Features

Posted by: Phil Burgess

It’s hard to imagine a segment of the NHRA family that Mike Lewis hasn’t touched in more than 40 years in the sport. People today know him as the high-profile face of the Don Schumacher Racing empire, where he serves as senior vice president, and he previously was the executive director of the Professional Racers Owners Organization (PRO). Before that, he was NHRA's vice president-field administration, responsible for the entire network of field operations and member tracks, and vice president-general manager of the NHRA flagship racing complex now known as Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis.

During his long tenure with NHRA, fans knew him as a knowledgeable part of the NHRA national event announcing team. He’s also well-known in the Sportsman ranks after becoming a licensed driver and scoring a pair of national event runner-ups in Top Alcohol Dragster in 2009 and as a solid handler in the Nostalgia Funny Car ranks, where he scored an impressive win at last year’s California Hot Rod Reunion.

But if you go way back, and perhaps more memorably, especially on this weekend when the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series is in Pennsylvania, Mike Lewis’ name will forever be entwined with Maple Grove Raceway, where he literally grew up. Ninety years ago, Lewis’ grandfather Alfred Stauffer bought the land on which the track resides and on which Maple Grove Drag-O-Way opened in August 1962. Lewis would become the track’s manager while still in his early 20s and later general manager and track president, but, more important to the concerns of this column, he competed there in Top Fuel with his brother, Kent, on a memorable dragster known as Sparkling Burgundy.

The Lewis brothers, Mike, center, and Kent, with father Joe and their front-engine Top Fueler, circa 1971.
The original Sparkling Burgundy car did a lot of winning for the brothers. With drivers like Fred Forkner (below) at the wheel, it often was first to the finish line.
 
  (Above) Dale Thierer took over the reins of the Sparkling Burgundy car in 1973 and continued the winning ways but fell agonizingly short of winning the Division 1 title.

(Left and below) The Sparkling Burgundy car was featured on the popular Noonday on 8 TV show on channel 8, WGAL-TV, the NBC affiliate in Lancaster, Pa. Lewis showed the controls to an audience member while Kent Lewis, left, and Lex Dudas, right, who joined the Maple Grove staff in 1972 before his long haul as NHRA Division 2 director, looked on. Dudas returned to the track in 2008 as vice president and general manager.
 

I’ve known Mike for decades – before, during, and after the time we shared office space here in Glendora – and even mentioned his fuel-racing career in this column four years ago during the long-running Misc. Files thread, so when I was putting together this week’s edition of My Favorite Fuelers for NationalDragster.net focusing on some of Pennsylvania’s famous nitro wranglers, I thought I’d include them in that column. I dropped an email to Mike to confirm the basic info I had about the numerous drivers who had sat in the cockpit of their Top Fuel cars and was delighted (but not surprised) that he replied in very thorough fashion with a complete history of their team, which we rounded out in subsequent conversations and a chat last weekend in St. Louis and which I’ll share here in honor of this weekend’s race.

Being around drag racing almost their entire life, it’s not surprising that the Lewis brothers had to try it firsthand, which they did starting in 1970, when they began fielding a front-engine Top Fueler. Mike made license runs in the car but deferred the seat to Ed Crafton to focus on managing the track with (and at the insistence of) their father, Joe.

“He lobbied the family on my behalf when I was 20 and wanted to drive Top Fuel more than put on races,” Mike remembered. “I thank God for his direction every day.”

The partnership with Crafton lasted until the summer of 1971 – on the Fourth of July weekend at one of Pennsylvania’s other famous tracks, Numidia Dragway – when they lost an engine and then the car in the nasty accident that followed. “Ed recovered, but we all ‘grew up’ that day,” he said. “It was a very sobering experience.”

With the rear-engine revolution under way, the brothers called on another Pennsylvania racing institution, S&W Race Cars, to build them a rear-engine car for the1972 season. They called the car Sparkling Burgundy, named after their burgundy and gold school colors (they also briefly considered -- and rejected -- Green-Eyed Lady, after the then-popular song by Sugarloaf).

Sarge Arciero was their first driver when the car debuted at the Gatornationals. They failed to qualify there but won divisional races in Englishtown and Montreal before Arciero left the team in midsummer to campaign the ex-Eddie Careccia front-engine car. His replacement was Delaware-based Top Fuel veteran Fred Forkner, who not only brought more than a decade of driving experience, but also his potent 426 powerplant, and the winning resumed.

“We won another race or two and would have won the Division 1 title if we could have combined points [of Arciero and Forkner],” said Lewis. “We also wore ourselves out commuting to Wilmington, Del., to Fred's shop. He wanted to run the PRO race in Tulsa [Okla.], and then we split.

Walter “Satch” Nottle made a one-race appearance in the car, and Larry Bucher drove for them at the World Finals in Amarillo, Texas (“We were first-round fodder for [eventual champ] Jim Walther, as he reminds me every time I see him,” remarked Lewis), but the brothers found their ultimate partner later that year in Dale Thierer, who had become a well-respected driver in the region at the wheel of the Chevy-powered Hemi Hunter dragster that won the 1971 Division 1 crown.

“Dale was perfect chemistry for Kent and me,” Mike marveled. “Smooth and consistent. Easy on parts. We won a lot of races over the next two years at Englishtown, Epping, Montreal, etc.”

The team came agonizingly close to winning the Division 1 championship in 1973.

“We needed only a first-round win at Atco for Dale to clinch the NED title but lost the engine in qualifying,” he remembered. “With three hours until eliminations and a spare short block two hours away, we found a friend to drive the short block to Atco. With help from a dozen friends, we installed a short block and bolted on heads, clutch, supercharger, pump, etc. in 24 minutes but ran out of time to adjust the valves on a replacement head. It started just fine but broke an exhaust valve on the burnout. It was still an amazing night in New Jersey. The funniest thing then happened; our blown engine didn't catch fire on the track, but our friend flipped a butt out of the window of his pickup, and our oily, blown-up 392 lit up on the New Jersey Turnpike.

"Our biggest win came at the Maple Grove [divisional] race in 1974 over an 18-car field including Gary Beck, Flip Schofield, and all the Eastern stars. ‘Satch’ Nottle broke in Fred Forkner's car, so we took a solo win in the final.”

(Above) With Kerry Sweigert, near lane, at the wheel, the Lewis Bros. scored a popular win at their home track's Spring All-Pro Series event. (Below) Mike, left, meanwhile was continuing his duties at the racetrack, including congratulating one of his former drivers, Sarge Arciero, who won in the Jade Grenade.

(One thing that I found interesting in researching Pennsylvania nitro pilots for the article on the ND site was that everyone seemed to have driven for everyone at one point. The common rides between drivers like Nottle, Arciero, Forkner, Ted Thomas, and others reads like a family tree.)

The brothers and Thierer also scored a big win at Capitol Raceway's Mr. USA Fuel Eliminator race, a wild affair at which they reached the winner’s circle only after being reinstated on the break rule after losses to the cars of Jim and Alison Lee and Tommy Ivo. Thierer then beat the Lees’ car in the final.

As Lewis’ duties at the track grew, brother Kent, Thierer, and friends raced the car while Mike pitched in by doing most of the engine and clutch service while the others caught up on sleep.

“By late 1973, I had family and mortgage responsibilities, and Kent paid most of the bills,” he added. “We sat out 1975, and then Kent teamed with Ron Mumma on a new S&W car in 1976. Kerry Sweigert upgraded his license to Top Fuel and won spring races at Epping and Maple Grove with our old parts before a new engine arrived from Bill Leavitt. Ron owned the engine, and we couldn't find the combination to make it work. Mumma withdrew and later built his own car, which ran quite well in 1977 with Sweigert at the wheel.

“To help us finish the 1976 season, Gary Peters and Jim Johnson loaned Kent a 454 Chevy engine, which lasted the remainder of the season. The end of the story came in late 1976 when George Tolon and Marc White bought the '76 car and converted it to an A/ED. New Yorker Tony Ceraolo came with them, hoping they would buy his Traveler Woody car so he could buy Kent's still-pristine Sparkling Burgundy."

It’s probably just as well that the racing came to an end there as bigger things awaited Lewis. In 1979, he was named Maple Grove’s general manager, and the following year, when Maple Grove Dragway Inc. became a separate operating corporation, he was named president. Improvements were poured into the track, and they were rewarded in 1982 with a regional event and in 1985 with the current national event. Lewis left the track in 1989 to work for NHRA.

Lewis won the Nostalgia Funny Car class at the 2012 California Hot Rod Reunion.

Thirty-six years after he started them, he finally finished the licensing runs by earning Super Comp and Advanced E.T. licenses at Frank Hawley's Drag Racing School in early 2007 and drove Joel Gruzen's blown alcohol Fiat a month later in Bakersfield. He earned his Top Alcohol Dragster ticket in May 2008 and scored back-to-back national event runner-ups at – where else? – Maple Grove Raceway in 2008 and 2009. He then progressed into the Nostalgia Funny Car class, driving (interestingly) the Schumacher-tribute Wonder Wagon and Stardust cars of Justin Grant and Bob Godfrey's Burn'n Money flopper and the Brand X Mustang of Henry Gutierrez at recent California Hot Rod Reunions.

Even with all of the high-pressure responsibilities of his current position at Don Schumacher Racing, it’s nice for Lewis to look back at his beginnings and at the magical time in the 1970s when a pair of brothers could field a competitive Top Fuel car without a mega-dollar sponsor and before real-world responsibilities came calling.

“I was 26 and Kent 24 when we both dedicated ourselves to our families and Maple Grove, but we lived out the unforgettable thrill of racing Top Fuel dragsters and winning in the prime of our youth,” he remembered fondly. “We won several Pro Fuel points titles, and we made friendships that last to this day.”

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.

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