Your first race, Part 3Tuesday, October 09, 2012
Posted by: Phil Burgess

I wasn’t really planning a third installment of Your First Race, but the entries just keep rolling in and so do the cheers for the topic, so here we go with round three:

Jim Lagler: “I had an older (by nine years) brother who was into cars big time. He went to races with his friends on Labor Day in 1963 or 1964 and came back with great stories. I begged to go the following year, and he said if I had 100 bucks for a week’s expenses, I could go. I worked at odd jobs and my paper route all summer and saved the money. That year, I got to go with him and his friend who had a race car. The races: the U.S. Nationals. The car: Jim Oddy's AA/GS Austin. I did a good enough job as a gofer that Jim told me I could go to the races anytime with him when we got home. The next five years were great. I got to travel all over the Northeast in the thick of the Gasser Wars against ‘Ohio George,’ the Hill brothers, Jack Merkel, Jr. Thompson, and K.S. Pittman to name a few. I even got to rub shoulders with ‘Jungle Jim,' the Chi-Town Hustler team, and other early Funny Car greats when we were booked into eight-car match race shows. Pretty heady stuff for a 15-year-old kid.

“I was still with Jim when he graduated to BB/FC. Then college called, and it came to an end. I still followed Jim's great career in Pro Mod but now from a distance. A lot of these memories just recently came rushing back when I got to see the excellent restoration of the Austin by John Cassiol of Buffalo, N.Y. I still get my yearly dose of nitro by attending the Hot Rod Reunion in Bowling Green, Ky., every year since its inception."

Geoff McInnes: “In 1966, I was 11, in grade six at what we call primary school down here in Australia. There were lots of British migrant kids arriving at our school every few weeks when another boat would arrive. I became friendly with two brothers who had some U.S. drag racing magazines and had seen American racers in action at Santa Pod. About the same time, a local TV station started broadcasting the action from the only dragstrip near my hometown of Melbourne on Sunday afternoons during the summer (football took priority in winter). I was hooked!

“I started nagging my dad to take me but for a long time had no success. The track was way over the other side of the second-biggest city in Australia, and at that age, I had no other way of getting there even if getting parental permission had been likely. Eventually, after tipping the can on the nagging, my dad finally gave in in April 1970, and out we went to Calder Raceway. Unfortunately, we had to go in my mother’s VW Beetle as my dad’s much cooler Fairlane was out of action, which was a bit embarrassing.

“This was a great event for a first-timer as I got to see reigning NHRA Top Fuel champion Steve Carbone face off against our local hero Ash Marshall and run the first 200-mph pass (202, actually) at this venue. The braking area at Calder back then had a 30-degree bend in it about 500 feet past the finish line, and many local fuelers had failed to make the turn and shot through a fence and across a public road. For this reason, while 200 had been achieved at other Australian tracks, it had never been done at Calder. Carbone managed it and still took the bend without incident in Larry Huff’s beautiful Soapy Sales car, a car which I have to say made everything we had here look like it had been passed down from Fred Flintstone.

“My now 83-year-old dad still tells his adult grandchildren that he thought if he took me once I’d get it out of my system and that would be the end of it. How wrong he was! I still attend all the major meetings around my own country and am not long back from yours where I took in some NHRA major-event action and checked out the Wally Parks Museum at Pomona.”

Jimm Murray: “My early experiences were at Sunland Dragway in El Paso, Texas, in 1961. My dad would drop me off at the track entrance and head down the road to the horse track (where my mother did not want him to be). Factory race cars and crazy, short-wheelbase dragsters were the top of my list, with some wild gassers thrown in.
“Dick Harrell, of Carlsbad, N.M., was the king of the pack, especially with his black Chevy 409 going up against the best that Mopar and Ford could throw at him. The track had no railing to speak of, constant sandstorms that created no-visibility situations, a flag starter at one end, and dragsters that would start by push cars getting them up to speed.

"Eddie Hill was a fixture at the track with his twin-engine dragster (in a side-by-side V shape), as were Gene Snow and others. To see two dragsters take off, get lost completely in a dust storm, and have to wait a while for it to clear to see who won is crazy to think of nowadays.
“I remember Dick flat-towing in a red '62 Chevy 409 one Sunday that said ‘Hayden Proffitt’ on the doors and immediately recognized it as what Hayden had recently won with on the NHRA side of things. Harrell went on to keep winning with a white '63 427 Z-11, and then he started stuffing that engine in black ‘64 Chevy Malibus, and then started into the Hilborn injected 427s in other Novas, and finally, tube frames. All the while, the latest factory iron from Ford and Chrysler were fun to behold, as was the line of rosin that started getting poured in front of the slicks during match races. The best of times.”

Jim Tilley: “I remember when I was about 12 years old, there was a garage in Sulphur, La., called Meads. The owner, 'Shorty' Mead, and his son, Doug, had a rail they raced. 'Shorty' was the wrencher, and Doug did the driving. I would hear that Hemi fire up from about six blocks away, and I would jump on my bike and hightail it to his shop just to watch them tune on it. Most of the time, they would shut it off by the time I got there. I remember 'Shorty' with that stub of a cigar in his mouth. They would let me watch from the doorway while they worked on the car. I remember there was one stall that looked like it was for storage with about two truckloads of trophies along the walls. I am sure he did some winning for all the trophies.”

Gerret Wikoff: “As a teen living in upstate New York, I was into customizing model cars, and I really wanted to go to a drag race, though I had no idea whatsoever what they entailed. So when years later I owned a V-Dub repair shop, one of the mechanics renting a stall there was Harrison Peyton, who had a B/Econo rail. He would tune it up Friday nights before the Saturday drags -- you know the drill: Rev the motor up to the redline, the sounds of the open pipes reverberating off the Silver Lake Hills; I was so hooked. Then there was the day he decided he needed to take the rail for a pass up and down Hyperion Avenue midday. He waited for the light to turn red, stopping the oncoming traffic, and took off up the street. I'd never seen anyone run a rail with open pipes on the city streets of L.A. before or since. 

“So when he asked me if I'd like to go to the drags at Irwindale with him, you couldn't stop me. We got to the strip, and he taught me the basics of bracket racing. I raced my '65 blue and yellow mutt of a Beetle with 14-inch tires, a Holley bug spray, a lightweight Karmann Ghia flywheel, and fly-cut dual-port heads. It was a quick car off the line, and I could cut a good light and was pretty consistent on the shifts (no tach) and eventually got a first over Jerry McClanahan by getting him to break out, and a semifinal win. Harrison would race the tow car in Bracket 5 and the rail in Bracket 1. It was idyllic.
“One fine day, Harrison asked me if I'd like to take the rail for a pass. Duh! He had to ask? He shows me how to work the hand brake and foot shifter without a reverse lockout. I squeeze myself into his firesuit. And wait. Finally, it is my turn to stage. I think when I went too deep and had to back up and ended up with the bottom bulb turned on, then realized, well, suddenly I was on a single. So the light comes down, and I mash the gas. I'm out there a ways, wondering what the thrill he was always talking about was, when I decide to shift into high. Brrrrrrrraaaainnngggg. The revs went through the roof as the car bogged big time. I snatch the car out of reverse and back into high, turning several shades of red. And, of course, the announcer made anybody who hadn't seen it well aware of my mistake. Sadly, I never was asked to take a pass in his race car again.”

Ron Bikacsan: “Your current topic took me back to 1968 at Kansas City Int'l Raceway. I was stationed at an Air Force base in Missouri and had been a hot rodding fan since 1959. My buddy had just bought a brand-spankin'-new '68 Road Runner for $2,920, and we just had to go to K.C. on Saturday and see the ‘big guys.’ I believe [Don] Garlits was there, along with other rails, but the one car that blew everybody's mind that night was Gene Snow's new Charger Funny Car. Still in primer, he'd get cleaned off the line, and then -- like the car was attached to a big rubber band -- that Charger would barrel past everybody in the lights. The crowd went ballistic every time. Later, the announcer told the crowd that Snow was running a direct drive (four-disc Crowerglide) rather than a transmission in his car. Made all the sense in the world but didn't dim the thrill of watching that car top-end like nothing else. I'll never forget that night.”

Don Luke: “I was reading the latest installment and happened on the photo of John Smyser and the Terrifying Toronado climbing the guardrail. Boy, does that bring back memories. I first attended a drag race at Pomona, the Winternationals in 1963. Friends from high school (Charter Oak High School) in Covina invited me. I was invited again during 1964, my senior year. Guess I was hooked because I have been going ever since. I was not really a car person but couldn't figure out why folks would cheer the Dodges and jeer the Plymouths or vice versa. I soon learned the car brands were only part of it; the drivers were the other part of the equation.

“Eventually, I got my driver's license and a 1964 Dodge. Took it to Irwindale most weekends, and it was on one of those weekends that I watched the Toronado climb the guardrail. Also, probably on a different weekend, got to watch Don Nicholson's body go airborne toward the end of a run. I was learning about cars but had fun with the Dodge: hardtop with a 383, four-barrel engine, four-speed, and limited slip rear end (3.23 ratio, though). Best run was 14.52 seconds at 97.67 mph. We lived in Glendora, near the corner of Glendora and Gladstone, way before the 210 freeway was built. Glendora Avenue went through the hills, a turning road with fairly sharp turns. I saw police lights on the road one night and went up to see what was happening. There was John Smyser's Toronado strapped to a trailer behind a motorhome and the trailer hanging over the edge of the road, still attached to the motorhome. It was eventually pulled back on the road. Don't remember seeing it run after that. Shortly after, Uncle Sam came calling, and I was obliged to answer. Nowadays, I attend events at Firebird in Chandler, Ariz., as a spectator.”

Rich Erickson: “Although I cannot remember my first race, the first race car I remember is the wagon attached. Created and campaigned by Richard Charbonneau, he won the 1970 Winternationals with the car. Clyde Birch of Chippewa Falls, Wis., had purchased the car from ‘Charby,’ and I certainly remember it well. It was ‘crew chiefed’ by my dad, Gerry Erickson.

“I spent many hours waxing that car as I was only 5, but I am hooked for life. We raced all over, but our home track was Amber Green Dragways in Eau Claire, Wis. (now Rock Falls Raceway, owned by Stock champ Al Corda). The first fuel car was 'Snake's' Army Funny Car at Minnesota Dragways in 1975. I still love the smell of nitro! I was a very lucky kid … thanks, Dad!”

OK, that's it for installment No. 3. I have several other items beginning to back up, so I'm going to stick a fork in this topic for now. Feel free to continue to send me your stories, but I'll probably wait a bit before publishing a new batch. Please also include photos; a lot of what you've seen the last three columns have been photos that I have added from our files, but I'd much rather see yours.

Thanks again, everyone, for the amazing participation. I'll see you Friday.

Your first race, Part 2Friday, October 05, 2012
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Here’s Part 2 of Your First Race. I have to say it has been really cool reading through the submissions. Some of you I don’t know at all, and some have been previous contributors to the column, but I find all of the stories enthralling. As I prepare them for publishing, I edit them the best I can for spelling and grammar and take a stab at shortening them a bit for the sake of clarity and brevity (before turning them over to our own Lorraine Vestal for a precision copy tune-up), but I find it very hard to trim them. I can almost feel the emotions that are poured into these stories and, in my mind’s eye, picture the scene and compare it to my own memories.

The entries below are mostly "first time at the drags,” but there are also a few that talk about early influences (from our first “brush with greatness” thread on this topic), but they all have that feel of people remembering their first touchstones to the sport.

Gary Crumine, an eloquent and frequent contributor here, said it well: “After reading all these stories of how we caught the bug, one thought came to mind. There is a thread that ties everything together. That thread is that for the most part, we all got our indoctrination to motorsports by some pretty famous and downright decent people who took the time to invite us into their world. Passing along the motorhead gene is both a privilege and a responsibility we all share. I’ll be forever grateful for the time I spent just hanging out and rubbing elbows with the greatest of people. Much is said about motorsports in general, and drag racing in particular, but I will say this: Drag racers are the friendliest people on the planet. Always ready to help when asked, always willing to lend advice, and not afraid to give you the secret formula to their success. Drag racers want you to beat them, and work hard doing it. They don’t crash you or trash you or thrash you. They genuinely celebrate your successes even if you beat them in the process. Drag racers are REAL people.”

Very well said and, I believe, a universal sentiment in the sport. OK, enough preamble, on to the stories …

Howard Hull: “My first trip to the races was in 1967 when we loaded up the station wagon and went to the inaugural race at Orange County Int'l Raceway. Because several of the founders were friends of the family, we were treated to some behind-the-scenes that most don’t get to see. Actually, we went and saw the facility under construction about five months earlier, and the tower was finished being framed, and the skin was being hung on it. The grandstands were taking shape, and the track was graded and ready for asphalt. As we walked around, Larry Vaughn, one of the founders, pointed out to us how the staging lanes were going to work and where the pit area was going to be. Now, all of this was Greek to me; five months later in August, it became a part of my DNA.

“The event featured Tom ‘the Mongoose’ McEwen. The place was filled with folks, and seeing the flames coming from the exhaust pipes from the dragsters as they inched their way up to the starting line and then watching the Christmas Tree blink down had me hooked. The bracket racing with the handicaps had the crowds going as one racer pulled up to the line in a station wagon next to a gas dragster. When the dragster caught the station wagon at the top end, the crowd went wild.

“Within a few years, I went from selling Cokes in the stands to running the concession stands and loving it. I went through the AHRA and [Bill] Doner years and Charlie [Allen] and Lynne [Rose] show. They were great people and really had the place humming at the end, and it was too bad the Irvine Co. had to develop that parcel right after Don Bren bought the company. Over the years, I was lucky enough to travel with the FRAM program at NHRA events all over the U.S. Getting to seeing the different racetracks that I had read about in National DRAGSTER and Hot Rod and comparing them to OCIR was always fun. The track was way ahead of its time for sure! I still think of the place every time I drive by!”

Kris Miller: “I grew up outside of Pittsburgh. The first time my dad took me and my friends to Pittsburgh Int'l Dragway (PID), I had no idea what to expect, but there were nitro fuel cars, which, for some reason, that sticks out in my mind 40-plus years later. The race was in the late ‘60s; I was a teenager with a limited knowledge and experience of drag racing, outside of what I read in Hot Rod magazine. One other keen memory that I have and will never forget was ‘the Greek,’ Chris Karamesines, was at the race. I wish I knew where my picture(s) from that day are located now. I find it ironic a few weekends ago in Charlotte, my 20-year-old daughter was able to have ‘the Greek’ autograph a T-shirt she purchased.”

Dick Pruett: “I used to go to Irwindale as a teenager back in the day. Lots or memories. The late, great Steve Evans used to announce as he did for the speedway motorcycle track on the same grounds. I ended up racing at the speedway for several years -- exciting and a great experience. I saw John Smyser’s Terrifying Toronado, a four-wheel-drive two-blown-motor exhibition car, jump the guardrail not more than 50 feet out of the gate. I saw Charlie Allen, Dick Landy, and altered-wheelbase nitro-injected early Funny Cars. What sticks in my mind is the really tall Hilborn injector tubes sticking through the hoods; as a youngster, they looked like they were 3 feet tall to me. This is when they did a lot of match races and used rosin during their several burnouts. I saw a bunch of others, Gas Ronda, 'Dyno Don,' Gary Densham, and Doug Nash's Bronco Buster, an injected 289 Ford Bronco, no windows and I believe a fiberglass body. He would run in the show against all the big-blocks and at times would win. I probably saw everyone of that time by going to Lions, Irwindale, and Orange County. I was able to experience so much, memories I still carry today.”

Herman Wallace: “I was 13 years old in the summer of 1963. My father had just died, and we had just moved to a home on the southeast side of Chicago. I was riding my bicycle following the sound of a roaring engine. The sound took me to a Shell gas station two blocks from home, where I saw a 1961 Chevy chained to the floor running at full throttle on what I discovered was a Clayton chassis dyno. Lettered on the sides of the car were a shamrock and the name Kelly O'Brien, along with other decals that I don't recall. I stood there in awe of what was going on, and when the engine stopped, out of the car came Kelly O'Brien, who ran the station and owned and raced the car.

“I was allowed to come in the bay when the car was turned off, and this became a hangout and my intro to hot rodding. Whenever I heard the roar, I pedaled my feet off to get to the station to get the rush of sound and power firsthand. That was only a taste of what I would see as I started high school in the fall, traveling by bus across the city to a tech school and passing twice a day, morning and afternoon, past 69th and Damen, nearly breaking my neck to see what might be going on in that garage with the sign on the roof Engine Specialists. I occasionally caught glimpses of some kind of race car, and, after thumbing through magazines in the drugstore, I figured this might be a dragster. Little did I know of what history was passing me from the bus window, but I learned quickly when my neighbor, who was a couple of years older, was allowed to take a carload of us to U.S. 30 in his dad’s ‘59 Chevy wagon. That was just a beginning as in August of 1967, I lost my summer job at the NAPA parts store when I announced I wasn't coming to work because I was going to Indy to get my first taste of the Big Go. I never got off the bus to look in or hang out; had I, I might have met then someone I would meet in the fall of 1967 when, after graduating high school, my mother bought me a 1968 Plymouth Valiant with as much as I could coax out of her, a 318 engine and a four-speed. I asked the service manager about hot rodding the car, and he sent me to the back of the garage to see 'Joe.'

“There I met Joe Krupinski, who suggested I come to his new shop a couple of miles from my home. I visited the shop and frankly was a little scared as there at my feet was Krupinski's fuel dragster, Twiggy. I couldn't get enough and found myself there several times a week. I was jealous as they loaded the car onto the trailer for a weekend race, knowing the sound and smell of drag racing, and I was determined to learn more about this nitro thing. I spent more and more time at the shop and worked my way into the back door, being allowed to wash parts and hold this or that while the engine was being assembled. I felt I really arrived when Joe allowed me to fill nitro jugs for customers like Dale Creasy Sr.

“There was an afternoon that I will never forget. It was a weekday, and I was a student in the local junior college. Joe asked that I come to the shop as early in the afternoon as I could. I did, and there on the street in front of the shop was a station wagon and a fuel dragster and a guy with a rather large movie camera. Shortly thereafter, a police car came and blocked the street, and Joe announced they were going to start the car and film a burnout for a commercial. The station wagon pushed the fueler, but it wouldn't light, so we had to back down the motor, pushing the car by hand backward to clear the fuel from the cylinders. The car lit, the burnout was made, and now came a police lieutenant hollering because traffic was backed up for blocks. Nobody went to jail, just a lot of screaming by the cops and the smell of nitro and rubber in the Chicago air. I was now an official hanger-on crew kid and was invited to travel with Joe’s car to the Olympics of Drag Racing at Union Grove. My heart was pounding as we loaded the car. The driver, ‘Animal Al’ Marshall, drove the pickup and trailered the dragster to the Grove. Joe's main mechanic and engine assembler, Alan Puchalski (pardon the spelling), wasn’t old enough to get a driver’s license. What a weekend. Garlits, Kalitta, getting the car lined up in front of the pickup for the push-off, pulling the car back after the burnout, a lifetime of excitement in two days. What I have come to learn over the years is that while I rode the bus past 69th and Damen, Krupinski was working for Engine Specialists and called Don Maynard his mentor. I have since been to ‘the Greek’s’ shop, but I wish I had gotten off the bus and wandered down that alley.”

Steve Morse: “In 1967, I would always hear the radio ads for Sundays for Balboa Dragstrip, an eighth-mile track near Eugene, Ore., and they talked about a guy named Snidely Whiplash. I knew that my brother, Vic, raced, but I did not know what he raced, so one day, my mom and I drove to the 76 station that Vic owned, and I say to Vic, ‘Why don't you beat this Snidely guy?’ I'm just 12 years old, and Vic comes around to my window and sticks his hand out and introduces himself as Snidely Whiplash. I was floored. He used the name so as not to aggravate Dad and Grandad because racing was outlaw to them. The first car I ever worked on was the Bob McCutcheon-owned, Vic Morse-driven Kent Fuller car, a 392 Hemi on 85 percent nitro. I remember us pushing him down toward the starting line, and when he let the clutch out and hit the mag switch, the entire cab of that push truck filled with The Elixir of the Gods. We had to turn the cars around by hand to point them the right way, and I'm getting hammered by the zoomies and nitro; I have no idea what's coming next. Well, the rest is history, as they say, and I've never been quite the same.”

Joe Juhan: “My first experience at the dragstrip was at the ill-fated Yellow River dragstrip in Covington, Ga. The year was 1965. My dad was a car dealer and had taken me to see Arnie ‘the Farmer’ Beswick at Tabor Pontiac in Atlanta on Thursday prior to a match race on Sunday with ‘Dyno Don’ Nicholson. Arnie was a super-nice guy and instantly became my hero. Arnie was in the Mystery Tornado ’64 GTO, 'Dyno' in the ’65 Comet, which, by this time, was sporting an altered wheelbase and Hilborn injectors, and both were on healthy doses of nitro. ‘Dyno’ took the two out of three. Also on the card that day was the 43 Jr. Barracuda driven by ‘the King’ [Richard Petty] against Huston Platt’s Dixie Twister. The next year, Arnie showed up with the Tameless Tiger '63 Tempest, ‘Dyno’ with the first flip-top car, the ’66 Logghe-built Eliminator I, but was eliminated by ‘the Farmer.’ That Tempest had no wheelie bars (maybe bumper-mounted wheels) and stood up on every pass, hauling the mail. I saw some of the wildest early Funny Car match racing there during those years. My brother and dad ran in Modified eliminator around the South, and there were some killer gassers and modified production cars in the area. That was the golden age for me as a boy. I lived and breathed drag racing, and I’m glad I was around to see it.”

Glenn Gaskey: “My first trip to the drags was like all of my trips to the drags as a little boy: absolutely awesome. I actually can’t remember my first trip because I was an infant, but as a very young boy, I do remember spending a lot of weekends at Lions and Irwindale, then later driving through south Orange County in the bed of my dad’s '56 Ford pickup tow vehicle, mostly on the side streets lined with eucalyptus trees. We would load up the altered-wheelbase Mustang (392 Hemi on 75 percent, I think) on Saturday mornings and head down Santa Fe Avenue from North Long Beach to 223rd Street and into the gates at Lions. After helping Dad and whoever else he could get to come along with us unload the car, I would run off by myself. I used to try to hang out on the bridge over the staging lanes and watch the cars head away downtrack. When I got told to get off the bridge, I would wander around the pits and get handouts from the big-time guys. It didn’t matter if I already had 10 of them from the Rain for Rent guys, I wanted 10 more. These were my baseball cards. My parents did worry a little about me from time to time, but this was a different time and a different place. All these racers were family, and they all looked out for one another and kept an eye out for us brats. My favorites were always the Funny Cars, Beebe, Dee Keaton, Ed Lenarth, Joe Pisano, and, as a young boy, I will never forget the back-window mural on the L.A. Hooker! In the later days of Lions, my dad ran with A/FC guys. Lions Dragstrip was my playground, and I had a hundred babysitters every weekend."

Pete Ross: “Years ago at the now-defunct Motion Raceway near Assumption, Ill., I was walking through the pits, and they had wheelstanders there. Bill Golden was having a hard time getting the big metal plate bolted to the tailgate of his truck. I asked what I could do, and he said, ‘Put those bolts in and start the nuts on the other end.’ Afterwards, I went back, and he signed a picture of his truck and gave it to me. I am glad to have met him.”

Craig Sanburn: "I have a great story of drag racing and my youth. The problem is, I've never been able to find out just whose house it was I lived by! While in the third or fourth grade in Dallas, a new student arrived. Her family had moved into a house across the street from my grade school, Edwin J. Kiest Elementary. All I remember is her name, Rene. I think their last name was Coslow or something close to that. While walking home, I noticed a bunch of trailers, some with dragsters inside. Rene told me her dad painted dragsters for a living in their garage. She took me inside, and there were dragster bodies everywhere. They even had the front nose off a car that had wrecked, and the driver had died from injuries. One car I totally remember getting painted was the Wienerschnitzel dragster. It was beautiful and in the following years showed up in several magazines. The paint was amazing! In the many years since, I have inquired to many a Texas racer (I now live in Northern California) and can’t find anyone that knows who Rene's dad was; I even asked Eddie Hill, and he couldn't remember anyone in Dallas painting dragsters. So I'm wondering if anyone knows the answer to this question that I've carried for over 40 years. If you could get this out there, maybe one of your readers will remember. The time was around 1965 to 1968 when we moved away. Like I said, there were always several trailers and cars around their house, so maybe there's a reader that knows!”

Joe Wiles: “It was spring 1982. My parents bought me a 1967 Firebird for my first car. My dad was definitely NOT a gearhead, but I was always fascinated by mechanical things but did not have a clue how to work on a car. One afternoon, my dad catches me with the hood up and the breather off. His exact words (minus the expletive): ‘Leave that SOB alone. It runs just fine.’ Well, you know what that did: Spark the fire.

“Flash-forward to fall 1983. Leaving school one afternoon, some in-duh-vidual turned in front of me and totaled my ‘bird. Well, we got the insurance money, and now enters the 1969 Nova, complete with a wicked 307 two-barrel, chrome reverse wheels, and air shocks. This was one BAD machine. I could spin that right rear tire like there was no tomorrow. I managed to get myself a job at the local service station (remember those?). I still didn’t have a clue how to work on cars, but I muddled my way through it. My first oil change on a customer’s car was an experience in itself. Well, time and experience progress, and I wind up with a boneyard 300-horse 327 four-barrel out of an Impala. The guys at the station kept telling me about this Tex Cooper guy that was a racer and could get me all kinds of parts for my 327. Unbeknownst to me, this guy lives around the corner and half a block from my house. I managed to muster the courage to go talk to him about getting some parts. He worked for Gaerte engines, which didn’t mean crap to me because, well, I didn’t know crap about cars. This guy’s name could have been Charlie Manson, and it would not have meant anything to me. Anyway, Tex gets me a cam, rings, bearings, and some dress-up goodies for my 327. I began to hang around the Cooper house quite a bit asking stupid questions and probably became quite a nuisance.

“I finally decided to tackle the 327 build. Remember the part about not knowing crap about cars? It didn’t matter. Well, after installing and removing the rods and pistons a few times, I finally get the engine put together. I get it dropped in the car, hooked up, turned the key. It sounded like I left the plugs out of it. Who knew you had to line up the marks on the timing chain? Well, after several trips to Tex’s house bugging him with questions, he finally caves and comes down to look (probably just to get me to quit bugging him). Apparently, he felt sorry for me. The next day, he brings me a good (not new) set of valves from the shop to replace the old bent ones. Well, I get it all fixed, and Tex starts giving me tuning tips, and I hang around and ‘help’ him in his garage. Oh, did I mention the blown 392 Hemi that sat in the corner of his garage? Pictures on the wall show that it used to sit between the rails of an old Datsun pickup. Next to the pics of the Tex’s Twister nitro Funny Car and the blown gas ‘57 Chevy, that is.

“So, I start to follow drag racing and begin to know the names of the guys (and gals) associated with the sport. So one year (1983, I think) he takes me to the Nationals. We make our way to the pits. I’m following him around like a lost puppy totally enamored with what’s going on. Then, he totally blows my mind. We walk up to Gene Snow’s pit, and he ducks under the ropes and proceeds to enter the transporter. I’m mortified. What the hell is he doing? Then out walks Gene, who says, 'Marc, how the hell are you doing?’ Marc? Who the hell is Marc? Well, not only did I figure out that Tex knew Gene Snow, his name was not Tex at all. Anyway, we proceed around the pits, and he’s talking to all these guys I read about. He was even boyhood friends with Gary Harwood. You cannot even imagine how taken back I was. As years progressed, he never ceased to amaze me how many people he knew in the sport. Over the years, I got more and more stories and met more of the guys I read about and some that I didn’t. I owe it all (or the blame thereof) to my father for doubting me and Tex for dragging me along. I’m great friends with my dad and still great friends with Tex. That friendship has lasted nearly 30 years now.”

Gary Augliera: “I grew up in West Haven, Conn., home of Macey & Suraci's Lead Zeppelin Hemi 'Cuda and Lead Zeppelin II ‘66 Plymouth wagon. It is also the town where Bill Flynn had his shop. My father, a Chrysler guy, was, I think, a gearhead down deep, but he could not show it because my two brothers and I were already car crazy.

“My father's moving company garage was about a mile between both Flynn's and Macey & Suraci's shop on the Post Road. He would come home and say, ‘Get in the car,’ and take us to see Macey doing burnouts in the street. Macey would back into the street and do burnouts back into the garage. Sometimes we would go see Flynn unload the car and drive it in his shop. Bill was not all that friendly, although late in life, he really was a good guy.

“One of most impressionable things in my life was when my father took us to Lorrello Motors, the Dodge dealer in West Haven; Flynn had his '65 altered-wheelbase Coronet on display in their showroom. It was a wooden building. When he started the injected Hemi, it shook the building; my father dragged us outside fearing the place was going to come down on us. Then Flynn did some dry hops on Campbell Avenue, about a block from the police department. That night changed my life!"

Donnie Heaton: “I feel I was the luckiest kid on the planet. For almost 20 years when Don Garlits came to the West Coast, he would stay with my family. One of my best friends during these visits was T.C. Lemons; he’d take me with him to pick up tires, fuel, and to go testing at Pomona. My dad's shop (Bud's Muffler) was a hangout for many racers -- Garlits, Jim Dunn, Gary Southern, 'Starvin' Marvin' [Schwartz], Les Ritchey (who worked on my dad's car), Les Hawkins, Norm Weekly, Nick Serino … way too many people to remember. I grew up at the drags and to this day still attend and work on race teams. My dad loved to help these racers; some had no money, but that didn't matter -- it was about racing. I still have my dad's club jacket (Ground Shakers). How lucky I was!”

I’d like to close with more words on the topic by the aforementioned Mr. Crumine (pretty soon I’m going to have to start paying this guy) that, again, I think we all can agree on: “Sitting here reading everyone’s story really takes me back. And it really highlights just how much drag racing has changed over the years. Between Funny Car and Pro Stock grudge matches, wheelstander and jet car exhibitions, and the gasser wars, there sure is a lot that I miss. Just the whine of a blower from the far end … priceless. I really miss the dry hops of the fuel cars. The pre-race rituals of laying down the rosin, and Pro Stocks making several wheels-up launches, and all while the announcer is screaming at you in an attempt to get the crowd worked up into a frenzy … as if we needed any more hype to get the juices flowing. No energy drinks needed; we ran on pure adrenaline. The absolute unpredictability of the gassers and fuel altereds. Man, things have changed. How can a person convey what this was like? To grow up and live through the golden age of drag racing, and motorsports in general. It makes us the luckiest people in the whole world. Thanks to everyone for sharing. It proves that no matter where you grew up, what your financial situation was, your ethnic background, etc. that we all lived similar experiences and were drawn together by something much bigger than politics. A little thing called the drags.”

Amen, brother. Thanks, everyone, for sharing.

Your first raceTuesday, October 02, 2012
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Just got back from a great trip to St. Louis. For all the traveling I’ve done over all the years, this was my first trip to the city and to Gateway Motorsports Park. It’s one of the few tracks on the tour I hadn’t been to, so it was fun to have a new experience in a new town to look forward to. That occasion seems to be a perfect springboard for the follow-up to the “first experience” columns I ran recently, these being those memorable first trips to the drags.

I’ve received quite a few, many with considerable length, so I’m going to run this in two parts, today and Friday, and then, with a few weeks at home before heading to Las Vegas, I can resume normal column business. So here goes: Your first trip to the drags.

Darryl Barclay: “As an early teen, I lived at the western edge of Baldwin Park, Calif., that was about a quarter-mile from the original San Gabriel dragstrip. It consisted of a narrow paved road with a white line down the middle. The races were all street cars and were started by a flagman. Elapsed times were measured by two people with stopwatches, one for each lane. They would start the ‘clocks’ when they saw the flag go up and stop it when the front wheel crossed a painted line. I would walk over there Sunday afternoons and stand by Rivergrade Road and watch the races. When L.A. County built the flood-control drainage system, the track was torn up. 

Tommy Ivo at San Gabe

“Being a kid, I didn't know the people and politics involved. I vaguely remember hearing that the Tice brothers were going to build a new track on the west side of the drainage channel. This was the first time I saw a sign, San Gabriel Dragway. I would go over during the week and watch the grading, paving, line-painting and the building of the tower. I was there opening day and remember the crisp air, the sound of open headers, and the sound of competition cars. This is also where I got my first snort of nitro fumes. I spent many a Sunday in the stands and the pits over the following years. I saw lots of what became prominent names of the day: Don Nicholson, Dick Landy, Tommy Ivo, Boyd Pennington, 'Lefty' Mudersbach, Ed Pink, Keith Black, Dave Zeuschel, Gene Mooneyham, Larry Faust, Bourgeois & Wade, Don Radican, Toney Nancy, Kenny Safford, Norm Weekly, and the list goes on. I saw Ivo's four-engine dragster make some of its first passes and saw my first jet dragster at San Gabe. The jet didn't melt the glass in the tower, but it sure did a pretty good job of sandblasting some of the cars in the parking lot. I remember Don Nicholson was driving his '61 409 Chevy one day, and his e.t.s were in the 12.90s to 13.10s at about 106 to 108 mph. Like all good things, this track got whacked because the power company was going to run high power lines right through where the track was. 

"By this time, I was old enough to have friends that were driving, so we got our dose of the drags by going to Pomona. Here, they had some telephone poles lying down and some straw bales next to them for the edge of the parking lot. No bleachers; everyone either stood up by the starting line or sat on the straw bales that were about 50 feet from the track. This is where I ran my first car on the strip, a '54 Ford with a 239-cubic-inch engine and three-speed. Poor thing ran a great 19.40 at 68 mph, but I was racing. Then along came Irwindale. It was about three miles from where I lived in Baldwin Park. I can remember trying to study on Saturday night and hearing the fuel cars make their runs. Then Uncle Sam gave me an invitation that I couldn't refuse. I was an avid reader of Drag News and had a subscription for many years, even when I was overseas in the service. I think my first NHRA Winternationals was 1961. We went to the track Saturday night and slept in the car so we would be early and get good parking and seats. No reserved seating then. We were cold and sore but having fun. I experienced the losses of all the dragstrips in Southern California -- the closing of Fontana, Irwindale, Lions, San Fernando. By the time they closed OCIR, I was married and moved away from California. That pretty much covers my introduction and growth in the sport of drag racing. I saw the growth from flag starts to handicap starting with the Christmas Tree, from front-engine dragsters to rear-engine dragsters. The morphing of SS/S, A/FX -- crazy-looking altered-wheelbase cars with long tube injectors to superchargers -- to tubes and fiberglass, and, yes, the loss of some great people in accidents. I could add more, but this has gotten way too long already for what you needed.”

Wayne Meinberg: “After a long week of digging swimming pools in the early 1960s, I was invited to go with a co-worker, Chuck Barnes, to Lions Drag Strip. Over the last year, on many occasions, he told me how much fun he was having, helping a friend with his race car. So I went with him one Saturday. On our way to Lions, we stopped at Wilcaps in Torrance to pick up some nitro. I was so clueless; I thought it was a solvent and that we were going to clean some parts with it. As we approached the main gate, I could hear the cars going down the strip. I watched in awe as we entered just as a dragster was warming up, coming down the push-start area. Wow! The noise blew me away! My first whiff of nitro. Unbelievable! It attacked my senses, burning my eyes and shaking my body. It was thrilling!

“We headed over to the pits to find his friend, passing many beautiful dragsters on the way. I was really starting to like this as we pulled up next to a tilt trailer with a roadster on it. ‘That's it!’ he said, as a smiling young man came over to greet us. ‘Hi, my name is Gary Cochran.’ The tank of the race car was filled, and we set off pushing it down the start-up road to warm the motor. I was able to help that day instead of sitting in the stands. Wow! We qualified and lost in the first round, but I was hooked. In those days, it was a low-budget affair, and everyone worked out of their garages, having too much fun. Everyone was friendly and helped each other while doing a lot of bench racing. That first day was the beginning of my long love affair with drag racing, and I later became a permanent crewmember of Gary Cochran's Mr. C. Roadster. And all these years later, most of those early weekend warriors are in the Hall of Fame, and the Who's Who of drag racing."

Kevin Cooley: “Everyone, if they have paid attention, will be able to recall key moments or experiences that have helped shape the direction of their life. One of those moments for me was an afternoon in the late spring of 1971 when a neighbor took me to Century 21 Dragstrip, just east of Denver. Had that day been like most weekends at the local track, filled with dozens of modified production cars and a handful of open-wheeled injected dragsters, it might have resulted in just another afternoon easily forgotten by an 11-year-old. But the big draw was a best-of-three match race between Roger Guzman’s Assassination and Art Ward’s Avenger nitromethane-fueled Funny Cars. When the crewmen fired up their supercharged engines and the drivers engulfed the grandstand in tire smoke from their burnout ritual, I may have already been hooked; I was certainly hooked after the flash of green and each driver responded with wide-open throttles, the engine noise creating pressure waves that could be seen; a few seconds later, both race cars were nearly out of sight at the far end of the shutdown area. I was still in the same seat but on my way to a lifelong fascination with fuel drag racing. Within a week, I had a small paper route to finance my newly discovered interest.

"There were several racetracks in the area, Dragway Denver, Bandimere Speedway, Continental Divide Raceways, and Century 21; none was within walking distance, but the Rexall drugstore was just a quick bike ride away, and there was a newsstand full of monthly car magazines, Hot Rod, Popular Hot Rodding, Super Stock & Drag Illustrated, and many others that presented feature articles and event coverage involving Top Fuel and Funny Car racing across the country. On occasion, one of the local fuel cars would be mentioned or have a photograph, making that issue particularly fascinating. The Rexall drug had another benefit, nearly an entire aisle of ready-to-assemble plastic replicas of the very cars I would read about each month; many of these models found their way into my parents’ home. Assembling models wasn't as good as being at the track, but it would do until my older brother was able to drive and became the primary means of transportation to and from the races.

“Forty years have passed from that spring day. I've owned and driven econo dragsters, crewed on a Funny Car, and regularly contribute event coverage to Web-based racing magazines. I've shot race photos standing alongside some of the greats (thank you, Steve Reyes, for your encouragement). The excitement that I felt the first time I heard and saw a pair of those amazing fuel machines in action has never diminished, enriching a life with motivation, direction, and focus.”

Karl White: “I was born in 1956, and about the time I started high school in Anaheim, my focus was on getting my California driver’s license and a Ford Super Econo van. The Supers were about 6 or 8 inches longer, and at the time, the van craze was just kickin’ in. According to Hot Rod and Car Craft, everyone had a van with a waterbed and wood paneling and a 14-color candy or pearl paint job with bucket seats and a ‘massive’ 60-watt stereo. I was gonna get me one o’ them vans! (And then a girlfriend.)

“I started high school in September 1972, and one of my first classes was auto shop, which I took along with a buddy, Chuck Beck. Chuck’s dad was a middle-level executive with Ford Motor Company, and Chuck had been going to various racing and car-related events all his life. Our shop teacher, on the first or second day of school, announced he had a couple pairs of tickets to a race at OCIR in a couple weeks: ‘Who wants ’em?’ Chuck fires his hand up and gets a pair, looks over at me, and tells me, ‘We’re going; you’ll dig this.’

“Still short of getting our driver’s licenses, Chuck’s mom or dad or someone drops us off at OCIR for a Manufacturers Meet on a hot, hot Saturday about noon: ‘Meet me right here at 11 (or midnight, whatever), here’s a few bucks for dogs and Cokes, you boys behave.’ So we head in; I’d never been to a dragstrip before in my life. To that point, I hadn’t given it a lot of thought, seen it on TV a couple times, that’s about it. We work our way down towards the starting line and find an old rickety sawhorse to sit on, maybe, literally 35 or 40 feet from the tower-side starting line. We stayed out of the way, and nobody paid us any mind. Sat there in the sun, 90-plus degrees out, no hat, 2 by 4 sawhorse to sit/lean on, and watched Funny Cars, fast bracket cars, the occasional wheelstander launch all afternoon and night. A true life-changing experience. Truly.

"Three things I took away from that day were: One, I got the single-worst headache I have ever had in my life -- noise, breathing tire smoke, ground shaking, nitro fumes directly in the face, more tire smoke. I’m 15, I don’t carry aspirin with me; we just lived with it. It was great; two, we never moved from that spot except to get a Coke and go use the men’s room, stayed right there for 10 or 11 hours straight; three, I never again, in my entire life, ever once, thought of a van or a truck in any way other than as a potential tow vehicle.  Billy Meyer won the race that day; he was 17, he had long hair, he was kinda an awkward kid. And he won! I’m thinking by the time we leave that night, ‘I’m 15, I’m awkward, I have long hair. Hey, I can do this!’

“Now, almost 40 years later, while we never got to the AA/FC level, I do have a front-engine injected dragster. I’ve never owned a van with a waterbed, but I have always had a rack for fuel jugs next to the toolbox in my vans and trucks, and Chuck has been out with us, twice just this year, working on the car and helping me suit up in the lanes. He’s brought his boys over the years. Other guys that crew for me bring their sons.

"Just a couple months ago, we took the car to the eighth-mile track in Barona near San Diego, and my wife’s youngest son and his fiancée went with us for their first time ever at a dragstrip. We’re taking them to Pomona in February for their first national event. They dig it."

Alex Malon: “My parents had a very negative view of drag racers and never promoted drag racing to me or my brother. Then one day, a guy we knew who was older than us who drove a 1960 Ford who converted to a three-speed floor shifter asked us both to come along with him to the Alton, Ill., drag races. We both thought this guy was pretty cool, and we both considered him a drag racer. Little did we know about drag racing and the different classes. When we arrived, there were the stockers making pass after pass, and every now and then, someone would break a hundred -- boring. Then ‘the Greek’ was up to run with his dragster. I think he was running against Art Malone, but I’m not sure. All I can remember of that day was sitting in the car facing the track and hearing the sound, along with him smoking his tires down the quarter-mile. Then getting out of the car and walking up to the guardrail as ‘the Greek’ finished his run. My eyes were stinging from the nitro fumes and the rubber in the air. The weed-sweeper heads were blowing directly on to me as he went by. The noise was wonderful! Right then and there, I became hooked on drag racing.

“Fast-forward to 1970, where I partnered with two other guys and owned and ran an A/FC that year; we ended up being part of the UDRA circuit and one of their tough competitors. That year, we also won The World Series of Drag Racing in Cordova, Ill., and we were class winners at the Indy Nationals and went two rounds in Comp eliminator. In 1971, things turned what I thought was ugly between us, and I did not race in 1971, but I still stayed active in the sport. In 1972, I realized my dream of touring with a pro. I helped Don ‘Mad Dog’ Cook and Jerry Dawson build a new rear-engine dragster to replace the one he had wrecked in Green Valley, Texas. At the completion of the car after seven days, I went to work for Cook, and in a total of 10 days, we made our first pass in the new car. After going to work for Cook, I met and hung out with people I only read about in magazines: Steve Carbone, John Wiebe, Ronnie Martin, Jim Nicoll, Don Garlits, Billy Traylor, Lester Guillory, Chip Woodall, Dale Emery, and many, many more! ‘The Greek,’ the guy who started it for me, happens to be a good friend of Cook’s, and we would stay with ‘the Greek’ and hang with him while in Chicago. I still pinch myself and say it was not a dream!”


Paul Nadeau: “As a young kid of 12, my first race was actually a road race at Riverside that my dad took me to. I was hooked! Sports cars were all I dreamed about. My slot cars were all sports cars. In high school, my friend Kenny Bobbitt was always telling me how great drag racing was, but I wasn’t interested. My dad told me, ‘All they do is go pffffffft, and it’s over,’ so I didn’t think it was worth the bother then. Finally, I accepted an invite from Kenny and his dad to go to a small meet at some place down by the beach called Lions. We get there in the late afternoon, and the final round of Funny Car qualifying is starting. I walk up to Bob Pickett’s Barracuda (the white one with the orange paint drop scheme) and think 'Wow, what a cool paint job!' A car next to his fires up, and I’m introduced to a full load of nitro! Coughing and gagging, I get pulled out of the line of fire, and I realize that this is probably the most bitchin’ thing there is on the planet! I think the Hawaiian is there and the Durachrome Bug and others, including some fuel altereds, and I really don’t remember much else about it except it got so cold I froze my butt off and so windy they were using a guy dropping the rag for the start (can’t remember why the Tree had a problem), and they only ran eighth-mile. They were so loud and so fast; it was magical that night, the fire out of the headers, all the parts on the other side of the wall as we shuffled further down the track so my buddy could scare the crap out of me when the fuel cars came pointed right at us! It was amazing.

“Living in Southern California with Lions, Irwindale, OCIR, Ontario, Riverside, we went to everything drag racing. We were at all the meets at OCIR and Irwindale and most everywhere else all throughout the ‘70s. Eventually, I thought that bracket racing would be fun, so I started driving my ‘68 Bug to the races and raced it. I ran OCIR and Ontario. It ran in the high 19s and was real consistent. I’d usually go a few rounds running against 12- to 14-second cars. Seems like they red-lit more often than not as I’d be half-track before they’d get the green. I loved it. I’m still a drag race nut. Kenny and I got together last year to go to Pomona. Neither of us had been to a race in person since the early ‘80s, I think. You know, I’ve been watching them on TV the whole time, but nothing prepared me for that first blast of cars! I was ducking under the stands every time they hit the gas! And now they are so fast, it’s just like my dad said – ‘Pffffft, and it’s over!’ -- but I still love it, and we’ll be there in November, sniffing the fuel and feeling the ground shake!”


David "Mick" Michelsen: “In 1976, I was going to a small college in Lakeland, Fla. A friend of mine from Pompano Beach, Fla., my hometown, came to Lakeland to pick me up and take me to the Daytona 500. I have always been a fan of anything that goes fast and love all types of racing. I am a total Ford man, and David Pearson was my favorite NASCAR driver. The 1976 Daytona 500 was the one where David Pearson and Richard Petty crashed off of the fourth turn while fighting for the lead.

“Anyway, the next weekend, a dorm mate that knew I was into racing told me he would buy my tickets to an AHRA event at Lakeland Dragway if I would drive us there. Damn right I will. Several top teams were there, such as Garlits in Top Fuel and the Blue Max and Black Magic in Funny Car. We did not have pit passes, so we had to watch as spectators.

“The Blue Max fired up to make a qualifying run, and I was standing at the fence, as close as I could get, when he did his burnout. As I think happens to all nitro junkies, the first time you hear a burnout from a nitro car, you think the world has just come to an end. None of your senses work. Your brain nor body knows what to do to handle what just happened. About the time you can get your fingers to your ears, they have finished their eighth-mile burnout and are backing up. About the time you are getting it together, they do a dry hop. Remember, this was the ‘70s. Now your senses, mind, and body have another total meltdown as they try to figure what the hell just happened, again. Then, a full run the whole quarter-mile, and you are hooked. No roller coaster, skydive, or any other extreme sport gives you that kind of mind-blowing experience. I have been so hooked since then; I’ve been an NHRA member since 1978 and have attended every Gatornationals since then, along with several other national events. I’ll pick NHRA over NASCAR any day, and I try to take a ‘virgin’ to the Gatornationals every year. The greatest feeling is watching them get their first taste of it.”

OK, so there's Part 1 of your memorable first drag race. I'll have Part 2 on Friday! Thanks for hanging out while I traveled, and welcome back!

An amazing auctionTuesday, September 25, 2012
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Just wanted to pop in real quick between Midwest trips – just landed from Dallas and leave again for St. Louis in a few days – to get something real cool and real important on your radar screens ASAP. The annual California Hot Rod Reunion presented by the Automobile Club of Southern California in Bakersfield is just around the corner – Oct. 19-21 – and though there are a million reasons you’d want to be there anyway, Steve Gibbs called the other day to alert me to reason No. 1,000,000,001, or maybe for some of you, it might be reason No. 1.

A loose-knit group of guys that calls itself Nitro Alumni has put together one of the most amazing and impressive collections of nostalgic items that will go up for bid in a silent auction at the reunion, with all proceeds benefiting the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum presented by the Automobile Club of Southern California.

There are truly wondrous items, such as a classic NHRA official's cap from early 1960s that was owned and worn by NHRA National Tech Director Bill "Farmer" Dismuke, Kelly Brown's firesuit from his 1978 NHRA Top Fuel championship season, and Jim Nicoll's firesuit that was worn in the famous 1970 U.S. Nationals final-round crash, plus unique drawings and sculptures and tons of vintage posters, trophies, jackets, firesuits, helmets, and gloves as well as new stuff such as hard parts, including blowers, rods, wrist pins, shocks ... even a gasoline-powered margarita blender. You can see an up-to-date list here.

A brochure of auction items will be distributed at the reunion, and silent bidding will begin Friday, Oct. 19, and run through 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 20.

OK, back to work to finish this week’s National DRAGSTER, then back on a plane. After the St. Louis trip, things settle down a little for me until the Las Vegas national, so the columns should resume their traditional twice-weekly schedule.

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