Before the U.S. Nationals slips too far into our rearview mirrors, I wanted to share the photos below with you. They come from former NHRA Division 1 photographer Phil Hutchinson, who has been going to Indy for a long time and has quite a keen eye (in retrospect, at least) for some subjects I thought you’d enjoy as a dessert to the smorgasbord of photos I shared from Tom Kasch. He recently scanned about 70 images from his early days behind the lens and offered to share some with us. (The rest are on his website; address at the end of this column.)
“Some of these are from the stands in Indy (the old wooden stands on the east side were great), and some are taken from the starting line after I snuck out there! Yes, before I became a legitimate photographer, I used to sneak out to the starting line at least once during an event. Richard Brady knew me pretty well from my getting thrown off the starting line, and after I did become a credentialed photographer, he told me it was good to see me with a vest!! I shot slides over film as I would have a slide show each year at Indy using the motel-room wall or a sheet for the screen."
As much as I enjoy writing in-depth features about people, places, and things from our sport’s history, you know that I also dig seeing other people’s photographs, and if my email is any indicator, so do a lot of you, so enjoy these pics. He didn’t include years on any of them, so I’m going to give them my best shot.
Don Prudhomme set the drag racing world on its ear at the 1982 U.S. Nationals when he powered his Pepsi Challenger Trans Am to an unheard-of 5.63 clocking during qualifying. Prudhomme dominated (but did not win) the event; he repeatedly broke wrist pins, leading to engine damage and fires like this one. There’s a lot of debate on whether this was the result of nitrous-oxide use; “Snake” says no. You can read more about that great event and nitrous-or-not controversy here.
Here’s Larry Dixon (Sr.) riding out a blaze in Jerry Johansen’s Chevy-powered Howard Cam Rat. My gut says this is 1975, but it could be 1976 or 1977. Dixon was the seventh member of the Cragar Five-Second Club and the first (and only) Chevy-powered driver in the club thanks to his 5.94 at the 1973 Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway.
Jack Ostrander, who recently was an honoree at the NHRA National Hot Rod Reunion, is best known as a hard-running independent Top Fuel racer through the 1980s and 1990s, but he was involved in nitro racing long before that, then spent the1970s racing Blown Fuel Hydro boats before returning to Top Fuel in 1979. “Pontiac Jack” (so named for his Pontiac, Mich., hometown) was one of the most friendly and appreciative racers out there. At the time he was racing, he owned a bowling alley, which explains his permanent number: 300. I’d guess this photo of him launching the blower in a big way is from the very early 1980s.
Here are two pretty famous guys before they became really famous, and not only can I give you a year but the exact round, too (go me!). That’s Frank Manzo in the near lane taking on Joe Amato in his Alcohol Dragster in the third round of Pro Comp at the 1980 event. Manzo was fresh off his first career win at that year’s SPORTSnationals, and Amato had won that year’s Le Grandnational in Canada. Pro Comp back then was a 32-car field, so this was the quarterfinals; Amato beat Manzo’s altered, 6.70 to 6.75, before red-lighting to Darrell Gwynn in the semifinals.
Gwynn didn’t win Pro Comp that year; he lost in the final to the late Billy Williams, whose car you can see here closest to the camera parked alongside another tough-running machine, that of Joe Severence, right before the 1979 final. Williams, affectionately known to many as “the Munchkin” for his diminutive stature, raced like a giant in those days. He was the reigning world champ when he came to Indy that year, where he was the low qualifier and made the event’s two quickest runs, 6.579 in the quarterfinals against Ken Veney and 6.581 in the final against Gwynn, whose engine expired at half-track. It was Williams' second straight Indy win and ninth career victory (all since 1977).
I’m going to go out on another limb here and say that this photo of Gary Smart’s Alcohol Dragster is from 1981 or 1982, during his long association with driver Gary Southern, who was a tree surgeon based in Glendora, Calif., now the home of NHRA. The duo went on to make big history in Indy in 1988 when they dominated the class with the then-new PSI supercharger. You can see the Arias engine in the car, and I heard from Nick Arias III, who's seen in this photo on the left packing the 'chute along with crewmember Mark Peterson. "This was the U.S. Nationals in 1981, where Gary was runner-up to Brian Raymer in the rain-delayed Tuesday morning final," he remembered. "More heartbreaking to me than the loss was not being there Tuesday morning as I was at the airport catching the plane home. My dad, Nick Jr., and Dale were longtime pals, with Dale being instrumental in the Arias Hemi's success. We lost Dale much too early and miss him daily."
Pretty cool photo of Ron Mancini’s Super Stock pit area, showing his two SS/AA Darts, with “Dyno Don” Nicholson’s 1970 Mustang Pro Stocker in the background, This would be 1975 or 1976, when a couple of NHRA Pro Stock racers traded in their Pintos to run the longer-wheelbase older Mustang to take advantage of a generous weight break that NHRA allowed them to run.
Gary Scelzi was just appearing on the radar screens of race fans in the 1980s as the driver of this Alcohol Dragster. He won the 1985 World Finals and 1986 Winternationals and was runner-up at the 1986 Indy event to Eldon P. Slick. What I love most about this photo is the old finish-line tower in the background. It was atop this structure that all of the great “crash shooters” gathered and where I met for the first time greats like Steve Reyes and Norman Blake as we stood up there waiting for the next calamity to unfold before our lenses.
Neil Mahr was a great friend to the media, and it was a sad day when we lost him in April. In addition to competing in Top Fuel in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Mahr produced what I remember as the first commercially available drag racing calendars (Superstars of Drag Racing
, as I recall).
I’ll finish up with this great candid shot of “Big Daddy” Don Garlits guzzling a nice Hawaiian Punch. I’m going to say that this was after his incredible comeback win at the 1984 event, taking my clues from the Old Milwaukee hat he’s wearing (which that year was sponsoring the Candies & Hughes team), the beverage itself (sponsor then of Roland Leong’s Funny Car), and the Schlitz Racing (sponsor of Raymond Beadle’s Blue Max) hat on the gentleman at the right. That’s right, folks; I’m the world’s greatest detective.
Thanks to Phil for sharing these pics. They’re just a small sample of what he has on his NortheastDragReview.com website; you can go directly to the gallery by clicking here.
If this is Friday, it must be Dallas, right? Well, a combination of Charlotte and Dallas, I guess. Yes, the weather gods decided to play more scheduling tricks on us, so just as it was in Indy, where we had to complete the balance of Brainerd eliminations, we’ll finish off rain-hampered Charlotte in Dallas, where we’ll also finish Dallas, unless we need to finish it in St. Louis next weekend ... or something like that.
But before I took back to the friendly skies for my annual trip to the Texas Meyerplex, I absolutely had to tie up all these loose ends from past threads and maybe unravel a few new ones. It’s stunning how one thing leads not to two or three but whole handfuls of related things that need to be addressed and aired for the sake of thoroughness.
So that’s why we’re here today. Strap in — it's a bumpy ride, from Indy to Reno, Nev., from Culver City, Calif., to Merlin, Ore., from Connecticut to Colorado, and several points in-between.
The old gal still looks great
In Indy, I helped run a Twitter chat on the NHRA account with Don Prudhomme, where he answered questions from fans (My favorite: “Any advice for up and coming racers?” Answer: “Get a nickname. Stand out in the crowd.” If only it were that easy.) and talked about his current restoration project on the Shelby Super Snake, for which he has enlisted the original chassis builder (Don Long) and engine builder (Ed Pink) to bring the car up to truly accurate condition.
While Prudhomme was in the media center, I chatted with Skip Allum — Prudhomme’s right-hand man — about “the Snake’s” restoration projects over the years and if they’d had any success trying to get back the famed 1976 Army Monza from the Harrah’s museum in Nevada. Prudhomme famously traded the car to Harrah’s for a Ferrari 308 back in the day, and despite offers of higher value for its return, the museum refuses to part with it, which is a true shame (and perhaps the reason) given its role in NHRA lore as one of the cars with the winningest race percentage (13 NHRA wins in 16 starts over two years, plus countless points meet and match-race wins).
Although the museum apparently is not about to give the car back, they did roll it out late last year, and Prudhomme was there to plant a loving kiss on its roof and to retake his place behind the wheel of the car in which he enjoyed so much success, and Skip was kind enough to share those photos with me.
Speaking of Prudhomme, fast-fingered Bret Kepner decided to see if “the Snake” really won the 1970 U.S. Nationals Top Fuel final by “half a spoke,” as he claimed during one of the legends shows at this year’s Big Go; looks like way more than that, thanks to Kepner’s fast finger on the pause button for the video. It was good to see my fellow fact-infatuated friend at Indy after he had a bit of a rough summer.
On the weekend between Indy and Charlotte, I drove back to my old haunts in Culver City to have lunch with my sister, who was in town from Northern California to attend some legal seminars. I’ve written a few times in this column about the rich hot-rodding history of the area, which was home to early speed-equipment heroes like Ed Iskenderian, Dick Hedman, Ted Halibrand, and more and also home to Albertson Olds, sponsor of Leonard Harris’ 1960 Nationals-winning dragster, as well as notorious hot-rod hangouts like the Piccadilly Drive-In and Nineteen (named for its 19-cent burgers). "Culver City was where it was at back then," Hedman once assured me.
(I wasn't around in the days of the Piccadilly and Nineteen, but growing up there, I remember what was known as "Thunder Alley,” in the 11000 block of Jefferson Boulevard, which housed the shops of Lance Reventlow, TRACO Engineering, Troutman and Barnes, Dick Gulstrand, and actor Jim Garner’s American International Racing.)
Anyway, I built in some time before lunch (she bought; after all, she’s a high-falutin’ attorney) and spent an hour or so checking out my old haunts, driving by the house where I grew up (site of many Hot Wheels national events); past my old elementary, junior high, and high schools; and retracing my old weekend cruising routes — the usual stuff.
I couldn’t resist stopping by to check out the old Iskenderian shop on Slauson Avenue, which sits just across the street from where said sister got her first job slinging doughnuts at Winchell’s (also still there). I was stunned that Isky’s is not only still there but also still lettered with the company name.
The shop (6338 Slauson for all you Google Street View freaks) was Isky’s return to Culver City. After grinding his first cams from his home garage, he’d originally set up shop at 5977 Washington Blvd., just behind the Mercury Tool and Die shop, owned by his good friend and high school buddy, John Athan. He moved twice more before returning to Culver City and setting up his business at this shop on Slauson in the late 1950s. I’m not sure when he outgrew this place, but the company has been based in Gardena, Calif., (about a half-hour down the 405 Freeway) since 1966 and moved there after leaving Culver City and relocating to Inglewood, so I’m thinking it’s been 50 years or so, yet the place still bears his name.
I parked across the street and walked up the place, trying to peer through the windows. I couldn’t see much, so I walked down the street and around the back and discovered an alley and two garage doors. It didn’t take much of an imagination to wonder about how many famous racers had pulled their rigs into this alley or had walked through that front door in search of more horsepower. Had “Big John” Mazmanian sat at the counter with Isky, discussing lift and duration in a bid to out-horsepower Engle-equipped Stone, Woods & Cook? Had one-time Isky user Don Garlits dropped by during a trip to the Winternationals? The mind reels.
The "Stat Guy," Lewis Bloom, and Eddie Krawiec, both denizens of Raceway Park in Englishtown, will probably enjoy this great find, sent to me by reader Dave Wesolowski. It’s a gallery of photos (195 to be exact) from the 1968 Springnationals. Now, you might ask, “But Phil, why would some Jersey Boys be interested in that? The Springnationals was run in Bristol and Dallas in the 1960s, right? And Englishtown hosted the Summernationals, not the Springnationals, right?”
The answers to those two questions are “yes” and “yes”, but venerable old Raceway Park also hosted the Springnationals in 1968, after its three-year stint in Bristol (1965-68) and before its three-year run in Dallas (1969-71). The Summernationals went to York, Pa., for a year, and then Raceway Park began hosting the Summernationals in 1971.
The gallery, which is located here, is hosted on the servers of California’s Stanford University and comes courtesy of The Collier Collection and The Revs Institute for Automotive Research Inc.
In my Father’s Day homage to my stepfather
, I had written about how good he was with his hands and how he built, with spare tubing and without any plans or outside help, a 20-foot-plus tower on to which he could mount our CB radio antenna. I got the chance to stop by his place in Oregon for a day in early August on the way to the Seattle event. Walking around his land, I stumbled upon the tower, which he’d brought north with him when he and my mom moved from California in 1980. It’s a little worse for wear but still largely intact (though a little tweaked), and the blue paint I helped apply is still there. I noticed now that he’d used pip pins to connect the sections as he raised it and how beautiful the welds were. It’s not hard to get me all nostalgia over welded-together tubing in the first place, but even without any wheels attached, this one brought back some sweet memories.
In the first of two parts of U.S. Nationals photos from the Tom Kasch collection
, I showed a photo of the Eastern Raider Pinto Funny Car in the pits at the 1972 event, and quickly heard from Al Hanna’s son, Rich, who had his own story behind the story, as illustrated by the photo above.
“Al and partner Joe Mundet had a new combination in the car fresh out of Keith Black’s engine shop,” he wrote. “The very first run on it would be the first qualifying session at Indy. The car made a powerful launch and lifted the front end several hundred feet out, forcing Al to abort the run. Afterwards in the pits, Al found Keith to ask his opinion on a change to the tune-up, clutch, etc., for the next run, which would be the following day. Keith said simply to the effect of ‘If I were you, I’d add 150 pounds to the front end.’ Al thought he was kidding at first, but it was in all seriousness. So the two went to a local scrap yard to find weight to add to the car, which they did for the next day’s session. The next run: 6.61 and No. 11 qualifier at the U.S. Nationals! Sometimes things can get too over engineered, and they need someone with some good old common sense like Keith Black to right the ship.”
When Insider regular “Chicago Jon” Hoffman shot the above photo at the 1978 U.S. Nationals and shared it as part of our “Things That Aren’t Here Anymore” thread (i.e. the Hurst Bridge), I’m sure he had no idea that more than 35 years later someone would step forth and identify the random fans in his moody photo, but after it was published, I heard from Christine Friederich, who wrote to say that’s her husband-to-be, Carl Friederich, in the yellow shirt leaning on Gary Ormsby’s car in the staging lanes. That’s his brother, Steve, standing with him. “My husband said that he was in the sixth grade when his older brother stopped on his way to Indianapolis and took him to the track,” she wrote. “He doesn't remember the picture being taken but was excited to see it and share it with our children as well as the memories of the trip.” That’s what we do best around here, Christine … glad we could help!
Tom Edwards’ photos from Connecticut Dragway are still drawing response, this one from Connecticut Dragway regular Bob Miclette, who recalled the days when touring match races would put out a call to the spectators for a tow vehicle because their own big haulers sometimes weren’t suited to the task. “Well, one day I just happened to be one of those spectators,” he wrote. “I don't think it took me two seconds to get to the Fullerton/Doheny pit that day to answer the call! They deemed me and the pickup I was driving (it belonged to my buddy's father, and I don't remember why I had it that day), good to go, so I became an official crewmember for the day. I was in Seventh Heaven!
“Back then, after you towed them to the starting line, you pulled alongside of them so they could start the car and put the starter and body prop in the truck. After they did the burnout, you lined up right behind them, and when they made the run, you followed them right down the track! One pass I took off too fast and dumped their toolbox on the starting line. And the last pass, he blew up in a huge fireball! His girlfriend Angel was with me in the truck, and she was freaking out, telling me to hurry up, go faster! I'm banging gears in this mid-‘60s Chevy pickup with a three on the Tree and six cylinder, trying to get there as fast as I could. By the time we got to where he had stopped, he was out of the car, and the fire was out.
“All in all, they still said I did a great job and thanked me for the help! What a nice bunch of guys (and gal)! They signed a picture for me, which I still have to this day. That was the first time I ever got to ‘work’ on a fuel team but not the last. Thanks to their mode of transporting the car, I got that opportunity. I attached the pic they signed for me. (I asked Angel to write ‘something nice,’ so she did!)"
If this car looks familiar, it should. It's the ex-Tommy Ivo/ex-Don Prudhomme dragster that Thompson and Heth bought from "the Snake" in 1963.
Father and son (above) with their home built "giant killer (below).
Dave Thompson developed and sold high-performance parts, too.
Last week, I bemoaned the fact that lately this column (and this writer) has had more than its share of reporting losses to our sport as the pioneers age and pass away. Obviously, it’s not just the likes of well-known guys like John Farkonas and Bob Brooks that we're losing but also guys who kicked ass on a regional level and never made it to the national event spotlight yet who are fondly remembered by the friends, fans, and families. Space and time dictate that I have to make judgment calls on who gets featured; sad, but true.
I received word last week that Dave Thompson had died. I didn’t know the name and would have normally consigned it to appear in our “Quarter-milestones” listing in National Dragster, but the fact that guys like chassis builder and former Top Fuel racer Mark Williams and former ND editor Bill Holland thought I should know about his passing, I took notice, and when his son, Mark, also wrote and offered to share some photos, how could I resist?
Thompson, who was part of the Heth & Thompson Chrysler Top Fuel team out of Denver in the early ‘60s, died Sept. 8 at the age of 85 due to complications from a bad fall suffered last October. Here’s his story, in his son's own words.
"Dave Thompson will always be remembered for being the innovator, as so many in our sport are. As his son, I remember him as my best friend that always had the answer. The first thing he taught about the sport was that the view of a follower never changes — you always see the leader’s ass. Dad quit racing after the flood of 1965, when Gordon and he lost everything: a brand-new car and three brand-new engines in the flood. They were planning to join Tommy Ivo and the gang on tour, but instead the family was transferred to Rockford, Ill., where Dad was working for Sunstand Aviation. While I was growing up during the gas crisis, Dad always said Championship Drag Racing will never survive; that is why he quit. Who knew that 15 years later he would be right back in the hunt again, although not at the level of his glory days?
“When he retired from being an engineer, he came to work with me at my little speed shop in Thornton, Colo., because my mother couldn’t stand him around. Dad never gave me a helping hand into the sport at all. He told me at the age of 8, when we were helping Vern and Brain Raymer in Pro Comp. ‘I will know you are serious about racing when you show up in front of my house with a truck, trailer, and a car; until then don’t bother me!’ He just didn’t want me to grow up spoiled.
“Although we didn’t have the money to win anything on the NHRA circuit, we enjoyed fielding a '23-T altered in Super Comp and later, Comp. For 14 years, we had a blast putting the big boys on the trailer (once in a while) with a homemade car, just like the old days. 'Never buy what you can make' was the second thing he taught me.
“We built the whole car in the garage of Vern Raymer. He always enjoyed working on new ideas. He always was the quiet one, always wanted the racing to do the talking. I, on the other hand, speak like John Force, just a little bit bigger. Dad came up with a lot of things that are used to this day in our sport. One story we were talking about the last time I visited him was how he came up with the spoke wheel for the dragster. He and Gordon Heth were making much more power in the new 331 Hemi that they were shattering the OE steel wheels on the front end of the dragster after it came down from the wheelie. They were sitting around after the Saturday race drinking beer when Faye Myers, who owned the local Harley dealership, rode up on his new panhead (to show off, of course). While a few more beers were consumed, Dad came up with the idea to get a couple of Harley wheels and re-hub them to fit on the dragster.
“Anyway, here’s to one of the Rocky Mountains original high and mighty Top Fuel racers that we all have much to thank him for. From all the original Strippers and DTA members, we will miss you, Dave.”
Thanks, Mark. That was a great read, and I’m proud to help others know about your racing efforts. As I said earlier in this column, this is what we do, as a sport, as a family, and as part of our little band of merry memory makers in the Insider Nation.
I'll see you next week.
John Farkonas, left, with Austin Coil, center, and Pat Minick at the Chi-Town Hustler reunion in 2011. (Dennis Mothershead photo)
His was the first surname listed on the side of one of the sport’s most iconic Funny Cars, and the passing of Chi-Town Hustler co-founder John Farkonas in late August is just the latest in a series of losses that the sport has endured the last several years as its legendary founders and pioneers begin to succumb to the ravages of time.
Although it was his car that began the car’s historic reign, Farkonas ultimately was not the most famous of the trio that made Farkonas, Coil & Minick drag racing’s melodic answer to Tinker to Evers to Chance, but he certainly made his impact on his more famous partners, tuner extraordinaire Austin Coil and talented wheelman Pat Minick. Farkonas earned degrees in mechanical and industrial engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology and was an engineer for Union Carbide/Viskase for many years, and he applied his learnings and knowledge to racing.
Farkonas and Minick were both Mopar guys when they met in the late 1950s and first partnered in the early 1960s, with Minick wheeling several of Farkonas’ cars, starting with a ’56 Chrysler 300. In 1962, they went Super Stock racing, winning 31 of 33 events they entered. In 1964, they got backing from Norm Kraus’ Grand Spaulding Dodge dealership with a car that was known as the Hustler (not yet with the Chi-Town prefix) and, finally, a blown-nitro altered-wheelbase ’65 Plymouth.
Farkonas and Minick got their clutches done at E&R Automotive, on Chicago’s north side, where Coil was also a customer, struggling to race a 426 Hemi-powered Super Stocker on an auto-dealer mechanic’s wage. Farkonas and Minick were in need of a good wrench, and Coil was in need of some deeper pockets, so they formed a partnership during the winter of 1966 and decided to go Funny Car racing in 1967. The trio built a tube-chassis ’67 Barracuda flip-top Funny Car in the garage of Farkonas’ mother that was the first Chi-Town Hustler (Minick had come up with the idea of branding the car as being from Chicago a year earlier, but it didn’t go onto the car until 1967).
Farkonas designed all the chassis for the early Chi-Town Hustlers, from the 1967 Barracuda (above) to their offset-driver Charger in 1969 (below).
Farkonas designed the early cars, most notably their offset chassis for the 1969 season. While most of the Funny Cars by this time had the engine and driver centered in the chassis, the ’69 Hustler had a homemade frame with the driver shifted to the left, primarily to allow the body to sit lower but also to counteract the engine’s rotational force on the chassis.
Although Farkonas stopped traveling with the team after the 1969 season as he devoted time to his family, he remained a mostly silent partner on the team throughout its match race glory days of the 1970s and the NHRA championship years. The National Dragster photo archives has a thick file for the Hustler, but there’s not a single photo of Farkonas in it.
Minick retired as the team driver early in 1971, also to spend more time with his family, and also remained with the team, booking the car and lining up sponsors, so Coil soldiered on alone on the road with different pilots. They raced extensively through the 1970s and early 1980s with a variety of drivers -- Clare Sanders, Ron Colson, Denny Savage, Russell Long, Pete Williams, and, beginning in 1981, Frank Hawley -- mostly on the match race and UDRA circuits, but also at some NHRA national events.
That all changed in 1982 when the team traveled to Pomona for the Winternationals, qualified No. 1 with a 5.86, and reached the semifinals, giving it the capital to go to the Gatornationals, which it won. The team never looked back and won the season championship in 1982 and 1983, then had a winless 1984 season and split up. Wayne Minick, Pat’s son, took over the car and made infrequent national event appearances while keeping the famed name alive on the dwindling match race trail and later turned the car over to his son, Mike, who campaigns it as a Nostalgia Funny Car. Coil, of course, went on to great fame and success as crew chief for and architect of John Force’s two-decade domination of the class.
I spoke to both Coil and Minick this week to get their memories of their former partner. Both had not been in constant contact with their old friend, but both had fond memories of their time together and his brilliance.
“John was a really smart guy and very adamant that if you couldn’t back up your theories with science and physics, it probably doesn’t work that way,” said Coil. “He was one of the smartest men I have known. In the 1960s, he did some longhand formulas for figuring out centrifugal force and other things that today are a piece of cake with a computer program, but I continued to use those equations throughout my career at Force Racing. When we finally got a $50,000 pressure-plate dyno, it turned out that Farkonas’ formulas were just about dead on.
“One of my greatest memories of John was sitting in a bar somewhere talking about chassis flex; he got a box of toothpicks and some Scotch tape and made a model to demonstrate where putting the critical tubing made all the difference in the world.
Minick, left, and Coil, right, shared the Great Lakes Dragaway winner's circle with "Broadway Bob" Metzler, circa 1969.
“He and I made the decisions on the car through 1969, but then he got married at the end of that year, and he didn’t come around much,” explained Coil. “We would still talk pretty regularly, and if I had a question that had a mathematical answer, he’d know how to solve it, but I don’t think I saw much of John from probably the mid-1970s on. He still owned a big chunk of the team, but he never came around. I don’t think I saw him again until 1997, when we were all inducted into the [International Drag Racing Hall of Fame], then not again until we had a reunion in Moline, Ill., in 2011. It’s a shame we didn’t remain closer.”
Minick echoed Coil’s appreciation of Farkonas’ mental acuity. “He was one of the brightest people I ever met. We were both big Chrysler guys back in the day, but he was the one who knew why the Hemi engine was better than the wedge, and he taught me that,” Minick remembered. “We both had cars then, but he couldn’t drive very well and I could, so I became his driver. The Super Stock cars of that era were the kingpins. I also had a fuel dragster that I drove at the time, but I noticed that when I’d come down the return road with the dragster, I’d get a few claps, but the Super Stocker had people falling out of the stands.
“John was definitely the leader of the group. I can’t praise him enough. He bankrolled the whole thing, and we worked out of his garage. When the Funny Car era started, he designed and built our ’65 Plymouth, which was one of the quickest and fastest out there: 8.30s from a full-sized car.
“John built all of the cars I drove, and they were very successful. People call it match racing, but I don’t like that term much because some of those booked-in races were 16 cars, 32 cars, not just one on one. We’d race against the best cars in the country; if you weren’t a hitter, you didn’t get into the show. When we ran the UDRA circuit in 1967, we won 12 of the 14 events. I can lay all of this on the foundation that John Farkonas gave us. I’m proud to have known him.”
I’d learned of Farkonas’ passing the day I arrived in Indy, in an email from Wayne Minick, and just a few days later, we all learned of the passing of another big figure in our sport, Bob Brooks, on Friday, Aug. 29. He was 73. Although Brooks also had raced fuel cars in his youth, he was best known as the founder of Brooks Racing Components, which specialized in connecting rods, and Applied Friction Techniques (AFT), which helped revolutionize nitro clutches in the late 1980s. Although he wasn’t in the superstar realm of drag racing personalities, he was respected by those who knew the behind-the-scenes heroes and had already been selected to be honored at the 2014 NHRA Motorsports Museum California Hot Rod Reunion presented by Automobile Club of Southern California in October.
Brooks competed in Top Fuel in the early to mid-1960s, driving for, among others, John Bateman (Atlas Tool Special), Reath Automotive, Wilton & Doss, and Brooks & Rapp. While he was racing, he ran the piston department at Mickey Thompson Enterprises, and from that endeavor, he founded BRC in 1971 and AFT in 1986.
It was in the mid- to late 1980s that crew chiefs were beginning to experiment with the first lockup/multistage clutches, and Brooks formed a fruitful working relationship with Dale Armstrong, then crew chief for Kenny Bernstein’s Budweiser King Funny Car, and worked with Armstrong when he was crew chief for Don Prudhomme and Jerry Toliver as well as for Jim Dunn Racing. He also was instrumental in the success of topflight drivers such as Joe Amato and Dick LaHaie in their heyday.
Bob Brooks raced Top Fuel in the 1960s. (Above) The Brooks & Rapp AA/FD, near lane, took on Jim Ward in the Yeakel Plymouth entry. (Below) Brooks, right, had "a discussion" with Lions starter Larry Sutton. (Jere Alhadeff photo)
“When I first started working on the [lockup clutch], we were using an L&T pressure plate and adding just three [clutch] fingers, but as everyone started adding more fingers, we realized you couldn’t just release the bearing; you had to have something that moved the bearing, and Brooks had the cannon that could do that,” Armstrong recalled.
“He was a great racer; he could have run a car on his own,” he added, which is surely high praise. “Whenever I went anywhere [to a new team], I’d tell them how valuable he was and that he needed to come, too. Back then, there wasn’t a lot of this crew chief/co-crew chief like you see today, but he was a real good sounding board for me."
Brooks also developed one of the first fuel-system slide valves that is still used by several nitro teams.
“If we came up with something and needed it done fast and his company could do it, he would,” said Armstrong. “We’d be sitting around and come up with an idea, and he’d jump right on it, like the slide valve and the fuel regulator. With that deal, we were just sitting around having lunch one day, and I said we need something that, as the engine is coming down and we’re losing fuel pressure, we need something like a variable orifice that will keep the pressure up. Don Jackson, who worked for Bob, came up with the prototype for the slide valve, and Brooks put it into production. All of his stuff was so nice.
“He loved to race, and he was fun to race with, too. I remember when we were in Houston [in 1999, with Prudhomme’s team and driver Larry Dixon], it was the night run, Friday I think, and it was cooling off, so I set the clutch up from older records and put a half-pound in the tires, which is what we used to do back then to get through tire shake. Brooks came walking up through the line, telling everyone we were going to set the record. I thought we had it set up for a nice run but not the record, but it went out there and ran 4.48 for the record. I about fell over. He just knew from the setup we had in it and the way the track looked what was going to happen.”
From left, Kenny Bernstein, Dale Armstrong, and Brooks (minus uniform!) shared the winner's circle in Houston in 1996.
Brooks with Dick and Kim LaHaie in 1986; they were one of AFT's earliest customers.
Even though he was still servicing many customers, Brooks was proud to be part of the Budweiser King team’s success and even asked to have an official crew uniform, much to Armstrong’s chagrin.
“I asked him, ‘Are you sure you want to wear that? You’re going to take a lot of flak from your other customers out there.’ He didn’t care; he just wanted to wear the Budweiser colors. And, of course, he did take a lot of flak and eventually just trimmed back to wearing a red Budweiser sweater or a polo.”
Armstrong and Brooks still talked weekly; “I really liked Bob,” he said, “and I’ll miss him.”
Former NHRA Top Fuel champ LaHaie was another close friend of Brooks' -- he and wife Claudia often vacationed with Brooks and his wife, Gail – and he, too, was saddened by the passing.
LaHaie met Brooks in the 1970s when he was a customer of (and sponsored by) BRC; the two were kindred spirits.
“He was a great friend. It’s hard to explain how a friendship starts, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately,” he said. “We had mutual friends, but no one really introduced us; we were just drawn to one another, and it turned into a lifelong friendship. You don’t get too many of those in your life. It’s sad to realize I won’t see him anymore.
“I ran the first clutch he ever made – it was a spring-style like they use in Alcohol Dragster – at an NHRA race in Tulsa [Okla.] in 1986. I said bring your clutch and everything we’ll need and bring plenty of it because I’m going to turn that thing into a potato chip every time it goes down the racetrack. Lo and behold, it was a nice clutch, and I won the championship the next year with one of his centrifugal clutches.
“We used to argue night and day about how to do this or do that, and he was always damned determined to make sure I wasn’t right. One time, back before he had AFT, I was at Indy and had used up all my clutch parts, and [daughter] Kim was stoning down a disc surface, and Bob told me I should just go buy another clutch from Hays. I didn’t have the money, but I thought we’d be OK. We lost, and Bob came over and said, ‘See? I was right again! I should have tied you down and put a new clutch in there.’
“We were serious about our racing, but we had fun – a lot of fun. Robert Goodwin -- who worked with Bob at BRC – and I always used to make fun of Bob. We used to say there were three lines of communication in drag racing: telegram, telephone, and tell-a-Bob. If you wanted anyone to know anything, just tell Bob. AFT was the center for gossip. There was never a dull moment with Bob around.
“And Bob was always trying to come up with a new way to make the wheel round. Robert and I used to joke that the initials AFT – which stood for Applied Friction Techniques – had to stand for something else. Bob was one of those guys always looking for the trick of the week, so we came up with ‘Another [Friggin’] Trick.’ “
With LaHaie, right, as his crew chief, Larry Dixon won more than 25 races, including the U.S. Nationals twice for car owner Don Prudhomme, left.
Brooks was also very instrumental in getting LaHaie hired to work on Prudhomme’s Dixon-driven dragster beginning in 2000, a union that led to back-to-back championships (2002-03). “I was working for Doug Herbert then, and Brooks was working with Armstrong over at ‘Snake’s,’ but they were going to work on Prudhomme’s Funny Car,” he recalled. “Brooks said I at least needed to talk to Prudhomme about it, so I went over and talked to ‘Snake’ and told him I didn’t think it would work because I never liked him; he just rolled his eyes and said, ‘I never wanted to go to dinner with you, either.’
"We went our separate ways, but later that season [after a falling-out with Herbert], I went to work for them at Reading, just to watch the car run. On Monday, I asked them to change the car to run it my way: less nitro, some more compression, and my clutch settings, and the car went right down the track with really good numbers. ‘Snake’ got the crew guys together and told them, ‘This is going to be short and to the point, and I want you to listen very closely to what I’m saying. If Dick LaHaie says tomorrow is Easter, start coloring the eggs.’ We had a helluva run together, and I owe a lot of that to Bob.”
Tom “the Mongoose” McEwen, who knew Brooks since they were kids, growing up in the Long Beach/Bixby Knolls, Calif., area and later belonging to the same car club, the Marron Avenue Marauders, for the street on which McEwen lived, remembered his friend.
“Bob was always a racer and an innovator; he always liked to build stuff, even back then,” recalled McEwen. “He loved to innovate; he and Armstrong were both like that. He was smart and always fun to be around, even to the very end when he wasn’t doing so well.”
Each Wednesday, Brooks, McEwen, Jim Brissette, Bud Rasner, and a cast of other famed names from drag racing’s past would get together to have lunch (Armstrong used to attend when he lived closer). They met again, minus Brooks, two days ago, at the In-N-Out Burger in Tustin, Calif., in honor of their friend.
I hate that lately this column has become a parade of passing heroes, but I'm honored to be able to give them a fond farewell. They deserve that and much more.
I have to admit, the 60th anniversary Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals lived up to its billing for this reporter. While some people might have gone there to see the dramatic conclusion to the Mello Yello regular season and the histrionics that go with victory at the Big Go, I know there were people there who went primarily to see the special nostalgia showcases involving Don Garlits, Don Prudhomme, Tom McEwen, Shirley Muldowney, Jim Nicoll, Bob Glidden, Kenny Bernstein, and Tony Schumacher.
Me, I definitely went for both, and as exciting as the on-track racing was, I was really pumped up for the shows, and judging by the amazing (and humbling) number of warm welcomes I got from fellow members of the audience, the Insider Nation definitely went to watch, too.
There were six shows in all over three days – “Snake” and “Mongoose” talking about the 1978 Funny Car final; Prudhomme and Nicoll reliving the wild 1970 Top Fuel final; Muldowney talking about her Indy experiences; Bernstein’s 1983 Indy/Big Bud Shootout double; Garlits, Glidden, and Schumacher (“Indy’s Winningest Drivers”); and Garlits talking about his 1967 victory and subsequent starting-line shave – and I somehow was able to wedge in five of the six (missing only Bernstein) between my normal race responsibilities. NHRA handed out hard-card souvenirs to attendees at each show, and by weekend’s end, a lot of folks had six hanging from their lanyards. The shows were all well-attended, expertly emceed by Bob Frey, and played before respectful and rapt audiences.
Even though I’ve heard most of the stories either firsthand from the subject (and, in the case of “Snake”-“Mongoose,” many times in the last two years thanks to the movie), I still wanted to hear them again, straight from their mouths. We all know that a lot of these heroes are well into their 70s and beyond, and I don’t know how many more times they’ll tell them. It’s my understanding that at some point, a video or videos will be released from these shows, so I won’t go into great detail here. Here are some highlights from a trio of the shows.
I had interviewed Nicoll a couple of years ago for this column (Superman Lives) to share his story about the unforgettable 1970 final that ended with his car sawed in two by an exploding clutch and an overwrought Prudhomme contemplating quitting the sport on national TV, but this was the first time I got to meet Nicoll in person. As my story back then related, he earned his “Superman” nickname from Steve Gibbs after whipping four guys in a bar fight in Irwindale and not, as widely believed, for surviving a bunch of hairy accidents, but he still looks as if he could handle himself pretty well.
Nicoll seemed a bit surprised by the love showered on him (and the long line for autographs) while “Snake” was his usual cool self, leaning back in his chair casually answering questions and firing off quip after quip and remarking on Nicoll’s still-obvious badassness. (And we finally got the answer to how Nicoll pronounces his last name; the Wide World of Sports coverage pronounced it “nickel” while I’ve always known it as sounding like “Nicole”; it is “Nicole,” though he admits some of his friends call him “Nickel.” Glad we cleared that up!)
The show included the requisite footage of the final, and I’ve always thought that it looked as if Nicoll was ahead in the shot that showed them approaching the lights. The head-on angle of the explosion doesn’t make things clear, and, of course, both guys still believe they won it.
“People tell me he was ahead; he still thinks he was ahead,” said Prudhomme, jerking a thumb in Nicoll’s direction. “I got the footage and stop-framed it. I was half a spoke ahead.”
Although a crash like Nicoll’s today would certainly elicit raised eyebrows and hand-wringing, today’s safety equipment and car construction is so good, but it wasn’t always the case then. so Prudhomme's "I think I'm gonna quit" reaction to seeing Nicoll's crash was understandable. “In those days, if you saw someone crash and go over the guardrail, it was over; they’re dead,” said Prudhomme plainly. “We had lost a lot of guys in those cars; they were extremely dangerous. That’s one of the reasons I was so upset.”
Nicoll was running a Crowerglide – not many in Top Fuel were at the time; Prudhomme was running a traditional Schiefer pedal clutch – and Nicoll said it was an improperly heat-treated clutch stand that failed and led to the explosion.
Don Prudhomme, left, and Jim Nicoll; both still "super" after all these years
(Nicoll also received well-deserved credit from Frey for developing the dual-wall Funny Car headers that have saved the bacon of many a racer by keeping the hotter inner pipes shielded from oil. After a bad fire in Gainesville in 1973, Nicoll remembered back to his Navy days the sleeved hot-water pipes that ran next to his bunk and prevented sailors from getting burned.)
Both drove front- and rear-engine dragsters and Funny Cars, and Frey asked which they liked best. Even though they were, as noted by Prudhomme, dangerous, both voted for the slingshot.
“The front-engined dragster, without a doubt, was the most thrilling, most fun thing you could ever possibly have,” said Prudhomme. “The engine was right in front of you; you could see everything – the exhaust pipes, the blower. There were no starter motors or any of that jazz. The way you started them was push-start. A car or truck would be behind you, you’d get going, let the clutch out, feed a little fuel, shut it off, and hit the starter switch, and it would go bahhhh-bup-bup-bup and pull away and then start idling. It was a real turn-me-on-er. The girls fell out of the stands. It was pretty cool; I gotta tell you.”
(The magic of those words – hearing explained what was a simple and regular procedure performed over and over again – comes from the speaker, and to hear how the great “Snake” remembers it some 40 years ago, those are the reasons I go to these things.)
Also of note was the re-created 1970 Nicoll Top Fueler, built by Don Ross Fabricating of Dallas for Gage Prichard, which was on hand. Nicoll praised its accuracy. Displayed along with the exquisite dragster was the original roll cage, which had been found recently in the Dallas area and – get this – had been being used for the last 10 years as a child’s swing. Someone had found it behind the T-Bar chassis shop in Dallas, where Nicoll had dropped off the remains, and repurposed it. It was recently discovered and then purchased to use as a complimentary display piece.
The whole story of the 1978 Indy Funny Car final has been told so many times – and obviously was the centerpiece around which the Snake & Mongoose movie was penned – but it’s still cool to hear the principals discuss it. The death of McEwen’s son, Jamie, after a brave battle with leukemia and his request that his dad go to the race and beat “the Snake” (even though Jamie and Prudhomme were real pals) and the fact that he not only won the biggest race of his career, but also finally beat Prudhomme to do it is just so storybook that if it had been only been dreamed up by Hollywood scriptwriters, we might all rolling our eyes, but it really happened.
So many things had to go right for McEwen to win the race. Prudhomme was quicker than everyone (and especially McEwen) there, running 5.97 and 6.04 in the first two rounds while McEwen had gone just 6.16 and 6.18. Then Ron Colson, driving for Roland Leong, crossed the centerline on a second-round bye run (after Bernstein broke), giving McEwen a bye in the semifinals, which he used as a test run to experiment with a new tune-up that he knew he’d need to beat “the Snake” in the final.
“We were always looking for some kind of magic like [Prudhomme] always seemed to have in his car,” he explained. “We had to try something.” With a free pass, they switched from a 4.10 gear to a 4.30 hoping to drop the e.t. five- or six-hundredths. The time they tried it previously, the car had smoked the tires, but this time, it hooked great on the launch – in the left lane where he knew that right-lane-favoring Prudhomme would put him -- and he shut it off to a 7.12 coasting pass.
Prudhomme, meanwhile, ran a 6.05 on his semifinal pass to defeat "Lil’ John" Lombardo, and no one expected him to lose the final. His car, the Army Arrow, was that good and that consistent all weekend, so when he hazed the tires 100 feet into the run and McEwen went sailing by to win, 6.05 to 6.33, the place went nuts.
“I thought we were going to win it,” Prudhomme admitted. “We had the best lane; we had it all. The Tree came down, and I thought my timing was good, but it just smoked the tires, and to this day, I don’t know why it did. I really don’t. I was amazed. Shocked. It was just meant to be. I can honestly say that’s the only time I’ve lost a race that I was OK with it afterwards.”
“He hazed the tires, and that was the little bit of help I needed,” said McEwen. “It was very emotional. I was sad; he was sad, but I think he was sad because he lost,” he added with a laugh.
Tom McEwen. left, and Prudhomme; still pals, still feuding
Frey then bravely asked the question that some may have been thinking: Did Prudhomme let McEwen win that final?
“Hell no,” Prudhomme said emphatically, then magnanimously added, “He won it fair and square, and, I’ll tell you, even if I hadn’t smoked the tires, I don’t know if we would have beaten him anyhow. He made probably the best run of his career.”
Prudhomme had an interesting analogy about his relationship with McEwen and the relatively short (considering the span of their careers) Wildlife Racing partnership and the Mattel deal that made “Snake and Mongoose” a household phrase for millions of families.
“I won 40-something  national events [with NHRA] as a driver and a total of maybe 120 national events [I assume this is referring to his AHRA, IHRA, and NHRA-owner wins] and set all kinds of records and did everything there was to do, but the thing I’m most known for is the three years we were together,” he said. “It’s kind of like a band having a really hit song and being known [mostly] for that.”
That comment led to some spiritedly funny back-and-forth, with Prudhomme talking about all the years that his winning “carried” the sponsorship and McEwen taking credit for getting the Mattel deal [“I was the leader of the band!”], that ended with Prudhomme acknowledging that they blamed one another when the Mattel deal ended, Prudhomme blaming McEwen for not winning more races and McEwen blaming the race-focused Prudhomme for not making more personal appearances.
Truly the highlight of the six shows was Garlits talking about his experiences at the 1967 event. It’s a story well-known and told by now, of how Garlits was in one of the worst droughts of his career, had failed to qualify at either the Winternationals or Springnationals earlier in the year, and hadn’t yet run in the sixes as many of his peers had. Sometime that summer, he vowed not to shave until he ran in the sixes, which he did in winning the final round against James Warren, then towed back to the starting line, where he shaved his beard (at least part of it). Here’s how Garlits tells the story years later.
Garlits had been struggling because his current car was worn out. The car he was running was Swamp Rat VIII, which was rebranded as Swamp Rat X after it was fronthalved. He’d moved from Florida to Detroit to be closer to the manufacturers and the racing action and desperately needed a new car. Even before qualifying was over at the Springnationals, Garlits realized he needed to build a new car and started packing up.
“We started out the gate, and Tom McEwen and Connie Kalitta came over and said, ‘Where are you going? You’re not qualified.’ I told them I was going home to build a new car. McEwen had a big laugh and made some remark, and Kalitta said, ‘Don’t upset him; there’s no telling what he might do.’ Kalitta knew me; we’ve been friends since we were 17 years old. On the way home, I drew up the plans and the schedule. We’d work 20 hours a day, sleep four hours a night, my wife is going to cook four meals a day at even intervals and bring them to the shop. We had a race in Muncie, Ind., with the Hawaiian the next Saturday, and I wasn’t one to back out of a race. We got it done, but we never had a chance to shave, which is how the beards got started.”
Even with the new car, Swamp Rat XI (which was on hand this year), Garlits was in deep with the tough field at the 1967 Nationals.
“I was definitely the underdog; I didn’t have much of a chance,” he admitted. “I was testing Goodyear tires, and they just weren’t as good yet as the M&Hs. I qualified 23rd and told Goodyear I couldn’t do anything more with their tires, so they told me. ‘Go over and get some M&Hs; we’ll buy them for you.’ I went over Monday morning to Marvin’s [Rifchin's] truck, and he told me, ‘I don’t have any left, but James Warren just bought a set; he may sell you his take-offs.’ I went over to see James, and he said, ‘Just take the new ones; you’ll only be in for a couple of rounds, and they need a couple of break-in runs anyway.’
“With every round I went, I would go over and ask James if he wanted his new tires back, and he’d say, 'No, I’m running 6.80s and 6.90s; I’m fine,’ because I was still in the sevens because the Goodyears had given me so much trouble, and I was afraid to stand on it too much. I went over before the final round and said, ‘James, this is the final, this is for the money, do you want your tires back?’ He said, ‘Don, I just ran 6.85 and you ran 7.01; I think I have the best tires.’ I just said, ‘OK,’ and we ran, and, of course, I ran 6.77. The tires were really good.”
Garlits got standing ovations both before and after the show, the only legend to be received that way. Yes, he might not still race there anymore and Schumacher now has more Top Fuel wins there, but Indy still belongs to “Big Daddy.”
The show didn’t end there for Garlits; an hour or so later, he pulled Swamp Rat XI into the winner’s circle beneath Parks Tower, and, re-creating that great 1967 moment, shaved the beard he had started growing this summer in anticipation of the show. It was another amazing moment, and if you closed your eyes just enough, you could image that it was, once again, 1967. Ah, the magic of Indy.
As I mentioned, Frey did an outstanding job of running the show, asking interesting questions and milking extra details from the participants, but he might not have had the best question. Fans got to ask questions after each show, and at the conclusion of “Indy’s Most Winningest” – in which Garlits had talked about his dream of running 200 mph in his battery-powered dragster – it was Schumacher who posited the following to Garlits: “Say you pushed the pedal down on that electric car and get to the finish, and like the DeLorean, you go back to the future. What year do you want to land in?”
Garlits had no problem providing an answer that I’m sure many of you reading would agree with.
“1975. I think that was the best year for drag racing; the cars ran 250 mph and ran 5.70s with nice side-by-side races. There was no taking the cars apart between rounds; we could return in probably 25 minutes. And anyone who wanted to do it could do it; it didn’t take millions of dollars. If it was still like that, I’d be racing again.”
Yours truly, meeting Raymond Godman and Preston Davis; an honor.
Yes, those were the days, and it was great to revisit them in Indy with these shows. There are going to be more of these types of presentations this year at the World Finals, which will be celebrating its 50th anniversary. The National Dragster staff also is finishing up our history of the World Finals book (similar to the great Winternationals book we made a few years ago), complete with year-by-year reaps, photos, and interesting features. You’ll be able to buy it at the event or online. I’ll have more details later.
As I mentioned earlier, it was great to meet and talk with so many of the readers of this column. It’s truly flattering that I couldn’t go more than an hour or two walking around the hallowed grounds without someone stopping me to talk about the column. It was especially thrilling to sit down and talk in person to Raymond Godman and Preston Davis, whom I’d interviewed two weeks ago for a story on their legendary Tennessee Bo-Weevil entries. They were as warm and gracious in person as they had been on the phone, and it was my honor and privilege to shake their hands for all they’ve done for the sport.
As great as the U.S. Nationals was this year, it was also a bit sad as we learned just before the race of the passing of John Farkonas, one third of the famed Farkonas-Coil-Minick Chi-Town Hustler team, and during the event of the loss of Bob Brooks, a well-known connecting-rod and fuel-clutch guru. I’ll share their stories, and the thoughts of those who knew them, next Friday.
Thank for stopping by, and, as always, thanks for the support. love, and contributions.