The Force females joined Brittany, far right, at yesterday's press conference. From left is John's eldest daughter, Adria (wife of team Funny Car driver Robert Hight), as well as Ashley, Courtney, and mom Laurie.
Most of the National DRAGSTER editorial staff and photographer Marc Gewertz attended yesterday’s John Force Racing press conference at the team’s HQ in Yorba Linda, Calif., where not only did they announce an internal shake up for Funny Car crews — headlined by Mike Neff leaving the cockpit to tune John Force’s car — but they also took the wraps off of middle daughter Brittany Force’s new Castrol Edge Top Fueler in front in an overflow crowd in the team’s theater.
As you all know, Brittany has been testing on and off all last year, and although it was widely understood that she’d be competing this season in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, this made it official. She, of course, will be considered one of the front-runners in the derby for the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award as the season’s top rookie — probably battling Leah Pruett and Chad Head for starters — looking to joins sisters Ashley and Courtney and brother-in-law Robert Hight as winners of that prestigious award.
By our records, she and fellow Top Fuel newcomer Leah Pruett, who will drive a part-time schedule for the Dote Racing team, will become just the 17th and 19th women to compete in NHRA Top Fuel competition, following (in alphabetical order) Vivica Averstedt, Dannielle DePorter, Vicky Fanning, Gina Ferraro, Rhonda Hartman-Smith, Lori Johns, Kim LaHaie, Lucille Lee, Shirley Muldowney, Shelly Payne (Anderson), Cristen Powell, Sue Ransom, Joanne Reynolds, Rachelle Splatt, Melanie Troxel, and Hillary Will.
Of that list, of course, Muldowney is the premiere name, having captured three world championships and 18 national event wins, including her breakthrough triumph at the 1976 Springnationals in Columbus, which marked the first NHRA Professional win for a woman.
Muldowney is far and away the most successful female Top Fuel pilot; the next most-prolific winners — three of them — have just four wins: Troxel (in 15 finals), Johns (in six finals), Anderson (in five finals). The other three winners — Will, Lee, and Powell — each have just one score.
The Funny Car list is of almost equal length with 14 women having made a run in NHRA competition, including dual-nitro licensees Muldowney, Troxel, Powell, Pruett, and Fanning, joined (again, in alphabetical order) by Alexis DeJoria, Courtney Force, Ashley Force Hood, Rodalyn Knox, Paula Martin, Paula Murphy, Susie Spencer, Della Woods, and Carol Yenter. Of those, only Force Hood (four wins), Troxel (1), and C. Force (1) have reached the winner’s circle.
The NHRA Media Guide devotes a large section to the success of women in the sport, from which I have cribbed these facts.
NHRA founder Wally Parks was among the first to congratulate Shirley Muldowney after her breakthrough Top Fuel win at the 1976 Columbus event.
Although Muldowney owns the Top Fuel list, former Pro Stock Motorcycle champ Angelle Sampey is the career leader among females with 41 wins, the last coming in Houston in 2007. Sampey is the runaway leader in No. 1 qualifying spots, too, with 45; Ashley Force Hood is second with 15, just ahead of Muldowney’s 13.
Muldowney (Columbus 1976, Top Fuel), Sampey (Reading 1996, Pro Stock Motorcycle), Force Hood (Atlanta 2008, Funny Car), and Erica Enders (Chicago 2012, Pro Stock) are the respective barrier beakers for first class wins in their eliminators.
Shirley Shahan was the first woman to win an NHRA national event, in Stock at the 1966 Winternationals in Pomona.
Muldowney was the first female to advance to a final round in Top Fuel, 1975 at Columbus, where she lost to Marvin Graham. She also was the first female to qualify No. 1 in a Pro category, at that historic 1976 Columbus event with an e.t. of 6.031 seconds. Muldowney also was the first driver of either gender in NHRA history to repeat as Top Fuel champion, scoring first in 1977 and following with tittles in 1980 and 1982. She also was the only woman on the now-famous Top 50 Drivers list compiled in 2001.
Splatt, an Australian driver who made a short but memorable stint in NHRA competition in the Luxor casino dragster, was the first female to clock a 300-mph run with a speed of 300.00 mph at the 1994 event where she also became the 16th and final — and only female — member of the Slick 50 300-MPH Club. Splatt isn’t the only non-North American to compete in NHRA Top Fuel competition. Fellow Aussie Sue Ransom, a respected multitalented driver Down Under, drove the early McGee Quad Cam dragster at several events, and Averstedt, who was a Swedish champion, competed only at the 1998 Gatornationals, where she finished a very impressive third alternate just outside of what was then the quickest field in Top Fuel history.
Melanie Troxel is the only woman to have won in both of NHRA's nitro classes, with four wins in Top Fuel and this Funny Car triumph at the 2008 Bristol race.
Although Force Hood beat Troxel to the Funny Car winner’s circle by just two events in 2008, Troxel was the first female to qualify No. 1 in Funny Car later that season (Chicago), and when Troxel won in Bristol, she also became the first (and still only) woman in NHRA history to post victories in both nitro categories, having scored previously in Top Fuel. Troxel has won in four NHRA categories, the most for a female in NHRA history, including (in order) Top Alcohol Dragster, Top Fuel, Funny Car, and Pro Mod.
Talking to John Force yesterday, he was highly optimistic of Brittany’s chances this season, noting that she tested extremely well — runs into the low 3.80s — with a soft tune-up. Whether or not she can join her sisters as national event winners remains to be seen, or whether another female driver — Pruett and DeJoria already have wins in other classes — can get there first.
We’ve certainly come a long way from when NHRA barred females from competing at the 1960 Nationals in Detroit and even from Shirley Shahan’s breakthrough female victory (in Stock at the 1966 Winternationals) to the point where a woman hoisting a Wally in the winner’s circle — clear through to the Sportsman ranks — is no longer earthshaking news. There’s no other motorsport — nor, as I think of it, in any sport where they compete against one another with identical rules — where female drivers have had the level of success they’ve earned in the NHRA, which, along with NHRA’s impressive record of racial and age diversity, makes ours a pretty special sport.
But then, you already knew that. Good luck to Brittany and Leah in 2013.
Although the Mayans were wrong and the world didn’t end on Dec. 21, the road did end for a number of our friends since I last wrote a column here before the Christmas break, so before we move further into 2013, I’d like to acknowledge those we lost during the holidays.
Obviously, the biggest shock to the system for someone like me who has been a part of the NHRA family for more than 30 years was the loss of Dale Ham, NHRA’s longtime former Division 4 director. We lost “the Hammer” Dec. 23, and though I can’t say it was unexpected, it nonetheless was painful to lose another of the old guard upon whose sweat and hard work the NHRA was founded.
Ham was named a regional adviser in the South Central region in 1954 and then Division 4 director by NHRA founder Wally Parks in 1961 and stayed at that post until the end of 1986. He was one of the original division directors whose name and reputation is well-cemented in the NHRA annals. When I look back at all of those early DDs whom we have lost, it’s truly heartsickening – guys like Buster Couch, Bob Daniels, and Bernie Partridge, and, of course, irreplaceable characters like Parks, Bill “Farmer” Dismuke, Jack Hart, and others who helped forge the path.
Ham was the personification of the Division 4 motto: The Good Guys. Glenn Menard, longtime Division 4 track operator and announcer and one of the many people taken under Ham’s wing, wrote to me, saying, “He was THE major force in D-4 and in many of our racing lives. I remember going back to their motel room after a points race as a college student to write in the winners names on the DRAGSTER sheets, placing the roll of undeveloped film into an envelope, then going to the post office with Dale to put it into whatever ‘express’ mail there was in the late ‘60s so that the results would make it to the paper. Then he drove me home (no car). How times have changed.”
Here's a great 1960s "family" photo from NHRA's early days. In front, from left, were Bill "Farmer" Dismuke, Wally Parks, and Jack Hart. In the rear were the current division directors, many of them the originals appointed by Parks. From left, Divisions 1 through 7: Darwin Doll, Buster Couch, Bob Daniels, Dale Ham, Darrell Zimmerman, Terrell Poage, and Bernie Partridge. Of the group, sadly, only Doll and Zimmerman are still with us.
Longtime NHRA Competition Director Steve Gibbs added, “Division 4 was referred to as The Land of the Good Guys, and Dale was truly the gang leader, the best of the good guys. Much could be written about his contributions to drag racing, his amazing family, his accomplishments in the world of Native American art, and how to have a damn good time.”
Longtime drag racing photographer and chronicler Forrest Bond added, “Dale signed my first NHRA press pass, in May of '65, and it's framed with a handful of other passes that still hold special significance for me. I was 21, green as could be, and I'll never forget how much he helped me get up to speed and how generous he was with his time, which was always in demand. Dale was just a great guy to know, the racing aside, and with respect to doing the business, the epitome of a division director. Most of all, I always thought Dale was incredibly fair and balanced in dealing with the inevitable contentious situations and always the voice of calm and reason, though one needed to be careful not to push him too far.”
Longtime Division 4 campaigner Bob Gibson added, "Dale Ham was a friend to all racers and fans, and for sure, he could be a hard-ass to a racer that didn't want to follow the rules. He would take the time to visit with you regardless if you were a famous racer or a nobody. He was free with his good advice. His advice and encouragement helped me get involved in drag racing in the mid-'60s when we were just wild teens that loved drag racing. I always thought Division 4 was known as The Land of the Good Guys because of Dale's character and leadership. After we won the Springnationals in '70, he and [wife] Glynanna made a point to come to our celebration party and even brought a bottle of booze for the bar. How's that for supporting the Division 4 racers? Something he didn't have to do but wanted to share the enthusiasm."
Ham’s passing comes less than two years after the love of his life, the effervescent and charming Glynanna, passed away in April 2011. Ham, who had been in hospice care since September, suffered a heart attack about a week before his passing and died as a result of complications from the attack, according to Beth Ham, wife of Ham’s son, Brad, and a physician herself, who chronicled his past few years for me and his declining health after the passing of his wife.
“We thought he would last about six days, but he lasted 20 months,” she wrote. “You may remember, 22 years ago, he had a massive heart attack and lived through that one! After that, he really did change his lifestyle dramatically and got another 22 years! After Glynanna died, he really just wanted to go be with her. There were personal reasons for wanting to hang on as long as he did, but once he got things straightened out, he went with hospice.”
At Ham’s request, there was no service, and his and Glynanna’s ashes were spread together above Red River, where they dated as teenagers.
Tony Waters' famed roadster
Another pretty major passing was the death of Tony Waters, who died Dec. 22 at age 85 after an extended illness. Waters, who drove fuel-burning altereds and dragsters throughout the 1950s and 1960s, was most famously runner-up to Art Chrisman at the first U.S. Fuel and Gas Championships in Bakersfield in 1959. In that historic final, Waters -- driving the Waters-Sughrue-Guinn A/FMR – got out on Chrisman (who was wheeling the Chrisman Bros. & Cannon dragster) but got loose farther downtrack, allowing Chrisman to blast by for the 9.36, 140.50-mph final-round win. Waters was an original member of the Smokers Car Club that staged the event. Waters, who also drove the roadster on dry lake beds, had remained active in the sport and most recently was the owner and tuner of a nostalgia A/Fuel Dragster driven by his son, Darrell, in NHRA’s Hot Rod Heritage Racing Series.
In an article on the Bakersfield.com site titled “Famoso, Hot Rods and Hot Potatoes,” author George Gilbert Lynch reported that Waters won the Smokers first big event, in 1954. “The Smokers membership voted to incorporate their Club, then presented their first Famoso two-day meet in March 1954. It was touted as ‘The West Coast Championships.’ Eight to ten thousand fans attended the big meet, and most of the fastest cars on the Pacific Coast were competing. After this race, the Smokers Inc. realized they had become ‘THE drag strip of the West Coast.’ Tony Waters of the Smokers Club was the top eliminator of that show. Waters, in his six-cylinder GMC track roadster, ran against ‘Jazzy’ Nelson, driving a nitro-fueled flathead Ford; winning speed was 127 mph. Tony Waters removed all doubt he was West Coast champion by winning the next five monthly Famoso Drags with his consistent and reliable GMC roadster.”
After he left the cockpit, he had a number of quality cars driven by others, including John Edminds and Butch Maas, as can be seen in the mini gallery of photos generously sent by Steve Reyes.
Ted Austin packs his chute.
We also lost jet-car pioneer Theodore "Teddy" Austin, who died Dec. 27 at age 74 at his home in Lenoir City, Tenn. Austin, a U.S. Navy veteran, is best remembered as a driver for Walt and Art Arfons, for whom he wheeled the jet-powered Cyclone Mercury Comet and the final entry in the line of famed Green Monster dragsters in the late 1960s and early 1970s. After his retirement from racing, he owned his own alignment shop, worked with cutting horses on a ranch in Texas, and drove 18-wheelers across the country. He is survived by his longtime companion, Mary Williams; son Teddy; grandson Harley Austin; "daughter" Kristi Sherrod; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Thanks to Dennis Warren for getting me the info and the photos at right.
The sport also lost Roy Steen Dec. 28. He was best known as chassis builder partner with Frank Huszar at their fabled Southern California Race Car Specialties shop – both were members of the famed Throttle Merchants car club -- but also was involved significantly on a number of cars, most notably with Chet Herbert, including on a twin nitro-burning injected F-85 Olds-powered dragster driven by Jeep Hampshire and the "Herbertliner" land-speed car.
Mike Golightly contacted me to let us know about the passing of his father, Roy, a pioneer in Colorado drag racing from the mid-1950s, on Dec. 13, the result of advanced Alzheimer's disease. He was 84. Golightly laid claim to having the first dragster in Colorado to reach 160 mph in 1955 with a car that he built himself. He was a charter member of The Strippers, a Denver-based car club. He retired from racing in 1965 and was inducted into the Colorado Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 2004. The U.S. Army veteran of the Korean conflict is survived by his wife of 39 years, Lucille; his son; stepdaughter and son-in-law, Carol and Michael Jess; and stepgrandson, Adam Jess. The family requested that in lieu of flowers, memorials be made to the Alzheimer's Association-Great Plains Chapter.
On the other side of the racing spectrum, we also lost Aaron Green, a promising announcer and racer from the Division 2 area. I met Aaron on the job here in the early 1980s, and we stayed in contact for some time about this, that, and the other thing. A family tragedy a number of years ago sent ripples through his life, and he had been ailing for some time before we lost him on Christmas Eve.
So, as you can see, it was a rough December for the history of our sport. It wasn’t my desire to begin the new year with this type of entry, but I wanted to pay respects to those we lost and not let their accomplishments and contributions be forgotten.
I’ll see you next week.
Well, here it is, just five days until Christmas, which can only mean one thing: Only four more days until I begin shopping for gifts. I kid. Well, sorta.
Anyway, with that special day just around the corner and NHRA HQ about to shut down from tomorrow until Jan. 2, I figured I’d better at least get a column out there or risk getting some lumps of coal in my stocking from you guys. (You did get me a gift, right?) There’s still plenty of Silly Season shoes to drop, and we’ll have to see what plays out over the holidays. While I’m not able to work on this column during the break, NHRA.com’s news will continue to be updated if anything interesting happens.
It’s already been a joyous week, especially if your name is Jeff Arend or Matt Hagan. Arend, recently let go by the Kalitta camp, didn’t stay unemployed long because everyone’s favorite former fireman, Jim Dunn, named him as his new driver on Tuesday. A day earlier, it was announced that everyone’s favorite farmer, Matt Hagan, will be stepping pretty with Rocky Boots sponsorship on his Funny Car in 2013.
On a less joyous note, I heard last weekend from Brent Cannon that his former Top Fuel partner, Phil Soares, passed away. You can read his comments later in the column.
Today’s entry is a little bit of this, a little bit of that as I try to wrap up business for the year and answer a few lingering questions. For example:
Don Garlits' first Wynn's-backed car was called the Wynn's Jammer (above) and later became more famously known as the Wynn's Charger (below).
Don Prudhomme's Wynn's Winder won Indy back to back in 1969-70.
Tony Nancy's Wynn's Sizzler AA/FD
Joseph Karnes, of Eagle, Idaho, Firebird Raceway’s 2012 Sportsman champion, wrote, “Over the years, I've been looking for a list of all the different Wynn's names on the sides of Top Fuelers and Funny Cars. I've seen Wynn's Winder, Wynn's Jammer, Wynn's Winner, and many more but never a comprehensive list of which cars/drivers carried which names and thought it might be a good topic your readers could contribute to. I did send a couple of emails to Wynn's marketing and customer service departments but never heard a word back from them. Guess it's the times.”
Well, you’re right, Joseph. There seems to have been tons, but let’s see if we can figure them out. For what it’s worth, the company was founded in 1939 by Chestien Wynn, who as a 70-year-old retired attorney with an interest in lubrication chemistry discovered a formula he named Wynn's Friction Proofing Oil that actually changed the chemistry of the metal, making it softer and better able to withstand friction and wear. The company was incorporated in 1947 and sponsored a lot of motor-based efforts in the early 1950s, including those of Indy 500 winner Johnny Parsons and land-speed record setter Roy Leslie, and helped set light-plane endurance records in the late 1950s.
Obviously, the two Dons — Garlits and Prudhomme — had the most famous Wynn’s drag racing machines.
Many of Garlits’ Swamp Rats also carried the Wynn’s name, beginning, as early as I can tell, with Swamp Rat VI-A in 1964, right after he was runner-up to Connie Kalitta at the March Meet. He already had been using the product to prevent piston scuffing but got paid $1,000 to change the name of the car to Wynn’s Jammer. In 1966, the black and red slingshot appears to have been the first to carry the Wynn’s Charger name so long associated with “Big.” Through the ill-fated Swamp Rat 13, the Wynn’s name was painted on the car, but beginning with R14 — the fabled first rear-engine car— the familiar rainbow oval Wynn’s logo took the place of the painted-on word and lasted until 1976. Kendall later became the lubricant most (and still) associated with Garlits.
Between the conventional cars, Garlits had the dud of a streamliner, the Wynn’s Liner, which only made a few passes in 1973.
After Prudhomme signed a deal with Wynn’s son, Carl, who had joined the company, his slingshot was called the Wynn’s Winder beginning in 1969 and carried him to back-to-back Indy wins (1969-70). (I also found a reference to it once being called the Wynn’s Rattler — catchy for “the Snake," eh? — but couldn’t find a photo of the car, if it even existed.) After the Hot Wheels deal was struck in 1970, Wynn’s remained aboard the car in an associate role and remained a sponsor throughout his racing career.
Shirley Shahan got a Wynn’s deal after her breakthrough Stock win at the 1966 Winternationals and became the “Wynn’s Drag-on Lady.” In 1966, Ted Lemonds also had an AA/FD called the Wynn's Spoiler, and Fred Goeske’s Hemi 'Cuda II was dubbed the Wynn’s Hemi Cuda. The late-‘60s/early-‘70s Kenz & Leslie High Country Cougar Funny Car was subnamed the 777 Wynn’s entry. Kenney Goodell had both Funny Cars and the previously discussed wedge dragster named Wynn's Stormer, and Tony Nancy’s Top Fuelers were known as the Wynn's Sizzler (and later, with the model maker, the Wynn’s Revelliner), and famed chassis manufacturer Art Morrison even had a ’70 AMX wheelstander called — what else? — the Wynnstander, which Richard Schroeder drove. I also stumbled across heretofore unrecognized B/Fuel Dragster driver Ginger Watson, of St. Louis, who drove the Wynn’s Storm (or Stormer, depending on which article you read) dragster to low-eight-second e.t.s at 180 mph that had the press proclaiming her as the “world’s fastest woman.”
And that’s all I know. I’m sure the Insider Nation will chime in with more that I missed.
And this question, from Bill Klebesadel: “A while ago, I purchased a 1320 diecast of the Jade Grenade. My brother and I enjoy meeting the drivers (or in some cases the car owners if the drivers have unfortunately passed away) and have them autograph the diecast. I ran across your article about Don Roberts and got to thinking: Of the drivers of the Jade Grenade, who are they and how many attend the races anymore?"
There’s no doubt in my mind who is the keeper of the Jade Grenade flame, and that’s the only and only Jon Asher, one of the godfathers of drag race reporting and photography and a partner in the car. I passed Bill's question on to Jon, who not only gave me the list but also the Jade Grenade timeline below. In order, the drivers were Ted Thomas, Sarge Arciero, Ron Attebury, Ted Wolf, Satch Nottle (who never made a single pass in the car), and Don Roberts (who made just one run and crashed). Of the group, only Nottle is deceased, having perished in an airplane crash in 1974.
Unless Bill Flurer says differently, the original partners were Ted Thomas, Pete Lenhoff, and Bill. Teddy drove the Don Long-built front-motored car. I honestly don't recall what took place between them, but at the end of '72, Pete and Ted were no longer involved, although all of them remain very friendly to this day.
With Sarge on board as a driver/partner, Bill called me at Car Craft and said they wanted to put my name on the cowl along with theirs. Up to that point, I'd arranged whatever sponsorship the car had (all parts deals at that point). My response to Bill was to ask if they intended me to be a partner or were they merely wanting to add my name for whatever benefit that might be derived in the sponsorship area. Two days later, Bill called back with a partnership offer, and we went from there.
Don Long built the first rear-engine car, which we ran all through '73 and '74 and with which Sarge set low e.t. of the meet at Indy (6.017), earning the then-important John Mulligan Memorial Low E.T. trophy from M&H (I wish someone would bring back that award, still in "the Zookeeper's" name). At Ontario that year, we became the 18th car in the fives with a 5.998, which ended up ninth, if memory serves me on that. We won the first round but burned the crank, and with only a cast iron Hemi as a spare, we didn't appear against Garlits in the second round (as if we would have won!).
After Bill and Sarge returned to Pennsylvania, Bill called and told me he wanted to buy Sarge out. I reluctantly agreed to the buyout. Shortly thereafter, Bill convinced David Stewart and his then-girlfriend, Cindy Summers, to become partners, so the cowl then read "Asher, Flurer, Stewart & Summers." Attebury drove, and everything was good other than our not winning.
I'm no longer positive about the driver change to Ted Wolf, but I think most of it was Bill wanting someone physically closer to where the car was (Attebury being a Californian). Teddy finished '75, and with things not exactly progressing, Bill made the decision to go with Nottle, and here's that story.
Six weeks prior to the Gatornationals, Nottle suffered a heart attack; however, instead of informing Bill, he lied and claimed he had been overcome by the fumes of a battery charger in a closed garage. Meanwhile, Bill and Dave finished prepping the car for Gainesville while at the same time Nottle's wife was badgering him to tell Bill about the heart attack. He finally relented and told her he was driving up to Philly from his Maryland home to tell Bill in person. However, he had his helmet and firesuit in the trunk of the car and never told Bill a thing.
Meanwhile, I was not on the list to go to Gainesville from Car Craft, so if I went, it was going to be on my money. This was going to be Ro McGonegal's story, but I finally convinced management that we should do a story on the Grenade, so they agreed to cover my hotel bill only.
Wednesday morning, we had the car at the top end of the track for me to shoot the photos. We were all there — Bill, David, Cindi, and Satch. Since this was before the advent of cell phones, we weren't surprised when Steve Gibbs drove up in a pickup and said, "Satch's wife is on the phone."
Nottle hops to his feet, a concerned look on his face.
Gibbs looks pointedly at him and says, "She doesn't want to talk to you. She wants to talk to Bill!"
He climbs in the truck, and off they go. He's back 10 minutes later. In all the years I've known Bill, it was the only time I ever saw him angry, and believe me, he was super-pissed. He succinctly told us about the heart attack, got Nottle in our truck, took him directly to the airport, gave him $75 for a ticket to Baltimore, and told him, "I never want to see you again."
We ended up with the Best Appearing Car trophy, which resides in my office closet. Obviously, we were unable to race, although Don Roberts was at the track and wanted to start right then, but Bill wanted a more controlled atmosphere for him to make his first start, so they decided on a match race at Epping.
[Ed note: Roberts crashed the car on his first run at New England Dragway; the car was destroyed and Roberts severely injured.]
I was sitting on the couch in Kagel Canyon watching TV when the phone rang at 11:45 p.m. I had completely forgotten we were racing. That was the first thing I said, "Shit, we were racing," as I ran to the phone.
I picked up, and all Bill said was "Jon," and I knew.
"How bad is it?" I asked.
"There is nothing left," he replied.
It even tore the valve covers off the engine.
Building a new car was a mistake in retrospect because we just didn't have enough money to race competitively in '75. At the end, when we knew we had to stop, Bill called me and asked me what I wanted out of the sale, which included a good car, a good Chaparral trailer, a couple of aluminum engines, and a lot of parts.
I told him I'd like to have the $2,700 I loaned him prior to becoming a partner to help finance the remainder of the season and Indy.
And that's the brief but colorful history of one of th emore colorful Top Fuelers to race the quarter-mile. Thanks for sharing, Jon.
I received a few more entries for our Bits & Pieces thread of mangled race car souvenirs. Tony Williams sent in the pic above, which is the side of Jerry Caminito’s Blue Thunder Funny Car after it went ka-boom at the top end at New Jersey’s Atco Raceway in 1988. You can see a video of the incident here.
“I was part of the starting-line crew when Jerry had his massive body-destroying explosion at our Wednesday Night Thrill Show,” he wrote. “After we cleaned up the track, our flatbed took the chassis and body parts and unloaded them at Jerry's trailer. When I returned to the track the next morning, I was really surprised to see that spectators had not gobbled them up and all the body parts were still there! I went and "borrowed” the Atco track truck, threw the right side of the body in there, and immediately hauled it over to my cousin's house for storage. It's been in his garage since.”
Reader Rob Bennett put me to the test with his submission (above): “I'll see if you can guess what car this came off,” he challenged. “I have a lot of faith that you will figure it out without any help. A good friend of mine was the crew chief and gave it to me at least 20 years ago.”
This was an easy one: Carl Ruth’s neat ‘56 Ford Crown Victoria, which met its demise at an IHRA event at Bristol Dragway at 1990 when a blown front tire caused the car to veer onto the centerline lights, which unlatched the body.
“This was the biggest piece remaining,” said Bennett. “Mike Smigelski (Carl’s partner on the car) is a good friend of mine, and he gave it to me right after it happened to hang in my Maryland-based speed shop along with pieces of John Paris's old 'Vette Funny Car.”
John Cola wanted to get his brother, Tommy, something special and different when he turned 50 last September, and for just $52 on eBay he was able to grab this hunk of Jim Epler’s Corvette, which blew up at the Sonoma national event in 1999 (looks like the right-front fender area). “It cost the same amount to ship it to Vegas by bus, but it got there, and Tommy mounted it on the wall," he said. "A few years earlier, I got a Barracuda grille from Army Armstrong painted with Tommy's name on it. His wife knows how much he likes AA/FCs, so I don't think she minds the 'glass on the walls.”
In my Nov. 21 column, I showed off the Robert Flitsch-owned right-rear quarterpanel of Billy Meyer’s Chief Auto Parts Mustang from his wild 1986 U.S. Nationals explosion, and Michael Anderson also owns a sizeable chunk of the mutilated Mustang as shown here. It’s from the other side of the car, the right-side “door” area.
He reports, “We were in the stands on his side of the track near the top of the stands at the starting line, and you could still feel the concussion from that explosion. I believe my piece is the part you can see hanging down into the flames. We had to cut it in half to get it on the plane for the trip home. In the white strip under the ‘ie’ in Chief is Meyer’s autograph.”
Anderson, whose first NHRA national event also featured another famous Funny Car moment — Roland Leong’s Hawaiian taking flight at the 1969 Winternationals (“I was at the fence near the finish line and watched it fly over our heads, or so it seemed at that age. I left that race with a piece of the roof that disappeared in the move”) — has another pretty cool piece in his collection: “It’s the windshield off the Gary Ormsby Top Fuel dragster that was put in for a few races in the championship run when the 300-incher got damaged in the wheel-stand,” he reports. I presume he’s talking about the car-destroying wheelie that Ormsby experienced in Brainerd in 1989. As I remember it, the car launched into a big wheelstand, drifted out of his lane — the guardrailwas not on the lane boundary but a few feet outside — and came down nose first into the angled guardwall, ripping off the nose and substantially bending the chassis.
This incident brings to mind kind of a funny National DRAGSTER story. Back before he became a famous Top Alcohol Funny Car driver (2012 East Region champ!), Todd Veney was the ND staffer standing atop the two-story tower directly in front of Ormsby’s impact area, best positioned to record this moment in history, which happened in round one. This was back before 8GB memory cards in digital cameras, back in the day of 36 exposures on a roll of film, and once you’d burned off about 30, you had to decide whether or not to forgo the final six shots and swap in a new roll. Young T.V. had the car in focus and expertly buried his finger into the motor drive button but got off just this one shot before he ran out of film. On such decisions are photographic greatness created or lost. In Veney's shot (below), you can see that Ormsby is out in the marbles (note he’s between the guardrail and the white boundary line), front wheels fruitlessly cocked to the right. The rest was mayhem.
Way back when (in March), we spent a good bit of time talking about Top Fuel wheelpants, and even the wheelpants that made it onto non-dragsters, like the El Toro fuel altered, originally owned by Bob Sweatt but restored and now owned by John Hoyt. I recently heard from Hoyt, who enclosed this photo of perhaps the most unusual use for a wheel faring.
“This photo is of my three-wheel motorcycle, the Turbo Trike,” he wrote. “As can be seen, it has the Bob Farmer/Bob Sweatt front-wheel faring. I think that this is the first fiberglass one they constructed as it took me about a year or two to get if from Bob Farmer; I ordered it in 1977 or 1978. The condition was terrible, with a very poor surface finish. In fact, it looked like they just poured the fiberglass resin into the mold first rather that than spray in the gel coat. It did take some molding to get it paint ready. This photo was in a 1981 bike magazine. I gave the faring to Dave Crane in Battle Creek, Mich., for his museum. Dave in turn gave it to Shawn Dill to make a mold off of it for the reproduction requirements.” Dill now makes copies of these for sale, and they adorned the recent restoration of Terry Capp’s Wheeler Dealer dragster.
“Roland Leong may be Hawaii's greatest drag racing export, but you could make a strong top-five argument for Phil Soares.” I wrote those words several years ago during the Misc. Files thread. As I mentioned earlier, we lost Soares this past weekend. He and Cannon were best-remembered for their barber-pole-striped Top Fueler of the early 1970s, but he also had a strong-running gas dragster for a time. The Hawaiian-born racer was 63 when he died and had been in the hospital recovering from a stroke he had in October. He leaves behind two children, Brad and Brandi; ex-wife Brenda; sisters Pat and Phyllis; and several half brothers and sisters. His longtime partner, Cannon, sent along these thoughts:
"When I first met Phil in 1968, he had a Ranchero bracket car that he had been racing both in Hawaii and at Irwindale Raceway and a brand-new Don Long AA/GD that he had just started to race. At that time, he was living in Glendora [Calif.] and racing karts with Duffy Livingston. Drag racing was his passion, and Phil and I hit it off from the get-go. I crewed for him on the AA/GD, and we raced all over Southern California. We competed at places like San Fernando every Sunday and everywhere else that there was an AA/GD event, including, Lions, Irwindale, OCIR, Bakersfield, Sacramento, Fremont, Bee Line, Vegas, and more. Phil made lots of lifelong friends along the way that still to this day ask me about him. He also raced against some of the finest in AA/GD, like Walt Rhoades, Floyd Lippencott Jr., Jack Jones, Larry Bowers, and Don Hampton. In Top Fuel, he raced against Kelly Brown, Don Moody, Gerry Glenn, and others. Phil was very successful in AA/GD with several wins and a runner-up at Doug Kruse’s famous PDA event in Fremont in 1969 to Jack Jones in the Schultz & Jones car.
"When NHRA eliminated the AA/GD in 1971, Phil moved back to Hawaii and continued to race the AA/GD, do car shows, and start a racing engine business. He did the machine work and built racing engines for himself and others, and he was very good at that. He also wasn’t limited to just drag racing as he built and drove several roundy-round cars on the different Hawaiian Islands. About that time, Don Garlits built the first of his rear-engine fuelers that forever changed Top Fuel as we knew it. I called Phil and said, ‘Let’s go Top Fuel racing,” and we ordered a brand-new Don Long rear motor car, Phil built two 392 engines and shipped them over to the mainland, and away we went. We did very well with the car, but the engines just were not able to make enough reliable horsepower for us to win, with the turning point being a Sacrament D-7 points race where we made qualifying pass and had a cylinder wall collapse, breaking several rods. We decided that we would put the newer 426 engine in the car and put together two of them with the help of engine builder Sid Waterman and Merv Scott clutches. First race out, we were runner-up at OCIR to Fred Mooneyham. Then a few more races and a big win at the Irwindale Grand Prix. At that race, we raced almost every big name in the business, beating all of them in a five-round event, including Dennis Baca in the final. We finished the year out at the NHRA Supernationals in Ontario. The car never ran again under our ownership. We sold the car, and it went to England to Peter Crane.”
Crane renamed it Stormbringer, and on April 19, 1976, he clocked the first official five-second run outside the United States, at Santa Pod Raceway in England, during the first round of eliminations for the track's annual Spring Nationals.
“After that, Phil and I kind of lost touch with each other, but I never quit thinking about him. He was truly a great guy who had a wonderful ability to drive, build, and tune motors. I truly believe that if Phil would have stayed on the mainland and stayed with drag racing, that he would have been one of the top racers of all time, as he could build, tune, and drive. I saw Phil briefly in 1980 at the Honolulu airport and then again most recently four years ago in Denver at the Jr. Dragster event, where he was my guest for the day. He raced with us, and I remember then that I took him down to the starting line and it was just like old times, he was one step ahead of me. He then was our chef at a BBQ for 25 kids and their families. After that, I never saw or spoke to him again. My huge loss and regret for that. If there ever was a lesson for all of us to learn, it is to please pick up that phone and call and visit with all of those that are important to you. You will never know when they may depart. I would like to thank my brother, Dr. Neil Cannon, for spending the last three weeks at Phil’s side, along with Phil’s son, Brad. I could not make the trip to Denver at this time, and it was a comfort to know that my brother was there for Phil and his family. He decorated the room with pictures of our old Top Fuel car and spent many hours with Phil and Brad. To Phil, I will forever be indebted to you for all that you have done for me. God rest your soul. We love you and will miss you. RIP.”
Thanks for sharing, Brent. Eloquently done.
OK, folks, unless something remarkable happens, that’s it for 2012. Assuming the Mayans were wrong about tomorrow, I’ll see you in early 2013. Have the happiest of holiday seasons with your loved ones. In the meantime, I invite you to enjoy some of the more than 550 Insider columns of the last five and a half years using the archive located on the top right of this page. There is some amazing stuff in there that’s part inspiration (me) and part collaboration (you) that serves to document the history and heroes of our sport and share “the stories behind the stories” to keep those memories alive.
For those who were at the recent Lions Drag Strip Reunion at the NHRA Museum and even for those who read my report last week, one thing that caught everyone’s eyes was Rick Voegelin’s amazing scale model of the famed facility.
The small-scale – and working! – strip is amazing in its exacting detail, much to the delight of the Lions faithful who last saw the real thing in action 40 years ago. I’ve known Rick for a very long time, both as a fellow journalist through his years at Petersen Publishing and later as a PR rep for numerous Pro Stock teams, so when I asked him for details and additional photos of the model, he was very obliging. Below is his description of the project. Enjoy!
Overall view of the Lions Drag Strip model, with return road and time-slip booth in the foreground
The Lions Drag Strip HO-scale slot-car track is based on the real Lions Drag Strip, circa 1972. It's an impression of the track (rather than an exact model) that illustrates many of the distinctive features of the famed Long Beach, Calif., facility. These include a pedestrian crossover bridge and elevated timing/announcer booth behind the starting line, large spectator grandstands on the right side of the track, and low grandstands adjacent to the starting line on the left side; the return road and yellow time-slip booth; the main concession stand at the entrance to the pits; and the Coca-Cola sign at the entrance near 223rd and Alameda Street.
The Lions slot-car dragstrip was constructed in 2010 to host events organized by the Nitroslots.com online forum. This group hosts a series of proxy races ("national events") around the country in which racers mail in their cars and the host races them on their behalf. The cars that compete in the NTRA (National Thunder Rod Association) chiefly use Aurora Thunder Jet and AFX slot-car chassis from the '60s and '70s, with both vintage and modern bodies. Classes range from Stock and Super Stock to Gassers, Pro Stock, Nostalgia Funny Car, and Top Fuel.
The Lions slot-car dragstrip measures 24 feet in length, with an HO-scale quarter-mile timed section and 8 feet of shutoff. A computer timing system displays elapsed times, reaction times, top speed, and margin of victory. The Christmas Tree can be programmed for a full .5-second countdown or a .4-second Pro start. A variable power supply delivers 12 to 24 volts DC to the track, depending on which class is competing.
I've added scenery items and diorama details using reference photos from period magazines, Don Gillespie's Lions DVD documentaries, and Internet searches. All of the structures are scratch-built or modified model-railroad buildings. My wife, Franca, placed all of the scale spectators in the grandstands and made the signs and graphics for the track.
I attended my first drag race at Lions in 1965 and raced my '55 Chevy there in the '60s. Sadly, I also covered the Last Drag Race for Car Craft in December 1972. With this project, I wanted to re-create the magic of Lions on a small scale. The smiles on the faces of the husbands, wives, children, and grandparents who raced at the Lions Reunion told me that I had achieved that goal.