Like a lot of you, my first introduction to Mike Dunn came in the movie theater, where the future 22-time national event winner was racing his Schwinn Sting-Ray in bicycle drags, complete with a blossoming chute, in the drag-cult hit Funny Car Summer.
I've seen the footage numerous times but never had a chance to ask Mike about it until last week, when he was sharing with me his thoughts for his Final Take column in National DRAGSTER about how the reaction time in NHRA Pro drag racing is so misleading based on how the car's fuel and clutch systems react, how quickly the driver leaves, and especially how deeply the driver is staged, skills Dunn first mastered on two wheels.
Dunn was 14 when the bike-drags craze hit Southern California in 1971, and tournaments that drew hundreds of competitors were set up in the parking lots of local malls. The kids were separated by age groups (5-7, 8-10, 11-13, 14-16, and 17 and up, plus two classes for girls) and raced over a 50-yard course.
Young Mike Dunn had a bit of an ace up his sleeve in tech advice from his Funny Car racing father Jim, who displayed his Dunn & Reath Barracuda at one of the bike-drags events, much to the envy of young Dunn's peers.
Kids of all ages with all types of bikes could take part in the races, which often were decided by razor-thin margins.
Dunn went almost undefeated in 1971, losing at just two of 30 events. Ever the drag racing-influenced showman, Dunn deployed a pair of braking chutes and flashed the V-for-victory sign at the end of this winning run.
The starting system was simple and would only tell the starter whether a rider red-lighted. Made up of a pair of 10-inch-wide copper plates that were in contact when a rider was staged and broken when the rider left, it didn't take drag-savvy young Dunn long to realize how to take advantage of the system by shallow staging for a running start (unlike today's NHRA systems, the bike-drags e.t. clock started when the Tree turned green, so a good reaction time was paramount to having a good elapsed time) or how to "tune" his bike for maximum performance.
"My dad hardly ever went to the races with me, but he did tell me to experiment with gears," said Dunn. "The races were run in shopping centers, and sometimes it was an uphill track for safety. If it was an uphill track, I'd change my sprockets to put a lower gear in; none of the other kids knew that or understood that."
Dunn was runner-up at the first event he attended, then went unbeaten for nearly 30 races before being surprised by a competitor almost as wily as he.
"This guy came out with a 10-speed bike that he's turned into a two-speed using an adjustment screw on the derailleur so that he only had 1st and 2nd gear," recalled Dunn. "He'd moved the shifter lever right up to the right brake handle, and this guy flew. Up until he showed up, I was just going through the motions because I was winning everything.
"I had beaten this guy the week before, and he went home and did his homework and came up with this two-speed deal and ran 5.90 and broke my back in the semifinals. At the next race, he had it even more figured out and went like 5.50 in qualifying, but he didn't understand how the starting system worked.
"This was the race they filmed for Funny Car Summer, and I had canard wings on my bike and a big ol' banana seat for the parachutes.
"The first round, I ran like a 6.15 and then a 6.08 and just barely got by the round. In the semi's, I had to race this guy's buddy, who had run like a 5.80-something, so I got back to the pits and started pulling all that crap off my bike to lighten it. The producer came by and was not happy, but I told him he could forget about the movie -- I wanted to win the race -- which is why in the movie they ended up showing the second round as the final. After stripping all that stuff off, I went 5.82 and beat that guy."
Knowing he was in a performance hole for the final, Dunn employed a little gamesmanship to level the playing field.
"For the final, I staged at the back of the plate and did my usual deal of leaving before him, but he kept red-lighting – they'd give you two free red-lights and disqualify you on the third -- and he couldn’t figure it out. He got two red-lights and I didn't have any, so I knew I had nothing to lose by going for it, and I must have hit it just perfect.
"I had my bike geared really low so it was real fast off the line, but by three-quarter-track, I was running out of gas, and here he comes. I beat him by inches, 5.78 to 5.79. I weighed all the parts later on an old fishing scale my dad had in the garage, and I think it weighed about seven or eight pounds, which is a lot for a bike."
Like any drag racer, Dunn could see the handwriting on the wall and knew that he had to step up his technology for the next season and built his own "2-speed 10-speed" but was sidelined by injury before he could ever race it, which just may have set in motion his drag racing career.
"I was practicing in front of the house one night, and I had my head down when I shifted and ran right into a curb and landed on a fire hydrant and broke my collarbone. The bike-drags thing was kind of dying because BMX had just started. I had asthma and was a good sprinter but didn't think I could do the BMX deal. I was getting ready to quit bikes anyway because I was almost 16 and ready to start racing go-karts because my dad told me if I raced a go-kart for a couple of years, he'd put me in his car.
"Still, I had a lot of fun with the bike drags," he reflected. "I thought it was kind of cool; it was some of the most fun I've ever had."
The drag racing media bunch is a pretty tight family, and it's been a rough few months for us since December when we lost our court jester, Bill Crites. This morning comes news that Bob Hesser, our Division 3 photographer and genuinely one of the nicest and most humble guys you'd ever meet, passed away after being taken ill this weekend.
Jacklyn Gebhardt-Still, Comp winner in Houston and owner of Midstate Dragway in Bob's home division, perhaps said it best when she told me this morning, "He would make my local racers feel like they were racing at a national event. It's a terrible loss."
Bob, who contributed photos to National DRAGSTER and, through his employment with Auto Imagery, to NHRA.com, was just 46. His passing leaves a huge void for all of us who knew him, and his passing, along with the loss of former Safety Safari and Hot Rod magazine lensman Eric Rickman (Jan. 24) and giant health scares for veteran photographers Tom Schiltz, Auto Imagery's Dave Kommel, and Steve Reyes, reminds us how fragile life can be sometimes.
One of the earliest April Fools' sections of ND featured Pro Stock hero Bill Jenkins on the front page of the "Natural DIGGER."
As you can see, the reports of this column's demise have been greatly exaggerated, but Wednesday's April Fools' stories here on the big .com (more on them later) not only continued an online tradition dating back 10 years but also an NHRA Publications tradition that goes back to 1970.
Bill Holland, a regular contributor to this column and National DRAGSTER editor from 1969 through 1974, was the early mastermind behind the section, which typically was four pages stuffed casually into the later pages of an early April issue. I heard Tuesday from some of you veteran fans out there who remembered the Natural Digger version, which was from 1974 and is featured in the gallery at right, kicked off with Bill "Grumpy" Jenkins' unforgettable bearskin-rug pose. Streakers were all the rage back then (kids, believe it or not, real grown adults used to take off their clothes and run nekkid at public events, streaking past unsuspecting spectators; I even remember seeing a quite-crazy motorcycle racer make a pass at OCIR in the buff), so the section followed that lead.
It also included some pretty funny ads, illustrated by current staffer John Jodauga, who worked for ND in the 1970s before starting his own business in the 1980s then returned to the fold in 1993.
"It was a form of escape from the rigors of putting out a weekly newspaper," explained Jodauga. "Many of the paper’s regular features, including Bits from the Pits, Tech Forum, regular columns, etc., were rewritten in satirical form, and we attempted to capture the flavor of such publications as the original MAD Magazine and National Lampoon. Some racers, just because of their unique personalities, were often targets of the jokes, with Bill Jenkins being a primary example. We couldn’t pass up reprinting Jenkins’ centerfold from Hot Rod magazine one year earlier, which of course was inspired by Burt Reynolds' similar effort in Cosmopolitan magazine.
"Because Ed McCulloch had a reputation of settling disputes in a physical manner back in those days, it was only natural that we created an ad promoting his fictional martial-arts training center. And after Wally Booth switched from his longtime crewcut to a longer-haired stylized look after he obtained factory backing with American Motors, we couldn’t resist putting together an advertisement for a proposed 1950s-style hair salon that included some high-profile clients.
"While putting these issues together, it was always in the back of our minds what the reaction would be from then-NHRA President Wally Parks, who was still very involved in a hands-on basis in the production of National DRAGSTER. It was one of Wally’s favorite rituals to critique each issue the day after it printed with his familiar red Sharpie felt pen, with which he highlighted captions, portions of copy, photo selection, or any other area he felt did not serve the best interests of NHRA.
"To his credit, Wally never asked us to submit our April Fools' stories to him before we went to press, but within days after publication, there would always follow a sternly written, highly detailed memo in which he would vent his displeasure. I remember the memo for the 1974 issue very well, in which he correctly assumed that the Snot Line was Holland’s brainchild and admonished me (again and again) that the purpose of National DRAGSTER was not to glorify Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins.
"In today’s very PC world, don’t look for a revival of this format in the foreseeable future."
This was the first ND April Fools' issue, in 1970, and includes the Eldorado Nationals that Holland mentioned. The "beauty salon car" at the top was Jodauga's race car, which actually did have that sponsorship, for which he received more than his fair share of razzing.
Recalled Holland, "We really had some fun. Jodauga was in the thick of it all, and some of his wacky drawings helped make it a popular feature. We wrote a gag story about a mythical Eldorado Nationals where Caddie owners converged on Lassiter Mountain Raceway to slug it out. Damned if Mike Jones didn't turn it into a for-real race at OCIR. And, of course, April 1 was also Steve Gibbs' birthday, and 'Big Hook' lent his mischievousness to our journalistic pranks.
"Jim Edmunds, who took over for me in mid-year of 1974, was not made of the same silly putty as some of us," said Holland. "Jim was the managing editor during my tenure, and his forte was to get DRAGSTER done and out to [the printer] as fast as possible. Myself and John were of a more creative mind-set, wanting to improve the product. Bill Crites, of course, had his hand in some of the foolishness, and Leslie Lovett was a more-than-willing participant.
"For sure, we pushed the envelope with Wally, but given the success we were having and the reception by the racers, he gave us our lead. We might have pushed it a bit once when we made ex-Top Fuel owner Bruce Wheeler , the closest thing to a hippie we could find, into NHRA's new 'Division 8 director.' I suspect he knew that since Gibbs was part of our merry band of pranksters 'Hook' would say something if things got really rank.
"All that said, I think Wally had a good sense of humor and really enjoyed some of the stunts we pulled. Even if he had to restrain himself for political reasons (around the house)."
Sadly for me, the final edition of the mini ND sections went to print six weeks before I joined the staff in May 1982 with a fake story about NHRA ceasing operation so that Wally and Barbara Parks could retire to Rio de Janeiro after amassing a fortune in oil and gas properties, diamond mines, and Beverly Hills real-estate holdings. It must not have played well (understandably) in the front office because it was the last one. I guess sometimes it's easy to go too far.
Did you guys catch the big brouhaha yesterday over the April Fools' story on the Car and Driver Web site? Basically, the staff, which also has been at this for years, posted a story saying that GM and Chrysler both had to leave NASCAR racing at the end of the season if they wanted to receive any more government assistance. Although NASCAR and the two manufacturers made no official statement about the story, which was hastily pulled after a furor arose, former NHRA Director of Media Relations Denny Darnell, who works for Dodge's NASCAR publicity team, was quoted in this FOXSports.com story.
For the last time, this is NOT a real idea ... um, right, Mr. Bader?
Although I understand the sensitivity to the tough economic times, I thought that the C/D story was in line with a lot of the April Fools' stories being posted on other legitimate Web sites taking shots at everything from Microsoft to Google (Google Brain … LOL). There was a time yesterday when I began to wonder if the story about Summit Motorsports Park's proposed dome had fooled a lot of people because the phones started ringing pretty hard in some departments at NHRA.
Even if you looked past the obvious technical gaffes in the proposed dome – which was more like a tunnel than a dome – such as what would happen to cars in blowovers, how would the fumes be vented, how the tunnel would be kept clean enough for spectators to see through (not to mention line-of-sight issues for people downtrack (anyone who has ever sat "on the glass" at a hockey game knows what I mean), the sheer idea and the fact it would be ready for next year should have been enough to give people an inkling they were being had.
"I am a huge drag racing fan, but this is the stupidest thing I've seen in a long time," wrote one exasperated fan in an e-mail. "This is a testament to just how pathetic our country has gotten when we spend taxpayer money on something like this. I believe you will see and hear major opposition to this, including a backlash to NHRA."
Another fretted, "Even though the racing can continue during all kinds of weather, how many fans will hang in there during rain, snow, or etc. to watch the race? Besides the competition, etc., there are two components of the show that are fundamental to the experience of drag racing: the sound and the SMELL OF THE NITRO ... how much of this will be reduced or eliminated when races occur under the dome? Similarly, the dome will be like a greenhouse; won't it get mighty hot inside during the summer; how will this affect things like the drivers and traction?"
It was only after I responded to them and asked them to check the calendar did they realize they'd been had, which is probably a testimony not only to a sound idea for the joke – let's face it, people have been wondering how to build an enclosed racetrack since the first rainout -- but also to the exquisite photo illustration that accompanied the story. Both were the brainchild of the fertile mind of track publicist Jon Hedges.
"Each year, we try to come up with a wild April Fools' joke," he told me. "Last year as you know, it was John Force buying the track, and we still get questions to this day about it. In fact, the Web page with that story remains one of our most popular pages one year later.
"Bill Bader Jr. gives me great latitude to pull these April Fools' pranks off. I come up with the idea, write the story, and do the Photoshop work. Bill doesn’t even let the staff know what the prank will be until it shows up on the track’s Web site. I had the idea for the domed track worked out a few weeks ago and ran it by Bill on Monday.
"The 'dome' over the track started out as an image of a 20-foot-long metal garage/shed that I had to duplicate three times so it would stretch the entire length of the track. My original idea was to have it be solid metal (because how ridiculous would that be to have a race that you couldn’t actually see? At least with my warped sense of humor I thought that would be really funny), then at the last minute, I decided instead to make the shed transparent, which made it a little more believable. A lot of credit has to go to the Bader family, who all have a marvelous sense of humor and allow this sort of thing."
Only a few of you bit on my retirement of this column, but those who did were pretty pissed, which I find very flattering. TheNational DOGSTER and National CATSTER story drew some mild giggles, and though people told me they would actually subscribe to such publications, few were actually fooled. Ditto for the Tony Schumacher hockey story that ran in the Notebook.
There have been quite a few stories from years past that people really bit hard on, such as Top Fuel favorite 'Aussie Dave' exposed as native Southern Californian, which Grubnic told me he's still asked about; he also said he even got an angry call from a sponsor demanding to know why Grubnic hadn't told them about this deception ahead of time. NHRA changes Wally trophy to Kenny in salute of icon Bernstein had quite a few people riled up that NHRA was messing with the time-honored trophy, and even the ludicrous-sounding Schumacher admits: 'I drive with my eyes closed' had some takers. It's an inexact science predicting what plays and what doesn't but fun still to see what kind of reactions you can invoke.
Okay, that's all the foolishness I have time for this year; back to business next week with more great stories behind the stories.
If you follow this column with any regularity, you probably know that I usually post new columns on Tuesdays and Fridays. So you probably were wondering yesterday where the new stuff was. Some of you might have assumed I was catching up on National DRAGSTER work after traveling to Houston, and you’d be partly right, but it's mostly because I spent all of yesterday struggling with one of the toughest decisions of my writing career.
After much thought and deliberation, I have decided that this will be the final installment of this column. It's over. I'm closing down shop.
I appreciate the support and encouragement you've given me in the last two years and your contributions to this column in many ways, but I just can’t do it anymore.
So, what happened?
It's not just the massive amount of time that I spend carefully researching the material or even the time it takes to craft the columns themselves or even that I've run out of ideas. It's just that I never really cared much about the past. I just wrote about those subjects because I knew a lot of you were interested, and I figured we could force a lot of advertising impressions on you guys.
Truthfully, the history of anything bores me to tears. Blame it on my school days. I was a better English student than a history scholar. Alexander the Great and the siege of Tyre? Bah! Who cares? The Battle of Hastings? Phooey.
Same for those old-time drag races. Oooh, "Bid Daddy" comes out west and smokes the Smokers. Yawn. Like that was any surprise. Don Prudhomme wins 13 of 16 races in two years? Hell, I probably could have won two or three myself. Army Monza? The most overrated piece of racing machinery to ever touch the tarmac.
Plus, y'know, I look back at some of those old heaps that the racers called race cars, and I have to laugh. This is the best they could come up with? My 20-month-old grandson could do better. I mean, hey, let's face it, what took Top Fuel racers so long to come up with the idea for the rear-engined dragster? The first time anyone got an oil bath or "heat-treated" should have been clue enough to not sit behind the damn thing. Duh!
Oh, you start to whine, how about those great 1970s Funny Cars when they actually looked like cars and did cool dry hops? What about Roger Lindamood and "Smoky Joe" Lee and Larry Fullerton?
Gone, gone, gone, and gone. Like me.
But Phil, what about your beloved OCIR?
OCIR? Yeah, I spent a lot of time there, but I also spent a lot of time in detention, but you don’t see me canonizing that place. But there are sure a lot of you out there who would rather be able to go back to OCIR when you die instead of to heaven. Whatever. The place is gone. Get over it.
So anyway, it's been fun. Yeah, kind of like banging-your-head-on-a-half-closed-garage-door fun. But still. Enjoy living in the past, suckers. I have to go update my Facebook page and Twitter around a bit.
Okay, that was fun. Whoo-boy, I love April Fools' Day. Had ya scared, did I? Yeah, well, maybe not. I might have had better luck fooling you if I said Bruce Springsteen is lame and hockey is for little girls.
Yeah, you guys are stuck with me. Sorry.
All art by Jim Billups
We wondered in 1998 what if John Force's Ford deal carried him into a rear-engined Ford pickup Funny Car?
Anyway, moving on, I know that a lot of you guys are saying, "Dang, April Fools' ain't what it used to be at NHRA.com," but it's still fun to look back at those shenanigans.
I'll never forget the first April Fools' we did, which was way back in 1998, when NHRA.com was still in its infancy. We had been "on the air" for less than three years, but people were beginning to embrace the medium as a news outlet, and back in those days, everyone tended to believe everything they read on the Internet, which made them the perfect suckers after I wrote a story (under the unlikely pen name of I.M. Soshure) about a secret NHRA test session filled with rear-engined "Thunder Truck" Funny Cars, dual-engined and six-wheeled Top Fuelers, and more. An amazing, gifted Photoshop artist named Jim Billups mocked up some amazing cars (his artistry impresses me even more now that I finally have semi-mastered Photoshop).
In the years since, we've made fun of a lot of racers and even poked fun at ourselves. There have been some memorable stories during the years. Back in the day, my former partner in crime, Rob Geiger, and I used to revise the entire home page, but we're all a little more focused (darn it) this year on other things, like creating a buzz for the coming events and helping ensure that our events and racers get their due publicity. Last year, as this year, we sprinkled April Fools' stuff throughout the site (including here … you still do realize I was kidding about quitting this column, right?), but below you can find links to all of our previous shenanigans. (A lot of these go back to old incarnations of the site, so don't try clicking any crazy links back there!) Enjoy!
I'll see you Friday (I promise!).
April Fools': Schumacher contemplating retirement to 'pursue other interests'
In an unexpected and shocking statement, U.S. Army Top Fuel driver Tony “the Sarge” Schumacher said he is considering retiring from the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series to “pursue other interests.”
Force buys Summit Motorsports Park
In a surprise announcement, John Force revealed that he has finished negotiations to buy Summit Motorsports Park from the Bader family.
Brown suspected of stealing Houston headlines (originally posted in NHRA.com Notebook)
Minutes after collecting his first Top Fuel victory at the O'Reilly NHRA Spring Nationals presented by Pennzoil, first-year nitro pilot Antron Brown was detained by Baytown, Texas, police for stealing the Top Fuel final from Larry Dixon. Brown was also suspected of stealing the headlines from Del Worsham, whose Funny Car win was especially hard-fought after Worsham failed to qualify at the season's first two races.
Driver profile: Richard Nixon
The former president of the United States joins the Top Fuel ranks. Hail to the chief!
Driver profile: Donald Trump
Nothing funny about "the Donald" going Funny Car racing, you say? You're fired!
NHRA.com's 2006 April Fools' stories
Disgruntled racers block NHRA.com April Fools' special
NHRA.com's 2005 April Fools' stories
Top Fuel favorite 'Aussie Dave' exposed as native Southern Californian
Popular Top Fuel racer “Aussie Dave” Grubnic, whose distinctive accent and smooth demeanor have wooed female fans and whose heroics on the track in the United States have inspired a generation of Australian race goers a continent away, actually was born in Azusa, Calif., and, in fact, has never even visited the land Down Under, it was recently discovered.
Bazemore contemplates sabbatical to 'find inner peace'
Funny Car points leader Whit Bazemore is considering abandoning his quest for the 2005 POWERade title and taking a leave of absence to travel to Katmandu. After a recent meeting with the Dalai Lama, Bazemore said he might take an extended trip to "search for spiritual healing and find inner peace."
Lunar helium-3 could replace nitro in Top Fuel, Funny Car ranks
The future of NHRA Championship Drag Racing could literally be in the stars as officials have announced a full-scale feasibility study to determine if lunar helium-3 could replace nitromethane as the required fuel for all Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars.
Coming soon: CrewCab CrewChief video game
Hot on the heels of the announcements for the forthcoming NHRA Drag Racing 2005 game for the popular Sony PlayStation 2 system, Fortunate Fowl Games has announced its own soon-to-be-released title, CrewCab CrewChief.
Tony, Michael Schumacher will switch rides for 2006 season
Tony “the Sarge” Schumacher and Michael Schumacher have a lot more in common than just their surnames. Both drivers have dominated their respective series over the last few years and in a shocking development this week announced plans to trade rides next season.
NHRA.com's 2004 April Fools' stories
NHRA changes Wally trophy to Kenny in salute of icon Bernstein
Drag racing legend Kenny Bernstein will now become the object of desire among NHRA competitors as top officials within the association, along with a panel of former and current racers, have voted unanimously to change the bronze trophy presented to national event winners from the Wally to the Kenny.
Baca to star in Broadway musical Guys and Dolls
All the dancing that Top Fuel pro David Baca does whenever he wins even a single round of racing has earned the colorful racer the lead role in the wildly acclaimed musical Guys and Dolls.
'The Sarge' promoted to staff sergeant
Points leader Tony "the Sarge" Schumacher has been promoted to staff sergeant and will now be known as Tony "the Staff Sergeant" Schumacher to millions of fans around the globe.
Nigerian business proposal stokes Funny Car dreams
A drag racing fan from Maine hopes soon to realize his lifelong dream of fielding a Funny Car as soon as he completes a pending e-mail business arrangement with a Nigerian official.
NHRA.com's 2003 April Fools' stories
Rookie driver Brandon Bernstein very close to running out of hats
Just three races into his Top Fuel career, rookie driver Brandon Bernstein has found himself dangerously low on hats. To date, Bernstein has taken his hat off 47 times during interviews on ESPN, the worldwide sports network that broadcasts all 23 events in the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series.
Capps featured on cover of prestigious Modern Knitting magazine
Funny Car driver Ron Capps is featured on the cover of the April 1 issue of Modern Knitting magazine. Capps is also the sole subject of a 14-page feature inside the magazine that explores today's modern athletes and the relationship they have with arts and crafts.
Force may be sent to minors for 'conditioning'
Following the lead of big-league sports teams, Team Castrol coaches, citing John Force's inconsistent play at the season's start, are weighing the possibility of sending struggling slugger Force to the bracket racing leagues for a "conditioning stint."
Treble to head Angelle Fan Club in 2003
Matco Tools Pro Stock Bike rider Craig Treble has been chosen as the new president of the Angelle Fan Club, it was announced Tuesday. After months of speculation, last year's runner-up to three-time champion Angelle Sampey finally admitted publicly that he is a big fan of his No. 1 rival on the racetrack.
NHRA.com's 2002 April Fools' stories
Force vows Era of Silence
Normally verbose Funny Car driver John Force, who is known just as well for his rambling press conferences and television interviews as he is for winning 99 races and 11 series championships, has vowed to stop talking to the media effective immediately.
Dixon announces Forever Blue tour
In his latest attempt to thwart the emotion and momentum of retiring NHRA POWERade Top Fuel champ Kenny Bernstein's Forever Red … A Run to Remember farewell tour, Top Fuel rival Larry Dixon and his Miller Lite teammates have declared their 2002 season Forever Blue … An Even Longer Run to Remember.
Scelzi switches again, dumps Funny Car for Pro Stock
Just three races after his much-ballyhooed change from Top Fuel to Funny Car, three-time series champion and former rookie of the year Gary Scelzi has announced a switch to the Pro Stock ranks. Beginning at this weekend's third annual SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Scelzi will campaign a brand-new Jerry Haas-built White Cap Toyota Celica Pro Stocker.
Bazemore admits: 'I love the Easter Bunny'
Forgoing a longstanding policy of showing only his rough exterior to the public, Funny Car driver Whit Bazemore has decided to share one of his innermost secrets with NHRA.com readers in this exclusive interview. "I love the Easter Bunny, and I always have," Bazemore said.
NHRA.com's 2001 April Fools' stories
SoCal Top Fuel pilot unveils three-wheeler
Fledgling Southern California fuel pilot and noted aerodynamicist Trey Wheeler has developed a tricycle-like configuration that he recently put through its early shakedown runs at a private test session at Pomona Raceway. We have exclusive pictures.
Densham shakes down new exotic body
Funny Car driver Gary Densham's brief association with John Force Racing is already bearing fruit, as experiments with the team's Research and Technology entry have turned now to an exotic, closed-wheel body configuration.
Johnson adopts Scelzi for tax relief
In a startling and unprecedented move, team owner and crew chief Alan Johnson has formally adopted Winston champ Gary Scelzi, driver of Johnson's Team Winston Top Fuel dragster. It is the first time in recorded sports history that such a move has occurred, and sports agents and CPAs around the world are already applauding the tactic.
NHRA.com's April Fools' Specials (1998-2000)
2000: Schumacher admits: 'I drive with my eyes closed'
2000: Texas racer has 'some irons in the fire'
2000: Teams prefer big tires on the back (round ones, too)
2000: Scientists offer proof of motor oil benefits
2000: Sponsors search for teams to back
2000: Toliver 'thanks' sponsors at end of race
1999: Co-driver idea is tested in Top Fuel
1998: Nitro trucks, twin-engine TFs make test runs
Our host, Todd Bailey. second from left, gave us a behind-the-scenes tour of the Johnson Space Center.
Although I readily acknowledge that I have one of the coolest jobs in the world, the traveling part is not always all that it's cracked up to be. Because we're working on the current issue of National DRAGSTER through Wednesday night, we don't have much time for extracurricular activities when we travel to cover the national events. Usually it's an all-day flight Thursday, then straight from the airport to the hotel, a quick dinner, and then hit the rack. Then it's up and at 'em bright and early Friday, race all day, dinner, and the motel. Rinse, lather, and repeat for three days, then head to the airport early Monday, fly home, and if there's still time when you get home, maybe stop by the office and put in a few more hours.
Then there are rare times like yesterday. Our 6 a.m. flight out of Ontario got us into Houston at 11:30 a.m. and gave us a rare half day to ourselves. Houston, of course, is home to the Johnson Space Center, and because one of my travel mates, Associate Editor John Jodauga, is a bit of a space aficionado (an astronut?), we planned to drop by and take the nickel tour.
And then I remembered Reason No. 1,754 why I love writing this column: meeting people like Houston-area resident Todd Bailey. I first "met" Todd via e-mail in October 2007 after Wally Parks had died, and I met him for the first time for real yesterday, and boy was it a treat! Todd and I traded some e-mails about Wally and found out that, like me, he is a Comp racing fan, having grown up in the Houston area and watched the great Division 4 Modified wars. He was a fan of the then-still-kinda-new Insider column, but it turned out that he had followed my writing since the days of driving Frank and Linda Mazi's blown Opel back in the mid-1980s.
I noted his nasa.gov e-mail address and asked about his line of work. He invited me to stop by and visit him if ever I was back in Houston to show me firsthand what he does, so 18 months later, I got the chance to take him up on his offer. This edition of the Insider is going to vary a bit from the usual drag racing history lessons because I thought this was really cool, and I think you will too. Plus, hey, it's my column.
We met Todd, a 20-plus-year NASA veteran, at the Sonny Carter Training Facility, just down Space Center Boulevard from the space center. The training facility is home to the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (the NBL, as insiders call it), a 40-foot-deep water tank about 202x101 feet filled with 6.2 million gallons of chlorinated water so that astronauts can practice "extra vehicular activities" (EVAs, in the trade, or space walks to you and me) in a full space suit in relative simulated weightlessness. The pool is filled with mock-ups of everything from the cargo bay of the Space Shuttle to the still-growing International Space Station, which is updated in the pool as it is in space so the astronauts are training on the real deal.
Rocket Park offers a display of several early rockets. Inside this building is a full-scale Saturn V rocket.
Todd, who started at NASA as one of the very safety divers he now helps oversee (back when the NLB was known as the Weightless Environment Training Facility) and has had experience in NASA's fabrication shop, is a safety test officer, which means he's charged with monitoring the astronauts' training "runs," allowing them to practice the actual jobs that they will perform for real in space on their shuttle missions in the not-too-distant future. It was fascinating and amazing at the same time. Todd had scheduled our tour so that we could see some astronauts at work in the NBL, then for us to meet one of them, shuttle veteran Michael Foreman
, a Navy captain who flew on STS-123 (Endeavor) in March 2008 and will be headed back to space this November aboard STS-129 (Atlantis). The mission will focus on staging spare components outside the International Space Station and include at least three space walks. Foreman hails from Wadsworth, Ohio, originally made famous by the Veney family.
From the NBL, Todd took us into more secure areas of the Space Center, including Rocket Park, which houses a full-size mock-up of a Saturn V rocket of the type that carried the Apollo missions to the moon. You really don’t get an idea how big this monster is watching it on TV, but laid on its side inside a specially constructed building, its scale is amazing. It's a full 36 stories tall and then some.
While we were ogling Saturn V, a heavy, heavy rain began to fall – part of a 2.5-inch downpour that doused the area – and we slogged our way back to the rental car and to our final stop (well, other than a Mexican dinner at NASA hangout Don Pico's), the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility, where astronauts learn how to work various hatches, airlocks, and other components. They had three Space Shuttle simulators, and had not the current shuttle mission not been under way, we could have experienced them, too, as well as a visit to Mission Control (as Lloyd Bridges might have said in Airplane, "looks like I picked a bad week to visit NASA"); that will have to wait until next year.
All in all, a super day. A big thanks to Todd for his hospitality. Look for him on the track later this year once he gets his new Stocker built.
How cold was it at the 1989 event in Houston? Leslie Lovett and I staged this icy photo of me, framed by icicles. reading The Houston Sun's special section outside our hotel room Sunday morning. Brrrrrrrrr!
My trips to Houston haven't always been so pleasant. Just one year after history was made at the 1988 event with the first four-second Top Fuel pass at an NHRA national event, the track earned another distinction: hosting the first event ever to be "colded out." The weather got so cold that the event actually had to be postponed one week because it simply was too cold to run race cars. I'm not talking that it was 50 degrees; I'm talking single digits.
We had come to the race knowing it would be chilly -- I even had the foresight to pack gloves and a wool cap – but none of us was prepared for what happened. It was late Saturday afternoon when we heard that a strong cold front would be racing toward us from the north. It was about 50 degrees or so, and we were all bracing for a chilly final qualifying session when the thermometer nosedived 15 degrees in just a few minutes and more than 30 in a few hours. Before long, the wind kicked up, and the wind chill, according to those in the know, dropped into high single digits. How cold was it? Veteran photographers Dave Kommel, of Auto Imagery fame, and Jon Asher, whom we'd never seen wear anything but shorts to the starting line despite cold, rain, and wind, actually buckled down and put on some long pants. Now that's cold!
The Funny Cars came to the line, and the track was a veritable skating rink. Only a few cars were able to hook up despite tire-melting burnouts and a constant application of torches by the Safety Safari. Don Prudhomme, who qualified No. 1 with the first 5-teen in Funny Car history (5.19) but didn’t make it down the track in that frigid session, explained succinctly, "The motor said, 'Let's go,' and the tires said, 'Bulls__t.' "
Mark Oswald, driving the Motorcraft-sponsored Candies & Hughes Probe Funny Car, wrote in his On the Run column in National DRAGSTER, "I would have traded Motorcraft and [all their many other sponsors] for a product-only deal with a thermal-underwear supplier. … When the cold front moved through, the temperature dropped so fast I thought I had died. I believed for a moment that rigor mortis was setting in."
The end came when Jim White grenaded an engine in the Hawaiian Punch Dodge and the slick stuff just kind of congealed there on the track into a thick grease-like substance, trying its darndest to freeze. The Safety Safari made attempts to clean it up, but it was clear that wouldn't be an easy task. We called it a day and headed for the hotel.
I peeked outside the hotel-room window the next morning, and the cars were all frosted over. We turned on The Weather Channel and were greeted with the screen at right. It was on the verge of snowing – and, in fact, had snowed a bit locally – and the temperature was 32 degrees but a mere 3 degrees with the wind chill. We drove out to HRP anyway, knowing that the day was lost.
Coming back the next week was, in retrospect, well worth it as Scott Kalitta scored his long-overdue first win – and his only one in Funny Car, defeating Bruce Larson in the final. Gary Ormsby won Top Fuel, and Bob Glidden bagged Pro Stock. A young Top Alcohol Dragster driver named Cruz Pedregon won a special Alcohol Showdown event.
(Above) We passed this flooded car dealership on I-45. (Below) The Houston Chronicle shot this amazing photo of a flooded downtown that we also ran in ND.
Three years later, I witnessed more of Mother Nature's fury in Houston as the region was pounded with rain. We flew in Wednesday and met the tail end of a storm that dropped nine inches of rain on downtown H-town in six hours.
We all but had to wade to our rental car and joined a slow procession of cars out of town. Many areas of the freeway were flooded clear over; it was a good stretch of highway where only the slow lane was underwater. Low-lying local businesses along Interstate 45 were up to their windows in water. More than 1,500 homes were flooded. I-10, the nation's main east-west thoroughfare, was underwater as well, and one person died in the flood that day. Many, many hours later, we reached the hotel and were glad to see that the event had not been cancelled. Baytown had received its fair share of the wet stuff that made the grounds pretty soggy, but NHRA officials devised a scheme to get cars into the grounds on a staggered schedule, and those who lost were asked to quickly load and leave the pits to make room for the next class.
We dodged rain showers all weekend but got it in and made some history along the way. For the first time in NHRA history, women qualified in all three Pro classes as Kim LaHaie made the show in Top Fuel, Paula Martin qualified for Funny Car, and home-state heroine Lucinda McFarlin made the cut in Pro Stock. That guy Cruz Pedregon, who won the Alcohol Showdown three years earlier? He won Funny Car and ran the class' quickest e.t., 5.10. Mike Dunn took a shot at the 300-mph barrier that fell two weeks later in Gainesville and ran 297 mph in Jack Clark's dragster.
As you can see, my history with Houston has been interesting, to say the least, and I'm looking forward to even more rocket-like blastoffs this weekend.
Houston, we are go for launch!