You know me, I’m always thrilled when a story is not only well-received, but also elicits responses that allow a follow-up, and that has certainly been the case after last week’s column on 1970s Funny Car driver Jake Johnston. Not only was he very appreciative of the column, but many of you also let it be known that you had no problem remembering him and hold his career in high esteem.
Wrote Richard Pederson, “Perhaps with the attention brought by the story, he may realize that he was/is rather revered, with his legendary status only fueled by his absence, and maybe show up, say, at the Bakersfield Hot Rod Reunion sometime. There's just enough missing to warrant a short follow-up piece maybe next week!”
Your wish is my command, Richard, but the question is, how much Jake can you take?
Some of the email I got demanded answers and brought not only me, but also Jake, to the realization that there was more to tell, leading to a couple of additional long and fun phone calls to try to expand on some things.
One of the topics that always comes up when I talk to the guys who lived that early 1970s match race circuit is the sheer number of dates they would run and all that went with it, and Johnston surely had his share of tales.
“At the peak of the season, in the summer, we’d run three or four times a week,” he remembered. “It was just me and one crewman, Ronnie Guyman. Ronnie passed away a few years back. It was just the two of us, and we busted our asses. Sometimes we’d travel 500 miles between back-to-back races. Back then, we didn’t have to take the engines apart after every run like they do today; we’d tear them down after every other race, maybe every six runs. I was easy on equipment.
When Jake Johnston was on the match race trail, it was just a two-man show, him and crewmember Ronnie Guyman, who's shown in this photo from New England Dragway submitted by Insider reader Gregory Safchuk.
“Racing was good to me,” he asserted. “I was young and got to travel the country and see almost every state in the union. It was a storybook kind of life. We worked hard and raced hard. Match racing was really our meat and potatoes; we enjoyed the prestige of going to a national event, but for me, they became just another race to win. No matter where or who I raced, I always wanted to win, and I was fortunate to win most of the races I was in. I wasn’t there to roll over and just collect the appearance money.”
Johnston got a percentage of what the car brought in, between 30 and 40 percent as he recalls. Gene Snow paid all of the running expenses on a budget that was just short of six figures despite running close to 100 dates a year. A typical deal for a popular car like his was $900 to $1,200 for three runs, guaranteed no matter his result.
Another subject that always comes up when talking about those days is the variety of tracks that the teams were booked into. One week you could be running at palatial and well-lit Orange County Int’l Raceway and the next at one of those tracks that my old pal Bret Kepner likes to jokingly refer to as a “big four” track: short, dark, narrow, and slippery.
“You never knew what to expect when you got booked into a new track,” Johnston agreed. “I remember running a track in Virginia one time. I checked it all out in the daylight, but we were scheduled to run at night. It was a narrow track, but it looked OK, but when we pulled up to run at night, they were lighting the track with searchlights and people’s cars parked along the track. There was plenty of light going down there, but when I got to the lights, the track dropped off, and suddenly there were no lights. It was like being in a closet. It was pitch black, and I had no idea where the end of the track was, let alone where I was.”
I came across the photo at right of Johnston racing Tommy Ivo’s Top Fueler in 1972 at Maple Grove Raceway, one of only two times that he remembers being paired against a dragster (the other was against Art Malone). According to the caption information on the back of the picture snapped by longtime track photographer Jim Cutler, Ivo broke the two-speed on the run, and Johnston won with a 6.86 at just 199 mph.
“Those kind of races didn’t mean a lot to me,” Johnston said. “When I raced, I wanted to run against equivalent cars."
The Insider’s ol’ pal, Cliff Morgan, wrote, “The year he ran that 6.72 at OCIR in the Blue Max, that made a huge impression on me. I was at that race and had come out early to watch qualifying. Gary Cochran was there in his front-motored Top Fuel car, a 392 Chrysler, and ran 6.72 on a test run. When Johnston ran that 6.72 later that night, I was astonished that he'd run as quick as Cochran's dragster.
“I am also wondering if Jake Johnston was the driver for a race at Lions in December 1971. Bill Leavitt ran the Quickie Too Mustang, with a real 392 Chrysler whale motor. Leavitt ran 6.48, which was the quickest e.t. ever for a flopper, but one of Snow's cars ran 6.49 (with an Elephant motor). I'm wondering if Johnston was the driver at that race. Of course, Leavitt's 6.48 with a 392 motor was wild! That's why I loved Lions -- you could see low e.t. of the world there on occasion.”
Morgan’s memory, as usual, was pretty darned good but not perfect (hey, it was 40-plus years ago). Leavitt did indeed shock the troops with a 6.48 at the event, billed as the Lions Grand Finale, but it was Pat Foster in Barry Setzer’s mighty Vega who ran the 6.49.
Johnston was there driving for Snow and, as the photo at right attests, ran against Leavitt in the final. Foster had broken a rear end in the first round and made the 6.49 on a test pass between rounds. Leavitt ran 6.53 in round one to beat “the Tentmaker,” Omar Carrothers, a wild 6.51 in the second round to dispatch Gary Burgin, and an easy 7.99 after Ron O’Donnell and crew couldn’t get Don Cook’s Damn Yankee out of the pits due to a transmission problem. Johnston, meanwhile, had run 6.68 on a first-round bye, a soft 7.76 when Jim Dunn couldn’t return after pitching a rod in round one, and a stout 6.59 to beat Kelly Brown.
Johnston got the drop on Leavitt in the final and had the lead until half-track before he lost traction and watched Leavitt scream to the 6.48 and a new national record. Johnston still posted a respectable 6.97 at just 177 mph.
While perusing Johnston’s photo file, I came across this interesting image, which I also remembered seeing in Drag Racing USA in 1972. The photo, taken by then National Dragster Editor Bill Holland, shows the frantic attempts by crewmembers to remove the parachute from Johnston’s car after it accidentally came out on the starting line in the semifinals at the 1972 Winternationals. Johnston had already beaten Leroy Goldstein and Dunn when the bad thing happened.
According to Holland, the group got the chute detached from its mounting point, and Richard Tharp carried it forward to show it to Johnston. Back then, there were no in-car radios to alert a driver that an opponent was having trouble, so Johnston did the only thing he could: stage the car against Ed McCulloch and pray for a red-light (which never came). Johnston did not run the car -- as it would have probably led to a lengthy conversation with officials – not that he didn’t think he could.
“I could have run the car,” he insists. “Every time I made a run, I assumed the chute wasn’t going to come out, so I was always on the brakes right away, and we had good brakes.”
Another interesting question that led to another of those “I never knew that” moments was a query from reader Don Wright about which other cars Johnston had driven, citing (correctly) that the DragList website lists Johnston as possibly having driven both Don Schumacher’s trick Wonder Wagon Vega coupe and “Jungle Jim” Liberman’s ’76 Monza.
It’s another case of close, but no cigar, as it turns out. Johnston never drove for “Jungle,” but he did drive a Wonder Wagon Funny Car -- just not Schumacher’s memorable, swoopy, low-riding, aero-cheating Vega, but that car’s complete opposite, the boxy, ill-handling, crash-prone Vega panel wagons that launched the sponsorship before Schumacher got involved. As I’d always heard the story, promoters Don Rackemann and Bob Kachler signed a three-year pact with ITT Continental Baking for the Wonder Bread deal, and Kachler came up with the idea to run the Vega panel wagons to simulate bread-delivery vehicles. Glenn Way, the driver of the Groundshakers fuel altered, was tapped to drive one and Kelly Brown the other. Brown struggled with the first car before its planned debut at the 1972 Supernationals, and, until he got his Funny Car license, Way asked Johnston to drive his car at the 1973 Winternationals.
“They couldn’t get the cars to run,” Johnston remembered. “Aerodynamically, it was bad. The car was never going to work. The shape of the back was a real low-pressure area, and at midtrack, it would get up on the tires and start skating and then break the tires loose. We tried putting spoilers on the back and opening up the back window, but nothing worked.”
Although National Dragster does report they were there, I can’t find a record of either driver listed on the final Winternationals qualifying sheet, meaning they may have withdrawn from the event during its unmemorable three-week rain delay. Johnston says he and Rackemann couldn’t agree on the financial part of him driving the car, and he left the team. The whole arrangement eventually collapsed, and Schumacher salvaged the deal with his team but couldn’t make the panel wagon work either and ended up running a pair of Vega coupes driven by him and Raymond Beadle. I'm trying to get the whole story on this weird and misunderstood part of drag racing history, so look for that in the future.
Johnston also reported that he had one-event shots driving for Tom McEwen (1973 March Meet) and in Dunn’s car in 1976 or 1977 when, for some reason, car owner Joe Pisano couldn’t get their car ready, but he never drove for Liberman.
OK, gang, that's it for another fun week. Thanks again, as always, for your contributions and support. See ya next week.
I don’t remember prolific 1970s Funny Car racer Jake Johnston having a nickname, but if I were to give him one today, it would definitely be “What If?”
What if Johnston hadn’t suffered freak mechanical issues in the final rounds at the 1971 and 1972 World Finals?
What if more Funny Car teams had forsaken their precious automatic transmissions and jumped on the Crowerglide and/or direct-drive system that Johnston and team owner Gene Snow ran on their Funny Cars in the late 1960s?
What if Johnston and Snow had been successful with their experiments with a turbocharged Funny Car running methanol instead of nitro? Or with a car that ran on bottled air that was squeezed under pressure into the engine instead of ground into the manifold through the rotors of a supercharger?
What if, indeed?
Well, for starters, had Johnston won those two final rounds, he would have become a true and unforgotten legend in the sport as Funny Car’s first two-time world champion, three years before Don Prudhomme became famous for being the first to accomplish that feat.
And where might Funny Car performance be today with another couple of years of clutch development under its safety belts or if we hadn’t had to wait until 1988 for direct-drive to become the hot ticket?
How much faster could Funny Cars go without a big ol’ blower and injector sticking out of the windshield that disrupted the airflow? Without a blower, it would also remove the concern of drive-belt failure or backfire. How much cheaper would the cars be if they burned alcohol but still ran in the threes? (And what if, for the sake of this discussion, you could forget for a second that we’d be losing the appeal of that look and the heavenly roar of a nitro-burning, supercharged flopper?)
What if, indeed.
I’ve been a Jake Johnston fan for the longest time. He retired from driving before I came to work at NHRA in 1982, and I had always wanted to interview him about his career, but, despite working my Texas Richard Tharp/Raymond Beadle/Dave Settles connections, the best I could come up with was that he lived in California now. He hadn’t been to the races in more than 20 years because, like a lot of former drivers, he makes a lousy spectator, and he was ever fearful of getting the bug again. I finally caught a break when his I saw that his son, Beau, had some interactions with NHRA’s Twitter account. One thing led to another, and then, voila, last week, I was on the phone with Jake.
I’ve always felt a bit bad for him for what happened to him at the 1971 and 1972 World Finals, as I’m sure the rest of you could empathize with. I mean, geez, two bad breaks robbed him of legendary status, right? He goes from potentially being a god of the class to someone most fans today don’t even know?
Well, guess who isn’t feeling bad for Jake Johnston: Yep, Jake Johnston.
“I don’t look at it that way, I really don’t,” he told me. “Of course I was disappointed at the time, but in racing, you have to keep going. I raced a lot and won a lot of races. You win some, and you lose some. They were both just simple, stupid things that happened. If you’re going to compete, that kind of thing is going to happen. I would have loved to have those trophies under my belt, but I don’t dwell it, that’s for sure.”
He’s a better man than me, for sure, but as you’ll see, that was his nature.
Johnston, right, with Gene Snow in 1969.
In the beginning
Johnston got involved in the drag racing scene as a teenager in Fort Worth, Texas. He was enamored with cars and built a ’36 Ford coupe to race. Johnston’s sister was neighbors with Dean Davis, who was a crewmember for Lone Star legend Vance Hunt, and heard about the youngster’s love of cars. One thing led to another, and young Jake soon was invited to join the team at Green Valley Race City (Smithfield, Texas). He graduated from wiping oil pans and tires to hands-on work and earned a reputation as a reliable crewmember always eager to learn more.
By this time, Snow had been running his injected Rambunctious Dart in a variety of classes, with and without nitro, and wanted to build a supercharged car because the Funny Car phenomenon was beginning to take off.
“Gene knew that I’d worked with Vance and that I knew blowers and how to tune the engines,” said Johnston. “I was only 18, but he hired me through a mutual friend and gave me a lot of responsibility for someone that young. Even though Gene wasn’t yet in the oil business, he had a used-car lot that seemed to give him a pretty good income, so we were never wanting for parts.”
Johnston began attending the University of Texas-Arlington, studying engineering, which certainly helped when Snow began to look for new and innovative ways to go faster. While most of their fellow Funny Car racers were still running automatic transmissions, Snow and Johnston began experimenting with the new clutch-based Crowerglide and even direct-drive setups, and the results were impressive: They consistently ran more than 5 mph faster than their competitors in 1969.
“Gene was willing to try a lot of stuff, and while I went through a learning curve with it, I learned a lot,” remembered Johnston. “The automatic transmissions were a real weak link; you had to go through them every week. I don’t think there were even many dragsters running the Crowerglide at the time. When we tried direct-drive, the car would start out slow but would really make up the difference at the top end, and we started winning a lot of races. The lighter we made the car, the better it ran. We had a pretty good advantage before the Lenco [transmissions] came out.”
But Johnston had bigger plans for himself than just tuning.
A driving passion
“I wanted to drive; it was a burning passion I had since I was working for Vance when I was 15,” he said. “I let the word out, and it was Harry Schmidt, who was building the first Blue Max, who gave me my first ride. He knew that I knew how to tune and make a car run fast and was willing to give me the opportunity to drive if I could do that.”
Schmidt began to pair a Don Hardy chassis with a Ramchargers engine (“even though I was a Keith Black kind of guy,” noted Johnston) to create the first Blue Max in late 1969. While the Blue Max was under construction, Johnston continued to work with Snow, who, perhaps seeking to appease his talented young mechanic, gave him more money and his own car, a very narrow Charger built by Dennis Rollain and John Buttera at their Wisconsin shop. “I’m lucky I didn’t get killed in that car,” he laughs today. “It was a very light car; the body was just gel coat because we didn’t want to even add paint. It wasn’t all top-notch equipment, though, and it blew up on me at Irwindale my second race out. The crank broke in half, and the whole clutch and bellhousing came out. I got sideways in the lights and was just about ready to roll over, but fortunately, I had just pulled the chute, and it brought me back straight.”
Johnston and the Blue Max made their debut at the 1970 Winternationals, where they set top speed at 203.61 mph, but not long into their first tour, a highway accident claimed the rig.
“Somebody cut across the grass divider of the interstate and came over into our lane," Johnston remembers. "Harry was driving and had to swerve to miss them, but the race car came completely off the ramp truck and was demolished. We both cried; it was pretty much still a brand-new car, and we were on tour and ready to kick ass. We loaded all the parts and pieces onto the ramp truck and drove it back to Hardy’s, and we worked just about 24/7 and built a new car in just about three weeks. The new chassis, with its narrow roll cage, more closely mimicked the successful Mickey Thompson Mustangs with which Pat Foster was enjoying success and also narrowed the body.”
The car ran solidly that summer but really made its mark that fall at the famed Manufacturers Meet at Orange County Int’l Raceway, where Johnston ran the lowest elapsed time in class history, 6.72, and, in the final, beat Rich Siroonian in “Big John” Mazmanian’s Barracuda on a holeshot, 6.89 to 6.88.
“That really put us on the map,” Johnston remembered.
Seeing this success, Snow — who, ironically, won the world championship that year without Johnston — wooed him back with some big money and a topflight second car.
Reunited and it feels so good
“By this time, Gene had gotten some more sponsors who were willing to pay for that second car to be a good one, and he let me call my shots on my car,” Johnston said. “It worked really well. Those were some of my best years of racing.”
Snow and Johnston fielded a pair of Chargers in 1971 — known as the “ram horn cars” for their distinctive paint scheme — and enjoyed great success on the match race and divisional trails. Johnston and Snow would take off in separate directions to better canvass the country and meet the need for their bookings, with Johnston plying the Midwest and East Coast and Snow challenging all comers out West.
“Very seldom did we cross paths except at the national events,” recalled Johnston. “When we did that first year , I was not allowed to beat him if we did race, but that changed the next year.”
Johnston, near lane, was on his way to victory in the final round of the 1971 World Finals when his car broke its rear end.
Both Snow and Johnston earned enough points during the 1971 season to be invited to the winner-take-all World Finals in Amarillo, Texas. Snow, representing the Western Conference, was the low qualifier with a 6.98, just ahead of Johnston’s 7.00, and Leroy Goldstein was the low qualifier for the Eastern Conference with a 6.90 in the Candies & Hughes entry.
Snow, Johnston, and Goldstein all got first-round byes because only 17 drivers were qualified for the 32-car field. Although Snow broke the rear end in round two against Phil Castronovo in the Custom Body Charger, Johnston easily moved past Al Marshall and Goldstein around Art Ward. Goldstein then took out Jerry Ruth with a 6.93, and Johnston dispatched Kelly Chadwick with a blistering 6.91.
The expected final-round match between Goldstein and Johnston was thwarted in the semifinals when Goldstein, holding a commanding lead on Castronovo, broke the rear end just before the finish line. Johnston earned another bye in the semifinals and made an easy 7.39 but was the heavy favorite in the final based on his earlier 6.91.
But the same fate that befell Snow and Goldstein before him collected Johnston as well. With a significant jump at the Tree, he was on his way to capturing the event win and the world championship before the rear end broke, and he could only coast to a 9.23 and watch Castronovo win in his first final-round appearance with a 7.15.
“I raced him all the time back East, and he’d never beaten me,” said a chagrined Johnston.
Johnston, far lane, was the top performer at the 1972 World Finals but dropped a cylinder in the final against Larry Fullerton.
In 1972, both Snow and Johnston again qualified for the World Finals with their now-Snowman-themed Chargers, but Johnston this year represented the Eastern Conference and Snow the Western. Johnston qualified No. 2 with a 6.79, well behind the surprising 6.61 of Butch Maas in Mart Higginbotham’s Vega, and Snow was well down the list of Western qualifiers.
Snow was upset in round one by Preston Davis in Raymond Godman’s Tennessee Bo Weevil, but Johnston motored easily into his second straight World Finals final with a solid string of e.t.s — 6.79, 6.61, 6.65, and 6.51 — to defeat Kelly Chadwick, “Jungle Jim” Liberman, Leonard Hughes, and an engine-destroying Maas and set himself up again as the prohibitive favorite against Larry Fullerton, whose best e.t. with his and Kevin Doheny’s Trojan Horse Mustang had been a 6.64.
Again, though, the hands of fate decided against Johnston, who dropped a cylinder on the starting line in the final and slipped to a 6.69, well behind the impressive event-best 6.59 registered by Fullerton.
“It just loaded a cylinder on the line, which it would do from time to time.” said Johnston. “We didn’t have dual mags to burn the fuel. Just another bad break.”
Johnston and Snow experimented briefly with a turbocharged Funny Car in 1971. (Steve Reyes photo)
During their time together, Snow and Johnston also experimented with turbocharged power during the 1971 season. Snow had put together a deal with Hilborn to try to develop the setup using one of his cars. Both he and Johnston drove the car.
“We used to come to California in the winter to build our cars, so he tested the car on the West Coast,” recalled Johnston. “Eventually Gene had to go on tour, so he brought me out; I drove it for maybe a month. We were always trying to do something new and unique and maybe get an edge for a season or two, but the turbo car never did pan out. The guys at Hilborn had done a good job to tailor the turbos to where they were pretty responsive, but it never ran like we hoped it would, and it was pretty quiet. I don’t think the fans would have liked that. Still, all that experience with way-out stuff was a good learning opportunity for me.
In 1973, Johnston was hired by John Keeling and Jerry Clayton to drive their beautiful California Charger Mustang and, on occasion, he also drove their sleek Top Fuel dragster. One of their most memorable outings was the 1973 PDA event at Orange County Int’l Raceway, where Johnston drove both cars and won in the dragster. (That great tale was featured in the column I wrote on Keeling & Clayton last March.)
“I had never really driven a dragster — if you look at the photos, I was still wearing a Funny Car helmet and face mask [as opposed to the traditional full-face helmet used by most Top Fuel drivers], and I had to have Jerry on the starting line to tell me what rpm to leave at. I’d rev it up a bit, look at him, and he’d use hand signals to tell me when I had it right. That was a cool ride; it was fun being out there in the breeze.”
The cold-air car. (Steve Reyes photo)
The cold-air car
It was also around this time that Johnston signed on with Cragar on a new project, a Funny Car that ran on bottled air that was pressure-fed into the manifold in place of a supercharger.
“It was perfect for me because the Keeling & Clayton thing was more of a weekend-warrior deal where we didn’t go run a lot of national events, so I could do both,” said Johnston. “I wasn’t going to be on tour, so I decided why not?”
According to the May 1974 issue of Drag Racing USA, the system, developed by Bob Keane, fed a mixture of pure alcohol and cold air into the engine through onboard tanks. The car would be fired, do its burnout, and launch on just the alcohol, but the blown system would kick in seamlessly shortly after the launch. Horsepower was advertised at about 2,000 at 30psi of boost, with the boost being scalable up top 45psi.
“There were a lot of advantages to the system,” declared Johnston. “For starters, you didn’t get the kind of detonation you would on nitro. It was a very cool and sophisticated way of spontaneously getting air to engine.”
Other benefits were reduced engine heat (temperatures at the manifold were -10 degrees, which kept the engine and the oil at “warm”); a fuel cost savings of 80 percent (alcohol over nitro); and, of course, the removal of the potential for devastating blower explosions and/or blower belt breakage.
Although the car eventually ran in the 6.90s, it never came to fruition despite extensive testing.
“We rented Irwindale two to three times a week testing,” remembered Johnston. “It had a lot of potential but was just too complicated for the time, and we had no data logging. We had a 35mm camera mounted on the steering wheel to photograph the gauges, but they always came out blurry. If we had a computer system like is available now to manage that whole system, it would have worked, but it was all mechanical.”
Johnston raced with Joe Pisano for three seasons, highlighted by a runner-up finish (below) at the 1977 Cajun Nationals and a Division 7 championship.
Racing with Joe P.
Johnston had no real driving prospects after the cold-air car was shelved, but after veteran handler Sush Matsubara broke a leg (and an arm, in some accounts) in an off-road motorcycle crash, Johnston filled in for him in the Pisano & Matsubara car at the 1975 preseason Winter Classic in Phoenix.
“Joe asked me to fill in for just that one race, but Sush never came back, and Joe was really pleased with what I was doing, so we went on,” recalled Johnston. “We raced together for another couple of years and won the Division 7 championship [in 1977].”
That championship run was not without drama, either. Late in the season, on their way to the Division 7 event at Bonneville Raceway in Salt Lake City, their tow rig blew the radiator outside of Las Vegas.
“We limped the truck to the only shop around, but the guy told us it was going to be a day or two before they could get us a radiator,” Johnston remembered. “Joe got on the phone and found this guy who had a car, and Joe made arrangements for me to drive his car. We called a cab, and Gary Slusser and I took a cab to the airport and flew to Salt Lake City.”
The guy was Rich McMichaels, a little-known racer from Salt Lake City, who owned the Pink Chablis Vega.
“I don’t remember the details — if he was new to the car or hadn’t run it much — but it had never even been in the sixes before,” said Johnston. “We put our tune-up in it and got it qualified and got some points and even ran in the sixes [6.97]. We lost in the first round, but we still won the division championship.”
Other highlights for the team were a runner-up, to Johnny White, at the Cajun Nationals in 1977 and a career-high eighth-place finish for Johnston in 1976. (It’s rather ironic that Johnston’s three runner-ups were to drivers — Castronovo, Fullerton, and White — who won their only national event against him.)
At the 1972 National Challenge in Tulsa, suffered a brief but intense fire in round one. “We burned a piston and the engine laid over in the lights,” he recalled. “I don’t remember if it put a rod out or not, but it got going pretty good. It burned all of the stitching out of my gloves; when I finally got out, I didn’t even have to pull them off; they just fell off.”
Hanging it up
Johnston got out of the game in 1978 and was replaced in the Pisano car by Pat Foster.
“I’d gotten married and was expecting a son and had started a business,” he explained. “I just felt it was time. I was always a hired driver, never owned my own car. Maybe if I did, I would have stayed longer, but being a hired guy was always up and down and then got down to just being a weekend-warrior thing, not even on tour. I looked at the future, and there were no big sponsorships out there. It seemed like maybe it was just going to be a dead end for me.”
Johnston’s business, a manufacturer for aerospace and defense with customers such as Boeing and Northrop, was a huge success, and he retired last September and lives in Anaheim Hills, Calif. Just don’t expect to see him at a drag race anytime soon.
“I haven’t even picked up a drag racing publication in probably 20 years and haven’t really even been in touch with most of the people I raced with since then,” he admitted. “I haven’t been to a race since I left. I’m weak. It’s so addictive. I’d probably want to come back again.”
It’s a refrain I’ve heard many times, that old drivers make lousy spectators, but Johnston promised to call me if he ever changes his mind. It would be great for him to be out among today’s heroes, sharing some of those great “what if” stories and reminding everyone of how it used to be. Me, I’m just honored to share his story.
"Big Tommy" Larkin
"Little Tommy" Larkin
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Southern California was home to scores of nitro and gas dragsters, but what are the odds that two guys with the same name would not only be competing in the same area and era, but also in the same class?
That’s the story of the two drag racers who shared the name Tommy Larkin, both from Southern California’s San Fernando Valley, and a tale worth telling today. I certainly had been aware of the duo’s shared name but became acutely aware when one of them passed away in late 2011 and it came time to write his obituary. There was, as could be expected, a bit of confusion in the drag racing community. Was this “Big Tommy,” the former Top Gas national record holder who later raced in Top Fuel, or was this “Little Tommy,” who raced primarily in Top Gas?
It was, in fact, “Little Tommy” who had passed, and there was confusion on websites and message boards, with people accidentally posting photos of “Big Tommy’s” car with their condolences, which was met with a fair bit of consternation and disappointment in the “Big Tommy” camp.
The confusion continued to rear its head recently when Trevor Larkin, “Little Tommy’s” son, came to a bit of prominence as the stunt driver for Richard Blake’s Tom McEwen character in the Snake & Mongoose movie and was recognized in some magazine articles as just "son of the late Tommy Larkin," leading to more confusion and concern among longtime friends of "Big Tommy" (the better known of the two), who thought he may have passed.
Not long ago, “Big Tommy” reached out to me about the confusion that still seems to exist and asked for my help in setting the record straight. “Little Tommy” isn’t around to share his side of the story, but my longtime friend and fellow writing buddy, Dave Wallace Jr., was neighbors and school chums with him, and I have become casual friends with Trevor the last few years, and both were able to fill in some of the blanks on his side.
Not only were their names the same, but, ironically, both also lived on Blythe Street (“Big Tommy” in North Hollywood, “Little Tommy” in Van Nuys, separated by Van Nuys Boulevard), and “Big Tommy’s” mail carrier was Dave Wallace Sr., who worked at San Fernando Raceway and had two sons (Dave Jr. and Sky) who would follow him into the business.
Recalled Wallace Jr., “ ‘Little Tom’ started riding out to Fernando with my dad, brother, and me after 8:30 Sunday Mass at Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church as a kid of, maybe, 12-13 (one grade behind me). His dad had died young, and his mom said he loved cars and wondered whether he might join us sometime. He showed up that first Sunday with a bag lunch -- and just about every Sunday thereafter.”
“Big Tommy” remembers Wallace Sr. bringing “Little Tommy” to his house to meet the driving hero who shared his name. They were born 10 years apart, so at that age (12 to 22), it was a big gap, and it was “Big Tommy” who gave “Little Tommy” his nickname (and, thus, his own nickname).
“He was a good kid who needed a father figure,” recalled Larkin. “We were close. He was like a son to me.”
“ ‘Little Tom' became his gofer and biggest fan,” recalled Wallace. “I'd go so far as to say that ‘Big Tom’ was ‘Little Tom's’ idol.”
There was a lot to idolize in “Big Tom.”
After cutting his teeth in stockers and gassers at San Fernando, he became one of the area’s best Top Gas racers who won a lot of local Top Gas meets (and even some Top Fuel meets with a little nitro in the tank) and set the NHRA Top Gas national record on four occasions between April 1966 and May 1967, including with the first sub-eight-second mark, a 7.98 at Fremont Raceway that he quickly lowered to 7.72 at Carlsbad Raceway. He also says he ran Top Gas’ first 200-mph speed, a claim usually made by John Peters’ Freight Train team.
Jimmy Scott, who went on to become a successful and national-event-winning driver in NHRA Pro Comp action with partner Al Weiss in the 1970s, was the announcer then at San Fernando and remembers “Big Tommy’s” efforts well.
“He was always a serious player,” remembered Scott. “He did real well at San Fernando and down at Long Beach [Lions Drag Strip] as I remember. He was right there every week fighting it out with guys like Peters and Nye Frank and the Freight Train, George Boltoff, and Adams & Rasmussen.”
Larkin made the jump to Top Fuel “a little too soon” in 1968, going from the top of the heap in the gas classes to a weekly struggle with the established nitro teams of the era, initially with his former Top Gas chassis but later with Top Fuel pipe. One of his biggest triumphs came in Las Vegas, at the Stardust National Open, where he defeated, among others, legendary Don Garlits. After getting badly burned in an oil fire in Dallas at the 1969 NHRA World Finals, Larkin, like everyone else, later made the switch to a rear-engine car with a trick piece that was Don Long’s first rear-engine dragster. At the same time, Larkin also was running Air-Lock, a supercharger business that was the first to introduce Teflon strips to the blower rotors.
A divorce and a dispute with the IRS ultimately led him to get out of the driving business, but he continued to lend his expertise to others, including his young fan, “Little Tommy,” with whom he briefly partnered in 1973.
By this time, “Little Tommy” had been trying to make a name for himself (unfortunately for him, much less successfully than his mentor) driving a number of cars. At one point, he got a tryout as the No. 2 car on the Weiss & Scott team (Larkin’s chassis and Weiss’ blown gas engine), but that only lasted a few races. Larkin also had run his chassis before that with one of Scott’s injected engines as well for a short time before they, too, parted company.
In 1973, the two Larkins reunited briefly with Salt Lake City-based racer Mike Carson on his Integrator dragster. “Little Tommy” licensed at Orange County Int’l Raceway in the Larkin, Carson & Larson dragster, and the trio ran several races before it split up over a financial disagreement.
Although “Little Tommy” stopped driving in 1980 when Trevor was born, he remained active in the sport, working for NHRA souvenir vendor Sport Service (now MainGate), which led him to launch his own sportswear company, L&R Apparel, with Spider Razon.
When “Little Tommy” was diagnosed with cancer, he and his son decided to build a father-son project car, a re-creation of one of his injected Top Gas cars, that they could display and take to Cacklefests. They decided to bring back the car, originally powered by a Chrysler, with Chevy power on nitro as one of the few Chevy-engine cars doing the Cacklefest tours.
“Right now, it’s just a cackle car; I’m thinking of running it as a nitro car to maybe run some exhibition match race deals like they do with the Winged Express fuel altered,” said Trevor. “I’m just interested in keeping my dad’s name out there.”
After his father died, Trevor made a memorable push start at the 2012 March Meet, which led to bigger things. At that race, he met the producers of the Snake & Mongoose movie, who were scouting locations and cars for the film. Trevor, who has a background in Hollywood as a set dresser, most recently on the popular show Sons of Anarchy, hit it off right away with them, which led to his role as the stunt driver as well as set dresser and consultant.
You can understand where the confusion with the two Tommy Larkins might have begun and how it was perpetuated, but I hope this sets the record a little straighter. Wallace says he can certainly understand how the Larkin/Larkin confusion feels; when Dave Sr. passed away in 2011, some in our business who knew Dave Jr. only as Dave Wallace thought we had lost him. I can certainly empathize with identity confusion and the way it can make your head spin -- ND Assistant Photo Editor Jerry Foss is constantly being "recognized" as me (even though I'm clearly way better looking), and to this day, people still get me and fellow drag journalist Phil Elliott confused (even though I'm also clearly better looking than him, too).
The case of the two Tommy Larkins may seem trivial to some -- it’s not like this was a case of having two Don Prudhommes -- but in the hearts and memories of both families, the legacy of each still is important.
Bobby Vodnik’s first serious ride was this B/Gas dragster that he campaigned with Larry Reimer and his uncle, Jim DeVos.
Vodnik at the wheel of the Speed Sport dragster in San Gabriel, Calif.
Although Bobby Vodnik’s lasting legacy will always include his ’63 Indy win in the Hirata & Hobbs car, in which he upset highly favored Don Garlits in the final round, he certainly had a memorable career before and after that, including time under the mentorship of legendary “Golden Greek,” fellow Chicagoan Chris Karamesines.
Vodnik began his racing career with a 354 Hemi-powered B/Gas dragster with Larry Reimer and his uncle, Jim Devos, and made the move to Top Fuel in 1960 when Joe Bush, of Speed Sport Automotive fame, offered the blown fuel Chrysler he had been supplying to a former partner’s Fuel Coupe. Vodnik and Reimer had been splitting wheel time, but it was decided that Vodnik, who was still in high school and trying to fit studies between his racing, would be the driver of the new entry.
The team ran together through the middle of the 1962 season, including a trip west to the March Meet as part of an event in Oswego, Ill., where 20 cars from the Midwest received money to help with expenses for the trip to the West Coast. Although they lost in round one due to a broken blower-drive chain, the following weekend they won Top Eliminator in Tucson, Ariz., beating the Speed Sport team’s dragster in the final. Later that year, Lyle Fisher brought both the Speed Sport roadster and the Speed Sport dragster to Chicago and offered Vodnik the seat in the dragster, and Vodnik moved his base to Tucson.
During the holiday season of 1962, Vodnik ran out of funds and hitched a ride home with “the Greek” and ace wrench Don Maynard, driving through a raging snowstorm from Kansas City, Mo., back to Chicago. When they got there, there was a foot and a half of snow on the ground, and suddenly warm Tucson looked pretty good. Vodnik wrangled a ride in Gene Lang’s dragster for the 1963 AHRA Winternationals in Phoenix and rode back down south with Karamesines to run a few match races and then to pick up his new car from Rod Stuckey and prepare it to race in Phoenix. Maynard would follow a few weeks later, riding with Hirata and Hobbs, who also were going to compete at the event.
Karamesines and his young helper ran a few dates out west then headed for Phoenix to meet up with Maynard, but tragedy struck on a remote stretch of Route 66 outside of Amarillo, Texas, when their station wagon, driven by Maynard, collided head-on with that of an elderly couple who had lost control of their vehicle. Maynard and the couple all died in the accident, and both Hirata and Hobbs, who also were riding in the front seat, were seriously injured. Hirata suffered facial injuries and Hobbs a broken back, according to Vodnik.
A grieving Karamesines turned the car over to Stuckey to drive, and he set low e.t. at 7.81 and top speed of the meet at a mind-boggling 214 mph; the next-best run that year was 208 mph.
Vodnik drove for the legendary Chris Karamesines’ Chizler for a short time. Chassis builder Rod Stuckey is pictured center.
In early 1963, Vodnik began a long association with Dick Belfatti, driving his Shadow Top Fueler.
“Watching Rod make that one run taught me a lot about driving,” recalled Vodnik. “He was a clutch slider. He slipped the clutch perfectly, didn’t boil the tires, just smoked them lightly, and the car really hauled. Stuckey had already promised his wife he would never drive again, so he didn’t even show up to run eliminations, and we were disqualified.”
Karamesines also tried to book his car with Vodnik driving but found few takers for the car with “a nobody kid” (in Vodnik’s words) driving — one of the big exceptions being Vodnik sitting in for Karamesines (and winning) a Drag News Top-Ten List challenge in Alton, Ill. — but did introduce Vodnik to Dick Belfatti and to Hirata, both of whom he drove for that year and would have a great impact on Vodnik’s career.
After Hirata had repaired their dragster, which had been heavily damaged in the towing accident, neither he nor Hobbs were up to driving, but they remembered Vodnik. ”I thought the kid was a pretty good driver,” said Hirata. “I gave him a call and asked him if he wanted to drive the car. He said, ‘Oh, yeah!’ “
Vodnik drove for both Belfatti and Hirata & Hobbs that summer and, at one race over the July 4th weekend, drove both cars at U.S. 30, all of which led up to Vodnik’s memorable weekend at the 1963 Nationals, the first race to feature the use of the Christmas Tree. Undoing past stories about the event, Vodnik says he did not have any previous experience on the Tree.
“Actually, I wasn’t even really happy that we were going to Indy,” he recalled. “Originally we were going to an AHRA event in Texas, where the purse was better, and because I got 50 percent of everything we made, that’s where I wanted to go. When we got in the car, they told me they had changed their minds, and we were going to Indy instead. There was no money there; you know what I got for winning Indy? $50 from Hirata, $200 from Wynn’s and a pin with two puny diamond chips, a Craftsman electric impact wrench, and a19-inch Philco portable TV. At that time, all I was interested in was money.
Vodnik in the Indy-winning Hirata & Hobbs dragster.
(Above) Don Garlits is out in front in the 1963 Nationals Top Eliminator final, but his lead was an ill-gotten gain after a red-light start. (Below) The happy winning team.
“Anyway, on the way to the race, we started talking about the Tree being used there, and Hirata was telling me he’d read an article that it takes a half-second for your arm or hand to react to when you tell it to do something. Well, the lights were half a second apart, so I went up there and watched the Christmas Tree, and on every class or practice run, I’d leave on different stages of the last yellow light. I found out you can’t leave when the light is still coming on or you’ll red-light. You had to wait until the last bulb was bright yellow and just beginning to turn off. I also used yellow World War II aviation goggles that made everything brighter without glare.”
Garlits and his Swamp Rat V had won Saturday’s class title to earn the right to sit out Sunday and face the winner of a field consisting of the cars with low elapsed times set during class racing. They were Gordon Collett (8.50), Pete Robinson, (8.54), Vodnik, (8.70), John Kranenberg (8.73), Tony Nancy (8.79), Joe Schubeck (8.81), and Connie Kalitta, (8.82 seconds), and the final boiled down to Vodnik and Kalitta. After a near-even launch, Vodnik pulled ahead to win a super-tight race in which both ran 8.59.
Although he had won class, Garlits had been experiencing a mysterious vibration (that finally was traced to loose flywheel bolts) and had run a best of 8.64 and an average for six runs of 8.70. Vodnik, meanwhile, had improved from his qualifying pace to run 8.61 and a pair of 8.59s Sunday, despite nursing a wounded piston.
Vodnik also confided to me another tactic that helped him reach the final: choosing to line the car up outside what was becoming a bit of an oily groove. “Back then, every car dropped a few drops of oil, and when you have 1,000 cars down there three to six times a day, it adds up. So when I lined up, I almost had the front tire on the white line on the outside of the lane. The traction was better out there. When everyone else was spinning, I was moving when the clutch dropped.”
Vodnik admits that the team had plenty of inspiration to beat Garlits in the final, some stoked by “Big Daddy” but some external.
“Kenny [Hirata] had just gotten into a fight with Speed Sport Oil because they wanted him to pay for the oil even though we were in the final,” he remembers. “Then Garlits walks up and starts trying to get in my head, but he doesn’t realize I’m already pissed off over the oil deal. He asks me how I’m going to leave on the light. I just looked at him and said, ‘Don, first, I don’t care about winning the race; there’s no money here. No. 2, I’ve been around “the Greek” too long to let you bother me; and No. 3, when I get on the line and let the clutch out, that’s exactly when I’m going to leave.’ He just walked away. Hirata, who was working under the engine changing the oil, almost died laughing, but I was serious.”
Garlits, needing to make up about a tenth on the Tree, did what any driver would do, trying to shave the Tree as close as he could in the final but drew a red-light start. Vodnik made it official with an 8.62, 174.75-mph pass to Garlits’ invalidated 8.65, 177.26, but even Vodnik didn’t know he’d won.
“I didn’t know he red-lighted,” Vodnik admitted. “I went over and congratulated him, and he said, 'I think I red-lighted.’ It didn’t really sink in. Later on, I realized how big a deal it was. It made for good bookings.”
As to any potential hard feelings between him and Garlits over the stunning upset, Vodnik theorized, “I don’t think he hated me as much as he hated himself.”
In 1966, Vodnik drove The Guzzler Top Fueler and won the Drag News Invitational. He’s [pictured with, from left, Don Mattison, Bud Roche, Gail Czarnowski, Harold Brewer, and Fred Brewer.
In 1964, Hobbs returned to driving their car, and Vodnik drove the Masters & Richter car at the beginning of 1964 while Belfatti awaited delivery of a new car that was to be a clone of Karamesines' Stuckey-built car but built by Fred Allen. The new car was impressive immediately; Vodnik set the first sub-eight-second NHRA national record with a 7.96 at Cecil County in Maryland. They raced together through the end of the 1965 season, when Vodnik married his wife, Sarah. In 1966, he partnered with Don Mattison and Bud Roche on The Guzzler fueler and won the Drag News Invitational event at U.S. 30 Dragway. The birth of his daughter in August led Vodnik to take a break from racing — during which time he was replaced in The Guzzler — but he did compete at Indy in Gordon Collett’s car, with which he reached the semifinals before a warped flywheel ended his day just short of more Indy glory.
With his family responsibilities and a new job outside of racing that required six days a week, Vodnik raced only occasionally in 1967, driving Hirata’s new Hemi–powered gas dragster until that was no longer possible, and he retired from competition.
“I just couldn’t get the time off to race anymore, so I forgot about it and stayed away from it for several years because I didn’t want to get tempted to go back to driving,” he said. “A lot of guys just can’t resist.”
I appreciate the time that Vodnik spent with me on the phone as well as the use of many of the photos pictured above. He's certainly one of the many guys I've always been curious about due to his interesting place in Indy lore.
The response to my column about the Cassidy brothers was impressively strong, as the brothers, unknown to some west of the Mississippi, are still fondly remembered by fans and fellow racers, who submitted some thoughts and photos, which I shared with former team member Franklin Amiano, who had a story to go with almost every one.
Bill Warburton, who raced against the Cassidys in Pro Comp with his Brewmasters A/FD, sent along the photo at right, which shows Les Cassidy defeating him in the first round at the 1974 Summernationals. “This one still hurts,” he joked. “We qualified in the top half of the field, but I ‘black tracked’ the tires all the way down the track due to the usual hot and humid weather that was always present at the Summernationals."
Remembers Amiano, “That was the race that rained during qualifying. Lester and Dale Hall were the next pair up after the rain stopped. Les went out on his burnout, slid off the track, across the wide grass apron that E-town had at the time, and tapped the guardrail with the right rear corner of the Grand Am. He drove back onto the track and backed up, expecting Buster [Couch, chief starter] to shut him off. Instead, Buster waved him in to stage, yelling ‘C'mon Lester, let's go!’ Yup! It was just another day at the office for Lester.”
Mark Platt, who began working at racetracks in Texas in the mid-1970s when he was just 13 and has met a Who’s Who of the sport over the years, got to meet the Cassidys, too.
Chuck Muller sent me a link to some of his old Cassidy brothers photos, and I love this one, which shows just how narrow that old cattle trailer was. That license plate is also, well, um, pretty interesting ...
“I was fortunate to meet the Cassidy Bros. in 1978 in Atlanta. I was working pit parking control that day, and the Cassidys showed up late, and there wasn't much space for them to park, but we managed to get them a spot. They were so very nice and appreciative of how we accommodated them. They made the show on their first qualifying pass with ease! You mentioned that they hauled their Funny Car in a bus; well, at this race they showed up with a trailer that, at some point in time, was a horse trailer. They had converted the trailer, and it had a roof, but the sides were open and still had the side bars like a horse trailer does. The car fit really tight and barely had enough room to squeeze by on the sides. They could only lift the body so high in order to climb into the car to unload it. Needless to say it worked and makes me remember the good old days when everyone paid for everything out of pocket.”
“There are stories behind every story when John and Les were involved,” replied Amiano. “The reason they were late getting into Atlanta was because they stopped to help Dale Pulde. Pulde had smoked the transmission out of his crew cab and was stuck a few miles from the track. So Johnny dropped the horse trailer (actually a cattle trailer), hooked up to Pulde's trailer, and towed it into the track then went back and got the cattle trailer. Johnny bought the cattle trailer from our friend in Ohio, Bob Larimore. One night, we pulled into a service area somewhere, and the pump jockey asked Lester ‘How many horses are you hauling?’ Les told him ‘On a good day, maybe 2,000,’ and walked away. I heard the guy mutter under his breath ‘They must be awful small ... ’ “
I also heard from Tim Anderson, who some of you may know as the general manager at Racepak. “The Cassidy Bros. story brought back great memories,” he wrote. “I grew up in Bristol and remember watching them numerous times. They were always one of my favorite teams as Les would jump out of the car as soon as it rolled to a stop in the pits and start thrashing without taking off his fire pants and jacket.”
I can’t mention everyone who wrote in to share their appreciation of the team’s efforts, but it’s great that even a smaller team, usually far from the national event spotlight, can be so fondly remembered by so many, and I’m glad that we all have a place like this to do it.