At the moviesFriday, October 16, 2009

I'm going to go all multimedia on you guys today with a couple of quick video reviews of some new stuff from NHRA. Because so many of you lean toward the nostalgic end of the sport, these will be right up your alley.

The First Fifty Years, originally produced for NHRA’s 50th anniversary in 2001, was a forgotten piece of work until it was rediscovered recently. It is an interesting compendium of footage that highlights some of the major stars and accomplishments in the sport since NHRA’s founding in 1951 and serves as the introduction to NHRA’s new line of 15 productions to be rereleased on DVD.

Hosted by motorsports veteran Bill Stephens from the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum presented by the Automobile Club of Southern California, the DVD doesn’t so much trace the roots of the sport as it celebrates the major performance milestones of the last 20 years while interweaving those narratives with features on some of the sport’s legendary stars.

Flag starters and the debut of the Christmas Tree are shown in some great footage.

Bob Glidden’s Pro Stock dominance is explored as Stephens discusses what made him tick, Don Garlits is explained largely through his breakthrough efforts, most notably Swamp Rat 14, the sport’s first truly successful rear-engine Top Fueler, and Shirley Muldowney is introduced via a discussion of the changing front of NHRA brought on by the emergence of female competitors.

The DVD features plenty of nice vintage footage of all three from the 1970s and early ‘80s to accompany the pieces as well as comments from their peers. Of particular note is Don Prudhomme’s candid comments about the first time that he and his peers heard about Garlits’ rear-engine wonder. Many had tried the approach, few successfully, so you can understand Prudhomme’s sentiment when he explained, “We weren’t going to laugh at it, but we were very close to it.” History has shown that “Big Daddy” had the last laugh.

Stephens proves a talented wordsmith, veering from obvious commentary and showing his verbal horsepower on occasion, such as calling the museum “a Smithsonian of straight-line speed.” My favorite line, if for nothing but its un-PC delivery, recalls the feisty Muldowney’s “snarky one-liners and pugnacious disposition.”

Also included is great in-car footage of both historic and modern nature, the former, of course, true rarities in the days before miniaturized cameras were routinely fitted in many cars.

A wonderful segment on flag starters allows newer fans to get an idea of some of the unique gyrations and gymnastics that they employed before the advent of the Christmas Tree. That electronic marvel is introduced via a nice and funny interview with the man whose NHRA career transcended both eras, the late great NHRA Chief Starter Buster Couch. For those us who knew him, I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to see and hear him again, to hear him spin a tale of the nefarious anti-Tree sentiment that pervaded those first years, in his distinct Southern accent.

The assault on the 300-mph barrier is chronicled in The First Fifty Years.

The production explores in detail the breaking of the 300-mph barrier in Top Fuel and the four-second and 300-mph barriers in Funny Car and, via an introduction to the father-son team of Warren and Kurt Johnson, discusses the breaking of the 200-mph and six-second barriers in Pro Stock. A lot of this footage has been seen, but it’s still cool to marvel at, especially the in-car footage of Kenney Bernstein’s launch on the first 300-mph pass in Gainesville in 1992.

Two of the sport’s most loved and colorful characters, Gary Scelzi and John Force, also are featured, the latter in a hilarious montage of “What the heck did he say?” top-end interviews described by Stephens as “witty, incoherent, and sometimes mischievous.”

With a running time of 40 minutes, the DVD can’t really explore a topic in-depth, and fans looking for tons of vintage footage from the 1960s and 1970s will be left wanting a bit more. Other than the segments on the Tree and milestones noted by the achievements of Garlits and Muldowney, there’s no real tracing of the evolution of the sport, but then that’s probably not the purpose of the piece. It's a great addition to your library and is one of those DVDs you can pull out for your neophyte friends to give them a pocket history of the sport and the gains in performance.

The first official release is a dandy and a fine kickoff to the series. You probably couldn't pick a better year than 1986, which provided so many memorable moments, and Drag Racing '86 packs a lot into its two-hour season recap.

Hosted by the late, great Steve Evans and longtime partner and announcing legend Dave McClelland, it's a straightforward event-by-event romp. I was still relatively new to the DRAGSTER staff back then -- it was just my fourth full season on the staff -- but I witnessed a lot of these moments firsthand, and it's a treat to see them again.

This is the opening segment for Drag Racing '86 and includes the Winternationals.

By the time you get through the first three events -- the Winternationals, Gatornationals, and Southern Nationals -- you're already out of breath. Pomona, Shirley Muldowney's comeback event from her 1984 Montreal crash, featured her explosive first-round match with "Big Daddy" Don Garlits; the unforgettable body-popping blower explosion by Gary Ormsby's Castrol GTX streamliner; Dave Uyehara rear-ending Ron Correnti on a Funny Car qualifying pass; Ed McCulloch's body-shredding blower explosion in the red Miller High Life Olds Funny Car; and John Force, in his Coca-Cola Corvette, losing the Funny Car final to Tim Grose, his sixth straight of what would be nine bridesmaid finishes.

The Gatornationals, of course, was highlighted by the debut of Garlits' revolutionary Swamp Rat XXX streamliner -- "the design of the future," he calls it -- and Don Campanello's upset win in Pro Stock.

For anyone who was there -- and I was -- the Atlanta event left an indelible impression thanks to Bob Glidden's stunning series of top-end barrel rolls in the semifinals. Seeing Glidden's wife, Etta, horrified at the sight and being consoled by Arlene Johnson, it takes me right back to that day, standing on the starting line, hearing her cries and wondering if we'd lost another Pro Stock champ. We didn't, and, of course, Glidden did the unthinkable by stopping to cover his top-secret intake manifold with his fire jacket, an unforgettable episode in drag racing lore.

Aussie Funny Car racer Gary Phillips' wild ride off the end of the Columbus, Ohio, track also brought back memories for me; comparing my photo sequence to the film footage, they're almost identical. Ditto for Muldowney's scary top-end tire explosion in Montreal, two years to the weekend where she had her near-career-ending accident. I remember watching in horror then -- as I had in 1984 -- as things went wrong, but if you watch the video of this 1986 run, you can truly appreciate Muldowney's superior car-handling skills.

One of the most striking things about watching 23-year footage is how far the race cars have come, not only in technological sophistication, but also in safety. We no longer have blowers leaving the manifolds in a fiery explosion, and even the look of the cars, especially the roll-cage area and wings of the Top Fuelers, seems so long ago. It's also interesting to see some of the tracks we had back then and how devoid they were of things like massive towers and sky-high grandstands.

The most unforgettable moment of 1986 -- perhaps in all of drag racing history -- was Garlits' blowover in Englishtown, and it's captured from numerous angles. I've seen this footage dozens of times, and it never gets old.

The season finale in Pomona and the crowning of the champs.

As wild as that was, what follows from the Brainerd event is one of the wildest yet mostly unsung incidents of the season, which McClelland calls one of the most exciting moments of the season. Funny Car racer Norm Day lit up his Funny Car in big fashion, then slid off the track and barrel-rolled once, which jammed shut the escape hatch. Grose, who was in the other lane, joined the NHRA Safety Safari in trying to extricate Day, memorably trying to kick in the side of the body. Day got out with only some burns to his hand; the footage is truly amazing.

Indy has the legendary Top Fuel battle between Garlits and Darrell "the Wolf" Gwynn, Billy Meyer's devastating blower explosion, and Mike Dunn's big win. Current fans of the ESPN2 show will get a kick out of seeing a much younger Dunn actually doing what he so eloquently comments on each race weekend.

The recap shows just how dominant Garlits and Glidden were this season as well as the tight battles and different winners in Funny Car before Kenny Bernstein eventually grabbed the fuel coupe title. As the season wraps up, each of the season champs is featured in a nice spotlight with historic footage from their careers.

As Garlits himself said after clinching the season title, "It's been a great year; '86 was great."

And so is this DVD.

To order either of these DVDs, log on to

You would have thought it was Christmas around the National DRAGSTER office yesterday when the week's new issue arrived from the printer. Staffers were running around to one another's offices and cubicles like little kids with a new present.

The cause of celebration is the new-look National DRAGSTER that rolled off the presses this weekend at Conley Publishing in good ol' Beaver Dam, Wis.

I'll admit, after seeing more than 1,300 issues go to print, I might be a bit more jaded than the average staffer or reader. By the time each new issue lands on my desk each Monday, I'm more than intimately familiar with its contents, having been a major part of the planning and proofreading of most of the editorial pages. When the new issue arrives, I usually skim through it to see how some features actually look once they're printed, then I'll size up the overall presentation of the issue, then file it in my bookshelf.

But this one … this one had me – and everyone else -- on pins and needles.

Externally, you might not notice the difference unless you had last week's issue in your hands; it's about an inch shorter and an inch less across the striking image of Memphis Funny Car winner Jeff Arend's burnout and the photo of him and team owner Connie Kalitta celebrating what truly will be remembered as one of this year's most memorable moments.

But, like most things in life, it's what's inside that counts. For the first time in 50 years – we're talking 2,340 issues -- the entire inside of the magazine is not only presented on glossy, magazine-like stock, but it's full color throughout. It's a milestone day for our publication.

NHRA national event Sportsman coverage ... in living color. [View PDF]

Even the Summit Series E.T. Finals are in color! [View PDF]

Yep, that's right. Sportsman stories from the national events? In glorious color! Summit Series Finals coverage? Yep. Member-track stories? You bet. Even the back-page column – by me this week – has a color headshot now. As we opened our issues for the first time, we each seemed to race to different sections and were yelling out and holding open our magazines to different pages … "Hey, look at this. Awesome!"

You might ask what the big deal is; most car magazines have been full color for years. Sure, but National DRAGSTER is not some monthly magazine that comes to you two to three months after it's printed -- that's no knock on those glossy print publications; just the way that business is – it's your weekly guide to your favorite sport.

No one – either in print or on the Internet – shows the love to the NHRA Sportsman racer the way National DRAGSTER does, and we're proud of that. Ask any of our writers, and they'll tell you that their post-event interviews with the Sportsman winners are often the highlight of their weeks. And now to be able to tell their stories and show off their cars in color is a huge home run for us.

Pro coverage, too, which was trimmed back earlier this year to a mix of color and black and white, has returned to its full glory. Even the Joni's Race Shop and Performance Directory ads are now full-color capable!

I've seen a lot of iterations of National DRAGSTER in my 27 years on the staff, 23 of them with me at the top of the masthead, and a lot of improvements, but I have to say that this week's issue has everyone on the staff all revved up – and it's just the beginning.

We'll finish the publishing year – nine more issues – at this size and with the features already in place, then we'll get hard to work not only redesigning the look inside but also in many ways reinventing National DRAGSTER and launching it as an exciting – and in some ways different – magazine in 2010. It's what we need to do and what you deserve.

It's no secret that print publications are struggling in this economy as advertisers and circulation drop off, and it's also no secret that through-the-mail publications such as ours no longer can be on the cutting edge of news the way that television and the Internet can be. By the time that National DRAGSTER is produced and delivered by the U.S. Postal Service, a week or more may have elapsed since the event was held or the story written. Today, that's not good enough. By then, you've seen the race on TV or read the news on

For the last several months, the leaders of the individual National DRAGSTER departments have been meeting to help create the road map, following tried-and-true business methods. We painstakingly (and, in some cases, painfully) created a SWOT analysis, honestly and openly chronicling our Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (no, it did not involve uniformed men with silenced MP5s breaching the conference-room door, and no flashbangs were used in this exercise ... pity). We crafted a new mission statement and new goals and action items.

One of the clear things to come out of all of this was the need to change the way we do something. Because we already have a breaking-news vehicle – this Web site – to deliver important, accurate, interesting, and timely information to the NHRA membership, NHRA fans, and NHRA's other customers, there's no need for National DRAGSTER to compete with it as it has, on occasion, since its launch in 1995.

Everything you've come to enjoy and expect in National DRAGSTER will still be there -- behind-the-scenes coverage and awesome photos from the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series national events, in-depth interviews with the stars of our sport, tech, Lucas Oil and local track results, and all of your favorite columns – but we plan to make some changes – some subtle, some not-so subtle – to the way they're presented.

I don’t have a lot of details to share right now, just a million ideas running around my head that we'll put to paper in the coming weeks. I do know that I want to complete National DRAGSTER's metamorphosis from a newspaper to a magazine while having the best that both formats have to offer. What I think that means is more feature material, more thought-provoking stories, and more special features and regular columns. This column eventually probably will become part of that mix; it also will remain online, but I'm not sure in what form.

We have some very talented writers on our staff, each with his or her own style, and I plan not only to give them the freedom to use that voice in National DRAGSTER, but also plan to encourage it. I think we'll get a very interesting publication, written by people who know and love drag racing as much as anyone on this planet.

It would certainly be easier to keep doing what National DRAGSTER has done so well in the last 50 years, but what we want to create is not just a publication that you receive for being an NHRA member, but a publication that you want, period.

Sure, there will be growing pains as we stretch our editorial legs, and there may be tweaks and tune-ups along the way. I'm as excited as I am nervous about the changes, but I know full well that the time is now for National DRAGSTER to in many ways reinvent itself and reinvigorate its current and potential future audiences. A lot of exciting things are coming down the road that I hope will encourage current members to stay with us, former subscribers to give us another fresh look, and new readers to hop on the bandwagon.

As is always my style, whether online or in print, I would love to hear from all three types of readers. If you’re with us now, what do you like or dislike; what do we need more or less of? If you're looking at rejoining us, what made you stop reading us, and what kinds of things will bring you back? If you've never subscribed to National DRAGSTER and have been looking for the right reason, tell me what things will get you over the hump on that decision.

Drop me a line here; I'd love to hear from you. If you're already convinced, you can get yourself a subscription right here.


Senior Editor Kevin McKenna and I attended the memorial service for Shaun Carlson yesterday in nearby Chino. It was held at Shaun's regular place of worship and drew several hundred people whom he had touched in some way in his short 35 years.

There were a ton of his fellow former NHRA sport compact friends, his new drifting pals, and people for whom he had done work over the years. It was a great ceremony, filled with music – sung by his aunts and his two adorable nieces – poetry, and heartfelt remembrances.

His brother Trevor chronicled Shaun's life from start to finish, talking about how when Shaun got into Freestyle MX, he didn’t just go buy a bicycle like everyone else, he built his own (much to the detriment of Trevor's bike, which "donated" some parts). Same thing for skateboards. All of that eventually moved into mechanized mayhem, and the Carlson family garage quickly became "Shaun's shop" and a 24/7 hangout for some of the most car-crazy kids in the region. Tales were told about spare body parts cluttering the family living room, cars being painted in the backyard, and much more.

Many people spoke, including fellow racer John Mihovetz, for whom Carlson had fabricated a special manifold that helped his turbocharged Cougar crack the six-second and 200-mph barriers, and the guy known to most simply as Chip, who ran the NuFormz fabrication business with Carlson.

What came out through all of their words was Shaun's dedication to hard work and perfection in everything he did. No project was too tough, no deadline too tight, nothing impossible. He was a guy who would give anything to anyone, would help anyone, and was loved by everyone. As Kevin said to me on the ride home, spookily reading my mind, "Man, I wish I had known him better."

The service (which was followed by a reception at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum presented by Automobile Club of Southern California) concluded with a touching moment and the release of several white doves by family members. Sport compact racer Abel Ibarra – one of the first guys to befriend me and teach me the ropes and the players when I started covering the class for National DRAGSTER in 2001 – raises roller pigeons for relaxation and through a buddy got the doves to bring to the service. I watched Shaun's family cradle the doves lovingly, even planting small kisses on their heads, before releasing them to the skies. It was pretty special.

Fan Fotos: The MidwestFriday, October 09, 2009

The response to my Fan Fotos offer has been overwhelmingly positive, and I already have a good stock of photos that, combined with other subjects I am working on and the culmination of the Misc. Files (thought I'd forgotten, did ya?), will easily see us through to the end of the year.

I'm really enjoying seeing everyone's submissions because, as I have mentioned, it's where I come from. I was a kid in the stands who fancied himself a future Leslie Lovett or Steve Reyes … if only I had a chance to shoot from the guardrail, dammit! Well, most of you never will (I was lucky!), but that doesn't mean that there aren’t some dynamite shots to be grabbed from the seats and the fences, as we've already seen. And, unlike looking at someone's home movies or vacation slides, they’re actually something we all love: race cars!

Steve Scott is today's guest photographer. A former resident of that current drag racing hotbed known as Brownsburg, Ind. – which would explain his many U.S. Nationals photos -- Steve and his wife have lived in Fort Worth since 2001.

"I saw my first Nationals in '69 and was absolutely hooked," he said. "Nothing like a nitro car to set its claws into you, and never let go. I traveled to races as much as finances would allow in those days, which wasn't nearly often enough. I always made the Nats, up to Byron once for the Funny Car championship deal, Springs in Columbus for many years, and Martin 131 for the Pop Rod Meets; even made it to Edgewater a couple of times, and US 30 once. Since moving down South, I've been to the Dallas race a few times, including this year. Went up to the Fuel Altered, Jr. Fuel race in Denton just the other night. Guess you could say I'm just a drag racing junkie, like so many others.
"In addition to drag racing, I always had fascination with photography, and it was a big day when I could finally afford that Minolta SRT101 and a 200mm lens. Man, I'm cookin' now! I can be just like Reyes, Blake, Lovett, Asher, Brady, et al. Those guys were my heroes in drag photography and still are to this day. So I shot the best I could from the stands for the on-track stuff. Even back then, the starting line was beginning to get real cluttered with all the 'real' photogs, vehicles, ladders, gear bags etc., and it was very difficult to get good clean burnout shots. After panning for the downtrack stuff, eventually it all started to look the same to me. I still tried to get some good pit shots, though. While still attending races, I just got tired of lugging around my camera equipment for results that were very similar to past efforts. And the drag racing photo stuff just stopped.
"I recently upgraded to the digital age with a Nikon D60 and a couple of lenses. Met Chris Graves of Max Cackle Photography, and he's been very helpful in learning this new camera and giving tips on racing shots. Maybe I can finally get as good at this deal as my old photo heroes are/were, even though I'm just an amateur."

I'd say he's well on his way. Here are Steve Scott's 10 favorite Fan Fotos, along with my background material and comments  ...

The Custom Body Enterprises name had a deep history in drag racing from the late 1960s, from original shoe/owner Phil Castronovo through drivers like Rick Johnson, Tom Anderson, Tim Grose, Bobby Hilton, Al Segrini, and Denny Savage, but other than Castronovo himself, no driver is more closely aligned with memories of the Custom Body cars than Tom Prock. Prock drove it for five seasons – from 1972 through 1976 (when Castronovo again briefly drove it before putting Segrini in the car). Steve captured Prock in mid-burnout at the 1976 U.S. Nationals in perhaps the team's most successful car, this Dodge Dart. It was in this car that Prock, who never was fortunate enough to win an NHRA national event, was runner-up to Don Prudhomme three times – at the 1975 and 1976 Grandnational in Canada (which preceded Indy on the schedule) and at the 1975 Gatornationals. Longtime fans may remember the wacky outcome of that Gainesville final round, where Prudhomme was shut off on the starting line with an oil leak, affording Prock what looked like an easy solo run to his first win ... until the Custom Body car shelled the rear end on its dry hop. Both teams were given time to repair, but Prock couldn't make it back in time. Prock also owns the distinction of being the guy in the other lane in the final at the 1975 Summernationals when "Jungle Jim" Liberman won his only NHRA title. A lot of people know Prock today because of his son, Jimmy, who tunes Robert Hight's Automobile Club of Southern California Mustang for John Force Racing, but the senior Prock – who first came to fame driving the Prock & Howell Willys and later was known for his own hard-running car, the Detroit Tiger Monza – made plenty of headlines on his own.

Joe Pisano and driver/partner Sush Matsubara had a lot of good-looking Funny Cars, and this was always one of my favorites, even though Matsubara was not driving. Behind the wheel, again in 1976 in Indy, is Texan Jake Johnston, who took over the butterfly when Matsubara retired from driving in 1975. Although Joe P later became known for his high-speed Oldsmobiles in the 1980s, his early cars were all Chevys, including this Monza, which Johnson drove under the P&M name through the late 1970s, by which time Matsubara's name had disappeared from its flanks, and it became a Trans Am, then an Arrow (a replica of which Cruz Pedregon will drive at the California Hot Rod Reunion next week), an Omni, and a Daytona before that first Olds Firenza, driven by Mike Dunn, in 1987.

This great shot is from 1975 in Columbus, Ohio, at the annual Springnationals. The one thing about shooting from the stands is it's much easier to get these great "pan blur" shots than it is up close. No, that's not "the Snowman," Gene Snow, behind the wheel, or even the aforementioned Jake Johnston, who used to drive for Snow. The driver is a Texan (despite the 306 permanent number on this Vega), and it's fearless fuel-altered hero Dale "the Snail" Emery. Emery, who wheeled  the notorious Pure Hell fuel altered in the late 1960s, drove a slew of early Funny Cars in the 1970s, including Jeg Coughlin's Ohio-based flopper (hence the Division 3 number), which was the subject of that famous body-tossing blower explosion photo from Ontario in 1974 where the fuel tank lid came uncapped (helping create the rule for locking fuel caps). Emery drove for a quite a few car owners around this time before landing in what would be his final ride, Mike Burkhart's Camaro, which spectacularly went on its head (after a giant nose grind) in Indy in 1977, leaving him with a broken arm. From there, Emery went on to fame as one of Raymond Beadle's key crew guys on the vaunted Blue Max.

Steve calls this photo "Fiberglass Forest" in a riff from one of Steve Evans' great radio commercials ("Man, I miss Steve Evans," he lamented; we all do), and this photo, too, was snapped at the 1975 Columbus event. Obviously (if you read the info above), that's Emery/Snow at front left, next to the Fireball Vega of Harland Thompson. Behind them are Tom "the Mongoose" McEwen's English Leather/Navy Duster, Shirl Greer's Mustang, Jim Nicoll's Good Times Vega, and barely visible, the Blue Max. Looks as if everyone is heading to the staging lanes; how much would you give to be in the stands getting ready for this?

Two great pit shots from the bicentennial-year 1976 Springnationals; at left is the legend himself, "Big Daddy" Don Garlits, checking the nitro percentage before another haul-ass run in his Swamp Rat. At right is a pretty historic photo as it shows Shirley Muldowney cradling her first NHRA Wally trophy after her initial Top Fuel victory. She shared the winner's circle with another legendary Don, "the Snake" hiss-self, as well as Pro Stock winner Wally Booth, who scored one of AMC's rare Pro Stock wins with his and Dick Arons' Hornet, and Miss Winston Mary Larson, who seems downright giddy about the outcome.

Looks as if Dale Funk is about to be wingin' it without the wing on the English, Frakes & Funk Kentucky Moonshiner digger in this fine shot from the 1976 Nationals. This actually was Funk's last race as he had announced his retirement beforehand, and it may have been a timely decision. Things got even scarier for Funk in round one when a massive engine explosion sent him through the lights sideways and on three wheels (as depicted in our recent Wild Rides photo greats book) while losing to Lee Weller. Talk about going out with a bang! By the way, that's former Insider profile subject Bill Pryor in the near lane in the Pryor & Narramore entry.

Steve says this Billy Meyer photo is from the Popular Hot Rodding Meet in Martin, Mich., in 1976 or 1977, but I'm thinking it's more like 1976 based on the Mustang II body. Meyer ran a Camaro in at least part of 1976 and 1977 as I recall – the 1977 one got melted down in a big way in Montreal – which was followed by an Arrow and then the first of those pretty ugly Chevy Citation bodies. Based on the primered portions of the body, it's obvious from this photo that Meyer's Mustang was coming off some sort of nasty incident at a previous race.

Also from U.S. 131 Dragway is longtime Top Alcohol Funny Car standout Bob Gottschalk. Gottschalk had been racing Funny Cars since the early 1970s – first an injected car then blown alcohol cars – before jumping into an ill-fated stint in the nitroburners in the early 1980s. He returned to his alky roots later that decade and raced throughout the 1990s before a career-ending crash in Ohio in 2000.

And, finally, there's this amazing shot. The subject is, of course, "Jungle Pam" Hardy, the comely sidekick of master Funny Car showman "Jungle Jim" Liberman, who became as much a part of his popular act as his long burnouts, fast backups, and never-lift mentality. I've seen a lot of great "Jungle Pam" photos over the years, but I have to say that this one really stopped me for its candid nature and the amazing way in which it's composed, either intentionally or unintentionally. There's JP, surrounded, as usual, by adoring fans, dressed in her trademark halter top (this one from Trick Titanium), and it appears as if she's looking right past and through the multitudes to smile at our photographer, one of those great one-on-one eye-contact moments that we've all had (or at least imagined we were having) with drag racing superstars we can meet freely in the pits.

Okay, that's Steve Scott's super 10. (You can see more of Steve's pics here or visit his Facebook page here, where there also are a lot of photos.) I'm glad he shared them with us even though he admitted, "Getting specific on the details of these photos is a difficult deal, as they were shot 30-some years ago, and I never thought of cataloging or indexing, in some fashion. Like many other fans who took photos of that era, after the initial viewing, the photos/slides were tossed into shoeboxes and languished in a closet for years."

Which is exactly why it's time for YOU to drag out your old Kodachrome slides and FotoMat prints, scan them up, and send them to me here. These homegrown memories are the last great treasures of those golden days that we'll probably see unearthed, and everyone is just dying to see them.

Start sending, guys. I'll see you next week.

Wins and lossesTuesday, October 06, 2009

For as long as I can remember, "Low e.t. can cure cancer" has been a popular saying in the pits, but after yesterday's Miracle Monday in Memphis, I wonder if a win can cure a broken heart.

Jeff Arend's Funny Car win was truly inspiring stuff even if you don't know the guys behind the story like we do. Sixteen months after we lost our great champion Scott Kalitta, the guy who was tapped to follow him into the cockpit of his car – and let there be no mistake that it still is Scott's car, and notice that I did not use the world "replace" because Scott is irreplaceable – overcame a season and a half of heartache and bad luck to score an emotional victory that not only warmed the heart on a chilly day at Memphis Motorsports Park, but also went a long way toward healing all of those broken on that sad June day last year.

Although the DHL Toyota had turned the performance corner a few races ago, no one really expected the team to win a race this year; heck, while the other teams are embroiled in the Countdown to 1, they've been joking with Jerry Toliver about their "battle for 13th place."

From left, crew chief Nicky Boninfante, Arend, Connie Kalitta, team manager Rachel Brunner, and crew chief Jon Oberhofer celebrate in the winner's circle.
(Dani Cox photo)

The Kalitta team has won championships and the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals presented by Lucas Oil, so when crew chief Jon Oberhofer proclaimed this victory "the biggest race in the history of this team," that's really saying something. But, you know, I don't think he's wrong.

In Englishtown this season, the one-year anniversary of Scott's passing, the team held a private party in its pit area to remember their fallen brother. They hoped it would offer some closure and that they could at last put aside their grieving and get back to winning. It probably helped a lot for them to focus on the future, but I'd wager a fair sum that they didn't have full closure until Arend tripped the final-round win light in Memphis and the Kalitta name was back in the Funny Car winner's circle.

Todd Myers does the PR for Kalitta Motorsports, and he's a close and dear friend. We've collaborated on a lot of work throughout the years, including the design of the old NHRA,com and many specialty NHRA Web sites – he's also designing the upcoming 50th Kragen O'Reilly NHRA Winternationals Web site for us – and he's a great guy with a heart of gold. That's his photo at the top of this blog. Although he's not in there with wrenches flying, he's still a huge part of the team, and, by that, also one of those whose heart was broken. Among his contributions to aid our grieving was designing the memorial decal after the loss of Scott, allowing us to wear the T-shirts and display the decals proclaiming our love for Scott, and helping deal with the crush of people wanting to talk to Connie and the team.

(Dani Cox photo)

We talked at length last night – me in California and Todd in the Kalitta pit area, where, in Scott's honor, everyone was smoking Swisher Sweets and drinking Coors Light – about what this win meant to the team.

"In all my years in drag racing, I've never seen a team this excited about a win," he said. "After Scotty died, we didn’t know if it was a good idea to bring that car out, but that's what Conrad wanted, so that's what we did. I think we all had our hesitations, and this team has struggled so hard the last year. Most of the crew guys were there when Scott was killed, and just to see them happy again is amazing. Everyone is just so ecstatic that we won, and it was all for Scott."

The team won the race in style. Arend did his job behind the wheel, outpedaling Jack Beckman in round one, then Jon O and Nicky Boninfante tuned the car to two 4.10s and a 4.09 and, in the final, the fourth-fastest speed in the 1,000-foot era.

"Scott's biggest complaint was that the driver couldn't control the car with the way it was set up," said Jon O. "We worked on a lot of things from front to back and reached out to a lot of people in the class. Now, Jeff says the car is much easier to drive than when he got here. You know that Scott is looking down from heaven, telling Eric, Blaine, and Darrell, 'See? Those [expletives] finally listened to me!' Scott and Connie always wanted a competitive Funny Car more than anything. Winning is great, but it means so much more to do it the way we did it."

It was a day that Myers won't soon forget.

"Mondays are always surreal anyway because the pits are half empty," he said. "Then we had to sit through that mess this morning [the rain delay and the cleanup after Daniel Wilkerson's crash], and it's like, 'Are we ever gonna get through this? Come on!' When we finally get to racing, Jeff blows the tires off first round, and I'm like, 'Oh, crap.' He pedals, Beckman pedals, and we finally got some luck. Since Scott died, there's been this aura around the team that we had no luck. I asked Jon O and Nicky what they were going to do for second round, and they told me, 'We're fine; we feel really good about the car because it made some great early numbers, and we know what to do to back it down and make it not only go down the track, but down the track really, really quick.'

Celebration time. You think Todd Myers, far left, is happy? Recalls Jim Oberhofer, "Everyone on the starting line was emotional. I went up to Connie, who was looking at the scoreboard. In typical Connie fashion, he said, 'How the hell did that thing run so fast? Did it fall out of a tree?' "
(Auto Imagery photo)

"Second round, it runs a 4.10, the quickest e.t. of the round, and does it again the next round, and suddenly, it's like, 'Hey, we have a shot at winning this thing.' Normally I'll stay in the pressroom, but I had to be down on the line for this one. As we're getting ready to run, I turned around, and I don’t think I've ever seen that many different representatives of teams standing behind us watching. Not really close, but they were all up there, and they were standing behind our car because they wanted us to win.

"When I saw Tony [Pedregon] shut off in the final, I was just praying, 'Please go down the track. Stay in your lane. Stay in your lane. Stay in your lane.' Even knowing that Tony was dead in the water, it's all building, and it was amazing."

If you've ever seen Kalitta starting-line celebrations, you know they can be a bit rowdy, and this one certainly was, but that's more because it was a huge release of emotion and energy and heartache and hope and hurt and tears pent up in the last year and a half. What followed was just as magical.

"You have to tow through the pits to get back to the winner's circle," said Myers, "and as we passed all the pit areas, the teams were clapping and cheering and yelling; they were all so happy we won the race. Jeff handed the trophy to Connie and said, 'This is for Scott.' Connie took it smiled and said, 'Yeah, this is for Scott,' and then he handed it right back to Jeff and said, 'But you deserve this too.'

(Dani Cox photo)

"Conrad had told us before the final, 'Win or lose, I'm going home; I'm not gonna stick around for all this crap,' because that's just the way he is. Getting that e.t. slip that says 'I won' means the most to Conrad. Getting the trophy and getting his picture taken means nothing to him. But Doug [Kalitta] talked him into staying, and he did winner's circle and all the hat pictures, and you could tell he was happy, and I'm glad Doug talked him into staying. It was a great moment."

It had to be a special moment for Arend, too, who was honored to get the unenviable task of trying to keep the Kalitta legacy alive in Funny Car -- I mean, hey, no pressure, right? -- only to have the team struggle for the last year and a half. It's been a long time between wins for Arend – I was there in Reading in 1996 when he scored his only other win, ironically, in the same chassis with which Scott had won in Houston in 1989 -- and a lot of water has passed under his bridge since.

"Everyone is talking about how we did this as a team. Jeff stepped up, all the crew guys did their part, the crew chiefs did their job, and it was just awesome," said Myers. "Scotty would have loved it."

(Dani Cox photo)

“This is one of the best days of my life,” said Arend. “To get this win for Scott and Connie and everyone at Kalitta Motorsports is amazing. It’s surreal, and it definitely hasn’t all soaked in yet. I can’t explain what this win means to me and everyone on our team who has struggled so hard to get this Wally for Connie and for Scott. We turned a big corner today, and we're going to bring that trophy to Scott, that's for sure."

And Scott will get a chance to enjoy it, too. The team plans to take the Wally trophy – the actual trophy, not a duplicate – and epoxy it to Scott's grave in Florida.

Our own Brad Littlefield, who was closer to Scott than anyone on the staff, and who was there that fateful day in Englishtown, was there last night, hugging and crying with the team. He told me that Jon O called Scott's sons, Corey and Colin, right after the win and how Scott's widow called Jeff to tell him what a good job he did driving, which got him choked up. Like all of us.

A Kalitta Funny Car is back in the winner's circle, and so it seems like it's all come full circle. The world isn’t any more whole for the Kalitta team than it was before the win, but it's a little happier place for them, and for all of us.

Yesterday sure turned out better than it started, which was with the unconfirmed news that Shaun Carlson had died. Even though most people didn't know him but from his brief season a few years ago on the NHRA Pro tour, I'd known Shaun well before that from the five years that I covered NHRA's Sport Compact series for National DRAGSTER and the Web site that I ran.

We all knew that Shaun had been sick the last couple of years. He'd been diagnosed with Brugada syndrome, which causes abnormal heartbeats and can lead to sudden cardiac death, which is why it's also known as Sudden Unexpected Death Syndrome (SUDS). He took a turn for the worse in February when he had a trio of heart episodes, but he remained firmly involved with professional drifting, in which he was the car owner for former champ Sam "the Crazy Swede" Hübinette and their bad-ass Dodge Viper. Darren Jacobs, my pal at Mopar, had gotten my son and I tickets for the Formula Drift opener in Long Beach, Calif., in April, and I went hoping to see Shaun, but he was back in the hospital again the first day and not that well when he came out for the final day, when Hübinette finished second. I never got a chance to see him and missed him when we also attended the drift event in Sonoma two months ago. I wish I had tried harder.

When I got the news yesterday, I guess I wasn't totally surprised. It took a while for me to confirm his passing – still hoping it wasn't true, I called his fabrication business, NuFormz, and my call went to voice mail, which was full, which did not fill me with hope – but Darren finally got me in touch with his right-hand man, Brad Manka, who gave me the sad confirmation that we'd lost him at the too-early age of 35. I won’t share the details of his passing, but it does sound as if he was stricken suddenly in the night, which points a finger at SUDS.

After leaving drag racing, Carlson was the owner of this Dodge Viper drift machine, driven by Sam Hubinette.

Even though Mopar dropped its support of drifting a few months ago, Darren sent me a great bio on Shaun so that I could write his obituary. Those of you who know me or have followed this column know that I pour a lot of heart into any final farewell story; it's my final tribute to people who have made my life better and more interesting, and even though Shaun wasn't as well-known to many of you, I felt a home-page tribute was definitely in order. It was the right move and meant a lot to a lot of people.

Shaun's brother, Trevor, whom I have never met, dropped me a nice note to thank me for the story, and Rachel Kaizoji, who used to work here at NHRA, passed along this great message, which she said I could share. Before she worked at NHRA, she worked with Toyo on its sport compact program and met and got to know Carlson, who shared garage space with Toyo-backed racer Stephan Papadakis. She couldn't have been happier when he came to our biggest stage.

"I met him at the SEMA Show I think in 2000, but I already knew who he was since he was such a huge star in the sport compact world," she wrote. "I was there to congratulate him and line him up the first time he qualified with the Pros and walked through the POWERade doors [during pre-race introductions]. I was really proud of him. What a loss, but he sure accomplished a lot. He was a pioneer in drag racing even though he was such a young guy, and I know he was really important to so many, especially all those sport compact racers and followers who were happy to see one of their own make it to the Pros."

Shaun first hit my radar screen with a wild winged Ford Focus that he was campaigning before that, a tube-framed wonder that he built as a follow-up to his groundbreaking work of Papadakis' all-conquering Honda Civic. What makes these cars so amazing is that they were front-wheel-drive machines that ran, at the time, in the eight-second zone but later reached deep into the sevens and beyond. If you've ever nailed the gas on a front-wheel-drive of any kind – be it even a rental car – you know that they accelerate very differently than a rear driver, and you're fighting torque steer every inch of the way. Take that and multiply it by 10, and you might get an idea of the kind of skills that drivers like Carlson, Papadakis, Lisa Kubo, Ed Bergenholtz, Gary Gardella, Marty Ladwig, Nelson Hoyos, and other front-wheel-drive stars of the series had under their right feet.

Carlson's Mopar-backed SRT4 Pro FWD car was a winner in NHRA Sport Compact competitiion and set the national record.
Carlson qualified just once in the 2006 Pro Stock season and later took on an engineering role with the Don Schumacher Racing team.

He later built a screaming Dodge SRT4 that set the national record in NHRA's Pro FWD class and carried him to a few wins and some top-five finishes. His partnership with Mopar is what ultimately led him to subbing for Mopar ace Darrell Alderman at the 2004 Winternationals, and he showed his natural skill by winning a round, and two years later, he was a full-time driver for Don Schumacher Racing when "the Don" incorporated Pro Stock into his burgeoning program. He won the job over more than 20 others who applied, sealing the deal with a one-on-one audition in Las Vegas against Mike Corvo during the preseason.

I remember it being an interesting combination, with mohawked and earring-wearing Carlson going to work with then crew chief Bob Glidden, who's about as old school as they get. There were definitely growing pains between the two, and the car never ran as it should have – not sure if it was the driver or the car or both – and Shaun was later given a role in engineering with the team instead.

The message boards lit up with comments and wonder and diatribes about why and how he had gotten the job, but Shaun took it all in stride.

“Yeah, I read a lot of that stuff, and I’m not afraid to admit that some of it hurt,” he told ND Senior Editor Kevin McKenna then. “The fact is that there are a lot of people out there who don’t have respect for sport compact racers. Maybe they don’t like the way we look or the music we listen to or they don’t appreciate the technology that goes into our cars. I’m not really sure where it comes from, but it’s out there. There is a flip side, though. There are also a lot of sport compact racers who have a very negative view of the [NHRA POWERade] series. It swings both ways.

“[I hope] I can help alleviate some of that narrow-minded thinking. I want to be successful because of the faith that Don and Bob have shown in me, but I also want to win over here so people will realize that [sport compact and POWERade Series racers] aren’t that different. We all have a passion for the same thing; we just work in different venues.

“Don has never said anything about my piercings or my hair, and the only thing Bob has said was, ‘As long as you can drive that race car, I don’t care how many holes you’ve got in your head.’ I’m sure Bob’s first impression of me probably wasn’t too favorable, but now that he’s gotten to know me a little, he told me, ‘You seem like a really good kid.’ That’s good because I don’t plan on changing.”

Shaun was an original, and he'll be missed.

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