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More of Mickey's machinesFriday, March 08, 2013
Posted by: Phil Burgess

I originally had intended for today’s column to be about the Keeling & Clayton team – as promised at the end of last week’s column – but in the days since then, I’ve been flooded with requests for more Mickey Thompson info and photos from readers, so the thread lives to fight another day. Pretty soon, we’ll be approaching ramp-truck and wedge-dragster thread length!

Last Friday, I showed what I thought was a pretty cool photo of the Mickey Thompson Mustang with a Top Fuel rear wing sticking out of the roof, but famed Northwest historian “Flyin’ Phil” Elliott one-upped me with this pic, showing wings at both ends! “According to Pat Foster, this configuration was only tried in pre-race testing at Bristol, the week prior to the AHRA Spring Nationals," wrote the other Phil. "The tech officials took one look at the inability for the body to tilt up without taking the front wing off and said, ‘Nope.’ PF said the downforce caused the engine to pull way down, and each test run ended in piston smoke.” Way cool photo!

Steve Ellingson scrutinized one of last week’s photos of this same car (right), and his trained eye offered up questions to which I don’t have answers, but perhaps one or more of you do.

“I'm curious,” he wrote. “How much of that car was fiberglass and how much was steel? The rear view you show has OEM taillights, bumper, what appears to be a separate trunk lid, door handles (???), even the roof medallion and drip rails! The other oddball item is the side reflector on the quarterpanel -- this was a feature of the '68 cars; the '69 cars had side lights mounted lower. Did Mickey have this built, or was it an 'official' FoMoCo mock-up body that he got and altered?”

Fire away, readers!

Longtime regular reader/contributor Robert Nielsen clued me into the amazing video at right, which shows this car in all of its glory. It was shot at the AHRA Spring Nationals in Bristol, and in several scenes, you can see the holes in the hood from which the wing struts protruded in the first photo of this column.

“One of the opening scenes shows the car at the top end slowing down, with the parachute out and dancing all over the racetrack – really an exciting ride! There are also a couple of quick scenes with Mickey Thompson in them. I particularly like the one that is about two minutes into this video where he appears to be very upset with a couple of track officials. He stomps over to one official, who then points him in the direction of another official, where Thompson looks like he unloads some sort of verbal barrage in his direction in typical Thompson style and character.

“The biggest thing that one could probably say about Mickey Thompson was that he was an innovator. It did not matter whether it was with respect to drag racing, land speed racing, Indy car racing, or off-road racing. He left his mark wherever he raced! And sometimes it was a knuckle sandwich if he did not like what you had done or said!”

Speaking of Mickey’s Mustangs, I got a great note from Nostalgia Funny Car shoe Jeff Utterback telling me that he and Richard Stannard (Beach City Chevrolet Corvette) are building a tribute/re-creation of the blue MT/Mach 1.

“We have Danny Thompson, Amos Satterlee, and Danny Ongais onboard with their involvement and approval,” he said. “We have been slowly building the car between life, jobs, and general stuff that gets in the way. The car is going into paint in the next two weeks. (The photo is from a couple of years ago.) The car is not going to be a [NHRA Hot Rod] Heritage [Racing] Series runner, more of a dance partner for the Beach City Corvette, and possibly make runs/appearances like the Winged Express does.”

Not to be outdone, Dino Powell dropped me an email to say that Thompson’s final U.S. Marines Grand Am (right) is being restored. Powell acquired the car from the widow of one of the car’s many later owners and recently sold it to yet another buyer, who will restore it; he’s promised to have that gentleman contact me with details.

“I am just a huge drag race fan who from time to time stumbles across a few famous old cars,” he said. “I recently bought and sold the Don Tuttle-built Arley Langlo Zip Code dragster and am restoring it. I currently have been involved with a Pro Stock Duster and a box truck that has a story beyond belief but is the real deal.” He has promised to share that story with me, too.


The great and generous Steve Reyes passed along another of his wonderful images at right, showing Thompson’s Vega at Lions, photographed – as was the norm at the time -- with a shapely model, in this case Joan Trejo, girlfriend of the car’s driver, Henry Harrison.

“As you can tell by the photo, Ms. Trejo [was well-endowed]. We did lots of color and black and white photos. The magazine’s editor was delighted with the photos, and he ran some cool color photos in the magazine’s huge Funny Car spread. The magazine hit the newsstands, and all hell broke out. It seems that a group of librarians in the Midwest contacted Petersen Publishing to tell them that the magazine is nothing but porn and that they are pulling the magazine out of their libraries. The magazine editor was amused, but the higher-ups were not. So they sent a memo down to Hot Rod and Car Craft stating no women would be featured with any drag or street car in their magazines. Just another fun shoot with Funny Cars.”

And finally, Mark Brenner must be reading my mind, and I hope that the dialogue his query opens will help me down the road. “After seeing the pictures in your article, I thought that it would be great to see an article about Danny Ongais and what he is up to now,” he wrote. “I always thought that his career did a lot to improve the respect that drag racers would receive from the other forms of motorsport. Not many individuals have the ability to win in Top Gas, Top Fuel, Funny Cars, Indy cars, and sports cars (IMSA). I was very impressed when he finished seventh in the 1996 Indy 500 in Scott Brayton’s car with very little practice. He supposedly was 59 years old and was recording some laps at 220 mph. Wow.”

Brenner’s request will dovetail nicely with a story I’ve been contemplating for a few weeks, since the aforementioned Nielsen vehemently challenged my assertion that Roland Leong is Hawaii’s greatest drag racing export. He not only believes that the title belongs to Ongais, but also that current nitro crew chief Todd Okuhara is ahead of Leong on this mythical list.

Without launching (much) into my side of the debate right now, I do admire Ongais’ quarter-mile wheel work (though he became more famous for his driving in other forms of motorsport), but Leong is at the top of my list because of his long, long history as a car owner; the opportunity he gave to many drivers to start, improve, or prolong their careers; his long history of sponsorship work, broken records, and event wins; and his current status as one of the top nitro tuners in the nostalgia ranks.

Here’s Nielsen’s side of the debate: “Ongais had several nicknames, including 'the Silent Hawaiian,' ‘the Flying Hawaiian,’ and 'Danny On the Gas.' These nicknames applied to him no matter what type of race car he was driving! The latter of these nicknames was earned because he never lifted no matter how crossed up and sideways the car he was driving got. He always drove the car on the limit of control because that was how to run fast. This was also in the 1960s when drag race track surfaces were not as well-prepared as the tracks are today with VHT ‘glue.’ Top Fuel and Funny Cars would frequently get crossed up. Lesser drivers would backpedal, but not Ongais, with his right foot always too heavy, and he would simply drive the car back to the center of the lane!”

So let’s hear it from you guys out there! Who is Hawaii’s greatest contribution to drag racing (and only drag racing), and why?

OK, that’s it for another fun week. I’m headed out to Gainesville next week but hope to have another column ready before I hit the friendly skies (ever less friendly, it seems) for the start of my travel season. Thanks, as always, for reading and contributing.

The Thompson FilesFriday, March 01, 2013
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Until his murder on March 16, 1988, Marion Lee “Mickey” Thompson was the multifaceted face of American auto racing. We all know him for his drag racing exploits, first as a driver then later as a team owner, track operator, and race promoter, but he also succeeded in other wheeled venues, including land-speed records, IndyCar, and off-road racing.

In 2001, he was named No. 11 on NHRA's Top 50 Drivers list. In Erik Arneson’s book, Mickey Thompson, The Fast Life and Tragic Death of a Racing Legend, Don Prudhomme was quoted on Thompson, “He did so much for drag racing, and the more the years go by, you realize even more just how special he was. Any time you competed against Mickey in anything, you knew you were up against it. He was the first guy I ever heard who would take his cars to the dragstrip during the week to test. None of us could afford to test, so when Mickey showed up on the weekend, his cars were ready to kick ass.”

As promised last week, here’s a peek into the thick National Dragster photo archive of Thompson. It’s not meant to be an encyclopedic look at his career but rather a collection of images that I found interesting.

 

This is a great photo of two of the sport’s most influential guys in the 1960s, Thompson and NHRA founder Wally Parks, shot at Lions Drag Strip in 1963.

 
In July 1961, Thompson trailered these four Pontiac-powered cars — a Class F Dragmaster chassis sans body, his Assault and Attempt streamlined dragsters, and a 348-horsepower, 389-cid Pontiac Catalina — to Southern California’s March Air Force Base and broke eight FIA international records and six of 10 American national records.
 
Although there’s some fuzziness on the issue, Thompson is widely credited with the slingshot dragster design with this 1954 car. Theorized Thompson, "The biggest obstacle was keeping the driver between the engine and the rear axle, which required a driveshaft that pushed the engine forward. If you could place the driver behind the rear axle, it could be coupled directly with the engine-transmission assembly, and all the vehicle's weight focused on the driving wheels. Some of the drivers called my car 'the Monster' or 'the Tractor,' but a Santa Ana hot rodder, LeRoy Neumayer, said it reminded him of a slingshot, and the name not only stuck, but the design was quickly adapted by everyone else."
 
The late, great Jack Chrisman drove Thompson's 432-cid aluminum Pontiac-equipped Dragmaster car to an 8.76, 171.75-mph win over Don Garlits in the Top Eliminator final at the 1962 NHRA Nationals.
 
This is a neat shot of Thompson adding the notation “on 7 cyl” to one of the tombstones on the side of his ramp truck. In the tradition of fighter pilots who stenciled their kills on their planes, a bunch of drivers would add names of their “victims” to their cars. In retrospect, it’s kinda sad to know that the playful “RIP” on the tombstones of legends like “Jungle Jim” Liberman, Dick Harrell, and Chrisman are now reality.
 
Here’s a very cool “family portrait” of Thompson drivers and cars from 1969 or ’70. Flanking Thompson, center, are, from left, Arnie Behling, Johnny Wright, Danny Ongais, and Butch Leal. The missing driver is “Mighty Mike” Van Sant. The cars, from front to back, are Ongais’ Amos Saterlee-tuned, 427-powered Mustang; Behling’s 429-powered, Alan Gillis-wrenched Maverick; the Mustangs of Wright and Van Sant; and Leal’s Mustang Pro Stocker.
 
Ongais’ Mustang was a terror in 1969, winning the NHRA Springnationals and Nationals. Thompson was very experimentative with his chassis, including the famed monocoque construction car and, as is evident from this photo (remember when Funny Cars had see-through rear windows?), a new roll cage shape that closely surrounded the driver as opposed to the traditional square-cage designs popularized by the Logghe brothers.
 
Yeah, like I said, Thompson liked to tinker. I don’t think that this interesting Top Fuel-like wing setup ever ran in competition. In fact, the notation on the back of this photo says “Do not use,” but I think the statute of limitations on that has passed.
 
Another interesting photo without much information on hand shows another Thompson Mustang wheelman, Larry Fullerton, taking on a Top Fueler at Orange County Int’l Raceway.
 
Here’s a classic shot of Thompson driving the ramp-truck-mounted Wright Mustang through some town, apparently leading a parade of haulers en route to the local dragstrip.
 
A great shot of Pat Foster, far lane, wheeling the second M/T Mustang against future teammate Van Sant’s slick Invader Corvette. Below, Foster takes on “the All-American Boy,” Charlie Allen, at Riverside Raceway. Allen, of course, would go on to own OCIR and Firebird Int’l Raceway.
 

 
A clean shot of the Behling-driven Maverick. I got a neat email from Eddie Buck, who is restoring one of the Thompson Mavericks and documenting it on Facebook here. The chassis he’s using is the one that sat mismatched beneath the Grand Am body that Army Armstrong bought from the Thompson family. “I have unbent/tweaked/twisted most of it. On the whole, I'll have replaced just 20 feet of tubing. I purchased the mold Donnie Reeves had made from Larry Fullerton's Maverick for Danny Miller, and it's now being prepped to pop a new body. If possible, can you make the appeal to your readers to maybe help me find and return the suspension to the chassis. It was long gone by the time we got the chassis here.” If you guys know anything, let me know or drop Buck a message on the Facebook page.
 
Dale Pulde had a lot of wild times with Thompson’s famed lightweight Pinto over the years, including this wheelstand at Lions (above) and the car (below) being carried out on its shield — well, atop an old van — after a fire at U.S. 30. The car also was heavily burned in a fire in the final round at Indy in 1972. As he was quoted in Arneson’s book, “It took me four firesuits to get through ’71 and ’72.”
 

 
A nice photo of Thompson, left, and Pulde, right, flanking engine man Steve Montrelli at Lions.
 
Another Lions pic, this one of the Henry Harrison-driven Vega running against Frank Rupert and the Bays & Rupert Vega, circa 1971.

 

OK, that’s it for the Thompson photos for now. You know me, once you get me started looking through old photos or old issues, I really lose track of time and reality. I literally could have run two or three times as many from his folder but had to reel in my ambitions to these dozen and a half.

The trip through Thompson’s folder did inspire me to look through some others in the future. The National Dragster photo library houses an extraordinary collection of photos, and I know that some have never been seen or at least not seen in decades, so be on the lookout for some other photographic trips down Memory Lane in the future. I’ll see you next week.
 


If you're an NHRA Member, be sure to log onto NationalDragster.net and check out my latest My Favorite Fuelers column, where I focus on the Keeling & Clayton California Charger. You can find it here. I had a really great chat with Jerry Clayton for some great behind-the-scenes info on the team, which I'll share here next week.

Some sweet photos of Mickey's machinesFriday, February 22, 2013
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Thanks to everyone for the great photos and comments submitted the last two weeks to supplement my columns on Mickey Thompson’s Revelleader Grand Am Funny Car, and, apparently, no one is quite ready to let the thread end yet.

I heard from quite a few people who vividly remember as kids the Thompson team’s routine of tossing bite-size candy bars to the crowd as it towed back down the return road and/or as the crew raced down to pick up the car after a run, all of which was part of a sponsorship with Peter Paul Candies.

Steve Robichaux, of Houma, La., wrote, “I noticed the sponsor on the car, Peter Paul Candies, and I first thought it was associated with Paul Candies, but I found out different after searching. The Peter Paul Candy Co. came out with a new candy bar at that time called No Jelly Peanut Butter Bar. They marketed the candy bar pretty hard on several levels.”

Right you are, Steve. You can see the No Jelly lettering on the front spoiler of the black Grand Am (as Robichaux notes, it was a chocolate-covered peanut-butter treat), but the car’s predecessors, the Mustang, Pinto, and Vega, also advertised various Peter Paul brands.

The Mustang (above) and Vega (right) both hawked the Caravelle bar – caramel and crisped rice covered in milk chocolate (the 100 Grand bar would be today’s equivalent) – and the Revellaser Pinto (below) carried the name of the company’s PowerHouse bar (think Baby Ruth). The company -- founded in 1919 by Connecticut candy maker Peter Paul Halajian and five friends, -- also made two big longtime favorites, Mounds and Almond Joy, which were pretty much the same candy bar except that the latter had almonds on top (“Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t"). The company was purchased by Hershey in 1988.

I asked Dale Pulde, who drove both the Pinto and the Grand Am, about those candy-tossing days, which certainly also echo in my mind from long nights with my butt parked in the grandstands at Irwindale or Orange County until the candy started flying.

Pulde didn’t know how Thompson first hooked up with the candy maker but remembered that Thompson’s sister, Colleen, ran the sponsorship deals for her brother. The brand changed from year to year, but one thing that never changed was the arrival of cases and cases of the mini candy bars shipped to the hotel close to whatever track they were running. The team would enlist a fan – usually a good-looking girl, Pulde remembered fondly – to help throw the candy into the stands.

“It was a pretty cool deal, and the fans loved it,” he recalled. “We loved doing it, too, but I’ll never forget at Indy in 1971 when we burned the car to the ground, and as we were towing back up the return road, [fellow Funny Car racer] Jim Dunn and a whole bunch of people in the stands starting throwing the candy back at us.”

As I was researching the various Peter Paul brands that were advertised on the cars, I took a long cruise through the National Dragster archive of Mickey Thompson photos and came up with some interesting Grand Am-related photos that I had never seen and that, based on the feedback I’ve received, I thought you’d enjoy. (His whole file is filled with interesting photos, some of which I’ll share next week.)

This great photo shows the first two Grand Am bodies being brought home from Chicago, where Ron Pellegrini’s Fiberglass Ltd. had built them. Pulde and crew chief Steve Montrelli strapped them to the roof of the race car trailer and hauled them back to Southern California. You can see how “unswoopy” the body was in its first incarnation versus the sleek final product. This photo also shows the much-maligned Chevy duallie that had hundreds of thousands of miles on it, with nearly as many breakdowns.

Here’s a Steve Reyes shot of the car at Irwindale Raceway from early in the 1972 season – I’m guessing this is from the Grand Premiere – with the car only half-painted. As mentioned in previous columns, the car made its debut at Lions Drag Strip’s Last Drag Race in early December 1972 in primer and had its official coming-out party at the 1973 Winternationals, so this was a Pomona tune-up event, with new driver Butch Maas presumably at the helm.
Maas suffered critical burns in a qualifying fire at the Gatornationals, just his second NHRA national event of the season, and was hospitalized in Florida for six weeks. When he returned to Southern California, his crew greeted “Bootch” (as they loved to call him) him at Los Angeles Int'l Airport (LAX) warmly. Holding the welcome-home sign were triple Olympic swimming medalist Sandy Neilson, left, and Shelly Campbell. Upon his return, he received out-patient treatment at the Orange County Medical Center and drove only infrequently afterward.
Famed SoCal race car painter to the stars Bill Carter is seen applying the colors to the 1974 version of the Grand Am (black with multicolored accent) at his San Fernando Valley shop. Note the big difference between this body and the ones shown on the roof of the trailer. I wish this photo was in color.
The 1975 car (U.S. Marines livery) got off to a rough start during a promotional photo shoot for the Marines when a burned piston led to this fire that burned both car and new driver Larry Arnold. I had never seen these before, and Arnold was kind enough to forward them.

 

Yet another work-in-progress photo, of the 1975 car. As mentioned above, the original version of this car was burned at OCIR, so I’m going to say this photo, taken at Irwindale, was of the second car. We know that Charlie Therwanger drove it at the Winternationals in place of the injured Arnold, but I’m not certain if he’s driving here, and I couldn’t even find any mention of the car’s appearance at Irwindale’s preseason Grand Premiere bash in the National Dragster coverage nor any of it running in late 1974 with this scheme.

OK, that's it for today. As I said earlier, next week, I'll pull some cool shots from Thompson's thick file and share them here. In the meantime, if you're an NHRA Member, head over to NationalDragster.net and check out my weekly column there, My Favorite Fuelers, which today takes a look at the Chicago Patrol Mustang II.

 

A Grand (Am) photo galleryThursday, February 14, 2013
Posted by: Phil Burgess


 1 of 7 
 
The 1973 Winternationals, with Butch Maas burning out under the famed sign
 
From the outpouring of love and photos surrounding the story of Mickey Thompson’s Grand Am Funny Car, it seems I’m not the only one with a soft spot for “Thompson’s Torpedo.” Below is an amazing collection of images of the car sent in the last year or so by readers of this column after I announced – and then delayed and delayed – that I was working on the article. If you read both parts, you know that I interviewed a lot of people, beginning with body builder Ron Pellegrini and drivers Dale Pulde (three times!), Larry Arnold, and Bob Pickett, plus crew chief Mike Broome, crewmember Pat Galvin, and assorted others not quoted but who gave me information, which is why it took so long to pull it all together. There was conflicting info on some things, old memories turned bad, etc., etc., but I think that the columns tell about as full of a story as can be put together short of interviewing Thompson himself.

The ever-helpful and generous Steve Reyes, who shot the U.S. Marines Grand Am burnout at Orange County Int’l Raceway that I used here last week, sent me a ton of stuff. Reyes, the top lensman of the era, shot the original photo layouts for Revell of the yellow and blue Grand Ams for its model-box art and hero cards. I ended up using seven of them, which you can see in the gallery at right that covers the car through the Butch Maas-Pulde years (1973-74), including its Winternationals debut, and features great shots of the car in my favorite red scheme.

As pretty as the car was in red, it certainly didn’t start out that way. It debuted in gray primer at Lions Drag Strip’s Last Drag Race in December 1972. Lions historian Don Gillespie sent the wonderful pan-blur of Pulde smokin’ it through a burnout in front of Lions’ fabled stands, and Bob Snyder sent the image below, showing the unpainted car in the pit area.

 


 

 Larry Solger sent copies of his photos from the car’s 1973 Pomona debut, which are shown above and below. He was a student at Washington State University at the time, vacationing in Northern California. He hopped a PSA special ($20 round trip – remember those days?) from Oakland to Ontario, then took a bus to Pomona and hitched a ride to the fairgrounds.

What really jumped out at me about the photo above (other than a close-up of the car’s nose) was that he obviously snapped the pic at the same time that the PR photo at right, showing Maas, far right, and crew chief Mike Broome with a couple of young ladies, was being taken. Weird coincidence!
 

 
 


Speaking of Broome, here's one of the hero cards. He's flanked by Maas and Thompson.


As I noted in the story, the Grand Am was star-crossed at times. Prolific Insider contributor “Chicago Jon” Hoffman has Exhibit A, which shows the car looking worse for wear after a “wicked-bad” fire at Byron Dragway.

Tom Nagy sent along this shiny pic of the car taken in the pits at the 1973 U.S. Nationals.


Tom Derry shared this pit pic of the car in its black paint scheme, which ran from February through July 1974.

 

 Before the Grand Am was lovingly restored and re-created by Army Armstrong, it was looking pretty woeful in the shot above, taken by Ralph Reiter in late 2009 outside of the Thompson Motorsports shop in Eugene, Ore. Terry Knickerbocker also took shots of the chassis and got info from Pat Blair, a fabricator at the shop, specifically about the mismatched chassis (right), which explains some things.

“Pat pointed out to me that the front independent suspension was done by an engineer on a Formula 5000 road racer,” he wrote. “Pat thinks it was the first of its kind done on a Funny Car.  The chassis and body were not originally one race car. The chassis is believed to be from Mickey's earlier Maverick Funny Car and still has a Ford motor plate in it because the Maverick was Ford-powered. The body had been in the raised position for about 18 years because the roll cage did not fit under the roof line of the Grand Am.”

Below is Benoit Pigeon’s shot of the restored car as it appeared at Maple Grove Raceway’s 50th anniversary celebration late last year.
 

 
 

 



1970s Funny Car nut Mark Gredzinski, whose fine artwork and model-making have been featured here, sent his still-unfinished Revelleader painting, rendered in gouache. “I'm doing another in oils that is halfway and will eventually do what I hope will be the world’s most accurate scale model of the car down to the last detail,” he added. “So little time to do all I want to do, alas.”


And, finally, there's this: “Did you know before they did the Grand Am, they thought of using a Torino?” artist John Bell quizzed me via email. “I did this sketch for MT to present to Ford. It didn't pan out, and he moved on to the Grand Am.” I wasn’t biting. Well, much. He actually did the what-if sketch not long ago but thought I would enjoy it.

Bell, whose work also has appeared here, learned how to draw cars from the master, Kenny Youngblood. “I was writing Youngblood letters asking him to teach me how to 'make cars look shiny' when I was 12 years old! He was my idol. It was amazing to get big manila envelopes in the mail with his sketches and explanations. It really lifted my spirits, not to mention my skill level. I still have those letters. I had written him so often that one afternoon (I'm living in New Jersey at the time), we get a phone call. My mom yells to me, ‘It's for you! Someone calling collect.' It's Kenny on the other end! I nearly tipped over. He ran up our phone bill a bit, so I needed to use my allowance to cover it. I ended up meeting him years later when I was in school in LA. I reminded him of those 'pen-pal' days.”

 


So, that's it (so far). Thanks so much to everyone who contributed with memories, words, or photos to this series of articles. And here I thought I was the only one enamored of this car ...

It's Winternationals weekend, so you know where I am. Wish you were here!
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