Fifty years ago at the Winternationals, Jack Williams scored a wild Top Fuel victory that ultimately would lead to the world championship. Race queen Bobbie Hefley presented him with a "flash edition" of National Dragster proclaiming his win.
The 2014 season-opening Circle K NHRA Winternationals went successfully and speedily into the record books last weekend, with John Force running the fastest Funny Car speed and the second quickest Funny Car e.t. en route to setting both ends of the national record. Nitromethane fuel, of course, is the key ingredient in propelling Funny Cars from a standing start to more than 320 mph in less than four seconds and 1,000 feet, an exotic and wondrous fuel, a byproduct of furnace fuel that contained nitrobenzene for improved heating efficiency. It was adapted in small doses in the Formula 1 cars in the 1930s and eventually found its way to the salt flats and dragstrip in the mid-1950s.
The potent fuel boosted performances in dragsters to a level that many Southern California track owners were not comfortable with, perhaps highlighted by the stunning 166.97-mph pass at Lions Drag Strip in early 1957 — a 7-mph increase over the best gas dragster time.
On April 1, 1957, a consortium of SoCal tracks, including Santa Ana, Lions, Pomona, San Gabriel, Kingdon, and others voted to ban the use of exotic fuels and called for NHRA to support it, which NHRA President Wally Parks did. The so-called “fuel ban” officially lasted until the end of the 1963 season, although NHRA experimented with its return at the 1963 Winternationals but ran that year’s Nationals in Indy on gas only. The 1964 Winternationals marked the official end of the ban, which brings me to today’s subject.
Fifty years ago last weekend, the late Jack Williams scored a very memorable Winternationals win at those 1964 Winternationals, winning the event under some pretty abnormal conditions.
At that time, Top Fuel racing was conducted very differently than it is today. On Saturday, all of the AA/FDs would race against one another for class honors, with the winner earning the right to race against the winner of a qualified eight-car field that competed Sunday. Runs made in class eliminations also would count toward qualifying for Sunday’s field.
Williams, driver of the Crossley-Williams-Swan entry, and fellow Smoker’s Car Club members Bill Crossley and Don Swan worked their way methodically through Saturday’s field, defeating Mickey Thompson’s blower-belt-losing Hemi Ford with an 8.19, Denny Milani in Ted Gotelli’s machine with an 8.07, red-lighting Chris Karamesines with an 8.10 to reach the final, where he took on Gary Casady in the Baber & Casady entry. Williams collected the win with an 8.33 to Casady’s 8.88, but the win was costly for Williams when the slingshot’s engine blew in the lights.
This being 1964 and not 2014, there was no arsenal of spare engines waiting in the trailer, so the team loaded up their mount and trailered home to Bakersfield, about 140 miles to the north but over the Tehachapi Mountains and the Tejon Pass on the old Highway 99 Ridge Route that predated the modern Interstate 5.
The group made it home and spent all night building a new engine and then hopped back in the truck for what they hoped would be a speedy return to the track. Mother Nature, however, had other ideas.
A raging snowstorm had descended on the pass, and law enforcement officials closed the route, already one of California’s most treacherous, to traffic. Somehow, the trio was able to convince the lawmen — race fans perhaps? — to not only allow them to pass the roadblock but to provide a police escort down the slippery road, albeit at an “inches-per-minute” pace.
Against all odds, they made it back to Pomona in time to take part in Sunday’s pre-race parade with the eight qualified cars. Williams had actually run quick enough Saturday — an 8.03 — to qualify fifth, but because of Williams’ Saturday win, No. 9 qualifier Kenny Safford was inserted into the field in his place.
Eliminations were conducted under conditions that included “gale-force winds” and began with Safford taking full advantage of his reprieve and shutting down low qualifier Jeep Hampshire on a massive first-round holeshot, 8.02 to 7.85. Don Garlits, the defending Winternationals champ, surprisingly had failed to qualify in the top eight and had lost in Saturday’s class eliminations when he pulled off the track too soon after James Warren’s red-light also got a reprieve when the Weekly-Rivero-Fox-Holding “Frantic Four” team allowed him to take the seat of their third-qualified machine (again, different era, different rules) to face off with Bobby Vodnik and the Masters & Richter machine in a rematch of their final round at the previous year’s Nationals. Garlits got easy revenge with an 8.17 when Vodnik lost fire on the line. “TV Tommy” Ivo put away James Warren, 8.00 to 8.06, and Karamesines joined them in the semifinals with a stout 7.86 after Milani’s engine blew.
Williams, near lane, defeated Tommy Ivo in Sunday's final Top Fuel runoff.
Garlits then red-lighted to the Safford-Ratican-Gade machine in the semifinals, and Karamesines did the same against Ivo. The final round went to Ivo, 7.98 to 8.03, to set up the run against Williams for the overall win.
The Crossley-Williams-Swan team had been given the opportunity during the day to make a checkout pass with the new engine, and all went well, heightening expectations for the final. Ivo got the jump at the Tree — being used for just the second time in national event competition — and both cars rooster-tailed smoke down the quarter-mile before Williams eked ahead to take the win with an 8.16, 193.12 to Ivo’s close 8.24, 191.48, bringing to conclusion an amazing weekend for the boys from Bakersfield. Their haul for the weekend included not just the event purse but also a new Ford Falcon Sprint.
The Winternationals was just the beginning of a tremendous year for the team; they also won Hot Rod Magazine Championships at Riverside in June, beating Don Prudhomme and the vaunted Greer-Black-Prudhomme machine in Saturday’s class finals then besting fellow Bakersfield resident Tony Waters, in Ernie Hashim’s dragster, in Sunday’s runoff, netting them $2,000 plus another new car, this time a Mustang.
The trio went on to win the world championship, though their storybook year came one round short of an ultimate dream season when Williams reached the final round of the U.S. Nationals, too, by winning Sunday’s eight-car race off under even more bizarre circumstances than he encountered in Pomona.
With Garlits, Saturday's class winner, standing by to race the Sunday winner, Williams won his first-round match with defending event champ Vodnik, who was driving Dick Belfatti's blown Chrysler-powered Shadow entry. Norm Weekly beat George Van, and Tom Hoover took out Connie Kalitta, but both lost engines in the process. Joe Schubeck then beat Maynard Rupp and Logghe Stamping Co.'s entry but broke the rear end.
Neither Weekly nor Hoover could repair their engines in time for the semifinals, and Schubeck’s return was waylaid when a sticky-fingered fan made off with the specially made short U-joint and shaft for Schubeck's car. After repeated pleas by Schubeck over the PA, the unit was returned, but time had run out on all three of the crews, and Williams, with no semifinal opponent and no final-round opponent from the other half of the bracket, soloed to the Sunday win with a strong 7.83 at 199.54 mph but a run that left a half-dollar-size hole in one of the pistons.
Again, large crowds descended on the pits to watch the drama, but the team made the call, with Crossley putting in the final spark plug in the staging lanes.
Williams got nearly a car-length drop on Garlits at the green, but “”Big Daddy” came roaring by at the finish line to finally collect his first U.S. Nationals win, with a stout 7.67 at 198.22 mph to Williams' dual-piston-burning 7.93 at 188.66 mph.
Sadly, Williams’ driving career was cut short the following year when he was badly burned in the fire in the Warren & Crowe dragster at Southern California’s Irwindale Raceway. He remained an active part of the racing community as a track manager at places like famed Famoso Raceway and Fremont Raceway and as owner of Sears Point Int’l Raceway. He is best remembered in his later years for a 13-year career with the Goodguys Vintage Racing Association but returned to Famoso in 1995, when he took over the lease and management of the track and helped restore some of its glory.
Williams died Feb. 7, 2006, at age 69 but left behind a racing legacy and a Winternationals win that won’t soon be forgotten.
With the Circle K NHRA Winternationals under way this week, I hadn’t planned to write a column for today, but that was before the sad news came last Sunday on the passing of Pat Garlits. “Big Daddy’s” email arrived in my inbox right in the middle of the Super Bowl, and, as I wrote on Twitter moments later, the day was suddenly much less super. As I wrote about here two years ago in my tribute to her, Pat was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and her suffering had finally ended.
“My dear wife of nearly 61 years left this world and went over to the other side at 5:53 p.m., this afternoon,” he wrote in an email to close friends and subsequently also posted on his Facebook page. “She has been suffering a lot these last few days, and it was a blessing to see God take her into His care. I will miss her very badly but will be with her sooner than I realize, as time is very different here than over there. She passed at home with her two daughters at her side and me holding her hand and a little Yorkie dog on each side of her. She went without making a sound, and this house is going to be very quiet for a while. I had Glenn Miller playing in the background, as that was her favorite big band.”
The admiration from the drag racing community for her contributions to the success of her husband was quick and unanimous, with a mourning and sadness befitting the passing of any first lady. The high esteem in which both members of the Garlits family are still held was evident in the outpouring of tweets from many of today’s top stars like Antron Brown, Ron Capps, Cruz and Tony Pedregon, and Larry Dixon, and on Garlits’ Facebook page.
Mickey Bryant and Todd Hutcheson, who worked closely with the Garlitses in writing their book, Don Garlits R.E.D., both submitted to me their remembrances of Pat Garlits.
I found this cool video on YouTube, with Don and Pat talking about the old days. A nice glimpse into the charming lady who was Pat Garlits.
"The first time I was around Pat Garlits was March Meet 1 in 1959 when she had to withstand the verbal abuse aimed at her husband like the strong and supportive woman that she was,” wrote Bryant. “The last time I saw her was at our traditional Thursday night dinner during the annual Hot Rod Reunion at Bowling Green [Ky.] in 2010. These dinners with Pat and Don were during the period Todd Hutcheson and I were writing our collection of books about Don, and from these wonderful encounters came some stories about this lovely lady that made it into each book. She was quiet, gracious, and funny in contrast to the animated and opinionated guy she was married to for all those years. What stood out was how much Don Garlits admired his wife, Pat, and, although fragile and slightly forgetful at this stage of her struggle with Alzheimer’s, how he still looked to her for any and all advice. She was his rock and driving force and a poster child for ‘Behind every man ... ’.
"She never tuned an engine for Don Garlits nor did she officially belong to the pit crew, but all who knew the two of them agreed on one thing — she was his secret weapon. Now, if T.C. Lemons was still around, he would tell you in no uncertain terms, 'There would be no Don Garlits without Pat.' "
“Mickey Bryant and I arrived in Ocala, Fla., in July 2009 to do an in-depth interview with T.C. Lemons and Don Garlits on the March 8, 1970, Lions Drag Strip incident and the life of the Swamp Rat 14,” wrote Hutcheson. “We took a long tour of the museum narrated by Tom Lemons; T.C. told us many inside stories about Pat and Don for our book Don Garlits R.E.D. and for the mini-book series. The inside story of the Garlits compound at Tampa, Seffner, and Ocala, Fla., was just like any other house, a family.
“The time had come to meet in 'Big Daddy’s' office. Mickey, T.C., and Garlits mingled around. I stood just outside the entrance waiting; I was thinking how this was a great moment to me, then Don called to me, ‘Come on in Todd.’
"As I walked in, I saw Pat Garlits by the other entrance. I quickly made my way to her and said, ‘It is a great honor to finally meet you Mrs. Garlits.’ I took her hand in a gentleman’s greeting. Her hand was as soft and small as a young teen. She was beautiful and kind. She smiled in a real Southern manner and replied, ‘I am real glad you came Todd; enjoy your stay.’
Todd Hutcheson took this haunting photo at Garlits' museum. “It shows an empty T.C. Lemons chair and Pat's empty office in the background,” he wrote.
"I really wanted to meet Pat first; she was the nitro in Don Garlits’ veins. She was also the manager in chief, crying shoulder, referee, consoler, and cheerleader in a nice, small Southern belle package. She is the soul mate of drag racing’s greatest legend. I wanted to sit with her and let her tell me how they lived in and through this greatest time in our favorite sport of speed. She was the key ring to many doors, the gatekeeper of tears and joys. On top of all that she was a mother, and her two beautiful daughters turn out to have exceptional talents of their own. She was as big to me as ‘Big Daddy’ was to us all.
“I wanted to write a book on her, go way in, and find the DNA to the strength and sorrow of this amazing couple. But it never happened. Don had, and I understood this, a fierce protection around her. She was unsteady on her feet and fragile; Don would not let anyone tip the scales on her. I understood, so I let it go. At the worst of times and at great personal tragedy, she stood tall and always remained a lady, our own Iron Lady. Few things in my life have I had regrets about; this is one of them. A book on Pat Garlits would have rounded out the history of this greatest team down the 1,320 path. I will miss the gentle lady from Ocala.”
I think that goes for all of us. I feel terrible for “Big Daddy,” who lost his closest and dearest friend, much as he has lost other key figures from his racing life the last decade: Connie Swingle in September 2007, T.C. Lemons in January 2012, and Art Malone last March. I hope that he knows that the entire drag racing community is in his corner, thinking about him, and how much we still treasure and love him.
Welcome back aboard for another column of onboard camera work. The first part of today’s column will focus on moving pictures, followed by a recap of more onboard images I’ve received.
Even though videos from in-car cameras are expected coverage from any motorsport today, there are quite a few good examples of in-car footage from back in the day, shot, of course, on film rather than recorded live to video. Perhaps the finest, in terms of quality, were shot for the 1971 film Drag Racer. Bruce Dyda clued me in to the YouTube video at right – “If you don’t think that this is the greatest, you must be dead,” he insists – that neatly compiles the film’s in-car footage shot at Irwindale Raceway.
The car is the 1970 Schultz & Glenn dragster, driven in the film by Glenn, and it’s shown – on two different runs incorporating two different angles, looking back at the driver and looking forward from just in front of the engine – as the car is push-started on the return road, makes the swing in front of Irwindale’s iconic blue-doored tower, then burns out and makes a run. The producers also shot at Lions and Orange County.
Although Steve Reyes is well noted for his still photography, he also dabbled in moving pictures in the late 1960s, strapping an 8mm camera to the roll cages of some of Northern California’s top cars. “In 1966, ’67, and '68, I mounted my 8mm movie camera on The Whiz Kids AA/FD, Don ’Mr. 223’ Cook's AA/FD, the Californian AA/FD, the Cow Palace Shell AA/FD, and ‘Fast Frank’ Bradley's AA/FD.
The California AA/FD (1968)
“The Whiz Kids ran off the end of Fremont and through a wood-plank fence with the camera on the front axle. No damage to car or camera, but it looks cool. The Jackson Bros. have the footage. I gave it to them to include in some of their videos. I can tell you one thing: That camera was never going to rust. Talk about oil baths. I think the racers oiled every time I mounted the camera on the roll bar.
“The coolest and scariest footage of a movie camera mounted on a car was when Rick Stewart crashed the Bay Harbor AA/FD at Lions in 1966 or ‘67. Stewart's engine failed in the lights, and you go with him on one wild crash. How the camera made it through the crash was amazing. Stewart was beat up but lived to drive again, but the car was junk, and it was a brand-new AA/FD.”
Also included in this gallery are two other images Reyes sent me, one showing “Gentleman Joe” Schubeck carrying a camera at Riverside in 1965 and one of Don Garlits at the 1970 Supernationals. The final photo, sent by Johnny Cola, shows Leland Kolb with a high-mounted camera on his four-wing dragster at the Supernationals in (I’m guessing) 1972.
Reyes also sent along the photo above, showing a filming fail at Lions. Someone set up a movie camera on the front end of the Sugar Cane AA/FD and got some rather unexpected results. “It was a nice setup, but they forgot to tape the camera shut, so when it left the starting line, the camera popped open, and the film covered the fuel tank and engine,” said Reyes. You can see the exposed film pretty clearly in this shot, trailing away from the camera at the far right of the image.
Deftly shifting a manual four-speed transmission while flying down the dragstrip may be one of the more impressive accomplishments any drag racer can do, and while early Super Stock/Pro Stock icon Ronnie Sox was dubbed “Mr. 4-Speed” for his skill at the task, his Chevy rival, Bill Jenkins, certainly knew his way around an H pattern, too.
At right is a pretty great little snippet of video that I found online showing Jenkins at work behind the wheel of his Super Stock Camaro at the 1968 Nationals in Indianapolis. If I coded the video correctly, it should start at the proper place, just before Jenkins launches on a pass down the fabled Indy quarter-mile (if it doesn’t, then just fast-forward to the 5-minute, 55-second mark, or watch the whole video; it’s really pretty great) in the first round of eliminations. Anyway, from a camera view on the floor of the passenger side, you get to see Jenkins – trademark cigar clenched firmly in his teeth – launch hard and work the shifter purposefully as he rows his way down the track. There’s more in-car footage at about the 8:45 mark from his losing semifinal race with eventual event champ “Akron Arlen” Vanke. “Grump” lost traction, and you can see him acknowledge that he knows he’s going to lose with a disappointed head shake. Great stuff!
Mike Lewis, whose racing background and team highlights I covered here last year, sent a few images from his team’s experiences with onboard cameras.
The first image in the gallery at right is a great shot of Lewis in mid-burnout in the team’s front-engine Top Fueler. The second shot is a fisheye-lens view from behind the driver’s head that for years Lewis thought was of him, but he only recently realized that he never drove at Maple Grove before the guardrails were installed. “Looking at the valve covers, oil-pressure gauge, and Cirello magneto, I'm pretty sure it's Ron Rivero in the Frantic Four car,” he noted. “Ironically, I made my first license runs in that car in 1969.”
The third image is the dramatic fire burnout of the Lewis Bros.’ Sparkling Burgundy rear-engine Top Fueler taken from an onboard camera rigged up by famed East Coast lensman Jim Cutler. The final photo shows the tripod setup that Cutler used, although the pictured attempt turned out to be a “dud” of a fire burnout, and the final product was shot later in the week.
One final note: I received an email from Debbie Lane, wife of former Funny Car racer Chris Lane (of Desert Rat fame), asking that I share information about a celebration of life in Phoenix a week before the national event there; it will begin at 3 p.m. Feb. 15 at 2415 E. Lincoln Circle. If you’re going to attend or just want to pass on your well-wishes, email Debbie, email@example.com.
OK, everyone, thanks for playing along! Next week is the Circle K NHRA Winternationals right here in Pomona. I'm not planning to have a column due to the race, so I'll see you back here the following Friday.
Crossing hands at the finish line
Based on feedback from last week’s column, it looks like a lot of you are on board for another ride down the in-car highway as photos and suggestions have come flowing in since the column was published.
Those of you who read the column early Friday may not have revisited it to see the note that I added to the Herm Petersen item. I had mentioned that I remembered one of the frames from the motordrive sequence shot at the 1972 U.S. Nationals appeared to show Petersen with his arms practically crossed on what I assumed was the butterfly steering wheel, perhaps attributable to the car becoming a handful at the stripe, but Herm dropped me a quick note to explain that was merely him using his right hand to reach across the cockpit to pull the parachute, whose lever was on the left side of the cockpit. That, of course, begged the obvious question on why the cockpit was set up that way.
“I always kept my left hand on the wheel,” he explained in response. “I would trip the chute with a sweeping motion and then go directly to the brake handle on the right and never had to let go of the steering wheel!” I guess that makes sense.
I asked Herm about the mount that our own Leslie Lovett had used to get the great pics, and he said that he was pretty sure that Don Long had built the tripod-style mount for Lovett out of 4130 chrome-moly tubing. All they had to do to mount the tripod was to take off the front portion of the body; two legs went on the left upper frame rail and one on the right and stood at about 3-4 feet tall. “It was a very safe mount; I was very comfortable with it,” he added.
Marc Gewertz did me a huge favor of poring through the thick book of contact sheets of photos shot at that event and came across numerous photos that were taken either by Lovett or his fellow ND staffers, showing the actual tripod, Lovett discussing the procedure with Petersen, and photos of the car on the track with the mount. He scanned them up for us, and they’re all included in the gallery at right. Make sure you use the "Larger Image" tool to get a better look.
The Lovett sequence of Bennie Osborn blasting down the track at Tulsa Int’l Raceway brought back good memories from Bill McLauchlan, as the 1968 Finals was his first NHRA national event. “I remember that Lovett attached a tripod-like mechanism on the framerails (the nose piece was removed from the car for the photo shoot during qualifying),” he wrote. “I have attached a picture showing Osborn suiting up prior to the run, and you will notice the absence of the nose piece as well as one of the tripod legs; however, the camera is out of the shot. I’ve seen another picture of the car launching off the starting line, which shows a better view of the camera setup.”
Bennie Osborn suiting up; Lovett tripod visible at far left
It’s hard to say whether the same rig was used for both the Osborn (1968) and Petersen (1972) images, but my guess would be they’re the same. McLauchlan was also one of many who sent me other in-car shots that, as he pointed out, have become “Internet staples” that I’ll be rolling out as we go.
You’ve always read a lot of admiration from me for Lovett, who was National Dragster’s longtime photo editor from the late 1960s until his passing in 1996, so I got to work with and learn from him for 14 years, but I’m not sure that I’ve shown many photos of him. The Insider’s good pal, Steve Reyes, was happy to rectify that for us while staying on topic with this photo he took at a divisional event at Southern California’s Carlsbad Raceway in 1969, setting up the rig to shoot John Peters’ famous twin-engine Freight Train Top Gas dragster. I’ve never seen the result of these photos published anywhere, but I’ll keep my eyes open.
Reyes also passed along another photo, showing Don “the Snake” Prudhomme, at the wheel of the Shelby's Super Snake Top Fueler, carrying along a Hot Rod magazine camera at the 1968 PDA race at Orange County Int’l Raceway. The resultant image can be found in Tom Madigan’s book, Fuel & Guts: The Birth of Top Fuel Drag Racing, as well as in the gallery to the right.
Henry Timmerman, a frequent photographic contributor to National Dragster in the past, correctly pointed out that the in-car photo of Bruce Allen at Indy appeared to be still in the bleach box and not a little downtrack as I had surmised from the location of the shifter levers. “I believe back then Pro Stocks typically started their burnouts in 3rd gear,” he noted. “When I looked above the hood scoop and saw what seems to be people and the lane divider wall, it confirmed what I thought.” Good call!
Kevin Rowe sent in the photo above that shows the Des Moines, Iowa-based Rowe and Jones Top Fueler owned by his dad, Ralph, and Bobby Jones with Dave Anderson at the wheel in a photo that was taken at a Division 5 meet in Brainerd in 1971 by the staff of the Des Moines Register and Tribune. “A writer and cameraman came with us and did a big story about the team as, at that time, my dad and Earl Binns, also one of dads’ future drivers, were the only people in the state with Top Fuel cars,” he remembers. “In that photo, the motor was just letting go at the top end of first round, and we won but did not have another motor. Earl Binns, at the time, had his own car, came over, took the motor out of his car, and put it in dad’s car! How cool is that? From there, I am not sure how that race turned out.” Anderson left the team to drive the famed Pollution Packer rocket car, in which he later lost his life March 1974.
||These two photos of Tom McEwen in the Yeakel Plymouth slingshot reportedly were the handiwork of Bob D’Olivo, with the camera switching sides between passes. The left-hand photo for sure was shot at Lions Dragstrip, and while I can’t be 100 percent certain, I’d reckon the other one was, too.
||Photographer and date unknown, but what I do know is that Jess Sturgeon gave fans a great look at Top Fuel racing down the Riverside quarter-mile from his perspective with this photo.
||This is Mike Sorokin at the wheel of the fabled surfers Top Fueler. I’m not sure of the who, the where, or when in the did-it category, but the primary thing everyone picks up on with this three-shot sequence is the helmet almost being pulled off of Sorokin’s head at speed.
OK, that’s it for today. Next week, a look at some early attempts at in-car video.