to him.
Partner Fitz was a good sport and took his turn in the dunk tank -- and got dunked multiple times -- at a benefit for Petersen at Bremerton Raceway.
Numerous benefits were hosted to raise money for the hospital bills, which were astronomical. “The insurance didn’t come close to covering them, and I couldn’t pay,” he recalled. “The hospital sent me to a lawyer who sent me to another lawyer to file a lawsuit to recover the money. The only people I wanted to sue was the fire crew – which was an independent contractor to the track -- because they were so ill-equipped, but they told me I couldn’t do that, that I had to name everybody because if I didn’t, they’d all point the finger at the ones I didn’t. I went to all of my friends in the business who got sued to explain that to them. What we got still didn’t even come close to covering the costs. We were able to protect my house through the Homestead Act, and eventually, the rest of the debt was forgiven.”
Petersen finally went home in October, and the car was just about done, but hard work still remained. Sandy worked with him daily for therapy on his fingers, bending them “until we both cried.” The muscles in his hands had shriveled and bent them into a clutching position, which was fine with him. “I told the doctors, ‘Just leave them bent so that I can grab a steering wheel.’
“I went back to Orange County Medical Center over the next two years for more grafts and reconstruction, especially on my nose, which had been burned off. I’d tell them they could have me after the World Finals, but I needed to be ready for the Winternationals. They took skin off of my forehead and folded it down to make me my first nose. I could have done a Frankenstein movie without any makeup. It was pretty gross. The second year, I went back three or four times for them to continue to work on it. The next year, I told them, 'Nope, I’m done. I’m fine with the way I look. You’re not going to be able to make me look like I was before. We’re done.' "
But Petersen was far from done, with racing or with life. Next week: The comeback, and a life after drag racing filled with and fired by his always-competitive spirit.
This is going to be a little short and sweet column, written earlier this week because The Man Who Never Takes Vacations is taking a couple of days off at the end of this week (two days counts as a vacation, right?) to refresh and recharge before we head into Brainerd and Indy and the Countdown playoffs, which is just going to be a sea of lunacy with points battles raging left and right and rumors raging all around.
As I mentioned last week, I was up in Seattle last weekend for the great event there. After being a steady visitor there throughout the 1990s, I hadn’t attended that race for more than a decade due to the vagaries of scheduling and staffing, so I was really looking forward to it. If you haven’t been, it’s really a bit of a throwback to the 1970s as far as look and atmosphere are concerned, which, as the regular followers here well now, is just fine by me. After hitting the race in Epping this year at the throwback New England Dragway facility, it has been a nostalgic kind of year.
There aren’t exactly a lot of ways to get to the track, and on the half-hour trip from our hotel in Renton, winding up the tree-studded hills of Highway 18, I couldn’t help but think of all of the duallies and Chaparral trailers that had traversed the same route over the decades en route to the track’s annual 64 Funny Cars, Northwest National Open, and other big-name match races under the supervision of guys like Bill Doner and Jim Rockstad.
I’m pretty certain that the unique layout -- with fans parking among the trees, the odd pit-area arrangement in the loop of the road course, and the angled behind-the-starting-line grandstands -- also hasn’t changed much. Sure, they’ve added some nice grandstands and a larger tower (though nothing like the towers in Pomona or Chicago, for example), and the Fiorito family has been making continued improvements to the facility since they took over, but, again, I’m not complaining: I love the place and the atmosphere.
The only thing not to love, of course, is the rain and – of course – it hadn’t rained in the region for more than a month until the NHRA (often derided as standing for Next Heavy Rain Area) rolled into town. We lost most of Friday to a steady drizzle/sprinkle (drinkle? sprizzle?), but that turned out just fine for me, too, as I had arranged to sit down at the event with the Northwest Terror, Herm Petersen, for a future column. With the rain, I was able to get about two hours of mostly uninterrupted time with him that I might not have had the race gone on as scheduled.
Yours truly, flanked by Herm Petersen, left, and Rob Bruins
I’ve been trying to hook up with Petersen to share his incredibly inspirational story for a few years, but we kept missing one another’s windows of opportunity. Sure, we could have done it over the phone, but it was so much more meaningful for me to sit with him, to see the scars and wounds of his misfortune, to be able to look him in the eye as he described the joys and the horrors of his career, and to watch him smile throughout the retelling.
Look for that story, I hope next week. I have a lot of recording to transcribe to get that far, and it’s rich in detail and emotion.
Petersen was there to show off his two cars – his Cackle slingshot (which he since has sold to the World of Speed motorsports exposition in Wilsonville, Ore.) and its push car, a '52 Willys that is a re-creation of Petersen’s first race car. With Petersen (and in the cockpit of the digger) was a great friend of this column, former Top Fuel champ Rob Bruins, who drove for Petersen after his retirement in 1976. We had a great time catching up.
The Cacklefest that took place Sunday before the final rounds was packed with Northwest legends. In addition to Bruins and Petersen, there were Jerry “the King” Ruth, former NHRA Funny Car champ Frank Hall in Jim and Betty Green’s B-Boys gas dragster, “Gentleman Hank” Johnson in the Dailey & Johnson fuel rail, Walt Austin’s twin-engine Top Gasser, Hugh Tucker’s roadster, and more.
It was a great event all around: thrilling nitro action and pure emotion in seeing Shawn Cowie -- so devastatingly injured two years ago in a street motorcycle accident -- get back to the winner’s circle and long-suffering Dan Fletcher finally get his first double after eight misses. Good stuff.
One funny story before I go. I mentioned a few weeks ago that Mike Goyda (goyda.com) was able to pull together a near-complete collection of Drag Racing USA magazines from the early 1970s for me, and I’ve been enjoying going through them and reliving some great memories. In the It’s A Small World After All aspect of our great sport, I had just finished reading the December 1972 issue’s coverage of the 1972 U.S. Nationals and getting a bit of a chuckle out of the photo at right showing a crewmember from the Motes & Williams Top Gas team taking a spill in the Indy water box. The next day, I was doing an interview with Jeff Koron following his Top Dragster win at the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals, and he mentioned that his current crew chief is R.C. Williams, the tuner of that fabled twice-motored rail, and that they’re still friends with the driver, Ray Motes, and how Koron used to work on their crew back in the 1970s, and hey, maybe I had seen the famous photo of him falling in the bleach box in Indy. Are you kidding me?
“Yeah, that was me,” he assured me with a chuckle. “I remember that like it was yesterday. That isn’t actually Ray in the Motes & Williams car at the event – it was Jim Bunker – and I was the only guy there to help him. I had to push-start him, then run up there real quick and put the bleach down for him to do the burnout, and I slipped in my cowboy boots. Bunk told me he was so embarrassed he damn-near dropped the clutch and ran over me.”
(Top Gas was no longer a class in 1972; the car probably was running in Comp after winning the final two Top Gas season championships in 1970 and 1971.)
“R.C. and I are from the same town [Russell, Kan.], which is where they kept the car, and they’d let me work on it at night and run around and get stuff for them, and when my parents would let me, I’d go to the races with them. We still talk about that photo all the time. I’ve been trying and trying and trying to find a copy of that photo; I bought stacks and stacks of National Dragsters off of eBay looking for it. I guess I was looking in the wrong place.”
I scanned the image from the issue and emailed it to him; it’s not quite the same as having the photo, but at least now he has visual evidence to go with the story.
The famous twin was discovered a few years ago in a barn, totally stripped other than for the body, and was resurrected by Williams and Koron. They display it, cackle it, and even do burnouts in it for exhibitions.
OK, gang, that's it for now. My last official duty is turning this column live just as I'm ready to pull out of the driveway for my mini getaway, hence its day-early appearance. See you next week, hopefully with the Petersen story.
By the time you read this, I’ll be in Seattle for the big show there, but I wanted to leave you with a few more parting comments on popular car owner Paul Candies, who died two weeks ago Sunday and whose story I shared here last week, which, as expected, elicited comments from those who also knew him, some way better than I did.
I exchanged emails with Jon Asher, who attended Candies’ service last week, and who had known Candies for more than four decades and authored his own brilliant and touching piece about the man that you can find here.
Above right is the decal made by Colbert Seagraves and the Matt Smith/Viper Racing team and distributed to racers last weekend in Sonoma. Seagraves is the son of former R.J. Reynolds exec Ralph Seagraves, a big supporter of the Candies & Hughes team.
I also was not surprised to hear from longtime Insider contributor and Candies & Hughes fan Lance Peltier, who grew up in Houma, La., idolizing Candies and was there July 9, 1969, when Southland Dragway opened and, of course, Candies & Hughes were the star attraction.
"As you probably know by now, Paul Candies was a childhood hero of mine. I grew up in Houma, La., and [Southland Dragway] was brand-new back then. It opened in July 1969, I was 9 years old, Dave McClelland was the track manager, and Candies & Hughes were my neighbors, so without a doubt, they were the talk of the town.
“I lived near Leonard Hughes' house and remember their 1969 fastback Barracuda vividly,” he wrote. “Leonard would work on it under his carport, the chassis up on jack stands, the fiberglass body lying in the lawn, and the ramp truck parked in the ditch out in front of his house. At night, he would just cover it with a tarp. As a kid, I thought that it was by far the coolest thing that I had ever seen. The very next year, they built a brand-new shop on West Park Avenue in Houma. No pictures really exist that I've seen, but I remember seeing Paul drive around Houma all the time in a brand-new 318 Barracuda that was painted and lettered exactly like his Funny Cars. They used it as a tow car sometimes, but he raced it at Southland against Shirl Greer's Funny Car at the 1970 Bayou Championships after Leonard crashed the Funny Car. I think he had a 10-second head start, big smile, cigar in mouth, and all. He later told me that his wife used to drive the kids to school in it.
“I now live in Austin, Texas, but back in the late '90s, I was going to go spend a week on a family vacation with a bunch of Cajuns, fishing in Grand Isle, La., so I emailed him at Otto Candies and said that I would like to stop by during the week to visit and show him my old pictures. He called me back and asked me to please stop by. He was such a nice person to me; we looked at old pictures and reminisced about the old days.
“He gave me one of the old Candies & Hughes hats and then gave me a huge box full of racing pictures and said, ‘Just scan what you want and mail them back to me.’ I thought that was pretty crazy; he didn't even know me but gave me his entire photo collection. When I left that day, I shook his hand and said, ‘Thank you.’ He said, ‘No, thank you for being my biggest fan for the last 30 years.’ After that, he always kept in touch, invited me to meet them at the races, and added me to his joke email list. I received my last email from him last Wednesday. I'm really going to miss his emails.”
Any doubt that Peltier is the team’s biggest fan might well be erased when you look at the pics he sent me showing the spare room in his house that he has turned into his own little drag racing museum and which, of course, is mostly occupied with C&H memorabilia.
Bill McLauchlan dropped me a line to offer clarification on the early Candies & Hughes Funny Cars.
“The 1968 Logghe car (Keith Black 426 Hemi, Fiberglass Ltd. body, candy red) was run in 1968, set the record at LaPlace, ran S/XS at Indy in Super Eliminator with ‘Dyno Don’ Nicholson and Bruce Larson (no Funny Car class then). Also ran the OCIR Manufacturers Meet (photo with weird yellow decal).
“This car was sold to [Tom] McEwen, who painted it blue to match his AA/FD, put a 392 with a Hays direct-drive clutch in place of the 426. Qualified No. 1 at ’69 Winternationals and runner-upped to Danny Ongais at ’69 Springnationals in Dallas.
“In 1969, Candies purchased his first Don Hardy car (Keith Black 426, Fiberglass Ltd. body, blue paint). This car had a longer wheelbase, ran 7.28, 208 at ‘69 Indy (I think they went out in the semi's to [John] Mazmanian but would have to look to confirm), and was the car [Larry] Reyes drove at the ’70 Gators. The 1970 'Cuda that was part of the first team final at Gainesville was also a Don Hardy car. In 1971, Candies began buying Woody cars, which Leonard, then Leroy Goldstein, would drive."
I also heard from reader Bill Tickle, who shared, “I had always been a big fan of Candies & Hughes, but like 99 percent of the masses attending any national event, the opportunity to tell them I was a fan never presented itself -- until the Gatornationals, when the Smokin’ Joe's sponsorship was in place. I saw Paul walking through the pits, and with more bravado than I felt, I yelled out his name, and he turned around to see who it was. I stuck my hand out and received a bone-crushing handshake and told him how great it was they were back. We had a nice conversation for about 15 minutes, and I came to the conclusion that Paul Candies was one of the nicest people in drag racing. Taking time out to talk to a fan like that was a wonderful experience. I had always hoped in the back of my mind that the fabled team would once again terrorize the national event scene, but it never happened, and now never will. A true gentlemen who will be missed.”
And from Jay Watson: “That was an excellent write-up on Paul. I was so glad you went back to the Wale-Candies days as that was when I first met Paul. That night in 1965 at Harmon Raceway when 'Q-Ball' [Wale] was killed, Paul stepped in to take care of 'Q-Ball's son, who had made the trip. He continued to look after that boy for many years. I was there to qualify for my fuel license that night.
"You left out another of Paul’s close friends that is a legend in drag racing: Joe Teuton. Paul helped Joe come from an energetic poor kid to a very successful businessman in Houma with three truck dealerships. Joe used to give a Christmas party every year, and Paul was in his glory telling war stories about the good ol’ days!” He also attached this photo of Candies and Wale and their dragster in Pomona in the early 1960s.
Billy Meyer, who raced against the Candies & Hughes teams in the 1970s and 1980s, shared this photo of Candies at the wedding of Meyer’s daughter. “Paul was the consummate gentlemen at all times,” he said. “The funeral was spot-on as he loved and was loved by many. We really did not get to know each other well until the mid-‘70s, but he took me in and was a great mentor then later a great confidant. I can't tell you how many dinners he and I and [Raymond] Beadle had at both series race weekends. He and Rita were and are considered close friends; I guess that is why they were at our daughter's wedding.
"He has never failed to bring a cooler of shrimp and crab claws and sauce and beverages each year to the suites at the Motorplex. I can't tell you how many times we lied to each other about shutting off early during night qualifying at poorly lit IHRA events when they had money up for low e.t. and top speed.”
Paul Candies, a great man, a great friend to many, and a shining star in our world. Thanks to all who have shared their thoughts with me in the past two weeks to let those who didn't know him very well know what we all knew.
To some folks, Paul Candies was “just” the wallet behind the fabulously successful Candies & Hughes race teams that terrorized the strip for four decades. Leonard Hughes was the tuning mastermind, and guys like Mark Oswald, Richard Tharp, Dave Settles, and Leroy Goldstein were the capable wheelmen who got the job done and hoisted the trophies at day’s end. But reading the outpouring of love and respect on numerous message-board postings the last few days, it’s clear that he was way more than that.
Through it all, I always pictured Candies as the conscience of the team, the true Southern gentleman who did not flaunt his considerable wealth yet knew how to use it in a beneficent way. I can just as easily picture him in a tuxedo (white, for some reason, with tails) at some fancy affair as I can a polo shirt and a ball cap, sweating with the rest of us in the pits in Englishtown. Our paths crossed numerous times during the course of working a race, but Hughes was the guy we interviewed for the mechanical details and the driver for his thoughts about the race, and Paul was the guy we BS'ed with while waiting for a chance to talk to his teammates. In the last few years, I probably got to spend more time with him at the track than in all of his racing years because he would frequently come to the media center to hang out and catch up with longtime pals like Dave Densmore, and he was a semi-regular at the Hot Rod Reunions.
I had just spoken to him recently – maybe it was Gainesville or Houston – and told him he and I needed to have a long, sit-down chat about the Candies & Hughes story, but, alas, it will never happen now, so I’ll tell his story through what I know and the kind contributions of those who knew him.
The Sidney Candies
Most everyone knows that the Candies family made its fortune in marine transportation, most notably in tugboats. Otto B. Candies founded Otto Candies in 1942, and Paul, his son, was its current president and COO, leading the business with his brothers, Otto Jr. and Kevin, and it remains a family business; you only have to look at this org chart to see that. Many of the ships in the fleet were named after members of the family, including the 131-foot Paul Candies, built in 1986. (Candies was known to many by his nickname, “Tugboat.”) The company has a number of impressive accomplishments, from being the first to deliver a complete production package from Houston to a North Sea oil field to transporting a Saturn rocket to Cape Canaveral to transporting an entire refinery from Houston to Puerto Rico – 6,000 tons of equipment – in a process that took 72 weeks to complete.
Candies joked to National Dragster in a 1980 interview (back when he “only” was in charge of sales and administration) that the job was “a good habit that is necessary to pay for my bad habit.”
Both Candies and Hughes were racers long before they partnered in 1964. Candies was the partner – and initially the driver – of a national-record-setting Top Gasser with "Q-Ball" Wale in the late 1950s and early 1960s until Wale’s death behind the wheel at Harmon Airport Dragstrip in Louisiana in July 1965. Candies had already given up the wheel to Wale, who, as Candies related for Competition Plus’ War Stories feature, told him, “I’ve watched you and what we’ve been doing. You’re not a very good mechanic. You’re not a really good driver either. My suggestion to you is to go home and learn how to make money so you can afford to hire people like me to do your business for you.”
Apparently, that stuck with Candies. Hughes was racing Chevrolet stockers and wanted to go faster but didn’t have the financial resources. Candies, whose engine-balancing shop Hughes frequented, did, so they partnered on a 426-powered SS/A ‘64 Plymouth. A few years later, they progressed into the exciting new FX class and then to Funny Car with a Logghe-built Barracuda that was a perennial top speed setter. Hughes set the national record in 1968 with a 7.87 in LaPlace, La., and set low e.t. and top speed at the U.S. Nationals and top speed at both the 1969 Winternationals and U.S. Nationals, the latter at a national speed record of 208.81.
Paul Candies and Roland Leong in 1970
That car had one of the starring roles in the historic first all-team final, at the 1970 Gatornationals, where Larry Reyes, driving the old car, faced off against Hughes in their new Don Hardy-built ’70 Barracuda. Reyes was fresh off his Winternationals win in Roland Leong's Hawaiian, and he and Leong were waiting for their flopper to be repainted, so they accepted the team’s offer to race one of the two cars. ("We were given our choice of cars, and I told Paul I'd take the old one because I had a habit of wrecking new cars," Reyes told National Dragster a few years ago.)
Orders were given to Reyes that it was important to their sponsors that Hughes and the new car win, which accounts for Hughes’ 7.29 to 7.12 “holeshot” victory over Reyes, who shut off on what well might have been the sport’s first six-second Funny Car pass. "Paul later told me that he wished he hadn't given in to that," Reyes said.
Hughes followed the Gatornationals win with a victory at the prestigious Super Stock Nationals in Pennsylvania and the No.1 qualifying spot in Indy, then won the Summernationals the following year. Hughes reached one more final, at the 1972 Springnationals, where he lost to Ed McCulloch, before transitioning out of the cockpit. He was replaced by former Ramchargers shoe Goldstein, who had begun driving a second C&H car earlier that year and the team’s new Top Fueler (in one memorable outing, Goldstein won in Top Fuel at the IHRA Longhorn Nationals and runner-upped in Funny Car). Goldstein also got the Candies & Hughes team on the NHRA scoreboard again with his Funny Car win at the 1973 Summernationals – the same race where new C&H Top Fuel driver Bill Wiggington set the national record at 6.03 -- before leaving the team at the end of that season.
Despite their flopper successes, the team switched exclusively to Top Fuel in 1974. Settles replaced Wiggington and carried the team to the Division 4 championship, its first Top Fuel victory, at the Gatornationals, and a second-place finish behind Gary Beck. Settles left the team at the end of 1975 to build an A/Fuel Dragster for himself, and the search for a new wheelman didn't take long. Candies not only had an eye for drivers, but also knew how to fit them into the team equation.
“I think our ability to work together and think together [was key],” said Candies in an interview not long ago. “Leonard was a very, very intelligent mechanic, and my business sense balanced the other side. I was able to keep it funded successfully and act as the go-between for him and the drivers and the rest of the crew. I think those things kept it pretty successful.”
Candies, center, with Leonard Hughes, left, and Richard Tharp in 1977
In 1976, Candies hired Tharp to take over the wheel after watching him set low e.t. at the 1975 Summernationals in Curt “Bones” Carroll’s dragster.
“We raced against Leonard and Paul a lot when they were running Funny Cars, so they knew who I was," Tharp told me last year. “Curt called and told me that Paul wanted to hire me for 1976 and gave me his blessing; he told me [Candies] was crazy if he didn’t hire me. A few days later, Paul called me, and I was hired, but Curt and I remained good friends.”
The team quickly scored a victory at the NHRA Cajun Nationals (then a non-points event, but, as the home race for the C&H team, the win probably meant more than the points) and won the Summernationals and the U.S. Nationals en route to the championship.
Tharp raced the blue Candies & Hughes dragster to four more final rounds (including a runner-up at the 1977 U.S. Nationals, where Tharp also became the fourth member of the 250-mph Club) and two additional victories (1977 Cajuns and 1979 Grandnational). In six NHRA seasons and 46 starts with the Candies & Hughes team, Tharp reached nine finals and five winner’s circles, qualified No. 1 seven times, always finished in the top 10, and compiled an impressive 82-46 win-loss record in the face of tough competition with Don Garlits, Shirley Muldowney, and Beck before he parted ways with the team after his free-spirited ways clashed one time too many with the no-nonsense Hughes, a relationship that even Candies could not keep afloat.
Candies and Tharp shared a laugh.
I talked to Tharp Tuesday, and he was still stunned by the news from three days earlier.
“When Raymond [Beadle] called me Sunday morning to tell me the news, I just went numb,” he admitted. “This is a hard one. It just caught everyone by surprise. We all thought Paul would be the last one of all of us to go.
“You couldn’t ask for a nicer person, period. I don’t think I ever met anyone who didn’t like Paul, and he did so much for so many people, especially in his community. Honestly, he made my career. I had some fame with the Blue Max, but he helped make me. We had such a good time together, sharing stories and laughing. What a great, great man.”
After Tharp’s dismissal, Candies again proved that he had an eye for talent as he plucked Oswald from relative obscurity to drive their car. Oswald and partner Tom Kattelman had been one of their toughest competitors on the IHRA trail but didn’t have many NHRA starts – but a runner-up in one of them, at the 1981 Summernationals -- put Candies' faith in the young Ohio wheelman.
Candies and Mark Oswald, who scored the majority of the Candies & Hughes wins while racing in both Top Fuel and Funny Car, 1982-90
“He was an excellent man and had a pure love for this sport as much as anyone who has ever been out here,” Oswald said in a statement earlier this week. “He meant everything to my career. I was just a guy working on his own race car when I attracted his attention, and he gave me the opportunity to drive a first-class race car. He was always behind you 100 percent, and everything was positive.”
In their first race together, they set the national speed record at the 1982 Winternationals, then went on to victories at the Cajun Nationals and the Summernationals. It was at the Summernationals where Oswald, Candies, and Hughes ran 5.618 to finally displace the 5.63-second national e.t. record held by Garlits since the 1975 World Finals, perhaps the longest-lasting national record in the sport's history. They also set the speed record in E-town at 254.23, which they bettered a few months later in Brainerd with a pass of 256.41.
Oswald finished second in the championship hunt that year behind Muldowney, who earned her third title, and, in what seemed like an odd move, the team returned to its Funny Car roots the next season. Some of its top foes no doubt chuckled when the team DNQ’d in its debut at the 1983 Winternationals. The laughing didn’t last long.
After a pair of early runner-ups, Oswald scored his first Funny Car win in Montreal, then scored again at the next race, the Summernationals, en route to a second-place finish (albeit a distant second) behind Frank Hawley and the Chi-Town Hustler team. The team began 1984 with backing from Old Milwaukee beer and reset the national record in Indy (5.69) and scored two wins and a clutch runner-up at the World Finals to hold off Billy Meyer and Kenny Bernstein for the crown. The championship made Candies & Hughes the first team to win NHRA season titles in both nitro classes. The team also won the IHRA Funny Car championship that season for an impressive double.
After a fruitless 1985, the team won three more times in 1986, twice in 1987, and twice in 1988 en route to a trio of second-place finishes (all behind Bernstein). Despite a win and five (!) runner-ups, it slipped to fourth in 1989, a spot it retained in 1990 despite three wins and a pair of runner-ups. All told, Oswald made 28 final-round appearances from 1983 to 1990 before sponsorship woes led to the team’s dissolution. Of the 28 wins by the Candies & Hughes team, Oswald was the driver for 17.
The Candies & Hughes name resurfaced four years later, with sponsorship from R.J. Reynolds’ Camel brand and veteran Gordie Bonin behind the wheel. Hughes had remained in the sport and had worked with Bonin and car owner Leong on the Hawaiian Vacation entry, so when RJR exec T. Wayne Robertson offered the Smokin' Joe’s/Camel deal to Candies & Hughes, Hughes was insistent that Bonin be the driver. “Best, best, best ever deal I've ever had,” Bonin told me earlier this week by email.
They won twice in 1994 and finished sixth in points but didn’t make the top 10 in 1995, which led to pressure from RJR, according to Bonin. He said that RJR tried to pressure Candies into getting tuning help for Hughes, but Candies stood by his old friend, saying that Hughes didn’t need any help, and the deal ended at the end of that year.
Though they were gone, they were not forgotten, and both were inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1999.
Candies' philanthropy was well-known, inside and outside of racing. Former NHRA Competition Director Steve Gibbs remembered one instance at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum presented by the Automobile Club of Southern California – to which Candies had generously donated two of his cars -- when NHRA founder Wally Parks was being feted for his 91st birthday. “Richie Clyne (of Imperial Palace Car Collection) would always send a huge bouquet of red roses, one for each year, and the roses were always auctioned off at the end of the night by emcee Dave McClelland to benefit the museum. A few bids had worked the price up to about $800, which I thought was pretty good, when Mac looked to the back of the room to acknowledge a bid from Paul. ‘What was that? … $9,100?’ Sold to Paul Candies, for $9,100!’ Paul then gave out a rose to each of the ladies in attendance. He was a class act.
"We all knew he had money and was in the upper levels of the business world, but he always had time for us blue-collar guys. He was so generous to so many people, probably more than anyone will ever know. I go back 40 years with him, and it was my great fortune to cross paths with him.”
Candies also was chairman of the International Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo, an event founded by his father 85 years ago that brings more than 15,000 sport and recreational fishers and tourists to Grand Isle, a city on a Louisiana barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico. Candies’ love for the community was evident when the town suffered chronic water shortages before the 2000 installation of a water line. Candies barged water onto the island to help with demand and donated the land where the rodeo pavilion was constructed. He passed four days before this year's event was to begin.
"He was hosting a group of his dear friends on a fishing trip. This was a ritual for him and his friends to do some fishing down there before the rodeo,'' said his niece, Nicki Candies. "My uncle had a love of life and a joy in friends and his family that is unparalleled.''
Services for Candies were held Wednesday, and, as was only fitting, there was an all-star turnout that included former partner Hughes; drag racing legends Don Prudhomme, Beadle, Don Schumacher, and Dale Armstrong; former C&H drivers Tharp and Settles; Dale and Brenda Emery, Billy and Debra Meyer, Boogie Scott, Chuck Haase, Rahn Tobler, NHRA's Graham Light, Steve and Gloria Gibbs, Seth Angel, Bob Stange, Jim Dupuy, Densmore, Jon Asher, Brett Underwood, Grant Lynch; and current-day racers, family members, business associates, and friends.
“It was a respectable, simple, and brief service, as Paul had requested, but it was very classy, just what you would expect for Paul Candies,” Gibbs told me yesterday. “One thing that the minister said that I felt was really spot-on was that Paul loved greatly and was loved greatly. He loved his family, his friends, his life, his fun, his god, and his country.”
Those are two fitting codas and echo so many of the comments from his racing peers I’ve talked to in the last couple of days. Paul Candies was a man who loved his friends and his family, was generous and caring, and was beloved by all. He’ll be greatly missed.
NHRA Members can check out my companion feature, a scrapbook of some of the famous Candies & Hughes cars, on NationalDragster.net.