Thanks to everyone for the kind and inspiring words concerning what, at least for the short term, will be a change in the publishing schedule here. I’m committed to keeping this great watering hole alive and well, which means I expect to have at least one column a week. If things are going smoothly, there might be two, but the day(s) of publishing may vary, so be sure to check out the NHRA.com home page from time to time and look for a new photo and “Last updated” date. You just never know when something new will be added.
Take today, for example. I’m headed off for Vegas this morning (Thursday), and with championships in the balance in all four Pro classes, it figures to be a crazy-busy weekend, which explains why this column is coming out today as opposed to tomorrow (which, technically, would make it tomorrow’s column today, or something like that). Anyway, today’s/tomorrow’s column is Part 2 of Bits and Pieces. Enjoy.
As expected, the first installment of your collection of Bits and Pieces last week drew a few more cool keepsakes. Collectibles king Mike Goyda sent this pic to show just part of his amazing collection: the cowl off the Jade Grenade after its crash at New England Dragway in 1975, which hangs in his garage.
“When I bought it a number of years ago, my intention was to sell it, but it fit perfectly between the garage doors, so it is now part of the archives,” he said.
Thanks to a good friendship with driver Don Roberts, I’ve covered the Jade Grenade crash – which cost Roberts a leg yet inspired his unforgettably good-humored quote, “After the third flip, I lost control” -- in this column on a couple of occasions. It was his first (and last) pass in the car, which was equipped with front wheel pants that he partially blames for the accident. Still, for all it cost him, he clearly has a connection to the car.
“I had heard that Goyda had the cowl in his collection,” Roberts said after I forwarded him the picture. “Part of me wants to see how much he wants for it, but the other part tells me the number is huge. Maybe I'll just blow the picture up and put it on the wall between my doors in my shop downstairs ...
“The Grenade was the only car I ever had my name and number on -- how ironic that it was a one-run special.”
“Chicago Jon” – "call me Columbo” – Hofmann was intrigued by the photo of former ND
Photo Editor Leslie Lovett’s office from the old NHRA HQ building in North Hollywood, Calif., and went all detective on us.
“As I was reading through the entries in the post-crash-collectibles edition of Insider, upon seeing the picture of Les Lovett's office, I knew there was something within beckoning me, and so I printed the photo and began going over it with a magnifying glass," he wrote. "And bingo, there it was, now glaringly plain as day, in the upper left of the shot, the end plate from Shirley Muldowney’s wing from her accident at the U.S. Nationals, 1983 edition.
“Shirley fans already know where this is going, but for the benefit of those who don't, Ms. Muldowney had herself one scary mishap at the '83 running of the Big Go; I believe the 'smoking gun' on that incident was a front tire unraveling, binding up the steering components and sending her into the guardrail in the shutdown area. The Safety Safari is quick to respond, Shirley is intact, but the car is gonna need some work, so the crew hustles it back to the pits and begins thrashing away.
"A little bit later, I too am in the pits, and while everyone’s eyes are on Shirley and the car, I noticed some interesting ‘baggage’ on the back of Mr. Lovett’s scooter: the same end plate from the office photo, and who’s to say, but the right-bank headers that appear below the 1980 world champion banner might be Shirley’s as well.”
Right he is on both counts. Lovett was a very close friend of Shirley’s, so it would be no surprise if she donated her unsalvageable parts to his collection. The headers clearly were unusable, and the team undoubtedly had to go to a backup wing anyway after the car's heavy shunt with the top-end guardrail.
I remember the incident very well as it occurred at the first U.S. Nationals I attended. I was perched on the roof of the old top-end tower (which used to be the old starting-line tower and now is the tower that overlooks the oval track) with the usual group of top-end shooters (Reyes, the Indy Star’s Vern Atkins, and others) when Shirley’s run went awry in what, as Hofmann pointed out in his very long and typically verbose and funny emails, was a precursor to her near-career-ending wreck a year later in Montreal, to which I also was an unfortunate witness.
“I wonder how many other stories will emerge based on that shot of Leslie’s office,” Hofmann mused. “As they used to say, ‘There's a thousand stories in the naked city’ and this was just mine ... anyone?”
How good are your detective skills? Here’s a link to a larger version of the photo. See anything else familiar? (One hint: Think Canada and biplanes.)
Robert Nielsen also spent time perusing the pic. “I could not help but notice in the photo of Les Lovett’s office the lack of the shock absorber from the Pisano & Matsubara Funny Car that he tried to stop with his leg while shooting the 1970 Super Nationals at midtrack,” he wrote of the famed-within-these-walls accident that broke the ankle of our intrepid hero.
“I would have thought this would have been a significant part in his collection. Of course, he probably was in no shape to immediately go souvenir hunting when this occurred. And maybe he did end up with the shock absorber and it is sitting prominently on a corner of his desk that we cannot see in this photo.”
I asked Teresa Long about that famed shock absorber, and she didn’t remember it being among his collection, but, as she said, echoing Nielsen’s thoughts, he wasn’t exactly running around looking for souvenirs. The souvenir he did get is an amazing sequence that he snapped before he had to (unsuccessfully) bail out.
Dave Labs has the fiberglass fragment at right from Whit Bazemore’s Fast Orange Ford Probe Funny Car, which, as shown above in this television screen grab, met an inglorious end at the 1993 NHRA Springnationals at National Trail Raceway in Ohio. A massive engine explosion and a blown tire sent his car rocketing from the left lane into the right-lane guardrail, then back across the track on its side into the left rail. Click here
for a video of the crash.
“This event was the first multiday national event that my mom, dad, and I had attended,” he remembered. “My dad and I were sitting in the stands watching the first session of Pro qualifying. Here came Bazemore and Del Worsham down the track. Suddenly, Bazemore's car exploded literally right in front of us. From where we were sitting, I swore he was going to hit Del in the other lane. Obviously, he didn't make contact with him but hit the guardrail pretty hard. The car then rolled over and slid into the opposite guardrail before rolling back right side up and then sliding to a stop. The incident totally blew my mind, as I had never witnessed anything like that. Of course, I had seen plenty of drag racing crashes on the great Diamond P event coverage over the years but never in person. The two things I remember most about it were the heat wave and the smell.
“Later that day, we were walking through the pits and came upon the Bazemore pit area. There was a huge crowd of people looking at what was left of the body. I asked one of the crew guys if Whit was OK, and he assured me he was fine. I then asked him if I could buy a chunk of the body. He said, ‘Save your money, kid; go tear off a piece.’ So I went over and saw the only piece that looked like it would be easiest to remove. I pulled and pulled, and finally the fiberglass cloth ripped, and away I went with my piece of the action. I really felt bad for Whit, but I was happy I got something cool. What can I say, I was just a kid.”
Johnny Cola shared a very neat story about cast-off parts that he witnessed at the 1994 Summernationals in Englishtown.
“Bobby Lagana lost to John Force in round one of Funny Car but torched the car to just about the ground doing so. As the remains lay in a blackened pile in the pits, his son (about 9) was wading through the parts, picked up a charbroiled, totally toasted magneto, and carried it to Bobby. ‘Daddy, I think we can use this again.’
“At a time when Bobby would not have been blamed for getting upset with the kid from frustration, he put his hand on his shoulder and said with a smile, ‘Yanno what? We may be able to. Put it over there, and we'll look. I'm glad I have you helping me.’ "
I dropped a quick line to Dom Lagana, whom I figured to be about that age, and though he didn’t remember the incident specifically, he said it was probably him (he would have been 9 then) and added sadly, “That was the end of our Funny Car days.” The Laganas since have switched to Top Fuel, first with Bobby Jr. and now Dom driving, and have acquitted themselves extremely well against the big guns on just a fraction of the budget.
The photo shown here was taken by Gil Rebilas, whose son, Mark, has famously followed his father into the limelight as one of the premier crash shooters (and photographers) in the sport.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t take time to acknowledge the loss of one of the drag racing fraternity whom you may or may not know but whom those of us who work in the words game surely appreciated. Jon Knapp, a longtime public relations specialist for numerous teams throughout the years — most recently for the dynamic duo of Greg Anderson and Jason Line — died Monday night after a brief but brave battle with cancer.
The relationship between the PR world and the editorial world can sometimes be a curious and uncomfortable one. Editors like me realize that it’s the job of these individuals to not only keep us informed of the latest happenings of their charges, but also to convince us that their drivers are worthy of this, that, or the other thing more than the next guy. It’s a tough gig.
Jon and I worked together on a number of “top-secret” announcements throughout the years concerning his drivers, and I always found him to be among the most genuine and forthright people in the biz. He knew his role, his responsibility, and the limits of his persuasion and understood that I would help him as much as possible, and he was appreciative of everything that we could do for him and his clients.
As a group, the PR workers on the NHRA tour are amazing, as funny as they are talented. A pressroom can at times be a notoriously hostile environment and not a place for those of thin skin, and Jon always took as much as he gave, and no matter whom he occasionally zinged, it was all in good fun. The tributes on his Facebook page this week -- and a blog entry by our common pal Bob Wilber -- reflect that I’m not alone in thinking of him as a gracious, kind, and positive human being, eager to work with anyone, to help anyone, and to be a friend to anyone.
Our thoughts are with his wife, Joanne, with whom he formed his own dynamic duo, and I know we’re going to miss him this weekend in Las Vegas and for a long time to come.
OK, gang, that’s all for today. I’ll be back next week with more stuff. Off to Vegas!
A couple of weeks ago, in the wake of the story about Dale Emery’s memorable crash at the 1977 U.S. Nationals that made multiple mini-souvenir pieces of Mike Burkhart’s Camaro flopper, I solicited your photos and stories about your own post-crash collectibles, and, as always, you guys came through.
Cole Foster, son of the late great flopper star Pat Foster, sent in a photo of this great piece of history: a chunk of the original Barry Setzer Funny Car driven by his dad.
“My brother, Dan, has this piece in his office,” he reports. “The car lifted the blower off big-time and rained fiberglass. The car spun and tagged the rail. There is another piece (part of the side with Setzer’s name) that I saw hanging at the NHRA museum. Dad and Ed Pink signed it and added 'OOPS!' ”
According to the report in the September 1972 issue of Drag Racing USA magazine (which Cole also supplied), the incident came in a midst of a real hot streak for the team. On successive weekends, they won an IHRA national event in Rockingham, N.C., the Big Four Manufacturers Championship at Orange County Int’l Raceway, and another event at Irwindale Raceway before the setback at Lions. A week later, Foster and Setzer were back at it and won the Hang Ten Funny Car 500 event at OCIR. “The AA/FC fraternity figured to have a breather from the Vega’s pace. Instead, Foster shows up with a repaired racer and blows 'em off worse than ever before some 12,000 fans,” reads the article.
When I was a kid, my bedroom walls were covered with photos of race cars in distress torn from the pages of my favorite drag mags, but Nick Arias III, of the famed racing family, had us all covered. The photo above is his bedroom wall circa 1978. “I was 16 years old when I snapped this pic of what I thought was a teenager's ultimate catch: the almost complete side of Mike Kase's Speed Racer AA/FC. Steve Harris demolished their Vega-bodied flopper at the 1977 March Meet after landing hard from a wheelstand and stuffing it into the guardrail.
“I grew up in Harbor City, Calif., a few blocks from Bill Simpson's Gasoline Alley, where Mike housed his chassis shop. My dad would drop by Simpson's to make his rounds on weekends, and on one trip, I saw the fiberglass remains propped up against Kase's shop dumpster. Later that week, I made a clandestine night raid with my 10-speed bike to claim my souvenir. As I smoked it outta there with this enormous panel under my arm, I made eye contact with Willie Borsch, who was watching me the whole time through Mike's office window (where he was residing). Also in this collection are chunks of Bill Schifsky's Bear Town Shaker, which met it's explosive demise during the 1976 World Finals at Ontario Motor Speedway.”
Ted Pappacena sent in a photo of one of his memorable pieces: the left-side rocker panel of Barry “Machine Gun” Kelly's Vega Funny Car that crashed into Paul Smith’s Fireball Vega at the P R O Race at New York National Speedway in 1974. You can see it matches up quite nicely with Barry Wiggins’ great photo of the fire.
“A good friend of mine, Warren Bader, worked there and took it (as well as pieces of other Funny Cars). It was in his collection until a few years ago,” said Pappacena. “He told me he was running out of space, and it, as well as the right front fender of the Holy Smokes Satellite that also crashed at the National, had to go. So we came to a financial agreement for the two pieces, and they became mine. This will eventually be mounted on a basement wall. I have very little wall space, so the Satellite fender was sold to another good friend for his collection.”
The crash occurred in round one when Kelly, an African-American racer out of Compton, Calif., lit 'er up at the top end and then, blinded by the inferno and hampered by a blown rear tire, plowed into the back of Smith’s car, which was slowing from its pass. According to reports, the wreck resulted in “broken shoulders” for Smith while Kelly escaped with only minor injuries.
Michael Ogle has a nice keepsake on his wall that he got in a rather unorthodox manner: It’s the hood of the Cruz Pedregon-driven Larry Minor/McDonald’s Old Cutlass that Pedregon drove to his first Funny Car crown in 1992.
“In the mid-1990s, I was out in Hemet, Calif., visiting a guy who was doing some fiberglass work for me, and we were at his fiberglass repair shop when I saw this big red piece of fiberglass laying out in the weeds next to the shop,” Ogle remembers. “I wandered over to it, flipped it over, and immediately recognized it as the hood of the McDonald's Funny Car. My friend walked over and said, ‘Oh, yeah, I think Larry wanted somebody to repair this, but it was just too far gone. There are burnt areas on the underside, must've been in a pretty good fire. So we cut it up so we wouldn't be asked to try to patch it up anymore. You want that piece?’
“Of course! I stuffed it into the back of my Honda Accord and got home and hung it up on my wall downstairs. I got an autographed handout card from Cruz and taped it on the hood. The car in the pic is slightly different, but they seemed to have a season where they were poppin' quite a few superchargers, and this is one of the remnants of the Oldsmobile Cutlass bodies of that time period. Still got it!”
I couldn’t quite pinpoint where this fire may have been, so I texted Cruz; no reply yet, but I'll let you know what I find out.
Insider regular “Chicago Jon” Hoffman has a signed windshield from Tom McEwen’s 1977 English Leather Corvette, saved from the trashpile after the 1977 Olympics of Drag Racing at Great Lakes Dragaway.
“Of course, ‘the Snake’ and ‘the Mongoose’ are there, but as McEwen unloads, it was apparent that there had been some problems at their last race. In this case, they had been at U.S. 131 the night before and had sneezed the blower. The crew goes about the routine job of repairing the car, and the usual fast and furious action of the day unfolds, and Saturday ends without a hitch. Sunday, however, gets cut short by weather, but Great Lakes promised that if you came back next weekend, you could see the feature 'attraction,' that being Ken Carter jumping a car over a multitude of other cars. Well, with rain check in hand, I returned for the Carter jump. It was then that I spotted, wedged between the dumpster and the concession stand, McEwen’s tattered windshield. I ask the gal selling drag dogs, ‘Hey, there's this thing in the trash, do you mind if I take it?’ She responds with something to the effect of, ‘Take all the trash you want, kid," and you never saw someone hustle out to the parking lot so fast in your life!
“Fast-forward to 1989, our hero (that would be me) now works at Great Lakes, making videos for 'Broadway Bob' in particular and working the concession stand in general. The big event that year is the Summer Spectacular, of which the main attractions are Ronnie Sox and, you saw this coming, Tom ‘the Mongoose’ McEwen. You should have seen the look on ‘the Goose’s’ face when I showed up in his pit with this beleaguered windshield under one arm! ‘Uh, could you please autograph this for me? I'm a big 'ol fan!’ Tom graciously signs away, and to this day, it graces the wall in my studio.”
Rick Guzman has a couple of nice 1980s Hawaiian pieces in his collection. The top photo is a piece of what has to be the King’s Hawaiian Bread-sponsored machine after it shucked the roof during qualifying at the 1980 Summernationals with Ron Colson at the controls. Guzman plucked the keepsake from a garbage can and says it is part of the roof and the windshield.
Way back in 2008, I did an interview with Colson about the incident; here’s what he had to say: “The windshield posts snapped in the lights (we didn't use side windows then), and the roof came down and pinned my hands on the wheel. Obviously, I couldn't see at all, but after years in a front-engine fueler, I was used to that. I did get my right hand free, and I could get to the brake lever at about the middle, which translates to half-braking leverage. Fortunately, as the lower half of the body was exploding (we gathered up 218 pieces but not enough to put the puzzle back together), the chutes deployed from the disintegration. One tangled, and one, fortunately, opened. When the Safety Safari guys lifted the roof off of me, I could see that I was within 100 feet of going off the end of the track.”
At right is a photo of Guzman’s pal "Butcher Bob” with one of the other 217 pieces from the car, the rocker panel.
Guzman also sent in the photo below, which is from the 1983 Hawaiian Punch car after it ran off the end of National Trail Raceway and into the catch net at the Springnationals after a big fire and blown tire with Mike Dunn at the helm. It’s the front section of the body tree (you can see the two cutout loops that rest atop the chassis).
“Like the Englishtown part, we found it in the garbage,” said Guzman, who was at the event helping out Pro Stock racers Carlton Phillips and Al Waters. “After the wreck, they just threw everything away they couldn't use.”
Speaking of Hawaiians, Jim Riddiford, who lives on the big Island of Hawaii, used to live in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley and worked in North Hollywood, where NHRA was headquartered in the 1970s and 1980s. “I would go to your office for copies of DRAGSTER
,” he wrote. “On one visit in the early 1980s, Les Lovett was in the front office right after Brad Anderson crashed his car at OCIR a week or two before the Finals. I saw Les dragging the side of his car that night. When I saw him in the office that day, I asked what he did with it, and to my surprise, he took me upstairs to his office, and it was mounted on the wall, along with some others. Frank Hawley’s altered comes to mind, so don’t forget his collection if there are any pics from that time."
Right you are, Jim. Teresa Long searched through stacks of photos before coming up with this one, which shows just a small part of Lovett’s extensive collection. The Hawley piece he mentions — the nose off his Pro Comp altered — is visible, as are various other body and engine parts, many of them signed by those who turned them into souvenirs.
And finally, this. This whole parts thread began with the photo at right sent in by Eric Watkins, showing the right-front fender from the Burkhart Camaro after its famous tangle with the Indy guardrail. Now, Watkins has discovered the above photo, which I’ve never seen before, showing the body resting in the Indy grass like some airplane-crash reconstruction, missing a very distinctly-shaped portion up front, like the missing piece to some crash jigsaw puzzle. Cool stuff, Eric!
OK, kids, that’s all for today and, as you may have noticed with an absence of a new column this past Tuesday (sorry ’bout that!), all for the week. So here comes a caveat I’ve been dreading these last few weeks.
As you can imagine, with all of the events backed up after Indy and all of the stuff going on now, time has been a precious commodity in ensuring that National DRAGSTER gets out the door each week on time, and with new responsibilities and priorities, that’s not going to get any easier. As much as I love this column, it’s still my “other” job from my main gig at NHRA, so sometimes the Insider has to take a back seat to ND. The last thing I want to do is cheapen all we’ve accomplished here in the last five years and 500-plus columns by filling it with, well, filler, so I may eventually have to go to a once-weekly column (can you believe that when I started this column, I published it three times a week? What was I thinking?) more often, perhaps permanently. It’s not what I (nor you, I suspect) want, but I’ll deal with it the best I can and try to keep the good stuff coming. Thanks, as always, for your support.
After it was mentioned in a couple of the Southern California-based First Race stories, I got a few inquiries for more details about John Smyser’s Terrifying Toronado exhibition car, which, terrifyingly enough, is best remembered for hurtling the guardrail at Irwindale Raceway and scaring the bejesus out of the fans in that section.
By all accounts, Smyser was a very good Top Fuel racer. With Nando Haase driving, his 392 Chrysler-powered Radar Wheels entry won the 1965 Hot Rod Magazine Championships in Riverside, Calif., and he and Harry Hibler were runner-up to Tony Nancy at the 1970 March Meet.
The Terrifying Toronado had its street roots in Olds’ peculiar attempt at a muscle car. With gobs of horsepower under the hood and chain-driven front-wheel drive for better traction, it should have been a huge winner, right? After all, while the GTOs and Mustangs were melting the hides trying to glue their tires to the road, the Olds would hook up just fine, thank you very much. The car was so highly praised that it won Motor Trend’s prestigious Car of the Year award in 1966. Smyser’s car was a ’66 – the first year in a production that ran through 1992 – and shared the same engine as the production car, a 425-cid V-8 powerplant.
Noted speed merchant Don Ratican (of Ratican-Jackson-Stearns fame) built the two Olds engines that, while they retained the stock displacement, were pretty racy, packed with Mickey Thompson pistons with Grant rings, a Racer Brown camshaft, heads ported and polished by Valley Head Service, and, naturally, a 6-71 supercharger.
The front engine turned the front 10-inch-wide Casler slicks on Halibrand wheels through the conventional Toronado automatic transmission and differential while the rear-seat-mounted second engine used a dual-disc clutch and a Schiefer aluminum flywheel to funnel power via direct drive to a conventional Olds rear end.
While the wheelbase remained at the stock 119 inches, the track was widened 8 1/2 inches in front and 2 1/2 inches in the rear, presumably for stability and tire clearance. The rear engine sat in a subframe that was easily removable for repairs (maybe they knew something ahead of time?). The car tipped the scales at a portly 4,500 pounds.
Despite its pedigree, the car may have been one of the more ill-conceived and certainly most ill-handling race cars ever built. Or maybe it was just too far ahead of its time.
The Terrifying Toronado was unveiled at the 1966 AHRA Winternationals at Irwindale and made its first run the following week at the ‘Dale. On its fateful lone pass, Smyser lost the handle early, with the car first darting left for the centerline, then hooking up hard and plunging back to the right into and over the Armco. As the famous photos show, it didn’t make it much farther than the guardrail and fell comfortably short – easy for me to say because I wasn’t sitting in the stands – of the chain-link fence.
It ran a few other times that year but never performed well enough to merit much attention. The car’s final outing came about a year after its debut, at the 1967 NHRA Winternationals in Pomona, where the car again ran afoul of the laws of physics. During Saturday qualifying, Smyser made an exhibition pass but again the car got all terrifying on him and busted through the right-side guardrail at speed at three-quarter-track. Fortunately, there were no grandstands that far downtrack. Regardless, it became clear that the Terrifying Toronado was just too terrifying to continue, and the car was retired.
Of course, that’s only half the story because the Terrifying Toronado had a cousin from the other side of the country in the Hurst Hairy Olds. Built in a similar fashion for the 1966 season, the car (an Olds 442) reportedly was built to showcase the bulletproof qualities of the then-new chain-driven automatic transaxle of the '66 Toronado, which had its skeptics in the automotive press. After all, if it could harness the power of a supercharged engine, it should do well in stock configuration, right? (Truth be told, although the front drivetrain was essentially stock, the right-hand axleshafts were swapped for left-hand units because they were stronger, and the torque converters were beefed up, but those are minor points.)
George Hurst, wanting a companion to the wildly popular Hemi Under Glass wheelstander, signed on to the project. The tube-frame car was built in-house at Hurst under the watchful eye of Jack “Shifty Doctor” Watson, president of Hurst Performance Research. Although the car went on a diet thanks to aluminum body components (floor, inner fender panels, wheelwells, hood, interior panels, deck lid, and bumpers) and Plexiglas windows, it still weighed in excess of 4,000 pounds. Despite the hefty weight, the car suffered – as almost all front drivers do – from torque steer, making it a thrill to drive and watch as it smoked all four M&H slicks down the dragstrip. Top Fuel and Top Gas racer Joe Schubeck drove the car in its debut at the 1966 March Meet and later ran in the 11-second range.
The first version of the Hairy Olds ran off the end of a track and into a farmer’s field in 1966, and Schubeck broke an ankle bailing out of the out-of-control dreadnought. Although the car suffered significant damage, it was rebuilt and eventually ran into the low eights at more than 180 mph. It, too, end up in a ball at Niagara Dragstrip in New York in 1967.
According to the report, “the magneto on the front engine quit. This, of course, cut all power to the front end, allowing the alignment to revert back to the toe-out setting, which was not conducive to good handling. The car went off the track onto wet grass and headed toward the spectators who gathered against the fence. As they cheered Joe's performance, the crowd had no idea of the real danger they were in. Only a cable stretched down the length of the track kept the situation from getting ugly. Shortly afterward, the crew took the car back to ‘Doc’ Watson at Hurst and turned it in. From all accounts, Watson cut it up and buried it, save for the aluminum bumpers and hood,” which were used in a re-creation of the car.
Although Tommy Ivo had proven as early as 1961 that an all-wheel car could work well, the design of Ivo’s four-engine Showboat – with the left engines powering the front tires and the right side powering the rear – gave it the stability that the Terrifying Toronado and the Hurst Hairy Olds never had and undoubtedly led to its impressive longevity and popularity.
I wasn’t really planning a third installment of Your First Race, but the entries just keep rolling in and so do the cheers for the topic, so here we go with round three:
Jim Lagler: “I had an older (by nine years) brother who was into cars big time. He went to races with his friends on Labor Day in 1963 or 1964 and came back with great stories. I begged to go the following year, and he said if I had 100 bucks for a week’s expenses, I could go. I worked at odd jobs and my paper route all summer and saved the money. That year, I got to go with him and his friend who had a race car. The races: the U.S. Nationals. The car: Jim Oddy's AA/GS Austin. I did a good enough job as a gofer that Jim told me I could go to the races anytime with him when we got home. The next five years were great. I got to travel all over the Northeast in the thick of the Gasser Wars against ‘Ohio George,’ the Hill brothers, Jack Merkel, Jr. Thompson, and K.S. Pittman to name a few. I even got to rub shoulders with ‘Jungle Jim,' the Chi-Town Hustler team, and other early Funny Car greats when we were booked into eight-car match race shows. Pretty heady stuff for a 15-year-old kid.
“I was still with Jim when he graduated to BB/FC. Then college called, and it came to an end. I still followed Jim's great career in Pro Mod but now from a distance. A lot of these memories just recently came rushing back when I got to see the excellent restoration of the Austin by John Cassiol of Buffalo, N.Y. I still get my yearly dose of nitro by attending the Hot Rod Reunion in Bowling Green, Ky., every year since its inception."
Geoff McInnes: “In 1966, I was 11, in grade six at what we call primary school down here in Australia. There were lots of British migrant kids arriving at our school every few weeks when another boat would arrive. I became friendly with two brothers who had some U.S. drag racing magazines and had seen American racers in action at Santa Pod. About the same time, a local TV station started broadcasting the action from the only dragstrip near my hometown of Melbourne on Sunday afternoons during the summer (football took priority in winter). I was hooked!
“I started nagging my dad to take me but for a long time had no success. The track was way over the other side of the second-biggest city in Australia, and at that age, I had no other way of getting there even if getting parental permission had been likely. Eventually, after tipping the can on the nagging, my dad finally gave in in April 1970, and out we went to Calder Raceway. Unfortunately, we had to go in my mother’s VW Beetle as my dad’s much cooler Fairlane was out of action, which was a bit embarrassing.
“This was a great event for a first-timer as I got to see reigning NHRA Top Fuel champion Steve Carbone face off against our local hero Ash Marshall and run the first 200-mph pass (202, actually) at this venue. The braking area at Calder back then had a 30-degree bend in it about 500 feet past the finish line, and many local fuelers had failed to make the turn and shot through a fence and across a public road. For this reason, while 200 had been achieved at other Australian tracks, it had never been done at Calder. Carbone managed it and still took the bend without incident in Larry Huff’s beautiful Soapy Sales car, a car which I have to say made everything we had here look like it had been passed down from Fred Flintstone.
“My now 83-year-old dad still tells his adult grandchildren that he thought if he took me once I’d get it out of my system and that would be the end of it. How wrong he was! I still attend all the major meetings around my own country and am not long back from yours where I took in some NHRA major-event action and checked out the Wally Parks Museum at Pomona.”
Jimm Murray: “My early experiences were at Sunland Dragway in El Paso, Texas, in 1961. My dad would drop me off at the track entrance and head down the road to the horse track (where my mother did not want him to be). Factory race cars and crazy, short-wheelbase dragsters were the top of my list, with some wild gassers thrown in.
“Dick Harrell, of Carlsbad, N.M., was the king of the pack, especially with his black Chevy 409 going up against the best that Mopar and Ford could throw at him. The track had no railing to speak of, constant sandstorms that created no-visibility situations, a flag starter at one end, and dragsters that would start by push cars getting them up to speed.
"Eddie Hill was a fixture at the track with his twin-engine dragster (in a side-by-side V shape), as were Gene Snow and others. To see two dragsters take off, get lost completely in a dust storm, and have to wait a while for it to clear to see who won is crazy to think of nowadays.
“I remember Dick flat-towing in a red '62 Chevy 409 one Sunday that said ‘Hayden Proffitt’ on the doors and immediately recognized it as what Hayden had recently won with on the NHRA side of things. Harrell went on to keep winning with a white '63 427 Z-11, and then he started stuffing that engine in black ‘64 Chevy Malibus, and then started into the Hilborn injected 427s in other Novas, and finally, tube frames. All the while, the latest factory iron from Ford and Chrysler were fun to behold, as was the line of rosin that started getting poured in front of the slicks during match races. The best of times.”
Jim Tilley: “I remember when I was about 12 years old, there was a garage in Sulphur, La., called Meads. The owner, 'Shorty' Mead, and his son, Doug, had a rail they raced. 'Shorty' was the wrencher, and Doug did the driving. I would hear that Hemi fire up from about six blocks away, and I would jump on my bike and hightail it to his shop just to watch them tune on it. Most of the time, they would shut it off by the time I got there. I remember 'Shorty' with that stub of a cigar in his mouth. They would let me watch from the doorway while they worked on the car. I remember there was one stall that looked like it was for storage with about two truckloads of trophies along the walls. I am sure he did some winning for all the trophies.”
Gerret Wikoff: “As a teen living in upstate New York, I was into customizing model cars, and I really wanted to go to a drag race, though I had no idea whatsoever what they entailed. So when years later I owned a V-Dub repair shop, one of the mechanics renting a stall there was Harrison Peyton, who had a B/Econo rail. He would tune it up Friday nights before the Saturday drags -- you know the drill: Rev the motor up to the redline, the sounds of the open pipes reverberating off the Silver Lake Hills; I was so hooked. Then there was the day he decided he needed to take the rail for a pass up and down Hyperion Avenue midday. He waited for the light to turn red, stopping the oncoming traffic, and took off up the street. I'd never seen anyone run a rail with open pipes on the city streets of L.A. before or since.
“So when he asked me if I'd like to go to the drags at Irwindale with him, you couldn't stop me. We got to the strip, and he taught me the basics of bracket racing. I raced my '65 blue and yellow mutt of a Beetle with 14-inch tires, a Holley bug spray, a lightweight Karmann Ghia flywheel, and fly-cut dual-port heads. It was a quick car off the line, and I could cut a good light and was pretty consistent on the shifts (no tach) and eventually got a first over Jerry McClanahan by getting him to break out, and a semifinal win. Harrison would race the tow car in Bracket 5 and the rail in Bracket 1. It was idyllic.
“One fine day, Harrison asked me if I'd like to take the rail for a pass. Duh! He had to ask? He shows me how to work the hand brake and foot shifter without a reverse lockout. I squeeze myself into his firesuit. And wait. Finally, it is my turn to stage. I think when I went too deep and had to back up and ended up with the bottom bulb turned on, then realized, well, suddenly I was on a single. So the light comes down, and I mash the gas. I'm out there a ways, wondering what the thrill he was always talking about was, when I decide to shift into high. Brrrrrrrraaaainnngggg. The revs went through the roof as the car bogged big time. I snatch the car out of reverse and back into high, turning several shades of red. And, of course, the announcer made anybody who hadn't seen it well aware of my mistake. Sadly, I never was asked to take a pass in his race car again.”
Ron Bikacsan: “Your current topic took me back to 1968 at Kansas City Int'l Raceway. I was stationed at an Air Force base in Missouri and had been a hot rodding fan since 1959. My buddy had just bought a brand-spankin'-new '68 Road Runner for $2,920, and we just had to go to K.C. on Saturday and see the ‘big guys.’ I believe [Don] Garlits was there, along with other rails, but the one car that blew everybody's mind that night was Gene Snow's new Charger Funny Car. Still in primer, he'd get cleaned off the line, and then -- like the car was attached to a big rubber band -- that Charger would barrel past everybody in the lights. The crowd went ballistic every time. Later, the announcer told the crowd that Snow was running a direct drive (four-disc Crowerglide) rather than a transmission in his car. Made all the sense in the world but didn't dim the thrill of watching that car top-end like nothing else. I'll never forget that night.”
Don Luke: “I was reading the latest installment and happened on the photo of John Smyser and the Terrifying Toronado climbing the guardrail. Boy, does that bring back memories. I first attended a drag race at Pomona, the Winternationals in 1963. Friends from high school (Charter Oak High School) in Covina invited me. I was invited again during 1964, my senior year. Guess I was hooked because I have been going ever since. I was not really a car person but couldn't figure out why folks would cheer the Dodges and jeer the Plymouths or vice versa. I soon learned the car brands were only part of it; the drivers were the other part of the equation.
“Eventually, I got my driver's license and a 1964 Dodge. Took it to Irwindale most weekends, and it was on one of those weekends that I watched the Toronado climb the guardrail. Also, probably on a different weekend, got to watch Don Nicholson's body go airborne toward the end of a run. I was learning about cars but had fun with the Dodge: hardtop with a 383, four-barrel engine, four-speed, and limited slip rear end (3.23 ratio, though). Best run was 14.52 seconds at 97.67 mph. We lived in Glendora, near the corner of Glendora and Gladstone, way before the 210 freeway was built. Glendora Avenue went through the hills, a turning road with fairly sharp turns. I saw police lights on the road one night and went up to see what was happening. There was John Smyser's Toronado strapped to a trailer behind a motorhome and the trailer hanging over the edge of the road, still attached to the motorhome. It was eventually pulled back on the road. Don't remember seeing it run after that. Shortly after, Uncle Sam came calling, and I was obliged to answer. Nowadays, I attend events at Firebird in Chandler, Ariz., as a spectator.”
Rich Erickson: “Although I cannot remember my first race, the first race car I remember is the wagon attached. Created and campaigned by Richard Charbonneau, he won the 1970 Winternationals with the car. Clyde Birch of Chippewa Falls, Wis., had purchased the car from ‘Charby,’ and I certainly remember it well. It was ‘crew chiefed’ by my dad, Gerry Erickson.
“I spent many hours waxing that car as I was only 5, but I am hooked for life. We raced all over, but our home track was Amber Green Dragways in Eau Claire, Wis. (now Rock Falls Raceway, owned by Stock champ Al Corda). The first fuel car was 'Snake's' Army Funny Car at Minnesota Dragways in 1975. I still love the smell of nitro! I was a very lucky kid … thanks, Dad!”
OK, that's it for installment No. 3. I have several other items beginning to back up, so I'm going to stick a fork in this topic for now. Feel free to continue to send me your stories, but I'll probably wait a bit before publishing a new batch. Please also include photos; a lot of what you've seen the last three columns have been photos that I have added from our files, but I'd much rather see yours.
Thanks again, everyone, for the amazing participation. I'll see you Friday.