I have to admit, the 60th anniversary Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals lived up to its billing for this reporter. While some people might have gone there to see the dramatic conclusion to the Mello Yello regular season and the histrionics that go with victory at the Big Go, I know there were people there who went primarily to see the special nostalgia showcases involving Don Garlits, Don Prudhomme, Tom McEwen, Shirley Muldowney, Jim Nicoll, Bob Glidden, Kenny Bernstein, and Tony Schumacher.
Me, I definitely went for both, and as exciting as the on-track racing was, I was really pumped up for the shows, and judging by the amazing (and humbling) number of warm welcomes I got from fellow members of the audience, the Insider Nation definitely went to watch, too.
There were six shows in all over three days – “Snake” and “Mongoose” talking about the 1978 Funny Car final; Prudhomme and Nicoll reliving the wild 1970 Top Fuel final; Muldowney talking about her Indy experiences; Bernstein’s 1983 Indy/Big Bud Shootout double; Garlits, Glidden, and Schumacher (“Indy’s Winningest Drivers”); and Garlits talking about his 1967 victory and subsequent starting-line shave – and I somehow was able to wedge in five of the six (missing only Bernstein) between my normal race responsibilities. NHRA handed out hard-card souvenirs to attendees at each show, and by weekend’s end, a lot of folks had six hanging from their lanyards. The shows were all well-attended, expertly emceed by Bob Frey, and played before respectful and rapt audiences.
Even though I’ve heard most of the stories either firsthand from the subject (and, in the case of “Snake”-“Mongoose,” many times in the last two years thanks to the movie), I still wanted to hear them again, straight from their mouths. We all know that a lot of these heroes are well into their 70s and beyond, and I don’t know how many more times they’ll tell them. It’s my understanding that at some point, a video or videos will be released from these shows, so I won’t go into great detail here. Here are some highlights from a trio of the shows.
I had interviewed Nicoll a couple of years ago for this column (Superman Lives) to share his story about the unforgettable 1970 final that ended with his car sawed in two by an exploding clutch and an overwrought Prudhomme contemplating quitting the sport on national TV, but this was the first time I got to meet Nicoll in person. As my story back then related, he earned his “Superman” nickname from Steve Gibbs after whipping four guys in a bar fight in Irwindale and not, as widely believed, for surviving a bunch of hairy accidents, but he still looks as if he could handle himself pretty well.
Nicoll seemed a bit surprised by the love showered on him (and the long line for autographs) while “Snake” was his usual cool self, leaning back in his chair casually answering questions and firing off quip after quip and remarking on Nicoll’s still-obvious badassness. (And we finally got the answer to how Nicoll pronounces his last name; the Wide World of Sports coverage pronounced it “nickel” while I’ve always known it as sounding like “Nicole”; it is “Nicole,” though he admits some of his friends call him “Nickel.” Glad we cleared that up!)
The show included the requisite footage of the final, and I’ve always thought that it looked as if Nicoll was ahead in the shot that showed them approaching the lights. The head-on angle of the explosion doesn’t make things clear, and, of course, both guys still believe they won it.
“People tell me he was ahead; he still thinks he was ahead,” said Prudhomme, jerking a thumb in Nicoll’s direction. “I got the footage and stop-framed it. I was half a spoke ahead.”
Although a crash like Nicoll’s today would certainly elicit raised eyebrows and hand-wringing, today’s safety equipment and car construction is so good, but it wasn’t always the case then. so Prudhomme's "I think I'm gonna quit" reaction to seeing Nicoll's crash was understandable. “In those days, if you saw someone crash and go over the guardrail, it was over; they’re dead,” said Prudhomme plainly. “We had lost a lot of guys in those cars; they were extremely dangerous. That’s one of the reasons I was so upset.”
Nicoll was running a Crowerglide – not many in Top Fuel were at the time; Prudhomme was running a traditional Schiefer pedal clutch – and Nicoll said it was an improperly heat-treated clutch stand that failed and led to the explosion.
Don Prudhomme, left, and Jim Nicoll; both still "super" after all these years
(Nicoll also received well-deserved credit from Frey for developing the dual-wall Funny Car headers that have saved the bacon of many a racer by keeping the hotter inner pipes shielded from oil. After a bad fire in Gainesville in 1973, Nicoll remembered back to his Navy days the sleeved hot-water pipes that ran next to his bunk and prevented sailors from getting burned.)
Both drove front- and rear-engine dragsters and Funny Cars, and Frey asked which they liked best. Even though they were, as noted by Prudhomme, dangerous, both voted for the slingshot.
“The front-engined dragster, without a doubt, was the most thrilling, most fun thing you could ever possibly have,” said Prudhomme. “The engine was right in front of you; you could see everything – the exhaust pipes, the blower. There were no starter motors or any of that jazz. The way you started them was push-start. A car or truck would be behind you, you’d get going, let the clutch out, feed a little fuel, shut it off, and hit the starter switch, and it would go bahhhh-bup-bup-bup and pull away and then start idling. It was a real turn-me-on-er. The girls fell out of the stands. It was pretty cool; I gotta tell you.”
(The magic of those words – hearing explained what was a simple and regular procedure performed over and over again – comes from the speaker, and to hear how the great “Snake” remembers it some 40 years ago, those are the reasons I go to these things.)
Also of note was the re-created 1970 Nicoll Top Fueler, built by Don Ross Fabricating of Dallas for Gage Prichard, which was on hand. Nicoll praised its accuracy. Displayed along with the exquisite dragster was the original roll cage, which had been found recently in the Dallas area and – get this – had been being used for the last 10 years as a child’s swing. Someone had found it behind the T-Bar chassis shop in Dallas, where Nicoll had dropped off the remains, and repurposed it. It was recently discovered and then purchased to use as a complimentary display piece.
The whole story of the 1978 Indy Funny Car final has been told so many times – and obviously was the centerpiece around which the Snake & Mongoose movie was penned – but it’s still cool to hear the principals discuss it. The death of McEwen’s son, Jamie, after a brave battle with leukemia and his request that his dad go to the race and beat “the Snake” (even though Jamie and Prudhomme were real pals) and the fact that he not only won the biggest race of his career, but also finally beat Prudhomme to do it is just so storybook that if it had been only been dreamed up by Hollywood scriptwriters, we might all rolling our eyes, but it really happened.
So many things had to go right for McEwen to win the race. Prudhomme was quicker than everyone (and especially McEwen) there, running 5.97 and 6.04 in the first two rounds while McEwen had gone just 6.16 and 6.18. Then Ron Colson, driving for Roland Leong, crossed the centerline on a second-round bye run (after Bernstein broke), giving McEwen a bye in the semifinals, which he used as a test run to experiment with a new tune-up that he knew he’d need to beat “the Snake” in the final.
“We were always looking for some kind of magic like [Prudhomme] always seemed to have in his car,” he explained. “We had to try something.” With a free pass, they switched from a 4.10 gear to a 4.30 hoping to drop the e.t. five- or six-hundredths. The time they tried it previously, the car had smoked the tires, but this time, it hooked great on the launch – in the left lane where he knew that right-lane-favoring Prudhomme would put him -- and he shut it off to a 7.12 coasting pass.
Prudhomme, meanwhile, ran a 6.05 on his semifinal pass to defeat "Lil’ John" Lombardo, and no one expected him to lose the final. His car, the Army Arrow, was that good and that consistent all weekend, so when he hazed the tires 100 feet into the run and McEwen went sailing by to win, 6.05 to 6.33, the place went nuts.
“I thought we were going to win it,” Prudhomme admitted. “We had the best lane; we had it all. The Tree came down, and I thought my timing was good, but it just smoked the tires, and to this day, I don’t know why it did. I really don’t. I was amazed. Shocked. It was just meant to be. I can honestly say that’s the only time I’ve lost a race that I was OK with it afterwards.”
“He hazed the tires, and that was the little bit of help I needed,” said McEwen. “It was very emotional. I was sad; he was sad, but I think he was sad because he lost,” he added with a laugh.
Tom McEwen. left, and Prudhomme; still pals, still feuding
Frey then bravely asked the question that some may have been thinking: Did Prudhomme let McEwen win that final?
“Hell no,” Prudhomme said emphatically, then magnanimously added, “He won it fair and square, and, I’ll tell you, even if I hadn’t smoked the tires, I don’t know if we would have beaten him anyhow. He made probably the best run of his career.”
Prudhomme had an interesting analogy about his relationship with McEwen and the relatively short (considering the span of their careers) Wildlife Racing partnership and the Mattel deal that made “Snake and Mongoose” a household phrase for millions of families.
“I won 40-something  national events [with NHRA] as a driver and a total of maybe 120 national events [I assume this is referring to his AHRA, IHRA, and NHRA-owner wins] and set all kinds of records and did everything there was to do, but the thing I’m most known for is the three years we were together,” he said. “It’s kind of like a band having a really hit song and being known [mostly] for that.”
That comment led to some spiritedly funny back-and-forth, with Prudhomme talking about all the years that his winning “carried” the sponsorship and McEwen taking credit for getting the Mattel deal [“I was the leader of the band!”], that ended with Prudhomme acknowledging that they blamed one another when the Mattel deal ended, Prudhomme blaming McEwen for not winning more races and McEwen blaming the race-focused Prudhomme for not making more personal appearances.
Truly the highlight of the six shows was Garlits talking about his experiences at the 1967 event. It’s a story well-known and told by now, of how Garlits was in one of the worst droughts of his career, had failed to qualify at either the Winternationals or Springnationals earlier in the year, and hadn’t yet run in the sixes as many of his peers had. Sometime that summer, he vowed not to shave until he ran in the sixes, which he did in winning the final round against James Warren, then towed back to the starting line, where he shaved his beard (at least part of it). Here’s how Garlits tells the story years later.
Garlits had been struggling because his current car was worn out. The car he was running was Swamp Rat VIII, which was rebranded as Swamp Rat X after it was fronthalved. He’d moved from Florida to Detroit to be closer to the manufacturers and the racing action and desperately needed a new car. Even before qualifying was over at the Springnationals, Garlits realized he needed to build a new car and started packing up.
“We started out the gate, and Tom McEwen and Connie Kalitta came over and said, ‘Where are you going? You’re not qualified.’ I told them I was going home to build a new car. McEwen had a big laugh and made some remark, and Kalitta said, ‘Don’t upset him; there’s no telling what he might do.’ Kalitta knew me; we’ve been friends since we were 17 years old. On the way home, I drew up the plans and the schedule. We’d work 20 hours a day, sleep four hours a night, my wife is going to cook four meals a day at even intervals and bring them to the shop. We had a race in Muncie, Ind., with the Hawaiian the next Saturday, and I wasn’t one to back out of a race. We got it done, but we never had a chance to shave, which is how the beards got started.”
Even with the new car, Swamp Rat XI (which was on hand this year), Garlits was in deep with the tough field at the 1967 Nationals.
“I was definitely the underdog; I didn’t have much of a chance,” he admitted. “I was testing Goodyear tires, and they just weren’t as good yet as the M&Hs. I qualified 23rd and told Goodyear I couldn’t do anything more with their tires, so they told me. ‘Go over and get some M&Hs; we’ll buy them for you.’ I went over Monday morning to Marvin’s [Rifchin's] truck, and he told me, ‘I don’t have any left, but James Warren just bought a set; he may sell you his take-offs.’ I went over to see James, and he said, ‘Just take the new ones; you’ll only be in for a couple of rounds, and they need a couple of break-in runs anyway.’
“With every round I went, I would go over and ask James if he wanted his new tires back, and he’d say, 'No, I’m running 6.80s and 6.90s; I’m fine,’ because I was still in the sevens because the Goodyears had given me so much trouble, and I was afraid to stand on it too much. I went over before the final round and said, ‘James, this is the final, this is for the money, do you want your tires back?’ He said, ‘Don, I just ran 6.85 and you ran 7.01; I think I have the best tires.’ I just said, ‘OK,’ and we ran, and, of course, I ran 6.77. The tires were really good.”
Garlits got standing ovations both before and after the show, the only legend to be received that way. Yes, he might not still race there anymore and Schumacher now has more Top Fuel wins there, but Indy still belongs to “Big Daddy.”
The show didn’t end there for Garlits; an hour or so later, he pulled Swamp Rat XI into the winner’s circle beneath Parks Tower, and, re-creating that great 1967 moment, shaved the beard he had started growing this summer in anticipation of the show. It was another amazing moment, and if you closed your eyes just enough, you could image that it was, once again, 1967. Ah, the magic of Indy.
As I mentioned, Frey did an outstanding job of running the show, asking interesting questions and milking extra details from the participants, but he might not have had the best question. Fans got to ask questions after each show, and at the conclusion of “Indy’s Most Winningest” – in which Garlits had talked about his dream of running 200 mph in his battery-powered dragster – it was Schumacher who posited the following to Garlits: “Say you pushed the pedal down on that electric car and get to the finish, and like the DeLorean, you go back to the future. What year do you want to land in?”
Garlits had no problem providing an answer that I’m sure many of you reading would agree with.
“1975. I think that was the best year for drag racing; the cars ran 250 mph and ran 5.70s with nice side-by-side races. There was no taking the cars apart between rounds; we could return in probably 25 minutes. And anyone who wanted to do it could do it; it didn’t take millions of dollars. If it was still like that, I’d be racing again.”
Yours truly, meeting Raymond Godman and Preston Davis; an honor.
Yes, those were the days, and it was great to revisit them in Indy with these shows. There are going to be more of these types of presentations this year at the World Finals, which will be celebrating its 50th anniversary. The National Dragster staff also is finishing up our history of the World Finals book (similar to the great Winternationals book we made a few years ago), complete with year-by-year reaps, photos, and interesting features. You’ll be able to buy it at the event or online. I’ll have more details later.
As I mentioned earlier, it was great to meet and talk with so many of the readers of this column. It’s truly flattering that I couldn’t go more than an hour or two walking around the hallowed grounds without someone stopping me to talk about the column. It was especially thrilling to sit down and talk in person to Raymond Godman and Preston Davis, whom I’d interviewed two weeks ago for a story on their legendary Tennessee Bo-Weevil entries. They were as warm and gracious in person as they had been on the phone, and it was my honor and privilege to shake their hands for all they’ve done for the sport.
As great as the U.S. Nationals was this year, it was also a bit sad as we learned just before the race of the passing of John Farkonas, one third of the famed Farkonas-Coil-Minick Chi-Town Hustler team, and during the event of the loss of Bob Brooks, a well-known connecting-rod and fuel-clutch guru. I’ll share their stories, and the thoughts of those who knew them, next Friday.
Thank for stopping by, and, as always, thanks for the support. love, and contributions.
If this is Friday, then I must be in Indy, enjoying my 32nd straight trip to the Big Go. Wish you were here. You may well be. Here’s Part 2 of Tom Kasch’s cache of Indy pics, these focusing on Top Fuel and other classes, from the 1960s and early 1970s.
As I’ve mentioned many times in the past, as great as the photos are that came from the lenses of the pro photographers standing at the guardwalls or beyond and how those experts preserved the moments with which we’ve all become familiar, it’s a kick to see how the mere mortals among us viewed the same cars from their less-advantageous but familiar-to-us view from the grandstands and to share their photos, most of which have never been published, and to pretend that we were in their seat to see the magic.
This is an interesting view of Indianapolis Raceway Park, as it was known then, from outside the fence, looking downtrack past the famed Hurst bridge at the 1970 event.
Forget the composing of the image, that its subject is so far out of center as to almost be out of the frame, but it’s the car and the scene that counts here. The car is Jack Chrisman’s wild nitro-burning, supercharged Chrisman’s Comet at the 1965 Nationals, where the car — one of the earliest Funny cars — ran in the B/Fuel dragster class. Chrisman had run the car in exhibitions at the event the previous year where he ran mid-10s at 150 mph while smoking the tires. The crowd was mesmerized. When he came back the next year, he was running nines and everyone wanted to see it, but he red-lighted in round one to Don Gay. Check out the folks sitting in what was the photographer’s area as if they were at a picnic. Wild.
More wild doorslammers from the 1965 event: Hayden Proffitt, far lane, in his national speed record-setting (135.64 mph) B/A Comet vs. Don Gay.
“Ohio George” Montgomery, near lane, owned the Nationals in its first decade, winning three times. In this 1965 battle, Montgomery’s famed Willys is facing off with future Pro Stock great “Dyno Don” Nicholson’s B/A Comet.
Here’s another shot of Montgomery at Indy in 1970, when he was the defending event champ after winning his fourth Nationals crown in 1969. This is his Malco Gasser supercharged Mustang, running in BB/A with those famously monstrous rear wheelie wheels.
Don Garlits’ bid for a second Indy title (and second straight) didn’t go so well. He lost in round one of AA/FD class to Bobby Vodnik (who had famously beaten him in the 1963 Top Eliminator final) and after exacting revenge on Vodnik in the first round of Monday’s eight-car eliminations, he red-lighted to Tom Hoover in the semifinals. Hoover lost the final to Tommy Ivo, who then lost the runoff with class champ Don Prudhomme for overall honors.
Jimmy King and the King & Marshall team prepare their dragster for another run at the 1970 event, which ended for them with their car upside down after a huge wheelstand in round one.
Before he became a regular in the Funny Car circuit, Al Bergler fielded modified coupes and then this gas dragster, dubbed More Aggravation Too, at the 1970 event.
More from the 1970 event: Jack Ditmars’ spectacular Mini Brute Opel A/FC. This car tore up the competition at Midwest tracks that year.
Bill Jenkins won the first two events of 1970’s inaugural Pro Stock season — the Winternationals and Gatornationals — with his former Super Stock Camaro and qualified No. 2 at Indy that year but was shown the door in round one by his old buddy, Dave Strickler. Although “the Grump” won Super Stock at the 1967 Nationals, surprisingly he never won there in Pro Stock, as a driver or owner.
Mike Sullivan’s AA/Fuel Altered at the 1970 Nationals, back when the Awful-Awfuls ran in Comp eliminator.
“The Smilin’ Okie,” Jimmy Nix, didn’t have a lot to smile about at the 1970 event. He barely qualified in Top Fuel (No. 31) and was on the trailer after round one at the hands of Bob Murphy, Murphy lost in round two to Pete Robinson, who lost in the third frame to “the Snake.”
It’s doubtful that Top Fuel vet Gary Cochran will ever forget the 1971 Nationals. “Mr. C” wasn’t among the quick 32 to qualify but got into the show when Dennis Baca couldn’t make the first-round call. Cochran beat Stan Bowman in round one, then took a solo in the second round when future world champ Jim Walther couldn’t repair his mount after upsetting Don Prudhomme in the first stanza. He then beat an up-in-smoke Leland Kolb to reach the semifinals but red-lighted to Steve Carbone, setting the stage for the great Carbone vs. Don Garlits final-round burndown.
Carl Olson and partner Mike Kuhl had a pretty good weekend at Indy 1971 as well. Their new rear-engine Top Fueler was voted Best Appearing, they qualified No. 3, and reached the semifinals before falling to Garlits. Check out the spare engine in the open side trailer door, ready to be slid into place if needed.
The late, great Mickey Thompson was all smiles at Indy 1971 when Dale Pulde took his Pinto to the Funny Car final. Unfortunately for the team, they lost the money round in a ball of fire to Ed McCulloch.
Twin-engine Top Gas dragsters were all the rage in the early 1970s, but Rico Paris gets credit for having the first rear-engine twin-gas dragster at the 1971 Nationals. He didn’t qualify for the Indy field but did make the show at the sport’s last Top Gas event, the 1971 Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway, running a 7.46.
Bill Shrewsberry’s popular L.A. Dart wheelstander was part of the show at the 1971 event.
At the height of the Top Fuel wheel pants craze, there was no car (or driver) more colorful than the John “Tarzan” Austin-driven Hot Tuna of Greg Scheigert.
And, finally, here’s a great Indy scene setter, a sweet Top Fuel burnout with the backdrop of the old starting-line tower and the Hurst bridge. Those were the days!
That’s it for the selection of pics from Tom Kasch, but you can check out some of his other photos at the links below:
Several times each week, almost without fail, I and about 50 other folks get an email from Tom Kasch with a dozen or so photos attached. They’re all images he has taken in the past 50 years, mostly from tracks local to his Midwest base -- Indy; Columbus; Milan, Mich.; Marion, Ind. – but also from a foray west to the 1975 Winternationals.
Some fans may know Kasch’s name from the years that he not only competed in Super Stock and Stock eliminator with a variety of cars but also set national records. His story is a courageous one. He lost his right leg (and nearly his left) in an automobile accident in 1969 – he used his left leg to work the gas and used a hand control for braking -- yet he and his wife, Ruth, remained a visible and popular part of the racing scene until they stopped racing in 2004, and he obviously also spent a lot of the time he wasn’t driving perched in the grandstands with his eye to the viewfinder.
“Ruth and I went to Indy every year from 1962 to 2004, when we had to quit racing,” he explained. “We always took pictures at each race we raced at. I went to the University of Toledo for photo classes in 1973, and we wrote for Milan Dragway in ‘73-74, sending in stories to Drag News, National Dragster, and an Ohio paper The Crank. I have 7,000 pictures scanned on my PC.”
With the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals just around the corner, I thought I’d devote this Fan Fotos column to a collection of Indy images spanning the 1960s and 1970s. I’ll present them in two parts, with Funny Cars (obviously his favorite) today and Top Fuelers and other images next Friday (when I’ll actually be in Indy; lucky me). I harvested the pictures from the last 20 or so mailings he did, which was well in excess of 200 photos. I winnowed them down, removing some that were of less quality than the others to come up with a final group of about 40 images. Enjoy!
A couple of then and later photos of the Hawaiian doing a burnout in Indy. (Above) The 1971 Dodge Charger, with Bobby Rowe at the wheel, surprisingly failed to qualify.He had good company as Tom McEwen, Bruce Larson, and Leonard Hughes also failed to make the field. (Below) Norm Wilcox and the 1975-edition Monza, which fell in round two to Bob Pickett.
And a couple of similar photos of “the Mongoose,” Tom McEwen. (Above) McEwen with the Hot Wheels Duster in 1971; he didn’t qualify. (Below) McEwen -- and, to be honest, no hard-core drag fan -- will forget what happened at the 1978 U.S. Nationals with his English Leather Corvette; having just lost his son, Jamie, days before to leukemia, he beat longtime rival Don Prudhomme in the final.
Raymond Beadle qualified the yellow and blue Blue Max Arrow at the top of the field at the 1978 event with a stout 5.98 (only Don Prudhomme was also in the fives) but lost in the second round to Tom McEwen, 6.18 to 6.24.
Kasch also spent a lot of time roaming the pits. Here are the early Camaro floppers of Bruce Larson (above) and “the Professor,” Kelly Chadwick (below).
Here's Don Prudhomme’s Carefree Sugarless Gum 'Cuda at the 1973 race, the first time he won Funny Car at the Big Go. “Snake” had already won the race in Top Fuel three times (1965, ’69, and ’70) and made history as the first to win it in both nitro classes in 1973 with the first of four Indy Funny Car wins (also '74, '77, and '89).
John Mazmanian’s 'Cuda in the Funny Car pits at the 1970 event. According to DragList, “Big John” had five drivers that year: Danny Ongais, Pat Foster, Wendell Shipman, Arnie Behling, and his nephew Rich Siroonian. Based on the sideburns, that looks like Siroonian wrenching on the car, but reader Bill McLauchlan tells me that Behling was at the wheel. "Behling drove this car for a short time in the summer of 1970 including Indy," he noted. "Qualified No. 3 at Indy with a 6.89 –- one of four Funny Cars qualified in the sixes (Leonard Hughes 6.80, Ramchargers 6.84, Arnie's 6.89 and Jay Howell in the Snake's Cuda at 6.99). Arnie banged the blower on a burnout in the first round. [Don] Schumacher's 7.0's outlasted them all." Note the upfront and rather center-mounted coil-over shocks.
Ed McCulloch, near lane, won Indy for the second straight year with his Revellution in 1982. This is from qualifying, running “Big John” Mazmanian's ‘Cuda with Danny Ongais at the wheel.
More pit stuff. Obviously, Connie Kalitta’s Mustang. Probably 1969. Not sure from the photo if the Boss 429 or the SOHC is between the framerails. but the valve covers sure look like the SOHC.
Here’s a bit of a rarity: Gerald Foster's King Cobra Mustang, which was based in Louisiana, at the 1972 event. Both Sidney Foster and Frank Huff drove the car that year, but the 433 permanent number tells me this was Huff at the wheel. They didn’t qualify.
Two from the 1973 race. (Above) Dale Emery in Jeg Coughlin Sr.’s Camaro Funny Car at the 1973 event. “The Snail” qualified in the No. 10 spot and lost to surprise No. 2 qualifier “Jungle Jim” Liberman in round one. (Below) Jim Paoli, “the Yankee Pack Rat,” just missed the Funny Car field, ranking 18th, one spot behind Raymond Beadle in Don Schumacher’s second machine.
“The Old Master,” Ed Pink, left, consulted with Gene Snow in the pits at the 1971 event. Snow qualified just No. 13 and lost in round one to defending event champ Don Schumacher.
Al Hanna’s Eastern Raider Pinto, 1972. Hanna defeated last week’s Insider feature subjects, Preston Davis and the Ray Godman-owned Tennessee Bo-Weevil, in round one before falling to eventual winner Ed McCulloch in round two.
Two shots from the 1977 event. (Above) I always liked this version of Tom Hoover’s always-pretty Showtime entries. The faux neon lettering is awesome. (Below) Larry Brown’s Okie Smoker Arrow. Neither machine could make the field.
Dale Pulde qualified Mickey Thompson’s one-off Grand Am in the No. 7 spot at the 1974 event before being upset in round one by Pat Foster. Later that year, Pulde set the national record with this car at 6.16 at the World Finals to beat Don Prudhomme and decide the world championship in favor of Shirl Greer.
Minneapolis’ Jerry Boldenow surprised a lot of folks at the 1976 event when he qualified Steve Gold’s Moby Dick Corvette Funny Car in the lofty No. 6 spot. No. 14 qualifier Tom McEwen harpooned his hopes in round one.
Phoenix-based John Luna called his Vega Funny Car the Luna Lander (after the early-1970s Apollo moon missions), but he couldn’t land in the Funny Car field at the 1974 event.
OK, that’s a whole slew of cool Funny Car pics. I’ll be back next week with some of Kasch’s Top Fuel and other interesting photos. Thanks to Tom for sharing!
Raymond Godman, Preston Davis, and the restored Tennessee Bo-Weevil will be at this year's U.S. Nationals. (Louis Kimery photo)
When I think about this great sport that I’ve enjoyed now as a fan for more than 40 years and that has employed me and taken me in as one of its own for more than 30, I have a great deal of gratitude for the people who helped get us here. It was my honor and privilege to work for years with NHRA founder Wally Parks and his wife, Barbara, to learn firsthand some of the trials and tribulations they went through. And while the dedicated staff that helped make Wally’s dream come true — guys like Ray Brock, the Safety Safari foursome of Bud Coons, Bud Evans, Chic Cannon, and Eric Rickman; the original division directors; and more — were the driving force, they had plenty of support around the country from dedicated racers who also believed in the dream and helped bring it to fruition.
I got the wonderful chance earlier this week to speak to one of those unsung heroes, Raymond Godman, though it’s kind of hard to call a legend like him “unsung” because he is known by many as the wheelchair-bound owner of the famed Tennessee Bo-Weevil entries from the 1960s and 1970s. But, just as important as his on-track histrionics, Godman also was a guy who was right there in the trenches far on the other side of the Mississippi from NHRA, helping to promote and grow the sport we all love in places that NHRA couldn’t always reach. He was a staunch supporter and ultimately a great friend to Wally and Barbara and also one of the sport’s premier mechanics.
The opportunity to speak to Godman and, later, to his longtime driver, Preston Davis, came about as the result of their plans to bring their restored A/Modified Roadster to Indy this year as part of the 60th Anniversary special. So much has been written about the duo — and of Godman’s perseverance after being paralyzed in the Korean War — that I had originally planned just to write about the restoration of the car, but it didn’t take long for Godman’s Tennessee-friendly nature and keen memory to convince me otherwise. His story is so deep and rich and meaningful that it deserves to be told again and again.
Godman worked with NHRA founder Wally Parks to bring drag racing to the Memphis, Tenn., area, and the two remained lifelong friends.
A life changed
Godman was actually a circle-track driver in the Memphis area in the late 1940s before being called to duty in Korea in 1951. It will be 63 years ago this Sept. 17 that his life changed forever, when a young 23-year-old Marine from Fox Company, Fifth Regiment, 1st Marine Division “got shot up” by a sniper’s bullet, paralyzing him from the waist down
“We were fighting the Chinese, each just trying to kill the other," he recalls. "It was horrible fighting. In a 24-hour period, we lost 91 dead, 771 wounded. When I got shot, I knew it was bad. They put me and another fella on a helicopter to an aid station. When we landed, the other guy was dead. They couldn’t do much for me at the aid station; they told me they didn’t think I’d make it through the night and they had other wounded coming in to take care of. I was still alive the next morning.”
He was treated in South Korea and Japan before being sent back to the United States in a hospital ship. He tried to resume his driving career in a midget car with hand controls but couldn’t control the car to his satisfaction. The cockpit’s loss was drag racing’s gain.
“I became interested in drag racing in 1953 just as it was starting to come on. I realized I could be more active in the pits in drag racing than in circle-track racing, and maybe thought I could drive one at some point, though I never did. I got in touch with Wally at Hot Rod to offer my help.”
Godman was a charter member of the Memphis Rodders car club, which began to hold drag races at an abandoned Air Force base in Halls, Tenn., in 1953. They bought some Chrondek timers and would set up their impromptu track for a full day of racing Sunday, then tear it all down and hold their regular car-club meeting that evening.
Parks later appointed Godman as one of NHRA’s regional advisers, and Godman asked Parks if the Safety Safari (then known as the Drag Safari) could come to his hometown. He put the team up at his house, and the event was hosted in the summer of 1955, just before the first Nationals in Great Bend, Kan.
(Above) Godman and driver James "Red" Dyer at the 1960 Nationals in Detroit, where they were Top Eliminator runners-up. (Below) Two years later, at the Nationals in Indy, Harrison Jacob drove the Bo-Weevil to Middle Eliminator honors.
Godman and his driver, James “Red” Dyer, took part in the inaugural Nationals — he would go on to attend the Big Go for the first 57 editions, the first 24 as a competitor — and they won AA/Comp class honors.
Two years later, they won the AA/Comp class trophy at the NHRA Nationals in Oklahoma City with a flathead-powered roadster, a car that inspired the Tennessee Bo-Weevil nickname.
“Red and I were working on the car in the garage. It was 2 o’clock in the morning, and we’d just finished making a chicken wire and fiberglass mesh nose," said Godman. "We stopped and went out to stand in the backyard, and looking back into the garage at the car, the nose looked like a point, and Red, who was as country as you ever saw, he said that it kinda looks like a [cotton] bo-weevil snout. I said, ‘What about a Tennessee Bo-Weevil?’ and that’s how the car got its name.” (NHRA, however, did not think much of the original snout and banned it after the 1959 Nationals, according to Davis.)
In 1958, Godman built a new car, based on a Scotty Fenn/Chassis Research TE440 kit, that proved very successful; it’s this car that Davis recently restored (more on that later).
Godman continued to race and promote drag racing in Memphis, which led to him opening Lakeland Dragstrip on July 4, 1960; Buster Couch was his first starter, and it was Godman who recommended Couch to Parks for the soon-vacant position as Division 2 Director.
Later that year, Godman and Dyer were Top Eliminator runner-ups to Leonard Harris and the vaunted Albertson Olds at the Nationals in Detroit in what was an almost-too-close-to-call final. A few weeks later, with Harris and car owner Gene Adams having returned to the West Coast to match race, Parks called upon Godman and Dyer to have the honor of making the first pass down the newly built dragstrip in Indianapolis that would host the Nationals the following year (and every year since). It was a big shindig with representatives from the IndyCar world, too, including Parnelli Jones, Rodger Ward, A.J. Foyt, and J.C. Agajanian.
In late 1961, Godman sold the Chassis Research car and began campaigning a Dragmaster-chassised machine that Harrison Jacobs took to Middle Eliminator honors at the 1962 Nationals. The duo finished runner-up in the points championship that year, just 15 points behind Jess Van Deventer. A few years later, Sonny Adkins drove Godman’s BB/Fuel Dragster to the Super eliminator title in front of their home-state fans at the 1967 Springnationals in Bristol.
Enter Preston Davis
In late 1967, Godman moved up to Top Fuel, and, after a falling out with Adkins after the U.S. Nationals, he hired fellow Memphis Rodder member Davis as his driver, and the two raced together for the next 11 years.
Davis had cut his racing teeth in gas dragsters — one of his first dragsters actually used the chassis of Godman’s Modified Roadster and another, a George Root-built rail, was a C/Dragster national record holder — and had been a regular competitor at Lakeland.
“I heard that Raymond and Sonny had parted company and that there was an opening to drive the Bo-Weevil, so I called him,” Davis recalls. “We were in the same car club but not really on the same level because he was running Top Fuel and I was running Comp. We talked for five minutes, and he asked me how my business was going and how I liked the weather, and I finally said, ‘Look, Raymond, I’m a busy guy. I heard you were looking for a driver.’ He said, ‘Well, I was getting around to that.’ He said I could drive the car if I could build the motor because he had a match race the next weekend. So I did, and we took it out the following Saturday and Sunday to Lakeland, and when they strapped me in for the first time, I couldn’t see where I was going because of that big ol’ blower. It didn’t take but a few runs to get used to it.”
Success for the duo came quickly with a win at the 1968 season-opening divisional meet at Phenix Dragway in April en route to the Division 2 championship. A second division title followed in 1970.
“Preston was a helluva driver and a great mechanic, too,” Godman praised. “We used to attend the Gainesville Turkey Trot races every November to have a best-of-three match race against Don Garlits. After Preston beat him on holeshots one time, Garlits pulled me off to the side and asked me, ‘Where’d you get him? That guy is good!’ ”
As Funny Cars began to gain popularity, Godman and Davis expanded their operation to also include a Funny Car, a Woody Gilmore-built Barracuda, and they ran them both at several meets, which proved too much of a burden. “It just about killed us financially, so we just raced Funny Cars only from then on,” recalled Godman.
Rear-engine cars were quickly becoming necessary to compete in Top Fuel, and Davis saw the success that his good friend Clayton Harris was having with Jack McKay’s New Dimension dragster and told Godman they needed to either update to a back-motor car or switch exclusively to Funny Car.
“The real money at that time was in Funny Car with all of the match racing you could do,” said Davis. “Plus, it was just usually me, Raymond, and another guy. We didn’t have the finance or the muscle to campaign two cars, so we stuck with the Funny Car.”
(Above) The duo's second Funny Car was this Mustang, in which Davis rode out a bad fire in 1974 that led him to retire. (Below) The two reunited to compete at the 25th annual U.S. Nationals with this Arrow in 1979.
The beginning of the end
Davis was runner-up to Tom McEwen in Funny Car at the 1972 PRA National Challenge in Tulsa, Okla., and went on to win the Division 2 Funny Car championship in the car later that year. A Mustang later replaced the 'Cuda. A bad fire in Blaney, S.C., in 1974 convinced Davis to quit driving, but he was thankful to have the choice.
“A month before that I was so mad at NHRA because they had changed the rules to require a five-layer Nomex [driving] suit that cost me $600, which was a lot of money back then, but it saved my life. There’s no doubt in my mind," said Davis. "I told Raymond that we needed to get some better parts, but he was happy with the pieces he had.
"It turned out that the O-ring in the back of the fuel pump broke and filled the crankcase with 91 percent [nitro]. Needless to say, when it lit, it really was a bad fire. I believe that the big man upstairs was looking out for me because somehow the front latch of the body released and the body came off. The Mustang was a beautiful car, but for some reason, it was a jinx.
"Finally, I just told Raymond, ‘I think someone is trying to tell me something.’ I put the car back together, ran two more races for him, then retired. Larry LaDue drove the car for him the next four years, but I couldn’t even watch racing on TV, it was too hard. It’s in my blood.” (So much so that years later, Davis is now building himself a 225-inch front-engine nostalgia dragster with a alcohol-fueled 392 to compete at nostalgia events; “My body is 73; my mind is 30,” he insists.)
As a testament to their long friendship and in acknowledgement of his hard work in the pioneering days, Parks insisted that Godman race at the silver anniversary U.S. Nationals in 1979. Godman invited Davis to be his driver. Davis didn’t have a driving suit any more or even a current license, but Godman took care of all of that, and the partners were reunited.
“This was right at the beginning of tire shake, and we didn’t qualify," said David."It shook so hard that I couldn’t see where I was going, and it broke the bottom chassis at the firewall and broke the fuel-pump extension. We went to Bristol the next week and to Atlanta the week after that, and then I quit for good."
The rising costs of competition forced Godman also to retire at the end of the 1979 season. After he quit racing, Godman continued to sell insurance for a while – after leaving the service, he’d attended the University of Tennessee to study for his insurance license and opened his own business – then started Godman Hi-Performance In 1977, selling high-performance race car and hot-rod plumbing, where he continues to work every day.
“I don’t have any regrets,” said Godman, who was inducted into Don Garlits’ International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1991 and was also a Lifetime Achievement Honoree in 2003 at the inaugural Holley NHRA National Hot Rod Reunion. “I’ve had a very good life, I’ve worked hard, have a good family, tons of friends, and still work every day. I can’t stand sitting around doing nothing. I enjoyed my time in the sport. I always liked race cars and going fast, building a better motor to beat the other guy, and made so many friends.”
(Above) The Bo-Weevil wasn't much to look at when Davis, left, picked it up from Carol Poston and placed it in the back of his pickup, but the end result of the restoration (below), unveiled at the 2013 National Hot Rod Reunion, was stunning.
Davis began restoring some of Godman’s old cars a few years ago, and the '60 Nationals runner-up is the latest. As mentioned earlier, Godman sold it in 1961, and Davis actually drove the now small-block Chevy-powered dragster for its new owner, then bought it and quickly sold it to his friend Carol Poston. After he finished restoring Godman’s Top Fuel car, he began looking for his own Root-chassised dragster, but when current Top Fuel star Clay Millican told him that Poston still owned the Fenn car — “It lay out in the weeds for some 40 years,” according to Godman — Davis had to see it for himself. All that remained was the chassis and the front end, but it was enough to convince Davis it was the real deal and worth salvaging.
“Carol and I were good friends back then, so I asked him, ‘Carol, what would it take for me to get this car?’ and he just gave it to me,” recalled Davis. “I spent a couple of days in Oklahoma with Benny Osborn and came home with a quick change rear end, and I built the motor. We had to get a fiberglass ’27 bucket body; I looked all over for a metal one but couldn’t find one, but I got a fiberglass one from Spirit Industries in Ark., narrowed it down, and made it fit, and had the aluminum nose added. A local boy here did a fantastic job of painting it. I’m really proud of it.”
The car made its redebut at last year’s National Hot Rod Reunion in Bowling Green, Ky., and will be on hand, as mentioned, at Indy. As proud as Davis is of the re-creation, he doesn’t want the attention for himself.
“It’s not about me,” Davis insists. “It’s about Raymond and that car. I don’t care if they ever even mention my name. I want Raymond honored for what he has done in his life. He’s the history of drag racing in Memphis; there ain’t no doubt about it. Raymond and I had our ups and downs over the years — it was mostly over money — but he’d get out of that wheelchair and get under that car with me to check the bearings. The man was unbelievable.”
I couldn't agree more. I tip my cap to the man who brought NHRA to the mid-south and to all of the pioneering boosters who helped get us to where we are today.