It's in the cardsTuesday, December 21, 2010

If you read last Friday's column, you know that I have a huge trove of drag racing collectibles. I'm sure it’s just a drop in the bucket compared to what some of the actual collectors out there among you have stashed away, but it's a pretty good pile o' stuff, and some things I'm sure are worth a pretty penny.

I've accumulated all of this in my years on the job here, but the first drag racing collectibles of any sort I owned were the Fleer drag racing cards that were available in the early 1970s. I own a partial set of RaceUSA collection (58 of 74, plus those two unopened packs I bragged about) but I didn't realize that the RaceUSA set is actually the third and final set of quarter-mile cards offered by te Philadelphia-based company. Mark Bruederle, who many of you know as one of the Midwest's finest photographers and a regular at Great Lakes Dragaway, was kind enough to scan up some articles written by Geoff Stunkard, one of the pre-eminent experts on drag racing memorabilia. Stunkard wrote about the cards in his Quarter-milestones column in Racing Collectibles Price Guide magazine in early 1993 and was able to track down the details of each of the sets as well as a collection checklist.

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Naturally, "Big Daddy" Don Garlits is a prime draw. He has four separate cards in the RaceUSA set, including this happy photo.
The first Fleer set, issued in 1971, was the brainchild of Matt Strong of Racing Media Specialists, who approached Fleer executives and showed them images shot by top era lensmen Jim Kelly and Jon Asher. The 63-card set that resulted was called Official Drag Champs, and, after a successful test sampling in the Midwest and East Coast (though curiously not in the sport's SoCal hotbed), about six million cards were put into circulation in the United States and Canada. The photos in the set -- shot mostly by Kelly and Asher, but also some from Strong -- were taken during the 1970 season and, although AHRA was involved in the cards (its distinctive shield is featured on the back of each card and Kelly was the official AHRA photographer at the time), not all of the images were shot at AHRA tracks, according to Stunkard. The backs of all three sets include biographic and statistical information on the driver (more on that later).

According to the article, the Official Drag Champs set remains the easiest of the three to find, and the Canadian-printed set is slightly more valuable that the U.S. printing. In 1993, the Canadian set was valued a $325.

The success of its initial pass down the drag racing card circuit apparently was successful enough to spawn the two subsequent sets, which featured a larger variety of images (including driver personality photos): The Drag Nationals set consists of 70 cards and features images shot during the 1972 AHRA season at a number of facilities, including at the notorious PRO race in Tulsa staged against NHRA's Nationals and, interestingly, at Lions Drag Strip's Last Drag Race in December 1972 (even though by then Lions had become an NHRA track). The entire 74-card RaceUSA set, meanwhile, was photographed during the 1972 AHRA Winternationals at Beeline Dragway in Arizona (which also later became an NHRA track).

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Photo selection is kinda head scratching at times, like this awful shot of Tom McEwen's Duster, with the sprinting crewman blocking the view
Maybe it's because they're 40 years old, but the photo quality on the RaceUSA set isn’t that great. There's some weird cropping and photo choices, but also some pretty good stuff, which you can see in the galleries at right. (The cards shown here are solely from my RaceUSA collection.)

Being a writer myself, naturally I was interested in the content on the card backs as well, which varied from 60 to 100 or so words, but, all in all, was excellently done. There is a lot of good (and accurate) information on all of them, and the repetition is kept to a minimum. (Believe me, when you’re churning out copy for 74 of anything, it's quite a chore to keep the copy fresh and lively.) The most egregious error is committed on Twig Zeigler's card, where his surname is spelled "Zigler" throughout.

Because the sets are AHRA endorsed (Kelly says that Fleer paid him to shoot the first set and that AHRA paid him for the images for the second), NHRA accomplishments are not included. For example, Steve Carbone's 1972 RaceUSA card lauds his win at the 1971 AHRA Winternationals but fails to mention his monster win against Garlits at the 1971 NHRA Nationals (the famous "burndown"). Paradoxically, Ronnie Martin is credited with his 1970 NHRA Top Fuel championship (though the N-word is not used). Overall, a B-plus for writing.

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The RaceUSA set had some nice personalty-type photos, like this great shot of "Dandy Dick" Landy, cigar and all
There seems to be some confusion as to the issue dates and order of release for these final two sets. According to Stunkard, the Drag Nationals set is by far the rarest of the three collections, but also the most poorly produced (including some out of focus images) and may have been prematurely yanked by Fleer and replaced by the RaceUSA set, which to me, with its single-location focus, reeks of "rush job." He quoted collector Joe Kovaks of North Carolina saying that the ratio of cards he could find at memorabilia shows was roughly 20 to 1 for Drag Nationals versus Official Race Champs as about 5 to 1 for RaceUSA versus Official Race Champs.

However, based on a check of the collation of cards found in two unopened 48-pack (five cards per pack) boxes of RaceUSA cards, Kovaks noted that cards 15-28, 52-65, and 72-74 appeared to be in short supply, meaning that those cards may have "short printed". However, of my 16 missing cards -- 1, 5, 13, 14, 17, 29, 33, 34, 38, 39, 42, 45, 46, 47, 51, and 66 -- only one, No. 17, appears in those ranges, so either I'm lucky or the two-box test is too small of a sample to make for empirical data.

Prices (again, from 1993) were $375 for the Drag Nationals, and $260 for RaceUSA. Below are set checklists. As you can see, there are some pretty cool and diverse set of subjects in all of the sets.

  Official Drag Champs  
1. "Akron Arlen" Vanke 22. AHRA Pro Funny Car category 43. Stampede Super Stock
2. John Wiebe 23. Chris Karamesines 44. Ma & Pa Hoover
3. Super Shaker Funny Car 24. AHRA Super Stock category 45. Beyer & Young Cougar
4. Steve Carbone 25. Jim Nicoll 46. Durachrome Bug VW FC
5. Ramchargers Funny Car 26. Dick Landy 47. Bruce Larson
6. Hawaiian Funny Car 27. Shirley Shahan 48. Paula Murphy
7. Stardust Funny Car 28. Dick Harrell Super Stock 49. Bruce Dodd's Spirit
8. Infinity V Funny Car 29. Candies & Hughes Funny Car 50. "Jungle Jim" Liberman
9. Mr. Chevrolet Funny Car 30. "Fast Eddie" Schartman 51. Sam Auxier
10. Grumpy's Toy Super Stock 31. Ed Terry's Super Stock 52. Duane Ong
11. Super Charger Funny Car 32. Hubert Platt 53. Ray Godman
12. Sandy Elliott 33. Gary Kimball 54. AHRA Pro Top Fuel category
13. Chi-Town Hustler Funny Car 34. Gary Watson 55. King & Marshall
14. Boss Maverick Funny Car 35. "Big John" Mazmanian 56. Robert Anderson
15. Rambunctious Funny Car 36. Crietz & Donovan 57. Mallicoat Bros. Gasser
16. Warhorse Funny Car 37. Blue Max Funny Car 58. Hiner & Miller Camaro GT-3
17. Tin Indian GT-2 Firebird 38. Sox & Martin 59. "TV Tommy" Ivo  Top Fueler
18. Don Garlits 39. Mike Burkhart Funny Car 60. Mr. Bardahl Super Stock
19. Engine Masters Funny Car 40. Don Grotheer Super Stock 61. Tony Nancy
20. K.S. Pittman 41. "Sneaky Pete" Robinson 62. CKC Chevy II Funny Car
21. Hemi Duster Super Stock 42. Larry Christopherson 63. "Dyno Don" Nicholson
  Drag Nationals  
1. Don Garlits Swamp Rat 25. Paddy Wagon Vega 48. Candies & Hughes FC
2. Don Garlits Swamp Rat 26. "Mongoose" Funny Car 49. Telstar Dodge Funny Car
3. Don Garlits Swamp Rat 27. "Snake" Funny Car 50. Walton, Cerny & Moody
4. Cyr & Schofield's Top Fueler 28. Gary Cochran Top Fueler 51. Stardust Funny Car
5. Charlie Therwanger's Hombre FC 29. White Bear Dodge Funny Car 52. Green Mamba Jet
6. Bill Leavitt's Mustang Funny Car 30. Revell Snowman Funny Car 53. Arizona Wildcat Funny Car
7. CKC Vega Funny Car 31. Steve Carbone Top Fueler 54. Tom Grove Mustang FC
8. Blue Max Mustang Funny Car 32. Courage of Australia Rocket 55. Dunn & Reath Funny Car
9. "Kansas John" Wiebe Top Fueler 33. "Kansas John" Wiebe Top Fueler 56. El Diablo Top Fueler
10. Steve Carbone Top Fueler 34. Carpet Bagger Top Fueler 57. California Flash Funny Car
11. Mr. Norm's Dodge Funny Car 35. Smokin Sun Devil Funny Car 58 Grumpy's Toy Pro Stocker
12. Jim Hayter Pro Stock 36. Drag-On Vega Funny Car 59. Watson, Cerny & Moody
13. Sox & Martin Pro Stocker Dodge 37. Chris Karamesines Top Fueler 60. Ramchargers Dodge FC
14. Don Grotheer's Pro Stocker 38. Gary Cochran Top Fueler 61. Researcher Funny Car
15. Rod Shop Demon Pro Stocker 39. Don Cook Top Fueler 62. Brand X Funny Car
16. The Boss Pro Stocker Plymouth 40. Creitz & Dill Top Fueler 63. Special Edition Top Fueler
17. Rundle's Chevrolet 41. Chris Karamesines Top Fueler 64. Trojan Horse Funny Car
18. Grumpy's Toy Pro Stocker 42. The Boss Plymouth Pro Stocker 65. Peter Paul Vega Funny Car
19. Landy's Dodge Pro Stocker 43. White Bear Dodge Funny Car 66. Whipple & Mr. Ed Funny Car
20. Motown Missile Pro Stocker 44. Braskett & Burgin Funny Car 67. Smokey Joe" Lee Funny Car
21. Drag-On Vega Funny Car 45. Lil' John Lombardo Vega Funny Car 68. Green Mamba Jet
22. Revell Snowman Funny Car 46. Hot Wheels "Snake" Funny Car 69. Mickey Thompson Funny Car
23. Motown Shaker Funny Car 47. Hot Wheels "Mongoose" Funny Car 70. Paddy Wagon Vega
24. Mickey Thompson Vega    
  Race USA  
1. Tom McEwen Funny Car 26. Steve Carbone Top Fueler 51. Paddy Wagon wheelstander
2. Tom McEwen Funny Car 27. Don Cook Top Fueler 52. Arlen Vanke Pro Stocker
3. Tom McEwen 28. Gary Cochran Top Fueler 53. Whately Bros. Camaro
4. Don Prudhomme Funny Car 29. Mike Burkhart Funny Car 54. Rapid Ronnie Funny Car
5. Don Prudhomme 30. Tom Akin Top Stock 55. Polaris T/S Mustang
6. Don Prudhomme 31. Garlits - Driver of Year 56. Sandy Elliott Pro Stocker
7. Blue Max Funny Car 32. Larry Christopherson 57. Bobby Yowell Pro Stocker
8. Quickie Too Funny Car 33. Larry Christopherson Funny Car 58. Don Garlits
9. Gremlin 401-XR stocker 34. Sox & Martin Pro Stocker 59. Don Garlits Top Fueler
10. Bob Lambeck Pro Stocker 35. Sox/Martin/Jake King 60. Don Garlits
11. Butch Leal Pro Stocker 36. Don Schumacher Funny Car 61. Jeg's S/S
12. Dick Landy 37. We Haul Vega Pro Stocker 62. Hemi-Fiat Fuel Altered
13. Dick Landy Pro Stocker 38. We Haul Vega Pro Stocker 63. Jon Petrie Pro Stocker
14. Kimball Bros. Camaro 39. Scott Shafiroff's Camaro 64. Rod Shop Demon
15. Tom Hoover Top Fueler 40. Barry Setzer Funny Car 65. Nanook Fuel Altered
16. White Bear Funny Car 41. Chris Karamesines Top Fueler 66. The Mob Fuel Altered
17. "Dyno Don" Nicholson Pro Stocker 42. Dave Russell Top Fueler 67. The Mob Fuel Altered
18. Ken Holthe's Camaro 43. Twig Zeigler Funny Car 68. Praying Mantis Top Fueler
19. Don Grotheer Pro Stocker 44. Robert Anderson Top Fueler 69. Jim Nicoll Top Fueler
20. Eddie Schartman Pro Stocker 45. M/T Pinto (Dale Pulde) 70. Ed Sigmon Opel
21. Gapp-Roush Pro Stocker 46. M/T Pinto Funny Car 71. Gene Snow
22. Mr. Ed Funny Car 47. M/T Mustang Funny Car 72. Gene Snow Funny Car
23. Boss Hoss Funny Car 48. Revellution Funny Car 73. Gene Snow Funny Car
24. Gene Dunlap Camaro 49. Revellution Funny Car 74. Gene Snow Top Fueler
25. Drag-On Vega 50. John Wiebe