James Warren (above) won Top Fuel, and Don Prudhomme (below) scored in Funny Car at the 4th annual Grand Premiere at Irwindale Raceway to help kick off 1975.
Forty years ago last Sunday, Irwindale Raceway kicked off what I still think is one of the greatest and most interesting seasons in drag racing history. The 1975 campaign began in a storm of rules controversy, welcomed new cars and new classes, was highlighted by Don Prudhomme’s incredible six-win season, and ended with two of the greatest runs, Don Garlits’ awe-inspiring 5.63, 250-mph Top Fuel pass and Prudhomme’s barrier-breaking 5.97 Funny Car run, both at that year’s World Finals at Ontario Motor Speedway. In the next couple of weeks, I’ll get to all of that, but I’ll kick off this year’s Insider with a look back at that wild first race, the Grand Premiere, which took place Jan. 4.
Prudhomme won Funny Car, West Coast powerhouse James Warren won Top Fuel, and John Shoemaker blitzed Pro Comp, and there were plenty of stories behind each.
The Grand Premiere event itself had debuted at Lions Drag Strip in 1972 to kick off the fabled track’s final season. Fans with long memories will remember that race as the site of a jaw-dropping Top Fuel final between Prudhomme and John Wiebe in which both recorded 6.17 e.t.s, the quickest in history, times that were disputed. The race was a real crashfest and probably could (and probably will be) a column unto itself before this thread is done.
The Grand Premiere was moved to Irwindale in 1973 and kicked off Steve Evans’ management of the newly refurbished facility, and the 1974 edition hosted the Cragar Five-Second Club race (won by Garlits), so the event had a lot of momentum going into 1975.
Prudhomme, fresh off a victory days earlier at Fremont Raceway’s New Year’s Day event, won the Grand Premiere, too, not in his soon-to-be all-conquering Army Monza, but in the familiar Barracuda that he had raced to two wins, a runner-up, and second place in the points behind Shirl Greer the previous year (the car was actually his 1973 'Cuda, pressed into action after his new low-riding John Buttera Vega was shelved after just two events in 1974).
The event also marked the Southern California debut of the new Blue Max Mustang II with Raymond Beadle at the wheel. The car had debuted in December in Florida during the 1974 Winter Series, where it won the Snowbird Nationals with a decent 6.45 best.
The late, great “Jungle Jim” Liberman was the low qualifier in Funny Car with a 6.30, just two-hundredths off of “the Snake’s” track record but eight-hundredths ahead of the man himself. The rest of the field comprised (in order) Neil Leffler in Jim Terry’s surprisingly quick Mustang, Jim Dunn, Gary Burgin, Beadle, Gene Snow (who shortly would undergo back surgery and sit out most of the season), Mike Halloran, Gervaise O’Neil, Gary Densham, Norm Wilcox (in Roland Leong’s Hawaiian, his first Funny Car ride after a strong Top Fuel career), Clarence “Boogaloo” Bailey, Dennis Geisler (in the ill-fated rear-engine Hindsight), Dale Pulde (in his new ride in Joe Mundet’s Eastern Raider Pinto after leaving Mickey Thompson’s national-record-setting Grand Am), and Bryan Raines.
After Burgin and Geisler (who were supposed to run one another) as well as Pulde and Wilcox failed to make the first-round call, Liberman, Prudhomme, Leffler, Snow, and Dunn won their races, and Beadle and Pickett, in Pete Everett’s Pete’s Lil Demon, “singled” together for their bye runs from Pulde and Wilcox. Prudhomme’s victory came on a stout track-record 6.26 pass against O’Neil.
Then things got weird.
(Above) Milliseconds after this photo was taken, the rods exited the block, and Raymond Beadle and the Blue Max did a big ol' 180 on the starting line. Madness ensued. (Below) Prudhomme defeated Jim Dunn to capture Funny Car honors and his second match race win in the first four days of 1975. (Jack Reece photos)
After “Jungle” smoked and lost to Dunn, Beadle and Leffler fired their engines. Oil immediately began spewing from a broken oil-pump gasket on Leffler’s engine, and he was shut off. Beadle, never one to just go through the motions, waded into a monster burnout with the Max but kicked out a rod. He slid in his own oil, doing a 180-degree spin, smacked the A-board, and ended up facing the wrong way. Leffler’s crew, seeing this happen, refired his leaky mount hoping to at least stage and get the win. According to the account in Drag Racing USA, Steve Montrelli tried to stop him but was grabbed by Sid Waterman, who had built Leffler’s engine (in fact, Leffler was the shop foreman at Waterman Racing Engines). Prudhomme stepped in and grabbed Waterman. A lot of pushing and shoving and name-calling ensued before Leffler was shut off.
Asked what he thought of the scene, Evans told DRUSA’s Steve Alexander, “I loved every minute of it because nobody was mad at me.” That sentiment might not have lasted long as Evans surprisingly reinstated Beadle because he had already been declared the winner when Leffler initially shut off and didn’t even have to do a burnout. “What was I gonna do?” he asked rhetorically. “Make them push it down the track? They’d had enough trouble.” (I gotta think that the always-promotions-minded Evans saw a bigger fan appeal to keep the Max in the show.)
Once the shenanigans were complete, Snow beat Pickett, and Prudhomme, who had the bye run after the nonexistent Burgin-Geisler race, barely navigated his slick lane to a 15-flat win to end the round.
Beadle also lost traction in the semi’s against the cagey Dunn, who somehow ran 6.46 through the mess, and Prudhomme then beat Snow, 10.16 to 10.32, but nearly collected the guardrail in the process. Prudhomme saved his best for last and, despite not holding lane choice, beat a crossed-up Dunn in the final with a 6.32. Two match race wins in the first four days of the season probably should have been an indicator that "the Snake" was going to have a pretty good year, and he didn't even have his new car yet.
Top Fuel was a little more straightforward. The “Ridge Route Terrors” dominated qualifying with a 6.05, well ahead of the dual 6.24s of Flip Schofield and Leland Kolb. Stan Shiroma was fourth at 6.29, followed by Gary Read, Gary Ritter, Tony Nancy, Gary Hazen, and Danny Ongais, all in the 6.30s. Bob Noice, Tom Toler, Shorty Leventon, Frank Prock, Bill Carter, Rick Uribe, and Don Ewald (6.67) rounded out the field. About 30 dragsters tried to qualify.
Warren scored his fifth straight win at Irwindale when he defeated Walt Rhoades in the Top Fuel final. (Steve Reyes photo)
Warren got a bye run when Ongais’ crew couldn’t fire the Vel’s/Parnelli Jones mount, then reset low e.t. with a 6.04 in round two over tire-smoking Read. Warren got another bye when Toler’s team couldn’t fire his car, and he was joined in the final by Walt Rhoades, who made the field as an alternate, then beat Shiroma, Hazen, and Ritter. Despite dealing with the same oil-soaked track as the floppers, Roger Coburn spun the knobs the right way in the final, and Warren blasted to a stunning 6.01 at 239.36, low e.t. and top speed, to claim his fifth straight win at the ‘Dale. Rhoades was second through with a 6.18.
Shoemaker dominated Pro Comp from start to finish in what was the introduction of the AA/Dragster class (also known as BAD, for blown alcohol dragster). More than 50 drivers turned out looking for a spot in the 16-car field, including Dale Armstrong, who was awaiting completion of his new BB/FC and showed with a BAD after running pretty much every other configuration in 1974. Shoemaker’s 6.89 led the field by almost a tenth, and he ran 6.91, 6.96, and 6.90 to reach the final when everyone else was struggling in the sevens. The only other driver to find the sixes consistently was Don Enriquez, in his and Gene Adams' converted ex-Top Fueler, which ran 6.98 in the semi’s. Shoemaker took no prisoners in the final with a 6.87 to fend off Enriquez’s 7.00. The BADs were so, well, badass at the start of the year that NHRA changed their weight break after the Winternationals.
The Grand Premiere also was memorable because it provided the first test of NHRA’s new index handicapping system for Comp eliminator (which previously had been handicapped based on national records) and for the introduction of the C/Econo Dragster class (then reserved only for four-bangers), which later became one of the most populated in the eliminator.
The Grand Premiere was certainly that and set the stage for the dueling AHRA and NHRA Winternationals that followed a few weeks later to kick off their respective seasons. We’ll take a look at those launchpads next week.
Before Christmas and NHRA’s weeklong holiday shutdown, I promised you a column before the year was out, and here I am, back on a Wednesday (those of you who were with this column from the beginning back in mid-2007 remember that this was a thrice-weekly column: Monday-Wednesday-Friday) to close out the year and reset for 2015 and the first column of the new year, which will be posted Jan. 9.
As is the case at the end of each year, people like to make lists and, hey, who am I to go against the tide? I thought it would be fun to take a look back at the previous 50 columns I posted this year and create some short “greatest hits” types of lists from the publishing year. Turns out that I wrote about 100,000 words in those 50 columns, and I scoured them all (as well as the roughly 7,500 words that you all contributed) to create my lists, which I hope will bring back some fun memories and spark a little re-reading, and I finish the column with some housekeeping notes, all of which should send us off into 2015 with a fresh slate.
My Favorite 2014 Columns
I’d long been a fan of Funny Car racer Jake Johnston (right), but it took me years — and a random tweet by his son, Beau — to track him down for my column, Jake Johnston: Funny Car's "what if?" guy. The guy came within two hard-luck final rounds of being drag racing’s first two-time Funny Car champ four years before Don Prudhomme made it happen, drove some great and interesting cars — the Blue Max, Gene Snow’s Dodges, the Keeling & Clayton California Charger (dragster and Funny Car), the Pisano & Matsubara Vega, the Wonder Wagon Vega panel — and was on the ground floor of some potentially great breakthroughs that never quite panned out. He had a great memory and a great attitude and provided material for a follow-up column, How much Jake can you take?
The column on Johnston also led me into a great and long-running thread on the tricky Vega panel wagon Funny Cars of the early 1970s, beginning with the most famous of them all, the ill-fated Wonder Wagon machines of Don Schumacher (No more wonderin' about the Wonder Wagon). I had heard and read so much about how the deal went down — most of it is contradictory — so I went all 60 Minutes on the case and interviewed as many of the primary parties as I could — Schumacher, dealmakers Don Rackemann and Bob Kachler, drivers Kelly Brown and Glenn Way, and, of course, Johnston — for a 4,000-plus-word tell-all.
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 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 was just a list off the top of my head, without much more thought than it took to tap out the letters on my keyboard. That column was quite popular and continued into your contributions with More Things That Aren't Here Anymore.
Although I wouldn’t call them my favorites because of the subject matter and the fact that I was compelled to write them, I’m very proud of the final product, the reaction and comfort they gave, and all of the work that went into the tributes I wrote about Raymond Beadle and Dale Armstrong.
Best Stories Behind the Stories
This column has long born the motto “the stories behind the stories” because my goal has always been to uncover new tidbits about previously documented events and people and to shed new light and nuance upon both. I think I have a pretty good recall on most of the major events in the sport’s history, but through the course of researching and interviewing for the columns, I always stumble upon things that I didn’t know. Here’s a few that really tickled me this year:
It’s easy to imagine that the super-competitive Don Prudhomme would have had lots of snake venom for Raymond Beadle, who ended “the Snake's” four-year Funny Car championship run and began a three-year tear of his own in 1979, but that’s far from the case. The two were great pals back then, as Prudhomme shared with me during my long tribute to Beadle back in October. “Raymond was always a guy that I really, really liked. We used to battle each other on the track, but we used to have fun when we hung out. He was always a pleasure to be around. We used to pal around with a bunch of guys … to hang out in Dallas, go to Campisi’s; we were tight. Outside of ‘Mongoose,’ I don’t know there was anyone inside of racing that I was tighter with than Raymond.”
There was a lot of Blue Max treasure to be mined. In that same column, I found out that it was Dale Emery who bestowed upon Fred Miller his indelible "Waterbed" nickname, not for any '70s-style debauchery Miller had committed but for his repeated failed attempts to repair a leak in his water mattress. "It started out as a pinhole, and by the time I was done 'fixing' it, there was hole big enough to stick my head in," recalled Miller. "Emery would see me and say, 'There goes 'Waterbed Fred,' and it just stuck."
Billy Meyer, who was still in high school during his first two years in Funny Car, would often ride to the races with Beadle (who then was driving for Mike Burkhart) while both raced on the Coca-Cola Cavalcade of Stars circuit, and Beadle’s wife at the time, Holly, would tutor him in English.
A lot of folks remember that the Blue Max made its NHRA national event debut with Jake Johnston at the wheel at the 1970 Winternationals, but that was quickly lost in a highway accident. Car owner Harry Schmidt was at the wheel of their ramp truck when a driver going the other direction on the interstate lost control of his vehicle and swerved across the grass divider and into their lane. Schmidt swerved to avoid the oncoming car, which chucked the new Mustang off the back of the ramp, demolishing it. “We both cried,” remembered Johnston.
The bald truth finally came out about the famous starting-line fight between two guys just prior to the Modified final round at the 1970 Nationals that resulted in the toupee of one being knocked off his scalp (you can see it by his right elbow as it’s falling to the ground). According to Jon Asher, the rug-wearing rascal was a fan who had been handed off a starting-line pass by departing members of the ABC Wide World of Sports camera crew. The interloper got into the way of several photographers before starting-line regular Ted Robinson finally had enough and fists flew.
The credit usually goes to the Budweiser King Funny Car team, but the Reher-Morrison Pro Stock team of David Reher, Buddy Morrison, and driver Lee Shepherd were actually the first to run the Racepak data recorder on the dragstrip in early 1985, and that showed them some inconsistencies in Shepherd’s driving and became instant converts.
The great “Ace,” six-time U.S. Nationals champ Ed McCulloch, never really wanted to be a race car driver. After moving to Portland, Ore., and partnering with Jim Albrich on the Northwind Top Fueler, SoCal-based Dave Jeffers drove the car for them for a while, but flying him to the Northwest for dates got to be too expensive, so it had to be either McCulloch or Albrich behind the wheel, and when Albrich’s wife vetoed him doing it, suddenly McCulloch was a driver. “I never really wanted to drive,” he confessed during the legends show at the Finals. “I was always more interested in the mechanical end of the cars, building them, working on them.”
Indy hosted the Nationals for the first time in 1961, but it was “Red” Dyer, in Raymond Godman’s Tennessee B-Weevil, who officially opened the Indy dragstrip with a pass not long after the 1960 Nationals, which had been held in Detroit. Godman and Dyer had been Top Eliminator runner-ups to Leonard Harris and the vaunted Albertson Olds, but Harris and car owner Gene Adams returned to the West Coast to match race, so NHRA founder Wally Parks called upon Godman and Dyer to have the honor of making the first pass down the newly built dragstrip.
It’s no secret that Kenny Bernstein and Dale Armstrong struggled in their first season together in 1982 before winning Indy in 1983. What changed? Bernstein explained to me that their car always shook like crazy, and it wasn’t until Armstrong, who had retired from driving at the end of the 1981 season, made a guest appearance in the cockpit of the Bud King LN-7 in April 1983 while Bernstein was in traction at a local hospital with two ruptured vertebrae in his neck that things changed. “We were booked in at Orange County [Int’l Raceway], and I told Dale to go drive it. He came in Monday morning, looked at me, and said, ‘We can’t run the car the way we’ve been trying to run it. I almost crashed it.’ That, in all honesty, is what turned us around. I don’t think he realized how bad it was until he crawled in the car and tried it himself. He went in a completely different direction, and the car just took off. That was the turning point.” Everything wonderful and amazing that happened to the duo came from that point forward. I found a video of that run online and shared it with Bernstein, who had only heard Armstrong's description, and got a good laugh out of it.
Armstrong was a huge hockey fan and was pals with “the Great One,” Wayne Gretzky. He even owned the '99 Dodge Durango that was awarded to Gretzky in his final All-Star game as MVP. Gretzky even signed the glove box and called Armstrong to congratulate him when AA/Dale was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2010.
“I don’t think he hated me as much as he hated himself.” — Bobby Vodnik, on Don Garlits after “Big Daddy” red-lighted to the kid in the final of the 1963 U.S. Nationals
“It all turned to crap right in front of me, and there was nothing I could do.” — Glenn Way, on feeling sliced out of the Wonder Bread deal he helped develop
“Over a long period of time, a lot of the memories change, and the person thinks his memory is fact when they are not. I have had a lot of experience with this because I have all the records here to draw on and see hundreds of people telling me stories that are just not true. However, I do not contradict the storyteller; it just upsets them!” — Don Garlits
“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.” — Don Prudhomme, on front-engine Top Fuel push-starts
"She never tuned an engine for Don Garlits nor did she officially belong to the pit crew, but all who knew the two of them agreed on one thing: She was his secret weapon. Now, if T.C. Lemons was still around, he would tell you in no uncertain terms, 'There would be no Don Garlits without Pat.' " — Garlits biographer Mickey Bryant, on the passing of Garlits' wife, Pat, in February
”I was 115 pounds soaking wet, and those [firesuits] were Robocop outfits I could strap on and go racing against the varsity guys.” — Tommy Ivo, on why racing appealed to him
“He was a money driver; he never got rattled. If we made it to a final, we knew we never had to worry about him being late.” — Dale Emery, on Raymond Beadle
“I loved driving that Funny Car, I really did, except when it was on fire. I had some blazers. [My crew] would try all kinds of new innovations, and I was kind of like a sitting duck and not smart enough to realize that I was probably where I shouldn’t be.” — Shirley Muldowney
“I look at the fortunate career I had and the fortunate life I have today, and I believe that Dale is 75 percent of the reason for that.” — Kenny Bernstein, on Dale Armstrong’s contributions to his career
“I always had to check the hockey schedule before I called him; he didn’t want to talk to anyone when hockey was on. He’d be pissed off if you called him when hockey was on.” — Prudhomme, on Armstrong
Here’s an incredible photo of Gary Gabelich’s outrageous four-wheel-drive, rear-engine Vega panel, caught in mid-turmoil by another legendary ace shooter, Jere Alhadeff, shortly before its demise at Orange County Int’l Raceway.
They say a photo is worth 1,000 words, and sometimes that's especially true to nostalgia nuts like us because a simple image can transport us back in time, back to the grandstands at some long-closed dragstrip, or maybe to the living room table where we sat poring over the pages of the latest drag racing monthlies.
For a writer like me, trying so hard to connect all of us to a previous time, there’s nothing sweeter to me than being able to find the perfect photo to either illustrate a story or set a mood.
While I did a standalone two-part column on the favorite photos I’ve collected from the Internet (The Photo Hoarder: Part 1 | Part 2), there were a lot of photos that I used in columns throughout the year — some from the National Dragster files and some submitted by others — that I really liked, too. At right is a little photo gallery of some of them.
It’s a Small World
When Insider regular “Chicago Jon” Hoffman shot the above photo at the 1978 U.S. Nationals and shared it as part of our “Things That Aren’t Here Anymore” thread (i.e., the Hurst Bridge), I’m sure he had no idea that more than 35 years later someone would step forth and identify the random fans in his moody photo, but after it was published, I heard from Christine Friederich, who wrote to say that’s her husband-to-be, Carl Friederich, in the yellow shirt leaning on Gary Ormsby’s car in the staging lanes. That’s his brother, Steve, standing with him. “My husband said that he was in the sixth grade when his older brother stopped on his way to Indianapolis and took him to the track,” she wrote. “He doesn't remember the picture being taken but was excited to see it and share it with our children as well as the memories of the trip.”
My Best Moments
This job has provided me opportunities to do things that I never imagined I would, to meet folks and create long-lasting and treasured friendships, and the chance write up about and interact with legends of our sport whom I grew idolizing or reading about in the pages of magazines and continues to provide pinch-me moments (I got a kick out the jealousy notes some of you sent me regarding the “Garden Party”) and 2014 was no exception. Here's a few personal highlights,
Meeting Raymond Godman and Preston Davis at Indy after interviewing both for a column on the Tennessee Bo-Weevil was a true honor. You couldn’t ask for a couple of nicer, down-home Southern gentlemen.
Being on hand for the legends tributes in Indy and Pomona this year was great because I never get tired of hearing the stories retold, and seeing “Big Daddy” recreate his starting-line shave at Indy was pretty magical, too. Kudos to “Big” and NHRA’s Glen Cromwell for being able to pull that off.
It was 30 years ago this year that I experienced a magical summer in Ohio driving the Mazi family’s supercharged Competition Eliminator Opel for a two-part story for National Dragster (relive it here: Part 1 | Part 2). The idea was not mine but borne from the fertile mind of patriarch Frank, who thought that I needed to drive the short-wheelbase, high-power car to round out my understanding of why he drove such a wild beast. I spent part of the summer of ’84 — and many more days in months surrounding it — hanging out at the Mazi home in Eastlake, Ohio, where we became like family. I eventually drove the car well enough to earn an NHRA competition license and wrote an article that is still warmly remembered three decades later. People still stop me and ask about it.
Although I’ve remained close to eldest daughter Dawn, a talented photographer and videographer who I see from time to time on my travels, it had been decades since I’d seen Frank. We missed connecting earlier this year in Norwalk, but when I found out he was coming west to the Hot Rod Reunion in Bakersfield, where he was driving a nostalgia dragster in his comeback season behind the wheel, I made sure I was there to greet him in the staging lanes. I was no longer that still-wet-behind-the-ears 24-year-old writer he’d first met, but we immediately reconnected and started blabbing on about old times. The man means the world to me for what he taught me (which was more than about how to drive his race car), and I’m glad I was finally able to tell him that.
I almost got to meet my other hero this year, but travel changes put a kink in those plans. You probably don’t know him, but Dan Greenburg is the writer I grew up idolizing as a young teenager and for years after. I read voraciously his books, which chronicled his humorous experiences with everything from the dating to the occult to fatherhood, while in high school. He went on to become a truly successful author of children’s books (The Zack Files, named after his own son) but also still wrote adult fiction. When I came across his website last year, I sent him a note thanking him for the inspiration he’d given me in my writing career. He kindly wrote back, and we exchanged a few more emails before he offered me the chance to not only preview his almost-completed new book, Fear Itself, but asked if I would share my opinions when I was through. Are you kidding me? I was on a plane a lot this summer, so I hammered through it easily and shared my thoughts and ideas, which he gratefully accepted and in some cases even implemented. When the book finally went to press, he noted my contributions in the forward. You can only imagine what they felt like. If you can’t, imagine being a Chevy fan who was inspired by magazine articles about Bill Jenkins to begin experimenting with building engines. You send a fan letter, and the next thing you know he’s not asking if you want to get a sneak peak at his new engine project but for your opinions, and then he uses one or two of your ideas and gives you public credit. Yeah. I know. We’ll try to meet up again after this year’s Englishtown event (he lives in New York City).
One of the “breaking” stories last holiday season was my leg, broken in a hockey game a week before Christmas. There was no repeat this year, but the fact that I was even back on skates as soon as June is in part due to Greg Ozubko. You know him as one of the sport’s most talented graphic artist, whose paint schemes have adorned scores of cars over the years, but I know him as well as a fellow hockey player. After I broke my leg and had a bit of a rough recovery, I really began to question whether it was time to hang up my skates, and even though I still dearly loved the game, I couldn’t imagine getting hurt again and having to go through it all over again. Ozubko, who has battled through more than his fair share of hockey injuries, understood better than even my family what I was going through. We sat together during the long rainout in Atlanta this year, and the things he shared about his own struggles and the things he reminded me about why we loved the game got me over the hump. Today, I’m playing some of the best hockey of my career. Thanks, Zubes. (Check out this story that CNN did recently on Ozubko.)
Giving Thanks Where Due
As you can imagine, it takes a lot of effort to write a weekly column like this in addition to a full-time gig as editor of National Dragster, but it’s truly a labor of love and has given me back so much more than I’ve put into it. Although mine’s the name at the top of each column, it’s a truly collaborative work with its readers and its subjects.
I’ve been befriended and accepted by so many racers — guys like Don Prudhomme, Tom McEwen, Ed McCulloch, Shirley Muldowney, Roland Leong, Richard Tharp, Tommy Ivo, Simon Menzies, Jeff Courtie, Rob Bruins, Johnny Abbott, Ron Pellegrini, Don Roberts, Jeff Foulk, Bill Pryor, Rich Hanna, and many more — who are quick to respond to my silly inquisitions about what can be some really inconsequential parts of their careers or just to serve as a sounding board or a fact check.
I’ve developed a strong core of other Insider types, guys like Steve Gibbs, Dave Wallace Jr., Jim Hill, Mike Lewis, Henry Walther, Dennis Friend, Franklin Amiano, Steve Justice, Mickey Bryant, and Todd Hutcheson, who tip me off to stories or who can point me in the right direction or provide the contact info I’ve been searching for.
I’m extremely blessed to be entrusted with the images of some great photographers, who always seem to be thinking about what I might need next or are quick and generous to respond to my requests for photos not in our files; folks like Steve Reyes, Jere Alhadeff, Bob Snyder, Tom Schiltz, Alan Earman, and Mark and Laura Bruederle.
Thanks to my similarly minded pals, Todd Veney and Bret Kepner, for their insight and continual support and respect of what I do. Thanks to the copy editors — Lorraine Vestal, Juan Torres, Miesha Zumazuma, and Jeff “See You At The Races” Sumida — for slogging through my 10,000-word columns and making them readable.
And, of course, thanks to my loyal readers of the Insider Nation. Not a column goes by where someone doesn’t drop me a kind word or two, and I try to respond to as many as I can, and I thank you all for all the contributions you add. Special thanks to some of my most active and engaging readers: Robert Nielsen, Cliff Morgan, Gary Crumrine, “Chicago Jon” Hofmann, Howard Hull, Mark Watkins, Mark “Hogwild” Elms, Richard Pederson, Terry Spencer, Bob Lukas, Tom “Fasthair” Scott, Michael Ostrofsky, and my “grammar Nazi,” Robert Doss.
Charlie Proite watches from the background as Dave Miller launches their nostlagia dragster. (All photos by Steve Reyes)
I was hoping to get through the end of the year without another notable passing from our sport’s history, but that wasn’t to be. On Sunday, Dec. 28, we lost longtime nitro car owner Charlie Proite after a massive stroke. He was 73. Proite is well-known to both longtime and new nostalgia fans for his Wisconsin-based Telstar entries that dated back to the early 1960s.
He began his nitro career in 1963 when he bought Chris Karamesines’ Chizler and put Fred Welchman behind the wheel. Together they won Cordova Dragway’s prestigious World Series of Drag Racing event in 1965 and 1967. When you learn that Don Prudhomme beat Don Garlits in the 1966 final, that tells you all you need to know about the caliber of cars that attended the event.
Proite switched to Funny Cars in the early 1970s, and in 1973, he landed a major sponsorship with Pabst Brewing Co. and experienced some great years with Russell Long as his driver of the Pabst Blue Ribbon Charger. Vic Cecelia and Doc Halladay both also drove for Proite before he got out of the Funny Car business in the late 1970s (Halladay bought out Proite and kept the Telstar name alive with his own car). Proite remained on the sidelines until teaming with former Top Fuel pilot "Diamond" Dave Miller in 1997 on a nostalgia Top Fueler that resurrected both of their careers. That car was built by the late, great Dennis Rollain, who also built Miller’s famous “shorty” Top Fueler of the mid-1980s.
A number of folks called to tell me of Proite’s passing, including “Diamond Dave” himself, who said he has lost a very dear friend.
“We got pretty close over the last 17 years,” he said. “We had a lot of good years racing together. Racing was Charlie’s life. This was a real heartbreaker. We’re still going to race the car as Telstar and see if we can get it done somehow without Charlie.”
Finally, here’s to wrapping up some late-2014 threads.
My column on the birth of data recording, at least on the Racepak side, in drag racing met with some interesting feedback.
My good pal Henry Walther, who shared in that column his experienced with data gathering on the Larry Minor dragster and has a strong understanding of the field during his own time at Racepak, added, “Your mention of racers who either accepted or resisted data recorders brought to mind my own list of those I encountered during my years with Racepak. As an early proponent of data recorders and a firm believer in their value, I sometimes felt a responsibility to awaken those who didn’t quite ‘see the light.' Without naming names, there were many well-known and respected racers who needed to be led to the water before they would drink. This group consisted mainly of older racers who had gained their knowledge the old-school way and were reluctant to stray from their hard-earned methods of success. One that I will name is the driver with which I had the longest association, Gary Beck. When Bernie Fedderly and I were pursuing onboard data acquisition, Gary wasn’t quite sure he was in favor of having this newfangled device looking over his shoulder so-to-speak. He had his concerns about its viability. However, he should have been an advocate of it as it ultimately proved to us just how talented of a driver he was. Gary would give us his feedback after a run and tell us of what he had done or was going to do on the following run. Admittedly, sometimes we questioned whether he truly had that good of a feel for the car. Once we equipped the car to monitor some of the driver functions, we stopped questioning his keen awareness or abilities in the car. If he told us that he was going to run the car out another tenth of a second before he shifted it or that the car felt soft around the 330, the data recorder would always validate his claims. Beck was amazingly computer-like in his driving.
“Finally, your explanation of the struggles of comparing one run against another in the days of the thermal paper printers again aroused old memories. I wondered if racers today who use Racepak’s interactive data-analysis software, which can overlay multiple runs at one time on their computer screens, have an appreciation of how far things have come. Just the sheer size of the roll of thermal paper from one run was a challenge to handle, let alone trying to overlay the same graph from two of these strips of paper. As the attached photo of me attempting to dissect the data off of one of these printouts will attest, you needed some room to spread these out. A good set of young eyes and a magnifying glass were helpful, too. (Note: This photo of my makeshift office in the rear of the McGee Brothers Quad-Cam trailer was shot in Sonoma. There is another of the ‘that was then, this is now’ differences. No fancy crew chief lounges back then.)”
While Ron and Dale Armstrong certainly perfected the data recorder and worked on a traction-control device, Bill Warburton insists there were many before them who tried other methods, including an East Coast racer, John Burk, of Beverly N.J., a “tinkerer” whom Warburton said had an advanced system on his car back in 1971. “In 1968, John was the A/FD national record holder who I raced with on the East Coast Jr. Fuel circuit,” he wrote. “In 1971, John installed a computer in his A/FD that would control engine rpm in relationship to rear-wheel speed. If he started to spin the tires, the computer would slow the rpm down. I would kid him and call the computer "the Univac" because at the time Univac was one of the leading computer companies in the world. I don't think that he was ever able to work the bugs out of it, but you got to admire him for being willing to think outside of the box.”
My perpetual foil, Robert Nielsen, who always smartly argues his counterpoints, believes that while data recorders “certainly were responsible for some of the big performance gains shortly after their introduction, I think many of these performance gains you pointed out would have come about, [albeit] over a longer period of time, as one of the racers’ creeds is to always look for performance improvements. All that the data-acquisition systems did was speed up the process.”
Last column’s noting of the passing of ‘70s Funny Car chassis wiz Jaime Sarté led to a funny story from Brent Cannon, who partnered with veteran driver Phil “Punky Kid” Soares on a Top Fuel car back in the 1970s, memorable for its red and yellow barber-pole paint scheme and a big victory at the 1973 Irwindale Grand Prix. Soares, like Sarté, was from Hawaii (which has a surprisingly good track record on producing talented drag racers, right Mr. Nielsen?).
Writes Cannon, “Jaime and Phil Soares had a friendship from Hawaii where they both had been racing before coming to the mainland. One night at the County, we broke a top framerail behind the clutch (tire shake). Phil asked me to find Jaime. I got him and brought him back to the car. Jamie took a look at it and saw my church key oil can opener laying in the tool tray on the bug catcher. He asked for a hammer, then beat it completely straight and welded it to the chassis. He wrapped it all the way around the break and welded it. Phil took no reserve in making another lap after the quick surgery. Phil had total confidence in Jamie. We went on to the next round. I’m sure that there were many other stories, too, but I experienced this one first-hand.”
And finally, from one Phil to another to another, I want to give a shout out to longtime pal “Flyin’ Phil” Eliott, who’s currently battling throat cancer. Because of our shared first name and love for the sport, people sometimes have gotten us confused; I’ve been greeted as “Flyin’ Phil” a few times; I hope he has been mistaken as me, too, though I’m far better looking.
Elliott has been around the drag race journalism business for a long time and for a while published his own magazine, Drag Racing News & Views, which focused on the drag racing scene in the Northwest, where he’s still deeply loved and respected by racers in all classes. He even had his own dream of building and running a Funny Car, which he has documented on his website, NitroNova.com. It’s a fun read; check it out.
Anyway, as you can imagine, the cost of fighting cancer is not cheap, and while he has insurance, it’s also probably no surprise that it won’t cover the whole bill. He was finally convinced by friends to set up a crowd-sourcing donation page, which I hope you will visit and add to the impressive total already accumulated. You can find it here: http://www.gofundme.com/is8log
My best wishes to Phil. Get well soon, friend.
OK, gang, that’s it for 2014. Thanks again for everything you do, from visiting to contributing to passing the word. That helps make this a great place for folks like us. See ya next year!
I went to a garden party
to reminisce with my old friends
A chance to share old memories
and play our songs again.
My Christmas present came early this year, in the form of an invitation to a party Dec. 5. For more than five hours, a large group of longtime friends hung out and shared great memories, food, and drinks on a glorious Southern California afternoon and early evening. Stories were shared, lies were told, and exploits were undoubtedly exaggerated. The host was gracious and generous, making sure to spend time with all of us as he worked his way around a backyard made just for this type of gathering. A combination DJ/singer kept the oldies-heavy tunes spinning, playing and singing everything from Al Green to Jim Croce to Bruce Springsteen (and, yes, Rick Nelson's "Garden Party").
This could have been a family reunion or a work-related holiday party, filled with relatives or co-workers, but it wasn’t.
It was an informal get-together hosted by the Prudhomme family — Don “the Snake,” wife Lynn, and daughter Donna — at their home with a drag racing hall of fame guest list of “the Vipe’s” longtime pals. The invitation said that the purpose of the party was the opening of their new “zaguan” entryway (go ahead and look it up; we all did), but, as proud as they were of the new addition to their home, it’s pretty clear that was probably an excuse to once again pull close a family of friends, to enjoy one more time in their company.
Our host, "the Snake," center, with Bill Simpson and Donnie Couch
Here's a great lineup of pals, from left, Jim "Dudley" Rickart, Tom Prock, Frankie Pisano, Couch, Bill Doner, Pat Galvin, and Mike Kuhl.
Couch, Doner, and "the Old Master" Ed Pink, gather 'round "the 'Goose"
Couch with the Bernsteins, "Waterbed Fred" Miller, and photog Gary Nastase
The party was planned long before we lost Dale Armstrong — one of Prudhomme’s closest friends the last few years — and AA/Dale was certainly on the minds of everyone present because the man was that widely loved and respected. The turnout was incredible; then again, when “the Snake” invites you to his house to hang out, who’s gonna say no? Not this guy.
I’ve written before that there’s a good-sized group of these guys who get together on a semi-regular basis to have lunch but nothing like this gathering.
I walked in alongside ‘70s super promoter Bill Doner and his carpooling pal, wheelstander great “Wild Bill” Shrewsberry, and we were warmly greeted by superstar crewguy “Waterbed Fred” Miller. I turned around and there was drag racing pioneer Art Chrisman. And over there was fuel-engine legend Ed Pink, chatting with his new partner, longtime Prudhomme crew chief Bob Brandt. “The Mongoose,” Tom McEwen, was seated poolside, hanging with his buddy, former Funny Car racer Tom Prock. Pat Galvin, who crewed for both Prudhomme and McEwen in the 1970s, was soon joined by his brother-from-another-mother, Donnie Couch. Kenny and Sheryl Bernstein walked in. Frank Pisano was there. So was safety equipment guru Bill Simpson, legendary chassis builder Don Long, Mike Kuhl, of Kuhl & Olson fame (but no Carl!), and notorious dealmaker and bon vivant Billy Bones. Spider Razon. Dan Broussard. Larry Bowers. Mike Thermos. Steve Gibbs. Jim "Dudley" Rickart. The list goes on.
What really struck as I watched these heroes of our sport interact was their genuine friendships, forged after years of traveling the nation’s highways together or racing with and against one another. Their welcomes to one another more often than not were warm embraces rather than handshakes, and “good to see you again” was a common refrain, and, in this year when we’ve lost so many from our sport, you don’t have to look for hidden meaning there.
In many ways, it feels like a high-school reunion, only they don’t wait every 5, 10, or 25 years to get together, and well they shouldn’t. I wonder if this kind of thing goes on in other sports, where old rivals, teammates, and associates stay connected decades later. It’s hard to imagine it happening on a grander scale than this, and it takes someone of Prudhomme’s magnitude to bring them all together.
I’ll be honest, I came to the event armed with a notebook, camera, and tape recorder, salivating at the chance to “report” on the affair, but once I got there, it didn’t feel right. I took one photo (the first one on this page) then put it all away to soak up and enjoy the tremendous vibe of the event and relied on Couch’s Facebook photos to help tell the story (which explains why he’s in every photo).
I flitted from gathering to gathering, groups of a half-dozen or so who stopped circulating to form impromptu bull sessions, but finally landed at a table with two guys who, for unknown reasons, have befriended me above and beyond the call: the legendary “Mongoose” and the almost mythical Doner. I sat with them as they tried to one-up one another in telling me tales of bygone days, of barroom fights and other extra circular activity that made the 1970s memorable for more than just those great old Funny Cars. Doner and I keep talking about getting together one night to get it all down for posterity for a book, but unless I published it under a pen name and changed the names to protect the not-so-innocent, I think that’s just a fantasy we both share, at least until some statutes of limitation run out.
What I thought was especially cool was that Prudhomme also invited some of the upper echelon of NHRA management to the soirée. NHRA President Tom Compton, along with Vice Presidents Graham Light, Gary Darcy, and Glen Cromwell all came and enjoyed the evening. It does my heart good to see the respect that they get from the old-timers who helped create the business they now manage, and I would have loved to hear what ideas and input that Doner was sharing with Compton late in the evening.
Even as the guests began to trickle out late in the evening, “Snake” pulled some of the last diehards together by a patio fireplace just to shoot the breeze and hang a little longer.
I made the two-hour drive home — Prudhomme lives in really southern Southern California — with a big smile on my face, replaying the evening and the thrill and joy of seeing this great extended family of drag racing legends and movers and shakers together once again and to reminisce with my old friends and share old memories.
As joyous as the Prudhomme party was, there was also talk about those we’ve lost, most notably and close to many of those on hand Armstrong’s passing, but before I go for the year, I wanted to mention some other recent losses that have crossed my desk.
Fred “Fritz” Voigt, who was the runner-up to Calvin Rice at the first NHRA Nationals in Great Bend, Kan., in 1955, died recently. When Voigt’s name came up at “Snake’s” party, there were more than a few people who asserted that Voigt helped make Mickey Thompson’s great racing career when he worked for him beginning in the late 1950s, building engines and other projects for M/T, including the powerplants for Thompson’s famed Challenger 1 entry.
Voigt, like his contemporaries, raced first on the dry lakes and at Bonneville and soon partnered with Leland Kolb on a variety of cars, and drag racing became his thing. As I mentioned earlier, he was runner-up in that first Nationals (you can read an account of that race here, where Voigt's name is misspelled, as it regularly was, as "Voight"). I found online a very funny and candid interview that Voigt did earlier this year; you can read that here.
Funny Car pioneer Phil Bonner died Nov. 10 following a sudden illness. He was 81. Bonner was one of a handful of factory-backed Ford racers who got the opportunity to compete with Ford’s lightweight Galaxies in the early 1960s and then transitioned into the nascent Funny Car class. Bonner was best known for his line of entries named Daddy Warbucks Fords, beginning with an altered-wheelbase Falcon, which had a stack-injected 427-cid engine, that he match raced across the country and the factory-built extended A/FX Mustang with a 427 SOHC that he added later. He ultimately retired from racing with the loss of factory sponsorship around the time he built a flip-top Gran Torino Funny Car in 1969. He was inducted into the Georgia Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2007.
Jaime Sarté, who built scores of Funny Cars for the 1970s legends, died Dec. 1, just a day shy of his 73rd birthday, in Panama City Beach, Fla., where he had lived the past 21 years. My good pal Jeff Courtie, who worked for Sarté off and on over the years, sometimes welding up chassis at night in exchange for Sarté allowing him to update his Funny Car in his shop, shared the sad news with me (and shared the great then-and-now photos at right), and also provided a laundry list of Sarté cars over the years, which includes McEwen’s 1978 Indy-winning Corvette and Shirl Greer’s Mustang II (the car built for his title defense after melting down his older Mustang at the previous year’s Supernationals), plus cars for Tommy Ivo, Jeg Coughlin/Dale Emery, Tom Hoover, Dick Rosberg, and Roland Leong, who told me separately that he got the last chassis from his fellow Hawaiian.
Boris Murray, who passed away Nov. 22, is widely acknowledged as the first king of nitro-fueled motorcycle drag racing, with a heyday that spanned from the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s. Murray’s Triumph-powered bikes held the NHRA and AMDRA speed and e.t. records for most of that 10-year span. Although his eight-second, 170-mph performances don’t seem like much compared to the low-six-second, 225-mph times being recorded by current-day stars Tommy Grimes and Damien Cownden, that was really hauling back then. His most famous bike was a twice-motored 750 cc Triumph with T.T. carbs, running 92 percent nitro, high-gear only on 4-inch M&H 4 slick on which he raced and beat the likes of Joe Smith, Ray Price, Sonny Routt, Bonny Truitt, Leo Payne, Dave Campos, and Russ Collins.
DeLoy "Dutch" Naeb, the 1966 NHRA Street Eliminator World Champion and Division 5 Hall of Famer, died Nov. 28 at age 80. Naeb raced stock cars as a teenager, racing with his father in Denver before he began drag racing and won the championship with his victory at the 1966 World Finals at Southwest Raceway in Tulsa, Okla., with his Corvette, named Pooch. After his racing career ended, Naeb drove trucks for years and took up flying but returned to circle-track racing in the early 2000s in his early 70s. In January of this year, he was inducted into the Division 5 Hall of Fame at honored at Bandimere Speedway during the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals for being the division’s first world champion and was inducted into the track’s Taylor-Vertex High & Mighty Hall of Fame and his name placed on a granite memorial at the track.
Note: NHRA headquarters will be closed all next week as we enjoy a brief holiday break, so there won’t be a new Insider next Friday, but I expect to be back in early the next week and have a year-end wrap-up column ready by mid-week before we close again for New Year’s. I'll see you then.
Ron Armstrong, standing, and Dale Armstrong pore over data printouts from an early RacePak data logger.
“People ask me what was the single thing that made the biggest progression in drag racing from the 1970s, when no gains were being made, and I tell them it was the computer. It changed the sport in a way nothing else did. There’s nothing else that even comes close. Front-engine dragster to rear-engine dragster was nothing compared to what the computer did. That was one step, and it was over. The computer went on and on, and to this day it’s still doing it.”
The speaker is the late Dale Armstrong, and the voice is coming off a digital file sent to me by Tim Anderson, president of Racepak, from a near-two-hour interview he did with Armstrong in the fall of 2013. It was a melancholy feeling to hear Armstrong’s voice again, knowing that I’ll never hear it again any other way, but I was thrilled that Anderson generously offered it up to me because I had already planned to try to relate the story of how on-board data recorders — required equipment ever since — first came into use on the dragstrip in the early 1980s, and without Armstrong’s own comments, it would be sorely lacking.
Armstrong’s wife, Susie, had already sent me the phone number for Ron Armstrong (no relation), who, along with Spencer Eisenbarth, created Competition Systems Inc., which developed the recorder. I don’t remember seeing anything that really explained the trials and errors of what has become such a crucial component on any top-class car, and after an hour-long phone call with Armstrong, I’ve tried to distill the basics of that experience below that, when combined with the Dale interview, paint an interesting picture.
[Note: From this point on, to keep the story straight, I’m going to refer to the two Armstrongs as Dale and Ron. I ask that my journalism professors and copy editors forgive me.]
In the recorded interview, Dale explained that even early in his career, during his alcohol-racing heyday, he was looking for some sort of data capture or electronic advice, relying on everything from telltale tachometers that would show the highest rpm experienced on a run to a supercharger boost gauge with a check valve that would hold the highest pressure and even the simplest things like a dash-mounted red light that would signal loss of oil pressure.
He related a humor trial-and-error story about trying to develop a positive engine shutoff after snapping the shaft in the quick-change rear ends he ran in his AA/DA dragster and got an assist from “a guy that did electronics work on IndyCars. We put it on the car, and Mike [Guger] and I went to Fremont. We were in the pits warming it up on jack stands, Mike was in the dragster and I was out there by the engine, and, man, it blew the blower off. The next thing I remember was being 15 feet away and on my back, and blower nuts and studs were still coming down from the sky.”
Scratch that idea.
Yet after dominating in the alcohol ranks in the late 1970s, Dale switched to nitro in 1980, and he admits to having “all of these unanswered questions” still rattling around his inquisitive brain.
He was especially befuddled on how there had been so little progress in performance form the mid-1970s to the early 1980s — Don Garlits’ famous 5.63 Top Fuel pass was the quickest ever from late 1975 until early 1981 — and he surmised that there were many secrets to be unlocked.
He was not alone in those thoughts. Henry Walther, for years a key member of the Larry Minor/Gary Beck team and a follower of electronics-savvy Formula 1 racing, was intrigued by the idea of being able to find out exactly what was going on during a pass beyond and more accurately than what a driver’s feedback could relate (sometimes incorrectly).
The fifth wheel on the Minor machine was connected to the rear-axle housing of the car and incorporated an inclinometer for measuring the angle of the suspended trailing arm that supported the wheel. Back in the pits, with the data in hand, the team could jack up the rear of the car to replicate the same angle, then measure how far the tires were off the ground and determine the diameter of the rear tires at various points on the track. Low tech, but effective.
Remembers Walther, “In 1983, when we won Top Fuel at Indy, John Norcia of Ram Clutches brought an engineer into our trailer and asked Gary if he would be interested in a device that would monitor the engine rpm, driveline rpm, exhaust-gas temperatures, and a couple of pressures. Over that winter, we installed their recorder on our car and started working with them in developing this system. There were still problems to be worked out, but this was the system that gave us the first on-track, full-throttle data starting in 1984. It was also the system with which we incorporated a fifth wheel at the rear of the car to try to determine tire growth. At that time, Goodyear wasn’t able to provide us with tire-growth information at speeds above 250 mph, and that in turn prevented us from accurately determining whether or not we were locking up the clutch or simply spinning the tires.
“As the season progressed, there were successes and failures with the system. We would run it at a race, and then we might be without it for a few races as it went back to the builder for upgrades. It was during one of these hiatus that a friend of mine, Greg Long, mentioned to me that he knew a fellow who was working on a system similar to what we were using and would I be interested in meeting him. He arranged a meeting between this fellow and me at a local Mexican restaurant. Greg left after the first hour of conversation, but the other fellow and I talked until they threw us out at closing time. This guy turned out to be Ron Armstrong. I could see that Ron and Spencer had developed just what I had been trying to accomplish with my feeble attempts. Unfortunately at that moment, I wasn’t able to bring it onboard on our car, but knowing that what Ron had was something we all needed, I told him I was going to introduce him to another friend who had also been beating his head against the wall in trying to obtain on-track data. I then called Dale and put him in touch with Ron Armstrong.”
Dale knew that the Beck team had been getting data and in late 1983 had gone to his old friend, Jim Foust, who had been a partner on some of his most successful alcohol cars. “Jim was a computer guy who worked at TRW and told me he could build me a computer to capture the data,” he recalled, “but it took up the whole front of the car. We ran that thing for about three months and never got anything out of it. The RF [from the magnetos] would just kill everything.
“Henry Walther told me about Ron, so I went to where worked and introduced myself. He starting talking and after about two sentences, I didn’t know what he was talking about; he was using words I’d never heard. As I got to know him, I told him that whenever I got lost, I was just going to say, ‘Stop. Start over. What the hell are you talking about?’ “
Timex Sinclair computer with thermal printer
Ron, whose primary early forte was engine building, was employed at Dresser Industries, where he had been working intently on capturing data on the dyno and later focusing on engine rpm over time that would enable road racers to better select gear ratios. He had set up a dyno to try to monitor power bands and soon hired Eisenbarth, a bright and inquisitive young mechanical engineer to assist, and ultimately became his partner in the company. It was Eisenbarth who suggested the use of a histogram. They experimented with recording rpm as a tone and unraveling it from there, but it was too cumbersome. Even after he left Dresser, they continued to collaborate, and it was Eisenbarth’s discovery of the Timex Sinclair, a small DOS-based computer that came with a thermal printer, that provided the great breakthrough. By the early 1980s, they had learned how to graph this data with a series of dots printed on thermal paper.
Through some savvy investing during the time he was driving the Miss Budweiser Hydroplane in the early 1980s, Ron was able to pour some seed money into the project to have some specialized circuit boards made. The company’s name was Competition Systems Inc., and the product itself was named Racepak (which later became the company name). The first Racepak went into competition vehicles in 1984, on hydroplane boats and stock cars, and the primitive data was eye-opening and, to some, not believable.
“Some of the rpm dots on the boat went as high as 5,800 rpm, and I remember the owner telling me there was no way it was that high because the crankshaft would have broken,” he recalled. “I took it out because I thought something was wrong, and not long after that they did break a crankshaft. When I put it in one of Harry Hyde’s NASCAR car, we were still only capturing rpm, but we were seeing some spikes, like the tires were coming off the ground. Before long, the shock guy realized that it was an issue, and we worked on that until the lines flattened out. I remember Harry saying, 'I can’t believe this guy hooked a wire on my spark-plug wires and can tell me that my rear shocks are bad.’ "
(The first units had only rpm and on/off throttle measuring — not position — and additional analog channels were added along the way. They sampled data just 10 times per second because memory was incredibly expensive back then; today’s units can record more than 50 channels and many, many more sub-channels and sample more than 50 times a second.)
The Reher-Morrison-Shepherd Pro Stock team was the first to use the new RacePak data logger (below) on the dragstrip.
The Reher-Morrison Pro Stock team of David Reher, Buddy Morrison, and driver Lee Shepherd were the first to run the Racepak on the dragstrip in early 1985, and that showed them some inconsistencies in Shepherd’s driving and became instant converts. Not long after, the two Armstrongs got together and forever changed the face of nitro racing.
It took a lot of experimenting, frustration, and trial and error with various forms of shielding and the installation of carbon plug wires before the rpm data became reliable, and the next thing they got was driveshaft speed, which was another eye-opener.
“Everyone thought we were revving 9,000 rpm, but we were only going 7,000, nowhere near what we thought we were,” recalled Dale, “but getting rpm and driveshaft was the most important thing we did because we saw it was still slipping 700 rpm going across the finish line.”
(It’s important to remember that, unlike today’s PC-based readouts, which allow crew chiefs to overlap multiple color-coded, line-graph channels of data for cause and effect, in those early days each channel of data was printed out in a series of dots on a roll of thermal paper. It was only by placing data sheets atop one another and shining a light through both that you could see the overlapping data points. Interpreting all of this, and being able to create the scale for each readout, was time-consuming and often frustrating. “We didn’t know everything,” Ron admitted. “Sometimes it was like the blind leading the blind.”)
The discovery that the clutch was not fully locked up at the finish line led to the creation of the lockup clutch that applied additional fingers downtrack, but that, too, involved some trial and error.
“In about a month, we built a lockup clutch,” said Dale. “The first iteration of it was just wound-up springs holding the arms out, and we had a knob on the end, and pneumatically we were just going to drive a piston into the bellhousing and knock these three levers loose. We went to Milan, Mich., on a Saturday night. It was just getting dark. It got to about half-track, and sparks started flying out of it. We went back to the pits and pulled the bellhousing off, and these springs, which were pretty substantial, about an eighth-inch in diameter, were all straightened out and wound around everything. Well, that didn’t work.
“I was always trying to control those arms, and at the time I didn’t think that the throwout bearing would survive. Finally, we did it that way, and the throwout bearing was the least of the problems.”
The design, with the help of an engineer who worked with Ron who designed the clutch arms to Dale’s specs, was perfected in mid-1986 and led to a huge performance leap for the Budweiser King, highlighted by a stunning 5.50 at 271 mph at that year’s U.S. Nationals. That run famously (and, for them, unfortunately) was recorded on a bye run that allowed their competitors to hear the engine pitch change downtrack. The cat was soon out of the bag.
More and more data-recording channels were added to measure just about every mechanical aspect of the car. Key among them was an accelerometer, or G meter. “It was one thing after another, but what I realized right from the start was the G meter,” said Dale. “Most people didn’t pay a lot of attention to it, but, man, that thing told you everything.”
Interestingly, initially Dale was not interested in capturing exhaust-gas temperature (EGT), another of the great and useful tools to determining the efficiency of a cylinder (and in detecting dropped cylinders); it wasn’t until they measured EGTs on Darrell Gwynn’s quasi team car and saw dropped cylinders being recorded that Dale saw the light. “It was one of the few times that something Dale said turned out not to be technically correct,” said Ron with a laugh.
While the Bud King and R-M-S teams and Jim Head were early adopters, there were famous racers who were more reluctant.
For five years in the late 1980s, the Bud King camp was the public face of the RacePak. Here, Dale Armstrong, second from left, and Ray Alley, second from right, explain its benefits to a number of interested racers.
“[Don] Prudhomme was one of the holdouts,” recalled Dale. “I told him I’d give him a unit and help him read it; after the weekend is over, come pay for it or give it back. I told him you can’t race without it if you want to be competitive. I told him you can pay me now or you can pay me later, but you have to have it; there’s no way around it.”
“Some of the old-school guys, like Austin Coil and Dick LaHaie, welcomed it with open arms, but I do remember Don Garlits was resistant,” added Ron. “Then I remember him calling me one day and saying, ‘I should have embraced this system the first time I saw it. I was the biggest bonehead ever. I want whatever you’ve got. Whatever you’re thinking you might have, I want to get back on the leading edge.’ “
Although Ron and Eisenbarth continued to upgrade and improve the Racepak over the next 20-plus years before Ron sold the company, the two Armstrongs collaborated on other projects, including the use of stronger, rare-earth magnets in the magnetos and, most intriguingly, a traction-control system they tested on the Budweiser King Funny Car prior to the 1989 season.
Dale had previously experimented with a semi-automated braking system that would control how long the brakes were applied during the launch. Based on his observation of the car’s dry hop, Dale could adjust this feature using toggle switches on the car’s rear bumper. That led to his asking Ron to develop something that would react to excessive driveshaft speed.
Recalls Ron, “The original rule stated that no micro-processor control of the brakes could be used, so we built the system using all discreet components, which turned out was much harder than if we could have used a processor. The system used an electronic reference ramp and compared it to the current driveshaft speed. If the current speed was greater than the set ramp, it would apply the rear brakes in proportion to the amount of deviation. Everything was done using fiber-optic cables and hidden in the bottom of the puke tank, not to hide it from NHRA but from our competitors.”
Some of their competitors obviously got wind of the system — probably by noticing that the car would hook up after a smoky dry hop or that Armstrong was no longer manually fiddling with something at the back of the car — and complained to NHRA, who changed the rule to read only that the driver could control the brakes.
Even though he no longer owns Racepak, Ron’s advice is still sought by many, most recently John Force Racing, who engaged him a couple of seasons ago to look at various facets and work on special projects with Jimmy Prock.
There’s little doubt in my mind that the data recorder has led us to where we are in terms of ever-increasing performance in the nitro ranks — this year fans saw the quickest and four fastest Funny Car runs in history — and, along with other continuing developments in hard parts, will continue to lead us into the future.