Today's topic: not wedge Top Fuelers (surprise!).
Well, I'm back and (sorta) caught up from my trip to Atlanta for the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals but still have a mountain of National DRAGSTER work ahead of me this week. I hate to break up the long-running wedge thread – I'll have more info to share on that Friday – but I wanted to pop in to a) let you know I made it back alive and b) help out our old pal Bob Frey.
Anyone who has ever listened to Frey announce knows that he's a living encyclopedia of trivia from our sport. A lot of that knowledge is firsthand from having announced races as early as 1966, but he also owns undoubtedly the most detailed and precise record of NHRA racing on the planet. He has accumulated an unassailable record of everything NHRA and has painstakingly researched every race in NHRA national event history trying to compile a list of all competitors and their accomplishments. In his search, Frey has gobbled up coverage from every magazine he could lay his hands on, searched newspaper archives, and so much more.
But still, some history eludes him, and, as a massive tip of his hat to the combined brainpower of the Insider Nation, he's asking for our help.
"In my efforts to catalogue all of the runs at the NHRA national events, I have run into a little bit of a glitch," he wrote. "In the early 1970s, not all of the qualifying and/or eliminations runs were reported. I have National DRAGSTER and every publication from those days, and, believe me, the complete results simply don’t exist. Since I have a great database that I have assembled (with a lot of help), I would like to fill in the blanks. I think it’s important that we have the names of all the qualifiers and everyone who ran in eliminations at the NHRA national events, and that’s the reason that I am writing to you.
"I am always amazed at the people who respond to your Insider columns on NHRA.com. I was wondering if you could ask your readers for some help. If anyone has a list, any list (qualifying or eliminations), from these races, I would like to know if they would be willing to share it with me. I can’t offer anything except my undying admiration for their help, and believe me, it will be greatly appreciated.
"Names, elapsed times, and speeds are all welcome (as are any DNQs), and while your readers check their files, I’ll continue to do my research. I’m only missing little bits and pieces here and there, but without them, my 'stuff' won’t be complete.
"For ease of operation, I have included the races that are missing the most numbers, either qualifying or eliminations. Rather than say that we need qualifying numbers from this race and elimination numbers from that race, let’s just say that I need numbers (whatever anyone may have) for these races."
So there you have it, readers: another challenge. If you have anything – anything – from any of these races, and I don't care if it's numbers written down in mustard on a hot-dog wrapper, pass it along to me, and I'll get it to Bob. He has a lot of ways to verify info once he has it, but he needs it first.
As always, you can contact me here. Thanks in advance for anything you can do to further aid in the preservation and accuracy of the history of our sport.
Surprise, it's me! Yeah, I know I told you last week not to expect anything from me for the next week due to travel and a heavy National DRAGSTER workload, but you know me … a glutton for punishment. I got all of my stuff done and am uploading this column as I'm preparing to dash out the door to the airport at o'dark thirty Wednesday morning.
A couple of interesting things have cropped up that I wanted to share, plus I knew you guys would be having wedge withdrawals if I stayed away too long. It's hard to believe that we've been talking almost exclusively about the same subject since March 19, when I brought it up only in reference to acknowledging the passing of NHRA Safety Safari member Ron Rickman, famous for being the guy in Connie Kalitta's bull's-eye when he stacked up "Poncho" Rendon's wedge at Indy in 1971. So, here we go …
From the "I-know-it's-not-really-a-wedge-but" file comes these photos from Gary Osborn of Don Durbin's Favorite Thing Top Fueler. If you thought front-wheel pants were all the rage in the 1970s, how about these babies? In 1977, Durbin's dragster featured rear-wheel pants, and, though they didn’t catch on, they certainly did raise eyebrows. (To be fair, I already had discussed this via e-mail with reader Joe Gorman, who first sent me pics, but that was before the anything-goes wedge discussion took off.)
I never really spent any time with Durbin in the short while our NHRA careers crossed paths, but he was easy enough to find online, so I called him to ask about the design, and, after a little wait, he got back to me to discuss the "fenders," as he calls them.
The fenders actually had a bit of a space-age genesis. Durbin, an electrician by trade, was working at NASA's Ames Research facility in Mountain View, Calif., and met a man there who was interested in cars and helped Durbin design them. Jack Hagemann Jr., whose dad used to build sports-car and dragster bodies, built the fenders for Durbin out of hand-formed aluminum. The fenders were built with enough room for the tires to grow, and the insides were covered with rubber padding to prevent damage from any stones that the tires might kick up.
"The fella from Ames was pleased with the way they looked, and I never experienced any trouble with them," said Durbin, who still has the fenders. "Gary Beck told me, 'Durbin, you keep beating the bushes, and if it works, we'll try it.'
"The best I ever ran with them was a 6.0 at 249 mph when I should have been running 5.70s, but that probably had as much to do with being underfunded as anything," he admitted. "I'm not complaining; that's just the way it was. I never had the latest and greatest stuff -- I was still running a 392 then; I was probably one of the last guys to run one – and if I had the same kind of power as others I might have been able to make a better comparison. I do think they would have made a difference. They seemed to do what they were supposed to do."
Durbin retired from racing after the 1986 season and as an electrician in 2002 and today owns a popular go-kart shop in San Jose, Calif., Cambrian Go-Karts, which he opened with his son, Donald, in November 2004.
"I was just getting used to the idea of being retired when my son, who had been go-kart racing for some time, told me the most fun he ever had was helping people with go-karts and parts, so I told him we could start a place of our own." That's Durbin at right with his son.
"Sorry it took so long to get back to you," he apologized. "I was over at Half Moon Bay watching the ocean and making sure it didn't get away." Ah, the life of leisure.
On another wedge-related note, I heard again from Jim Rossi, son of Vince Rossi, co-owner of a wedge with Tommy Lisa; without knowing it, he had answered a question that was kind of ruminating in the back of my mind. The handout that Robert Flitsch had sent of the car claimed the wedge as the "1st car to run 5-second E.T." Well, we all know that the late Mike Snively owns the official mantle as first in the fives and that Tommy Ivo was credited with a disputed early five-second time slip, but the Lisa & Rossi car?
Turns out that the team had gone to Lions Drag Strip one Wednesday during one of the track's doorslammer nights to do test runs, trying to dial in the clutch. "The car launches and makes a picture-perfect blast," he remembered. "The time light flashes a 5.99 e.t., and the announcer goes crazy. It was the first five-second run ever in a Top Fueler. As fast as the announcer blurted that out, the mike went dead for what seemed like an eternity. All of a sudden, the announcer comes back on with a 'We're sorry, folks, but obviously that was an incorrect read, and we apologize for the error.' Well my father and Tommy ran up to the tower and saw for their own eyes the 5.99 e.t. still lit up on the clock and started to ask Steve Evans what was up. Steve came up with some story that it had to be wrong -- the sun must have been setting on the beams, triggering the error in reading -- and he was not going to allow the read to be logged in as official. You could imagine the disappointment Vince and Tommy felt when Steve disallowed the run. One thing is for certain: This car was the unofficial first car in the fives, make no mistake about it."
Above is yet another shot of the car, taken from the cover of the 1972 Nitro Championships race at Orange County Int’l Raceway, showing driver Billy Tidwell with the then Mrs. Billy Tidwell, the lovely Linda Vaughn.
After casting a line out into the Insider Ocean of Knowledge about the Re-Entry dragster's apparent mishap in Indy, mentioned Friday, several people told me that the car had flipped that year in Indy.
Florida-based drag racing encyclopedia Jim Hill wrote, "I seem to remember it was involved in a slow rollover, just past the finish line, just about where the Ford Tower is located. It was a very slick-looking car, great paint, etc., but it was considerably ahead of its time."
Dennis Friend, proprietor of the popular Twins To Go website (http://twotogo.homestead.com/), sent the photo above of the car taken at Rockford Dragway shortly after Indy. The front end is primered, and the back end shows repair patches. The mystery deepens.
Hill also took note of what I thought was a clever appellation for the upcoming (and much more wordy) Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals as the "Big Go South," telling me that my clever wordsmithing is a tad tardy. "Fact is, it was used as the event name for a series of winter meets held in South Florida in the '60s. Big Go South was coined by South Florida Timing Association promoter and former NHRA Division 1 Director Ernie Schorb and used for several big winter drag events held in the Miami area on old World War II airport temporary track sites.
"Ernie, who played a key part in producing and operating the co-op NHRA-NASCAR Winter Nationals (Flagler Beach, Fla., February 1960), decided to leave 'Winter Nationals' alone as an event title, as [Wally Parks] used it for his first Pomona winter event in 1961. Instead, he used Big Go South and also Big Go East to title those races."
I don't usually promote books here – if I did, I'd probably have a flood of requests, but I'm going to make an exception for Steve Reyes as gratitude for the many, many photos that he has contributed to this column.
Reyes has just completed a self-published hardcover book entitled Blood, Sweat and Nitro. "There are about 150 photographs in it, 98 percent of which haven't been seen for about 40 years," he told me. "Black and white photos of front-engined Top Fuelers, and a few Top Gas and Jr. Fuelers also."
The book will be a limited release with only 250 copies available for sale at $55 plus $5 shipping. All will be signed and numbered by Reyes and distributed on a first-come, first-served basis on receipt of payment. Orders for the book may be made by submitting payment of $60 per book in the form of a money order to Bethany Reyes, 150 NW 42nd St., Ocala, FL 34475. Payments via PayPal may be made to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Oh yeah, he said, one more thing: Here's another wedge to research. He shot this unknown wedge Top Fueler at OCIR in 1973. There's no lettering or even a permanent number to start the search. Damn you, Reyes. All right, who's gonna be first?
OK, now I'm off to Atlanta. I'd tell you not to expect to hear from me again for about a week, but I might be lying. Again. See ya down the road.
Unless someone intervenes and adds a few more hours to the day, this might be the last Insider column for a week or so. I fly to Atlanta early next week for the "Big Go South" (catchy, eh?), and I’ll be thrashing on event coverage there for NHRA.com and for National DRAGSTER early next week, so I'm not sure when I'll be able to drum up something new, although the column has proven itself somewhat self-sustaining based on your contributions, so we'll see. Just don't send out the search parties if you don’t see anything early next week.
The Thread That Won’t Die continues to weave its way into the column with still more wedge wackiness. For a trend that didn’t last all that long nor was much widespread, it has sure captured the fancy of the Insider Nation.
I mentioned earlier this week that most of the photos I'd seen of Don Prudhomme's Hot Wheels wedge were with the Funny Car-style headers coming up under the body rather than through the wedge as was usually the case, and once again, hall of fame photog Steve Reyes rides to the rescue with this shot, from the cover of the September 1971 issue of Drag Racing USA, showing "the Snake's" wedge in its original configuration. The photos were taken by Jere Alhadeff.
Below this is an impressive display of wedge photos sent to me by the prolific Bob "Plum" Plumer showcasing great shots of the wedge cars we've been discussing lo these many weeks. The top photo is a great head-on look at the Hot Wheels wedge with the Funny Car headers, and if you look closely at where the headers used to exit through the body, you can see the plates that were made to cover the holes once the pipes were rerouted. (With apologies to Plum, I've cropped some height off of these photos for space/file-size consideration.)
Below that is Chris Karamesines' wedge minus the bodywork after "the Greek" came to the same conclusion as Prudhomme that the extra weight of the wedge wasn't a good trade-off for its aerodynamic qualities. If you look closely, you can still see that the side panels have the little kickout on which the wedge body rested. Below this is Kenney Goodell's wedge with the headers through the body and then Leland Kolb's mount (sporting flopper headers) and the recently discussed Lisa & Rossi "doorstop." According to the car number, that's Bill Tidwell behind the wheel in Bakersfield, Calif. Thanks, Plum! You can check out more of Plum's plum collection on the Nitrogeezers site here.
A couple of weeks ago, as the wedge discussion was just beginning, I showed you a pretty-well-circulated Pete Gemar photo of Robert Lindall's Re-entry in the pits at Indy 1966, but just this week, while trolling through the Miscellaneous R folders for an edition of the Misc. Files for this week's National DRAGSTER, I came across two photos of the car in action. I've never seen these before, nor any of the car in action. To add further to the mystery, check out the photo below, which shows the car slowing at the end of a run at that event minus the rear bodywork. Did it blow off? Was it removed? Anyone know?
OK, that's all I've got today. Like I said, you'll have to keep your eyes peeled to the home page for the next update because I'm not sure when I'll have something new over the next week, but keep checking and keep writing!
Yeah, OK, I know it's Wednesday and not Tuesday; my apologies for not posting this yesterday, but I was waiting for return phone calls and e-mails on a couple of topics germane to our recent conversations here. Sorry 'bout that.
And now, on with your regularly scheduled column.
First it was Leigh Buttera, daughter of car builder John, dropping by for a say-so on the famous-by-failure Barry Setzer Top Fueler, and this week, it's Cole Foster, son of the man who wheeled the mysterious marvel of monocoque mastery, Pat Foster. Yes, folks, that's right: The DRAGSTER Insider, home to the kids of the fast and famous.
Cole had discussed the monocoque car on his Facebook page and copied that material for me to use. It validates a lot of what we already know and explains the discrepancy of whether the car was run on more than one occasion (it was).
"The dragster was Buttera and Louie T's personal project [Ed. note: Louie T is aluminum specialist Louie Teckenoff]. It was/is a marvel. Built like an Indy car, all-monocoque magnesium car, super light. When Buttera and Louie ran out of money before finishing, Barry bought it, put one of the Funny Car motors in it. All finished and painted, they took it to OCIR to test it, with Pat driving. It went about a foot and stood straight up and came back to earth and buckled the tub a bit. Buttera was pissed. Dad said it was too short and the motor was too far back. Buttera fixed it, and they took it out a few more times. They got it to leave OK, but Dad said [at] three-quarter-track it was really evil. They would mess with wing and weight and try again. If it went left one run, it would go right the next.
"He did get it to the lights a couple times, and it was doing weird [stuff] (starting to fly). Dad said, 'Sorry. It's just an accident waiting to happen. I'm done.' Buttera [tried] to get another driver -- he wanted Steve Carbone to drive it -- and Dad said one of his fondest memories of Barry was when he told Buttera, 'Sorry John, Pat's my guy, and if he says it's undriveable that's it, over and out,' and it was parked. I know it was then going to get a rocket motor installed, maybe got started mounting stuff but never finished. Years later, Barry gave the car to [Don] Garlits, and he put the Hemi back in it, restored the car, and it's in Garlits' museum in Florida on display. It's a beautiful car."
Speaking of the Garlits museum, that is, of course, the final resting place for Don Prudhomme's Hot Wheels wedge dragster. Reader Cliff Morgan noted that Prudhomme's car, unlike most of the wedges shown here recently, had the headers exiting from beneath the body, Funny Car-style, rather than poking up through the wedge, and surmised that the change was made because the headers created too much downforce.
I checked with Bob Brandt, Prudhomme's longtime crew chief from the 1970s, who confirmed that their car, too, began life with the headers-through-the-body configuration but that they changed it shortly thereafter -- for the opposite reason that Morgan suggested.
"I spoke with 'Snake,' and he and I both agree we changed the headers from conventional to Funny Car style on the wedge to clean up the air over the wedge for maximum downforce," he said. "Not sure when we changed as we didn't run the car all that much. Actually the car was very heavy. We tried running [the same chassis] without the wedge body, but the car was still heavy."
The photos I have of the car, including from the souvenir program cover for the PDA meet (July 23-24, 1971, meaning that they had to be shot well before that) and on fire at the Summernationals (the weekend before the PDA meet ... talk about a tough travel schedule!), both show the car with the Funny Car headers, so it must not have lasted long in its original configuration. At right is the same car minus the wedge but with a rear wing.
I also heard from another son from the wedge discussion, Jim Rossi, son of Vince Rossi, who owned, with Tommy Lisa, the wedge-like Top Fueler driven by the likes of Billy Tidwell and Danny Ongais. I remember seeing this car at Irwindale and never forgot it, as most didn't, but Jim said it has been frustrating to him that the car is seldom discussed.
"That wedge held two national speed records," he reported. "240 with Tidwell, and then breaking our own speed record that same year with Ongais at 243. If we could have only gotten her to e.t."
Tidwell set the national record in the car in July 1972 at Lions with a speed of 239.64, and Ongais bettered it to 243.24 at that year's Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway for the first 240-plus national record. Jack Martin also drove the car, which was sponsored by popular surfwear manufacturer Hang Ten, which also sponsored events at OCIR from time to time. I've asked Jim for further remembrances of the car, which I will share if and when he does (no pressure, Jim).
Reader Dave Labs, who hails from West Allis, Wis., was happy to see his photo of the Schlitz beer/Freight Train billboard in my Friday column and passed along another, which he said also is in the town made famous by the brew, Milwaukee. It shows Carol "Bunny" Burkett posed next to the Dick Blanken Ford-sponsored Mustang that she campaigned in the 1960s with husband Mo. Burkett got her start in racing in 1964 at Old Dominion Dragstrip in Manassas, Va., with a ‘64 1/2 Mustang but quickly progressed to quicker pony cars.
This later-model Mustang is the car in which she competed on the Miss Universe of Drag Racing circuit from 1969 to 1972, an interesting invention of Tom “Smoker” Smith in which eight women competed against one another (reportedly for $100 a race) in a bracket race format. Female racers were certainly not a novelty then – witness national event wins by the likes of Shirley Shahan, Judi Boertman, and Judy Lilly -- yet the women competing on the Miss Universe circuit were required to wear miniskirts and boots at the track while not racing. I don't think that concept would fly today. Anyway, here's the full photo above right.
OK, that's it for today. Thanks for following along and all of your contributions!