My first trip to the Gatornationals as part of the ND staff was in the cab of a race car hauler in 1984 as part of Jim DePasse's Alcohol Funny Car team. That's me at left, Willie Wolter driving, and Jim DePasse Sr. and Jr. sacked out in the sleeper, somewhere in the middle of New Mexico.
In a little more than two weeks, I'll be winging my way east to once again attend one of the grandest races on the NHRA schedule, the ACDelco NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville. My first Gatornationals was 25 years ago, at the historic 1984 event, where Joe Amato became the first Top Fuel driver to exceed 260 mph and was followed into that twilight zone about 90 minutes later by Kenny Bernstein in his Budweiser King Funny Car, but I wasn't there as a race reporter for National DRAGSTER in the strictest sense of the word.
Back then, travel to national events was tightly controlled for the DRAGSTER staff. For some races, only a photographer went and brought home just his film and best recollections of what transpired, and we reporters wrote the stories based on the ladder sheets and the observations of the photographers. It was tricky work sometimes. "Why did Garlits only run 8.70 in the second round? Did he smoke the tires or break something?" we might ask. "I don't remember; I think he might have hurt something," might be the reply, which we translated into reporting as "Garlits ran into trouble on his pass" or something similar. There were no cell phones or e-mail to reach racers still on the road home to ask them these questions nor PR people to write press releases, so we winged it based on the photos and the sketchy memories of the shutterbugs. Still, the skills we learned in those days served us well and probably continue to do so in some ways.
No, I made my first Florida foray not as a reporter but as a stowaway of sorts, a young cub reporter eager to experience life on the road as a traveling member of a race team, to see what this whole circus life was all about.
In my first 18 months on the job, I had become good friends with several racers, among them Alcohol Funny Car driver Jim DePasse and his family. They were regulars at Orange County, former sand drag racers trying their luck on the asphalt, and they did quite well for themselves. Jim and his son Jimmy, who was about my age (early 20s), and crew chief Richard Broos always welcomed me into their pit, and when the unexpected and unprecedented chance came for them to travel to the Gatornationals came, they invited me along. I was young and single, and my biggest life quandary was "You want fries with that?" How could I say no? Plus it sounded like a helluva first-person story for ND.
The DePasses – Jim and wife Shirley and kids Jimmy and Missy -- lived in Hemet, which any drag racing fan worth his salt knows also was the home base for Larry Minor's mega operation in the 1980s. That year, Minor, himself a former sand racer, enlisted DePasse to carry his personal Top Fueler along with DePasse's new Corvette Alcohol Funny Car in DePasse's new 18-wheeler on a nationwide tour. Though DePasse would have to pay his own expenses, the carrot was a state-of-the-art Minor-built engine for DePasse's hot rod. (Well, that and a rare chance for a local hero to make the national tour …)
Shirley and Missy picked me up from my unspacious North Hollywood bachelor pad the night before our departure, and I spent the night on their couch (after a raucous good-luck/going-away party hosted by Broos, who actually wasn't going with us), and we assembled the next morning at Minor's shop, where the cars were all loaded and ready to hit the road.
Current John Force Racing brain-trust member Bernie Fedderly, left, was part of Team Minor back then and shared some of his sage advice with DePasse.
The Minor team at the time was anything but minor. Reigning world champ Gary Beck drove the team's number-one Miller Lite car, which was tuned by future hall of famer Bernie Fedderly, whom you obviously know and love as Austin Coil's sidekick with John Force. Another hall of famer, Ed "the Ace" McCulloch, was wheeling the team's Olds flopper. Both made the grueling trip with us -- no hero drivers taking first-class flights here.
I hopped into the cab of the DePasse tractor with the DePasse boys and Minor crewmember Willie Wolter (who after Minor would go on to have a nice -- and still ongoing -- career with Don Prudhomme), and off we went on our little 48-hour cross-country jaunt. "Take a good look at the waitresses, guys," Wolter said during a brief lunch stop at the California/Arizona border. "They get uglier from here on out, but they'll start looking better after a couple of days on the road."
By 3 p.m. we were in New Mexico, and it was just a short time later, during a fuel stop in Deming, that we had a first encounter with the local constabulary.
One of Deming's finest sauntered up to us, eyeballed Beck real suspicious-like, and said, "Hey, ain't you Gary Beck, the drag racer?"
We all exchanged quick uh-oh glances, but it turned out that the young officer had seen Beck on "the TEE-vee" and recognized him and continued to word-worship him for the next five minutes.
Ed McCulloch, left, drove Larry Minor's Funny Car and, like everyone else on the team, offered an experienced eye as he oversaw DePasse's warm-up. That's Team Minor crewman Jimmy Scolaro Jr. at right
Beck grew a bit uncomfortable with all of the salivating, kindly pointed to McCulloch, and said hopefully, "Well over here is the famous Funny Car driver Ed 'the Ace' McCulloch!"
"Never heard of him."
The rest of us probably looked as if we were having seizures as we tried to stifle laughter brewing deep inside and were pretty sure that 10 years earlier, "Ace" probably would have tied him into a pretzel.
It was at this point in the journey that I made the fateful decision to ride out the next leg of the trip in the lounge of the trailer. Now, when I say lounge, it wasn't anything like the beautiful air-ride wonders of today. It was pretty much an eating area and a small sleeping area. Jimmy crashed out in the bed and I on the wafer-thin cushion on the bench that proceeded to hammer my ribs throughout most of Texas. We stopped for fuel in El Paso, and my frantic pounding on the walls of the trailer to let me out – the door could only be opened from the outside -- went unheeded or unheard, so it was back into the spin cycle. "Help, Mr. Wizard! I don’t want to be a drag racing journalist anymore!"
When we stopped next, just outside of Ozona, Texas, I was ready to gnaw my way through the door if necessary, but Willie opened it, and "I leaped from the trailer like a prisoner on a jailbreak" (as I described it in the story I penned for ND). I was surprised to see that a) we were still in Texas and b) that it was dawn of the next day as I stood there blinking in disbelief that Texas could actually be that big. Although my family had toted me all over the western U.S. on camping trips, I'd never been to Texas, and the city boy was at a bit of a loss for words at just how big "big" is in Texas. Dah-yum!
By 8:30 a.m. – 24 hours after we'd left Hemet – we had already covered nearly 1,200 miles, quite an impressive pace considering stops for fuel and food. (No, you don't get to spend the night in a motel.) It wasn't until 6 p.m. that we crossed the border from Texas into Louisiana.
Some makeshift trailer bracing got us out of a real jam in Louisiana.
As the journey progressed, I remember being quite impressed with the resourcefulness of the Minor team. At one food stop, the fuel-shutoff valve on one of the tractors had vibrated in such a way that the engine couldn't be shut off, so they leaped right in and got it fixed. No time for waiting for Triple-A. Farther down the road, we discovered that the deck on which DePasse's flopper rode above Minor's dragster in the trailer had cracked and was threatening to turn Minor's digger into a pancake. Fedderly and a couple of the guys jumped into one of the team's chase cars – an Olds station wagon – and headed off into the unknown, searching for an open hardware store while we limped slowly down the road trying not to bounce too much. Before long, we rendezvoused with them in Lafayette, where they bought some precut 2x4s and nails, which we pounded in with ball-peen hammers to create makeshift bracing.
Just after midnight, we hit Mississippi and two hours after that Alabama, slowed only by heavy fog and truck scales. By 3:40, we were in the Florida panhandle and reached G-ville about 10:30 a.m., tired, dirty, and hungry but eagerly looking forward to racing. We made the one-way trip of 2,322 miles in about 46 and a half hours, which comes out to just under 50 mph, which is pretty amazing considering fuel and food stops and repairs to the trailer. I gained a whole new respect for the crews and what they do to get the cars from Point A to Point B.
We didn't qualify for the race, but it wasn't from lack of effort, including a massive teardown to replace a wounded piston and cylinder head.
Turn left, Jim ... no, your other left!
I wish I could say that DePasse won the race, but that just wasn't so, which, in retrospect, gave me an even deeper appreciation for life on the road. Try as we might, we didn't crack the field; frankly, we didn't even come close. All those hard miles, and we DNQ'd.
It wasn't for lack of effort; the two Jims and I worked our butts off, especially after an injector screw worked its way loose and into a couple of the cylinders, forcing us to strip the block down to remove a dented piston and repair a wounded cylinder head. Although I'd worked on my own cars for years, I'd never worked on an honest-to-goodness drag car, and it was as hard and pressure-packed as it was fun. There was a tremendous esprit de corps not just among the three of us but also the extended Minor family and even the other racers, like Jerry Gwynn, and systems specialists like Sid Waterman (fuel) and Bob Devour (clutch), who all stopped by to offer advice and encouragement.
I got to back up DePasse from his burnouts, stand on the starting line with a rag in my back pocket, and otherwise play pit-crew poseur.
The fuel system on the new engine wasn't quite dialed in, so tire shake became our new "friend," and, try as we might, the best we could muster was a 6.89 at 204.54, well short of Court Durkalski's 6.67 bump spot and good only for the No. 8 alternate spot. The senior DePasse also had a nasty case of gout that caused the big toe on his throttle foot to swell up like a balloon Friday morning, but he toughed it out despite barely being able to walk.
If there was a good part to not making Sunday's show, it was that I got to see history being made by Amato and Bernstein and contributed to the staff's reporting of the historic event. That wasn't my first plan for the weekend, but because we weren't given any invitations to the winner's circle – though our "teammate," Beck, came close and was runner-up behind Amato's sizzling 262-mph blast in the final -- it made for a fine Plan B.
I hopped a plane back to California while the boys hit the bumpy road again, grateful to have seen my first of what would become many Gatornationals and to have experienced up close the agony of defeat that often is a more realistic – and certainly more prevalent – part of racing than are champagne showers in the winner's circle.
I haven't really seen much of the DePasses in the years since -- I still get a chance to see McCulloch and Beck and Wolter during the year, either at the national events or nostalgia races – but I'll never forget the things I learned, the places I saw, and the thrills I experienced on that great nine-day adventure. I've been to Gainesville many times since, but none has been as memorable.
I'm sure that today the rigs are nicer, the roads smoother, and the coordination better, but every time that I walk into the pits and see those rows and rows of glimmering semi trucks, I know that the now-shiny rigs just spent the last several days rumbling down a highway, covered in bugs and road grime, and chauffeured and pampered by a group of eager young bucks fueled up on truck-stop eats and Full Throttle who also can’t wait to get to the digs, drag out their hot rod , and put it to the ultimate test.
Makes me almost wish I was back with them ... almost.
Tom Schiltz's Five Favorite Fotos: "The Wonder Wagon. Indy Nationals 1973. I believe this was a John Buttera car. It was lower, swoopier, and more streamlined than any of the other Vega-bodied cars running at the time. It just looked fast. I thought that the pan shot really shows the speed effectively. This car and Mickey Thompson's blue car are my favorite Funny Cars of all time."
Five Favorite Fotos seems to be a favorite here, so let's rev up another one. This is a special get-well FFF, with a big shout out to my old pal Tom Schiltz, the veteran photographer from Division 3. You might recall his memorable pic of Bill Crites and the Mickey Mouse camera that ran here shortly after Bill's passing. Bill's brother, Ken, really liked the pic and wanted to have a large copy for Crites' memorial service, so I e-mailed Tom to get a high-res version only to hear back from his wife, Carol, that he had been hospitalized in terrible shape with a strep infection that put his whole body into sepsis shock.
According to Tom, the whole deal came out of nowhere. "I was watching TV and became chilled. I got so cold," he wrote me from his hospital bed last week. "The infection went into my bloodstream, and every organ in my body was in shock. They immediately admitted me to critical care and for the first 72 hours told my family I wasn't going to make it. Carol and my boys told them that I was going to make it and they needed to do everything in their power to make it happen. After six days, my body was out of shock (I was not aware of any of this because I was totally out). I spent two weeks in critical care hooked to every machine imaginable, receiving medicines and fluids. They tell me that I received nine gallons of fluids to save my organs. For the last three weeks, I've been progressing every day. Medically I'm healed, but now I need rehab to regain strength."
His photog pals rallied around him and his family with supportive e-mails, and he's finally nearly back on his feet, so what better time than now to run the FFF he submitted to me late last year.
"I've been addicted to drag racing since my older brother let me tag along to the Akron [Ohio] airport about 1958," said Schiltz. "They used to run on one of the access roads. Arfons, Otie Smith, and a number of others got their start there. When I got my driver's license, I spent every weekend at the drags, primarily Dragway 42. Went to Indy Nationals with some high school pals in 1961 and returned every year until about 2000. 39 consecutive years!
"I started shooting real photos about 1965 when I approached the sports editor of the local paper and inquired as to why there was never any coverage of local racers who were doing well. His reply was that nobody in the sports department knew anything about the sport. I made him a deal that if he'd get me credentials, I'd supply him with stories and photos. Having press credentials afforded me the opportunity to meet my heroes; Steve Reyes, Jim Kelly, Jon Asher, Jeff Tinsley, Tim Marshall, and Les Lovett. They all helped me grow as a photographer."
Schiltz also is well enough to remind me of his long ties to NHRA.com and how he was the one who supplied the digital images for the first NHRA special-event Web site, from the 1998 U.S. Nationals.
"I had a first-generation Kodak digital camera," he recalled. "It had about three-quarter-second shutter lag. You got me credentials, and I came to Indy. There was a group of guys in the base of the tower who would take my memory card and download to the Web. I remember you used about 50 of my images.
The "group of guys in the base of the tower" were the fine folks from goracing.com, who partnered with us in 1995 to build the first official NHRA Web site, and three years into the deal, before it was really popular to do so, we built this amazing (well, for back then; today it's a common deal) special site. This was way before digital cameras or even scanners were in every hand, but Tom had one and offered to be the eyes for us. That event, for you online history buffs, also featured the first audiocast from an NHRA event.
Again, as common as it is now, back then it was amazing technology. I remember well that there were some glitches. We had hyped it up so much, and when we didn't hit our planned airtime (we were late by about three minutes), I remember being so frustrated that I punched the tower door because none of us really understood how it worked, and for about 90 seconds, it looked as if it wasn't going to work. It did, and the rest is history.
Last week, I showed you the picture of Walt Stevens collapsing on the Riverside track while trying to push his broken dragster down the track against equally broken opponent Bill Dunlap. Drag racing history wiz Stephen Justice whipped me these images, taken by the immortal Steve Reyes (that guy was everywhere!) from Riverside's crossover bridge that show Dunlap's valiant battle against weight, gravity, and heat.
In this three-shot sequence, you can see Dunlap pushing the car as a trail of curious onlookers and his team trail, then him flashing the "V for Victory" sign as he crossed the finish line before collapsing into John Halstead's arms. "It was so hot, I thought I was going to photograph a heart failure right on the racetrack," remembered Reyes.
Speaking of hot, that was the reaction to Tuesday's column on fire burnouts as everyone seemed to have a roaring good time with the pics and the comments from the irrepressible Tommy Ivo. Frequent Insider correspondents Howard Hull and Cliff Morgan, both former OCIR denizens, shared their memories of fire burnouts at "the County."
" 'Jungle' [Jim Liberman] used to do them all of the time at OCIR, and we would watch ['Berserko Bob' Doerrer] most likely, toss the match as he rolled through the puddle of gas," recalled Hull. "Several times, the starter would use the CO2 extinguisher to put the fire down, and afterwards, they figured the cost to refill them was a bit expensive, so back to squirting water on the fire to dilute it. Walking through it all night, it got on our shoes and pants. I remember getting into the car to leave, and my dad asked why I smelled of gas! We drove the old Country Squire Ford wagon home with the windows down!"
"Loved the story about the fire burnouts and especially the Ivo stories," said Morgan. "Next time you talk to him, tell him that he was the first 'name' driver I ever saw, at San Fernando around 1962 in the Ernie's Camera dragster. Anyhoo, speaking of San Fernando, I once saw a beer burnout there. Don't remember who the car or driver was, but the announcer made a big deal about how they were wasting beer on a burnout. Also remember in the '70s when Pro Comp was running that guys used to paint the slicks with traction compound. They'd put it on the tires in the pits with a rag or paintbrush. Of course, when they towed the car to the line, the sticky tires picked up rocks and debris. So when they'd do the burnout, all that stuff came flying off the tires, and you better not be standing behind the car!"
Mike Lewis, who holds the lofty title of senior vice president at Don Schumacher Racing when he's not racing nostalgia cars or running Top Alcohol Dragsters, passed along this shot from his days as a Top Fuel car owner in the 1970s.
"Here's a photo of a photo of a Cars magazine cover shot we did with Sarge Arciero in our Sparkling Burgundy car in 1972," he wrote. "The shot was orchestrated by Jim Cutler and earned him numerous awards in addition to the magazine cover. We experimented with a few gallons of gas during a Maple Grove [Pa.] event but decided a more serious attempt was better suited to a quiet Tuesday morning.
"We fabricated a tripod that fastened to the frame, and Cutler mounted a motor-drive camera with remote control. He pre-focused on Sarge. We still push-started the car in those days, and I planned some hand signals with Sarge so he knew I lit the fire and when to do his burnout. The best-laid plans sometimes go awry.
"We started the car and helped Sarge straighten it in the right lane at Maple Grove. My brother then dumped a full five-gallon jug of gasoline onto the rubber-coated burnout area. The plan was to push Sarge back into the gasoline and light the match, but the header flames ignited the fuel-soaked tires. Sarge was unaware and waited for me to light the match. I gave him the signal to do the burnout, but he shook his head. He soon felt the heat, and I signaled one more time. All the while, Cutler's camera clicked off a dozen frames.
"The burnout itself was spectacular and yielded many great frames before the tires began to smoke. We were shocked to see the car come to a stop with every piece of chrome blackened and two spark-plug wires burned off. Worst of all, Cutler's precious camera (owned by the Reading Eagle) had come loose and was dangling from its mount. We left the track thinking our efforts were for naught. Not so, luckily. The mount broke as the result of Sarge's sudden stop. He was hot and wanted out of the cockpit.
"I still have the magazine and a faded 16x20 at home but I ran into Jim several years ago before he passed away. By coincidence he had just digitized the shot and promised to make a print for me. I had just moved into my new office at the new DSR shop in 2005 when a package arrived containing a beautifully framed print of our 1972 fire burnout. I'll never forget Sarge, the burnout ... or Jim Cutler!"
Another topic that came up several times in the course of e-mails discussing fire burnouts was the seemingly accidental torching of the slicks during a run.
Jim Hill, a lifelong drag fan and former member of Crane Cams' Racing Department, recalled how "Flaming Frank" Pedregon, the Ramchargers, Nick Marshall and the Marshall & Vermilya dragster, Bennie Osborn, and several others did this at the Nationals in 1966 or 1967. "Many believed it was purely a 'circus act,' but others insisted it was a drag racing phenomenon produced by extreme horsepower and tire spin in those lockup clutch, smoky-run days," he wrote. "So, what's the real scoop here? Fiction or fact?"
Jim's question reminded me of a thread in the Standard1320 newsgroup on this topic, and I remember several of the uber veteranos there positing that there were several possible explanations for this phenomenon. I also was sent this pic of Texas drag racing hero Bobby Langley lighting the slicks afire on a run (this is back in the days before burnouts) and remember longtime drag journalist Forrest Bond recalling that Langley's car had an inordinate amount of rubber accumulated to its flanks behind the rear tires and that perhaps that had combusted. Another suggested that the fine powder of rubber burning off the tires could easily catch fire in that combustible environment (high heat from the headers, air, fuel mist) much in the way that grain silos sometimes spontaneously combust and that perhaps the fendered tires of "Flaming Frank's" coupe provided the a good "catch" environment to produce the fire on the tires.
Thoughts from the Insider Nation?
Okay, with that it's time to see some results from Phoenix. The weather is un-Pomona-like and the cars are ready to rock, so stay tuned to NHRA.com throughout the weekend. See ya next week.
Generally speaking, unless it's pouring from the pipes on a twilight blast to low e.t., fire anywhere near a drag race car is not a good thing. It usually means that a connecting rod is no longer connected, that your pristine engine block has a window of which even Pella could be proud, and that the essential slippery but equally combustible refined crude has found its way onto those cherry-red headers. Voila! Race car flambé.
But there was a time -- back in those wacky, free-love late 1960s and early 1970s -- when not only was it desirable to surround your drag car with flames, but you did it on purpose. Yes, race fans, I'm talking about the black art of the fire burnout.
Two of the best-known practitioners of the fire burnout were drag racing legends "T.V. Tommy" Ivo and "Big Daddy" Don Garlits, both of whom have been credited – and have credited themselves – with inventing the self-immolation starting-line practice.
Ivo admits to being a born pyromaniac. He got his first taste of fire on a cool winter night while building a trailer and deploying smudge pots – used by farmers to keep their crops from freezing – to keep warm.
"Contrary to rumors, it does get pretty cold in California from time to time in the winter," he said. "Well, cold to Californians anyway. We worked on the driveway in front of my house for these large projects, well into the night at times, and the neighbors loved me for it. The smudge pots really worked good; they were nice and warm. It kind of looks like a jet car sitting on its nose doing burner pops, doesn't it?
"Anyway, we would add the kerosene that we used for fuel through a small door on the pot at the bottom and add a match. Poof! Instant heat. When it started to run out of fuel, it would start boiling the kerosene that was left in the bottom, and when you heard that, you'd just flip the lid over the very top to put out the flame and add more fuel through the little door in the bottom to fill it back up. Simple, huh? NOT! One time I looked in through the little door and couldn't see too good because it had a mist way inside from the hot kerosene. So I blew in through the opening to clear it out of the way, and I guess there must have been some flame still left there because when I added oxygen to the mist via my breath blowing in there, it put a flame back out of the hole about three inches across and engulfed my head in fire. You know how hair rolls up in balls when fire hits it? Well, of course, I closed my eyes, and the top eyelashes welded themselves to my bottom eyelashes. The hairs in my nose got singed, and I could smell burning hair. Being blinded by my eyelids being held closed, I thought I was totally on fire. So I rolled around on the ground like they tell you to do, beating myself about the head and ears, yelling, 'Put me out, put me out.' But all the guys (free slave labor) that were helping me could see I was all right and just stood there and laughed at me. That’s half the reason they helped me. Whenever I’d have a problem, it was usually pretty spectacular and dramatic, to say the least."
That wasn't the last of Ivo's fiery antics. Far from it.
"I used to do the old blow-fire-out-in-the air-from-your-mouth act at parties all the time," he recalled. "I would take a mouthful of lighter fluid and hold a match at arm's length and blow the fluid across the match, making a huge ball of fire to the delight of my audience. One night I was really going to impress them and took a BIG mouthful of lighter fluid, but I ran out of air before I ran out of fluid in my mouth. You see, you couldn't just spit out the lighter fluid in one ball of liquid; it would put the match out and not light. Instead, you'd force it out through your lips like you were playing a trumpet. This made a finer mist that worked well. BUT -- and here comes that 'but' again -- it would let it run down your chin, and when I ran out of air, the flame backed up to my mouth and lit my whole head on fire … or at least it seemed that way. So I gave that up! You'd have thought I'd learned not to play with fire."
Again, far from it. Ivo soon became one of the most notorious and well-publicized pyros in the business, as we will see.
In his book Tales from the Drag Strip, Garlits relates that his first fire burnout was quite accidental.
"I was in Orlando [Fla.] one night, and we were doing our burnout with traction compound," he wrote. "Now the compound we were using – we called it glue -- was very volatile. RFI made it, and it was a thinner version of the glue that used to come with those old tire patch kits. It softened the rubber, and it really worked great. So I made my burnout and because there wasn't a lot of room around the starting line at this track, this was all pretty close to the starting line. When they backed me up, I rolled right back into the puddle of traction compound. It was getting pretty stringy by then and some of it got onto my exhaust pipes. The next thing you know my two tires are on fire! Now the guys on the crew jumped back and I gave it a little whap to get the tires to spin and get out of it. It was spectacular. The fire burnout was born."
Garlits went on to report that NHRA used to watch him and crewman T.C. Lemons to see if they were lighting off the compound with a match, which would have been cause for disqualification, but that was never the case as the fire burnouts were always the result of the same method accidentally employed in Orlando, and Lemons became the expert at knowing exactly how much glue to put under the tires for the desired effect.
Tommy Ivo (above) and Tony Nancy (below) showed off front-engine fire burnouts.
Garlits' version jibes with Ivo's and the generally understood birth of the fire burnout, though surely some have wondered about it after guys like "Flaming Frank" Pedregon either intentionally or accidentally occasionally produced a ring of fire around the circumference of their tires during runs when the spinning rubber caught fire.
You have to remember that back in the earlier '60s there wasn't even such a thing as a burnout, let alone a fire burnout, as Ivo recalls.
"The first time I ever heard of burnouts, Marvin [Rifchin] from M&H told me over the phone when I was getting some tires from him while I was on tour --gad, when wasn't I 'on tour'? -- and he told me to pour down some Clorox bleach in front of the tires and smoke the tires over the top of it and then back up in the tracks and it would really help the traction. The guys out on the West Coast were really having good results with it. Other than thinking he was crazy, I gave it a try."
Bleach was cheap and easy to find but kind of harsh, especially on team uniforms, and it wasn't long before companies like VHT developed traction compounds nor, as Garlits noted, long before racers discovered the compounds' other properties. Ivo, "the Master Showman," of course, had to take it a step further.
"It had some material in it that was flammable, and from time to time, it would give a flash fire when it would sling up just in the right way and catch fire from the fire in the headers. So I Ivo-ized it, meaning that when I saw possibilities in something, I’d make it bigger and better. We began adding extra gasoline to it, and the more gas we added, the better it got. To ensure that it would light, we’d use a match a lot of time to set it off, and when I saw the flame, I’d fan the clutch, and the tires would fling it into a huge ball of fire around the cockpit. It was like running your hand across a burning candle. As long as you kept moving, it was fine."
Although the promoters didn't pay up front for the fire show, they paid in the long run in the form of continued bookings.
I've collected a ton of fire-burnout pics over the years. Here are a dozen or so of the best. This is Dave Hough and the Nanook fuel altered.
"Since I was one of the first ones doing it, it was a complete surprise to everyone when I did it. It was just a new part of my act, as were the odd cars, glass trailers, and everything else I picked up as I went along," said Ivo. "[The track operators] would pass out a sort of report card at the tracks at the end of the year. They would give the customers a sheet of paper with the names of the people they had seen that year as well as the new guys that were up and coming in the various news media. The question was, 'Who would you like to see next year?' My name was always checked immediately. The folks just had to see what I was coming out with next year. I learned from my movie training that if you had the movie you were on in the bag, it would be very hard to fire you once they started the picture, but you were always working for the next picture (or booked-in race). It served me well in both industries."
Ivo did his first fire burnouts in a front-engine car, where it was easy to see what was going on, but though the transition to the rear-engine car removed the driver from the proximity of the flame, it also created its own issues with timing.
"The main difference was that with the front-engined car, there it was, right outside the cockpit, so to speak," he said. "I would, of course, keep a good eye on the guy with the gas in his hand. Then with the rear engine, I would just look over my shoulder to know when it was lit. One time, Tom McCourry was pouring down the gas from a jeep can full of gas for a handout picture in the Orange County shutoff area and we had a guy next to the cameraman, who was to drop his hand when it was lit with a match because I couldn't see it and I was distracted by the fact that I was in a rear-engine car for the first time," Ivo recalled. "I asked McCourry if he was afraid of fire because I would have someone else pour it down; he said, 'Hell no,' and dumped the whole five gallons of gas on the ground and lit it. It was so awesome! I looked at the signal guy, and he did nothing. He was so shocked, but I saw his jaw drop and figured out something was going on and dropped the clutch.
"The first one we did with the rear-engine car was the first time I let out the clutch on a rear-engine dragster and thought [photographer] Tom West was very brave to stand on a ladder six inches off to one side of the front wheel when even I didn’t know which way the car was going to go when I let out the clutch. In fact, I was worried I might cut the ladder out from under him and he would come crashing down on the car and end up in the cockpit with me. First rides in the rear-engine cars did tend to be exciting for old front-motor car drivers. In fact, I was so nervous about it I forgot to put my gloves on the first try."
West remembers it well. "The event that Ivo was talking about was on the return road at Lions. Steve Reyes and Bob McClurg made the most hay out of this deal, but I ended up with a shot from this first burnout that appeared in Drag Racing USA. You can clearly see Ivo's hands and that they were outside the roll cage; he wanted to be able to get out of the car quickly in case something happened.
"Of course, he might have said something to me about it. Said I showed so much confidence in him that he would rather kill me than admit he was not feeling the same. We went ahead with the burnout, which he carried under power past my spot. Almost blew me off the damned ladder with the header blast.
"The third, and the most spectacular of the burnouts -- five gallons of gas involved there -- was the one that got to me, as the wind had changed, something that I grew to respect when doing fire burnouts. Did a wide-angle, ground-level shot that almost set me on fire as the wind blew the fireball right over me. Steve almost fell off the ladder laughing as I stood up in my yellow Wynn's jacket with steam and scorched hair smoking, so I looked like a big torch, according to Reyes."
According to Garlits, all of this came to a nasty head one year in Indy when various teams were using traction compound and the bleach box was so full of liquid "you could have floated the Queen Mary," he said. Garlits spun 'em up and lit up the bleach box in both lanes. Although no one was injured in the fire, according to Garlits, NHRA banned the use of traction compounds at its national events, and the fire burnouts stopped (mostly).
Not that the ban stopped the show at the booked-in matches, where fans thrilled to the fiery antics, nor did it stop showman Ivo from garnering magazine covers with the flame shows. One of Ivo's most spectacular fire burnouts was in his Dodge Charger Funny Car at Orange County Int'l Raceway,
"We used a five-gallon jeep can full of gas and did it in the shutoff area so we wouldn't mess up the track," he recalled. "You can see how big the fire was, and we didn't get the whole flame in [the picture]. It was about 15 feet in the air off to the right side of the picture."
Ivo would prep the car for such pyrotechnics by removing the parachutes and then coating the back side of the body with Vaseline to give momentary protection against singeing the paint.
After Ivo got out of Funny Car racing, he took to an easier way to sate his desire for fire: He drove a jet dragster.
"I took to jet cars like a duck to water," he laughed. "It was a legal fire burnout with that big flame it put out on the starting line, although it would bother the track as well. When you were to close to the starting line and put the fire out the back, it would make a kind of powdercoat out of the track without really hurting it and would go away almost right away. [Don] Prudhomme came over to me in Sacramento one time and rapped my afterburner with a wrench like a tin car and asked me, 'Does this "thing" leak?' That pissed me off, and I gave the line a good cooking just before he ran, and he went every which way but straight! <evil grin>"
Although the fire burnout has largely gone the way of the dry hop, dollar-a-gallon gas, and drive-in movies, it still holds a special spot in the hearts of many drag race fans, and you can still occasionally see a good fire burnout or two from the odd exhibition car. Once you've seen, felt, or even been close enough to smell one, you don't soon forget it.
For those of you wondered why NHRA didn’t just pick up and move the entire Winternationals mess to this weekend, you'd only need one look outside the window here at Chateau ND to know why. It' been pouring this morning, and is not expected to stop all weekend. Although most weather predictors are notoriously spotty – I'd like to have the kind of job where I don’t need to be right the vast majority of the time – the long-range projections on this one seemed more obvious than normal, so it was a good decision to finish on Tuesday/Wednesday.
We mentioned in our coverage that this was the first Tuesday finish for the Winternationals since 1978 (thanks to Todd Veney for reminding me early enough in the coverage so as not to make a fool of myself in our live reporting), so I thought I'd haul out the '78 issues of National DRAGSTER to see what those poor fools had to deal with and exactly what led to the delayed conclusion.
The '78 race had all the earmarkings of a brawl from the get-go as then-four-time Pomona winner (1963, '71, '73, and '75) Don Garlits announced he'd be going on the full tour to reclaim the Top Fuel championship he last held in 1975, trying to wrest it away from Shirley Muldowney, who had just claimed the first of her three crowns. Gary Beck and Jeb Allen were eager to improve on dismal 1977 outings and chassis builder Sherm Gunn had a new chassis underway for sand drag racing champ Larry Minor and new driver Larry Bowers.
Don Prudhomme was preparing to defend his Funny Car crown for the fourth straight year (which he would do successfully) but after two of the greatest seasons in drag racing history (winning six of eight events in 1975 and seven of eight in 1976), he'd won "only" three in 1977 and was feeling the heat from guys like Gordie Bonin, Billy Meyer, and Raymond Beadle, who was switching from his familiar Mustang to a new Plymouth Arrow, as did Meyer. Kenny Bernstein was making his reappearance on the scene in a new Arrow out of Ed Pink's shop bannering his Chelsea King chain of restaurants.
Pro Stock was in a complete state of flux as "Dyno Don" Nicholson had scored a popular championship in 1977, taking the title from Larry Lombardo and Bill Jenkins, who had taken it the year before from two-time champ Bob Glidden, who owned the current national record at 8.50 with his Pinto. Big-block Camaro campaigner Warren Johnson was making the long tow again from Fridley, Minn., on the heels of yet another Division 5 championship, riding a streak of 11 consecutive wins in the division.
At stake was a share of the $175,000 championships fund that seems paltry by today's standards; the champs in Top Fuel and Funny Car could earn year a cool $15,000 and the Pro Stock king $10,000.
(Above) This great photo was very symbolic of the water-logged 1978 Winternationals. (Below) DRAGSTER photogs borrowed the toy boat from Scott Hooker, son of Colorado racer Ray Hooker, who was originally sailing his boat in a lake in the pits before the ND shutterbugs commandeered it.
After the drought that was 1977, the winter of 1978 was a wet one in SoCal, and maybe the loss to rain of Orange County Int'l Raceway's Super Bowl of Drag Racing event—a slugfest between Prudhomme, Beadle, Tom McEwen, Meyer, Pat Foster (in Joe Pisano's Arrow), Tripp Shumake (in Johnny Loper's car), Ed McCulloch's new American Home Shield Arrow, and Lil John Lombardo -- two weeks before might have been an ominous sign. The race went off the next weekend with rubber washed clean from the rain and an extra heavy onset of dew that led to treacherous traction.
Back in the late 1970s, teams were pretty much allowed unlimited number of qualifying runs, but the '78 Winternationals marked a turning point toward the sessions we all know now. Due to the size of the fields, unlimited passes were allowed only between noon and 5. p.m. on Thursday. For Friday and Saturday, Pro cars were allowed only two runs, which could be made any time between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Top Fuel and Funny Car both paid $5,000 to win, while the Pro Stock champ would bank $2,500. A new driver's award medallion, similar to an Olympic medal, was to awarded to each of the eight category winners and would become a staple for NHRA winners for decades.
Originally scheduled for Feb. 2-5, the 18th annual Winternationals had clear sailing through the first three days --that is unless you count a 35-sack attack of Greasweep applied to the track for oildowns Saturday, the mowing down of the Christmas Tree, and the later drilling of assistant starter Ray Helms, who was hit by an errant roadster and suffered a compound fracture of his left leg.
Don Garlits – in rare blue and white livery, with "God is Love" and a cross emblazoned on the top of the cowl – fronted the Top Fuel field with a track-record 5.77. Garlits' mount was Donovan-powered, as were the Nos. 2 and 3 qualifiers, Kelly Brown and Pat Dakin. Richard Tharp, in the Candies & Hughes digger, ran 250.69, matching "Big's" longstanding national speed record and also setting a new track record. Ten Top Fuelers qualified in the fives and the bump was 6.04, by Rick Ramsey in the new Ramsey & Withers machine. Dennis Baca, who had won both the U.S. Nationals and World Finals the previous year, didn’t qualify, nor did defending event champ Jerry Ruth or SoCal fave James Warren. In their places were names like John Kimble and Gordon Fabeck.
Shumake's 6.157 paced the flopper field just ahead of "T.V. Tommy" Ivo's 6.159 with "the Snake" in third at 6.17. Ezra Boggs was on the bump with a 6.41 from the Moby Dick Corvette. Glidden had the best marks in Pro Stock with an 8.59 while W.J.'s rat-motored Camaro was No. 2 at 8.62 and top speed at 158.45.
What tale of the 1978 Winternationals would be complete without Jon Asher's iconic shot of fellow Car Craft staffer Al Kirschenbuam playing in the snow on the starting line? (Below) A less-frequently seen pic of Al K checking out some snow-frocked floppers in the pits.
Although there was only an announced 10 percent chance of rain for Sunday, 100 percent of that 10 percent apparently fell on Pomona. Winds savaged the tents on the midway and it became clear that there would be no racing on Sunday, so racing was rescheduled to the following weekend. The rainout was the first for the season opener since 1973, which also took two weeks to complete.
The following Saturday was good enough to get in some rounds of Sportsman action, but Sunday again turned into a big washout after only one round of the Pros (sound familiar?), during which Tharp sent Garlits packing for Florida, 6.05 to 6.17. Action shifted to Monday, which was plagued early by rain, but after employing the jet track dryer and even a rented helicopter to dry the track, the Pros got in round two of racing (in which Muldowney was defeated by Brown) before a light rain began to fall. That shower quickly turned into a downpour and, as the temperature plummeted, was followed first by hail then by honest-to-goodness snow.
Needless to say, the remainder of the day's activity was canceled and moved to Tuesday, and National DRAGSTER had to ship out a second straight issue without naming the winners.
Tuesday was actually Valentine's Day, and with 60 competitors remaining there were 52 broken hearts en route to crowning the eight winners on what was a bright, clear, and dry day in Pomona.
(Above) Kelly Brown, far lane, took Top Fuel honors over Gordon Fabcek, who was appearing in the lone final of his career. (Below) Don Prudhomme won the Winternationmals Funny Car title for the fourth straight year.
Brown, appearing in his first final since wheeling the Barry Setzer Vega to a runner-up behind Don Schumacher at the '71 Springnationals, powered the Brissette & Drake entry past Fabeck (the pride of Brush Prairie, Wash.) for Top Fuel honors. Brown would, of course, go on to win the world championship that year.
After beating McEwen in the semi's, Prudhomme, matched up with his mentor, Ivo, in the Funny Car final. Unfortunately for T.V., he split the motor on the dry hop, affording "the Snake's Army Arrow a free pass to his fourth straight Winternationals winner's circle and the 25th Wally of his career. It didn’t come easy though as crew chief Bob Brandt had to go into the hospital Sunday night for a back operation and wasn’t there for the final three rounds, but his crew got a big assist from "Waterbed Fred" Miller of Blue Max fame, who filled in for Brandt. It was Ivo's first appearance in the final round since the '65 Nationals in Indy (where he lost to … guess who? Yep, Prudhomme.) and the last of his career as well.
Glidden beat Lombardo handily in a classic Ford vs. Chevy Pro Stock final,. 8.67 to 8.78, to claim hi 13th trophy,
Future Funny Car pilot Tom Ridings beat future Top Fuel racer Billy Williams for Pro Comp honors while Wayne Clapp won Comp, Jim Mederer scored in Modified, Ron Zoelle in Super Stock, and Jeff Powers in Stock.
It was certainly one of the longest Winternationals in the books, even though it was spread out over 12 non-consecutive days, unlike the seven days it took to complete this year's season opener. It's still fondly rememebr by thos ewho lived it, much as this year's weeklong affair willbe to those of us who survived it.