If you turned 21 years old yesterday, I’d like you to raise a glass of your now-legal-to-drink favorite alcoholic beverage and toast the memory of Joe Pisano, who left us on the day you were born, July 19, 1991.
Seems impossible it has been that long, or for us to forget what a tragic year that was. That year, we also lost nitro engine guru Keith Black, Top Fuel champ Gary Ormsby, Top Fuel veteran Richard Holcomb, nitro car owner/John Force mentor Gene Beaver, former Top Fuel racer Dan Rightsell, performance-industry pioneer Ted Halibrand, race car painter George Cerny Jr., and, as mentioned Tuesday, fuel-altered veteran Willie Borsch.
Black had died May 13, at age 64, of an inoperable brain tumor, and though his death was not a surprise, Pisano’s surely was: He passed away suddenly of a heart attack at the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals, in the arms of his crew on the return road at Bandimere Speedway just minutes after watching his car, with new driver Dale Pulde at the wheel, make a qualifying pass. The team, naturally, withdrew from the event, but his spirit rode on as former Pisano driver Mike Dunn won the event.
In our tribute to Pisano in National DRAGSTER, we wrote, “Many found it ironic that big-hearted Pisano, known affectionately as ‘Papa Joe’ and ‘Joe P.’ to his legion of friends and customers, would die of a heart ailment. He was eulogized as a man whose tough exterior hid a heart of gold, a generous man who lived his last years passionately and compassionately, often extending credit to customers beyond normal business practices.”
Among Pisano’s many drivers were brother Frank, Sush Matsubara, Jake Johnston, Pat Foster, Tom Ridings, Tripp Shumake, Denny Savage, Al Segrini, Dunn, Glenn Mikres, and Pulde.
I got to thinking about “Papa Joe” earlier this year when I stumbled across a great article that Todd Veney had done with him just months earlier. Instead of a traditional feature or Q&A, Veney had hit upon an interesting format in which he selected great quotes from the man and put them under headings. There were 32, all wonderful and telling. I’m not going to reprint them all, but here are a few to remember him by.
The Golden Rule: “A lot of drivers have been in my cars over the years, but no one ever went down the track without me there to see it. No engine has ever been started without me there.”
Easy pickings: “I’ve never had a hard time picking my drivers. I just go with people I like. My friends drive my cars.”
It’s all relative:
Some of Joe Pisano's cars, beginning with the Corvair driven by his brother, Frank
“Winning the 64 Funny Car show on the Coast meant as much at the time as winning a national event does now. And setting a track record at Orange County was just as important as setting a national record now.”
“Funny Car guys from the East would get their hopes up and come out to California to race every once in a while, and they’d just get blown away every time. All the baddest Funny Cars and the new ideas were from the West Coast, mostly from California.”
Like riding a bike: “The good racers we used to go against every week would still be tough today. The parts have changed and the cars have gotten a lot faster, but it still comes down to the clutch and the fuel system. If you’re good, you’re good.”
Jinxed: “Kenny Bernstein always seemed to beat us, no matter what the circumstances. And when Mike Dunn was driving, we always lost to Roland Leong, his former car owner.”
Nothing tops an “Ace”: “You can’t deny what Don Prudhomme has done – when he was on – and Kenny Bernstein was so good for so long, too. But day in and day out, for years and years, Ed McCulloch is the best because he’s always there. He was just flat hard to beat.”
Power hungry: “It all comes down to one thing for me: Power. That’s what drag racing is all about. I love power.”
I found it interesting that the article, which ran in that year’s Winternationals preview edition, had McCulloch’s car on the cover as well as that of Leong, two guys he cited in the interview, and also a bit sad in reflecting that just a few months later, he was gone. He admitted in the article that he’d already had three open-heart surgeries, so though his heart was the strength of who he was, it was his body’s weakness.
He even joked about it in one answer: “I’ve never sat in one of my Funny Cars when the engine was running. My heart would go crazy – they’d probably have to plumb oxygen into the cockpit.
"But if I were 30 years younger …”
Ah, but if we all were. Where were you in ’82? No matter where you were, or where you were born, raise a glass today in memory of Joe P.
After today’s remembrance as well as Tuesday’s item about the unusual eBay auction, I’ll be returning next week to the gold race car thread. I tracked down both Jackie Peebles and Chip Woodall to talk about their gold-laden race cars, and Woodall was kind enough to send me a collection of photos and to talk about his career. Good times.
You can sell just about anything on eBay. Your KC and the Sunshine Band albums. Your collection of Beanie Babies. Your shoebox full of Honus Wagner baseball cards.
What you can’t sell, however, is body parts.
And though there are many items on the popular auction site that you might give your left arm to own, last week there was an arm for sale. Not just any arm, mind you, but the left arm of all-time fuel altered hero “Wild Willie” Borsch.
Now, hold on a minute there, Sparky. Before you go alerting the auction authorities, it wasn’t the real arm, famously braced onto the side of his nitro-snorting T-bucket roadster that kept “Wild Willie” in place while one-handedly steering the Winged Express with his right, but rather a prop arm that Borsch cleverly created for his stint in Funny Car as part of the Revell fleet in the early 1970s.
So renowned was his one-armed prowess that when he switched to a Revell’s Wild Man Dodge Charger flopper, he shrewdly constructed a dummy arm – clothed in firesuit material and capped with a glove – that he could attach to the left window of his Funny Car to create the illusion that he was still going about his racing single-handedly. (The arm was also part of the small-scale Revell model kit.)
According to former partner “Mousie” Marcellus, Borsch didn’t initially drive the Winged Express one-handed to show off but because the seat was too big for him, so he held on to the body to keep from sliding around in the car. Once he became known for the crowd-pleasing style, he maintained it, and his strong arms – developed in his occupation as a tile setter who routinely had to carry 80-pound buckets of tile cement – allowed it.
Borsch died more than 20 years ago – in October 1991 at the age of 61 – but his legend lives on, in the history books, in the hearts and memories of fans, and in the Winged Express entry now driven by Mike Boyd. In 2001, Borsch was selected as one of NHRA’s Top 50 Drivers (No. 34); although he was known more as a match race draw, the cars actually won AA/FA class twice at the Winternationals, and Borsch was selected to the Car Craft Magazine All-star Drag Racing Team six straight years beginning in 1967 and was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1992. (See our Borsch bio here.)
But back to the arm, whose appearance on eBay last week set off the bells and alarms in the nostalgia community. I bet half a dozen people forwarded me the link.
The famous arm, long forgotten by most, appeared from the deep recesses of the garage of former Funny Car racer Paul Ouellette in Westland, Mich., where Californian Borsch sometimes bunked during his Eastern trips. Ouellette later came to own the Charger – and the arm. He sold the Charger but kept the arm, which was buried in a cabinet until just recently, when Ouellette happened upon it and other Borsch memorabilia in the corner of said garage.
Bidding began July 5 at just 99 cents but quickly skyrocketed into the thousands of dollars. When the auction ended Sunday, the final price – after 48 bids – was $2,117.
Enough to give you the "willies," no?
Just in case you didn’t look at your calendar today, it’s Friday the 13th, supposedly one of the unluckiest days of the year. According to the Stress Management Center/Phobia Institute in Asheville, N.C., an estimated 17 million to 21 million people in the United States are affected by paraskevidekatriaphobia, a fear of this day, making it the most feared day and date in history (yes, even worse than April 15 or that anniversary you forgot). Every month that begins on a Sunday will contain a Friday the 13th, and there is at least one Friday the 13th in every calendar year between now and 2025, so get used to it.
June 13, 2008, also fell on a Friday when my column was due, so I thought it then an appropriate day to look into some drag racing superstitions, including Corvettes, the color green, and peanuts in the pits, and we had a good ol’ superstitious time looking into those, so I thought that I’d reprise that column today, in the last of the greatest hits now that I’m safely home after nearly two straight weeks on the road attending the sweatfests that were Chicago and Norwalk.
Tuesday will be an original column, getting us back into the swing of things as the summer heats up. In the meantime, enjoy this look back and try to avoid black cats, stepping on cracks, walking under ladders, and so forth.
Friday the 13th Special: The Corvette Curse and Other Superstitions
(While the author’s away, the greatest hits will play. Due to travel and other commitments the next two weeks, the DRAGSTER Insider will feature memorable articles from its extensive archive. Enjoy. – P.B.)
One of the really great things about this column is getting to see the amazing and never-before-published photos from your home archives, and the only thing better than still photos is moving pictures, right?
Way back in 2008, when YouTube was not yet overflowing with great vintage drag racing clips, I did a review of the small smattering of those already online, playing Leonard Maltin to critique and grade those that I did find. I embedded all of the clips into my June 2 column, and, surprisingly, four years later, 15 of the 16 are still available for viewing there (the 16th is now hyperlinked).
Combined, there’s probably well more than an hour and a half worth of video, and you know as well as I do that once you start watching one, you’re going to watch them all, so plan accordingly, especially if you’re at work. Have that fake spreadsheet ready to Alt+Tab to.
Monday at the Movies