Race fans are accustomed to seeing Funny Cars pointed every which way on the dragstrip. When they’re not pointed toward the finish line, they can be found zigzagging around their lane (and sometimes the other). We’ve seen them bank off of guardrails, fly through the air, and even wind up pointed the wrong way up the track.
But only once have we seen a Funny Car doing a nose stand at three-quarter-track. This is that story and, behind that, the story behind the guy who rode out that terrifying tip-over at the 1977 U.S. Nationals.
Long before he saddled up behind the wheel of “Big Mike” Burkhart’s silver Camaro that fateful Friday in Indy, Dale Emery was no stranger to wild rides. He had come to national attention and fan-favorite status in six years behind the wheel of Rich Guasco’s spectacularly unpredictable but wildly fast Pure Hell fuel altered and won a pair of NHRA national events in the mid-1970s and been on his head a few other times, including in an ill-fated stint as a wheelstander driver.
I was finally able to track down Emery last week to get the story of that crash as well as his memories of an action-packed and highlight-filled career in fuel racing.
As you can see in the Larry VanSickle photo sequence above and in the somewhat grainy video at right, Emery’s ride was a white-knuckler as it hit the guardrail, stood on its nose, then barrel-rolled down the guardrail’s knife edge. In retrospect, it’s surprising that his only injury was a small broken bone in his left arm. Running alongside Raymond Beadle’s Blue Max and attempting to better his opening pass of 6.22, 234.98, things quickly went bad for Emery.
“When it left, it was carrying the front wheels, and it kept going over towards the center,” he remembered vividly. “I kept turning the wheel, and when I finally lifted, the wheels were still turned, and it shot over to the other side [toward the guardrail]. I whipped it back and thought I’d saved it, but then the rear wheel hit the guardrail and just threw it right straight up in the air.
“Looking down at the track, I was thinking, ‘This is going to be bad.’ After it hit, it rolled down the guardrail a couple of times, and they had to cut the cage off to get me out. I knew that I’d hurt my arm but didn’t know then why.”
(The squeamish out there may well want to skip this part.)
The NHRA medical crew tended to Dale Emery, who suffered a broken bone in his arm but was back at the track the next day, sharing his tale with Dale Armstrong.
“What had happened was that the fuel-shutoff lever went through my firesuit and stabbed into my arm through the skin and cracked the bone up near my wrist,” he said, then, perhaps sensing me mentally retching at the thought, added nonchalantly, “Aw, it wasn’t much. That was the only thing that happened.”
Emery’s 6.22 held up to make the field in the No. 13 spot (there’s that number again), but it was clear that he wouldn’t be racing come Monday, or anytime soon for that matter. Although the crash did turn out to be the last ride of Emery’s wonderful driving career, he hadn’t made that decision at that point.
Emery was at the track the next day in an overkill cast, and Beadle, who was struggling performance wise and just winding down his partnership with Harry Schmidt, offered Emery the job tuning the Max. Emery did not immediately jump at the offer.
“Raymond was getting ready to take the Blue Max to England for the first time, so I told him I wanted to think about it for a while and to talk to Burkart,” said Emery. “Crashing didn’t bother me, and I figured that I would drive again, but I took a couple of weeks to think it over. I’d never tuned for anyone other than myself, but since I couldn’t do much else with a broken arm, I figured I should try it."
To sweeten the offer, Beadle told Emery that he could fill in for him behind the wheel of the Max on occasion, when Beadle’s other plans precluded him from driving.
“There were a few chances for me to do that, but after standing on the outside of the car, I thought I could learn more there than driving it,” he said. “I never drove again and really got into the tuning deal.”
Emery's first year with the Max, 1978, was fraught with frustration.
By 1980, the team was winning regularly, including in the thin air at the Mile-High Nationals. Emery is at the far left in the back row.
Emery tuned Raymond Beadle to his second Indy win, at the 1981 event.
Although they would go on to win the world championship three straight seasons (1979-81), finally wresting the crown from Don Prudhomme’s head, success was not immediate for the new partners. They struggled mightily in 1978 and didn’t even crack the top 10 as Beadle had done the previous three seasons.
“We had a fuel-tank problem that lasted nine months,” he recalled, frustration still evident in the recollection. “We couldn’t even do a burnout without killing it. Turns out there was a problem with the vent on the fuel tank. Once we found that, we had a new tank made. The first race was the 32 Funny Car deal in Seattle, and we won that race, went to Boise and won that deal, went to Kansas City and won there, then we went to Indy and ran our first five. It just sorta came together; we had everything; it just wasn't working right.”
(Beadle’s 5.98, Aug. 30, 1978, during qualifying in Indy, made him just the second Funny Car driver to run in the fives and came nearly three years after Prudhomme became the first to run in the fives, Oct. 12, 1975, at the World Finals at Ontario Motor Speedway. That’s how far ahead of the pack Prudhomme was during his glory days.)
They closed 1978 with their first win as a team by winning the World Finals with a final-round defeat of Tom McEwen (who, as you will read in a bit, had shared another interesting final-round pairing with Emery five years earlier).
After runner-ups at the 1979 Winternationals, Springnationals, and Mile-High Nationals, the Max found the winner’s circle again at the Summernationals and the Fallnationals and finished as world champ, eking past Prudhomme by just 531 points, less than three rounds worth of racing.
The famed Blue Max crew, which also included “Waterbed Fred” Miller and Dee Gantt – both of whom had histories with Emery – scored three wins and two runner-ups in 1980 to win its second straight championship, this time by a landslide 1,751 points over second-place Billy Meyer, and added a third crown in 1981, which included a triumphant win at the U.S. Nationals.
I asked Emery how the team maintained its championship ranking for three seasons.
“I just liked to try a lot of things,” he said. “I was the only who came up with the dual-mag drive – not that the idea was brand-new; some early, early cars had them – but we were the first to really make it work. I was also the first one to have down nozzles in the heads. It was just about trying things to stay on top, to make it run quicker. You have to keep trying things; you think you’re going to be king forever, but you’re not.”
Emery tuned the John Lombardo-driven red Blue Max to Indy glory in 1985, but the Max's glory years were coming to an end.
Emery would win Indy again in 1985 with Lil John Lombardo driving the Max, but victories were becoming few and far between as Beadle’s burgeoning NASCAR team began to take his attention and his dollars. Emery rode it out with the team through those lean years, which finished with Richard Tharp and Ronnie Young behind the wheel of cars probably not worthy of carrying the Blue Max name.
“We couldn’t hardly buy parts; I told Raymond that he needed to sell the car while it still had a good name, so that’s what he ended up doing in 1990,” said Emery, who quickly turned his skills into a business with Dale Emery Fuel Systems, building fuel pumps and injectors for the burgeoning nostalgia movement as well as for a few contemporary teams, and resumed his crew chief ways. Among his clients is the recently resurrected Blue Max nostalgia flopper, driven by Young, bringing Emery back full circle with the famous team.
Emery became nationally famous after teaming with Rich Guasco in 1965 to drive his Pure Hell fuel altered.
The Pure Hell was not only one of the wildest of the breed but also the fastest.
Emery ended up upside down in a water-filled ditch at Fremont Raceway when the steering wheel came off in his hands.
Emery and the Pure Hell also tackled -- and beat -- Funny Cars.
Although Emery is most widely associated with Texas, he actually was born in Stillwater, Okla., and grew up in Northern California after his family moved there when he was 5. He began his racing career in 1955 with a C/Gas ‘41 Chevy coupe and graduated to a rear-engine fuel coupe in 1959, then a gas dragster in 1960 and, finally, a Top Fuel car with partner Woody Parker in 1962. It was through the Parker car that Emery met Pete Ogden, who had built Emery’s Top Fuel car and the famed Pure Hell fuel altered for Guasco.
Emery took over the controls of the famed fuel altered from Don Petrich in 1965 and drove it for five seasons of wild wheelstands, sideways passes, and off-track excursions, becoming known as one of the class’ finest and fearless wheelmen, which made the Pure Hell a popular match race attraction; his battles with friend “Wild Willie” Borsch for class supremacy kept the fans enthralled.
“I think because we had the engine so high up is why it did those wheelstands, but as long as the tires were lit, it was easy to drive, but when the tires dried up, you’d better look out,” he noted.
The car, which sported an 89-inch wheelbase, originally was equipped with Chevy power and a primitive lockup clutch. “When it locked up at half-track, it was anybody’s guess which way it would go,” he told National DRAGSTER in a 1994 interview. “To my way of thinking, you just have to be well-coordinated to drive a Funny Car. But that altered, well … you just really had to work at it to keep it straight."
And it helped to have a working steering wheel, too, as Emery found out one day at Fremont Raceway, not far from his then home in Livermore, Calif.
“We used to have a Crossley steering box on the car, but they put a new P&S in it, and they told [Guasco] you had to pin the steering wheel, but he forgot. As soon as it took off, the steering wheel came back with my hands. It went off the right side of the track into the grass, but it had rained the night before, so it didn’t slow down when I pulled the brakes because the grass was still wet. It went into a ditch filled with water, dug in, and flipped it upside down.”
For a brief time, Emery was underwater, holding his breath, until the car was righted, which led to a scene “right out of The Three Stooges.
“I was still choking a little bit, and the ambulance guy was trying to pull my helmet off without even unstrapping it. Tony [Del Rio, a huge, badass wrestler who used to paint the car] smacked him and knocked him out in the water. I went to the hospital to get checked out, and the ambulance driver came in looking to see who knocked him out. I told him, ‘Don’t even start because he’ll finish it. …’ ”
Guasco also tagged Emery with his famous nickname “the Snail” for his laid-back nature. “He was kind of nervous, and I was always just hanging out. He used to say, ‘Look at him: He’s just like a snail; he never goes anywhere fast.’ ”
A Chrysler engine and a slipper clutch were added in 1968 and really paid off. Borsch was the first to top 200 mph with a 200.44-mph run at Irwindale Raceway Sept. 23, 1967, but the next year, Emery blasted to a 207.36-mph clocking while winning the Hot Rod Magazine Championships at Riverside Raceway, a speed that would not be bettered that year. A week before the Riverside win, the Pure Hell had dispatched a field of floppers at a Funny Car vs. Fuel Altered battle at Orange County Int’l Raceway.
“Driving the Pure Hell was the most fun of anything I ever did. There was no money to be made doing it, but we did it because we liked racing.”
The Pure Hell was heavily damaged in a highway accident near Deming, N.M., while Emery was on his way home to Dallas from the U.S. Nationals. The trailer blew a tire, and the rig ended up in a culvert. The car sat for a while as Guasco decided what came next (a Pure Hell Funny Car that, despite historic notations to the contrary, Emery insists he never drove).
After leaving the Pure Hell team, Emery sampled a long line of different rides. He drove the Rousin-O’Hare slingshot Top Fueler for six months in 1970 – winning the $1,000 Texas Bucks event at Dallas Int'l Motor Speedway – and later helped Gary Watson build the Flying Red Baron Mustang wheelstander, then crashed it not long after.
“I ended up rolling the thing over,” he said. “The converter for the automatic transmission was screwing up; it came down, landed sideways, and rolled over. He wanted me to help pay to get it rebuilt, but I told him I wasn’t interested in it that much to do that. Yeah, I tried it, but I didn’t like it; it was too much of a clown deal to me.”
Ironically, another wheelstander owner, Bob Riggle, of Hemi Under Glass fame, gave Emery his first Funny Car ride, an ex-Don Gay Pontiac Trans Am of the same name. After a time behind the wheel of that car, Emery went to work for Sam Harris at Chaparral trailers (which is where he first met Beadle, in 1974, who was driving for Don Schumacher at the time).
In 1973, Jeg Coughlin Sr. was looking to go Funny Car racing and hired Emery to drive. Gantt, who had met Emery while crewing for Borsch, was already working with Emery and joined the team, and Miller, who was helping to paint the new body, asked to go with the team to the PRO event in Tulsa, Okla., and stayed onboard.
In the span of just a year, Emery and the JEGS Camaro won two NHRA national events – the 1973 Grandnational in Canada and the 1974 Winternationals – and a couple of IHRA events and were runner-up at the 1973 NHRA Supernationals in Ontario, Calif., after what proved to be another signature Emery moment caught on film.
Which brings us back to the aforementioned previous final-round history with McEwen. McEwen, who, despite his match race and promotional prowess, had never won an NHRA national event, made the Supernationals field only as an alternate from the 17th spot when Bobby Rowe reported in broken. McEwen’s Carefree Duster dispatched Dave Condit, Jim Dunn, and Jim Nicoll with a 6.59 and a pair of 6.50s to reach the final.
The other semifinal pitted Emery against Prudhomme, with “the Snake” eager to beat Emery for a chance to take down his former teammate in a period when the two weren’t on the best of terms. Emery had already run 6.28 and Prudhomme 6.33, so the winner would be a heavy favorite against “the ‘Goose” in the final. Prudhomme didn’t make it down the track, slowing to a 13-second, 55-mph crawl, and watched Emery’s mount disintegrate before his eyes in the other lane, a massive blower explosion first removing the roof and then the rest of the body.
Don Gillespie’s great photo – which shows the fuel-tank lid blowing open; a rule was already in place for screw-in caps for 1974 – is only half the story.
“When we started it up for the run, the aluminum line that ran to the back of the injector was leaking at the ferrule,” he remembered. “I thought it would make it on down there, and I was going to click it off early, but it went bang before I could. It blew the body off, and I couldn’t see where I was going and clipped a hay bale in the shutdown area and flipped over. We didn’t have a spare body, so it wouldn’t have mattered if I crashed or not.”
McEwen singled for the win.
Jaime Sarte repaired the chassis and got the team a new body, and it opened 1974 with the aforementioned Winternationals win. The joy of that victory faded quickly when a pay dispute with Coughlin led Emery to quit the team and head back to work for Chaparral. Miller left to join the Blue Max team, and the two were reunited, with Gantt added to the fray, a few years later on the Max team.
Inbetween, Emery was tapped to showcase the Vega of former fuel altered pals Leroy Chadderton and Glen Okazaki that Ed Pink had shipped to England for Roy Phelps (owner of Santa Pod Raceway) and ran a 6.99, on fire, when a lifter broke. Famed wheelman Allan “Bootsie” Herridge later drove this car, which became one of Europe’s finest, under the Gladiator name.
Emery teamed with Burkart in 1976, and they were runner-up to Beadle at the inaugural Cajun Nationals. The car ran “good, not great,” according to Emery, “but we done good.”
They ran on-again, off-again on the NHRA national event scene in 1976-77 and almost always qualified and, freakishly enough, lost several times in the first round to McEwen. Prior to the Indy crash, the car suffered a fire in the first round at the Summernationals, but that was nothing compared to what happened a few months later in Indy.
So that’s the story of Dale Emery’s career, hardly lived at a snail’s pace. Thanks to Dale for his keen memories and Fred Miller for the assist, and thanks to you all for following along.
Sam Schermerhorn today, with girlfriend Paula and their pal, Budda
I have a pretty good grasp of drag racing’s history and even of some of the more obscure names from its past, but I’ll admit that until last Wednesday, as I was writing about Larry Lombardo’s crash at the 1977 U.S. Nationals, I had never heard of Sam Schermerhorn, and I’m guessing that 99 percent of you hadn’t either until you read on Friday that he was the guy in the other lane when Bill Jenkins’ Monza slid out from beneath Lombardo and crashed and caught fire during qualifying.
Lombardo couldn’t remember Schermerhorn’s name, only the car, and he’s only visible in one frame from that famous photo sequence, so it took a little detective work to pull the unusual name out of the air, but I’m glad that I did because, lo and behold, out of equally thin air came an email from Schermerhorn, thanking me for acknowledging him in the article. The power of the blog at its finest.
I had no idea if Schermerhorn was still alive or even still followed the sport, let alone that he was a reader of this column, but now he has gone from a name you never knew to a name you’ll never forget, a story behind the story, which is what we do best here.
Schermerhorn believes this photo was taken on the fateful run in Indy.
Schermerhorn confirmed Lombardo’s story that he had let Schermerhorn leave first in their qualifying pair, which, in retrospect, may have prevented a nasty Kenny Koretsky-Bruce Allen-like midtrack collision.
“I did talk to Larry before that run, and he did say they were testing a new set of tires and he was not going to cut a good light,” remembered Schermerhorn. “As it turned out, I broke a rod just before 3rd gear. As I was moving out of the groove, I saw him go by, then his car just made a hard left, and I’m thinking, ‘Don’t hit “Grump’s” car,’ so I went into the right lane. Larry’s first hit was with the right front, which spun it around, and that's when the rear hit and it caught fire. I had a small extinguisher onboard, but when I saw Larry get out, I figured he was OK; he actually can run pretty fast. I think he beat me to the turnoff! That was the only time I was glad I blew the motor.”
Prior to buying the Motown Missile Pro Stocker, Schermerhorn had raced an A/Altered with another Insider reader, John Hoyt, who currently owns the El Toro fuel altered. They had a Barracuda that they took to the Troy, Mich., shop of Pro Stock racer Mike Fons to get it backhalved; Fons had the Missile sitting in the corner of his shop, and they left with it instead. Schermerhorn licensed at the Indy points meet. His stay in Pro Stock was short-lived – only two seasons and just two NHRA national events – and although he did not qualify at that 1977 Indy race, he had made the field of the Springnationals a few months earlier, qualifying No. 16 with a 9.010 and losing in round one to Bob Ingles, 9.00 to 9.19. (Among the nonqualifiers at that event were world champ Richard Tharp and Division 7 champ James Warren in Top Fuel; "Jungle Jim" Liberman, in one of his last national event appearances before his death, and Ed McCulloch in Funny Car; and future Top Alcohol Funny Car world champ Bob Gottschalk in Pro Stock.)
Schermerhorn's best Pro Stock outing was at the IHRA Northern Nationals, where he beat Wayne Gapp in the first round and went to the semifinals.
“We stopped in late ‘78 because my partner and I had different ideas on how to run the class, so we split up,” said Schermerhorn, who owns an auto-repair shop in Toledo, Ohio, where he is restoring one of the El Toro AA/FAs. “Things like [Indy 1977] are hard to forget, but it also showed me how drag racers help each other. We took our car to C.J. Rayburn’s shop, and he and Walt Maynard let us use his machine shop to build a new motor. ‘Grump’ even came by our pit to see how we were doing.”
Larry Lombardo, 1977
Larry Lombardo, 2012
That Jenkins would take an interest in Schermerhorn’s progress spoke volumes about the kind of guy that “the Grump” was, sentiments echoed by Lombardo in our conversation last weekend.
“If you had half a noodle, he’d help you out,” said Lombardo. “If you were an idiot, he wouldn’t.”
Lombardo, who drove for Jenkins from 1972 through 1979, has been attending a lot of Jenkins tribute events this year following Jenkins’ passing in late March and sharing great stories of their times together, and he believes he’s uniquely qualified.
“There are only two people who know the real Bill Jenkins: me and Linda Vaughn,” he asserted. “People don’t really know Jenkins. He wasn’t 'the Grump.' He was probably one of the funniest guys out there. I spent seven years, 365 days a year, out there with him. I could tell funny stories all day about Bill. Of course, there are some I couldn’t tell, too. But he was hilarious.”
So I’ll just share some of his great quotes, with no particular thread tying them together other than a good belly laugh.
- “We were a father-son deal. He was always ‘Bill’ to me, and I was ‘Larry’ or ‘Hey.’ He never grumped at me. We got along great.”
“We’d talk every now and then, a couple of times each year, but I’d always call him on his birthday, Dec. 22. We’d be small-talking, and I’d wish him happy birthday, and he’d say, ‘Well, thank you,’ which blew my mind because I won six national events and a world championship for him, and the best I ever got was, ‘That’ll do.’ That was the biggest compliment I ever got from him while we were racing.”
“I crashed his Vega the first year I was driving for him, match racing Ronnie Sox at Sunshine [Dragstrip, in Florida]. It was like my fifth or sixth time in the car. I had told him, ‘Hey, Bill, there’s oil out there on the track at about 2nd gear,’ and he said, ‘[Grunt] It’ll be OK.’ Well, he’s Bill Jenkins, and he says it’s going to be OK, so we leave, and I pull 2nd gear and had the front end up, but the left rear tire was right in that oil, so it made a left-hand turn, and bam, I totaled that car and a good chunk of the guardrail. On the same run, Ronnie locked up his brakes at the top end and slid backward into a telephone pole and hurt his back.
“I didn’t get to drive again until 1974; finally, I told Bill he had hired me as a driver not a crewman, and either he was going to let me drive or I was going to leave. He said, ‘OK, but you have to win. I don’t have to win, but you do.’ "
“A lot of people don’t know this, but at some of those best-of-three match races, if Bill would lose the first round, he’d put me in the car for the second run. I was quite a bit lighter than him, maybe 100 pounds, which was about a tenth on the track. [Dick] Landy and some of those other big boys bitched and moaned, and because of me, they changed the rules that the cars were weighed with the driver.”
“Bill had a $50 Corvair with about $500 worth of tape holding it together. I said, ‘Bill, get a real car.’ He said, '[Grunt] Theft-proof.' I asked him what he meant. ‘Who would steal it?’ he asks. 'I can take it to the airport and leave the keys in it. No one’s taking that son of a bitch.’ "
“Any products we got – heads, manifolds, any part – he had to do something to it after he got it, then it was OK. He’d even tweak a comb after he got it. He had to put the Jenkins touch to it.”
“Bill always wanted me to help the other guys. We helped them all: Ronnie [Manchester], [Frank] Iaconio, Richie Zul. We even helped John Lingenfelter with some heads for his [Super Stock] Corvette, and he went like a second and a half under the national record at Indy. We were at a match race one time and all caught up, and he sent me over to help Bob Brandt work on Don Prudhomme’s car because they were running late. I didn’t know anything about a blown Funny Car, but that’s who Jenkins was.”
“Jenkins had this concrete retaining wall built next to his shop, and he told [the guy building the wall] to follow the contour of the land, and he did. When the ground went down, so did the wall; when it went up, so did the wall. It looked like a roller coaster. Jenkins loved it because it was unique and because the guy did what he told him to. It became a conversation piece and a signature Jenkins thing.”
“We always had to be late arriving at the races. I asked why we always were late and had to rush and get the ramps out and get the car ready. ‘[Grunt] They [the fans] have already seen everyone before we got here; now they’re all going to come over here.’ And he was right; people would flock around our pit 10 deep. If we all got there the same time, the Ford people would go to the Ford cars and the Chrysler people to the Chrysler cars, but when we showed up late, everyone came to us. The one thing he taught me was you had to have a reason for everything you do; you don’t just do something.”
In the course of my research about the 1977 Indy crash, I discovered that Jenkins himself had crashed the Monza’s twin, their match race car, July 17 at an event at Illinois’ Oswego Dragstrip called Beat the Grump, which offered the chance for three of the track’s local E.T. racers to face the legend. “I was running at Budds Creek [Md.] that day and got a call at 11 o’clock that night telling me I had to go to Detroit because Bill had a match race scheduled there the next day. We left at 11:30 and drove straight there. We hadn’t been planning a trip, so we had to stop at a Kmart to get shaving gear and underwear.” The match race car was fixed at SRD but was back home in Malvern, Pa., when Lombardo crashed the national event car.
And finally, this gem:
“We checked into a motel for a match race in Tennessee, and Bill wasn’t always too good with the ol’ heel-toe on the clutch and drifted back and smashed the hood of this Volkswagen Beetle all the way back to the windshield. He gets out of the truck and comes back about five minutes later and asks, ‘Where are the pictures [handout photos]?’ I told him they were in the sleeper. He takes one, goes back to the guy, then comes back a few minutes later. ‘Hmrrph … all he wanted was an autographed picture.’ This guy was so proud and happy that Bill Jenkins had totaled out his car that all he wanted was an autograph. Bill not only autographed the picture but the car as well.”
Still no Dale Emery sighting, so the story of his wild 1977 Indy crash gets put off for another column. The artist formerly known as “Waterbed Fred” Miller is on the case for me trying to get a message through – I only got a voice mail, and an email to him bounced -- so perhaps next Tuesday. I’ll be out of the office later this week, so there won’t be a Friday column (sorry!). Thanks again for reading and helping fill in the blank lines of the NHRA history book.
Although I remembered the 1977 U.S. Nationals in Tuesday’s column for Richard Tharp’s frightening near collision with Gary Read in round two of Top Fuel, as I was thumbing through a couple of thick folders looking for images of that incident, I was quickly reminded – by a couple of photo sequences -- that the event had two other iconic images attached to it: the frightening photo of Dale Emery’s Funny Car standing on its nose at three-quarter-track and the shot of Larry Lombardo fleeing the flaming wreckage of Bill Jenkins’ Pro Stock Monza.
I’ve seen these images so many times that they’re burned into my memory as much for their uniqueness as for what happened afterward. As a longtime fan, like most of you, I know the general specifics of what happened before, during, and after the incidents but not the details.
Emery suffered a broken left arm in the accident that essentially ended his driving career. The cockpit’s loss, of course, was Raymond Beadle’s gain, as Emery took over the tuning chores and backstopped the Blue Max’s three straight championships, 1979-81. Lombardo and Jenkins borrowed a car from good friend Ronnie Manchester, who volunteered his, and the team reached the semifinals against championship rival Don Nicholson.
These are true classic photos from NHRA history, and, as is the ongoing mission at the Insider, I’m here to tell you the stories behind the stories.
I was hoping to track down both parties earlier this week, and though I got Lombardo on the line, I was only able reach Emery’s voice mail. Fortunately, Lombardo is blessed with a great memory and could share details of the happenstances that unfolded 35 years ago at the Big Go, so we’ll focus on him today and hopefully get Emery in time for Tuesday’s column.
Lombardo and Jenkins had won the world championship the previous season and entered Indy trailing Nicholson by just more than two rounds’ worth of points. Lombardo had already won the Winternationals (over Nicholson in the final) and the Summernationals, and Nicholson had won the Gatornationals (over Lombardo) and the Springnationals.
After an opening pass of 8.75 in Thursday’s first qualifying session, Lombardo pulled Jenkins’ Grumpy’s Toy XIII (there’s that number again) Monza into the right lane for another shot. As he pulled high gear, things went to hell in a handbasket. The right rear wheel rotated inside the tire, cutting its valve stem and leading to an immediate depressurization. The car spun across the centerline and smacked into the guardrail, which tore loose a fuel line and caught fire. Lombardo hotfooted it away from the car, which burned intensely. He was uninjured, but the Monza was quite literally toast.
Fortunately, Lombardo had let his qualifying mate, Sam Schermerhorn -- driving the ex-Don Carlton Motown Missile Duster, rechristened the T-Town Missile for his hometown of Toledo, Ohio -- get a big jump at the Tree because he was a new driver, and, interestingly, Lombardo was worried that he might cross into Lombardo’s lane.
“It also was one of the first times we’d run a clutchless five-speed, and I was just watching the tach and hitting the numbers,” he recalled. “As soon as I hit high gear, it just made a hard left turn and crossed into the other lane. It was instant: Boom, and it was gone. As I’m sliding along, I knew I was going to hit, and I was thinking, ‘Oh great, now we’re going to need a new [MacPherson] strut and some fiberglass work …’
“The fuel line came from the trunk up the right side of the chassis to a cool can, and it was severed, which started the fire. Back then, we only had to wear a fire jacket – with regular pants and socks and shoes – so I bailed out. I got about 10 feet away and heard the electric fuel pump still buzzing. I turned around, but the flames were 12 or 13 feet high; I wasn’t going walk back into that. Let it burn …”
Fortunately for Lombardo, Schermerhorn had to abort his run and did a good job of slaloming past Lombardo’s wreck, ironically ending up in Lombardo’s lane after all (as you can see in the first photo).
“The damage to the car was one thing, but the tow truck did more damage than the wreck and fire did,” said Lombardo. “Because the tires were blown out, he put the tow strap through the windows and under the cage and ended up busting all of the windows and buckling the roof, which we had acid-dipped at a cost of $5,000. We wouldn’t have been able to fix it at the race anyway, but that was just salt in the wound.”
While Bill Jenkins toiled on the engine, Larry Lombardo got the cockpit squared away, then made an impressive opening pass in the car and set top speed.
Rules did not allow another car to be entered by Jenkins and team, but they could use any entry that had already been entered and teched in, and within minutes, Manchester had offered his Westport, Mass.-based Monza, built, like Jenkins’ car, at SRD and a near twin to the Jenkins Monza.
“We helped a lot of people back then, so it wasn’t surprising to see people want to help us,” said Lombardo. “Jenkins was the most generous guy out there. If we were caught up, he’d tell me to go help out the other guys. Ronnie immediately told us, ‘Take my car.’ ”
Jenkins and team worked the rest of the day and into Friday to transfer not just their driveline into Manchester’s car, but also some of their suspension components, including the struts and rear shocks, so that their four-link settings would work in the new car, and boy, did they.
After the then-required half-pass checkout Friday, Lombardo bravely blasted the hybrid into the field with an 8.71 at 157.06, which qualified him No. 3 and stood as top speed of the meet.
Even though the car was making a slight left turn off the starting line for which Lombardo had to correct, the combination was otherwise solid, and even though Jenkins had picked up the broken valve stem on the track after the accident, they still weren’t sure what had caused it, so they proceeded with a fair bit of caution, and Lombardo lifted early when possible.
“It wasn’t my car, and we still didn’t know exactly what had caused the tire problem, so I was getting the parachute out as soon as I thought I had the race won,” said Lombardo. “I wasn’t going to take any chances because the accident had happened in high gear.”
It wasn’t until later that the team discovered that the bead of the new Goodyear tire it was running did not conform well to the Cragar wheels it was running, and the beadlock screws were not fully penetrating the bead of the tire.
Lombardo's hopes for not only an Indy win but also a repeat world championship ended with this tough semifinal loss to Don Nicholson.
After beating Butch Leal’s Arrow, 8.85 to 8.90, and Kevin Rotty’s big-block Camaro, 8.82 to 8.88, Lombardo squared off with Nicholson in a crucial match. If he could win and then win the event, they’d be almost deadlocked in points. It was not to be; despite Lombardo’s insistence that he could handle the car, Jenkins made a suspension change before the semifinals, and the car made a hard move downtrack, and Lombardo had to abort his pass, coasting behind Nicholson’s 8.72 with a 9.07.
Nicholson went on to beat Bob Glidden in the final and left Indy with an almost insurmountable 1,262-point lead and ultimately won the championship. Lombardo and Jenkins finished third, behind Glidden.
Well, that’s half the story; I hope to bring you the other half – Emery’s tale -- before long because a) well, I’ve already teased you with it and b) the fan in me really wants to know what happened on that run. I’ll keep dialing and hopefully bring it home next week. Lombardo also shared some funny Jenkins stories and remembrances that I'll offer soon as well.
Apparently, the world loves a good Richard Tharp story.
Response to Friday’s column about “King Richard” was off the charts. I guess I could have predicted that, but still I was amazed at the outpouring of kudos to me and affection for Tharp, who called that morning to tell me that his phone began ringing at 6:45 with calls from old friends telling him about the article, which he hadn’t yet risen to read. Nine calls later, he figured he’d best get up and read what all the commotion was about.
Well, if they enjoyed the opener, today’s follow-up will probably make their day, too. I’ve been amassing a small collection of Tharp stories voluntarily submitted for today’s follow-up and asking others to share theirs, but from the latter group, I keep getting the same response (almost to the word): “Nothing that you could publish.” Nevertheless, we have some stories to tell.
(Before I proceed, I think it’s important to preface all of this by noting that the drag racing world in which Tharp and company operated in the late 1960s and 1970s was pretty much an alien world compared to the one we know today and that by retelling the stories, I’m not condoning them or the behavior they constitute. Many of the shenanigans occurred outside of the sphere of influence of NHRA events, on the road to match races and elsewhere, and even those that did happen in the NHRA world occurred in a different culture and political climate from today’s buttoned-down world, and today’s stringent testing policies serve as a major deterrent to excessive indulgences during race weekend. I share them to try to accurately reflect on a period of drag racing’s growth from which many of the characters we know came to be legendary on many fronts.)
Anyway, one CYA later, on with the stories …
Former NHRA Top Fuel racer Carl Olson knows Tharp from their years of competition on the track in the 1970s and as an NHRA official after he left the cockpit. On Friday, I related the story of Tharp’s crash at the 1979 Fallnationals in Seattle, where Tharp was knocked out by tire shake and left the racing surface at high speed, an incident to which Olson was a firsthand witness.
“Back in those days, the guardrails at SIR were set well back from the track surface,” Olson remembered. “The car got upside down and went scraping through the grass and mud while shedding parts in every direction. Just past the finish line, there was a gravel service road perpendicular to the track that was used by facility maintenance vehicles as a means for getting from one side of the track to the other. When Richard’s car went across that road upside down, it went into a violent series of rolls.
"Just gimme my damned pants, Paul ..."
“I observed this incident from my vantage point at the finish line and immediately jumped on my motorcycle. The first two people to get to the wreckage were the NHRA Safety Safari’s Alan Miller and me. We discovered the roll cage upright and Richard very much unconscious. We immediately noted that while upside down, Richard’s full-face helmet had become packed inside with grass, mud, and gravel. We couldn’t see any part of his face. In spite of our training that advised against moving a victim’s head to prevent potential neck and spinal-cord injuries, we recognized that if we didn’t take immediate steps to remove the mud and gravel, Richard would suffocate. While Alan tipped Richard’s helmet back, I reached inside from under his chin and through his visor opening and cleared away enough of the mud to provide an airway to his nose and mouth. Shortly thereafter, the full Safety Safari team arrived along with the event doctor. As they were working to stabilize and extricate Richard, he regained consciousness and became, well, the best way I can describe it is extremely combative. He just kept telling everyone to go away and leave him alone, and he was flailing away at anyone that tried to touch him.
“When Richard was finally extricated, his helmet removed and firesuit cut away, he unleashed a barrage of foul language that included virtually every curse word I’d ever heard. In spite of the doctor’s orders for him to be transported to the local emergency room for evaluation and treatment, Richard steadfastly refused to go. He just kept saying that he wanted to go back to his hotel. Paul Candies had wisely hidden Richard’s trousers in their trailer and refused to get them for him. As a result, Richard had no choice but to sit in the ambulance for several hours while the doctor and attendants kept an eye on him. After Richard threatened to kick the asses of everyone in a one-mile radius, Candies finally relented and fetched his pants and a clean shirt. He was then given a ride to his hotel, where I’m told that he had dinner and retired for the night. He flew back to Dallas the next morning. Tough guy? Oh yeah, he’s as tough as they come.”
As NHRA’s competition director, Steve Gibbs also knew Tharp well, both on and off the track. “He was the kind of guy who would do just about anything you could think about doing but not do yourself,” he assessed. “He was a helluva race car driver, though. I’ll never forget when he almost got together with Gary Read at Indianapolis. I don’t know how he kept them from crashing.”
In one of the wildest moments of Tharp’s long career – and one of the few that he’ll admit ever frightened him – Read’s Over The Hill Gang dragster crossed wildly into Tharp’s lane in the second round of the 1977 Big Go. As the amazing Richard Brady photo at right attests, Read took over well more than half of Tharp’s lane, but Tharp deftly dived the Candies & Hughes car to the right to avoid what would have been a nasty collision and still went 6.26 at 185 mph to get the win en route to a runner-up finish.
“When I got down there, I expected to find Richard all over Read," said Gibbs, "but he was off sitting by himself, terrified that he’d come that close to a major crash.”
“It scared the hell out of me,” Tharp confessed to me Friday. “I looked over out my left side at about three-quarters of the way down there, and his front tire was about 2 inches from me. I scooted over and almost hit the guardrail and then back to the other side of the track. It was really, really scary. I got out and had to sit out there in the cornfield for a few minutes. It scared [car owners Paul] Candies and Leonard [Hughes] worse than it did me. I thought Candies was ready to quit.
“I was so scared I didn’t think about trying to beat the [crap] out of Read like I did Marvin Graham when we won at that first Cajun Nationals . I thought that he had burned me down on the starting line in the final, so when I got out of the car at the other end, took my helmet off, and I tried beat the [crap] out of him, except he still had his helmet on. The next day, my fists were all swollen up.”
I called Graham yesterday, and he confirmed the ill-advised attack. “I was just getting out of the car, and he starts swinging and hitting me in the head. I remember thinking, ‘That’s not a smart thing for him to do,’ and when he got done, I asked him, ‘Um, Richard … did you notice that you won? I lost. What are you upset about?’ ”
I asked Graham, who lost a tire-smoking battle, 6.35 to 6.61, why Tharp thought he’d burned him down. “Because I probably did,” he answered honestly. “I might have taken a little extra time. We all did that from time to time back then because there was no rule against it. Plus Richard was driving for Candies & Hughes and had a late-model [Hemi] that would get hot faster, and I was still driving my old flathead [Donovan] that didn’t care if it was hot or cold.”
The late, great Ronnie Sox also was “attacked” by Tharp, but in a much different manner, remembered Hall of Fame photographer Steve Reyes. “At the 1972 IHRA Bristol, Tenn., race, there was a huge racers’ party at the Holiday Inn in Bristol. Tharp, being the party animal, pulled Sox’s bathing shorts to the ground to the cheers of all the racers present. Sox calmly bent over and calmly pulled them up and waved to the very drunk crowd. That was also the party Tharp introduced me to ‘white lightning,’ which he had put in the party ‘punch.’ God, did I have a hangover.”
Olson remembers another eye-opening incident with Tharp on the IHRA tour: "[Partner Mike] Kuhl and I were sitting around the pool at a Holiday Inn in Southern Pines, N.C., while participating in the IHRA Pro Am at Rockingham and observed Richard walking around the second floor walkway dressed in nothing but a cowboy hat and pair of cowboy boots, then approach a room where he knocked on the door. A gorgeous female opened the door and immediately invited Richard in. He was still there much later when we finally called it a night and went to our room.”
Glynanna and Dale Ham: "You loaned our car to Tharp? Are you crazy?"
Nudity and Tharp, I guess, were good friends. Gibbs related a story shared with him by former Division 4 Director Dale Ham, who had loaned his official station wagon to Tharp one weekend during a points meet in Amarillo. Tharp, who was famous for accepting dares – eat a bird, eat a bar of soap, stuff like that – was driving around with his buddies, and one friend dared him to take off his clothes and get out of the car at the next intersection while they drove around the block and picked him up in a few minutes. Tharp – about the same size and build as Ham – naturally, had to oblige, dropped trou, and stepped out of the car, naked as the day he was born.
Coincidentally and very unfortunately, inside a restaurant at that same intersection sat Ham’s in-laws, sharing a meal with good friends and bragging about the fine man that their daughter, Glynanna, had married, and, oh, look, there’s his car now ...
“The reception Dale got at church the next Sunday was pretty cold,” Gibbs noted.
Graham, who raced against Tharp in the Division 4 Top Fuel wars in the 1970s, told a Tharp tale similar to a Dave Densmore story that I shared Friday about Tharp being asked to make a checkout pass for a team whose driver was having problems. He’s pretty sure it was the Carroll brothers car that Tharp had driven before and would drive again. “I can’t remember who the driver was, but he’d get the car to half-track and shut off and was complaining that the car had a terrible vibration,” recalled Graham. “So they went over and grabbed Richard and said, ‘Richard, run this car on down through there,’ and he made a really nice pass, got out at the other end, and told the other driver, ‘That car’s not vibrating; that’s the earth around you vibrating.’ ”
If there’s one thing that became crystal clear from the many stories I’ve heard and read, it's that although Tharp is the guy you’d want behind the wheel of your race car, he most definitely was not the guy you wanted behind the wheel while you were a passenger in his street car. Or the guy on the road next to him. Or even the guy in the passenger seat while you were driving.
Reyes remembered an episode from that same Bristol IHRA event. “A group of us photogs were driving back to the motel that evening; we pulled alongside the Blue Max rig with Tharp,” he said. “We waved, and, of course, Tharp tried to run us off the road. Again we pulled alongside, and Tharp was laughing his butt off at our almost off-road venture. This time, we were ready, and armed with 200-watt strobes, we blasted the rig. In our rearview mirror, we saw the Blue Max rig making a frantic stop on the shoulder. Tharp still complains to this day about blinding him on that dark road leaving the racetrack. In the magazine I did for Argus in 1972 called Hot Rodding in Action, the intro page has a photo that Jeff Tinsley took the day after our ‘strobe’ evening. Tharp is standing on my feet and holding my jacket and looking up at my chin. [Tharp stands a good foot shorter than Reyes.] I have a smile on my face and Tharp does also.”
NHRA's Jack Hart
Both Tharp and Gibbs related to me a story of an infamous car ride during the 1970 World Finals in Dallas. Tharp had invited NHRA Executive Director Jack Hart – perhaps at the time the most powerful man in drag racing – his wife, Hazel, and Gibbs out to dinner. As Tharp is driving them all down some Dallas freeway, he casually asks Hart where his invitation is to the upcoming Supernationals. That inaugural event, held at Ontario Motor Speedway, was an invitation-only race that first year, and, well, Tharp was not being invited.
“Hart kinda hemmed and hawed and finally told Tharp that the invitations were based on the number of NHRA races that the person had run, and that since he had not been to the required number, unfortunately, there would be no invitation,” remembered Gibbs. “Without hesitation, Tharp slammed on the brakes -- in real heavy traffic -- put the car in park, threw the keys on the floor, and said he would not move the car until he was invited to Ontario! Hazel was in an absolute panic, and it scared the hell out of me. It took about 10 seconds for Hart to see that Hazel was on the verge of a heart attack and said to Richard, ‘Whatever you want ... just get us the hell out of here.’ Tharp got his invitation the next day. I’m sure Jack found some loophole to get him in.”
In Tharp’s version, he tossed the keys into Hart’s lap in the backseat and the aforementioned Glynanna Ham also was in the car, but the details didn’t matter as much as his colorful description of the mayhem that ensued, which included cars skidding past them sideways trying not to hit the stopped car.
Gibbs recalled another wild ride with Tharp at the U.S. Nationals: “We were trying to get to the Car Craft banquet, and I was riding with Tharp, but we couldn’t find an on-ramp for the freeway. He found an off-ramp, drove down it, hooked a U-turn, and we were on the freeway. Being in a car with him was always a thrill a minute.”
Norman "Moose" Pearah, left, with NHRA's Wally Parks, 1978 Cajun Nationals
Tharp also recalled a memorable Denver car ride with the legendary Norman “Moose” Pearah, a former NFL football player who stood 6-foot-6 and who at the time owned both State Capitol Dragway (home of the Cajun Nationals) and Atlanta Dragway (home of the Southern Nationals). The two free spirits shared a connection out of Dallas headed for the mile-high city and, naturally, enjoyed some of the airline’s cocktails along the way before piling into Pearah’s Cadillac rental car. They proceeded to get a little more lubricated later that night and closed down a local establishment, then set out to follow a couple of girls to a nearby party.
“When we go outside, it was raining so hard we couldn’t see, and ‘Moose’ was getting upset because he couldn’t see to follow the girls,” Tharp recalled. “He had the windshield wipers up as fast as they could go, but it was raining so hard he couldn’t see. So I just reached up with my cowboy boots and pushed the windshield off the car. It fell onto the hood and then off the side of the car, and the wipers were still going, wiping the dash off. I said, ‘How’s that?’ and ‘Moose’ yells over at me, ‘That’s a lot better, but roll up your window. I’m getting wet.’ Man, I’ve told that story so many times, and it always gets a big laugh.”
Tharp’s tale Friday about trying to get more than three dozen backstage passes for his friends from pal Willie Nelson dovetails nicely with Gibbs’ experience trying to attend a Nelson concert with Tharp at the Universal Amphitheater, not far from NHRA’s then headquarters in North Hollywood.
“Richard invited us all to meet him at the Sheraton hotel next to the concert to get our tickets,” Gibbs remembered. "He was kind of antsy because his ticket guy hadn’t shown up, but he kept telling us, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ Finally, it got to maybe a half-hour before showtime, and we still didn’t have any tickets, but Richard says, ‘C’mon, we’re going anyway; we don’t need no tickets.’ We got into his car and drove up to the checkpoint, and Tharp starts giving a line of stuff to the guard there, and the next thing you know, the gate opens, and we drive into what was the entertainers’ parking lot, and he lays another line on the parking guy there, and we walk up to the backstage entrance, he talks to that guy, lays a line on him, and he opens the door, and the next thing I know, we’re at the bottom of the steps to the stage, and Tharp talks to that guy, and within a few minutes, we were on the stage just a few feet from where Willie was performing, drinking a beer with the roadies. Amazing. He was just that kind of character.”
Leigh Buttera, daughter of the late, great car-building “Lil John” and pictured at right with Tharp, hit me up on Facebook to share her fond memories of Tharp and how he used to bunk at their house during some westward trips. “My mom said we were the hotel to the stars,” she recalled. She asked if I remembered this classic Tharp-ism:
I had never heard of such gibberish, I told her. And she translated: “MRDUCKS (them are ducks). MRNOT (them are not). OSAR (oh yes they are). CMWINGS (see them wings). LIB (hell I be) MRDUCKS. Tharp brought this phrase to the U.S. Nationals, '82ish maybe. That’s Texas talk; he wore it out.”
Speaking of fine-feathered friends, as mentioned Friday, a night on the town with Tharp was always an epic evening, and Olson was a firsthand witness to the show.
“I had traveled to the Dallas/Fort Worth area to represent the NHRA headquarters staff at the South Central Division annual awards banquet,” he recalled. “I arrived a day early to have dinner with Ray Murphy, who was a representative of the Mr. Gasket conglomerate that was one of NHRA’s major sponsors at the time. Unknown to me was a plan that had been hatched by Richard and Ray for Richard to pick me up at the restaurant following dinner and take me back to my hotel.
Tharp with another famous buddy, Dallas Cowboys legend Charlie Waters, one of the best defensive backs of the 1970s, at the inaugural Cajun Nationals in 1976
“At that time, Richard was driving a black-on-black-on black Cadillac Seville. It was tricked out with tinted windows, chrome wire spoke wheels, and the most awesome stereo system I’d ever encountered. It became immediately obvious that Richard had no intention of taking me back to my hotel, at least not until we’d hit every major nightclub in downtown Dallas. The two things I remember most were the reception Richard got at every stop and the farewell he got whenever we left. Doormen that were turning away the ‘common folk’ in droves embraced Richard and provided us with immediate entry. Once inside, Richard quickly became the center of attention. I even remember a hoard of groupies abandoning Dallas NFL football superstar and Richard’s good friend, 'Hollywood' Henderson, to flock over to Richard. ‘Hollywood’ was right behind them to pay his respects. I’ll never forget leaving one of the clubs, getting into Richard’s Seville, engine running and stereo blaring, and watching five or six of the most beautiful girls I’ve ever seen beating on the windows and begging Richard to take them with us. Richard just smiled and waved them away.
“Suffice to say, that was, by far, the most spectacular evening of club hopping I’ve ever experienced, and it told me a lot about what a major personality Richard Tharp was, and is, both at the dragstrip and away from it, especially in Texas. Since Richard’s retirement from driving, I’ve only rarely encountered him, but whenever I do, we share some big smiles, and I’m reminded of how fortunate I am to have had a chance to get to know him a bit and spend some extremely memorable time with him.”
With all of these amazing tales of his popularity, I risked a punch in the face at our next meeting by asking Tharp, “Look, you're not a bad-looking guy, but you’re no Brad Pitt. How is it that all of these women flocked to you?”
“I don’t know, just by being crazy, I guess,” he said. “It was like being a rock 'n' roll star. It was unbelievable. I don’t know why, but I sure liked it.”
"Broadway Bob" Metzler and Shirley Muldowney
Shortly after publishing Friday’s column, we got the news we’d been dreading but expecting the last few weeks, that the world had lost Robert “Broadway Bob” Metzler, the legendary former owner/operator of Great Lakes Dragaway. The community had been following his declining condition for months, and his admittance to a hospice was certainly not a good sign.
Anyone who knows anything about the sport’s history has heard his name or certainly heard of the track’s marquee event, the Olympics of Drag Racing. Metzler opened the track in 1955, reportedly with funds earned dealing blackjack to his former Marines at California’s Camp Pendleton, and actively ran it until the mid-1990s but remained onboard as the track’s goodwill ambassador.
So respected and beloved was Metzler that there wasn’t a single big name from the 1970s – the height of match racing – that didn’t accept Metzler’s invitation to race there or call for a chance to do so. Other than a few brief encounters in Indy, I didn’t know Metzler beyond his reputation but have received emails from racers and fans alike who knew him and loved him. As I mentioned in the obituary I wrote Friday, a friend reported that in his last visit with Metzler, he said, "Tell all the racers I love them all," and the feeling certainly was mutual.
Marc and Laura Bruederle, whose photographic home base was Great Lakes, showered me with the pictures you see here of their longtime good friend, and Bret Kepner, another longtime Midwest denizen, is hard at work sculpting his tribute to “Broadway,” which I’ll publish as soon as he forwards it to me. I’m sure he’ll have more and better things to say about the man. In the meantime, check out this fine story, written by Dale Kallmann of the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, which includes great comments about Metzler from NHRA’s own Bob Frey.