You may have seen the announcement on the NHRA.com home page last week that Don Prudhomme and Jim Nicoll will be at this year’s Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals to talk about their memorable 1970 Indy final round. It’s just one of six great nostalgia-themed special shows we’re putting together (we’ve already announced two others -- “Big Daddy” Don Garlits reliving [complete with a shave] his 1967 win and Kenny Bernstein talking about his amazing double at the 1983 event -- with three more still to be revealed), and I’m pretty sure you’ll find me front and center for all six.
Anyway, as we were preparing for that announcement, I was thumbing through the photo files from that 1970 Indy event and was struck by the sheer volume of just really cool old photos, many of which fit our current Things That Aren’t Here Anymore discussion, so I scanned up a double handful to share.
Two things that aren’t at Indy anymore: the 132-foot speed trap that spanned the finish line and the Marathon win light. (Of course, this particular Marathon billboard took a pretty good hit from Connie Kalitta in 1971; remember the article
Speaking of the finish line, here’s a great shot of Garlits bombing through the traps with Swamp Rat 13. People forget that he reached the semifinals of this event before red-lighting to Nicoll. The early 1970s was the last hurrah of the slingshot Top Fueler in Indy. Prudhomme won the 1970 event and Steve Carbone the 1971 event in the great burndown with Garlits (who by then was in his rear-engine car), but from 1972 on, every Top Fuel winner has had the engine in the back.
We’ve all seen the photo of Jimmy King about to flip his dragster overbackward while racing Bob Ivett in the first pair of the first round of Top Fuel (leading his team to humorously weld a caster wheel on top of the roll cage for the next event), but I had never seen the aftermath photo at right until I dug through the files. That’s King sliding down the rail on his head. He was not hurt (other than his feelings).
I couldn’t find the original of this photo, so this is a scan from the issue that I felt needed to be included. It's Shirley Muldowney, suiting up for her national event debut with her twin-engine gas dragster. The caption was very complimentary, calling her “a most capable handler” and going on to note that “super-straight runs impressed the male drivers and fans alike.”
(Above) Hurst created a lot of goodwill for its company with the introduction of the Shifter Hospital for broken parts. The Shifty Doc could help with more than just your shifter. (Below) Ron Rotter’s AA/FD team got an assist from the doc and friends for last-minute work on its car. Remember when Top Fuel guys would turn their cars over in the pits? You don’t see that anymore.
“Wild Willie” Borsch put his new Winged Express through tech, and the bearded wonder (standing in front of the car) responded by running the then-quickest AA/FA e.t. ever, a 7.11 during action in Comp.
Even Roger Miller knows that it really does rain in Indianapolis in the summertime. Carl Poston and his A/Altered (above) sat forlornly, waiting out rain that affected several days of the event. (Below) Yep, back in the day, there were no fancy trailers with lounges in which to seek refuge when it rained.
Former world champ Norm Reis turned a lot of heads with this creation: a radical Model T-styled BB/Gas Dragster, complete with a scaled-down grille and a “Woody panel” body.
I couldn’t find this photo in the coverage, but Pat Dakin seems pretty despondent as he sits in G.L. Rupp’s Top Fueler. Dakin, who is still competing in Top Fuel, didn’t qualify for the field, which may have been the source of the anguish in this photo, which, as I remember, was also made into one of those “I can’t believe I let my subscription expire” kind of ads.
The Prudhomme-Nicoll final wasn’t the only weird moment of the event; it probably only barely makes the top three. Here’s No. 2: Apparently, Pro Stock racer Bob Banning Jr. thought it would be a swell idea to do a burnout while waiting in the staging lanes, but then the throttle stuck, sending him crashing into the back of fellow racer Bo Laws’ machine, which then crashed into the car in front of him. That’s Banning holding his head in apparent disbelief.
And the event’s weirdest-moment honor goes to the starting-line photographers who decided to duke it out just as dean Lowery and Joe Lemley were pulling to the line for the Modified final. The crowning moment (pun intended) came when the fella on the right had the toupee knocked from his head. You can see it by his right elbow as it’s falling to the ground.
As much as I love words, I gotta say that the old line about “A photo is worth a thousand words” sometimes can be very true. Long after the last of our heroes have left us and can no longer share their stories, we’ll always have photos to remember them by.
You guys are sooooo predictable. Any time I gush about “the good ol’ days” with memories about how cool things used to be, I get a tsunami of emails echoing my declarations and patting me on the back for being a genius and a keeper of the flame ... which is why I love you guys.
(You guys also love Linda Vaughn; she was on so many lists that I decided to include her just once and followed form with other duplicated additions.) As John Blake wrote, “ 'The Show' just wouldn't have been complete without her decorating the grounds for so many years. A true legend of the sport that probably never took a competitive lap, turned a wrench, or put on a firesuit.” L.V. is still with us, just not the ever-present icon she once was.
Anyway, here are some of the great reader-suggested additions to my list:
“Driver nicknames like ‘Big Daddy’ … cars with names like Budweiser King instead of just the sponsor's name ... seating so close to the racing surface you can feel the sound rattle your bones ... the chance to see the top names at a local track via match racing or weekend events.” — Michael Ostrofsky
“Tennis balls tied together in the injectors ... pit crews in white pants and white T-shirts ... everyone smoking in the pits …wheelstanders.” – Gary Crumine
“ ‘Smokin US 30’ near Gary where you had a Funny Car show every Wednesday night. We used to have our buddy drop us off on the side of Route 30. We would run across, dodging traffic, and sneak in through a farm field loaded with briars and sticker bushes. Left a lot of blood and hide in that field as a teenager! … Union Grove, Wis., there was the motorcycle wheelie rider, ‘the Magnificent Maurice’; he did his antics between rounds ... and let’s not forget the kids in the trees on the farmer side of the track watching the fuel cars at the ‘Grove.' ” — Glenn Swiderski
“San Fernando Drag Strip every Sunday ... twin-engine dragsters ... going to Lions for a Saturday night Top Fuel race and seeing low e.t. of the world. ... the OCIR Funny Car shows ... Ontario Motor Speedway … the AHRA Winternats at the old Tucson Dragway ... Firebird and Speedworld in Phoenix.” — Cliff Morgan
“The beautiful, often under-dressed females who would back up the cars after the burnouts. What a show they provided; the ‘backup ladies’ and female crewmembers were a very colorful part of drag racing way back when!” — Craig Hughes
“Kodachrome and Tri-X film ... Hot Rod Magazine’s Gray Baskerville ... CJ Hart ... ‘Jungle Pam’ working the crowd ... Lions and Fremont dragstrips ... Silver firesuits ... Top Gas and AA/FA.” — Steve Reyes
“The outstanding drivers and teams lost to the dollars. They gave a lot of blood sweat and tears to the sport.” — Gary Watson
“In the days before computers, when fuel cars could run best ever times by a tenth or more on a single run ... manually pushing back Top Fuelers … the qualifying method where they would go through all classes from Stock to Top Fuel, then start all over again ... driving through hotel parking lots during national event weekends to see all the cars on ramp trucks and open trailers.” — Jim Prezlock
“Using a portable tape recorder to capture the radio-commercials for a race, then dissecting the names to see EXACTLY how many cars would be there ... anything on ABC had to have Keith Jackson (no offense to Bill Fleming or Chris Economacki, but 'Oooohh, Doctor!’ Keith just seemed like he actually dug being there) ... having to systematically find the perfect seat location, wanting to get the least amount of poles in your shot, and yet NEEDING the pole with a PA horn, to know what was going on … the 'Blue Goose' at Byron ... Being the first guy at school with the newest SS&DI, DRUSA, Hot Rod, etc. ... track food; it might have been the most mundane burger/Sloppy Joe/whatever in the world, but when you’re eating it while watching Garlits fire up, it tasted like heaven ... before ‘hero cards' became an actual industry where every team has them, only a select few teams did it, and it was referred to in less-compact jargon... (‘hey, Snake has free pictures of his CAR!!’) … seeing drag racing on The Munsters and Adam 12 and Walter Brennan racing Tommy Ivo on The Tycoon ... waiting for Funny Car Summer to come to ‘a theatre near YOU!’ " — “Chicago Jon” Hofmann
“Multiple teams helping in late-round thrashes … streakers … three-four events televised per year … Diamond P and TNN American Sports Cavalcade … starting-line burndowns … sleeping in slicks … nobody staging the cars (drivers actually did it on their own) … burnouts without throttle stops … shoe polish on front wheels to prevent red-lighting … Funny Car front tires on Top Fuelers … Garlits’ rear view mirrors … hand written e.t. slips … paint bubbled on bodies by the header flames … interviews that didn’t mention sponsors … five-yellow-bulbed Christmas Trees … burnout contests … cars changing lanes after being fired … the Popular Hot Rodding and Super Stock Nationals … Fire bottles on the steering column …canards on Funny Cars.” — Rich Hanna
"Your list reminds me why I loved drag racing in the early years, but you left one thing out: 'Jungle Pam!' " — Guy Wills
“Diamond P Sports ... Steve Evans’ pitch for NHRA membership on each event broadcast ... NHRA Today ... embroidered crew uniforms ... injector hats that sit JUST above the top of the rollcage ... Larry Minor vs. Paul Candies bidding wars at the DRAW auction …teams rolling their cars back from between the trailers for warm-ups ... the Car Craft All-Star Drag Racing Team ... single fuel pump/single magneto “cackle” … the starting-line banner at Pomona … rain-delay poker games.” — Mitch Cooper
“Powder Puff races … Coca Cola Cavalcade of Stars, ‘T.V. Tommy’ vs. ‘Big Daddy’… hot pants and halter tops … regional match racers … station wagon tow vehicles … straight-axle gassers ... slicks out past the rear wheel wells.” — Anthony Groff Sr.
“The Daily Dragster during Indy week ... Pro Comp (best class ever) ... Modified Eliminator ... print mags like Drag Racing USA and SS&DI ... injected nitro Funny Cars (Jack Ditmars and later Ken Veney) ... airplane front wheels on dragsters.” — Nunzio Valerie Jr.
“Gassers! Any and all, but especially Stone, Woods & Cook and either of ‘Big John’ Mazmanian's Willys or Austin ... cruisin' Whittier Blvd. on Friday and Saturday night outside of Bob's Big Boy … the original Guasti Homestyle Café in Ontario [Calif.], where so many of the race teams 'fueled up' on breakfast before heading to Pomona.” — Ken Hamer
"Jolly Jack Williams — former Top Fuel driver, ad man, promoter of races and pyramids — pacing around chewing on his unlit cigar … John 'Zookeeper' Mulligan quietly puffing on his stogie contemplating his next run … Dick Landy clutching one between his teeth looking dandy … CJ Hart would puff on an old stogie, too, gave him a look of distinction. Also on several occasion, CJ, riding his little Honda motorbike, would charge the starting line, lock up the brakes, and slide across it sideways to the roaring approval of a cheering crowd.” — Alan Earman
“K-rail guardrails; you could see much more as the rails were lower than today’s concrete walls … watering stations. Dragsters would gather at a multihosed spigot to drain and refill the blocks after a run. … pit passes. Only the true drag racing lover would step up for another $1.50 to $3 for the privilege of leisurely touring the pits to get close to the cars and drivers … stands very close to the starting line. Some stands were so close to the fire-up road the zoomie headers would blow your hair if you had a front-row seat … ‘Weed Sweeper’ headers … Jr. Fuel … dragster bodies that were show-car quality works of art with paint to match.” — Terry Spencer.
“Quarter-mile nitro drag racing … the smell of real rubber ... real rivalries …the smell of In-N-Out burgers cooking behind the concession stand at Irwindale Raceway ... Moroso parties in the middle of nowhere at Indy ... having a rag in your pocket meant you were part of the crew and you walked out to the starting line with the car ...class acts like Paul Candies ... watching drag racing and figure skating on the same TV show … 32-car Top Fuel fields … when Indy was really something special … when you went to a national event, the local racers showed up and made each event a little different … Mazzarella ‘Pig Outs’ at the Finals.” — Michael Anderson
“US 30 dragstrips in York, Pa., and Gary, Ind. … roller starters (starting line at Lions, pits in Englishtown) …Fuel Altereds in Comp Eliminator ... hydrazine ... the English Leather Calendar Girls ... ‘Broadway Bob’ Metzler.” — Mike Lewis
Zane Shubert's round-wheel-equipped Top Fueler (1965)
“A motel parking lot full of the guys you only read about working on their cars … Having your parents never find out that you skipped school and hitched a ride out to the track to see the guys from the motel parking lot race … Tech in a supermarket parking lot ... A trip to Indy in an old Ford van pulling an open trailer with your best effort and life savings sitting out in the open ... Very quietly and discreetly spending the night in the pits because all the money went to just getting there, never mind getting home ... Having a car that didn't need much between rounds so you could catch up on sleep with a shop rag over your eyes, laying on a jacket, on the open trailer, during fuel qualifying … a section of grandstand downtrack full of the guys like Prudhomme, McEwen, Roland ... old West Texas Dragstrips … Winston and Miss Winston … ping pong or rubber balls in injector stacks all somehow chained together ... all 32 of them little red balls in Ivo's injectors … 'You oil it down, you clean it up!' … Being able to get a junkyard engine, go fuel racing, and not having it blow up because you know how to run it … the things you used to do that you wouldn't dare do now … trophy girls ... cam grinder rivalries … car manufacturer rivalries ... round steering wheels on dragsters.” — Richard Pederson
“You left out Pontiac and Buick from your Chrysler vs. Ford vs. Chevy vs. Oldsmobile in Top Fuel listing. There certainly were a number of racers that used Pontiac and Buick engines back in the day (Eddie Hill’s dual Pontiac engine quad rear tire car and ‘T.V. Tommy’ Ivo’s dual- and later four-engine Nailhead Buick powered cars). ... The variety of engines and chassis being used. Everyone was always experimenting with someone different; unlike the cookie-cutter cars today, where they are all pretty much the same. ... race team and manufacturer rivalries like between Stone, Woods & Cook and ‘Big John’ Mazmanian and how the Engle/Iskenderian ‘Camshaft Wars’ played out each week in the Drag News and National Dragster advertisements." — Robert Nielsen
Nielsen, and quite a few others, didn’t know about some of the things that I wrote and thought that a little explanation might be in order.
The 10-10-10 tune-up: This one wasn’t as well-known as I thought it was, but I remember hearing about it. It was the 1960s tuner’s Hail Mary combination: 10 percent more nitro, 10 percent more blower, 10 degrees (or 10 percent in some people’s books) more magneto. Mix well. Close your eyes. Austin Coil tells me that this was something that teams were more likely to do when they went from running at sea level to altitude “and that was still a bit too much.”
As Jim Nicoll is shut off, Don Schumacher, middle, prepares to move in to face "the Snake" in the 1973 Tulsa, Okla., PDA event Funny Car final.
The break rule: If a winning driver were unable to return for the next round due to breakage or a crash, the losing driver was allowed back in his spot. There are some famous examples of final rounds where three cars towed to the starting line, with the third team (the one with low e.t. of the two eliminated semifinalists) hoping that one of the other two couldn’t fire or would run into trouble before staging. The most famous example of this is from the 1973 PDA event in Tulsa, Okla., when Don Schumacher was waiting in the wings when Don Prudhomme and Jim Nicoll staged for the Funny Car final. Nicoll developed an oil leak and a header fire and had to be shut off, and Schumacher, who already had his engine running just in case, moved in to face (but would ultimately lose to) “the Snake.”
Additionally, for the longest time, the Pro classes allowed for unqualified drivers to make the first-round call if one of the qualifiers couldn’t make it. That practice was discontinued about a decade ago because of allegations of lower-financed (but qualified) teams selling their spots to big, sponsored names who didn’t qualify (the qualified car would suddenly be “broken” overnight).
“Ragged” gloves: As in “gloves with rags attached,” and not as a state of worn-out gloves. Back in the old front-engine days, when top-end oil baths were not uncommon, some drivers would tape rags to the knuckle side of their gloves to be able to quickly wipe clear their goggles if they became covered with oil during a run.
Arnie Beswick has modified the round steering wheel in his Funny Car, cutting off part of it (visible just above the injector) in what might have been one of the first moves toward a butterfly wheel.
Round steering wheels on Funny Cars: Yes, believe it or not, the butterfly steering wheel didn’t always exist. It evolved because the ever-tightening cockpits, allowing drivers to give it a quarter turn to slide between their legs as they squeezed into the business seat. You can see the progression of this in some photos, where Funny Car drivers had three quarters of a round wheel for this purpose. I have no idea who invented the butterfly wheel.
“Leavers Lose”: Also known as "Losers Leave." A one-time popular alternative to the Christmas Tree, it featured a single-lit amber bulb followed by a randomly timed green-light start.
Real bleach in the “bleach box”: The use of actual bleach helped heat, clean, and soften the rubber of early tires, but as you know, it’s also very destructive and caustic stuff. After NHRA began using sprayed traction compound to prepare racetracks in the early 1970s, bleach was prohibited because it destroyed the traction compound.
Unlimited qualifying/working on cars in the lanes: Some of you hadn’t heard about this or had questions. Longtime Division 3 photog Tom Schiltz remembers it well. “Before NHRA instituted qualifying sessions, they used to pull a percentage of cars in each class out of the lanes to qualify, so you never knew when you would get a qualifying shot, so immediately after your run, you pulled back into the lanes and waited,” he wrote. “It might be an hour, or it might be never. You might get five qualifying runs, or you might get one. The true fans would sit in the stands from sunup to sundown (no lights at Indy) so we wouldn’t miss anything. NHRA had a rule that there were to be no race cars in the pits overnight, so the racers were forced to work on their cars at the hotels. It was a great part of the experience to go hotel hopping at night to watch the action. We always knew that during the Nationals, Tommy Ivo stayed at the Howard Johnson’s on West Washington Street. He’d park his rig right on the street, unload, and work on the car right there.”
I had a chance to talk about their very subject with Graham Light, when he and I were stuck in Dallas last weekend with a three-hour layover en route to Norwalk. Light, as some may recall, raced Top Fuel throughout the 1970s, most famously with the Bubble-Up team car to Gordie Bonin. He told me that racers would hop the fence early in the morning, before the pit gates opened, open their trailers, then stealthily push their cars to the lanes and begin working on them. Back then, of course, there were no pneumatic tools, so a small toolbox would do. When the gates opened, they could bring more stuff from the trailer with the tow vehicle. They’d run, get back in line, drop the pan to check the bearings, pull a cylinder head if needed, and wait. You could even test-fire the cars in the lanes. Then NHRA officials would come and take 50 or so cars from different lanes to run. Crazy!
Push starts: Nielsen also added some commentary about the fire-up process so popular in the 1960s (and in today’s staged Cacklefests). “I personally think this was one of the more exciting things that is missing from drag racing today. Sure, it may have slowed down the process of getting the cars to the starting line, but there was nothing like seeing them come down the fire-up road in front of the spectator stands (or, at times, even the opposite way on the track), hear the clutch engage the engine, build oil pressure, and then have the engine come to life when the magneto switch was hit! Of course, this was followed by a carefully (and sometimes not so carefully) choreographed turn around behind the starting line, followed by a burnout and, without the aid of a reverser, the crewmembers having to push the car back to the starting line. And if the driver was a little upset (pissed off) at his crew, he might even drag the clutch a little to make their job a little harder.”
Push starts were eliminated with the start of the 1976 season. Reversers were made mandatory in 1980.
"Grumpy" spreading the "gold dust" at Byron Dragway (Richard Brady photo)
Gold Dust rosin: Powdered rosin that was spread, sometimes in copious amounts, on the starting line to enhance traction; it’s still used on occasion at our national events. It literally looks like gold dust. Back in the match race days, especially in Pro Stock, the spreading of the gold dust was a big production, oftentimes with the driver and/or crews personally applying it and using a broom to smooth and spread it. It was quite a site to see someone like Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins doing the manual labor before he performed the final part of the ritual, “burning in” the rosin with a huge burnout.
Cheater Slicks: Nielsen also did a great job explaining this one for me: “There was a time when stock classified cars had a requirement that the rear tires need a minimum of at least two treads running the circumference of the tire at least 1/16-inch deep. There were a number of tire producers, like Inglewood Tire (Inglewood, Calif.), that took their regular slicks and added the two treads to them, making them 'cheater slicks.' I had these on my '56 Ford, and they resulted in a minor accident when, on a rainy, wet road, I hydroplaned into a street light. Fortunately, this was at moderately low speed, so no real damage was done, except to the light pole and my front bumper!”
The slang: “Dropping the laundry” (deploying the parachute); “nailing the anchors” (hitting the brakes); “driving it out the back door” (the finish-line speed trap used to span the finish line, 66 feet before to 66 feet after, so when drivers stayed on the gas past the finish line to get a better speed, they were “driving it out the back door”); “brain bucket” (helmet); “smoking the hoops” (losing traction and spinning the tires); “running the can” (running 100 percent nitro; sometimes also described as running "the can, lid, and label!"); “putting a leg out” (breaking a connecting rod so that it pokes out through the block).
That was fun! Thanks for all the contributions. I thought I had made a pretty thorough list, but you guys outdid yourself. Such great memories; thanks for helping me keep them alive. See ya next week.
You know me -- it doesn’t take much to distract me and send me plummeting off course down some uncharted lane of drag racing errata. You know how you can go to YouTube to see one video and keep following related videos until you realize it’s 4 in the morning? Yeah, same thing with me when it comes to flipping through old issues of National Dragster.
So there I was late last week, flipping through the 1969 U.S. Nationals issue looking for the identity of someone’s blown engine when I stumbled across the photo below. It took my breath away.
It’s a shot of “Big John” Mazmanian’s Funny Car stripped down to the bare chassis in some Indy-area hotel parking lot for the team to work on. It’s something you’d never see today but was a fairly common sight in the 1960s and even into the 1970s. Hotel parking lots had plenty of level, spare space, usually on asphalt, to tackle the jobs, making for far better working conditions than the typical grass or gravel pit areas of the time. There are horror stories of teams tearing apart engines on hotel beds or using the tub to wash parts, of left-behind towels and sheets soaked with oil and grease. Oh, the humanity.
There's a show that airs on our PBS stations out here called Things That Aren't Here Anymore, which shows archival photos and videos of attractions and landmarks long gone from the landscape, and this photo got me to thinking about how much things have changed -- sometimes for the better, sometimes not – and things that just aren't there anymore in drag racing. It’s just a list off the top of my head, without much more thought than it takes to tap out the letters on my keyboard and guaranteed to be missing some of your personal favorites, but here goes:
When Top Fuel cars smoked the tires for most of the run, and it was a good thing.
Mailboxes used for injector scoops on dragsters.
Practically unlimited qualifying runs, with nitro teams pulling their cars right back into the staging lanes to work on the cars.
Tuning the engine by reading the spark plugs and bearings.
Pits areas defined by nothing but the space between your car and the next, with fans on all sides.
Waiting for weeks to see the race on TV or to learn who won from a magazine.
Pro Stock and Funny Car runs that weren’t the epitome of perfection but had front ends flying high on the leave.
When the finish-line “lights” actually used lights that shined back to sensors in the guardrail instead of infrared beams darting out to reflector-covered foam boxes. When someone took out the lights, it was a long wait for them to be rewired.
The glorious pre-run Funny Car ritual: long burnout, fast backup, dry hop across the line, back up, dry hop, dry hop … stage. Remembering the drama that was built into the sequence, with the engines barking at one another on the hops, still gives me goose bumps.
Real bleach in the “bleach box.”
When you had to strain to hear the announcer call out the e.t. and speed because there were no scoreboards.
Crazy-looking gassers and Modified Coupes and Roadsters that looked as if they were dreamed up by kids with leftover parts from our plastic-model kits.
Breather masks and open-face helmets.
“Sunday, Sunday, Sunday!” radio ads.
Buster Couch, on the starting line.
Steve Evans at the finish line.
The break rule.
Top Fuel wheel pants.
Rear-engine Funny Cars. (Or is it mid-engine?)
The goofy way that Top Fuel was settled at national events in the 1960s, with Saturday’s winner sitting out to face Sunday’s winner.
The whole, mismatched Top Eliminator setup for national events in the 1950s.
The Manufacturers Meet.
Huge television cameras on the starting line.
Engine-builder rivalries: Black vs. Pink vs. Waterman vs. Montrelli.
Manually shifted and -clutched Pro Stockers.
Ronnie Sox and Bill Jenkins, two out of three at Aquasco.
When a leather jacket was the ultimate in driver protection.
Driver nicknames and colorful car names.
The Drag News Mr. Eliminator list.
Six-foot-tall trophies that took two people to lift.
Acrobatic flag starters.
Bernie Partridge, Dave McClelland, and Bob Frey calling the action.
“Jungle Jim” Liberman.
Beer cans covering the ends of the header pipes.
Gold Dust rosin.
The "V for Victory" salute in the lights.
Duallies and fifth-wheel trailers, the ultimate fashion statement of the 1970s Funny Car troops.
Round steering wheels on Funny Cars.
The 10-10-10 tune-up.
D-ring parachute release levers.
The slang: “Dropping the laundry”; “lunching the engine”; “nailing the anchors”; “driving it out the back door”; “brain bucket”; “hauling the mail”; “smoking the hoops”; “running the can”; “putting a leg out,” etc.
The between-runs entertainment: Bob Correll’s Kitecycle, Lee “Iron Man” Irons skiing behind his motorcycle, “Bullet” Bailey being dragged behind a car, “Benny the Bomb,” and so many more.
64 Funny Cars!
Pro Stock engine weight breaks.
Chrysler vs. Ford vs. Chevy vs. Oldsmobile -- in Top Fuel!
Pre-race parade of qualifiers.
Leslie Lovett and Bill Crites.
Wally and Barbara Parks.
Well, that's my list. Let's see yours.
Happy a safe and happy Fourth of July weekend.
The weather was beautiful, the scenery was majestic, and the racing topflight last weekend in New England, where I was working the Auto-Plus NHRA New England Nationals at New England Dragway, NHRA’s second visit to the nostalgic and historic track. It was a great time to be at the drags. Then – BAM! – Friday brought bad news and Saturday even more, with the passing of two more drag racers from the glory days of yesteryear, Norm Weekly and Mart Higginbotham.
Weekly was one fourth of the memorable Frantic Four Top Fuel team that terrorized Southern California in the early 1960s. Weekly – known as “Stormin’ Norman” for his aggressive driving style – partnered with Ron Rivero, Jim Fox, and Dennis Holding to create the foursome that actually sprang out of two pairs: Fox and Holding and Weekly and Rivero. But in January 1963, as they were preparing to challenge for the No. 3 spot on the Drag News Mr. Eliminator list, Weekly and Rivero blew both of their engines in their new Rod Peppmuller-built dragster. Fox and Holding, meanwhile, had a sweet 331 engine (punched out to 342 cid) they’d put together during a six-month hiatus from the sport. They pooled their resources, which was a common scenario in those days, and the Frantic Four was officially born. (Born, but not named until a few weeks later when announcer Stan Adams dubbed them such after witnessing their frantic run from Lions Drag Strip in Long Beach, Calif., to Pomona for gaskets for between-rounds repairs; Adams also gets credit for dubbing Weekly as “Stormin’ Norman.”)
The team’s success was immediate and plentiful despite its deployment of its high-revving, relatively small Chrysler against the more common 392-powered entries of its foes. In one of its first outings, at the 1963 Winternationals, it set top speed of the meet at 188.66 mph.
On Dec. 8, 1963, the Frantic Four, now using 353 power, defeated Chris Karamesines 2-1 in Pomona for the Drag News No. 1 Mr. Eliminator spot when “the Greek” crossed the centerline in the rubber match. Karamesines congratulated Weekly after the race by saying, “Take good care of the No. 1 spot, kid.” They did, holding the No. 1 spot on the prestigious Drag News Top 10 list multiple times during the 1964 and 1965 seasons, and the team also set top speed at the 1964 Nationals with a blast of 202.24 mph.
The Frantic Four also became one of the first teams to race two dragsters when Weekly also drove the Orange County Metal Processing entry with a Fox & Holding engine. It defeated the Waterman & Goodsell entry for the No. 8 position on the Drag News list, giving the team the distinction of having two of the nation’s top 10 cars.
After leaving the Frantic Four in 1965, Weekly drove a few more dragsters, wheeling the Purple Gang (Rapp-Rossi-Maldonado) entry, Don Johnson's Beachcomber, and Ted Gotelli's Gotelli Speed Shop dragster, and also briefly drove some Funny Cars, most notably Karamesines' Barracuda and Doug Thorley's AMX.
"Stormin' Norman," doing his thing
After Weekly left the team, Rivero, who had just returned after a stint in the Army, became the driver, and even though Holding also had departed in 1965 for a career in the hot rodding aftermarket industry, Rivero and Fox continued to enjoy success, including a runner-up finish at the 1966 Hot Rod Magazine Championships, back-to-back NASCAR Top Fuel championships in 1967 and 1968, and a huge victory at the 1968 Bakersfield March Meet. The team switched to Funny Car in 1969 with its Frantic Ford Mustang. Rivero left in 1970, leaving Fox as the only original member of the Frantic Four, and he continued to campaign the Funny Cars with a variety of drivers.
There’s too much to really be told here, but there’s a great repository of Frantic Four stuff here, with photos and more. Be sure to check out the parts that Weekly himself wrote, called "Stormin Stories."
I also reached out to Fox, Rivero, and Holding by emails supplied to me by Steve Gibbs and was pleasantly surprised to hear within 30 minutes from Holding, who was calling from, of all places, Brazil, where he has a home (and is watching World Cup games from air-conditioned comfort instead of fighting the masses).
“People forget that we were only together from January 1963 through November 1965,” said Holding, who also oversaw the business aspect of the team. “Norm always idolized Tommy Ivo and motivated us to go out on tour. For Norm, there was no greater motivation than the thought of beating the guy he respected so much. I come from the school of ‘Get ’er done,’ so I had a competitive streak, too. That’s what made it work for all of us. We liked to win and didn’t like to have to put it on the trailer until the end of the day.
“Norm really enjoyed driving the car; I’m sure it scared him a few times, but he never talked about it. We liked to win and needed to win because we didn’t have any money. We were all working multiple jobs to keep the dream alive, especially when we added the OCMP car.”
After the racing ended, the Frantic Four were only infrequently in touch. It took Holding’s dogged determination -- with the support of the old-school community, including original chassis builder Peppmuller and members of the Standard 1320 news group -- to re-create their famous car (the original had fallen victim years earlier to a metal shredder) to bring them all together again. Rivero had well-documented the car’s successes and had lot of photos, and the car was painstakingly and accurately re-created in 2001, along with a period-correct push truck and trailer.
The car made its debut at the California Hot Rod Reunion with Weekly smoking the tires through a tremendous burnout. The four were officially reunited as California Hot Rod Reunion honorees in 2004 and inducted into Don Garlits’ International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 2008.
I’ll conclude with this wonderful and funny note composed by Weekly’s daughters, Kelley and Kerrey, who asked that it be shared with the drag racing community:
“ ‘Stormin' Norman’ is no longer with us. He crossed the finish line last night, peacefully in his sleep with his daughter, Kerrey, at his bedside. Ornery until the end, he spent his last days checking out the various ladies who happened to walk by his room <grin> and comment about how much money everything was costing him. He arrived on the scene in September 1942. A California kid through and through, he enjoyed 71 years of smoking, drinking, racing, boating, gardening, reading Western novels, canning his Nitro Pickles, making money and telling stories about the good ol' days. He wanted everyone to know that he had ‘the best recipe for chocolate chip cookies’ and his daughters are sworn to secrecy about it, along with the Nitro Pickle recipe. <big grin>. Since 2001, the grumpy old man with a kind heart loved hanging out with friends and fans at the many events he attended with the Frantic Four. He always wanted to put on the best show for the fans. Norm is survived by his smart-ass children (Kelley and Kerrey), super-smart-ass grandchildren (there's a lot of them), two sisters (they've prayed for his soul since he was 5), three ex-wives, and probably many more children that we just can't mention <big evil grin>.”
Steve Reyes photos
Higginbotham may not be in a fancy Hall of Fame like Weekly, he never won a national event, and with his bookkeeper glasses, he certainly didn't look the part of a Funny Car racer, but I’d put him in the Insider Hall of Fame if such a thing existed. I never met Mart, but those of you who have been reading this column for years know that he has been a frequent and incredible contributor. I exchanged dozens of emails with him over the years, filled with engaging and insightful comments and notes, and we had planned to meet up in Dallas at the national event last year, but it never happened, and I’m very sad about that.
His tragic passing Saturday afternoon, in a freak highway accident in Dallas that’s still almost impossible to believe, left me not only stunned but also incredibly sad. I won’t go into the details of the accident – you can find them online if you Google his name – but I can think of it in no other terms than “Wrong place, wrong time,” which wasn’t often the case for Mart. He had his hands in a lot of drag racing history. You might be tempted to think it was one of those “When your number is up …” kind of deals, but I think that Mart still had a lot more living to do, even at age 70.
You can learn a lot about Mart’s career in the article that I wrote — with copious help from Mart — about his longtime former partner, “Big Mike” Burkhart (The Legend of "Big Mike" Burkhart). While Mart didn’t have the legacy or number of glory days of fellow Texans like Richard Tharp and Raymond Beadle, he was still one of them.
When I got the email about Mart’s death from one of his friends, Jimmy Garritson, I texted Tharp to share the news. Tharp, who lives not far from the North Dallas Tollway where the accident occurred and snarled traffic for miles, knew of the wreck from the news but not the identity of its lone victim. He quickly called Beadle to share the sad news. That’s how close a community it still is for these retired quarter-mile heroes.
Mart apparently had shared with Garritson some of our past correspondence, so he knew I’d want to know of his passing. Same story with Bob Wolcott, who was another friend of Mart’s and also emailed me.
“Mart talked a lot about his friendship with you, and I thought you needed to know,” said Garritson, which was incredibly touching to me. “He got me to reading your column and gave me your email address in case I ever wanted to write to you myself, but I never thought it would be for this.”
According to Garritson, the two were regular meal companions and talked just about every day, about everything and nothing, and he fondly remembers Mart regaling him with his racing stories.
I wish I had gotten the chance to ask Mart about the time he beat the snake ...
“He could be a crusty character, but it was fun listening to the stories,” said Garritson, who owns a shop in Garland and races in Top Dragster. “We’d go out and eat, or try; I’d call him ‘No-show Mart’; everything I’m telling to you I’ve said – and worse – to his face, but that was the kind of friendship we had. He was a nice guy and a great friend.
“He was just a great character. He told me the story one time about towing his ’63 Corvette from Texas to Georgia with Paul Adams to have it worked on. They were rolling along at 90 to 100 mph and got pulled over by a cop somewhere in Alabama. They pulled over, and the cop ordered them to show their hands. Once the cop found out they were hot rodders, he took a liking to them, and they schmoozed their way out of that deal. That was just Mart.”
Wolcott and Mart often traveled with Don Ross and Bobby and Ruthann Langley to the Hot Rod Reunion in Bowling Green, Ky., with Langley’s famous Scorpion dragster in tow. “The year after Bobby’s death, Mart, Paul Adams, and I took the car to Bowling Green as Don was unable to attend. Mart was a very friendly guy and helpful, too. He was a very astute businessman, with his own accounting firm. I met Mart back when he first started with Mike Burkhart. ‘Big Mike’ grew up in my same neighborhood in North Dallas. At the time, I was in the speed equipment business (speed shop), and any and every one that raced in the late ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s traded with us, so I knew all of them. The Dallas racing fraternity still holds a reunion every year.”
Reader Bill McLauchlan also wrote to remind me that Mart was nearly part of a world championship effort in 1972, when he loaned his Drag-On Vega to the late Butch Maas to run the World Finals in Amarillo, Texas. They qualified No. 1 and reached the semifinals before breaking the rear end. You can read more about that, and Mart’s thoughts on it, in this column I wrote in 2010 about Maas after his death.
Mart is survived by his wife, Linda; son, Ryan; daughter, Kaylee; grandson, Brayden; a granddaughter due in September; sisters Cindy and Peggy; brother Ralph; and numerous nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Services were held Tuesday.
There was a nice obituary about Mart in the Dallas Morning News citing his racing history, and I learned a few things. I didn’t know that a) his given name was Joseph Martin Higginbotham IV or that b) he was the grandson of one of Dallas' founding fathers, JM Higginbotham Jr., whose buildings are historically honored in downtown Dallas and the West End.
Funny the things you learn after you lose someone, but sad that you can’t talk with them about them. I’ll miss talking to Mart.