Just in case Facebook/Outlook/your local authorities didn't alert you, today is my birthday. The big 4-9 … woo-hoo! Sunday also will be a huge day of celebration, speeches, and downtown parades hosted by The Society of Friends and Fans of Phil Burgess as it will mark my 27th year of employment with the NHRA. So, in the spirit of the tough economy, I'll give you this twofer chance to celebrate with me.
You don't need to be a math major to deduce that I've spent 27/49ths of my years (that's just over 55 percent) hammering keystrokes under the big red, white, and blue oval, so, yeah, it's been an NHRA life for me. Although I had some experience and success as a freelance writer before I came here, I started this gig feeling more like a fan who just landed a dream job than a professional writer landing the job he was destined for. All these years later, I'm still the former who grew into and appreciates the latter.
No, I'm not going to spend this column reminiscing about all of the good times I've had, the people I've met, and the things that I've seen and done (now that the statute of limitations has expired); I thought instead I'd take the occasion to show you some of my non-writing handiwork with a brag column of crazy photos I've taken. It's my gift to you, the loyal readers of the Insider Nation (okay, where's yours to me?).
I offer these today not just to show off (well, sorta) or just because it's my birthday and I get to do anything I want (well, sorta) but to promote NHRA Publications' new collection of books, which includes the NHRA Photo Greats: Wild Rides series (the books, not the DVD). We've already published one this year, and I'm working on the second, which we hope to have out soon, and I'm proud to have some of these photos included in the first two and some planned for later books. You can order the awesome first book (as well as other books we produced) online at Lulu, eBay, or Amazon. They're full of really swell reproductions of great photos spanning all decades, all types of cars, and all types of incidents and are annotated with informative (and sometimes funny) captions.
I traveled extensively during the first 15 or so years of working at National DRAGSTER – before accepting a larger role with more responsibility and duties – and, in addition to my normal reportorial duties at the event, I'd also shoot photos at the finish line. I'd usually climb atop the television-camera scaffold and perch myself on the ledge, legs dangling freely, just below the TV camera. I loved watching the races from that vantage point, following the cars through the camera lens, composing the photo with the zoom lens as the race unfolded and then snapping the photo at just the right moment as the cars crossed the win stripe. It also was, of course, the place to be when things went wrong.
Such was the case with this photo from the 1993 Kragen O'Reilly NHRA Winternationals Top Fuel final. If you look closely at this photo, you can see that Kenny Bernstein's not exactly taking the optimal line to the win stripe. KB was actually leading Joe Amato at half-track before the No. 2 connecting rod broke. That snapped leg broke a handful of others, and debris punctured his left rear tire and sent him into a 221-mph slide across the finish line. The car swung 180 degrees, backed into the guardwall, flew in the air, spun around again, landed on the other side of the rail, turned sideways, pitched the engine out of the car, and rolled once before stopping right-side up facing uptrack. Bernstein got his bell seriously rung – he groggily compared the hit to smacking into the wall in his "Nastin Cup" (NASCAR Winston) car – but was otherwise uninjured.
This photo, which I snapped at the top end in Houston in 1991, did two things: 1) It let the teams know that their chassis were being severely flexed to the breaking point by massive rear- and front-wing downforce and 2) It made Jim Head look like a genius for refusing to run without a wheelie bar as so many of the fuel-dragster teams were doing at the time. Today they're a given, but it took Head nearly breaking his car in two to get everyone's attention. The shot I took just before this one is much more dramatic (and also much less in focus <g>) and showed the rear tires off the ground. I kind of kicked myself for missing the "money shot" of the car all but flying through the air, but …
… I only had to kick myself for two years before "Pontiac Jack" Ostrander had a similar experience in Gainesville in 1993. Ostrander was very fortunate that he safely landed his car because, unlike Head, he was not running a wheelie bar. Note the shower of sparks as the nose dug into the Gainesville quarter-mile.
Gainesville was also the site of this mind-blowing (and cylinder-head-throwing) blast by Gene Snow in 1989. It was Thursday qualifying, I believe, when "the Snowman" launched. I remember seeing the car beginning to labor, and from my perch in the finish-line grandstands, I watched this incredible explosion unfold. What's great about this pic – which ran as a two-page spread in the first Wild Rides
– is the cool arc of flame that follows the airflow off the car's rear wing. Truly a special shot and one of my faves.
I've shown you this photo here before -- just prior to last year's Dallas event -- and I still love this image of Mark Oswald vaporizing the Candies & Hughes Funny Car at the Motorplex in 1990. I remember sitting on my TV perch with Diamond P camera operator Wayne Womack and watching a fine shower of carbon-fiber confetti falling like snow on us. A couple of things worth noticing here: the chunk of blower keeping up with the car and how the airborne front bumper and rear clip in the top right are all that's left of the body. The full version of this photo will appear in a future Wild Rides
Indy used to be a great place to shoot top-end stuff from the old tower that was several hundred feet past the finish line. You were nicely elevated three stories up and had a good view of all the action from a unique vantage point. I'm not sure that a side shot of Brad Tuttle's disintegrating Nitro Bandit would have shown the severe distortion of the hood. This interesting image also is slated for one of the upcoming books.
Bandimere Speedway's unique layout – with the track below the level of the pits – allows you to shoot from the rise down onto the track, which is how I captured Don Gay Jr.'s scary final pass in a nitro Funny Car. The second-generation racer smoked the tires hard in qualifying alongside Don Prudhomme, then lost the handle and drove it headlong into the wall, knocking him out. The car caught fire and idled downtrack ablaze. Prudhomme jumped in to help the Safety Safari extricate Gay from the burning car and get him loaded onto an air ambulance. After a short stay at a local hospital, he was released, but he never drove a Funny Car again. This photo will appear in the next Wild Rides
In Pomona, I only manned the TV tower for Sunday's eliminations, choosing to spend the qualifying days with the fraternity of crash shooters on the east side of the track. It's a loud and fast crowd with a razor-sharp gallows humor, and the bench racing is unreal. It was from this vantage point that I – and pretty much everyone else in the joint – caught John Force turning turtle in qualifying at the 1992 Finals during his slightly crazed pursuit of points leader Cruz Pedregon. Wyatt Radke had already shut off in the other lane and almost was rear-ended by Force's upside-down ride; Radke later told me that it was only a quick glance at the big screen as he idled downtrack that alerted him to Force's plight behind him and allowed him to step on the gas to stay out of harm's way.
Pro Stock racer Ed Heck also couldn’t keep the shiny side up at the 1994 Finals, losing control of his Pontiac and kiting it big time in an incident we described on the cover of National DRAGSTER
as a "Heck of a wreck." He wasn't hurt, but his car was no longer pretty.
I didn't always man the top end; sometimes you get some cool stuff sitting at midtrack. This was also early in qualifying, this time a session of Top Alcohol Dragster at Texas Motorplex in 1990. I usually don’t have the camera up and ready for the alky cars, but for some reason I did this time and was shocked when Jay Payne launched into a monster wheelstand that ultimately had the car resting only on the rear wing. It landed hard, destroying the car, but he was unhurt and put his engine into Bruce McDowell's car to continue competing at the event. This image, and a grounds-eye view shot by Leslie Lovett, were in the first Wild Rides
File this one also under the "Thank goodness I was looking through my camera" file. It was the first round of Funny Car at the 1988 Brainerd event. I was stationed a couple of hundred feet downtrack on a ladder on the return road to try to get some side-by-side races in front of the BIR grandstands. Bernstein's car rolled to a stop after the burnout, and he was having problems getting it into reverse. The crew and clutch wiz Lanny Miglizzi sprinted downtrack to help and lifted the body. I hefted my camera to my eye for no reason other than to see through the telephoto lens what they were doing. The next thing I know, the car lurches forward, the crew scatters like quail, and I have my finger buried in the motor drive. Jim Mahle, at the front right tire, took the biggest spill as he was hit by the tire while crew chief Dale Armstrong, who was under the body talking to Bernstein, had to dive for cover. The crew, which included current NHRA Contingency Program honcho Charlie Nielson, took it all in stride and showed up at the next race, Indy, with tire tracks printed on their team T-shirts.
I also sometimes ventured down to the shutoff area to grab parachute shots, but Pro Stock racer Nick Nikolis never got that far at the 1986 Gatornationals. The car got loose in the traps, crossed the centerline, and clouted the opposite guardrail. The car was in pieces, as is evident from this "walking door" shot that I grabbed after I interviewed a shaken but uninjured Nikolis.
Then there's this shot of Aussie Gary Phillips in a world of hurt later that same year in Columbus, Ohio. The car was blazing big time, and Phillips wasn't able to get the laundry out for some reason. He pitched the car sideways to try to scrub off speed, which also pulled loose the body, resulting in this rather thrilling photo, which ran on the front page of The Columbus Dispatch
sports page the next morning, much to my delight.
And finally, here's probably one of my most popular (and semi-famous) photos. A hand-colored version (by ND Photo Editor Teresa Long) of this photo appeared on the cover of the first specialty book that NHRA did – a collection of John Force quotes back in the early 1990s – and it's one of those photos that speaks volumes about the NHRA Safety Safari. This was Montreal in 1991, and I was stationed at the first turnout on a tall ladder behind the Safari truck. Force's engine lost a spark plug that led to this pretty significant blaze, and I'll always remember the Safety Safari already starting to roll as Force's blazing machine neared our position. They had his car (and him!) hosed down in nothing flat. I loved the Montreal race (I was there when Force finally won his first event in 1987) for its charming nature (check out the houses in the background), but it also had a mean side. The area behind the guardrail is where Shirley Muldowney ended up after her near-career-ending crash in 1984 and where Don Prudhomme ended up after his 1990 blowover, his second of his first season back in Top Fuel.
Okay, race fans, that's it for the day. I hope you enjoyed this little photographic trip down memory lane. I'm going to head out and enjoy what's left of my birthday while you order up a copy of our first Photo Greats book for yourself (it also makes a fine Father's Day gift!). I'll see you next week with a new installment of the Misc. Files.
|John Force won the historic event in his Superman-themed Castrol GTX Mustang, defeating Top Fuel driver Bob Vandergriff Jr. in the $200,000-to-win race.
(Watch the video)
This past weekend's ESPN coverage of the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals from Bristol Dragway included a clip of the final-round encounter between the Superman Funny Car of John Force and the Jerzees Top Fuel dragster of Bob Vandergriff Jr. in the inaugural Winston No Bull Showdown, held a decade earlier in Bristol.
Newer fans tuning in may have wondered what the heck we were doing racing Funny Cars against fuel dragsters, so I'm here to 'splain it.
The Winston Showdown only lasted two years – 1999 and 2000 – and it marked NHRA's return to Bristol Dragway, the onetime home of the Springnationals through 1967. NHRA hadn’t staged a race in Bristol since that 1967 Springnationals – the race moved to Englishtown in 1968, then Dallas until 1971, before moving to its long-term home in Columbus, Ohio – and this was some kind of homecoming. The joint had changed, for sure, thanks to a magnificent rebuild by new owner Bruton Smith, and it served as a great stage for this special event.
So, what set the stage for this showdown of the fuel classes?
Well, some would probably say it had been a long time brewing. The Top Fuelers were the undisputed kings of drag racing through the 1960s, but the Funny Cars began to chew into their fan base – and driver ranks – in the early 1970s. In the early 1980s, Top Fuel was in serious trouble in car count and sponsor support, and it took Don Garlits' heroic win in Indy in 1984 to turn the tide even after IHRA has cancelled its fuel dragster racing.
The two fuel classes peacefully coexisted throughout the 1990s, and it took one weekend in Englishtown in 1998 to get the ol' competitive juices flowing again. At Old Bridge Township Raceway Park, Force upset the applecart when his 323.35-mph blast topped the fastest run ever by a Top Fueler (322.92, posted by Cory McClenathan earlier that year in Phoenix).
During final eliminations, Joe Amato reclaimed the fastest speed for the Top Fuelers with a 323.50-mph blast in round one against Doug Kalitta, but Force stole it right back in the Funny Car final, where his 4.84 trouncing of Jim Epler came at a stunning speed of 323.89. Amato, who was in the Top Fuel final against McClenathan, had one final chance to take the fastest speed title back, and although he won the race, his 319.90-mph shot was well short of reclaiming the glory.
In typical Force exuberance, he crowed crazily, "After Amato took back the fastest speed from us, he said Top Fuel dragsters were the kings of the sport and Funny Cars were the queens. Well, I guess I get to be queen for another day. But at the next dance, I get to lead." (Huh?)
Our good friends at R.J. Reynolds weren't quite ready to let it rest at that and a few months later announced the Showdown as a means of – perhaps – settling the issue once and for all. The Showdown, which replaced the Winston Invitational all-star event, offered a combined $727,000, the largest guaranteed purse in NHRA history, to pay a combined Top Fuel dragster-Funny Car field that included 24 cars, 12 of each flavor. But a lot more than just big bucks was on the line.
"The Funny Car guys have always been considered the little brothers in this sport," said Force at the announcement. "Well it's time for us to step up and play with big brother. This will really show the fans what it's all about. It'll be neat, but I'm focusing my attention on one guy. I've been keeping my eye on him, and he's been running great this year. I want to race Louie the Lizard (on Kenny Bernstein's Top Fuel dragster) and take him out."
"We welcome John's challenge," Bernstein responded. "And we remember our days in Funny Car when we whipped Force like a dog every week. I don't think it'll be any different when the Top Fuel boys line up against him in Bristol."
The format called for the first 10 spots in Top Fuel and Funny Car each to be filled by the reigning season champion and the most recent, active race winners. The remaining spots were to be filled through qualifying at the event.
The Top Fuelers and Funny Cars ran against one another in all four rounds of qualifying to give both sets of drivers a chance to get accustomed to the handicapped start, the amount of which for eliminations was determined in those qualifying heats as the difference between the averages of the quickest six e.t.s in each class after four qualifying runs, which turned out to be .37-second.
This handicap start was tougher on the dragster drivers as they had to will themselves not to react to the sound of the Funny Cars' early leaves and the header blasts directed at their open cockpits.
Vandergriff (who remains winless to this day) surprised everyone by not only taking one of the two open spots for non-winners but by qualifying No. 1 with a 4.55. Behind him were, in order, Gary Scelzi, Amato, McClenathan, Bernstein, and Jim Head. Tony Schumacher – as hard as it is to believe now – also was without a win and earned the No. 7 spot in Top Fuel. The rest of the field was rounded out by Doug Herbert, Doug Kalitta, Mike Dunn, Larry Dixon, and Cristen Powell.
Force led the Funny Car side with a 4.944 and was followed on the sheets by Whit Bazemore's 4.954 and the 4.975 of Tommy Johnson Jr., one of the two drivers who had to qualify to make the show. Behind him was the other driver to do so, Scotty Cannon, followed by Cruz Pedregon, Tony Pedregon, Tim Wilkerson, Ron Capps, Phil Burkart Jr., Chuck Etchells, Dean Skuza, and Al Hofmann.
Vandergriff opened eliminations by defeating Hofmann, then beat tire-smoking Schumacher in one of just two all-Top Fuel races in the 25 heats (only the first round assured a Top Fuel versus Funny Car pairing, but fate worked it out so that almost every pairing through five rounds was a mix of the two). Vandergriff then beat Johnson, who had lost in round two to McClenathan but was reinserted in the third round due to having the quickest losing time of the round, then advanced to the final on Etchells' red-light.
Force overcame Powell's psychic .410 light in round one, then beat Head's dragster. Force's third-round 4.941 just barely held off Kalitta's 4.623, and he followed with 4.879 blast to beat Cory Mac. (Cory Mac would win the Showdown the following year, defeating Capps in the final.)
Coming into the final, the dragsters had won 12 of the 22 head-to-head battles and were ensured the "win" in that stat regardless of the outcome of the final, but, of course, they wanted the event win, too.
Both cars smoked the tires, and, as is well-known, few people can outpedal Force when the final – let alone a $200,000 prize – is on the line. Force recovered first and better to chalk up a 5.47 to 5.87 victory and was quite thrilled with the win.
"I've won Indy, and I've won eight championships, but this is the biggest deal of my career," said Force. "The dragsters are the kings of the sport, and we aren't going to change that, but for this weekend, Funny Cars rule."
Well, devoted dudes and dames of dragdom's days distant, it's due time to dive back into the delectable depths of the DRAGSTER Photo Department drawers again, digging to discover dandy dragstrip diamonds to digitize and document to delight you demanding diehards.
Don't dawdle, Daddy-O. Disengage those daydreaming doldrums and despair, draw yourself a double daiquiri, if you dare, as your dedicated, dependable, dauntless, and determined drag detective delves deep to document this diversity and then doles out a delicatessen of dazzling dragly delights, downloaded and delivered directly to your desktop.
Guess which letter we're covering today … that's it! Destination D!
Gary Dye ran Top Fuel for 15 seasons out of the Chicago area, beginning in 1970 with a front-engined car after Don Prudhomme and Chris Karamesines signed his license at Rockford Dragway. This photo was shot in 1972 at a UDRA event at Quaker City Dragway in Salem, Ohio, where he lost in round one to Dick LaHaie. I tracked down Dye through the Internet and found that he retired from racing in 1981 and now is retired from his job as an engineer for Navistar International.
"I ran that front-engined car for about two years, then switched to the rear-engine car," he said. "Both cars were R&B chassis. I ran mostly with the UDRA. My first circuit win was in Coon Rapids, Minn., near Minneapolis. I beat Tom Hoover in his Ford overhead-cam-powered car in the final. I was runner-up in points two years straight (1975-76); Dick LaHaie was the points champ both of those years. We raced all over the Midwest with UDRA and also ran some Division 3 events. My last year of driving my own car was in 1979. I then drove another car for Steve Mugerhauer from Oshkosh, Wis., for two years and then retired.
"Those years of running the car were the best times of my life. I still watch the races on TV every weekend that they are on. My wife asked me one time if I would want to drive a Top Fuel car again. I told her if somebody wanted me to drive I would be there in a flash."
Today, Dye enjoys working in the radio-controlled-airplane field, a childhood passion. He does work for some of the manufacturers of large-scale radio-control models, writing instruction manuals for Yellow Aircraft, one of the largest manufacturers of scale models of World War II fighters and jet models, and he travels to numerous events around the Texas area to demonstrate them and promote sales. He also is a sponsored demo pilot for Horizon Hobby, one of the largest hobby supply houses.
He's also still into cars and has a '32 Plymouth three-window with a Corvette LT1 drivetrain.
When I first came across this Ed Worley-snapped photo of Ben Diener and wife Mary posing with their injected dragster in the DeSoto Memorial Speedway winner's circle, I had two thoughts: 1) I suddenly feel very claustrophobic; and 2) I never heard of Diener. Turns out that this enclosed-cockpit dragster was quite a runner in Division 2 in the early 1970s, perpetually battling Jerry Gwynn for Pro Comp honors. Before that, Diener competed in Super Eliminator and Comp as far back as the mid-1960s. Diener eventually left the cockpit and founded Dienerbilt, a well-known street-rod-building emporium with a slew of car-show awards to its credit that today is run by his son, Douglas. According to their Web site
, Mary died last year.
Speaking of DeSoto, I couldn’t pass up this photo, also taken by Worley. I'm not sure if it was filed in the D folder because of DeSoto or because of E.T. winner Lance Dupre, second from right, but I love that he's being congratulated by conquistadors like the one that long adorned the track's logo.
The track, which opened in 1973 (previously owned by Art Malone and now known as Bradenton Motorsports Park), probably only had this interesting winner's circle ritual for a short time.
Like the logo, the name was a tribute to the man for whom it was named, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, who landed in Bradenton in May 1539 to begin his trek through the southeast United States (it's not just a racing column, it's a history lesson!). For the record, from left are chief technical inspector Gene Tharpe (who somehow was excused from the costume party), Bob McEnnan, Al Redmon, Dupre, and Bob Porter.
Here's another twofer for the D Files: Larry Dobbs in the Kardiac Kids Datsun versus Leroy Dewdney in his Fly'n-High Mustang in a Division 1 Alcohol Funny Car battle. Dobbs, who hails from Canada, has had a career that has spanned four decades, first in stockers, gassers, and gas dragsters before switching to Alcohol Funny Car in 1981 with longtime partner Fred Speight. Together they won two Canadian championships through the 1980s. Dewdney, who was based out of Virginia, also had a lengthy career and campaigned a variety of Alcohol Funny Cars from the early 1980s as both an owner and a hired gun and later fielded an alky-burning altered.
Speaking of alky floppers, here's the late Bob "the Gator" Dalton taking on the wheelstanding Jersey Stud Vega of Bruce Pillar at Maple Grove Raceway in this 1978 shot by longtime Maple Grove lensman Harold Hoch. Dalton ran in Alcohol Funny Car from the early to late 1970s, starting with an injected Vega that he wheeled in four seasons before getting this slick Vega, which he dubbed Frantic Monza in the long tradition of K&G Speed Associates-backed cars such as the Frantic Ford and Frantic Duster.
I've always had a soft spot for AMCs – my first car was a '74 AMC Javelin hand-me-down from my parents that I quickly hot-rodded into a pretty decent runner – so when I saw this Jere Alhadeff photo of Larry Derr's injected '70 Javelin, I knew it had to run here. I couldn't find a lot of info on the car other than that it was Chevy-powered. According to the caption on the back of the photo, Derr had low e.t. at this Sept. 18, 1971, Lions show but red-lighted in the final.
Speaking of early Funny Cars, here's Bob Davis' Jolly Green Giant II '66 Corvette at Irwindale Raceway in this 1971 Tim Marshall photo; that's actually Denny Savage behind the wheel, as he became the driver of the car after it was sold by Davis. The 'Vette became a well-traveled car but began life as the follow-up to Davis' Competition Paint & Body Jolly Green Giant blown S/FX Impala, which was a popular car but too heavy and not very aero friendly.
According to Vern Scholz in an article for Quick Times
, Davis found a water-damaged Corvette at a dealership and modified it to accept the drivetrain from the Impala. Both cars eventually were sold and ended up in Washington, where the Christensen brothers stretched the Corvette body, painted it blue and white, and mounted it atop a new and lighter chassis and renamed it the North West Knight. The car eventually ran low sevens at more than 200 mph. The brothers sold the car, and it disappeared for a time before Forrest Leblanc resurrected it as a bracket car, under the name Addiction, with tunnel ram big-block Chevy power. The car was sold again in the late 1980s, and a newer Funny Car chassis was inserted by Art Morrison and the run with a supercharged-on-alcohol BBC. The car was sold again, this time to Coloradoan Jim Nordhaugen, who stuck an Alan Johnson Racing blown Olds into it and ran 6.40s at more than 220 mph.
Today's fans might know Johnny Davis as the longtime crew chief for Funny Car racer Jim Head, but the wrench slinger also was a driver in the 1980s when he had his own Top Fueler. This photo is kind of cool to me because I took it at the 1983 Springnationals at National Trail Raceway. I had joined the DRAGSTER
staff a year earlier, but this was my first official national event road trip (I had covered the Winternationals and World Finals for ND
because they were local). Davis' dragster was interesting in that it was Rodeck-powered and one of the last Chevy-style-powered Top Fuelers out there … and one of the quickest. He qualified at that Springnationals with a 6.03 and lost to Shirley Muldowney in round one, but he later ran a 5.82 in Milan, Mich., in July 1983 that stood as the quickest pass for this type of car and bettered the 5.86 standard previously set by Stan Shiroma's Chevy.
Guess what? It's another Davis, and this one is double D: Don Davis. I dig this photo because of my well-reported love of supercharged Opels. I tried hard to track down more information on this car, a BB/G Kadett (as opposed to my former ride in the Mazi family blown Opel GT), but other than a hometown (Hendenson, Ky.), not much else was available. I thought I’d hit a home run when my research turned up a Don Davis Aviation in Hendenson, Ky., but the receptionist there told me that their Don Davis never drag raced and had died three years ago (gotta hate it when you call somewhere and ask for someone only to be told they're long gone ... ouch). Anyway, I still love this photo, snapped at Beech Bend Raceway Park in 1972 by the prolific Jerry Ream, complete with Davis' full-on firesuit and breather mask. Too cool!
Dean Dillingham also has a double-D name, which is appropriate based on the Oklahoma City racer's apparent infatuation with twin-engined cars like this dragster and a subsequent dual-engined Don Hardy-built Nova Funny Car (see the September 1971 issue of Car Craft
if you have it). I like the way that the injector scoop on the second engine is high above the first to get more air and the shorty header pipes. This car, like Shirley Muldowney's twin featured earlier this week, was named Double Trouble. According to Dennis Friend, who runs the twin-engine specialty site Two To Go
, this dragster was formerly owned by Benny "the Wizard" Osborn.
And finally, Spokane, Wash.-based chassis builder Ron Dixon built cars for a lot of people, including for Terry Capp/Bernie Fedderly, as well as for himself. This 392-powered car with its, well, unusual paint scheme was a hard runner in 1968, when this photo was snapped by Robert Roy Green at Arlington on May 19. According to the caption on the back, Dixon was attempting to back up a record run of 232.55 but lost the left rear tire. He saved the car but did not get his backup.
Okay, drag denizens, that's your daily dose of dusted-off DRAGSTER
delights. See you next week.
Jack Muldowney bent the tubes and gas-welded together Shirley's first car, this gas dragster in which she earned her license.
Shirley Muldowney has had a lot of memorable firsts in her Hall of Fame career – first licensed female Top Fuel driver, first female Pro winner, first female world champion ... the list is too long to include here – but more than 40 years later, Muldowney remembered fondly for me another first in her career that meant the world to her: her first professionally built race car.
I got a nice little package in the mail last week from Shirley, filled with a time-capsule treasure trove of details about her first dragsters. She had actually received the car package from chassis builder Don Long, who had built her early iron, and it included not only original invoices but notes back and forth between the two parties asking for and confirming details and features on the cars.
Muldowney, of course, cut her racing teeth with street cars, and her Corvette was a regular winner at local tracks near the Schenectady, N.Y., home base for her and late husband Jack and son John. Shirley transitioned into a Chevy-powered B/Gas dragster that Jack built for her in 1964. The gas-welded mild steel digger, complete with a one-piece metal-flake fiberglass body that Jack had ordered, served her well, and it was in that car that she obtained her first dragster license, at Connecticut Dragway in 1965.
As their skill and desire increased, they outgrew the original homebuilt dragster and decided in late 1967 it was time to go all in and order a professionally built chassis. They scrimped and saved, and Jack, with John riding shotgun, picked up extra cash that winter plowing "an unbelievable number of driveways," recalled Shirley. "Because of Don Long's reputation for building the best cars that money could buy, we saved as much as we could, and we then put the call into Don's shop in Gardena, Calif."
The Muldowneys officially ordered their first car Jan. 31, 1968, in a letter written by Shirley to Long that included a $200 deposit check.
Muldowney's first "store-bought" car was this beautiful Don Long dragster.
The price of the chassis was $1,100, which included all of the basic mounting hardware, firewall, clutch pedal, brake handle, butterfly steering wheel, pushbar, and more. The car was built from 4130 tubing and had a wheelbase of just 165 inches. The Muldowneys opted to add a narrowed 24-inch Chevy rear end ($80); lightweight 17-inch front wheels with polished aluminum billet hubs, aluminum rims, and chromed spokes ($175); PS lightweight steering and spindles ($190); custom fuel tank ($75); Donovan direct drive ($135) and "Greek" coupler ($115); five-way Deist 2-inch safety belts ($40); and other go-fast goodies.
The Muldowneys went first class in the looks department, too, spending $160 to chrome the front axle, radius rods, tie rod, spindles and spindle arms, torsion-bar arms, shock plates, drag links, steering idler, and pitman arm as well as the rear-end housing, steering wheel, and brake handle. The front wheels were gold anodized.
By the time that Long tallied up the final invoice April 5, the out-the-door price was $2,803.50, paid in two final checks of $1,500 and $1,103.50, the latter on June 1. Long crated up their new dragster for shipment ($75) for Newark, N.J., and insured it for $3,500.
"Jack, John, and I drove to Newark, and we were so excited that we just couldn't wait until the freight workers released the crate to us," Shirley remembered. "We were trying our best to view it through a small opening while using a flashlight. My first glimpse gave me goose bumps. We were on top of the world. We had a real Don Long race car, which was considered by every racer in our little part of the world as truly a masterpiece. We were now the best-equipped racers in the Northeast ... at least we thought we were. Even Ron Ronnie Abbott, who had a fuel car named Hellzapoppin' and was considered to be the top dog in the Tri-Cities (Albany/Schenectady/Troy, N.Y.), was so impressed that he vowed he would have one, too! Jack painted the car himself, red with gold-leaf lettering, and the finished car was, in fact, the nicest detailed car that Lebanon Valley had ever seen. Jack was also a master painter. I remember helping to do the masking job, along with whatever else he would let me do.
"Just about every racer at Lebanon Valley now hated me even more. They couldn't even imagine just how hard Jack had worked to buy me the car and the time and expense that had gone into fielding the car. It was no doubt a testament as to how early in my career I was able to enjoy driving the best that money could buy as far as race cars went. I can only thank Jack for that. For quite some time, it's been important for me to make sure as many fans know that I did in fact have some great race cars before I ever moved to Michigan. That's only fair to Jack. It's now time. And John was constantly at his dad's side when he worked to get the car ready to run, a good deal more than I was. I was working two jobs while Jack ran his Sinclair Service Station in the day and worked on the race car the minute he closed the overhead bay doors at 5 p.m."
John, who was just 10 years old, actually built the engine for that first car, which he says was a scaled-down version of the famed King & Marshall car. Already at a young age, John was showing signs of the skills that ultimately would make him a well-respected fabricator … not that there weren't setbacks.
"It was a 327 with a 350 crank, and I actually even ground the block to clear the rod bolts but ended up grinding through one of the water jackets," he admitted. "My dad made me braze it up to fix it. We got the blower and injector, a two-port Hilborn, from Ed Iskenderian, and, on its second pass, it equaled the national record."
The second car, which was Muldowney's twin-engined gas dragster, Double Trouble, was ordered by the Muldowneys Sept. 16, 1969. The price of the 4130 chassis, described as "1 complete dragster chassis, dual 327 Chev, 210 WB, pull brake, narrow cage," was $1,300. The Muldowneys opted this time for a narrowed late Olds rear-end housing ($60) and upgraded to a DeLong braking assembly with Airheart dual calipers ($200).
On her behalf, on March 20, Long also commissioned tin impresario Ton Hanna to build the body for the car, specifying "one all-aluminum wrap-around body with nosepiece. Cowl to be 2" shorter than Adams, Ras [Rasmussen] & Scoggins car so brake handle clears and to facilitate driver entry & departure. Windshield to be squared like Ruth's. Cut hole in bellypan for vent." The whole package, out the door, was $3,861.33, according to the Dec. 10, 1969, invoice filled out by Long.
The Muldowneys again went first class, chroming a lot of the running gear and even splurging on wood grips for the steering wheel for $25. A $200 deposit got the work started, and they followed with a $2,000 payment in December and a final payment of $1,671.83 April 24.
Shirley and John hitched a new trailer to the back of her Buick Riviera street car and drove cross-country to California to pick up the car.
"It took me several days to pull up to Don's shop, but the trip was definitely a time to remember," she said. "Just the anticipation of seeing my dual-engine car for the first time was pretty exciting. Don and Jack had spent considerable time exchanging letters and on the phone, making sure all the measurements would be to my liking. The car was absolutely perfect the first time I sat in the seat. It was amazing how that all came together as nicely as it did. Don never wavered, questioned, or failed to give us exactly what we wanted. The very next day, together we took the car to Tony Nancy's upholstery shop for a rolled and pleated seat."
"With both of these dragsters, we only had one pulley change we could make; it was either 1:1 or 10 percent overdrive," recalled John. "We always ran the first car at 1:1, but I convinced my dad to go with 10 over for the dual-engine car, and it ran 198 mph at Indy, which was pretty good because we still weren't real savvy on clutches. Ed Pink was helping us out, and we got a lot of good advice, too, from John Peters, of Freight Train fame. He made the coupler for us and told us how to run the engines, advancing the front engine 90 degrees from the back to get rid of the harmonics that you'd get with two engines running the same. We did exactly what he said, and it worked good."
The dual-engined car eventually was sold to help buy their first Funny Car, and all of the Muldowneys wished they could have it back. John recalls seeing it 10 years later in the pages of National DRAGSTER and remembers that his dad, who died about two years ago, even briefly contemplated buying it back. "It still had the same paint and lettering, and he was so tempted to get it back but didn't, and he was so sorry later that he didn't. We haven't seen it since; it just vanished from the face of the earth," he said.
"If there was any car I wish I had today, it would be either one of those two cars," said Shirley. "If I had the chance to choose, I'd take the dual-engine car. It was without a doubt the slickest, nicest car I ever owned. I would give anything I own to have it today."