“Don [Garlits] had many close partners -- his brother Ed, Connie Swingle, Art Malone, Tom 'T.C.' Lemons, Emery Cook, and a few others. But it was his lifelong partnership with a sweet girl named Pat Bieger from Tampa that was Don's best investment. Of all the great blessings God can give a man, it is his soul mate, and Pat was Don's. With their two daughters, Gay Lyn and Donna, the family moved along the highways from track to track making a living and paving the road to immortality. Pat was Don's strong arm and soft shoulder. It was her gift of a leather jacket that she wanted him to wear just before his fiery crash in Chester that saved his life. She was the one who insisted that the rear-engine dragster project continue. She is the one that said, 'That's it, Don, no more.' Until someone writes a book about Pat Garlits and her influence in Don Garlits’ life, we will just have to thank her for all that she has done for him.”
My buddy, drag racing author and historian Todd Hutcheson, wrote those words about Pat Garlits a few years ago, and they’re included in "Big Daddy's" recent book, Don Garlits and His Cars, and I can’t think of a better summation of what we all feel about this amazing lady who today is fighting the cruel battle with Alzheimer’s disease, with “Big Daddy” at her side, forgoing his planned trip this week to Indy to continue to do for her what she did for him for a lifetime. There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that she is the great lady behind the great man. In those early years, she was everywhere he was. In the truck on those long cross-country drives. In the pits. And, of course, in the winner’s circle, hundreds of times.
She was there to nurse his wounds and his ego when things went bad. A terrifying fire in Chester, S.C., the horrifying clutch explosion at Lions in 1970, the blowover in Englishtown in 1986, and the lean years, in the early 1980s, when people thought they’d seen the last of him. She knew better.
Twenty-year-old Don Garlits was Pat Bieger's senior-prom date in 1952. They were married the next year and inseparable since.
Drag racing’s first couple met at Florida’s Lake Magdalene in 1952, Patricia Louise Bieger a “pretty, petite brunette senior” and Don a 20-year-old hot rodder in his Cadillac-powered ’40 Ford ragtop, and, as he wrote in his book, “It was love at first sight.” How do we know he was right? When he arrived for their first date, Pat’s father, Richard, looked askance at young Donald's ride, so he went out the next day and traded it in for a more sedate and bone-stock '50 Ford. They dated for eight months – “dancing, bowling, the movies, at the beach, no drag racing. Hell, I never even mentioned it,” he recalled.
They were married Feb. 20, 1953, and celebrated their 59th anniversary earlier this year. Just a month into their marriage, Pat proved she was going to be his good-luck charm when he won his first trophy at the airstrip in Lakes Wales, Fla. And she understood his need for speed. When he won a $450 paycheck-poker “hand” at work (he was working at the American Can Co. as well as painting cars for a living), they toyed with the idea of putting it down for a house, but Pat told him, “Honey, why don’t you get that Mercury crank and pistons you’ve wanted. Enjoy yourself; you might not be able to later.” At the time, Garlits was a member of the Florida National Guard and was on standby to be deployed into action in the Korean War. Fortunately for him, hostilities ended before that happened, but he never forgot. “This is the kind of support I have always received from Patricia Louise throughout our entire marriage,” he wrote.
The Garlits family, in the winner's circle in Indy (again) in 1986: from left, Gay Lyn, Don, Pat, and Donna Garlits and their canine friends.
She traveled the nation’s highways and byways with her man, riding shotgun to drag racing history, and fans came to know her from the constant photos of her in the drag mags. In that era, it wasn’t uncommon to see wives supporting their husbands. That’s how we got to know Lynn Prudhomme, Linda McCulloch, Pat Dixon, Bette Allen, Etta Glidden, Gere Amato, Penny Beck, Rona Veney, and dozens of others. It helped put a new face on the drivers, that they had lives beyond the quarter-mile and people who cared for them just as much as the fans did. They didn’t all work on the cars, but their moral support and organizational skills helped keep many a hero on the road.
In the opening to this column, Hutcheson mentioned the leather jacket; it was the gift she gave him before he headed out to Chester, S.C., that fateful day, June 29, 1959, that almost claimed his life. He suffered third-degree burns to his hands and face. “Without that jacket, I would have never made it to the hospital,” he said plainly. And when doctors wanted to remove his badly damaged hands to save his life, Pat wouldn’t let them. In response, the doctors asked them to find a different hospital, so she rode beside him in a train home to Tampa, Fla., on what was “a hellish ride,” he remembers.
Pat Garlits and Jim Marrone watched "Big Daddy" shave in Indy in 1967.
And it was Pat who was there to hand him the shaving cream and razor to shave his beard after his historic win at the 1967 Nationals, she who was at his side when he sketched the plans for the first successful rear-engine dragster in his California hospital bed after the devastating Lions incident, and she who got really, really, really upset with him when he tried to sideline the rear-engine project because of handling woes. The story goes that she walked in on “Big,” Lemons, and Swingle, who, out of frustration, had begun construction on Swamp Rat 15, a new slingshot to take west in early 1971, but she’d have none of it. “Pat just glared at me,” Garlits wrote, “and she put us back on the RE project.” As Lemons remembered in Hutcheson and Mickey Bryant’s book about that car, titled R.E.D., “She was tough, tougher than the rest of us.”
And, according to Garlits, it was Pat – not Father Time or Mother Nature or any other competitor – who ended his nitro career, telling him in no uncertain words in 2003 that 318 mph was way faster than she wanted him going, and later urged him to fulfill his competitive urges in the Drag Pak Dodge Challenger he now wheels in Stock.
It’s kind of ironic that Garlits’ famed dragstrip career would be headed to its conclusion in the Sportsman ranks in a Dodge because Pat herself even drag raced for a short time in 1962, wheeling Don’s bright-red 413-powered Super Stock Dodge in Powder Puff competition at Golden Triangle Drag Strip.
“I usually won, but it had nothing to do with my driving abilities,” she was quoted in Mike Mueller’s book, The Garlits Collection. “My Dodge was simply always the fastest car out there. It always had the strongest engine; Don wouldn’t have it any other way. I just stepped on the gas and held on. I won a couple trophies, but after a while, I decided Don was the racer in the family.”
Motorsports in general and drag racing in specific can never thank her enough or repay what she did to help her husband’s legendary career. It just needed to be said before it's too late for her to perhaps know how we all feel. God bless.
This year’s Mac Tools U.S. Nationals presented by Auto-Plus will mark the 30th anniversary of one of the greatest Funny Car runs in drag racing history, Don Prudhomme’s stunning 5.637-second blast during qualifying at the 1982 event. Even though cars today are more than a second and a half quicker, to me – and many others – it’s still the all-time-best run in class history.
(Some inevitably will point to Jack Chrisman’s surprising 7.60 at the 1967 Nationals as the greatest Funny Car pass ever. It was, after all, three-tenths quicker than the previous best run in the class, nearly seven-tenths quicker than Tommy Grove’s 8.34 national record, and nearly a half-second ahead of eventual winner Doug Thorley’s No. 2-qualified 8.16, but, to me, the class was still in its infancy then and the cars nowhere near as regimented and similar as when Prudhomme made his run. I’m sticking with the 5.63.)
Prudhomme was not the only performance star of the meet. Tom Anderson drove Jim Wemett’s Mercury LN-7 to a shocking 5.799 early in qualifying to become the first in the 5.7s. Eventual winner Billy Meyer was third at 5.814, 252.10, and “the Wizard of Wadsworth,” former alcohol ace Ken Veney, was fourth with a 5.84, 250.69 from his privateer Trans Am dubbed the Red Rocket. Twelve drivers qualified in the fives, and Paul Smith’s 6.03 set the record bump, six-hundredths better than the previous mark set in Indy the year before. Before the event was over, nitro neophyte Veney – with less than a dozen runs on nitro under his safety belts entering the event -- would shock the crowd and his peers with eliminations runs of 5.78 and a sensational 5.73 at 254.23 to set the new speed record.
It’s important to set the stage and put “the Snake’s" run – hell, the entire 1982 Funny Car field, for that matter – in context. Even though Prudhomme had made the first five-second run seven years earlier, at the 1975 World Finals, five-second passes did not become a commonplace occurrence for years. It wasn’t until April 1981 – more than five years after Prudhomme became the first – that all eight spots in Cragar’s Five-Second Club for Funny Cars were filled. The national record entering the 1982 season was 5.89, set by Dale Armstrong in his driving swan song at the 1981 World Finals at Orange County Int’l Raceway and 249.30 by Raymond Beadle in the Blue Max. Beadle also had run 5.86 in the Blue Max at the 1981 Summernationals but had not backed it up for a record.
In May 1982, Prudhomme’s sleek new Pepsi Challenger became the first Funny Car to break the 250-mph barrier at the Cajun Nationals. Two months later at the Summernationals, Meyer pummeled the Raceway Park timers with a 5.82, 254.95, which was top speed of the meet, faster than the fleetest Top Fueler. The .82 became the new national record, and Meyer’s 250.69 from earlier in the meet was backed up by the 254 for the new speed standard. Although Meyer was the performance star, Prudhomme won the race.
The sudden performance surge seemed to be the result of the injection of nitrous oxide into the fuel-delivery sequence. One question has remained throughout the years: Who used nitrous and who didn’t?
I burned up the phone lines the last two weeks reaching out to all of the parties involved to try to get the answer and recollections about that amazing weekend and to attempt to craft the definitive narrative of the situation.
Indy 1982 started with a bang Thursday as Prudhomme blasted to a 5.82 at just 242.58, setting the stage for a performance parade that followed. The next afternoon, at about 1, Anderson booted Wemett’s entry – cloaked in Budweiser King colors (we’ll get to that) – to a 5.799, the class’ first 5.7-second pass. The glory did not last long: Less than a half-hour later, Prudhomme stormed to a 5.73 at just 223.22 mph as the engine blew 100 feet before the first light. Stunned fans and fellow competitors could only theorize about what would have rung up on the timers had he been able to leg it through the eyes.
They didn’t have to wait long to find out.
In Saturday’s second qualifying session, Prudhomme pulled up alongside Kenny Bernstein and train-lengthed the Budweiser driver to the stripe. Announcer Dave McClelland, a master in building drama, announced Bernstein’s time first: 5.90. Prudhomme’s time took away everyone’s breath: 5.637 at 244.56, nearly two-tenths quicker than the incoming best and a run that would have qualified fifth in the Top Fuel field.
So, was “the Snake” running nitrous? Nope. That he was running nitrous was so widely reported and has gone so largely uncorrected that it has become fact, but it's fiction.
Even though there was a clearly plumbed line running from an nitrous bottle to the fuel pump – and the team made a great show of “turning on” the bottle on the starting line in front of everyone – and even though they had done basic experimentation with nitrous in testing, Prudhomme and crew chief Bob Brandt most definitely were not running nitrous in Indy. The bottle was empty, the system a ruse.
The fake setup was a smoke screen to mask the new vane-style aircraft fuel pump – as opposed to a traditional gear pump -- that the team had begun running recently. A week before the event, at a race in Salt Lake City, Prudhomme had destroyed the track record and outrun everyone by two-tenths with outrageous numbers at the altitude facility.
“We had a lot of compression on it and a really good blower, but the difference was the pump,” he said. “The car just hauled ass. [Tom] McEwen couldn’t believe it – he said the clocks must be jacked up – so I told him, ‘When we race tomorrow, you just go ahead and try to drive around me, and I’ll show you it’s for real.’ And we did.
“We used to get a lot of fuel-system stuff – fittings and stuff like that – from those Army surplus stores. We were really involved with our engines – contrary to popular belief, I knew a little bit about them, you know? – and always trying different things, and the fuel pump was one of them. We were really into it; people don’t realize that.
“Anyway, we knew it was going to really haul ass at Indy because the pump just happened to have the right fuel curve. It would deliver the right amount on the bottom end and taper itself off at the top end without even using a jet. We lowered the compression a little bit for Indy, but we knew we had to do something so people wouldn’t know what we’d found, so we hooked this fake nitrous bottle right to the pump.”
(Armstrong certainly was not fooled. “I looked at it at the time, and the bottle was plumbed right into the fuel pump, which would be like sticking an air hose into your fuel pump,” he said. “It would be terrible and also easily over-pressurize the fuel system.” Meyer, similarly, was not fooled.)
Prudhomme’s Achilles' heel turned out to be the wrist pins, which were breaking on almost every run and wreaking havoc inside the engine. He and Brandt had some lightweight wrist pins (and, reportedly, other go-fast goodies) built by Dick Landy, and they just didn’t hold up.
On eliminations Monday, despite reaching the semifinals, the engine never lived to the finish line. A 6.00 at only 186 mph beat Dale Pulde in round one, and a 5.77 at just 218 mph got him past McEwen, but he lost in the semifinals (on a holeshot of all things), to Meyer, 5.94, 252.80 to a shutoff 5.90 at 210.
(Armstrong remembers Prudhomme coming into his trailer and asking to borrow some of their wrist pins, which also were a special make – suggested by Ed Donovan – of Maraging 300 alloy. “After he blew up engines, he came storming into our trailer and asked me for some of our wrist pins,” said Armstrong. “I was in a bad mood anyway – trying to tune two cars [his and Wemett’s] – and I told him to get the f*** out of the trailer and that if he wanted our wrist pins, he had to ask Kenny. Kenny finally told me to give him some.” Prudhomme remembered it well; “I’d have told him the same thing if he came into my pit looking for parts after running two-tenths quicker than me,” he said with a laugh.)
In retrospect, Prudhomme’s performance became legendary, but it could have been even more so. “We didn’t have enough fuel on the other end, and we didn’t have computers on the car then to know what it really needed,” Prudhomme explained. “We just didn’t have enough to make it to the lights. At half-track, it was a missile, but it never made it to the lights under full power.”
The mind reels as to what might have happened had the engine lived.
“That’s my nitrous story; I hate to say, it’s not much of a story,” Prudhomme joked. “Pretty disappointing, right?”
Prudhomme's 5.63 stood as the best Funny Car run in class history for more than a year, until Rick Johnson piloted Roland Leong's wind-tunnel-tested Hawaiian Punch Dodge to a screaming 5.58 at 262.62 mph (also the fastest pass in history) at the 1985 Winternationals.
Not Kenny Bernstein
Before Indy 1982, Anderson and Wemett had never even run in the 5.8s, let alone dreamed about running in the 5.7s, but Bernstein’s misfortune became their fortune.
Bernstein and new crew chief Armstrong had struggled early in their first year together – later attributed to Bernstein prematurely shifting the two-speed transmission – and they embarrassingly had failed to qualify their Budweiser King Mercury LN-7 for the inaugural Big Bud Shootout in Indy. Ever the shrewd businessman, Bernstein approached Wemett and asked about the possibility of running the Bud King colors on his lookalike body, as he was qualified for the Shootout. The body was painted at the shop of Mike Kase, whose Speed Racer flopper both Armstrong and Anderson coincidentally had driven.
“We both were sponsored by Mercury LN-7, and we both were also sponsored by Motorcraft and Autolite, which made life easier; we did not have an oil or spark-plug conflict, plus identical bodies,” remembered Wemett. “We got our car painted for a one-race deal together, and we ran the old Speed Racer body in Brainerd not to hurt the LN-7 for Indy."
Armstrong says that he gave Wemett an entire Bud King engine to run in the car; Wemett remembers it as just the fuel system (pump and injector), but regardless, the result was lightning in a bottle, but not from a nitrous bottle.
“We knew our setup was improving, and with a couple things from Dale, up popped the 5.79,” said Wemett. “It was a great feeling to skip the .80s completely and to be No. 1 at Indy for even a small amount of time.”
(Armstrong admits that they had been “playing with” nitrous on the Budweiser King, but not as a direct performance adder. He explained, “At the time, most of the fuel at idle was going through the blower, and you had no control over where the fuel was going as it went through this big mixer into the manifold – the port nozzles weren’t active at idle – and the back pipes would get all wet, shooting raw fuel, and we were having a lot of trouble with dropped cylinders. If a cylinder was cold at the hit, it wasn’t going to fire when you hit the throttle, and we had pretty weak magnetos at the time. So I rigged up a nitrous system with eight nozzles in the manifold that we could adjust to get all eight pipes the same at idle; we’d run it at night at our shop in Brea [Calif.] so we could see the flames dancing about 2 inches out of the pipes. The goal was to have all eight cylinders at the same temperature when it got to the line to lessen the chance of a dropped cylinder. I had a pressure regulator set at 25 pounds for the nitrous; when Kenny floored it and the manifold pressure got up around 30 pounds, that shut off the nitrous flow. We didn’t use it as a power augmenter during the run.”)
Tom Anderson was runner-up to Bernstein in the same car the next year in Indy.
The Shootout was a major disappointment for Anderson and Wemett because their car broke a brake caliper while Anderson was trying to stop the car after the burnout in round one alongside Dale Pulde, and Monday wasn’t much better. After beating John Lombardo in round one with a 6.08, Anderson fell to eventual runner-up Gary Burgin and his Orange Baron Mustang in the second round.
Ironically, 1982 Indy "teammates" Bernstein and Anderson would meet in the final round the following year in Indy, and Bernstein, who had not only qualified that year for the Shootout but won it as well, came back to win Monday's Big Go, doubling up for a big weekend payday by defeating Anderson, 5.93 to a tire-shaking 6.04.
“We should have won the race,” lamented Anderson. “I was heartbroken.”
If fans were shocked by the performance of Anderson and Wemett, they were in no way ready for the show put on by Veney in Indy. Although he was clearly one of the dominant drivers in the Pro Comp ranks in the 1970s and early 1980s, running nitro is a whole other animal, but Veney approached the task as he did most things in life: methodically and meticulously.
Veney purchased a partially completed chassis from Tony Casarez and finished it himself (“He was very good but too slow”) and filled the framerails with a reliable and efficient engine that befit his budget, and it was that choice that led to his great performances.
Like Prudhomme, Veney was running a vane-style airplane pump – one used to transfer fuel between the wing tanks of a B-29 for stability – but was running just 87 percent nitro at a time when typical usage was in the middle 90s. Veney’s philosophy was clear and hard to argue with: Make it live to the other end.
He overcame the low nitro percentage with volume, running about 150 percent more fuel through his engine than his peers, and favored a roller cam over the traditional flat-tappet variety, a carryover from his potent alcohol powerplants. (“Like I told Keith Black: Flat tappets are for the tow truck.”) The cylinder heads – of his own design and manufacture – also were from his alcohol experience, with only the addition of stainless-steel exhaust valves.
“The whole idea was to keep the spark plug on it so it could run the whole track, which is why I ran the low percentage,” he said. “The engine was so efficient, and I was able to put so much air into it that I could run less percentage but more total volume and get the same amount of nitro burned as everyone else without the parts damage. I didn’t even have a spare engine, just pistons, rods, and sleeves.”
Needless to say, Veney also was not running the sometimes-volatile nitrous.
In just his fourth time out with the car on nitro, Veney followed his 5.84, 250.69 qualifier with a dazzling 5.78, 251.39 to beat Beadle in round one and a shocking 5.73 at 254.23 against Al Segrini in round two to set the national record. Inexperience and tire smoke lost the semifinals to Burgin.
“We were learning as we went and just kept getting after it,” he explained. “I knew it would go fast because the engine and all of the parts were in such good shape at the finish line. I had no idea it would go 254, but I knew it would go fast.
“In the semifinals, my inexperience bit us,” he admitted. “I got up there, and I could tell something was not right with the clutch – too much clearance or whatever it was -- because it was taking too much throttle to move the car. In an alcohol car, you could get a little run at the clutch by hitting the throttle, but that doesn’t work in a fuel car. I tried to drive it like an alcohol car by bringing the engine up against the brake to put a little load on the clutch, but it just blew the tires off.”
(Another little-known story involved drama and a quick fix on the Trans Am body that was buckling at speed during qualifying. NHRA insisted that he fix it or be disqualified from the event, so Veney fiberglassed a broomstick from fender to fender under the hood and fiberglassed some folded cardboard paper-towel tubes into the sides of the body for added rigidity. He’s nothing if not innovative.)
“We had a lot of fun, and I got the chance to run fuel while it was still cheap enough to do it,” he said. “My wife didn’t want me to do it; we used to go to Lions [Drag Strip, in the 1960s and 1970s] and see those guys get all burned up in the fuel Funny Cars. If I spent our money to race, that was OK – 'Get it out of your system' – but when I got my first Alcohol Funny Car, she told me, ‘Do anything you want, but I don’t want you ever driving a fuel Funny Car.’
So who, if anyone, was using nitrous that year in Indy?
Well, Meyer, for one. His system injected just the gas individually into each cylinder at the manifold at the hit of the throttle, as it had been since early spring.
Like Prudhomme and Veney, he had a high-volume vane-type fuel pump – his from Sid Waterman – which, in concert with some of Dick Maskin’s new cast-aluminum Dart cylinder heads and the nitrous usage, all came together for the monster performances in E-town and Indy.
“I’m reluctant to say all of the performance came from the nitrous,” he said. “The heads were definitely a big part of it, too. For me, the greater benefit of running nitrous was that it really helped us with parts attrition, taking away things like detonation and piston damage at the top end, and letting the engine live to the finish line.” I find it interesting that his explanation mirrors Veney’s “Make it live” philosophy, only from a different angle.
“The best thing about using nitrous was that it was injecting cold air – well below freezing – into the engine, which controlled the detonation; it’s amazing what these cars will do when they’re not detonating at the other end. And, obviously, it was condensed air, which let us put more fuel into the engine, too.
“I used a regulator on the nitrous system to tune the car at different tracks. At Denver, we’d just bump up the nitrous level to keep our consistency. We didn’t have to restrip the blowers often; we’d just bump the nitrous up because that always made it seem like you had a fresh blower on it. It was an easy tuning tool. We ran 251 at Norwalk the week before Englishtown, not even trying very hard, so I wasn’t surprised when it went 254 at Englishtown.”
Billy Meyer scored his first and only Indy win, defeating Gary Burgin in the final.
Meyer entered the U.S. Nationals on a high, just a few days after the birth of his first child, Benjamin (better known now by his middle name, Adam). After qualifying third with the 5.81 at 252 and a first-round loss in the Shootout, he powered past Jim Dunn and Bernstein Monday with runs of 5.88 and 5.84, beat Prudhomme on the 5.94 to 5.90 holeshot, then took an easy 5.91 victory over Burgin's tractionless Mustang.
Thanks to his Texas pal Richard Tharp, who was on the phone in the top-end tower, Meyer’s wife, Deborah, got to hear the final called live over the PA.
Meyer’s victory and Frank Hawley’s first-round loss gave Meyer the points lead, but that was the last of the good news. Hawley was runner-up at the Golden Gate Nationals to retake the lead, then held on for the title when both lost in the semifinals of the World Finals. More bad news followed. Meyer ran nitrous the rest of the year – it also was on Meyer’s Tripp Shumake-driven EXP that won that year’s World Finals at Orange County Int’l Raceway and in use when Meyer closed the year with a big win at OCIR's U.S. Manufacturers Funny Car Championships (on the 10-year anniversary of his first big win at the event in 1972) – but its use was banned for 1983.
In an editorial in National DRAGSTER after the U.S. Nationals, Wally Parks complained about the amount of parts attrition at the event – Top Fuel round one was an oildown mess – and hinted that something needed to be done to tame the power. Rightly or wrongly, nitrous was taking the blame.
“No one else had really figured out how to run it, and they were blowing up a lot of stuff,” said Meyer. “It wasn’t because I was brilliant; it was more dumb luck that we’d figured it out, but, to me, the thinking [behind banning its use] was backwards; I saw it as a way to cut parts attrition if used correctly.”
According to Meyer, NHRA polled Funny Car teams, and only two people voted for its retention: Meyer and Austin Coil, the latter of whom, according to Meyer, realized the parts-saving aspect of it. Regardless, Meyer was left in a bad spot after it was banned.
“When they banned it, it took us a year to recover,” he admitted. “It was a tuning crutch for me, and it got taken away. When you’re able to always give yourself ‘good air,’ you get complacent, and I was really a year behind on cams and heads and blowers. We were lost; I struggled as much as I’d ever struggled. We weren’t even competitive. Finally, [the Minor team] came to Waco [Texas] and put a motor in my car to give me a starting point and get me out of my funk.”
Meyer’s comments about Coil piqued my curiosity enough that I decided I should try to track down the now-nomadic and carefree Coil, who was kind enough to momentarily turn his back on a scenic ocean vista in northern Oregon, where he’s enjoying his regular summer retreat from SoCal’s heat wave, to answer my questions.
And, as it turns out, Coil’s Hawley-driven Chi-Town Hustler, winner of the Shootout that year, also was running nitrous, hence his support for its continuing legality. Mike Thermos from NOS had told Coil about Meyer’s success and urged Coil to try it.
Like Meyer, Coil used nitrous in a gaseous form and injected it into the engine, but unlike Meyer’s system, which was activated by him planting his heavy right foot on the loud pedal, the Chi-Town’s unit was activated by Hawley via a steering-wheel-mounted switch and, despite being active for the entire run, used just about an eighth of a pound per run. The system’s primary use was to help atomize the nitromethane to avoid dropping cylinders.
(Coil also was not fooled by Prudhomme’s fuel-pump-plumbed hoax and starting-line hoax – “Positively ridiculous” was his assertion about the implausible notion of plumbing aerated nitrous directly into the pump – but he said that at least one team [who shall remain nameless because I’m not able to confirm it] did fall for the ruse and quickly devised a similar unit at the event, which quickly caused the pump to cavitate and fail.)
"Ya know, you didn't have me fooled for a second, 'Snake.' "
Coil ran the system the rest of the year, won the championship, fruitlessly voted for its continued use, and, after a few small stumbles with dropped cylinders early the next year without the laughing gas, was able to “tune my way out of that” and went on to win the championship again. “I’d have been happier if they left us alone, but it wasn’t crippling,” he noted.
For all of their theories about how well nitrous – and many of their systems, for that matter – worked, the always verbally colorful Coil was quick to point out, “In that era, before computers [data recorders], none of us knew that [heck] worked; we were just throwing [stuff] out there and seeing what stuck against the wall. If things went OK, you’d come home and make up the theory that you wanted to believe in.
“Today, I’d bet that even the best of the people out there – including myself – really only understand about three-quarters of what’s going on in these cars. In the early 1980s, if we truly understood 20 percent of what was going on, we were lucky. Looking back, we didn’t know jack[stuff] about what the cars were doing. Since we got computers, we’re real certain that what we can see from standing on the starting line is almost always wrong.”
Naturally, while I had him on the line, I asked Coil if a racing comeback of any kind was on the horizon, and, to summarize his reply, if I were holding a Magic 8 Ball in my hand, the answer would be “Outlook not so good.”
He doesn’t miss the drama or the headaches of The Big Show, hasn’t found the right fit (despite many offers) in nostalgia racing, and misses being able to invent.
“If there was anything I was ever good at, I was good at creating something that no one else had that gave us an edge to win,” he said. “As the rules have gotten so all-encompassing, you’re not allowed to do that. So we all stand there with a barrel full of clutch discs that we know we can’t know exactly how they’re going to act, and we’re going to have to play Russian roulette with ‘Do we put another nut on it or not?’ and the other guy’s guess is going to be as good as mine. That just doesn’t seem like any fun. Fortunately, I had a very competent investment broker who guided me well throughout all the great years, and I’m not particularly worried about starving to death.”
OK, so that's the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about nitrous use at the 1982 U.S. Nationals. For now. Is there a possibility that someone else was using nitrous that year? Absolutely. The good thing is there's always another column just a few days away. Thanks for reading.
It’s Backtrack Tuesday at the DRAGSTER Insider, and I'm working hard to cleanse the inbox before diving into the two weeks leading up to the Big Go, the annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals presented by Auto-Plus.
After writing about Bill Jenkins’ crash in Oswego, Ill., in the summer of 1977 during a Beat The Grump challenge with local racers, I was surprised to be contacted by several people who knew who was running “Da Grump” when he stacked up his Grumpy’s Toy Monza Pro Stocker, and then it wasn’t long before I heard from Paul Dazzo himself, who was wheeling his Midland Express ‘69 Camaro down the other lane when the Toy became quite less than playful.
I’ve exchanged emails with Paul since then, and he promises to share his side of his Brush with Greatness in the very near future.
I also heard from Stock eliminator ace Anatol Denysenko, whose mom, Joan, had defeated Jenkins the round before the crash (“She just about waxed him,” he noted proudly) and took the photos at right. His mom was wheeling a very quick '69 Torino Cobra coupe with 428 Cobra Jet power under the hood and open headers. They then took a seat to watch Jenkins take on Dazzo.
“When he did wreck the car, it was literally right in front of us,” Denysenko remembered. “As a 6-year-old, I was sitting on a post watching this car come right towards me. Dad (Alex Denysenko) and our paramedic friend Ken Kucera jumped the fence and were the first to the car. I still have a part of the front-end fiberglass somewhere.”
Column reader Richard Pederson also came up with a swell idea for a series of columns of “Who was in the other lane when ...” I like it!
As a follow-up to last Tuesday’s story about Dale Emery’s wild ride and crash at the 1977 U.S. Nationals in Mike Burkhart’s Camaro, reader Mike Hedworth sent his own sequence on the crash, taken from a decidedly different vantage point than the famous sequence and Zapruder-ish video I ran with the column.
Unfortunately for Hedworth, his long-haired, bare-chested next-door fan neighbor decided that he needed to be in the frame (I’m assuming it was a he; if it was a she, I guess that Hedworth wasn’t all that unfortunate, right?), so I’ve cropped in on photos 2-8 in the gallery at right.
Steve Reyes, who spent a lot of time with Emery throughout the years, including going on tour with him in 1971 while Emery was driving the Flying Red Baron wheelstander (“He drove it like a AA/FA,” remembers Reyes) and accompanying the Blue Max crew to England on two occasions (“The Blue Max kicked everybody’s butt, and that includes [Gene] Snow, who also made the trip”), is a big-time Emery fan.
“I’ve seen Dale drive many a race car: KP Automotive Olds Top Fueler, Pure Hell, Mike Fuller’s AA/GD, The Wailer AA/FD Texas Top Fueler, [Bob] Riggle’s AA/FC, JEGS AA/FC, and Burkhart’s AA/FC,” he recalled.
“One of those memories that stands out about Dale was that he always seemed to be very aware what was going on with the car he was racing. In 1968 at Sacramento, Dale asked me to go to the finish line and shoot pix of Pure Hell at speed, so away I went to the finish line. I got some great images of Pure Hell motoring at speed with its then-new Hemi engine. I delivered my glossy 8x10s the next weekend at Fremont. Dale took a look and started to show me how he knew the car was running over 200 mph -- the car’s windshield would fold down on top of Dale’s hands when the car ran over 200 mph. I know if I was driving that car, the last thing I’d be looking at would be my hands.”
(Speaking of Reyes, I want to send a big shout-out to my good pal and frequent and generous Insider contributor who is recovering after heart surgeries to insert two stents into his valvetrain. Stay well, my friend.)
Going back a little further, to the Chip Woodall and Jackie Peebles gold-plated car thread, I originally had reported that one of the Peebles-owned slingshots was an ex-Hawaiian Top Fueler driven by Mike Sorokin, but Roland Leong [and, later, Don Long] was quick to point out that the car was actually the one driven by Mike Snively, and it was the last dragster he ever owned.
The dragster was sold at the end of the 1968 season, and – here’s a little fun fact for you – Leong actually had a new dragster on the jig at Long’s shop for the 1969 season before he decided to switch to Funny Car. That not-yet-completed dragster was sold to one of Leong’s former drivers, who did pretty well with it. Yep, that car became Don Prudhomme’s first Wynn’s Winder that “the Snake” drove to Indy wins in 1969 and 1970. I never knew that; I bet you didn't either.
The Woodall and Tharp tall Texas tales were a hit with many. I heard from David Pace, who later inherited the seat of the Carroll brothers’ Texas Whips Top Fueler, who acknowledged, “Almost every memory I have of Texas fuel racing has Chip involved in some way. And, to this day, Jackie’s cars were, and always will be, the baddest-sounding things on earth.”
To which Ma Green appended, “He's one of the funniest men I know but has a heart of gold! Chip will be [at the California Hot Rod Reunion], and you can see how really nuts he is.”
Reader B.J. Smith Sr. added, “I’m so glad readers will know about the great racers we’ve had here in Texas. I grew up here, and all articles in the '60s and '70s were either East or West Coast info. As history tells, we had a lot of gold mines right here. Man, was I having flashbacks reading your article. On behalf of all us drag racing fans here in Texas, we say thank you, Phil!”
I received the photo at right from former Top Fuel racer Dan Richins, far right, of him and fellow former fuel dragster heroes Carl Olson, center, and Frank Bradley on the Bonneville Salt Flats last week. Richins is a Salt Lake City resident, and Olson is a longtime Bonneville attendee and a member of the ultracool 200-mph Club, but it was “the Beard’s” first trip to the great white way.
All three, of course, are members of the historic Cragar Five-Second Club. Richins was the last of the original eight to run in the fives, recording a 5.93 pass with his Iron Horse dragster at the 1973 Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway not long after Larry Dixon Sr. ran 5.94. Olson joined the club the following year with a 5.94 at the March Meet, and Bradley closed out the membership with a 5.96 at the Division 7 meet at Orange County Int’l Raceway in June 1974.
Bradley also owns the unique distinction of being the only member of the Cragar Five-Second and Four-Second Clubs; he was among the first 16 to run in the fours with a 4.998-second clocking at the 1989 World Finals in Pomona.
At right is a wonderful photo – shot by Steve Reyes – of the first nine members of the Five-Second Club. Back row, from left: Don Moody, James Warren, Gary Beck, Mike Snively, and Richins; front row, from left, Tommy Ivo, Don Garlits, John Stewart, and Dixon. All but Snively took part in a special Cragar Five-Second Club race at Irwindale in January 1974, which Garlits won. The traction-plagued event didn’t feature a single five – Garlits had low e.t. at 6.33 – and the final was over at the green when Dixon’s Howard’s Cams entry bombed the blower at the step. Richins lost in round one to Garlits, who also beat Stewart en route to victory.
As you can see on the list below, there are quite a few expected names (Garlits, Beck, Warren, Ruth, etc.) in that famous club and a few surprises, like Richins and Pete Kalb. (And, before you ask, Cragar lists Ivo as the charter member, not Snively.) I hope to chat with Richins in the next few days for his memories of his career.
|Cragar Five-Second Top Fuel Club
|1. Tommy Ivo
||Oct. 22, 1972
||New Alexandria, Pa.
|2. Mike Snively
||Nov. 17, 1972
|3. Don Moody
||Nov. 17, 1972
|4. Don Garlits
||July 7, 1973
|5. Gary Beck
||Sept. 3, 1973
|6. James Warren
||Oct. 13, 1973
|7. Larry Dixon Sr.
||Nov. 16, 1973
|8. Dan Richins
||Nov. 16, 1973
|9. John Stewart
||Nov. 16, 1973
|10. Pete Kalb
||Jan. 26, 1974
|11. Jerry Ruth
||Jan. 27, 1974
|12. Dwight Salisbury
||Feb. 2, 1974
|13. Dwight Hughes
||Feb. 2, 1974
|14. Carl Olson
||March 10, 1974
|15. Gary Ritter
||March 23, 1974
|16. Frank Bradley
||June 29, 1974
Friday’s acknowledgement of Tim Kushi’s place in the sport’s annals met with a lot of hurrahs for the "little guy.” Reader Patrick Prendergast remembered him well. “Growing up a gearhead in Pittsfield, Mass., I remember he was revered by all us teenagers in the ‘70s as the top dog, our own ’Big Daddy.’ It was always a thrill to see him racing up against all the big guys at Lebanon Valley during the match races, giving them a run for their money, too. Once when I was 12 or 13, I rode my bike to his speed shop to ask to go in the garage in back to see his car; he graciously obliged, and I got a surprise when not only his Challenger was there, but one of Gene Snow's Snowman Chargers! I don't remember what that connection was, but still way cool to see both. Thanks again for the article remembering one of the ‘little guys’ who made an impact on and inspired a lot of racers and hot rodders in this neck of the woods.”
As mentioned Friday, former nitro car owner Jim Wemett was at Kushi’s funeral, and he sent the pic at right of some of the other attendees with Kushi’s wife, Ellen, at a celebration luncheon at Kushi’s favorite Italian restaurant. From left are former Kushi crewmember Bill Mathis, Wemett, George Johnson (former Wemett driver), Chuck Etchells, Ellen Kushi, Al and Ellen Hanna, Ken Sciola, and Tommy Johnson Sr.
“We had a great celebration of Tim’s life,” he reported. “The line was out the door during the wake, and the memorial service was sad and funny at times with great Tim stories of playing golf and racing. Other racers, like Kalitta Motorsports, sent flowers. Tim touched a lot of people. We will all miss him and those emails and phone calls."
OK, kids, that's it for the day. My notepad is a little less cluttered and my sights already set on the next story, which includes interviews with Mr. Wemett and another of his former drivers, Tom Anderson, plus Dale Armstrong, Prudhomme, Ken Veney, and Billy Meyer. Bonus points if you can guess the topic of the tale that celebrates its 30th anniversary in Indy this year.
I’ll admit that my West Coast upbringing does at times bias the stories you read here, and although as a teenager I could easily recite a long list of match-race-only West Coast Funny Cars of the 1970s, my East Coast knowledge was limited largely to what I read in the drag mags.
Apparently, my teenage ignorance knew no bounds because, to be honest, it wasn’t until I bought Greg Zyla’s Vallco Drag Racing Game that I ever heard of Tim Kushi or his Yankee Sizzler flopper, which, in retrospect, is kind of surprising considering that the Pittsfield, Mass., racer had been competing in the class since 1970, initially with Logghe-built Dodge Chargers and Challengers under the Damn Yankee name.
Kushi, who last competed in a nitro coupe in the early 1980s, died last Sunday after being stricken with heart problems while on the golf course and subsequently passed away. He was 69.
Although Kushi did not have the national visibility of a "Jungle Jim" Liberman or a Bruce Larson, he was an East Coast stalwart and a popular match racer, yet I always wondered about his inclusion. Was he a friend of Zyla's, or was this some East Coast "little guy" favoritism? If Kushi could be in the game, what about West Coasters like Mike Halloran, Jeff Courtie, "Smokey Joe" Lee, or Roger Garten? (I made my own cards for them and dozens of others.)
So, I asked Zyla earlier this week about Kushi’s inclusion in the game and was quite pleased to hear his explanation, which I think provides a wonderful epitaph for the Kushi that some (me included) might not have known.
“Tim had run a few NHRA races (and/or tried to qualify), and because I needed 32 drivers, he made it as few other drivers had similar runs that year under NHRA sanction,” he explained. “But I had heard nothing but good from other drivers/crews/fans about Tim, so he was in. [Late and great respected drag racing journalist] Woody Hatten told me Tim was real happy to be included, but other than a quick signing of a release to use his name (a one-minute ‘Hi Tim, here's the release’ and a ‘Thanks much’), that was the extent of my talking with him as I was running from trailer to trailer. But Woody said he was deserving, just like Jim Wemett's cars [George Johnson driver] were. Woody and I would always put our minds together on drivers that deserved to be in the game. Other drivers told me to put him in the lineup of cards, too, like Al Hanna; he also was very happy to be included. They used the game for sponsor proposals.”
Although Kushi was known locally, his national fame really came about primarily for two reasons: his inclusion in the game and his scary two-car accident with “TV Tommy” Ivo at a 1978 match race at New England Dragway that pretty much ended Ivo’s nitro career.
Because Kushi is no longer with us to share his side of the story, I asked Ivo for his recollections of the scary incident, and “your hero and mine” was, as always, happy to oblige.
“I had just given Tim a rather sound thumping and was about three car lengths ahead of him in the lights, with me in the right lane -- to start with anyway. When I deployed my chute, all hell broke loose. Kaboom, I heard a huge explosion from the back of the car … WHAT? -- the bangs always come from the front of the car, where the ticking time bomb of an engine lives, and usually come along with a pretty good belch of fire, if you’re really having a bad day!!!
“The next thing I knew, I was uncontrollably veering off toward the left side of the track, and I saw the body fly off the top of the car. Because the shutoff area was lined with telephone poles on the left side that were holding up the night racing lights, I was starting to sit as low as possible in the seat. And, of course, there were no guardrails in the shutoff area in those ‘good old days!'
“All of a sudden, the car whipped around to the right and was pointing downtrack again, and -- kaboom! -- there was another explosion! And, tallyho, it was off to the left I go -- again! Good grief -- what was going on? So after getting that funny little hollow place you get in the pit of your stomach, I realized something terrible was happening, and I was just along for the ride. And, of course, it was all in slooooow motion. I've noticed every time things really get out of control, everything goes into slo-mo.
“I took a quick peek down at the transmission area to see if something had happened there -- but that was too far forward in the car -- and deduced that the rear end must have torn loose from the frame and was clanging around back there. It was the only possible answer. NOT!
"As I was heading off the track for the second time, there was no doubt about it. This time it was for real, and I'd passed the point of no return now, and I closed my eyes. I always closed them when I was crashing bad; don't laugh -- those ostriches aren't all stupid: It works! Out of sight, out of mind – well, I guess not exactly. But I'd always think to myself, ‘I don't want to SEE this happen!’
“But as luck would have it. I hit a field goal and slid off the track between the lighting poles and didn't make toothpicks out of any of them -- or me!
“After the car came to a halt, I got out of it and, like all good cowards, ran about 50 feet to get away from the scene of the accident and then turned around to have a lookee at what had really gone on. And there it was. Both Tim's and my cars were all wrapped up together in the parachutes. And I found out he was the varmint that was making all the bang-bangs on the back of my car as he kept ramming into me!!!
"It seems that Tim's front-right body support had broken in the lights, letting his car's body collapse onto his right front tire, and it grabbed it, which steered it to the right and headed him straight into the back of my steed. It had also slid the body over and trapped the throttle wide open. So he was off and running, full-tilt boogie, into a woods full of big trees that lined the track to the right.
“BUT -- and here comes that but again -- there I was, minding my own business and just getting the car stopped to go back and make the next round -- that needless to say, I never made it to -- when Tim decides to use me as a big air bag in his crash! I hate when that happens!
“The first kaboom came when he ran into the back of me the first time. Then as I headed off the track, my chute caught onto the back of his car and pulled me around, right back to my original trajectory downtrack, which pulled him sideways and rolled his car over and over. As it rolled up in my chute lines, kaboom, came the second hit -- he's baaaaaack!!!
“But all's well that ends well. Neither one of us got a scratch out of it. And, like the horrendous crash I had in my dragster at Pomona in ’74, I wouldn't have missed it for the world. It was well worth the price of admission! You can't buy experiences like that to have all those great memories to cherish with such fondness as you get long in the tooth!”
Kushi's funeral was yesterday. Former nitro car owner Jim Wemett emailed to tell me about a great turnout to honor the man, including one of his own former drivers, George Johnson, and fellow former nitro pilots Chuck Etchells and Al Hanna, plus Circus Custom Paints' Bob Gerdes, Tommy Johnson Sr., and others, all turning out to honor a man who was much more than just a name on a card.