During a typical workweek, I am bombarded with interesting stuff, either by phone or e-mail. Whether it's feedback or additional info from a previous Insider column or just a helpful racer or fan directing me to an interesting Web site or passing on a cool photo, sometimes some of this stuff is just too cool to keep to myself.
As the calendar switches from September to October, it's time to clear out the backlog of intriguing stuff that I've accumulated in the last month. Enjoy!
I sent Shirley Muldowney a copy of Steve Heuer's photo of her in the cockpit of her ill-fated Satellite Funny Car (see column below), noting the early-model firesuit shown in the pic, and asked her how much racing had changed over the years. I found her reply both interesting and informative and, from someone with her vast experience and cred, spot on.
"They were so different that to draw a comparison between the two is kinda ridiculous, but I'll give it a shot," she said. "Now the cars don't seem to hike the front end up (both wheels; on a good run; the 1970 cars ran on three wheels to the 1,000-foot mark); drivers' hands don't have to leave the steering wheel to shift into another gear at half-track; drivers doesn't straddle a Lenco; we didn't have throttle stops to regulate the burnout rpm; smart drivers relied on an oil-pressure gauge only; and fire bottles have grown considerably larger in size."
And she was just getting warmed up …
Shirley also offered this then versus now list:
- Real firesuits versus "Reynolds Wrap"
- Full-face helmets
- Coaches with radio headsets
- Superior track lighting
- Prepared track surfaces
- Super speedways (surface, length, width)
- Extended runouts versus cornfields
- Longer wheelbase
- State-of-the-art engine and running gear components
- Fuel pumps that live longer than two runs
- Front and rear wheel brakes
- Larger dual Kevlar parachutes
- Guardwall versus guardrail (or none at all)
- 90 percent nitro versus 100 percent
- Bathrooms and showers
- Hotels instead of sleepers
- Airplanes reservations versus toll booths
- Kenworths versus Dodge duallies
- Alan Johnson versus Freddie DeName
"I rest my case," she concluded.
It's amazing sometimes how far we have come and how soon we forget the types of equipment that the pioneers of our sport used. We, the jury of the Insider Nation, find for Ms. Muldowney in the case of Then versus Now.
Speaking of Shirleys, Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum presented by Automobile Club of Southern California curator and historian Greg Sharp (who, with Bret Kepner, always keeps me honest here) passed along a copy of a nice article on Shirley Shahan in the Visalia (Calif.) Times Delta newspaper. Shahan (now Shirley Bridges) had been officially named to the Visalia Riverway Sports Park Pillars of Fame in a unanimous vote by the Visalia Parks and Recreation Commission. The Pillars of Fame is the Visalia version of a sports Hall of Fame. That's Bridges, center, with husband Ken and close friend Marian Cote.
The article noted that she often is confused with another Shirley. "Yes, for the umpteenth time, I am not Shirley Muldowney," said Bridges, whose career largely did not intersect with Muldowney's as she retired in 1972, just as Muldowney was beginning her rise to greatness. (You can read my past column on Shahan's exploits -- parts of which were noted in the newspaper article -- here).
My recent Four-wide mania column drew a lot of fond remembrances and thank-yous from those fortunate enough to have witnessed those spectacles firsthand. Dan Lemons dropped me a line to fess up to being the soul brave enough to be the starter at Fontana Drag City when they ran the four jet dragsters side by side.
"I was the foolhardy guy standing in front of the four flamethrowers with a flag in my hand," he admitted. "Even with the firesuit on, I got burned on the back of my neck and ankles, but I wouldn't have missed it for the world. All us old guys have left are the memories." Indeed!
Lemons now owns Lemons Headers in Paso Robles, Calif. I checked out his Web site and found it functional yet lacking a little pizzazz, so to thank him for his contribution to today's column, I propose he adopt one of the following slogans for his business: "Get Some Sour Power!" or "Lemons Headers: We'll squeeze more power from your engine" or "Lemon-aid for your horsepower woes" or, my favorite, "Be the top e-lemon-ator with Lemons Headers!" Dan: Contact me to discuss the terms of licensing these wonderful sayings <g>.
Insider reader Jack "J.R." Hodson wanted to know the identity of the four Funny Cars shown in the pic at right, which I had found cruising some bulletin boards, but the photo was so small I couldn’t really help him. "Looks like an Opel Kadett farthest from the camera, then a somewhat-looking Candies & Hughes 'Cuda, a somewhat-looking USA 1 Camaro, and then a Buick Skylark or possibly Nova closest to the camera," he offered. I told him not to fret, that I was sure that the Insider Nation soon would give us the answer, and, sure enough, they did.
Not only did I get the answer, but I got it from one of those involved, Ron Pellegrini. "It was 1968, and the four cars were Jack Ditmars with the Mini Brute, Pat Minick with the Chi-Town Hustler, the Out of Sight Camaro (cannot remember the driver), and myself with my Beware Buick. I remember the day well as I crashed on a later run … slow roll and 173 on the roof through the lights, but that's another story."
"Hey do I get a Dewey button or a brownie point for getting the four manufacturers correct?" inquired Hodson (obviously showing his age) after I passed along Pellegrini's response.
Old pal Chase Knight also responded with more details about four-wide racing in Florida that helped round out the picture down South. "The Miami-Hollywood track did have four actual racing lanes in its final incarnation," he wrote. "The original push-down road to the west (left) of the original dragstrip was widened to accommodate two proper lanes and had its own Tree and timers. The 'new' track had about 1,000 feet less shutoff than the primary track and was used for the slower cars. All the lanes were used at the same time, but not usually with any attempt to start all four vehicles together."
Mike Korpi sent this sad photo of the former Gary Clapshaw Spirit of Las Vegas Top Fueler in a heap Down Under. Korpi was one of the original crewmembers who helped Lonnie Strode build this car in 1999 for Clapshaw. This car holds a couple of places in history as it not only was the car that Clapshaw drove to a stunning U.S. Nationals runner-up in 2000 but also was the car that "Big Daddy" Don Garlits drove in Indy the following year when he ran his first four-second and 300-mph passes. This accident apparently took place a year ago at Western Sydney Dragway.
"I found these pics surfing the other day, and I am sick at what has happened to it," wrote Korpi. "I had more than 60 hours in just polishing the roll cage. What a waste. I am devastated. I am still crying."
Turns out that the car was owned by Aussie favorite Steve "Pommie" Read, who had the throttle hang open on his final qualifying pass. "I slid my foot out of the pedal to try and pull the throttle off, but no hope; by this time, I knew I wasn't going to stop," he posted on his Web site. "The car was on full throttle for 7.35 seconds, and on overlaying the data we recovered on our fastest run, we saw it was quicker than the at pass. At 300 mph, you travel at over 450 feet per second; after the finish line, you have about four seconds at that speed before the track ends and you are in the sand. Approaching the end of the track and still having to use two hands on the wheel, I thought, 'This is going to be BIG!' When suddenly the fuel ran out, the throttle unjammed, and I got the chutes out; by this time, I was almost in the kitty litter. I concentrated on keeping the car dead straight so as to go in head first, with approximately 15 feet of car in front of me to act as a crumple zone, I had to hope that was enough. At the last second, I pulled my hands off the wheel, and then a mighty WHOOMP, and the car stopped dead. My first thought was, 'That was not too bad,' and then the fuel tank exploded, and the fire came into the cockpit. I had no pain apart from my left hand, so with it getting a little hot in the car, I got out over the front of the car and trod straight into a tyre full of water. By this time, the rescuers had arrived, and they were all falling about in the tyres as well, which I thought was quite funny!"
Speaking of cars in pieces, good friend Dave Wallace Jr., responding to Steve and John Bell's impressive collection of drag racing flotsam and jetsam in an earlier column, passed along this funny photo of him and his pals at the 1988 U.S. Nationals, where Brad Tuttle had vaporized the body of his Nitro Brandt Thunderbird in the lights.
"The nose fit so nicely onto this rent-a-rocket that I was able to drive it back to my Indy hotel from the track," he noted.
From left are veteran lensman and Lions Dragstrip historian Don Gillespie, Dave Wallace Sr. and Jr., and Jeff Burk (pre-Drag Racing Online). Dave Jr.'s brother, Sky, shot the photo and also "subsequently chopped the nose into five suitcase-friendly souvenirs with his always-handy Dremel tool," noted his proud brother. Sweet!
Speaking of second generations, on a little more modern note, former National DRAGSTER Editor and frequent Insider contributor Bill Holland passed along this photo he took recently of current ND Associate Editor Brad Littlefield, left,, and former ND Associate Editor Todd Veney, with the subject line Sons of the Old Pioneers.
"Nope, not the old country western singing group," Holland noted. "I snapped this picture of Brad Littlefield and the Toddster chatting at Indy. Obviously, they are sons of two prominent Alcohol Funny Car pioneers."
Brad's father, of course, is Mert Littlefield, of Littlefield Superchargers fame and and a longtime alcohol and nitro Funny Car driver. Todd's dad is the talented Ken Veney, cylinder-head wizard and a former nitro and alcohol flopper ace. Both of their sons have followed them into the cockpits, Brad licensing impressively in Dad's car and Todd boldly starting his own operation from the ground up and driving for others in a promising career that netted a divisional win in Columbus, where he left on and beat Frank Manzo (not that he has the photo of that final round as his desktop wallpaper on his laptop or anything), as well as three national event runner-ups.
Much to their dismay, neither has a ride, which might explain Veney's reaction to the photo that I forwarded to him: "From the look on our faces, I'd say it was from when Brad and I were discussing whether either one of us will ever drive a race car again."
We all brag to our friends who favor other motorsports about how great drag racing is and how the drivers are so accessible, right? Well Jim Pedley, writing for Sporting News, really nailed it with this article. Check it out here.
Hey, who doesn't love a good road trip, right? I mean, you, the open road, some good tunes, and your favorite hot rod. For many of us, it's heaven. But I doubt that any of us would have dared embark on the road trip that Dave Schaub took recently. He set out in his his Roy Brizio-built '32 Ford Model A roadster to see if he could visit all 49 states in the continental United States in nine days to raise money for Ronald McDonald House to help terminally ill children. It was an ambitious plan that would have him cover 9,800 miles in 216 hours.
He launched from Needles, Calif., Sept. 8, headed for Tulsa, Okla., then to the deep South until the Florida panhandle, then up the Eastern seaboard to Buffalo, N.Y., then back west. His biggest day notched 12 states, and even when he reached the West Coast again and Washington, his journey wasn't over. He had to head up north through British Columbia to reach the small town of Hyder in southeast Alaska.
Schaub kept a time-stamped receipt for gasoline and other items in each state he visited and used a GPS satellite device to allow Internet users to track his progress in real time on Google Maps through his Web site, www.49in9.com. He even made it to Hyder ahead of schedule, completing the trip in 8 days, 16 hours, and 48 minutes. I am certifiably impressed.
And finally, there's this. I received an e-mail from Amy Caetta bragging about her big win at the Wiener Nationals. Yes, Wiener, not Winter.
Apparently, the fast-food chain Wienerschnitzel, with a sly nod of the hat to our own fabled Winternationals, hosts a little drag race for dachshunds, and her little guy, Presley, a 2-year-old brown dachshund, turned out to be the top dog, the Fastest Wiener in the West. The race was held last month at the Los Alamitos horse racing track here in Southern California to raise funds for the Seal Beach Animal Care Center. The 2009 Wiener Nationals featured 98 wiener dogs from across Southern California competing in a record 13 races, the most in the 14-year history of the event.
This month, Presley will be in the city of Placentia's parade, and in late December, she will be racing other wieners from around the nation in San Diego (Holiday Bowl Parade) to compete for the title Top Dog and the chance to ride on top of the Wienerschnitzel float. The win was featured in local newspapers.
Check out the video at right to see the hot dog run and then jump into Amy's happy arms.
Doggone, that was a fun column. I hope you enjoyed it. See ya next week!
Welcome to Fan Fotos, the sequel! Steve Heuer – and quite a few others -- took advantage of my offer two weeks ago to display their 10 best fan photos, and here they are. Again, the purpose of this is to show off your fan-type photos – which means no pro-shot stuff from the guardrails (unless you snuck up there when the officials weren't looking; then you get bonus points), and I don't care if there's a telephone pole or fellow spectator's head in your way, and, of course, they must be photos shot by you. I'll be running more of the submissions throughout the weeks ahead, but Steve-o is up first.
Steve has been going to the drags for a long time. The photo at right is of him (and, obviously, not taken by him; although it's a clear violation of my rules, I'll let it slide) at age 12, at his first drag race at New England Dragway in 1972, standing next to Tim Kushi's car. Like so many of us, it was dear ol' dad who gave him his first in-person introduction to the sport (many of us had long been rabid magazine buyers before we ever got to the digs for the first time, saving up allowance for a copy of Drag Racing USA or Super Stock).
The rest of Steve's photos are also from the 1970s, a great period for Funny Cars, which make up the bulk of his submission.
This is Mart Higginbotham's Drag-on Vega, campaigned with partner Jim Robbs in the early 1970s before they sold the name rights to Top Alcohol Funny Car racer Frank Cook and his partner, Chuck Landers. Higginbotham began his nitro career driving for "Big Mike" Burkhart in the late 1960s before launching his own operation. I did an interview with Higginbotham for a column a while ago, and he told me, "Believe it or not, I still to this day get requests to sign picture and cards." Maybe he'll get even more now. That's Fred Goeske's Duster and (barely visible through the Vega's cockpit) the High Explosive Charger of the Jackson brothers (Ronnie and Tyrone) in the background.
A year later, armed with a new camera, Steve "hopped the fence at the finish line and snuck through the woods" to the turnoff at the end of the track for some parachute photos and this great shot of Shirley Muldowney still in the cockpit of her Satellite Funny Car. "The two firemen stationed there let me stay there for an entire round," he recalled proudly. From top are the Wayne Mahaffey-driven Alabamian Vega of Billy Holt, Wayne Oxner in the saddle of the Connecticut-based Nichols & Oxner Charger, and Muldowney. According to Steve, the photo of Muldowney was taken the week before that car burned up in Indy, which, of course, led to her switching to Top Fuel and an amazing career ahead.
"T.V. Tommy" might have been raised in Southern California and have strong roots there (he still owns the house in Burbank that he bought as a 12-year-old television star), but he never stayed too close to home as he toured extensively, including this trip to NED in 1973. The car sports that infamous 1970s fashion statement – front-wheel pants – plus canard wings on the side. The following season in Pomona, Ivo rolled a car very similar to this (albeit with a beautiful orange paint scheme) in the lights during Winternationals qualifying.
"Dad moved us to Chicago in '74, and I now had U.S. 30, Union Grove, and Byron," said Steve. "The Mr. Norm-Cliff Brown shot is the final of a '74 U.S. 30 race, the 'Mongoose'-'Snake' shot is from '75 at Byron, and the Jim Wemett versus Pulde shot is from Union Grove in '77." I dropped Wemett an e-mail to ask about the less-than-show-ready status of the body, which obviously had just been patched up from some sort of incident and to ask if that was George Johnson behind the wheel (Tom Anderson's predecessor) or if Wemett was actually driving, as he had in the past. "Yes, that was George," he replied. "I never drove this one. We had a fire the weekend before and had to do a quick repair job. George and I grew up together, and he is still here; Tom Anderson moved here in 1980 and is still in Rochester." Good to know that the gang is all still together.
And finally, there's this shot of a somewhat battered Chelsea King. For those who don't go back that far, the Chelsea King was Kenny Bernstein's car in the late 1970s before he landed the Budweiser deal. KB owned a series of pubs called Chelsea Street, and the Chelsea King was their best-selling sandwich. Reports Steve, "In '78, after one semester of college, a two-week vacation to California lasted six months and included a visit to OCIR in April. The Kenny B shot is the aftermath of a run that went from tire smoke right off the line to a hard turn into the other lane to the car almost flipping over but ended up nosing into the guardrail.
"Maybe these are not the 10 best, but a representative synopsis of some great memories!" he added.
I couldn’t agree more. If you have 10 Fan Fotos you'd like to submit, pass them along to me at email@example.com. These must be photos taken by you and not pro-shot kinds of images; I want those down-and-dirty fan photos. Please include as much info as you have for dates and locations and what's going on in the photos.
That's it for today; I'll see you later this week.
Sunday's four-abreast extravaganza at zMax Dragway was a sight to behold, even on TV, my vantage point for the weekend. National DRAGSTER Associate Editor Candida Benson, who was covering the event for us for NHRA.com and has been around the drag races long enough to see plenty, texted me, "OMG coolest thing ever!!!!!!" (yes, six exclamation points).
The eight drivers who took part in the two pairings – one each for Top Fuel and Funny Car – were equally as enthusiastic, especially the two winners, Spencer Massey and Mike Neff. Both won their four-car matches on a holeshot, and in fact, Massey's great light helped him reach the finish line ahead of Antron Brown and Brandon Bernstein, both of whom had better elapsed times. I bet that Massey, who had a better reaction time than all three, would like to have that triple play added to his reaction time stats as well as the three "round-wins."
As could be expected, all eight drivers were exicted and honored to be in on the history-making exhibition, using such descriptions as "exciting" and "honored" <g> ... except, of course, for John Force, who related it to something about charging the cheerleaders shower in high school that's better left unexplored. Then again, if you were the quarterback of a team that didn't win a single game, it's understandable why your highlight took place off the gridiron.
Long before zMax was finished, I wrote a couple of columns about four-wide drag racing in the past, and it seems like a good time to share that information again, but with some new info and new pics.
Though a lot of the four-car racing was done at Byron/Rockford Dragways in Illinois and in Budd's Creek, Md., it was a widespread phenomenon from coast to coast. I've received e-mails from both coasts with tales of four-car bashes of various types, including all manners of race vehicles. (I even found a reference in Hot Rod magazine that back in the 1930s, the SCTA class finals runoffs on the dry lakes at Muroc sometimes featured up to a dozen cars[!], which obviously was a lot easier on the lake's wide-open spaces and with a flag starter and human win judges than what would have been required for computerized timing.)
(Above and below) Top Fuelers versus Super Stockers? You betcha.
Rico Paris, near lane, took on three other fuelers at Rockford (Ill.).
Four-wide jets in Fontana, Calif.
Four-across door cars in York, Pa., in 1969 with the cars of Bill "Grumpy" Jenkins, "Dyno Don" Nicholson,"Jungle Jim" Liberman, and Sox & Martin.
(Above and below) The four-car race in Fresno, Calif.; from left are Jim Herbert driving the Lizard, Berry Bros.-Stark, Raitt-Hyatt Syndicate II with Dwight Salisbury driving, and Gotelli-Safford.
Veteran Mark Pieri, Top Gas winner at the 1966 Springnationals and a three-time Division 3 Top Gas champ (and multi-time UDRA champ) who also competed in Top Fuel as well as Top Alcohol Funny Car and Dragster, took part in one of the craziest four-car bashes ever in October 1964 in Byron, Ill., pitting two fuel dragsters against two Super Stockers.
Pieri is in the far left lane in the Chicago-based Guzzler entry of Bud Roache and Don Mattson; the late Ron Correnti, another grizzled fuel-racing veteran, was in the stocker next to him. Next to Correnti is the famous "Greek," Chris Karamesines, and Pieri said he thinks that Ed Reshanski was in the far right lane.
“If memory serves me right, the door cars were staged 50 or 75 feet behind the starting line," recalled Pieri. "The flagman waved one flag for them to start, and when they reached the starting line, he waved the other flag for ‘the Greek’ and I to give chase. It was an exciting race. We only did this one weekend, a two-out-of-three-type deal, and, fortunately, we didn't have any problems.”
Domenic Paris, son of former Top Fuel racer Rico Paris, also passed on a pic, which he believes is from the same weekend at Rockford Dragway as Pieri’s pic. “I was maybe 6 or 7 when this photo was taken, but I remember it like it was yesterday,” he wrote. “My father is in lane one.”
Chuck Rearick raced a Jr. Fuel dragster at Rockford and Great Lakes Dragway in the 1960s when they were mixed with the Top Gas cars. With four cars hitting the starting line at the same time, confusion sometimes reigned. “With push-start cars from the big end, it always got interesting with four cars trying to make the turnaround in the staging area,” he recalled. “What made it more fun is we did not have reversers, so the crew had to pull us back and forth to get us lined up. You also had to keep in mind that it was a four-lane racetrack, because if you forgot and kept it in the center of a two-lane track, you took out the lights … which Ron Leek tried to charge us for.”
Stephen Justice sent me a newspaper article from a May 7, 1967, four-car match in Fresno, Calif., at the track’s inaugural Golden Nationals that featured a unique team format. Gotelli & Safford were teamed with the Syndicate II team while Jim Herbert was paired with the Berry Bros. and Claude Stark. The format awarded points for first- through fourth-place finishes in three rounds, with first place getting four points, second three points, third two points, and fourth a single marker. Safford-Gotelli won the first round, ahead of Berry, Herbert, and the Syndicate, which broke the rear end and was replaced in round two by Dwight Salisbury at the wheel of the Armenian dragster. The results were identical in the second round, so the teams were tied at 10 points apiece. Herbert won the third round, ahead of Stark, Safford, and Salisbury. The final score was 17-13 for the Herbert and Berry Bros./Stark team.
Justice also remembered Fontana Drag City running four jet dragsters at the same time (Doug Rose in Art Arfons' Green Monster, Lucky Harris in Malone's US-1, J.D. Zink in Romeo Palamides' Untouchable, and Al Biscay in Palamides' Untouchable Twice).
Vic Raupe of Guthrie, Okla., remembers seeing four abreast at fabled Green Valley Race City in Fort Worth, Texas, in the mid-1960s. “Because of the huge number of mid-‘60s muscle cars, track owner and great promoter Bill Hielscher used the superwide track for four cars at a time,” he wrote. “This made for more time trials and an early end to eliminations to meet curfew hours. I remember one Saturday night, there were so many Chevelle SS396s, GTOs, and others of this era that in eliminations three cars would lose and one would return for the next round.”
Floridian Wayne Albert was told of four-lane racing at Miami-Hollywood Speedway, using the staging lanes that were parallel to the track, and Jim King of Lodi, Ohio, reported four-lane racing in the long history of Dragway 42 in West Salem, Ohio.
One interesting note that came out of all of this four-wide mania was an interview that John Force Racing publicist Dave Densmore did with crew chief Austin Coil, in which Coil not only talked about the famed Chi-Town Hustler participating in four-wide racing but also about driving one of the Hustlers in a four-wide race at Rockford in 1969.
“We had both our new car and our old car out there because we were testing the new car to make sure it was all right,” Coil said. “Somebody didn’t show up who was supposed to be there, so they made us an offer to run both cars. I drove the new one, and Pat Minick drove the old one. I think we made three runs.
“I drove [the Chi-Town Hustler] a couple times, later on,” Coil added. “The last time I drove was in Jacksonville, Fla., in, like, February of 1970, maybe.”
Wow, who knew?
OK race fans, that's it for the day, and also probably for the week. I'm leaving Thursday for Dallas for the O'Reilly Super Start Batteries NHRA Fall Nationals presented by Castrol Syntec and, unfortunately, I have a huge load of stories due for National DRAGSTER between now and then, so I'm not sure I'll have a column on Friday as usual. Apologies in advance.
Tony Pedregon and John Force, 2003 .. happier times.
The John Force-Tony Pedregon top-end tempest at Indy (now apparently smoothed over with the help of mutual friend Bob Tasca III, if you read Wednesday's transcript from the NHRA teleconference) got me to thinking about great rivalries in our sport.
Rivalries can be created and stoked by any manner of real or artificial devices, but the most prevalent seem to be created by either close competition or verbal jousting. We've seen all kinds of rivalries, from the respectful and good-natured to the bitter and hateful, and even some that have been manufactured, by one or both parties. Sometimes they're just good ol' clean fun, with the fans enjoying two champions trading wins back and forth, and sometimes they're mean and nasty, which keeps the fans on the edge of their seats, hackles up, and defending their driver to the end. A good rivalry sells tickets and T-shirts and generates reams of ink for both drivers.
Although the Force-Pedregon brouhaha may end up as just a minor dustup (though it surely won’t be forgotten), only time will tell if it stands the test of history as a legendary rivalry like some of those mentioned below. This column is not intended as a comprehensive guide to all rivalries over all time but rather a fun look back at a select few that strike my fancy for various reasons.
Stone-Woods-Cook versus "Big John" Mazmanian
The players: Fred Stone and Leonard Woods had been fielding supercharged gas Willys machines since 1960, first with K.S. Pittman at the wheel, then, beginning at the 1961 Nationals, with Doug "Cookie" Cook in the cockpit, leading to the formation of one of the most famous teams in drag racing: Stone, Woods & Cook. When fellow SoCal gasser owner "Big John" Mazmanian traded in his Corvette for a Willys, the die was cast for one of the great all-time rivalries of the 1960s. Fueled as much by hype and rhetoric in a series of ads in the trade papers as by supercharged gas, the two teams battled relentlessly, S-W-C with Olds power and "Big John" and driver "Bones" Balough with Chevy motivation.
The magic moment: Although the two teams raced innumerable times in class and match race competition, one race really sticks out, but it needs to be heavily prefaced. Two weeks prior to the 1964 Winternationals, the two teams met in a hotly debated impromptu pairing at Lions DragStrip; Mazmanian earned bragging temporary rights when Balough beat Cook on a holeshot, 10.23 to 10.15; the back story, however, was that Balough's win came on a rerun after Cook had reached the finish line in front the first time around but had put a wheel off the track in the process. S-W-C got revenge at Pomona, where Cook's holeshot and 10.03 elapsed time gave the prestigious A/GS class win to Stone, Woods & Cook against Balough/Mazmanian's better-but-later 10.02, giving both teams a chance to scream to the papers about supremacy.
After their Pomona win, Stone, ever the pot-stirrer, insisted that if "Big June" (as he mockingly called him) wanted another shot at S-W-C, he would have to put up $3,000 "for the honor and privilege of racing them." That winter, Mazmanian had replaced his Chevy powerplant with a 467-cid Chrysler, and after Balough uncorked an unearthly 9.77 in winning the Bakersfield March Meet, S-W-C quickly followed suit, abandoning their Oldsmobile for a 440 Chrysler.
Lions manager C.J. "Pappy" Hart finally got them both to the bargaining table and offered a $1,000 winner/$600 runner-up two-of-three proposal for the two giants to duke it out at Lions May 2. An overflow crowd packed Lions that night to witness the shootout. Balough won the first go-round, again on a holeshot, 9.96 to 9.91. Ninety minutes later, they returned to the line, but this time, Balough was too quick for his own good, red-lighting to tie the score as both drivers shut off early. Drag News' Ralph Gudahl wrote of the pre-final scene, "It looked like a sale at Macy's as everyone pushed to the fences, hung from poles, anything to gain a full sight of the course." The rubber match went to Cook and the blue Willys, 9.93, 141.06 to 9.99, 141.06. Despite their sharply traded pre-race barbs, members of both teams shook hands and congratulated one another, but the fans were the real winners.
Don "the Snake" Prudhomme versus Tom "the Mongoose" McEwen
The players: Mother Nature's battle became drag racing's when Tom McEwen, the promoter, and Don Prudhomme, the die-hard racer, created Wildlife Racing to bring The Jungle Book to life, thanks to sponsorship from Mattel toys that made them household names in the grubby paws of every little kid who could stick together two pieces of plastic orange track and let gravity do the rest. Prudhomme had long been "the Snake," and the wily McEwen, knowing that a mongoose was one of the few animals that could beat a snake, chose his nickname accordingly. McEwen, who already had made a name for himself hustling sponsorships for his race team, had an in at Mattel, where his mother worked as a secretary and his stepfather as a lawyer. That earned him entrée to company VP Art Spears in 1970, and before you could say "Jackrabbit Special," the two each had a Funny car and a Top Fueler, decked out not only with Hot Wheels colors but accompanying deals from Coca-Cola, Plymouth, and Goodyear, who were all eager to hop on to the fast-moving express. The two match raced exhaustively against one another, with Prudhomme generally getting the upper hand. Although the team only lasted three years, their battles, real and imagined, raged on, and fans never got tired of seeing them race one another.
The magic moment: Prudhomme won it all. Four championships and 49 national event wins; McEwen accrued just four NHRA Wallys. McEwen had never beaten Prudhomme in an NHRA final, and "the Snake" personally stopped McEwen from winning four times -- in the Funny Car finals at the 1975 Fallnationals, the 1976 Springnationals and Summernationals, and the 1978 Springnationals — but McEwen got the one that mattered most, the 1978 U.S. Nationals. In a storybook ending, McEwen, still grieving the loss of his son, Jamie, to leukemia just weeks earlier, upset Prudhomme in the final round at Indy. McEwen, overcome with emotion, sat in the car at the top end, and Prudhomme slithered his way beneath the body to join his old pal, rival, and occasional thorn in the side in a truly emotional and unforgettable moment that a few years ago was voted the Most Memorable Moment in U.S. Nationals history.
Shirley Muldowney versus "Big Daddy" Don Garlits
The players: You could probably define the history of Top Fuel from its start to its present day with just their names. Don Garlits, the grizzled and experimental hot rodder from Florida who set the bar for fuel racers everywhere, and Muldowney, who went from Schenectady, N.Y., street racing waitress to champion driver without the benefit of a deep background in automotive technology yet broke ground just as important as Garlits. While "Big Daddy" was down in the dirt checking the bearings, Muldowney, though not adverse to getting dirty, was tending to her growing legions of fans in the Women's Lib era of the early 1970s.
In the 1960s and '70s, Garlits was old-school popular; he built, tuned, and drove the cars, and to him, utilitarian mattered most of all. He was a drag racer's drag racer, yet part of a dying breed as the 1980s and '90s roared into view. Muldowney represented the newer breed. Sure, she had earned her driving stripes in gas dragsters, but she represented a new school: the driver. Her job was to drive and to attract fans and sponsors, whose addition to the team were becoming almost as important as horsepower. She paved the way for and inspired not only other women but men as well. How many of today's top nitro jockeys are not required to work on the cars? Yeah … 99 percent of them. Muldowney's immaculate driving skills were worth more than their weight in nitro, and, like Tony Schumacher and Larry Dixon today and Joe Amato and Gary Ormsby before them, she took care of business in the cockpit and at the ropes.
For Garlits and Muldowney, their different styles both separated and congealed them, giving one another ammunition in their well-publicized verbal jousts, but behind it all, you were always left wondering where the jabs ended and where the respect began.
Muldowney told Hot Rod Magazine, "Don't think Garlits and I didn't hate each other. I hated him and he hated me. But I still respected him. I have always respected him. What, are you kidding me? He's Don Garlits, 'Big Daddy.' We're very good friends now, but back then he just hated a woman kicking his ass. He hated my guts. He was awful. They rode him terribly if he lost. It was horrible."
The magic moment: Wow, where to start? Their track time might well be bookmarked by U.S. Nationals appearances decades apart: Muldowney's first Top Fuel final, against Garlits, at the 1975 U.S. Nationals (where, after winning his semifinal race, he's famously caught on camera at the top end, clucking in shock, "The lady dragster driver is in the final …") and, for us bleeding-heart fans, their side-by-side qualifying pairing at the 2001 U.S. Nationals. Between, they matched raced scores of times before delighted crowds, often as the night's highlight, their fevered efforts to one up the other softened by moments such as when Muldowney, from her hospital bed after a near-career-ending wreck in Montreal in 1984, exhorted Garlits to "go kick their butts" at Indy that year, which he did, and he even briefly served as a consultant for her after her comeback. But for me, one of the all-time-great Garlits-Muldowney moments was the final round at the 1982 Gatornationals (oddly enough, that final and the 1975 Indy final were the only two NHRA national event finals in which they battled).
There they were, in Gainesville, on Garlits' home turf; they qualified fifth and sixth, favoring Garlits by only a few thousandths of a second, 5.783 to 5.788. Garlits had knocked off the newest female contender, recent March Meet winner Lucille Lee (who also would win in Atlanta six weeks later), Johnny Abbott, and Jim Barnard with a best of 5.72, and Muldowney's pink Pioneer Special entry had recorded blasts of 5.80, 5,82, and 5.90 in trailering Mark Niver, Jody Smart, and Connie Kalitta. Muldowney's 5.90 defeat of Kalitta earned her lane choice against Garlits, who had run just an engine-wounding 5.94 against Barnard, setting the stage for a whopper of a final. Diamond P's Steve Evans interviewed her before the final, and although my memory of the entire interview is a little fragile, I do remember her being asked to rate Garlits as a starting-line driver, and her response about "Donald" was classic: "Marginal," she replied. Garlits, who had to change engines before the final, did get the drop on her at the green, .469 to .484, but that was the only time he led as she wheeled her way to her 12th win on a 5.86 to 6.28 decision.
Shirley Muldowney versus Connie Kalitta
The players: Connie Kalitta mentored Shirley Muldowney and her husband, Jack, in their fledging fuel days and ultimately ended up as much more to Muldowney after her divorce from Jack. She became "the Bounty Huntress" to his "Bounty Hunter," but the relationship was short-lived. Together they won the 1977 NHRA Top Fuel championship but split up soon after, and, after two rebuilding years, she won the 1980 crown without him -- even kicking off that season by besting Kalitta in the Winternationals final – and again was the champ in 1982. He was there for her in 1984, after her grievous accident in Montreal, to offer her a flight home on his chartered jet, but since then, it's been an on-again, off-again relationship (currently and most likely permanently off).
The magic moment: The two raced dozens of times in national event competition, but the most remembered is the final round of the 1982 U.S. Nationals. It would be their last final-round joust, and it was a great one: Kalitta was in the midst of a great season and had already defeated her in the final in Montreal, and neither had won the U.S. Nationals yet in their great careers. Muldowney qualified No. 2 behind Gary Beck's otherworldly 5.48 with a 5.57 and ran 5.56, 5.62, 5.65, and a final-round 5.57, 251.39 to best Kalitta's 5.66, 241.28 in the then quickest side-by-side pairing in drag racing history.
Warren Johnson versus Scott Geoffrion
The players: Sure, this could have been Warren Johnson versus Greg Anderson or W.J. versus Bob Glidden, but those might be less interesting. There's no doubt that W.J., Glidden, and Anderson are the kings of Pro Stock in the last three decades, and, despite their on-track ferocity, it's a good bet that there's now more than a bit of mutual (albeit unspoken and certainly delayed) respect for all that each has accomplished. W.J. even famously once said about losing to Glidden, "I never take losing to an individual personally," to which Glidden countered, "Johnson could lose to anyone and not care unless it was me. He couldn’t stand losing to me … I suppose that if a rivalry existed between Warren and me, it was because he couldn’t stand it when I was beating him."
Regardless, the Pro Stock rivalry that always intrigued me was "the Professor" against his student, the late Scott Geoffrion. W.J. gave the young New Jersey kid his first ride in 1991, but Geoffrion forsook his mentor and in 1992 joined the Wayne County Dodge team, where he experienced the bulk of his career successes, some against his teacher. W.J. whipped Geoffrion like the proverbial red-headed stepchild in final rounds from 1992 to early 1994, beating him five straight times before Geoffrion finally flunked "the Professor" in the 1994 Atlanta final and again that year in Dallas. Geoffrion's teammate, Darrell Alderman, had won the championship in 1990, '91, and '94, with W.J. winning the two between, and the skepticism about the source of the Dodge Boys' power no doubt fueled the ornery feelings.
The magic moment: It's Houston, March 1994, and the Dodge Boys were hot off a 1-2 finish in Phoenix, where Geoffrion beat W.J. in the semifinals and teammate Alderman in the final, and they qualified 1-2 in Houston, with Geoffrion atop the pack with a 7.03 and Alderman second at 7.061; W.J. sat third with a 7.065. Geoffrion handily beat Jerry Eckman, Mark Pawuk, and Kurt Johnson with his best run of eliminations, a 7.07. W.J. had mowed down Steve Schmidt, Jim Yates, and, in a huge semifinal clash, Alderman, with a 7.07 that earned him lane choice against Geoffrion.
Both drivers lit their pre-stage bulbs and then sat without moving for nearly a minute as the crowd – which favored Geoffrion based on announcer Dave McClelland's pre-burnout poll – buzzed above the idle of their engines and Geoffrion's occasional rap on the throttle. W.J. later said that he knew that Geoffrion had been instructed by team boss Dave Hutchens not to stage first and had not even bothered to warm his engine before the run.
After 30 seconds, Chief Starter Buster Couch ordered both to stage. Neither would comply, so Couch ordered them to back out of the beams and shut off their engines. After a few minutes to cool down, Couch ordered them to restart and told them to stage within 10 seconds, which both did, barely under the wire. Geoffrion got the slight jump, .460 to .477, but W.J.'s cooler engine pulled him through to a 7.07 to 7.10 victory. Words – and invitations to swap punches — were offered by both at the top end.
Johnson later explained, "I'm no virgin at this. Everybody knows that Scott was instructed to stage last, so I was going to sit there and wait for my Social Security check if that's what was necessary. It was a game to teach the kid a lesson."
Geoffrion retorted, "I don’t know what all this lesson stuff is about since I cut the better light. He's just a whiner."
The Dodge Boys had the last laugh – finishing the season 1-2 ahead of Johnson, though W.J. surely drew belly laughs the next year in Houston when he and Geoffrion were paired in qualifying. As they prepared to stage, a trio of dogs jumped the guardwall on the top end, and W.J. and Geoffrion were shut off on the starting line. Never one to miss an opportunity to needle, W.J. later quipped, "I didn't know what was going on until someone on the starting-line crew told me there were dogs on the track. My response was, 'I know, he 's in the other lane.' " Ouch.
Joe Amato versus Gary Ormsby
The players: Almost since his debut in Top Fuel, Joe Amato, with crew chief Tim Richards, was a serious player. In 1983, just their second full season, they won three times and finished second behind Gary Beck and scored four times the following year to win their first of five titles in the next two decades. Ormsby had returned to Top Fuel in mid-1983 after a long absence and won his first title at the 1984 Winternationals, at Amato's expense. That didn’t really strike the match to light the rivalry because for his first several years, Ormsby's Lee Beard-tuned entry was a fifth-place-type car while Amato was always among the top three. Ormsby's Castrol GTX mount really came to life in 1989, when he won six times en route to nosing out Amato for the title. They raced three times in the final that year, and Ormsby won two – they were an even 5-5 in final rounds against one another in their rivalry, and only once did each win more than one time in succession – and Amato struck back the following year to regain the championship. Amato and Ormsby dominated 1990, with each winning six times (on a 19-race schedule), and the championship came down to the final round in Pomona. Ormsby died of cancer in the summer of 1991 or there's no telling how great this gentleman's rivalry could have become.
The magic moment: Ormsby entered the 1990 season finale trailing Amato by 254 points, but by setting low e.t. (with a 5.01, then worth 50 points) and qualifying ahead of him by two positions (No. 1 to No. 3, for four more points), he was exactly 200 points (or one round-win) behind Amato going into eliminations.
Amato, who had defeated Ormsby, 4.96 to 5.09, in Saturday's $50,000-to-win Top Fuel Classic final, was steadily consistent Sunday with runs of 5.02, 5.02, and 5.03 for wins over Wayne Bailey, Eddie Hill, and Gene Snow. Ormsby was in the five-teens in trailering Jim Head and Don Prudhomme but earned lane choice for the race of his life with a 5.02 to 5.09 semifinal win against Kenny Bernstein. With a final-round win over Amato, he could tie him to the point. It was the perfect storm.
Ormsby staged last and left first … but too soon. G.O. red-lighted, but it probably didn't matter as his green and white machine quickly went up in smoke. Amato went right down the track and, to add insult to injury, bettered Ormsby's low e.t with a track record 4.93. The final points tally, 16,058 to 15,558, didn’t reflect the closeness of the battle, but Amato still left Pomona with his third championship, tying him with Don Garlits and Shirley Muldowney.
John Force versus Whit Bazemore, Al Hofman, Cruz Pedregon
The players: When you're at the top as long as John Force has been, there are a lot of people gunning for your head, and when you have a near-monopoly like Force did – plus the biggest and highest-paid team – it's not hard for people to get their noses out of joint and eagerly take shots at you, verbally and physically.
Certainly Whit Bazemore, Al Hofmann, and Cruz Pedregon (and probably a few others) could be counted as having legitimate rivalries with Force, ones that went to varying degrees of hostility, outspokenness, and determination. Hofmann probably was the driver most like Force, a from-the-ground-up junkyard dog who asked and gave no quarter. Hofmann never won a world championship, never finished ahead of Force in the standings, and had a dismal 13-43 record against Force (4-9 in final rounds), yet he still may have been the opponent whom Force feared most because, like him, he was hungry.
Pedregon was a winner in the alcohol ranks before he turned Pro, and being in the saddle of the well-funded McDonald's entry certainly didn’t hurt his successful bid to end Force's two-year championship run in 1992. Of the three, Pedregon fared the best against Force, winning about a third of the time (hey, you take your successes where you can) but holding a losing record of 53-25.
I asked longtime Force publicist Dave Densmore which of the three he thought Force might consider his top rival, and Dens picked Bazemore, which surprised me. Bazemore certainly had the worst record of the three against Force (46-10), but "ol' Baze" had a way of getting Force's goat every time. Never afraid to speak his mind no matter the topic or the political correctness, Bazemore, who at various times reportedly was considered a potential Force hire, surely knew how to get Force riled up, making him dangerous on another front.
The magic moments: For Force and Hofmann, I'd have to say it was the 1996 Winternationals, where Hofmann, who had beaten Force seven times in 12 meetings the previous two years, overcame Force's psychic .401 light to win, then added fuel to the fire in the pressroom by jabbing at Force, who was standing nearby. "Some guys come to the races with two or three cars, three crew chiefs, and a bus. I've got one car and one crew chief, so obviously he's a lot more worried about me than I am about him," he said, a smirk playing across his face. Force fired back, "Where do you get this stuff, Al?" then muttered to those standing by, "Al has a lot more winning to do before he catches up with me." Hofmann took his turn, telling the media, "John must have been brain-dead to have a reaction time like that. Obviously he was worried." Yeah, these two guys loved each other.
For Pedregon and Force, it was, of course, the final round of the Dallas event, with Pedregon on the verge of taking Force's hard-won championship crown. Force smoked the tires but refused to give up and finally smacked the guardwall, disqualifying himself, but kept after the throttle, whipping the car relentlessly and bouncing off the wall a few more tires like a crazed bull trying to chase down Pedregon in the lights if for nothing more than a moral victory. Force actually flipped the car at the next race, in Pomona, overdriving a tire-smoking qualifying run and turning his car turtle. Pedregon clearly had gotten into his head, and the proud and usually unflappable champ certainly was flappable (and flippable).
For Force and Bazemore, Densmore pointed to their 1999 final-round battle in Atlanta as a key moment for Force. Bazemore left on Force, .492 to .527, but Force chased him down to win by just .001-second, 5.147 to 5.182 .
Tony Schumacher versus Larry Dixon, Doug Kalitta, J.R. Todd, and "Hot Rod" Fuller
The players: Because he's sponsored by the U.S. Army and for the last five years has run over everything in sight, let's compare Tony Schumacher to an Abrams M1A1 tank and his rivals to the munitions used against him. Larry Dixon is the only guy other than Schumacher to have won the championship since 2002 and the only other guy to win Indy this decade. He'd have to be like a TOW missile, about the only thing that I can think of that can take out the Abrams. They've traded wins, and although Schumacher's 2008 dominance blew out the candles a bit on their rivalry, Dixon driving for ex-Schumacher tuner Alan Johnson certainly has rekindled it. Doug Kalitta is probably more like a Sherman tank -- capable of inflicting damage to Schumacher in his day, but his best days in this rivalry are temporarily behind him. I’d equate J.R. Todd with a land mine. He certainly couldn’t go head to head with Schumacher every run but was fully capable of ambushing him and taking him out. Rod Fuller largely created the rivalry against Schumacher himself, and because "the Sarge" gave it little regard, Fuller is almost like machine-gun bullets bouncing off of Schumacher's shell yet still plenty noisy and occasionally capable of causing wounds.
The magic moments: Pick any one of the four Indy finals where Schumacher and Dixon raced, and you have an instant classic. After trading wins in 2002 (Schumacher) and 2005 (Dixon), Schumacher won again last year, so you can bet Dixon was looking to even the tally this year and perhaps also a little eager to stop Schumacher from tying Dixon's hero, Don Garlits, with eight Indy wins. Plus there's that whole Alan Johnson thing. Schumacher won again and holds a staggering 11-4 final-round edge on Dixon, but I'm not sure I've ever heard a cross word from either of them about the other. They may have thought it, but they never said it.
You can't think about Schumacher and Kalitta without thinking of "The Run" at the 2006 Auto Club NHRA Finals, and it wasn't even a race betweeen the two. Kalitta entered the season finale with an almost insurmountable lead, and the only way Schumacher could pass him was to go three rounds further in Pomona. When Kalitta reached the semifinals, Schumacher's options narrowed. Although Kalitta lost in the semi's, on a painful holeshot to Melanie Troxel, and Schumacher won his side, "the Sarge" entered the final not only needing to win but also to run at least 4.437 to reset the national record for the 20 bonus points; a win alone would leave him six points shy of Kalitta. With Kalitta watching from the top end, Schumacher lit the win lamp and the scoreboard with an improbable 4.428 to earn the championship by 14 points.
Todd has been an occasional thorn in Schumacher's side since he upset him in the final of the 2006 Denver race – followed by a mocking salute as he stood up in the cockpit – and, with a 3-1 mark, he's one of the few with a winning final-round record against Schumacher. The race we'll always remember, though, took place last year in Dallas, with Schumacher on a record-breaking tear. Schumacher had not lost a single round from early July through that late September day, racking up seven straight event wins and winning 31 straight rounds – both records – before facing Todd in the Dallas final (pictured). With the smart money favoring yet another win by the Army juggernaut, Todd whipped a holeshot on Schumacher and emerged with a stunning 3.912 to 3.910 victory.
Fuller beat Schumacher in the final to win his first Top Fuel title – in Memphis in 2005 – and quickly proclaimed, "To be the man, you have to beat the man, and today we were able to do that." The two dueled for the championship in 2007, with Schumacher winning again, but surprisingly, Fuller owns a 2-1 final-round advantage over Schumacher, yet it seems that it was a few choice words that stung Schumacher most. After Fuller beat him in the 2008 Madison final (pictured), Fuller said that the Don Schumacher Racing DSR initials really stood for "Dark Side Racing" (à la Star Wars), to which "the Sarge" bristled, "You can throw names out, but the right word to say is 'champion.' We earned that name. The rivalries will come later in the season. If you are going to make a rivalry, step up. Me and Doug Kalitta had a great rivalry and never had to say anything."
OK, race fans, that's it for today. It's time to check out this year's real rivalry: NHRA versus the rain. The wet stuff is coming down in Charlotte, and there's an iffy forecast for the weekend, so we'll keep our fingers and toes crossed. See ya next week.