Sam Schermerhorn today, with girlfriend Paula and their pal, Budda
I have a pretty good grasp of drag racing’s history and even of some of the more obscure names from its past, but I’ll admit that until last Wednesday, as I was writing about Larry Lombardo’s crash at the 1977 U.S. Nationals, I had never heard of Sam Schermerhorn, and I’m guessing that 99 percent of you hadn’t either until you read on Friday that he was the guy in the other lane when Bill Jenkins’ Monza slid out from beneath Lombardo and crashed and caught fire during qualifying.
Lombardo couldn’t remember Schermerhorn’s name, only the car, and he’s only visible in one frame from that famous photo sequence, so it took a little detective work to pull the unusual name out of the air, but I’m glad that I did because, lo and behold, out of equally thin air came an email from Schermerhorn, thanking me for acknowledging him in the article. The power of the blog at its finest.
I had no idea if Schermerhorn was still alive or even still followed the sport, let alone that he was a reader of this column, but now he has gone from a name you never knew to a name you’ll never forget, a story behind the story, which is what we do best here.
Schermerhorn believes this photo was taken on the fateful run in Indy.
Schermerhorn confirmed Lombardo’s story that he had let Schermerhorn leave first in their qualifying pair, which, in retrospect, may have prevented a nasty Kenny Koretsky-Bruce Allen-like midtrack collision.
“I did talk to Larry before that run, and he did say they were testing a new set of tires and he was not going to cut a good light,” remembered Schermerhorn. “As it turned out, I broke a rod just before 3rd gear. As I was moving out of the groove, I saw him go by, then his car just made a hard left, and I’m thinking, ‘Don’t hit “Grump’s” car,’ so I went into the right lane. Larry’s first hit was with the right front, which spun it around, and that's when the rear hit and it caught fire. I had a small extinguisher onboard, but when I saw Larry get out, I figured he was OK; he actually can run pretty fast. I think he beat me to the turnoff! That was the only time I was glad I blew the motor.”
Prior to buying the Motown Missile Pro Stocker, Schermerhorn had raced an A/Altered with another Insider reader, John Hoyt, who currently owns the El Toro fuel altered. They had a Barracuda that they took to the Troy, Mich., shop of Pro Stock racer Mike Fons to get it backhalved; Fons had the Missile sitting in the corner of his shop, and they left with it instead. Schermerhorn licensed at the Indy points meet. His stay in Pro Stock was short-lived – only two seasons and just two NHRA national events – and although he did not qualify at that 1977 Indy race, he had made the field of the Springnationals a few months earlier, qualifying No. 16 with a 9.010 and losing in round one to Bob Ingles, 9.00 to 9.19. (Among the nonqualifiers at that event were world champ Richard Tharp and Division 7 champ James Warren in Top Fuel; "Jungle Jim" Liberman, in one of his last national event appearances before his death, and Ed McCulloch in Funny Car; and future Top Alcohol Funny Car world champ Bob Gottschalk in Pro Stock.)
Schermerhorn's best Pro Stock outing was at the IHRA Northern Nationals, where he beat Wayne Gapp in the first round and went to the semifinals.
“We stopped in late ‘78 because my partner and I had different ideas on how to run the class, so we split up,” said Schermerhorn, who owns an auto-repair shop in Toledo, Ohio, where he is restoring one of the El Toro AA/FAs. “Things like [Indy 1977] are hard to forget, but it also showed me how drag racers help each other. We took our car to C.J. Rayburn’s shop, and he and Walt Maynard let us use his machine shop to build a new motor. ‘Grump’ even came by our pit to see how we were doing.”
Larry Lombardo, 1977
Larry Lombardo, 2012
That Jenkins would take an interest in Schermerhorn’s progress spoke volumes about the kind of guy that “the Grump” was, sentiments echoed by Lombardo in our conversation last weekend.
“If you had half a noodle, he’d help you out,” said Lombardo. “If you were an idiot, he wouldn’t.”
Lombardo, who drove for Jenkins from 1972 through 1979, has been attending a lot of Jenkins tribute events this year following Jenkins’ passing in late March and sharing great stories of their times together, and he believes he’s uniquely qualified.
“There are only two people who know the real Bill Jenkins: me and Linda Vaughn,” he asserted. “People don’t really know Jenkins. He wasn’t 'the Grump.' He was probably one of the funniest guys out there. I spent seven years, 365 days a year, out there with him. I could tell funny stories all day about Bill. Of course, there are some I couldn’t tell, too. But he was hilarious.”
So I’ll just share some of his great quotes, with no particular thread tying them together other than a good belly laugh.
- “We were a father-son deal. He was always ‘Bill’ to me, and I was ‘Larry’ or ‘Hey.’ He never grumped at me. We got along great.”
“We’d talk every now and then, a couple of times each year, but I’d always call him on his birthday, Dec. 22. We’d be small-talking, and I’d wish him happy birthday, and he’d say, ‘Well, thank you,’ which blew my mind because I won six national events and a world championship for him, and the best I ever got was, ‘That’ll do.’ That was the biggest compliment I ever got from him while we were racing.”
“I crashed his Vega the first year I was driving for him, match racing Ronnie Sox at Sunshine [Dragstrip, in Florida]. It was like my fifth or sixth time in the car. I had told him, ‘Hey, Bill, there’s oil out there on the track at about 2nd gear,’ and he said, ‘[Grunt] It’ll be OK.’ Well, he’s Bill Jenkins, and he says it’s going to be OK, so we leave, and I pull 2nd gear and had the front end up, but the left rear tire was right in that oil, so it made a left-hand turn, and bam, I totaled that car and a good chunk of the guardrail. On the same run, Ronnie locked up his brakes at the top end and slid backward into a telephone pole and hurt his back.
“I didn’t get to drive again until 1974; finally, I told Bill he had hired me as a driver not a crewman, and either he was going to let me drive or I was going to leave. He said, ‘OK, but you have to win. I don’t have to win, but you do.’ "
“A lot of people don’t know this, but at some of those best-of-three match races, if Bill would lose the first round, he’d put me in the car for the second run. I was quite a bit lighter than him, maybe 100 pounds, which was about a tenth on the track. [Dick] Landy and some of those other big boys bitched and moaned, and because of me, they changed the rules that the cars were weighed with the driver.”
“Bill had a $50 Corvair with about $500 worth of tape holding it together. I said, ‘Bill, get a real car.’ He said, '[Grunt] Theft-proof.' I asked him what he meant. ‘Who would steal it?’ he asks. 'I can take it to the airport and leave the keys in it. No one’s taking that son of a bitch.’ "
“Any products we got – heads, manifolds, any part – he had to do something to it after he got it, then it was OK. He’d even tweak a comb after he got it. He had to put the Jenkins touch to it.”
“Bill always wanted me to help the other guys. We helped them all: Ronnie [Manchester], [Frank] Iaconio, Richie Zul. We even helped John Lingenfelter with some heads for his [Super Stock] Corvette, and he went like a second and a half under the national record at Indy. We were at a match race one time and all caught up, and he sent me over to help Bob Brandt work on Don Prudhomme’s car because they were running late. I didn’t know anything about a blown Funny Car, but that’s who Jenkins was.”
“Jenkins had this concrete retaining wall built next to his shop, and he told [the guy building the wall] to follow the contour of the land, and he did. When the ground went down, so did the wall; when it went up, so did the wall. It looked like a roller coaster. Jenkins loved it because it was unique and because the guy did what he told him to. It became a conversation piece and a signature Jenkins thing.”
“We always had to be late arriving at the races. I asked why we always were late and had to rush and get the ramps out and get the car ready. ‘[Grunt] They [the fans] have already seen everyone before we got here; now they’re all going to come over here.’ And he was right; people would flock around our pit 10 deep. If we all got there the same time, the Ford people would go to the Ford cars and the Chrysler people to the Chrysler cars, but when we showed up late, everyone came to us. The one thing he taught me was you had to have a reason for everything you do; you don’t just do something.”
In the course of my research about the 1977 Indy crash, I discovered that Jenkins himself had crashed the Monza’s twin, their match race car, July 17 at an event at Illinois’ Oswego Dragstrip called Beat the Grump, which offered the chance for three of the track’s local E.T. racers to face the legend. “I was running at Budds Creek [Md.] that day and got a call at 11 o’clock that night telling me I had to go to Detroit because Bill had a match race scheduled there the next day. We left at 11:30 and drove straight there. We hadn’t been planning a trip, so we had to stop at a Kmart to get shaving gear and underwear.” The match race car was fixed at SRD but was back home in Malvern, Pa., when Lombardo crashed the national event car.
And finally, this gem:
“We checked into a motel for a match race in Tennessee, and Bill wasn’t always too good with the ol’ heel-toe on the clutch and drifted back and smashed the hood of this Volkswagen Beetle all the way back to the windshield. He gets out of the truck and comes back about five minutes later and asks, ‘Where are the pictures [handout photos]?’ I told him they were in the sleeper. He takes one, goes back to the guy, then comes back a few minutes later. ‘Hmrrph … all he wanted was an autographed picture.’ This guy was so proud and happy that Bill Jenkins had totaled out his car that all he wanted was an autograph. Bill not only autographed the picture but the car as well.”
Still no Dale Emery sighting, so the story of his wild 1977 Indy crash gets put off for another column. The artist formerly known as “Waterbed Fred” Miller is on the case for me trying to get a message through – I only got a voice mail, and an email to him bounced -- so perhaps next Tuesday. I’ll be out of the office later this week, so there won’t be a Friday column (sorry!). Thanks again for reading and helping fill in the blank lines of the NHRA history book.
Although I remembered the 1977 U.S. Nationals in Tuesday’s column for Richard Tharp’s frightening near collision with Gary Read in round two of Top Fuel, as I was thumbing through a couple of thick folders looking for images of that incident, I was quickly reminded – by a couple of photo sequences -- that the event had two other iconic images attached to it: the frightening photo of Dale Emery’s Funny Car standing on its nose at three-quarter-track and the shot of Larry Lombardo fleeing the flaming wreckage of Bill Jenkins’ Pro Stock Monza.
I’ve seen these images so many times that they’re burned into my memory as much for their uniqueness as for what happened afterward. As a longtime fan, like most of you, I know the general specifics of what happened before, during, and after the incidents but not the details.
Emery suffered a broken left arm in the accident that essentially ended his driving career. The cockpit’s loss, of course, was Raymond Beadle’s gain, as Emery took over the tuning chores and backstopped the Blue Max’s three straight championships, 1979-81. Lombardo and Jenkins borrowed a car from good friend Ronnie Manchester, who volunteered his, and the team reached the semifinals against championship rival Don Nicholson.
These are true classic photos from NHRA history, and, as is the ongoing mission at the Insider, I’m here to tell you the stories behind the stories.
I was hoping to track down both parties earlier this week, and though I got Lombardo on the line, I was only able reach Emery’s voice mail. Fortunately, Lombardo is blessed with a great memory and could share details of the happenstances that unfolded 35 years ago at the Big Go, so we’ll focus on him today and hopefully get Emery in time for Tuesday’s column.
Lombardo and Jenkins had won the world championship the previous season and entered Indy trailing Nicholson by just more than two rounds’ worth of points. Lombardo had already won the Winternationals (over Nicholson in the final) and the Summernationals, and Nicholson had won the Gatornationals (over Lombardo) and the Springnationals.
After an opening pass of 8.75 in Thursday’s first qualifying session, Lombardo pulled Jenkins’ Grumpy’s Toy XIII (there’s that number again) Monza into the right lane for another shot. As he pulled high gear, things went to hell in a handbasket. The right rear wheel rotated inside the tire, cutting its valve stem and leading to an immediate depressurization. The car spun across the centerline and smacked into the guardrail, which tore loose a fuel line and caught fire. Lombardo hotfooted it away from the car, which burned intensely. He was uninjured, but the Monza was quite literally toast.
Fortunately, Lombardo had let his qualifying mate, Sam Schermerhorn -- driving the ex-Don Carlton Motown Missile Duster, rechristened the T-Town Missile for his hometown of Toledo, Ohio -- get a big jump at the Tree because he was a new driver, and, interestingly, Lombardo was worried that he might cross into Lombardo’s lane.
“It also was one of the first times we’d run a clutchless five-speed, and I was just watching the tach and hitting the numbers,” he recalled. “As soon as I hit high gear, it just made a hard left turn and crossed into the other lane. It was instant: Boom, and it was gone. As I’m sliding along, I knew I was going to hit, and I was thinking, ‘Oh great, now we’re going to need a new [MacPherson] strut and some fiberglass work …’
“The fuel line came from the trunk up the right side of the chassis to a cool can, and it was severed, which started the fire. Back then, we only had to wear a fire jacket – with regular pants and socks and shoes – so I bailed out. I got about 10 feet away and heard the electric fuel pump still buzzing. I turned around, but the flames were 12 or 13 feet high; I wasn’t going walk back into that. Let it burn …”
Fortunately for Lombardo, Schermerhorn had to abort his run and did a good job of slaloming past Lombardo’s wreck, ironically ending up in Lombardo’s lane after all (as you can see in the first photo).
“The damage to the car was one thing, but the tow truck did more damage than the wreck and fire did,” said Lombardo. “Because the tires were blown out, he put the tow strap through the windows and under the cage and ended up busting all of the windows and buckling the roof, which we had acid-dipped at a cost of $5,000. We wouldn’t have been able to fix it at the race anyway, but that was just salt in the wound.”
While Bill Jenkins toiled on the engine, Larry Lombardo got the cockpit squared away, then made an impressive opening pass in the car and set top speed.
Rules did not allow another car to be entered by Jenkins and team, but they could use any entry that had already been entered and teched in, and within minutes, Manchester had offered his Westport, Mass.-based Monza, built, like Jenkins’ car, at SRD and a near twin to the Jenkins Monza.
“We helped a lot of people back then, so it wasn’t surprising to see people want to help us,” said Lombardo. “Jenkins was the most generous guy out there. If we were caught up, he’d tell me to go help out the other guys. Ronnie immediately told us, ‘Take my car.’ ”
Jenkins and team worked the rest of the day and into Friday to transfer not just their driveline into Manchester’s car, but also some of their suspension components, including the struts and rear shocks, so that their four-link settings would work in the new car, and boy, did they.
After the then-required half-pass checkout Friday, Lombardo bravely blasted the hybrid into the field with an 8.71 at 157.06, which qualified him No. 3 and stood as top speed of the meet.
Even though the car was making a slight left turn off the starting line for which Lombardo had to correct, the combination was otherwise solid, and even though Jenkins had picked up the broken valve stem on the track after the accident, they still weren’t sure what had caused it, so they proceeded with a fair bit of caution, and Lombardo lifted early when possible.
“It wasn’t my car, and we still didn’t know exactly what had caused the tire problem, so I was getting the parachute out as soon as I thought I had the race won,” said Lombardo. “I wasn’t going to take any chances because the accident had happened in high gear.”
It wasn’t until later that the team discovered that the bead of the new Goodyear tire it was running did not conform well to the Cragar wheels it was running, and the beadlock screws were not fully penetrating the bead of the tire.
Lombardo's hopes for not only an Indy win but also a repeat world championship ended with this tough semifinal loss to Don Nicholson.
After beating Butch Leal’s Arrow, 8.85 to 8.90, and Kevin Rotty’s big-block Camaro, 8.82 to 8.88, Lombardo squared off with Nicholson in a crucial match. If he could win and then win the event, they’d be almost deadlocked in points. It was not to be; despite Lombardo’s insistence that he could handle the car, Jenkins made a suspension change before the semifinals, and the car made a hard move downtrack, and Lombardo had to abort his pass, coasting behind Nicholson’s 8.72 with a 9.07.
Nicholson went on to beat Bob Glidden in the final and left Indy with an almost insurmountable 1,262-point lead and ultimately won the championship. Lombardo and Jenkins finished third, behind Glidden.
Well, that’s half the story; I hope to bring you the other half – Emery’s tale -- before long because a) well, I’ve already teased you with it and b) the fan in me really wants to know what happened on that run. I’ll keep dialing and hopefully bring it home next week. Lombardo also shared some funny Jenkins stories and remembrances that I'll offer soon as well.
Apparently, the world loves a good Richard Tharp story.
Response to Friday’s column about “King Richard” was off the charts. I guess I could have predicted that, but still I was amazed at the outpouring of kudos to me and affection for Tharp, who called that morning to tell me that his phone began ringing at 6:45 with calls from old friends telling him about the article, which he hadn’t yet risen to read. Nine calls later, he figured he’d best get up and read what all the commotion was about.
Well, if they enjoyed the opener, today’s follow-up will probably make their day, too. I’ve been amassing a small collection of Tharp stories voluntarily submitted for today’s follow-up and asking others to share theirs, but from the latter group, I keep getting the same response (almost to the word): “Nothing that you could publish.” Nevertheless, we have some stories to tell.
(Before I proceed, I think it’s important to preface all of this by noting that the drag racing world in which Tharp and company operated in the late 1960s and 1970s was pretty much an alien world compared to the one we know today and that by retelling the stories, I’m not condoning them or the behavior they constitute. Many of the shenanigans occurred outside of the sphere of influence of NHRA events, on the road to match races and elsewhere, and even those that did happen in the NHRA world occurred in a different culture and political climate from today’s buttoned-down world, and today’s stringent testing policies serve as a major deterrent to excessive indulgences during race weekend. I share them to try to accurately reflect on a period of drag racing’s growth from which many of the characters we know came to be legendary on many fronts.)
Anyway, one CYA later, on with the stories …
Former NHRA Top Fuel racer Carl Olson knows Tharp from their years of competition on the track in the 1970s and as an NHRA official after he left the cockpit. On Friday, I related the story of Tharp’s crash at the 1979 Fallnationals in Seattle, where Tharp was knocked out by tire shake and left the racing surface at high speed, an incident to which Olson was a firsthand witness.
“Back in those days, the guardrails at SIR were set well back from the track surface,” Olson remembered. “The car got upside down and went scraping through the grass and mud while shedding parts in every direction. Just past the finish line, there was a gravel service road perpendicular to the track that was used by facility maintenance vehicles as a means for getting from one side of the track to the other. When Richard’s car went across that road upside down, it went into a violent series of rolls.
"Just gimme my damned pants, Paul ..."
“I observed this incident from my vantage point at the finish line and immediately jumped on my motorcycle. The first two people to get to the wreckage were the NHRA Safety Safari’s Alan Miller and me. We discovered the roll cage upright and Richard very much unconscious. We immediately noted that while upside down, Richard’s full-face helmet had become packed inside with grass, mud, and gravel. We couldn’t see any part of his face. In spite of our training that advised against moving a victim’s head to prevent potential neck and spinal-cord injuries, we recognized that if we didn’t take immediate steps to remove the mud and gravel, Richard would suffocate. While Alan tipped Richard’s helmet back, I reached inside from under his chin and through his visor opening and cleared away enough of the mud to provide an airway to his nose and mouth. Shortly thereafter, the full Safety Safari team arrived along with the event doctor. As they were working to stabilize and extricate Richard, he regained consciousness and became, well, the best way I can describe it is extremely combative. He just kept telling everyone to go away and leave him alone, and he was flailing away at anyone that tried to touch him.
“When Richard was finally extricated, his helmet removed and firesuit cut away, he unleashed a barrage of foul language that included virtually every curse word I’d ever heard. In spite of the doctor’s orders for him to be transported to the local emergency room for evaluation and treatment, Richard steadfastly refused to go. He just kept saying that he wanted to go back to his hotel. Paul Candies had wisely hidden Richard’s trousers in their trailer and refused to get them for him. As a result, Richard had no choice but to sit in the ambulance for several hours while the doctor and attendants kept an eye on him. After Richard threatened to kick the asses of everyone in a one-mile radius, Candies finally relented and fetched his pants and a clean shirt. He was then given a ride to his hotel, where I’m told that he had dinner and retired for the night. He flew back to Dallas the next morning. Tough guy? Oh yeah, he’s as tough as they come.”
As NHRA’s competition director, Steve Gibbs also knew Tharp well, both on and off the track. “He was the kind of guy who would do just about anything you could think about doing but not do yourself,” he assessed. “He was a helluva race car driver, though. I’ll never forget when he almost got together with Gary Read at Indianapolis. I don’t know how he kept them from crashing.”
In one of the wildest moments of Tharp’s long career – and one of the few that he’ll admit ever frightened him – Read’s Over The Hill Gang dragster crossed wildly into Tharp’s lane in the second round of the 1977 Big Go. As the amazing Richard Brady photo at right attests, Read took over well more than half of Tharp’s lane, but Tharp deftly dived the Candies & Hughes car to the right to avoid what would have been a nasty collision and still went 6.26 at 185 mph to get the win en route to a runner-up finish.
“When I got down there, I expected to find Richard all over Read," said Gibbs, "but he was off sitting by himself, terrified that he’d come that close to a major crash.”
“It scared the hell out of me,” Tharp confessed to me Friday. “I looked over out my left side at about three-quarters of the way down there, and his front tire was about 2 inches from me. I scooted over and almost hit the guardrail and then back to the other side of the track. It was really, really scary. I got out and had to sit out there in the cornfield for a few minutes. It scared [car owners Paul] Candies and Leonard [Hughes] worse than it did me. I thought Candies was ready to quit.
“I was so scared I didn’t think about trying to beat the [crap] out of Read like I did Marvin Graham when we won at that first Cajun Nationals . I thought that he had burned me down on the starting line in the final, so when I got out of the car at the other end, took my helmet off, and I tried beat the [crap] out of him, except he still had his helmet on. The next day, my fists were all swollen up.”
I called Graham yesterday, and he confirmed the ill-advised attack. “I was just getting out of the car, and he starts swinging and hitting me in the head. I remember thinking, ‘That’s not a smart thing for him to do,’ and when he got done, I asked him, ‘Um, Richard … did you notice that you won? I lost. What are you upset about?’ ”
I asked Graham, who lost a tire-smoking battle, 6.35 to 6.61, why Tharp thought he’d burned him down. “Because I probably did,” he answered honestly. “I might have taken a little extra time. We all did that from time to time back then because there was no rule against it. Plus Richard was driving for Candies & Hughes and had a late-model [Hemi] that would get hot faster, and I was still driving my old flathead [Donovan] that didn’t care if it was hot or cold.”
The late, great Ronnie Sox also was “attacked” by Tharp, but in a much different manner, remembered Hall of Fame photographer Steve Reyes. “At the 1972 IHRA Bristol, Tenn., race, there was a huge racers’ party at the Holiday Inn in Bristol. Tharp, being the party animal, pulled Sox’s bathing shorts to the ground to the cheers of all the racers present. Sox calmly bent over and calmly pulled them up and waved to the very drunk crowd. That was also the party Tharp introduced me to ‘white lightning,’ which he had put in the party ‘punch.’ God, did I have a hangover.”
Olson remembers another eye-opening incident with Tharp on the IHRA tour: "[Partner Mike] Kuhl and I were sitting around the pool at a Holiday Inn in Southern Pines, N.C., while participating in the IHRA Pro Am at Rockingham and observed Richard walking around the second floor walkway dressed in nothing but a cowboy hat and pair of cowboy boots, then approach a room where he knocked on the door. A gorgeous female opened the door and immediately invited Richard in. He was still there much later when we finally called it a night and went to our room.”
Glynanna and Dale Ham: "You loaned our car to Tharp? Are you crazy?"
Nudity and Tharp, I guess, were good friends. Gibbs related a story shared with him by former Division 4 Director Dale Ham, who had loaned his official station wagon to Tharp one weekend during a points meet in Amarillo. Tharp, who was famous for accepting dares – eat a bird, eat a bar of soap, stuff like that – was driving around with his buddies, and one friend dared him to take off his clothes and get out of the car at the next intersection while they drove around the block and picked him up in a few minutes. Tharp – about the same size and build as Ham – naturally, had to oblige, dropped trou, and stepped out of the car, naked as the day he was born.
Coincidentally and very unfortunately, inside a restaurant at that same intersection sat Ham’s in-laws, sharing a meal with good friends and bragging about the fine man that their daughter, Glynanna, had married, and, oh, look, there’s his car now ...
“The reception Dale got at church the next Sunday was pretty cold,” Gibbs noted.
Graham, who raced against Tharp in the Division 4 Top Fuel wars in the 1970s, told a Tharp tale similar to a Dave Densmore story that I shared Friday about Tharp being asked to make a checkout pass for a team whose driver was having problems. He’s pretty sure it was the Carroll brothers car that Tharp had driven before and would drive again. “I can’t remember who the driver was, but he’d get the car to half-track and shut off and was complaining that the car had a terrible vibration,” recalled Graham. “So they went over and grabbed Richard and said, ‘Richard, run this car on down through there,’ and he made a really nice pass, got out at the other end, and told the other driver, ‘That car’s not vibrating; that’s the earth around you vibrating.’ ”
If there’s one thing that became crystal clear from the many stories I’ve heard and read, it's that although Tharp is the guy you’d want behind the wheel of your race car, he most definitely was not the guy you wanted behind the wheel while you were a passenger in his street car. Or the guy on the road next to him. Or even the guy in the passenger seat while you were driving.
Reyes remembered an episode from that same Bristol IHRA event. “A group of us photogs were driving back to the motel that evening; we pulled alongside the Blue Max rig with Tharp,” he said. “We waved, and, of course, Tharp tried to run us off the road. Again we pulled alongside, and Tharp was laughing his butt off at our almost off-road venture. This time, we were ready, and armed with 200-watt strobes, we blasted the rig. In our rearview mirror, we saw the Blue Max rig making a frantic stop on the shoulder. Tharp still complains to this day about blinding him on that dark road leaving the racetrack. In the magazine I did for Argus in 1972 called Hot Rodding in Action, the intro page has a photo that Jeff Tinsley took the day after our ‘strobe’ evening. Tharp is standing on my feet and holding my jacket and looking up at my chin. [Tharp stands a good foot shorter than Reyes.] I have a smile on my face and Tharp does also.”
NHRA's Jack Hart
Both Tharp and Gibbs related to me a story of an infamous car ride during the 1970 World Finals in Dallas. Tharp had invited NHRA Executive Director Jack Hart – perhaps at the time the most powerful man in drag racing – his wife, Hazel, and Gibbs out to dinner. As Tharp is driving them all down some Dallas freeway, he casually asks Hart where his invitation is to the upcoming Supernationals. That inaugural event, held at Ontario Motor Speedway, was an invitation-only race that first year, and, well, Tharp was not being invited.
“Hart kinda hemmed and hawed and finally told Tharp that the invitations were based on the number of NHRA races that the person had run, and that since he had not been to the required number, unfortunately, there would be no invitation,” remembered Gibbs. “Without hesitation, Tharp slammed on the brakes -- in real heavy traffic -- put the car in park, threw the keys on the floor, and said he would not move the car until he was invited to Ontario! Hazel was in an absolute panic, and it scared the hell out of me. It took about 10 seconds for Hart to see that Hazel was on the verge of a heart attack and said to Richard, ‘Whatever you want ... just get us the hell out of here.’ Tharp got his invitation the next day. I’m sure Jack found some loophole to get him in.”
In Tharp’s version, he tossed the keys into Hart’s lap in the backseat and the aforementioned Glynanna Ham also was in the car, but the details didn’t matter as much as his colorful description of the mayhem that ensued, which included cars skidding past them sideways trying not to hit the stopped car.
Gibbs recalled another wild ride with Tharp at the U.S. Nationals: “We were trying to get to the Car Craft banquet, and I was riding with Tharp, but we couldn’t find an on-ramp for the freeway. He found an off-ramp, drove down it, hooked a U-turn, and we were on the freeway. Being in a car with him was always a thrill a minute.”
Norman "Moose" Pearah, left, with NHRA's Wally Parks, 1978 Cajun Nationals
Tharp also recalled a memorable Denver car ride with the legendary Norman “Moose” Pearah, a former NFL football player who stood 6-foot-6 and who at the time owned both State Capitol Dragway (home of the Cajun Nationals) and Atlanta Dragway (home of the Southern Nationals). The two free spirits shared a connection out of Dallas headed for the mile-high city and, naturally, enjoyed some of the airline’s cocktails along the way before piling into Pearah’s Cadillac rental car. They proceeded to get a little more lubricated later that night and closed down a local establishment, then set out to follow a couple of girls to a nearby party.
“When we go outside, it was raining so hard we couldn’t see, and ‘Moose’ was getting upset because he couldn’t see to follow the girls,” Tharp recalled. “He had the windshield wipers up as fast as they could go, but it was raining so hard he couldn’t see. So I just reached up with my cowboy boots and pushed the windshield off the car. It fell onto the hood and then off the side of the car, and the wipers were still going, wiping the dash off. I said, ‘How’s that?’ and ‘Moose’ yells over at me, ‘That’s a lot better, but roll up your window. I’m getting wet.’ Man, I’ve told that story so many times, and it always gets a big laugh.”
Tharp’s tale Friday about trying to get more than three dozen backstage passes for his friends from pal Willie Nelson dovetails nicely with Gibbs’ experience trying to attend a Nelson concert with Tharp at the Universal Amphitheater, not far from NHRA’s then headquarters in North Hollywood.
“Richard invited us all to meet him at the Sheraton hotel next to the concert to get our tickets,” Gibbs remembered. "He was kind of antsy because his ticket guy hadn’t shown up, but he kept telling us, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ Finally, it got to maybe a half-hour before showtime, and we still didn’t have any tickets, but Richard says, ‘C’mon, we’re going anyway; we don’t need no tickets.’ We got into his car and drove up to the checkpoint, and Tharp starts giving a line of stuff to the guard there, and the next thing you know, the gate opens, and we drive into what was the entertainers’ parking lot, and he lays another line on the parking guy there, and we walk up to the backstage entrance, he talks to that guy, lays a line on him, and he opens the door, and the next thing I know, we’re at the bottom of the steps to the stage, and Tharp talks to that guy, and within a few minutes, we were on the stage just a few feet from where Willie was performing, drinking a beer with the roadies. Amazing. He was just that kind of character.”
Leigh Buttera, daughter of the late, great car-building “Lil John” and pictured at right with Tharp, hit me up on Facebook to share her fond memories of Tharp and how he used to bunk at their house during some westward trips. “My mom said we were the hotel to the stars,” she recalled. She asked if I remembered this classic Tharp-ism:
I had never heard of such gibberish, I told her. And she translated: “MRDUCKS (them are ducks). MRNOT (them are not). OSAR (oh yes they are). CMWINGS (see them wings). LIB (hell I be) MRDUCKS. Tharp brought this phrase to the U.S. Nationals, '82ish maybe. That’s Texas talk; he wore it out.”
Speaking of fine-feathered friends, as mentioned Friday, a night on the town with Tharp was always an epic evening, and Olson was a firsthand witness to the show.
“I had traveled to the Dallas/Fort Worth area to represent the NHRA headquarters staff at the South Central Division annual awards banquet,” he recalled. “I arrived a day early to have dinner with Ray Murphy, who was a representative of the Mr. Gasket conglomerate that was one of NHRA’s major sponsors at the time. Unknown to me was a plan that had been hatched by Richard and Ray for Richard to pick me up at the restaurant following dinner and take me back to my hotel.
Tharp with another famous buddy, Dallas Cowboys legend Charlie Waters, one of the best defensive backs of the 1970s, at the inaugural Cajun Nationals in 1976
“At that time, Richard was driving a black-on-black-on black Cadillac Seville. It was tricked out with tinted windows, chrome wire spoke wheels, and the most awesome stereo system I’d ever encountered. It became immediately obvious that Richard had no intention of taking me back to my hotel, at least not until we’d hit every major nightclub in downtown Dallas. The two things I remember most were the reception Richard got at every stop and the farewell he got whenever we left. Doormen that were turning away the ‘common folk’ in droves embraced Richard and provided us with immediate entry. Once inside, Richard quickly became the center of attention. I even remember a hoard of groupies abandoning Dallas NFL football superstar and Richard’s good friend, 'Hollywood' Henderson, to flock over to Richard. ‘Hollywood’ was right behind them to pay his respects. I’ll never forget leaving one of the clubs, getting into Richard’s Seville, engine running and stereo blaring, and watching five or six of the most beautiful girls I’ve ever seen beating on the windows and begging Richard to take them with us. Richard just smiled and waved them away.
“Suffice to say, that was, by far, the most spectacular evening of club hopping I’ve ever experienced, and it told me a lot about what a major personality Richard Tharp was, and is, both at the dragstrip and away from it, especially in Texas. Since Richard’s retirement from driving, I’ve only rarely encountered him, but whenever I do, we share some big smiles, and I’m reminded of how fortunate I am to have had a chance to get to know him a bit and spend some extremely memorable time with him.”
With all of these amazing tales of his popularity, I risked a punch in the face at our next meeting by asking Tharp, “Look, you're not a bad-looking guy, but you’re no Brad Pitt. How is it that all of these women flocked to you?”
“I don’t know, just by being crazy, I guess,” he said. “It was like being a rock 'n' roll star. It was unbelievable. I don’t know why, but I sure liked it.”
"Broadway Bob" Metzler and Shirley Muldowney
Shortly after publishing Friday’s column, we got the news we’d been dreading but expecting the last few weeks, that the world had lost Robert “Broadway Bob” Metzler, the legendary former owner/operator of Great Lakes Dragaway. The community had been following his declining condition for months, and his admittance to a hospice was certainly not a good sign.
Anyone who knows anything about the sport’s history has heard his name or certainly heard of the track’s marquee event, the Olympics of Drag Racing. Metzler opened the track in 1955, reportedly with funds earned dealing blackjack to his former Marines at California’s Camp Pendleton, and actively ran it until the mid-1990s but remained onboard as the track’s goodwill ambassador.
So respected and beloved was Metzler that there wasn’t a single big name from the 1970s – the height of match racing – that didn’t accept Metzler’s invitation to race there or call for a chance to do so. Other than a few brief encounters in Indy, I didn’t know Metzler beyond his reputation but have received emails from racers and fans alike who knew him and loved him. As I mentioned in the obituary I wrote Friday, a friend reported that in his last visit with Metzler, he said, "Tell all the racers I love them all," and the feeling certainly was mutual.
Marc and Laura Bruederle, whose photographic home base was Great Lakes, showered me with the pictures you see here of their longtime good friend, and Bret Kepner, another longtime Midwest denizen, is hard at work sculpting his tribute to “Broadway,” which I’ll publish as soon as he forwards it to me. I’m sure he’ll have more and better things to say about the man. In the meantime, check out this fine story, written by Dale Kallmann of the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, which includes great comments about Metzler from NHRA’s own Bob Frey.
Frankly, I don’t even know where to begin when writing on The Life and Times of Richard Tharp. It has been an article I’ve wanted to write for years but put off for the same reasons I’m facing now staring at a mostly blank computer screen with less than 50 words of hemming and hawing.
How do you adequately and colorfully describe a life lived more fully (and wildly) than most and a career filled with wins, championships, and unforgettable moments? How do you begin to tell the tale of a Rebel With No Cause other than a good time and a good e.t., and do it for a PG audience? After all, this is a womanzing wheelman who used to hand out business cards emblazoned with the saying “Texas & Tharp: The Damndest Thing You Ever Saw!" and a guy whose dragster’s rear wing bore the mantra “A star I are, a saint I ain’t.”
And when I mentioned to several people that I was working on this story, I could almost hear them gleefully rubbing their hands together in anticipation of Texas-sized titillating tales of the road. I mean, no pressure, right?
Although being able to begin such a tale of dragdom and debauchery is why they pay me “the big bucks,” I’m going to defer for a second to another Texas denizen who probably knows Tharp as well as the man himself, longtime Lone Star scribe Dave Densmore, who before beginning his long stint as John Force’s keeper, palled around with Texas legends like “King Richard” for years. Densmore was part of my Top 50 Drivers panel in 2001, and when Tharp made the list at No. 49, I asked Dens to write his article, which began thusly:
“In the 1960s and '70s, an era which produced some of drag racing's most colorful characters, none was more colorful than Richard Tharp. … So outrageous and memorable were Tharp's off-track antics that people tend to forget that he was one of the finest pure drivers in the sport's history.”
I read those sentences to Tharp Tuesday and asked how they suited him.
Of the scores of candid Richard Tharp photos in our library, I'd guess that well more than 75 percent of them feature him wearing a cowboy hat of some sort. He's as Texas as they come.
“I feel like that’s a fair assessment,” he agreed. “A lot of people remember the off-track stuff, but if you talk to the other drivers and the car owners I drove for, like Paul Candies, the Carroll brothers, and [Bob] Creitz, I think they all respected what I did on the track.”
Tharp then good-naturedly went on to talk about his famously heavy right foot and how he loved to drive a car “out the back door,” beyond the old speed trap that used to extend 66 feet past the finish line. Not only did Tharp routinely drive a car “out the back door,” but typically across the backyard, through the alley, and into the neighbor’s backyard.
“I just loved going fast,” he attested. “When Kenny Bernstein ran 300 mph, Candies would tell people, ‘Tharp was the first to run 300, but it was 200 feet past the lights.’ Densmore also wrote about me, ‘He’s one of the best there is at driving a car out of trouble, but he’s also the best there is at driving one into trouble.’ "
Tharp, like Bernstein, came up to the superstar ranks through the tough Texas-based Pro Fuel Circuit of Top Fuel cars in the 1960s.
Tharp came out of Las Cruces, N.M., driving for a guy named George Brazil but soon transplanted to Dallas, where he wheeled dragsters for Raymond Austin (Neal-Austin-Tharp), Mike Brown (Assassin), James Bush and J.L.Payne (Bush & Payne), and the famed “Texas Whips,” the Carroll brothers, "Bones" and Curt.
Densmore also wrote of Tharp, “Once, when another Dallas driver was having difficulty getting his dragster down the racetrack because of a perceived chassis problem, Tharp was asked to make a checkout run. After posting a time only a tenth off the track record, Tharp unbuckled, climbed out of the car, and in his drawl said, ‘Nothing wrong with the car. I think it's the driver.’ "
Tharp drove for the Carroll brothers -- "Bones" and Curt -- on numerous occasions, in both front- and rear-engine cars.
Tharp’s stint with the Carrolls was cut short by Uncle Sam in 1966, when Tharp’s name came up in the Vietnam draft, but Tharp didn’t go easily. In what has become perhaps the best-known Tharp tale, he was on the lam from the authorities for failing to report and was ultimately found hiding in the closet of good pal Jimmy Nix. I’ve heard just the classic ending of this story dozens of times from dozens of people, but Tharp wanted to give me the whole story.
“I was draft-dodging but still racing,” he began spinning his tale, already laughing at the memory. “The FBI had been coming by my mother’s house and threatening to put me in Leavenworth and everything. We were at Tulsa [Okla.] for the 1966 World Finals, and we’d won the first round, and these two guys come walking up in these suits, and they said, ‘Are you Richard Tharp?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m not,’ but they pulled out this picture and said, ‘Well, you sure look exactly like him …’ I just started laughing.
“They were pretty good guys, and they said they would let me finish racing, but then I had to go with them. Nix had gotten beat in the first round, and we got beat in the second round. As I pulled off at the other end of the track, I see Nix’s truck and trailer coming by loaded up for home, so I just jumped into his truck and left with him out the gate.”
The whole time that Tharp is telling me this story, he’s punctuating almost every sentence with laughter. He's enjoying telling it as much as I am listening.
“The next day, Nix’s mother called and told him that the FBI knew he was harboring me, and about that time, there was a knock on the door. All those old houses had a little-bitty closet right by the front door to hang your coat and your cap. So Nix told me, ‘Jump in there; I’ll tell them you’re not here.’ So I jumped in there, and I could see them through the crack in the door and could hear everything. One of them unbuttoned his coat so Jimmy could see his gun and said, ‘Listen, we know he’s here, and we don’t want to hurt anybody, and nobody else needs to go to jail, but we’re going to take Richard with us, or you’re going to go with us for harboring a fugitive. Now where’s he at?’
“And Nix says, ‘He’s right there in that closet.’ Man, that’s a funny story,” he concluded, still cracking up. The story goes on that when he was handcuffed, Tharp was wearing one of Nix’s racing jackets, and “the Smilin’ Okie” reportedly asked that the G-men unshackle him so he could get his coat back.
Tharp was packed off to join the Army, and while the majority of his basic-training unit went off to truck-driving and mechanic school, Tharp was tagged for infantry training. He actually turned out to be a good soldier, graduating from both paratrooper training and a dog-handling class, and served courageously in Vietnam as a "lurp" (LRRP, long-range reconnaissance patrol) for more than a year and even extended his tour by four months to ensure that once he got home he would be discharged from the Army and able to get back to racing.
Tharp, in his ever-present cowboy hat, with Jim Albert
When he returned Stateside in late 1968, he drove for Rocky Childs and Jim Albert, of Childs & Albert fame, leading to another great Tharp moment, as related by Densmore.
“Traveling with Jimmy Albert, Tharp was late arriving in Oklahoma City for one Texas Pro Fuel Circuit race. It had rained the previous three days, and track officials had employed a helicopter to assist with the dry-out process. All the helicopter really had done, though, was dry out a quarter-inch of topsoil -- which is why all the early arrivals were parked on asphalt, on the track's road course. All of this was unknown to Tharp, who, late as usual, came flying into the track at the wheel of the team's crew-cab truck, Albert in the passenger's seat. Seeing all the open area, Tharp drove the rig into a clearing -- and promptly sank it up to the axles in a couple feet of mud. Undaunted, Tharp enlisted help in building a plywood ‘bridge’ to get the race car from the trailer to the nearest asphalt and then to the staging lanes. He qualified on one shot and ultimately went to the final round, but it was another in a long list of experiences that left Albert shell-shocked.”
After Albert decided to curtail his racing activities in mid-1969, Tharp went back to driving for the Carrolls and won the Division 4 championship, then hopped behind the wheel of the car run by Creitz and Ed Donovan in 1970 and became the guy in the other lane in the final at Lions Drag Strip in March when Don Garlits blew half his right foot off in one of the most legendary incidents in drag racing history.
I made the mistake of asking Tharp, “You red-lighted in that race, right?” having read many times Garlits’ side of the story, how Garlits should have won the race because Tharp had red-lighted but that the shrapnel from Garlits’ transmission explosion short-circuited the timing system and turned off Tharp’s red-light.
“No, no, no,” he stops me. “If I had red-lighted, we never would have gotten the money. Garlits tells everyone I red-lighted, and it used to drive Creitz and Donovan crazy. That’s just one of Garlits’ deals. We got the money, we got the points, and that’s the truth. But that whole Grand American tour was a lot of fun. We went all over and had a lot of fun with guys like [Jim] Nicoll and Don Cook and ‘Snake’ and ‘Goose’ and everyone. That was one of the best tours I ever went on, and me and Creitz had a lot of fun. He was quite the prankster. There was a lot of fireworks involved.”
Like a lot of Top Fuel drivers, Tharp saw the handwriting on the wall that Funny Cars were becoming the new kings of match race bookings and took over the saddle of Harry Schmidt’s famed Blue Max Mustang when Jake Johnston left to drive for Gene Snow in 1971.
“I liked dragsters and Funny Cars both, but I really liked the burnouts and the dry hops in the Funny Cars, and Harry was amazing to work with,” said Tharp. “He was so smart and inventive. His  Don Hardy car was the first with a dragster roll cage on it. His cars were always light, and he had the first quick-change rear end in the class. We won a lot with that car; I won two of the first three races in the car. The ’72 car was my favorite. We booked 118 dates one year with that car and probably won 85 percent of our races. That car was just a genuine badass.”
One Fourth of July week, they ran seven straight days: Napierville, Ont., on Tuesday; Toronto on Wednesday; Detroit on Thursday; Union Grove, Wis., on Friday; Martin, Mich., on Saturday; Rockford, Ill., on Sunday in the day; Humboldt, Iowa, Sunday night, and Sioux Falls, Iowa, on Monday.
“Other times, we’d run in Miami on Sunday night and Orange County [Calif.] on Wednesday night,” he remembered. “It’d take a day to get from Miami to Texas, then a day to get across Texas, and a day to get on to L.A. That was some hard driving in an old ramp truck, but back then, we didn’t think much of it.”
Tharp drove for Schmidt through 1973, then drove partial seasons for fellow Texan “Big Mike” Burkart – winning five times on the IHRA tour -- and for Don Schumacher in the aerodynamic Wonder Wagon Vega in 1974, and he also drove briefly for Larry Huff in the equally sleek Soapy Sales Dart.
Tharp returned to his dragster roots in 1975, reuniting with the Carroll brothers, a decision that serendipitously led to his championship-winning tenure with the Candies & Hughes team. When the Carroll car ran 5.97 at the 1975 Summernationals – the first sub-six-second pass at Raceway Park – to qualify No. 1, that performance caught the eye of Candies, the walletman for the one of the sport’s premier teams, who was looking for a driver to replace Dave Settles, who had decided to build an A/Fuel Dragster for himself.
“We raced against Leonard [Hughes] and Paul a lot when they were running Funny Cars, so they knew who I was. Curt called me 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.”
Their first season together couldn’t have gone better. They won the inaugural Cajun Nationals in Baton Rouge, La. (not a points-earning event at the time), then won the Summernationals, runner-upped at Le Grandnational, and won the big one, the U.S. Nationals, en route to the championship. They won the Cajun Nationals again the next year and would have won Indy again, according to Tharp, had Garlits not gone over to help Dennis Baca before the final, giving key engine and driveline components to the unheralded California racer prior to the final.
After losing their car in the crash in Seattle in 1979, Candies & Hughes and Tharp rented John Kimble's Southern California entry to run the World Finals and managed to hang on to their spot in the top 10 standings. In their six seasons together, they always finished in the top 10.
The only serious accident of Tharp’s career came in the employ of Candies & Hughes, during the second round at the 1979 Fallnationals. Tharp received a bye when Hank Johnson had to shut off his rail, but hard tire shake knocked out Tharp, and the blue charger went off the side of the Seattle track at full steam, throwing up rooster tails of dirt before impacting something and exploding into pieces. Surprisingly, other than a concussion, Tharp’s only injury came during the extrication process, and from an unlikely source.
“They couldn’t get my arm restraints unhooked, so [Seattle track owner Bill] Doner takes out his pocketknife and ends up sticking me through my firesuit; I needed four stitches in my arm! It’s a good thing I was knocked out when that happened.” (Former NHRA Top Fuel driver Carl Olson has a humorous story about this incident -- at the time, he was an NHRA official and among the first to arrive – that I’ll share next week.)
Cajun Nationals fans cheered for their home-state team, which won the event back to back, 1976-77.
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 Garlits, Shirley Muldowney, and Gary Beck.
Although the jovial Candies and Tharp got along well, Tharp’s after-hours antics didn’t often sit well with the sometimes cantankerous Hughes.
“Leonard was the reason we had so much success on the track, but he was so hard to get along with,” said Tharp. “We clashed big time. Paul and I always got along – still do – but Leonard didn’t like us going out and drinking at night. I figured as long as I was with Paul, that should be OK, right?”
“If you knew how to put up with Richard, he was OK,” Candies told me, “but Leonard didn’t drink and didn’t approve of anyone else drinking. Finally, I just couldn’t make him and Leonard get along anymore.”
(Candies also good-naturedly deferred from sharing any “Tharp stories” because most of what he had was “probably not publishable.”)
(Above) After leaving the Candies & Hughes team, Tharp raced midgets in 1982, then returned in 1983 with the pretty and fast Kilpatrick & Connell entry (below).
After finishing eighth in 1981, the team released Tharp and hired the more puritanical Mark Oswald, and Tharp found a new passion racing USAC midget and sprint cars. Behind the wheel, Tharp did well locally – he had equipped his car with a Top Fuel-like high-speed leanout button for quick passes, a tactic previously unheard-of in the class -- but turned over the cockpit to seasoned drivers such as Johnny Parsons Jr. and Ken Schrader at bigger midget events and even had famed Doug Wolfgang drive his sprint car.
Tharp returned to the quarter-mile in 1983 with a quality ride financed carte blanche by Mark Connell, owner of Rio Airways, in concert with Texas car dealer Mike Kilpatrick and tuner Bill Schultz. The Kilpatrick & Connell car won the IHRA championship and was a hard runner on the NHRA tour, winning the 1983 Springnationals and runner-upping at the Southern Nationals, and collected two more career low-qualifying efforts. The car was a constant threat to set low e.t. Tharp’s 5.447 at the IHRA meet in Milan, Mich., was the fifth-quickest pass of the 1983 season and the only pass to break up the stranglehold of Larry Minor’s two-car operation, which ran 17 of the year’s 18 quickest times.
The Kilpatrick & Connell operation lasted just one season, and Tharp sold the Swindahl-built car to Snow, who later sold it to Dan Pastorini, and that was the car in which the former NFL quarterback won his only Top Fuel title, at the 1986 Southern Nationals.
Tharp sat out of racing until an ill-advised and frustrating return to the sport in 1988, behind the wheel of a woefully unprepared resurrected Blue Max Funny Car for longtime pal Raymond Beadle.
“I never should have done that,” he lamented. “The car was way out of date, and everything was worn out, and Raymond was really concentrating more on his NASCAR team. Driving that car was the worst decision I ever made in drag racing.”
It certainly wasn’t the car in which he deserved to end his great driving career, and, honestly, the effort made such little impact that few people remember he even drove the car, which is just fine with Tharp.
As mentioned, Tharp was just as well-known for his antics at the local watering hole as in the water box. Dressed appropriately for any occasion with his trademark cowboy hat and boots, an evening on the town with “King Richard” was likely to yield a hot blonde, a hangover, or a black eye -- on a good night, all three. I asked him how he would describe himself.
“Pretty free-going, I guess,” said the lifelong bachelor after some contemplation. “It was just a different time than it is now. I wouldn’t trade one minute of it for anything, not one minute. We just had a real good time in everything we did. There were a lot of women and a lot of drinking. Someone asked me a while ago if I missed the races; I told them I didn’t miss the racing one bit, but I sure miss the women."
Country-western legend Willie Nelson was and remains a good friend of Tharp's. The Candies & Hughes team would routinely attend his concerts, including this one, held near the 1977 Cajun Nationals.
With all of his merry gallivanting, Tharp picked up a posse of pretty powerful party pals who enjoyed the nightlife as much as he did, including legendary country-western heroes Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings and Dallas Cowboys bad boy Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson, to name but a few.
“Just a bunch of good ol’ Texas boys,” he said of his famous friends. “Just hanging out around town, we’d run into them. Gary Busey, too. I’m still good friends with Willie; I don’t see him as much anymore, but we had us some good times. One of my favorite Willie stories is when he played the Hollywood Bowl and I introduced Linda [Vaughn] to him, and he sang ‘Georgia On My Mind’ for her. Linda was so thrilled that he sang the song looking at her, and I told him later about it, and he told me he wasn’t singing the song as much to her as to ‘them’ [referring to part of Vaughn’s famously well-endowed anatomy].
“One year, Willie was in concert in California about the same time as the World Finals, so everyone was coming to me for tickets, and I had like 38 people asking me for backstage passes. I had no idea how I was going to come through, but I went in there and said, ‘Willie, I need 38 backstage passes.’ He said, ‘What for?’ And I told him, ‘Well, I told all these people I’d get them in.’ He said, ‘Well, you go out there and tell them the truth: Tell them you lied.’ He’s really a funny guy, a great guy.”
“That was the great thing about hanging around with Richard,” added Candies. “You could always expect something different coming. If Willie was playing anywhere within 100 miles of a race, we’d go and get them backstage passes we needed … and other activities.”
(Tuesday's column will include more Tharp tales and other notes collected in the past few weeks.)
Although Tharp hasn’t driven for nearly 25 years – he passed up a few offers to drive cars that weren’t top-caliber – he’s still well-remembered in the community and is a regular at nostalgia affairs. His career was honored when he was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1999, the same year that Candies, Hughes, Creitz, and Snow were inducted.
It was at the induction ceremony that Tharp gave the speech he thinks best defined his career: “I was very lucky. I always had the best cars. I always had the best owners. I always had the best crew chiefs. I always did what I wanted to do. I always said what I wanted to say. I always argued with everybody else. And here I am, being inducted into the International Hall of Fame.
“It’s kind of a sign of defeat,” he deadpanned.
As noted earlier, Tharp was on the sidelines in 1982, which was my first year at National DRAGSTER, and I didn’t meet him until I took my first road trip on the job, to the 1983 Springnationals in Columbus, which he won in explosive fashion. He bombed the supercharger off his car on numerous runs and spent a good bit of time on the phone trying to track down more blowers, as can be seen in this photo snapped at the event by ND Photo Editor Leslie Lovett, after which Lovett introduced me to him.
(Tharp later explained to me that this was the result of a faulty hydrometer that was reading 11 percent more nitro than they had planned.)
Tharp’s presence on the national event scene after that was spotty, ending rather ingloriously with the less-than-competitive Blue Max v4.0. Throughout the years, and seemingly out of nowhere, the good-natured Texan took a liking to me and befriended me, sitting down in the media room with me at numerous events just to watch the racing and talk about the old days.
Recently hitting 70, Tharp is still slim and trim, just 20 pounds above his 152-pound driving weight, thanks to a regimen of running from auction to auction buying cars wholesale to feed the 750-car-a-month appetite of hungry car dealers. He lives in Carrolltown, just outside the Dallas city limits, sees Beadle two or three times a week, and still wears that cowboy hat and boots for pretty much every occasion. That's him at right last year when he and Beadle flew in from Texas to attend Don Prudhomme’s surprise 70th birthday party at the NHRA museum.
Tharp’s friendship and continuing communications – he was one of the first to let me know we’d lost former Blue Max owner Schmidt earlier this year – are what make my job amazing more than 30 years later. I’ve said it before and will say it until the day they kick me out the door (and probably even after that): For a teenage pit-rope track rat, there is no greater dream come true than to be befriended, appreciated, and respected by the legends whom you grew up watching.
Thanks to all of the heroes who allow me into their lives and into their memories. That’s when this column is at its best.