Welcome to Part 2 of Location, Location, Location, a fun look at the stories behind some of the most memorable magazine photo shoots from the early 1970s, as told and illustrated by Steve Reyes. In our first installment, Reyes talked about the challenges of setting up the actual location for the shoots; today, he shares a little more about the other challenges of shooting and getting the images published.
Dave Hough and the Nanook fuel altered were two of Reyes’ favorite subjects and featured in two of his more memorable shoots, both of which ended up on covers. “Dave Hough was wonderful to work with,” he recalled. “If I would have told him, ‘Hough, we’re having a shoot with the devil in hell,’ he would ask me what time he needed to be there. I had already shot the earlier Nanook among the cactus at the Saguaro National Park out near Tucson [Ariz.], and he had gotten some real nice exposure in a couple of magazines for that, so he was always ready to go.
“So I got the idea to take the car to the snow; the whole Eskimo-Nanook thing in the snow, right? So we trailer the car way up into the San Bernardino Mountains up near Big Bear Lake and stopped when we found the first snow. We unloaded the car and pushed it into the snow, then built snow around it, then had to smooth out the footprints to make it look nice. I had him sit on the ice, and even though he was wearing a firesuit, he about froze his butt off; I don’t think he was wearing much under the suit. That one ended up on the cover of Drag Racing USA [April 1973].
“The other shoot I did for him ended up way different than I planned. I wanted to shoot a photo of the car going down the street in Redondo Beach [Calif.] with the parachute out. You have to picture this: On either side of the street, we have people lined up watching us – the mayor of Redondo Beach is there. We’ve arranged so that two traffic lights are going to be red to cross traffic. He’s supposed to drive down to where I am with the chute out and stop, right?
"Well, apparently, Hough thinks it’s the final round of the Nationals, and he has to set low e.t. and top speed. He just hammers it, and he’s boiling the tires and sideways. The chute comes out but because his wife, Lynn, forgot to put the bolt in that connects the chute to the car, it just falls to the ground.
“So Hough’s sideways, and I’m diving out of the way between parked cars, but the people on the sidewalks are loving it. He flies through both intersections and is barreling down to the third intersection, and it is NOT red for the cross traffic. He goes through the intersection and disappears – four wheels off the ground – over this hill, and I know that just over that hill is the Pacific Coast Highway, and then – unless you can make a pretty radical right turn --- the ocean. I figure, ‘Well, Hough’s in the Pacific; he’s done,’ so we jump in the car and chase him down, and, sure enough, he had made the turn.
"We find him stopped in a turnout about a quarter-mile down the road. ‘Well, did you get the photo?’ he asks me. We did not get a photo, and we weren’t going to try it again, so we parked the car at the curb and got a Redondo Beach cop to act like he was giving him a ticket. It ended up on the [September 1973] cover of Popular Hot Rodding, but I never put another fuel altered on the street after that!”
Reyes shot this photo of Billy Holt’s wild and short-lived rear-engine Vega Funny Car, the Wayne Mahaffey-driven Alabamian, outside the Six Flags Over Georgia amusement park near Atlanta. Holt had told him the new car was coming, and knowing that the car would be worth shooting, Reyes gambled that he’d be able to sell the feature and booked himself a round-trip flight to Atlanta and met the boys there. Recalled Reyes, “Billy had suggested I call the Six Flags PR people because he knew they were trying to promote the place. It was raining, so the place was closed, but they let us shoot there anyway. Again, really nice people. I shoot the deal, fly back home, get the film processed, and get it to Doherty, and the next thing I know, the car is destroyed in an accident after like three runs. Even though the car didn’t exist anymore, Doherty still decided to run the photos, which was nice of him. I also was able to sell some photos to Billy and to Wayne, but with the airfare, I probably only broke even.”
Shooting Harry Lehman’s American Way streamliner in front of two destroyers at a U.S. naval base in Virginia was not an easy task. “The War Department or someone had to OK the photos before I could run them,” said Reyes. “They were very nice – they trusted me to send them the photos, and I trusted them to get them back to me – but they wanted to make sure that there was nothing in the photos they didn’t want to be seen. I remember I had one photo where there was black diesel smoke coming from one of them, and they told me, ‘You do not run that photo.’ Harry had some sort of tie-in with the Navy – you can see the decals on the car – and he got me the names of the people I had to call to make it happen. It took a bunch of phone calls up the chain of command to get it done.”
Reyes’ 1984 photo shoot with Kenny Bernstein’s Budweiser King Tempo and the Clydesdale horses and Bud beer wagon on the beach in Myrtle Beach, S.C., was another memorable occasion.
“It was the first time that a Budweiser-sponsored race vehicle was going to be photographed with the horses and the wagon, so it was an important deal,” he recalled. “I think the horses were there for some spring-break deal, and there were some Bud executives there. Anyway, Kenny asked me to come to Myrtle Beach – I was just driving around the country from race to race and had some open time, so why not? – and I go to his hotel room, and he’s sitting there with the mayor of Myrtle Beach, and I remember Bernstein was telling him that I was shooting for all of these wonderful magazines.
“So, the mayor arranges for the city workers to take down all of the K-rails on this street bordering the beach, and they bulldoze an area so that we can get the race car and the beer wagon on the beach because there normally was no access for vehicles. They’ve got all of these security guards – remember, this was spring break, and people were on the beach – keeping people out of the shot. I think we spent three hours positioning the car and the horses, but it was a lot of fun. Kenny was happy, the Bud people were happy, the mayor was happy, and I was especially happy because I was the first one to shoot it and because I felt like Mr. High-Fashion Photographer with all of these ‘assistants’ keeping people back for me. Usually it was just yelling at people to get out of my shot. It was a first-class deal; that was the way that Kenny always did things.”
Reyes shot these photos of Funny Car racer Malcolm Durham – nicknamed “the D.C. Lip” for his continual banter. Reyes and pal Jeff Tinsley thought that Washington, D.C., was the natural place to shoot Durham’s Strip Blazer Camaro.
“The deal with Durham was my idea with Tinsley’s help,” Reyes recalled. “Tinsley lived in Silver Springs, Md., just a stone’s throw from D.C. We spoke to Durham at an IHRA race at Rockingham, N.C., and got him lined up for the shoot in D.C. the following week. Just prior to the race weekend, Jeff called someone he knew in the D.C. Parks Department to start the ball rolling. The whole thing almost was scrubbed at Rockingham when Durham had a chute failure and spun his car out in the shutdown area. His car only had minor damage, so it was full steam ahead for the photo shoot. The Monday after Rockingham, Tinsley was on the phone almost all day obtaining the 13 permits we needed to do the shoot. Tinsley and I also added one more photographer to the fun: Bob McClurg (left). The Parks Department was very nice to us and Durham and supplied park police to keep people away from the Funny Car and out of our way. It was about a three-hour shoot, and we got our pix, and Durham was very happy. He and his Funny Car were splashed in Drag Racing USA magazine, Super Stock magazine, and Cars magazine. (P.S.: The other driver in the photo with Durham is Lee Jones, who drove Durham’s other team Funny Car.)”
Reyes put Robert Contorelli’s wild rear-engine Mustang Funny Car on the starting line at fabled Lions Drag Strip for this photo. “Robert was a nice guy, a real Southern California flower-child kind of guy, but I think he ran out of money just building this car and didn’t run it much,” said Reyes.
“It was an SPE chassis, but I think he pretty much built everything himself. It came out real nice, so I asked [Lions manager] C.J. Hart if I could shoot the car on the starting line with fireworks and stuff, and he said it was OK – in typical C.J. fashion, he said, ‘Just don’t burn the place down’ – so we stuck Roman candles down the header pipes and put a 55-gallon drum behind the car and tossed in one of those cone fireworks.
“I shot a lot of time exposures, and one of them ended up on the cover of Drag Racing USA (right). I had shot for so many years at Lions that I had a real good handle on the light there. Doherty really liked the shot because we had the windshield hatch open, and he thought Contorelli looked like Punxsutawney Phil coming out of his hole.”
Shooting for magazines can be a grind, but it also has its perks. Popular Hot Rodding
sent Reyes and the late Pete Pesterre to Hawaii in 1980 to shoot the street-car scene there, but, of course, Reyes also had to get his drag racing fix. Ron Uemura, a 50th-state speed-shop legend, had what at the time was the island’s only Funny Car (and an attractive female companion), so Reyes dragged them all down to the Oahu seaside for this photo. “Ron had a nice spot picked out for us, and we shot this one a lot of different ways with different costumes,” he remembered. “Ron was another guy who was really into a nice presentation and wanted it to look really good, so we had a good time. I think this ended up as a center spread in Popular Hot Rodding
Reyes accompanied Argus Publishing executive George Elliott to El Centro, Calif., the winter base for the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, where Elliott had scored himself a ride with the premier exhibition flying team. Longtime SoCal racer George “the Bushmaster” Schreiber brought his StarJet jet dragster to the airfield to also try to wangle his way into a joyride, and Reyes seized on the unique opportunity to create this memorable photo. “We got them to tow one of the jets out for us and put Schreiber’s jet alongside it; it’s not really that close to it; I used a telephoto lens to make it look that way. I had to check the wind to make sure we weren’t going to set their precious jet on fire and told Schreiber, ‘OK, George … fire show!’ The Blue Angels guys thought it was pretty cool, and Schreiber eventually got his ride-along.”
Things didn’t always go so well for Reyes, though. In 1971, he was excited to shoot "Wild Willie” Borsch’s new Winged Express fuel altered with the new Goodyear blimp in Carson, Calif., at one of its bases not far from Lions Drag Strip, but the blimp was grounded in San Diego because of high winds. “I still shot the AA/FA by the airship pad but sans blimp. And that really sucked,” he noted.
Perhaps one of Reyes’ greatest disappointments arose from this episode. Reyes arranged to do a picturesque photo shoot with the late Dennis Geisler and his and Frank Graf’s fuel altered on a jetty on the Pacific Coast Highway.
“I had found the place by accident and thought it would be a great location, but it was really hard to get that car out there, but I thought it would be worth it because of the pretty background,” Reyes said. “For some reason, no one bought the feature. I still don’t understand it. At the time, it was one of the best-running fuel altereds in the country, and it looked good, too, and the photos were great, but everyone passed. To this day, every time I see Frank, I apologize to him. All they got out of it was some prints from me. It left a real bitter taste in my mouth, and this was probably one of the last times I busted my ass like that for a photo shoot.”
OK, that’s it for Part 2. I’ll have some other location-based stuff to share next week to (maybe) wrap up what has been a really fun subject.
See ya there!
Growing up as a young drag racing fan in the early 1970s, I couldn’t get enough of the monthly drag racing magazines that carried me to far-off dragstrips that I knew I’d never visit and introduced me to the latest cars and stars of the sport. The beacon of our sport then was Drag Racing USA, which always seemed to draw the finest photographers from the merry band of wanderers who crisscrossed the country, following the scent of nitro to whichever dragstrip regardless of sanctioning flag (or lack thereof!) had the hottest action.
The car features were always a treat, multiple color spreads of cars so new that the paint was almost still wet. Sometimes the cars were shot in parking lots or pit areas, but many had photos that bordered on art, with exotic locations that were car-appropriate or just weird enough to catch the fancy of Mike Doherty, DRUSA editor/publisher. Our good friend of the Insider, Steve Reyes, was among a group that included guys like Jere Alhadeff, Jon Asher, Jim Kelly, Alan Earman, and Tim Marshall, and he agreed to share the stories behind the stories of some of his more memorable photo shoots.
The band of gypsy photographers that traveled the same road had a friendly camaraderie “on tour” – which often included shared cars, motels, and meals – that was valued by all, but each still had to earn his own way.
“I made a pretty good living doing that, but it was all on speculation, and I paid all of my own expenses,” recalled Reyes. “For the car features, I just picked them, or guys would call me to tell me about their new cars – I knew all of the owners and drivers and sometimes went on tour with them – and I’d drive or fly wherever and bust my ass to make it a nice shoot, but there was no calling a magazine and saying, ‘Hey, I need $600 to go to Tulsa, Okla.,’ to shoot a car or a race. You’d come in with your best photos, and the best material got purchased. If you came in with crap, you went home with crap. I didn’t want to leave with crap; I wanted something unique.
Jon Asher, left, and Reyes at the 1973 Gatornationals. Would you let these guys shoot your car? Of course you would!
“I certainly wasn’t the first to do it,” he admitted. “I remember seeing the Allen family – whose cars were named Stinger and Wasp – dressed up in beekeeper suits – on the cover of a magazine. Ralph Gudahl Jr. shot the Walton & Allen car in front of an old train in Griffith Park, and Tim Marshall shot the Creitz-Greer car in front of the fountains at Caesars Palace. I thought that I’d like to do that kind of stuff; I wanted something different, something eye-catching, something majestic, and Mike liked that kind of stuff. Doherty really liked the eye candy; he cared more about the shot than he did the significance of the car in the photo.”
Reyes admits that half the battle was securing access to shoot at the location – he always succeeded, except at Disneyland – with a promise that the business or whatever would end up in national magazines. His late ex-wife, Barbara, often succeeded where he couldn’t. “She could sell ice cubes to an Eskimo,” he remembers fondly. “She got my foot in the door at a lot of places that were not keen on the idea at first. She’d tell them about all of the national exposure they get and so on.”
And it turns out that the guy best known for being in the right place at the right time when bad things happened to good cars on the dragstrip was also very good at capturing the images when they were standing still. In that golden era, from roughly 1971 to 1974 before he joined Argus Publishing and shot exclusively for its magazines (Popular Hot Rodding, Super Chevy, et al), Reyes shot scores of these car features that ended up in various magazines, usually accompanied by a cover photo, and the tales that accompany the images are almost as good as the photos themselves.
This is the first of two parts. Enjoy!
From a logistical standpoint, Reyes’ photo shoot with Dennis Fowler’s Rat Trap Funny Car, the blue and gold Satellite surrounded by elephants, was among the more dicey that he handled. Photographed at Lion Country Safari, a large, drive-thru tourist attraction across the 405 Freeway from Orange County Int’l Raceway (if you turned west off the Moulton Parkway exit, you went to Lion Country Safari to see lions and elephants; turning east took you to OCIR to see Mustangs and Barracudas). A cartoon elephant chasing a rat on the side of Fowler’s car was part of Reyes’ inspiration; the other part came from fellow pro Earman’s photo shoot there with Tom McEwen’s Funny Car surrounded by cheetahs (as hilariously recounted by McEwen in his book, Mongoose: The Life and Times of Tom McEwen
“Because Earman had already done this, it wasn’t hard to also get to shoot there, but that was the easy part. We unloaded the car, and the trainers spread hay all around it to attract the elephants. At one point, though, the largest bull elephant came towards the car and raised its foot like it wanted to stomp on the front of the car; I don’t know if it was a threat to him or he didn’t like the color or what. This 120-pound trainer ran over and started to beat the elephant with a large bamboo stick. I figure I’m going to end up instead with a photo for the National Enquirer
of this guy getting turned into a pizza: Man Dies From Elephant Wounds. But, sure enough, the elephant turned and scurried away.
“The other problem I had was that we had to shoot it while the park was open to the public, so cars were driving by on the road behind the elephants. We were in the middle of the compound shooting out towards the road. Today, we would just Photoshop the cars out, but we didn’t have anything like that back in the 1970s, so I was ducking and weaving and trying to use the elephants and the car to block out the cars. I had to try to time it just right, but you can barely see a car in the shot above [between the nose of the car and the elephant's leg].”
For a period of time, one of Reyes’ favorite spots was a parcel of undeveloped land along California’s Long Beach Harbor across from the Queen Mary luxury liner’s mooring. The area was destined to become condos and already had paved streets leading to it that were perfect for trailering a car right to the location. Among the cars that Reyes shot there was Robert Andersen’s Top Fueler, Shirley Muldowney’s Satellite Funny Car, Dave Bowman’s rear-engine Vega panel Funny Car, the L.A. Hooker, and Stone, Woods & Cook. The Long Beach police would drop by to check out the goings-on but usually just ended up ogling the cars, remembers Reyes.
One photo shoot there that didn’t go so easily was for the nighttime photo of Andersen’s dragster, shown above. “This was tough from a technical standpoint because of the lighting and because of the setup,” Reyes recalled. “Tom West would help me with the lighting. Usually, it was just me and the driver; we’d take the car out and set up the shoot, but Tom would help me with the strobes and the metering. Then, because the ship was all the way across the harbor, I had to use a telephoto lens to visually pull the ship closer.
“Then, midway through the shoot, a Coast Guard helicopter shows up to investigate what we were doing because we were firing off the strobes and someone had reported them as gunshots or explosions. They had their spotlights on us and yelling at us, ‘What are you guys doing down there?’ We hadn’t asked for permission, and we had no permits, but once they saw we were only shooting photos, they left us. They didn’t send SWAT to come get us or anything, so that was good. I remember shooting a huge fire burnout with Herm Petersen one year at Pomona that someone reported as a plane crash. The next thing we know, all of this fire apparatus is rolling up on us. We had to do some fast talking to get out of that one.”
Muldowney’s new Satellite was fresh out of the paint shop when Reyes shot it across from the Queen Mary, and Reyes had earned the hard-won trust of the First Lady of Drag Racing with a shoot of her Mustang. Painter Don Kirby and Kenny Youngblood both had vouched for Reyes, which opened the door to his first shoot with her, which ended up on a cover, so the next one was easier. Muldowney still was based out of Michigan but had a base in Los Angeles while waiting for the car to be finished. In this photo, she’s actually wearing an outfit borrowed from Barb Reyes.
When Muldowney had her first Top Fueler built (which surprised a lot of people), Reyes was her first call, and they shot it at a park in Southern California’s Playa del Rey area, near where both were living, and it, too, ended up on the cover of Drag Racing USA, in May 1974. Because Reyes was supposed to be working exclusively for PHR by then (and because the statute of limitations has probably run out), he admits that he submitted the photos (and many more afterward) to DRUSA with photo credit to Barb.
Reyes shot this memorable photo of the Taco Time Vega Funny Car of Joe Colello and Gary Cromwell at one of the Taco Time restaurants while he was in Seattle for the Seafair Funny Car event in 1971. Colello was a successful grocery store owner and well-known businessman in the area and had secured the Taco Time deal, and he called a local outlet to set it up.
“I was staying with Joe during the race, and he did all of the legwork to get us there,” said Reyes. “They welcomed us with open arms. I think it was a Friday night. The customers were really cool. We put the car in position, waited for the sun to go down, and no one bothered us. And they even fed us. After we were done, the customers all came over and checked out the car.”
I featured this car in 2009 when I was doing the letter C
for the Misc. Files collection and noted that the Taco Time chain had grown from a single store in Eugene, Ore., in 1959 to more than 350 locations. I'm sure Reyes' photo helped. "I always thought that maybe if I shot a photo of a car in front of a Jack in the Box or something they might advertise in the magazine, too," said Reyes.
I don't know if that ever happened (kinda doubt it), but Reyes did shoot a couple of features at California Jack in the Box restaurants, where again he was greeted with open arms, even without a primary introduction. “People were always very cool; it was surprising how accommodating they could be," he marveled.
The memorable photo above (included in the Keeling & Clayton thread
) was shot at a Northern California Jack in the Box and was the result of some rumbling stomachs. “Me and [Tom] Ferraro and one of their crew guys had already shot a feature on the car in a nearby soccer field, and we were hungry. Ferraro liked eating at Jack in the Box, so we pull in there, and I mention to Ferraro that this would make a nice photo. There was even a guy already there dressed up like Jack. We unloaded the car, and the manager thought we were the greatest thing since sliced bread.”
The photo of the twin-engine Syndicate Top Fueler in the drive-thru was shot at a Southern California location. “Same deal. I told them who I was, who I shot for, and what I wanted to do, and they told us we could come back when it was their slow time. So we show up at o’dark-thirty, they closed the drive-thru for us, and we shot it.
“The funny part of this story is that we were on deadline, so me and Tom West had to rush to the film processor’s place in Glendale, Calif., to get it in the mail to Doherty. I hand the bag of film to West to drop it into the night drop, but he accidentally dropped it into a U.S post office mailbox. It was midnight, and we had to go find the postmaster to get the film back. It took us two hours to find the guy, explain what was going on, show him our IDs, and convince him to open this mailbox for us. He was very cool and helped us out; Tom sheepishly walked over and made the correct drop, and the photo eventually ended up on a cover.”
Reyes and Dave Motta were in Northern California on their way to the beach in Santa Cruz to shoot a feature on the new Motta & Williamson rear-engine Hairy Canary Challenger Funny Car when Reyes spied something unusual off the side of the freeway.
“We’re rolling down the highway, and I look out my window, and I see some freaking dinosaurs! Whoa! We take the next off-ramp, make a loop, and head off down this bumpy little two-lane road, and here’s Joe Blow’s Dinosaur Land or something, just this display of about a dozen giant dinosaurs this guy had made. There were, maybe, one and a half customers there at the time. So I talk to the guy – a nice, older guy – and I told him I’d put his dinosaurs in a magazine, so we set the car up and had a really nice shoot. It made a nice center spread and later was made into a poster called Beware of the Bird. I sent the old guy some photos, too.”
OK, gang, that’s it for Part 1 of Location, Location, Location. I’ll have Part 2 next Friday, which includes memorable photo shoots with fuel altereds that were as wild as the machines themselves. Thanks again to Steve for his great stories of these wonderful and memorable photos that made magazine reading in the 1970s an adventure, too!
Driver Carl Olson, left, and tuner Mike Kuhl ran Top Fuel together in the early 1970s and won some of the era's biggest events.
When Mike Kuhl and Carl Olson were inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 2012, presenter Steve Gibbs noted in his introduction that although both were worthy of induction by themselves, it was fitting that they be inducted as a team, and their names were forever bound in much the same way one might think of Warren & Coburn, King & Marshall, Sox & Martin, and Candies & Hughes.
Together they formed one of Southern California’s most popular and successful tandems in the early to mid-1970s with their line of Kuhl & Olson dragsters, both front- and rear-engine. Together, they won some of the region’s great races, including the NHRA Winternationals, the March Meet, and The Last Drag Race at Lions Drag Strip, and an IHRA world championship.
Kuhl was a St. Louis transplant who came to the West Coast in the mid-1960s and learned how to build engines at the knee of Louie Unser in his shop in Santa Ana, Calif. He fielded a fuel dragster in the late 1960s with Billy Tidwell and Steve Carbone driving and in 1970 opened Mike Kuhl Racing Engines.
(Above) Olson took a wild ride at Fremont in the Olson & Bowman car in March 1971. (Below) Partner Don Bowman, left, surveyed the damage, which was so extensive that the car could not be repaired.
Olson, a lifelong Angeleno, cut his drag racing teeth in Jr. Fuel and Top Fuel, partnering with a number of teams leading up to his competitive 1969 Top Fuel ride with Bill Stecker and Jack Ewell before striking out on his own in 1971 with the Woody Gilmore-built Black Plague II car, which he purchased from Frank Rupert and Steve Pick. Rupert and Pick had owned the first Black Plague car, which was destroyed in a crash that claimed the life of John Martin while on loan to him. Apparently affected by the tragedy, Pick got out of racing, and Rupert couldn’t afford to run the car himself and sold it to Olson at a good price. Meanwhile, an old friend, Don Bowman, had just crashed his car, and rather than stay completely out of racing, he partnered with Olson and provided the 354 Chrysler Hemi power. It turned out to be a very short-lived endeavor for both, cut short after a few months – after solid outings at both the NHRA and AHRA Winternationals – by a crash in March at Fremont Raceway in Northern California.
"I burned some pistons, got a face full of oil and fuel, and drifted off the left side of the track," recalled Olson of the crash that destroyed the car. "I was doing fine until I got to the first paved turnout, which launched the car and got it upside down."
At about the same time, Kuhl had split with his most recent driver, Dick Rosberg, and was looking for a shoe. Olson had driven Kuhl’s car the previous July, and they reunited in March 1971.
At their Hall of Fame induction, Olson told a funny story about that first ride in Kuhl's car. On his first qualifying pass at Orange County Int'l Raceway, the car hiked and carried the front end a long way. Knowing that traction would only improve later in the day, Olson was not comfortable with the setup, asking Kuhl to either hang some weight on the nose or loosen up the clutch; Kuhl, typically, declined to do either.
Olson's first ride in Kuhl's car was a memorable one. (Steve Reyes photo)
Sure enough, in round one against Hank Westmoreland in the Allen Family car, Olson had his hands full with the front end way in the air way downtrack, the car rocking back and forth on the "fifth-wheel" wheelie wheel, and finally, discretion being the better part of valor, Olson stepped off and reluctantly conceded the round.
Kuhl appeared to take the loss well, at least until he thought Olson was out of earshot. Olson was on the other side of the trailer to put away his driving suit when a friend dropped by and asked Kuhl why they had lost the round. Kuhl's answer was succinct: "Driver error."
The timing of the Kuhl & Olson partnership dovetails with recent columns here about that transitional time between the demise of slingshot dragster design and the beginning of the dominance of the rear-engine design beginning with Don Garlits’ Winternationals win in 1971.
Before I go any further, in the interest of full disclosure, the very cool information provided herein is not the result of hours of research on my end but rather the product of Olson’s generosity in answering in great detail what could basically be called a fan letter. Sometimes in this writing business, you have to work really hard to come up with an interesting story, and other times, it kinda just falls into your lap. This week’s column is a case of the latter.
As mentioned previously, I had connected Olson with master model builder Mark Gredzinski, whose eye for detail, unquenchable thirst for any piece of 1970s drag racing trivia, and skillful hands have created – usually by hand – some of the most realistic 1970s-era drag racing cars and engines ever seen. Gredzinski wanted to build a K&O replica of the highest order and had a ton of questions, which Olson not only answered, but also did so in thrilling (for Gredzinski and me, at least) detail. I was copied on all of their communication and use it here as the basis of this column. My job was to compile the vast amount of info, sew it together into a manageable narrative, and create the front story. I did have a few follow-up/fill-in-the-details questions for Olson beyond what he wrote, and he quickly obliged. I’ve known Olson for decades – we were co-workers here at NHRA for a number of years – and through him met Kuhl. Both have been great inspirations, and Olson certainly has contributed a lot of insight to this column over the years to help me sort through various stories.
But back to the story …
It didn’t take long for both Kuhl and Olson to see that the rear-engine dragster was going to revolutionize the class and took just a few ticks longer for them to get one on order that summer from master chassis craftsman Woody Gilmore.
“We saw the handwriting on the wall with Gar's rear-engined dragster and wasted no time in ordering one from Woody,” said Olson. “Many racers were far less convinced than we were and stuck with the front engines much longer than we did. Some of them thought the rear-engined dragsters were just a passing phase, but many others simply didn't have the financial means to make the change even though they may have wanted to. They felt that as long as their cars were competitive, they'd run them as long as they could.”
The new car made its debut at a regular Saturday night event at Lions Drag Strip, where it went a full tenth of a second quicker than the front-engine dragster on its very first full run.
“We knew right away that we'd made the right decision to go RED,” recalled Olson. “We ran the car once at Orange County Int'l Raceway before towing back to Indianapolis for the 1971 NHRA Nationals, where the car was awarded Best Appearing. We ran the car locally for the brief remainder of the 1971 season.”
The car was still relatively new for the start of the 1972 season and carried them to victory at the Winternationals and, shortly thereafter, to a runner-up at the March Meet in Bakersfield. That success convinced the duo to take their act on the road and go on tour.
“We ran mostly NHRA and four IHRA national events and numerous match races and booked-in shows,” he said. “We were runner-up at the IHRA Longhorn Nationals in Dallas, again at the NHRA Springnationals in Columbus, and won the IHRA Pro-Am at Rockingham, N.C., before winning the IHRA Nationals, again in Dallas.”
They won the IHRA championship that year, but the win in Dallas came at a huge price. A “catastrophic engine failure” led to a nasty crash that all but destroyed the car, save for the cockpit and roll cage.
The team had broken the crankshaft in its Donovan 417 in Indy and had installed a spare engine – a cast-iron 392 Chrysler – for a match race in Wichita, Kan., and the Rockingham event. Following their win over Tommy Ivo in Rockingham, Kuhl discovered that the main webs in the block were seriously cracked, and the plan was to take an early-round loss in Dallas and beat it home to California to begin work on a new 417.
But that was before their first-round opponent, Oz Hay, kicked the rods on his burnout, and their second-round opponent, Dale Funk and the Frakes & Funk Kentucky Moonshiners car, couldn’t fire for round two after shearing a fuel-pump driveshaft in round one. Olson singled for both round-wins, squirting the car off the line and coasting through the traps to light the win lamp.
“After each round, Kuhl dropped the pan and checked the block and observed that the cracks didn't appear to be getting any worse,” said Olson. “In the semifinal, we raced Dave Settles in the Carroll Brothers car, which smoked the tires. I drove down to the 1,000-foot mark and clicked it, and Dave never came by. All of a sudden, we're in the final against Flip Schofield, who we'd beaten every time we ever raced him. With a $10,000 prize for the winner, we carefully considered our situation.”
The 1,000-foot run had increased the cracks in the main webs, but not significantly. The duo weighed the risks and decided to run the final with the proviso that Olson should step off the gas if he felt uncomfortable with the pass. Olson left on Schofield and never saw him until the 1,000-foot mark.
“Just as I was getting ready to click it off, I saw his front wheel out of the corner of my eye, and I was pretty sure that if I drove another hundred feet or so, I could still beat him to the finish line,” he recalled. “The good news is that I did beat him to the finish line. The bad news is that the block split in half, allowing the crankshaft, rods, pistons, etc. to fall out of the engine. I subsequently ran over the entire rotating assembly, which took the rear end, axles, wheels, and tires with it. What followed was the wildest ride of my life. Only a superior car and safety equipment allowed me to literally walk away from the wreckage once the car stopped sliding down the shutoff area. As I was sliding backward down the track, I could see and feel the fire from the engine but suffered no serious burns. We had photos taken on the starting line with the trophy but no car, collected our prize money, and retired to a local motel, where I took a hot shower and went to bed. Kuhl went to dinner and the bar."
Fortunately for the boys, they already had a second car ordered prior to the crash. That car was built to take advantage of revisions that Gilmore had come up with since the first car; the technology of the new design was accelerating almost as fast as the cars themselves.
Just two weeks after the Dallas crash, the team debuted a new car at the 1972 NHRA World Finals in Amarillo, Texas (Reyes photo), that carried them to a very emotional win at Lions' Last Drag Race (below).
The finished, painted, and detailed second RED, along with the rebuilt first RED, which was sold to Clive Skilton, far right. (Reyes photo)
(Above) The pretty new car cackled under the lights at Orange County Int'l Raceway. (John Shanks photo) The nice paint job lasted only until K&O signed a deal with Revell, which came up with the unique yellow paint scheme (below) that led the car to be nicknamed "the Banana from Santa Ana."
It took an unorthodox bit of carry-on luggage for the team to compete at the 1973 U.S. Nationals after an off-track excursion by a fill-in driver the week before damaged the front end. Note that the car is missing its front-wing fairings.
“Woody was being swamped with RED orders, and we were concerned that because a great many teams were planning on switching over from FEDs to REDs over the winter, we didn't want to find ourselves at the end of a long line,” remembered Olson. “The next morning, we called Woody to tell him what happened, then drove straight through to RCE, arriving on Tuesday afternoon only to find that the chassis was already completed and had been sent to [Tom] Hanna's for the body, seat, and fuel tank.”
Just two weeks later, the new car competed at the NHRA World Finals in Amarillo, Texas, and the NHRA Supernationals in Ontario, Calif., before scoring the team’s emotional win at the Last Drag Race at Lions.
Before it crashed, the '72 car was set to become the property of North Carolina racer Jim Hildreth, who also wanted to upgrade from a slingshot to a rear-engine dragster. He had even put down a deposit with the boys and hoped to take delivery of the car after the Finals, but those plans were scotched by the crash. He got his deposit back and later bought a car from someone else.
Gilmore put new front and rear sections on the crashed car, and after Hanna fashioned a new body for it, the car was sold to English racer Clive Skilton, who ran it at the 1973 NHRA Winternationals, then shipped it home to England. He later crashed and rebuilt it, then sold it to Liz Burn, who also crashed it, ending the car’s interesting life.
The end of the 1972 season also marked the end of the duo’s extended touring as they promised wives and families that they would race closer to home. Kuhl reopened his engine-building business, Olson took a job as general manager at Waterman Racing Engines, and they finished detailing the new car for the 1973 season. The car was painted red, white, and blue by George Cerny and lettered by Nat Quick, and both Kuhl and Olson agree it was their prettiest car ever.
Early that year, they were invited to join the impressive lineup of quality cars under the burgeoning Revell banner, and the car had to be repainted in the Revell colors and trim, a bright yellow that led to the ignominious nickname of “the Big Big Banana from Santa Ana.”
“It won't come as much of a surprise that Kuhl and I weren't all that happy about it, but, as they say, money talks,” he said. “The stated aim of the Revell art department was to create paint and graphic schemes intended to make the cars instantaneously recognizable to even the most casual fan/potential model buyer.
“They certainly accomplished that,” he added, tongue firmly in cheek. “There wasn't another car that looked anything like it, that's for sure. Mission accomplished.”
Although they weren’t touring per se, they didn’t miss the granddaddy of them all, the U.S. Nationals, where they scored runner-up honors behind repeat winner Gary Beck. Again, glory didn’t come easy.
The week before the Nationals, Les Allen – of the famed Allen family – was tapped to drive the car at the PDA event in Tulsa, Okla., because Olson was dealing with a severe eye infection and unable to travel, let alone drive the car. Unfortunately for all, Allen ran the car off the edge of the track and heavily damaged the front axle, fairings, radius rods, and steering rods.
“Kuhl called me and instructed me to get Woody to build a new front-end assembly and to bring it with me to Indy,” said Olson. “Woody was way too busy to do so on such short notice but advised me that he'd just sold a complete chassis to a good friend of ours, George ‘the Bushmaster’ Schreiber, who lived not far from me in Long Beach. I called George and explained our situation, and he said I should get over to his place immediately. By the time I got there about an hour later, he'd already removed all the key parts from his new chassis, and we loaded them into my pickup truck, and I hauled them home. Two days later, I flew to Indy. I didn't want to check the parts as baggage, as I was sure they'd be lost or damaged, so I took them on the plane with me.
"While I was attempting to board, the flight attendant told me there was no way I could take that stuff into the cabin. After I explained our situation to her and how critical it was for the parts to get to Indy with me, she just shook her head, looked the other way, and waved me onboard. I had a window seat and simply slid the axle and parts under my seat and the one in front of me right up against the bulkhead. Later in the flight, the attendant confessed that she and her husband were race fans and, as a result, understood my story was on the up-and-up. Needless to say, flying was a lot different back in the early '70s than it is today. When I got to Indy, we bolted the new front end on the car, adjusted everything, and went out and got runner-up to Gary Beck.”
The ’73 car was sold to Terry Hudson, who ran it under the name California Wolverine with drivers John Zendejas and Denver Schutz, then sold the car, at which point, “It seems to have disappeared into drag racing history,” said Olson. “Kuhl and I tried, in vain, for many years to locate this car for acquisition and restoration.”
At the 1974 March Meet., Kuhl and Olson were certainly "Da Revell Fast Guys" as they won the race, set both ends of the performance standards, and earned the 14th spot in the Cragar Five-Second Club. (Jere Alhadeff photo)
Gilmore built the team a new car for 1974, which got off to a flying start with a huge win at the March Meet, where it was low qualifier, set low e.t. and top speed, won the event, and, with the first five-second runs ever at fabled Famoso Dragstrip, became the 14th member of the exclusive Cragar Five-Second Club.
They ran the car locally and at a handful of NHRA national events, but at the end of the 1974 season, Olson retired from driving to pursue a career in motorsports.
He and Kuhl continued to campaign the car through the 1975 and 1976 seasons with the likes of Bill Tidwell, Rick Ramsey, and Pat Dakin taking the saddle. Skilton again proved to be their best used-car customer and ran the car at several NHRA meets, including the 1977 Springnationals, where he went into the history books as the first non-North American to reach an NHRA Pro final, albeit coming up short in the money round to Shirley Muldowney’s second straight Columbus win.
Skilton again shipped the car home, ran it for some time, then sold it, yet Olson kept a watchful eye on it and noted that it ended its career as a Top Methanol (Alcohol) Dragster campaigned by Brian Hazelton. In his role as president of the FIA Drag Racing Commission, Olson saw the car run a number of times at England’s Santa Pod Raceway, where he shared firsthand with Hazelton and crew some of the car’s rich history.
Olson, right, and Kuhl at their 2012 Hall of Fame induction
Olson went on to a decorated career in motorsports that included long tenures with NHRA and SEMA and continues with his work with SFI. He also became an accomplished racer in other forms of motorsports and is a member of the prestigious Bonneville 200-MPH Club. Kuhl expanded his engine business to include superchargers, then sold his business in 2001 and opened Kuhl Klassic Restoration, where he is one of the go-to guys for the many restorations and re-creations of vintage drag racing machinery. Together, the duo was celebrated in 2007 with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the California Hot Rod Reunion presented by Automobile Club of Southern California.
So there you have it, the very cool (Kuhl?) story of Kuhl and Olson. Thanks so much to Carl for his thoroughness, to Mark for creating the opportunity, and to the readers for their support.
This weekend finishes off the first of what will be several three-in-a-row stretches with the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals in Atlanta. I usually attend this race – have been since 1984 -- but after hitting the preceding races in Charlotte and Houston, it was time for someone else to share the fun. I’m actually going to miss going; I always enjoy a trip down South, and the event always seems to create great story lines or otherwise memorable moments.
The Southern Nationals made its debut on the NHRA tour in 1981, which was kind of a tumultuous year for the schedule. The rain-plagued Fallnationals in Seattle was axed, replaced by the Golden Gate Nationals at good ol’ Baylands (nee Fremont) Raceway; the season’s penultimate event, the World Finals, moved from Ontario Motor Speedway to Orange County Int’l Raceway; and the SPORTSnationals moved from its homey location at Beech Bend Raceway Park to the old Houston Int’l Dragway. The Golden Gates had just a three-year run, the SPORTSnats moved to Indy two years later, and OCIR closed in 1983, but the Atlanta event remains firmly on the calendar for this year’s 33rd edition.
I was still “just” a fan when NHRA introduced the race, and even though I wasn’t yet an NHRA employee, I grasped the significance of planting an NHRA national event in the Peach State, deep in the heart of IHRA territory, where previously we only had the Gatornationals. I’ll never forget the promotional tagline NHRA used in advertising for the event: “It’ll be a peach, y’all.” Ouch.
But the event has turned into a real peach, full of great memories. Here are a few of them.
The 1982 event had two weird final rounds. (Above) Lucille Lee became just the second woman to win an NHRA Top Fuel Wally when she soloed after TR-3 Resin Glaze teammate Steve Hodkinson’s mount lost fire after the burnout. I’ve heard all kinds of conspiracy theories over the years about this one, that team owner Marc Danekas had Hodkinson shut off so that the more marketable Lee could win, but with Lee and Danekas both gone, we may never know. (Below) Yes, this is the Alcohol Funny Car final. Yes, those are two dragsters. Back in the early 1980s, the Alcohol Dragsters and Alcohol Funny Cars ran separate eliminators, and the two winners would then face off in another final round to determine the event’s Pro Comp champ. Anyway, the Atlanta Alcohol Funny Car field was well short of eight cars, so some of the nonqualified dragsters were allowed to run with the Funny Cars and whipped them all. The final round of “Alcohol Funny Car" went to Jeff Jones, far lane, over the late Scott Kalitta. Jones then lost to the late Don Woosley – the TAD winner – in the Pro Comp final.
This was the highlight of the first Southern Nationals I attended, in 1984. Alcohol Dragster world champ Bill Walsh launched into a monster wheelie – it got much higher than in this photo -- in the first round against Bruce McDowell. He landed it safely but lost the round. Walsh had a short but spectacular career, winning three straight championships (1984-86) and 12 of the 17 final rounds in which he appeared.
Anyone who saw this – live or on TV – won’t soon forget it. In the 1986 semifinals of Pro Stock, a rogue gust of wind caught Bob Glidden’s parachute, and he dumped the laundry after beating Butch Leal, sending him into a terrifying series of barrel rolls.
From my starting-line perch, I was sure that the class icon wasn’t going to just walk away from this one, yet, as famously recorded, not only did he exit his Chief Auto Parts Thunderbird under his own power, but he also had the presence of mind to use his driving jacket to cover his busted intake manifold lest someone get a peek inside the magical motor.
I think this was the first time that most of us got a hint that some really proprietary stuff was going on down there and saw the lengths to which teams would go to keep those secrets from prying eyes. (Try walking into a Pro Stock team’s pit area with a camera today!)
At that same 1986 event, this happened the morning after the race was delayed following Glidden’s crash. In the semifinals of Alcohol Funny Car, Terry Mullins and Rick Wayne got together at half-track, putting Mullins’ Trans Am on its roof. Neither driver was injured. Wayne was awarded the round-win but obviously could not come back to contest the final round against Frank Manzo.
Another unforgettable moment of the 1986 race was the Top Fuel victory by former NFL quarterback Dan Pastorini, who proved himself more than just a bored athlete looking for a thrill. He had gone to the semifinals at the preceding Gatornationals – losing to Don Garlits’ famed Swamp Rat XXX – but no one expected him to actually win one of the damned things with less than a year’s worth of driving experience.
He qualified just eighth, nearly two-tenths behind polesitting Joe Amato, but after a first-round bye when Jack Revelle's dragster lost a transmission (yes, kids, the fuel cars had transmissions then), Pastorini defeated Dick LaHaie, Bill Mullins, and Gene Snow, who had a combined 75 years of racing experience. Pastorini won the rounds against LaHaie and Mullins after expertly backpedaling through tire smoke to boot.
The funny story from the event, though, came in qualifying. Here’s how we reported it in ND:
Apparently, crew chief Donnie Couch had put in a piston that "shouldn't have been in there" because they were low on parts. The K-B started to smoke noticeably as it approached the line, and Couch, upon seeing it, made the universal, crossed-hands sign for half-pass to Dan, fearing detonation.
Apparently, though, they had never gone over the signs, because Dan buried his foot in it, racking up the aforementioned 5.67. When Couch got down to the top end, Dan got out of the car and asked, "By the way, what does this mean?" duplicating the gesture.
I’m sure that either Couch or Pastorini, both of whom I understand follow this column, can share the story behind the story in a future column.
Rain pushed the final to Monday, when Couch – with tuning help from fuel-system genius Sid Waterman – wrenched Pastorini to a 5.56 to trounce “the Snowman's” 5.64 in the final for the big and surprising win.
Some Funny Car history was made at Atlanta Dragway, too. (Above) At the 1989 event, Eric Reed became the first African-American to reach an NHRA Professional final round when he worked his way to the Funny Car final against Mike Dunn.
Although Dunn, driving Joe Pisano’s Olds, took the win, Reed’s name went into the history books.
For a frame of reference, it would be 10 more years – at the 1999 event in Dallas – before Antron Brown would make his first final-round appearance, in Pro Stock Motorcycle.
Two years later, Del Worsham (right) won Funny Car in Atlanta to become – at 21 years, 2 months – the youngest driver to score in Funny Car. And, believe it or not, he still holds the record.
(Worsham’s longstanding record pales in comparison, however, to the Top Fuel mark, which 18-year, 1-month-old Jeb Allen set in winning the 1972 Summernationals. It has survived more than 40 years. The record for youngest Pro Stock winner is just two years old, set by Vincent Nobile, 19 years, 6 months, when he won the 2011 Houston event.)
Mike Dunn also got to be the buzz kill for another great Atlanta story in 1993, when he drove Darrell Gwynn’s La Victoria entry to victory against IndyCar racer John Andretti in the Top Fuel semifinals. John, the nephew of famed Mario Andretti, was making his Top Fuel debut in former baseball slugger Jack Clark’s Taco Bell-sponsored dragster and showed that some skills do translate. They qualified for a very quick show, ran in the fours at nearly 300 mph, and beat reigning season champ Joe Amato.
In one of the more unusual sights on a starting line anywhere, the entire rear end was violently ripped out of Tommy Johnson Jr.’s Mopar Top Fueler after he blew a tire shortly off the line while racing Connie Kalitta in the 1994 semifinals. It goes without saying that he didn’t win the round.
A few years later, at the 1999 event, Kenny Bernstein sheared the right-rear wheel studs on his Budweiser dragster in the first round against another Kalitta – Connie’s nephew, Doug – in the first round of Top Fuel. Fortunately for all, Kalitta had smoked the tires because Bernstein’s red rocket tricycle went into Kalitta’s lane before rolling. Kalitta took evasive action, and everyone walked away.
And, of course, even more Funny Car history was made at the 2008 race when Ashley Force Hood became the first female winner in Funny Car. She had three runner-ups and broke through for the big win against her famous dad in the final, setting the bar for sisters Courtney and Brittany, who have since followed her into the nitro ranks.
So there you have it, a brief but action-packed history of highlights from Atlanta. Thanks for reading. It’s been a peach, y’all.