After covering 14 national events in 19 weeks, we get a little breather this week, at least on the Mello Yello side, which conveniently will allow me to catch up on overdue business here from the last several columns. I didn’t travel to them all (only half), but that’s enough time in airports, rental cars, and hotels to slow my roll. I get so many wonderful emails from the Insider Nation that I can’t possibly respond to or include all of them in this column, but know that every bit of information, acknowledgment, and thanks is very much appreciated.

It’s gonna be a long one, so grab a cup (or bottle or can) of your favorite beverage, put your feet up, and enjoy. Here we go …

Mike Goyda, left, with Don Roberts and the Jade Grenade cowl

Last November, during the thread about bits and pieces of crashed race cars that were in people’s collections, I shared the story of how collectibles king Mike Goyda owned the cowl from the Jade Grenade Top Fueler that Don Roberts crashed at New England Dragway in 1975. Because I’m friends with both, I forwarded a pic of the cowl to Roberts. 

Once Goyda learned that Roberts had lost a leg in the crash, he generously offered to loan the cowl to Roberts for as long as he wanted it. Roberts was touched but declined. The two got together a few weeks ago at – fittingly -- New England Dragway during the NHRA Motorsports Museum New England Hot Rod Reunion presented by AAA Insurance after photographer Mike McCarthy put them together for the photo at right.

“Despite the rain, the event was great, but this moment with Don was the highlight of the weekend for me,” said Goyda.

Roberts, who was honored at the event with an NHRA Lifetime Achievement award, also will never forget the reunion. “I was touched when Mike pulled it out of his van, and what really floored me was Mike was very emotional about the whole situation himself,” he said. “Mike is a wonderful man, and I sincerely appreciate him thinking of me. I am so proud of [the award] and still blown away by the wonderful weekend we had. I never thought anyone paid much attention to what I was doing so long ago, but I am so glad someone did.”

Me, too! What a great story and a wonderful example of the kinship of the drag racing community.

One of the races that I attended during this long stretch was the AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals at Texas Motorplex, which track owner Billy Meyer dedicated in the name of his good friend Paul Candies, who died July 21. Meyer’s wife, Deborah, wrote a touching story about Candies’ influence and interactions in their lives and about faith, which Billy asked me to share with you; you can read it here.

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I’m still getting lots of mail about the Christmas Tree-smashing thread, with new suggestions for inclusion and even more photos, like the great sequence at right contributed by longtime NHRA Division 7 photographer and National Dragster contributor Bob Johnson, who caught gasser legend K.S. Pittman in one of the less-proud moments of his glorious career Jan. 1, 1992, when he tangled with the Tree at the Hangover Nationals at L.A. County Raceway near Palmdale, Calif. “Pittman was doing his burnout when he lost control, plowed the Tree, and eventually rolled the car over. Pittman was OK, but his car obviously was destroyed," he said.

Although he sadly didn’t have photos to support his story, Brian Downey witnessed a unique chopping of the Christmas Tree in the late 1980s at an IHRA event in Rockingham, N.C., or, more likely, Darlington, S.C. “My dad was a crewman on Gary Litton’s Tennessee Shaker Funny Car, and I was an 8- or 9-year-old kid in heaven,” he remembered. “I normally rode in the tow vehicle but luckily was in the stands on this occasion. Gary was in the right lane. He did the long smoky burnout typical for the 1980s (before such things were thought to be unnecessary) and stopped a little short of half-track. The car had an issue getting into reverse, which I believe is a side effect of the long burnout. Gary revved the engine a little, and it finally went into reverse. He started to back up and gain speed rather quickly.

"At this point, I noticed something was wrong. I don’t remember if the brakes were out, throttle was hung, or if it was stuck in gear, but something was causing the car to back up faster than normal. The car mowed down the Tree along with the event signs. Then Gary spun the car around and into the guardrail. I still remember the car pushing against the guardrail, back wheels spinning, and crew guys furiously trying to stop the engine. No one was hurt, but the outcome could have been really bad had he not taken evasive action. Gary knew there were a lot of people behind the starting line. The longer burnout distance allowed him time to make a plan, which was turn into the guardrail when he saw the Tree, or hit it in this case.”

I also heard from jet dragster veteran Doug Brown, of Wildifire fame, about his memorable moment with the Christmas Tree at the 1983 Winternationals, which you can see in the video at right, beginning at about the 5:40 mark. (Thanks to Dave Wesolowski for the link!)

“My proud moment on ABC's Wide World of Sports!” Brown rejoiced. “Shirley [Muldowney] had just won Top Fuel. I beat Scott Hammack in his Smoke-N-Thunder jet in what I think was the last pair (ever) of jets to run at Pomona prior to them being banned. Great ABC coverage of the jets, then Buster Couch walking away from his position just as the Christmas Tree is blown over by the jet blast, showering Buster's back with broken glass. Too fun!”

That’s a pretty unique Tree toppling!

Still on the exhibition front, Bob Jarvi recalled seeing Bill “Maverick” Golden and the famed Little Red Wagon wheelstander wiping out the Tree at Minnesota Dragways in the late 1960s or early 1970s: “They had the Tree suspended with a cable across the starting line. He did his first wheelie/burnout and nailed the lights with the windshield/roof.”

Longtime reader Lou Kenkel gets a “close but no cigar” award but a valuable assist after sharing his memory from the 1976 U.S. Nationals, where Gary Burgin famously beat Don Prudhomme in the Funny Car final to hand “the Snake” his only loss of the season.

Jerry Ault had a close encounter with the Tree in the Modified final at Indy 1976.

He wrote: “Both drivers were in the staging lanes ready for their turn to race, ‘the Snake’ in the right lane and Burgin in the left, when one of the remaining Sportsman-class cars, a Corvette as I recall, pulled a huge wheelstand and blew his engine, depositing oil and engine pieces all over the starting line in front of ‘the Snake,’ so much in fact that he lost control of his car in his own oil and besides trashing the starting line also knocked down the Xmas Tree. A massive cleanup and Tree repair took place, and ‘the Snake’ had to decide which lane he wanted and chose to stay in the right lane. This was obviously wrong on his part as he struck the tires at the hit, giving Burgin his biggest win ever and ruining his chances for a perfect season.”

Well, yeah, sorta. Except the Tree part and lane choice. What Kenkel is remembering is the Modified eliminator final in which Jerry Ault’s H/Gas Corvette – racing future Pro Stock pilot Don Coonce in Albert Clark’s C/Gas Corvette -- did indeed blow its engine but did not take out the Tree. Oil and water did get under his rear tires, and he did make a hard turn from the right lane across the centerline, but “Expert driving on Ault’s part kept him from hitting the Tree,” read the caption in National Dragster that week. The photos at right show how close he got to taking down the Tree. Oddly, all of that happened after the race had already been decided on Ault’s red-light start.

Both lanes were oiled to about the 100-foot mark, and, indeed, Prudhomme had lane choice based on his superior semifinal 6.15 (over Ron O’Donnell) compared to Burgin’s 6.21 (over Raymond Beadle). Prudhomme had run the left lane throughout the first three rounds but switched to the right for the final. He hazed the tires 50 feet in the run and lost the race and his winning streak, which had begun after the 1975 Indy race, where he had lost to Beadle.

In an interview in National Dragster later that year, Prudhomme explained of his left-lane preference and his decision to go with the right in the final. "It was all my fault," he said. "I knew that some of the other guys were having trouble in that lane, but I thought that I could handle it. It was just one of those things."

So, here’s where the assist goes to Kenkel. As I was looking through the coverage from that event, I spotted the photo at right, which shows a car most definitely making contact with the Tree that year. If the Pinto looks familiar, it should, especially to Bob Glidden fans. No, it wasn’t Glidden behind the wheel, but rather Nashville, Tenn.’s Gene Turnage, who had purchased the Pinto – with which Glidden had won the Nationals in 1974 – and was running it in C/Gas when he took down the Tree during Modified class eliminations, the result of a reported broken rear axle.

Pro Stock history buffs may remember this as the event where Ford diehard Glidden was competing in a big-block Monza but failed to qualify, falling one spot short of the 8.97 bump with a 9.00 best. Cylinder-head damage throughout the weekend really hurt his chances and led to the first DNQ of his Pro Stock career. Glidden skipped the next event, the Fallnationals, but returned for the World Finals, back behind the wheel of his small-block Pinto, and reached the semifinals. The Indy boondoggle was an appropriate moment in one of his roughest seasons of the 1970s. He finished sixth that season after winning the championship in each of the preceding two years and would not fall outside the top five until 1993, with eight more championships between.

I also heard from both Dale Smith and E-town denizen “Berserko Bob” Doerrer regarding the Tree-smashing photos from Englishtown in the Sept. 20 column.

“As soon as I opened up [that] installment, the first thought I had was of Camp Stanley taking out the Tree in his way-too-cool-totally-bitchin' blown alcohol Chevy Luv truck,” said Smith. “Then as I scroll down, you had it among your list. We had been living in Connecticut for about a year when we drove down to see the Wild Bunch at E-town. I just had to check them out and was there to witness the Tree getting demolished. Even better, they towed the truck back to the pits and made like a NASCAR pit stop, pounding out what they could of the damaged door and rocker panel, combined with a liberal application of duct tape. He made the next round, as a match racer only could.”

“I remember all of them as if they were yesterday,” Doerrer wrote. “I don’t remember who the B/A was, but I do remember that he offered to pay for all the damages, which he did. Camp Stanley whacked the Tree big time on a sideways burnout; they were called the Wild Bunch for a reason. That’s me in photo seven surveying the damage. Photo eight is the A/A of Bob LaRagina, who put an end to racing that day as we didn’t have enough parts to build another Tree. Vinny Napp decided right then and there that it wouldn’t happen again, so on Monday, he ordered three complete new Trees from Chrondek. I got to be pretty good at rebuilding damaged Trees and wiring up all the relays that controlled all the bulbs. I still have in my collection a vintage Chrondek Tree with just the stage bulbs, no pre-stage bulbs.”

Doerrer’s mention of his vintage Tree makes a good segue to a sidebar of my history of the Christmas Tree. I was doing a little quick research for that other drag racing Phil – "Flying Phil" Elliott – on a 1970 Pro Stock race, digging through back issues trying to find the event in question when I stumbled on the photo at right in an August issue, showing a much different Tree than I’d ever seen.

This was not long after NHRA had announced that the season-ending Supernationals would be contested with a single-amber Pro start. The accompanying article explains that the so-called “instant green” Tree was nothing new and that it had been tried by NHRA in 1964, the year after the Christmas Tree was introduced in Indy.

According to the article, the Tree system was dubbed Matchmaker, and it really turned the whole Tree controversy upside down – literally. Two small staging lights (one for each lane) were at the bottom of the Tree, with single pairs of larger yellow, green, and red lights in ascending order up the Tree. The reasoning behind the design was that it allowed a driver’s eyes to travel upward and be at horizon level for the green, rather than looking down at the green bulb on the bottom of the original Tree design. The interval between yellow and green was set at two and a half seconds.

The first unit was built by then-Division 3 Director Bob Daniels for the total cost of $46.22, which included conduit tubing that could be screwed into an auto wheel and tire as shown, as opposed to the traditional crossed two-by-fours.

It was tested at events in Ohio, then used during qualifying at the 1964 Hot Rod Magazine meet in Riverside, Calif., where it met with mixed reviews. Many praised its simplicity, but the new spin on an already-new concept raised hackles, and the Tree was not used during eliminations, relegated to the corner of an NHRA storage room until the 1970 article.

Of all of the Tree-chopping photos I posted, none garnered more attention than the photo of “Big John” Mazmanian’s Cuda sideways at Orange County Int’l Raceway going headfirst toward the Tree. I mentioned that not only did I not know whether the driver had collected the Tree, but even who the driver was because, even though it was a ’71 Cuda, it could have been any number of people in the car. 

Don Hirsch was the first of many (as you will see) to respond, digging through his back issues of Drag Racing USA magazines to discover that the event was OCIR’s Big 4 Championships, and it was indeed Mazmanian’s nephew Rich Siroonian at the wheel. “The caption states he ‘took aim’ at the Tree but didn't hit it. The event was won by Bob McFarland’s Chevy II, and Rich was runner-up when he broke a coupler in the finals.”

Timothy Kral didn’t take the photo, but he might have been standing next to whoever did. “I had a press pass that day to take photos along the guardrail at OCIR. The driver was Siroonian, and he missed the Tree. I know this because he proceeded to cross into the opposing lane and come straight at me where I was positioned taking photos. I managed to take the photo of him coming at me before getting out of the way in case he impacted the guardrail in front of me. Rich managed to miss the guardrail as well and motored slowly on down the track. As I recall, this happened during qualifying.”

As all of this was going on, I never thought to try to track down Siroonian himself and was saddened to learn that just days before the column was published, he had died. I wrote an obituary that ran in the NHRA.com Notebook but hadn’t acknowledged it here yet. I didn’t even have a chance to catch my breath when two days later we learned of the passing of Funny Car pioneer “Professor” Kelly Chadwick and two weeks later the death of 1960s Top Fuel star “Wild Bill” Alexander – the ol’ deaths-in-threes curse seemed to have struck us hard.

Reader Bill McLauchlan was another one who wrote and was certain that, even though his 717 permanent number was not visible in the photo, it was Siroonian driving and that he couldn’t possibly have hit the Tree.

“Back in the day, I would read National Dragster every week and am sure I’d remember if one of my favorite Funny Cars hit the Xmas Tree,” he wrote. “What I do remember is that Siroonian would drive his uncle John’s cars on and off. He drove the '68-'69 Cuda until the summer of ’69, when Dave Beebe drove the car (winning the PDA meet at OCIR), but Siroonian was back by Indy, fouling in the final to Mickey Thompson and Danny Ongais (Ongais would drive the ’72 car for ‘Big John’). When the ’70 Woody Cuda premiered, Wendell Shipman was driving, but Siroonian would eventually take over until Indy, at which time Arnie Behling was driving. Not for long, though, as Siroonian was back at the wheel as runner-up to Jake Johnston at the ‘70 OCIR Manufacturers Meet.

“Only three guys drove the ’71 Woody car - Larry Reyes at the ’71 Winternationals (Siroonian drove the previous ’70 model at Pomona) in a one-race deal; Siroonian then drove it most of the year, including the Springnationals at Dallas as well as the PDA meet at OCIR; and Mike Snively drove it at the end of the season, including the ’71 Supernationals, where he runner-upped to Larry Arnold. All of this is from memory; however, what I never remember seeing is why Siroonian would come and go as the driver. I thought they were a cool team and always wondered why the changes? I was sad to see the note that he had passed away only a day or so before your column, so I guess it will remain a mystery.”

I also heard from Marie Delgadillo – dubbed "favorite fans" with husband Steve by Mazmanian’s wife back in the day – and knew it was her all-time favorite driver and unknowingly answered McLauchlan's question that “the family forced Rich to stop driving (stop this nonsense and get married was the order), which he resented and even drove a race for Mickey Thompson to show them!

“I don't believe they tagged the Tree on that run but do recall the announcer in the tower saying, ‘Mr. Mazmanian, I saw your name on both doors that run.’ We shared those memories both with ‘Big John’ and Rich Siroonian - bless them both!”

I also wrote a brief obituary on Chadwick here and one for Alexander here, so I won’t rehash that info here, but I was thrilled to hear from “Wild Bill’s” daughter, Renee Alexander. According to her, his passing Oct. 5 was pretty sudden. He was hospitalized Oct. 3. The next day, doctors told Renee that it had spread to his liver and then his bones. “I told him I loved him,” she wrote. “His sister and granddaughters (son Rod's daughters) came by Saturday, and as soon as everyone left the hospital, he passed. The nurse on duty was holding his hand, so he wasn't alone. He was one tough dude. Never complained about his health. I spoke to him every day, sometimes twice or three times a day. We laughed every day when we talked, and he was always in good spirits. He was so proud and passionate about his racing, and I would like to do everything I can to keep his memory intact.”

And she did. In addition to creating a Facebook page in his memory, she put down some memories for me (and you all) to learn more about him. I was just 4 years old during his best season (1964), and he retired from driving the same year (1971) I attended my first race, so I never saw him drive. Alexander returned to the cockpit in the late 1980s in a nostalgia Top Fueler and won the March Meet at age 60. Renee got to see him race at both ends of his career but has something much more precious, four decades of time with him after that. This sport is all about family, about kids following in the footsteps of their parents, whether it’s to the grandstands or the cockpit, so I thought you’d enjoy her reminiscences.

“Like most kids, my dad was larger than life to me as a kid. My earliest memories were with my dad at the racetrack. [My brother] Rod and I rode in the car that would be waiting behind him at the starting line, and we would watch him do his burnouts and then take off like a bullet. We intently watched the lights, then would race down the track as fast as the car would go to meet him at the end of his run to pick him up, all the way cheering ‘Go Dad, go.’ Rod and I were with him at the track most of the time, especially in the early days. I watched him with excitement race Ernie and Annie Alvarado’s Ernie’s Camera entry. We watched him race the Sbarbaro car and the Wishart car. And I watched the ladies clamor for a picture of my dad. I curiously wondered why.

[Roger Lee also created a nice Facebook tribute to Alexander, which you can find here.]

“I listened to my dad talk shop and use words about engines and parts I didn’t know or understand, but I could always hear the passion in his voice. And that made me happy. Dad would let me hang out with him in the garage, and I would watch him work. He would ask me for a tool or a beer, just as long as I didn’t talk or ask questions ... LOL.

“As a kid, I asked my dad why he liked racing, but he never gave me an answer. As an adult, I kinda let it go. He never changed his love for the racing community. It’s a trait that I’ve grown to respect, admire, and honor.

“You knew where you stood with my dad. If he liked you, he was gentle and kind. If he didn’t like you or respect you, he turned his back and wouldn’t have anything to do with you. There was no phony BS with him. He would tell you his honest truth. No mincing of words.

"He took me to work on Saturdays, where I would quietly watch him arc weld, or grind metal parts, fiery sparks flying everywhere like some kind of magical being wielding a magic torch.

“My dad was not a boastful guy. I never heard him brag about his racing or brag about any race he won. He always knew it was a team effort. This racing life was all I knew. I thought all dads raced or were like my dad.

“I do remember very vividly my dad’s crash in 1963. I remember the horror of seeing him in the hospital. So I really worried every time he raced. Rod and I grew up at the races with the noise and the rubber smell and the excitement. We grew up in the pits at the drags. And I remember dad pacing and being very quiet before a race.

“He went to work every day no matter how he felt. When Toni (our mother) left him without warning, he had the burden of raising two teenagers alone and grieving the loss of his wife who left him for another. It was painful to see him so sad. But he did find love again.

“My dad lived and breathed racing. He loved his racing friends. When I visited him in the hospital after he was assaulted a few years ago, he asked only for his racing friends. He had a great sense of humor and blended his humor with his unique insight and wit. He laughed and made me laugh every day.

“He was dedicated to his craft, and nothing would stand in his way of racing. He knew he wasn’t the best father. He held strong to his beliefs and his character. But he could also admit to his shortcomings and mistakes. I know he was not perfect, but he was my dad. He loved his son, Rod, and his sister Sandy, who has been there for him through all his ups and downs. He loved Rod’s daughters, Brandi and Kristi, from whom he had occasional visits.

“As for my relationship with my dad, I spoke to him every day after my brother passed away. I called sometimes three times a day. Dad cared about what was important to me. He never complained about much of anything. And each time we talked, he wanted to know how my kitty was doing. I would share the kitty anecdotes of the day, and he would laugh heartily. Whenever I thought I had outsmarted my cat, Dad would say, ‘He’s just retraining you.’ He had an amusing way of describing the world around him.

“I told him I loved him often. When I spoke to him on Friday the 4th, I told him I would be coming to the hospital, and he emphatically told me, ‘Don’t bring kitty.’ In the end, he was very brave and never showed any fear. He told me not to worry about him. I held his hand and told him I loved him.

“He indirectly taught me the importance of accepting others for who they are and the importance of compassion and forgiveness.

“He really didn’t look to tomorrow. I’d say, ‘Dad do you need food?’ or ‘Why don’t you let me get you some groceries?’ He would reply, ‘I’ve got food for two days, and I don’t want to rush into anything.’ And we would both laugh. Of course, that reply frustrated me because I wanted him to have everything he needed, but I respected his wishes. I had a cleaning lady come and clean his house once a week so his house was clean. He slept in clean sheets. And he had clean clothes. He had his TV, and he was able to stay in his house up until Thursday, which is what he wanted. I only wish he had more calls from friends. But I know life happens.”

Wow, I don’t even know where to begin with something as touching as Renee's letter, the powerful love between a father and child. It’s probably the way that most parents hope their children will remember them and also a powerful motivator for any kid with an aging or sick parent. I lost my dad when I was 9 but found a wonderful father figure in the man my mom married after their divorce. That's him at right, trying out the cockpit of the John Force Funny Car at the NHRA Motorsports Museum last year.

He has not been in good health (he’s 83 and still smokes despite warnings from his doctor), and just a few weeks ago, I answered a call from my mom, and I could tell in her voice that something bad had happened to him. They’re divorced now, but she still is there for his every bad turn, and I always knew that the bad word would one day come from her.

He was riding with a friend to get supplies to fix his well – despite his ails and age, he’s still a hands-on kind of guy – when a steering component broke in the truck in which they were riding. They plunged off the side of the road and into some trees. He was badly hurt, but the tough old bastard that he is, he survived. Broken nose, broken ribs, bruises covering his entire body, but he lived.

I’ve never been shy about telling him how much he has meant to me as a fatherless young lad, but I made sure he knew it again the first time we talked during his recovery. Do that today with your loved ones.

Thanks, as always, for reading and contributing. I'll see you next Friday.

It’s hard to imagine a segment of the NHRA family that Mike Lewis hasn’t touched in more than 40 years in the sport. People today know him as the high-profile face of the Don Schumacher Racing empire, where he serves as senior vice president, and he previously was the executive director of the Professional Racers Owners Organization (PRO). Before that, he was NHRA's vice president-field administration, responsible for the entire network of field operations and member tracks, and vice president-general manager of the NHRA flagship racing complex now known as Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis.

During his long tenure with NHRA, fans knew him as a knowledgeable part of the NHRA national event announcing team. He’s also well-known in the Sportsman ranks after becoming a licensed driver and scoring a pair of national event runner-ups in Top Alcohol Dragster in 2009 and as a solid handler in the Nostalgia Funny Car ranks, where he scored an impressive win at last year’s California Hot Rod Reunion.

But if you go way back, and perhaps more memorably, especially on this weekend when the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series is in Pennsylvania, Mike Lewis’ name will forever be entwined with Maple Grove Raceway, where he literally grew up. Ninety years ago, Lewis’ grandfather Alfred Stauffer bought the land on which the track resides and on which Maple Grove Drag-O-Way opened in August 1962. Lewis would become the track’s manager while still in his early 20s and later general manager and track president, but, more important to the concerns of this column, he competed there in Top Fuel with his brother, Kent, on a memorable dragster known as Sparkling Burgundy.

The Lewis brothers, Mike, center, and Kent, with father Joe and their front-engine Top Fueler, circa 1971.
The original Sparkling Burgundy car did a lot of winning for the brothers. With drivers like Fred Forkner (below) at the wheel, it often was first to the finish line.
  (Above) Dale Thierer took over the reins of the Sparkling Burgundy car in 1973 and continued the winning ways but fell agonizingly short of winning the Division 1 title.

(Left and below) The Sparkling Burgundy car was featured on the popular Noonday on 8 TV show on channel 8, WGAL-TV, the NBC affiliate in Lancaster, Pa. Lewis showed the controls to an audience member while Kent Lewis, left, and Lex Dudas, right, who joined the Maple Grove staff in 1972 before his long haul as NHRA Division 2 director, looked on. Dudas returned to the track in 2008 as vice president and general manager.

I’ve known Mike for decades – before, during, and after the time we shared office space here in Glendora – and even mentioned his fuel-racing career in this column four years ago during the long-running Misc. Files thread, so when I was putting together this week’s edition of My Favorite Fuelers for NationalDragster.net focusing on some of Pennsylvania’s famous nitro wranglers, I thought I’d include them in that column. I dropped an email to Mike to confirm the basic info I had about the numerous drivers who had sat in the cockpit of their Top Fuel cars and was delighted (but not surprised) that he replied in very thorough fashion with a complete history of their team, which we rounded out in subsequent conversations and a chat last weekend in St. Louis and which I’ll share here in honor of this weekend’s race.

Being around drag racing almost their entire life, it’s not surprising that the Lewis brothers had to try it firsthand, which they did starting in 1970, when they began fielding a front-engine Top Fueler. Mike made license runs in the car but deferred the seat to Ed Crafton to focus on managing the track with (and at the insistence of) their father, Joe.

“He lobbied the family on my behalf when I was 20 and wanted to drive Top Fuel more than put on races,” Mike remembered. “I thank God for his direction every day.”

The partnership with Crafton lasted until the summer of 1971 – on the Fourth of July weekend at one of Pennsylvania’s other famous tracks, Numidia Dragway – when they lost an engine and then the car in the nasty accident that followed. “Ed recovered, but we all ‘grew up’ that day,” he said. “It was a very sobering experience.”

With the rear-engine revolution under way, the brothers called on another Pennsylvania racing institution, S&W Race Cars, to build them a rear-engine car for the1972 season. They called the car Sparkling Burgundy, named after their burgundy and gold school colors (they also briefly considered -- and rejected -- Green-Eyed Lady, after the then-popular song by Sugarloaf).

Sarge Arciero was their first driver when the car debuted at the Gatornationals. They failed to qualify there but won divisional races in Englishtown and Montreal before Arciero left the team in midsummer to campaign the ex-Eddie Careccia front-engine car. His replacement was Delaware-based Top Fuel veteran Fred Forkner, who not only brought more than a decade of driving experience, but also his potent 426 powerplant, and the winning resumed.

“We won another race or two and would have won the Division 1 title if we could have combined points [of Arciero and Forkner],” said Lewis. “We also wore ourselves out commuting to Wilmington, Del., to Fred's shop. He wanted to run the PRO race in Tulsa [Okla.], and then we split.

Walter “Satch” Nottle made a one-race appearance in the car, and Larry Bucher drove for them at the World Finals in Amarillo, Texas (“We were first-round fodder for [eventual champ] Jim Walther, as he reminds me every time I see him,” remarked Lewis), but the brothers found their ultimate partner later that year in Dale Thierer, who had become a well-respected driver in the region at the wheel of the Chevy-powered Hemi Hunter dragster that won the 1971 Division 1 crown.

“Dale was perfect chemistry for Kent and me,” Mike marveled. “Smooth and consistent. Easy on parts. We won a lot of races over the next two years at Englishtown, Epping, Montreal, etc.”

The team came agonizingly close to winning the Division 1 championship in 1973.

“We needed only a first-round win at Atco for Dale to clinch the NED title but lost the engine in qualifying,” he remembered. “With three hours until eliminations and a spare short block two hours away, we found a friend to drive the short block to Atco. With help from a dozen friends, we installed a short block and bolted on heads, clutch, supercharger, pump, etc. in 24 minutes but ran out of time to adjust the valves on a replacement head. It started just fine but broke an exhaust valve on the burnout. It was still an amazing night in New Jersey. The funniest thing then happened; our blown engine didn't catch fire on the track, but our friend flipped a butt out of the window of his pickup, and our oily, blown-up 392 lit up on the New Jersey Turnpike.

"Our biggest win came at the Maple Grove [divisional] race in 1974 over an 18-car field including Gary Beck, Flip Schofield, and all the Eastern stars. ‘Satch’ Nottle broke in Fred Forkner's car, so we took a solo win in the final.”

(Above) With Kerry Sweigert, near lane, at the wheel, the Lewis Bros. scored a popular win at their home track's Spring All-Pro Series event. (Below) Mike, left, meanwhile was continuing his duties at the racetrack, including congratulating one of his former drivers, Sarge Arciero, who won in the Jade Grenade.

(One thing that I found interesting in researching Pennsylvania nitro pilots for the article on the ND site was that everyone seemed to have driven for everyone at one point. The common rides between drivers like Nottle, Arciero, Forkner, Ted Thomas, and others reads like a family tree.)

The brothers and Thierer also scored a big win at Capitol Raceway's Mr. USA Fuel Eliminator race, a wild affair at which they reached the winner’s circle only after being reinstated on the break rule after losses to the cars of Jim and Alison Lee and Tommy Ivo. Thierer then beat the Lees’ car in the final.

As Lewis’ duties at the track grew, brother Kent, Thierer, and friends raced the car while Mike pitched in by doing most of the engine and clutch service while the others caught up on sleep.

“By late 1973, I had family and mortgage responsibilities, and Kent paid most of the bills,” he added. “We sat out 1975, and then Kent teamed with Ron Mumma on a new S&W car in 1976. Kerry Sweigert upgraded his license to Top Fuel and won spring races at Epping and Maple Grove with our old parts before a new engine arrived from Bill Leavitt. Ron owned the engine, and we couldn't find the combination to make it work. Mumma withdrew and later built his own car, which ran quite well in 1977 with Sweigert at the wheel.

“To help us finish the 1976 season, Gary Peters and Jim Johnson loaned Kent a 454 Chevy engine, which lasted the remainder of the season. The end of the story came in late 1976 when George Tolon and Marc White bought the '76 car and converted it to an A/ED. New Yorker Tony Ceraolo came with them, hoping they would buy his Traveler Woody car so he could buy Kent's still-pristine Sparkling Burgundy."

It’s probably just as well that the racing came to an end there as bigger things awaited Lewis. In 1979, he was named Maple Grove’s general manager, and the following year, when Maple Grove Dragway Inc. became a separate operating corporation, he was named president. Improvements were poured into the track, and they were rewarded in 1982 with a regional event and in 1985 with the current national event. Lewis left the track in 1989 to work for NHRA.

Lewis won the Nostalgia Funny Car class at the 2012 California Hot Rod Reunion.

Thirty-six years after he started them, he finally finished the licensing runs by earning Super Comp and Advanced E.T. licenses at Frank Hawley's Drag Racing School in early 2007 and drove Joel Gruzen's blown alcohol Fiat a month later in Bakersfield. He earned his Top Alcohol Dragster ticket in May 2008 and scored back-to-back national event runner-ups at – where else? – Maple Grove Raceway in 2008 and 2009. He then progressed into the Nostalgia Funny Car class, driving (interestingly) the Schumacher-tribute Wonder Wagon and Stardust cars of Justin Grant and Bob Godfrey's Burn'n Money flopper and the Brand X Mustang of Henry Gutierrez at recent California Hot Rod Reunions.

Even with all of the high-pressure responsibilities of his current position at Don Schumacher Racing, it’s nice for Lewis to look back at his beginnings and at the magical time in the 1970s when a pair of brothers could field a competitive Top Fuel car without a mega-dollar sponsor and before real-world responsibilities came calling.

“I was 26 and Kent 24 when we both dedicated ourselves to our families and Maple Grove, but we lived out the unforgettable thrill of racing Top Fuel dragsters and winning in the prime of our youth,” he remembered fondly. “We won several Pro Fuel points titles, and we made friendships that last to this day.”

More Tree topplingsFriday, September 27, 2013

Last week’s first look at errant racers who clobbered the Christmas Tree was almost exclusively short-wheelbase roadsters, but as I mentioned, there’s plenty of blame to go around in all classes, as this week’s column well illustrates.

One of the best-known and certainly most photographed Tree topplings came at the 1974 Gatornationals, where Bob Mayer got really loose on his burnout in the Tom & Jerry's Nitemayer Duster of Tom Woodbridge and Jerry Baltes and sideswiped the Tree, sending glass and bulbs flying.


Ron “Snag” O’Donnell snagged the Tree with his Damn Yankee 'Cuda, and D.H. Laubham had his camera pointed in the right direction to catch it. Based on the paint job, I’m pretty certain this is 1972. I don’t know the track, but the sign in the background touts radio station WMYO, which is a rock station out of Louisville, Ky., so it could be any number of tracks.


Bob Snyder sent me a great sequence of John Roderiquez and his Springfield, Mass.-based 427 Chevy-powered Light My Fire ’68 Corvette tangling with the Tree at a 16-car show at Connecticut Dragway in 1970.


There are two things that I know about this photo and three that I don’t. The scene is definitely Orange County Int’l Raceway and it’s definitely one of “Big John” Mazmanian’s Barracuda floppers. What I don’t know is the year (‘71 or ’72?), the driver (Pat Foster? Danny Ongais? Rich Siroonian?), and, most importantly, whether or not he actually tagged the Tree.


Moving forward a decade, popular Pro Gas promoter Doug Bracey and his Willys pickup tangled with the Tree at the 1983 NHRA Golden Gate Nationals at Fremont Raceway, scattering the ornaments about the starting line.

Even suspending the Tree above the track wasn't foolproof as evidenced by thisphoto sent to me by second-generation announcer Mike McClelland (son of hall of famer Dave) from Irwindale Raceway. Victor Noiron did a power wheelstand in his Blue Baron Fiat, got crossed up in the air, and nailed the Tree in midair before crossing in front of "Big Mac" and his Tuna Tank Fiat and collecting the guardrail in the other lane. I did some research and discovered that this was at the 1975 Grand Premiere event. (Interesting note: According to Bruce Dyda, the Blue Baron Fiat and the Easy Rider Fiat shown here last week sawing down the Tree in Pomona are the same car!)

Eventually, the Tree was moved generally out of harm’s way when it was placed atop a concrete pillar at the end of the starting-line A-board, but that didn’t stop some racers from still taking an unintended shot at the Tree.


Two-time Funny Car world champ Tony Pedregon’s Quaker State flopper didn't get the Tree but tried hard when his car jumped up onto the A-board in a scary accident at the 2005 U.S. Nationals after the body was being raised and caught on the throttle linkage during the normal pre-run beneath-the-hood checkup.


John Irving actually managed to clobber the Tree with his E/SA '85 Dodge pickup at the 2009 Winternationals, but you could hardly fault him because his truck lost the left rear wheel on the launch. Great photo by Roger Rohrdanz!


A similar fate almost befell Super Gas racer Joseph Michaels at the 2012 edition of the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte when his Monroe, N.C.-based ‘80 Plymouth Arrow broke the left rear axle on the launch and veered onto the starting-line A-board.

I also mentioned last week that there were some reports of frustrated drivers actually targeting the Tree in its earliest days to put it out of commission for the weekend. Steve Reyes remembers a WCS event at Fremont Raceway in 1964, the year after the Tree was unveiled, that was rife with red-lights. After Top Fuel driver John Batto red-lighted, one of his crewmembers jumped into his El Camino push truck and ran down the Tree. “It was quite the scene with parts and pieces flying everywhere,” he remembered. “I think it took a hour to clean up the mess of shattered glass. I believe Batto’s guy was arrested and hauled off to jail. How I miss the good ol’ days …” The photo above shows Batto, far lane, racing the Whiz Kids in 1965, with the blue El Camino visible in the background. 

Reyes also recalled an instance in the 1970s with Larry Fullerton, of Trojan Horse fame. “He was racing at some small southern track and made his pass and caught on fire. He got the car stopped but started one heck of a grass fire at the end of the track. While the track workers were putting out the blaze, Fullerton took his very crisp Funny Car and loaded it up in the trailer and drove his tow truck up to the tower to get paid. The manager/track owner is some crusty old dude in a wheelchair. Fullerton and the manager get into a heated argument over money due Fullerton. I guess Fullerton didn't make all three passes that he was booked to run. Fullerton became very pissed because now he has a very burnt race car and this guy won't pay him his appearance money. Fullerton loses it and pushes the wheelchair guy down two flights of timing-tower stairs. The wheelchair guy is beat up but alive. Fullerton flees in his tow truck, which is parked in the staging lanes and sets sights on the track's Xmas Tree. He runs directly over said Tree and races down the quarter-mile to his waiting trailer. Fullerton hooks up and smokes it out of the track. Meanwhile the hundred local bracket racers are now pissed when they realize no more racing that evening. So now a bunch of bracket racers storm down the racetrack and into the pits looking for the now long-gone Fullerton."

Reyes also remembered a similar occurrence at an AHRA event that Dave Labs also wrote to report. Labs said (and I found some evidence to back this up) that it occurred at the 1970 AHRA Grand American race at Frontier International Raceway in Oklahoma City at which Stock racer Roy Pogue lost in the semifinals on a break out, and protested the timing system to no avail, then climbed back into his racecar and mowed down the Tree, kept going straight down the strip, turned off at the end, went out the pit gate, onto the highway “and was never heard from again.”

“Because of Roy's antics, the finals in Funny Car and Top Fuel had to be run with the last known flag start at a national event,” Labs added. “In the Funny Car Final, Gene Snow was disqualified for leaving the line before the flag was thrown, giving Don Prudhomme the easy win.  As a side note, following the Oklahoma City event, AHRA President Jim Tice awarded Roy Pogue with a lifetime ban from all AHRA national events and sanctioned tracks.  Shortly thereafter, Roy received a similar award from the NHRA.”

Again, in the interest of fair reporting, I can't totally verify either of the above accounts, but they make pretty good stories.

Clearly the most unusual Tree trimming came at the 1975 Le Grandnational in Montreal, when a biplane carrying race queen Miss Molson shredded it in front of a disbelieving crowd of fans, racers, and officials. I’ve written about this before here, but it’s worth the repeat of former NHRA Competition Director Steve Gibbs’ telling of the story.

"The pilot of the Stearman biplane had made a practice landing at the track earlier in the week, but at the time, none of the starting-line paraphernalia was in place," he remembered. "When he brought the queen in on race day, he taxied right up to the starting line, as he had before, and you can see the results. I once owned a Stearman, and you simply cannot see straight ahead.

"The Christmas Tree instantly became a fragmented mess of metal, glass, and wires. The pilot was pissed, as the prop was badly damaged ... but the queen never quit waving. I was at about the eighth-mile mark, looking on in disbelief. I was sure the guy would stop short of the Tree. We had a spare Tree, but it took some time for [electronics director] Art Hayward to repair the wiring and connector damage. The plane was not flyable, so it had to be towed to the end of the track for future repairs. The last thing I remember was the queen still waving to the crowd."

And, one that note, this is me also waving goodbye, for the week and probably the thread.

Chopping down the Christmas TreeFriday, September 20, 2013

As you’ve read over the last two weeks, the introduction of the Christmas Tree wasn’t always met with warm embraces, especially by the old guard, who had honed their spidey senses to enable them to get a good leave on the flagman’s signal, and I remember reading somewhere that there were even those cunning drivers who purposely mowed down the fragile and spindly new-fangled contraptions to put them out of business for the race weekend. Most tracks only had one of the devices on hand and maybe some spare bulbs, but they generally weren’t ready for a full-scale Tree demolition.

While I can’t finger any particular driver for this transgression, I scoured our files and came up with a smashing selection of Tree-chopping chariots from over the years. Eventually, racetracks and sanctioning bodies grew weary of the expense and delay that resulted from the misguided melees and finally wised up by either putting their Trees atop concrete blocks or suspending them above the racing surface, but sometimes even that didn’t stop them, as you will see over the next two installments. Feel free to share your photos and stories about drivers literally chopping down the Christmas Tree!

This injected-fuel dragster only gave the Tree a mild sideswipe that removed just a few ornaments from the bottom branches of the Tree at Irwindale Raceway. Glenn Menard, who managed the famed Southern California track in the early 1970s, remembers new owner Steve Evans going to the suspended Tree at The Dale when he arrived in 1973. “Lions also hung its Tree to reduce the chance of cars driving over it since it was a tad narrow,” he remembered. “We also had a variable Pro Tree timing switch because you still could have red-lights with the four-tenths Pro Tree in existence, which killed the show. The Pros in 1972-74 would race on the three-tenths and all others on the four-tenths Tree.”

The Christmas Tree in Pomona took a pounding on the opening day of the 1972 Winternationals. Maybe it was due to it being the first day of the first race of the season and drivers were still shaking off the rust, but as these photos from Steve Reyes can attest, two altereds did a pretty good job of altering the Tree.

(Above) Comp racer Don Waite, who lived in Temple City, just down Interstate 10 from the racetrack, did a real number on the Tree, sending bulbs and bits everywhere, but at least he was gentleman enough to stop his A/Altered and dismount to look back at the carnage, as seen in this classic shot at right of the crippled Tree being cradled in its final moments by a distraught official.

(Below) Gregg Bellemeur, from similarly nearby Monrovia, also did a number on the Pomona Tree that day with his supercharged-gas AA/A Fiat Topolino at an early 1970s Winternationals, then later went fuel altered racing and won the Fuel Altered Spectacular at OCIR with alky in the tank!! Greg is the father of current Top Alcohol Funny Car standout Sean Bellemeur.



(Above) The driver of this injected B/Altered convertible sports car ended up with the chopped Tree on his hood after center-punching it. It’s a good thing he had one of those bubble shields for protection.

(Left) I’m 99.9 percent sure that this is Camp Stanley broadsiding his popular, supercharged Just Luv’n It Chevy Luv truck into the Tree in E-town. Stanley was one of the real characters of the popular Wild Bunch group that brought their brand of supercharged madness to tracks up and down the East Coast in the 1980s with blown bad boys like Stanley’s truck, Tommy "the Who" Howes’ 300ZX, and Elmer "Dr. Wacko" Wachter’s Jeep

(Below) This sure looks like Englishtown back in the days before the guardwalls were right up against the track, but I’m not 100 percent certain. One thing that does seem certain about this Tree-crushing T-bucket is that it appears to be facing the wrong way on the track, based on the end of the launch pad and what looks like a finish-line scoreboard behind him.


It’s bad enough any time you run into the Christmas Tree, but there can’t be many worse places than to do it on the big stage at the U.S. Nationals, as former national event-winning Comp racer Ralph Hope did. On the plus side of his ledger, the talented Canadian also was the low qualifier at Indy in 1990 and 1991.

Then, of course, there’s this most famous of failed attempts to trim the Tree by my great, great friend and driving mentor Frank Mazi at the 1978 SPORTSnationals in Bowling Green, Ky. How could a feature like this run without a photo like this, a moment captured by former National Dragster photographer Richard Brady? While Mazi didn’t harm a hair on the Tree, he did a pretty good job on the concrete support on which it was (apparently wisely) placed and, of course, on his God of Hellfire Opel.

Lest you get the impression that Sportsman drivers (or even altered drivers) were the only ones causing the carnage, I’ve got photographic proof that a number of drivers in other classes — especially in Funny Car — also have put the Tree in their targets.

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