Although I remembered the 1977 U.S. Nationals in Tuesday’s column for Richard Tharp’s frightening near collision with Gary Read in round two of Top Fuel, as I was thumbing through a couple of thick folders looking for images of that incident, I was quickly reminded – by a couple of photo sequences -- that the event had two other iconic images attached to it: the frightening photo of Dale Emery’s Funny Car standing on its nose at three-quarter-track and the shot of Larry Lombardo fleeing the flaming wreckage of Bill Jenkins’ Pro Stock Monza.
I’ve seen these images so many times that they’re burned into my memory as much for their uniqueness as for what happened afterward. As a longtime fan, like most of you, I know the general specifics of what happened before, during, and after the incidents but not the details.
Emery suffered a broken left arm in the accident that essentially ended his driving career. The cockpit’s loss, of course, was Raymond Beadle’s gain, as Emery took over the tuning chores and backstopped the Blue Max’s three straight championships, 1979-81. Lombardo and Jenkins borrowed a car from good friend Ronnie Manchester, who volunteered his, and the team reached the semifinals against championship rival Don Nicholson.
These are true classic photos from NHRA history, and, as is the ongoing mission at the Insider, I’m here to tell you the stories behind the stories.
I was hoping to track down both parties earlier this week, and though I got Lombardo on the line, I was only able reach Emery’s voice mail. Fortunately, Lombardo is blessed with a great memory and could share details of the happenstances that unfolded 35 years ago at the Big Go, so we’ll focus on him today and hopefully get Emery in time for Tuesday’s column.
Lombardo and Jenkins had won the world championship the previous season and entered Indy trailing Nicholson by just more than two rounds’ worth of points. Lombardo had already won the Winternationals (over Nicholson in the final) and the Summernationals, and Nicholson had won the Gatornationals (over Lombardo) and the Springnationals.
After an opening pass of 8.75 in Thursday’s first qualifying session, Lombardo pulled Jenkins’ Grumpy’s Toy XIII (there’s that number again) Monza into the right lane for another shot. As he pulled high gear, things went to hell in a handbasket. The right rear wheel rotated inside the tire, cutting its valve stem and leading to an immediate depressurization. The car spun across the centerline and smacked into the guardrail, which tore loose a fuel line and caught fire. Lombardo hotfooted it away from the car, which burned intensely. He was uninjured, but the Monza was quite literally toast.
Fortunately, Lombardo had let his qualifying mate, Sam Schermerhorn -- driving the ex-Don Carlton Motown Missile Duster, rechristened the T-Town Missile for his hometown of Toledo, Ohio -- get a big jump at the Tree because he was a new driver, and, interestingly, Lombardo was worried that he might cross into Lombardo’s lane.
“It also was one of the first times we’d run a clutchless five-speed, and I was just watching the tach and hitting the numbers,” he recalled. “As soon as I hit high gear, it just made a hard left turn and crossed into the other lane. It was instant: Boom, and it was gone. As I’m sliding along, I knew I was going to hit, and I was thinking, ‘Oh great, now we’re going to need a new [MacPherson] strut and some fiberglass work …’
“The fuel line came from the trunk up the right side of the chassis to a cool can, and it was severed, which started the fire. Back then, we only had to wear a fire jacket – with regular pants and socks and shoes – so I bailed out. I got about 10 feet away and heard the electric fuel pump still buzzing. I turned around, but the flames were 12 or 13 feet high; I wasn’t going walk back into that. Let it burn …”
Fortunately for Lombardo, Schermerhorn had to abort his run and did a good job of slaloming past Lombardo’s wreck, ironically ending up in Lombardo’s lane after all (as you can see in the first photo).
“The damage to the car was one thing, but the tow truck did more damage than the wreck and fire did,” said Lombardo. “Because the tires were blown out, he put the tow strap through the windows and under the cage and ended up busting all of the windows and buckling the roof, which we had acid-dipped at a cost of $5,000. We wouldn’t have been able to fix it at the race anyway, but that was just salt in the wound.”
While Bill Jenkins toiled on the engine, Larry Lombardo got the cockpit squared away, then made an impressive opening pass in the car and set top speed.
Rules did not allow another car to be entered by Jenkins and team, but they could use any entry that had already been entered and teched in, and within minutes, Manchester had offered his Westport, Mass.-based Monza, built, like Jenkins’ car, at SRD and a near twin to the Jenkins Monza.
“We helped a lot of people back then, so it wasn’t surprising to see people want to help us,” said Lombardo. “Jenkins was the most generous guy out there. If we were caught up, he’d tell me to go help out the other guys. Ronnie immediately told us, ‘Take my car.’ ”
Jenkins and team worked the rest of the day and into Friday to transfer not just their driveline into Manchester’s car, but also some of their suspension components, including the struts and rear shocks, so that their four-link settings would work in the new car, and boy, did they.
After the then-required half-pass checkout Friday, Lombardo bravely blasted the hybrid into the field with an 8.71 at 157.06, which qualified him No. 3 and stood as top speed of the meet.
Even though the car was making a slight left turn off the starting line for which Lombardo had to correct, the combination was otherwise solid, and even though Jenkins had picked up the broken valve stem on the track after the accident, they still weren’t sure what had caused it, so they proceeded with a fair bit of caution, and Lombardo lifted early when possible.
“It wasn’t my car, and we still didn’t know exactly what had caused the tire problem, so I was getting the parachute out as soon as I thought I had the race won,” said Lombardo. “I wasn’t going to take any chances because the accident had happened in high gear.”
It wasn’t until later that the team discovered that the bead of the new Goodyear tire it was running did not conform well to the Cragar wheels it was running, and the beadlock screws were not fully penetrating the bead of the tire.
Lombardo's hopes for not only an Indy win but also a repeat world championship ended with this tough semifinal loss to Don Nicholson.
After beating Butch Leal’s Arrow, 8.85 to 8.90, and Kevin Rotty’s big-block Camaro, 8.82 to 8.88, Lombardo squared off with Nicholson in a crucial match. If he could win and then win the event, they’d be almost deadlocked in points. It was not to be; despite Lombardo’s insistence that he could handle the car, Jenkins made a suspension change before the semifinals, and the car made a hard move downtrack, and Lombardo had to abort his pass, coasting behind Nicholson’s 8.72 with a 9.07.
Nicholson went on to beat Bob Glidden in the final and left Indy with an almost insurmountable 1,262-point lead and ultimately won the championship. Lombardo and Jenkins finished third, behind Glidden.
Well, that’s half the story; I hope to bring you the other half – Emery’s tale -- before long because a) well, I’ve already teased you with it and b) the fan in me really wants to know what happened on that run. I’ll keep dialing and hopefully bring it home next week. Lombardo also shared some funny Jenkins stories and remembrances that I'll offer soon as well.