Welcome back, my friends, to the nostalgia that never ends, at least when it comes to feedback and insights from the Insider Nation. I've said it before and I'll say it again, this column wouldn’t be half of what it is were it not for your generous and knowledgeable input, memories, and photos. To wit …
My old buddy Jim Hill, whose knowledge of early Florida drag racing may be second to none, dropped me an interesting note about the push truck that Don Garlits was using to fire Swamp Rat V in the Winternationals Cacklefest. He said he couldn't really tell based on the cropped photo I posted Tuesday, "but I'm betting it was another of Garlits' favorite mid-'60s GMC Carryall truck/vans."
I forwarded Jim the photo at top right, taken by National DRAGSTER Assistant Photo Editor Jerry Foss, and he confirmed that that was the truck he was envisioning. I dug up some other photos from the weekend and zoomed in and cropped in to some photographs that Garlits had taped inside the back windows of the car showing the truck in action in the 1960s.
"Before such amenities as crew cabs and enclosed trailers, racers like Garlits usually traveled with their race car strapped to an open trailer, a canvas covering the engine, which was usually the only bullet they had," he wrote. "The quality of these trailers was often suspect. Most were homemade on a flat garage floor, stick-welded, and rudimentary, at best.
"Tow/push-start vehicles were generally of the potluck variety, or whatever was available. Pickups were popular, as were big comfy station wagons. Because he often towed long distances to events and match race dates, Garlits traveled with as much as possible for a tour that might last several weeks away from his Tampa home. Thus was born the need for a sturdy, enclosed vehicle to carry himself, a helper, spare parts, tires, and fuel, and often wife/helper Pat and their daughters.
"For several years, that function was ably handled by a GMC Carryall truck, a pickup with lots of covered space and windows. These vehicles needed power and torque sufficient to haul a trailer and provide the 40-plus-mph speed needed to push-start 'Big Daddy's' nitro-fueled hot rods. Such chores were capably handled by the GMC V-6.
"While today's V-6 engines are diminutive little hummers usually of 4 liters or less, the standard GMC V-6 was a pushrod monster of 305 cubic inches. It boasted a 4.250-inch bore and 3.580-inch stroke and was designed to be a heavy-duty truck powerplant, with maximum torque and reliability ... sort of an 'anti-diesel.' This engine design was later enlarged to 351-, 379-, 401-, 432-, and 478-cubic-inch versions. There was also a unique 702-inch design that bolted together a pair of GMC V-6 engines with a common block and four cylinder heads. It powered Minuteman missile carriers during the deep-freeze days of the Cold War. Talk about bizarre!
"Garlits' Tampa Top Fuel colleagues Art Malone and Val LaPorte saw that 'Big' had stumbled on to something with the GMC. They bought their own Carryalls and likewise logged hundreds of thousands of miles towing from sea to shining sea."
Thanks for the insight, Jim!
Robert Nielsen's Fan Fotos of the early SoCal door cars and the buzz they created continues to have "legs," as we say in the entertainment business, and Nielsen and others are responding to those comments.
Mark Wallace said that seeing the Falcons of Nielsen and Tom Nicklin brought to mind another early Ford named Just Falcon Around, and Nielsen dug through his archives for this photo of the car, which he says was a '63 similar to his own ("except it was MUCH faster and also had a 289 in it") and was owned by the Gibbs family; a father and son took turns driving it and owned a Chevron gas station in Woodland Hills, Calif., where Nielsen lived. Nielsen couldn't remember either of their first names but thought that the elder Gibbs was Gene.
Of the Adam-12 episode mentioned that featured Ted Wells' Ford: Nielsen remembered that the episode was filmed on a Monday and that the producers of the show chose to use Wells’ '54 Ford because in a previous episode, Officer Jim Reed, the character played by Kent McCord, had an early Ford pickup, and this was the closest they could come. Albert Aird chipped in to report that the Camaro in the other lane belonged to Larry Ofria of Valley Head Service.
Nielsen also commented on Cliff Morgan's recollections of Wells' Excedrin Headache #1320 entry. "Ted used to break a lot of driveline parts because of the weight of his car and the power he would make. That is until he ‘bulletproofed’ everything in the driveline. He always said this car give him a lot of headaches early on – or was it that it was a pain in the ass? Ted built me a similar 9-inch Ford rear-end third member for my Falcon – although I used more standard nodular iron housing with a Ford Galaxy drag car pinion carrier. He said this was probably an overkill for the type of horsepower I was making, but he insisted there was only one way to do something, and that was the right way – no shortcuts!"
Angel Nieves, another OCIR regular, noted in Morgan's comments the mention of the yellow Glendale Speed Center Nova as well as the Vintage G.T.O. (which wasn't a Pontiac GTO) that frequented Lions, and he (who, by the way, is on the lookout for good photos of the Hedman Hedders Maverick Pro Stocker; contact me if you have something) found photos of both of those cars.
"The photo of the Vintage G.T.O [above] is from Orange County Int’l Raceway's second Pro Gas meet in 1980," he said. "Those early Pro Gas meets were a big thing. The other photo is of Jim Parrish's 1962 Nova [right] at a Brotherhood Raceway Park Pro Gas meet in 1980. Jim worked at Glendale Speed Center. If you were from the Los Angeles area, everybody knew him well, including me. What ever happened to Jim Parrish?" Readers?
Back on the Ford bandwagon, I received a nice note and photos from another Blue Oval diehard, Jeff Foulk, who fielded the Finagler A/FC. "I started racing with a '63 Falcon Sprint and eventually worked up to a '67 Cougar nitro Funny Car," he wrote. "I was a little disappointed last year when you did not include me in your Letter F files. I will admit I was not a big fish and ran very few NHRA events, being engaged primarily in match racing and circuit races. However, I am still proud of our accomplishments as they hold a unique, small niche in drag racing and Funny Car lore.
"With all due respect to Doug Nash, I had the quickest small-block Ford-powered Funny Car, at 8.35, 156.97, injected, on nitro. One of Doug's own early business ads claimed 8.55, 182 with nitro and a blower. We were featured twice in articles in Super Stock magazine, including the one where Editor Jim McCraw licensed in the car. The old cat is presently being restored in Canada." Foulk included a racing magazine clipping of the 8.35 run as evidence; the caption said he did it at Mason-Dixon Dragway en route to winning the track's Jr. Injected Fuel Funny Car Circuit event.
Ever since I posted the photo of the V-8-powered snowblower a few weeks ago, my Inbox has been filling up with snow-related stuff. Eileen Daniels sent the pic above left showing one poor Pennsylvania fan's version of the season opener. My heart weeps for you, my friend. Veteran Stock racer Tom Kasch sent the pic above right showing a really, really cool '57 Nash Metropolitan-bodied snowmobile (it's even for sale, for $10,000) that has a 700cc Yamaha triple beneath the hood.
We've had more losses among our family in the last few weeks that I'm trying to catch up on. Most of you heard (and read in the NHRA.com Notebook) that we lost "Rocky" Childs on Monday. The cofounder with Jimmy Albert of Childs & Albert was 74 when he passed away and left a long legacy of performance and race cars, including the current Addict cackler.
Bill Holland, who knew Childs for decades, was kind enough to supply background info on Childs as well as a few photos, including the one at right of Childs, right, with wife Sharon and Tony Thacker of the NHRA Museum and the one below it, of Childs' first race car, a '37 Chevy. In addition to leaving his mark on the performance aftermarket, Childs worked in the motion-picture industry for many years doing sets and special-effects work.
Pat Foster, Walt Stevens, Tom Toler, Dwight Salisbury, and Bruce Walker are among those who chauffeured Childs & Albert race cars, which enjoyed good success locally, according to Holland, but the closest one of their cars came to the national event spotlight was Salisbury's runner-up to James Warren at the 1968 Winternationals. Sals couldn’t even contest the final as the car had clutch woes, which allowed Warren to single for the title. Walker was runner-up at the ill-fated PRO meet on Long Island in 1974.
Another couple of losses that went undeservedly under the radar last month were those of former nitro Funny Car owner/drivers Ray Strasser and Ron Sutherland.
Strasser, with wife Shirley, fielded a number of cars, but they're best known for their line of Insanity fuel floppers driven by the likes of Gary Ritter, Dave Uyehara, Ron Fassl, Lorry Azevedo, Richard Hartman, and Rick Williamson. Strasser started out driving his own cars in the 1960s, including a '23-T fuel altered and a AA/Dragster, before switching to Funny Cars in 1973.
According to 70sfunnycars.com, their chassis was homebuilt, and the body was an old Hawaiian body purchased from Roland Leong. The most notorious incident involving the car was the brutal two-car top-end get-together at the 1986 Winternationals between Uyehara and Ron Correnti in Bill "Capt. Crazy" Dunlap's Thunderbird.
After getting out of the Funny Car business in 1992, Strasser returned to racing from 1999 to 2001 with David Baca on an A/Fuel Dragster. Baca ran a 5.22 in the car, which at the time was the quickest ever for the class. Strasser retired again after Baca went on to Top Fuel.
"He was a great man, and our family is grateful for all the things he did for us because if it wasn't for him, we probably never would have gotten back in the saddle," Baca posted on a message board.
Like Strasser, Sutherland was tied to his car's memorable name: Desert Rat. And, like Strasser, the Arizonan first drove his and wife Val's cars, beginning with a cast-iron-powered homebuilt Camaro followed by an ex-Larry Christopherson Nova in which he shared the cockpit with the guy who would become his full-time shoe, Chris Lane.
The Sutherlands were on the sidelines from 1975 until 1984, during which time Ron became a professional hockey referee ("I've probably been in more fights than everyone in the pits put together," he told former ND staffer Todd Veney; wonder if he checked with McCulloch before making that claim.)
Lane drove the Steve Marley-tuned cars (a Regal, a Corvette, and a Cutlass) from 1985 until the 1990 season -- and their shining moment in national event competition was at the 1989 Winternationals, where Lane reached the semifinals after beating R.C. Sherman on a holeshot and Mark Oswald in a pedalfest -- then Sutherland took the controls back and drove through the end of the 1994 season.
Farewell, my fuelish friends.
Having been charged with the creation and infrastructure of the Winternationals Memorable Moments program, I breathed a heavy sigh of relief after turning loose the final stories on NHRA.com to bring six intense months of work to a conclusion just prior to Sunday's first round.
From researching and picking the candidates to overseeing the voting and, finally, the writing and posting of the stories, it was a great trip down Parker Avenue's Memory Lane, and the event itself proved a more than worthy arena to salute the rich history of the Winternationals.
In the spirit of that top 25 list, here's my own top 25 list of reasons why I enjoyed the 50th Anniversary Kragen O'Reilly NHRA Winternationals presented by Valvoline.
1. The Golden 50: Good grief, I could write pages and pages about the amazing collection of cars assembled for this display. I could, that is, if I hadn't drooled all over my notes. The display, with everything from front- and rear-engine Top Fuelers to vintage Funny Cars and roadsters and fuel altereds and gassers (oh my!), was almost always packed with fans, both young and old. The older crowd was doing the whole "I remember seeing this car" deal, and the younger gang was staring in wonder at the sometime primitive designs and the sometimes inspiring artistry of these cars. At Saturday's Legends Dinner, Don Garlits remarked, "Of all of the things that NHRA has done for the history of this sport, this really stands out in my mind," and he marveled at the enthusiasm of the young fans looking at the old cars and old drivers "that they never thought they'd be able to see." A-plus effort!
2. Cacklefest (part 1): Saturday's static Cacklefest in front of the grandstands was cool, but of course, the big deal of the day was Sunday's push-start Cacklefest. The cars were paraded up the return road in front of the fans to later be push-started down the track. What was really cool was to see guys like "the Greek," Chris Karamesines, beaming as he rode the short-wheelbased Chizler or to watch Don Garlits accept the acknowledgement of the crowd from the spartan cockpit of Swamp Rat V or to watch "T.V. Tommy" Ivo grinning and waving wildly from the hot seat of his Barnstormer.
3. Cacklefest (part 2): The Cacklefest itself was amazing. The line of cars coming down the track seemed never-ending. Unlike past years, when the cars were pushed down the return road and lined up, engines still running, on the track, this time, they motored down the return road to the cheers and thumbs-up of the fans, each occasionally whacking the throttle. Bob Muravez, taking Larry Dixon Sr.'s usual spot in the Howard Cam Rattler, actually steered close enough to the fence to exchange high-fives with some fans.
4. Cacklefest (part 3): Unfortunately, a little mishap way down the return road brought the cackling to a premature end just as Don Garlits had been started. The cutoff sign was given to those still running and then to Garlits. "Uh-oh," I thought, "This isn't going to be pretty." As an official moved in front of Garlits' car, I had visions of a repeat of the great old tale of NHRA founder Wally Parks trying to disqualify Garlits at the 1960 Winter Nationals (the Florida precursor to the first Pomona event).
As the legend goes, Garlits was facing Lewis Carden in the final, and, as was allowed then, Carden didn't accept the first flag start. Garlits had already launched, but, figuring out what had happened, slowed his car and whipped a U-turn across the centerline and headed back to the starting line. Parks told Garlits he was disqualified for crossing the centerline and that Carden would receive a bye run. Garlits instead waved push-truck driver Art Malone on anyway to refire him, and Parks, who had moved between the truck and the dragster, had to jump onto the hood of the truck to avoid getting mowed down. Garlits' car lit, and he actually chased Carden down to "win" ... or at least cross the finish line first.
As Garlits famously recalled in his book King of the Dragsters, his thought at the time was, "Now you've gone and done it, Garlits. That's the boss of the most important drag racing association in the world who's holding on for dear life back there. You've run your last NHRA race for a long, long time."
So, as an NHRA official ran out to Garlits this time, making the universal hand-across-the-throat cutoff sign, and as one of Garlits' crewmembers dismounted the push truck to discuss it, I was channeling to the official, "Dude, just don't step in front of the push truck. ..."
Garlits, none too happy about, did shut it off this time but clearly was hugely disappointed. "Everything this whole weekend was leading up to this," he lamented.
5. Force wins!: I don’t care who you are; even his fellow competitors had to in some way be happy that John Force won again. The sport needs him like it needs nitro, and it's been way too long since he has cradled a Wally. Personally, I love Force to death and am proud that he considers me a sometime confidant. We became grandpas about the same time in 2004, and he always asks me about the little ones. Although I don't play favorites, there was no losing for me in the final because I also love Ron Capps; I've known him before he was a somebody, and he has always treated me the same.
6. Family feud: Speaking of John Force, how about that wacky second-round race with daughter Ashley? The duo had the first round's quickest times and had to face one another, but just as she'was rolling into the water, one chute popped out. The crew got 'er stopped and started frantically repacking it. Dad realized something was amiss and slowed down as much as he could to buy her some time. Meanwhile, Ron Capps' NAPA flopper, which had won just before them, was locked up on the top end with a broken rear end, and just as the starting-line crew was about to shut off both Forces, they got Capps' car rolling. Ashley never got to do her burnout but still ran 4.18 in a losing effort to Dad's 4.12.
7. Top-end emotion: Between John Force almost busting into tears while thanking wife Laurie for her support and encouragement and presenting her the trophy as a Valentine's Day gift and Larry Dixon being swarmed by his three kids and then hoisting 3-year-old son Darien into his arms in a pose reminiscent of his own with his dad in the 1970 Winternationals winner's circle, when Larry himself was 3, it was some emotional stuff.
8. Larry Dixon and Tony Schumacher: They battled through last decade, and it looks like more of the same. They paired off in the semifinals and, true to form, ran identical e.t.s and speeds to the thousandth -- 3.836s and 317.05s a pair – which Bob Frey says had only happened three times previously in national event competition. "It was like, 'Can't we wait until October to do this?' " said Dixon, whose .068 to .085 holeshot made the difference.
9. W-C-M: Man, what race fan growing up in SoCal in the early 1970s didn't love Warren, Coburn & Miller? Fortunately for us, there were two former Ridge Route Terrors cars at the event, one of each flavor, front- and rear-engine.
The Rain for Rent rear-engine car is the one I remember best, and it was parked next to one of those cool Mr. Ed trailers that was so popular back in the day (Mike Kuhl also had one next to his car). I have a photo of this car and the same trailer (I assume) that I took at Irwindale in the mid-1970s, so the connection was cool for me.
On the other side was Henry Walther's painstakingly reconstructed 1982-83 Larry Minor Top Fueler. They were pretty much the only two back-motored cars in the display, but they're definitely two of the finest!
10. Legends Dinner: Saturday night's gala event at the Avalon restaurant at Fairplex was amazing. I have a full recap of it in this week's DRAGSTER. The panel gave Don Garlits a hard time about his passion for UFOs, and there was a ton of good-natured banter back and forth and amazing stories told. I think there's going to be a DVD made of the evening, and you won't want to miss it.
11. Autograph sessions: Staged each day in the Golden 50 Corral, they were extremely popular. The lines typically would begin to form a good 90 minutes before showtime and would snake around the perimeter of the corral.
12. Exhibition passes: It was really cool to see all of the tribute nostalgia Funny Cars in one place and to see the great names of Pisano & Matsubara, the Fighting Irish, Blue Max, Plueger & Gyger, Beach City Chevrolet, L.A. Hooker, Candies & Hughes, Pizza Haven, and "Jungle Jim" back on the Pomona track. Leah Pruett LeDuc, in Steve Plueger's P&G Mustang, really knocked it out of the park with her 5.70 blast. Her run supplanted the 5.72 registered by Bucky Austin at the Bakersfield March Meet last year. Good one! And let's not forget Mike Boyd's two strong passes in the Winged Express. Although it wasn't the typical guardwall-to-guardwall action we've seen from the car, I can never watch this car run enough.
13. Seeing old friends: The Winternationals was a great place to meet up with old friends, including some past winners I hadn't seen in ages. I caught up with 1990 Winternationals Top Fuel champ Lori Johns and again enjoyed time with the great Shirley Muldowney (not at the same time!) and chatted for a while with Roland Leong. Ran into my "sister" Dawn Mazi-Hovsepian, who flew out from frigid Massachusetts to shoot the nostalgia action, but I just missed one of my all-time favorite people, former Comp champ Bill Maropulos. I haven't seen him in decades, and although we both went looking for one another, we never did connect. I never made a big deal of it at the time, but not long after I drove the Mazi family's supercharged Opel in the mid-1980s, I had a similar generous offer from Maropulos to pilot his national-record-holding B/Econo Dragster. It never came to fruition (my fault) but think of it from time to time.
14. 'Big Mac': It was sure sweet to hear longtime NHRA announcer Dave McClelland again calling the action in Pomona. He worked side by side with regular Bob Frey, and although their styles are different, they complemented one another nicely. I was surprised as well by how abreast "Big Mac" has stayed of the current goings-on.
McClelland, who recently emceed the Dick Wells memorial and was the "roving reporter" in the crowd at the Legends Dinner, has been to every Winternationals save the first two and made a pleasant discovery just before the event when he slipped on his old NHRA jacket, which he hadn't worn in more than three decades. In the pocket, he found a folded piece of paper that turned out to be a handwritten event schedule (in the immaculate penmanship of Steve Gibbs) for the 1978 event, which many will remember as one of the most weather-challenged in history. It even snowed on the starting line! Click here for a close-up look at the schedule.
15. Book sales: We had for sale at the event 300 copies of our book, The History of the NHRA Winternationals, at the NHRA Membership Hospitality Center, and we were sold out early Sunday. Savvy fans snapped them up to have autographed by many of the heroes who were walking around. If you want a copy, you can still get one on Amazon.com here.
16. They love it: I was blown away by the number of people who stopped me to say how much they love the new-look National DRAGSTER. The staff here planned and worked long and hard to make the changes, and we're all working hard to keep the quality and content high from here on out. We appreciate your support and your faith in us and NHRA, and we promise not to let you down.
17. Member-able moments: Speaking of which, I made a number of stops at the NHRA Membership Hospitality Center to welcome those who came out for the race and, again, to thank them for being subscribers. It's always great to hear firsthand what's going on in the minds and hearts of some of the most important people in our NHRA world or just to bench race with them or to answer their questions. I really wish we could offer the center at more events.
18. Brad Pierce: Yet another ND connection as Brad Pierce, husband of ND staffer Debbie, won the Winternationals again with his vintage Corvette. Like Super Stock winner Jeff Lane, Pierce won the season opener in 2003. Between Debbie's bracket wins and Brad's Super Gas work, they're accumulating an impressive collection of trophies.
19. In-N-Out is back in: As a lifelong Angeleno, In-N-Out has been a part of my life for decades, and now they're back in my favorite sport as well, backing Roger Burgess' Melanie Troxel-driven Funny Car.
In-N-Out is always one of the things that out-of-state visitors – be they racers or fans – rave about, and the nearest In-N-Out is usually one of the first places they'll visit when they come to Pomona. The food, of course, is always amazing and predictable from outlet to outlet, but of course, like everything, what makes them even more desirable to those Easterners is that they don't have them where they live.
When I was a teenager, the chain had not yet spread to the Culver City/Venice area where I grew up, so the only time I got to devour a Double-Double was during our regular treks to cruise fabled Van Nuys Boulevard. There was an In-N-Out on Lankershim Boulevard, in neighboring North Hollywood. We'd stop there on the long ride home, and it was always something worth looking forward to. Fortunately for me, when I joined the NHRA staff in 1982, our headquarters was in North Hollywood, just around the corner from that In-N-Out, so it certainly became a regular part of the lunchtime routine.
Today, there are more than a dozen In-N-Outs within 10 miles of my house. I don't eat there any less, and the food certainly is as good as always, and now the flopper is back, too. Life is good. By the way, look for an ND Interview with Troxel in next week's issue.
20. Morgan's Mustang: How about that Larry Morgan and his new Pro Stock Mustang? Semifinals in its debut … nice! With Ford the new official car of NHRA, I think it would have been a home run to have the Mustang win in its debut, much as John Calvert did with the first Cobra Jet Stocker last year and as the original Cobra Jets did in 1968. Morgan is another longtime friend whom I knew before he became a superstar, and I almost got the chance to drive his Castrol/Nationwise Super Stocker at the 1984 SPORTSnationals in Indy. We were doing new-car tests then in National DRAGSTER (man, now that was some fun), and we had a Firebird there to make laps in. The idea was for Larry and me to swap rides. Due to weather issues, the closest I got was some practice launches on the Indy road course. Here's a pic of the two cars.
21. Shane Gray: I gotta hand it to the kid, he done good. The son of versatile Johnny Gray made his Pro Stock debut and not only at times outran the old man but looked good doing it. I don't know who else is in the field, but right now, he's the easy favorite for rookie of the year.
22. Comp: Oh, man, what a shootout. From Brian Fitzpatrick's amazing turbocharged six-cylinder (193-cid) Toyota H/Dragster running 6.223, 226.28 to a crash-filled second round and Dan Fletcher's stunning -.001 red-light all the way to the rematch of the 2006 final, which again went Lou Ficco Jr.'s way against Dean Carter, it was good stuff. I'm glad Comp is my regular ND beat. It's still my favorite class.
23. WFO Radio: WFO Radio's Joe Castello broadcasted live each day from the event with an all-star lineup that included Brandon Bernstein, Greg Anderson, Jason Line, Robert Hight, Larry Dixon, Del Worsham, Ashley Force Hood, Ron Capps, Bob Tasca III, Jeg Coughlin Jr., John Force, and Antron Brown, plus NHRA's Graham Light and media guests such as yours truly, Bobby Bennett, Susan Wade, local motorsports reporter Lewis Brewster, and more. You can hear my two cents at the end of this show.
24: Fudgee-Os!: I stopped by Jeg Coughlin Jr.'s pit to drop off a bottle of wine for him and fiancée Samantha Kenny to again thank them for their generous hospitality in getting me to last month's Lucas Oil Geoff Bodine Bobsled Challenge. Later, Alan Reinhart, who also traveled with us, dropped off a present from the Kennys: a package of Fudgee-O cookies from north of the border. I mentioned them in my entry here from the bobsled trip, but I guess they're quite the phenomenon. They don't look much different than any other double-stuffed fudge cookie, so maybe it's the whole Canadian contraband thing. Anyway, I shared them with my fellow staffers in the media center, and it was bloody. They were gone in less than two hours. But they sure made our day sweeter. Twas a bad weekend for the Coughlin clan, though – Jeg lost early in both Stock and Pro Stock, and Samantha went red early in Super Comp.
25. No rain!: If you were at the Winternationals last year, you know what I mean. It rained almost nonstop, and we didn't finish the Pros until Tuesday and the Sportsmen until Wednesday. It poured rain here for five days the week before this year's event and on Tuesday of race week, just enough to provide the picturesque snowcapped-mountain backdrop that we all love.
Man, what a great race. Something for everyone, for sure.
Racers love competing at the Kragen O'Reilly NHRA Winternationals presented by Valvoline for a lot of reasons. Eastern-based competitors love to head to SoCal for sun and fun. And the facility is conveniently accessible from several major freeways, including Interstate 10, the nation's main east-west artery. The racetrack itself is consistently tight, smooth, and quick. The pits are almost all paved.
But for decades, there has been another, lesser-publicized reason that racers enjoy their twice-annual trek to Pomona, and it resides on Fairplex Drive, just outside the gates behind the tower complex. The El Merendero Mexican restaurant has been a favorite of drivers from all classes for years, not just because of its savory burritos, carne asada, and nachos but because of its convenient location. Back in the days before Pro teams had chow at their own hospitality trailers in the pits, it wasn't uncommon to see the stars of the sport trekking over there and returning minutes later with boxes piled high with spicy goodness. Back then, the street was named E Street, and, with my Bruce Springsteen leanings, I used to think of heading over there as "the E Street Shuffle." The task of fetching your south-of-the-border goodies was a lot easier then because you could exit the facility through a manned gate, but now you have to exit out onto Arrow Highway and head a block west, but it's still worth the trip.
Uncle Everett and Aunt Elly
Uncle Everett working the grill.
I bring up all of this now not to ramp up business for the joint, but because it has an interesting connection to the National DRAGSTER staff. You see, long before the Merendero family began wrapping tortillas there, it was a hamburger stand called Elly's Quick-Snak, and it was owned by Everett Pace, the uncle of National DRAGSTER Photo Editor Teresa Long.
Beginning in 1964, Everett, the brother of T.L.'s mother, leased the new building from the owners of neighboring Lopez Liquor and named the place after his wife, Elinor.
"They did a great business back then because the Pomona drags used to run every Sunday in those days," Teresa told me after talking to her aunt Elly, who still resides in La Verne and just turned 80 (Everett passed away in 2006). "When the Winternationals was in town, they were really busy, employing more than 20 workers to help out with large orders. People would order 50 tacos at a time, and they wanted them in a hurry."
Their three sons helped, along with both grandmothers, preparing malts, shakes, and food. There was even a pool table and a jukebox for extra entertainment. "It was just like Happy Days," remembered Elinor.
After the Paces' five-year lease expired, the Lopez family (brothers Dave and Dan) opted not to renew the lease, planning to take over the restaurant themselves, but they eventually sold it to the Merendero family. Until the last few years, the place still looked virtually the same as these 1960s photos – "Same counter, same fireplace," T.L. pointed out. "And every time I went in there, I would tell my friends, 'My aunt and uncle used to own this place' " -- but just recently, an ornate front was put onto the restaurant.
It's still a great piece of Pomona lore, and I'd bet that any afternoon that you dropped in there around Winternationals or Finals time, you could do some pretty good star watching. Tell them Teresa sent ya.
But, hey, it's our secret, OK?
Response to Robert Nielsen's SoCal doorslammer smorgasbord was, as I suspected, hot and heavy. I think a lot of us nitro-jaded journos forget how popular and memorable some of these door cars were at local tracks, but y'all helped bring me back the warm 'n' fuzzies.
Insider regular Cliff Morgan, a Lions denizen from way back, wrote, "I saw a lot of those cars, especially at Lions. I used to like the really fast E.T. cars at Lions, and they put on a good show between rounds of the Pro cars. A really fast E.T. car could run 9.90s, and that was crazy fast back then. Glendale Speed Center used to have a Chevy Nova that ran 9.90s and did bumper-scraping wheelies at Lions.
"Also wanted to comment on Ted Wells' '54 Ford. I used to see it run at Fernando with the 352 motor, and the car was called Excedrin Headache #1320. This is like 1969 or so, and Excedrin used to have a series of TV commercials with a number assigned to each commercial. Example, you got a headache from traffic, so that was Excedrin Headache #1, etc., etc. That's where Wells got the name for that Ford because it was hard to make that motor run. My first car was a 1958 Ford four-door with that engine. I ran it at Fernando, and it went 16.80s at 86 mph on street tires. I saw Wells run a lot at Fernando. I also liked Tom Nicklin's Outcast Falcon. I saw that car at Lions a lot. I was trying to find a decent photo of the Vintage GTO, a late-'40s Pontiac with a Chevy rat motor in it, that ran Lions, and I was gonna send that in with the photos you published. I bet Robert Nielsen remembers that car. It was red and ran low 10s in Bracket 1, which was Lions' quick bracket. The slowest bracket at Lions was Bracket 6, and I ran that a few times with my Ford Falcon six-banger (low 20s ... once I was The Slowest Car At Lions -- argh). Also ran that bracket with a '71 Pinto, my first new car. Anyhoo, I really liked the photos. Those cars are as much a part of drag racing as the flops and fuelers."
A lot of love also was cast toward Wells' Ford as a number of readers, including Jeff Zimmer and Jeff Bolton, correctly remembered that the car was featured in the Adam-12 episode shot at Lions Drag Strip in the early 1970s.
"It was a show about the dangers of street racing," recalled Bolton. "At the end of the show, Kent McCord raced the car (in the show, it was 'his' car) against Gary Crosby, who was running a friend’s '67 or '68 Camaro. It was a grudge race. Crosby knew he could take that tank easily. It didn’t work out that way. I think the Ford ran an 11.11; it was a cool episode."
You can see the whole episode here on Hulu. The racing and some great looks at Lions (aka "Benson's Drag Strip") begin at about the 20-minute mark.
Steve Neal also dropped me an interesting note about Wells, whom he had confused with recently departed NHRA mainstay Dick Wells. "For the last few weeks and indeed for probably the last several years, whenever I heard the name Dick Wells, I had often thought that he being an old-time West Coast hot rodder, that he was also the guy that I remember reading about in an old car magazine that hand-fabricated a center section for a 9-inch Ford rear," he remembered. "My being a Ford enthusiast who had suffered a similar fate in my '61 Hi Po 390 Galaxie may have been the reason that this stuck in my mind for so long, but then seeing the car in your column, I almost fell out of my lounge chair with laptop to the floor.
"I remember the reference to the 352 engine, too. I didn't know about the 396 'destoker' though, but I did immediately recall that I and a partner at one time raced a B/Dragster with a similar 'destroked' FE Ford. As I recall, we used a 361 FE Ford truck crankshaft (steel) with a heavily machined front snout and a set of pistons that came right out of the Ford parts bin. My partner at the time was the parts and service manager for a small Ford dealer in Connecticut. If memory serves, these pistons were sold without wrist pin holes so that you could bore them for the proper compression height with the shorter stroke. We also later had a similar problem with the lack of appropriate intake manifold when we changed to the tunnel port heads for the FE with Hilborn injection. The medium riser heads had a manifold made for Weber carbs that worked with the injection, but for the tunnel port heads, we had to use a hand-built deal. We actually purchased one from another old Yankee racer by the name of Ed Prout (A/A FE Ford). Wish I had some pictures of some of those old cars from my Connecticut Dragway days. Now I am just rambling, but that '54 Ford sure got the memories flowing! Love it!"
I also heard from David Nicklin, nephew of Tom Nicklin, whose outcast Falcon was featured in the article. "The Outcast cars were my uncle's, and it is nice to see the Falcon again as all the photos from his collection are lost," he wrote. "I still have some from the Funny Car and the altered. If you have any other shots of the Outcast cars, I would like as many as I can for my collection. I hope someday to bring the name back to life with a car of my own."
I forwarded his e-mail to Nielsen, who sent him the image at right and will send him more images once he digs them out of his archives. Another successful Insider Connection!
The photo of the Outcast and of Nielsen's own Falcon inspired even more mail.
"Thanks for the pics, Phil," wrote Gary Crumrine. "It returns us to what we consider to be the golden years of drag racing. That '63 Falcon is just plain neat. When I attend a race these days, I spend very little time actually watching the racing. I am scouring the pits talking to door-car owners who are just plain good people. I’ve had a guy unload his '41 Willys so he could show me some of his handiwork. He had gone out early and was preparing for a long trip home, but he really wanted me to see his car, and my son and I really got a great look at a very nice car. All steel, by the way. I have run into guys like that all over the country. They are the backbone of the sport. I just wish we could do more for them, for without them, the NHRA would not exist."
"The Falcon photos reminded me of that bracket car named Just Falcon Around that ran at Lions," added Mark Wallace. "Great name!" Indeed.
Insider alert: The aforementioned Zimmer wondered if anyone had photos of a '70 Duster called Lil Jinx. The East Coast car competed at the 1976 Grandnational (he believed in D/MP) and ran a dual quad 340, four-speed with a Dana. Zimmer, who is overseas working in the Emirates, owns the car, which is still original but without the motor. Drop me a line here if you have pics of this car, and I'll forward them on to Jeff.
OK, kids, that's it for the weekend. Lucky me, I'll be neck deep in nostalgia all weekend at the Winternationals. If you’re there and see me, stop and say hey. If you can’t make it, we'll miss you. The weather looks to be great, and after recent rains (including Tuesday), the foothills behind the track are picture-postcard white with snow. It's gonna be some weekend!
Way back in early January, I asked the readers of this column to submit their list of racing heroes. (You thought I'd forgotten, didn't you?) Response to my request was a bit overwhelming, so I'm going to parcel these out in two columns.
I have to say that I'm truly impressed not only with the range of people whom you look up to -- everyone from the superstar pros to less-well-known mentors -- but your skill at conveying your admiration. I heard from all over the globe, including England and Australia. There are some very meaningful and deep-rooted emotions here, and I loved every minute of reading. I hope you all do, too.
"My all-time favorite motorsports personality is Gary Beck. #1: A great driver (two world championships, three U.S. Nationals wins, 19 national event wins, first to run in the 5.60s, 5.50s, 5.40s, and 5.30s). #2: A great mechanical mind (made innovations in nitro fuel systems still in use today and made the McGee quad cam engine competitive when it looked like it was always going to be an uncompetitive 'leaker'); I really think that if he chose the path, he could have become one of the all-time great crew chiefs after he left the driver's seat.
"#3: A great sportsman. He suffered absolutely painful final-day world championship losses in 1975, 1980, and 1981 but never felt sorry for himself and carried on to win again. He handed the bottle of champagne (for celebrating his championship if he won) to Shirley when she beat him out for the championship on the last day in 1980. #4: Great with the fans; I had many fascinating conversations with him in the pits, and he always made time to talk to fans. #5: He never made excuses; example: At the 1982 Springnationals, his chute came out when leading an engine-smoking Lucille Lee. Instead of saying it just vibrated out (happens all the time), he admitted that he pulled the chute by mistake when he was reaching for a fuel valve.
"What more needs to be said?" -- Al Kean
"Top of my list is still Mr. Darrell Gwynn. While Darrell accomplished some great things during his racing years, I strongly feel what he has done in the years since his terrible accident should be an inspiration to all of us. Had he not been hurt, would Darrell have won more races and perhaps even an NHRA Top Fuel championship or two? Almost certainly. However, since his accident, he has impacted so many people, in such a positive way, and despite his disabilities.
"It can be argued he has probably accomplished more in life since 1990 than he would have had he continued racing. Would any of us have been able to do the same and show the same attitude if we were in his situation? Something to think about for all of us!" -- Reg Kenney
"My hero in drag racing is Shirley Muldowney, which I know sounds very cliché, but I believe she has helped influence my favorites in other sports/arts. I was born in 1976, so while I was alive during Shirley's prime, I was still very young and have limited recollection of it. It has been as I have grown older and developed my feminist tendencies that I have been able to truly appreciate what I enjoy about her, and why she, pop icon Madonna, and figure skater Michelle Kwan are my 'trifecta' of female competitors.
"I was always a huge fan of female superheroes (Wonder Woman and She-Ra, later Buffy), and it's only been in the last 20 years that I have been able to appreciate how much of a superhero Shirley Muldowney truly was. To hear the tales of what she had to go through, to watch how tough she is in interviews, and to see her do it with so much passion for the sport she loves is truly inspiring.
"I think she infused a lot about why I like Madonna and Michelle Kwan. For Madonna, I think she has the outspoken nature of Shirley Muldowney that I truly admire. Also, there is a confidence level about Shirley Muldowney, and her capabilities, similar to Michelle Kwan on the ice. When she came back from her accident and Steve Evans asked her why she came back, the first thing she said was "Because I'm good at it." Fabulous!
"I think all three ladies have helped educate me and inspire me to live my life to the fullest. Confident. Fierce. Proud. Passionate. Resilient. Competitive. Controversial. Fascinating. And always striving for excellence.
"I know for me, going to the races hasn't quite been the same since I made the cross-country trek to see Shirley's Last Pass in November 2003. And it was truly an honor to be there." -- Billy Anderson
"As a sign painter, I was influenced by the works of Kenny Youngblood and Nat Quick (both worked at Kirby's in the '70s in Bellflower, Calif.). I wanted to work in a shop lettering race cars all day, just looking at their work. Their lettering and design skills influenced me and so many more to where I chose to self-teach myself the trade. I've been lettering race cars and signs since 1975.
"I've met Kenny [pictured right] a number of times, but I finally got to meet Nat at a get-together in Syracuse N.Y., in '08. What a wonderfully talented individual. It was and still is a highlight. He shared stories of the days gone by at Kirby's. He and Kenny are responsible for most of the 1970s Revell model paint designs and the actual paint and lettering of those cars.
"As a racer, Frank Mazi [below right] and Wally Clark are my heroes. I think Frank is a hero to many; Frank could and still can do anything. I met Frank at a little eighth-mile race track in Lancaster, N.Y., just outside of Buffalo in 1975. He had purchased Jimmy Oddy's BB/G Opel, and it was the first time I saw the car since the sale. Remembering that Oddy was the kingpin around here and the Opel was just the coolest thing at the racetrack (not to mention Oddy's talent of driving). Frank was so easy to talk to, and from that day, he and his family have done nothing short of adopting me. I'd drive the 180 miles from Buffalo to Eastlake, Ohio, just to spend a weekend sitting around Frank's garage taking in whatever was going on. He always took the time to explain and encourage not only me but many others. He pointed me in the right direction and to this day still takes no credit for it. He'll never know how much difference he has made in my life and career choice.
"I met Wally Clark, the Canadian Super Stock racer, when I was 12 years old at the old Niagara Drag Strip on the airport base in Niagara Falls, N.Y. Wally was one of the people at the track to pay any kind of attention to me. I loved the sport so much back then. Too many reasons to share, but I've lettered countless numbers of race cars for him, watched him win races, helped and travel with him after I stopped racing myself. He is also one of the funniest guys I know. Through all his kidding, there was always a serious side, and when I needed that, he was there, too, same as Frank Mazi. Wally encouraged and advised me when needed. I owe a lot to both of them.
"Finally, my dear friend John Oldfield. John was like concrete to the local drag scene. He was Superman to a lot of us younger racers. After my folks died in 1989, John and his family kept close to make sure I was all right. John was just one of those guys; hard to explain, but he was. I wanted to move forward with my sign business and build a standalone shop. With his advice, I did and found a piece of land and contracted out the project. John was a master plumber and guided me through the whole deal with what to do and what not to do (the what not to do being the key); I couldn't have done it without him. Sadly, John never saw me put the key in the door as he died in October 1991 at the age of 46. I finished the building shortly thereafter. I'm still heartbroken to this day. I owe a lot to him and for that reason the faith he put in me to succeed. I hope I haven't failed him. If his name sounds familiar, his brother is Dickie Oldfield of the Motown Missile fame. Dick lives in town here and we see each other all the time … talk about hero! Anyway, there you have it. Maybe these people don't mean anything to many people, but they do to me, and I don't know where I'd have been without them." -- Dan DeLaney
"My two favorite racers are two old-time competitors: fuel altered racer Mike Sullivan and front-engine slingshot racer driver and innovator Pete Robinson. Sullivan always had a commitment to the altered class even after fuel altereds were fading and Funny Cars were the coming thing. Who can forget his flag-draped Fiat. He brought class to the class and a record of fine performances." -- Pete Oldengarm
"I guess my list has to start with a 'D.' #1: Don Garlits – Need I say more? #2: Danny Ongais – He did so much for bringing credibility to drag racing. He could win in just about anything he tried – Top Fuel, Funny Cars, Top Gas, IMSA, and, of course, Indy cars. At his peak, he could race side by side with Foyt, Andretti, Unsers, Mears, etc. (and beat them). #3: Dale Earnhardt." -- Mark Brenner
"One stands out among the rest, not only for drag racing, but in life. Like probably a million others, Don Garlits gets my vote. He always has appeared to me to be an example of a hardworking, extremely gifted, and, as far as I can tell, humble person. He rarely failed, and his perfection of the rear-engined dragster probably did more for the category than anything else.
"I could go on and on, but check this out. Back when I was in the eighth grade, a college student came to my middle school. I was selected for a poll that asked students different questions, like what do they like to do, friends, etc. One of the questions was who were my heroes. Besides my dad, who always is No. 1, I mentioned Garlits. This was in 1973, a few years after his great 1971 comeback. I explained to the student about Garlits' accident, his perfection of the rear-engined dragster, his comeback, and his success. Suffice it to say, she had never heard of Garlits but knew a lot about him after speaking to me. He's always been that way to me. I actually got to finally meet him in 2006 at a custom car show, where he autographed one of his books for me. I didn't tell him about the hero story." -- Joe Faraci
"I would like to add Tom 'the Mongoose' McEwen to your list. Tom paved the way for several of the heroes and legends to find sponsorship resources to make drag racing their lifetime careers. The Mattel Hot Wheels agreement was probably the turning point in drag racing. Media followed the sale of millions of Hot Wheels at the races and off the track as well. This was not the first non-automotive sponsorship Tom solicited. Tirend, English Leather, and others were signed up to start the marketing ball rolling for professional drag racing. These sponsors were convinced by Tom that exposure to their products was a valuable use of marketing resources, especially with the addition of television to the sport.
"Tom also was a true pioneer in this wonderful sport. Taking street racing to the track was the main reason the Lions Club of Long Beach opened Lions Drag Strip. Who did they convince to race at the track and not on Cherry Street? Tom, of course. The rest is history, including being inducted into two Halls of Fame." -- Dr. Rick Smith
"It's difficult to pin down just one hero to me, so I'll try to explain why I have several. Let me begin with local Rochester, N.Y., racer Ed Miller. In the '60s, Ed was one of the hot Super Stock racers and was of invaluable assistance in helping me when I was only 18 get so many Mopar parts for my old Plymouths and Dodges. He was always approachable and down to earth.
"Another big influence to me was Ronnie Sox [right]. I'm pretty sure that my first few cars were Mopars because of Miller and Sox. I even designed and had a car painted very similar to one of the Sox & Martin cars. I've written to his widow, and we've exchanged several e-mails. The most impressive thing to me about S&M cars was the preparation. Immaculate! You could eat off of the chassis. The attention to detail was second to none.
"One series of cars I used to admire, because they were so innovative, was the Motown Missile series of cars. This brings me to a man I never dreamed I would ever meet, let alone become good friends with. Dick Oldfield was the first driver of the Missile as well as a bunch of other Super Stock cars in the mid- to late '60s. I met Dick through my neighbor Jason Oldfield, Dick's nephew. Now Dick and I hang out with Jason, with and without his race car, on and off track. Dick thinks at a level most can't even begin to consider. I've been witness to what he's capable of at the track, and if someone could talk him out of retirement, he'd make one hell of a crew chief. If I ever return to racing cars, Dick is the first guy I want next to me at the track.
"I used to race a Pro Gas Suzuki. One of the my big heroes was Elmer Trett. I encountered him at many races and was very proud when he took the time to approach me in the pits and compliment my bike. To watch his wife and daughters work on the bike was to realize that they had probably forgotten more about motorcycles than I ever knew. I can't think of anyone who had a bad word for Elmer. Everyone just plain, flat admired him. I recall the sad news from the Nationals the day he died. I wept openly and can only imagine where motorcycle drag racing would have grown to if he were still with us.
"The last person on my list, though far from least, is Tommy Ivo [right]. I met him when he was sponsored by Honest Charley of America. Part of his deal was to leave his car and trailer at the nearest shop if he was in the area. I met him at our store and took him and his crew chief out to dinner. We all know that 'T.V.' was a cut above the rest. His rig was something to behold, and there were rarely better-looking cars. I've run into Tommy several times since we first met in 1973. I was 23 at the time then. In the times we've met since, he has always been very gracious and has remembered me, which is VERY flattering. He even introduced me to Don Prudhomme, Ron Capps, and Larry Dixon, and I was invited to breakfast with them at the Gators one morning.
"Drag racing is the one sport that ANYONE can walk up to their favorite driver, anytime they simply pay for a pit pass [ticket], and get an autograph. I've been lucky enough to have been around long enough to meet and even reacquaint myself with many of the racers I've admired. I'm almost 60 now and have been a fan of drag racing since I was 7 and a racer myself, in various forms, since I was 16. I may not be as famous as some, but I have certainly enjoyed the trip and will continue to do so." -- Paul Cuff
"My hero was local guy named George Warren here in the Phenix City, Ala., area. No football or baseball player could touch him as far as I was concerned. He could put on a show. I first saw him in 1970 when I was 13. He drove a 1970 AMX. I have seen the biggest names in drag racing who came through Phenix Drag Strip at that time from Don Garlits, Sox & Martin to Bill Jenkins and Larry Fullerton, but that white AMX was what I wanted to see. I am proud to have seen all the drag racers who came through Phenix City, but I'm even more proud to call George Warren my father-in-law." -- William Burch
"Has to be 'the Snake.' Seems to me he was always there. Every national event since 1964, except for one year, many division events even outside his own division (I hated when he raced Division 1), and match races out the kazoo. He raced front engine, funnies, rear engine, and did it successfully, plus he does quite well as an owner. I don't think in all the racing I've witnessed anyone who works harder or is cooler. I remember once at Maple Grove on a hot Saturday night he was racing someone, and back then, we could stand practically alongside the cars. His opponent decided to burn him down, and I could feel the heat and flames grow in intensity. I thought 'the Snake' would be getting upset, so I watched his hand on the brake to see if he flinched a finger. After all was said and done, he put a bad holeshot on his desperate opponent. Then there was a Summernationals at Raceway Park on a 90-degree humid day. He worked rebuilding, honing, changing motors, all without even a canopy, and after winning the event, I stayed to watch some more. He left the track after midnight, working with drop lights long after everyone was gone. He was generous with parts, never played games, and on the run above even asked what lane I wanted. Not that it mattered, he left me in the dust." – Frank Mancuso
"My motorsport hero has to be the late Sammy Miller. From that first awesome sight of Vanishing Point blasting away to an unseen or unbelievable speed/e.t at Santa Pod many years ago. He was a superb showman who was easily approachable and loved the fans. Always an innovator and a true hero never to be forgotten." – Karl Alcock
"I have always been a huge Ford fan, thus for me, Bob Glidden has always been a hero. When all others abandoned the Ford oval, Bob soldiered on virtually alone against first the huge GM contingent and later, to a lesser extent, the Mopar onslaught. His on-camera persona of proud but reserved competitor and always nice family guy was a breath of fresh air compared to some of the other egomaniacs. Bob always evoked the best example of good sportsmanship even in the face of almost insurmountable odds and showed them all in an understated way how it should and was done. He and his family will always be in my heart as the best example of what hard work, great manners, and family values bring to a family-oriented sport." -- Daryl Judd
OK, so there's the first batch of your heroes.Great stuff, guys. I'll probably roll out Part 2 after Pomona, depending on what happens the rest of this busy week. We're all keeping one eye on the skies as it's supposed to rain through Wednesday but clear up for the first day of the season Thursday. Everyone here is just so super excited for the season to kick off, especially with the caliber and depth of this year's 50th anniversary event. If you're coming, see ya here. If you couldn't make it, my condolences.