Raymond Godman, Preston Davis, and the restored Tennessee Bo-Weevil will be at this year's U.S. Nationals. (Louis Kimery photo)
When I think about this great sport that I’ve enjoyed now as a fan for more than 40 years and that has employed me and taken me in as one of its own for more than 30, I have a great deal of gratitude for the people who helped get us here. It was my honor and privilege to work for years with NHRA founder Wally Parks and his wife, Barbara, to learn firsthand some of the trials and tribulations they went through. And while the dedicated staff that helped make Wally’s dream come true — guys like Ray Brock, the Safety Safari foursome of Bud Coons, Bud Evans, Chic Cannon, and Eric Rickman; the original division directors; and more — were the driving force, they had plenty of support around the country from dedicated racers who also believed in the dream and helped bring it to fruition.
I got the wonderful chance earlier this week to speak to one of those unsung heroes, Raymond Godman, though it’s kind of hard to call a legend like him “unsung” because he is known by many as the wheelchair-bound owner of the famed Tennessee Bo-Weevil entries from the 1960s and 1970s. But, just as important as his on-track histrionics, Godman also was a guy who was right there in the trenches far on the other side of the Mississippi from NHRA, helping to promote and grow the sport we all love in places that NHRA couldn’t always reach. He was a staunch supporter and ultimately a great friend to Wally and Barbara and also one of the sport’s premier mechanics.
The opportunity to speak to Godman and, later, to his longtime driver, Preston Davis, came about as the result of their plans to bring their restored A/Modified Roadster to Indy this year as part of the 60th Anniversary special. So much has been written about the duo — and of Godman’s perseverance after being paralyzed in the Korean War — that I had originally planned just to write about the restoration of the car, but it didn’t take long for Godman’s Tennessee-friendly nature and keen memory to convince me otherwise. His story is so deep and rich and meaningful that it deserves to be told again and again.
Godman worked with NHRA founder Wally Parks to bring drag racing to the Memphis, Tenn., area, and the two remained lifelong friends.
A life changed
Godman was actually a circle-track driver in the Memphis area in the late 1940s before being called to duty in Korea in 1951. It will be 63 years ago this Sept. 17 that his life changed forever, when a young 23-year-old Marine from Fox Company, Fifth Regiment, 1st Marine Division “got shot up” by a sniper’s bullet, paralyzing him from the waist down
“We were fighting the Chinese, each just trying to kill the other," he recalls. "It was horrible fighting. In a 24-hour period, we lost 91 dead, 771 wounded. When I got shot, I knew it was bad. They put me and another fella on a helicopter to an aid station. When we landed, the other guy was dead. They couldn’t do much for me at the aid station; they told me they didn’t think I’d make it through the night and they had other wounded coming in to take care of. I was still alive the next morning.”
He was treated in South Korea and Japan before being sent back to the United States in a hospital ship. He tried to resume his driving career in a midget car with hand controls but couldn’t control the car to his satisfaction. The cockpit’s loss was drag racing’s gain.
“I became interested in drag racing in 1953 just as it was starting to come on. I realized I could be more active in the pits in drag racing than in circle-track racing, and maybe thought I could drive one at some point, though I never did. I got in touch with Wally at Hot Rod to offer my help.”
Godman was a charter member of the Memphis Rodders car club, which began to hold drag races at an abandoned Air Force base in Halls, Tenn., in 1953. They bought some Chrondek timers and would set up their impromptu track for a full day of racing Sunday, then tear it all down and hold their regular car-club meeting that evening.
Parks later appointed Godman as one of NHRA’s regional advisers, and Godman asked Parks if the Safety Safari (then known as the Drag Safari) could come to his hometown. He put the team up at his house, and the event was hosted in the summer of 1955, just before the first Nationals in Great Bend, Kan.
(Above) Godman and driver James "Red" Dyer at the 1960 Nationals in Detroit, where they were Top Eliminator runners-up. (Below) Two years later, at the Nationals in Indy, Harrison Jacob drove the Bo-Weevil to Middle Eliminator honors.
Godman and his driver, James “Red” Dyer, took part in the inaugural Nationals — he would go on to attend the Big Go for the first 57 editions, the first 24 as a competitor — and they won AA/Comp class honors.
Two years later, they won the AA/Comp class trophy at the NHRA Nationals in Oklahoma City with a flathead-powered roadster, a car that inspired the Tennessee Bo-Weevil nickname.
“Red and I were working on the car in the garage. It was 2 o’clock in the morning, and we’d just finished making a chicken wire and fiberglass mesh nose," said Godman. "We stopped and went out to stand in the backyard, and looking back into the garage at the car, the nose looked like a point, and Red, who was as country as you ever saw, he said that it kinda looks like a [cotton] bo-weevil snout. I said, ‘What about a Tennessee Bo-Weevil?’ and that’s how the car got its name.” (NHRA, however, did not think much of the original snout and banned it after the 1959 Nationals, according to Davis.)
In 1958, Godman built a new car, based on a Scotty Fenn/Chassis Research TE440 kit, that proved very successful; it’s this car that Davis recently restored (more on that later).
Godman continued to race and promote drag racing in Memphis, which led to him opening Lakeland Dragstrip on July 4, 1960; Buster Couch was his first starter, and it was Godman who recommended Couch to Parks for the soon-vacant position as Division 2 Director.
Later that year, Godman and Dyer were Top Eliminator runner-ups to Leonard Harris and the vaunted Albertson Olds at the Nationals in Detroit in what was an almost-too-close-to-call final. A few weeks later, with Harris and car owner Gene Adams having returned to the West Coast to match race, Parks called upon Godman and Dyer to have the honor of making the first pass down the newly built dragstrip in Indianapolis that would host the Nationals the following year (and every year since). It was a big shindig with representatives from the IndyCar world, too, including Parnelli Jones, Rodger Ward, A.J. Foyt, and J.C. Agajanian.
In late 1961, Godman sold the Chassis Research car and began campaigning a Dragmaster-chassised machine that Harrison Jacobs took to Middle Eliminator honors at the 1962 Nationals. The duo finished runner-up in the points championship that year, just 15 points behind Jess Van Deventer. A few years later, Sonny Adkins drove Godman’s BB/Fuel Dragster to the Super eliminator title in front of their home-state fans at the 1967 Springnationals in Bristol.
Enter Preston Davis
In late 1967, Godman moved up to Top Fuel, and, after a falling out with Adkins after the U.S. Nationals, he hired fellow Memphis Rodder member Davis as his driver, and the two raced together for the next 11 years.
Davis had cut his racing teeth in gas dragsters — one of his first dragsters actually used the chassis of Godman’s Modified Roadster and another, a George Root-built rail, was a C/Dragster national record holder — and had been a regular competitor at Lakeland.
“I heard that Raymond and Sonny had parted company and that there was an opening to drive the Bo-Weevil, so I called him,” Davis recalls. “We were in the same car club but not really on the same level because he was running Top Fuel and I was running Comp. We talked for five minutes, and he asked me how my business was going and how I liked the weather, and I finally said, ‘Look, Raymond, I’m a busy guy. I heard you were looking for a driver.’ He said, ‘Well, I was getting around to that.’ He said I could drive the car if I could build the motor because he had a match race the next weekend. So I did, and we took it out the following Saturday and Sunday to Lakeland, and when they strapped me in for the first time, I couldn’t see where I was going because of that big ol’ blower. It didn’t take but a few runs to get used to it.”
Success for the duo came quickly with a win at the 1968 season-opening divisional meet at Phenix Dragway in April en route to the Division 2 championship. A second division title followed in 1970.
“Preston was a helluva driver and a great mechanic, too,” Godman praised. “We used to attend the Gainesville Turkey Trot races every November to have a best-of-three match race against Don Garlits. After Preston beat him on holeshots one time, Garlits pulled me off to the side and asked me, ‘Where’d you get him? That guy is good!’ ”
As Funny Cars began to gain popularity, Godman and Davis expanded their operation to also include a Funny Car, a Woody Gilmore-built Barracuda, and they ran them both at several meets, which proved too much of a burden. “It just about killed us financially, so we just raced Funny Cars only from then on,” recalled Godman.
Rear-engine cars were quickly becoming necessary to compete in Top Fuel, and Davis saw the success that his good friend Clayton Harris was having with Jack McKay’s New Dimension dragster and told Godman they needed to either update to a back-motor car or switch exclusively to Funny Car.
“The real money at that time was in Funny Car with all of the match racing you could do,” said Davis. “Plus, it was just usually me, Raymond, and another guy. We didn’t have the finance or the muscle to campaign two cars, so we stuck with the Funny Car.”
(Above) The duo's second Funny Car was this Mustang, in which Davis rode out a bad fire in 1974 that led him to retire. (Below) The two reunited to compete at the 25th annual U.S. Nationals with this Arrow in 1979.
The beginning of the end
Davis was runner-up to Tom McEwen in Funny Car at the 1972 PRA National Challenge in Tulsa, Okla., and went on to win the Division 2 Funny Car championship in the car later that year. A Mustang later replaced the 'Cuda. A bad fire in Blaney, S.C., in 1974 convinced Davis to quit driving, but he was thankful to have the choice.
“A month before that I was so mad at NHRA because they had changed the rules to require a five-layer Nomex [driving] suit that cost me $600, which was a lot of money back then, but it saved my life. There’s no doubt in my mind," said Davis. "I told Raymond that we needed to get some better parts, but he was happy with the pieces he had.
"It turned out that the O-ring in the back of the fuel pump broke and filled the crankcase with 91 percent [nitro]. Needless to say, when it lit, it really was a bad fire. I believe that the big man upstairs was looking out for me because somehow the front latch of the body released and the body came off. The Mustang was a beautiful car, but for some reason, it was a jinx.
"Finally, I just told Raymond, ‘I think someone is trying to tell me something.’ I put the car back together, ran two more races for him, then retired. Larry LaDue drove the car for him the next four years, but I couldn’t even watch racing on TV, it was too hard. It’s in my blood.” (So much so that years later, Davis is now building himself a 225-inch front-engine nostalgia dragster with a alcohol-fueled 392 to compete at nostalgia events; “My body is 73; my mind is 30,” he insists.)
As a testament to their long friendship and in acknowledgement of his hard work in the pioneering days, Parks insisted that Godman race at the silver anniversary U.S. Nationals in 1979. Godman invited Davis to be his driver. Davis didn’t have a driving suit any more or even a current license, but Godman took care of all of that, and the partners were reunited.
“This was right at the beginning of tire shake, and we didn’t qualify," said David."It shook so hard that I couldn’t see where I was going, and it broke the bottom chassis at the firewall and broke the fuel-pump extension. We went to Bristol the next week and to Atlanta the week after that, and then I quit for good."
The rising costs of competition forced Godman also to retire at the end of the 1979 season. After he quit racing, Godman continued to sell insurance for a while – after leaving the service, he’d attended the University of Tennessee to study for his insurance license and opened his own business – then started Godman Hi-Performance In 1977, selling high-performance race car and hot-rod plumbing, where he continues to work every day.
“I don’t have any regrets,” said Godman, who was inducted into Don Garlits’ International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1991 and was also a Lifetime Achievement Honoree in 2003 at the inaugural Holley NHRA National Hot Rod Reunion. “I’ve had a very good life, I’ve worked hard, have a good family, tons of friends, and still work every day. I can’t stand sitting around doing nothing. I enjoyed my time in the sport. I always liked race cars and going fast, building a better motor to beat the other guy, and made so many friends.”
(Above) The Bo-Weevil wasn't much to look at when Davis, left, picked it up from Carol Poston and placed it in the back of his pickup, but the end result of the restoration (below), unveiled at the 2013 National Hot Rod Reunion, was stunning.
Davis began restoring some of Godman’s old cars a few years ago, and the '60 Nationals runner-up is the latest. As mentioned earlier, Godman sold it in 1961, and Davis actually drove the now small-block Chevy-powered dragster for its new owner, then bought it and quickly sold it to his friend Carol Poston. After he finished restoring Godman’s Top Fuel car, he began looking for his own Root-chassised dragster, but when current Top Fuel star Clay Millican told him that Poston still owned the Fenn car — “It lay out in the weeds for some 40 years,” according to Godman — Davis had to see it for himself. All that remained was the chassis and the front end, but it was enough to convince Davis it was the real deal and worth salvaging.
“Carol and I were good friends back then, so I asked him, ‘Carol, what would it take for me to get this car?’ and he just gave it to me,” recalled Davis. “I spent a couple of days in Oklahoma with Benny Osborn and came home with a quick change rear end, and I built the motor. We had to get a fiberglass ’27 bucket body; I looked all over for a metal one but couldn’t find one, but I got a fiberglass one from Spirit Industries in Ark., narrowed it down, and made it fit, and had the aluminum nose added. A local boy here did a fantastic job of painting it. I’m really proud of it.”
The car made its redebut at last year’s National Hot Rod Reunion in Bowling Green, Ky., and will be on hand, as mentioned, at Indy. As proud as Davis is of the re-creation, he doesn’t want the attention for himself.
“It’s not about me,” Davis insists. “It’s about Raymond and that car. I don’t care if they ever even mention my name. I want Raymond honored for what he has done in his life. He’s the history of drag racing in Memphis; there ain’t no doubt about it. Raymond and I had our ups and downs over the years — it was mostly over money — but he’d get out of that wheelchair and get under that car with me to check the bearings. The man was unbelievable.”
I couldn't agree more. I tip my cap to the man who brought NHRA to the mid-south and to all of the pioneering boosters who helped get us to where we are today.
Remember when you first got on the Internet (or what passed for it back then)? For a lot of us early adapters in the early 1990s, that meant America Online, and save for a nitro engine, there was no more thrilling sound than hearing “You’ve Got Mail” when you logged on to AOL. Email was still a pretty new and fascinating concept back then. “Wait, someone can sit at their computer and write me a letter, and I’ll get it within a few seconds? Inconceivable!”
Today, we take it all for granted, especially since we’ve become a mobile community with email and, of course, text messaging right on our phones and so on (still waiting for my flying car; I’m talking to you, Jetsons), and although my computer no longer verbally greets me, I still love opening my email every morning and seeing 100 new messages in my Inbox, with every one holding the possibility of a new adventure or an idea or contribution for this column (or an unexpected financial opportunity from a new friend overseas).
My Inbox has been overflowing the last couple of weeks with follow-ups to some recent columns, so I thought I’d share some of them this week.
I got back Monday from Seattle, where I was stopped in the pits by more than a dozen Insider readers who wanted to express their love of the column (thanks, guys!), and I was even flagged down by Tony Pedregon, who wanted to say what a kick he got out of the story about the starting-line fight at the 1970 U.S. Nationals and wanted to know if I had more info. The good news for him was that I had already been on the case. East Coast photo ace Norman Blake was the first to comment about it, ID-ing one of the principals as photographer Ted Robinson and the other (the toupee-losing one) as a fan, and suggested I talk to longtime Midwest photogs Richard Brady and Tom Schiltz for details because they were there. I also reached out to the dean of drag racing lensmen, Jon Asher, for his recollections, knowing he probably had been there, too.
Schiltz, a sometime contributor to his column, verified Robinson’s identity and sent along this photo of him.
“I don’t remember who Ted shot for, but he seemed to be at the major races,” Schiltz remembered. “He always had his camo hat and spread out a tarp with his rather large number of offbeat cameras. [NHRA Photo Editor Leslie] Lovett always got a kick out of the spring-wound ones."
Brady remembers that he was from Michigan and echoed Schiltz’s interesting comment about his equipment. “He had a huge amount of equipment, but nothing was the same,” recalled Brady. “By that I mean he'd bring what seemed like six or eight cameras with lenses to Indy, but there would be one Nikon and a lens for that, one Mamiya and one or two lenses for that, and so on; the same with his flash gear and he would spread this all out on what seemed like an Army slicker!”
It was Asher, though, who came through with the goods on the incident, which came just as Modified finalists Joe Lemley and Dean Lowery were preparing to stage their race cars.
Asher says that the toupee-wearing pugilist was actually an interloping fan, who apparently got into Robinson’s way. How did the fan end up in such a restricted area? According to Asher, some members of ABC’s television crew, which was filming the event for Wide World of Sports, had left before the finals and, incredibly, handed their credentials to spectators standing along the fence!
“ABC had way more people on hand then they needed, and many of them left before the finals, leaving only the guys manning the cameras and the on-air talent behind,” he explained. “So the guy with the bald head came out there and just stood in front of Ted Robinson and everyone else and refused to move (because he had a credential, of course). I believe Leslie was next to me on his ladder. We were looking through the cameras when Buster [Couch, Chief Starter] suddenly stood between the two cars with his arms out to his sides indicating they should hold, and he was clearly looking right down where we were. I turned to the left (downtrack), and there they were, rolling around. Robinson, who was [not a great] shooter despite having more gear than any living, breathing human being in the place, was at a distinct disadvantage because of the cameras.”
Once the details emerged of how the interloper had gained access, NHRA ratcheted up the control of the credentials, so something good did come out of it.
“While the fight thing was obviously over the top, in some respects we were all glad it happened because it did bring about changes,” added Asher. "I can’t tell you how many times we would find ourselves screaming at some jerk who had a credential and no camera, who refused to move out of the way because he had that pass. And, as you may well imagine, when one of [them] showed an ABC credential to some rent-a-kid guard, the rent-a-kid disappeared, and we had to deal with the person after that.”
(Above) Clayton Taylor now and then. He's still into photography, shooting birds in Texas. (Below) One of his hundreds of images from Connecticut Dragway.
Tom Edwards’ photos from Connecticut Dragway sparked a lot of interest and commentary and calls for more similar shots. One of the people I heard from was Clayton Taylor, who I remember from my earliest years at National Dragster as the track photographer there.
“My first day at Connecticut Dragway was as a 12-year-old, watching Don Garlits (red car) match race the Ramchargers,” he remembers. “When the little bits of rubber from the full-track smoky passes started falling in my hair as the clouds dispersed, I was hooked! I initially hung on the return road fence, snapping pictures with an old roll-film camera. After a few years, we went into the pits, and I started collecting autographs in my new autograph book. I still took a few photos, but the collection of signatures grew quickly: Charlie Allen, ‘Jungle Jim,’ Lew Arrington, Larry Reyes, and Roland Leong on the same page; Richard Tharp and Harry Schmidt on the same page; ‘Wild Willie’ Borsch (along with a greasy thumb print), Boris Murray, E.J. Potter … oh, heck, they are ALL special to me.
“In 1973, I became the track photographer; Les Lovett got me photo passes to NHRA national events, and I amassed a big collection of negatives from ’73 through ’82. They sat pretty much untouched for 30-plus years. Occasionally, a racer would call the number on the back of an old print, asking for more copies. I gave up the darkroom years ago, always meaning to start scanning negatives, but never did anything until earlier this year when a Facebook racer hooked me up with the Connecticut Dragway Memories page. I only had a few prints lying around, but they were scanned and posted.” You can check them out here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/423595767671813/
Marc Ronhock wrote that “the shot of Frank Federici made me buzz and tingle. The Shark [was] a staple for the Funny Car shows. I don't care who you pick from the old days, but watching Frank make a pass in this early car or the later no-top car was an adventure of pure craziness. Frank had two blower pulleys, a small one and a large [one], and he would pick the one that almost made the car crash. From then, it was tip the can, spin the huffer, twist the mag, hang on, and don’t lift ‘til you’re in the dirt.”
Charles Milikin Jr., who supplied the two photos at right, wrote, “Thanks for giving Connecticut Dragway the kudos it so deserved. I first went to the track in 1964 and saw a lot of the popular big names and some outstanding local talent, including Red Lang and the Jack Merkle gassers. Some great memories from that era.”
Lou Ciarlelli got a kick out of Edwards’ description of the food stand having hamburgers, hot dogs, and grinders. “In case Tom didn’t fill you in on what a grinder is, it’s a Connecticut term for a sub sandwich or hoagie,” advised Ciarlelli, who was born and raised in Connecticut. “The legend, whether true or not (I’ve never verified), is that the workers at the Groton shipyards, who were called grinders because of grinding steel, would go to one of the local delis and ask for a whole loaf of bread sliced in half and made into a sandwich. Supposedly, that’s where the name ‘Grinder’ came to be. I know as a kid when we would travel outside of Connecticut and go to a deli and ask for a grinder, they would look at us like we were crazy!”
And finally, the dean of drag scribes, Dave Wallace, dropped me a note to report that although Connecticut Dragway no longer hosts thundering Funny Cars, it’s still in use, as Consumer Reports' test track for new cars, and is often seen as background for video footage of instrumented new vehicles that occasionally air on TV.
In my tribute to Norm Weekly
of Frantic Four fame, I mentioned that there were no pictures of the four — Weekly, Ron Rivero, Jim Fox, and Dennis Holding — posed together in our files and got back more than a few. Reverend Jim Jack, of Racers For Christ, sent along the photo above, which he believes was taken in Pomona, and had the foursome sign it. He and Weekly attended the Church of Christ on 10th and Gary in Pomona when they were young boys, and he even remembers hearing the Top Fuel cars running while church was in session.
Bill Schneider and Darrielle Moody (daughter of Top Fuel star Don Moody) passed along an updated photo of that classic (above) and (below) this memorable photo of Moody and Weekly going at it wheels up in Pomona in 1963.
I also received a nice note (and a Frantic Four T-shirt!) from Fox, along with the above photo, which shows the foursome when they were inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 2008. Back row, from left, Dale Armstrong, Holding, Fox, Rivero, Weekly, Wallace, and Don Garlits. Front row is Jon Lundberg, Beverly Wernke (for Jim Bucher), Jim McFarland, and Ken Veney.
I always strive to make this column as accurate as possible, but even I can’t be 100 percent each time, especially when I’m guessing. I just don’t expect it to take four years before it’s pointed out! Ned Dubois dropped me a line to point out that my caption from an October 2010 photo essay on Maple Grove raceway had a bit of bad information on it. The photo above shows the Nichols & Oxner Charger, and I presumed that it was driver Wayne Oxner standing next to the car. Wrong! According to Dubois, it’s actually Bill Wilkinson, one of the crew of Dan Hatch, Bill Kent, and Bill Wilkinson. “Larry Nichols and Wayne Oxner were the principal owners and Wayne drove in most cases, but there must have been instances that Wayne couldn’t drive and Bill substituted,” he wrote. “I knew them all because we all lived in Marshfield, Mass., and grew up together. Larry and Dan were older than the rest by about 10 years. Dan Hatch and Bill Wilkinson died a just few years back.” I stand corrected and have updated the original post. Thanks, Ned.
I’ve still got some submissions pouring in from the “Things That Aren’t Here Anymore” thread. Here are a few:
“Not being allowed to leave your rig in the pits overnight. Take everything back to the motel in the evening. Bring it back in the morning, and set everything up again; mailing letters (money order included) to order your race car parts; going to the bus station or railroad depot every day to see if your pistons/crankshaft/heads had arrived yet. (The impact of UPS and FedEx is not really appreciated today.)” — Chase Knight
“I vividly remember sitting in the stands at Irwindale watching a Saturday night Top Fuel show and seeing four to eight Top Fuelers fired and waiting for the last shot at qualifying. Irwindale had a rule that if your car was fired, on the line, or fire up road, you would get to run. Sometimes there were more than twice as many cars than there were spots for an eight-car field. Yes, it was frantic.” — Terry Knickerbocker
"In your July 11th [column], you mentioned, among others things, the saying 'Leavers Lose.' This got me to thinking about some of the other drag racing sayings that seem to have gone by the wayside. Today we hear about holeshot wins, but what about the more descriptive: ‘He who snoozes, loses!’ Or the description of the guy that inadvertently rolls through the starting-line beams and red-lights: ‘He who creeps, weeps.’ There are probably a zillion more of these!” — Robert Nielsen
“What I don’t see is the access we had as teenagers and young men back in 1971 and so forth. How lucky we were, and we didn’t realize it at the time. We could actually talk one on one with the driver or car owner, often the same person. They would even pose for us, if asked nicely, like Richard Siroonian. We could take a picture of their fire bottles or steering wheel when the body of a flopper was up. There were no hospitality trailers or roped-off areas, just wide-open spaces where you could just walk up and view, respectful of not being in their way when working on the car. And, sometimes, you may volunteer to help and given an oil pan to drain in the barrel 50 feet away. The access we had back then was special and will never be seen again. Speaking for myself, it was truly a time of wonder, and how lucky was I to experience some of it up close and personal.” — Ed Eberlein
“One of the things that caught my eye from a reader was ‘Seating so close to the racing surface you can feel the sound rattle your bones.’ This is not completely gone! At Pacific Raceways in Seattle, Grandstand A1 is right behind the starting line at about a 45-degree angle. A few years ago, I read in a racing magazine (don't remember which one) that claimed that this grandstand is the best on the circuit. I have had the first three seats (closest to the cars) on the front row since the first national event (then the Seafair Nationals) in the series' return in 1988. The ‘save your seats’ program has allowed me to keep these seats all these years. In these seats, you are only 15-20 feet from the right lane Top Fuel engines when they fire up. In this grandstand, being behind the cars, it feels like you get hit in the chest with a board on every fuel car launch! The automatic reaction is to jerk on the launch, just like the when you stood by a fuel car when they whomped the throttle to seat the clutch (something that is very rare now). I used to try to resist the body reaction at the launch, but I finally let it be part of the experience. When you sit in this grandstand, you should always wear dark clothing because you are covered with rubber at the end of the day. Sitting in the grandstand gives you a new perspective on the power of Pro Stock cars as well. Because these seats give you such an extreme case of sensory overload, you are exhausted at the end of the day. As a result, we only sit there on Saturdays! We have a lot of respect for the starters and crews working behind these cars every day. They must find it exhausting but also mind blowing!” — Al Kean
“Said in a Jeff Foxworthy-voice, ‘If you still call the pedestrian-crossover at Indy the ‘Hurst Bridge,’ you’re an old-school freak.’ And look at what being at the head of the lanes feels like before sunrise, 1979 U.S. Nationals. Me? I've been out in line by the drive-in since 3:45 a.m., at this point it’s probably 5:45 a.m., and clearly Gary Ormsby’s people have been taking shifts 'watching' the car that’s been there since who knows when — and, in the background, our legendary ‘Hurst Bridge.’ “ — Jon Hoffman
And finally, Indy’s not too far away; hope you have your tickets and that I will see you there. Make sure you stop by the Clarion Hotel (2930 Waterfront Parkway Drive) and check out the memorabilia show being put on by Mike Goyda, Brian Kennedy, and John (Rab) Kirchner that runs Sunday from 10 a.m. to midnight. Admission is free. Some vendor space is still available. Contact Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'll see you next week.
After last week’s Fan Fotos from the East Coast, we rebound back to the West Coast this week for a series of photos from Insider reader Ed Eberlein that spans from Fremont to Sacramento to Orange County Int’l Raceway to Pomona in a three-year period, 1974-77.
Eberlein got to see a lot of this action close up as part of the crews for several teams and always had his Instamatic ready.
“One thing that is missing today is the chance opportunity that a fan could become part of the crew, if only to empty oil and other small tasks back when,” he noted. “I was one of the fortunate ones to experience that with Mike Miller, Gordie Bonin, and Roland Leong (or, as in the case with Ro, given the OK to ride along in the back of the crew cab). Given the total professionalism today, those possibilities have ended.”
This early-1970s photo shows the pit area at Sacramento Raceway, with Mickey Thompson’s Mustang front and center.
Another pit shot from Sacramento, possibly from the Thompson camp. Fans of all ages could gather close around the teams as they worked on the cars and sometimes even get the chance to pitch in.
“Big John” Mazmanian’s nephew and driver, Rich Siroonian, posed with his uncle’s Barracuda Funny Car. “He was a really nice person,” Eberlein recalled. “He posed for the picture for me and was really a good guy.”
Here’s a pretty rare photo of Don Prudhomme’s super-trick new Army Vega, with crew chief Bob Brandt racing ahead to the water box at the 1974 Winternationals. The swoopy new Vega ran just two events, the AHRA Winternationals at Arizona’s Beeline Dragway, where it set top speed and was runner-up (red-light), and the Winternationals. In Pomona, Prudhomme managed just a 6.59 best to qualify No. 14 (Twig Zeigler was low with a 6.30), then lost to eventual winner Dale Emery in round one with a shutoff 8.70. Something about the car, which rode so low that Prudhomme had a viewing slit cut into the roof hatch to see the lights on suspended Christmas Trees, didn’t suit Prudhomme and Brandt, and they subsequently sold it to Tom Hoover and returned to their Plain Jane Barracuda (decked out in the new Army colors) and promptly won the Gatornationals.
I’m not really sure what fate befell Prudhomme’s running buddy, Tom McEwen, that led to this right-side body damage, but “the Mongoose” didn’t qualify for the field.(Reader Michael Hedworth tells me that McEwen's "chute detached from the rear end housing and went into whatever catch device they had then at the top end.")
Herm Petersen made his return to competition after a nasty fire the year before with this Woody Gilmore-built, Can-Am-inspired entry. Like Prudhomme’s Vega, this car didn’t last long and made only 19 runs in its Top Fuel lifespan. (For more on this car and Petersen, read my three-part story on his inspirational career here: Part 1
| Part 2
| Part 3
The year before he came to national fame as the driver of the Blue Max, Raymond Beadle was driving Don Schumacher’s No. 2 entry, a ’74 Vega. Parked alongside him in the Pomona staging lanes is Mike Mitchell, “the world’s fastest hippie,” who qualified a fine 10th with his Barracuda before falling in round one to Dale Pulde in Mickey Thompson’s Grand Am.
A couple of more shots from the Pomona staging lanes, these from the 1975 Winternationals. (Above) Pulde by now had moved behind the wheel of the Chapman Automotive Chicago Patrol Mustang II and just missed making the field. Pulde had good company: Another hometown hero, John Lombardo (below), also wasn’t among the quick 16. Note that Lil' John’s Vega was shod with M&H rubber.
Orange County Int’l Raceway in 1976, and Eberlein is right in the middle of the preparations for the traditional start of Funny Cars parked on the OCIR surface. That’s Roland Leong’s Ron Colson-driven Hawaiian on the left.
Before Tripp Shumake became the driver of Johnny Loper’s Lil Hoss Funny Cars in 1977, flopper veteran Eddie Pauling preceded him in this car.
While working for Gordie Bonin’s Bubble Up team, Eberlein had a pretty good spot to watch the jet dragster show at OCIR, and on this memorable night, the jet’s thrust picked up the track’s iconic burnout-box booth and flung it against the back wall of the track.
Years later, at the track’s Last Drag Race in 1983, I remember starter Larry Sutton aligning Doug Brown’s jet dragster to try to burn the edifice down before upper management put the kibosh on that impromptu act of arson.
These final two photos are from Fremont in 1977, showing Gary Densham’s Teacher’s Pet Monza (above) and Bonin’s Bubble Up Firebird. The 1977 season was a good one for Bonin: He won the Gatornationals and the World Finals en route to a second-place finish behind Don Prudhomme in the standings.
As I wrote last week, it's such fun to see these types of photos, shot by fans of the sport rather than the professionals along the guardrails. Thanks to Don for sharing his pics.
If you’re like me (and you probably wouldn’t be here if you weren’t), one of the great joys of longtime drag racing fans is looking at old drag racing photos. There are websites and Facebook pages aplenty filled with some ol’ time goodness from the days when Top Fuelers had the engine in the front, Funny Cars still looked like cars, and gassers and even the stockers commanded huge followings.
Although plenty of the photos you see plastered all over the Web are well-known from decades past, what I love are the collections that seemingly come out of someone’s old shoebox, stored away and perhaps forgotten decades ago in a dusty attic until unearthed by some spring cleaning or perhaps a move.
Insider reader Tom Edwards (whose business card reads “Writer-Photographer-Comedian”) sent me such a collection, a CD full of his old photos from Connecticut Dragway, circa 1968. I know this column sometimes has a bit of a West Coast bias due to my own upbringing, so I’m always eager to be able to feature stuff from “back East.”
Edwards discovered our amazing sport in 1965 at Connecticut Dragway. “Having spent only a few minutes in the pit area, I knew drag racing was the type of motorsport I would enjoy the most, and that was before I saw my first pass,” he wrote. “From that race until I joined the military in 1968, I saw Don Garlits; Connie Kalitta; the Ramchargers; Stone, Woods & Cook; 'Big John' Mazmanian; K.S. Pittman; Bruce Larson; ‘Grumpy’ Jenkins; Sox & Martin; Don Gay; Malcolm Durham; Bill Lawton’s Tasca Ford; Bill Flynn’s Yankee Peddler; ‘Dyno Don’ Nicholson; and ‘Fast Eddie’ Schartman. Many of the sport’s biggest stars found time during the season for a stop at the track in the Nutmeg State.
“Connecticut Dragway was a fan-friendly track,” he added. “The bleachers, which were on the pit side only, were about 20 rows high, began near the starting line, and were perhaps 50 yards in length. From the end of the stands to the finish-line area, fans that arrived early enough could park their cars in the front row facing the track. I still remember how much fun it was to be, in effect, at a drive-in-style dragstrip. A small food stand near the entrance to the pits offered ‘hot dogs, hamburgs, and grinders’ for your dining pleasure. I always had an unobstructed view of the track from the flash of the green light on the Christmas Tree and, in the case of high-performance cars, the deployment of parachutes to bring the cars to a stop.”
Here’s a dozen photos from Edwards’ collection for you to enjoy.
Here’s the view from behind the starting line looking downtrack. The yellow two-story timing tower and starter’s booth are well visible as a tire-smoking fueler rockets down the track.
As Edwards mentioned, the stars all came to Connecticut Dragway, including “Big Daddy” himself, Don Garlits, who later autographed this candid photo (right) that Edwards took.
I’m especially stoked by Edwards' photo above of Garlits about to be push-started. You can see “Big Daddy” signaling “Come on” to the push-truck driver, who was probably Bob Taaffe. Because I’m pretty sure these photos are from 1968, it’s probably Swamp Rat 12-B, which replaced the very short (137-inch-wheelbase!) 12-A they had built for their early-season West Coast tour; they figured a shorter car would be lighter and work well on the good-hooking left coast, but the car did not perform well, so 12-B was built at 215 inches and won the Springnationals and U.S. Nationals.
Connie Kalitta, right, looked over the SOHC 427 Ford in his Bounty Hunter. Not sure who he’s talking to. I like how Kalitta thoughtfully signed this one down the side so as not to take away from the photo’s subjects.
Here’s Bub Reese’s Top Fueler. The back end kinda looks like the La Cosa Nosta car that he fielded with the team of Gaines-Marino-Webb that year, but this has his name on it where it used to say La Cosa Nosta. Reese, who hailed from Maryland, got his start in racing with his brother, Phil, before going on to drive for a number of other teams.
Long before Jaws terrorized the Eastern seaboard, Frank Federici’s The Shark! Corvette was a staple of East Coast match race action, from the late 1960s through the early 1970s. The photo below shows what’s under the Corvette body, a supercharged 392 Chrysler powerplant. The photo also gives a good look at how some Funny Car bodies were constructed (and supported) back then before the modern-style tree and tin were developed.
Gassers were a favorite at Connecticut Dragway, and what gasser show would be complete without the Stone, Woods, & Cook Willys? I think Chuck Finders was driving for the team at this time.
And what Stone, Woods, & Cook appearances would be complete without “Big John” Mazmanian there to keep them honest? This is the Jr. Thompson-driven ’50 Austin that followed Mazmanian’s own Willys. By the end of the next season, Mazmanian was solidly in the Funny Car business.
And if S-W-C and “Big John” were in the house, you knew that K.S. Pittman couldn’t be far behind with his ’33 Willys. Love this shot of the car on the open trailer entering the pits.
And, of course, the local favorites would be on hand to defend their turf. This is Jack Merkel’s New York-based ’33 Willys.
I don’t know and couldn’t find much info on John Lopiano and his ’33 Willys, other than that he was a local favorite, but I also chose this photo for the background, a cool old snack bar just like the one that Edwards described in his introduction.
Thanks for sharing, Tom. I know the readers here appreciate seeing photos they might never have. I know I do. Keep ‘em coming, people.