For as long as I've been going to the drags, the Finals has always been a bittersweet affair. On the one hand, it's the defining moment for which we run the season – to see who wins the championship. For me, not going to the Finals would be like walking out on a movie before its ending or not finishing the last dozen pages of a novel. And, of course, with the Countdown to the Championship – love it or hate it – there's sure to be at least two championships still undecided when the final Sunday pulls to the line.
The flip side is that it's end of the year, and we launch into a two-month drag drought that lasts until preseason testing in January. You try to savor every snootful of nitro, every breath of rubberized air, every ground-pounding launch, and preserve it in your memory to get you through the too-long off-season.
How easy that off-season is on you depends on the balance you can strike between A) your level of fandom and B) the quality of the Finals. Because you’re here reading this, I'm guessing you have straight A's in "A," and, if you were at the Finals – heck, even if you followed it on NHRA.com or watched it on ESPN2 – you got at least a month of memories and good bench-racing material to get you halfway to Phoenix.
From a reporter's standpoint, the race was packed with all sorts of nuances that kept our brains whirring and our fingers tapping. From the tight points battles in Funny Car and Pro Stock Motorcycle to Tony Schumacher's quest to set single-season records to the number of personal win and qualifying streaks on the line, there was a lot to watch on the track, and, the Finals being one of the true can't-miss social events, the place was packed with racers who weren't even racing. No one likes to miss a goodbye party.
I scribbled into my notepad (and if you've seen my notes, you know what I mean) all kinds of random things that happened or that I heard to share with you here today.
Game on: Wednesday, of course, was the big NHRA Softball Classic game in San Bernardino, which was a lot farther than it looked on Google Maps. Of course, then again, I was following ND's resident Inspector Gadget, shutterbug Richard "Way" Wong, who was foolishly following the directions of his GPS and took us on a circuitous route to the stadium.
Arrowhead Credit Union Park, home of the minor-league Inland Empire 66ers – the single A affiliate of our own L.A. Dodgers; they used to be called the Stampeders but changed their name a few years ago to reflect (warning: major assumption follows) the stadium's proximity to Route 66, which is five or six blocks to the north — is a pretty swell place as far as minor-league stadiums go. I've been to a few, and this one clearly is a jewel.
Once we sorted out various Internet connection issues and cracked open a long-shut window in the two-spot pressroom, Senior Ed "K-Mac" and I did live play-by-play textual reports on NHRA.com – accompanied by some of Wong's photos -- that drew a surprising number of followers. The game was run at a frantic pace, and Kevin and I were constantly playing catch-up trying to figure out who of the constantly changing fielders had booted the ball to whom. The "Bob"sie twins – Frey and Wilber – did a great job announcing the game, and next time, we'd be a lot better off just simulcasting it like we do our race coverage.
I don’t know who was more tired after the game: the players or Kevin and me. Anyway, I ended up playing spotter, and Kevin did a great job of not only turning my running commentary into words but into some pretty clever and baseball-writer-worthy prose; you can read it here. The game was a blast, filled with some good plays, some not-so-good plays, and a lot of comedic relief. Brandon Bernstein definitely was the fielding MVP, and it was tough not to give it to Bob Vandergriff Jr., who slugged a pair of round-trippers.
Lachelle Seymour and Zak Elcock of the NHRA Media Department also should get a tip of the hat for their efforts in promoting not just this game but the washed-out original in Reading. I worked with the dynamic duo to brainstorm the story ideas that ran on NHRA.com the last few months, and they did the legwork. They thanked me for my work – which also consisted of a half-dozen posters I designed for them using my feeble Photoshop skills – by presenting me with a large version of one of the posters that they had signed by all of the players. It'll have a place of honor on my wall here.
Streaks end: Antron Brown may have been the winning skipper at the softball game, but he was on the losing end Saturday when his long qualifying streak – 168 races, spanning 145 in Pro Stock Motorcycle beginning in 1998 and 23 in Top Fuel this season – ended when he couldn’t qualify the Matco Tools Top Fuel dragster. It was a sad ending to one of the most impressive season debuts in recent memory in the class, and his DNQ dropped him from third place to fifth.
Angelle Sampey's 12-year streak of winning at least one Pro Stock Motorcycle race in each season since her 1996 debut – I was in Reading when she pulled off her stunning first win --- also ended when her Rush Racing Buell went lame on the line in round one with a bad fuel pump. Fans with sharp memories may also remember her bike breaking on the line in the semifinals last year in her final ride on the Army Suzuki.
Doug Kalitta had his similar 10-year streak snapped, too, when he fell to Cory Mac in round one. Kalitta didn't preserve his streak last year until Richmond – the third-to-last race – but the magic ran out this year.
Loose wheel: Jerry Toliver has always been known as a bit of a loose wheel, but even he had to be surprised when he shucked the left-rear wheel on the Rockstar flopper during Saturday qualifying in one of the weirder moments I can remember of late. He smoked the hoops, pedaled it, and the next thing you know, the slick is rolling into the other lane, bouncing off the guardrail, and beating Toliver's tricycle to the finish line. Broken wheel studs were pinpointed as the cause, but hats off to J.T. for a superb handling job, and we'll look forward to seeing him and "Big Jim" Dunn together next year.
Out among 'em: Usually I watch the racing from the cozy confines of the media center so that I can constantly update NHRA.com – Candida Benson was keeping tabs on the championship battles in a running notebook, and I was writing the recap and championship stories – but I got a chance to sit in the grandstands during the second round Sunday. I recently was reunited – after a 30-year separation – with my stepbrothers and stepsisters. They are the kids of my stepfather, Lee, whom I've written about in National DRAGSTER. I lost my biological father when I was 9, and Lee married my mom and was the father figure that every boy needs. He taught me so much about so many things that even he's not aware of what it meant, though I take great pains to try to tell him that each chance I get, especially after he suffered a heart attack a few weeks ago.
All three of my stepbrothers – Chris, Mickey, and Kevin -- had lived with us at one point or another, and all went on to become merchant seamen, so it was a rare chance to get them all together this past summer for a barbecue. I had reconnected with them in the craziest way – I was coaching high school hockey, and one of the kids on the team was Chris' stepson – and one thing led to another.
Oldest sister Leanne, who lives locally, played ringleader and got us all together then, and Mickey and Kevin, and some of their friends flew down from up north to join Leanne and her husband, George, plus nephew Chris (Chris' son), and other friends Saturday and Sunday at the races. I watched that second round – highlighted by Rod Fuller's stunning holeshot victory over Tony Schumacher – from the left-lane stands at about half-track, surrounded by family and the kind of hard-core fans that the media center keeps you isolated from.
It was great, and the roar for Fuller was overpowering. It was one of the most talked-about pairings, and Fuller, who had lost the last six and eight of 10 to Schumacher this season, definitely upset the pre-run predictions.
I used to sit in the stands a lot in the pre-NHRA.com days, and now I know I'll be back there more often in the future.
Phil Bur to Phil Bur: Ran into Phil Burkart Jr. behind the tower late Sunday. The journeyman driver, who most fans remember filled in so well at this event last year for injured John Force, says he's still trying to find a ride to return but currently has nothing cooking. Burkart was doing color commentary on the PA during qualifying.
Meet Ms. Smith: My old pal Roy Hill flagged me down Saturday and introduced me to his latest charge, Anna Lisa Smith, daughter of racetrack impresario Bruton Smith. The former Pro Stock driver runs a successful driving school – headquartered now, not coincidentally, at Smith's zMax Dragway – and has been schooling Anna Lisa in the finer aspects of race car driving. Although she has been around auto racing her whole life and was a successful equestrian rider, she fell in love with drag racing at the inaugural NHRA Carolinas Nationals at her dad's fabulous new facility. One thing led to another, and now she's hoping to make her Top Fuel debut late next year, probably at next season's event at zMax. She has already made about 60 laps in a Super Comp car, and Hill hopes to have her up to 200 mph by year's end. Nitro testing could commence as early as next spring.
I spent an hour talking with her and Hill Sunday morning, and three things are quickly clear. First, she's very serious about this. It's not some phase she's going through. Second, Hill, who has been known as a bit of a – shall we say – stern taskmaster to his students, may have mellowed some, but not much, with his new student, who's getting an intense and thorough introduction to the sport in all manner of cars. And third, she's not some rich girl doing this out of daddy's wallet; she's going to be responsible for funding the car herself through sponsorships. She will get help from her father, who has appointed Don Hawk, SMI vice president of business affairs, as her "agent," but the rest is up to her. She's also well-aware how this all looks and even admitted that she, too, might be rolling her eyes at the thought of some perceived princess who decided that the flavor of the week is Top Fuel but that she has every intention of proving to everyone her fierce desire to become a good race car driver. Look for a bigger story on her from me in the future.
Fire watch: Once the fires to the south of Auto Club Raceway at Pomona got raging, our view from the media center, looking straight down the track, was filled with columns of smoke, as evidenced by this photo.
Initially, the fire was in the Chino Hills area, but as soon as word came that a new fire had begun in Yorba Linda, it got everyone's attention because you don't have to be much of a racing fan to know that's where John Force and his team are located.
We spent a lot of time between qualifying runs watching streaming video footage on the Web and trying to compare it to Google Maps to see how close the fires were burning to Force's shop, to the family home, and to the house of Robert Hight.
Force was in the media center Saturday afternoon to accept a special comeback award from the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association, and I called him over to my laptop to give us a guided tour of what he knew.
Fire was licking up in the wash behind the shopping center adjacent to the Force compound (and ultimately claimed several businesses there) as shown in this second photo, taken by longtime Force employee Craig Hoelzel and forwarded to me by Force publicist Elon Werner. The shop escaped damage as did the Force family home, but Hight's home, on a cul-de-sac at the very northern edge of Yorba Linda and backed up to brush-filled hills, seemed very vulnerable. A small crew was dispatched Saturday to rescue pets and Hight's Wallys.
I ran into Adria, Force's eldest daughter and Robert's wife, later that evening and gave her a big hug and wished them the best. It was bad timing for everyone, what with Robert nervously embroiled in the title hunt and Adria frantically planning sister Ashley's wedding shower. In the end, thanks to a firetruck strategically parked in the cul-de-sac to prevent the possible ignition of Hight's house setting off a chain reaction, all of the homes were spared.
In the Team CSK blog, in what may be one of Wilber's last entries there before it becomes the Wilkerson blog, B.W. says that Del and Connie Worsham had to evacuate their house in Chino Hills but that they, too, were lucky.
Fans Sunday also were treated to a mini air show as the giant "super scooper" airplanes that deliver pinpoint water drops on the fires swooped in and out of nearby Puddingstone Lake, just the other side of Brackett Field, to collect another load of water to dump on hot spots.
Champ chatter: Hight gave me the good news Sunday during pre-race and said that he'd tried his best to not even think about it as he qualified Saturday and that having something to do instead of wringing his hands was probably a blessing. He was glad to have it not be a factor for Sunday's all-important eliminations.
Gary Scelzi was a popular grab during the pre-race mixer on the starting line, with fans and racers wanting to get their photo taken with him before he leaves on what we all hope will be a temporary retirement. Scelzi could have had a hand in the championship as he was paired with title hopeful Jack Beckman on the opposite side of the ladder from the other four challengers.
"Why are you on the sissy side of the ladder?" Force demanded jokingly of Scelzi. Scelzi, always the good sport when his car isn't running up to speed, later told Beckman, "Hell, I'd like to race me, too." We're gonna miss him.
Tears shed: There were a lot of tears around the place all weekend, In addition to Scelzi's departure, fan favorites Chuck and Del Worsham ended – temporarily? – their long father and son run in Funny Car in a way that no one wanted to see them go out. The CSK team, which even resorted to its previously-familiar-but-jinxed red body for its last qualifying attempt, disappointingly missed the show.
If any of the jaded media were not as impacted as the fans were by the end of Wilkerson's heroic bid for the Funny Car crown, they probably were after "Wilk" addressed them after his loss and came close to tears on several occasions. It's very clear what this season meant to Wilkerson and how disappointed he was not to be able to see it through, but he earned a ton of respect and admiration – and fear – from his peers.
Hight, too, clearly was disappointed that his bid again ended short of the number-one spot, and perhaps the toll of the previous day's uncertainty about Casa Hight added to the emotion that poured out when he came to chat with the media.
Even champ Pedregon was choked up, talking about how he and Tony lost their dad in their teen years and how they both have built great careers and taken their knocks along the way. Cruz also was clearly aware of how some may think that Wilkerson was a more deserving champ than him and planned to address his respect for "Wilk" in his speech tonight at the awards ceremony.
Insider out: And finally, thanks again to all of the readers who stopped me in the pits and elsewhere to offer thanks for this column. It's truly an honor to have an impact on people's lives and memories to the point where they seek you out to thank you.
Top Fuel pilot Troy Buff is among the readers here and grabbed me during pre-race to thank me. I've known of Buff for a long time; during my first year here, the Division 4 Alcohol Dragster war between him and Bubba Sewell was one of the fiercest rivalries going. Whatever happened to Bubba?
I also got to catch up with Insider readers and former nitro racers Jeff Courtie and Steve Kalb, who I ran into at the same time and introduced; I was an interested fly on the wall as they immediately launched into comparisons about their 1970s engine combos – and with Howard Hull, who wrote for us last week about his OCIR memories and presented me with a framed poster from a mid-'70s PDA race at OCIR (more cool stuff for the wall!) as thanks for putting him in touch with fellow trapshooter Hight earlier this year; Hight graciously donated some JFR goodies to an NRA auction Hull was running.
I also met with Karl White, who snapped some of the "now" photos of OCIR that ran in my recent column, so that I could hand-deliver to him the prized vintage souvenir programs he had entrusted to me. I was able to take him and his girlfriend – who was attending her first race – and their friends on a VIP tour of the tower.
Anyway, I just wanted to take this brief moment to again tell you all how much your comments, memories, and photos contribute to the success of this column, which is why I wanted to jump in here first thing Monday and share all of this with you before diving back headlong into a pile of National DRAGSTER work that we hope will somehow adequately chronicle what a wild and crazy race the 2008 Finals was.
I'll see you later this week.
It's Friday in Pomona as the 2008 season dwindles away to its last few days, and, hopefully, like that old coffee commercial, it's going to be good until the last drop. As noted previously, qualifying is a show unto itself for the championship contenders in Funny Car and Pro Stock Motorcycle, where a few qualifying points here and there will make a huge difference in the number of rounds the leaders need to go to clinch their titles or the number of rounds further than them that their pursuers will have to traverse.
I've received a number of requests in the last few weeks to talk about the history of the track here in Pomona, which has been in business since 1950 and, to my knowledge, is the only major racetrack nestled so closely to housing in a major urban center. When racing first started here back when Harry Truman was the president, there wasn't a whole lot surrounding the facility, but now it's bordered to the north, south, and east by housing. The fact that it continues to survive is a yearly blessing counted by SoCal NHRA race fans who get to visit the grand old dame twice a year for the season-opening and -closing events.
Anyway, rather than write a from-scratch history of the track, I'm going to reprint here an article that ran just last year in National DRAGSTER, written by Associate Editor John Jodauga for our popular Readers Choice issue.
When NHRA first began racing in Pomona in the 1950s, there wasn't much of a facility -- just some small bleachers and a small timing tower.
By the early 1960s, the now-familiar Winternationals banner was in place on the starting line; note the timing tower in the background.
By the late 1960s, fuill grandstands were in place. They were not permanent yet but constructed each year before the season opener.
(Above) Top Fuelers can be seen being paraded down the track in this 1969 photo, taken from the new three-story tower (below) that was erected on the west side of the track.
This has to be the most interesting drag racing seating arrangement ever; Pomona used to have grandstands behind the starting line on both sides of the track. While the view of the racing might not have been great, fans got to see the teams prepare the cars to run. Note the massive amount of room behind the starting line, which now is limited to maybe 50 feet due to the track-spanning tower now in place.
Modern-day Pomona, with the grandstand-topping suites and three-story timing and VIP tower behind the starting line.
With perhaps only O’Reilly Raceway Park at Indianapolis, home of the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, no other dragstrip in the country can match the tradition of Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, which tops the seniority list of active quarter-mile facilities in the U.S. Not only has the Pomona track played host to the NHRA Winternationals since its inception in 1961, it has also staged the NHRA Finals since 1984 and has supported both events through the years with capacity crowds.
The track, located on the parking grounds of Fairplex at Pomona, has kept pace with the newest supertracks in the country, an accomplishment most recently exemplified by Tony Schumacher’s national e.t. record (4.428) set at [2006's] season-ending event. Additionally, the facility is one of the few dragstrips located in a major metropolitan area that has not been overtaken by property-development projects or been affected by environmental concerns.
The track opened its doors in 1950 as the result of the collective efforts between the Pomona Police Department and the local Choppers Car Club to provide a place for drag racing enthusiasts to race safely and in an organized fashion off the streets.
Chuck Griffith, who had been president of the Choppers club since 1948, said, “We knew many of the Pomona police officers on a first-name basis because we saw them around town all the time, and they were also very much interested in performance cars. Among the most helpful were Chief Ralph Parker and Sgt. Bud Coons. Bud actually took the time to attend several of our car-club meetings.
“We were looking for a place to drag race locally because even though we could run at the Russetta Timing Association events in the desert, it was just single cars running for a time, and that was not as much fun as racing side by side. We were able to drag race at Highland Airport in Fontana, Calif., but it was usually too windy for us.”
When the opportunity came to begin competing on the parking lot of the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds, both the Choppers and the Pomona police jumped at the chance.
Said Griffith, “The original parking-lot surface was tar with gravel sprinkled over it. Club members swept away the gravel, and even though the tar would later begin to break up, it was still better than what we had in Fontana.”
The fledgling National Hot Rod Association, which had just been founded in 1951, soon became involved.
Said Griffith, “Wally Parks came a lot to our early events, and it wasn’t long before we began discussions, which led to the running of the Southern California Championship Drags in 1953, NHRA’s first sanctioned event. Park and Coons were all for it because they encouraged anything that would keep the kids from racing on the streets.”
As an operational procedure before the event, the Choppers club was incorporated and became the Pomona Valley Timing Association (PVTA) to gain an official status for operating the Pomona meets, and among its first duties was having the track paved to provide a first-rate racing surface.
The event exceeded everyone’s expectations in racer participation and spectator attendance, but there were still other challenges. Complaints about noise from local residents, always a thorn on the side of drag racing facilities, became a factor that could not be ignored.
Said Griffith, “The PVTA responded with a public-relations campaign by placing ‘Speed Kills’ posters in public places around the track, and we also gained the support of local churches by making donations to them. The nearby business establishments quickly realized how much we helped the local economy, especially when we ran our annual big event, which a few years later evolved into the first Winternationals. It was through efforts like that that we’ve been able to survive through the years.”
Said Stan Adams, [then] track operational manager, “Because we race in Pomona only twice a year, a lot of extra effort goes into track preparation. We begin getting ready a month before each event, scraping and surfacing the track to get rid of any bumps or trouble spots, and we do everything possible to ensure that the racing surface is as good as any other track in the country.”
Alan Johnson, who tuned Schumacher’s U.S. Army dragster to the 4.428 record, said, “One of the big factors is that we race at Pomona at the beginning and end of each year, so you usually get a good track. Also, there’s a bit of a downhill slope for the strip, but that doesn’t help at all if the starting line doesn’t have enough traction to take the initial hit of your car. I’d rank the Pomona racing surface as one of the top two or three in the country. When you take into account how long this place has been around, some of the numbers we put up in Pomona are pretty amazing.”
Although POWERade championship battles will rule the headlines, the savvy Pomona fans know that there is so much other drama bubbling under the surface that does not relate to the championships, including potential wins that would make for more pleasant winters.
Can Top Fuel rookie Antron Brown, who has already exceeded everyone’s expectations this year, earn back second place in the standings, or can Hillary Will, eager to grab the eye of a potential sponsor for next season, hang on to the number-two spot? Will the event be the swan song between Larry Dixon and longtime team owner and mentor Don Prudhomme? Can Brandon Bernstein send Tim and Kim Richards off to retirement with another Wally for their shelf? Can “Hot Rod” Fuller and crew chief Rob Flynn — the latter of whom will replace the Richardses next year with Bernstein — get a final win together? After a disappointing 12th-place finish last year, can Schumacher’s teammate, Cory McClenathan, come from fourth to earn his fifth second-place finish, or will he slip all the way back to seventh?
In Funny Car, Gary Scelzi fans are probably pining for a last victory for the former Top Fuel and Funny Car champ before he slips off to a hopefully temporary retirement. And who among the rabid SoCal fans wouldn’t love to see a comeback victory for John Force, who a year ago at this event barely hobbled out onto the starting line following his near-career-ending crash in Dallas? Or how about hometown hero Jeff Arend winning one for Scott Kalitta and the Kalitta team?
A couple of long winning streaks also are on the line. In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Angelle Sampey needs a win to continue her remarkable streak of earning a national event win in each of the last 12 years, and Top Fuel competitor Doug Kalitta is on the verge of having his 10-year streak snapped. Scelzi has a five-year skein in jeopardy, as does Bernstein.
Anyway, gotta get back to work. By the time I see you guys next week, we'll know who the champs are, who got the job done and who didn't. Enjoy race weekend.
I don't know that there's a more wonderful feeling for an NHRA fan than the anticipation during race week when the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series is coming to your hometown. Man, you get to see all the cool cars and sleep in your own bed to boot! No luggage to pack and check, you can keep your shoes on the whole way there, no rental car lines … man, it's the life.
It doesn't hurt that the race that's coming here is going to decide two season championships and will be crammed with a lot of side drama – last races for Gary Scelzi and Tim and Kim Richards, Tony Schumacher's bid for yet another season record, etc. – so the countdown is on! I'm going to get a chance to meet some regular Insider readers at the event, which is always fun, and catch up with some old pals. The only bummer, of course, is that it's the last race of the season.
Tomorrow, Senior Editor Kevin McKenna and yours truly along with shutterbug Richard Wong will be covering the NHRA Softball Classic live from Arrowhead Credit Union Park. I'll be posting a rolling blog after each half inning, filled with play-by-play, quotes, and photos. It should be fun.
Before we head out, though, I want to clear out the ol' mailbag, which has been filling up with regularity.
Q: Great piece on the history of OCIR. I was fascinated with the photos of the Funny Cars on the backs of the ramp trucks. We've all towed a race car on an open trailer, but what was it like for the Pro teams to do it crisscrossing the country? I'm sure bad weather, bugs, thieves, etc. were always a threat. Was there enough of a crew to do major cleanup after traveling thousands of miles? -- Scot Doyal, Austin, Texas
A: I may not always have the answers, but I know where to get them, Scot. "Berserko Bob" Doerrer lived it as he traveled with "Jungle Jim" Liberman, and BB was kind enough to supply your answer.
"Good question, Scot. Weather was the biggest problem. Most teams had a custom-made cover to protect the engine and the exposed headers, but the car still rode out in the open. A few tried full car covers, but they got trashed by the wind after just a few weeks. I remember driving across country in 'Jungle's' ramp truck when we hit a monstrous thunderstorm. To protect the car, we pulled under an overpass to ride it out and camped out for the night. Back then, Funny Cars didn't have side windows, but 'Jungle' built a pair of temporary windows that were clamped in place while traveling, and it made a big difference in keeping the interior clean.
"The driver and two or three crew guys traveled on the road, and the chore everyone hated when they arrived at the track was cleaning the body. Bob Gerdes of Circus Custom Paint, who painted a lot of the Funny Cars back then, came up with a super-slippery clear coat that he applied to every car he painted. On top of that, we applied a heavy coat of Simoniz paste wax before we hit the road, and it made the cleanup a lot easier. The car was so slick that decals wouldn't stick to it! Most of the time, we'd pull somebody out of the crowd, give him (or her) a T-shirt and cleaning supplies and let them have at it.
"Thieves were another issue. For a while, entire rigs were being stolen out of hotel parking lots (ask Don Schumacher), and we all took turns sleeping in the truck's sleeper when we were parked to protect the rig. I don't know who was the first to modify a ramp truck to enclose the car -- I believe it was Tommy Ivo -- but a few years later, the box truck and crew-cab duallie with a gooseneck Chaparral trailer became the norm, replacing the venerable ramp truck."
Thanks, BB. Pictured here is the vehicle that Berserko was referencing, Ivo's glass-sided wonder.
Q: Hi, Phil. In NHRA's Photos of the Week, in the attached pictures, there is one man with muttonchop sideburns who is standing behind the starting line. Sometimes he's at OCIR, other times he's at Irwindale. I don't think he's a crewmember for a specific car because he's standing there when various cars are running. In this first photo (Raymond Beadle, Irwindale, 1977), he's wearing white pants and standing right behind the starter. He's also in the background of this picture (Russell Long, Irwindale, 1977). He's not holding a camera, so he's not a photographer. I'm thinking he must be some NHRA official or maybe a writer for ND. Anyway, as I see these photos rotate across my screen, I am often wondering, 'Who the heck is that guy, and how is it that he's always lucky enough to be standing there?' I was wondering if the face looks familiar to you. -- Andy Perreault, Maple Valley, Wash.
A: Good eye, Andy. He's a familiar face to us longtime SoCal race fans. That's longtime assistant starter Richard Schwartz, a mainstay at "the County" and "the Dale" and always there to back up Larry Sutton (the black-hatted guy in the Beadle pic). I did an interview with Sutton two weeks ago that I will share here very soon and asked him about Richard.
"The guy would give you his last piece of anything; if you needed him, he'd drop whatever he was doing and come help you," he said. "He was an incredible man, and we miss him."
Richard died probably 10 years ago of a brain aneurysm but is fondly remembered by those who worked with him.
"Richard's nickname (his own doing) was 'OFR' -- old fat Richard," recalled Pat "Ma" Green, who worked with him at both Irwindale and OCIR. "He was an absolute delight. After OCIR closed, he finally found the love of his life and also an instant family of three kids. It was perfect. I really loved Richard. Just a beautiful person who left us much too soon. I still miss him."
Speaking of Photo of the Week, Chris Barker, who works for Alan Johnson Performance Engineering, cleared up a few of my assumptions from my last Q&A column about the Alan and Blaine Johnson Alcohol Dragster featured in a recent Photo of the Week.
"I just discovered the pic of AJ at the '87 Winters and just about fell out of my chair. I came to work here later that same year and was the second employee at Johnson Racing (after Blaine). We had met in the early '80s while I was working at a local machine shop that was occasionally sponsoring the Johnsons with some machine work on their sand drag car and also later as they transitioned into NHRA asphalt drag racing in 1982. Alan and Blaine were college students at the time, still working on the family dairy farm and at the same time building and racing the family dragster.
"This car was built by Alan and Blaine in a wood-framed tin-covered tractor barn on the family dairy farm. To this day, AJPE is still located on the family farm where the Johnson family was raised, just minus the 500 or so dairy cows! I believe that car was built specifically just for the asphalt. While they did have an earlier car that had won many races on the sand racing against Scelzi, Faria, Schedler, etc., it was not this car. That earlier sand drag car was also built by Alan and Blaine in the barn here on the farm, but I don't think this red car ever ran on the sand. AJ drove just about all of the time on the sand and also drove on the asphalt up till late '87 when Blaine stepped into the driver's seat. Yes, it was powered by a Rodeck 481 BBC, with solid Dart BBC cast heads ported by AJ, and a fabricated blower manifold, also by built by AJ.
"Jim Rizzoli started his TAD racing career after purchasing this car from the Johnsons, who meanwhile had ordered a new car from some young unknown chassis guy named Brad Hadman. Hadman had come highly recommended by Walt and Pat Austin, who owned a Hadman-built TAFC. I believe it was the first or one of the first TADs that Brad built on his own after leaving Al Swindahl's shop. The Hadman car was the first TAD that the Johnson Racing family purchased, as Alan and Blaine had always built their own cars and engines themselves, and there were also a few other chassis that were built and sold to help pay for their own racing habit. Over the years, they received tuning help and moral support from experienced drag racers like Ora Vasquez and many others along the way, which kept them going and pointed in the right direction early on. I guess, as they say, the rest is history."
Thanks for the cleanup, Chris.
Q: I just have to say that although Tony Schumacher has had an outstanding year, I really do not think it is fair to give him the same record/title as Joe Amato; after all, Joe ran the quarter-mile for all of his victories, not 1,000 feet. Yes, Tony has only lost one race since the switch to 1,000 feet, but if you watch closely, that new finish line contributed greatly to some of his victories, including Las Vegas. If he had run the full distance, Clay Millican would most likely have beaten him when he lit it up near the 1,000-foot mark. Larry Dixon may very well have driven around him in the semifinals at Las Vegas as well. It just seems to me that you wouldn't give someone a title for winning the most 200-meter-run races for only running 175 meters. Isn't this kind of the same thing? – Barb from Indiana
A: It's not really the same thing, at least in my opinion, Barb. Anytime you start trying to compare two different eras of the same class, it's a slippery slope. The point is not the different distances but the fact that, like Amato, all of Schumacher's competitors were racing him to the same distance with the same set of rules, and his team just did a better job. When you consider all of the other things that have changed since Amato's glory days – nitro percentages, minimum weights, tires, etc. – it's clear that their two cars are fairly dissimilar, too. Who's also not to say that Amato didn't win some races because we ran to 1,320 instead of 1,000 feet back then; maybe it was his faster top-end charge that won him a lot of races in which he was behind at 1,000 feet.
This same discussion comes up whenever you try to compare Don Garlits to Amato. Amato has a lot more wins than "Big Daddy," but it doesn't make him a better Top Fuel racer. Amato won a lot of races in the era of double-digit races, and Garlits did most of his damage when the calendar had fewer than 10. For the record, they all get a piece of my "best Top Fuel" pie. Garlits, who built, tuned, and drove his own cars, is definitely the best Top Fuel racer. Amato, hands down, was the best Top Fuel operator/owner. Schumacher's team is, without question, the best one ever assembled in the history of the class.
Q: So what's going on with Whit Bazemore these days? I actually had forgotten about him until I heard that Del Worsham got his new ride. That made me think about who was available, and Whit's name popped into my mind. -- Tim Boone, Huntersville, N.C.
A: I spoke to Whit just this morning at his home in Bend, Ore. He's still riding bikes and has a new hobby, trading stocks, and he and wife Michelle welcomed their second child, daughter Oona (named after the daughter of playwright Eugene O'Neill who later married Charlie Chaplin), in February, so he's also in full-time daddy mode with her and 3-year-old Dashiell. He hasn't even watched much of the racing on TV. "I watched sporadically until midsummer and probably have watched about 10 minutes of Funny Car qualifying since then," he said. "I have so much other stuff going on, and I keep up with it on the Internet and through my friends."
Although he would definitely entertain a return to the sport, he has nothing really in the fire, which actually kind of suits him fine.
"If I had to take a year off, this was a good one to do it," he said. "It was good timing. I miss the sport because I made so many good friends in the sport and with some of the fans. I certainly don’t miss the travel now because of my family, and being a racer requires you to be a bit selfish. It takes so much to do it, but, on the other hand, I don't think it ever leaves you. If the right situation comes along, I'd love to race; if it doesn't, I'm fine with that, too.
"I've talked to Don Schumacher a little bit, and if there's an opportunity I'd be very interested," he added. "Of course, with the way the economy is, it's awfully difficult now. I've talked to a couple of companies on a very preliminary basis, so who knows. Top Fuel or Funny Car, it doesn't really matter; for me, it's more about the people than the car."
Q: During the Las Vegas coverage on TV, I believe it was Mike Dunn who said that Tommy Johnson Jr. was looking for a ride. There were no details given. There is no mention of this on the Web site. Since this has been made public, I think that his fans would appreciate some explanation if it is known. -- Dane Carney
A: When I spoke to team owner Kenny Bernstein a couple of weeks ago to get his remembrances of OCIR's Last Drag Race, the Bud King told me that he had told TJ that as of Sept. 1 he was free to look for other rides. Although Bernstein still was trying to put together deals to keep his Funny Car operation on the tour, he said that he felt that he owed it to Johnson to give him the opportunity to find a new ride after the tough and disappointing season they had together.
I caught up with TJ this morning as he was packing to come west, and he confirmed that he's definitely available and eagerly looking for a new ride, and the former Top Fuel driver doesn’t care if the engine is in front of him or behind.
"It doesn’t really matter to me; the only reason I switched to Funny Cars in the first place was because that was where the ride was," said Johnson, who moved from Top Fuel to Funny Car in 1999 to drive Joe Gibbs' Interstate Batteries Pontiac. "I have two or three things that I'm working on, but I'm ready to go if someone has the right deal. It's just been a miserable year, a year when nothing went right, and there have been plenty of times I've been aggravated with it. We've had a lot of self-inflicted mistakes -- some bad tuning decisions, mistakes in the pits, things like that -- but I tell myself that the people who really understand it know that it's not the driver's fault. Mike Kloeber has come in and done a good job the last couple of races, but it's too little too late.
"I hate this part of being a driver," he said of the uncertainty. "I was with Don Prudhomme for seven great years, so I don't like being unemployed."
TJ also confirmed that he has spoken to Alan Johnson about the still-officially-unfilled seat in his new Al-Anabi dragster. "We've definitely talked, even before he made his official announcement at Indy," said Johnson. "That would be my first choice, obviously. I think if you asked any driver which car he'd like to drive, it would be that one."
Q: Phil, I just wanted to let you know that Microsoft’s Live Maps works just fine for your ghost tracks also. You don’t even need to tweak under the hood to make it work. Just plug in the number, and away you go. http://maps.live.com. -- Tom Scott
A: Thanks, Tom. I've been checking it out recently – it goes by the brand name of Virtual Earth -- and indeed it's an impressive program and has some features that Google Earth doesn't, such as the Bird's-eye view as shown in the photo of Beeline Dragway in last Friday's column.
The good news for readers is threefold. First, it's free. Second, as Tom mentioned, you don’t have to reconfigure it to accept the coordinates I supply (though it's a quick and easy deal in Google Earth); you just plug them right into the search box. Third, it runs inside your browser, not as a stand-alone product like Google Earth.
The third item is also a negative for me because though Google Earth is not dependent on an Internet connection, Microsoft's program is. The program can take some time to load; images were sometimes slow to download, and trying to "fly" around a neighborhood while in Bird's-eye view forces the program to constantly redraw it in both satellite and then Bird's-eye view.
Check out the image at right and then the two below. The one at right is your typical overhead satellite view. In 3-D mode (below left), you get a graphic approximation of the buildings it's attempting to show – in this case, your columnist's place of employment – but switching to Bird's-eye view (below right) really does the trick with an actual photo of the building.
I haven’t really spent a lot of time with the program to give it a fair shake, but I can definitely see its usefulness, and if Bird's-eye coverage is expanded, it may become a better way to look at some old ghost-track sites, especially ones with buildings still standing.
Okay, race fans, that's it for today. I'll be back Thursday from Pomona. The Finals are here!
Like haunted houses full of the spooky apparitions for which they are named, it seems that there's no exorcising the demand for ghost tracks at casa DRAGSTER Insider, so here we go again. If you don't already have it, download a copy of Google Earth so that you can play around. If you're not familiar with the free program, go to my Oct. 17 entry to see what it can do and how best to use it. It makes this whole ghost-track thing much more fun.
Okay, and away we go.
Marie Taney sent these two shots of Dover Drag Strip, which Chet Anderson and Joe Archiere built on 144 acres in Wingdale, N.Y. The track opened in the summer of 1961 and closed in 1976 and was one of a handful of East Coast strips that could draw big names such as Art Malone, who's pictured here making a run in his dragster.
"I am told Dover Drag Strip is a gravel pit now, but back in my early teens, it was a great place to spend a Sunday and not get into trouble," she recalled. "It was $1 to enter and $3 for a pit pass. Afterwards, the racers would go to Josey's Tavern on the Ten Mile River just down the road in Wingdale. I had forgotten all about the place until last summer I was visiting a friend in LA, and he suggested the NHRA museum in Pomona. It brought back a flood of memories reading my brother's Car Craft and Hot Rod magazines."
A couple of really good sites are dedicated to Dover. There's a ton of info here at a site run by former track announcer and PR director Dean "Dino" Lawrence. According to the site, the track was sanctioned by NHRA for just one year, but a "precarious drop off the left side of the shutdown area and inadequate guardrails wouldn’t meet NHRA insurance standards." There's also this page on another site that has a great gallery of old cars competing at the track.
Here are the coordinates for the starting line, supplied by our friends at the TerraTracks Global Authority: 41.645960, -73.582969. Enter them in your Google Earth FlyTo box. Not much to see anymore, maybe just some of the old shutdown area.
Staying with the Empire State, we turn our attention to Westhampton Dragstrip, which opened in 1953 as a dirt dragstrip on eastern Long Island and was paved two years later. The track survived for more than 50 years under a variety of names, including Westhampton Raceway (1953-1971), Suffolk County Raceway (1971-1972), Hampton Raceway (1980s), Long Island Dragway (1991-1996), and finally Long Island Motorsports Park (1996-2004). Gary Goetz remembers going to Westhampton as a kid in 1957 or 1958 with his brother when it resembled nothing more than a sandlot with little grass, an open timing shack six feet off the ground, and a flagman. He recalled watching the Highwaymen in a chopped '39 Chevy altered and Forean Kustoms in a chopped altered Crosby run the quarter. "Hiding in the trunk and sneaking in, being able to stand at the end of the quarter as close to the cars as your common sense allowed … the simplicity, the memories that can't be duplicated," he added wistfully.
Westhampton became a housing development called Westhampton Pines. I found an aerial photo of the track before it disappeared using Microsoft TerraServer images, which can be seen below left. If you use Google Earth and enter 40.827466, -72.684776, you can see how it looks today. I'm pretty sure that's the starting line that is still pretty visible, and if you have your Roads button (in the bottom left corner of Google Earth) checked, you can see that at least there's a street that runs into the development off Old Country Road called Drag Street. Nice!
Alan Ridenoure used to race at Warner Robins in Warner Robins, Ga., when he was a kid but says that the site of the strip is now a high school and that the starting line is the eastern end zone of the football stadium. Looking at this Google Earth image (which was shot from space Oct. 23, 2006, more than two years ago), I see the school but not the stadium. I remember Warner-Robins because in the weekly reports we received here at ND, it always looked as if there were a median of grass between the two lanes, and looking at these images, you can clearly see two lanes separated by something. I'm not sure if the track ran west-east, but the TerraTracks Global Authority lists the starting line here: 32.550154, -83.681147. It almost looks as if Bear County Boulevard was built and bisected the track just a tenth of a mile from the starting line and that the track (which was an eighth-mile facility) continues on as an unnamed street beyond that. Weird.
There's a surprising lack of good information about the track on the Web, even though I know the track has not been gone long. The track held an NHRA Division 2 event for years, and looking back through old issues of National DRAGSTER, I see that it dropped off the roll of member tracks in 1996, but I'm not sure if that's when it died or if it changed sanctions.
Also from the Peach State, Richard McFalls sent a link to a great site that he built dedicated to Double H Drag Strip, which opened Nov. 17, 1963, in Blue Ridge, Ga., and ran through 1966, hosting Super Stockers and A/FXers. You can find it here. "I knew of it only through occasional newspaper articles but became more interested in its history last year," he wrote. "I made inquiries and hit the jackpot with some of my contacts, which led to the creation earlier this year of the Web site."
The site has a lot of old photos and some shots of the track as it currently sits; it is now an airstrip for a fly-in residential community. The site also has a Google Earth image of the track (no coordinates), but after a couple of minutes of exploring my map for similar features, I found it here: 34.854499, -84.383469. That's how it looks in the lower right picture, and from ground level at lower left are two of the great shots from the track site. The white building at the end of the track -- which other than extensions at both ends, remains unchanged after 40 years -- is a hangar.
There are a ton of old newspaper articles on the site -- Double H Drag Strip co-founder Bill Hembree wrote a weekly article for the local newspaper, the McCaysville, Ga., Citizen --- great old photos, and links to some cool videos. I particularly like the movie at right, in which a guy strapped his video camera to the front bumper of his car and drove down the old track in September 2007. Neat! (But I'm not too sure I'd like to try to land an airplane there.)
And on to yet another great Georgia facility of the past: Augusta Int'l Raceway, which featured not just a quarter-mile dragstrip but also a three-mile banked road course, half-mile paved oval, eighth-mile "micro track," motocross track, and kart track. The facility in Hephzibah, Ga., about 15 miles southwest of Augusta, was used from 1963 to 1969. The land is now part of Diamond Lakes Regional Park, where there is a large granite monument to the raceway. Here are the Google Earth coordinates for the dragstrip starting line: 33.357868, -82.092237. The Augusta International Raceway Preservation Society has a Web site (www.historicmustang.com/speedway.html) with lots of old photos and maps.
Okay, jump into your Google flying machine, and let's head to Mississippi. Mark Follweiler remembers well his first trip to the drags, at age 7. "My first trip to the races was 1967. My dad had passed away the year before, and my mom thought it would be a good idea for me to see the drags. We lived about five miles from the old Biloxi dragstrip, so one Sunday afternoon she could hear them running, and we got in the car and headed to the track. I remember sitting on the roof of our '64 impala wagon watching these wonderful machines go down the strip! Needless to say, I have been a lifelong drag racer/fan. My family and I race locally and travel to three to four national events a year. You can still see the two strips of the old Biloxi track from Highway 67. The property was never used for anything."
There is a ton of great stuff about Biloxi Dragway all over the Web, including movies, such as the one at right, a five-minute production that features some pretty great 3-D graphics to re-create the old track and takes you on a "flight" around the grounds. It's a nice piece of work, obviously done with a sandbox-style SDK program common in video-game map creation. You can view the same movie even bigger here.
At www.biloxidragway.com, you can find a great photo gallery of cars from throughout the years at the track, which operated as either an NHRA or AHRA strip from Sept. 1, 1957, through the end of 1967, when the land owner refused to renew the lease. The picture at below left was taken by our old pal Bret Kepner on a cold and rainy (and very muddy) day and shows the track cutting its way through a swath of trees. The photo at below right is a Google Earth image of the same (location: 40.827466, -72.684776).
Moving north of the border, Ron Hier sent this cool remembrance of Windsor Dragway, which opened Aug. 25, 1968, just 15 minutes from downtown Detroit. Hier had a brush with greatness with the Chi-Town Hustler team of Austin Coil and driver Pat Minick in the summer of 1970. "I met Austin and Pat at the Windsor tunnel by accident," he wrote. "I yelled to them, 'See you at the strip.' Austin yelled back, 'Wait a minute. Can we follow you there? We don't know where it is. This is our first time to this strip.' After he cleared customs, Austin and Pat followed my wife and I to the strip. When we got within sight of it, Austin beeped his horn and asked me to pull over and asked if they could use my car as their towing vehicle; that way, they could leave their truck in the pits. I told him that I would be honored. He said, 'Follow me in, and I will tell the people that you are with us.' So not only did I get to tow and pick up the Chi-Town, we got in for free! Austin gave me money around lunchtime, and I played gofer and got the four of us hot dogs, chips, and pop. He gave me their time slips from the races. This year, my daughter and I went to Norwalk for the Night of Fire. I caught up with Austin and had him sign the pic of the Chi-Town from 38 years ago!"
The track, located at 42.25729720, -82.875647, is still pretty visible and easily accessible off Manning Road between the MacDonald-Cartier Freeway and Baseline Road.
Gregg Lether and his wife recently headed out into the Arizona desert in search of old Beeline Dragway, which hosted AHRA national events but was more famously known as the site of the NHRA Winter Classic, an annual tune-up for the NHRA Winternationals that was attended by all of the big NHRA hitters. It was about 20 minutes from Phoenix, close to Scottsdale. With a long and wide strip, three-story heated timing tower, and more, it was a great venue for its day when it was built in 1963 and lasted into the mid-1970s.
"Man oh man Phil, where do I start with the emotions and feelings that I felt just being there," he wrote. "Although I was never able to go there during the track's heyday, I did look at some pictures of the track I found online before we went out. Just being there and imagining all the cars, drivers, and crew, I felt like I had gone back in time. It was really an amazing and emotional experience. I could almost see the Pay-N-Pak floppy with Hall and Ruth there. That was the first car I ever saw and never lost the passion for the sport."
Below are early photos from the track, followed by some of Lether's "now" shots and an undated aerial of the forlorn site as viewed in the Birds Eye view in Microsoft's Live Search Maps program (a fine alternative to Google Earth, though not all locations have Birds Eye). To make a beeline to Beeline, FlyTo 33.507320, -111.766725.
Tracy Arakaki, an executive producer for an independent motorsports show in Hawaii, sent these images of Hawaii Raceway Park, which closed just two years ago. The track is on the island of Oahu and located just up the coast from Honolulu.
"The track was perfectly up and running," he wrote. "The former landlord who held the master lease sold the option to purchase for $5 million, then for the past five years tried to get a tax credit of $50 million to acquire a parcel owned by the state to build another track on an active airport runway, which we know will never happen. A movement was formed to condemn the property through the City Council, then the former landlords who were now the managers tore up all the asphalt and burned down the tower (right) just in case the condemnation succeeded to mess things up.
"Lots of history at HRP. Roland Leong with driver Johnny West still has the track record at 5-teens, and the Desert Rat Funny Car crashed, and the front end was used as a clock and presented to someone at some awards banquet on the mainland."
Take your own all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii here: 21.314380, -158.098116. Aloha.
Speaking of aloha, that's it for the week. I hope you enjoyed another spooky trip down the quarter-miles of old. We have a busy week ahead of us with the NHRA Softball Classic Wednesday (I'll have live coverage from the ballpark!) and the Finals beginning Thursday. It's almost hard to believe the season is over -- after we send next week's National DRAGSTER Wednesday, only three issues remain -- and the long, cold winter will begin. Hang around here, though, and I'll try to keep at least your memories warm.