In a year, a lot of stuff moves in and out of my e-mail box: photos, stories, Web site links, and I collect it all and store it like an animal preparing for hibernation, my own little collection of nuts and berries to get me through the winter. There's an amazing thread of photos on the H.A.M.B. forum
that's nearly 400 pages and filled with great old shots like these; I only made it about a fourth of the way through before my finger (and my brain) went numb.
Below is a series of images that I found cool, interesting, or just weird (author estimate only; your taste may differ), along with my notes and thoughts.
Back in the day, anything was possible. How about an Offy with a side-mounted blower on Ed Donovan's dragster?
Nothing says drag racing like way too big of an engine stuffed into too little car; reminds me of the models I used to imagineer as a kid.
Rear slicks churning, front tires grabbing air, and, an acrobatic flagman.
Uhhh, dude? I don't think you asked for a big enough head start.
A wheelstander with everything but the kitchen sink.
Who said snakes can't fly? Prudhomme gets air in the lights in Seattle.
Hard to believe that today's Top Fuelers evolved from this; from its whitewall tires to its Rat Fink-like shifter placement, I really dig this car.
(Above) So you still think that Don Garlits invented the rear-engine dragster, do ya? (Below) Donnie and Gene Bowman's flathead-powered Vineland Villain wasn't pretty, but it sure looked crude. Back then, functionality trumped almost everything.
I love this shot, taken in the pits at Lions. No, not the neat old flip-top panel wagon -- the lady, dressed in skirt and heels. Priceless.
Again, it's the people who make this shot. The clown, second from left, doing his "Take the picture already" pose and the other guy still slipping on (or off?) his coat, who's clearly not ready for the shot. And that dragster? Not much traction in those rear meats.
Kinda funny, too, but for a different reason is Surfers pilot Mike Sorokin almost having his helmet sucked off at speed (center).
And speaking of in-car cameras, I just love this shot from Jess Sturgeon's car.
This is a great shot, too, taken from the cockpit of one of Scotty Fenn's legendary Chassis Research chassis that revolutionized the sport. I took some Photoshop liberties with the original to blur the background as the El Camino tow vehicle was a distraction. Love that steering wheel and big ol' brake handle. (Below) This is Fenn's workshop. That's Fenn at far left overseeing work on some of his K-88 and TE-448 chassis.
Another vintage chassis on this cool twin. Always amazing to me to see how primitive the early driver-protection devices were.
Okay, if you don't like this photo, you can hardly consider yourself a drag fan. Classic Lions stuff.
Here's how those early dragsters got their nickname; the driver sat behind the rear tires like a rock in a slingshot.
A couple of engines, four tires, a little extra tubing, a welder, and there's little that early drag racers couldn't -- and didn't -- try.
I looooooooove this shot. The photographer did such a great job of exposing it and allowing you to see every detail, nut, and bolt on the blower. Arthur Trim tells me that this is Connie Kalitta's Logghe-chassised Ford-powered digger, photographed on a chassis dyno in one of Ford's labs/
Indy is a place where magical things happen. Look closely, and you can see that "Big John's" battle-scarred 'Cuda has all four tires off the ground.
Not all new ideas were good ones; Exhibit A is Noel Black's two-engine, four-wheel-drive Top Fueler from 1967.
Call me an astute observer, but I reckon that "Big Jim" Dunn was pretty much done for this run at Lions in the rainbow-hued Dunn & Reath digger.
Who says you need four wheels?
"I'll take Scary Fast Tricycles for $500, Alex."
In the same vein, who says you even need four wheels or three wheels? The famed Leffler-Coburn Iron Mistress coupe had six! In a true example of the sum of the parts not being equal to the whole, Neil Leffler and Bill Coburn each took the fuel-burning Hemis from their competition coupes and paired them for this interesting experiment. It wasn't real fast, but it was spectacular.
We've seen lead weights and tubes filled with lead shot as front-end ballast, but a rock? I kid you not. Clearly, the Red Mountain Boys knew how to rock.
I think we've all seen the classic photo above of Don Garlits' career-changing transmission explosion at Lions, but at left is Jon Asher's less-seldom-seen but equally-breathtaking downtrack angle. I'm not sure who circled the fan in the stands or why, but that's how this image was posted.
I've never seen this car before, but it can't be any mistake that the names on its side are Capp and Fedderly, as in future Top Fuel partners (and Indy winners) Terry Capp and Bernie Fedderly. Both are still at it years later, Capp in nostalgia racing and Fedderly as Auston Coil's alter ego on the John Force team.
The first rule of running against a jet dragster: Always leave first.
Herman Munster, far lane, and Grandpa dueled at Lions in a ghoulish go that was featured on the popular television show.
The driver's reaction in this photo is classic after his blown Fiat puked all over the Lions starting line.
Okay, race fans, hope you enjoyed this little diversion. If you know any details about any of the photos, be sure to drop me a line, and I'll follow up in a future column.
By popular demand – and to begin to wade my way through the scores of requests – we're back again for another round of ghost-track hunting. As always, the vast majority of the coordinates I'll be giving you are supplied by our friends at the TerraTracks Global Authority, which has been hunting ghost tracks for years, traveling to and carefully cataloging them from starting line to the end of the race surface. We'll be using the Google Earth program to see them, so if you need a refresher course or it's your first time here, visit this previous column to get up to speed.
All right – and away we go …
Ken McKenzie, who left his native New England area to move to California's Silicon Valley ("to work for a then very new Intel") and made Fremont his new home, still can’t forget about his old stomping grounds. He lived in New Hampshire, and the closest track was the old Sanford drags, which the New England Hot Rod Council helped open in July 1955 and which closed about a decade later, according to what I could dig up (which ain't much).
"It was a Air Force base with huge, long runways," he wrote. "All the top guys ran there (Garlits, Malone, Connie, etc.), and very few of the guys ever used their chutes because the runoff area was so long. Several weekends we had half-mile drags; that was fun. New England Dragway (Epping, N.H.) opened, and Sanford vanished. Wonder what it's like today?"
Well, Ken, racing still goes on at the Sanford airport, but it's far from half-mile and far from asphalt. The North East Off Road Vehicle Competition Association recently began to run there again, holding its first race Oct. 19, and the sanctioning body name should tell you what you need to know. Racing now takes place on a 300-foot-long sand track with quads and 4x4s.
Below you can see the current airport. The old drags ran on the main runway, with the starting point delineated below (43.387832, -70.717131), but I'm not sure where they're holding the sand drags. The Tommy Ivo picture above and other pics you can find here were taken by Roy Wells and are from the collection of Bruce Wheeler.
Sticking with East Coast requests, Rob Keister asked about Vineland Speedway in the Garden State of New Jersey. Vineland Speedway was off Delsea Drive (Route 47) in Vineland, N.J. The 55-acre facility opened April 3, 1955, with just a half-mile dirt oval that operated only through October 1957 but became a multiuse facility that included a quarter-mile dragstrip and a 1 ½-mile road course for sports cars and motorcycles that were added in 1958. Drag racing began May 10, 1958, for a four-week trial with an eighth-mile strip on the home stretch and was so financially successful that a full quarter-mile dragstrip was constructed a few months later and was visited by memorable racers including Malcolm Durham and the Tasca Thunderbolts. You can find some good historic photos here.
Everything went swell for several years, but attendance for the oval course began to flag, and the facility closed in 1966. Eventually, as seems to be the case with most ghost tracks, the track was done in by a lease. Depending on who is telling the story, either a) an unnamed Millville, N.J., company on whose land the road course and dragstrip were built refused to renew the lease or b) when the ground was sold for the building of Cumberland County College, it was on the agreement that the adjoining speedway property could not continue as a racing facility. To the right is a current-day shot of the starting line, and as you can see in this Google Earth image below, Cumberland County College sits on the western edge of Vineland Speedway’s old dragstrip/road course. To get there, FlyTo: 39 26.2312, -75 3.00582.
"Montgomery Dragstrip was my first encounter with drag racing. I was about 13 years old, and it was '59 I think, maybe '58," wrote Guy Wills. "I think it was an old airport with a traffic light for the lights and a flag starter. I have tried to get info on this track but can get none. It was in or near Montgomery, N.Y. How about finding that ghost, Phil?"
There's not much info about this one either, Guy, but it does appear that Montgomery Dragstrip opened in 1959 on what is now the site of Orange County Airport, with the action taking place on what is now Runway 26, running is a general southwest direction. The starting line is noted by the coordinates 41.510061, -74.256538, the finish line by my red stripe at 41.508599, -74.260957.
"A long time ago, longer now than it seems, I spent my formative years weekending at Connecticut Dragway near Colchester, Conn.," wrote Dave Burnett. "I only have the one picture below of the old track, plus the one at right of 'Jungle Jim' that I found somewhere online back when, but I still have my Super 8 movies. Thanks to them, I graduated high school. Having sloughed off a half-credit course in practical writing (due to straight A’s in English my entire school history), I’d mistakenly surmised that merely showing up to ace the tests would get me the last half-credit I needed to graduate. I hadn’t taken into account the philosophy of the teacher who required actual attendance on a daily basis. She flunked me, leaving me out of my graduation ceremony and still minus that half-credit. The only answer was summer school and a course in film editing and production. The Super 8 movies I’d taken at the dragstrip my entire high school life sprung to my aid, quickly becoming the three-minute-long final project entitled Sunday Drivers. I aced the course and acquired my high school diploma.
"The old dragstrip hasn’t roared to life in quite a few years; as I understand it, it’s the Consumer Reports auto test track now."
Dave also turned me on to this interactive page that shows Connecticut Dragway in its new form as the Consumer Reports multiuse test track, which includes on its 327-acre lot not only a dragstrip but a handling course, avoidance-maneuver course, a skid pad, a hydroplane test area, a "ride evaluator" section, an area for brake testing, and even an off-road course for testing 4x4s. They'll test about 55 cars each year there and put each through a battery of more than 45 tests.
Dave, a quick Google images search will bring you more Connecticut photos than you ever dreamed possible, as on this page. The track closed to the public at the end of the 1985 season, but you can find it here: 41.521443, -72.359540.
Suffolk Raceway was an NHRA mainstay for years and host to the popular Little Guy Nationals; the track closed in 1991 after more than 20 years of having events on an unused runway at Suffolk Municipal Airport. The track operator was denied a lease extension and forced to shut down despite protests by racing fans to city council. According to city officials, the appeals were denied because if the extension had been granted, the Federal Aviation Administration and Virginia Department of Aviation would have withheld the airport's grants and funds needed for improvements. The FAA also could have tried to reclaim ownership of the land.
This past May 24, a Suffolk Raceway Reunion was held and well-attended, including by special guest Don Garlits, who ran at Suffolk many times. You can find vintage shots from Suffolk here and photos from the reunion here.
Below you can get an old-time look at the track and the current airport. The starting line was in the lower left at 36.675846, -76.602696, the finish line at 36.678953, -76.600480 (about where the two runways intersect), and the end of the asphalt at 36.686622, -76.594975.
Internationally famous television personality and drag racing announcer Dave McClelland has a lot of ghost tracks on his résumé and dropped me an e-mail about two of them in the Shreveport, La., area.
"The photos of the public street are pictures of the original Old Gator Drag Strip, named Stage Coach Road. This was a street that was blocked off, and the spectators just lined the curbs to watch street-type cars make runs for close to a quarter-mile. The starting line was not far off Highway 171 (Mansfield Road), and the track ran toward the railroad tracks intersecting the street, just out of the picture frame to the right. The goal was to get slowed enough to turn before crossing the tracks ... an event that provided some interesting moments for drivers and spectators alike. While the road continued on, the track was elevated higher than the street, so it was a thrill ride cresting the tracks.
"Needless to say, there was no development close to the roadway when this activity was going on in the very late '50s and early '60s. It was quickly realized that something better needed to be built.
"That became the constructed track that has been renamed Drag Strip Lane (32.364653, -93.822355). The racing surface ran from the southwest to the northeast. The property was closed when I was there, so the photos, taken at the intersection of Stage Coach and Drag Strip Lane, are looking back toward the starting line, which was just about a quarter-mile away. Currently, several commercial firms are utilizing the property.
"The track suffered construction problems caused by an underground stream that ran across the track a few hundred feet off the line. When the rollers hit it to pack the asphalt, the surface would sink, creating a launching ramp! They went back in, dug out all of the affected area, filled with dirt from outside, and repaved. Same problem occurred, but not quite as severe.
"Couple that problem with another major one, and the second Old Gator has the distinction of having the only divisional race decided by single runs, at least that I know of. It was one of the earliest events at the track, in either '63 or '64. In an effort to save money during construction, the pits were not paved but were constructed of oiled dirt.
"Wonderful idea for wintertime, but hot weather and oiled dirt don't go together. The cars would track it onto the track, making it slick as glass. Couple that with the major dip in the track, and Division 4 Director Dale Ham and the track staff, including yours truly, decided that the Top Fuel cars would make single runs, using both lanes if necessary without disqualification ... just don't hit anything! That's the way it went -- all single-run qualifying, no side-by-side action. Jerry Baltes had low e.t. and was the winner. He and I get a big laugh out of the story every time we run into each other.
"Attempts were made to repair the problems but never worked out well, and the track closed within a couple of years. It was a shame because the track was laid out well and had a good bit of room."
Venturing west, John Waters dropped me a line to report that on the state fairgrounds in Oklahoma City, you can see what's left of the site of the 1957 and 1958 U.S. Nationals, and sure enough, there it is, on what is now named Black Gold Drive.
As drag racing history buffs well know, the Nationals was pretty transient in its early years, beginning in 1955 in Great Bend, Kan., then moving to Kansas City, Mo., in 1956, Oklahoma City in 1957-58 and Detroit in 1959-60 before finding a permanent home in Indy in 1961.
NHRA initially hadn't planned to move the event from Kansas City, where NHRA thought it had found a nice central home with a bigger facility than what Great Bend could offer, but the move to Missouri came in part because of hard feelings after NHRA was stuck with an unexpected $10,000 cost to repave the strip, an expense that actually contributed to keeping the Safety Safari on the sidelines in 1957.
Sponsored by NHRA in conjunction with the Oklahoma City Jaycees and the Oklahoma City Timing Association, the 1957 Nationals was a gas-only affair (during the so-called "nitro ban"), but it treated racers well. The venue boasted ample paved pits, separate participant and spectator parking, a cafeteria, dormitories ($25 for four days!), seating accommodations for thousands, and a wide and smooth dragstrip with a paved return road. Also, it was just 260 miles south of the exact geographical center of the United States. The event also tied in nicely with Oklahoma's celebration of 50 years of statehood.
According to Waters, "The starting line (35.467818, -97.566537) was moved to the east end (right side of screen) because a dragster ran into the very busy street (May Avenue) and into the business parking lot across the street." Again, my added red stripe marks the finish line (35.469077, -97.570702), and the end of the asphalt can be found at 35.470934, -97.577344.
In the previous ghost-track installment, we covered Arizona's Beeline Dragway and now its southeasterly cousin, Tucson Dragway, which holds a little spot in my heart because it's the only ghost track outside of California that I've been to. In the early 1980s, I shared an apartment with my first live-in girlfriend, whose parents lived in Tucson. When I visited there in late 1983, the place was a shambles yet apparently still open, according to what I've been able to dig up.
According to a couple of Web sites, the track was officially closed after the AHRA Winternationals in February 1985 because it reportedly was surreptitiously being used an airstrip for the delivery of illegal drugs. "The authorities found out the week before the Winternationals were scheduled. They attempted to cancel the race, but the local businesses were able to convince the authorities that the loss of revenue would be too great so the races went on. Once the Winternationals were over, Tucson Dragway was closed for good," reports one site.
The photo at above right shows the track in its heyday (that's Bob Perry's Fugitive Corvette wheelstander), and below that is a photo of how the track looked on its final day, Feb. 17, 1985, looking north toward the Catalina Mountains. You can see more pics from the track here: http://arizonaracinghistory.com/tucsondrags.
Below left is the Google Earth image of the track, which is off South Houghton road between East Poorman Road and East Valencia Road. The starting line is closest to Poorman Road at 32.132561, -110.765211, the finish line at 32.128946, -110.765209, and the end of the asphalt at 32.122369, -110.765174. Below right is a current-day shot of the track, supplied by TDI reader Kent Ewer. Below those two shots are a trio of pics that I took during Christmas 1983 that show the neglect that ultimately led to its closing. We had to hop a fence to get in, but because the Christmas Tree is still hanging above the starting line, I can’t help but think the place was still open, though that right-lane guardrail was in serious need of repair.
And finally, completing our westward trek, we arrive in the Golden State, where Bob Huber and Mark Hayman wanted to talk about the famed old Goleta, Calif., track where many historians, beginning with Bob Post in his authoritative book High Performance, have said that organized drag racing actually was born in April 1949 in a high-stakes match on a half-mile of road leading into the local airport between West Coast heroes Tom Cobbs and Fran Hernandez (won by Hernandez's Merc-powered '32 Ford three-window by a car length).
What made this race at Goleta especially noteworthy is that the Santa Barbara Acceleration Association sought and received approval for the race from the California Highway Patrol. It would be a year before C.J. Hart would open his Santa Ana Drags, considered to be the first commercial dragstrip, but the Goleta track hosted "The Day Drag Racing Began," as it has been called.
Researching this, I stumbled across an interesting claim by Greg Cunningham, owner of Cunningham Rods, who says that not only was he there that day, but he also had the first tube-chassis "dragster" to make an appearance at an organized drag race. Powered by a four-cylinder Ford with a four-port Riley head, it was driven by Jim Kavenaugh, who described it as a set of tube "rails" with "an engine, a piece of aluminum for a firewall, a seat, a roll bar, and four wheels." At right is a drawing of the car.
According to a story on Cunningham's Web site, "It also had the dubious distinction of being the first dragster that crashed at the dragstrip. After arguing with the organizers of the race for hours, who did not want to let the car run and blocked it from running by saying 'there was no place to put the number,' it was resolved that they would paint the number on the tire, which they did. Cunningham got the car lit off, and Kavenaugh brought it to the line and made his pass. But when he was toward the other end, the throttle stuck wide open. There was a kill switch on the firewall, but he couldn't reach it because he was wearing an improvised seat belt. There was another problem. The kill switch was a war-surplus item that was 'off' in the center position but was 'on' in both the up and down positions. When Kavenaugh lunged forward to flip the switch off, he knocked it right through the center off position to the bottom on position, so the car never shut off, and in the motion of lunging, he lost control of the car, which got sideways, flipped three times in the air, and landed on its wheels in the drainage ditch beside the raised-bed two-lane road which was the dragstrip."
Below is a shot of the old location at the Goleta airport, with the starting line (34.432312, -119.833055) marked with those coordinates and the finish line (34.430348, -119.836742) marked by the white stripe on my red rectangle. The end of the asphalt is way off my pic, but it's at 34.425665, -119.844668. According to TTGA reps, our image of Goleta "won't appear to be correct because the original runways, running NE-SW, were dug up and replaced with the E-W runways. The coordinates we've supplied, however, mark the location of the original runway on which they raced."
Okay, that's all the ghost-track hunting we have time for today. Thanks again for taking the ride.
Yesterday, we shipped the 48th and final 2008 issue of National DRAGSTER to our pals at Conley Publishing in ultrachic Beaver Dam, Wis., and, as tradition requires, we hoisted a few glasses of bubbly and toasted one another for putting the "30" on another publishing season of drag racing's oldest news weekly.
I wouldn't be any kind of drag racing reporter if I didn't have a few stats to toss at you, so, for the record, the issue that electronically zipped into the Internet's ether was number 2,301 in the long and proud history of National DRAGSTER, and like the 2,300 that preceded it, it was meticulously produced, from the issue's planning through its sendoff, from the creation, copy editing, and proofreading of the stories, through the selection of the photos and page designs that followed. If you could run an issue of ND through one of those gee-whiz CSI-type element analyzers, I'd guess that each would include fair mixes of pride, dedication, expertise, and good old-fashioned hard work and also a little piece of each of the more than 40 staff members who keep the wheels rolling with their weekly contribution to the puzzle.
What's especially noteworthy about this week's issue – aside from being packed with our typically thorough year-in-review package – is that it also marks the beginning of the 2009 publication season. On Monday, for example, the entire editorial staff will be deep into 2009 planning meetings, scheming on new ways to improve our weekly coverage of the sport, and, most notably, scheming on ways to celebrate what will be National DRAGSTER's 50th anniversary year. I'm pleased to unveil here, for the first time to the general public, the logo that will represent our yearlong celebration.
As its longest serving editor, I like to think it's no coincidence that National DRAGSTER and I were both born in 1960. Although I was just entering my third trimester of fetushood when the first issue hit the streets Feb. 12, I still feel like we're twins. I've seen well more than half (1,276, or 55.4 percent) of them off to the printer, and it's still a thrill each time.
I still find it amusing to pull out our somewhat tattered and torn copy of that first issue and read the manifesto that was laid out.
"For years, there has been a growing need for a publication devoted expressly to factual, interesting and informative coverage of activities and accomplishments that take place year-round within this fast-growing sport. That's the job the National DRAGSTER is proposed to do: keep you posted.
"Naturally we won't win any awards for journalistic prowess at first, nor will we compete very strongly against The New York Times, but we will do our utmost to bring you timely reports on what goes on at the hundreds of drag events that take place during each annual season, and we'll strive to keep our reports authentic and well-written.
"Giving credit where it is due and providing recognition where it is earned will be DRAGSTER's big objective. Concentration of attention will naturally be on NHRA-sanctioned strips, for it is sponsorship by NHRA that has made this publication possible. Event schedules will be announced and results posted, listing top performers in all areas. Technical information of importance to drag racers will be regularly provided, and timely tech tips will be abundant. In short, we've pledged ourselves to the task of creating greater understanding and appreciation of drag racing, an objective we think you'll also note in our advertisers' copy. "
In that first issue, Parks also answered questions regarding the new publication, which came on the heels of small newsletters like Tie Rod and Drag Link that had served as direct communiqués to the membership. Parks' answers at this point in history --- when the Winternationals had just been added as a second national event and NHRA still wasn't really in the drag racing entertainment business – are interesting.
It also was in this initial issue that the guidelines were set down that exist to this day, that DRAGSTER only covers NHRA activities at NHRA member tracks, with the intent being to reward the loyalty of those tracks with the biggest and best exposure for which a track manager could hope.
Q: Why didn't NHRA produce a drag racing newspaper before now?
A. NHRA was originated and has been conducted primarily as a car club coordinating body, having drifted into drag race sanctioning in response to the sport's early need for organization and standardization of procedures. We have long realized the necessity that existed for a well-edited publication to represent the sport and its participants, but only recently has NHRA been in a position where it could assume this responsibility with assurance for its success.
Q: Did any particular situation prompt NHRA to begin the National DRAGSTER?
A: Two things prompted NHRA's production of the DRAGSTER: the increasing need for a high-quality drag racing publication and our growing obligation to provide more valid recognition for NHRA-sanctioned strips and contestants.
Q: It is noted that the DRAGSTER will be published every other week. Is there a particular advantage to this?
A: Since one of the intents with the DRAGSTER is to produce a good appearing newspaper, it was felt inadvisable to attempt weekly publication. Neither was it deemed practical to solicit advertisers at this frequency, hence the DRAGSTER's every-other-Friday publication schedule.
Q: What strips will be featured in the new paper?
A: Editorial coverage and recognition in the DRAGSTER will be reserved for events sanctioned by National Hot Rod Association. As there are approximately 100 sanctioned strips located throughout the U.S. and in Canada, the responsibility for giving them all adequate coverage is a big one, and all efforts will be exerted in that behalf.
Q: What purpose do you feel another drag racing newspaper can fulfill?
A: Honest reporting, with up-to-date information based on sound fact, is a purpose in itself. We expect the editors and reporters of DRAGSTER to uphold these ideals and thereby help produce a better, more FUN type of sport with benefits for all concerned.
The third question points out that initially National DRAGSTER was published only every other week, which was the case for only the first two years, at which point we got into some really screwy frequencies. After 24 issues in 1960 and 1961, the staff produced 26 in 1962 and 1963 and 45 in 1964. In 1965, there were a whopping 52 issues, which was the schedule for three years before dropping to 51 for 1968 and 1969 and down to 49 for 1970, then up again to 51 from 1971 to 1973. From 1974 through 1981, 50 issues were produced each year before we settled on 48 issues.
Today, those four weeks – typically slow news weeks with little or no racing -- are not only about recharging the batteries but also used for production of special publications such as the annual Fan Guide and other projects.
A week ago today, on Thanksgiving Day, I wrote in this space about heroes we've lost this year, and then the phone rang Tuesday with the sad news that we'd lost 1958 Nationals champ Ted Cyr, adding yet another sad marker to the season.
It was Steve Gibbs on the line, and Cyr was one of his all-time heroes as well as a close friend. "We all have our heroes, and Ted was one of mine from day one," Gibbs shared with members of our e-mail group. "Ted was among the very best drag racers to ever go down the strip."
Gibbs had tipped us off a few weeks before that Cyr's health had taken a turn for the worst recently, so I had already begun the sad task of preparing yet another obituary. I polished it together later that afternoon, and Steve helped get me in touch with Cyr's wife of 58 years, Irene, who filled in a few details for me.
You can read my full story here, but what always strikes me when I have to sit down and condense someone's amazing life into a couple of hundred words is how little we sometimes know about some of the people in our sport. The other thing, of course, is that the losses just keep piling up, and with each loss, it seems as if we lose another bit of our history.
I counted yesterday the losses of those on our list of the Top 50 Drivers from NHRA's 2001 50th Anniversary season, and it's saddening. Mickey Thompson (number 11), Lee Shepherd (number 12), Ronnie Sox (number 15), Jim Liberman (number 17), Don Nicholson (number 18), Pete Robinson (number 22), Jack Chrisman (number 23), Willie Borsch (number 34), Blaine Johnson (number 36), John Mulligan (number 41) Dave Schultz (number 44), Malcolm Durham (number 48), and Elmer Trett (number 50) are all gone.
The list of losses in our 51 to 100 list from that year is, unfortunately, longer: Gary Ormsby (number 52), Doug Cook (number 59), John Myers (number 62), Dick Landy (number 65), Pat Foster (number 68), Mike Sorokin (number 70), Art Arfons (number 71), Tony Nancy (number 74), Clayton Harris (number 82), Dickie Harrell (number 83), Mike Snively (number 85), Calvin Rice (number 91), Connie Swingle (number 95), Don Carlton (number 96), John Lingenfelter (number 97), and Jimmy Nix (number 100) have all gone to that great dragstrip in the sky. To be fair, "only" Sox, Nicholson, Schultz, Durham, Landy, Foster, Arfons, and Swingle passed after the list was revealed, but to realize that's nearly 30 of the top 100 drivers in our sport's history are no longer with us is simply staggering. I hope it's a long time before I have to write another one.
Response to Monday's car-songs blog was predictably strong, with requests flooding the airwaves here at KNDI.
Dick Dale and His Del-Tones obviously are on the playlists of many, including Bruce Walsh, Roy Nau, and drag racing photog and fly fashion femme fetale Dawn Mazi-Hovsepian, and with tunes like "Mr. Eliminator" (a song about Tony Nancy), "Wild Wild Mustang," "The Victor," "The Scavenger," "Hot Rod," "Racer," "Grudge Run," "Mag Wheels," "426 Super Stock," "Blond in the 406," and "Nitro Fuel," who could blame them?
Dawn practically made her own album: "RPM" by The Customs, "Fun, Fun, Fun" by The Beach Boys, "Let's Go To the Dragstrip" by The Nomads (and formerly done by The Tokens … "wimoweh, wimoweh …"), "Drag Strip Fury" and "Drag Strip Race" by The Rondelles, "Dragstrip Girl" by the Casino Rumblers, "Drag Racing Robot" by the Donut Kings, "Happy at the Drag Strip" by Guided by Voices/Herkimer Mohawk, "Two-Lane Blacktop" by Rob Zombie, and "All Fired Up" by '80s metal band Fastway, whose music video at right features cool '80s racing footage from E-town, including Bruce Larson's USA-1 Corvette, the Chi-Town Hustler, Tim Grose's Spirit, the Boston Strangler, and U.S. Male, plus jet cars and wheelstanders.
Former NHRA tech dude Jim Skelly remembers, "One of my buddy's older brothers had [Hot Rod Hootenanny] in vinyl back in the day. Two tracks that I remember are 'Termites in My Woodie' and 'If'n It Don't Go, Chrome It' (the writer ends up driving his whole rod into the chrome tank)."
Our pal "Berserko Bob" went with "Go Lil' Camaro Go" by the Ramones and the "Drivin' Sister" by Mott the Hoople, and both he and Down Under's Donato suggested Paul Revere and the Raiders' "SS 396."
Forget about your Hemis and your GTOs
I've got a new machine, and she really goes.
When I pass you up on the drag strip you'll know darn well
You've been beat by a porcupine V8 Chevelle
Taching it up now, you better be quick
Cus' nothing can outrun my SS 396.
John Snapp and others thought we ought to ride around with Wilson Pickett's "Mustang Sally," but he also plucked Simon and Garfunkel's lesser-known "Baby Driver" because of its drag race sound effect at the end of the song and the lyrics "Once upon a pair of wheels, I hit the road and I'm gone; What's my number; I wonder how your engine feels." Snapp also got his fingers snapping for "She Has Funny Cars," a cut from the Jefferson Airplane album Surrealistic Pillow that not only is not about drag racing but also does not even include the song title in the lyric. According to Wikipedia, the song discusses materialism in American society, but it has also been said that the song is about drummer Spencer Dryden's girlfriend's "funny" car. Hey, it was the '60s, and they also were seeing white rabbits.
"BeachBum Bill," from the decidedly unbeachlike town of Longmont, Colo., thought there was no song meaner than "The Little Old Lady From Pasadena," and Bob Maghy cut in with Brian Setzer Orchestra's "Switchblade 327."
Pullin' way ahead of the pack
Chop top deuce, Saturday night
Flames shootin' outta the back
Switchblade, don't cut him off
He won't cut you no slack
He'll cut you to ribbons if you come to town
He'll carve out his name in your back
Blacktop burnout, Saturday night
Try and catch him if you can.
Shirley Smith suggests ZZ Top's "Manic Mechanic ("You want to race? If you insist. At that price, I can't resist."), and Phil Schaadt nominated Judas Priest's "Hell Bent For Leather" ("Black as night, faster than a shadowcrimson flare from a raging sun; an exhibition, of sheer precision") and a song that's also one of my favorites and on my CD, Golden Earring's "Radar Love."
I've been drivin' all night, my hand's wet on the wheel
There's a voice in my head that drives my heel
It's my baby callin', says I need you here
And it's half past four and I'm shifting gear.
We also received a nomination for the apostrophe-heavy Doobie Brothers track, "Rockin' Down the Highway."
Got those highway blues, can't you hear my motor runnin'
Flyin' down the road with my foot on the floor
All the way in town they can hear me comin'
Fords about to drop, she won't do no more
And I smell my motor burnin'
Underneath the hood is smoke
Can't stop, and I can't stop
Got to keep on movin' or I'll lose my mind.
And finally, Dave Cox and Chuck Carman both were quick to point out Bruce Springsteen's tech faux pas in "Racing in the Streets" about putting fuelie heads on his 396; those are small-block heads, and the 396 is obviously a big-block.
Ranted Chuck, "I like the song, but if he got a set of fuelie heads on a 396, I'd like to know how, and even more so why. Not to just pick on Bruce, but I could write volumes on these kinds of mistakes. I know a lot of us would be happy to lend some 'tech support' so the songs, movies, books, etc. make sense to those of us who know better. [The movie] Two-Lane Blacktop is a classic example. When the '55 is in the gas station and the attendant asks, 'Chevy block?' it's almost painful to watch. Then when the guy asks, "Dual headers?" ... it's so stupid, it almost makes me angry." Oh man, Chuck, let's not get started on favorite car movies.
Or should we? Vanishing Point, Gone in 60 Seconds (H.B. Halicki's original version), American Graffiti, More American Graffiti, Funny Car Summer, Heart Like a Wheel, Bullitt, Grand Prix, Two-Lane Blacktop …
My son, Chris, busted through the front door Sunday all but out of breath.
"Dad, there's a new Challenger parked at the end of our street!"
The boy, 19 and strapping-big as an ox (and probably capable of actually busting the door open in a literal sense), is kind of a late bloomer when it comes to hot rods, having spent his formative early teens with his nose to his computer monitor playing Counter Strike and Battlefield 1942 and fragging bad guys instead of under his hood and cussing at rounded-off header bolts. But, deep in his genes, he obviously has his dad's muscle-car-loving DNA.
Unfortunately, like a ghost, the new Challenger was gone by the time I raced up the street, camera in hand, and I couldn't help but wonder if back in 1970 other sons couldn’t wait to tell their dads they had seen Plymouth's original answer to the Mustang and Camaro. (And you can bet kids in those days were probably raving more abour ram air than Bluetooth connectivity.)
The boy's a Mustang freak who sat through Speed TV's recent one-hour introduction of the '10 Mustang; ever since he discovered girls, you usually can't keep him in front of the tube that long unless it involves hockey or video vixen Tila Tequila. In case you missed that Mustang special, it was quite soul-warming in this economy and with the financial concerns of the Big Three to see Ford throw a party for its newest colt, complete with NHRA Ford stars John and Ashley Force and Bob Tasca III, plus Carroll Shelby and a host of other Ford heroes and Mustang drift ace Vaughn Gittin Jr. meticulously (and carefully) throwing down donuts and figure eights between the various models parked on the stage.
With gas prices still dropping, it gives an old muscle-car lover like me another reason to get up every day. The sexy new Challenger sports a 425-horsepower engine – probably no small coincidence that that's the same horsepower that the 426 Hemi-equipped versions produced – and the eagerly awaited '10 Camaro will make 422 horsepower, and both met with rave reviews at last week's Los Angeles Auto Show. (Heck, even South Korean automaker Hyundai is building its first rear-driver, the 310-horsepower V-6 Genesis, next year!) The best car I ever had was an '05 Pontiac GTO that boiled out 400 horsepower to the ground and hugged the curves like a long-lost relative, so the new Pontiac G8, with its 415-horsepower 6.2-liter engine and track-tuned suspension, will definitely be worth a look.
Anyway, a combination of all of this muscle-car talk and the sudden proliferation of Christmas-music-only radio stations caused me to dig up an old mix CD I made a few years ago of nothing but vintage hot rod songs, and for a gearhead like me, it's still a thrill to hear the mechanical detail put into these songs.
Who could forget Ronny and the Daytonas telling you their GTO sports three deuces and a four-speed and 389? Or that the Beach Boys' 409 had dual quads, a four-speed, and a posi rear end? (Actually, the song was not penned by the Boys but by prolific Beach Boys songwriter Gary Usher, who "only" owned a car with the W series 409's predecessor, the 348, which is actually the engine heard on the track … sorry to rain on your parade.)
Still, the Beach Boys had a ton of car-themed music to share the stage with their big-wave fantasies. Their famed Little Deuce Coupe with a flathead mill had cylinder heads that had been ported and relieved and the engine stroked and bored. The photo of the five-window '32 Ford coupe pictured on the album of the same name came from Hot Rod magazine and was owned by the late Clarence Catallo. That album contains a series of great car-themed songs, including the Brian Wilson/Mike Love-penned not-so-hot-rod tune "Custom Machine."
Well she's metalflake blue with a Corvette mill
And they say it looks better when she's standin' still
And "No-Go Showboat."
Whitewall slicks with racing mags
She's just for looks, man, not for drags
The album also included "Car Crazy Cutie" and what undoubtedly would have been Barbara Parks' favorite tune, "Our Car Club."
I've been cruisin' 'round the town now
with the guys for quite a while
We been thinkin' 'bout starting up a club
that shows some class and style;
And we'll get the finest cars.
We got a Deuce Coupe, a Stingray, a rail job and an XKE
We'll be the fastest at the drags, man, we'll really cut some low E.T.s.
There's also "Cherry, Cherry Coupe" ("Chrome reversed rims with whitewall slicks, and it turns a quarter-mile in 106") and the classic drag race song "Shutdown," a blow-by-blow description of a battle between the writer's fuel-injected '63 Corvette Stingray and a 413-powered '62 Super Stock Dodge Dart ("To get the traction I'm ridin' the clutch; my pressure plate's burnin', my machine's too much.").
And speaking of races … man, what about Charlie Ryan's "Hot Rod Lincoln" (most people think that either Johnny Bond or Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen wrote this because they had bigger hits with it, but it originally was written by Ryan in 1955 as an answer to George Wilson's groundbreaking "Hot Rod Race") with rich detail?
It's got a Lincoln motor and it's really souped up,
That Model A body makes it look like a pup;
It's got eight cylinders, uses them all,
It's got overdrive, just won't stall.
With a 4-barrel carb and a dual exhaust,
With 4.11 gears you can really get lost,
It's got safety tubes, but I ain't scared,
the brakes are good, tires fair.
Or "Maybelline," where Chuck Berry's V-8 Ford takes on ol' Maybelline's Coupe de Ville (and don't forget about Berry's "You Can't Catch Me"), or Jan and Dean's iconic "Deadman's Curve" between a Corvette (obviously the dream car of '60s youth) and a Jaguar XKE or Jan and Dean's "Drag City" ("Burn up that quarter-mile …") or The Rip Chords' "Hey Little Cobra," which was written by a woman, Carol Conner, who had just purchased one of the 427-powered pocket-rockets.
Jan Berry, the driver in "Dead Man's Curve," also wrote "Hot Stocker."
She's six years old, but don't you knock her,
'cause at the drags she's the hottest stocker;
looks pretty square at first inspection,
but she really scrams with fuel injection.
She places every week number one in her class
with a 283 that runs on gas;
when the flag is dropped you know she always squeals
those Racemaster slicks on big mag wheels
Berry also wrote his own ode to the Goat, called "Mighty GTO."
If you're looking for speed you can get your kicks,
yeah and wind her up to 60 now in 4.6;
the Stingrays and the Cobras never even show,
'cause none of them can catch me in my mighty GTO.
Smack-talking about other brands and the highway whupping they were gonna get was commonplace, even up through Sammy Hagar's "Trans Am (Highway Wonderland)," in which he brags about his 6.6-liter Pontiac ("My six point six gets a little too heavy for a big-block Ford or a 350 Chevy").
My rock hero, Bruce Springsteen, used cars in 45 tracks in his first seven albums and had some memorable car-guy talk on The River's "Ramrod "("Well she's a hot-stepping Hemi with a four-on-the-floor, he's a Road Runner engine in a '32 Ford") and the moody "Racing in the Streets" from Darkness of the Edge of Town ("I got a '69 Chevy with a 396, fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor") and, of course, "Born to Run" ("chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected and steppin' out over the line."). There's also this gem, "Open All Night," from Nebraska.
I had the carburetor, baby, cleaned and checked,
with her line blown out she's hummin' like a turbojet;
propped her up in the backyard on two concrete blocks,
for a new clutch plate and a new set of shocks;
took her down to the car wash, checked the plugs and points,
well I'm goin' out tonight I'm gonna rock that joint.
And what on-the-road CD wouldn't be complete without Steppenwolf's "Born to be Wild"? Or Deep Purple's "Highway Star"? Or Dave Edmunds' "Crawlin' from the Wreckage"? Or David Lindley's "Mercury Blues"? Or … well, you get the picture.
What's on your ultimate hot rod CD? Send me your suggestions!