I’ll admit that my West Coast upbringing does at times bias the stories you read here, and although as a teenager I could easily recite a long list of match-race-only West Coast Funny Cars of the 1970s, my East Coast knowledge was limited largely to what I read in the drag mags.
Apparently, my teenage ignorance knew no bounds because, to be honest, it wasn’t until I bought Greg Zyla’s Vallco Drag Racing Game that I ever heard of Tim Kushi or his Yankee Sizzler flopper, which, in retrospect, is kind of surprising considering that the Pittsfield, Mass., racer had been competing in the class since 1970, initially with Logghe-built Dodge Chargers and Challengers under the Damn Yankee name.
Kushi, who last competed in a nitro coupe in the early 1980s, died last Sunday after being stricken with heart problems while on the golf course and subsequently passed away. He was 69.
Although Kushi did not have the national visibility of a "Jungle Jim" Liberman or a Bruce Larson, he was an East Coast stalwart and a popular match racer, yet I always wondered about his inclusion. Was he a friend of Zyla's, or was this some East Coast "little guy" favoritism? If Kushi could be in the game, what about West Coasters like Mike Halloran, Jeff Courtie, "Smokey Joe" Lee, or Roger Garten? (I made my own cards for them and dozens of others.)
So, I asked Zyla earlier this week about Kushi’s inclusion in the game and was quite pleased to hear his explanation, which I think provides a wonderful epitaph for the Kushi that some (me included) might not have known.
“Tim had run a few NHRA races (and/or tried to qualify), and because I needed 32 drivers, he made it as few other drivers had similar runs that year under NHRA sanction,” he explained. “But I had heard nothing but good from other drivers/crews/fans about Tim, so he was in. [Late and great respected drag racing journalist] Woody Hatten told me Tim was real happy to be included, but other than a quick signing of a release to use his name (a one-minute ‘Hi Tim, here's the release’ and a ‘Thanks much’), that was the extent of my talking with him as I was running from trailer to trailer. But Woody said he was deserving, just like Jim Wemett's cars [George Johnson driver] were. Woody and I would always put our minds together on drivers that deserved to be in the game. Other drivers told me to put him in the lineup of cards, too, like Al Hanna; he also was very happy to be included. They used the game for sponsor proposals.”
Although Kushi was known locally, his national fame really came about primarily for two reasons: his inclusion in the game and his scary two-car accident with “TV Tommy” Ivo at a 1978 match race at New England Dragway that pretty much ended Ivo’s nitro career.
Because Kushi is no longer with us to share his side of the story, I asked Ivo for his recollections of the scary incident, and “your hero and mine” was, as always, happy to oblige.
“I had just given Tim a rather sound thumping and was about three car lengths ahead of him in the lights, with me in the right lane -- to start with anyway. When I deployed my chute, all hell broke loose. Kaboom, I heard a huge explosion from the back of the car … WHAT? -- the bangs always come from the front of the car, where the ticking time bomb of an engine lives, and usually come along with a pretty good belch of fire, if you’re really having a bad day!!!
“The next thing I knew, I was uncontrollably veering off toward the left side of the track, and I saw the body fly off the top of the car. Because the shutoff area was lined with telephone poles on the left side that were holding up the night racing lights, I was starting to sit as low as possible in the seat. And, of course, there were no guardrails in the shutoff area in those ‘good old days!'
“All of a sudden, the car whipped around to the right and was pointing downtrack again, and -- kaboom! -- there was another explosion! And, tallyho, it was off to the left I go -- again! Good grief -- what was going on? So after getting that funny little hollow place you get in the pit of your stomach, I realized something terrible was happening, and I was just along for the ride. And, of course, it was all in slooooow motion. I've noticed every time things really get out of control, everything goes into slo-mo.
“I took a quick peek down at the transmission area to see if something had happened there -- but that was too far forward in the car -- and deduced that the rear end must have torn loose from the frame and was clanging around back there. It was the only possible answer. NOT!
"As I was heading off the track for the second time, there was no doubt about it. This time it was for real, and I'd passed the point of no return now, and I closed my eyes. I always closed them when I was crashing bad; don't laugh -- those ostriches aren't all stupid: It works! Out of sight, out of mind – well, I guess not exactly. But I'd always think to myself, ‘I don't want to SEE this happen!’
“But as luck would have it. I hit a field goal and slid off the track between the lighting poles and didn't make toothpicks out of any of them -- or me!
“After the car came to a halt, I got out of it and, like all good cowards, ran about 50 feet to get away from the scene of the accident and then turned around to have a lookee at what had really gone on. And there it was. Both Tim's and my cars were all wrapped up together in the parachutes. And I found out he was the varmint that was making all the bang-bangs on the back of my car as he kept ramming into me!!!
"It seems that Tim's front-right body support had broken in the lights, letting his car's body collapse onto his right front tire, and it grabbed it, which steered it to the right and headed him straight into the back of my steed. It had also slid the body over and trapped the throttle wide open. So he was off and running, full-tilt boogie, into a woods full of big trees that lined the track to the right.
“BUT -- and here comes that but again -- there I was, minding my own business and just getting the car stopped to go back and make the next round -- that needless to say, I never made it to -- when Tim decides to use me as a big air bag in his crash! I hate when that happens!
“The first kaboom came when he ran into the back of me the first time. Then as I headed off the track, my chute caught onto the back of his car and pulled me around, right back to my original trajectory downtrack, which pulled him sideways and rolled his car over and over. As it rolled up in my chute lines, kaboom, came the second hit -- he's baaaaaack!!!
“But all's well that ends well. Neither one of us got a scratch out of it. And, like the horrendous crash I had in my dragster at Pomona in ’74, I wouldn't have missed it for the world. It was well worth the price of admission! You can't buy experiences like that to have all those great memories to cherish with such fondness as you get long in the tooth!”
Kushi's funeral was yesterday. Former nitro car owner Jim Wemett emailed to tell me about a great turnout to honor the man, including one of his own former drivers, George Johnson, and fellow former nitro pilots Chuck Etchells and Al Hanna, plus Circus Custom Paints' Bob Gerdes, Tommy Johnson Sr., and others, all turning out to honor a man who was much more than just a name on a card.