While I was writing last week’s column and doing research comparing the careers of Don Prudhomme and Don Garlits, it struck as kind of interesting that two of the biggest names in our sport’s history, two of our most iconic heroes, both have the same first name. Spooky, right? As it turns out, that’s not the half of it.
They both won their first NHRA championships in 1975, and, despite a combined 84 career NHRA wins between them, they only shared the winner’s circle three times, all in that 1975 championship season. Finishing second behind them that year? Two Garys: Beck and Burgin.
It kind of reminds me of that macabre list of “coincidences” that people cite when talking about the assassinations of presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy (Lincoln was elected president in 1860; Kennedy in 1960; both of their successors were named Johnson; Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln, was born in 1808; Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy, was born in 1908; the names Lincoln and Kennedy each contain seven letters; and so on).
So, with nothing better to do on the short workweek before the launch of the Auto Club NHRA Finals in Pomona – a venue, by the way, where both drivers scored six wins in their careers – I thought I’d get a little silly (I know. Me? Seriously …) and see what other coincidences might “Don” on me.
OK, well here’s some low-hanging fruit. Each made a stupefying pass – Garlits in 1975 and Prudhomme in 1982 – for which they’ll forever be remembered, and both had the same elapsed time: 5.63. Here’s where it (read: I) gets weird. The sum of the numbers 5+6+3 = 14, which divided by two (racers) equals seven, the number of years between the two passes. Mind = blown, right?
Before they became racing superstars, both painted cars for a living.
Both married – and remain married – to their high-school sweethearts, Pat for Garlits and Lynn for Prudhomme.
Both have daughters named Donna. Garlits has a second daughter, Gay Lynn (middle name ring a bell?).
At one time both had Wynn’s as the primary sponsors of their front-engine dragsters.
Both scored their first career wins at the Winternationals (1963 for Garlits and 1965 for Prudhomme).
Both have animal nicknames (“Swamp Rat” and “the Snake”) that are eight characters long, as is Garlits’ other sobriquet, “Big Daddy.”
Each suffered two wheelstand blowovers in their Top Fuel careers (Garlits in 1986 and 1987 and Prudhomme twice in 1990).
They both were the first in their class to breach the 250-mph barrier at an NHRA national event. (Garlits also is credited in some places with the first 240-mph Top Fuel run; Prudhomme made the first legit 240-mph Funny Car pass.)
In the early 1970s, both experimented briefly with aerodynamic Top Fuelers (the Wynn’s Liner for Garlits and the Hot Wheels wedge for Prudhomme).
At three times in their careers, they entered a season with the same number of wins: 1968 (3), 1975 (14), 1988 (35).
Despite a combined 113 final-round NHRA appearances, they never raced one another in an NHRA final round.
Both suffered terrible – yet, curiously, overlapping – four-year win droughts in their careers (Garlits 1980-83 and Prudhomme 1983-86), both of which spanned exactly 55 events. Hey, I don’t make this stuff up.
Both of their championships reigns were ended by Texans driving blue cars; Garlits by Richard Tharp in the Candies & Hughes dragster in 1976 and Prudhomme by Raymond Beadle in the Blue Max in 1979.
Neither was in the habit of letting other people drive their cars, but Butch Maas drove for both. Maas tested Garlits’ Wynn’s Liner in 1972 and drove “the Snake's” Top Fueler at the 1970 Supernationals while Prudhomme was running his new Funny Car.
Good stuff, so what else ya got there, Master P? Glad you asked …
They were born 3,371 days apart (Garlits on Jan. 14, 1932, Prudhomme on April 6, 1941). 3+3+7+1 = 14. Prudhomme won 14 more NHRA Wallys than Garlits (49 to 35). Math is fun!
Black is Garlits’ favorite color; Keith Black was Prudhomme’s first crew chief.
Garlits’ middle name is Glenn. Prudhomme's mother was born in Louisiana, as was Glenn Menard, who managed Irwindale Raceway, where both Garlits and Prudhomme competed. (I know, weird, right?)
Prudhomme’s middle name is Ray; Garlits is originally from Tampa, Fla., home of a Major League Baseball team called the Rays.
Both of their full names – Donald Glenn Garlits and Donald Ray Prudhomme – have 18 letters. Coincidence? I think not.
And finally, neither driver ever picked a fight with Ed McCulloch (who, I must admit, looks pretty surly in the photo with them above).
That’s a pretty good list, no? I bet you have stuff to add to it. I look forward to reading them!
Well, I devoured my new Six Seconds to Glory book during the race weekend in Las Vegas and found it to be every bit as tasty as I had imagined. It was packed with enough mouthwatering morsels to satisfy any Don Prudhomme fan, was filled with the kind of essential nutrients necessary for any good story, and left a good taste in my mouth about my decision to buy it.
OK, so I didn’t actually eat the book (how gullible are you?), but everything else is true. I’m a quick reader and finished it in the span of two one-hour plane rides (plus runway taxi time) and even took notes along the way to share. The tasty morsels for me were not so much in the telling of the story – although I do admit it was a masterful way to spread two hours of real time, from Prudhomme’s semifinal win against Leroy Goldstein to his final-round encounter with Ed McCulloch, over 130-something pages – but in the minute details that author Hal Higdon captured and the Prudhomme quotes from 40-plus years ago.
A whole chapter is devoted to his early years and his first cars and racing experiences with Keith Black, Tommy Ivo, Tom McCourry, Dave Zeuschel, and others. Prudhomme’s first “wheels” were a Mustang motorcycle, purchased with money he earned on his newspaper route. He also worked as a gardener and collected eggs and fed chickens at a farm before settling into painting cars for a living.
Just a few of the many other interesting things I learned:
Although it was common practice for the Funny Cars to parade back up the return road with their bodies open, Prudhomme had his body down – and he “drove” -- to make getting back to the pits faster and to prevent the body from being dislodged if they hit a bump.
Before eliminations began that Monday, McCulloch looked at the ladder and predicted that he and Prudhomme would meet in the final.
McCulloch was using a foot-activated “kick shifter.”
The final round – all 6.38 seconds of it – is detailed in nine pages: Every move that either driver made is analyzed, such as how McCulloch had the early lead, but the car started drifting to the centerline, and because he had been running the car all event with the front end light to plant all of the weight on the back tires, he was forced to lightly lift to get the front wheels down, which may have led to the defeat. Cool stuff.
There are also interesting sections about Prudhomme’s physical and verbal altercations with guys like John “Tarzan” Austin, Billy Meyer, and Dale Pulde and with a group of parts thieves, with Prudhomme menacingly wielding a baseball bat to get his stuff back.
I also thought that Higdon did an excellent job of catching Prudhomme’s way of talking. I’ve spoken to ‘the Snake” so many times – and you’ve probably picked it up too from interviews you’ve seen – and he sometimes has a very interesting way of expressing himself. When Prudhomme answers Higdon’s question about whether needling goes on between drivers, “the Snake” says, “Constantly,” but Higdon beautifully added this: “He replied, slowly, as though to emphasize the word.” I instantly could hear Prudhomme’s voice in my head saying that, a bit exasperated.
Here are two other great snippets, along with my reaction:
At the time the race was under way, Prudhomme had never held a national record. “Records are kind of an ego thing,” he said dismissively. “They don’t really mean much; it’s nice when you have them, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to get one. I wouldn’t put my car through the strains of trying to get a record and possibly sacrifice a motor. I don’t need that.” Yeah, right … this is the same guy who later relished – in his own words – “ripping their throats out” with killer runs, recorded the first five and 240- and 250-mph passes, and blew up his engine going 5.63 at the 1982 Nationals.
Prudhomme is famous for his single-minded pursuit of victory at the expense of almost all else, including making nice with just about anyone (“Yeah, I was a bit of an asshole,” he concedes now), and he laid it out for Higdon. “I like the fellows,” Prudhomme said of his competitors. “I don’t have anything against them, but I don’t make a point of sitting around with them. A lot of guys think you should be over shucking and jiving all the time. I like to be alone at the races. ... I don’t want to talk to people. If I’m beat, I’d just as soon leave the track. The other drivers don’t like that because they want you to sit around and face the music, so they can look at you and grin. My attitude is that if I don’t win, I don’t want to see anybody. I hope it rains and the race is over and nobody wins.”
Higdon asked Prudhomme, who as we know would go on to win four championships and 43 more national events, what lay in his future.
“I don’t feel I’ve accomplished enough. Someday I want to really be ahead of the pack. I want to win even more. I guess Don Garlits is one of the guys who keeps me going because I want to someday win more events than he has won and surpass what he’s done, and that’s going to be a tough job.”
At the time, Garlits had nine wins to Prudhomme’s six (although three of Prudhomme’s wins had come in Indy, one more than Garlits at the time), and it didn’t take him but a couple of years to pass Garlits. (At the time, Ronnie Sox was the all-time leader at 15.) Garlits and Prudhomme entered the1975 season with 11 and eight wins, respectively. Garlits won four times (including Indy), tying him with Sox at 15, and Prudhomme six times in his first championship season, bringing him to 14. They shared the winner’s circle in Pomona and Montreal and at the unforgettable event at Ontario. Prudhomme tied Garlits and Sox when he won the 1976 Winternationals and became the all-time wins leader when he won the Gatornationals a month later. He remained No. 1 until Bob Glidden’s 31st win (1980 World Finals) passed him. “Snake” would win 19 more races to finish with 49 but never regained the top spot, now held by John Force. Today, Prudhomme sits 15th on the overall wins list.
I got a lot of nice feedback from readers about the book, including Scott Herrier, son of Jerry Herrier, who is mentioned throughout the book as the capable crewmember beside crew chief Bob Brandt.
“I am lucky enough to have an original copy of the book,” he said. “It was given to my father. Mr. Higdon was nice enough to sign it for my dad when he gave it to him. My dad’s picture is in the book a number of times. My favorite is of him running after ‘Snake’s’ car at Indy in 1973.” He also sent a couple of photos of his dad working on “the Snake’s” Barracuda.
“In the first one, he is reaching into the back of the duallie with ‘Weasel’ [Brandt] with his hands on the motor. The second one is of the first Army car (the Barracuda). ‘Snake’ was cool enough to put my dad’s name on the Vega he redid. My dad was very appreciative. I love listening to all the road stories he has told me over the years. He worked for ‘Snake’ all of 1973 into early ‘74. His last race with him was the Gatornationals in '74, which he won.”
I also heard from some runners who had no idea that Higdon had written about their other favorite sport.
“I ran marathons and triathlons for many years until lumbar surgery ended that,” wrote Luther Hopp. "When I saw the name Hal Higdon, I wondered what he could possibly have to do with the NHRA as I have read many of his books on running, and his contributions to Runner’s World magazine were often the gospel for endurance athletes.”
Mark "Hog Wild" Elms, whom I met in St. Louis after he was selected for National Dragster’s Backstage Pass perk for NHRA Members, is a big “Snake” fan (with the tattoos to prove it) who read the book when it was serialized in Super Stock & Drag Illustrated from February 1977 to February 1978. “But you ain't gonna believe this,” he added. “I never realized just who Hal Higdon was. I read his books in the ‘90s about running. I ran four marathons in the late ‘90s and real early 2000s. I would train at between 60 and 72 miles a week. I never ran to win; I was not that fast. I ran for peace of mind. I loved it and always finished in the top 25 percent; three hours and 39 minutes was my best time.”
Don Thomas and Al Kean also wrote to verify that the entire book had been published in the magazine.
Bill Anderson is one of the lucky owners of an original copy of Six Seconds to Glory, having special-ordered it through a local bookstore when it was first published, and added the ultimate accessory, a personalized Prudhomme autograph; he also had “the Snake” sign an interior page – right under a photo of Prudhomme signing autographs!
“I’ll never part with the book,” he wrote. “When I’m gone, my kids will probably dump it as one of Dad’s silly treasures!”
I heard – as expected – from my ol’ pal Todd Veney, who shares with me an almost cult-like fandom of “the Snake.” He remembers checking the book out of the Wadsworth, Ohio, library as a youngster in the summer of 1975. “My absolute favorite book ever, ever, ever,” he added. “There are so many great bits, like how McCulloch left on him big time but had to lift to set the front end down. If there’d been reaction times, I would have loved to know what the true MOV [margin of victory] was."
Todd also asked if I thought that they’d actually do a reprint if they were able to find the original photos (as mentioned by Octane Press rep Tobi Gros), but almost before I could answer him, Tobi wrote me back to say that even if they don’t ever do a reprint, they’re thinking of at least scanning the images from the original book and posting them on their website. I’ll let you know if that happens.
That’s it for this week. Thanks again for your faithful reading and constant correspondence. I’m looking forward to next week and the conclusion of the 2013 season in Pomona. Las Vegas solved half of the championship equation in the Pro classes, but we’ll have to head out to the track next weekend to see if Shawn Langdon can add his name to the historic list of NHRA Top Fuel champions and which of the six Pro Stock drivers still mathematically in contention will walk away with that title.
The original book (left) and the reissue
If I say the name “Hal Higdon” to any self-professed Don Prudhomme mega fan, the four words I’d better hear back from them are “Six Seconds to Glory,” the title of the seminal drag racing book Higdon authored 40 years ago that gave the world an in-depth look at “the Snake” in all of his victory-consuming glory of the early 1970s, centering around his 1973 U.S. Nationals Funny Car victory.
The original book, treasured by “Snake” fans lucky to have landed a copy when it was published back in 1975, is now back in print after more than three decades off the market, thanks to Octane Publishing, based in Austin, Texas, which has reissued the book (complete with a new cover) and hopes to capitalize on the new wave of “Snake” mania surrounding the release of the new film Snake & Mongoose.
And guess who just finally got a copy?
Yep, that would be me, one of the biggest self-professed “Snake” fans on the planet, someone who was Higdon’s target mid-teen age when he wrote the book, a book that would end up in libraries all over the country, in towns big and small, except, of course, in mine.
I missed my chance to get or even read the book back then, and after it went out of print, I didn’t think much about it until I was going through old back issues of Drag Racing USA, in which they had excerpted a chapter in the October 1974 issue. I, of course, had read (and — OK, I confess — memorized) that segment many times over the years and decided I should track down a copy. I knew that my buddy, collectibles guru Mike Goyda, had some copies, and I had seen some for sale in prices ranging from $60 to $100 on sites like Amazon.com.
I did a web search and was surprised to stumble across the Octane Press site, where they were selling a paperback edition of the book for just $10! I jumped all over it, expecting to do nothing more with it than to enjoy it during a cross-country airplane flight, expand my knowledge of “Snake” trivia, and maybe put it aside in case I ever needed to write something about the 1973 U.S. Nationals.
It came and it went back, but that turned out to be a good thing in the end
But, as you loyal readers all have come to know over the years here, nothing’s ever that simple when it comes to ol' PB.
I ordered the book and had it sent to the work address. I tracked its progress from the Octane warehouses in Minnesota all the way to the Glendora, Calif., post office and waited. And waited. Two days after it arrived in zip code 91740, it hadn’t shown up, so I went back online and saw, to my horror, that the book had been returned to the sender: Addressee unknown. What, the post office doesn’t read the Insider?
Turns out that I had neglected to include the apparently all-important “NHRA” in the name field, and the post office had rejected it, “knowing” that 2035 Financial Way was a business address and that no citizen should be getting mail sent there.
In a panic, I reached out to both Octane and the fulfillment house and was stunned the next morning to receive an email from an Octane employee named Tobi Gros, who told me he’d get another copy out right away and, oh, hey, I noticed that you work at NHRA, so I’ll send you a second copy to share around the office. Too cool!
That correspondence led to a multi-email exchange between me and Tobi (a motorsports fan, aspiring drift pilot, and also a publicist for the company), and, determined to make the best of this mailing snafu, the reporter in me took over. I wanted to know how and why the book ended up back in print all these years later.
“Octane Press is an independent book publisher,” he explained. “We produce books in the motorsports, tractor, motorcycle, and adventure genres. We've brought a number of out-of-print racing books back this year. We published Race to Win by Derek Daly in May and Holman-Moody, the Legendary Race Team by Tom Cotter and Al Pearce this June. In the next couple years we'll be pouring more resources into producing original works in the genre.”
According to Tobi, Octane founder Lee Klancher — who is a fan of Higdon's prodigious writing on the subject of running — had a copy of the original book in the office and, after hearing about the release of Snake & Mongoose, he thought the timing was ideal to bring the book back.
So the gears in my brain started turning; hey, this might make a great column. So, hey, Tobi, how did you get the rights? Is Higdon still alive? He is? Can I get his contact information?
(Above) Hal Higdon today. (Below) Just some of Higdon's books: One of these things is not like the other ones ...
If I had bothered to do any kind of search on Higdon instead of on just the book’s title, I would have discovered that not only is 82-year-old Higdon still very much among us, he’s still practically the Dalai Lama of distance running. He’s the author of 36 books, most of them on running, and has contributed to the sport’s bible, Runner's World magazine, longer than any other writer (he had an article printed in that publication's second issue in 1966). Through his books and his website, he estimates that he has helped a half-million runners train for and participate in marathons. He has run 111 marathons himself, competed in eight Olympic Trials, won four world masters (35+) championships, and set longstanding records in his age group. He’s one of the founders of the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA), was a finalist in NASA's Journalist-in-Space program to ride the space shuttle, and earned the Career Achievement Award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
So, how does a nice guy like that end up being a cult hero for old drag racing fans like me? I had to know. Tobi gave me Higdon’s cellphone number; I called him and — get this — he was at a marathon, in Chicago. We touched base a few days later. I found him to be engaging and entertaining, and he easily remembered the days spent with Prudhomme four decades ago. (A brief explanation of the book’s roots is included in the book’s introduction, but I’d rather hear it from the man himself.)
How did the book come about? How did he pull it off? I’ll tell you if you count to six (Six Seconds to Story by Phil Burgess).
Although running was his forte, G.P. Putnam had published his book, Pro Football U.S.A., a revealing behind-the-scenes look at what drives NFL players and had him do a similar book on auto racing. He already had an entrée to motorsports with a very successful book on the Indy 500 (30 Days in May), so for Finding the Groove he followed the football book’s successful strategy and interviewed 27 racing drivers from all forms of motorsports, asking about the secrets of their success. One of them was Prudhomme (Don Garlits was another). Higdon remembers that his interview with Prudhomme was polite and short, over a hamburger and a Coke in Van Nuys, Calif., and it took up just four pages in the book vs. 16 for Bobby Unser.
Flash forward a couple of years; Putnam asked Higdon to do a book specifically on drag racing, aimed at the teenage/young adult market, so he headed back to Indy and off to the U.S. Nationals, where his old interview subject Prudhomme won. The book did not start out to be about Prudhomme per se, but when “the Snake” won the event, it seemed a natural.
Now, for those of you familiar with the legend of Prudhomme and his intense nature back then, it’s pretty clear that he’d eat you alive or just as soon run you over than talk to you if you got in his way and that sitting down to talk about himself for some kid’s book was about as high on his to-do list as helping “the Mongoose” with his tune-up.
But Higdon had taken an interesting approach to covering the event, shooting rolls and rolls of film instead of taking notes, a shrewd move that paid off when he sat down with Prudhomme a few months later. He made a scrapbook of his images that they went through on the coffee table at Prudhomme’s home; the first one was of Prudhomme, an hour before the final. “I asked him, ‘What were you thinking about when I took this picture?’ and he got it immediately,” recalled Higdon. “It was interesting because he’d been kind of an aloof guy, trying to keep media people at a distance, but he bought into the project right away. We developed a rapport, and the book developed out of that. I still consider it one of my best books, and that was mostly because of the insight that he offered and how the story ended up being organized.”
The two had a couple of later meetings whenever Prudhomme was match racing near Higdon’s Midwest base, and he became good friends with Prudhomme and his wife, Lynn. “I came from a competitor’s background from running, so I got him because he was interested in winning,” he said. “We hit it off pretty well.”
Although they haven’t seen each other in decades — save for a chance encounter once at an airport — and the groundswell of interest in running has kept him from writing any recent books on motorsports or following Prudhomme’s career, Higdon says he is anxious to see the Snake & Mongoose film to catch up on his old friend’s life.
(Above) "The Snake," with NHRA's Wally Parks in the winner's circle after winning the 1973 U.S. Nationals, which provided the background for Six Seconds To Glory. (Below) One of Higdon's photos from the original book.
So, Hal Higdon thinks that Six Seconds to Glory is one of his best books, does he? That’s pretty good stuff. But how does the book’s subject remember the experience, and what does he think of it all these years later?
Funny you should ask, because I did ask.
I caught up with “the Snake” earlier this week as he recovered from a long weekend in Bakersfield at the California Hot Rod Reunion, and he was eager to talk about the book.
“I still have a copy of it and, as my life has slowed down a little, I’ve found the time to start doing some more reading, so I picked it up again and, you know, it was really well done,” he said. “I think it explained the sport really well, it explained me, ‘the Ace’ [Ed McCulloch], and what we were all about during that period of time and had all kinds of other things, like what Bob Brandt was doing on the starting line while I was going down the quarter-mile. He did a helluva job. If people enjoyed the movie, I think they’ll really enjoy the book."
The only disappointment for Prudhomme about the reprint is that it doesn’t have any photos. “That’s a shame because there are some really cool photos in there,” said Prudhomme, who, as we were talking, went to his bedroom to fetch his copy, which sits on his nightstand, and leafed through the pages. “Man, there’s Leroy Goldstein, Ivo, and there’s ‘Ace’ sucking on some ice while his crew works on the car. The photos alone are worth a thousand words.”
According to Tobi at Octane, Higdon was unable to find the 40-year-old photos he had originally used. “We would have included all the photos from the original printing if it had been possible, but Hal was unable to find the originals,” Tobi told me. “We considered using the images from an original print of the book, but the quality loss would have been too high. If the photos do still turn up at some point, we will revise the book on the next print run.”
ND photographer Marc Gewertz brought in his original copy for me to look through, and the photos definitely are cool, but I wouldn’t let that dissuade anyone from dropping $10 on the print-only edition. You can buy it here. You can also read an excerpt here. (And before you besiege me with emails, yes, they're aware that the top photo of the cover, circa 1982, is not period-correct, but was chosen it for its look. Both are Steve Reyes' images, by the way.)
Prudhomme also told me that Bill Stephens has been working with him on a book about his life that sounds like it might be the definitive “Snake” book if it makes it to print.
“Man, we talked for months on end, and, because I really like him, I opened up to him about my childhood, about where I’m from … everything about me, my family, growing up, why I am who I am, what drove me to do what I did. Everything. That’s the kind of stuff I like; what drives people. There’s a lot of stuff that a lot of people — including you — don't know about me, so I was looking forward to it. We’ve had some problems with some parts of getting it finished, so I’m not sure right now what’s going on, but I’ll let you know.”
I, in turn, will let you guys know, and perhaps next week I’ll share what I learned by reading Six Seconds to Glory during my trip this weekend to Las Vegas. I’ll see you next week.
A couple of weeks ago, my weekly My Favorite Fuelers column on the National Dragster website centered on Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers from the great state of Texas. I purposely omitted known heroes, like Eddie Hill, Raymond Beadle, and Kenny Bernstein, and focused on those a little further down the fame food chain, including the colorful “Big Mike” Burkhart.
I knew just the basics of Burkhart’s long career, but I reached out to longtime email pal Mart Higginbotham, who had been partners with Burkhart in the 1970s and remained close friends with him over the decades until his death in 1997, for some more background. He gave me a treasure trove of memories, so I also reached out to a couple of others, including Beadle, who once drove for Burkhart, and current Nostalgia Funny Car star (and occasional “big show” driver) John Hale, who worked for Burkhart in his non-racing businesses in the early 1980s and learned so such from him that he created a tribute car in 2010. Figuring that I now had the goods to deliver a column here, I also spoke to “the guy” linked to both Burkhart and Hale, Guy Tipton, who was Burkhart’s crew chief in the 1970s and now wrenches on Hale’s current Burkhart tribute car.
And away we go …
||Mike Burkhart and Harry Schmidt were partners on a trio of early Funny Cars in the mid- to late 1960s, including this wild, injected Chevy II (above) and a couple of Camaros (below).
Although Burkhart was, as they say in Texas, "a big boy," the layouts of the early Funny Car cockpits were more generous in size, which allowed his large frame to fit comfortably.
Even though they attended different Dallas-area schools, Higginbotham and Burkhart were pals since high school. While Higginbotham was off in college in the mid-1960s, Burkhart, who cut his racing teeth in the Super Stock ranks with a '57 Chevy, teamed with Harry Schmidt, who later would go onto his own fame with the Blue Max Funny Car, on an injected, altered-wheelbase Chevy II, sponsored by Friendly Chevrolet; a homebuilt ’67 Camaro Funny Car; and then a Don Hardy-built Camaro flopper that was run with backing from another Dallas-based dealership, Doran Chevrolet.
Burkhart came by his nickname honestly. During his racing days, he always weighed more than 300 pounds, which wasn’t a – ahem – big problem in the early days when the Hardy and Logghe chassis had square roll cages; Hardy even made the left door open of Burkhart’s car open and close like a real car to make it easier for Burkhart to get in and out, especially the latter in case of emergency.
By late 1968, Burkhart and Schmidt had parted company, and Burkhart had the car repainted. He had the car out at Green Valley Race in Smithfield, Texas, doing some burnouts and testing and had renowned photographer D.D. Cleveland taking pictures for his handouts and track promotions, but a broken brake caliper caused him to crash that day. Higginbotham, who began racing a stock car in the AHRA Formula class after completing college, was there to witness it.
“He turned around in the middle of the track and came back towards the starting line and blipped the throttle, and at that same exact time, a Hurst brake caliper broke, and he ran into the crowd and hit some posts,” recalled Higginbotham. “It damaged the car, but no one was hurt.
“I saw Mike after the accident at his ramp truck, and we talked. I told him I would pay for the repair to his car if we could build, as partners, another Hardy car and make it a Chevy II — we saw the fans’ reaction to ‘Jungle’s’ [Jim Liberman] Chevy II. He agreed, and we ordered the car that week. Mike said he thought he could get Ed Doran to sponsor another ramp truck, and we were off.”
Using the power of Burkhart’s name for booking, they fielded two cars — a Camaro for Burkhart and the Chevy II for Higginbotham — with Burkhart’s name on the back quarterpanel of both.
(Above) Mart "the Dart" Higginbotham and "Big Mike" teamed up to field a pair of Funny Cars (below). Note the working door in Burkhart's Don Hardy-built flip-top Camaro that made ingress and egress a little easier.
Higginbotham and the RFI-sponsored Vega take on Frank Oglesby.
Richard Tharp at the wheel of Burkhart's only non-Chevy, a Plymouth Satellite.
Charlie Therwanger in "Big Mike's" Vega.
David Ray in one of Burkhart's later Vegas.
Dale Emery drove for Burkhart for three seasons. This sleek Camaro met an unforgettable end at the 1977 U.S. Nationals.
Burkhart's last flopper was this Monza, run and driven by Gordon Mineo.
“Prior to driving the Chevy II, I drove Mike's Camaro in two match races to gain experience, and who would have thought? I won both of them and seemed to be a natural,” Higginbotham said. “Bookings came easy, and the car ran very well, ending the season by winning the AHRA World Finals in Tulsa, Okla., and winning the Manufacturers Meet and the 64-car Funny Car show at Irwindale.”
Bookings were going so well that that winter they had Dick Fletcher build them a third car, which Higginbotham drove while Paul Gordon inherited the Chevy II for races in the five-state area surrounding Texas. The new car, however, proved an ill handler, and, fearing for his safety, Higginbotham got back in the Chevy II.
About this time, Charlie Therwanger, who previously worked for “Mr. Chevrolet,” Dickie Harrell, got out the military and wanted to drive, so he was added to the team to run match races while Higginbotham went up north and to the East Coast following AHRA’s Grand American series.
When Don Long began building Funny Cars in California, Burkart and Higginbotham were his second customers (Leroy “Doc “Hales was the first). The car had a '71 Vega body, and Burkhart and Higginbotham got Jim Robbs at Racing Fuels Inc. to sponsor it and pay for a Chrysler 426. A second Vega was painted identical for more advertising. “The engine came from the Ramchargers, and the car was very light and quick,” Higginbotham recalls. “We ran in all the AHRA Grand American series, some NHRA races, and in the Midwest and up and down the East Coast. That year the car ran 107 races. We had a fabulous time and won the NHRA race in Palm Beach, Fla.”
Burkart and Higginbotham also agreed to let Therwanger spend what he needed to redo the Fletcher car and put a new Kirby body (more narrow and windshield lowered) on it to make it sleeker. He also put a Crowerglide and Lenco two-speed in it,” recalled Higginbotham. “It was booked on the East Coast and at all IHRA meets. It quickly became the country’s quickest and fastest all-Chevy-engine and -body car. Charles won the IHRA Rockingham Meet the same weekend I won in Florida.
“Mike was so well known in the area that all the track promoters would call him for shows, and he put together many six-eight-car meets and charged the other drivers and stayed busy all the time.”
They raced together through another successful season in 1972 — Burkhart with a Tony Casarez-built car and Higginbotham in another Long machine — capped by Higginbotham’s Grand Am win in St. Louis. They split up late in the year, each to pursue his interests. Burkhart created a fabulously successful business, Auxiliary Gas Tank Co., that sold (surprise!) auxiliary gas tanks for cars and trucks, just in time for the Energy Crisis that consumed the country in the following years, while Higginbotham raced on his own.
“The split was perfect and friendly, and I can't say enough good things about him,” said Higginbotham. “He taught me all that I knew about Funny Cars and how to drive them. Mike was a great driver and was one of the best levers on the Christmas Tree that I ever saw,” he added, “probably due to the Chevy-engine years. Leave first and wait for that big Chrysler to come on at the big end. Size and traction compound always helped a Chevrolet.”
In May 1973, Higginbotham quit racing due to a divorce and went back to being a C.P.A. Eventually he went into the wrecker business with former racing friend Jim Coursey and built Walnut Hill Wrecker in Dallas. He got married and had two wonderful kids, one a lawyer and the other a college soccer coach. Mike and I saw each other occasionally over the years until he died.
Before he passed away in November 1997 , Burkhart had several other drivers, including Beadle, David Ray, Richard Tharp, Dale Emery, and “Flash Gordon” Mineo, who kept his name alive in the Funny Car ranks for many years. Mineo was the final driver in 1979, although Burkhart’s involvement in that car was minimal; Burkhart having decided to back off after Emery’s unforgettable accident at the 1977 U.S. Nationals.
I ran into Beadle at the event in Dallas last month, where he and Tharp and Dave Settles and other Texas legends were holed up in Billy Meyer’s private suite at Texas Motorplex. He was one of the last people to see Burkhart alive.
“Mike was diabetic and was always bumping his leg on his desk, and one time, he got a big ol’ sore on his leg that forced him to go into the hospital,” he remembered. “While he was in there, he got a staph infection, and that’s what ended up killing him.”
Burkhart played a big role in Beadle’s career, too, hiring him in late 1972, and Beadle’s debut was a great one, reaching the semifinals of the PRO event in Tulsa.
“Everybody in the world was there,” Beadle recalled. “I had to sit on a pillow to be able to see over the steering wheel with his big ol’ seat. All the spare parts he gave me could fit in a cigar box: some spark plugs, a set of bearings, some rings … we used up everything. We got down to the semifinals, and all four of us — me and Bo-Weevil and [Don] Prudhomme and [Tom] McEwen agreed to split the money four ways. We’d been low e.t. every round, but I said, ‘Hell, count me in,’ and then I went out and kicked the rods out that run. Good timing. I called Burkhart and told him we’d made it to the semifinals but kicked the rods out, but the good news is that we cut the money up. That made him happy.”
Beadle didn’t stay with Burkhart long because Don Schumacher hired him (“and everyone else there,” he laughed) to drive his second car. Ray followed Beadle into the cockpit and won the Coca-Cola Cavalcade series championship.
Beadle remembers Burkhart as a fun guy but an interesting character.
“Mike liked to collect things … cars, antiques, pinball machines, you name it. He had warehouses full of [stuff]. He’d buy stuff from all over the place and put them in the warehouse. No one knew what he had until he died, except him. Trust me, he knew where everything was," said Beadle. "He was very meticulous, writing everything down in this little-bitty print. He could write an encyclopedia on a postage stamp. If you’d have him do something for you, he’d give you a bill — it’s comical now, but back then, it wasn’t — he’d have ‘washer, three cents,’ this or that for a penny, two cents. He didn’t give you [anything] for free, but you couldn’t bitch about the bill because it was all legitimate.”
I caught up with Hale and Tipton as they were on the road to Bakersfield for this weekend’s California Hot Rod Reunion. I’d first met Hale earlier this year while covering his “big show” debut in Seattle, where he’d shared his background with “Big Mike,” and continued the conversation this past Tuesday as they motored west to California.
Hale first went to work for Burkhart in 1979, following his brother, who had worked on some of Burkhart’s Funny Cars, into his employ. Hale worked at Auxiliary and learned, through Burkhart’s four-wheel-drive accessories company, how to install tanks, work on suspensions, and “a lot about life,” he added.
“Mike was a good guy, but he could be hard on you, so I learned at an early age about working hard and being tough,” he said. “
Hale worked for Burkhart through the mid-1980s and saw a lot of the same traits mentioned by Beadle; Burkhart was very good with money.
“Once he got interested in something, it became a collection, no matter what it was,” he remembered. “He would buy and sell stuff by the truckload for his business. We’d be unloading tons of grille guards and realized that they’d probably make a new model of the truck it was designed for before we ever sold them all, but he was always thinking. In his mind, if he bought them for half-price, he was going to find a way to sell them.
“He paid us cash under the table, but if you showed up late one day that week, he’d knock your hourly pay down a dollar for that week. He’d loan you money if you were short on cash, but he’d charge you a dollar for every 10 he loaned you. I heard that if you came by his trailer at the races to borrow even a gasket, he’d write it down or make you pay for it; even if he got it free through a sponsorship, you didn’t get it for free.
“He always carried a roll of money, probably a couple of grand, in his shirt pocket — that was his cash register for the truck and tank shop — but he had an even bigger roll in his left front pocket; we think he always had another 10 grand in there. If someone came in with a car or something they wanted to sell out in the parking lot, he didn’t have to go to the bank.”
Hale’s job description also called for mowing Burkhart’s lawn and running errands for Burkhart and his wife. “I wasn’t just a regular employee, he trusted me, and that always stuck with me,” he said. “When I decided to build a Funny Car in 2010, I remembered seeing a picture of his ’74 Monza on the wall of an office at the gas tank company. It was just a bitchen-looking paint job; I had no idea I’d ever own a Funny Car. When I finally got the car, I was kicking around ideas for the paint jobs and putting my name on the side of the car, and John Powers told me, ‘No one gives a damn about John Hale; you need to do a paint job that everyone can relate to.’ It took about 20 minutes for me decide to use the paint scheme from the Monza. Even though it’s not a sponsor [it’s a Camaro], the paint looks correct, and I don’t think anyone cares.”
Tipton joined the Burkhart team in 1967, when Burkhart and Schmidt were campaigning the homebuilt Camaro. He had known the duo from the local racing season, and, while partnered with Bill Hielscher, had competed against Burkhart in the Super Stock ranks. He was there through the team’s rapid growth and expansion, through Burkhart’s retirement from driving, and remained friends with him long after he left his employ.
“He was real good, real honest, and real strict, and real gung-ho about racing,” Tipton reflected. “After Emery crashed, he just kinda gave up on it. He’d already had to stop driving because of his size and the way the new cars had a more narrow cage.”
Tipton worked for a number of teams in the three decades since, highlighted by his work on Kenny Bernstein’s 2001 Top Fuel championship team, but also worked for Earl Whiting and Gene Snow and spent four years on Tom McEwen’s ’57 Chevy Funny Car that, in a way, began the whole nostalgia Funny Car craze.
He knew Hale from his time with Burkhart and became friends, so when Hale approached him with his idea to honor their mutual friend, he didn’t have to think twice, and championships and race wins have followed with regularity.
“It was an easy decision; it was like going back 30 years,” he said, “with the same kind of combination and better parts. We don’t win all the races, but we run real good wherever we go. It’s been a lot of fun.”
A tribute that I’m sure "Big Mike” would enjoy.