Memorable MomentsMonday, January 04, 2010

Welcome to the first Insider entry of the new format. I thank you all for your understanding and encouragement following my New Year's Day announcement of a shift in format. I think the best way for me to look at this is that this space will now be more blog than column, which is the exact opposite of what I intended, but I think that by being able to post shorter multiple (on occasion) items a day covering a wide range of topics, there will always be something interesting to read here. You'll also notice that under my column heading on the home page there now is a "last update" date, too, which should alert you to new content.

Although there definitely was some general unhappiness, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of you who said that putting the original Insider format into National DRAGSTER was enough to convince you to subscribe to the magazine, and I think that once you get it in your hands, you'll be pleased with more than just that content. Again, thanks for your understanding and suggestions – one of which was to post the printed ND columns in the members-only area so that you could have the convenience of also following the column on the Web, which just might happen – and keep the ideas and good vibes coming.

Couple of quick items for you. Voting for the Most Memorable Winternationals Moment concluded when 2009 did, and the results are now final. We will begin unveiling them, in reverse order, on next Monday, five at a time leading up to the announcement of the top five during race week and the unveiling of the top moment during Sunday's pre-race ceremony.

Watching the voting throughout December, it was interesting to see a couple of surprise entries reach the top five, only to fall out. There were so many amazing moments to vote for that it's a shame that some of what I consider iconic moments from back in the day didn't even make the top 10 while some newer highlights did.

I think that some of you may be surprised. OK, I've probably already said too much. You'll have to wait for the first of the unveilings a week from today.

Speaking of memorable moments, Mopar released its top 10 moments of the 2000s, and I was thrilled to see drag racing not only included but dominant, with five of the top moments coming from the NHRA world. Gary Scelzi's 2005 NHRA Funny Car world championship – the first for a Dodge-bodied flopper since Frank Hawley's 1983 crown in the vaunted Chi-Town Hustler, was the top moment. Scelzi's win in the Don Schumacher Racing/Mopar Stratus ended John Force Racing's 12-year grip on the Funny Car throne.

Pro Stock racer Allen Johnson winning the 2007 Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals from the No. 1 qualifying spot was voted the No. 6 moment, and Super Stock ace Bucky Hess' victory at the inaugural Mopar Hemi Challenge in 2001 was ranked seventh. The unveiling of the new Dodge Challenger Drag Pak cars by Mopar legends Don Garlits and Judy Lilly at the 2008 Mile-Highs was ranked eighth, and Scelzi's breaking of the 330-mph barrier in his Dodge Stratus Funny Car at the 2004 event in Chicago was listed as ninth.

You can review the entire list, with more detail, here.

One more Winternationals note. I mentioned last week that the famous Howard Cams Twin Bear dual-engine wonder would be among the restored entries of the Golden 50 on display at the 50th Anniversary Kragen O'Reilly NHRA Winternationals and was rewarded by this great photo of the car, with the legendary Jack Chrisman in the cockpit, taken by devout Insider follower Rich Venza.

"I thought you might enjoy a photo I took at Island Dragway of Jack Chrisman getting ready to make a pass in the Howard Cams Twin Bear," he noted. "It must have been '62 or '63 as the plywood had been replaced with a more professional nosepiece."

Venza's plywood reference relates to the photo in my Dec. 29 column below from when the car made its debut with a very low-tech aerodynamic attachment in front of the twin powerplants.

Dennis Friend, who runs the Web site that specializes in twin-engine machines from the past, has even more photos of the Bear (as well as the Dragmaster Two Thing) here.

Charting a bit of a new courseFriday, January 01, 2010

Back in April, as part of our annual April Fools' shenanigans on, I wrote a column here called "The Insider … out," reporting that I was closing up the Insider because I was bored to tears with living in drag racing's past. No one who knew me really fell for it, which is a good thing, but today's start of a new year also marks a bit of a new era for the DRAGSTER Insider, and I hope you'll bear with me as I chart this column's future path.

First off – no, the column is not ending, but, yes, there are going to have to be some changes around here.

Over the last two-plus years, this column has come to mean a lot to me, as it has to many of you. It started out with quite a different mission – more like a blog about what was going on behind the scenes to produce National DRAGSTER --- and evolved into what it is today, mostly a fond look back at our history and a great community effort to not only keep the past alive by retelling stories told many times, but also to take a fresh new look at these stories with the type of introspection that sometimes only can be possible years after the fact. The tagline on this column used to be "The stories behind the stories," which I rather liked. I didn't want to just regurgitate the sport's past, but rather put a fresh spin on it through research and interviews and through the generous donations of memories and photos from the readers of this column.

Judging from your e-mails that come in every week, profusely thanking me for this gatekeeper role, I've accomplished that goal. I hear regularly from fans from the '60s and '70s thrilled to see some of the cars they used to root for, and I'm also quite pleased that a literal Who's Who of our sport – including heroes from the past and present – regularly follows the column. I never knew it would have such legs or create such a buzz, and my old pal Todd Veney, not one to heap praise or hyperbole, even went so far as to say something along the lines that this column would be my legacy in the sport, even more so than my decades at the helm of National DRAGSTER. That's all very flattering, but …

The column has become a bit of a victim of its own success. So many of you have written to my bosses or otherwise expressed your gratitude to them for a job well done and a column much enjoyed that I began to get asked the question, "If this column is so good, why are we giving it away for free?"

OK, don't panic yet. Deep breaths. It's going to be OK. Before you get all riled up at big, bad NHRA for messing with another of the things you love, take a moment to understand the motives.

It's no secret that print publications have taken it on the chin the last couple of years. Driven not only by the loss of advertising revenue as companies tighten their belts to get through the recession but also by spiraling costs for paper and ever-rising postage fees, approximately 450 titles ceased publication in 2009, according to online magazine database Though that number is down from 2008's losses, it's still very troubling, especially when you look at some of the household names that have gone belly up this year: 68-year-old Gourmet magazine, 58-year-old Home, 27-year-old PC Magazine, and niche mainstays like Vibe and even Playgirl. Teen magazine, once read by every Shaun Cassidy-smitten girl in the 1970s, folded last year after 54 years of covering teenybopper heartthrobs. Even Editor & Publisher magazine, the authoritative tome that has covered the world of publications for more than a century, folded last month. The number of daily newspapers that has shuttered also sends a dismal message.

Certainly, that bleak scenario is cause for concern for anyone with a print publication, National DRAGSTER included. Although the cost of a membership brings you much more than just National DRAGSTER 48 times a year – you also get the live audiocast, live timing, insurance, and other goodies – we're continually looking for ways to make the actual publication portion of the package more valuable. I've discussed here several times our 2010 ambitions to make ND bigger and better (and readers already have seen and saluted some of the changes), and now part of that plan includes taking this column into print.

I'm not stupid or naïve or big-headed enough to think that this column is soooo good that people will plunk down their credit cards just to continue reading it, but the hope is that it adds enough additional benefit to an already great package that it'll push those fence-straddlers over the hump.

Even though your $69 membership doesn't come close to covering the costs of producing and mailing you 48 issues (the balance is made up through advertising), we all realize that $69 a year is a lot of money to some people. Heck, it's a lot of money to me. I picture a guy arguing with his wife at the dinner table while they sort through the bills, trying to figure out how they're going to get through the rest of the month, and him trying to convince her that it's less than $1.50 per issue, plus look at all the goodies. I think we all realize that, at some point, someone has to get out the checkbook or the credit card and commit to a membership, and that can be temporarily painful. Our goal is to make it a short-term loss, long-term gain, and if adding this column to our new efforts helps convince people to sign up, it's something we need to do.

(I'm not going to go into full-sell mode here, but if you used to subscribe to ND but gave it up for one reason or another or just have never gotten around to signing up, now's the time. It's going to have a fresh new look and more additions. We have some new columnists to complement last year's popular guest writers, more color, and pretty much more of everything.)

Worried yet? Don't be.

A rational person might just fold up shop here and go exclusively into print. After all, I've been writing this column twice a week now for a couple of years (it started out as three times a week ... what was I thinking?), and the sheer magnitude of some of the research is a huge time eater, so why not take the easy road and have to write just one column a week for DRAGSTER?

I can’t do that. I tried, believe me. Well, I thought about it, for sure. But when I go back and read some of the incredible e-mails I have received, I just can't turn my back on a loyal and supportive bunch like y'all. So I'm going to be brainstorming about how two columns can coexist and not rob from one another. I won't lie to you: The really, really good stuff – the in-depth features, personality profiles, history lessons, remainder of the Misc. Files, etc. – is going into ND. I owe that to the newspaper that has supported me and kept my cupboard stocked with more than Pop-Tarts and Diet Coke for more than 25 years.

I know that many of you eagerly await new columns each Tuesday and Friday, and I thank you for that diligence and attention; I certainly want to continue giving you a reason to come here. I want to hear from all of you about what you’d like to read here, keeping in mind the kind of limitations I've already laid out.

What I'll probably end up doing is more of a notebook-style blog, probably updated more often than this column, with various odds and ends that will interest you, most with a nostalgic spin. This actually will be helpful to me because, after losing two of my writers in our recent staff reductions, I'm probably going to be doing a lot more traveling in 2010, and putting together columns on the road is tough without full access to our photo libraries. Plus, I get an awful lot of little tidbits along the way that I'd like to share without having to create a whole column around them, so this new format will help.

I'm still twirling the ideas around in my head, but it might be a tease of what's appearing that week in the print version, maybe videos, links to interesting stories, and correspondence of different kinds from you all. A few readers have asked for more stuff about how DRAGSTER is put together each week or who I've been chatting with, so I'll probably do that kind of thing, too. I think I will keep the Fan Fotos feature going here, which should help any of you going through withdrawals for photos of vintage iron from back in the day, and other interesting contributions from the Insider Nation.

I think it’s a good plan and a decent compromise, and I hope you agree. Again, your feedback, which has helped make this column what it has become, is most welcome and, heck, very much expected.

A golden time of yearTuesday, December 29, 2009

The holidays are supposed to offer a little "slow down" time but I can’t help but feel I'm still going a million miles per hour. A lot of the NHRA staff has taken great advantage of NHRA's very generous holiday time off and some have been checked out since the annual Holiday Party two weeks ago. With a little careful applying of vacation days here and there, you can turn a three- or four-day credit into more than two weeks off, and many have taken advantage of that.

Me, I'm a bit of a workaholic, so unless there's an auto race or a hockey game on TV, I'd rather spend the quiet days in the office trying to catch up and getting prepared for 2010.

I'm actually quite proud of myself because, for the first time since I can remember, I took a trip without my laptop, driving up the California coast to see my parents and my sister and her family, meeting up with them in scenic Morro Bay in the shadow of the enormous rock that is its signature. (Well, it's not actually a rock; it's 581-foot tall volcanic plug and one of the "Nine Sisters of San Luis Obispo County," a series of ancient volcanic plugs that line the Los Osos Valley between oceanside Morro Bay and inland San Luis Obispo. Cruising down Highway 1, I sighted several of the other sisters, curious huge rock heaps jutting from the landscape, but didn’t connect them with their more-famous, most westerly, and waterbound sibling until later.)

Anyway, in the spirit of holiday giving, I vowed to devote this time solely to the family. The folks are getting up there in age and you just never know when you might lose them, so I went without a net, hopin' and a-wishin' that no major news broke in the span of those two days (not that I didn't stealthily scout out the nearest cyber café upon arrival, just in case). I returned home Sunday night, checked the email and saw that the drag racing world didn't miss me ... not even a Wilber blog waiting in my Inbox. (I was extremely glad that pre-Christmas rumors of Tom Hoover's passing proved untrue, though the veteran Funny Car driver did lose his brother and, just this morning, we lost Jim "Happy" Harrington, just three days shy of his 49th birthday. Bummer way to end the year.)

The week before Christmas was crazy busy with a number of projects. Job One for all of us has been whipping the new-look National DRAGSTER into shape for its 2010 rebirth, complete with new graphics, columns, and sky-high expectations. I've written so much about our plans and hopes that I'm thrilled to be seeing it all finally taking shape. In addition to that, we finished up production of the 50th Winternationals Web site, which will launch Jan. 4, and I did a fun interview with Joe Castello for his WFO Radio show (you can listen to it here; be patient while it loads) on Tuesday as part of his regular NHRA Tuesday programming. Joe was the longtime host of PowerShift on XM Radio and has a regular lineup of quality guests on his show. Although he covers all forms of motorsports, he's a big NHRA fan, and it's obvious when you listen to the interview that he knows his stuff.

The highlight of the week clearly was the unveiling of the Golden 50 lineup for next year's 50th anniversary Kragen O'Reilly NHRA Winternationals, a list of awesome historic hot rods that quickly has exceeded the target number of 50. Steve Gibbs deserves a huge hand for helping coordinate what's going to be the all-time greatest drag racing car show. "Big Hook" and myself are part of a six-man "steering committee" for the golden anniversary race – along with Vice President-National Event Marketing Glen "Hat Trick" Cromwell, Director of Advertising & Promotions John "Hook 'em Horns" Pesetski, Director of Broadcasting & Video Communications "Corvette Jim" Trace, and Director of Public Relations Michael "Facebook" Padian – who have worked diligently the past six months to shape the event, which will include the Legends Dinner, also announced recently on And, hey, don't forget: Voting for the Most Memorable winternationals Moments ends when 2009 does, so, if you haven't already, VOTE NOW.

The "Golden Fifty – Plus" list includes some of the great machines from Winternationals history including Don Garlits' Swamp Rat 5, his innovative winged dragster that won the 1963 event (his first NHRA win), the fabulous twin-engined Freight Train gas dragster, and the Kohler Bros.' King Kong AA/Gas Supercharged Anglia sedan, which Gibbs, in his notes, calls "one of the most recognized supercharged cars of the late 1960s." Ed Kohler drove the car to a Super Eliminator win at the 1967 Winternationals and it's a true find. The car was lost for years, and when found had been converted to a street rod. Carlos and Mary Cedeno, of Lockport, N.Y., had the car fully restored and Kohler, who now lives in Newberry, S.C., will be reunited with the car in Pomona.

Of course that decade's other legendary gasser, the Stone, Woods & Cook BB/GS Willys that the Insider Nation crowned as “Favorite Race Car Ever” back in September 2008 will be there as well. The late Doug Cook drove the car to Middle Eliminator honors at the 1963 Winternationals, and Gibbs reports that, "like the King Kong gasser, the car was converted to a street machine for many years, before being discovered by owners Joe Troilo and Mike Wale. It has been faithfully and fully restored to its original race condition. All of the original team principals are now deceased, however Doug Cook’s son. Mike, and Tim Woods’ son. Lenny, will be in attendance. Owners Troilo and Wale are bringing the car to Pomona from their Chicago, Ill., base."

It wouldn't be the Winternationals without the famed Dragmaster Dart AA/D and Dragmaster Two Thing AA/D, a pair of revolutionary machines in their own right. The Dragmaster Dart, which for years gtreeted me in the lobby of NHRA headquarters in North Hollywood as I came to work each day, won the 1962 Winternationals and was the first car to be donated to the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports museum. Driver Jim Nelson. who also served as one of NHRA’s original technical directors during the formative Safety Safari events of the late 1950s, and partner Dode Martin will be in attendance. The dynamic duo built hundreds of their “production line” Dragmaster chassis at the Carlsbad, Calif., shop, just about an hour south of Pomona.

Hugh Tucker's Ventura Motors AA/Street Roadster also holds a wonderful place in Winternationals lore as the supercharged roadster won Little Eliminator at the 1962 event, Junior Eliminator at the 1963 race, and Super Eliminator at the 1966 event; in fact, Tucker was never defeated in individual class competition, according to Gibbs. This car also was “lost” for many years, but has been fully restored to its original glory by Tucker and his son, Hugh, Jr., both of whom will travel from Hansville, Wash., to bring the car back to its famous stomping grounds.

Winternationals fans can also see some of Funny Car's earliest machines in Bruce Larson's USA–1  Chevelle, the 1969 "Jungle Jim" Liberman Nova, and the factory Dodge Charger formerly driven by the late Jimmy Nix. Larson's car, which is now owned by the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing, was the first all-fiberglass Funny Car to appear in NHRA national event competition, even before there was an official Funny Car class (the car ran in the B/XS class). Larson will be on hand with the car in Pomona. The Liberman car, now owned by Dave and Sally Bany, of Wilsonville, Wash., was driven to victory at the 1969 event by Clare Sanders, who also will be in Pomona. The Charger, which was built as a Chrysler “factory” project by the aforementioned Dragmaster Company, was one of the first supercharged, full-bodied, late -model drag racing vehicles. Although the car never used nitromethane as a fuel, it truly was forerunner to today’s Funny Cars, The car is currently owned by Frank Spittle.

Another great piece of restoration magic will be unveiled with the debut of the Howard Cams Twin Bear twin-engined AA/Gas Dragster. Again, according to Gibbs' notes, the car was one of the most dominant machines during the NHRA fuel ban years and was driven by the late Jack Chrisman (who won the inaugural Pomona Winternationals Top Eliminator title in another car), "The Twin Bear went through many changes before being destroyed in 1968. Many of the original components are still in use."

Fuel Altered fans will get their socks knocked off by a quartet of Awful-Awfuls as "the big four” -- Pure Hell, Pure Heaven, the Winged Express, and the Mondello and Matsubara Fiat -- which campaigned on several national tours and raced at NHRA national events -- will all be on display together at the event.

According to the countdown clock on the home page, it's only about 43 days – six weeks – until the Winternationals rocks us into the 2010 season but National DRAGSTER 2010 begins production in less than a week. I've been trying to get as far ahead as I can because a week from Thursday I'll be headed to Lake Placid, N.Y., as a guest of JEGS to attend the the fifth annual Lucas Oil Geoff Bodine Bobsled Challenge. Jeg Coughlin, Morgan Lucas, Shawn Langdon, Tommy Johnson Jr., and Melanie Troxel will be representing the NHRA against NASCAR in this great and worthwhile even that benefits the Team USA Olympic bobsledding efforts.

The plan calls for a flight to Columbus Thursday with an overnight stay with the Coughlin clan, then off to chilly Lake Placid early the next morning for a full weekend of action. Hopefully we'll be avoiding any great blizzards, but I'll be all geared up for the cold anyway. I'm sure these northerners will have a good laugh at the California boy freezing his butt off.

And, yes, I'll have my laptop.

Some Christmas wishesFriday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas to the Insider Nation!

In the spirit of the season, I worked with National DRAGSTER staff to create the list below (which also appears in ND's year-end issue, in my Staging Light column), which represents our Christmas wish list for certain NHRA racers and for the community as a whole.

I'd like to hear your suggestion as well, and I'll print the best ones in a future column. Have at it, and Merry Christmas!

Dear Santa,

Hi, it’s Phil Burgess (again, still waiting on that Hot Wheels collection from my 1967 list — any hope?). How are you? I hope your off-season was great and you spent some quality time with Mrs. Claus hot rodding around in your supercharged sleigh. Our off-season is just beginning while your busy time ramps up, so I thought this would be a good time to send you our Christmas list of wishes for 2010.

You don’t have to worry about fulfilling all of our wishes at once — dropping them under our trees on Christmas Eve wouldn’t make much sense for most of them — so, hey, no pressure.

My brothers and sisters and me here at National DRAGSTER have been extra good this year. We wrote all kinds of really interesting stories and didn’t tell any lies. We treated every winner — and even those who didn’t win — as if they were the most special person in the whole world. We were respectful of our elders (and bosses), played nice with others, and filled every single page of every single issue and were never late. We didn’t even whine or complain (well, not much anyway) while sitting through hours of rain.

Anyways, I asked the staff for their lists and compiled them for you.

A double for Dan?

A double for Dan Fletcher: C’mon, Santa, give the guy a break. He’s one of the all-time NHRA Lucas Oil racers and won just about everything under the sun, yet in seven chances where he has made it to two finals at the same event, you’ve been a little Grinchlike in denying him a double. Pretty please.

A robust economy: I can’t tell you how many problems this would fix (including helping you out on a few of the items below), but we’re tired of hearing how good friends of ours have lost their jobs or took pay cuts or how worthy racers can’t get a sponsor, and, frankly, we’re a little tired of eating two-for-99-cents Jack In the Box tacos for lunch every day.

Good weather: I think you poured it on a little too much this last year, boss man. I mean, we’re all for the greenification of the world, but we’re getting tired of those Next Heavy Rain Area acronym jokes. Let’s start with the sun shining in Pomona, OK?

A championship decided by a single point: OK, we don’t mean to sound greedy after both Top Fuel and Pro Stock Motorcycle titles were won by two points, but after that double dose of dual-digit deciders, how the heck are we gonna top that? I think you get the point, and we hope we do, too.

While we’re at it: Three points each for Larry Dixon and Eddie Krawiec — hey, better late than never.

And furthermore: Greg Stanfield would like the thousandth of a second he needed to win the Indy Pro Stock final — with interest.

Where there's a Will ...
The return of some old pals: Man, we really miss Hillary Will, David Grubnic, “Hot Rod” Fuller, J.R. Todd, Melanie Troxel, Doug Herbert, Whit Bazemore, and a bunch of others. While you’re at it, coax Gary Scelzi out of retirement. Whaddaya say, Santa, a big reunion anytime soon?

More first-time winners: You were very generous in this category in 2009, helping place Wallys into the hands of Krawiec, Morgan Lucas, Spencer Massey, Bob Tasca III, and Mike Neff. Here are a few who seem overdue and/or deserving: Bob Vandergriff Jr. (c’mon, 12 runner-ups? Give “BeeVeeGee” a break!), Shawn Langdon, Joe Hartley, Matt Hagan, Doug Horne, Rickie Jones, Rodger Brogdon, and Junior Pippin.

A national event win — in his own car — for Gary Densham: Densham won eight races in four seasons driving for John Force Racing but has never won one in his own car in 330 races since making his Funny Car debut at the 1971 World Finals in Ontario, Calif. He has reached seven finals in his own iron but never the winner’s circle.

A new season champ in Top Fuel: OK, nothing against Tony Schumacher, but we think it’s time he shares the wealth a little. Last thing we want to see are “Schumacher Buster” T-shirts. He can win it again in 2011.

Next champ?
Ashley Force Hood, Funny Car champ: We love Robert Hight as much as wife Adria, but can you imagine the public-relations windfall for AFH and NHRA — and by that I mean, the entire NHRA nation — if she were our season champ? And, hey, it ain’t like she isn’t deserving, right?

A sponsor for “the Snake”: As we close the publishing season, Don Prudhomme’s handlers tell us he’s still beating the bushes for a 2010 backer. “The Snake” hasn’t sat out a season since 1986, and we don’t see any reason why he should again.

A get-well season for John Force: After being shut out of the winner’s circle for the first time in 22 seasons, drag racing’s Superman deserves better. He still has laps in life to make before he hangs ’em up. If you’re feeling real generous, another championship might be nice. (PS: If you can’t swing the championship, Force says he would like to ask for a new Top Alcohol Funny Car champion next year. Frank Manzo’s 13 titles are just one shy of his own record.)

A Stock class win for Don Garlits: I think we were almost as disappointed as “Big Daddy” was when his Mac Tools U.S. Nationals comeback in Stock ended with a DNQ.

For Pro Stock’s Allen Johnson, more races in Denver: He won two of the last three years on the mountain and was runner-up the other.

Looking for a home
Some stability for Antron Brown: You gotta feel for “the brothaman.” He was shuffled around in 2009 like grandma’s nasty fruitcake. From David Powers to Mike Ashley and finally to Don Schumacher, A.B. had more owners than a shelter-rescue puppy.

A Christmas Tree with no red lights for Karen Stoffer: The hard-charging GEICO rider was felled by six foul starts this season, the third straight season in which she has had a half-dozen or more red-lights. Here’s hoping for more gecko-colored bulbs in 2010.

Another great rookie of the year battle: Other than Pro Stock newcomer Shane Gray and perhaps Daniel Wilkerson, we’re not sure who’s going to make up next year’s freshman class, but if 2010’s race is even half as good as this year’s, we’ll be happy.

More four-lane racing: This year’s dual-fuel exhibition at zMax Dragway — four Top Fuelers and four Funny Cars, going off side by side — had to be seen to be believed, and here’s hoping for more of the same in 2010 so more fans can enjoy the rare treat.
Okay, kids, that's it. Hope you're enjoying your holidays and already working towards being on Santa's "nice" list for next year. Remember to send me your gift suggestions for those in our sport.

Previous Entries
Next Entries