Features

Posted by: Phil Burgess

In the last couple of years, Don Prudhomme has amassed a pretty good collection of the cars that made him famous throughout the years, including the yellow and white Hot Wheels Barracuda Funny Cars, U.S. Army Arrow, Pepsi Challenger Trans Am, and two Skoal Bandit Trans Ams, and as cool as it is for "the Snake" to have these genuine restorations (as opposed to "repopped" replicas), he has gotten more enjoyment from the recent restoration of a vehicle that he probably spent more time driving than any of his floppers: the '67 Dodge D700 truck that hauled his original Hot Wheels Funny Cars when he and Wildlife Racing partner Tom "the Mongoose" McEwen were barnstorming the country.

Although Funny Car-toting ramp trucks were plentiful in those days, the D700 was a step beyond most, from its crew-cab layout to overhead tire storage and lockers. Prudhomme's truck was used for two years by NASCAR legend Richard Petty before Prudhomme, who was seeking a quality ride to complement his new sponsorship, obtained it.

"There were a lot of ramp trucks around, but we wanted something special," he recalled. "The truck was part of the introduction of the Mattel Hot Wheels team, and we wanted some really nice trucks. I always liked to have nice equipment, and, at the time, it was the nicest there was. I really liked it back then because it was a good-looking truck, and I drove it a lot; Bob Brandt and I spent a lot of time going up and down the highway in it.

"I don't want anyone to think I'm getting soft here because I still love my U.S. Smokeless Top Fueler and I've never really been into being nostalgic, even though I've kept quite a few of my cars, but for guys like me who have been around for a while, it's neat to be able to keep or find some of your cars from over the years, especially from your beginnings."

Although Prudhomme certainly has a fine fleet of his former floppers – and just got back the '73 Vega that kicked off his U.S. Army sponsorship (and proved too heavy and was quickly sold to Tom Hoover) – he got the hankering to add this special piece to his collection.

"I dig my racing today and try to stay on top of everything, but I do enjoy going to the reunions, but what tops it off for me is to see a restored car and the truck they used to run it with," he said. "That’s what turns me on about it. The equipment has a lot of personality of its own, and the trucks were part of the show. When McEwen and I used to pull into the tracks, the fans would see those trucks and just surround us."


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Extreme attention to detail is evident everywhere, as seen in these before-and-after shots.
 
While going through some old paperwork – Prudhomme's wife, Lynn, is extremely organized – the Prudhommes came across the old bill of sale for the truck. The invoice had the truck's VIN on it, and Prudhomme and crewmember/ace restoration guy Willie Wolter found the truck, surprisingly still local to Prudhomme's former San Fernando Valley haunts.

"It never left California; we found it in Pacoima," said Prudhomme, who admitted he almost didn't wind up with the truck. "It had been through a couple of hands, but the guy knew that it used to be my truck, and he wanted a whole lot of money for it. Willie and I drove out there to look at it, and, my god, I didn't even recognize it. The guy told me it was cherry and that it ran and everything, but that wasn’t really the case. I first just walked away from it because I didn’t want it, but I was talking to Dale Armstrong about it later, and he told me, 'You've gotta get it; it's the only one like it left.' So I hired a wrecker and got it towed down here [to the team's shop in Vista, Calif.]. We had it dropped off at Rolling Wrenches to do the mechanical work for us, and then we did a total frame-off restoration."

As he did with all of the restorations of his race cars, Prudhomme put Wolter on point, and they hired a small staff to help with the enormous project. The truck originally had been painted yellow with stars to match the first Hot Wheels 'Cuda, then painted white with flames to match the Snake II 'Cuda, but Prudhomme chose to restore it to its original color. Using historical photos for reference, the now out-of-stock decals were painstakingly painted on.


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Beautifully restored to its original livery, Prudhomme's truck is a true time machine.
 
"It had a lot of rust, but not to the point of being ridiculous and not being able to be restored," he said. "Willie is responsible for getting it into the great shape it's in.

"It took a year, but it seemed like five years because it was being worked on pretty much every day," he said. "It's been a fun project. I've enjoyed it more than all of the other car projects we've done, but I won’t do it again; trust me. It was a big project."

The restoration complete, I had to ask: What does he intend to do with all of these time machines? Does he envision a museum or a John Force-like display at his shop?

"That' a good question; I don’t know," he answered. "A friend of mine was going to build a museum, and I was going to have them displayed there, but he's not going to build it after all, so I don't really know what I'm going to do with them.

"I don’t plan on being a Garlits and having a museum, but I think it's cool to have this one back. I can’t wait to show this truck. It's gorgeous and pretty sporty looking with the car sitting on the back."
 

NHRA Wild Rides reviewFriday, May 01, 2009
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Whenever man and machine push the envelope, things can and do go wrong, often spectacularly. Thanks to stringent attention to safety, the damage is usually confined to the race vehicles themselves. There are lessons to be learned from everything, even these mishaps, which is where a presentation such as NHRA Video's new NHRA Wild Rides excels.

I was fortunate to be offered a prerelease version of this new title so that I could share my thoughts with you, the most knowledgeable drag racing fans on the planet, and it was with great anticipation that I slid it into the DVD player, grabbed some munchies, and set my anticipation on tense.

We've all seen "crash and burn" videos, but NHRA Wild Rides takes those highlight-reel moments a step further by adding analysis of what happened through a series of studio interviews with the principals, who explain what they were thinking as their world took unplanned turns upside down and how it affected them afterward, allowing the viewer to take a deep step into the psyche of these professionals.

Wild Rides, like 2008 Year in Review, represents a new level of production that NHRA Video has been striving for. The idea is to tell stories and get the viewer up close and personal with the stars of the sport and what they go through. Mission accomplished.

A lot of the greatest hits of the past decade that you would expect to see are here, plus some that maybe you had forgotten.

Drag racing legend Don "the Snake" Prudhomme (whose 1970 U.S. Nationals final versus car-destroying Jim Nicoll is also shown) plays a key role in the early parts of the video, setting up the tales of two harrowing incidents involving his former drivers Ron Capps and Larry Dixon – Capps' massive blower explosion in Dallas and Dixon's "mind-boggling" final-round chassis breakage and subsequent flight in the Top Fuel final of the 2000 Memphis event.

Both Capps and Dixon set the pace with a great everyman's job of explaining their wild rides, and Capps' interview is especially poignant and honest as he admits his concerns about hopping into the car for the next run.

In several places, it's the crew chiefs, not the drivers, who explain what's happening -- Alan Johnson talks about the damaging effects of fire on the electronics, Lee Beard explains what causes Funny Car fires, and Ed "the Ace" McCulloch shares the hows and whys of blower explosions. This extra insight helps round out the experience.

These interviews contain plenty of gems – Shirley Muldowney commenting that "you don’t have time to be afraid" as she recounts her big 2000 U.S. Nationals wheelie or "the Professor," Warren Johnson, explaining matter-of-factly that "crashes involve the element of surprise, something you couldn’t control at that moment in time." Many incidents are examined in detail and from multiple angles, and there are fine montages of additional incidents.

Gary Scelzi is a regular part of this presentation as the former world champ recounts his numerous incidents, including car-destroying crashes at the 1999 Topeka and 2000 Chicago events and, of course, his 2001 top-end tangle with John Smith in Brainerd. We also get to see him at the 2003 Las Vegas event during the segment on blower explosions (which also includes the ever-popular Dean Skuza's recount of his 2000 Sonoma boomer as feeling "like a 7 iron hit me in the solar plexus." Classic).

The weird two-car get-together of Frank Pedregon and Scotty Cannon at the 2000 Finals is highlighted, and there's a segment on Funny Car fires showing some real barnburners (including Tommy Johnson at Englishtown 2007, Dale Creasy Jr. and the MAD Magazine Pontiac at Las Vegas 2000, Cannon at Dallas 2000, Terry Haddock at Memphis 2000 – 2000 was obviously a rough year for floppers) and footage from every conceivable angle, including in-car cameras.

It's all here: the early-career Pro Stock crashes of Greg Anderson and Jason Line (forgot about those, did you?) and the still-frightening two-car collision between Kenny Koretsky and Bruce Allen at the 2005 Dallas event. Tony Schumacher recounts his "absolutely brutal" over the-guardwall Memphis crash from the 2000 Memphis event and John Force his harrowing brush with disaster at the 2007 Dallas event.

Most of the interviews were done in a studio setting where the drivers and owners could really get involved in telling their story. The Force interview had an intensity to it that really came through because of that. A lot attention was given to details such as lighting and scene setting.

The footage is not just limited to the Pros as we also get to see Kate Harker's wild Top Alcohol Dragster blowover from Sonoma a few years ago.

The DVD also includes a very worthwhile tribute to the NHRA Safety Safari presented by AAA, the brave men and women who stand as the next line of defense for these drivers. NHRA's Graham Light, Randy "Double R" Robbins, and Jim Kruell share their thoughts about their work, and the drivers weigh in heavily, sharing their admiration for the Safari team. Schumacher says candidly, and quite proudly, "I almost feel sorry for the other sanctioning bodies that don't have them," and Scelzi sez simply, "I love those guys."

The DVD also includes two bonus features: "Wild Rides of the Past" and a look at Doug Herbert's BRAKES program.

The past footage features unforgettable moments from the 1980s, including Tim Grose's run-in with the guardrail at the 1980 Columbus, Ohio, event, the blowovers of Don Garlits (1986 Englishtown) and Eddie Hill (Pomona 1989), and Jerry Caminito's harrowing top-end crash at the 1994 Memphis race.

The BRAKES segment features program founder Herbert, who created the teen safe-driving program (which will receive a portion of the proceeds from this DVD) following the deaths last year of his sons Jon and James, explaining the importance of the program and its role. It offers a sobering look at the program, including hard-to-look-at still photos of the Herbert boys' wrecked car and touching comments from their classmates.

If you were disappointed with the 2007 year in review, 2008 Year in Review was a major improvement, and NHRA Wild Rides continues to hold down that throttle pedal of excellence. I suggest that you check out the clips at nhradvd.com for NHRA Wild Rides and 2008 Year in Review. You will be impressed with the improvement in the quality of the production.

This is the first of a series of titles that NHRA Video will produce from the vast NHRA archives, including a series of historical releases as well as future editions of Wild Rides. Your feedback about Wild Rides and input on future titles would be appreciated. You can e-mail them to me here, and I’ll pass them on.
 


I know I had promised you the story of the resto of Don Prudhomme's old ramp truck today, and I did interview "the Snake" at length earlier this week, but when this DVD landed in my box, and its release was perfectly scheduled for today, I decided to preempt the Prudhomme piece until Tuesday. The mere mention of the story has brought about a surprising amount of interest from fans who remember the truck and car collectors, too. You wouldn't think that a 40-year-old truck would inspire that much interest, but it has. Check it out here next week. In the meantime, be sure to check out the Wild Rides video; it would make a swell Father's Day gift!
 

Posted by: Phil Burgess

Even in this digital age, my desk is covered with scraps of paper and Post-it notes filled with chicken scratch that sometimes I can't decipher a few hours later. There are random phone numbers without any name next to them, e-mail addresses to god-knows-who, and words that I don't even think are part of the English language.

I'm usually a bit better organized, and as I started to wade into the ongoing project you've come to know and love called the Misc. Files, I decided that rather than jumping all willy-nilly about the alphabet like I did to begin (from B to I), I'm going to spare myself the agony of trying to remember if I've done Q or L without scrolling back through the Insider Archives and do what I should have done in the beginning … start at the beginning, which, in our alphabet, means the letter A (a big sorry to the Ken Zeal Fan Club; you’re going to have to wait a while).

So, without further ado and with credit when listed, here's the stuff from our own "A" list of obscurity.

Some people went, "Huh? Who?" when I showed the late-1980s pic from the "I" Files of Lorry Azevedo driving Ray and Shirley Strasser's Insanity Corvette Funny Car (Roger Lee informs me that I need to add drag boat racer Tom Black and Craig Epperly to the list of former Strasser drivers), but Azevedo had been around since the early 1970s, when he piloted this Woody Gilmore-chassised Drummer Camaro Alcohol Funny Car, initially owned by John Kinsel, who was a professional drummer, hence the name. Azevedo had full ownership of the car in 1975, when this photo was taken April 19 by Ron Burch at Sacramento Raceway. Azevedo also briefly drove the A&E Motors Corvette nitro flopper of Mike "the World's Fastest Hippie" Mitchell in 1980, according to DragList.com.


From the even-more-obscure files comes this ride, the Valley Tremor Dodge Charger, owned and driven by Abe Ayoub. I'd only seen one other picture of the car, from an Amalie Oil handout that had the car parked in snow, but here it is in action. The car, built on the first of the narrow Logghe chassis, was previously campaigned by Phil Castronovo, who won the world championship with the car by scoring at the 1971 World Finals in Amarillo. Ayoub, who ran the car for just one season, in 1972, was from the same Utica, N.Y., hometown as the Custom Body gang.
While we're doling out 1970s Funny Cars like Easter candy, here's a neat low-angle shot of Canadian Hall of Famer Kenny Achs' Mid-West Express at Seattle Int'l Raceway in May 1971. Achs actually began his career in Top Fuel in the late 1960s – he owned and operated the first Top Fuel dragster to run out of Saskatchewan -- before buying the Woody Gilmore-chassised White Bear Dodge Challenger from Tom Hoover and renaming it, like his dragster, after his automotive shop (Saskatoon being roughly in the midwest of Canada, eh?), but, according to Danny White, he later renamed it Black Sheep Squadron after obtaining backing from the Alberta-based Black Sheep Boutique. The car was a bit on the heavy side and ran a best of 7.06 at 221 mph when the better cars were running 6.80s. Achs eventually sold the car to concentrate on his business and in 2003 was inducted, along with Barry Paton, into the Canadian Motorsports Hall of Fame. Achs later found and restored his original 1967 Top Fueler and donated it to the hall in 2002.
Minnesota's Vic Anderson aired out his alky digger at Thunder Valley Raceway in Marion, S.D., in this mid-1980s photo by lensman Richard Wood, who really nailed the shot (wood … nailed it ... get it?) when Anderson hammered the throttle (please, stop him) and drove (seriously, Phil?) into this wheelstand, the front tires clawing (someone get a net) at the sky. The landing was anything but soft, and the front end flat as a board.

The lettering on the helmet at right reads "Andretti," and the face may be familiar as that of versatile wheelman John Andretti, the nephew of legendary Mario, who tried his hand at drag racing in 1993 behind the wheel of former baseball slugger Jack Clark's Taco Bell-sponsored dragster. In what was the fast-food chain's first foray on the strip, Andretti impressed everyone – including the Taco Bell execs on hand --- in his debut at the 1993 Atlanta race by not only qualifying but reaching the semifinals with the Tim Ferrell-tuned machine. Andretti qualified No. 12 with a 4.99, then beat no less an opponent than multi-time world champ Joe Amato in round one with a 5.00 and Tommy Johnson Jr. with a 4.92. "When I got here, I was just concerned about qualifying," he admitted. "I didn't want to come out here and have the media think I was a wanker. I wanted to do a good job. If we had any doubters, maybe we're making believers out of them now." Andretti's run ended in the semifinals against Clark's previous driver Mike Dunn, 4.92 to 4.95, but he definitely left a solid impression.

And what of uncle Mario? Well, the closest he got to Top Fuel was aboard Mickey Thompson's dragster-themed go-kart (below). I have to wonder about that front-end ballast, though …


If you went to Orange County Int'l Raceway in the late 1970s and early 1980s, chances are you saw a lot of the guy in the near lane. Rick Abood was one of the bracket stars of the track and later one of the earliest Pro Gas campaigners with his familiar Thames panel wagon. Abood ruled Bracket 1 at OCIR. Here, he's pictured beating Clyde Miller's Fiat in the final in this undated, uncredited photo.

Where do famous old race cars go when they retire? Apparently to Scribner, Neb. Chuck Aronson, the pride of Chillicothe, Mo., bought one of Bob Glidden's all-conquering Ford Fairmont Pro Stockers and campaigned it in the Mid-America Pro Stock Association battles. In this June 1982 all-Ford final-round photo by Rocky Finlayson, Aronson is taking on local favorite Dan Bruckner of Omaha. According to the very long caption on the back (thanks, Rocky!), Bruckner got a major holeshot on Aronson, but his Maverick blew a head gasket near the lights, allowing Aronson to sneak by for an 8.14 to 8.43 victory.
And finally, this one has a personal connection to me. You might recognize the good-looking guy in the center as actor Dan Aykroyd, of Saturday Night Live, Blues Brothers, and Coneheads fame. The guy on the left is former National DRAGSTER staffer Cam Benty, who went on (despite his stylish choice of apparel) to become the editor of Popular Hot Rodding magazine, and on the right is the late Pete Pesterre, a talented writer and photographer who was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident at El Mirage on Christmas Day in 1993. I knew all three of these guys through my best buddy, C. Van Tune, who also worked at PHR and took this photo. The boys had met Aykroyd when he purchased from Cam and Van an old police car that the duo had bought and fixed up to take part in the Four Ball Rally, one of the old Cannonball Run-type coast-to-coast speed runs from Boston to San Diego. "Cam saw Aykroyd somewhere about 10 years ago, and he not only remembered us, he still had the cop car," Van wrote me recently.


Interestingly, the Dodge Charger in front of which the trio is standing was a magazine project car that the PHR staffers not only entered in the 1982 Winternationals but which Benty also qualified No. 1 in the Stock field with a 16.54 pass that was 1.04 seconds under the soft Y/Stock index. That blast (much to their never-ending delight) was more than a quarter-second quicker than Hot Rod magazine's Jeff Smith, who fielded a nearly identical Plymouth Turismo in the same class. Benty lost in round one and Smith in round two.


Follow-up I: Heard from Ted Guth, whose White Trash nostalgia Funny Car I showcased here last week. I asked about the, well, unusual nature of the junkyard refugee paint scheme, with its mismatched doors and fenders, and he responded, "Due to my dislike of some individuals' interpretation of the word 'nostalgia' (i.e., '70s Firebirds that look like spaceships and Dodge Challengers with 40-inch extended noses, etc.), I decided that my car would more closely resemble a street car. The 'aged' patina and other little features like hood pins, door handles, and side marker lights just add an exclamation point to my desire to make the car look 'street.' "

And how successful was his effort?
 
"At a recent car show, a guy came up to me and asked if I would be interested in buying body parts for my car," Guth added. "He explained that he knew of a guy who had a pair of Dodge Demon doors that would fit a Duster, too. He was totally serious. I told him to walk up and take a close look at the car. He looked close at the car, laughed, and said, 'This isn't a real car; it is just a fiberglass replica of a Duster!' "

Ted sent along a couple of closer photos that allow you to see what he means; check out the faux rust along the bottom of the body and passenger door. Too cool!


 

Follow-up II: I also heard from former A/Fuel hero Jimmy Ige, who was mentioned and pictured in the "I" Files column. He's still alive and kicking all these years later, still living in my old Culver City stomping grounds (just down the street from Roland Leong). He sent along this recent photo of himself, left, longtime partner and friend (more than 60 years!) Michael Sassa, and Joe Mondello taken at a past Hot Rod Reunion. I asked him about the group photo from Bakersfield, which was chock-full of kids (scroll down to see it). That's not Sassa at far left but late crewmember Don Fukishima. To Fukishima's left are Ige's daughters Cathy and Lori, Linda Vaughn, Scott Sassa (Michael's newphew), and Ige's third daughter, Sharon.

Ige's son, Derek, who was only 1 when that photo was taken and not included in it, followed his father into racing and was an engineer for Mazdaspeed, and through them we have shared friends in the Bergenholtz brothers, Ron and Ed, whose Mazdas captured Pro FWD championships in the NHRA Sport Compact Series (and now are part of the Formula D drifting series). The senior Ige went to some races (including Indy) with the  Bergenholtzes and found it ironic that his Jr. Fueler went 7.40s with eight cylinders on nitro and the Bergenholtzes' four-banger was running 7.20s on gas. Derek also helped induct Abel Ibarra's groundbreaking Mazda RX-3 into the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum presented by Automobile Club several years ago. Small world!

Follow-up III: Bret Kepner followed up on Jim Hill's description of how the class-lettered architecture was built throughout the years and noted that even Jim's apt description "brought up several complications which can be confusing for historians and fans alike.

"As he stated, the original AA designation was simply the lightest weight break (pounds per cubic inch) available for the dragster class. Only prior to the 1957 NHRA fuel ban was the premier dragster class truly 'unlimited' in weight (the original Open Gas and Open Fuel divisions); after that, it was always a limited division.
 
"Initially, there was no notation of the use of a supercharger. In fact, until 1964, the addition of a supercharger simply moved a car up one class. In example, a C/Dragster which added a blower became a B/Dragster. This applied to all categories in which supercharging was permitted with the exception of the Gas classes, for which the first classifications delineating a blower were created: A, B, and C/Gas Supercharged. Other than fuel/gas dragsters and gas supercharged cars, the only AA designation was hung on Stock Eliminator's lightest and most powerful category, the recently resurrected AA/S and AA/SA classes, which, ironically, had nothing to do with supercharging.
 
"When the fuel ban was lifted for all classes other than FDs (1964), it's important to remember that any vehicle using any fuel other than gasoline was classified as a dragster. This is why everything from the Sachs & Sons Comet to Gene Snow's Rambunctious Dart carried an FD suffix through 1966. Of course, the dragsters in the same classifications usually murdered the blown Factory Experimental doorslammers; the best example was Jack Christopher's destruction of the biggest FX names (all thrown into CC/FD based on weight per inches) at Pomona '66 at the helm of a blown fuel four-banger Pontiac dragster running 9.0s at 170 mph.
 
"It was the creation of Super Eliminator in 1966 that mandated the use of a double-letter prefix for blown entries. Why? Because Super Eliminator included all supercharged cars other than AA/FD, and the change was designed to more easily identify blown cars. Remember that previously, there was no way to tell if any car had a blower! In a bit of drag racing trivia, the advent of Super Eliminator brought the only truly redundant classifications in NHRA history (noted by Jim) in the Gas Supercharged divisions, which suddenly sported a double-letter prefix even though the name of the classification specifically denoted they were blown. Because of the movement of many classes into Super Eliminator, Street Eliminator was revised (as Jim mentioned) to include only self-starting, unblown (injected or carbureted) cars from the Factory Experimental, Gas Coupe and Sedan, Modified Production, Modified Sports, and Street Roadster classes.
 
"The rules revisions of '67 brought the only blown class which didn't use a double-letter prefix, S/XS; although commonly referred to as Super Experimental Stock, the letters actually denoted Supercharged Experimental Stock. Of course, it led to AA/FC in '69.
 
"As for Modified Fuel Roadsters, Fuel Altereds, Fuel Roadsters, and Fuel Coupes, they were created either by the AHRA, UDRA, the Drag News/Standard 1320 organization, or by local tracks during the fuel ban and had no history in NHRA racing. On the other side of that coin can be found the NHRA Competition Coupes and Roadsters, which, through rules loopholes that specified no minimum wheelbase or engine setback, allowed possibly the most bizarre evolution of any category in drag racing history before they were finally cancelled in 1972."

Follow up IV: Elon Werner, publicist for John Force, dropped me a couple of notes about the funny Bristol promo video I featured last week. When I told him I couldn't believe that Force, still probably a bit ginger from his 2007 crash, rolled down the hill like he did, Werner told me that the video was actually shot three years ago but had to be shelved after Quaker State signed on as the event sponsor, "so Castrol-covered John Force had to go away.

"This year, Bristol was looking to pump up their sales, and their agency said they had an old commercial they thought they could recycle. They pulled it out and called to see if we would have any problems using it. There are some very subtle uniform differences, but overall it is great. We actually forgot we shot the commercial.

"The roll down the hill was all John's idea. According to Kelly Antonelli, she was talking with folks from Bristol while John was off talking with the film crew. The next thing Kelly sees is John throwing himself down the hill.

 "I told him he was going to hurt himself, but he kept trying to get it just right," said Antonelli. "John always wants to put his fingerprints on everything, and TV commercials are no different. The roll down the hill really makes this spot, and it is all 100 percent John Force."

Okay, that's all for today … I'll "C" you with the next Misc. Files entry next week and hope to have an interview with Don Prudhomme later this week to discuss his recent restoration projects.
 

Show-and-tellFriday, April 24, 2009
Posted by: Phil Burgess

It's always show-and-tell here at the DRAGSTER Insider, especially lately with the Misc. Files, which is a bigger hit than I ever expected. Instead of wearing out the Misc. Files, I'm going to spend today doing a little housecleaning of some items I've been sitting on for a while and show you some cool stuff I've stumbled across, been sent, or been thinking about in the past few weeks. Think of it as the Miscellaneous Misc. Files.

You might have heard that I got a chance to see my rock hero Bruce Springsteen last week (thanks, Ken!), and as amazing as it was (you can read my Facebook review here), one of the best moments was when "the Boss," silhouetted by a spotlight and with minimum accompaniment, did "The Wrestler," his Golden Globe-winning new song. Because I can’t seem to keep drag racing out of my brain for more than a few minutes, I thought the lyrics reminded me of early John Force.

Have you ever seen a one trick pony in the field so happy and free?
If you've ever seen a one trick pony then you've seen me
Have you ever seen a one-legged dog makin' his way down the street?
If you've ever seen a one-legged dog then you've seen me

I come and stand at every door
I always leave with less than I had before
bet I can make you smile when the blood, it hits the floor
Tell me friend can you ask for anything more?

That just reminded me of an early Force, giving it his all and not ever walking away with much more than the joy of trying to play the game with the big dogs, even though severely handicapped by finances and experiences, yet doing it as always for the fans. Can you ask for anything more?

Later in the song, Springsteen sings,

These things that have comforted me, I drive away
This place that is my home I cannot stay
My only faith is in the broken bones and bruises I display

This surely resonates with anyone who knows Force's home-life history and the sacrifices he made to build his racing career. What a great song.


 

So why all the Force sentimentality? Before the concert, I got an e-mail from Bill Bader Jr. at Summit Motorsports Park to show me the renderings for the special-edition car that Force will run at their annual Night Under Fire in August.

It's a modern-day remake of Force's first Funny Car – interestingly enough, like his current car, a Ford Mustang – the Night Stalker, an ill-conceived entry for a beginner that was, to put it kindly, not one of his best cars. It was, for starters, a rear-engined car, with a big-block SOHC 427 Ford sitting behind the driver. To make matters worse, it was chain-driven. The car had been owned by Jack Chrisman, who knew a thing or two about rear-engined, chain-driven dragsters, but Force and his brother "Diesel Louie" were not Jack Chrisman.

In 1973, Force and Louie took the car to famed Irwindale Raceway and ended up showering the track and starter Larry Sutton with chain links on the second burnout in the car and was asked – none too kindly – to never grace the track with that car again.

The new Night Stalker will be Force's eighth special-edition car for the Norwalk race, and like those before it, will not be raced again. They're making diecasts of the car (info here).
 

Still on the Force trail, I was sent a link to the amazing video at right, a promo clip for the upcoming NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol Dragway that shows what a great sport Force can be.

If you never thought you'd see John Force stopping to smell the flowers, you're in for a treat.

The man is such a likable, natural character that he's been asked to do some crazy and even self-deprecating spots throughout the years, and though I'm sure there are plenty that he has turned down, there also are plenty that he does in a selfless manner to help promote the sport he loves. 

From his ability to bring Corporate America to our sport to his ability to spot and train new talents for his Next Generation to his widespread, sport-border-spanning appeal to his Everyman approach to life, fame, the fans, and our sport, he's one of a kind.

We are truly blessed to have him in our universe.

Speaking of great video, you old-timers will really dig this footage that Dawn Mazi-Hovsepian dug up and cleaned to post on her YouTube channel.

It's a five-part presentation, originally produced by Hurst, at the 1969 Nationals, called Tournament of Champions. With the always-classy Steve Evans narrating, it shows the full spectrum of the event, from Top Fuel through the door cars, and does a great job of explaining what Indy really meant.

Priceless footage of early heroes plus enough out-of-control, wheelstanding, centerline-crossing cars to satisfy your need for thrills. Steve Gibbs noted, "Indy is still a huge race, but during this time frame, it truly was the race that people planned their whole year around. Look at the crowds; they are as big as anything today. Car counts were well over 1,000. Without burnouts, especially by the doorslammers, you could run many more cars in far less time. If I had a time machine, Indy in the '60s would be one of my stops." Indeed!
 


 

Good e-mail pal Dale Smith sent along these two pics of what he calls "the coolest, most original paint job on a Funny Car," and I can’t disagree. Designed to look like any of the beaters you've seen on any corner, with mismatched junkyard fenders, this nostalgia Duster belongs to Ted Guth, familiar to nostalgia fans as the guy who restored Roland Leong's Hawaiian Charger Funny Car a few years ago. "I had to do a double take when I first saw the photos, but under that crazy body is some no-nonsense serious stuff to run with the best," said Smith. "The addition of the door handles is a nice touch."
 


 

Veteran Funny Car fans well remember the old days when the flopper stars used to carry their machines on open-bed ramp trucks. It was state-of-the-art stuff then and much easier than towing a trailer. The sight of a Funny Car operation working its way down the highway with a flopper tied to the back was pretty common as the teams worked the highways between match race dates, and seeing one always brings a nostalgic smile to our faces.

Our ol' buddy Don "the Snake" Prudhomme thinks so, too; he and ace crewmember Willie Wolter recently completed restoration of his old Dodge D-700 Hot Wheels ramp truck. The original was found in quite a dilapidated state but was lovingly restored right down to the decals using historic photos such as the one at right. The truck project is just the latest resto job for "Snake" and Wolter; they also have either found or re-created several of Prudhomme's Funny Cars and dragsters. I have an interview set up with Prudhomme to talk about the truck resto, and I've been invited down to his Vista, Calif., shop to see it and the historic Funny Cars in the near future. You can bet I'll bring you guys along for the ride.
 

I had the pleasure of chatting with another drag racing legend, Shirley Muldowney, late last week to help with her National DRAGSTER subscription, and Top Fuel's first lady told me she's still interested in coming back to the class as an owner and already has some financing lined up but not enough yet to build a team from scratch. Everyone who knows her legacy knows she's as tough as they come, but even I was surprised to hear about her defense of her Chihuahua, Midnight, against a raccoon attack at her Michigan house.

"The raccoon had ahold of Midnight's neck and was not going to let go," she told me. "I have a feral cat that's lived around here for five years -- it's not tame ... he only comes around for the food -- but he jumped into the mix and attacked the raccoon. Let me tell you, I about beaned the raccoon good. That's one dead raccoon now. It's gone. It breathes no longer."
 


 

Scott Weney followed up with me concerning Tuesday's I Files to report that it was his dad, Walt, driving the Krazy Kar Kat Vega and not car owner Jose Irizarry.

"This was the winter of '76-77. You will note the S&W decal just above the Valvoline decal. Jose was the track owner at the time, and Division 1 would ship cars down to race, and we would leave them there so we could go down two, three, four times in the winter to race special events for them. Dad and Neil Mahr were the guys who organized the cars and the shipping. I got my TAD license in October '76 and ran my first match race in Puerto Rico that winter at the same event that your picture is from."

Weney is no longer racing Funny Cars but with his son Rory campaigns a dragster and a Camaro roadster with which they bracket race and compete in Top Dragster, Top Sportsman, Super Comp, and Super Gas but notes, "I would go Funny Car racing again in a second if the right deal came along."


Throughout the near two-year course of this column, I've received help and advice beyond words from a cadre of loyal experts including Greg Sharp, Bret Kepner, Dave Wallace, Steve Justice, Steve Gibbs, Don Roberts, Simon Menzies, Bob Post, and others, but Jim Hill always goes above and beyond the call. The Florida native and former Crane Cams rep not only knows drag racing from the earliest days but lived it. My recent discussion about the appropriate class designation for Jim Bowen's twin-engine dragster got his attention, and he provided this detailed description of class names from back in time. Thanks, Jim.

"The class designation AA was originally used by NHRA to separate dragsters by weight-to-cubic inches engine displacement. AA/D was around in the late '50s, when a AA/Dragster was a car with a big-inch, stroker motor, a lightweight, blown, smaller motor, or a twin-engine car. An A/Dragster was a car with a smaller-inch motor.
 
"Note: Pete Robinson won the 1961 Nationals with a 352-cid small-block Chevy in a Dragmaster chassis. His car was very light and therefore classed as a AA/D. It ran against big-inch Chrysler Hemis, Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs, Fords, and Buicks. Superior preparation, tuning, and driving put Pete in the Top Eliminator winner's circle (he set low e.t. too, 8.52!), and he proved absolutely that small and light could win against big and heavy. That remained true until tire and clutch development made it possible for the Chrysler Hemis to utilize all the horsepower they had available. It's been a Hemi world in those upper classes ever since.
 
"In the pre-Tree days, handicap starts were managed by giving a one-car-length-per-class head start to a lower-classed car. An A/D running for Top Eliminator against a AA/D would get a one-car-length head start. A B/D got two car lengths, etc. The flagman starter took his place on the centerline, ahead of the slower car, and pulled the green flag to start the race.
 
"AA/D cars had the advantage and usually won; sometimes the underdog did too!
 
"After Top Fuel became standard fare at NHRA national events (1963 for Pomona and '64 at Indy), there was a AA/Fuel Dragster class, and those guys actually had a runoff elimination round for the AA/FD class trophy! The class win also guaranteed a one-shot chance at Top Fuel Eliminator at the Nationals, where the AA/FD winner ran the winner of the 16-car (some years it was 32!) Top Fuel field for the overall Top Fuel victory. (Care to count the round-wins it took to take home the Top Fuel trophy? Don't forget these were the days of race-what's-in-the-chassis with no spare engines and few spare parts that could be changed between rounds!)
 
"When the fuel vs. gas situation came along, the AA/D class became Top Gas Eliminator, as a separate elim designation, on a heads-up basis.
 
"Oh yes, there were no Pro Tree starts. The original Chrondek Christmas Tree had a full amber-to-green countdown. That first year of Tree vs. flagman racing was solidly met by a division of the Tree vs. flags contingents, both of whom were equally passionate about which was best. NHRA's Wally Parks and Jack Hart (RIP to both) made that decision, and drag racing has been 'Tree'd' ever since!
 
"Some later use of the AA designation was used with blown gassers, AA/G, BB/G, and CC/G, rather than their previous A/GS, B/GS, and C/GS class designations. There was also a AA/A class, for big-inch, fast altered coupes, and heavier BB/A, again for blown altereds. And of course, the awesome AA/Fuel Altereds, home of Willie Borsch, Sush Matsubara, and all the legendary fuel altereds. There was even a AA/Modified Sports, for blown cars with sports-car bodies (best example: Sam Parriott's City of Industry Special), and an unblown AA/SP class for high-horsepower cars such as big-block Corvettes and Cobras.
 
"I might mention that altereds were once themselves divided. There were Roadster classes, A/R, B/R, and these had to have a roadster body. There were also Altered classes, A/A, B/A, C/A, and D/A. First three were for OHV V-8s. D/A was flathead V-8 or inline 6 class. The A cars were usually blown cars, and all lesser classes unblown.
 
"Modified Roadsters and Comp-class cars were also run. There was AA/MR, for blown roadster bodies, usually mounted on a dragster chassis, and A/Comp, later AA/Comp. These typically were dragster chassis with some sort of coupe body hung on the back of the chassis. Out west, "Flaming Frank" Pedregon's AA/FC had a traditional front-engine dragster chassis with a sliced and diced Fiat Topolino replica body hung out back. Pedregon (father to the current Funny Car Pedregon brothers) was well-known for his flat-out runs and unique fire ring that appeared to circle the rear tires during a run.
 
"As the Rulebook expanded, these class designations were themselves multiplied, and some deleted. Eliminator categories were likewise shuffled.
 
"Way back when began with Top Eliminator, usually pitting AA and A/Dragsters. Some tracks ran the big, blown altereds and roadsters, unless they were classed into Middle Eliminator, where other altered and roadster classes plus others competed for the eliminator's big bucks (often a $100 U.S. savings bond!).
 
"Gassers and all the lower-class cars ran in Little Eliminator. Later, Street Eliminator was added, and that featured Gassers, Modified Productions, Stock Sports, Mod Sports, etc. That name was eventually changed to Modified Eliminator, then later dropped when the cars were rerouted into either Comp eliminator or Super Stock eliminator.
 
"Whew! Now I'm all confused too. One thing's for sure: Drag racing has always had, and continues to have, a lot of class."

Thanks, Jim! Speaking of class … class is out for the day. Enjoy your weekend. I'll see you Tuesday.
 

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