Bill Crites: Gone but never forgottenTuesday, December 30, 2008
Posted by: Phil Burgess

This photo, of me and Bill at Griffith Park's Travel Town, tells you all you need to know about the big kid we all loved.

Me and Crites, Montreal 1986. As I recall, he handed his camera to some stranger standing nearby and asked him to snap this shot.

You could say that Bill Crites left a lasting impression on me.

Bill Crites was the only 68-year-old teenager I knew, and now he's gone. We lost National DRAGSTER's original court jester today of a suspected heart attack, and somehow the world won’t be the same place without him.

Most of you didn't know him and probably don’t have much reason to even blink about his passing, but those whose lives William A. Crites touched won’t soon forget him.

Bill Crites never met a person he couldn't make laugh or at least grimace. His inventiveness in getting a rise out of people knew no bounds, and his legendary antics while a member of the ND staff have been resounding through the hallways as long as I have worked here.

Tales abound of the road trips he used to make with Associate Editor John Jodauga and others, driving the souvenir issues of ND cross-country to the national events from our printer here in California. It didn't take more than five miles down any road with Crites to leave you with a tale worth telling the following day – if you survived.

Crites – I can't remember many people who just called him Bill – was here when I got here, in 1982, and worked alongside another of my late, great departed friends, Leslie Lovett, to skillfully chronicle, through the lenses of their cameras, the cars and stars of the NHRA. Crites also served as art director and production manager at various times in those early days, and you could always count on Crites to keep the pressure from getting to us on those long nights working on the paper.

In my formative years on the staff, traveling to a national event with Leslie and with Crites were two completely different experiences. Leslie would mentor me, teaching me his photographic tricks and introducing me to the thousands of racers who admired and respected him so that I might be able to do my job better. Crites mostly was interested in how good a time he could show you or how much he could make you laugh.

Crites and Lovett were like oil and water, or more like gasoline and fire sometimes. Crites had a special knack of getting under Lovett's skin like no one else could. I well remember sitting around a table at a local restaurant – the entire editorial and photo staff routinely would lunch together back in those days – and Crites was salting up his food. Lovett made the mistake of telling him that he ought to use salt in moderation, whereupon Crites immediately twisted off the top of the salt shaker and poured its entire contents into his mouth. I've seen him do the same thing with ketchup and hot sauce. The man had a stomach of cast iron.

Lovett, an avid fisherman, also made the fateful mistake on one trip to point out the large number of bass-fishing boats in driveways on a trip to Gainesville. For the next 30 miles, Crites pointed out every single boat they passed. "Bass boat ... bass boat ... bass boat" for miles and miles. I couldn't hear that story enough times.

And who could forget the red-eye flight to Indy out of LAX one Wednesday night in the mid-1980s? As the flight attendants dimmed the cabin lights so that some of us might catch some much-needed shut-eye, Crites let out a blood-curdling scream. Lights on, red faces for the ND staff, and a perma-grin plastered on Crites' face.

As I'm overcome with the loss of my good friend, I can’t even begin to think of all the stories about him that have been told and retold to new DRAGSTER staffers who joined the team after Bill left here in 1998. He was a semi-frequent visitor over the years; I saw him just a few weeks ago. We shared some laughs, talking about the good old days at the 7-Eleven by the North Hollywood headquarters where we poured endless quarters into the Burgertime video game (here's irony for you; I played Burgertime for the first time in decades just two days ago after finding an online version of it and thought about Crites the whole time and how he loved to mimic the game's soundtrack). He told me that he still was playing softball – the guy could hit the ball a mile and still get around the base paths and the field despite being Social Security-eligible – and that was the last time I'll see him. The guy photographed my wedding for next to nothing, and now all I have left are memories and photos.

Cindy Gibbs-Arias, whose famous father, Steve, knew Crites from way back in eighth grade and probably could tell better Crites stories than I can, wrote me to say that they had spent the day with him yesterday. "He left here at 8, grouchy as ever, but lovable as always," she wrote.

I spoke to Bill's younger brother, Ken, with whom Bill had lived the last six years, to share my private thoughts with him about what Bill had meant to me.

"He was a pain in the ass," he managed to say through tears. "It's like [Steve] Gibbs said, 'Sometimes you wanted to slap him, and other times you wanted to hug him.' He was unique. He was Bill. God, I'm gonna miss him."

After Teresa Long called to tell me the sad news this afternoon, I made some calls and dropped some e-mails to people I knew would want to know – his good pal Tom McEwen, former ND Editor Bill Holland, Dawn Mazi-Hovsepian, fellow photogs Dave Kommel and Tom Schiltz (who earlier this year had sent me the great pic of Crites and the "Mickeymatic" camera on the starting line at Indy in 1986).

"I used to joke that Bill was my fourth child," Kommel said via e-mail. "When my kids were much younger, Bill would come over and sit on the couch and watch cartoons with them for hours, every bit as engrossed as they were."

Crites found the humor in everyday life. I remember well his penchant for honking at strangers just to wave to them. He and I always buddied up to cover the Montreal race back in the 1980s, and, in the long drive through countryside from the hotel to the racetrack, he'd honk at farmers, at cows, at vacant houses. And heaven forbid you accidentally said the word "wheel" because Crites delighted in the game he called "Get a Wheel," which was to put two tires into the median or side of the road. My knuckles are still white.

It was also on one of those Canadian trips that Crites, an avid player of sports, accidentally crowned me on the left eyebrow with a racquetball racket to the tune of three stitches. I still have the scar, and I know that every time I look at it in the mirror from here on, I'll think of him. Like the impression he left on me in so many other ways, it's part of me.

Godspeed, pal.

The Re-gifter and the Ghost of Columns PastThursday, December 25, 2008
Posted by: Phil Burgess

It's Christmas day and I just unwrapped all my presents, and even though you guys didn’t get me anything (again), I'm still in the giving mood. Okay, so maybe this is more like the ultimate regifting – giving you a present I've already given you -- but at least I made it by hand for you.

Below is a list of some or my favorite or otherwise noteworthy DRAGSTER Insider columns among the more than 200 I've written since July 2007. Passages in italics are from the original column; the rest are my current eggnog-induced comments.

The idea to rewrap these babies is two-fold: First, well. It's the holiday season and even the Insider needs a break now and then (besides, I'm pulling this together Christmas Eve and I guess it's time to start my shopping, wouldn’t you say?) Second, the column has gained A LOT of new readers over the last six months or so, and I realize that, at five entries per page, people would have to do a lot of "Next Page"-clicking to find some of the buried treasure that goes back more than a year.

Think of it as part Greatest Hits, part timesaver. And don't say I never gave you anything.

(Special holiday gift if you act now!!!! Here's my stocking stuffer to you, a little Windows trick I picked up. If you are using an Internet Explorer 7, Firefox, or Google Chrome browsers instead of opening each link below, reading the story, then hitting your Back button, didja know that you can open multiple stories from the same Web page by clicking on the link with your middle mouse button (as opposed to the left button)? Try it out. That way you can first scroll through all of the offerings below, middle-clicking on the ones that interest you as you go along, then go back and read them on the newly-opened tabs. Cool, eh?)

Welcome to the National DRAGSTER blog, er, I mean column (July 23, 2007)

What, another blog? No, not exactly. Even though all of the cool kids are doing it and it’s the trend that’s sweeping the nation, I’m going to resist calling this new column a blog.

The words and the column that started it all launched, with this swell group photo of the ND staff -- with yours truly front and center flanked on my left (your right) by the BossLady, Adriane Ridder, and Director of Advertising Jeff Morton and on my right by Photo Editor Teresa Long and Production Manager Matt Hurd – and my manifesto of where I would be driving this column, which originally (and rather unimaginatively) was called Inside National DRAGSTER.

Although the outline for this column is still a little sketchy in my mind, I hope to deliver here, on a fairly regular basis, a lot of different things. You might read about the stories the staff is working on for the next and future issues or background on how the whole issue comes together, and you might become privy to cool insider information or “listen in” on some of the phone calls we make and receive each day as we hunt down the news.

Considering what this column has become, oh, man, that's a riot, ain't it?

It's not like I got into the editorial driver's seat without a destination in mind but more like I decided I would take a drive to work and came across a signpost to the beach and went there instead.

Anyway, this column gives you a bit of background info on the schedule for how National DRAGSTER is produced each week, which I think is pretty cool.

Tools of the trade (August 08, 2007)

They say that a mechanic is only as good as his tools -- and by “they” I probably mean the tool companies, because I reckon Alan Johnson could get a fuel dragster to run 4.50s with a Swiss Army knife and some baling wire -- and by the same line of reasoning, the right tools in the right hands mean everything when you’re a drag racing reporter.

Another "Insider National DRAGSTER"-themed article but one that was really well  received. In it I detailed some of the research tools we use and some of the reference sources the reporters at ND use to write our stories every week.

There's also a cool – and I believe the first – photo of the ND "morgue," as we call it in the newspaper biz (which most of the rest of you would call a library), showing Marc Gewertz and the wall to wall shelves the house pretty much every issue of ND ever printed.

It's the little things I miss ... (Sept. 3, 2007 )

Over the years, this job has caused me to miss a lot of dinners, some birthdays, a few family gatherings, and a couple of vacations, but this one really hurt. I love the U.S. Nationals; what serious drag racing fan doesn't? But yesterday, when my phone rang at 1 o'clock in the afternoon, in the midst of the Pro session, for an instant I hated that I was here.

A quick little blog, written at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals while we were waiting for final eliminations to begin on Monday morning. The previous day – and three weeks ahead of schedule – my grandson, Trevor (T-Rev to his pals) was born to my daughter, Amanda. And I missed it. I remember it like it was yesterday, the call from home and the frustration of not being there to help coach her through it and tell her how proud I was of her. I think I cried more than Trevor that night.

This issue is not the bomb (Thursday, Sept. 6, 2007)

There we were, minding our business on a quiet Thursday afternoon after the U.S. Nationals when the cops came busting through the door. Well, actually mi compadre, current Managing Editor Juan Torres, walked them in. I was sure they were there to ask me to bail my speed-crazed son out of jail or something, but, no, apparently someone had called in a bomb threat to the building that we share with several other tenants, among them an insurance company and a dentist, so one could surely understand the thought process at work there.

Anyway, it was an interesting diversion and emblematic of the kind of stuff you just can't make up to put in a column.

The 5 Ws: The where, what, when, and why of Who (Sept.13, 2007)

"Hi, my name is Marvin Graham. You might not remember me, but I used to race in Top Fuel."

It took every ounce of willpower I could muster not to respond with "Who?"

Of course, he would have said "Exactly," and we would have launched into the drag racing version of Abbott & Costello's famed "Who's on first?" routine.

This is the veritable "signpost in the road" that carried this column in a new direction. Response to this column, about former U.S. Nationals Top Fuel champ Marvin Graham, was immediate and plentiful. I told the tale of his U.S. Nationals win in detail and offered up some historic photos, and kind of got into the mood to tell some of the sport's great stories and introduce some of its great characters in a fashion that I hadn’t seen before, which is kind of where the "stories behind the stories" motto came from.

Readers enjoyed the history lesson told in a conversational tone, and I wasn't about to be the kind of writer who strikes gold then goes off looking for more in a different location. I had tapped into a rich vein of nostalgia among the readers, a longing, if you will, from those who remember those days and those people now resigned to the history pages, and it was my desire to mine it, to unearth the golden nuggets, shine them up, and show them off to everyone, from the grizzled racers and fans who witnessed it firsthand to those newcomers eager to know how it used to be.

It also set the course for what has become another column trademark, the follow-up articles that feature remembrances and additional information and comments from the readers that have become as crucial to this column's success as my own meanderings.

Hurry back, Superman (Sept. 23, 2007)

If the Marvin Graham article was the launch in a new direction, then this article surely was when the first stage of the clutch hit hard. I wrote this article on my home computer late in the night after John Force was injured in Dallas. It just kind of poured out of, everything I thought and admired about the man, and it hit the right note with the readers. More than 30,000 people read it the next day and the hits just kept growing as it was cross-linked from other sites.

It's one of the articles in this column of which I am most proud, and also the one that received the most attention, from other media and from Force. Suddenly, everyone was calling Force "Superman," and eventually it kind of got to him, because he was feeling very, very human at the time. I heard they read it to Force in the hospital and he was very pleased, but I think he actually began to wish I'd never written it. Being Superman means filling some big shoes … but, it my opinion, he did and forever will have a giant S on his chest.

Feedback and an outpouring of love from his fans filled many, many columns over the next couple of months, and I was more than happy to give them the place to do it. See also, The Force is strong with this one ... (Oct. 11, 2007)

'Now he belongs to the ages' (Oct. 3, 2007)

Not to overstate the drama, but Wally's passing is going to be one of the memories where I say, "I remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news." Not to equate it one way or the other with 9/11 or Elvis dying, but I will remember it with those kind of things.

I know I will never forget the day that Wally Parks died. The man meant a lot to a lot of people, and I was certainly among them. This is the story of that day, and of the work we poured into a special tribute issue for Wally.

Hail to the champs! (Nov. 16, 2007)

The big news on this wasn't so much that the National DRAGSTER staff again won the team championship at the twice-yearly NHRA Staff Drags as much as it was about the special guest we had.

"Phil, it's Force."

"Hey John, what's up?"

"I'm driving, man!"

"Next year?"

"No, right now. I'm on the freeway in my truck."

Force, out of his mind with rehab boredom, had snuck out of the shop, hopped into his Ford truck, and took off, and, well, since he was out and about, I invited him to stop by a place he loves, Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, to come watch us race. I also knew that we could make a little history if we could convince him to make the first pass of his comeback with us, which is exactly what happened.

He turned his ever-present Castrol cap backward and yelled out the window, "Tell Pedregon I'm coming for him," and off he went. It was a very, very special moment. "That was bitchin', really cool," he said.

More than he could ever know …

See you in the glue, friend (Nov. 30, 2007)

My heartfelt farewell to arms to my little buddy and longtime ND writer Todd Veney, who resigned his position at ND to pursue his nitro-racing dreams.

If you've been around ND for any time, you've thrilled to his eloquent phrasing and knowledgeable writing, and after more than 20 years of expertly slinging adjectives and adverbs, he deserved this kind of send-off.

He'd never write a farewell himself (as you can read, he'd rather jump off the Empire State Building), so I had to do it for him. he probably died of embarrassment first, but later told me that he was grateful that his boss thought to much of him.

I spoke to Todd just yesterday, right after he'd found out that he'd lost his job when Roger Burgess suddenly folded R2B2 Racing. So Todd, who recently was promoted to car chief and not works on the car but also was going to do its PR this year, is looking for a job, so if you're looking for a guy who can spin your wrenches and get you some media attention, drop me a line and I'll pass it on to Todd.

Simon Says (Dec. 12, 2007)

One of the really great things about writing this column is the connections it's bridged to the past. I didn’t intend it to be a nostalgic look back at the olds days, but that's where it's going to go every now and then when something tickles my editorial funny bone or opens a window to something I think might be of widespread interest, both to old timers and newcomers. You just never know who's reading the column or who you're going to hear from.

The inspiration for this was Simon Menzies, a former nitro and Alcohol Funny Car driver who had dropped me a line to tell me how much he was enjoying the column, That led to a life story on him and more great follow-ups and feedback. Although the previously mentioned Marvin Graham article gave me the inkling about the nostalgic interests of a large majority of NHRA.com readers, response to this article drove the point home.

A Christmas (Tree) Story (Dec. 19, 2007)

Just in time for Christmas, the story of how drag racing's Christmas Tree came into being and the changes made to it over the years.

Phil's Photo Follies (Dec. 31, 2007)

A dozen of so of my photos – and the stories behind them – from the 1970s and '80s that I found in an old cardboard box. This was part of a late December series of columns that I called Stuff In My Office.

Five Fabulous Favorite Fotos (Jan. 11, 2008)

After showing off some of my photos, I got the bright idea to let some of drag racing's best photographers – guys who do it for a living instead of to complement their writing – show off their finest work. I challenged them to give me their five greatest photos and the stories behind how they composed and shot them. ND's Assistant Photo Editor, Jerry Foss, went first, and since then I've featured a half-dozen others with more on the way. Here are the others: Marc Gewertz; Steve Reyes; former NHRA.com photog Mike Fischbeck, Joel Gelfand; ND artist John Jodauga, meanwhile shared his five favorite drawings.

By the way, this was the last column with the Inside National DRAGSTER title; on Jan. 14, it became the DRAGSTER Insider.

Them are some pretty hot wheels you got there (
Jan. 16, 2008)

The first of two columns that became known among the readers as "Growing up boy," this was my remembrances of what it was like to grow up as a mischievous member of the male sex. The first column started out talking about my Hot Wheels collection but also covered such topics as Cox dragsters and model building and, ahem, model "disassembly."

While Barbie was teaching our sisters which shoes went with which purse, we had a higher calling. It was our civic duty and testosterone calling to also explore the limits on the other end of the vehicle life cycle, conducting secretive experiments on "rapid vehicle disassembly," courtesy of our new friend, the firecracker. We toiled relentlessly to discover the thermodynamic properties of various accelerants such as lighter fluid and, yes, even the glue that first welded the pieces together.

The second column, Growing up boy, the sequel … (Jan. 21, 2008), shared your stories of teenage model mayhem. These are two of my favorite columns, for obvious reasons.

Obsolete skills (March 03, 2008)

The first of a couple of columns on the topic of things that today's drivers don’t need to know how to master that the pilots of old did – dry hops, push starts, etc. --  the column really began to pick up pace with comments and expert opinions offered by past heroes such as Roland Leong, Gordie Bonin, and Rob Bruins, the latter of whom became a fairly regular contributor to these pages.

Welcome back, 'Mr. Everything' (March 7, 2008)

Pat Foster – Funny Car driver, racecar builder and restorer, and all-around swell guy – had been ill for a while when I wrote this column, beginning it thusly:

It was the great American author Mark Twain who wrote, after reading his own obituary in the newspaper, "The reports of my demise are greatly exaggerated."

I'm happy to say that the same can be said for Pat Foster.

Foster was still in the hospital and, as his time behind the wheel came and went before I began to work at National DRAGSTER, I never had a chance to meet him in person, but we aspent a good long time on the phone for a story I wrote for ND, and I talked about it here.

I remember thinking when I wrote it how glad I was for this column as it has given me an excuse to interview those greats from another era whom I never met, and I was glad to have talked to Foster. Little did any of us know after just a few weeks after I wrote this glowing story, "the PF Flyer" would be gone.

History lessons relearned (March 19, 2008)

I wrote this one on the plane home from Gainesville after enjoying (for the zillionth time) another re-read of Bob Post's book, High Performance. Another "story behind the stories" kind of deal, the column talked about the problems the Top Fuel cars were experiencing with their clutches in the time leading up to Don Garlits' career-changing 1970 trans explosion at Lions and, as painful as it was, I publicly joined the growing list of post-modernistic historians watering down the claim heaped upon Garlits in history books of being the father of the rear-engined dragster.

50 years ago in Texas .... (March 28, 2008)

Not long after that Garlits piece, Ed Mabry, half of the famed Hunt & Mabry team that terrorized Texas in the late 1950s and early 1960s with blown and unblown fuel dragsters, sent me a note wanting to know if I'd like to see his photos of Garlits' first trip out west (Texas, in this case) to show his stuff, way back in 1958. The photos were every bit as wondrous as he promised.

Ridge Route Terror tales (April 11, 2008)

Former Top Fuel racer “Nitro Noel” Reese was a crewmember of the famed Warren-Coburn-Miller "Ridge Route Terrors" Top Fuel team and shared some great road stories and behind-the-scenes info on one of my all-time favorite teams.

Racing on the cardboard quarter-mile (April 18, 2008)

As a teenager, I couldn't always get to the track when I wanted to, so I did the next best thing: I staged my own drag races using the infamous Vallco Drag Racing board game. Greg Zyla, who invented the game, sat down for a long interview about the hows and whys of this game, and later sent me a virgin copy to replace the battle-scarred version I had owned since my teens. I recently reciprocated with Zyla, who interviewed me for an article that will appear in the January issue of PRI Magazine that covers, among other topics, the DRAGSTER Insider column.

'The Big Bang' (April 23, 2008)

The incredible shot of the exploding engine leaping from the chassis of Larry Brown's Top Fueler on the top end at Tulsa has captivated fans for years  and after it appeared in this column in Steve Reyes' Five Favorite Fotos, a follow up was definitely in order. I was able to get in touch with Brown, who offered his remembrances of the incident.

The loss of Gaines ... and Beck's 'secret' (April 25, 2008)

More stories behind the stories. After Gaines Markley, who was the car owner for Rob Bruins in his 1979 championship season, died, I did a career-recap kind of story that included a lot of comments from another world champ, Gary Beck, who during the course of the interview debunked the all-but-chiseled-in-stone drag racing history that he was Canadian.

"My professional racing career started in Canada with a Canadian racing team, so I can see why people assumed I was Canadian, but I only lived in Edmonton for three years before we moved to California," he said. "But the part about me being a Canadian was all a hoax. I've had that label for many years and still do. I can keep telling people the truth, but it never ends."

Hopefully it has now.

The Drag-on Lady: Racer, pioneer, mom (April 30, 2008)

The hunt for the "Drag-on Lady," Shirley Shahan took a while but I finally was able to make contact with the gender-busting heroine of the early 1960s Stock wars for an article filled with rich memories and great old photos.

An irrepressible Force (May 05, 2008)

Sometimes John Force just needs to talk, as he did Tuesday after daughter Ashley had won in Atlanta. He picked up the phone in the middle of the night wherever he was, and though he had every right and opportunity to talk about how he had turned another raw rookie into a national event winner, he left me very long, personal, and emotional voice mail. He couldn’t sleep, he said, so he got up, put on his robe and his ever-present Castrol hat, and prefaced his message with the caveat that “this probably won’t make any sense, because it doesn’t make any sense to me … maybe I ate too many pickles for dinner” and continued to talk until the voice-mail-message limit cut him off. Then he called back and talked some more.

Another homage to Force, and, right or wrong, my impressions of a man I've grown close with over the years.

The Bristol rainy-day blog (May 18, 2008)

I've never sat through a longer of more frustrating day of racing than I did at this year's event in Bristol, where on-again, off-again rain delayed the conclusion until well after 10 p.m. We'd fire a pair of cars and it would rain. We'd dry the track and just when it was dry it would rain again. (I, of course, am using the editorial "we"; I personally was not involved with the track drying. As I recall, I was nursing a bout of stomach flu, which made the need to distract myself even more important.)

Sitting in the Bristol tower, I became cruelly amused by what was going on so I started scribbling notes to myself, thinking maybe this could be a Staging Light column for National DRAGSTER. I was, meanwhile, continually updating the NHRA.com home page with the latest weather outlook and, finally, that became too tedious, so I made the best of both situations by writing a continually-updated entry in this column, posting new information as it happened, offering my observations about the milling-around going on, and other silly thoughts. Apparently, you guys really liked it.|

Engineering the Train (May 23, 2008)

Over the decades, the dual-engined Freight Train Top gas dragster has been one of the most revered and loved machines to ever traverse the quarter-mile, and Train "engineer" John Peters sat with me for a very extensive review of the car's history.

Monday at the movies (June 02, 2008)

If you've spent any time at all on YouTube, you know how you can go there with the best intentions to just watch a video, then you start going from "related video" to "related video" and the next thing you look up and the dog is begging to be fed, the kids have gone to sleep, and you need a shave. It's that addicting.

In this column, I saved you the hassle of going to YouTube by pre-loading 16 videos on the page, the best of drag racing stuff that I could find. I put together the details of each video, rated them, and noted why each was worth watching.

Friday the 13th special: the Corvette Curse and other superstitions (June 13, 2008)

Another column that sired many follow-up columns as I traced the drag racing curse of Chevy's famous sports car, from the Beach City Corvette on and looked at other stuff like the color green, peanuts in the pits, and others. It was a natural topic to write about on this day.

They left their hearts in San Fernando (June 20, 2008 )

I never got a chance to go to San Fernando Raceway, but after writing this column about the fabled "Pond," I felt like I had, Dave Wallace was absolutely instrumental in pointing me in the right direction, which led to a great interview with former track manager Harry Hibler. The photos, again, are priceless.

Dry hops in heaven (July 7, 2008)

Written in the wake of the tragic loss of Scott Kalitta, this column, hands-down, generated the deepest and most voluminous response from the readers of this column. I had always heard that when so-and-so had died, how they're probably "up there" right now racing (name any other previously deceased racer), so I took that thought to extreme lengths.

I tried to include every major driving, owning, tuning, announcing, and photographing person I could think of who has left us, and wrapped it into one ginormous piece.

The outpouring of thanks was truly touching to me, especially from the families and friends who were thrilled to see not that their loved one, no matter how long gone or relatively obscure, had been remembered.

In the Mood (July 31, 2008)

Another fine example of how I was very excited to chat with another of my 1970s heroes, Don Moody. The interview was done completely by email as he now lives in Thailand and even his daughter, Darrielle, was amazed that he responded because he had never been one to brag about his accomplishments or even shown any recent desire to relive those memories.

This is a two-fer article as it also includes a recap of the riotous Last Drag Race at Lions Dragstrip, as remembered by Moody, who had low e.t. of the meet but withdrew from competition after the crowd became too, ahem, boisterous.

Superman lives!
(August 20, 2008)

Long before I ever dubbed John Force "Superman" in that Sept. 2007 column, drag racing fans were rooting for "Superman" Jim Nicoll, an almost mythic driver from the 1970s who showed a knack for walking away from incredible accidents like the nationally-television clutch explosion in the Top Fuel final at the 1970 U.S. Nationals that cut his car in two on Wide World of Sports.

I was able to track down Nicoll, who these days runs a Mexican resort in Puerto Penasco, and we spoke at length on the phone about his career and, in another great "story behind the stories" moment, he told me that he hadn’t gained his famous nickname as the result of surviving accidents as every major drag racing magazine has reported for decades, but for first single-handedly whupping on an a couple of drunks who interrupted a game of billiards.

I'm also quite proud of the photo illustration at right, which I took from Jim Kelly's memorable black and white photo of Nicoll. Using PhotoShop, I colorized Nicoll, then stuck him in front of another Superman logo and some fancy color effects.

And the winner is ... (Sept. 05, 2008)

All summer long, readers of this column helped decide the favorite racecar of all time. We worked our way through seven categories of cars over varying decades before the tone-Woods-Cook Willys was declared the winner. A few days later, I had a nice interview with Leonard Woods, son of team co-founder Tim Woods, for this column: Stone, Woods & Cook: From the inside (Sept. 08, 2008)

They didn't call him 'Wild Bill' for no reason (Sept. 15, 2008)

Another excuse to interview a '70s hero of mine and many SoCal fans, "Wild Bill" Shrewsberry. He was even harder to find than Shahan, but we eventually tracked down the famed driver of the L.A. Dart wheelstander and gave me plenty of great stuff for this column.

My Bakersfield of Dreams (Oct. 14, 2008)

Recounts my first trip to the California Hot Rod Reunion in Bakersfield, and the incredible nostalgic feelings I experienced. I had put off going to the thing for 16 years, thinking there was no way it could possibly live up to the hype. I was wrong.

Welcome to OCIR Week! Today: The '83 season (Oct.27, 2008)

I declared the week of Oct. 27 "OCIR Week" as it marked the 25th anniversary of the closing of Orange County Int'l Raceway, where I had spent a lot of my teenage and early-20 years. This first installment covers the entire Pro racing season of the track's final year, in 1983, with results from every major match race the track held that year.

After that, on the actual 25th anniversary of the track's closing, Oct. 29, I published OCIR's Last Drag Race: The day the music died, combining my personal observations and other first-hand accounts of that sad night when Southern California lost its final fulltime dragstrip.

Two days later, and after weeks of research, I posted what I consider to be the definitive history of OCIR, The rise and fall of Orange County Int'l Raceway from its earliest planning stages through various owners all the way up to the bitter end. Calling upon historical documents and first-hand interviews with some of the principals, it's as close to an A to Z story as I can create.

The article ended up with a look at the grounds now, Ghost Track style, tracing the outlines of the old facility and trying to find any little piece of what might be left (which ain't much).

The good guy in the black cowboy hat (Nov.24, 2008)

To any fan who attended SoCal drags, Larry Sutton was our Buster Couch, the no-nonsense starter with a heart of gold. I ran into Sutton at the Hot Rod Reunion where we enjoyed a long chat about all kinds of things and I thought that in the wake of OCIR Week, an in-depth story on the man who ran the Tree there in its final years (as well as at Lions and Irwindale through their respective closings) was long overdue. Sutton did not disappoint, giving me enough material to have filled several columns if I had chosen.


Well, that's it to date. There are some more recent things I'm proud of, such as the Leonard Harris story below and all of the Ghost Track hunting we've been doing, but they’re recent enough for you to browse back to.

And besides, I really have to start my Christmas shopping. There's only six shopping hours to go!

A Munstrously Good TimeMonday, December 22, 2008
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Here's a fun little extended follow up to the Fun with Fotos article that revolves around the '60s TV show The Munsters. Brendan Tobin was among those who chastised me for not remembering that it wasn’t Herman that Grandpa raced at Lions Dragstrip (er, I mean, Mockingbird Heights Drag Strip) in that famous episode, "Hot Rod Herman," that originally aired May 27, 1965.

According to Tobin, Grandpa had to build the coffin-based "Dragula" dragster to win back the infamous Munster Koach that Herman had lost racing "Leadfoot" Baylor, the father of Sandy, one of Eddie's classmates and a local drag racing legend on the show (played by character actor Henry Beckman).

Eddie had bragged that Herman could beat "Leadfoot," and Herman Herman's wife, Lily, begged him not to race, but Herman, dressed for  all the world like Marlon Brando and affecting a New York accent, famously replied,  "I just can't, uh, fight it chick. I, uh, gotta get out there and drag it with the gassers. Otherwise, I might blow my cool."

Grandpa, driving the Dragula, beats Leadfooot, in the Koach, to win the race, but the fun doesn’t end there.

"Leadfoot stole Grandpa's chute and Dragula went up and down the track repeatedly until Herman grabbed the rear bumper and skidded the car to a halt using his giant shoes," recalls Tobin. "It's one of the funniest racing shows ever filmed."

I spent some time to try to find out more about the episode and the cars and, naturally, there are entire Web pages dissociated to these well-remembered vehicles – both built by custom-rodding maven George Barris -- including one that offers specs.

The Munster Koach (two of which were made) was first built in 1964 and cost $18,000 to produce; the second was built in 1985, led by Dick Dean of Barris' original build team. The high cost of the first Koach was probably attributable to the fact that a) the studio only gave Barris 21 days to build it and b) much of the work was very custom and done by hand. The brass radiator and fenders were hand formed and it took 500 hours alone to make the ornate rolled-steel scrollwork.

The Koach, designed by Tom Daniel, was built by Barris' gang from three '27 Model T bodies and was 18 feet long. The 133-inch frame was made by hand and the front end had a dropped axle, split radius rods, and T springs. The paint was Black Spyder Pearl with gold leaf trim (40 hand-rubbed coats!) and the interior was, naturally, "blood red" velvet "coffin liner." Interior goodies included a Muntz stereo tape deck, an electric shoe polisher, a Sony TV, and two antique French telephones. A special Autolite electrical system was needed to make these extras operative.

Power came from a 289 Cobra engine bored to 425 cid and fitted with Jahns high-compression pistons, an Isky cam. Ten -- count 'em, 10! – chrome-plated Stromberg carburetors sat atop a Mickey Thompson "ram thrust log" manifold (though Dean later revealed that "the carbs were phony. There was a 4 barrel carb under the box.") Bobby Barr Racing headers exited the spent gasses. Power was channeled through a four-speed manual transmission. TV Guide actually did some performance tests on the Koach in Jan. 1964 andreported a 0-60 time of 10-flat. Not too scary; no wonder Herman lost.

According to an April 1965 article in Model Car Science magazine, Barris used "an Ansen posi-shift 30-inch stick with four on the floor coupled to a 4:11 rear end for the sporty drive train. A front dago dropped axle and split radius bars held by T springs, and the Z'd frame with Model A springs and Traction Master stabilizers competently take care of any road condition. The wild new M. T. 11-inch racing slicks, mounted on wide-dumped Astro chrome spoke wheels give the Koach plenty of bite off the line."

Dragula also was designed by Daniel and built by Barris, featuring a antique gold fiberglass coffin (from Owens-Corning) trimmed inside with royal purple velvet silk atop a tube frame chassis.  According to an old interview with Dean, who died this past July, four Dragulas were built and the original car hangs from the ceiling in the Planet Hollywood in Atlantic City, N.J. "The first coffin was obtained from the prop shop and was first used in the movie Some Like It Hot," he said. "The next three I got from Mexico as you can't buy them in the States without a dead body."

The Dragula was powered by a 289-cid 350-horse V-8 Mustang with twin 4-barrel carbs feeding a 4-speed stick. Eleven-inch inch Firestone slicks on Reynolds aluminum Rader drag wheels hooked the Dragula, which was steered up front by Speedsport English buggy wire wheels on four-inch Italian tires. (Herman also raced the Dragula in the 1966 film, Munster Go Home, in which the family went to England after inheriting a mansion there.)

Sadly, no big-name dragster drivers were employed for the runs at The Beach; stunt driving was credited to Jerry Summers and Carey Loftin.

You can find a short clip from the episode – just the racing footage – on YouTube here.
Thanks for filling in the blanksThursday, December 18, 2008
Posted by: Phil Burgess

I could have entitled this entry "DRAGSTER Insider readers to the rescue … again" because y'all came through with flying colors following my Fun with Fotos article here a week ago. I had info on some of the pics presented and asked for the DI faithful to fill in the blanks, and you responded with the avalanche below. From the e-mail I get and the all-star list of names I'm told who read my humble bit of biweekly drivel, I bet we cover a vast majority of the history of the sport, which is what makes it so much fun to read (and write).

Okay, your turn, guys …

Fred Fischbach had no problem ID-ing the owner of the blown Austin-Healey as his old friend Norm Cowdrey. "This is from the mid- to late '60s," he wrote. "Norm had the chassis built in San Fernando by a sprint car chassis builder by the name of Rip Erickson. It was powered by a blown small-block, but I don't remember the cubes. The car was an instant NHRA record setter, and as you can see by the picture, a real crowd-pleaser. It was painted at a body shop in the southwest corner of Tony Nancy's complex where Tony lived and had his upholstery shop. The car was a beautiful lime green with large gold metalflake that had been shot up in the air and allowed to settle on it, then clear coated. The whole package was totally awesome.

"Sometimes when there was no race for Norm to go to, he would unbolt the blower and put it on his Corvette – underdriven, of course -- and we'd go tooling around the Valley; no big deal today, but then -- big deal.  Too much fun."

Bill Holland added of the car, "Cowdrey normally did well in one of the eliminator categories at San Fernando Dragway, where the photo was taken. Norm went on to campaign the Blue Fox Camaro Funny Car. He later was involved in a few TAFC deals, one of which was driven to a Wally win at Las Vegas by Rod Alexander ("Wild Bill's" son). Today, Norm plays with vintage road race cars. I chatted with him a few months ago at the races on Coronado Island, where he ran well with an ex-Paul Newman McKee Can-Am car."

Being able to ID a car is one thing, but being able to figure out at which track a photo was taken always requires some skill. Bill Carrell was "99.9 percent sure" that the Shower Power photo was taken at Thompson Drag Raceway in Thompson, Ohio, because of "the trees and their proximity to the track; the signage with roads identified in that area, specifically Ridge Road and Mayfield; I worked there and can tell a shot of that track from almost any angle; and where else but Ohio?"

Dawn Mazi-Hovsepian, Ohio's secondmost famous female Ohioan (behind The Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde and probably just ahead of Rona Veney) not only confirmed for me that it was taken at Thompson but also provided the year (1970) and the photographer (Charles Gilchrist). Said Dawn, "Gilchrist notes: 'The engine, a stout fuel-injected small-block Chevy, was turned around in the chassis and ran through a transfer case to the differential. The driver (Randy Davis) sat in the fiberglass tub (no water). This bathtub was quick, made full passes on the rear wheels at ease, and people loved it.' "

I got a lot of feedback on the three-wheel dragsters along with solid IDs on both. Cliff Morgan and John Pecora wrote to say that the front-engine car belonged to Kenny Ellis, and Steve Gibbs wrote that the rear-engine car was the Cook Bros., Jahns, and Hedges entry driven by Jeff Jahns.

Morgan noted that "Ellis was the most famous with an almost conventional front-motor car, which had a tendency to wheelie down the track, especially in the lights." Added Pecora, "Ken is still at it doing fabrication but is stricken with cancer and is fighting with all he has. This photo, I think, is of the third three-wheeler. I built a complete replica of this car for him and gave it to him and son. His son wants to show it off at various events."

Of the other car, Gibbs reminisced, "One of the things that made the sport so appealing in the '50s and '60s was that you never knew what would show up next. The rules were wide open. [This is ] one of the cars that was nonconforming in just about every aspect. It was a rear-engine sidewinder, three-wheeler, using air jacks (à la Pete Robinson) to launch the car ... all with a fuel-burning small Dodge Hemi. It had a body but was not used much. The car had a short life and crashed at 'the Beach.' Driver Jahns got out of it, but it rearranged his nose. I can't imagine how today's tech guys would react if this car were to show up again."



Bob Post, author of High Performance, the unofficial bible of drag racing historians everywhere, said he believes this is Bill Martin of Palatka, Fla., shown running on the beach in Jacksonville, Fla.,  in 1953. "One of three slingshots I know of that pre-dated [Mickey Thompson's]," he noted. "Martin later became quite a well-known boat designer."

In looking at this picture, Morgan added that the body was probably one of the many that came from a fuel tank from an airplane. "Lots of guys used those tanks to create cars for the dry lakes after World War II, both front- and rear-engined versions, and some found their way to the drags. This car used the front section, and I can see the bottom of the car under the engine. Interesting design, and the car looked 'high tech' for its time, probably 1953-54."

Gibbs also was handy for the ID on this great old photo. "This is the gasser of Dale (he) and Al (her) Kersh, of Modjeska Canyon, Calif. Both are now gone. They were fixtures at SoCal tracks for many years, competing in various brackets, and were truly great people. The interesting thing is that Al was never -- EVER -- dressed any differently. She always looked like she just came from an upscale social event -- classy and in heels."

Byron Stack of Gasser Madness confirmed that this is the Kersh Family A/Gasser. "Memory tells me it was powered by a Mopar wedge motor with homebuilt injection," he wrote. "It was a very cool piece and fun to watch."


Neal Larson of Walla Walla, Wash., worked with early drag racing hero Jack Moss from Amarillo, Texas, so he knew all about this car, the famed Two Much entry.

"The picture was taken around 1961 or 1962," he wrote. "The car's last race was in Hobbs, N.M. We lost one of the engines, so we pulled one out and made a run with it, but the throttle stuck and rolled over; all was well with Jack, but the dragster was a total mess. The roll cage did its job.

"Jack was a member of the Barons Racing team from Amarillo. Find a Hot Rod magazine from September 1957 and look and see the first Two Much and the rest of the team."

The great photo of "Big John" Mazmanian's 'Cuda with four-wheel liftoff in Indy was shot by Larry "Max" Maxwell of L&M Photos according to Norman Blake, a pretty fine lensman in his own right (who promises to send me his Five Favorite Fotos soon; remember that early DI feature?). Also, Bill Burns, in responding to my observation that the car was battle-scarred, wrote, "I’m not positive, but I believe the battle scars are from the famous 'net' at the end of Green Valley Raceway in Texas. There was a big race there the week before Indy one year, and several of the California cars stopped by on their way east. It was the most beautiful Funny Car I had ever seen before its trip over the hill and into the 'net' there." I wrote Bill back and asked why he used quote marks around the word "net" …

Dan Tuttle dropped me a line to say that Noel Black's twin-engine car actually wasn't a Top Fuel car but that it was a Bonneville Streamliner nicknamed the Rhinoceros, in which he was later killed. "Reportedly, the car was well above 400 when it lost its belly pan," he said. "Apparently [this photo] was another test."

Fabed quarter-mile photog Steve Reyes, who shot the pic below right, tells me the unique-looking car was photographed at Sacramento Raceway.

I was able to find mention of the car in "Landspeed Louise" Noeth's book, Bonneville: The Fastest Place on Earth. Here is a picture of the car with bodywork taken by George Callaway. Noeth says the Rhinoceros name came from the body bumps to accommodate the engines.

Drag racing historian Bret Kepner tells me that the car was created by Black and partner Bert Peterson at their B&N Automotive shop and was never designed to be a dragster at all. "It was purely a land-speed record vehicle that because of its bizarre chassis and drivetrain configuration needed extensive testing, and the dragstrip was pretty much the only place to do it," he wrote. "Officially known as Motion 1 but dubbed the Rhinoceros when carrying its full body panels, the car crashed at 382 mph during the SCTA SpeedWeek event at Bonneville in 1970. Black died as a result of the crash."



Bob Nielsen was one of several who wrote to say that the great shot of the exploding Fiat features the Magic Muffler Fiat driven by Jim Miles. "This occurred in 1966," he wrote. "This photo was actually taken by Ron Lahr. What was moderately unique about this photo is the superb timing – parts still coming out the bottom of the engine and the car about to run over the oil pan.

"Jere Alhadeff was positioned a little farther downtrack and caught the same engine explosion milliseconds prior to Ron Lahr’s photo. Alhadeff’s photo shows the car engulfed in the engine explosion flames and the oil pan just starting to depart (it is still immediately under the engine)." I also found that photo on the HAMB forum, as shown here at right.

The original photo also hit home with a reader named Marty, who used to have the pic plastered on his bedroom wall. "I can't believe you have that photo of the guy runnin' over his own crankshaft in the Fiat," he wrote. "I had that hanging in my room as a kid. It's so cool I just laugh like an idiot at it. Do you know if that photo can be bought in a poster form or where it might be found?"

I don’t, but I'm guessing someone out there does. UPDATE! You can buy the pictures over at Dave Wallace's super-swell HotRodNostalgia.com site: Direct link (Thanks, Doug Hayes and Mitzi Vines!)

I had forgotten that Al Kean, a DRAGSTER Insider regular, had taken the famous shot of Don Prudhomme's Hot Wheels 'Cuda on fire and flying through the lights in Seattle and had actually written the details for me that we ran in ND some years ago, so he had that document handy when I asked him for details.

"The event was the second annual Hot Wheels Northwest National Open at Seattle in 1971. Back then, with only five national events (actually eight – PB), these big National Opens were huge. This event had full fields in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock, and Top Gas eliminators, with lots of big names entered. I was attending the event with my brother and sister-in-law as I was two years away from getting my driver's license in B.C.

"Prudhomme had won the previous year’s event (which I had also attended) in Top Fuel, but this year, he was competing in Funny Car. The previous weekend at OCIR, Prudhomme had run the then-quickest Funny Car elapsed time ever at 6.62 seconds. This year, the real drama began in the semifinals when he faced Butch Maas, driving the Hawaiian, owned, of course, by Prudhomme’s old boss, Roland Leong.

"Both cars were loaded up with heavy doses of nitro, and when they launched, they burst several light bulbs on the Christmas Tree! It was the quickest side-by-side Funny Car race in history. The Hawaiian ran a then-great 6.78 only to lose to 'the Snake’s' 6.67 (the second-quickest run in history). The run resulted in a damaged clutch, and the Hawaiian and Whipple & McCulloch teams helped in changing it. The late, great Steve Evans was the announcer that day, and he said on the PA that Prudhomme claimed to be trying to run the first-ever 6.5 in Funny Car history in the final.

"We left our grandstand seats beside the starting line to get closer to the parking lot. We snuck into a very small (but surprisingly empty) VIP grandstand right at the finish line to watch the final rounds. As the event wound down, it was getting very close to the track’s strict 5:30 p.m. curfew. They ran the final round of Top Fuel first because Prudhomme was just pulling into the lanes after his clutch replacement.

"I was taking pictures all day with my dad’s Practica camera with a telephoto lens. This was the first time all weekend that I had an unobstructed shot of the track, and right at the finish line!

Prudhomme was racing Dave Condit in the L.A. Hooker Maverick in the final race of the day. Evans, as always, did a great job pumping up the crowd. After a long, smoky burnout, Prudhomme did a few dry hops over the starting line, and Evans said that they were seconds away from the curfew. I was watching everything through my camera’s viewfinder. The cars staged and launched. I was following the cars, and I thought I saw flames coming out of 'the Snake’s' windows as he neared the finish line. I remember thinking that it must just be glare off something – he couldn’t really be on fire, could he? I kept following the cars and clicked the shutter when they crossed the finish line.

"I then took the camera away from my face and looked downtrack to see Prudhomme’s car, with NO body on it, still in a wheelstand. It was at least 300 feet after the finish line before the car’s front wheels returned to earth. Emergency crews converged on the car. I looked back uptrack to see pieces of the body spread all over the track with fans jumping the fences to get a souvenir. I must admit the body pieces would have been great souvenirs. I saw one guy walking away with almost an entire side of the car that had the intact blue panel with the logos of Hot Wheels, Snake, and so on. My brother said that his eyes actually followed the body as it flew off and up 150 feet into the air before disintegrating as it fell back to earth.

"Prudhomme had won the race at 6.96 to Condit’s 6.98. The race was not that close, though, because Prudhomme broke the finish-line photo cells with the wheelie bars (as you can see in my photo, the rear wheels are also off the ground at the finish line), and Condit did it with the front wheels as normal. In my photo, you can see the front of the L.A. Hooker just entering the picture, a good car length behind.

"I had no idea what I had gotten in the photo. I had to wait several days for the color slides to get developed after we got home. It was pretty exciting to finally see the photo that I had taken. It was also exciting getting all the attention afterwards. The photo was published in Hot Rod magazine, Funny Car Pictorial, SIR programs, etc. Then track manager Bill Donor gave me a photo pass the next year, etc. The photo has also been mentioned in TV shows, over SIR’s PA, etc.

"Prudhomme has been great with me over the years. When I got him to sign a big copy for me, he brought me into his pit, in front of my friends. That certainly made a big impression! When I first brought my son, I got Don to autograph a copy for him. He again brought us both into his pit, showed all of his crew the photo, and treated us like VIPs. All in all, taking that photo was an experience I’ll never forget."


And speaking of Lions starting-line explosions, a whole host of people surmised – as I did privately – that the circled fan in this scan of Jon Asher's Garlits explosion photo may have been the fan injured by the shrapnel, some of which keen-eyed readers point out can be seen in the photo. Larry Sutton, who was the starter and who waded into the stands to save the fan's life, confirmed to me that that is the general area where he found the injured spectator, whom Lions historian Don Gillespie indentifies at Tom Ditt.

Greg Liskey, who is a two-time Sportsman Motorcycle champ in Division 7, was there and recalled, "I was 18 and on the pit crew of Dennis Thompson's stocker that day. All decked out in our newly acquired white uniforms, we were lookin' good but unfortunately were eliminated in competition. I headed to the stands to watch the big boys run. I have told lots of people that Lions is the reason I flunked high school.

"As the event headed to a conclusion, I remember Garlits and Richard Tharp pulling to the starting line. It was one of those moments that anyone lucky enough to have ever been there could only describe as 'Lions!' There was electricity in the air. As Tharp and Garlits left the starting line, instantly there was a huge explosion! I watched Garlits' car separate and the cockpit tumble forward just off the starting line. The motor and front of the car swung out and came to a stop just past the Tree. Tharp streaked towards the big end. Everything was in slow motion to the senses."

Terry White also was there with his older brother, in the same stands, just out of the frame downtrack. "We were understandably awestruck by the action on track and paid no attention to what was going on in the stands a short distance from us," he said. "When spectators started yelling at people on the track from the stands to our lower right, we noticed the commotion.  On-track personnel, Sutton included, found their way to the stands, and soon another ambulance (one was on the track for 'Big') showed up behind us on the return road. When I see those photos, it takes me back as though it was yesterday."


Other quick takes: Steve Justice says that the great in-car camera shot of Jess Sturgeon was done at Riverside Raceway and that the jet versus Top Fueler photo features J.D. Zink in Romeo Palamides' Untouchable going off against Don "Mad Dog" Cook at Fremont.

A few people pointed out that the oil-filler cap on the valve cover of Kalitta's SOHC mill was missing in the shot. 

Tom Posthuma didn’t have the ID on this car at right but thought it might be from "quite early English drag racing" based on the Ford Cortina in the background, which he thinks might be a '63, and the guy with the coat might be early British drags pioneer Sydney Allard. I've reached out to my buddy across the pond, noted British drag racing reporter Roger Gorringe, and asked him to investigate. I'll let you know what we find out.

Paul Schwan of Cincinnati dropped me a line about Ed Donovan's side-mounted blower, noting, "The 6-71 blower that was originally used was indeed mounted on the side of a 6-71 Detroit Diesel, or before it was Detroit, it was a GM diesel, or affectionately known as a 'Jimmy Diesel.' In either a right- or left-hand 6-71, the side of the engine on which the blower was mounted determined either rotation or direction of the engine; therefore, that mount on the Offy was closer to 'stock' than most people realized."

And finally, Cliff Morgan and Bill Mays remember that the go-kart in this picture was powered by a small rocket engine on hydrogen peroxide; Bret Kepner swears that the notorious Capt. Jack McClure was at the wheel. Morgan also said that it was Tommy Ivo in the other lane, so I caught up with T.V. (after he woke up to begin his day, as always, on Ivo time, at about 3 p.m.), who, as always, had plenty to say when it came to talking about himself and passed along two bonus photos.

"It sure is me," he confirmed, "but I'm still trying to get the hook out of my mouth on this one. They reeled me in on this -- I guess they noticed the sign I had hanging around my neck that said 'FISH' on it." The "they" in this case were the go-kart makers.

"We were at Tampa (Int'l -- NOT) Dragway," he remembered. "The track was slightly better than running on the alley down behind your house. I was making single runs on a paid-in race and so was the rocket-powered go-kart, which had a Turbonique rocket engine, or something like that as I remember it. Of course, it was inevitable that someone would say, 'Let's run the dragster against the kart!' I was all for it, as I running much better than him and also because I used to do all kinds of things like that all the time. (When they didn't hire in two dragsters for a match race at the smaller, lesser affluent tracks for the sake of expense,  I would give stockers big head starts and run them down on the big end – or even bicycles, anything to take the ho-hum out of single runs -- but I would always make sure we put a good enough spread on the handicap to make sure I didn't get beat by mistake! How bad would that be, getting beat by a bicycle? Although this incident ended up to be even worse than that. 

"The rocket engine had a heart attack before we could have the race, so the guy with the kart still really wanted to get a picture with me racing him. Soooooooo, he suggested to just set him on the starting line next to me and get the picture when I took off. It wasn't a movie, so who would know if he were running or not? 'Okay, that will work,' I said! But then once again, old Cecil B. De Ivo had to not leave well enough alone. Attempting to make a good idea better (as I always do), I suggested that they put the kart out about 25 feet or so; therefore, I could get up a good plume of smoke behind me to make the picture more dramatic. Wrong!! Here's the shot they were 'supposed' to get!

"BTW, he said the header exhaust about blew him off the go kart when I went past him. I would imagine it was pretty intense with the 'weed sprayers' pointed right at him. They were not your father's zoomies, you understand! 

"I was a victim of my own stupidity, it would seem (again), BUT -- and here comes that 'but' again -- I was right; it did make a great shot, didn't it? Here you are, sending a copy of it to me 44 years later!!! I think that falls under the category of it being a 'damned-if you-do-and-damned-if-you-don't' deal."

Ivo also reported that when Tom McCourry was touring Ivo's four-engine car -- running it under Ivo's name for a while for the value of the name recognition in advertising – he got sucked into a similar deal with a rocket-powered VW but that the VW crashed before it got to the other end of the quarter-mile, which Ivo also believed happened at Tampa.

But Ivo, ever the zany and resourceful prankster, says he got back at track operator and good pal Billy Herndon, at whose house he would stay during his bookings there. "The next time I was staying at his house, he got his comeuppance. He had a large pantry with many, many canned goods in it since he had a good-sized family. He wasn't at home when I left, so I took all the labels off of literally hundreds of cans in the pantry. He said it was an adventure every night for dinner. They would shake a can and say, 'What does that sound like?' So they'd open what sounded like a can of peas for the dinner vegetable and end up with dog food or the like. Perfect!"

And with that tale, my DRAGSTER Insider friends, we come to the end of another feast of drag racing stories behind the stories; thanks as always for the dishes you brought to this particular potluck.

Previous Entries
Next Entries