It’s Backtrack Tuesday at the DRAGSTER Insider, and I'm working hard to cleanse the inbox before diving into the two weeks leading up to the Big Go, the annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals presented by Auto-Plus.
After writing about Bill Jenkins’ crash in Oswego, Ill., in the summer of 1977 during a Beat The Grump challenge with local racers, I was surprised to be contacted by several people who knew who was running “Da Grump” when he stacked up his Grumpy’s Toy Monza Pro Stocker, and then it wasn’t long before I heard from Paul Dazzo himself, who was wheeling his Midland Express ‘69 Camaro down the other lane when the Toy became quite less than playful.
I’ve exchanged emails with Paul since then, and he promises to share his side of his Brush with Greatness in the very near future.
I also heard from Stock eliminator ace Anatol Denysenko, whose mom, Joan, had defeated Jenkins the round before the crash (“She just about waxed him,” he noted proudly) and took the photos at right. His mom was wheeling a very quick '69 Torino Cobra coupe with 428 Cobra Jet power under the hood and open headers. They then took a seat to watch Jenkins take on Dazzo.
“When he did wreck the car, it was literally right in front of us,” Denysenko remembered. “As a 6-year-old, I was sitting on a post watching this car come right towards me. Dad (Alex Denysenko) and our paramedic friend Ken Kucera jumped the fence and were the first to the car. I still have a part of the front-end fiberglass somewhere.”
Column reader Richard Pederson also came up with a swell idea for a series of columns of “Who was in the other lane when ...” I like it!
As a follow-up to last Tuesday’s story about Dale Emery’s wild ride and crash at the 1977 U.S. Nationals in Mike Burkhart’s Camaro, reader Mike Hedworth sent his own sequence on the crash, taken from a decidedly different vantage point than the famous sequence and Zapruder-ish video I ran with the column.
Unfortunately for Hedworth, his long-haired, bare-chested next-door fan neighbor decided that he needed to be in the frame (I’m assuming it was a he; if it was a she, I guess that Hedworth wasn’t all that unfortunate, right?), so I’ve cropped in on photos 2-8 in the gallery at right.
Steve Reyes, who spent a lot of time with Emery throughout the years, including going on tour with him in 1971 while Emery was driving the Flying Red Baron wheelstander (“He drove it like a AA/FA,” remembers Reyes) and accompanying the Blue Max crew to England on two occasions (“The Blue Max kicked everybody’s butt, and that includes [Gene] Snow, who also made the trip”), is a big-time Emery fan.
“I’ve seen Dale drive many a race car: KP Automotive Olds Top Fueler, Pure Hell, Mike Fuller’s AA/GD, The Wailer AA/FD Texas Top Fueler, [Bob] Riggle’s AA/FC, JEGS AA/FC, and Burkhart’s AA/FC,” he recalled.
“One of those memories that stands out about Dale was that he always seemed to be very aware what was going on with the car he was racing. In 1968 at Sacramento, Dale asked me to go to the finish line and shoot pix of Pure Hell at speed, so away I went to the finish line. I got some great images of Pure Hell motoring at speed with its then-new Hemi engine. I delivered my glossy 8x10s the next weekend at Fremont. Dale took a look and started to show me how he knew the car was running over 200 mph -- the car’s windshield would fold down on top of Dale’s hands when the car ran over 200 mph. I know if I was driving that car, the last thing I’d be looking at would be my hands.”
(Speaking of Reyes, I want to send a big shout-out to my good pal and frequent and generous Insider contributor who is recovering after heart surgeries to insert two stents into his valvetrain. Stay well, my friend.)
Going back a little further, to the Chip Woodall and Jackie Peebles gold-plated car thread, I originally had reported that one of the Peebles-owned slingshots was an ex-Hawaiian Top Fueler driven by Mike Sorokin, but Roland Leong [and, later, Don Long] was quick to point out that the car was actually the one driven by Mike Snively, and it was the last dragster he ever owned.
The dragster was sold at the end of the 1968 season, and – here’s a little fun fact for you – Leong actually had a new dragster on the jig at Long’s shop for the 1969 season before he decided to switch to Funny Car. That not-yet-completed dragster was sold to one of Leong’s former drivers, who did pretty well with it. Yep, that car became Don Prudhomme’s first Wynn’s Winder that “the Snake” drove to Indy wins in 1969 and 1970. I never knew that; I bet you didn't either.
The Woodall and Tharp tall Texas tales were a hit with many. I heard from David Pace, who later inherited the seat of the Carroll brothers’ Texas Whips Top Fueler, who acknowledged, “Almost every memory I have of Texas fuel racing has Chip involved in some way. And, to this day, Jackie’s cars were, and always will be, the baddest-sounding things on earth.”
To which Ma Green appended, “He's one of the funniest men I know but has a heart of gold! Chip will be [at the California Hot Rod Reunion], and you can see how really nuts he is.”
Reader B.J. Smith Sr. added, “I’m so glad readers will know about the great racers we’ve had here in Texas. I grew up here, and all articles in the '60s and '70s were either East or West Coast info. As history tells, we had a lot of gold mines right here. Man, was I having flashbacks reading your article. On behalf of all us drag racing fans here in Texas, we say thank you, Phil!”
I received the photo at right from former Top Fuel racer Dan Richins, far right, of him and fellow former fuel dragster heroes Carl Olson, center, and Frank Bradley on the Bonneville Salt Flats last week. Richins is a Salt Lake City resident, and Olson is a longtime Bonneville attendee and a member of the ultracool 200-mph Club, but it was “the Beard’s” first trip to the great white way.
All three, of course, are members of the historic Cragar Five-Second Club. Richins was the last of the original eight to run in the fives, recording a 5.93 pass with his Iron Horse dragster at the 1973 Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway not long after Larry Dixon Sr. ran 5.94. Olson joined the club the following year with a 5.94 at the March Meet, and Bradley closed out the membership with a 5.96 at the Division 7 meet at Orange County Int’l Raceway in June 1974.
Bradley also owns the unique distinction of being the only member of the Cragar Five-Second and Four-Second Clubs; he was among the first 16 to run in the fours with a 4.998-second clocking at the 1989 World Finals in Pomona.
At right is a wonderful photo – shot by Steve Reyes – of the first nine members of the Five-Second Club. Back row, from left: Don Moody, James Warren, Gary Beck, Mike Snively, and Richins; front row, from left, Tommy Ivo, Don Garlits, John Stewart, and Dixon. All but Snively took part in a special Cragar Five-Second Club race at Irwindale in January 1974, which Garlits won. The traction-plagued event didn’t feature a single five – Garlits had low e.t. at 6.33 – and the final was over at the green when Dixon’s Howard’s Cams entry bombed the blower at the step. Richins lost in round one to Garlits, who also beat Stewart en route to victory.
As you can see on the list below, there are quite a few expected names (Garlits, Beck, Warren, Ruth, etc.) in that famous club and a few surprises, like Richins and Pete Kalb. (And, before you ask, Cragar lists Ivo as the charter member, not Snively.) I hope to chat with Richins in the next few days for his memories of his career.
|Cragar Five-Second Top Fuel Club
|1. Tommy Ivo
||Oct. 22, 1972
||New Alexandria, Pa.
|2. Mike Snively
||Nov. 17, 1972
|3. Don Moody
||Nov. 17, 1972
|4. Don Garlits
||July 7, 1973
|5. Gary Beck
||Sept. 3, 1973
|6. James Warren
||Oct. 13, 1973
|7. Larry Dixon Sr.
||Nov. 16, 1973
|8. Dan Richins
||Nov. 16, 1973
|9. John Stewart
||Nov. 16, 1973
|10. Pete Kalb
||Jan. 26, 1974
|11. Jerry Ruth
||Jan. 27, 1974
|12. Dwight Salisbury
||Feb. 2, 1974
|13. Dwight Hughes
||Feb. 2, 1974
|14. Carl Olson
||March 10, 1974
|15. Gary Ritter
||March 23, 1974
|16. Frank Bradley
||June 29, 1974
Friday’s acknowledgement of Tim Kushi’s place in the sport’s annals met with a lot of hurrahs for the "little guy.” Reader Patrick Prendergast remembered him well. “Growing up a gearhead in Pittsfield, Mass., I remember he was revered by all us teenagers in the ‘70s as the top dog, our own ’Big Daddy.’ It was always a thrill to see him racing up against all the big guys at Lebanon Valley during the match races, giving them a run for their money, too. Once when I was 12 or 13, I rode my bike to his speed shop to ask to go in the garage in back to see his car; he graciously obliged, and I got a surprise when not only his Challenger was there, but one of Gene Snow's Snowman Chargers! I don't remember what that connection was, but still way cool to see both. Thanks again for the article remembering one of the ‘little guys’ who made an impact on and inspired a lot of racers and hot rodders in this neck of the woods.”
As mentioned Friday, former nitro car owner Jim Wemett was at Kushi’s funeral, and he sent the pic at right of some of the other attendees with Kushi’s wife, Ellen, at a celebration luncheon at Kushi’s favorite Italian restaurant. From left are former Kushi crewmember Bill Mathis, Wemett, George Johnson (former Wemett driver), Chuck Etchells, Ellen Kushi, Al and Ellen Hanna, Ken Sciola, and Tommy Johnson Sr.
“We had a great celebration of Tim’s life,” he reported. “The line was out the door during the wake, and the memorial service was sad and funny at times with great Tim stories of playing golf and racing. Other racers, like Kalitta Motorsports, sent flowers. Tim touched a lot of people. We will all miss him and those emails and phone calls."
OK, kids, that's it for the day. My notepad is a little less cluttered and my sights already set on the next story, which includes interviews with Mr. Wemett and another of his former drivers, Tom Anderson, plus Dale Armstrong, Prudhomme, Ken Veney, and Billy Meyer. Bonus points if you can guess the topic of the tale that celebrates its 30th anniversary in Indy this year.
I’ll admit that my West Coast upbringing does at times bias the stories you read here, and although as a teenager I could easily recite a long list of match-race-only West Coast Funny Cars of the 1970s, my East Coast knowledge was limited largely to what I read in the drag mags.
Apparently, my teenage ignorance knew no bounds because, to be honest, it wasn’t until I bought Greg Zyla’s Vallco Drag Racing Game that I ever heard of Tim Kushi or his Yankee Sizzler flopper, which, in retrospect, is kind of surprising considering that the Pittsfield, Mass., racer had been competing in the class since 1970, initially with Logghe-built Dodge Chargers and Challengers under the Damn Yankee name.
Kushi, who last competed in a nitro coupe in the early 1980s, died last Sunday after being stricken with heart problems while on the golf course and subsequently passed away. He was 69.
Although Kushi did not have the national visibility of a "Jungle Jim" Liberman or a Bruce Larson, he was an East Coast stalwart and a popular match racer, yet I always wondered about his inclusion. Was he a friend of Zyla's, or was this some East Coast "little guy" favoritism? If Kushi could be in the game, what about West Coasters like Mike Halloran, Jeff Courtie, "Smokey Joe" Lee, or Roger Garten? (I made my own cards for them and dozens of others.)
So, I asked Zyla earlier this week about Kushi’s inclusion in the game and was quite pleased to hear his explanation, which I think provides a wonderful epitaph for the Kushi that some (me included) might not have known.
“Tim had run a few NHRA races (and/or tried to qualify), and because I needed 32 drivers, he made it as few other drivers had similar runs that year under NHRA sanction,” he explained. “But I had heard nothing but good from other drivers/crews/fans about Tim, so he was in. [Late and great respected drag racing journalist] Woody Hatten told me Tim was real happy to be included, but other than a quick signing of a release to use his name (a one-minute ‘Hi Tim, here's the release’ and a ‘Thanks much’), that was the extent of my talking with him as I was running from trailer to trailer. But Woody said he was deserving, just like Jim Wemett's cars [George Johnson driver] were. Woody and I would always put our minds together on drivers that deserved to be in the game. Other drivers told me to put him in the lineup of cards, too, like Al Hanna; he also was very happy to be included. They used the game for sponsor proposals.”
Although Kushi was known locally, his national fame really came about primarily for two reasons: his inclusion in the game and his scary two-car accident with “TV Tommy” Ivo at a 1978 match race at New England Dragway that pretty much ended Ivo’s nitro career.
Because Kushi is no longer with us to share his side of the story, I asked Ivo for his recollections of the scary incident, and “your hero and mine” was, as always, happy to oblige.
“I had just given Tim a rather sound thumping and was about three car lengths ahead of him in the lights, with me in the right lane -- to start with anyway. When I deployed my chute, all hell broke loose. Kaboom, I heard a huge explosion from the back of the car … WHAT? -- the bangs always come from the front of the car, where the ticking time bomb of an engine lives, and usually come along with a pretty good belch of fire, if you’re really having a bad day!!!
“The next thing I knew, I was uncontrollably veering off toward the left side of the track, and I saw the body fly off the top of the car. Because the shutoff area was lined with telephone poles on the left side that were holding up the night racing lights, I was starting to sit as low as possible in the seat. And, of course, there were no guardrails in the shutoff area in those ‘good old days!'
“All of a sudden, the car whipped around to the right and was pointing downtrack again, and -- kaboom! -- there was another explosion! And, tallyho, it was off to the left I go -- again! Good grief -- what was going on? So after getting that funny little hollow place you get in the pit of your stomach, I realized something terrible was happening, and I was just along for the ride. And, of course, it was all in slooooow motion. I've noticed every time things really get out of control, everything goes into slo-mo.
“I took a quick peek down at the transmission area to see if something had happened there -- but that was too far forward in the car -- and deduced that the rear end must have torn loose from the frame and was clanging around back there. It was the only possible answer. NOT!
"As I was heading off the track for the second time, there was no doubt about it. This time it was for real, and I'd passed the point of no return now, and I closed my eyes. I always closed them when I was crashing bad; don't laugh -- those ostriches aren't all stupid: It works! Out of sight, out of mind – well, I guess not exactly. But I'd always think to myself, ‘I don't want to SEE this happen!’
“But as luck would have it. I hit a field goal and slid off the track between the lighting poles and didn't make toothpicks out of any of them -- or me!
“After the car came to a halt, I got out of it and, like all good cowards, ran about 50 feet to get away from the scene of the accident and then turned around to have a lookee at what had really gone on. And there it was. Both Tim's and my cars were all wrapped up together in the parachutes. And I found out he was the varmint that was making all the bang-bangs on the back of my car as he kept ramming into me!!!
"It seems that Tim's front-right body support had broken in the lights, letting his car's body collapse onto his right front tire, and it grabbed it, which steered it to the right and headed him straight into the back of my steed. It had also slid the body over and trapped the throttle wide open. So he was off and running, full-tilt boogie, into a woods full of big trees that lined the track to the right.
“BUT -- and here comes that but again -- there I was, minding my own business and just getting the car stopped to go back and make the next round -- that needless to say, I never made it to -- when Tim decides to use me as a big air bag in his crash! I hate when that happens!
“The first kaboom came when he ran into the back of me the first time. Then as I headed off the track, my chute caught onto the back of his car and pulled me around, right back to my original trajectory downtrack, which pulled him sideways and rolled his car over and over. As it rolled up in my chute lines, kaboom, came the second hit -- he's baaaaaack!!!
“But all's well that ends well. Neither one of us got a scratch out of it. And, like the horrendous crash I had in my dragster at Pomona in ’74, I wouldn't have missed it for the world. It was well worth the price of admission! You can't buy experiences like that to have all those great memories to cherish with such fondness as you get long in the tooth!”
Kushi's funeral was yesterday. Former nitro car owner Jim Wemett emailed to tell me about a great turnout to honor the man, including one of his own former drivers, George Johnson, and fellow former nitro pilots Chuck Etchells and Al Hanna, plus Circus Custom Paints' Bob Gerdes, Tommy Johnson Sr., and others, all turning out to honor a man who was much more than just a name on a card.
Race fans are accustomed to seeing Funny Cars pointed every which way on the dragstrip. When they’re not pointed toward the finish line, they can be found zigzagging around their lane (and sometimes the other). We’ve seen them bank off of guardrails, fly through the air, and even wind up pointed the wrong way up the track.
But only once have we seen a Funny Car doing a nose stand at three-quarter-track. This is that story and, behind that, the story behind the guy who rode out that terrifying tip-over at the 1977 U.S. Nationals.
Long before he saddled up behind the wheel of “Big Mike” Burkhart’s silver Camaro that fateful Friday in Indy, Dale Emery was no stranger to wild rides. He had come to national attention and fan-favorite status in six years behind the wheel of Rich Guasco’s spectacularly unpredictable but wildly fast Pure Hell fuel altered and won a pair of NHRA national events in the mid-1970s and been on his head a few other times, including in an ill-fated stint as a wheelstander driver.
I was finally able to track down Emery last week to get the story of that crash as well as his memories of an action-packed and highlight-filled career in fuel racing.
As you can see in the Larry VanSickle photo sequence above and in the somewhat grainy video at right, Emery’s ride was a white-knuckler as it hit the guardrail, stood on its nose, then barrel-rolled down the guardrail’s knife edge. In retrospect, it’s surprising that his only injury was a small broken bone in his left arm. Running alongside Raymond Beadle’s Blue Max and attempting to better his opening pass of 6.22, 234.98, things quickly went bad for Emery.
“When it left, it was carrying the front wheels, and it kept going over towards the center,” he remembered vividly. “I kept turning the wheel, and when I finally lifted, the wheels were still turned, and it shot over to the other side [toward the guardrail]. I whipped it back and thought I’d saved it, but then the rear wheel hit the guardrail and just threw it right straight up in the air.
“Looking down at the track, I was thinking, ‘This is going to be bad.’ After it hit, it rolled down the guardrail a couple of times, and they had to cut the cage off to get me out. I knew that I’d hurt my arm but didn’t know then why.”
(The squeamish out there may well want to skip this part.)
The NHRA medical crew tended to Dale Emery, who suffered a broken bone in his arm but was back at the track the next day, sharing his tale with Dale Armstrong.
“What had happened was that the fuel-shutoff lever went through my firesuit and stabbed into my arm through the skin and cracked the bone up near my wrist,” he said, then, perhaps sensing me mentally retching at the thought, added nonchalantly, “Aw, it wasn’t much. That was the only thing that happened.”
Emery’s 6.22 held up to make the field in the No. 13 spot (there’s that number again), but it was clear that he wouldn’t be racing come Monday, or anytime soon for that matter. Although the crash did turn out to be the last ride of Emery’s wonderful driving career, he hadn’t made that decision at that point.
Emery was at the track the next day in an overkill cast, and Beadle, who was struggling performance wise and just winding down his partnership with Harry Schmidt, offered Emery the job tuning the Max. Emery did not immediately jump at the offer.
“Raymond was getting ready to take the Blue Max to England for the first time, so I told him I wanted to think about it for a while and to talk to Burkart,” said Emery. “Crashing didn’t bother me, and I figured that I would drive again, but I took a couple of weeks to think it over. I’d never tuned for anyone other than myself, but since I couldn’t do much else with a broken arm, I figured I should try it."
To sweeten the offer, Beadle told Emery that he could fill in for him behind the wheel of the Max on occasion, when Beadle’s other plans precluded him from driving.
“There were a few chances for me to do that, but after standing on the outside of the car, I thought I could learn more there than driving it,” he said. “I never drove again and really got into the tuning deal.”
Emery's first year with the Max, 1978, was fraught with frustration.
By 1980, the team was winning regularly, including in the thin air at the Mile-High Nationals. Emery is at the far left in the back row.
Emery tuned Raymond Beadle to his second Indy win, at the 1981 event.
Although they would go on to win the world championship three straight seasons (1979-81), finally wresting the crown from Don Prudhomme’s head, success was not immediate for the new partners. They struggled mightily in 1978 and didn’t even crack the top 10 as Beadle had done the previous three seasons.
“We had a fuel-tank problem that lasted nine months,” he recalled, frustration still evident in the recollection. “We couldn’t even do a burnout without killing it. Turns out there was a problem with the vent on the fuel tank. Once we found that, we had a new tank made. The first race was the 32 Funny Car deal in Seattle, and we won that race, went to Boise and won that deal, went to Kansas City and won there, then we went to Indy and ran our first five. It just sorta came together; we had everything; it just wasn't working right.”
(Beadle’s 5.98, Aug. 30, 1978, during qualifying in Indy, made him just the second Funny Car driver to run in the fives and came nearly three years after Prudhomme became the first to run in the fives, Oct. 12, 1975, at the World Finals at Ontario Motor Speedway. That’s how far ahead of the pack Prudhomme was during his glory days.)
They closed 1978 with their first win as a team by winning the World Finals with a final-round defeat of Tom McEwen (who, as you will read in a bit, had shared another interesting final-round pairing with Emery five years earlier).
After runner-ups at the 1979 Winternationals, Springnationals, and Mile-High Nationals, the Max found the winner’s circle again at the Summernationals and the Fallnationals and finished as world champ, eking past Prudhomme by just 531 points, less than three rounds worth of racing.
The famed Blue Max crew, which also included “Waterbed Fred” Miller and Dee Gantt – both of whom had histories with Emery – scored three wins and two runner-ups in 1980 to win its second straight championship, this time by a landslide 1,751 points over second-place Billy Meyer, and added a third crown in 1981, which included a triumphant win at the U.S. Nationals.
I asked Emery how the team maintained its championship ranking for three seasons.
“I just liked to try a lot of things,” he said. “I was the only who came up with the dual-mag drive – not that the idea was brand-new; some early, early cars had them – but we were the first to really make it work. I was also the first one to have down nozzles in the heads. It was just about trying things to stay on top, to make it run quicker. You have to keep trying things; you think you’re going to be king forever, but you’re not.”
Emery tuned the John Lombardo-driven red Blue Max to Indy glory in 1985, but the Max's glory years were coming to an end.
Emery would win Indy again in 1985 with Lil John Lombardo driving the Max, but victories were becoming few and far between as Beadle’s burgeoning NASCAR team began to take his attention and his dollars. Emery rode it out with the team through those lean years, which finished with Richard Tharp and Ronnie Young behind the wheel of cars probably not worthy of carrying the Blue Max name.
“We couldn’t hardly buy parts; I told Raymond that he needed to sell the car while it still had a good name, so that’s what he ended up doing in 1990,” said Emery, who quickly turned his skills into a business with Dale Emery Fuel Systems, building fuel pumps and injectors for the burgeoning nostalgia movement as well as for a few contemporary teams, and resumed his crew chief ways. Among his clients is the recently resurrected Blue Max nostalgia flopper, driven by Young, bringing Emery back full circle with the famous team.
Emery became nationally famous after teaming with Rich Guasco in 1965 to drive his Pure Hell fuel altered.
The Pure Hell was not only one of the wildest of the breed but also the fastest.
Emery ended up upside down in a water-filled ditch at Fremont Raceway when the steering wheel came off in his hands.
Emery and the Pure Hell also tackled -- and beat -- Funny Cars.
Although Emery is most widely associated with Texas, he actually was born in Stillwater, Okla., and grew up in Northern California after his family moved there when he was 5. He began his racing career in 1955 with a C/Gas ‘41 Chevy coupe and graduated to a rear-engine fuel coupe in 1959, then a gas dragster in 1960 and, finally, a Top Fuel car with partner Woody Parker in 1962. It was through the Parker car that Emery met Pete Ogden, who had built Emery’s Top Fuel car and the famed Pure Hell fuel altered for Guasco.
Emery took over the controls of the famed fuel altered from Don Petrich in 1965 and drove it for five seasons of wild wheelstands, sideways passes, and off-track excursions, becoming known as one of the class’ finest and fearless wheelmen, which made the Pure Hell a popular match race attraction; his battles with friend “Wild Willie” Borsch for class supremacy kept the fans enthralled.
“I think because we had the engine so high up is why it did those wheelstands, but as long as the tires were lit, it was easy to drive, but when the tires dried up, you’d better look out,” he noted.
The car, which sported an 89-inch wheelbase, originally was equipped with Chevy power and a primitive lockup clutch. “When it locked up at half-track, it was anybody’s guess which way it would go,” he told National DRAGSTER in a 1994 interview. “To my way of thinking, you just have to be well-coordinated to drive a Funny Car. But that altered, well … you just really had to work at it to keep it straight."
And it helped to have a working steering wheel, too, as Emery found out one day at Fremont Raceway, not far from his then home in Livermore, Calif.
“We used to have a Crossley steering box on the car, but they put a new P&S in it, and they told [Guasco] you had to pin the steering wheel, but he forgot. As soon as it took off, the steering wheel came back with my hands. It went off the right side of the track into the grass, but it had rained the night before, so it didn’t slow down when I pulled the brakes because the grass was still wet. It went into a ditch filled with water, dug in, and flipped it upside down.”
For a brief time, Emery was underwater, holding his breath, until the car was righted, which led to a scene “right out of The Three Stooges.
“I was still choking a little bit, and the ambulance guy was trying to pull my helmet off without even unstrapping it. Tony [Del Rio, a huge, badass wrestler who used to paint the car] smacked him and knocked him out in the water. I went to the hospital to get checked out, and the ambulance driver came in looking to see who knocked him out. I told him, ‘Don’t even start because he’ll finish it. …’ ”
Guasco also tagged Emery with his famous nickname “the Snail” for his laid-back nature. “He was kind of nervous, and I was always just hanging out. He used to say, ‘Look at him: He’s just like a snail; he never goes anywhere fast.’ ”
A Chrysler engine and a slipper clutch were added in 1968 and really paid off. Borsch was the first to top 200 mph with a 200.44-mph run at Irwindale Raceway Sept. 23, 1967, but the next year, Emery blasted to a 207.36-mph clocking while winning the Hot Rod Magazine Championships at Riverside Raceway, a speed that would not be bettered that year. A week before the Riverside win, the Pure Hell had dispatched a field of floppers at a Funny Car vs. Fuel Altered battle at Orange County Int’l Raceway.
“Driving the Pure Hell was the most fun of anything I ever did. There was no money to be made doing it, but we did it because we liked racing.”
The Pure Hell was heavily damaged in a highway accident near Deming, N.M., while Emery was on his way home to Dallas from the U.S. Nationals. The trailer blew a tire, and the rig ended up in a culvert. The car sat for a while as Guasco decided what came next (a Pure Hell Funny Car that, despite historic notations to the contrary, Emery insists he never drove).
After leaving the Pure Hell team, Emery sampled a long line of different rides. He drove the Rousin-O’Hare slingshot Top Fueler for six months in 1970 – winning the $1,000 Texas Bucks event at Dallas Int'l Motor Speedway – and later helped Gary Watson build the Flying Red Baron Mustang wheelstander, then crashed it not long after.
“I ended up rolling the thing over,” he said. “The converter for the automatic transmission was screwing up; it came down, landed sideways, and rolled over. He wanted me to help pay to get it rebuilt, but I told him I wasn’t interested in it that much to do that. Yeah, I tried it, but I didn’t like it; it was too much of a clown deal to me.”
Ironically, another wheelstander owner, Bob Riggle, of Hemi Under Glass fame, gave Emery his first Funny Car ride, an ex-Don Gay Pontiac Trans Am of the same name. After a time behind the wheel of that car, Emery went to work for Sam Harris at Chaparral trailers (which is where he first met Beadle, in 1974, who was driving for Don Schumacher at the time).
In 1973, Jeg Coughlin Sr. was looking to go Funny Car racing and hired Emery to drive. Gantt, who had met Emery while crewing for Borsch, was already working with Emery and joined the team, and Miller, who was helping to paint the new body, asked to go with the team to the PRO event in Tulsa, Okla., and stayed onboard.
In the span of just a year, Emery and the JEGS Camaro won two NHRA national events – the 1973 Grandnational in Canada and the 1974 Winternationals – and a couple of IHRA events and were runner-up at the 1973 NHRA Supernationals in Ontario, Calif., after what proved to be another signature Emery moment caught on film.
Which brings us back to the aforementioned previous final-round history with McEwen. McEwen, who, despite his match race and promotional prowess, had never won an NHRA national event, made the Supernationals field only as an alternate from the 17th spot when Bobby Rowe reported in broken. McEwen’s Carefree Duster dispatched Dave Condit, Jim Dunn, and Jim Nicoll with a 6.59 and a pair of 6.50s to reach the final.
The other semifinal pitted Emery against Prudhomme, with “the Snake” eager to beat Emery for a chance to take down his former teammate in a period when the two weren’t on the best of terms. Emery had already run 6.28 and Prudhomme 6.33, so the winner would be a heavy favorite against “the ‘Goose” in the final. Prudhomme didn’t make it down the track, slowing to a 13-second, 55-mph crawl, and watched Emery’s mount disintegrate before his eyes in the other lane, a massive blower explosion first removing the roof and then the rest of the body.
Don Gillespie’s great photo – which shows the fuel-tank lid blowing open; a rule was already in place for screw-in caps for 1974 – is only half the story.
“When we started it up for the run, the aluminum line that ran to the back of the injector was leaking at the ferrule,” he remembered. “I thought it would make it on down there, and I was going to click it off early, but it went bang before I could. It blew the body off, and I couldn’t see where I was going and clipped a hay bale in the shutdown area and flipped over. We didn’t have a spare body, so it wouldn’t have mattered if I crashed or not.”
McEwen singled for the win.
Jaime Sarte repaired the chassis and got the team a new body, and it opened 1974 with the aforementioned Winternationals win. The joy of that victory faded quickly when a pay dispute with Coughlin led Emery to quit the team and head back to work for Chaparral. Miller left to join the Blue Max team, and the two were reunited, with Gantt added to the fray, a few years later on the Max team.
Inbetween, Emery was tapped to showcase the Vega of former fuel altered pals Leroy Chadderton and Glen Okazaki that Ed Pink had shipped to England for Roy Phelps (owner of Santa Pod Raceway) and ran a 6.99, on fire, when a lifter broke. Famed wheelman Allan “Bootsie” Herridge later drove this car, which became one of Europe’s finest, under the Gladiator name.
Emery teamed with Burkart in 1976, and they were runner-up to Beadle at the inaugural Cajun Nationals. The car ran “good, not great,” according to Emery, “but we done good.”
They ran on-again, off-again on the NHRA national event scene in 1976-77 and almost always qualified and, freakishly enough, lost several times in the first round to McEwen. Prior to the Indy crash, the car suffered a fire in the first round at the Summernationals, but that was nothing compared to what happened a few months later in Indy.
So that’s the story of Dale Emery’s career, hardly lived at a snail’s pace. Thanks to Dale for his keen memories and Fred Miller for the assist, and thanks to you all for following along.
Sam Schermerhorn today, with girlfriend Paula and their pal, Budda
I have a pretty good grasp of drag racing’s history and even of some of the more obscure names from its past, but I’ll admit that until last Wednesday, as I was writing about Larry Lombardo’s crash at the 1977 U.S. Nationals, I had never heard of Sam Schermerhorn, and I’m guessing that 99 percent of you hadn’t either until you read on Friday that he was the guy in the other lane when Bill Jenkins’ Monza slid out from beneath Lombardo and crashed and caught fire during qualifying.
Lombardo couldn’t remember Schermerhorn’s name, only the car, and he’s only visible in one frame from that famous photo sequence, so it took a little detective work to pull the unusual name out of the air, but I’m glad that I did because, lo and behold, out of equally thin air came an email from Schermerhorn, thanking me for acknowledging him in the article. The power of the blog at its finest.
I had no idea if Schermerhorn was still alive or even still followed the sport, let alone that he was a reader of this column, but now he has gone from a name you never knew to a name you’ll never forget, a story behind the story, which is what we do best here.
Schermerhorn believes this photo was taken on the fateful run in Indy.
Schermerhorn confirmed Lombardo’s story that he had let Schermerhorn leave first in their qualifying pair, which, in retrospect, may have prevented a nasty Kenny Koretsky-Bruce Allen-like midtrack collision.
“I did talk to Larry before that run, and he did say they were testing a new set of tires and he was not going to cut a good light,” remembered Schermerhorn. “As it turned out, I broke a rod just before 3rd gear. As I was moving out of the groove, I saw him go by, then his car just made a hard left, and I’m thinking, ‘Don’t hit “Grump’s” car,’ so I went into the right lane. Larry’s first hit was with the right front, which spun it around, and that's when the rear hit and it caught fire. I had a small extinguisher onboard, but when I saw Larry get out, I figured he was OK; he actually can run pretty fast. I think he beat me to the turnoff! That was the only time I was glad I blew the motor.”
Prior to buying the Motown Missile Pro Stocker, Schermerhorn had raced an A/Altered with another Insider reader, John Hoyt, who currently owns the El Toro fuel altered. They had a Barracuda that they took to the Troy, Mich., shop of Pro Stock racer Mike Fons to get it backhalved; Fons had the Missile sitting in the corner of his shop, and they left with it instead. Schermerhorn licensed at the Indy points meet. His stay in Pro Stock was short-lived – only two seasons and just two NHRA national events – and although he did not qualify at that 1977 Indy race, he had made the field of the Springnationals a few months earlier, qualifying No. 16 with a 9.010 and losing in round one to Bob Ingles, 9.00 to 9.19. (Among the nonqualifiers at that event were world champ Richard Tharp and Division 7 champ James Warren in Top Fuel; "Jungle Jim" Liberman, in one of his last national event appearances before his death, and Ed McCulloch in Funny Car; and future Top Alcohol Funny Car world champ Bob Gottschalk in Pro Stock.)
Schermerhorn's best Pro Stock outing was at the IHRA Northern Nationals, where he beat Wayne Gapp in the first round and went to the semifinals.
“We stopped in late ‘78 because my partner and I had different ideas on how to run the class, so we split up,” said Schermerhorn, who owns an auto-repair shop in Toledo, Ohio, where he is restoring one of the El Toro AA/FAs. “Things like [Indy 1977] are hard to forget, but it also showed me how drag racers help each other. We took our car to C.J. Rayburn’s shop, and he and Walt Maynard let us use his machine shop to build a new motor. ‘Grump’ even came by our pit to see how we were doing.”
Larry Lombardo, 1977
Larry Lombardo, 2012
That Jenkins would take an interest in Schermerhorn’s progress spoke volumes about the kind of guy that “the Grump” was, sentiments echoed by Lombardo in our conversation last weekend.
“If you had half a noodle, he’d help you out,” said Lombardo. “If you were an idiot, he wouldn’t.”
Lombardo, who drove for Jenkins from 1972 through 1979, has been attending a lot of Jenkins tribute events this year following Jenkins’ passing in late March and sharing great stories of their times together, and he believes he’s uniquely qualified.
“There are only two people who know the real Bill Jenkins: me and Linda Vaughn,” he asserted. “People don’t really know Jenkins. He wasn’t 'the Grump.' He was probably one of the funniest guys out there. I spent seven years, 365 days a year, out there with him. I could tell funny stories all day about Bill. Of course, there are some I couldn’t tell, too. But he was hilarious.”
So I’ll just share some of his great quotes, with no particular thread tying them together other than a good belly laugh.
- “We were a father-son deal. He was always ‘Bill’ to me, and I was ‘Larry’ or ‘Hey.’ He never grumped at me. We got along great.”
“We’d talk every now and then, a couple of times each year, but I’d always call him on his birthday, Dec. 22. We’d be small-talking, and I’d wish him happy birthday, and he’d say, ‘Well, thank you,’ which blew my mind because I won six national events and a world championship for him, and the best I ever got was, ‘That’ll do.’ That was the biggest compliment I ever got from him while we were racing.”
“I crashed his Vega the first year I was driving for him, match racing Ronnie Sox at Sunshine [Dragstrip, in Florida]. It was like my fifth or sixth time in the car. I had told him, ‘Hey, Bill, there’s oil out there on the track at about 2nd gear,’ and he said, ‘[Grunt] It’ll be OK.’ Well, he’s Bill Jenkins, and he says it’s going to be OK, so we leave, and I pull 2nd gear and had the front end up, but the left rear tire was right in that oil, so it made a left-hand turn, and bam, I totaled that car and a good chunk of the guardrail. On the same run, Ronnie locked up his brakes at the top end and slid backward into a telephone pole and hurt his back.
“I didn’t get to drive again until 1974; finally, I told Bill he had hired me as a driver not a crewman, and either he was going to let me drive or I was going to leave. He said, ‘OK, but you have to win. I don’t have to win, but you do.’ "
“A lot of people don’t know this, but at some of those best-of-three match races, if Bill would lose the first round, he’d put me in the car for the second run. I was quite a bit lighter than him, maybe 100 pounds, which was about a tenth on the track. [Dick] Landy and some of those other big boys bitched and moaned, and because of me, they changed the rules that the cars were weighed with the driver.”
“Bill had a $50 Corvair with about $500 worth of tape holding it together. I said, ‘Bill, get a real car.’ He said, '[Grunt] Theft-proof.' I asked him what he meant. ‘Who would steal it?’ he asks. 'I can take it to the airport and leave the keys in it. No one’s taking that son of a bitch.’ "
“Any products we got – heads, manifolds, any part – he had to do something to it after he got it, then it was OK. He’d even tweak a comb after he got it. He had to put the Jenkins touch to it.”
“Bill always wanted me to help the other guys. We helped them all: Ronnie [Manchester], [Frank] Iaconio, Richie Zul. We even helped John Lingenfelter with some heads for his [Super Stock] Corvette, and he went like a second and a half under the national record at Indy. We were at a match race one time and all caught up, and he sent me over to help Bob Brandt work on Don Prudhomme’s car because they were running late. I didn’t know anything about a blown Funny Car, but that’s who Jenkins was.”
“Jenkins had this concrete retaining wall built next to his shop, and he told [the guy building the wall] to follow the contour of the land, and he did. When the ground went down, so did the wall; when it went up, so did the wall. It looked like a roller coaster. Jenkins loved it because it was unique and because the guy did what he told him to. It became a conversation piece and a signature Jenkins thing.”
“We always had to be late arriving at the races. I asked why we always were late and had to rush and get the ramps out and get the car ready. ‘[Grunt] They [the fans] have already seen everyone before we got here; now they’re all going to come over here.’ And he was right; people would flock around our pit 10 deep. If we all got there the same time, the Ford people would go to the Ford cars and the Chrysler people to the Chrysler cars, but when we showed up late, everyone came to us. The one thing he taught me was you had to have a reason for everything you do; you don’t just do something.”
In the course of my research about the 1977 Indy crash, I discovered that Jenkins himself had crashed the Monza’s twin, their match race car, July 17 at an event at Illinois’ Oswego Dragstrip called Beat the Grump, which offered the chance for three of the track’s local E.T. racers to face the legend. “I was running at Budds Creek [Md.] that day and got a call at 11 o’clock that night telling me I had to go to Detroit because Bill had a match race scheduled there the next day. We left at 11:30 and drove straight there. We hadn’t been planning a trip, so we had to stop at a Kmart to get shaving gear and underwear.” The match race car was fixed at SRD but was back home in Malvern, Pa., when Lombardo crashed the national event car.
And finally, this gem:
“We checked into a motel for a match race in Tennessee, and Bill wasn’t always too good with the ol’ heel-toe on the clutch and drifted back and smashed the hood of this Volkswagen Beetle all the way back to the windshield. He gets out of the truck and comes back about five minutes later and asks, ‘Where are the pictures [handout photos]?’ I told him they were in the sleeper. He takes one, goes back to the guy, then comes back a few minutes later. ‘Hmrrph … all he wanted was an autographed picture.’ This guy was so proud and happy that Bill Jenkins had totaled out his car that all he wanted was an autograph. Bill not only autographed the picture but the car as well.”
Still no Dale Emery sighting, so the story of his wild 1977 Indy crash gets put off for another column. The artist formerly known as “Waterbed Fred” Miller is on the case for me trying to get a message through – I only got a voice mail, and an email to him bounced -- so perhaps next Tuesday. I’ll be out of the office later this week, so there won’t be a Friday column (sorry!). Thanks again for reading and helping fill in the blank lines of the NHRA history book.