More Tree topplingsFriday, September 27, 2013
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Last week’s first look at errant racers who clobbered the Christmas Tree was almost exclusively short-wheelbase roadsters, but as I mentioned, there’s plenty of blame to go around in all classes, as this week’s column well illustrates.

One of the best-known and certainly most photographed Tree topplings came at the 1974 Gatornationals, where Bob Mayer got really loose on his burnout in the Tom & Jerry's Nitemayer Duster of Tom Woodbridge and Jerry Baltes and sideswiped the Tree, sending glass and bulbs flying.


Ron “Snag” O’Donnell snagged the Tree with his Damn Yankee 'Cuda, and D.H. Laubham had his camera pointed in the right direction to catch it. Based on the paint job, I’m pretty certain this is 1972. I don’t know the track, but the sign in the background touts radio station WMYO, which is a rock station out of Louisville, Ky., so it could be any number of tracks.


Bob Snyder sent me a great sequence of John Roderiquez and his Springfield, Mass.-based 427 Chevy-powered Light My Fire ’68 Corvette tangling with the Tree at a 16-car show at Connecticut Dragway in 1970.


There are two things that I know about this photo and three that I don’t. The scene is definitely Orange County Int’l Raceway and it’s definitely one of “Big John” Mazmanian’s Barracuda floppers. What I don’t know is the year (‘71 or ’72?), the driver (Pat Foster? Danny Ongais? Rich Siroonian?), and, most importantly, whether or not he actually tagged the Tree.


Moving forward a decade, popular Pro Gas promoter Doug Bracey and his Willys pickup tangled with the Tree at the 1983 NHRA Golden Gate Nationals at Fremont Raceway, scattering the ornaments about the starting line.

Even suspending the Tree above the track wasn't foolproof as evidenced by thisphoto sent to me by second-generation announcer Mike McClelland (son of hall of famer Dave) from Irwindale Raceway. Victor Noiron did a power wheelstand in his Blue Baron Fiat, got crossed up in the air, and nailed the Tree in midair before crossing in front of "Big Mac" and his Tuna Tank Fiat and collecting the guardrail in the other lane. I did some research and discovered that this was at the 1975 Grand Premiere event. (Interesting note: According to Bruce Dyda, the Blue Baron Fiat and the Easy Rider Fiat shown here last week sawing down the Tree in Pomona are the same car!)

Eventually, the Tree was moved generally out of harm’s way when it was placed atop a concrete pillar at the end of the starting-line A-board, but that didn’t stop some racers from still taking an unintended shot at the Tree.


Two-time Funny Car world champ Tony Pedregon’s Quaker State flopper didn't get the Tree but tried hard when his car jumped up onto the A-board in a scary accident at the 2005 U.S. Nationals after the body was being raised and caught on the throttle linkage during the normal pre-run beneath-the-hood checkup.


John Irving actually managed to clobber the Tree with his E/SA '85 Dodge pickup at the 2009 Winternationals, but you could hardly fault him because his truck lost the left rear wheel on the launch. Great photo by Roger Rohrdanz!


A similar fate almost befell Super Gas racer Joseph Michaels at the 2012 edition of the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte when his Monroe, N.C.-based ‘80 Plymouth Arrow broke the left rear axle on the launch and veered onto the starting-line A-board.

I also mentioned last week that there were some reports of frustrated drivers actually targeting the Tree in its earliest days to put it out of commission for the weekend. Steve Reyes remembers a WCS event at Fremont Raceway in 1964, the year after the Tree was unveiled, that was rife with red-lights. After Top Fuel driver John Batto red-lighted, one of his crewmembers jumped into his El Camino push truck and ran down the Tree. “It was quite the scene with parts and pieces flying everywhere,” he remembered. “I think it took a hour to clean up the mess of shattered glass. I believe Batto’s guy was arrested and hauled off to jail. How I miss the good ol’ days …” The photo above shows Batto, far lane, racing the Whiz Kids in 1965, with the blue El Camino visible in the background. 

Reyes also recalled an instance in the 1970s with Larry Fullerton, of Trojan Horse fame. “He was racing at some small southern track and made his pass and caught on fire. He got the car stopped but started one heck of a grass fire at the end of the track. While the track workers were putting out the blaze, Fullerton took his very crisp Funny Car and loaded it up in the trailer and drove his tow truck up to the tower to get paid. The manager/track owner is some crusty old dude in a wheelchair. Fullerton and the manager get into a heated argument over money due Fullerton. I guess Fullerton didn't make all three passes that he was booked to run. Fullerton became very pissed because now he has a very burnt race car and this guy won't pay him his appearance money. Fullerton loses it and pushes the wheelchair guy down two flights of timing-tower stairs. The wheelchair guy is beat up but alive. Fullerton flees in his tow truck, which is parked in the staging lanes and sets sights on the track's Xmas Tree. He runs directly over said Tree and races down the quarter-mile to his waiting trailer. Fullerton hooks up and smokes it out of the track. Meanwhile the hundred local bracket racers are now pissed when they realize no more racing that evening. So now a bunch of bracket racers storm down the racetrack and into the pits looking for the now long-gone Fullerton."

Reyes also remembered a similar occurrence at an AHRA event that Dave Labs also wrote to report. Labs said (and I found some evidence to back this up) that it occurred at the 1970 AHRA Grand American race at Frontier International Raceway in Oklahoma City at which Stock racer Roy Pogue lost in the semifinals on a break out, and protested the timing system to no avail, then climbed back into his racecar and mowed down the Tree, kept going straight down the strip, turned off at the end, went out the pit gate, onto the highway “and was never heard from again.”

“Because of Roy's antics, the finals in Funny Car and Top Fuel had to be run with the last known flag start at a national event,” Labs added. “In the Funny Car Final, Gene Snow was disqualified for leaving the line before the flag was thrown, giving Don Prudhomme the easy win.  As a side note, following the Oklahoma City event, AHRA President Jim Tice awarded Roy Pogue with a lifetime ban from all AHRA national events and sanctioned tracks.  Shortly thereafter, Roy received a similar award from the NHRA.”

Again, in the interest of fair reporting, I can't totally verify either of the above accounts, but they make pretty good stories.

Clearly the most unusual Tree trimming came at the 1975 Le Grandnational in Montreal, when a biplane carrying race queen Miss Molson shredded it in front of a disbelieving crowd of fans, racers, and officials. I’ve written about this before here, but it’s worth the repeat of former NHRA Competition Director Steve Gibbs’ telling of the story.

"The pilot of the Stearman biplane had made a practice landing at the track earlier in the week, but at the time, none of the starting-line paraphernalia was in place," he remembered. "When he brought the queen in on race day, he taxied right up to the starting line, as he had before, and you can see the results. I once owned a Stearman, and you simply cannot see straight ahead.

"The Christmas Tree instantly became a fragmented mess of metal, glass, and wires. The pilot was pissed, as the prop was badly damaged ... but the queen never quit waving. I was at about the eighth-mile mark, looking on in disbelief. I was sure the guy would stop short of the Tree. We had a spare Tree, but it took some time for [electronics director] Art Hayward to repair the wiring and connector damage. The plane was not flyable, so it had to be towed to the end of the track for future repairs. The last thing I remember was the queen still waving to the crowd."

And, one that note, this is me also waving goodbye, for the week and probably the thread.

Chopping down the Christmas TreeFriday, September 20, 2013
Posted by: Phil Burgess

As you’ve read over the last two weeks, the introduction of the Christmas Tree wasn’t always met with warm embraces, especially by the old guard, who had honed their spidey senses to enable them to get a good leave on the flagman’s signal, and I remember reading somewhere that there were even those cunning drivers who purposely mowed down the fragile and spindly new-fangled contraptions to put them out of business for the race weekend. Most tracks only had one of the devices on hand and maybe some spare bulbs, but they generally weren’t ready for a full-scale Tree demolition.

While I can’t finger any particular driver for this transgression, I scoured our files and came up with a smashing selection of Tree-chopping chariots from over the years. Eventually, racetracks and sanctioning bodies grew weary of the expense and delay that resulted from the misguided melees and finally wised up by either putting their Trees atop concrete blocks or suspending them above the racing surface, but sometimes even that didn’t stop them, as you will see over the next two installments. Feel free to share your photos and stories about drivers literally chopping down the Christmas Tree!

This injected-fuel dragster only gave the Tree a mild sideswipe that removed just a few ornaments from the bottom branches of the Tree at Irwindale Raceway. Glenn Menard, who managed the famed Southern California track in the early 1970s, remembers new owner Steve Evans going to the suspended Tree at The Dale when he arrived in 1973. “Lions also hung its Tree to reduce the chance of cars driving over it since it was a tad narrow,” he remembered. “We also had a variable Pro Tree timing switch because you still could have red-lights with the four-tenths Pro Tree in existence, which killed the show. The Pros in 1972-74 would race on the three-tenths and all others on the four-tenths Tree.”

The Christmas Tree in Pomona took a pounding on the opening day of the 1972 Winternationals. Maybe it was due to it being the first day of the first race of the season and drivers were still shaking off the rust, but as these photos from Steve Reyes can attest, two altereds did a pretty good job of altering the Tree.

(Above) Comp racer Don Waite, who lived in Temple City, just down Interstate 10 from the racetrack, did a real number on the Tree, sending bulbs and bits everywhere, but at least he was gentleman enough to stop his A/Altered and dismount to look back at the carnage, as seen in this classic shot at right of the crippled Tree being cradled in its final moments by a distraught official.

(Below) Gregg Bellemeur, from similarly nearby Monrovia, also did a number on the Pomona Tree that day with his supercharged-gas AA/A Fiat Topolino at an early 1970s Winternationals, then later went fuel altered racing and won the Fuel Altered Spectacular at OCIR with alky in the tank!! Greg is the father of current Top Alcohol Funny Car standout Sean Bellemeur.



(Above) The driver of this injected B/Altered convertible sports car ended up with the chopped Tree on his hood after center-punching it. It’s a good thing he had one of those bubble shields for protection.

(Left) I’m 99.9 percent sure that this is Camp Stanley broadsiding his popular, supercharged Just Luv’n It Chevy Luv truck into the Tree in E-town. Stanley was one of the real characters of the popular Wild Bunch group that brought their brand of supercharged madness to tracks up and down the East Coast in the 1980s with blown bad boys like Stanley’s truck, Tommy "the Who" Howes’ 300ZX, and Elmer "Dr. Wacko" Wachter’s Jeep

(Below) This sure looks like Englishtown back in the days before the guardwalls were right up against the track, but I’m not 100 percent certain. One thing that does seem certain about this Tree-crushing T-bucket is that it appears to be facing the wrong way on the track, based on the end of the launch pad and what looks like a finish-line scoreboard behind him.


It’s bad enough any time you run into the Christmas Tree, but there can’t be many worse places than to do it on the big stage at the U.S. Nationals, as former national event-winning Comp racer Ralph Hope did. On the plus side of his ledger, the talented Canadian also was the low qualifier at Indy in 1990 and 1991.

Then, of course, there’s this most famous of failed attempts to trim the Tree by my great, great friend and driving mentor Frank Mazi at the 1978 SPORTSnationals in Bowling Green, Ky. How could a feature like this run without a photo like this, a moment captured by former National Dragster photographer Richard Brady? While Mazi didn’t harm a hair on the Tree, he did a pretty good job on the concrete support on which it was (apparently wisely) placed and, of course, on his God of Hellfire Opel.

Lest you get the impression that Sportsman drivers (or even altered drivers) were the only ones causing the carnage, I’ve got photographic proof that a number of drivers in other classes — especially in Funny Car — also have put the Tree in their targets.

More tall tales of the TreeFriday, September 13, 2013
Posted by: Phil Burgess

I got some interesting feedback and pats on the back from a number of people about last week’s column on the history of the Christmas Tree. For a device that’s so central to what we do, it’s certainly had some major changes over the years, and with the spotlight on the new Snake & Mongoose movie showing plenty of full-Tree nitro racing, it came at a pretty good time to explain its evolution.

As I mentioned last week, not everyone was in favor of the newfangled device, and this Kaye Trapp photo proves that in spades. It shows Top Fuel driver Gary Cagle, who was still recovering from a bad wreck in the Cagle & Herbert fuel dragster in 1959, about to put the smack-down on the Tree with his cane. At first I thought it was a crowbar, but his son, Troy, who sent the photo, clarified. “He, among others, hated the new Tree setup, but he didn't whack it with the cane. This staged shot was taken in the early '60s at Bakersfield.”

Dave Shipman, who was a photographer in the 1960s and spent a lot of time watching the starts up close and personal, remembers the scene at Lions Drag Strip in the early 1960s. “It seemed that just about every Saturday night, Mickey Thompson (who ran Lions at the time) was confronted by angry racers that thought they got the bad end of whatever system was being used that week,” he wrote. “Lions had a flamboyant starter (Danny Lares). As you mentioned, the starter was responsible for determining if a driver red-lighted and pushing the car back so they could try it again if he did declare that one of the cars left early. While I think Danny was fair, the loser often disagreed. The first attempt at 'automating' detection of a red-light was rather interesting.

“There were, of course, disputes as to whether or not Danny caught a red-light or not, so Mickey installed a Polaroid camera aimed across the starting line. When the flag came up (and the switch released), the camera shutter was activated and a picture taken. The camera was aimed down the starting-line beam so you could see the beam and the front wheels of both cars to see if either lane had started before the flag was raised. Polaroid film took 60 seconds to process, so the race couldn't be declared official until the 60-second development time was complete and somebody could review the image. Not an ideal situation as the crowd waited to get confirmation that it was a legal start.”

The whole column got Cliff Morgan wondering about the use of flags as a device to begin a race, not just in drag racing, but also in other forms of motorsports “and how they came up with green flags, red, yellow, black, checkered?”

That’s an excellent question that caused me to do a little digging. While the first “flag starter” may never be known, it’s well-documented that during the chariot races of the Roman Empire, the emperor (or sponsor who was hosting the races) would drop a cloth known as a mappa, signaling the beginning of the race once all of the chariots were properly positioned (chariots on the outside track got a head start). It’s not a far stretch of the imagination to envision a larger, more colorful, and easier-to-see cloth being implemented as the years went on.

But how did we get to the green-yellow-red colors, colors that obviously translated from flag to Christmas Tree? One can understand that the glaring red hue is an attention getter and should be used for stop, but how did green become go and yellow become the symbol for caution? I have no idea.

The first known traffic light to use the green-red paradigm was installed in London in 1868, using red and green gas lanterns on a semaphore pole. The arms were raised and the red lantern was displayed for stop, and the arms were lowered and the green lamp was displayed as a go signal (see diagram at right). Other noncolored designs used the words “stop” and “proceed.” The first electric traffic light was developed in 1912 by Lester Wire, an American police officer of Salt Lake City, who also used red-green lights. The first three-color traffic light was created by police officer William Potts in Detroit in 1920.

But what of the now-famous checkered flag (and its painted variation on guardwalls at the dragstrip finish line) and its origins as the signal of the end of a race? Anecdotal evidence exists that settlers in the American Midwest staged horse races before large public meals, and that when the meal was ready, a checkered tablecloth was waved to signal the racers that it was time to stop racing and start eating. Others say that a high-contrast flag was chosen to be more easily visible to drivers as they battled through dust on early dirt tracks. The book The Origin of the Checker Flag: A Search for Racing's Holy Grail traces the flag's origin to an employee of the Packard Motor Car Co. who in 1906 devised the flag to mark "checking stations" (now called checkpoints) during rally-style events.

But I digress.

Paul Greven Jr., who used to race at Irwindale Raceway, OCIR, and Sacramento Raceway on a regular basis in the 1970s, said that the Pro start varied between four-tenths and five-tenths from track to track or even between national and divisional events. “I wondered what I was doing wrong when I went to the Winternationals and started red-lighting,” he remembered. “That’s when I found out the difference and had to adjust accordingly. It was the only time of the year that I ran a .500 Tree, and it was definitely a challenge.”

I mentioned last week that the 1970 Supernationals was the first NHRA national event to go to a one-amber “Pro start,” but that was still a five-tenths Tree. I looked and looked but can’t find (yet) where the first four-tenths Pro Tree was used. Of course, the fact that NHRA didn’t keep reaction-time records back then doesn’t help either.

Fabled Lions Drag Strip was one of the early tracks to adopt a combo flagman/starter (though not the system where the flagman pushed a button with the tip of the flag), and I remember reading somewhere how Lions regular Tom McEwen was so good at anticipating the aforementioned Lares’ moves that he won regularly there, including against Don Prudhomme in their much-ballyhooed first official match race Sept. 12, 1964, at “the Beach.” In round one, “the Mongoose” beat “the Snake,” 8.19 to 8.14, and Prudhomme smoked the tires in the second heat, sending McEwen off on an epic bragfest that made “the Mongoose” a household name.

“There was a bulb hanging over the track, and Danny would point at you to make sure you were ready, then he’d turn and push the button to turn on the bulb,” he told me earlier this week. “As soon as he turned, I left. I did that for years because my own cars weren’t usually as fast as the other guys’ cars, so that was my only chance. I never understood why everyone else didn’t do the same thing."

I also thought it might be a hoot to get the recollections of Rick Stewart, the recently retired NHRA chief starter and another Lions regular, from back in the days when he was known as “the Iceman.” Like McEwen and others I’ve interviewed, he had gotten pretty good at reading a starter’s almost-imperceptible “tells” that he was about to either flag off the cars or release the button with the flag. “The guy at Fontana, every time he was ready to lift the flag, he’d squint his eyes; that was my sign to go,” he remembered. “I stopped watching the flag and just watched his eyelids.

“The Christmas Tree coming along was OK with me, but we all had our learning experiences with it, and sometimes even the electronics could mess up. It was an interesting time, for sure.”

Stewart reminded me that the anniversary of one of his unforgettable moments as a driver recently passed. It was Aug. 14, 1965, when he suffered a massive engine explosion that led to an off-track excursion and a basal skull fracture. “I got covered in oil and didn’t have a clue where I was at,” he remembered. “There were no guardrails in the shutoff area, and all of the cars were on the way back up the return road, and I didn’t want to run into them and hurt someone, so I just made a hard right turn, went off the track, and hit a ditch and then a telephone pole.”

That fateful day was also during the infamous Watts Riots in Southern California, when more than 1,000 buildings were damaged by fire or vandalism.

“I woke up in Long Beach Memorial Hospital, and it looked like someone had dropped a bomb on LA while I was out,” he said. “I later found out that people had been having trouble even getting to the race because there was gunfire out on the freeway. It was crazy.”

Since publishing the column last week, other information has come to light about the creation of the Christmas Tree and its creator. I came across an archived article from the La Verne, Calif., newspaper about Ollie Riley, whom many of you know for his creation of the Chrondek company that became so famous for making the precision timing system. The name Chrondek is an amalgamation of the Latin words “chron” (time) and “decca” (tenths).

Riley, who worked on top-secret precision-timing devices at Pomona’s Convair plant, was enlisted by NHRA Safety Safari boss Bud Coons in the mid-1950s to help create a portable timing system. He opened his business in La Verne, at the corner of D and Second streets, not far from the Pomona racetrack.

According to the story, NHRA National Field Director Ed Eaton approached Riley in 1962 with the idea of a step-light countdown system and brought Division 1 Director Lew Bond, who owned the Dragtronics timing business, into the project. Bond and Riley then worked together to develop the first Christmas Tree.

Another claim to the Christmas Tree’s creation goes to W.H. David (dah-VEED), of Lafayette, La., who was the founder and president of Pel State Timing Association, which he ran with his wife, Jayne, at the airport in Opelousas, La. (Pel State being short for Pelican State, as Louisiana is known).

According to one story, David created a traffic-signal-like device to start races that also incorporated an early handicapping system. As shown at right, the original had two separate poles both with lights, and he gave it the name Christmas Tree because the original mock-up used small glass Christmas tree lights from the 1950s.The story goes on that he then sold the rights to Riley and Chrondek, which mass-produced the Tree.

Dave McClelland, who announced for the Pel State Association and whose nationwide travel brought him into contact with many early forms of drag racing, was asked his opinion. “My personal feeling? They all could be given some props as being the originator, but, and it’s a big but, which was first? All three are widely scattered: Oliver on the West Coast, David in the Deep South, Eaton on the Eastern seaboard; most likely they were all working on it at the same time, maybe with knowledge of the other, maybe not. Communications were not as sophisticated as today. But it is ironic that all the claims of origination occurred roughly in the same time frame. As you can see, it’s almost a matter of ‘Whom do you believe?’ ”

So there you have it, as clear as bayou mud. I’m certainly not in a position to verify any of the claims, and despite a lot of research, no clear claim can be made, and many of the principals are no longer with us (Riley died in the late 1990s; not sure of David).

Regardless, I can’t imagine our great sport without its iconic Christmas Tree, no matter what form it took or may take.

Happy Birthday, Christmas TreeFriday, September 06, 2013
Posted by: Phil Burgess

There’s no doubt that this year’s newly rechristened Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals was a pretty darned great drag race, with lots of drama, close and exciting racing, Don "the Snake” Prudhomme as grand marshal, and much more, but through all of the hullabaloo of the annual Big Go, we all somehow forgot that the event marked the 50th anniversary of the debut of the now iconic Christmas Tree.

Yes, race fans, it was at the 1963 event where NHRA rolled out its electronic contraption, much to the consternation of many of the racers who had honed their anticipatory and body-language-reading skills for years on acrobatic human flag starters.

Although flag starting was an accepted method, because it involved humans, it was fallible, could be gamed, and was sometimes controversial. There sometimes were charges of favoritism in early tip-offs between flag starters and their driver buddies or, because at the time the starter also was the sole judge of a foul start, of those being overlooked or incorrectly charged. Clearly, if NHRA Drag Racing was going to continue to evolve, the human element in the starting-line officiating had to be limited.

Improvements were made along the way to limit those indiscretions. At several events, NHRA kept the flag starter, but instead of him flamboyantly whipping the flag up from various positions, the starter used the tip of his flag to depress and hold a button on the ground that was linked to a beam that ran across the starting line. When the button was depressed, an overhead green light was illuminated (but oddly was not the sign to go). Once the starter was sure that both drivers were ready, he would whip the flag up from its position, and the race was on. If a driver left the starting line before the flag released the button, a foul start light came on next to the green. At most events, drivers were given two free false starts before disqualification on the third. When this system was used at the 1963 Winternationals, it reportedly resulted in 80 percent fewer foul starts than the flag-started 1962 Nationals.

NHRA National Field Director Ed Eaton, left, and Division 1 Director Lou Bond, who developed the starting system that became known as the Christmas Tree

Early in 1963, NHRA officials let it be known that a change was coming and that the Countdown Starter (as it was initially known; the Christmas Tree name apparently didn’t come into use right away) would debut in Indy. It was billed as "Foolproof in design [and] an equal start for all is assured."

Designed by then Division 1 Director Lou Bond, it consisted of five amber lights, a red, and a green on a skinny pole positioned between the two lanes. There were no pre-stage and stage lights, so the system was activated by the starter once he judged that both cars had their front tires on or pretty near the starting line. There was one staging beam to determine a foul start, but the cars didn’t have to be in it for the Tree to be activated (the birth of shallow staging?).

Initially – and, actually, through the end of 1970 – the Tree was a full five-bulb countdown for all classes, including the Pros, which probably most raised the ire of veterans who thought that their reflexes, honed by years of experience, were being negated by a series of “get-ready” blinks so that it became a matter of timing rather than reflexes or reading the starter’s body language.

Don Garlits, who famously red-lighted away the Top Eliminator final to Bobby Vodnik at that 1963 event, wrote in his book, Tales from the Drag Strip, "We had all gotten pretty good at reading the flag starter just by watching his eyes. We could read the muscles in his arms and how they tightened up just before he threw the flag. … The older guys hated it when the Tree came in. We eventually adjusted to it, but we really didn’t want it."

Yesterday, I chatted with supercharged gas legend “Ohio George” Montgomery – whom I see each year in Indy, when he is a guest in our National Dragster suite – to ask his memories of the 1963 event. By that time, Montgomery was the only driver in Indy history to win the Big Go twice (back to back in Little Eliminator at the 1959 and 1960 events in Detroit), and he obviously had no problem with the Tree in 1963, when he added a third title, this one in Middle Eliminator.

Montgomery remembered that he had seen the new system just a few weeks prior to Indy, where it was showcased at a Division 3 event. He and his fellow racers didn’t get many cracks at it, but it soon became apparent to him and others that the instructions to not leave until the green light came on was the fallacy that we all know today and may have given him an edge in Indy (though his fierce opponent in the AA/GS battles, the Stone, Woods & Cook team, later alleged that NHRA had disabled the foul start for Montgomery).

“There were no reaction times back then, so you never knew how close you were to red-lighting or how well you had timed it, so we learned as we went,” he said. “I actually liked the system because it had gotten to the point where there were a lot of complaints about the flag starters, especially for us guys back East. It seemed like NHRA always brought in the West Coast starters, and the West Coast guys all knew their moves. The button system helped change that for all of us because he always started from the same position.”

The creation of the Christmas Tree also led to the ability to handicap cars and classes based at the time on their class’ national records (before then, and only on a local basis, handicapping was done informally based on car lengths), which further leveled the playing field, especially in the Sportsman classes where a car from a much faster class invariably beat a lower-classed car in the catchall final eliminator runoffs, and, of course, led to today’s current formats.

The pre-stage and stage lights and beams were introduced at the 1964 Winternationals and billed as "the automatic line-up system," though the pre-stage and stage bulbs weren't yet actually on the Tree but rather positioned on the starting line itself.





The Tree has evolved numerous times since. The first Pro start as we know it took place at the 1970 Supernationals, where drivers in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock, and Top Gas got only one bulb (the fifth and final amber) before the green. The Tree later was shortened to three ambers for the Sportsman-driver countdown at the 1986 Winternationals, which turned out to be an enormous time-saver (believe it or not, one second per pair during a weekend really adds up).

The Pro start also changed to the simultaneous flash of all three amber lights (meaning that Pro Stock drivers in the left lane no longer had to peer over their ever-growing hood scoops), and the extra bulbs made the start a little more fail-safe should that lone amber burn out or break, an ongoing problem that was also eventually addressed when LED bulbs replaced the breakage-prone incandescent bulbs in 2003 (officials reportedly were changing out an average of 20 bulbs per race). Also in 2003, the Winternationals marked the debut of the .000-is-perfect reaction time (previously, .400 was perfect on a Pro Tree, .500 on a Sportsman Tree).

The Tree remained basically unchanged until the smaller yellow incandescent pre-stage and stage bulbs were replaced in 2011 with the current scheme of two semicircles comprising smaller blue LED lights, with the top half illuminated when pre-staging is complete and the bottom half when a car is fully staged. The new look, which took a while to get used to, was first implemented at the Four-Wide Nationals that year to make it easier for drivers to track their opponents’ staging progress across four lanes and later was adopted schedule-wide.

The Christmas Tree has come a long way in 50 years, and who knows what may occur between the lanes in the next 50. Can a hologram Tree be far away?

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