People collect all sorts of things, from cars to beer cans to movie posters and magazines, all of which require a lot of research and an outlay of dollars to build a substantial collection. For race fans like us, amassing an impressive collection of some of the things that mean the most to us is as simple as right-clicking your computer mouse.
What I’m talking about, of course, are drag racing photos that are posted all over the Internet (including, of course, this column). The photos are either saved for personal enjoyment or reposted and shared elsewhere. There are message boards, like The H.A.M.B., that have entire threads devoted to showing off great photos from the past (one thread, cited by a poster as "the best photo history of drag racing anywhere," has more than 1,200 pages!), and I get that. I know you do it (heck, there’s one guy on Nitromater who seems to republish only the photos that appear in this column, with nary a credit), and I understand the thrill of the hunt, the joy of finding a photo that evokes a personal memory, and sometimes sharing it with others.
I’m right there with you guys, though my “collection” is really small (as compared to a certain former National Dragster staffer and current Top Alcohol Funny Car racer whose collection exceeds 20,000 images for his own personal consumption), but that’s probably because I’m a bit spoiled. Just across the hall from my office is the NHRA photo library, with nearly 50 four-drawer file cabinets stacked two-high to the ceiling on all four walls each packed with thousandths of images. Just down the hall is the collection of books containing the proof sheets of every photo taken at every NHRA event from the mid-1950s through the early 2000s (when we fully converted to digital photography), which we estimate at more than 2.5 million images. And we're adding about 7,000 digital images at every national event, which are stored on massive hard drives to which I have easy access, so, as you can see, if I want to spend the afternoon looking at cool photos, I don’t need the Internet. When I do cruise the Internet for research or even enjoyment, I’ll save a photo here and there, either because I really dig it — for artistic, historic, or personal reasons — or because I’m looking ahead to a future column.
So by this time, I bet you're wondering, “So what makes Phil (right) click?” (You’re also probably wondering, “Can we just get on with it already?”) Before I show my hand, first a quick disclaimer:
This column relies on photos taken by others, including the collection of relentless vagabond road warriors who roamed the country in the 1960s and 1970s, preserving this time for us to enjoy decades later. I’m honored to have forged such great relationships and trust with guys like Steve Reyes, Jere Alhadeff, Tom West, Bob Snyder, Bob Plumer, and many others who have given me just about carte blanche to reuse their photos as I see fit because they know my intentions and my goals and that I always, always attach photo credits when I know the photographer. The Internet has trampled on photographer copyright in every walk of life, and the ease with which the images can be captured (and even cropped to remove watermarked credit) has certainly made that easier. I think many have given up any hope of controlling the images once they’re “in the wild,” but I still think giving photo credit goes a long, long way toward making them feel a little better about it. The problem is that the creator’s name is seldom attached to the image, and with each republishing moves further and further away from its origins and its identity. If your photo is included below (or you know the photographer), please drop me an email and I will credit it immediately. It’s my goal to have every one of them credited, so when you save and “reuse” them (and I know you will), the credit might stay with the image.
So, without further ado, here’s Part 1 of a collection of photos worth talking about.
I’m not sure which photographer had the guts to get down low with “Stormin’ Norman” Weekly ready to blast off the line at Pomona, but I’m very impressed with his ability to hang in there.
Calvin Rice cemented his name in the NHRA history books when he drove the J.E. Riley and Sons dragster to victory at the first NHRA Nationals in Great Bend, Kan. I haven’t seen many color photos of the car.
Another great, rare color photo from the 1950s, this is the famed Cook & Bedwell dragster, owned by Cliff Bedwell and driven by Emery Cook. According to legend, it was this team’s stunning 166.97-mph run at Lions Drag Strip in February 1957 that prompted concern over lack of stopping distance at dragstrips and led to the “fuel ban” of 1957-1963.
What did it cost to build the car that won Top Eliminator at the 1962 Nationals? If I’ve done my math right, well less than $8,000. That’s priced according to this great photo-illustration of Jack Chrisman’s dragster
Don Garlits didn’t get the nickname “Big Daddy” for nothing. The devoted father and loving wife Pat would bring their two daughters, Gay Lynn and Donna, to the track, and many of his foes took to deriding him as over the hill — “Daddy Don” some of them called him. As the story goes, NHRA announcer Bernie Partridge created the famous nickname at the 1962 Nationals after a spectacular run, saying something to the effect of “Well, looks like we’re going to have to start calling him ‘Big Daddy’ now.” I love this photo of the girls, Gay Lynn, left, and Donna, riding with “Big” on a parade lap, in what looks like 1967.
Like Garlits, Connie Kalitta earned his nickname. “The Bounty Hunter” famously painted the names of his most serious competition on the side of his dragster, then crossed them off as he beat them. Looks like a pretty good record so far.
In my “Things That Aren’t Here Anymore” column
, I talked about the days when teams would thrash on their cars in the parking lots of their hotels. Sometimes it was out of convenience — especially on the day leading up to a race before the track was open — and sometimes the tracks wouldn’t let the teams keep their cars in the pits overnight. Here are two of the sport’s heroes — Don Garlits (above) and Tom McEwen (below) — hard at work.
Here’s something you don’t see every day: a shirtless Don “the Snake” Prudhomme working on Don Garlits’ dragster.
Here’s another Snake”-driven rarity. Although he was running Funny Cars exclusively by this time, when Prudhomme landed the Army deal for the 1974 season, he painted his old Top Fuel dragster in Army colors. Although the front wing is different, I think this might even be the Kent Fuller-built Yellow Feather car from late 1971. This car never ran in competition -- this photo was only for a handout card from Wynn’s -- but that didn't stop Revell from making a model of it.
If there’s any doubt about how wild the Fuel Altereds of the 1970s were, this four-up photo of Dave Hough taking flight in the Nanook should give you an idea.
Longtime fans will recognize the name Beeline Dragway as the longtime home to the AHRA Winternationals (and, briefly, NHRA’s pre-Winternationals Winter Classic). The Arizona track was well-known for its impressive three-story timing tower — perhaps one of the first ever built — that was located behind the starting line, but this is the first shot I’ve seen from before the tower was built.
Call these two photos the beginning and the end of Orange County Int’l Raceway. (Above) A great photo, shot from the adjacent Interstate 5 freeway, as the iconic tower was under construction. This would have been the spring of 1967. (Below) An aerial photo that I believe was taken shortly after the track closed in late 1983. The tree-lined pits and the I-5 clearly visible, as well as the famous three-quarter-track drainage ditch that crossed under the track. The grass is yellowing, and the place is no longer the grand palace it once was.
Coming next week: Part 2
P.S.: I’ll be at the California Hot Rod Reunion this weekend in Bakersfield. Flag me down if you see me!
Usually I write about racers in this column, most of them heroes of my youth whose exploits I watched from the other side of the magazine page, and all too much lately, I’ve written about not just their careers but their lives in the past tense, as we’ve been losing them at an alarming rate. They’re obituaries in the guise of biographies and my final salute to them and their stories, eulogies that I feel compelled to give.
Today again I come to eulogize two more fallen drag racing heroes, though these two never won a drag race, never performed a smoky burnout for an appreciative crowd, and never had their names speed-read in a Steve Evans radio commercial.
They were parts of the NHRA family that I joined three decades ago, people who became my kin not just through association and familiarity but in dedication to the cause of promoting hot rodding and the NHRA. In the course of just a few days last week, we said our final goodbyes to former NHRA Safety Safari member Bud Evans and Phillis Jean “P.J.” Partridge, wife of former NHRA Division Director and Vice President Bernie Partridge.
I don’t use the term “family” here lightly or for lack of a better word.
When I joined the NHRA staff in May 1982, the headquarters was still in North Hollywood, and it was a small group – probably fewer than 30 people – but I could instantly tell there was a family there. Wally Parks was our stern but guiding father, Barbara the fiery yet devoted mother, and everyone else was like aunts and uncles and cousins and nephews. I thought it was very cool that so many husbands and wives were working together: the Parkses, the Partridges, Dale and Glynanna Ham, Darrell and Polly Zimmerman, Greg and Martee Xakellis, Buster and Ann Couch, and so many more.
I'd never seen such a dedicated group, dedicated because long before I got there, most had been forged in the fires when nothing was easy, when they had to scrape and scratch for every ounce of respect. They had to earn it through good old-fashioned legwork and the moral high ground. In those earliest days, every victory, every reluctant group of town fathers or law-enforcement agency won over must have felt like another brick laid in the foundation of Wally's dream, the dream they all believed in. You could tell that everyone there believed in the mission; these weren't people just cashing a paycheck.
The going was not easy, nor was it swift. There was no Internet or social media to spread the message, just the willingness of those who believed it to carry the message forth. Instead of email and fancy graphic flyers printed on slick stock in four-color, it was black and white and probably run off by hand on one of those old mimeograph machines we all remember from school, then tucked into envelopes and mailed to the early supporters.
From left, Bud Coons, Chic Cannon, Bud Evans, and Eric Rickman, on safari, 1955
The crew, reunited in Indy in 1994: from left, Rickman, Cannon, Coons, and Evans
The message also was delivered by hand, and Evans was one of those who helped. As a key member of the NHRA Drag Safari that began crisscrossing the land in 1954, Evans and his dedicated cohorts brought what Wally liked to call “hot rodding know-how” -- long before NAPA Auto Parts started using the term – to the masses. Southern California back then was the hub of acceleration activity, and years of setting up drag races and speed runs on the dry lakes gave them a lot of experience that they were willing and eager to pass along.
Led by Bud Coons, a former sergeant in the Pomona Police Department handpicked by Wally as the field director, they packed into a station wagon hitched to a trailer that carried everything needed to set up a mobile event: early timing equipment, a PA system, field telephones, a one-cylinder generator, and miles of stainless-steel wire to bring all the electronic equipment to life. Evans was the leader and mouthpiece to the multitude of car clubs who eagerly awaited their arrival at each stop. Chic Cannon, who had a background in engineering and car building, ran tech. Photographer Eric "Rick" Rickman was along to chronicle the action to be published in Hot Rod magazine, where Wally was still the editor. Evans, a lakes racer and announcer at the dragstrip in Colton, Calif., was, naturally, the announcer.
Typically, they’d roll into a town, usually on a Wednesday or Thursday, and stop at the local Socony Mobil gas station – Mobil was the Safari’s only sponsor, providing free fuel for the long drives – and once word filtered around that they had arrived, hot rodders from all over swarmed the station. The Safari members would meet with local law-enforcement and civic officials, and Coons would sometimes do radio or television interviews to promote the upcoming weekend’s event. With the help of the car clubs, they would set up the racetrack, sometimes even erecting a temporary timing and announcing tower.
Evans, who was a member of the Winders Car Club and the SCTA, didn’t join the team full time until 1955 – in 1954, it had been Coons, Cannon, Rickman, and assorted others, including Evans. Evans often joined Cannon at the pre-race tech inspection and created a large file of index cards with information on each car -- the engine and drivetrain specs, where it was based, and how fast it had gone – to aid his announcing.
With his bird's-eye view, Evans also was one of the first to spot potential trouble, whether an issue was brewing in the pits or whether some hot dog hot shoe was pushing a car beyond its or his limits. “When they ran, if they weren't straight arrow, I was screaming bloody murder,” he told Hot Rod in a 2009 interview. “Because as the meet progresses and they go faster and faster -- dump the can to it, you know -- if he's not good in the beginning, he's going to be worse as he gets going.”
Evans, 86 who remained a constant visitor to the drags twice a year in Pomona, is the second of the iconic foursome to pass away. (Rickman died Jan. 24, 2009 at age 90.)
"Peej" and "the Bird": so happy together
P.J. and Barbara Parks: Two forces to be reckoned with.
The Partridges, right, with Wally, far left, and Barbara, center, and Dale and Glynanna Ham, who ran Division 4.
P.J., right, with Rondi, left, and Joni Elmslie, circa mid-1980s
Unless you were a Division 7 racer, you probably didn’t know P.J. Partridge -- “Peej” to her close friends – but her influence and fingerprints were all over NHRA’s West Coast operations. Bernie died in April 2012 after a long illness and was joined by his loving wife just two years after; she succumbed to a brain tumor Oct. 5, at her home in Hawaii.
In the early 1980s, when I first sat down at an NHRA typewriter, NHRA’s National Field Office was not located within NHRA headquarters as it is now. As I mentioned, the HQ at that time was in North Hollywood in the famed San Fernando Valley, but the NFO was in Upland, Calif., about a half-hour ride east. For a kid who grew up in the population-dense South Bay area of SoCal, Upland might as well have been on the moon, the NFO staff like early settlers in a distant region.
The Partridges ran the place, where the important task of coordinating divisional activities and approving competition licenses took place, and like Barbara was the den mother in NoHo, P.J. held an equally tight rein in Upland.
Before it was brought into NHRA headquarters in Glendora, the Partridges ran NFO in Upland while the NHRA was still in North Hollywood, and P.J. helped run the operation with a firm hand. P.J. had been married to Bernie since the early 1960s and was there throughout his rise in the NHRA ranks, from track manager of Inyokern Dragstrip to NHRA regional advisor to division director and chief announcer to regional director, national field administrator, and, finally, to vice president-field administration before his retirement in 1989. P.J. stayed on an extra year before she, too, left the company to enjoy the golden years with Bernie and left behind indelible memories for those she mentored there.
Joni Elmslie, my longtime National Dragster colleague, was one of a group of young women under P.J.’s charge back in those days, a group that also included her sister Rondi as well as Billie Petty, Cindy Gibbs, and Carman Mitchell.
“I was a very young and naive 17-year-old when I went to work for ‘Peej’ on the timing clocks in the tower during the Winternationals and World Finals at Pomona, knowing very little about drag racing,” Joni recalled. “I remember always wanting to do the best job I could (many nights during the races dreaming in e.t.s and mph), not so much for Bernie, our always-entertaining track announcer, but for P.J., the true matriarch of the National Field Office family.
“I still remember the day she told me that it was approved and official, I was now a full-time employee of the NHRA: Dec. 1, 1980. P.J. always ran a tight ship and allowed Bernie to be the ‘out-front’ entertainer. Although always working side by side for endless hours, whether at a divisional or national event, P.J. was tireless and expected the same of those around her.
“When the NFO and HQ merged in Glendora in 1987, I was given the opportunity to try my hands at something different and work for National Dragster. My only apprehension with taking that position was leaving P.J., not that I would be miles away, but just down the hall behind the ND glass door. I remember she took me aside and told me she didn’t want to hold me back; she wanted me to take the step, so I did. Thanks, P.J., for teaching me that if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. Godspeed.”
Billie, who also came to work for ND after a while, working in the Membership Department, remembers P.J. as “an amazing dichotomy: the consummate old-fashioned gal and the ultra-modern woman. There is a very long list of successful women that have been mentored and promoted by P.J.’s efforts, yet she never sought the limelight herself, comfortable as the wife of Bernie and the mother of their four sons. Her love and loyalty for Bernie and her family is beyond measure.
“The first time I met P.J. was through her family. She was warm and welcoming; thus began a relationship that would endure for many years. She gave me my first office job, as she did for many other young women. She taught me how to use the English language in new and surprising ways – vocabulary was huge with her – and she was a master of the hug!
"The last time we all had dinner with P.J. was right before she moved to Hawaii. We all laughed and talked about our lives and what our future plans might be. At the end of the evening, several of us were talking about when we might see her again, as her new adventure was taking her to the islands. We were excited for her but saddened for ourselves, just as we are now that she has once again moved on to another great adventure. P.J. was a very private person, and as a sign of respect, I will continue that legacy for her. Each of us has our own memories of a very special woman, and she will be missed. Her care, concern, and mentoring will always be appreciated and recognized as a contribution that created who we are today and gave dimension to the sport of drag racing!”
Cindy Gibbs, daughter of former NHRA Competition Director and Vice President Steve, also was among the young ladies who learned from P.J.
“My memories of P.J. are all over the place, from being a young girl, getting a ride-along with my parents in Bernie and P.J'.s speed boat on Puddingstone Lake to delivering a special egg-salad-sandwich lunch to only her during the Pomona events to watching her put a wayward drag racer firmly in his place,” she reminisced. “Lemme tell ya, no one could do that quite like 'Peej.' I giggle when I say that I was deathly afraid of her when I was young; yes, always pleasant to me, but I knew I never wanted her angry with me, for sure. As a mother of four boys and running the Pacific Division with her husband, she needed to be that way; it was absolute self-preservation, as I would find out firsthand many years later.
“I went to work for NHRA in 1985 as part of the National Field Office under Bernie and P.J.'s guidance and had some of the very best years of my life during that time. The team of people I worked with will always be family; with racing in my blood, I loved every minute. P.J. taught me so much, much more than I ever realized until I found myself in Spokane [Wash.] 24 years later, in a racetrack-management position. I would sit at my desk, having just dealt with a fired-up racer, and I would think of her. It took me a good year or so to grow some thicker skin like P.J. always had yet not lose myself in the process. I'm happy that I got the chance to thank her the last time I saw her for those lessons she taught me; she flashed me her classic P.J. grin, and I knew she was pleased. Her last comment to me was 'Ohana' ['family' in Hawaiian], sealed with a hug.”
As I mentioned earlier, the sense of camaraderie and unity of purpose I felt way back then still resonates with me. Losing Barbara and then Wally, Dick Wells, Bernie, P.J., and many others who helped forged the path, not just for drag racing but for me, is heartbreaking. I was so blessed to be surrounded by so much dedication and purpose.
The day that Barbara died, in 2006, I was driving down the freeway, listening to the radio and thinking about her. She had been tough and fiery and scared us all yet perhaps misunderstood as an unforgiving taskmaster when really what it was about was an unflinching, unrelenting desire to help Wally forge the dream. I remember the radio playing “Drift Away” by Dobie Gray, and this verse summed it all up for me when I think about those passionate people who let me be part of the family and part of the effort.
Thanks for the joy that you've given me,
I want you to know I believe in your song.
The rhythm and rhyme and harmony
You helped me along, makin' me strong.
To all of them, I say thanks from us all for all that you did. Thanks for giving us the joy of a sport we love. Thanks for being the ones who created the verse and melody for us all to dance along to. Thanks for everything you did to make us strong. And I still believe in your song.
A lot of race car drivers would describe themselves as “fearless,” but only one driver that I know of actually incorporated it into his name: “Fearless Fred” Goeske, who raced Funny Cars and rocket cars for decades and left us last Tuesday at age 76.
News of his passing came to me from my old pal, former Funny Car racer Jeff Courtie, who, like Goeske, raced regularly at “the Pond,” San Fernando Raceway. The San Fernando Valley was certainly a hotbed for racing in those days, with its residents in various communities including "TV Tommy" Ivo, Don Prudhomme, Bob Muravez, and countless others, many of whom were members of the seminal Burbank Road Kings car club.
Goeske grew up in Thousand Oaks -- just west of the SFV – and enjoyed cars in high school, cruised Van Nuys Boulevard, and, after tinkering first with a World War II surplus jeep then a '32 Ford, graduated to a Chevy V-8-powered Crosley that he raced at San Fernando. His erstwhile racing career was interrupted when he was drafted in 1960, but he made connections while in the service, and when he returned to California, he started a finance company, specializing in helping servicemen get cars. He made a lot of money and didn’t mind spending it on exotic cars. He owned a Porsche and a Jaguar and even a Formula 2 race car.
It was a heady time for drag racing, as the first Funny Cars were just being hatched, and Goeske wanted in on the fun. He was friends with Don Alderson – inventor of the Milodon engine – who told him about an opportunity to buy into a sponsored deal that featured a Barracuda.
This wasn’t just any Barracuda, but the wild rear-engine Hemi 'Cuda that had already been run – and crash-landed – by Tom McEwen. Apparently, it had all of the aerodynamic qualities of a wadded-up piece of paper. A second version was built for 1966, slower and lighter than the original. Fiberglass doors, hood, and front fenders replaced the steel units, and slots were cut in the large rear window to allow air to pass through and eliminate the pressure under the body; to a similar end, the front grille openings were also blocked. It’s this car that Goeske took over, along with the sponsorship from the Plymouth Dealers Association of Southern California with the stipulation that he run the car extensively and locally, which he did through the end of 1967, tallying his biggest win at the Hot Rod
Magazine Championships at Riverside Raceway in April.
Goeske went conventional in 1968, commissioning Exhibition Engineering’s Ronnie Scrima and Pat Foster to build him a new Barracuda, which he dubbed Hemi 'Cuda II and won in its debut at Lions Drag Strip. After being lost to fire, the car was rebuilt as the Bushwhacker for the rest of the year, and Goeske easily was in the West Coast’s top echelon of Funny Car racers that year.
For 1969, Plymouth Dealers Association, looking to promote the hot new Road Runner, asked him to run a one-off Road Runner body, which was built by Contemporary Fiberglass and stood out in the crowd of Barracudas and Chargers. Goeske went on tour as part of the Coca-Cola Cavalcade of Stars and scored numerous big wins on the circuit, and he claimed top honors at the prestigious Popular Hot Rodding
Nationals over a field that included Don Schumacher and the Chi-Town Hustler.
He switched to a Duster body for the 1970 season and lost the car in a huge fire at Capitol Raceway after the engine blew. He was able to honor the remainder of his booking by buying his ’68 Cuda back from new owner Joe Bush, who ran the Speed Sport shop in Chicago.
Goeske ran Duster-bodied cars through the 1972 season, then switched to the very popular Vega body. He competed for several more years in Vegas until he had another bad fire in August 1976, during Portland Int’l Raceway’s Coca-Cola Cavalcade event. The fire destroyed the car and ended his nitro career.
Citing a continued need for speed but not wanting to keep pace with the skyrocketing costs of running a nitro car, including the strain on engines and drivetrain as the cars got quicker and faster, he decided that low-maintenance, hydrogen-peroxide-fueled rocket cars would fill that need. “You just pour fuel in them, and you go as fast as you can stand,” he explained.
His first rocket car was a Chevy Monza-bodied Funny Car, powered by a Ky Michaelson-built motor, and he walked away from a scary moment when the right rear tire blew at speed. Goeske later bought the famed Chicago Patrol Mustang II nitro car and converted it to rocket power, too.
He raced rocket cars through the end of 1981, during which time he experienced the worst crash of his career, in Spokane, Wash., when the parachute got wrapped around the right rear tire at 275 mph, pulling the car hard to the right and over an embankment. The car was destroyed and Goeske badly injured.
After his racing career ended, Goeske founded Design Deluxe Manufacturing in Canoga Park, Calif., specializing in the manufacturing of custom wheel adapters and repair or modification to aluminum wheels.
You can see more Goeske photos on his company website, www.wheeladapter.com.
There’s also a fine recent article about Goeske on the Driving Line website.
Before the U.S. Nationals slips too far into our rearview mirrors, I wanted to share the photos below with you. They come from former NHRA Division 1 photographer Phil Hutchinson, who has been going to Indy for a long time and has quite a keen eye (in retrospect, at least) for some subjects I thought you’d enjoy as a dessert to the smorgasbord of photos I shared from Tom Kasch. He recently scanned about 70 images from his early days behind the lens and offered to share some with us. (The rest are on his website; address at the end of this column.)
“Some of these are from the stands in Indy (the old wooden stands on the east side were great), and some are taken from the starting line after I snuck out there! Yes, before I became a legitimate photographer, I used to sneak out to the starting line at least once during an event. Richard Brady knew me pretty well from my getting thrown off the starting line, and after I did become a credentialed photographer, he told me it was good to see me with a vest!! I shot slides over film as I would have a slide show each year at Indy using the motel-room wall or a sheet for the screen."
As much as I enjoy writing in-depth features about people, places, and things from our sport’s history, you know that I also dig seeing other people’s photographs, and if my email is any indicator, so do a lot of you, so enjoy these pics. He didn’t include years on any of them, so I’m going to give them my best shot.
Don Prudhomme set the drag racing world on its ear at the 1982 U.S. Nationals when he powered his Pepsi Challenger Trans Am to an unheard-of 5.63 clocking during qualifying. Prudhomme dominated (but did not win) the event; he repeatedly broke wrist pins, leading to engine damage and fires like this one. There’s a lot of debate on whether this was the result of nitrous-oxide use; “Snake” says no. You can read more about that great event and nitrous-or-not controversy here.
Here’s Larry Dixon (Sr.) riding out a blaze in Jerry Johansen’s Chevy-powered Howard Cam Rat. My gut says this is 1975, but it could be 1976 or 1977. Dixon was the seventh member of the Cragar Five-Second Club and the first (and only) Chevy-powered driver in the club thanks to his 5.94 at the 1973 Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway.
Jack Ostrander, who recently was an honoree at the NHRA National Hot Rod Reunion, is best known as a hard-running independent Top Fuel racer through the 1980s and 1990s, but he was involved in nitro racing long before that, then spent the1970s racing Blown Fuel Hydro boats before returning to Top Fuel in 1979. “Pontiac Jack” (so named for his Pontiac, Mich., hometown) was one of the most friendly and appreciative racers out there. At the time he was racing, he owned a bowling alley, which explains his permanent number: 300. I’d guess this photo of him launching the blower in a big way is from the very early 1980s.
Here are two pretty famous guys before they became really famous, and not only can I give you a year but the exact round, too (go me!). That’s Frank Manzo in the near lane taking on Joe Amato in his Alcohol Dragster in the third round of Pro Comp at the 1980 event. Manzo was fresh off his first career win at that year’s SPORTSnationals, and Amato had won that year’s Le Grandnational in Canada. Pro Comp back then was a 32-car field, so this was the quarterfinals; Amato beat Manzo’s altered, 6.70 to 6.75, before red-lighting to Darrell Gwynn in the semifinals.
Gwynn didn’t win Pro Comp that year; he lost in the final to the late Billy Williams, whose car you can see here closest to the camera parked alongside another tough-running machine, that of Joe Severence, right before the 1979 final. Williams, affectionately known to many as “the Munchkin” for his diminutive stature, raced like a giant in those days. He was the reigning world champ when he came to Indy that year, where he was the low qualifier and made the event’s two quickest runs, 6.579 in the quarterfinals against Ken Veney and 6.581 in the final against Gwynn, whose engine expired at half-track. It was Williams' second straight Indy win and ninth career victory (all since 1977).
I’m going to go out on another limb here and say that this photo of Gary Smart’s Alcohol Dragster is from 1981 or 1982, during his long association with driver Gary Southern, who was a tree surgeon based in Glendora, Calif., now the home of NHRA. The duo went on to make big history in Indy in 1988 when they dominated the class with the then-new PSI supercharger. You can see the Arias engine in the car, and I heard from Nick Arias III, who's seen in this photo on the left packing the 'chute along with crewmember Mark Peterson. "This was the U.S. Nationals in 1981, where Gary was runner-up to Brian Raymer in the rain-delayed Tuesday morning final," he remembered. "More heartbreaking to me than the loss was not being there Tuesday morning as I was at the airport catching the plane home. My dad, Nick Jr., and Dale were longtime pals, with Dale being instrumental in the Arias Hemi's success. We lost Dale much too early and miss him daily."
Pretty cool photo of Ron Mancini’s Super Stock pit area, showing his two SS/AA Darts, with “Dyno Don” Nicholson’s 1970 Mustang Pro Stocker in the background, This would be 1975 or 1976, when a couple of NHRA Pro Stock racers traded in their Pintos to run the longer-wheelbase older Mustang to take advantage of a generous weight break that NHRA allowed them to run.
Gary Scelzi was just appearing on the radar screens of race fans in the 1980s as the driver of this Alcohol Dragster. He won the 1985 World Finals and 1986 Winternationals and was runner-up at the 1986 Indy event to Eldon P. Slick. What I love most about this photo is the old finish-line tower in the background. It was atop this structure that all of the great “crash shooters” gathered and where I met for the first time greats like Steve Reyes and Norman Blake as we stood up there waiting for the next calamity to unfold before our lenses.
Neil Mahr was a great friend to the media, and it was a sad day when we lost him in April. In addition to competing in Top Fuel in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Mahr produced what I remember as the first commercially available drag racing calendars (Superstars of Drag Racing
, as I recall).
I’ll finish up with this great candid shot of “Big Daddy” Don Garlits guzzling a nice Hawaiian Punch. I’m going to say that this was after his incredible comeback win at the 1984 event, taking my clues from the Old Milwaukee hat he’s wearing (which that year was sponsoring the Candies & Hughes team), the beverage itself (sponsor then of Roland Leong’s Funny Car), and the Schlitz Racing (sponsor of Raymond Beadle’s Blue Max) hat on the gentleman at the right. That’s right, folks; I’m the world’s greatest detective.
Thanks to Phil for sharing these pics. They’re just a small sample of what he has on his NortheastDragReview.com website; you can go directly to the gallery by clicking here.