Kuhl & OlsonFriday, May 10, 2013
Posted by: Phil Burgess
Driver Carl Olson, left, and tuner Mike Kuhl ran Top Fuel together in the early 1970s and won some of the era's biggest events.

When Mike Kuhl and Carl Olson were inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 2012, presenter Steve Gibbs noted in his introduction that although both were worthy of induction by themselves, it was fitting that they be inducted as a team, and their names were forever bound in much the same way one might think of Warren & Coburn, King & Marshall, Sox & Martin, and Candies & Hughes.

Together they formed one of Southern California’s most popular and successful tandems in the early to mid-1970s with their line of Kuhl & Olson dragsters, both front- and rear-engine. Together, they won some of the region’s great races, including the NHRA Winternationals, the March Meet, and The Last Drag Race at Lions Drag Strip, and an IHRA world championship.

Kuhl was a St. Louis transplant who came to the West Coast in the mid-1960s and learned how to build engines at the knee of Louie Unser in his shop in Santa Ana, Calif. He fielded a fuel dragster in the late 1960s with Billy Tidwell and Steve Carbone driving and in 1970 opened Mike Kuhl Racing Engines.

(Above) Olson took a wild ride at Fremont in the Olson & Bowman car in March 1971. (Below) Partner Don Bowman, left, surveyed the damage, which was so extensive that the car could not be repaired.

Olson, a lifelong Angeleno, cut his drag racing teeth in Jr. Fuel and Top Fuel, partnering with a number of teams leading up to his competitive 1969 Top Fuel ride with Bill Stecker and Jack Ewell before striking out on his own in 1971 with the Woody Gilmore-built Black Plague II car, which he purchased from Frank Rupert and Steve Pick. Rupert and Pick had owned the first Black Plague car, which was destroyed in a crash that claimed the life of John Martin while on loan to him. Apparently affected by the tragedy, Pick got out of racing, and Rupert couldn’t afford to run the car himself and sold it to Olson at a good price. Meanwhile, an old friend, Don Bowman, had just crashed his car, and rather than stay completely out of racing, he partnered with Olson and provided the 354 Chrysler Hemi power. It turned out to be a very short-lived endeavor for both, cut short after a few months – after solid outings at both the NHRA and AHRA Winternationals – by a crash in March at Fremont Raceway in Northern California.

"I burned some pistons, got a face full of oil and fuel, and drifted off the left side of the track," recalled Olson of the crash that destroyed the car. "I was doing fine until I got to the first paved turnout, which launched the car and got it upside down."

At about the same time, Kuhl had split with his most recent driver, Dick Rosberg, and was looking for a shoe. Olson had driven Kuhl’s car the previous July, and they reunited in March 1971.

At their Hall of Fame induction, Olson told a funny story about that first ride in Kuhl's car. On his first qualifying pass at Orange County Int'l Raceway, the car hiked and carried the front end a long way. Knowing that traction would only improve later in the day, Olson was not comfortable with the setup, asking Kuhl to either hang some weight on the nose or loosen up the clutch; Kuhl, typically, declined to do either.

Olson's first ride in Kuhl's car was a memorable one. (Steve Reyes photo)
Sure enough, in round one against Hank Westmoreland in the Allen Family car, Olson had his hands full with the front end way in the air way downtrack, the car rocking back and forth on the "fifth-wheel" wheelie wheel, and finally, discretion being the better part of valor, Olson stepped off and reluctantly conceded the round.

Kuhl appeared to take the loss well, at least until he thought Olson was out of earshot. Olson was on the other side of the trailer to put away his driving suit when a friend dropped by and asked Kuhl why they had lost the round. Kuhl's answer was succinct: "Driver error."

The timing of the Kuhl & Olson partnership dovetails with recent columns here about that transitional time between the demise of slingshot dragster design and the beginning of the dominance of the rear-engine design beginning with Don Garlits’ Winternationals win in 1971.

Before I go any further, in the interest of full disclosure, the very cool information provided herein is not the result of hours of research on my end but rather the product of Olson’s generosity in answering in great detail what could basically be called a fan letter. Sometimes in this writing business, you have to work really hard to come up with an interesting story, and other times, it kinda just falls into your lap. This week’s column is a case of the latter.

As mentioned previously, I had connected Olson with master model builder Mark Gredzinski, whose eye for detail, unquenchable thirst for any piece of 1970s drag racing trivia, and skillful hands have created – usually by hand – some of the most realistic 1970s-era drag racing cars and engines ever seen. Gredzinski wanted to build a K&O replica of the highest order and had a ton of questions, which Olson not only answered, but also did so in thrilling (for Gredzinski and me, at least) detail. I was copied on all of their communication and use it here as the basis of this column. My job was to compile the vast amount of info, sew it together into a manageable narrative, and create the front story. I did have a few follow-up/fill-in-the-details questions for Olson beyond what he wrote, and he quickly obliged. I’ve known Olson for decades – we were co-workers here at NHRA for a number of years – and through him met Kuhl. Both have been great inspirations, and Olson certainly has contributed a lot of insight to this column over the years to help me sort through various stories.

But back to the story …

(Above) The Kuhl & Olson front-engine car at the 1971 NHRA Springnationals in Dallas. (Below) Their first RED, at the 1971 Nationals, where they accepted the Best Appearing Car Award from NHRA's Jack Hart. (Reyes photo)
Olson in the winner's circle after winning the 1972 NHRA Winternationals.
(Above) Olson beat tire-smoking Dave Settles in the semi's at the 1972 IHRA event in Dallas, but disaster loomed. (Reyes photo) Olson beat Flip Schofield in the final, but a major engine failure led to a crash and a car-less winner's circle (below) with IHRA's Larry Carrier. Recalled Olson, "Carrier wanted us to drag what was left of the car out of the trailer for the photo, and Kuhl told him, 'No way.'  Kuhl was not particularly proud of what happened to the car and insisted on laying the winner's trophy down to represent our mood." (Jon Asher photo)

It didn’t take long for both Kuhl and Olson to see that the rear-engine dragster was going to revolutionize the class and took just a few ticks longer for them to get one on order that summer from master chassis craftsman Woody Gilmore.

“We saw the handwriting on the wall with Gar's rear-engined dragster and wasted no time in ordering one from Woody,” said Olson. “Many racers were far less convinced than we were and stuck with the front engines much longer than we did.  Some of them thought the rear-engined dragsters were just a passing phase, but many others simply didn't have the financial means to make the change even though they may have wanted to. They felt that as long as their cars were competitive, they'd run them as long as they could.”

The new car made its debut at a regular Saturday night event at Lions Drag Strip, where it went a full tenth of a second quicker than the front-engine dragster on its very first full run.

“We knew right away that we'd made the right decision to go RED,” recalled Olson. “We ran the car once at Orange County Int'l Raceway before towing back to Indianapolis for the 1971 NHRA Nationals, where the car was awarded Best Appearing. We ran the car locally for the brief remainder of the 1971 season.”

The car was still relatively new for the start of the 1972 season and carried them to victory at the Winternationals and, shortly thereafter, to a runner-up at the March Meet in Bakersfield. That success convinced the duo to take their act on the road and go on tour.

“We ran mostly NHRA and four IHRA national events and numerous match races and booked-in shows,” he said. “We were runner-up at the IHRA Longhorn Nationals in Dallas, again at the NHRA Springnationals in Columbus, and won the IHRA Pro-Am at Rockingham, N.C., before winning the IHRA Nationals, again in Dallas.”

They won the IHRA championship that year, but the win in Dallas came at a huge price. A “catastrophic engine failure” led to a nasty crash that all but destroyed the car, save for the cockpit and roll cage.

The team had broken the crankshaft in its Donovan 417 in Indy and had installed a spare engine – a cast-iron 392 Chrysler – for a match race in Wichita, Kan., and the Rockingham event. Following their win over Tommy Ivo in Rockingham, Kuhl discovered that the main webs in the block were seriously cracked, and the plan was to take an early-round loss in Dallas and beat it home to California to begin work on a new 417.

But that was before their first-round opponent, Oz Hay, kicked the rods on his burnout, and their second-round opponent, Dale Funk and the Frakes & Funk Kentucky Moonshiners car, couldn’t fire for round two after shearing a fuel-pump driveshaft in round one. Olson singled for both round-wins, squirting the car off the line and coasting through the traps to light the win lamp.

“After each round, Kuhl dropped the pan and checked the block and observed that the cracks didn't appear to be getting any worse,” said Olson. “In the semifinal, we raced Dave Settles in the Carroll Brothers car, which smoked the tires. I drove down to the 1,000-foot mark and clicked it, and Dave never came by. All of a sudden, we're in the final against Flip Schofield, who we'd beaten every time we ever raced him. With a $10,000 prize for the winner, we carefully considered our situation.”

The 1,000-foot run had increased the cracks in the main webs, but not significantly. The duo weighed the risks and decided to run the final with the proviso that Olson should step off the gas if he felt uncomfortable with the pass. Olson left on Schofield and never saw him until the 1,000-foot mark.

“Just as I was getting ready to click it off, I saw his front wheel out of the corner of my eye, and I was pretty sure that if I drove another hundred feet or so, I could still beat him to the finish line,” he recalled. “The good news is that I did beat him to the finish line. The bad news is that the block split in half, allowing the crankshaft, rods, pistons, etc. to fall out of the engine. I subsequently ran over the entire rotating assembly, which took the rear end, axles, wheels, and tires with it. What followed was the wildest ride of my life. Only a superior car and safety equipment allowed me to literally walk away from the wreckage once the car stopped sliding down the shutoff area. As I was sliding backward down the track, I could see and feel the fire from the engine but suffered no serious burns. We had photos taken on the starting line with the trophy but no car, collected our prize money, and retired to a local motel, where I took a hot shower and went to bed. Kuhl went to dinner and the bar."

Fortunately for the boys, they already had a second car ordered prior to the crash. That car was built to take advantage of revisions that Gilmore had come up with since the first car; the technology of the new design was accelerating almost as fast as the cars themselves.

Just two weeks after the Dallas crash, the team debuted a new car at the 1972 NHRA World Finals in Amarillo, Texas (Reyes photo), that carried them to a very emotional win at Lions' Last Drag Race (below).
The finished, painted, and detailed second RED, along with the rebuilt first RED, which was sold to Clive Skilton, far right. (Reyes photo)
(Above) The pretty new car cackled under the lights at Orange County Int'l Raceway. (John Shanks photo) The nice paint job lasted only until K&O signed a deal with Revell, which came up with the unique yellow paint scheme (below) that led the car to be nicknamed "the Banana from Santa Ana."
It took an unorthodox bit of carry-on luggage for the team to compete at the 1973 U.S. Nationals after an off-track excursion by a fill-in driver the week before damaged the front end. Note that the car is missing its front-wing fairings.

“Woody was being swamped with RED orders, and we were concerned that because a great many teams were planning on switching over from FEDs to REDs over the winter, we didn't want to find ourselves at the end of a long line,” remembered Olson. “The next morning, we called Woody to tell him what happened, then drove straight through to RCE, arriving on Tuesday afternoon only to find that the chassis was already completed and had been sent to [Tom] Hanna's for the body, seat, and fuel tank.”

Just two weeks later, the new car competed at the NHRA World Finals in Amarillo, Texas, and the NHRA Supernationals in Ontario, Calif., before scoring the team’s emotional win at the Last Drag Race at Lions.

Before it crashed, the '72 car was set to become the property of North Carolina racer Jim Hildreth, who also wanted to upgrade from a slingshot to a rear-engine dragster. He had even put down a deposit with the boys and hoped to take delivery of the car after the Finals, but those plans were scotched by the crash. He got his deposit back and later bought a car from someone else.

Gilmore put new front and rear sections on the crashed car, and after Hanna fashioned a new body for it, the car was sold to English racer Clive Skilton, who ran it at the 1973 NHRA Winternationals, then shipped it home to England.  He later crashed and rebuilt it, then sold it to Liz Burn, who also crashed it, ending the car’s interesting life.

The end of the 1972 season also marked the end of the duo’s extended touring as they promised wives and families that they would race closer to home. Kuhl reopened his engine-building business, Olson took a job as general manager at Waterman Racing Engines, and they finished detailing the new car for the 1973 season. The car was painted red, white, and blue by George Cerny and lettered by Nat Quick, and both Kuhl and Olson agree it was their prettiest car ever.

Early that year, they were invited to join the impressive lineup of quality cars under the burgeoning Revell banner, and the car had to be repainted in the Revell colors and trim, a bright yellow that led to the ignominious nickname of “the Big Big Banana from Santa Ana.”

“It won't come as much of a surprise that Kuhl and I weren't all that happy about it, but, as they say, money talks,” he said. “The stated aim of the Revell art department was to create paint and graphic schemes intended to make the cars instantaneously recognizable to even the most casual fan/potential model buyer.

“They certainly accomplished that,” he added, tongue firmly in cheek. “There wasn't another car that looked anything like it, that's for sure. Mission accomplished.”

Although they weren’t touring per se, they didn’t miss the granddaddy of them all, the U.S. Nationals, where they scored runner-up honors behind repeat winner Gary Beck. Again, glory didn’t come easy.

The week before the Nationals, Les Allen – of the famed Allen family – was tapped to drive the car at the PDA event in Tulsa, Okla., because Olson was dealing with a severe eye infection and unable to travel, let alone drive the car. Unfortunately for all, Allen ran the car off the edge of the track and heavily damaged the front axle, fairings, radius rods, and steering rods.

“Kuhl called me and instructed me to get Woody to build a new front-end assembly and to bring it with me to Indy,” said Olson. “Woody was way too busy to do so on such short notice but advised me that he'd just sold a complete chassis to a good friend of ours, George ‘the Bushmaster’ Schreiber, who lived not far from me in Long Beach. I called George and explained our situation, and he said I should get over to his place immediately. By the time I got there about an hour later, he'd already removed all the key parts from his new chassis, and we loaded them into my pickup truck, and I hauled them home. Two days later, I flew to Indy. I didn't want to check the parts as baggage, as I was sure they'd be lost or damaged, so I took them on the plane with me.

"While I was attempting to board, the flight attendant told me there was no way I could take that stuff into the cabin. After I explained our situation to her and how critical it was for the parts to get to Indy with me, she just shook her head, looked the other way, and waved me onboard. I had a window seat and simply slid the axle and parts under my seat and the one in front of me right up against the bulkhead. Later in the flight, the attendant confessed that she and her husband were race fans and, as a result, understood my story was on the up-and-up. Needless to say, flying was a lot different back in the early '70s than it is today. When I got to Indy, we bolted the new front end on the car, adjusted everything, and went out and got runner-up to Gary Beck.”

The ’73 car was sold to Terry Hudson, who ran it under the name California Wolverine with drivers John Zendejas and Denver Schutz, then sold the car, at which point, “It seems to have disappeared into drag racing history,” said Olson. “Kuhl and I tried, in vain, for many years to locate this car for acquisition and restoration.”

At the 1974 March Meet., Kuhl and Olson were certainly "Da Revell Fast Guys" as they won the race, set both ends of the performance standards, and earned the 14th spot in the Cragar Five-Second Club. (Jere Alhadeff photo)

Gilmore built the team a new car for 1974, which got off to a flying start with a huge win at the March Meet, where it was low qualifier, set low e.t. and top speed, won the event, and, with the first five-second runs ever at fabled Famoso Dragstrip, became the 14th member of the exclusive Cragar Five-Second Club.

They ran the car locally and at a handful of NHRA national events, but at the end of the 1974 season, Olson retired from driving to pursue a career in motorsports.

He and Kuhl continued to campaign the car through the 1975 and 1976 seasons with the likes of Bill Tidwell, Rick Ramsey, and Pat Dakin taking the saddle. Skilton again proved to be their best used-car customer and ran the car at several NHRA meets, including the 1977 Springnationals, where he went into the history books as the first non-North American to reach an NHRA Pro final, albeit coming up short in the money round to Shirley Muldowney’s second straight Columbus win.

Skilton again shipped the car home, ran it for some time, then sold it, yet Olson kept a watchful eye on it and noted that it ended its career as a Top Methanol (Alcohol) Dragster campaigned by Brian Hazelton. In his role as president of the FIA Drag Racing Commission, Olson saw the car run a number of times at England’s Santa Pod Raceway, where he shared firsthand with Hazelton and crew some of the car’s rich history.

Olson, right, and Kuhl at their 2012 Hall of Fame induction

Olson went on to a decorated career in motorsports that included long tenures with NHRA and SEMA and continues with his work with SFI. He also became an accomplished racer in other forms of motorsports and is a member of the prestigious Bonneville 200-MPH Club. Kuhl expanded his engine business to include superchargers, then sold his business in 2001 and opened Kuhl Klassic Restoration, where he is one of the go-to guys for the many restorations and re-creations of vintage drag racing machinery. Together, the duo was celebrated in 2007 with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the California Hot Rod Reunion presented by Automobile Club of Southern California.

So there you have it, the very cool (Kuhl?) story of Kuhl and Olson. Thanks so much to Carl for his thoroughness, to Mark for creating the opportunity, and to the readers for their support.

Memories of AtlantaFriday, May 03, 2013
Posted by: Phil Burgess

This weekend finishes off the first of what will be several three-in-a-row stretches with the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals in Atlanta. I usually attend this race – have been since 1984 -- but after hitting the preceding races in Charlotte and Houston, it was time for someone else to share the fun. I’m actually going to miss going; I always enjoy a trip down South, and the event always seems to create great story lines or otherwise memorable moments.

The Southern Nationals made its debut on the NHRA tour in 1981, which was kind of a tumultuous year for the schedule. The rain-plagued Fallnationals in Seattle was axed, replaced by the Golden Gate Nationals at good ol’ Baylands (nee Fremont) Raceway; the season’s penultimate event, the World Finals, moved from Ontario Motor Speedway to Orange County Int’l Raceway; and the SPORTSnationals moved from its homey location at Beech Bend Raceway Park to the old Houston Int’l Dragway. The Golden Gates had just a three-year run, the SPORTSnats moved to Indy two years later, and OCIR closed in 1983, but the Atlanta event remains firmly on the calendar for this year’s 33rd edition.

I was still “just” a fan when NHRA introduced the race, and even though I wasn’t yet an NHRA employee, I grasped the significance of planting an NHRA national event in the Peach State, deep in the heart of IHRA territory, where previously we only had the Gatornationals. I’ll never forget the promotional tagline NHRA used in advertising for the event: “It’ll be a peach, y’all.” Ouch.

But the event has turned into a real peach, full of great memories. Here are a few of them.

The 1982 event had two weird final rounds. (Above) Lucille Lee became just the second woman to win an NHRA Top Fuel Wally when she soloed after TR-3 Resin Glaze teammate Steve Hodkinson’s mount lost fire after the burnout. I’ve heard all kinds of conspiracy theories over the years about this one, that team owner Marc Danekas had Hodkinson shut off so that the more marketable Lee could win, but with Lee and Danekas both gone, we may never know. (Below) Yes, this is the Alcohol Funny Car final. Yes, those are two dragsters. Back in the early 1980s, the Alcohol Dragsters and Alcohol Funny Cars ran separate eliminators, and the two winners would then face off in another final round to determine the event’s Pro Comp champ. Anyway, the Atlanta Alcohol Funny Car field was well short of eight cars, so some of the nonqualified dragsters were allowed to run with the Funny Cars and whipped them all. The final round of “Alcohol Funny Car" went to Jeff Jones, far lane, over the late Scott Kalitta. Jones then lost to the late Don Woosley – the TAD winner – in the Pro Comp final.

This was the highlight of the first Southern Nationals I attended, in 1984. Alcohol Dragster world champ Bill Walsh launched into a monster wheelie – it got much higher than in this photo -- in the first round against Bruce McDowell. He landed it safely but lost the round. Walsh had a short but spectacular career, winning three straight championships (1984-86) and 12 of the 17 final rounds in which he appeared.
Anyone who saw this – live or on TV – won’t soon forget it. In the 1986 semifinals of Pro Stock, a rogue gust of wind caught Bob Glidden’s parachute, and he dumped the laundry after beating Butch Leal, sending him into a terrifying series of barrel rolls.

From my starting-line perch, I was sure that the class icon wasn’t going to just walk away from this one, yet, as famously recorded, not only did he exit his Chief Auto Parts Thunderbird under his own power, but he also had the presence of mind to use his driving jacket to cover his busted intake manifold lest someone get a peek inside the magical motor.
I think this was the first time that most of us got a hint that some really proprietary stuff was going on down there and saw the lengths to which teams would go to keep those secrets from prying eyes. (Try walking into a Pro Stock team’s pit area with a camera today!)
At that same 1986 event, this happened the morning after the race was delayed following Glidden’s crash. In the semifinals of Alcohol Funny Car, Terry Mullins and Rick Wayne got together at half-track, putting Mullins’ Trans Am on its roof. Neither driver was injured. Wayne was awarded the round-win but obviously could not come back to contest the final round against Frank Manzo.

Another unforgettable moment of the 1986 race was the Top Fuel victory by former NFL quarterback Dan Pastorini, who proved himself more than just a bored athlete looking for a thrill. He had gone to the semifinals at the preceding Gatornationals – losing to Don Garlits’ famed Swamp Rat XXX – but no one expected him to actually win one of the damned things with less than a year’s worth of driving experience.

He qualified just eighth, nearly two-tenths behind polesitting Joe Amato, but after a first-round bye when Jack Revelle's dragster lost a transmission (yes, kids, the fuel cars had transmissions then), Pastorini defeated Dick LaHaie, Bill Mullins, and Gene Snow, who had a combined 75 years of racing experience. Pastorini won the rounds against LaHaie and Mullins after expertly backpedaling through tire smoke to boot.

The funny story from the event, though, came in qualifying. Here’s how we reported it in ND:

Apparently, crew chief Donnie Couch had put in a piston that "shouldn't have been in there" because they were low on parts. The K-B started to smoke noticeably as it approached the line, and Couch, upon seeing it, made the universal, crossed-hands sign for half-pass to Dan, fearing detonation.

Apparently, though, they had never gone over the signs, because Dan buried his foot in it, racking up the aforementioned 5.67. When Couch got down to the top end, Dan got out of the car and asked, "By the way, what does this mean?" duplicating the gesture.

I’m sure that either Couch or Pastorini, both of whom I understand follow this column, can share the story behind the story in a future column.

Rain pushed the final to Monday, when Couch – with tuning help from fuel-system genius Sid Waterman – wrenched Pastorini to a 5.56 to trounce “the Snowman's” 5.64 in the final for the big and surprising win.

Some Funny Car history was made at Atlanta Dragway, too. (Above) At the 1989 event, Eric Reed became the first African-American to reach an NHRA Professional final round when he worked his way to the Funny Car final against Mike Dunn.

Although Dunn, driving Joe Pisano’s Olds, took the win, Reed’s name went into the history books.

For a frame of reference, it would be 10 more years – at the 1999 event in Dallas – before Antron Brown would make his first final-round appearance, in Pro Stock Motorcycle.

Two years later, Del Worsham (right) won Funny Car in Atlanta to become – at 21 years, 2 months – the youngest driver to score in Funny Car. And, believe it or not, he still holds the record.
(Worsham’s longstanding record pales in comparison, however, to the Top Fuel mark, which 18-year, 1-month-old Jeb Allen set in winning the 1972 Summernationals. It has survived more than 40 years. The record for youngest Pro Stock winner is just two years old, set by Vincent Nobile, 19 years, 6 months, when he won the 2011 Houston event.)

Mike Dunn also got to be the buzz kill for another great Atlanta story in 1993, when he drove Darrell Gwynn’s La Victoria entry to victory against IndyCar racer John Andretti in the Top Fuel semifinals. John, the nephew of famed Mario Andretti, was making his Top Fuel debut in former baseball slugger Jack Clark’s Taco Bell-sponsored dragster and showed that some skills do translate. They qualified for a very quick show, ran in the fours at nearly 300 mph, and beat reigning season champ Joe Amato.
In one of the more unusual sights on a starting line anywhere, the entire rear end was violently ripped out of Tommy Johnson Jr.’s Mopar Top Fueler after he blew a tire shortly off the line while racing Connie Kalitta in the 1994 semifinals. It goes without saying that he didn’t win the round.
A few years later, at the 1999 event, Kenny Bernstein sheared the right-rear wheel studs on his Budweiser dragster in the first round against another Kalitta – Connie’s nephew, Doug – in the first round of Top Fuel. Fortunately for all, Kalitta had smoked the tires because Bernstein’s red rocket tricycle went into Kalitta’s lane before rolling. Kalitta took evasive action, and everyone walked away.
And, of course, even more Funny Car history was made at the 2008 race when Ashley Force Hood became the first female winner in Funny Car. She had three runner-ups and broke through for the big win against her famous dad in the final, setting the bar for sisters Courtney and Brittany, who have since followed her into the nitro ranks.

So there you have it, a brief but action-packed history of highlights from Atlanta. Thanks for reading. It’s been a peach, y’all.

Posted by: Phil Burgess

If it’s Friday, this must be Houston and leg two of back-to-back weekends on the tour. We got home from Charlotte Monday – fortunately no hassle with the flights despite the beginning of the sequestration-caused flight-controller shortage – and I spent a couple of days in the office before jumping back on another big bird and heading to Texas for this weekend’s race.

I didn’t want to go without a column this week but didn’t have enough time for a “big” piece – I have several cool ones in the works – but it occurred to me as I was trying to keep my email organized that in the last couple of months, I’ve hung on to a lot of stuff that I thought I could use as a basis of a future column, but it never turned out that way. Rather than let the stuff languish in my email and let slip the generous submissions of some readers, below is a sample of stuff that’s as cool as it is random.

Throughout the years, I’ve paid great homage to Don Prudhomme’s all-conquering Army Monza, winner of 13 of 16 national events in 1975-76. It’s the one car that “the Snake” has always said that he’s sorry he didn’t keep (he traded it for a Ferrari 308) and one that, when he was assembling his collection of cars (remember this wonderful column I did? All the Snake’s Horses), he was most disappointed that he couldn’t get back. It still resides in the National Automobile Museum (The Harrah Collection) in Reno, Nev., as photographed not long ago by Insider contributor Eric Watkins.


One “Snake” certainly deserves a matching “Mongoose,” and, at the risk of relaunching the ramp-truck thread, here’s a cool photo of one of Tom McEwen’s first Funny Cars on what looks like a rainy day at Maryland’s Capitol Raceway, courtesy of “the ‘Goose’s” friend Eric Gomez. DragList reports that McEwen bought this Logghe-built Barracuda from Candies & Hughes and qualified No. 1 with it at the 1969 Winternationals.


Reader Ed Eberlein was a regular California racegoer in the 1970s and has sent quite a collection of photos from his library throughout the years of cars from that era. I especially like this one of a young Rich Siroonian posed beside his uncle “Big John” Mazmanian’s 'Cuda during a match race at Sacramento Raceway. The legend is that when Uncle John found out that his young nephew was street racing, he got them both involved in legit dragstrip competition, starting with a brand-new street-legal ’61 Corvette, followed by the famed “football” Austin and, later, this Funny Car.


Longtime column fan Jay Phillips has and interesting addition to his collection of NHRA stuff. For years, he has had the 1970s NHRA duffel bag (sporting logos from the Winternationals, Springnationals, and World Finals), but a few months ago, he scored a rare find on eBay, the matching sheet set, which now adorns his bed. Some great old artwork there. 


Last October, we had a pretty good little thread going about souvenirs of a different kind – the ones you get at the track after a team has had a rough outing. Lance Good has a nice keepsake: the nose off the famed Chi-Town Hustler. This was the Daytona version that Wayne Minick was driving when it went to pieces courtesy of a broken camshaft and blower explosion at Great Lakes Dragway during Labor Day weekend in 1989. “I have been a lifelong fan of the Chi-Town Hustler and have hundreds of Chi-Town pieces in my collection, but this is one of my most treasured items,” he noted.


No image of a happy, souvenir-collecting fan says as much as Steve Reyes’ timeless photo of one who couldn’t wait to get on the horn at Fremont Raceway to brag to his pals about snagging a piece of “Flash Gordon” Mineo’s shattered Funny Car body. (Did you catch the “Reyes’ Greatest Hits” photo feature in the recent issue of National Dragster? Cool stuff, and not all crashes!).


Anyway, Steve sent this photo when the other thread was running and accompanied it with the following semi-related funny story: “I never really got into collecting that stuff -- Lord knows it was there for the taking – but in 1972, Joe Pisano was at Kirby’s shop looking at the damage that happened when Sush Matsubara said hello to the guardrail that Saturday evening at the Funny Car race at OCIR. I was standing there with my buddy and photographer Jeff Tinsley watching Pisano checking out his ‘hurt’ race car body. Joe looks up at us and asks, 'Do you want this piece of s**t?’ and, of course, we said yes. So here we are in Kirby’s lot with a crunched Funny Car body; what to do with our new prize? Well, let’s jump up and down on it and break it up! So here we are in Kirby’s lot jumping up and down on a bright yellow Pisano & Matsubara Vega Funny Car body. After our carnage, Jeff and I divided our broken fiberglass booty. Because this was one of the Revell-sponsored Funny Cars, I loaded my half and headed over to Revell in Venice, thinking maybe they would like a piece of one. Well, I was a big hit at Revell passing out pieces of the Vega body. I think every office there had a piece of Funny Car body displayed proudly where it could be seen by everyone.”

I can just picture that crazy scene. By the way, the My Favorite Fuelers column penned by yours truly this week on NationalDragster.net is all about the Pisano & Matsubara cars (including their star-crossed history). Check it out.

Art Martinez sent a couple of cool photos of “Big Daddy" Don Garlits match racing Frank “the Beard” Bradley in San Antonio in the 1980s. According to Martinez, Garlits was having problems keeping the front end down that weekend.

“In the first photo, he’s only lifting the front about 10 inches, but on the third run, he almost got to the point of no return but was able to bring her back down with minor damages,” he remembers.

I’m pretty certain this is Swamp Rat 26 in its earliest days. After his failed 1980 experiment with the porky “Godzilla” car (Swamp Rat 25), Garlits and crew chief Herb Parks built this car light and lean – even using black anodized body panels instead of paint – in 1981, but he ran mostly AHRA competition in protest of new NHRA rules that mandated a self-starting car (as opposed to push) and mandatory reversers.

This is the car in which Garlits later famously made his return to competition at the 1984 U.S. Nationals and won it all, leading to two seasons of Garlits domination that reminded everyone that even 10 years past his 1975 killer season, “the Old Man” still knew how to win.

It’s been a while since we’ve heard from our pal across the pond, fuel-racing fanatic model builder Mark Gredzinski (see Model Citizen), who is so detailed about his re-creations of 1970s drag cars that he handmakes his own parts to exacting detail. The picture above is his newest project, an attempt to re-create a Donovan engine to go with some of the 1/16th-scale early slingshots he’s working on.

“As can be seen, there is a smaller 1/25th-scale version alongside,” he wrote. “Both feature scratch-built gear drives and fuel-pump housings. Also can be seen an idler bracket and new resin Enderle hat and oil pan. The blower is Revell, but I'm doing my own later with better profiled casings. I'm doing Ed Pink, Bowers, Mooneyham, Danekas, Larkin, Vancharger, Hampton, Littlefield, and so on in both scales. Some modelers don't even know the difference, but I do! The task is sometimes monumental, but I know what I want and am determined to do whatever it takes to do the ultimate model that looks like it will fire up. Long way to go yet, but I learn more literally every day."

He wants to build the correct engine so that he can create the best model ever of the Kuhl & Olson dragster, and to that end, he asked for my help in contacting Carl Olson for details on the cars. What emerged from Olson’s end was a very interesting saga of all of the K&O cars: how they came to be, what happened to them, and more. It was so gripping (then again, I’m a bit of a nerd for '70s cars, too) that I’ve asked Carl for permission to reprint it here, which he has kindly granted, and he has a great collection of photos to illustrate what he’s going to put together. The Kuhl & Olson team had a rich and successful run in the '70s, so it’s a tale well worth sharing. Look for it in a future column.

OK, that’s it for today. If you’re an NHRA Member, I hope you’re following along with our live coverage on NationalDragster.net (and reading my Pisano & Matsubara column!) or, at the very least, are stoked about Sunday’s live television coverage on ESPN2.

My schedule quiets down for about a month after this, so I hope to dive into more meaty columns in the weeks ahead.

Posted by: Phil Burgess
Darrell Gwynn threw out the first ball at the inaugural Darrell Gwynn Benefit Softball Challenge, held Sept. 13, 1990, in Reading.

I didn't land in Charlotte until last night and missed Thursday's charity softball game between NHRA and NASCAR drivers at CMC-NorthEast Stadium in Kannapolis, N.C. -- pretty much a rout by our boys -- but I'll never forget the first time we all got together to do this, in September 1990 in Reading, a magical night to benefit Darrell Gwynn and a game that was a whole heck of a lot closer.

The game took place during what was then the Keystone Nationals, about six months after Gwynn's Top Fuel career was tragically cut short in an accident during an exhibition pass in England on Easter Sunday.

Gwynn's career was still on the rise; he had just won his home-state Gatornationals a few weeks prior to his terrible accident. I remember vividly NHRA allowing me to fly twice to Florida to attend press conferences — pretty much unheard-of for us to do so back then — and seeing him at the second one, where he met the public for the first time since the accident, confined to a wheelchair and missing the lower part of his left arm but still exuding the manners of a champion.

Below is a recap of the wonderfully crazy evening that I wrote for this column more than five years ago.

The motorsports community as a whole pulled together for Gwynn, and the softball game, played on a cool evening at Reading Municipal Stadium Thursday night before the Keystone Nationals, was the capper. The 7,200-seat stadium, home to the Philadelphia Phillies' minor-league team, was packed to more than twice that number as the stars of NHRA battled the stars of NASCAR and raised more than $150,000 for Gwynn's recovery.

When I says stars, I mean it. Kenny Bernstein led the way, recruiting not just his quarter-mile peers but his many NASCAR buddies as well. NHRA and NASCAR gave KB a ton of support — he was even allowed to address a NASCAR driver's meeting at Watkins Glen Int'l earlier that year — as did the local paper, the Reading Eagle, whose photographer, Richard J. Patrick, snapped the above shot, which was sent by Gwynn to those like me who attended.

The NHRA lineup included Bernstein, John Force, Tommy Johnson Jr., Art Hendey, Dan Pastorini, Scott Kalitta, Kenny Koretsky, Dick LaHaie, Mark Oswald, Richard Hartman, Jim Head, Freddie Neely, Don Prudhomme, Tim Grose, and Darrell's father, Jerry. The NASCAR lineup featured Bill Elliott, Kyle Petty, Davey Allison, Ernie Irvan, Derrick Cope, Michael Waltrip, Sterling Marlin, Geoff and Brett Bodine, Rick Wilson, Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd, Terry Labonte, Chad Little, and Ken Schrader. Both had an all-star "bench" (see box). A three-hour autograph session preceded the game.

Although he didn't have much range or strength in his right arm, Gwynn still gamely heaved the ball plateward a few feet to an enormous cheer that inspired his team.

NHRA jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the first inning on the back of former NFL quarterback turned Top Fuel racer Pastorini, who showed that he was as good with a bat as a pigskin by walloping a home run to left center.

The NASCAR troops dinged Prudhomme for six runs in the second and two more each in the fourth and fifth while keeping the NHRA gang at four with Irvan's solid pitching and good fielding. The NHRA drivers came alive in the bottom of the fifth with a seven-run inning manufactured by singles and NASCAR fielding errors to forge ahead, 11-10.

NASCAR tied the score in the top of the sixth and added two more in the seventh and three more in the eighth, and things looked bleak again for the straight-liners, down 16-11 in the middle of the eighth.

Force, who had taken over catching for Papa Gwynn, got run over twice in the top of the eighth, by Allison and Little, but got his revenge, powering a homer to left center. Inspired, the NHRA troops again rallied and tied the score at 16. NASCAR, though, responded with a four-run top-of-the-ninth on Waltrip's grand slam to lead 20-16. Game over? Hardly.

Irvan was tiring. Force walked. After Bernstein flied out, T.J. singled. Hendey and Pastorini walked, Force scoring. Hartman singled in Johnson and Oswald (running for Hendey), Kalitta walked, loading the bases with the score 20-19 for NASCAR. Grose popped out for NHRA's second out.

Two outs, based loaded. It doesn't get any better than that. Koretsky, the home-state hero whose sponsor, Sunoco, was the Keystones sponsor, seized the hero's role, roping a single to left center, scoring Pastorini and Hartman and giving NHRA a dramatic 21-20 win.

Koretsky, T.J., and Pastorini all went 3 for 5 in the game — Pastorini had four RBIs, as did LaHaie — but everyone left a winner.

On a totally unrelated note, I had a great time last Friday with Don Gillespie, who’s putting together a video history of one of my old stomping grounds, Orange County Int’l Raceway. Gillespie interviewed me on camera at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum for about an hour, probing my memories of my first trip to the County, my favorite moments and drivers, and much more. He’s already interviewed the likes of OCIR founders Mike Jones, Larry Vaughan, and Bill White, as well as the irrepressible Bill Doner, and he’s just getting started.

Anyone who owns Gillespie’s magnificent three-DVD history of Lions Drag Strip knows the amount of detail and love that he puts into his projects, and I’m really looking forward to this one, which he expects should be ready in time for next year’s March Meet.

Like this column, images really make a difference, so he’s actively looking for anything unique that might be out there, especially film or video footage. Also, if you’re someone who competed there, he might be interested in your remembrances. You can email him at dgillespie02@hotmail.com.

That's it from North Carolina. I hope to have time to put together a column early next week before heading off to Houston, but be forewarned that's based on a number of variables including travel and weather. Until then ...

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