Today’s planned column needed a little extra work based on newly discovered info, so I began peeking into old email folders for a spark of inspiration to take its place, and what I found horrified me.
Last October, I wrote a column about my first brush with an actual drag race car that lived in a garage across the alley from my childhood home in Culver City, Calif. The car turned out to be a fairly famous one, the Snodgrass & Mahnken Psycho Mustang, an altered-wheelbase early Funny Car/fuel altered kind of thing. At the time, I was still more a student of the sport through magazines and more than a year from seeing my first actual drag race, but I’ll never forget that seminal moment in my drag racing “career.”
I asked you all to share your earliest memories of hanging out at the shops and garages of your neighborhood heroes and am aghast that I never actually got around to sharing some of your wonderful stories. As you’re well aware, I deeply value the interaction with my readers and the input they add to the column, so, 11 months later, here I am to rectify that oversight. Enjoy!
Steve Hess: “My first encounter was on my purple Huffy five-speed rail while cruising the apartment parking lots in Rockville, Md., one day. I was probably about 14 as I recall, and the nearest dragstrip was 75-80 Dragway in Monrovia, Md. I spotted what turned out to be a Henry J. Because I had a paper route that covered the area, I had seen the car before but never anyone working on it. This was back in the good ol’ days when even upscale apartments still allowed occasional auto maintenance to take place in plain sight in the parking lot. I pulled a U-turn and muttered something like, ‘Is this your car? What kind of car is it?’
“The owner answered, ‘A Henry J.’ I watched him move some parts from interior to trunk and moved around to get a look at the engine, and then youthful tact failed. I noticed some rust at the top of the cylinders and commented, ‘Looks like you'll have to do some cleanup to get that engine back together’ or some such.
“I was met with a glare, then a ‘What drag racing cars have you worked on? Or do you just read magazines, son?’ Unperturbed, I answered, ‘I read magazines.' 'Oh yeah, which ones?' he asked. Being politely factual, I answered ‘Hot Rod, Car Craft, Super Stock & Drag Illustrated …’ before I noticed he wasn't really interested in the complete bibliography.
“Although I never talked to the owner again nor ever saw the car run at 75-80 or any of the other strips in Maryland, that encounter broke the ice successfully. Years later, I drove past a house near 75-80 and saw a dragster outside the garage on several occasions. I finally stopped one day and spoke to the owner; turns out it was a Comp eliminator dragster. The owner asked if I would be interested in working on the car and going to the races with him. ‘You'd have to learn how to pull the heads off the motor, but we will teach you,’ I recall him saying. He also showed me his racing calendar, which included a trip to North Carolina, as I recall. I went home and told my dad about this fantastic opportunity, but he was appropriately skeptical and practical. ‘Where will you sleep? Will he pay the hotel bill? Will he feed you? How will you get to the tracks and back home? Will you miss any classes?’ (I was attending the University of Maryland at the time.) I was confident I could work out these trivial details, but after a few phone calls, nothing of the opportunity ever came to fruition, and the car disappeared from that home, at least. So much for my first brushes with the drag racing fraternity, but they were the start of a lifelong love. When I attend NHRA divisional points meets or a national event, I spend most of my time talking to the racers because that is the most enjoyable part to me -- it is right up there with watching the actual racing. Those early encounters broke the ice, and to this day, I am always able to dream up something to say when I approach a racer I haven't talked to before or see one I know in the pits.
“I wonder if I can find a purple Huffy five-speed rail to rebuild ... ”
Steve Knight: “While it wasn’t in a local garage, it was at a local dragstrip, Dallas Dragway in Dallas, Ga. My dad took me there when I was about 8 (1980-81) for the Saturday evening match races. While I don’t remember the names, there were several floppers there; for a kid that took the toasters and alarm clocks apart, getting to watch those guys service the engines (they even took the valve covers off! Amazing to my young mind back then) was more of a thrill than I can describe, but what hooked me was a friend of my dad. He had a Vega bracket car with a small-block, they rigged up something for me to sit on, and I got to ride shotgun for a cruise through the pits and up to the staging lanes. He’d clear its throat every now and then and even blipped the throttle in gear once or twice; at that point, I was done for!
“While I’ve never been able to involve myself to my level of satisfaction, I’ve been as close as possible ever since, coming full circle this spring at the Southern Nationals when I was a guest of the Parts Plus Top Fuel team. Long and short, I got the dime tour of the pits and to closely watch the crew service the car (I was a career mechanic before hopping to the corporate side with Standard Motor Products). I was no less thrilled than 30 years ago, culminating with a ride in the tow vehicle for a qualifying pass, complete with my son holding Clay’s [Millican] helmet for the ride back to the pits. Care to guess who’s currently hooked on drag racing?”
Gary Crumrine: “My indoctrination to auto sports started when I was about 11 or 12. A guy down the street was wrenching on a '32 coupe and needed someone to hold the wrench up top as he ratcheted the floor from below. I was promised the first ride in the car as a reward but never got it. Sweet ride, though. I grew up with friends like Kevin Olson of Midget Hall of Fame fame. My brother and Kevin were schoolmates, so dirt-track racing was high on the list. I also worked the local oval track where stock cars were king, and because the owner of that track also owned a piece of the local dragstrip, I used to frequent that track a lot as well. A little older, I worked for guys that raced Formula Fords and Formula Vees in SCCA. So I have a pretty well-rounded bunch of life experiences that probably would not have happened if I had not held that first wrench for the hot rod '32 coupe.
“My youth was spent either watching race cars, working on them, or going to car shows and drooling over them. I may not have learned the Gettysburg Address, but I could tell a Pontiac from a Buick, tell you the year and model of all makes, and knew my way around a V-8 or two. My cousin and I were car nuts. We didn’t play baseball or shoot hoops like the neighborhood kids. We were pulling fenders off old Novas, rebuilding carbs, wrenching on our rides from sunup to sundown. How we graduated school, I have no idea. We used to skip school and drive 150 miles to pick through antique junkyards. As long as we made it back to school by the time classes were over, we were good.”
Bill Jenkins, left, and Ronnie "Hut" Hutter, circa 1971
Bill Carrell: “Being from northeast Ohio -- land of the gassers -- I lived in the same town as Ronnie ’Hut’ Hutter of Rumble Guts and Canned Heat fame. In the '60s, he had a small shop in Chardon, Ohio, at the corner of Route 6 and Cherry Avenue. Ron’s was one of the first to have a dyno, and from time to time, you could hear them putting a car through the paces. This new technology acted like the Pied Piper to a 12-year-old, and soon we would be hanging around outside just to get close to the screaming machines. Eventually, we were invited in after the testing to look around. Many a night, I could hear them testing from my house a mile away. The noise eventually became too much for neighbors, and he had to move outside of town. Word got around that there was going to be a gathering of cars late one night to caravan over to Indy, and it was plotted that we would sneak out to watch the gathering at about 10 p.m. This was done, and the bikes all converged at the designated spot like platoons converging on a battlefield. We rode down to the shop only to find they had already left. Getting back home, I found my bedroom light on, the window closed, and the front porch light lit. Mom answered the door and said to wait for Dad. I’ll spare you the grisly details as today it would be labeled child abuse.”
The Guzler in Bristol in 1967 with Jerry Baltes driving
Army Armstrong: “My first recollection of drag racing, and when the hook was set, was in 1965. I was swimming in our local pool and heard a noise that I thought was thunder. As it was a cloudy day with rain in the forecast, I went and showered and got dressed. As I was dressing, I heard it again and again. But it wasn't thunder. It was something I'd never heard before. Being 12 years old, I was quite the adventurer and decided to see where it was coming from and what the heck it was. When I came out the front door of the pool facility, I heard the sharp crack again. Hmmm, definitely from the left, so down the street I went on my Schwinn. Suddenly, there was a very loud noise again coming from my left. Through the intersection, chute out, at probably 180 mph, flashed by Bud and Don's Guzler Top Fuel dragster!
“Wow! What the heck was that? I was stunned; I couldn't even move. Then the smell hit me and ruined me for life. Nitro! It was a dizzying experience.
“By now, they had pushed the car back to their garage. I snuck up to the corner of the garage to get a better look at this missile. They were talking while they took off the valve covers, something about running the valves; better check the bottom end, too. As I found out later, they had their police buddies block off the streets, and they made a pass getting ready for the Big Go at Indy.
"Later, I would spend time hanging at Don Mattison's garage. I still see Don once in a while, and he keeps threatening to build a Cackle car. I sincerely hope he does, as he was a very dominant part of Midwest Top Fuel action."
Rick Lind: “I was introduced to drag racing in '73 or '74 by my dad. He took me to Irwindale as a kid when he would go with the Joint Venture dragster, owned by his high school friend Bill Carmichael and driven by Larry Sutton. My first memory of the car was the front-motored car pictured that Bill ran out of his mom's garage in Norwalk. They sold that car and moved to a rear-engined car that ran in Pro Comp in AA/DA. It seemed like we were at Irwindale every Saturday, and I even got to travel a couple times with them to Sacramento and Santa Maria. I was lucky enough to go with my dad to work on the car and got to help a little at the track, cleaning the car and other minor details.
“My dad also ran a back-motored '27-T roadster with a 296-cid flathead called the Cookie Monster at the Antique Nationals. According to Dad, this car was the second roadster built by the Bean Bandits. I have a ton of great memories from those days and still keep in touch with Larry, Jerry Darien, and ‘crewman to the stars’ Randy Green.
"Here's a photo of Larry in the Joint Venture and one of me, my brother Jeff, and Randy Green on the starting line after the Last Drag Race at Irwindale."
Steve Studer: “I grew up in Columbus and started hitchhiking to National Trail Raceway when I was 13. One spring morning, Doug Ford, the lead counterman at JEGS and part-time announcer at NTR, pulled over and gave me a ride to the track. Doug took me around the pits and introduced me to every racer he knew. I was pinching myself to make sure this was really happening. That first day, I helped change slicks on a C/SP Corvette named Crankenstein driven by Jim Thompson, who was the shop foreman at JEGS.
"Back then, JEGS was a small brick building at 11th Avenue and I-71 with a greasy three-quarter-inch plywood counter and a couple of bays in the rear. Before you know it, I was working there after school, cleaning the JEGS Barracuda Funny Car and helping out around the shop. It was really cool when Gordon Collett came to work for Jeg around 1968. Not long afterwards, Doug Ford, Jim Thompson, Dan Truax, and Bob Riffle left JEGS and teamed up with Gil Kirk and Bill McGraw to form The Rod Shop over on the east side of Columbus. The Rod Shop was one of the first really successful drag racing teams (seven cars), with all the cars painted red, white, and blue. The following year, Gil secured the Dodge factory sponsorship for the whole team, and it was off to the races. In 1971, Mike Fons won the world championship in Pro Stock in Tulsa [Okla.], beating Ronnie Sox in the semi’s and Herb McCandless in the final. I still keep in touch with Doug Ford, Gordon Collett, and Gil Kirk whenever possible. Those were defining times in my life and some of the best memories."
Howard Ellefson: I grew up in the Westmont neighborhood in Pomona and graduated from Ganesha High School in 1962. I was very fortunate to have grown up in the American Graffiti era. When I got my driver’s license, I joined the Pomona Valley Timing Association, working at the Pomona dragstrip every Sunday. I never realized how lucky I was until many years later. Our normal Sunday meets were always filled with an overabundance of Top Fuelers, A/FXers, and stockers. We used to go to Fontana, San Gabriel, or Lions on Saturdays and then work the next day. When I was in the Navy, I visited many other strips in the country and then realized how big our Pomona meets were. I spent some time hanging with Jack Bayer, Doug Thorley, and Gary Hooker. Hooker and I both worked night shift at General Dynamics; he was in quality control, and I was in maintenance. I used to enjoy going to the March Meets at Bakersfield. Many years later when I was stationed in Pensacola, Fla., I got to spend time with Chuck Griffith and Stan Adams when they ran a match race against Bobby Langley there. My wife and I have made several trips out West over the years and always manage to visit the NHRA museum while there. Really impressed with the progress racing has made since the early '60s! We currently live about six miles from Maple Grove Raceway, so we go there for our nitro fix.”
Mickey Bryant: “My shop story goes back to 1959 in Long Beach, Calif. I was a 19-year-old living with my buddy Terry in an apartment complex at the corner of Cherry Avenue and South Street. Directly across the street were two old crusty shops: Tom's Muffler and the very first Jocko's Porting Service. A typical Saturday mid-morning would be to ease over, crossing Cherry Avenue, and slide around the front entrance to Jocko's. Forget Tom's, we wanted to see it: the Jocko streamliner. We would stand as quiet as we could in the corner so as not to disturb Jocko himself as he polished away on some heads. Then it happened. Jocko actually came over one of those Saturdays, wiping his hands with a rag, and said, ‘I bet you guys want to see the car, right?’
“We thought he was coming over to kick us out, but now here we are following him out back to actually see that beautiful streamliner we had seen from a distance tear up the Riverside track. And there it was, nudged up next to the fence, with that red and white body in place. It was how we would start a Saturday most weekends. And the real bonus was when he would actually be working on the car inside the shop. Permanently etched in the memory bank it is.”
Jeff Thomas: “My love affair began when I was 7 years old and my sister took me to U.S. 131 Dragway in Martin, Mich. I was hooked instantly! It wasn't long after that that my best friend Randy's brother, Gary Gruetzmacher, started building a race car. But it wasn't just any race car -- it was a 1969 Monza Corvair. A lot of work and ingenuity went into this car. The tallest gear set available was a 4:11, so he ran (USAC) Midget slicks to increase the gear ratio. He got the IHRA sanctioning body to allow him to mill off the cast intake ‘logs’ on the cylinder heads to be able to bolt directly to the intake ports. Gary worked with General Kinetics cams and Crower Cams to develop a combination that worked. The transmission was surprisingly strong, and he didn't have a lot of trouble in the clutch department, although we could break a half-shaft from time to time. His main sponsor was Lane Automotive (Watervliet, Mich.), and he called the car Sixpack. Gary won a lot of races and still holds a record or two in IHRA competition. He still owns the car, and it is just sitting right now because, as he says, his reactions aren't that good anymore. It was a load of fun to work on this car and help race it at the track(s), experiences I would never trade for anything. We ran at U.S. 131 and Milan Dragway in Michigan; Union Grove Raceway in Wisconsin; Oswego, Ill.; and Osceola, Ind.; among others, and Gary also made the trip to Bristol a time or two and came away with wins. He keeps it at his shop in Bangor, Mich., our hometown. It is truly a unique combination and record-holding car.”
Bob Maghy: “I grew up in Westchester, a part of L.A. near LAX, just south of Culver City. I used to ride my bike to a neighbor's house to watch him work on his dragster. His name was Earl Canavan, and he had a Lincoln-powered gas dragster. I hung around as long as I could, hoping he would fire it up, and he sometimes did. Around the corner was Ted Frye's place (Ted ran Edelbrock balancing) with his Hemi-powered F-100 and belly tank, but that's another story.
“A few blocks past Canavan's street was C&O Automotive (C&O Hydro), home of Gene Conway's (then Ciambella) A/GS Willys pickup and, later his Corvette Funny Cars. I actually had to cross two main boulevards, Florence Avenue and Manchester Avenue, so as a youngster, I was taking quite a risk wandering that far, but wander I did. I would stay on my bike and lean on the wall outside of Conway's shop and look at the gassers and hot street cars that made up his customer base in those years. I remember examining every detail of his Willys and a Chevy-powered early MG that was always there. One day, while everyone was busy and probably could have cared less about a kid on a bike, Donnie, who did most of the transmission assembly, actually smiled at me and motioned for me to come in and watch what they were doing. Wow, up close! Years later, I had Gene and Donnie do a Clutchflite for my race car, and after telling Gene about the years watching from a bike in the doorway, we became good friends. A great guy, he often referred people to my small shop for custom headers, roll bars, and chassis work. He was always my go-to transmission guy. The four-hole Hilborns on my current project are left over from his gasser days.
“Riding my bike in the opposite direction, there was Jack Seibuhr's Westchester Auto Body, where many a race car appeared as well as drag boats (Jack drove the drag hydro The Witch, I believe). It was there that I first saw Sam Conrad's '29 roadster. An honest-to-goodness member of the L.A. Roadsters, Sam's car had one of AA/SR champ Hugh Tucker's huge Olds engines with six twos, a B&M Hydro, and slicks on the street. That car taught me exactly how a hot rod should look and sound: just plain nasty. My handprints were all over the doorjamb of Jack's shop, that's for sure.
“As a friend of Danny Pisano (Pisano & Matsubara Nostalgia Funny Car) in high school, I ended up working for his father, Carmen Pisano, of wedge scattershield fame, and learning plenty. I left there to go to work for Cyclone Headers and left Cyclone to start a 10-year stint at Hedman Hedders (in Culver City, much much closer to Westchester!).
“At Hedman, I built prototype headers, tooling, and most of all, I did all of the custom headers for the race cars that they sponsored. It was during this time that I met ‘Dyno Don’ Nicholson. Kenny Hedman was building a Pro Stock Maverick with a cammer that was essentially a clone of 'Dyno's' car. I built headers, built and modified custom intake manifolds, helped convert to the Lenco trans, and basically did whatever they needed during the short time they ran that car. Nicholson was in the shop occasionally, talking with the Hedmans and guiding their fledgling Pro Stock effort; Earl Wade was doing the major engine work. As another reader noted, ‘Dyno Don’ was a great guy, friendly, easy to talk to, and never condescending.
During the years at Hedman, I had the pleasure of working on many famous race cars, building headers, and then tooling to re-create the headers should they need more while on the road during the racing season. Butch Leal's Ron Butler-built Duster, Bill Bagshaw's Red Light Bandit, Barry Setzer's Funny Car and Pro Stock Vega, a boatload of SoCal Funny Cars, even a strange set of 3-inch zoomies for Garlits that were not as successful as we had hoped -- just some of the stars' cars that I got to actually work on. Some of the racers were quite friendly, and some quite frankly had no time for us shop folk.
“Culver City was also home to the Surfers, Traco Racing Engines, Ron Butler Race Cars, Dick Guldstrand, Troutman and Barnes. Isky and Edelbrock had digs in old CC. Bob Hedman knew them all, and we worked with all of them at one time or another. Yes, you can certainly say Culver City (and surrounds) was home to plenty of racers. As a tip of the hat to the Hedman family, it would be great to see a shot or two of Kenny Hedman's Pro Stock Maverick. It was a nice car and ties in nicely with early Pro Stock, 'Dyno Don,' and his Maverick. Bob, Dick and Kenny Hedman, with George Lane, Ron Funfar, and Tom Curnow, were a fun group to work with in a great period in drag racing history.”
OK, gang; that's Part 1. Look for Part 2 and more great stories about your earliest involvement with our wonderful sport. I'm sure this column and next will inspire even more submissions, and I promise to not wait a year to run them. Please include any photos you might have!
I've also already received a good start to the "souvenir parts" column I mentioned last week, so keep 'em coming!
See ya next week.
With this week’s Indy semi-coverage issue of National DRAGSTER safely at the printer, it’s back to Indy for the Big Go, round two. Three days at home was just enough to get the issue completed, proofed, and electronically bundled off to Beaver Dam, Wis.; to get my dry cleaning and other laundry done; and to get recharged for another four days on the road. Oh, and, of course, to bang out another column.
I travel home Monday, but with the last-minute rescheduling, I won’t land back in Cali until late that evening, so don’t expect a column next Tuesday. Just sayin’ …
In the meantime, I wanted to share more of the excellent correspondence form the Insider Nation regarding recent topics.
My piece on Pat Garlits clearly struck a nerve, and it’s obvious that I’m not the only one who holds her in such high regard. Many of those who wrote had loved ones similarly stricken and know all too well what “Big Daddy” is going through, and all asked that I pass along their best wishes and words of respect and love. Quite touching.
David Miller: “Thanks for the article on Pat Garlits; she's a humdinger. I'm a big softy for this sort of thing, and this brought tears of joy (and sadness, due to her condition) to my eyes. We must always remember that it's the people, not the machines, that drive our sport, and Don and Pat invented the concept of a traveling drag racing family. True royalty among their peers and their fans.”
Nick Poloson: “The story brought back a quick memory for me. In the mid-'70s, I was bracket racing a lot. I had a '68 Barracuda with a 440 that had the look of a SS/AA, with the correct hood scoop, etc. I lived in south Florida at the time, and one day, they had a big-money meet at Art Malone's Sunshine Dragstrip in Tampa. They also had a four-car booked-in Top Fuel show. I got there early, as I expected the place to be packed with cars. I had the hood off and was tinkering with something in the engine compartment and felt a tap on my shoulder. There were Don and Pat Garlits, holding hands, and Don says, ‘Hi, how are you? My wife likes your car.' I had seen Don from the pit ropes for a long time and knew he was intense at the races, but he and Pat hung out for 10 or 15 minutes just talking racing, the drive over the Sunshine bridge he just had getting there, etc. I got to talk to both of them a bunch more times after that, and they've always been very nice to me.”
Jack Franklin: “I had met Pat twice, and she was gracious, quiet, and humble each time. What a nice lady. Don is proving he is the man by doing the right thing and having his priorities correct.”
Gary Smrtic: “Awesome piece on Pat Garlits. I cannot say how it grieves me to know that she, and Don, have to go through this. My wife and I cared for her mom as she suffered from Alzheimer’s for about six years, in our home. It is terrible to watch a once vibrant person fail that way. I have met and talked to Pat on several occasions, both at the track and in the museum, and have always enjoyed the exchange. My point of this note, simply, is to express my appreciation of you writing such an elegant piece about her and her contribution. Next time you see 'Big Daddy,' please remind him how many people are praying for them both and how we love them both so very much.”
Mark Whitmer: “It's so very touching and saddening to hear of Pat Garlits’ troubles and at the same time so heartwarming to know of her husband's devotion to her. Several years back, when Don signed the Englishtown blowover picture, I asked Mrs. Garlits for her signature also. That keepsake's not for sale. Maybe we need to hear of even more inspirational long-term marriages in this awesome sport.”
Fred Simmons: "I read your article about Pat Garlits and want to share an encounter my son, nephew, and I had with Don Garlits. It was roughly 12 years ago at one of New England Dragway’s IHRA national events. I was helping promote New England Dragway’s various programs, and my son and nephew were helping me. We arrived on Saturday morning and went to our booth on the manufacturer’s midway. When we got to our booth, we were surprised to see Don Garlits (along with Pat and their two dogs) parked next to us. Wow! What an opportunity! Imagine being able to rub elbows with the man himself! Don was his usual self, focused on the job at hand, through most of the day. He was polite, saying hi, but he had a job to do, and he was doing it. Sometime around mid-afternoon, things started to slow down a bit, and we got to see an entirely different side of Don Garlits.
“Don walked over to us and started to make small talk. He asked us how we were doing and showed a genuine interest in us. During the conversation, my nephew mentioned he was engaged to be married. It was at that moment we saw an entirely different side of Don. He started on a five-minute sermon about what marriage was all about. I use the word sermon because Don clearly had religion when it came to marriage and Pat. He talked about the commitment required from each partner and how special a wife was in her husband’s life. He also talked about the sacrifices that each partner would need to make and advised my nephew to recognize what a special person he was marrying.
“We talk about this experience often as we feel we were extremely fortunate to have had this encounter. We also recognize that we often don’t get the opportunity to see the other side of the stars of our sport. It is no surprise that Don is at Pat’s side giving her back the support she gave him. My thoughts and prayers are with both of them at this time in their lives.”
Eric Watkins enjoyed the Indy columns concerning Dale Emery’s crash at the 1977 event and the use of nitrous at the 1982 race and passed along this photo of one of drag racing’s ultimate keepsakes, the right-front corner of Emery’s Mike Burkhart-owned Camaro Funny Car body, which is owned by a friend.
“We attended Indy 1977 together, and I fished it out of a 55-gallon trash barrel next to Emery's pit after the crash," he explained. "My friend said he talked to E-town photog Steve Bell, whose brother Jon has the entire side of the car.”
Longtime Insider readers may remember that I did a note on the Bells’ collection in August 2009, accompanied by the other photo here.
You can clearly see the side of Burkhart's car, body panels from Jim and Alison Lee's Top Fueler, a chunk of the Moby Dick Corvette Funny Car (from the 1977 Gatornationals), two pieces of the Blue Max Funny Car (1976, south Florida), and what looks like a serious chunk of the side of the Swensen & Lani Magnum Force Funny Car. "Funny thing is Norman Blake and I could have had the entire tail section [of Burkhart’s car], but we couldn't figure out how to mount it to the back of my '75 Civic!” wrote Steve.
I know I’m probably asking for trouble here (so what else is new?), but I’d like to see photos of your collections of busted-up race car parts. I don’t think I’m talking about engine parts (“Here’s the scuffed-up piston from the time that Dave Benjamin blew up”) but actually recognizable parts of race cars that suffered calamitous endings. Be sure to include the info about the wreck, how you came to own the piece, and how/if it’s displayed. Sounds like fun.
Insider regular Gary Crumine read my mind: “I am sure there are a lot of parts and pieces of fiberglass hanging on garage and man-cave walls all over the country that people would love to share. And stories to go along with them.”
Graham Warley had interesting information regarding Emery’s participation in a trip to England in 1980. “When [Raymond] Beadle and [Gene] Snow came to Santa Pod for one meeting, Beadle had both Dale Emery and 'Waterbed Fred' Miller with him. I know because I watched them build an engine in one of the appallingly poor outbuildings that surrounded the Pod.
“During the meet, Gene made a winning pass but had some oil spray out of the engine and needed to clean the whole motor down before the between-round teardown. For some reason, the ignition switch had been left on, and some clown filled a garden sprayer with petrol (gasoline) and sprayed the motor to help dissolve the oil. When Gene spun the engine, the whole lot went up in flames. Gene had some burns to his arms, but after extinguishing the flames, they carried on with their work. I was standing next to the car and will always remember the sight of the whole engine igniting with the gasoline covering! The final came down to Gene and Ray, and although they both ran 6.0s, Snow won, running 6-flat, and Beadle ran 6.04. Beadle was running his older Mustang Blue Max, and Snow had a more modern Plymouth Arrow. As I recall, Roy Phelps had purchased Snow's Monza but due to delays in shipping the car over had arranged for his Arrow to be airlifted over, although the Monza did arrive on time. Great days!”
In his heyday, not a lot of folks got to say, “I beat Bill Jenkins,” let alone bracket racers from Illinois, but it happened in the summer of 1977 at Oswego Raceway during its special Beat The Grump promotion. And not only did the locals have their way with perhaps the greatest Chevrolet racer of all time, but he crashed his Pro Stock Monza in the third and final heat, much to the shock of all involved.
Paul Dazzo was the guy racing “the Grump” when the world turned upside down, and he shares his memories with us.
“I didn't sign up for the event because I didn't know if I would have the car back together by the event date,” he remembered. “I had had some rear-end problems and was waiting to weld some cracks.
“The 1969 Camaro ran in a class called Run Tuff Eliminator, which was the main bracket class at Oswego and U.S. 30 back in the day. All cars would make one qualifying run, and the 16 closest to their dial-in without going under would run for the money. Remember, back then, you could not change your dial between rounds, and if both cars ran under, they were both out. Also, if both cars red-lighted, they were both out. It was a tough class.
“Anyway, when I got to Oswego that day, Bob Thurlby, one of the track officials, asked if I wanted to run Bill. I said I would love to!
“Bill had to run two other cars first. One was a street car, the other was a bracket car. The track promoter was not happy that Bill took it easy on both cars. I believe he thought the spectators wanted to see Bill really push that Monza; after all, it was said to have around 900 horsepower at that time.
"The third and final round for Bill was with me. Both cars parked behind the line waiting to run. When it was time to run Bill, he started sweeping the burnout box and the approach to the line. I walked over to talk with him and asked if he was sure that he wanted that lane he was cleaning. He didn't seem too happy and just replied, ‘I'll beat you in either lane.’
“I kind of laughed to myself knowing he was playing a mind game, so before we brought the cars to the line, I wrote ‘Grumpy Who?’ on my rear window; when we did the burnouts, he had to see what was on the rear window. I think to this day that got into his head. And believe that it changed his game a little.
“During the run, I never saw him next to me. I took a look when I hit 3rd gear and saw him start to roll the car to the right side of the track. Later, Bill said he was angry and should have gotten off the gas, but he kept his foot on it, so I do believe I got into his head.
“I would have really felt bad about that if it was one of the regular competitors, but since it was Bill ‘Grumpy’ Jenkins, a driver known for pulling every single trick he could, I simply took the win and smiled on the way home.
“After I ran Bill and he crashed, I decided that if Bill could make a mistake like he did and get hurt, anyone could, so I quit racing that season because I had 2-year-old daughter and thought she needed me more than I needed racing.”
Anatol Denysenko, whose mom was the second driver to race “the Grump,” reports that the three racers were chosen by a random tech-card drawing. The race was run off a dial-in on a full Tree.
Denysenko said that his father had spoken to Jenkins before the race and that Jenkins’ engine was “a reverse rotation marine-style bullet that was being tried. From the sound of it, whatever happened in the torque being different upset the chassis and turned it sideways.” I don't know about that, but I guess anything was possible for Jenkins.
OK, that's it for today. I have a plane to catch and a U.S. Nationals to complete. I'll see you all next week sometime. Thanks for reading and, as always, for the fine and fun feedback.
So, here I sit in the Indy tower. It’s Monday, about 11:30 a.m., and we should just about be wrapping up the first round of Top Fuel. Instead of thousands of horsepower, the famed dragstrip in Indy is host to (by my fast count) the 56 feet of the diligent members of the NHRA Safety Safari, still laboring on the racetrack long after the event has been officially postponed a week by a combination of today’s bad forecast and, more specifically, the damage wrought on the track by yesterday’s downpour. The track scrape to remove the comprised rubber is supposed to take at least five hours. Add to that an iffy forecast and some balky equipment, and it ain’t a pretty picture, but all of the elements combined are enough evidence that the right call was made.
We’ll have to wait a week to crown not only the winners of the 58th annual Big Go, but also to decide which 10 drivers in each class will make the playoffs and which Funny Car driver will win his or her half of the Traxxas Nitro Shootout. There are a lot of reasons to come back next weekend (of course, I will be here).
The decision to move the event’s conclusion a week is rare for Indy but not unprecedented. The first Nationals, in 1955 in Great Bend, Kan., got down to the final seven cars – five dragsters (including that of eventual winner Calvin Rice) -- battling for the class championship, with the winner to face off against Jim Nelson's coupe and Fred Voight's Chrysler-powered dragster, winner of the Open Gas class, in a three-way battle for Top Eliminator, eventually won by Rice nearly two months later in Perryville, Ariz.
More recently, the 2003 U.S. Nationals is the only other Big Go forced beyond a Tuesday finish (of which there have been several). At the 2003 event, we got to the same point in the program – Saturday qualifying complete, with the then-equivalent of the Traxxas Nitro Shootout (the Big Bud Shootout) still to run. That weekend's other bonus event, the K&N Filters Pro Bike Klash – like the Top Fuel Traxxas Shootout this year – had already been completed.
We came back a week later to wrap up the show, with two qualifying sessions and the Shootout. Tony Pedregon won the Shootout for the first time, beating his boss, John Force, in the final.
The winner of the Bike Klash was the inspirational Reggie Showers, a double amputee whose handicap in no way was a handicap in his riding career.
"This is the leg that kicked the ass today," Showers joked, as he waved one of his prosthetic racing legs over his head in the winner's circle. "Seriously, as a disabled person, I've had to fight for everything I've had in my life. Winning races in the NHRA is no different. It's a struggle every round.”
Showers, whose only other final round had been a runner-up in Chicago earlier that year, wasn’t done yet as the following weekend he also won the U.S. Nationals for the first time, becoming just the latest in a series of drivers such as Ed McCulloch, Don Schumacher, and Gary Beck whose first victory came at the Big Go. Two weeks later, Showers added a victory at the Mid-South Nationals in Memphis to cap three spectacular weeks in his career, but he never won again. Just another great Indy story.
The surprise of the meet may have been David Baca, who piloted his Johnny West-tuned Hunter’s Hope/American Racing dragster to the No. 1 qualifying spot with a 4.49 Friday and held the spot until eliminations. Baca, whose father, Dennis, won the event in 1977 in a bit of a surprise, had similar hopes, but they were dashed by the late Darrell Russell in round two.
Russell’s Wayne Dupuy-tuned entry made it all the way to the final, where it fell to Tony Schumacher, who won his third of what is now eight Indy wins.
None of the other low qualifiers reached the winner’s circle either. Force, like Baca, fell in round two; his loss came to Johnny Gray, who then was driving the second Checker-Schuck’s-Kragen entry for the Worsham team. Gray’s win over Force avenged boss Del Worsham’s first-round loss to Force.
Gray also reached the final – the 500th in the history of Funny Car -- but fell to Tim Wilkerson, runner-up at the 1997 event to Whit Bazemore.
Kurt Johnson led the Pro Stock field and actually reached the final before being stopped by his former crewmember, Greg Anderson, in the final. K.J. turned the Tree red to hand Anderson his second Indy win.
Before Labor Day Monday eliminations began at the 1961 Nationals in its Indy debut, racing at the Nationals was held Sunday, but at the 1959 Nationals, the first in Detroit, we had our first Monday finish as darkness forced Houston's Rodney Singer and crew chief Karol Miller, the AA/D class winners, to wait until Monday to beat Jack Chrisman, A/Dragster class winner with his Joe Malliard-tuned, Chrysler-powered, chain-driven Sidewinder II, for Top Eliminator honors.
The 1971 Nationals became the first to have a Tuesday finish, and anyone who was there won’t soon forget the Top Fuel final, the famous “burndown” between Don Garlits and Steve Carbone. In a nutshell, Carbone made it clear he would not stage first, and Garlits, despite being the heavy favorite based on performance, also vowed similarly, which played right into Carbone’s hands when Garlits’ overheated engine smoked the tires. When I interviewed “Big Daddy” a few years ago, he called it the biggest mistake of his racing career.
Marvin “Who?” Graham’s 1974 Top Fuel win also came on Tuesday, as did Prudhomme’s fifth Indy win (over youngster Billy Meyer), and Bob Glidden won the second of what would ultimately become nine Indy Pro Stock wins. Likewise, Terry Capp’s biggest Top Fuel score came on a Tuesday at the 1980 event. The 1994 Top Fuel final, where veterans Connie Kalitta and Eddie Hill dueled, almost needed another day as it took place under the lights (a first!) after the start of eliminations was delayed three and a half hours.
Other than that, for a race held in late summer in the Midwest, the event has not had any other major postponements in its first 57 years, a pretty remarkable achievement.
“Don [Garlits] had many close partners -- his brother Ed, Connie Swingle, Art Malone, Tom 'T.C.' Lemons, Emery Cook, and a few others. But it was his lifelong partnership with a sweet girl named Pat Bieger from Tampa that was Don's best investment. Of all the great blessings God can give a man, it is his soul mate, and Pat was Don's. With their two daughters, Gay Lyn and Donna, the family moved along the highways from track to track making a living and paving the road to immortality. Pat was Don's strong arm and soft shoulder. It was her gift of a leather jacket that she wanted him to wear just before his fiery crash in Chester that saved his life. She was the one who insisted that the rear-engine dragster project continue. She is the one that said, 'That's it, Don, no more.' Until someone writes a book about Pat Garlits and her influence in Don Garlits’ life, we will just have to thank her for all that she has done for him.”
My buddy, drag racing author and historian Todd Hutcheson, wrote those words about Pat Garlits a few years ago, and they’re included in "Big Daddy's" recent book, Don Garlits and His Cars, and I can’t think of a better summation of what we all feel about this amazing lady who today is fighting the cruel battle with Alzheimer’s disease, with “Big Daddy” at her side, forgoing his planned trip this week to Indy to continue to do for her what she did for him for a lifetime. There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that she is the great lady behind the great man. In those early years, she was everywhere he was. In the truck on those long cross-country drives. In the pits. And, of course, in the winner’s circle, hundreds of times.
She was there to nurse his wounds and his ego when things went bad. A terrifying fire in Chester, S.C., the horrifying clutch explosion at Lions in 1970, the blowover in Englishtown in 1986, and the lean years, in the early 1980s, when people thought they’d seen the last of him. She knew better.
Twenty-year-old Don Garlits was Pat Bieger's senior-prom date in 1952. They were married the next year and inseparable since.
Drag racing’s first couple met at Florida’s Lake Magdalene in 1952, Patricia Louise Bieger a “pretty, petite brunette senior” and Don a 20-year-old hot rodder in his Cadillac-powered ’40 Ford ragtop, and, as he wrote in his book, “It was love at first sight.” How do we know he was right? When he arrived for their first date, Pat’s father, Richard, looked askance at young Donald's ride, so he went out the next day and traded it in for a more sedate and bone-stock '50 Ford. They dated for eight months – “dancing, bowling, the movies, at the beach, no drag racing. Hell, I never even mentioned it,” he recalled.
They were married Feb. 20, 1953, and celebrated their 59th anniversary earlier this year. Just a month into their marriage, Pat proved she was going to be his good-luck charm when he won his first trophy at the airstrip in Lakes Wales, Fla. And she understood his need for speed. When he won a $450 paycheck-poker “hand” at work (he was working at the American Can Co. as well as painting cars for a living), they toyed with the idea of putting it down for a house, but Pat told him, “Honey, why don’t you get that Mercury crank and pistons you’ve wanted. Enjoy yourself; you might not be able to later.” At the time, Garlits was a member of the Florida National Guard and was on standby to be deployed into action in the Korean War. Fortunately for him, hostilities ended before that happened, but he never forgot. “This is the kind of support I have always received from Patricia Louise throughout our entire marriage,” he wrote.
The Garlits family, in the winner's circle in Indy (again) in 1986: from left, Gay Lyn, Don, Pat, and Donna Garlits and their canine friends.
She traveled the nation’s highways and byways with her man, riding shotgun to drag racing history, and fans came to know her from the constant photos of her in the drag mags. In that era, it wasn’t uncommon to see wives supporting their husbands. That’s how we got to know Lynn Prudhomme, Linda McCulloch, Pat Dixon, Bette Allen, Etta Glidden, Gere Amato, Penny Beck, Rona Veney, and dozens of others. It helped put a new face on the drivers, that they had lives beyond the quarter-mile and people who cared for them just as much as the fans did. They didn’t all work on the cars, but their moral support and organizational skills helped keep many a hero on the road.
In the opening to this column, Hutcheson mentioned the leather jacket; it was the gift she gave him before he headed out to Chester, S.C., that fateful day, June 29, 1959, that almost claimed his life. He suffered third-degree burns to his hands and face. “Without that jacket, I would have never made it to the hospital,” he said plainly. And when doctors wanted to remove his badly damaged hands to save his life, Pat wouldn’t let them. In response, the doctors asked them to find a different hospital, so she rode beside him in a train home to Tampa, Fla., on what was “a hellish ride,” he remembers.
Pat Garlits and Jim Marrone watched "Big Daddy" shave in Indy in 1967.
And it was Pat who was there to hand him the shaving cream and razor to shave his beard after his historic win at the 1967 Nationals, she who was at his side when he sketched the plans for the first successful rear-engine dragster in his California hospital bed after the devastating Lions incident, and she who got really, really, really upset with him when he tried to sideline the rear-engine project because of handling woes. The story goes that she walked in on “Big,” Lemons, and Swingle, who, out of frustration, had begun construction on Swamp Rat 15, a new slingshot to take west in early 1971, but she’d have none of it. “Pat just glared at me,” Garlits wrote, “and she put us back on the RE project.” As Lemons remembered in Hutcheson and Mickey Bryant’s book about that car, titled R.E.D., “She was tough, tougher than the rest of us.”
And, according to Garlits, it was Pat – not Father Time or Mother Nature or any other competitor – who ended his nitro career, telling him in no uncertain words in 2003 that 318 mph was way faster than she wanted him going, and later urged him to fulfill his competitive urges in the Drag Pak Dodge Challenger he now wheels in Stock.
It’s kind of ironic that Garlits’ famed dragstrip career would be headed to its conclusion in the Sportsman ranks in a Dodge because Pat herself even drag raced for a short time in 1962, wheeling Don’s bright-red 413-powered Super Stock Dodge in Powder Puff competition at Golden Triangle Drag Strip.
“I usually won, but it had nothing to do with my driving abilities,” she was quoted in Mike Mueller’s book, The Garlits Collection. “My Dodge was simply always the fastest car out there. It always had the strongest engine; Don wouldn’t have it any other way. I just stepped on the gas and held on. I won a couple trophies, but after a while, I decided Don was the racer in the family.”
Motorsports in general and drag racing in specific can never thank her enough or repay what she did to help her husband’s legendary career. It just needed to be said before it's too late for her to perhaps know how we all feel. God bless.