Usually I write about racers in this column, most of them heroes of my youth whose exploits I watched from the other side of the magazine page, and all too much lately, I’ve written about not just their careers but their lives in the past tense, as we’ve been losing them at an alarming rate. They’re obituaries in the guise of biographies and my final salute to them and their stories, eulogies that I feel compelled to give.
Today again I come to eulogize two more fallen drag racing heroes, though these two never won a drag race, never performed a smoky burnout for an appreciative crowd, and never had their names speed-read in a Steve Evans radio commercial.
They were parts of the NHRA family that I joined three decades ago, people who became my kin not just through association and familiarity but in dedication to the cause of promoting hot rodding and the NHRA. In the course of just a few days last week, we said our final goodbyes to former NHRA Safety Safari member Bud Evans and Phillis Jean “P.J.” Partridge, wife of former NHRA Division Director and Vice President Bernie Partridge.
I don’t use the term “family” here lightly or for lack of a better word.
When I joined the NHRA staff in May 1982, the headquarters was still in North Hollywood, and it was a small group – probably fewer than 30 people – but I could instantly tell there was a family there. Wally Parks was our stern but guiding father, Barbara the fiery yet devoted mother, and everyone else was like aunts and uncles and cousins and nephews. I thought it was very cool that so many husbands and wives were working together: the Parkses, the Partridges, Dale and Glynanna Ham, Darrell and Polly Zimmerman, Greg and Martee Xakellis, Buster and Ann Couch, and so many more.
I'd never seen such a dedicated group, dedicated because long before I got there, most had been forged in the fires when nothing was easy, when they had to scrape and scratch for every ounce of respect. They had to earn it through good old-fashioned legwork and the moral high ground. In those earliest days, every victory, every reluctant group of town fathers or law-enforcement agency won over must have felt like another brick laid in the foundation of Wally's dream, the dream they all believed in. You could tell that everyone there believed in the mission; these weren't people just cashing a paycheck.
The going was not easy, nor was it swift. There was no Internet or social media to spread the message, just the willingness of those who believed it to carry the message forth. Instead of email and fancy graphic flyers printed on slick stock in four-color, it was black and white and probably run off by hand on one of those old mimeograph machines we all remember from school, then tucked into envelopes and mailed to the early supporters.
From left, Bud Coons, Chic Cannon, Bud Evans, and Eric Rickman, on safari, 1955
The crew, reunited in Indy in 1994: from left, Rickman, Cannon, Coons, and Evans
The message also was delivered by hand, and Evans was one of those who helped. As a key member of the NHRA Drag Safari that began crisscrossing the land in 1954, Evans and his dedicated cohorts brought what Wally liked to call “hot rodding know-how” -- long before NAPA Auto Parts started using the term – to the masses. Southern California back then was the hub of acceleration activity, and years of setting up drag races and speed runs on the dry lakes gave them a lot of experience that they were willing and eager to pass along.
Led by Bud Coons, a former sergeant in the Pomona Police Department handpicked by Wally as the field director, they packed into a station wagon hitched to a trailer that carried everything needed to set up a mobile event: early timing equipment, a PA system, field telephones, a one-cylinder generator, and miles of stainless-steel wire to bring all the electronic equipment to life. Evans was the leader and mouthpiece to the multitude of car clubs who eagerly awaited their arrival at each stop. Chic Cannon, who had a background in engineering and car building, ran tech. Photographer Eric "Rick" Rickman was along to chronicle the action to be published in Hot Rod magazine, where Wally was still the editor. Evans, a lakes racer and announcer at the dragstrip in Colton, Calif., was, naturally, the announcer.
Typically, they’d roll into a town, usually on a Wednesday or Thursday, and stop at the local Socony Mobil gas station – Mobil was the Safari’s only sponsor, providing free fuel for the long drives – and once word filtered around that they had arrived, hot rodders from all over swarmed the station. The Safari members would meet with local law-enforcement and civic officials, and Coons would sometimes do radio or television interviews to promote the upcoming weekend’s event. With the help of the car clubs, they would set up the racetrack, sometimes even erecting a temporary timing and announcing tower.
Evans, who was a member of the Winders Car Club and the SCTA, didn’t join the team full time until 1955 – in 1954, it had been Coons, Cannon, Rickman, and assorted others, including Evans. Evans often joined Cannon at the pre-race tech inspection and created a large file of index cards with information on each car -- the engine and drivetrain specs, where it was based, and how fast it had gone – to aid his announcing.
With his bird's-eye view, Evans also was one of the first to spot potential trouble, whether an issue was brewing in the pits or whether some hot dog hot shoe was pushing a car beyond its or his limits. “When they ran, if they weren't straight arrow, I was screaming bloody murder,” he told Hot Rod in a 2009 interview. “Because as the meet progresses and they go faster and faster -- dump the can to it, you know -- if he's not good in the beginning, he's going to be worse as he gets going.”
Evans, 86 who remained a constant visitor to the drags twice a year in Pomona, is the second of the iconic foursome to pass away. (Rickman died Jan. 24, 2009 at age 90.)
"Peej" and "the Bird": so happy together
P.J. and Barbara Parks: Two forces to be reckoned with.
The Partridges, right, with Wally, far left, and Barbara, center, and Dale and Glynanna Ham, who ran Division 4.
P.J., right, with Rondi, left, and Joni Elmslie, circa mid-1980s
Unless you were a Division 7 racer, you probably didn’t know P.J. Partridge -- “Peej” to her close friends – but her influence and fingerprints were all over NHRA’s West Coast operations. Bernie died in April 2012 after a long illness and was joined by his loving wife just two years after; she succumbed to a brain tumor Oct. 5, at her home in Hawaii.
In the early 1980s, when I first sat down at an NHRA typewriter, NHRA’s National Field Office was not located within NHRA headquarters as it is now. As I mentioned, the HQ at that time was in North Hollywood in the famed San Fernando Valley, but the NFO was in Upland, Calif., about a half-hour ride east. For a kid who grew up in the population-dense South Bay area of SoCal, Upland might as well have been on the moon, the NFO staff like early settlers in a distant region.
The Partridges ran the place, where the important task of coordinating divisional activities and approving competition licenses took place, and like Barbara was the den mother in NoHo, P.J. held an equally tight rein in Upland.
Before it was brought into NHRA headquarters in Glendora, the Partridges ran NFO in Upland while the NHRA was still in North Hollywood, and P.J. helped run the operation with a firm hand. P.J. had been married to Bernie since the early 1960s and was there throughout his rise in the NHRA ranks, from track manager of Inyokern Dragstrip to NHRA regional advisor to division director and chief announcer to regional director, national field administrator, and, finally, to vice president-field administration before his retirement in 1989. P.J. stayed on an extra year before she, too, left the company to enjoy the golden years with Bernie and left behind indelible memories for those she mentored there.
Joni Elmslie, my longtime National Dragster colleague, was one of a group of young women under P.J.’s charge back in those days, a group that also included her sister Rondi as well as Billie Petty, Cindy Gibbs, and Carman Mitchell.
“I was a very young and naive 17-year-old when I went to work for ‘Peej’ on the timing clocks in the tower during the Winternationals and World Finals at Pomona, knowing very little about drag racing,” Joni recalled. “I remember always wanting to do the best job I could (many nights during the races dreaming in e.t.s and mph), not so much for Bernie, our always-entertaining track announcer, but for P.J., the true matriarch of the National Field Office family.
“I still remember the day she told me that it was approved and official, I was now a full-time employee of the NHRA: Dec. 1, 1980. P.J. always ran a tight ship and allowed Bernie to be the ‘out-front’ entertainer. Although always working side by side for endless hours, whether at a divisional or national event, P.J. was tireless and expected the same of those around her.
“When the NFO and HQ merged in Glendora in 1987, I was given the opportunity to try my hands at something different and work for National Dragster. My only apprehension with taking that position was leaving P.J., not that I would be miles away, but just down the hall behind the ND glass door. I remember she took me aside and told me she didn’t want to hold me back; she wanted me to take the step, so I did. Thanks, P.J., for teaching me that if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. Godspeed.”
Billie, who also came to work for ND after a while, working in the Membership Department, remembers P.J. as “an amazing dichotomy: the consummate old-fashioned gal and the ultra-modern woman. There is a very long list of successful women that have been mentored and promoted by P.J.’s efforts, yet she never sought the limelight herself, comfortable as the wife of Bernie and the mother of their four sons. Her love and loyalty for Bernie and her family is beyond measure.
“The first time I met P.J. was through her family. She was warm and welcoming; thus began a relationship that would endure for many years. She gave me my first office job, as she did for many other young women. She taught me how to use the English language in new and surprising ways – vocabulary was huge with her – and she was a master of the hug!
"The last time we all had dinner with P.J. was right before she moved to Hawaii. We all laughed and talked about our lives and what our future plans might be. At the end of the evening, several of us were talking about when we might see her again, as her new adventure was taking her to the islands. We were excited for her but saddened for ourselves, just as we are now that she has once again moved on to another great adventure. P.J. was a very private person, and as a sign of respect, I will continue that legacy for her. Each of us has our own memories of a very special woman, and she will be missed. Her care, concern, and mentoring will always be appreciated and recognized as a contribution that created who we are today and gave dimension to the sport of drag racing!”
Cindy Gibbs, daughter of former NHRA Competition Director and Vice President Steve, also was among the young ladies who learned from P.J.
“My memories of P.J. are all over the place, from being a young girl, getting a ride-along with my parents in Bernie and P.J'.s speed boat on Puddingstone Lake to delivering a special egg-salad-sandwich lunch to only her during the Pomona events to watching her put a wayward drag racer firmly in his place,” she reminisced. “Lemme tell ya, no one could do that quite like 'Peej.' I giggle when I say that I was deathly afraid of her when I was young; yes, always pleasant to me, but I knew I never wanted her angry with me, for sure. As a mother of four boys and running the Pacific Division with her husband, she needed to be that way; it was absolute self-preservation, as I would find out firsthand many years later.
“I went to work for NHRA in 1985 as part of the National Field Office under Bernie and P.J.'s guidance and had some of the very best years of my life during that time. The team of people I worked with will always be family; with racing in my blood, I loved every minute. P.J. taught me so much, much more than I ever realized until I found myself in Spokane [Wash.] 24 years later, in a racetrack-management position. I would sit at my desk, having just dealt with a fired-up racer, and I would think of her. It took me a good year or so to grow some thicker skin like P.J. always had yet not lose myself in the process. I'm happy that I got the chance to thank her the last time I saw her for those lessons she taught me; she flashed me her classic P.J. grin, and I knew she was pleased. Her last comment to me was 'Ohana' ['family' in Hawaiian], sealed with a hug.”
As I mentioned earlier, the sense of camaraderie and unity of purpose I felt way back then still resonates with me. Losing Barbara and then Wally, Dick Wells, Bernie, P.J., and many others who helped forged the path, not just for drag racing but for me, is heartbreaking. I was so blessed to be surrounded by so much dedication and purpose.
The day that Barbara died, in 2006, I was driving down the freeway, listening to the radio and thinking about her. She had been tough and fiery and scared us all yet perhaps misunderstood as an unforgiving taskmaster when really what it was about was an unflinching, unrelenting desire to help Wally forge the dream. I remember the radio playing “Drift Away” by Dobie Gray, and this verse summed it all up for me when I think about those passionate people who let me be part of the family and part of the effort.
Thanks for the joy that you've given me,
I want you to know I believe in your song.
The rhythm and rhyme and harmony
You helped me along, makin' me strong.
To all of them, I say thanks from us all for all that you did. Thanks for giving us the joy of a sport we love. Thanks for being the ones who created the verse and melody for us all to dance along to. Thanks for everything you did to make us strong. And I still believe in your song.
A lot of race car drivers would describe themselves as “fearless,” but only one driver that I know of actually incorporated it into his name: “Fearless Fred” Goeske, who raced Funny Cars and rocket cars for decades and left us last Tuesday at age 76.
News of his passing came to me from my old pal, former Funny Car racer Jeff Courtie, who, like Goeske, raced regularly at “the Pond,” San Fernando Raceway. The San Fernando Valley was certainly a hotbed for racing in those days, with its residents in various communities including "TV Tommy" Ivo, Don Prudhomme, Bob Muravez, and countless others, many of whom were members of the seminal Burbank Road Kings car club.
Goeske grew up in Thousand Oaks -- just west of the SFV – and enjoyed cars in high school, cruised Van Nuys Boulevard, and, after tinkering first with a World War II surplus jeep then a '32 Ford, graduated to a Chevy V-8-powered Crosley that he raced at San Fernando. His erstwhile racing career was interrupted when he was drafted in 1960, but he made connections while in the service, and when he returned to California, he started a finance company, specializing in helping servicemen get cars. He made a lot of money and didn’t mind spending it on exotic cars. He owned a Porsche and a Jaguar and even a Formula 2 race car.
It was a heady time for drag racing, as the first Funny Cars were just being hatched, and Goeske wanted in on the fun. He was friends with Don Alderson – inventor of the Milodon engine – who told him about an opportunity to buy into a sponsored deal that featured a Barracuda.
This wasn’t just any Barracuda, but the wild rear-engine Hemi 'Cuda that had already been run – and crash-landed – by Tom McEwen. Apparently, it had all of the aerodynamic qualities of a wadded-up piece of paper. A second version was built for 1966, slower and lighter than the original. Fiberglass doors, hood, and front fenders replaced the steel units, and slots were cut in the large rear window to allow air to pass through and eliminate the pressure under the body; to a similar end, the front grille openings were also blocked. It’s this car that Goeske took over, along with the sponsorship from the Plymouth Dealers Association of Southern California with the stipulation that he run the car extensively and locally, which he did through the end of 1967, tallying his biggest win at the Hot Rod
Magazine Championships at Riverside Raceway in April.
Goeske went conventional in 1968, commissioning Exhibition Engineering’s Ronnie Scrima and Pat Foster to build him a new Barracuda, which he dubbed Hemi 'Cuda II and won in its debut at Lions Drag Strip. After being lost to fire, the car was rebuilt as the Bushwhacker for the rest of the year, and Goeske easily was in the West Coast’s top echelon of Funny Car racers that year.
For 1969, Plymouth Dealers Association, looking to promote the hot new Road Runner, asked him to run a one-off Road Runner body, which was built by Contemporary Fiberglass and stood out in the crowd of Barracudas and Chargers. Goeske went on tour as part of the Coca-Cola Cavalcade of Stars and scored numerous big wins on the circuit, and he claimed top honors at the prestigious Popular Hot Rodding
Nationals over a field that included Don Schumacher and the Chi-Town Hustler.
He switched to a Duster body for the 1970 season and lost the car in a huge fire at Capitol Raceway after the engine blew. He was able to honor the remainder of his booking by buying his ’68 Cuda back from new owner Joe Bush, who ran the Speed Sport shop in Chicago.
Goeske ran Duster-bodied cars through the 1972 season, then switched to the very popular Vega body. He competed for several more years in Vegas until he had another bad fire in August 1976, during Portland Int’l Raceway’s Coca-Cola Cavalcade event. The fire destroyed the car and ended his nitro career.
Citing a continued need for speed but not wanting to keep pace with the skyrocketing costs of running a nitro car, including the strain on engines and drivetrain as the cars got quicker and faster, he decided that low-maintenance, hydrogen-peroxide-fueled rocket cars would fill that need. “You just pour fuel in them, and you go as fast as you can stand,” he explained.
His first rocket car was a Chevy Monza-bodied Funny Car, powered by a Ky Michaelson-built motor, and he walked away from a scary moment when the right rear tire blew at speed. Goeske later bought the famed Chicago Patrol Mustang II nitro car and converted it to rocket power, too.
He raced rocket cars through the end of 1981, during which time he experienced the worst crash of his career, in Spokane, Wash., when the parachute got wrapped around the right rear tire at 275 mph, pulling the car hard to the right and over an embankment. The car was destroyed and Goeske badly injured.
After his racing career ended, Goeske founded Design Deluxe Manufacturing in Canoga Park, Calif., specializing in the manufacturing of custom wheel adapters and repair or modification to aluminum wheels.
You can see more Goeske photos on his company website, www.wheeladapter.com.
There’s also a fine recent article about Goeske on the Driving Line website.
Before the U.S. Nationals slips too far into our rearview mirrors, I wanted to share the photos below with you. They come from former NHRA Division 1 photographer Phil Hutchinson, who has been going to Indy for a long time and has quite a keen eye (in retrospect, at least) for some subjects I thought you’d enjoy as a dessert to the smorgasbord of photos I shared from Tom Kasch. He recently scanned about 70 images from his early days behind the lens and offered to share some with us. (The rest are on his website; address at the end of this column.)
“Some of these are from the stands in Indy (the old wooden stands on the east side were great), and some are taken from the starting line after I snuck out there! Yes, before I became a legitimate photographer, I used to sneak out to the starting line at least once during an event. Richard Brady knew me pretty well from my getting thrown off the starting line, and after I did become a credentialed photographer, he told me it was good to see me with a vest!! I shot slides over film as I would have a slide show each year at Indy using the motel-room wall or a sheet for the screen."
As much as I enjoy writing in-depth features about people, places, and things from our sport’s history, you know that I also dig seeing other people’s photographs, and if my email is any indicator, so do a lot of you, so enjoy these pics. He didn’t include years on any of them, so I’m going to give them my best shot.
Don Prudhomme set the drag racing world on its ear at the 1982 U.S. Nationals when he powered his Pepsi Challenger Trans Am to an unheard-of 5.63 clocking during qualifying. Prudhomme dominated (but did not win) the event; he repeatedly broke wrist pins, leading to engine damage and fires like this one. There’s a lot of debate on whether this was the result of nitrous-oxide use; “Snake” says no. You can read more about that great event and nitrous-or-not controversy here.
Here’s Larry Dixon (Sr.) riding out a blaze in Jerry Johansen’s Chevy-powered Howard Cam Rat. My gut says this is 1975, but it could be 1976 or 1977. Dixon was the seventh member of the Cragar Five-Second Club and the first (and only) Chevy-powered driver in the club thanks to his 5.94 at the 1973 Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway.
Jack Ostrander, who recently was an honoree at the NHRA National Hot Rod Reunion, is best known as a hard-running independent Top Fuel racer through the 1980s and 1990s, but he was involved in nitro racing long before that, then spent the1970s racing Blown Fuel Hydro boats before returning to Top Fuel in 1979. “Pontiac Jack” (so named for his Pontiac, Mich., hometown) was one of the most friendly and appreciative racers out there. At the time he was racing, he owned a bowling alley, which explains his permanent number: 300. I’d guess this photo of him launching the blower in a big way is from the very early 1980s.
Here are two pretty famous guys before they became really famous, and not only can I give you a year but the exact round, too (go me!). That’s Frank Manzo in the near lane taking on Joe Amato in his Alcohol Dragster in the third round of Pro Comp at the 1980 event. Manzo was fresh off his first career win at that year’s SPORTSnationals, and Amato had won that year’s Le Grandnational in Canada. Pro Comp back then was a 32-car field, so this was the quarterfinals; Amato beat Manzo’s altered, 6.70 to 6.75, before red-lighting to Darrell Gwynn in the semifinals.
Gwynn didn’t win Pro Comp that year; he lost in the final to the late Billy Williams, whose car you can see here closest to the camera parked alongside another tough-running machine, that of Joe Severence, right before the 1979 final. Williams, affectionately known to many as “the Munchkin” for his diminutive stature, raced like a giant in those days. He was the reigning world champ when he came to Indy that year, where he was the low qualifier and made the event’s two quickest runs, 6.579 in the quarterfinals against Ken Veney and 6.581 in the final against Gwynn, whose engine expired at half-track. It was Williams' second straight Indy win and ninth career victory (all since 1977).
I’m going to go out on another limb here and say that this photo of Gary Smart’s Alcohol Dragster is from 1981 or 1982, during his long association with driver Gary Southern, who was a tree surgeon based in Glendora, Calif., now the home of NHRA. The duo went on to make big history in Indy in 1988 when they dominated the class with the then-new PSI supercharger. You can see the Arias engine in the car, and I heard from Nick Arias III, who's seen in this photo on the left packing the 'chute along with crewmember Mark Peterson. "This was the U.S. Nationals in 1981, where Gary was runner-up to Brian Raymer in the rain-delayed Tuesday morning final," he remembered. "More heartbreaking to me than the loss was not being there Tuesday morning as I was at the airport catching the plane home. My dad, Nick Jr., and Dale were longtime pals, with Dale being instrumental in the Arias Hemi's success. We lost Dale much too early and miss him daily."
Pretty cool photo of Ron Mancini’s Super Stock pit area, showing his two SS/AA Darts, with “Dyno Don” Nicholson’s 1970 Mustang Pro Stocker in the background, This would be 1975 or 1976, when a couple of NHRA Pro Stock racers traded in their Pintos to run the longer-wheelbase older Mustang to take advantage of a generous weight break that NHRA allowed them to run.
Gary Scelzi was just appearing on the radar screens of race fans in the 1980s as the driver of this Alcohol Dragster. He won the 1985 World Finals and 1986 Winternationals and was runner-up at the 1986 Indy event to Eldon P. Slick. What I love most about this photo is the old finish-line tower in the background. It was atop this structure that all of the great “crash shooters” gathered and where I met for the first time greats like Steve Reyes and Norman Blake as we stood up there waiting for the next calamity to unfold before our lenses.
Neil Mahr was a great friend to the media, and it was a sad day when we lost him in April. In addition to competing in Top Fuel in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Mahr produced what I remember as the first commercially available drag racing calendars (Superstars of Drag Racing
, as I recall).
I’ll finish up with this great candid shot of “Big Daddy” Don Garlits guzzling a nice Hawaiian Punch. I’m going to say that this was after his incredible comeback win at the 1984 event, taking my clues from the Old Milwaukee hat he’s wearing (which that year was sponsoring the Candies & Hughes team), the beverage itself (sponsor then of Roland Leong’s Funny Car), and the Schlitz Racing (sponsor of Raymond Beadle’s Blue Max) hat on the gentleman at the right. That’s right, folks; I’m the world’s greatest detective.
Thanks to Phil for sharing these pics. They’re just a small sample of what he has on his NortheastDragReview.com website; you can go directly to the gallery by clicking here.
If this is Friday, it must be Dallas, right? Well, a combination of Charlotte and Dallas, I guess. Yes, the weather gods decided to play more scheduling tricks on us, so just as it was in Indy, where we had to complete the balance of Brainerd eliminations, we’ll finish off rain-hampered Charlotte in Dallas, where we’ll also finish Dallas, unless we need to finish it in St. Louis next weekend ... or something like that.
But before I took back to the friendly skies for my annual trip to the Texas Meyerplex, I absolutely had to tie up all these loose ends from past threads and maybe unravel a few new ones. It’s stunning how one thing leads not to two or three but whole handfuls of related things that need to be addressed and aired for the sake of thoroughness.
So that’s why we’re here today. Strap in — it's a bumpy ride, from Indy to Reno, Nev., from Culver City, Calif., to Merlin, Ore., from Connecticut to Colorado, and several points in-between.
The old gal still looks great
In Indy, I helped run a Twitter chat on the NHRA account with Don Prudhomme, where he answered questions from fans (My favorite: “Any advice for up and coming racers?” Answer: “Get a nickname. Stand out in the crowd.” If only it were that easy.) and talked about his current restoration project on the Shelby Super Snake, for which he has enlisted the original chassis builder (Don Long) and engine builder (Ed Pink) to bring the car up to truly accurate condition.
While Prudhomme was in the media center, I chatted with Skip Allum — Prudhomme’s right-hand man — about “the Snake’s” restoration projects over the years and if they’d had any success trying to get back the famed 1976 Army Monza from the Harrah’s museum in Nevada. Prudhomme famously traded the car to Harrah’s for a Ferrari 308 back in the day, and despite offers of higher value for its return, the museum refuses to part with it, which is a true shame (and perhaps the reason) given its role in NHRA lore as one of the cars with the winningest race percentage (13 NHRA wins in 16 starts over two years, plus countless points meet and match-race wins).
Although the museum apparently is not about to give the car back, they did roll it out late last year, and Prudhomme was there to plant a loving kiss on its roof and to retake his place behind the wheel of the car in which he enjoyed so much success, and Skip was kind enough to share those photos with me.
Speaking of Prudhomme, fast-fingered Bret Kepner decided to see if “the Snake” really won the 1970 U.S. Nationals Top Fuel final by “half a spoke,” as he claimed during one of the legends shows at this year’s Big Go; looks like way more than that, thanks to Kepner’s fast finger on the pause button for the video. It was good to see my fellow fact-infatuated friend at Indy after he had a bit of a rough summer.
On the weekend between Indy and Charlotte, I drove back to my old haunts in Culver City to have lunch with my sister, who was in town from Northern California to attend some legal seminars. I’ve written a few times in this column about the rich hot-rodding history of the area, which was home to early speed-equipment heroes like Ed Iskenderian, Dick Hedman, Ted Halibrand, and more and also home to Albertson Olds, sponsor of Leonard Harris’ 1960 Nationals-winning dragster, as well as notorious hot-rod hangouts like the Piccadilly Drive-In and Nineteen (named for its 19-cent burgers). "Culver City was where it was at back then," Hedman once assured me.
(I wasn't around in the days of the Piccadilly and Nineteen, but growing up there, I remember what was known as "Thunder Alley,” in the 11000 block of Jefferson Boulevard, which housed the shops of Lance Reventlow, TRACO Engineering, Troutman and Barnes, Dick Gulstrand, and actor Jim Garner’s American International Racing.)
Anyway, I built in some time before lunch (she bought; after all, she’s a high-falutin’ attorney) and spent an hour or so checking out my old haunts, driving by the house where I grew up (site of many Hot Wheels national events); past my old elementary, junior high, and high schools; and retracing my old weekend cruising routes — the usual stuff.
I couldn’t resist stopping by to check out the old Iskenderian shop on Slauson Avenue, which sits just across the street from where said sister got her first job slinging doughnuts at Winchell’s (also still there). I was stunned that Isky’s is not only still there but also still lettered with the company name.
The shop (6338 Slauson for all you Google Street View freaks) was Isky’s return to Culver City. After grinding his first cams from his home garage, he’d originally set up shop at 5977 Washington Blvd., just behind the Mercury Tool and Die shop, owned by his good friend and high school buddy, John Athan. He moved twice more before returning to Culver City and setting up his business at this shop on Slauson in the late 1950s. I’m not sure when he outgrew this place, but the company has been based in Gardena, Calif., (about a half-hour down the 405 Freeway) since 1966 and moved there after leaving Culver City and relocating to Inglewood, so I’m thinking it’s been 50 years or so, yet the place still bears his name.
I parked across the street and walked up the place, trying to peer through the windows. I couldn’t see much, so I walked down the street and around the back and discovered an alley and two garage doors. It didn’t take much of an imagination to wonder about how many famous racers had pulled their rigs into this alley or had walked through that front door in search of more horsepower. Had “Big John” Mazmanian sat at the counter with Isky, discussing lift and duration in a bid to out-horsepower Engle-equipped Stone, Woods & Cook? Had one-time Isky user Don Garlits dropped by during a trip to the Winternationals? The mind reels.
The "Stat Guy," Lewis Bloom, and Eddie Krawiec, both denizens of Raceway Park in Englishtown, will probably enjoy this great find, sent to me by reader Dave Wesolowski. It’s a gallery of photos (195 to be exact) from the 1968 Springnationals. Now, you might ask, “But Phil, why would some Jersey Boys be interested in that? The Springnationals was run in Bristol and Dallas in the 1960s, right? And Englishtown hosted the Summernationals, not the Springnationals, right?”
The answers to those two questions are “yes” and “yes”, but venerable old Raceway Park also hosted the Springnationals in 1968, after its three-year stint in Bristol (1965-68) and before its three-year run in Dallas (1969-71). The Summernationals went to York, Pa., for a year, and then Raceway Park began hosting the Summernationals in 1971.
The gallery, which is located here, is hosted on the servers of California’s Stanford University and comes courtesy of The Collier Collection and The Revs Institute for Automotive Research Inc.
In my Father’s Day homage to my stepfather
, I had written about how good he was with his hands and how he built, with spare tubing and without any plans or outside help, a 20-foot-plus tower on to which he could mount our CB radio antenna. I got the chance to stop by his place in Oregon for a day in early August on the way to the Seattle event. Walking around his land, I stumbled upon the tower, which he’d brought north with him when he and my mom moved from California in 1980. It’s a little worse for wear but still largely intact (though a little tweaked), and the blue paint I helped apply is still there. I noticed now that he’d used pip pins to connect the sections as he raised it and how beautiful the welds were. It’s not hard to get me all nostalgia over welded-together tubing in the first place, but even without any wheels attached, this one brought back some sweet memories.
In the first of two parts of U.S. Nationals photos from the Tom Kasch collection
, I showed a photo of the Eastern Raider Pinto Funny Car in the pits at the 1972 event, and quickly heard from Al Hanna’s son, Rich, who had his own story behind the story, as illustrated by the photo above.
“Al and partner Joe Mundet had a new combination in the car fresh out of Keith Black’s engine shop,” he wrote. “The very first run on it would be the first qualifying session at Indy. The car made a powerful launch and lifted the front end several hundred feet out, forcing Al to abort the run. Afterwards in the pits, Al found Keith to ask his opinion on a change to the tune-up, clutch, etc., for the next run, which would be the following day. Keith said simply to the effect of ‘If I were you, I’d add 150 pounds to the front end.’ Al thought he was kidding at first, but it was in all seriousness. So the two went to a local scrap yard to find weight to add to the car, which they did for the next day’s session. The next run: 6.61 and No. 11 qualifier at the U.S. Nationals! Sometimes things can get too over engineered, and they need someone with some good old common sense like Keith Black to right the ship.”
When Insider regular “Chicago Jon” Hoffman shot the above photo at the 1978 U.S. Nationals and shared it as part of our “Things That Aren’t Here Anymore” thread (i.e. the Hurst Bridge), I’m sure he had no idea that more than 35 years later someone would step forth and identify the random fans in his moody photo, but after it was published, I heard from Christine Friederich, who wrote to say that’s her husband-to-be, Carl Friederich, in the yellow shirt leaning on Gary Ormsby’s car in the staging lanes. That’s his brother, Steve, standing with him. “My husband said that he was in the sixth grade when his older brother stopped on his way to Indianapolis and took him to the track,” she wrote. “He doesn't remember the picture being taken but was excited to see it and share it with our children as well as the memories of the trip.” That’s what we do best around here, Christine … glad we could help!
Tom Edwards’ photos from Connecticut Dragway are still drawing response, this one from Connecticut Dragway regular Bob Miclette, who recalled the days when touring match races would put out a call to the spectators for a tow vehicle because their own big haulers sometimes weren’t suited to the task. “Well, one day I just happened to be one of those spectators,” he wrote. “I don't think it took me two seconds to get to the Fullerton/Doheny pit that day to answer the call! They deemed me and the pickup I was driving (it belonged to my buddy's father, and I don't remember why I had it that day), good to go, so I became an official crewmember for the day. I was in Seventh Heaven!
“Back then, after you towed them to the starting line, you pulled alongside of them so they could start the car and put the starter and body prop in the truck. After they did the burnout, you lined up right behind them, and when they made the run, you followed them right down the track! One pass I took off too fast and dumped their toolbox on the starting line. And the last pass, he blew up in a huge fireball! His girlfriend Angel was with me in the truck, and she was freaking out, telling me to hurry up, go faster! I'm banging gears in this mid-‘60s Chevy pickup with a three on the Tree and six cylinder, trying to get there as fast as I could. By the time we got to where he had stopped, he was out of the car, and the fire was out.
“All in all, they still said I did a great job and thanked me for the help! What a nice bunch of guys (and gal)! They signed a picture for me, which I still have to this day. That was the first time I ever got to ‘work’ on a fuel team but not the last. Thanks to their mode of transporting the car, I got that opportunity. I attached the pic they signed for me. (I asked Angel to write ‘something nice,’ so she did!)"
If this car looks familiar, it should. It's the ex-Tommy Ivo/ex-Don Prudhomme dragster that Thompson and Heth bought from "the Snake" in 1963.
Father and son (above) with their home built "giant killer (below).
Dave Thompson developed and sold high-performance parts, too.
Last week, I bemoaned the fact that lately this column (and this writer) has had more than its share of reporting losses to our sport as the pioneers age and pass away. Obviously, it’s not just the likes of well-known guys like John Farkonas and Bob Brooks that we're losing but also guys who kicked ass on a regional level and never made it to the national event spotlight yet who are fondly remembered by the friends, fans, and families. Space and time dictate that I have to make judgment calls on who gets featured; sad, but true.
I received word last week that Dave Thompson had died. I didn’t know the name and would have normally consigned it to appear in our “Quarter-milestones” listing in National Dragster, but the fact that guys like chassis builder and former Top Fuel racer Mark Williams and former ND editor Bill Holland thought I should know about his passing, I took notice, and when his son, Mark, also wrote and offered to share some photos, how could I resist?
Thompson, who was part of the Heth & Thompson Chrysler Top Fuel team out of Denver in the early ‘60s, died Sept. 8 at the age of 85 due to complications from a bad fall suffered last October. Here’s his story, in his son's own words.
"Dave Thompson will always be remembered for being the innovator, as so many in our sport are. As his son, I remember him as my best friend that always had the answer. The first thing he taught about the sport was that the view of a follower never changes — you always see the leader’s ass. Dad quit racing after the flood of 1965, when Gordon and he lost everything: a brand-new car and three brand-new engines in the flood. They were planning to join Tommy Ivo and the gang on tour, but instead the family was transferred to Rockford, Ill., where Dad was working for Sunstand Aviation. While I was growing up during the gas crisis, Dad always said Championship Drag Racing will never survive; that is why he quit. Who knew that 15 years later he would be right back in the hunt again, although not at the level of his glory days?
“When he retired from being an engineer, he came to work with me at my little speed shop in Thornton, Colo., because my mother couldn’t stand him around. Dad never gave me a helping hand into the sport at all. He told me at the age of 8, when we were helping Vern and Brain Raymer in Pro Comp. ‘I will know you are serious about racing when you show up in front of my house with a truck, trailer, and a car; until then don’t bother me!’ He just didn’t want me to grow up spoiled.
“Although we didn’t have the money to win anything on the NHRA circuit, we enjoyed fielding a '23-T altered in Super Comp and later, Comp. For 14 years, we had a blast putting the big boys on the trailer (once in a while) with a homemade car, just like the old days. 'Never buy what you can make' was the second thing he taught me.
“We built the whole car in the garage of Vern Raymer. He always enjoyed working on new ideas. He always was the quiet one, always wanted the racing to do the talking. I, on the other hand, speak like John Force, just a little bit bigger. Dad came up with a lot of things that are used to this day in our sport. One story we were talking about the last time I visited him was how he came up with the spoke wheel for the dragster. He and Gordon Heth were making much more power in the new 331 Hemi that they were shattering the OE steel wheels on the front end of the dragster after it came down from the wheelie. They were sitting around after the Saturday race drinking beer when Faye Myers, who owned the local Harley dealership, rode up on his new panhead (to show off, of course). While a few more beers were consumed, Dad came up with the idea to get a couple of Harley wheels and re-hub them to fit on the dragster.
“Anyway, here’s to one of the Rocky Mountains original high and mighty Top Fuel racers that we all have much to thank him for. From all the original Strippers and DTA members, we will miss you, Dave.”
Thanks, Mark. That was a great read, and I’m proud to help others know about your racing efforts. As I said earlier in this column, this is what we do, as a sport, as a family, and as part of our little band of merry memory makers in the Insider Nation.
I'll see you next week.