Be true to your schoolWednesday, September 17, 2008
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Voted most likely to become a drag racing editor?

We didn't have a drag racing team, so I had to settle for volleyball. That's me, number 5.

This weekend, while I'm in Dallas getting a big charge out of covering the O’Reilly Super Start Batteries NHRA Fall Nationals presented by Castrol Syntec, I’ll be missing my 30-year high school reunion, which will take place Saturday in Culver City, Calif., where I grew up.

The Venice High School class of 1978 will get together to  renew acquaintances, mourn lost friends, chuckle to themselves about their classmates' thickening bellies and thinning hairlines, and probably realize that a lot more of them will be missing by the 40th reunion.

I was part of a huge graduating class – 972 strong – that set off into the world to make our ways and our fortunes, and I'm sure that many of them have succeeded wildly. I was a B-plus student yet ranked just 172nd in the class, so you know we had some smart cookies. Our class name was Asahi, which is Japanese for Rising Sun (although there were plenty of jokes about us being named after the then-popular beer); it was the dawn of our adult lives, and I can’t help wondering what the class clown, the street racer, the all-city jock, the cheerleader, the Romeo, or the valedictorian did with their lives. Did they shine brightly, or did the sun set on their lives too soon? Would my old high school girlfriend still have a soft spot for me? Would my best buddies recognize me?

I'm not all that broken up about missing the deal. I remember the first and last reunion I went to, our 10th, in 1988. I had been the editor of National DRAGSTER for just two years but was quite proud of myself and my fast rise into the position, but 20 years later, I can still remember the sarcastic tone of said girlfriend's voice when we exchanged business cards. "Oh, great; if I ever need a story about a dragster, I'll be sure to call you." Ouch.

Serendipitously, I've spent a great deal of time lately "living" in the year of my birth, 1960, working with "T.V. Tommy" Ivo on tales about his nationwide tour that year with young crewmember Don Prudhomme and researching and conducting a host of interviews about the late Leonard Harris, the 1960 Nationals champ who was tragically killed just weeks after his triumph.

Even though you can still find it via Google Maps' Street View, Albertson Olds (and later Chevrolet) closed several months ago.

Harris was a Venice High grad – class of 1950 – and a national champion gymnast before he became a superstar racer, and I'm learning a whole lot more about my old hometown. Harris' car, owned by Gene Adams and Ronnie Scrima, was sponsored by the Albertson Oldsmobile dealership on Sepulveda Boulevard in Culver City, less than a mile from where I grew up. Many was the time I bicycled past Albertson Olds and its trademark parking-lot rocketship as a teenager on the way to Wheel World so we could customize our Schwinn Stingrays or a few years later sat just a block north on Sepulveda enjoying a burger at Johnny's Pastrami after a long night cruising the town, not knowing that someday it would hold a place of esteem in my heart as having been the sponsor of a big-time racing team.

I didn't realize that less than a half block down Sepulveda, at its intersection with Washington Boulevard, once sat the Piccadilly Drive-in, Culver City's answer to Burbank's Bob's Big Boy, home of the Road Kings of Ivo, Prudhomme, and crew. Alternatively, a few miles south, at the corner of Sepulveda and Jefferson, was Nineteen, named for its 19-cent burgers. From either place, it was just a short ride to long, juicy straightaways like Jefferson, which ran a mile and a half from Centinela Avenue to Lincoln Boulevard in front of the Hughes Aircraft plant, or up Lincoln Hill to Pershing Drive, which ran behind Los Angeles Int'l Airport and offered a near-mile-long run between Imperial Highway and World Way West devoid of side streets and innocent civilians, a site that was still a popular "proving ground" for tramps like us in the mid-'70s.

Despite its slightly goofy-looking mascot – the grinning Gunther Gondolier – a mildly insipid inspirational motto -- Rowing Not Drifting -- and the fact that it doubled for Rydell High in the sappy film Grease, I'm not sure any high school could match the all-star lineup of drag racing stars who received their diplomas from this hallowed institution, which opened in 1911.

John Peters, who raced his way into your hearts as owner of the twin-engine Freight Train Top Gas dragster, and his late partner, Nye Frank, are Gondo alumni, and Peters' wife, Bev, assembled for me a list of known drag racers who attended our school.

How's this for a list: Mike Sorokin, driver, Surfers Top Fueler (class of 1957, according to his son, Adam); drag racing pioneer "Jazzy Jim" Nelson; drag racer and land-speed record holder Craig Breedlove; Junior Fuel racers Hank Bender and Ron Hier (Hier was classmates with another famous VHS alum, Apollo VII astronaut Walter Cunningham); Bill Adair (Fox-Holding-Adair AA/FD); Walt Stevens of Odd Couple twin-engine gasser fame; Frank "Root Beer" Hedges, whose A&W-sponsored AA/FD Stevens drove; gas dragster ace Mickey Brown, who, like Harris, was killed at Lions while test-driving an unfamiliar car; gasser driver and chassis builder Ed Weddle and his partner, Marshall Nicols; Jim Boyd  (Red Turkey AA/FD); Lester Zerbel (A/Gas Willys); Roland Dove (Street Stock); and Tom and Joe Masek and Rick and Rickie Snavley (Pro Street).

(In addition to a strong drag racing legacy, Venice turned out some pretty good athletes, especially in football, including former San Francisco 49ers cornerback Dana McLemore [a classmate of mine], former Oakland Raiders linebacker Larry Atkins, two-time L.A. Rams/Cleveland Browns Pro Bowler Leon Clarke, and Buffalo Bills quarterback J.P. Losman. Two current college stars, USC tailback Curtis "Moody" McNeal and UCLA wide receiver Jerry Johnson, are recent grads under coach Angelo Gasca, who was the starting QB at Venice during my years there. VHS also produced Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Doug Slaten, 1948 Olympic gold medalist Clifford Bourland, actors Beau Bridges, Gary Collins, and Myrna Loy, singer/songwriter Teena Marie, and legendary Disney animator Les Clark, one of Disney's Nine Old Men.)

"We had a helluva group of guys," Bender told me recently during our interview about Harris. "The Piccadilly was the hotbed for hot rodders from everywhere. You have to remember, too, that Edelbrock and Isky were in Culver City, and Engle and Quincy's automotive were just a few miles away over in Santa Monica."

Stevens recalled that he and Sorokin used to cruise both Picadilly and the Nineteen or the S&W Root Beer stand or The Clock drive-in, then head over to Culver Boulevard or by LAX to watch the street races. Custom-car designer George Barris was a Piccadilly regular and holds an annual Cruisin' Back to Culver City car show each May. Dick Kraft, whose The Bug is called by many the first dragster and now resides in the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum, also reportedly hung out at the Piccadilly.

I missed those golden years, and although my buddies and I did our best to uphold the city's fine hot rod heritage, slapping headers, shift kits, fat tires, and big carbs on our parents' hand-me-down vehicles, it just couldn't have been the same.

The Texas Motorplex is different, too, since my first visit there in 1986, and the race cars different from my first trip to the drags in 1970. I'll be missing my high school reunion but enjoying my regular reunion with my other longtime friends at the drags.

Well, your favorite drag racing storyteller (I am your favorite, right?) and my hero and his, Tommy Ivo, are a little red-faced after evidence came to light that "T.V. Tom's" reception was a little fuzzy when he shared with us photos of Concord Drag-O-Way, some of which, it turns out, were actually from Roanoke, Va., and the track where he almost went off the cliff was in Ohio, not North Carolina.


(Above) Ivo and the Concord poster. (Below) Ivo needs a filing system.

The harsh light of reality was shed upon the subject by Lee Martin of Atomic Pinup, who sent the photo at right of Roanoke, and former Concord Drag-O-Way strip operator Bill Garland, who also created the neat pencil-drawn posted pictured below, which was not actually posted around town as Ivo remembers but was an insert into their weekly mailing called Quarter Notes

"The picture of the shed where we inspected the cars is correct, but his description of the dragstrip itself and the photo supposedly being the Concord dragstrip is greatly in error," wrote Garland. "My strip was better than this; we did not have telephone poles for guard fence posts. Our spectator fence was first class for the time and far better than any other strip. It was 110 feet back from the strip and was woven-wire fencing on correct posts. Although the shutdown was uphill and only about 800 feet of it was paved, there was 500 feet of well-maintained dirt past the paving that we kept clear and smooth.

"The picture showing what is labeled as the Concord track is actually the Roanoke strip where Ivo ran the previous Sunday. The pictures of Ivo's car over the embankment was an outlaw place where Ivo agreed to run on Friday night on his way to my strip on Saturday.  When he and 'Snake' got to my place, they were late (after dark), and the car still had red mud all in the front wheels and nose from running off the end of that so-called dragstrip. We actually had running water (imagine that) and provided them with a hose, etc., to clean up the car with some of my strip crewmembers."

"Well, what can I say? Right church, wrong pew?" wrote Ivo. "Here's a picture of the 35mm slide box I had labeled sometime after we came home from the tour, when I had the pictures developed and had time to file them away. That's what I was going by. By the time I got around to labeling and filing away the pictures, I had the [My Little] Margie series going, Tommy Ivo Speed Specialties chassis shop going, the four-engine car running back East with [Ron] Pellegrini, running with the Ivo-Zeuschel fuel car, plus my father had just passed away, leaving me the 'head of the household.' Instead of being the kid my parents couldn't get to move out -- well, I owned the house. After Zeuschel was bouncing so many parts off my helmet, it was no wonder I became dazed and confused. 

"We were at Roanoke on that trip as well, so that adds up. Boy, am I red-faced!"

Red-faced or not, good memory or not, I'm still eager to hear "T.V. Tom's" tales about his 1960 tour with Prudhomme. I'm not about to let the facts get in the way of a good story!

I'll check in with you guys Friday from Dallas.

Posted by: Phil Burgess

The man, the myth, the legend: "Wild Bill" Shrewsberry

Shrewsberry, second from left, drove more than wheelstanders. He's pictured with crewmember Dee Catton, left, and car owner Jack Chrisman after setting the A/FX national record in 1964 in Chrisman's unblown Comet.

The first L.A. Dart, born in 1965, had the engine in the backseat.

Whether it was yanking all four wheels off the ground or driving while standing up through the windshield, "Wild Bill" lived up to his nickname.

(Above) The last L.A. Dart was this Funny Car-style entry. Shrewsberry crashed it in Ontario, Calif. (below), one of three wrecks in his career. "It bent the spindles when it landed at the top end, and the car just flipped over. What a mess. I ran it the next week, though."

Shrewsberry piloted the famed Batmobile during a promotional tour for the TV show. Click here to watch a video of the car in action at Irwindale.

Shrewsberry's final hurrah was in the early 1980s with the Berry Wagon, in association with Knott's Berry Farm.

Drag racers don’t get nicknames with the word “wild” in them for driving conservatively on the dragstrip, and in three decades of quarter-mile madness, most of it on two wheels, “Wild Bill” Shrewsberry certainly lived up to his monkeyshines moniker.

Shrewsberry is well-known and fondly remembered by Southern California race fans as the driver of the candy-striped L.A. Dart wheelstander that wowed and wheelied its way into our hearts in the 1960s and ‘70s.

The red and white Dodge, nominated by readers of this column for our Favorite Race Car Ever poll, was a mainstay of SoCal tracks such as Irwindale and Orange County, and “Wild Bill’s” rodeo was no one-trick pony. Whether it was a wild starting-line spinout into a wheelie, a spark-trailing wheelstand much longer than the quarter-mile itself, flames spouting from the headers, or his most famous trick -- driving while standing up through the car’s windshield area – “Wild Bill” was certainly that.

I was a big Shrewsberry fan growing up, and, in fact, the L.A. Dart was the first model I ever built. The thing was so outrageous looking -- with a big ol’ supercharged Hemi sticking out of the trunk -- that it looked like something straight out of Saturday morning cartoons.

It took a little bit of searching and the help of another famed quarter-miler, female pioneer Paula Murphy, and her son, Dan, to track down the wild one, who’s now a spry 70 and living in Cathedral City, Calif., near Palm Springs, enjoying his retirement and flying radio-controlled helicopters for fun.

Shrewsberry didn’t begin as a quarter-mile entertainer but as a serious racer, piloting A/FX entries for the likes of Mickey Thompson and Jack Chrisman. He won class at the 1963 Winternationals in Thompson’s factory-issue Super Duty 421 Lemans and, after Pontiac halted its racing activities later that year, took over the wheel of Chrisman’s first Sachs & Sons Comet, the predecessor to his famous supercharged model, eventually setting the national speed record at 127.53 mph in Inyokern, Calif., and making his first – and only – appearance on a National DRAGSTER cover (May 29, 1964).

Shrewsberry had moved west from his native Mansfield, Ohio, to take the job wheeling Chrisman’s Mercury, and that car paved the path to wheelstander stardom.

“We were in Hawaii in 1964 with the Comet, and I was out on a boat with George Hurst and Ray Brock of Hot Rod magazine,” recalled Shrewsberry. “Hurst kept telling me he had this new car he wanted me to drive. It was a Barracuda with the motor in the back. I could picture it, but it didn’t make any sense to me. George was getting a little inebriated by this time and kept asking me and asking me, and Ray finally told me to just tell him I would just so he would stop asking.

“I really didn’t think much of it after that, but six weeks later, Hurst called me up and told me to come pick it up. I decided I would go back and check it out, so I went back to their headquarters, which were in Royal Oak, Mich., and the thing was a mess. I had to work on it six weeks to get it race ready. It had a Corvette independent rear suspension, and the wheels would toe in when you launched and kill the motor, so I put a straight axle under it.”

That car, of course, was the legendary Hemi Under Glass (so-called for the ’68 'Cuda huge rear glass), and although the car was intended to be a straight-up race vehicle, it didn’t take Shrewsberry long to discover the car’s true talent.

“I was screwing around with it in the parking lot, the front end kept coming up, so I put some bigger tires on it, and it came right up,” he remembered. “It was never Hurst’s intention for the car to do wheelies; it was more like an experimental car with an experimental shifter.

“We took it to Bristol for the Springnationals in 1965 for an exhibition, and I put some 10-inch tires on it. It not only lifted the front tires up but also the rear tires when I hit on the bumper. Everyone went crazy. There weren’t any wheelstander cars back then -- Bill Golden had his [Little Red Wagon] truck, of course, but there were no wheelie cars.

“Originally the car was carbureted, but it would only go 300 to 400 feet before it got starved for gas, so we put injectors on it, and that solved that problem.”

Hurst originally had planned to run the Hemi Under Glass for one season and had hoped that Shrewsberry would pilot their next experimental machine, the wild Hurst Hairy Olds, but by then, Shrewsberry had already put together a deal for 1966 with the L.A./Orange County Dodge Dealers to campaign a Dodge Dart wheelstander that became the famed L.A. Dart.

“I was in heaven,” he said. “I got a push truck and motor parts and everything. That paint scheme wasn’t really my idea; Dodge colors were red, and they had a [plastic] model of a Dart, which was white. I told them I didn’t care how they painted it."

The first version of the car had an injected engine in the backseat, but the later and better-known cars, including his best-remembered car, the 1970 machine, had a full-race supercharged engine in the trunk for better weight transfer.

“Keith Black told me I should run a blower because I wouldn’t have to work the engine so hard, but I told him I didn’t know anything but blowers, and he said he would teach me everything I needed to know. I had an aluminum KB hemi with magnesium parts, all the good stuff, and a Lenco two-speed with a Crower clutch; a lot of the other wheelstander guys ran automatics.”

Shrewsberry’s trademark move was to drive back toward the starting line after a full-track wheelie and throw the car into a 180-degree spin, then nail the gas as the car was climbing the ring gear right back into another wheelie. The crowd ate it up. He’d also richen the barrel valve to produce flames from the headers and whatever else he could think of. “I did whatever I could get away with,” he admitted.

“Wild Bill’s” wildest stunt was driving his car, in full wheelstand, while standing up through the car’s open windshield area at speeds approaching 120 mph.

“I knew I could do it, and the people went crazy,” recalled Shrewsberry, who braced his right hand on the windshield frame and used his left on the wheel to keep the front tires straight for landing, all the while steering with the brake pedals. “I only got to do it three or four times before [NHRA Event Director] Jack Hart called me into the NHRA offices and told me, very politely, that he knew what I’d been doing and that I couldn’t do it anymore, but to tell everyone I got my ass chewed out really good about it.”

A sleek, Funny Car-style Dart followed in the mid 1970s, and he began the 1980s with a panel wagon truck sponsored by the berry-loving Knott family, of Knott’s Berry Farm (Shrewsberry, obviously, was a perfect fit), but by the middle 1980s, Shrewsberry had had enough of his nomadic life as an exhibition wheelstander driver.

“I just got tired of doing it and had other offers,” he says. “The traveling just kills you. We’d run Great Meadows, N.J., Saturday night and Sunday in Union Grove, Wis., from Muncie, Ind., Saturday night to Tulsa, Okla., Sunday. It finally got to be too much. I had a lot of fun and got to go to a lot of places, like Australia many times in the winter, but in the end, it was just time.”

Shrewsberry left the wheelie business and took flight in other ways, as a commercial pilot of Gulfstream jets leased to Warner Bros., whose executives probably would have gotten queasy if they had known about their pilot’s previous antics.

Shrewsberry didn’t limit his driving to wheelstanders. He won class in Indy in 1968 in Sox & Martin’s SS/E and ran a factory ’68 Dart Stocker for engine maestro Black.

He also drove another very famous vehicle, the Batmobile from the famous Batman television series, in 1967.

“George Barris built it and talked to me about driving it, and I drove it for the studio,” he remembered. “It had a good motor – a blueprinted 427 with two fours – and transmission; it was a good car, very lightweight. It ran in the low 12s at 118.”

Still, it will be the famous Dart for which he is long remembered, and fans who saw it in its heyday and those who never did will be able to view it soon when it takes up residence in 2009 in the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum presented by Automobile Club of Southern California.

“Wally Parks always said he wanted it there,” said Shrewsberry. “Garlits wants it for his museum, Petersen wants it for theirs, but I decided to put it in the NHRA museum.”

Shrewsberry says he still gets recognized when he attends the NHRA Museum Twilight Cruises with longtime pal Dave McClelland and remembers his time in the spotlight fondly.

“I probably had more fun than the people who watched me,” he told me.

Doubtful, “Wild Bill,” very doubtful.

Blog addendum: I had confessed to "Wild Bill" during our interview about my early model-building efforts with his car and how hard I tried to replicate the stripes using Scotch tape. I guess I wasn't alone because people were selling stripe kits on eBay for a hefty price. "Wild Bill" said he would send me a new kit, a reissue of the original AMT kit produced by Model King, that includes the stripes as decals, as designed by Sean Svendsen and authenticated by Shrewsberry himself, and I said thanks but didn't give it a second thought, never even gave him the address here. Lo and behold, three days later, one arrived. Thanks, "Wild Bill," for everything.

Concord, N.C., 1960 styleThursday, September 11, 2008
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Tommy Ivo and Don Prudhomme, ready to hit the road, March 1960.

"This was the Concord supertrack, 1960 style.  One quarter-mile of flat track, and then an eighth-mile shutoff  going uphill. The telephone pole guardrails had chains linked between them that were badly sagging but mostly gone. Note the return road that went over hill to the right side of the track.  It was little more than a dirt path."

"This is the main entrance into the track. It ran around the tech-inspection area, which was a double carport attached on to an old farmhouse that was the main office."

"T.V. Tommy" Ivo has always been a great self-promoter – witness his television career, four-engine Showboat, glass-sided trailer ... heck, the guy even unabashedly signs his correspondence "your hero and mine, TV Tom" – and with this weekend's NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series event in Concord/Charlotte, I wasn't surprised to hear from him about his racing trips to the Carolinas in 1960.

Ivo actually carpet bombed a number of NHRA employees and others in the news-dissemination business last week with an e-mail and photos that he first sent to me back in early July to gauge my interest (which, as you could imagine, was high), so you'll probably see some of these photos on the ESPN show this weekend from Charlotte, but, because y'all were savvy enough to come here first, you'll know the (say it with me) story behind the story.

Of course, as anyone who has ever dealt with Ivo knows, you have to work with him on "Ivo time," which means no calls before 3 p.m. (or "first thing in the morning," as he calls it), which makes writing an article a bigger challenge. Once I got him on the horn (kinda weird to say "Good morning" to someone at 4 p.m.), he was a delightful interview, full of stories and enthusiasm belying his 72 years of age. Honestly, he sounded 18 again.

The 1960 tour was Ivo's first, and the story is even more interesting because he made the trek eastward from his Southern California base with his famed Kent Fuller-built twin-engine Buick dragster with his best buddy, an inexperienced 18-year-old car painter named Don Prudhomme.

Prudhomme, who had been painting cars with his dad, Newman (aka "Tex") at a San Fernando Valley body shop, Ray Brooks Auto Body, had joined the famed Road Kings car club to which Ivo already belonged, and before long, they were, in Ivo's words, "stony-eyed bosom buddies."

Ivo had some experience traveling from his already-burgeoning show-biz career (he appeared in dozens of films as a child and teenager; filmography), but Prudhomme was eager to hit the road despite it being his first trip anywhere without his parents.

"I was Ivo's gofer," Prudhomme told Tom Madigan in his book Fuel & Guts. "Cleaning the car, wiping tires, polishing chrome, and fixing broken parts. In reality, I was going to drag racing college, learning my trade. Ivo was a hard runner, and racing was serious business. We got paid to race, and he didn't want to miss any paychecks. Ivo was a great guy to learn from, and he taught me a lot."

The two left Southern California in the last week of March on what Ivo, then 24 ("going on 17," he admits), calls their "grand adventure" and came home the first week of September. After a number of stops and adventures – including running the twin down the straightaway of a dirt track -- they arrived in Concord the first part of August, but Concord Drag-O-Way was a far cry from zMax Dragway.

"After pulling through the overhang of a barn where they gave the cars a tech inspection, you pitted in the weed-patched dirt," recalled Ivo. "Only the narrow track itself was paved with about a 30-foot approach apron that you would drag bottom on and which they kept sweeping dirt off.

"The track was on flat ground to the finish line where it went abruptly up the side of a steep hill to a very short shutoff. The grandstands alongside the track were two-tier wood-bench-type setups, and you could walk right out into the staging lanes to watch me get in the car. Where's the race control, guys?

"If you didn't get it stopped by the time you hit the small plateau at the top, it was 'Geronimo!' off the edge of a cliff! They had put up short telephone poles with steel cables running between them as a catch net, 1960s style; they were big on telephone poles at that track. The guardrails were big chains linked between poles that were there in some places and not in others.

"The light poles were spaced far enough apart and dim enough. That made it look like an old-time flicker movie when driving up the track at night, as it was getting light, dark, light, dark, light, dark, but it was touted to be the best-lit track in the South.

"Their promotion budget was awesome as well. How do you like that hand-drawn pencil poster they made up and made copies of to put around town? And a buck to get in! To see a movie star!"

Ivo found out the hard way about the shutdown area, and though he didn't quite have to yell "Geronimo," he got close.

"I had made two short shutoff runs, but, of course, you had to make one hero run for them," he said. "The chute hesitated a bit coming out, and when I leveled out on the plateau, I was almost stopped and didn't want to tear up the front of the car on the catch net, so I veered to the right and hit a long mound of dirt that they had run across the edge of the cliff. It jumped the front end over it, slid down to the rear wheels, and just hung there by them.

"When I came to a halt, I wiggled around in the seat a couple of times to see if it was going any further and then released the seat belts and bailed out."

Prudhomme rolled up with the team's push car – a Cadillac, naturally – and while Prudhomme ran around trying to figure out how to get the car back on level ground, the first thing that Ivo did -- naturally -- was to grab his camera and run up the side of the adjacent side hill to take pictures. 

"With a lot of help we got off the hill, but it was one of the highlights of the trip and about as good of an example of yesterday's and today's drag racing as I can think of.," he said. "Absolutely black and white difference between this track and that four-lane, dual-track, all-concrete, behemoth that's there now. Then and now -- before and after -- the evolution of drag racing! From the pictures they showed on TV, it's got to be the one of the spiffiest, if not the spiffiest track I've ever seen."

My interview with Ivo only further piqued my curiousity about the tour, especially when the master prankster began regaling me with the tales of how he terrorized Prudhomme throughout their adventure. "He paid his dues going on tour with me," Ivo said with relish.

The good news for everyone here is that we'll be delving deeper into that story in the coming weeks; you'll get a firsthand look at life on the road in the 1960s, barnstorming across the country as Ivo and Prudhomme began to mold themselves into the drag racing heroes they would become.

Ivo has a great memory and some great photos to go with it; it's going to be fun, but I thought you'd enjoy this teaser, just ripe in timing for this weekend's event in Charlotte.

See ya Monday.

Stone, Woods & Cook: From the insideMonday, September 08, 2008
Posted by: Phil Burgess

When ND published a story in 1984 about the great 1964 Lions Drag Strip match race of Stone, Woods & Cook versus "Big John" Mazmanian, we also arranged a reunion of sorts. (Above) Leonard Woods Jr. and his dad, Tim, flanked their driver, Doug Cook. (Below) "Cookie" and Mazmanian wheelman "Bones" Balough.

Cook's son, Mike, who restored Swindler A, is working on a restoration of the team's Dark Horse 2 Mustang gasser, his dad's final ride.

Within 30 minutes of posting the final results of our Favorite Race Car Ever poll Friday, I got two phone calls: one from Mike Cook, son of Stone, Woods & Cook pilot Doug Cook, and the second from Steve Gibbs, who told me that Leonard Woods, son of team founder Tim Woods, was eager to talk to me about the outcome of our little project here. A few minutes later, Leonard and I were sharing memories, too.

Both were literally over the moon that you all displayed such love for a very important part of their lives and wanted to fill in some of the blanks in the story and share their memories of that magical era.

The second-generation Cook, who today is heavily involved in land-speed racing at Bonneville and El Mirage, had been following the progression of the polls but had been at Bonneville recently and was only just tipped off about the final round.

"I know the popularity of the car -- we sell T-shirts and hats to people all over the world -- but when you’re so close to it, you don’t realize how big it is until something like this happens," he said. "We've been watching the poll – I have a whole notebook page full of the tallying as it went on – and I couldn't wait for you to get back from Indy [to close the voting]. We were hoping we could win, but because they still run [the Winged Express in exhibitions] it’s still very popular. I figured we could beat them but wasn't 100 percent sure because some of the people who followed that era aren’t really computer literate. I just wanted to thank you for putting together the poll. My family, all of us, we really appreciate it."

Woods, 62, the son of team co-founder Fred Woods and for years also an important part of the team, was equally thrilled. "I'm really elated; I feel like I just won Indy," he said. "What a great, great tribute to drag racers. Looking at all those cars brings back great memories. I'm sure my dad and a lot of people are smiling down on it.

"We've had so much fun with the voting; I can't tell you all of the people who have called," said Woods, who has owned and operated Chino Hills Ford, just a few miles from NHRA HQ, since 1982. "I even called Fred Stone's widow and told her about it, and she was very excited."

While Woods took a bow for the win, he did it with acknowledgements to many.

"The Stone-Woods-Cook car and whatever accolades it won are really a testimony to that particular class and that era and the competition that went on," he told me. "I talked with [fellow former A/Gas Supercharged legend] Junior Thompson and told him we needed his vote because Stone, Woods & Cook would not be where it is if we hadn't been racing him and the other cars. That's what made the class and helped make the car famous.

"There were just so many wonderful cars in the poll, and the Freight Train was always one of my favorites, as was the Winged Express," added Woods, whose son, Tim III, races in NASCAR West with engines built by Freight Train owner John Peters and his son, Brad. "They were all marvelous competitors, and I feel blessed to have seen all of those cars run. This poll's really got a buzz going; thank you for including us in it."

The Woods family also remains good friends with the Cook family. The younger Cook, 53, who is restoring the Dark Horse 2 Mustang Funny Car and still has the '37 Chevy in which his dad began his racing career – in fact, his son, Mike Jr. got married in it – runs Cook Motorsports in Norco, Calif., and oversees the racing efforts of his son, who drives a "Cook-blue" highboy roadster built by his dad and grandfather that recently set class records and, like his dad, is a member of the Bonneville and El Mirage 200-mph clubs.

After Doug Cook was badly injured in a top-end flip in the Dark Horse 2, he and Mike actually worked on the Funny Car of onetime rival "Big John" Mazmanian, then went to Bonneville, where Mike ran 295 mph against a 255-mph record with a Pat Foster-built car and had the first stock-bodied car, an Avanti, to run 200 at El Mirage.

"My dad and I were very close, and when he passed, I went into a tailspin for about six or seven months," Cook recalled. "He was more than my dad; he was my best friend, and sometimes, it felt like he was my kid. My dad was a simple man; he was so humble that he'd be embarrassed over the results of all of this. When I'd have him sign autographs at the races, it was like a little kid getting his first kiss. My parents were divorced, so my dad would pick me up on the way to Fontana or Pomona. I never got to travel with them, but I got to go to all the big races here in California.

"When I retired [Swindler A] in 1982, Hot Rod magazine put it on its center spread and called it 'the most famous drag car of all time.' We knew it was still popular, but yours was a big poll. This is all very overwhelming to our whole family."

Woods was born Timothy Leonard Woods Jr., but he went by Leonard Woods Jr., and it was Leonard's name that was on the doors of the Willys, not his dad's.

"My dad liked it as a family sport, a team sport; it was something that he and I could do together," said Woods, who began working on the team car as a teenager while attending boarding school at St. John Bosco High in Bellflower, Calif. "I think he felt the need to put my name on it and as a hook to keep me interested in such a wholesome sport, plus he was a little concerned with the liability his construction company might face if something happened. He was very concerned with spectators and safety, and with some of the tracks we ran on and those cars running at the speed they were with high centers of gravity and the tires and engines of the times, they were a handful to drive."

His father's construction company was at the time the largest minority-owned construction company west of the Mississippi and second largest in the United States, with as many as 200 employees and 40-plus jobs going at any time, varying from new construction to building subdivisions and apartments all over Southern California and remodeling.

"I went to every race I could that didn't interfere with school, and when we raced locally in California, I was able to go to all of them," he remembered. When the team later based itself out of Gary, Ind., and Leonard was attending the University of Notre Dame, he was a constant fixture with the team during the Midwest gasser wars.

"In 1964, we had 53 race dates between April and October, as ran as many as three or four times a week," he said. "We'd run round-robin against George Montgomery, Junior Thompson, and K.S. Pittman, and later 'Big John' sometimes substituted for Junior. K.S. Pittman was a fierce, fierce, fierce competitor, and George Montgomery was a genius with race cars. Junior Thompson was very competitive, and 'Big John' Mazmanian came out and jumped right in the middle of it. It was a fun time; I can’t even begin to tell you how much fun we had."

I asked Woods to share with us his remembrances and thoughts about each member of the fabled team.

"My dad loved being a part of it, but he was more of a background kind of person. He wanted to see the team succeed. My dad was the coordinator and oversaw the financial end of it. He was great at getting the heads done and having spare parts and rods and pistons, all of that stuff that we needed to keep the car running; we didn't have a hauler with three spare engines.

Leonard Woods, center, with his dad, Tim, far right, and cousin Bobby Grimes, with then S-W-C driver  K.S. Pittman, far left, and his future partner John Edwards, and Swindler B, circa 1961.

Swindler A and B, the Oldsmobile engine in the B/Gas car plainly visible in this rare shot. The team switched to Chrysler Hemis in 1963.

"Fred Stone worked with my dad at the construction company, where he was a very successful manager. Stone was a promoter, a very friendly guy; no one was a stranger to him. He was just an outgoing, gregarious kind of guy. He loved those cars and loved for them to be polished and detailed a certain w ay. He loved the competition and liked to stir the pot a little bit, in a friendly kind of way. He was a visionary in some ways because he spent an awful lot of his money on the car but promoted the car in such a way that he could make his money back. He formulated a spirited kind of thing that got the cam grinders and other equipment manufacturers involved, and away we went. He went at it from a very professional standpoint. He promoted a deal with Revell to get the car made as a model, and it’s still their most popular model ever, with over three million sold.

"Doug Cook was a great human being; everyone loved him, and everyone was happy to see him driving for us because he had worked so hard for so long. When my dad and Fred first formed the team and we won the '61 Winternationals with K.S. Pittman driving, Doug Cook was driving a Willys for Howards Cams in C/Gas. We were running B/Gas, but Pittman also had his own car in C/Gas, and it got to be a bit of a conflict, so we teamed with Cook at the end of the Winternationals.

"My dad was particularly impressed with Doug when he drove for Howards Cams; he did a lot with a little. It was perfect fit. He was a great driver and just a marvelous crew chief; he loved to race and to work on the car.

"As a youngster, I studied all of the classes and was interested in the physics of it all, keeping track of things like cubic inches and compression ratios and overdrives. I kept good notes of what jet we ran, what the blower overdrive was, what gear ratio we ran. We were capable of making changes to the car on the fly to get the car running good no matter what the conditions.

"We had a pretty decent nucleus of parts, and vendors like Engle Cams, B&M Hydro, Hilborn injection, and Gene Adams were particularly helpful with technical information because we were running Oldsmobiles when most everyone else was running Chevys.

"The team was a marriage made in heaven. We never had a bitter moment, win, lose, or draw. If we got beat, we went home and worked harder to try to come up with a new combination."

Based on the number of e-mails I received, many people were not aware that Stone and the Woodses were black -- a fact that would barely raise an eyebrow today -- and back then, especially with Cook's addition to the team making it an interracial team, it was an item of some concern.

Dick Gazan, who occasionally crewed for the team in the early 1960s, remembered, "Tim couldn't get motel rooms in Indy due to his race and had to rent a house in the black neighborhood to have a place to stay. And if you were a racer stuck for a place to sleep, you were always welcome. I don't think there is a man in drag racing that deserves more respect than Tim. When most of the country was still segregated, Tim ran an integrated team and even hired me, a young Jewish kid from Boston, to help Doug Cook on tour with the A car. I never expected anything in return, but at 'the Beach' he came up to me and shook my hand, and in it was a hundred-dollar bill, and he thanked me 'for keeping Doug safe.' Most of us never had the opportunity to integrate or even meet someone from other minorities, but my experience with the Woods family has stayed with me all my life."

"Drag racers are a warm group, but there were places where we couldn’t go, but by and large we had a great experience," said Woods. "The fans and promoters welcomed us, and we never had much of a problem. They wanted to see the car run and what it could do and run as good as we said we could, and could we beat their local favorite. They key was, would they come and see you?"

Woods jokingly remembers that there was one place the team always felt a little less welcome: Ohio.

"In Ohio, where George Montgomery was based, there was a fierce desire to see him beat our butts," he recalled. "It hurts your feelings because we were such a popular team, but I guess it was like him coming here to California. Everyone wants to see the local team win."

Woods also was sure to set the record straight that although Montgomery beat them in the class finals at Indy in 1963 and 1964, as I mentioned last week, Stone, Woods & Cook grabbed the gold at Indy in 1962 and 1965.

The rivalry lives on, I guess.

And so do the memories. Woods, who earned his master's degree at Notre Dame and worked for Ford for 13 years before he bought his dealership, remains a big car guy in his own right with his successful dealership, and it doesn't take much to get him reminiscing about the 1960s.

"I was blessed to be a part of it," he says simply.

And so, by extension, are all of us.

One of the great things about the Internet is that, other than your monthly connection fee, it's basically free. In general, there are no subscription costs to read a vast amount of interesting material, which means that for writers like me of columns like this, it exposes our work to wide audiences who might not subscribe to our print publications.

It also means that guys like me can hear from people who might have lost touch with NHRA but not the racing world, people who wrote the history long before I dig it up, polish it, and share it with you all. In the year-plus that I've been writing this column, it has put me in touch with a lot of famous racers, some of whom had hung up their helmets before I started writing much more than my ABCs, people whom I thought I would never have the chance to meet or interview.

And, like Woods, I feel very blessed, for the community we have and for the opportunity to serve it through this column.

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