John Farkonas, left, with Austin Coil, center, and Pat Minick at the Chi-Town Hustler reunion in 2011. (Dennis Mothershead photo)
His was the first surname listed on the side of one of the sport’s most iconic Funny Cars, and the passing of Chi-Town Hustler co-founder John Farkonas in late August is just the latest in a series of losses that the sport has endured the last several years as its legendary founders and pioneers begin to succumb to the ravages of time.
Although it was his car that began the car’s historic reign, Farkonas ultimately was not the most famous of the trio that made Farkonas, Coil & Minick drag racing’s melodic answer to Tinker to Evers to Chance, but he certainly made his impact on his more famous partners, tuner extraordinaire Austin Coil and talented wheelman Pat Minick. Farkonas earned degrees in mechanical and industrial engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology and was an engineer for Union Carbide/Viskase for many years, and he applied his learnings and knowledge to racing.
Farkonas and Minick were both Mopar guys when they met in the late 1950s and first partnered in the early 1960s, with Minick wheeling several of Farkonas’ cars, starting with a ’56 Chrysler 300. In 1962, they went Super Stock racing, winning 31 of 33 events they entered. In 1964, they got backing from Norm Kraus’ Grand Spaulding Dodge dealership with a car that was known as the Hustler (not yet with the Chi-Town prefix) and, finally, a blown-nitro altered-wheelbase ’65 Plymouth.
Farkonas and Minick got their clutches done at E&R Automotive, on Chicago’s north side, where Coil was also a customer, struggling to race a 426 Hemi-powered Super Stocker on an auto-dealer mechanic’s wage. Farkonas and Minick were in need of a good wrench, and Coil was in need of some deeper pockets, so they formed a partnership during the winter of 1966 and decided to go Funny Car racing in 1967. The trio built a tube-chassis ’67 Barracuda flip-top Funny Car in the garage of Farkonas’ mother that was the first Chi-Town Hustler (Minick had come up with the idea of branding the car as being from Chicago a year earlier, but it didn’t go onto the car until 1967).
Farkonas designed all the chassis for the early Chi-Town Hustlers, from the 1967 Barracuda (above) to their offset-driver Charger in 1969 (below).
Farkonas designed the early cars, most notably their offset chassis for the 1969 season. While most of the Funny Cars by this time had the engine and driver centered in the chassis, the ’69 Hustler had a homemade frame with the driver shifted to the left, primarily to allow the body to sit lower but also to counteract the engine’s rotational force on the chassis.
Although Farkonas stopped traveling with the team after the 1969 season as he devoted time to his family, he remained a mostly silent partner on the team throughout its match race glory days of the 1970s and the NHRA championship years. The National Dragster photo archives has a thick file for the Hustler, but there’s not a single photo of Farkonas in it.
Minick retired as the team driver early in 1971, also to spend more time with his family, and also remained with the team, booking the car and lining up sponsors, so Coil soldiered on alone on the road with different pilots. They raced extensively through the 1970s and early 1980s with a variety of drivers -- Clare Sanders, Ron Colson, Denny Savage, Russell Long, Pete Williams, and, beginning in 1981, Frank Hawley -- mostly on the match race and UDRA circuits, but also at some NHRA national events.
That all changed in 1982 when the team traveled to Pomona for the Winternationals, qualified No. 1 with a 5.86, and reached the semifinals, giving it the capital to go to the Gatornationals, which it won. The team never looked back and won the season championship in 1982 and 1983, then had a winless 1984 season and split up. Wayne Minick, Pat’s son, took over the car and made infrequent national event appearances while keeping the famed name alive on the dwindling match race trail and later turned the car over to his son, Mike, who campaigns it as a Nostalgia Funny Car. Coil, of course, went on to great fame and success as crew chief for and architect of John Force’s two-decade domination of the class.
I spoke to both Coil and Minick this week to get their memories of their former partner. Both had not been in constant contact with their old friend, but both had fond memories of their time together and his brilliance.
“John was a really smart guy and very adamant that if you couldn’t back up your theories with science and physics, it probably doesn’t work that way,” said Coil. “He was one of the smartest men I have known. In the 1960s, he did some longhand formulas for figuring out centrifugal force and other things that today are a piece of cake with a computer program, but I continued to use those equations throughout my career at Force Racing. When we finally got a $50,000 pressure-plate dyno, it turned out that Farkonas’ formulas were just about dead on.
“One of my greatest memories of John was sitting in a bar somewhere talking about chassis flex; he got a box of toothpicks and some Scotch tape and made a model to demonstrate where putting the critical tubing made all the difference in the world.
Minick, left, and Coil, right, shared the Great Lakes Dragaway winner's circle with "Broadway Bob" Metzler, circa 1969.
“He and I made the decisions on the car through 1969, but then he got married at the end of that year, and he didn’t come around much,” explained Coil. “We would still talk pretty regularly, and if I had a question that had a mathematical answer, he’d know how to solve it, but I don’t think I saw much of John from probably the mid-1970s on. He still owned a big chunk of the team, but he never came around. I don’t think I saw him again until 1997, when we were all inducted into the [International Drag Racing Hall of Fame], then not again until we had a reunion in Moline, Ill., in 2011. It’s a shame we didn’t remain closer.”
Minick echoed Coil’s appreciation of Farkonas’ mental acuity. “He was one of the brightest people I ever met. We were both big Chrysler guys back in the day, but he was the one who knew why the Hemi engine was better than the wedge, and he taught me that,” Minick remembered. “We both had cars then, but he couldn’t drive very well and I could, so I became his driver. The Super Stock cars of that era were the kingpins. I also had a fuel dragster that I drove at the time, but I noticed that when I’d come down the return road with the dragster, I’d get a few claps, but the Super Stocker had people falling out of the stands.
“John was definitely the leader of the group. I can’t praise him enough. He bankrolled the whole thing, and we worked out of his garage. When the Funny Car era started, he designed and built our ’65 Plymouth, which was one of the quickest and fastest out there: 8.30s from a full-sized car.
“John built all of the cars I drove, and they were very successful. People call it match racing, but I don’t like that term much because some of those booked-in races were 16 cars, 32 cars, not just one on one. We’d race against the best cars in the country; if you weren’t a hitter, you didn’t get into the show. When we ran the UDRA circuit in 1967, we won 12 of the 14 events. I can lay all of this on the foundation that John Farkonas gave us. I’m proud to have known him.”
I’d learned of Farkonas’ passing the day I arrived in Indy, in an email from Wayne Minick, and just a few days later, we all learned of the passing of another big figure in our sport, Bob Brooks, on Friday, Aug. 29. He was 73. Although Brooks also had raced fuel cars in his youth, he was best known as the founder of Brooks Racing Components, which specialized in connecting rods, and Applied Friction Techniques (AFT), which helped revolutionize nitro clutches in the late 1980s. Although he wasn’t in the superstar realm of drag racing personalities, he was respected by those who knew the behind-the-scenes heroes and had already been selected to be honored at the 2014 NHRA Motorsports Museum California Hot Rod Reunion presented by Automobile Club of Southern California in October.
Brooks competed in Top Fuel in the early to mid-1960s, driving for, among others, John Bateman (Atlas Tool Special), Reath Automotive, Wilton & Doss, and Brooks & Rapp. While he was racing, he ran the piston department at Mickey Thompson Enterprises, and from that endeavor, he founded BRC in 1971 and AFT in 1986.
It was in the mid- to late 1980s that crew chiefs were beginning to experiment with the first lockup/multistage clutches, and Brooks formed a fruitful working relationship with Dale Armstrong, then crew chief for Kenny Bernstein’s Budweiser King Funny Car, and worked with Armstrong when he was crew chief for Don Prudhomme and Jerry Toliver as well as for Jim Dunn Racing. He also was instrumental in the success of topflight drivers such as Joe Amato and Dick LaHaie in their heyday.
Bob Brooks raced Top Fuel in the 1960s. (Above) The Brooks & Rapp AA/FD, near lane, took on Jim Ward in the Yeakel Plymouth entry. (Below) Brooks, right, had "a discussion" with Lions starter Larry Sutton. (Jere Alhadeff photo)
“When I first started working on the [lockup clutch], we were using an L&T pressure plate and adding just three [clutch] fingers, but as everyone started adding more fingers, we realized you couldn’t just release the bearing; you had to have something that moved the bearing, and Brooks had the cannon that could do that,” Armstrong recalled.
“He was a great racer; he could have run a car on his own,” he added, which is surely high praise. “Whenever I went anywhere [to a new team], I’d tell them how valuable he was and that he needed to come, too. Back then, there wasn’t a lot of this crew chief/co-crew chief like you see today, but he was a real good sounding board for me."
Brooks also developed one of the first fuel-system slide valves that is still used by several nitro teams.
“If we came up with something and needed it done fast and his company could do it, he would,” said Armstrong. “We’d be sitting around and come up with an idea, and he’d jump right on it, like the slide valve and the fuel regulator. With that deal, we were just sitting around having lunch one day, and I said we need something that, as the engine is coming down and we’re losing fuel pressure, we need something like a variable orifice that will keep the pressure up. Don Jackson, who worked for Bob, came up with the prototype for the slide valve, and Brooks put it into production. All of his stuff was so nice.
“He loved to race, and he was fun to race with, too. I remember when we were in Houston [in 1999, with Prudhomme’s team and driver Larry Dixon], it was the night run, Friday I think, and it was cooling off, so I set the clutch up from older records and put a half-pound in the tires, which is what we used to do back then to get through tire shake. Brooks came walking up through the line, telling everyone we were going to set the record. I thought we had it set up for a nice run but not the record, but it went out there and ran 4.48 for the record. I about fell over. He just knew from the setup we had in it and the way the track looked what was going to happen.”
From left, Kenny Bernstein, Dale Armstrong, and Brooks (minus uniform!) shared the winner's circle in Houston in 1996.
Brooks with Dick and Kim LaHaie in 1986; they were one of AFT's earliest customers.
Even though he was still servicing many customers, Brooks was proud to be part of the Budweiser King team’s success and even asked to have an official crew uniform, much to Armstrong’s chagrin.
“I asked him, ‘Are you sure you want to wear that? You’re going to take a lot of flak from your other customers out there.’ He didn’t care; he just wanted to wear the Budweiser colors. And, of course, he did take a lot of flak and eventually just trimmed back to wearing a red Budweiser sweater or a polo.”
Armstrong and Brooks still talked weekly; “I really liked Bob,” he said, “and I’ll miss him.”
Former NHRA Top Fuel champ LaHaie was another close friend of Brooks' -- he and wife Claudia often vacationed with Brooks and his wife, Gail – and he, too, was saddened by the passing.
LaHaie met Brooks in the 1970s when he was a customer of (and sponsored by) BRC; the two were kindred spirits.
“He was a great friend. It’s hard to explain how a friendship starts, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately,” he said. “We had mutual friends, but no one really introduced us; we were just drawn to one another, and it turned into a lifelong friendship. You don’t get too many of those in your life. It’s sad to realize I won’t see him anymore.
“I ran the first clutch he ever made – it was a spring-style like they use in Alcohol Dragster – at an NHRA race in Tulsa [Okla.] in 1986. I said bring your clutch and everything we’ll need and bring plenty of it because I’m going to turn that thing into a potato chip every time it goes down the racetrack. Lo and behold, it was a nice clutch, and I won the championship the next year with one of his centrifugal clutches.
“We used to argue night and day about how to do this or do that, and he was always damned determined to make sure I wasn’t right. One time, back before he had AFT, I was at Indy and had used up all my clutch parts, and [daughter] Kim was stoning down a disc surface, and Bob told me I should just go buy another clutch from Hays. I didn’t have the money, but I thought we’d be OK. We lost, and Bob came over and said, ‘See? I was right again! I should have tied you down and put a new clutch in there.’
“We were serious about our racing, but we had fun – a lot of fun. Robert Goodwin -- who worked with Bob at BRC – and I always used to make fun of Bob. We used to say there were three lines of communication in drag racing: telegram, telephone, and tell-a-Bob. If you wanted anyone to know anything, just tell Bob. AFT was the center for gossip. There was never a dull moment with Bob around.
“And Bob was always trying to come up with a new way to make the wheel round. Robert and I used to joke that the initials AFT – which stood for Applied Friction Techniques – had to stand for something else. Bob was one of those guys always looking for the trick of the week, so we came up with ‘Another [Friggin’] Trick.’ “
With LaHaie, right, as his crew chief, Larry Dixon won more than 25 races, including the U.S. Nationals twice for car owner Don Prudhomme, left.
Brooks was also very instrumental in getting LaHaie hired to work on Prudhomme’s Dixon-driven dragster beginning in 2000, a union that led to back-to-back championships (2002-03). “I was working for Doug Herbert then, and Brooks was working with Armstrong over at ‘Snake’s,’ but they were going to work on Prudhomme’s Funny Car,” he recalled. “Brooks said I at least needed to talk to Prudhomme about it, so I went over and talked to ‘Snake’ and told him I didn’t think it would work because I never liked him; he just rolled his eyes and said, ‘I never wanted to go to dinner with you, either.’
"We went our separate ways, but later that season [after a falling-out with Herbert], I went to work for them at Reading, just to watch the car run. On Monday, I asked them to change the car to run it my way: less nitro, some more compression, and my clutch settings, and the car went right down the track with really good numbers. ‘Snake’ got the crew guys together and told them, ‘This is going to be short and to the point, and I want you to listen very closely to what I’m saying. If Dick LaHaie says tomorrow is Easter, start coloring the eggs.’ We had a helluva run together, and I owe a lot of that to Bob.”
Tom “the Mongoose” McEwen, who knew Brooks since they were kids, growing up in the Long Beach/Bixby Knolls, Calif., area and later belonging to the same car club, the Marron Avenue Marauders, for the street on which McEwen lived, remembered his friend.
“Bob was always a racer and an innovator; he always liked to build stuff, even back then,” recalled McEwen. “He loved to innovate; he and Armstrong were both like that. He was smart and always fun to be around, even to the very end when he wasn’t doing so well.”
Each Wednesday, Brooks, McEwen, Jim Brissette, Bud Rasner, and a cast of other famed names from drag racing’s past would get together to have lunch (Armstrong used to attend when he lived closer). They met again, minus Brooks, two days ago, at the In-N-Out Burger in Tustin, Calif., in honor of their friend.
I hate that lately this column has become a parade of passing heroes, but I'm honored to be able to give them a fond farewell. They deserve that and much more.
I have to admit, the 60th anniversary Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals lived up to its billing for this reporter. While some people might have gone there to see the dramatic conclusion to the Mello Yello regular season and the histrionics that go with victory at the Big Go, I know there were people there who went primarily to see the special nostalgia showcases involving Don Garlits, Don Prudhomme, Tom McEwen, Shirley Muldowney, Jim Nicoll, Bob Glidden, Kenny Bernstein, and Tony Schumacher.
Me, I definitely went for both, and as exciting as the on-track racing was, I was really pumped up for the shows, and judging by the amazing (and humbling) number of warm welcomes I got from fellow members of the audience, the Insider Nation definitely went to watch, too.
There were six shows in all over three days – “Snake” and “Mongoose” talking about the 1978 Funny Car final; Prudhomme and Nicoll reliving the wild 1970 Top Fuel final; Muldowney talking about her Indy experiences; Bernstein’s 1983 Indy/Big Bud Shootout double; Garlits, Glidden, and Schumacher (“Indy’s Winningest Drivers”); and Garlits talking about his 1967 victory and subsequent starting-line shave – and I somehow was able to wedge in five of the six (missing only Bernstein) between my normal race responsibilities. NHRA handed out hard-card souvenirs to attendees at each show, and by weekend’s end, a lot of folks had six hanging from their lanyards. The shows were all well-attended, expertly emceed by Bob Frey, and played before respectful and rapt audiences.
Even though I’ve heard most of the stories either firsthand from the subject (and, in the case of “Snake”-“Mongoose,” many times in the last two years thanks to the movie), I still wanted to hear them again, straight from their mouths. We all know that a lot of these heroes are well into their 70s and beyond, and I don’t know how many more times they’ll tell them. It’s my understanding that at some point, a video or videos will be released from these shows, so I won’t go into great detail here. Here are some highlights from a trio of the shows.
I had interviewed Nicoll a couple of years ago for this column (Superman Lives) to share his story about the unforgettable 1970 final that ended with his car sawed in two by an exploding clutch and an overwrought Prudhomme contemplating quitting the sport on national TV, but this was the first time I got to meet Nicoll in person. As my story back then related, he earned his “Superman” nickname from Steve Gibbs after whipping four guys in a bar fight in Irwindale and not, as widely believed, for surviving a bunch of hairy accidents, but he still looks as if he could handle himself pretty well.
Nicoll seemed a bit surprised by the love showered on him (and the long line for autographs) while “Snake” was his usual cool self, leaning back in his chair casually answering questions and firing off quip after quip and remarking on Nicoll’s still-obvious badassness. (And we finally got the answer to how Nicoll pronounces his last name; the Wide World of Sports coverage pronounced it “nickel” while I’ve always known it as sounding like “Nicole”; it is “Nicole,” though he admits some of his friends call him “Nickel.” Glad we cleared that up!)
The show included the requisite footage of the final, and I’ve always thought that it looked as if Nicoll was ahead in the shot that showed them approaching the lights. The head-on angle of the explosion doesn’t make things clear, and, of course, both guys still believe they won it.
“People tell me he was ahead; he still thinks he was ahead,” said Prudhomme, jerking a thumb in Nicoll’s direction. “I got the footage and stop-framed it. I was half a spoke ahead.”
Although a crash like Nicoll’s today would certainly elicit raised eyebrows and hand-wringing, today’s safety equipment and car construction is so good, but it wasn’t always the case then. so Prudhomme's "I think I'm gonna quit" reaction to seeing Nicoll's crash was understandable. “In those days, if you saw someone crash and go over the guardrail, it was over; they’re dead,” said Prudhomme plainly. “We had lost a lot of guys in those cars; they were extremely dangerous. That’s one of the reasons I was so upset.”
Nicoll was running a Crowerglide – not many in Top Fuel were at the time; Prudhomme was running a traditional Schiefer pedal clutch – and Nicoll said it was an improperly heat-treated clutch stand that failed and led to the explosion.
Don Prudhomme, left, and Jim Nicoll; both still "super" after all these years
(Nicoll also received well-deserved credit from Frey for developing the dual-wall Funny Car headers that have saved the bacon of many a racer by keeping the hotter inner pipes shielded from oil. After a bad fire in Gainesville in 1973, Nicoll remembered back to his Navy days the sleeved hot-water pipes that ran next to his bunk and prevented sailors from getting burned.)
Both drove front- and rear-engine dragsters and Funny Cars, and Frey asked which they liked best. Even though they were, as noted by Prudhomme, dangerous, both voted for the slingshot.
“The front-engined dragster, without a doubt, was the most thrilling, most fun thing you could ever possibly have,” said Prudhomme. “The engine was right in front of you; you could see everything – the exhaust pipes, the blower. There were no starter motors or any of that jazz. The way you started them was push-start. A car or truck would be behind you, you’d get going, let the clutch out, feed a little fuel, shut it off, and hit the starter switch, and it would go bahhhh-bup-bup-bup and pull away and then start idling. It was a real turn-me-on-er. The girls fell out of the stands. It was pretty cool; I gotta tell you.”
(The magic of those words – hearing explained what was a simple and regular procedure performed over and over again – comes from the speaker, and to hear how the great “Snake” remembers it some 40 years ago, those are the reasons I go to these things.)
Also of note was the re-created 1970 Nicoll Top Fueler, built by Don Ross Fabricating of Dallas for Gage Prichard, which was on hand. Nicoll praised its accuracy. Displayed along with the exquisite dragster was the original roll cage, which had been found recently in the Dallas area and – get this – had been being used for the last 10 years as a child’s swing. Someone had found it behind the T-Bar chassis shop in Dallas, where Nicoll had dropped off the remains, and repurposed it. It was recently discovered and then purchased to use as a complimentary display piece.
The whole story of the 1978 Indy Funny Car final has been told so many times – and obviously was the centerpiece around which the Snake & Mongoose movie was penned – but it’s still cool to hear the principals discuss it. The death of McEwen’s son, Jamie, after a brave battle with leukemia and his request that his dad go to the race and beat “the Snake” (even though Jamie and Prudhomme were real pals) and the fact that he not only won the biggest race of his career, but also finally beat Prudhomme to do it is just so storybook that if it had been only been dreamed up by Hollywood scriptwriters, we might all rolling our eyes, but it really happened.
So many things had to go right for McEwen to win the race. Prudhomme was quicker than everyone (and especially McEwen) there, running 5.97 and 6.04 in the first two rounds while McEwen had gone just 6.16 and 6.18. Then Ron Colson, driving for Roland Leong, crossed the centerline on a second-round bye run (after Bernstein broke), giving McEwen a bye in the semifinals, which he used as a test run to experiment with a new tune-up that he knew he’d need to beat “the Snake” in the final.
“We were always looking for some kind of magic like [Prudhomme] always seemed to have in his car,” he explained. “We had to try something.” With a free pass, they switched from a 4.10 gear to a 4.30 hoping to drop the e.t. five- or six-hundredths. The time they tried it previously, the car had smoked the tires, but this time, it hooked great on the launch – in the left lane where he knew that right-lane-favoring Prudhomme would put him -- and he shut it off to a 7.12 coasting pass.
Prudhomme, meanwhile, ran a 6.05 on his semifinal pass to defeat "Lil’ John" Lombardo, and no one expected him to lose the final. His car, the Army Arrow, was that good and that consistent all weekend, so when he hazed the tires 100 feet into the run and McEwen went sailing by to win, 6.05 to 6.33, the place went nuts.
“I thought we were going to win it,” Prudhomme admitted. “We had the best lane; we had it all. The Tree came down, and I thought my timing was good, but it just smoked the tires, and to this day, I don’t know why it did. I really don’t. I was amazed. Shocked. It was just meant to be. I can honestly say that’s the only time I’ve lost a race that I was OK with it afterwards.”
“He hazed the tires, and that was the little bit of help I needed,” said McEwen. “It was very emotional. I was sad; he was sad, but I think he was sad because he lost,” he added with a laugh.
Tom McEwen. left, and Prudhomme; still pals, still feuding
Frey then bravely asked the question that some may have been thinking: Did Prudhomme let McEwen win that final?
“Hell no,” Prudhomme said emphatically, then magnanimously added, “He won it fair and square, and, I’ll tell you, even if I hadn’t smoked the tires, I don’t know if we would have beaten him anyhow. He made probably the best run of his career.”
Prudhomme had an interesting analogy about his relationship with McEwen and the relatively short (considering the span of their careers) Wildlife Racing partnership and the Mattel deal that made “Snake and Mongoose” a household phrase for millions of families.
“I won 40-something  national events [with NHRA] as a driver and a total of maybe 120 national events [I assume this is referring to his AHRA, IHRA, and NHRA-owner wins] and set all kinds of records and did everything there was to do, but the thing I’m most known for is the three years we were together,” he said. “It’s kind of like a band having a really hit song and being known [mostly] for that.”
That comment led to some spiritedly funny back-and-forth, with Prudhomme talking about all the years that his winning “carried” the sponsorship and McEwen taking credit for getting the Mattel deal [“I was the leader of the band!”], that ended with Prudhomme acknowledging that they blamed one another when the Mattel deal ended, Prudhomme blaming McEwen for not winning more races and McEwen blaming the race-focused Prudhomme for not making more personal appearances.
Truly the highlight of the six shows was Garlits talking about his experiences at the 1967 event. It’s a story well-known and told by now, of how Garlits was in one of the worst droughts of his career, had failed to qualify at either the Winternationals or Springnationals earlier in the year, and hadn’t yet run in the sixes as many of his peers had. Sometime that summer, he vowed not to shave until he ran in the sixes, which he did in winning the final round against James Warren, then towed back to the starting line, where he shaved his beard (at least part of it). Here’s how Garlits tells the story years later.
Garlits had been struggling because his current car was worn out. The car he was running was Swamp Rat VIII, which was rebranded as Swamp Rat X after it was fronthalved. He’d moved from Florida to Detroit to be closer to the manufacturers and the racing action and desperately needed a new car. Even before qualifying was over at the Springnationals, Garlits realized he needed to build a new car and started packing up.
“We started out the gate, and Tom McEwen and Connie Kalitta came over and said, ‘Where are you going? You’re not qualified.’ I told them I was going home to build a new car. McEwen had a big laugh and made some remark, and Kalitta said, ‘Don’t upset him; there’s no telling what he might do.’ Kalitta knew me; we’ve been friends since we were 17 years old. On the way home, I drew up the plans and the schedule. We’d work 20 hours a day, sleep four hours a night, my wife is going to cook four meals a day at even intervals and bring them to the shop. We had a race in Muncie, Ind., with the Hawaiian the next Saturday, and I wasn’t one to back out of a race. We got it done, but we never had a chance to shave, which is how the beards got started.”
Even with the new car, Swamp Rat XI (which was on hand this year), Garlits was in deep with the tough field at the 1967 Nationals.
“I was definitely the underdog; I didn’t have much of a chance,” he admitted. “I was testing Goodyear tires, and they just weren’t as good yet as the M&Hs. I qualified 23rd and told Goodyear I couldn’t do anything more with their tires, so they told me. ‘Go over and get some M&Hs; we’ll buy them for you.’ I went over Monday morning to Marvin’s [Rifchin's] truck, and he told me, ‘I don’t have any left, but James Warren just bought a set; he may sell you his take-offs.’ I went over to see James, and he said, ‘Just take the new ones; you’ll only be in for a couple of rounds, and they need a couple of break-in runs anyway.’
“With every round I went, I would go over and ask James if he wanted his new tires back, and he’d say, 'No, I’m running 6.80s and 6.90s; I’m fine,’ because I was still in the sevens because the Goodyears had given me so much trouble, and I was afraid to stand on it too much. I went over before the final round and said, ‘James, this is the final, this is for the money, do you want your tires back?’ He said, ‘Don, I just ran 6.85 and you ran 7.01; I think I have the best tires.’ I just said, ‘OK,’ and we ran, and, of course, I ran 6.77. The tires were really good.”
Garlits got standing ovations both before and after the show, the only legend to be received that way. Yes, he might not still race there anymore and Schumacher now has more Top Fuel wins there, but Indy still belongs to “Big Daddy.”
The show didn’t end there for Garlits; an hour or so later, he pulled Swamp Rat XI into the winner’s circle beneath Parks Tower, and, re-creating that great 1967 moment, shaved the beard he had started growing this summer in anticipation of the show. It was another amazing moment, and if you closed your eyes just enough, you could image that it was, once again, 1967. Ah, the magic of Indy.
As I mentioned, Frey did an outstanding job of running the show, asking interesting questions and milking extra details from the participants, but he might not have had the best question. Fans got to ask questions after each show, and at the conclusion of “Indy’s Most Winningest” – in which Garlits had talked about his dream of running 200 mph in his battery-powered dragster – it was Schumacher who posited the following to Garlits: “Say you pushed the pedal down on that electric car and get to the finish, and like the DeLorean, you go back to the future. What year do you want to land in?”
Garlits had no problem providing an answer that I’m sure many of you reading would agree with.
“1975. I think that was the best year for drag racing; the cars ran 250 mph and ran 5.70s with nice side-by-side races. There was no taking the cars apart between rounds; we could return in probably 25 minutes. And anyone who wanted to do it could do it; it didn’t take millions of dollars. If it was still like that, I’d be racing again.”
Yours truly, meeting Raymond Godman and Preston Davis; an honor.
Yes, those were the days, and it was great to revisit them in Indy with these shows. There are going to be more of these types of presentations this year at the World Finals, which will be celebrating its 50th anniversary. The National Dragster staff also is finishing up our history of the World Finals book (similar to the great Winternationals book we made a few years ago), complete with year-by-year reaps, photos, and interesting features. You’ll be able to buy it at the event or online. I’ll have more details later.
As I mentioned earlier, it was great to meet and talk with so many of the readers of this column. It’s truly flattering that I couldn’t go more than an hour or two walking around the hallowed grounds without someone stopping me to talk about the column. It was especially thrilling to sit down and talk in person to Raymond Godman and Preston Davis, whom I’d interviewed two weeks ago for a story on their legendary Tennessee Bo-Weevil entries. They were as warm and gracious in person as they had been on the phone, and it was my honor and privilege to shake their hands for all they’ve done for the sport.
As great as the U.S. Nationals was this year, it was also a bit sad as we learned just before the race of the passing of John Farkonas, one third of the famed Farkonas-Coil-Minick Chi-Town Hustler team, and during the event of the loss of Bob Brooks, a well-known connecting-rod and fuel-clutch guru. I’ll share their stories, and the thoughts of those who knew them, next Friday.
Thank for stopping by, and, as always, thanks for the support. love, and contributions.
If this is Friday, then I must be in Indy, enjoying my 32nd straight trip to the Big Go. Wish you were here. You may well be. Here’s Part 2 of Tom Kasch’s cache of Indy pics, these focusing on Top Fuel and other classes, from the 1960s and early 1970s.
As I’ve mentioned many times in the past, as great as the photos are that came from the lenses of the pro photographers standing at the guardwalls or beyond and how those experts preserved the moments with which we’ve all become familiar, it’s a kick to see how the mere mortals among us viewed the same cars from their less-advantageous but familiar-to-us view from the grandstands and to share their photos, most of which have never been published, and to pretend that we were in their seat to see the magic.
This is an interesting view of Indianapolis Raceway Park, as it was known then, from outside the fence, looking downtrack past the famed Hurst bridge at the 1970 event.
Forget the composing of the image, that its subject is so far out of center as to almost be out of the frame, but it’s the car and the scene that counts here. The car is Jack Chrisman’s wild nitro-burning, supercharged Chrisman’s Comet at the 1965 Nationals, where the car — one of the earliest Funny cars — ran in the B/Fuel dragster class. Chrisman had run the car in exhibitions at the event the previous year where he ran mid-10s at 150 mph while smoking the tires. The crowd was mesmerized. When he came back the next year, he was running nines and everyone wanted to see it, but he red-lighted in round one to Don Gay. Check out the folks sitting in what was the photographer’s area as if they were at a picnic. Wild.
More wild doorslammers from the 1965 event: Hayden Proffitt, far lane, in his national speed record-setting (135.64 mph) B/A Comet vs. Don Gay.
“Ohio George” Montgomery, near lane, owned the Nationals in its first decade, winning three times. In this 1965 battle, Montgomery’s famed Willys is facing off with future Pro Stock great “Dyno Don” Nicholson’s B/A Comet.
Here’s another shot of Montgomery at Indy in 1970, when he was the defending event champ after winning his fourth Nationals crown in 1969. This is his Malco Gasser supercharged Mustang, running in BB/A with those famously monstrous rear wheelie wheels.
Don Garlits’ bid for a second Indy title (and second straight) didn’t go so well. He lost in round one of AA/FD class to Bobby Vodnik (who had famously beaten him in the 1963 Top Eliminator final) and after exacting revenge on Vodnik in the first round of Monday’s eight-car eliminations, he red-lighted to Tom Hoover in the semifinals. Hoover lost the final to Tommy Ivo, who then lost the runoff with class champ Don Prudhomme for overall honors.
Jimmy King and the King & Marshall team prepare their dragster for another run at the 1970 event, which ended for them with their car upside down after a huge wheelstand in round one.
Before he became a regular in the Funny Car circuit, Al Bergler fielded modified coupes and then this gas dragster, dubbed More Aggravation Too, at the 1970 event.
More from the 1970 event: Jack Ditmars’ spectacular Mini Brute Opel A/FC. This car tore up the competition at Midwest tracks that year.
Bill Jenkins won the first two events of 1970’s inaugural Pro Stock season — the Winternationals and Gatornationals — with his former Super Stock Camaro and qualified No. 2 at Indy that year but was shown the door in round one by his old buddy, Dave Strickler. Although “the Grump” won Super Stock at the 1967 Nationals, surprisingly he never won there in Pro Stock, as a driver or owner.
Mike Sullivan’s AA/Fuel Altered at the 1970 Nationals, back when the Awful-Awfuls ran in Comp eliminator.
“The Smilin’ Okie,” Jimmy Nix, didn’t have a lot to smile about at the 1970 event. He barely qualified in Top Fuel (No. 31) and was on the trailer after round one at the hands of Bob Murphy, Murphy lost in round two to Pete Robinson, who lost in the third frame to “the Snake.”
It’s doubtful that Top Fuel vet Gary Cochran will ever forget the 1971 Nationals. “Mr. C” wasn’t among the quick 32 to qualify but got into the show when Dennis Baca couldn’t make the first-round call. Cochran beat Stan Bowman in round one, then took a solo in the second round when future world champ Jim Walther couldn’t repair his mount after upsetting Don Prudhomme in the first stanza. He then beat an up-in-smoke Leland Kolb to reach the semifinals but red-lighted to Steve Carbone, setting the stage for the great Carbone vs. Don Garlits final-round burndown.
Carl Olson and partner Mike Kuhl had a pretty good weekend at Indy 1971 as well. Their new rear-engine Top Fueler was voted Best Appearing, they qualified No. 3, and reached the semifinals before falling to Garlits. Check out the spare engine in the open side trailer door, ready to be slid into place if needed.
The late, great Mickey Thompson was all smiles at Indy 1971 when Dale Pulde took his Pinto to the Funny Car final. Unfortunately for the team, they lost the money round in a ball of fire to Ed McCulloch.
Twin-engine Top Gas dragsters were all the rage in the early 1970s, but Rico Paris gets credit for having the first rear-engine twin-gas dragster at the 1971 Nationals. He didn’t qualify for the Indy field but did make the show at the sport’s last Top Gas event, the 1971 Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway, running a 7.46.
Bill Shrewsberry’s popular L.A. Dart wheelstander was part of the show at the 1971 event.
At the height of the Top Fuel wheel pants craze, there was no car (or driver) more colorful than the John “Tarzan” Austin-driven Hot Tuna of Greg Scheigert.
And, finally, here’s a great Indy scene setter, a sweet Top Fuel burnout with the backdrop of the old starting-line tower and the Hurst bridge. Those were the days!
That’s it for the selection of pics from Tom Kasch, but you can check out some of his other photos at the links below:
Several times each week, almost without fail, I and about 50 other folks get an email from Tom Kasch with a dozen or so photos attached. They’re all images he has taken in the past 50 years, mostly from tracks local to his Midwest base -- Indy; Columbus; Milan, Mich.; Marion, Ind. – but also from a foray west to the 1975 Winternationals.
Some fans may know Kasch’s name from the years that he not only competed in Super Stock and Stock eliminator with a variety of cars but also set national records. His story is a courageous one. He lost his right leg (and nearly his left) in an automobile accident in 1969 – he used his left leg to work the gas and used a hand control for braking -- yet he and his wife, Ruth, remained a visible and popular part of the racing scene until they stopped racing in 2004, and he obviously also spent a lot of the time he wasn’t driving perched in the grandstands with his eye to the viewfinder.
“Ruth and I went to Indy every year from 1962 to 2004, when we had to quit racing,” he explained. “We always took pictures at each race we raced at. I went to the University of Toledo for photo classes in 1973, and we wrote for Milan Dragway in ‘73-74, sending in stories to Drag News, National Dragster, and an Ohio paper The Crank. I have 7,000 pictures scanned on my PC.”
With the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals just around the corner, I thought I’d devote this Fan Fotos column to a collection of Indy images spanning the 1960s and 1970s. I’ll present them in two parts, with Funny Cars (obviously his favorite) today and Top Fuelers and other images next Friday (when I’ll actually be in Indy; lucky me). I harvested the pictures from the last 20 or so mailings he did, which was well in excess of 200 photos. I winnowed them down, removing some that were of less quality than the others to come up with a final group of about 40 images. Enjoy!
A couple of then and later photos of the Hawaiian doing a burnout in Indy. (Above) The 1971 Dodge Charger, with Bobby Rowe at the wheel, surprisingly failed to qualify.He had good company as Tom McEwen, Bruce Larson, and Leonard Hughes also failed to make the field. (Below) Norm Wilcox and the 1975-edition Monza, which fell in round two to Bob Pickett.
And a couple of similar photos of “the Mongoose,” Tom McEwen. (Above) McEwen with the Hot Wheels Duster in 1971; he didn’t qualify. (Below) McEwen -- and, to be honest, no hard-core drag fan -- will forget what happened at the 1978 U.S. Nationals with his English Leather Corvette; having just lost his son, Jamie, days before to leukemia, he beat longtime rival Don Prudhomme in the final.
Raymond Beadle qualified the yellow and blue Blue Max Arrow at the top of the field at the 1978 event with a stout 5.98 (only Don Prudhomme was also in the fives) but lost in the second round to Tom McEwen, 6.18 to 6.24.
Kasch also spent a lot of time roaming the pits. Here are the early Camaro floppers of Bruce Larson (above) and “the Professor,” Kelly Chadwick (below).
Here's Don Prudhomme’s Carefree Sugarless Gum 'Cuda at the 1973 race, the first time he won Funny Car at the Big Go. “Snake” had already won the race in Top Fuel three times (1965, ’69, and ’70) and made history as the first to win it in both nitro classes in 1973 with the first of four Indy Funny Car wins (also '74, '77, and '89).
John Mazmanian’s 'Cuda in the Funny Car pits at the 1970 event. According to DragList, “Big John” had five drivers that year: Danny Ongais, Pat Foster, Wendell Shipman, Arnie Behling, and his nephew Rich Siroonian. Based on the sideburns, that looks like Siroonian wrenching on the car, but reader Bill McLauchlan tells me that Behling was at the wheel. "Behling drove this car for a short time in the summer of 1970 including Indy," he noted. "Qualified No. 3 at Indy with a 6.89 –- one of four Funny Cars qualified in the sixes (Leonard Hughes 6.80, Ramchargers 6.84, Arnie's 6.89 and Jay Howell in the Snake's Cuda at 6.99). Arnie banged the blower on a burnout in the first round. [Don] Schumacher's 7.0's outlasted them all." Note the upfront and rather center-mounted coil-over shocks.
Ed McCulloch, near lane, won Indy for the second straight year with his Revellution in 1982. This is from qualifying, running “Big John” Mazmanian's ‘Cuda with Danny Ongais at the wheel.
More pit stuff. Obviously, Connie Kalitta’s Mustang. Probably 1969. Not sure from the photo if the Boss 429 or the SOHC is between the framerails. but the valve covers sure look like the SOHC.
Here’s a bit of a rarity: Gerald Foster's King Cobra Mustang, which was based in Louisiana, at the 1972 event. Both Sidney Foster and Frank Huff drove the car that year, but the 433 permanent number tells me this was Huff at the wheel. They didn’t qualify.
Two from the 1973 race. (Above) Dale Emery in Jeg Coughlin Sr.’s Camaro Funny Car at the 1973 event. “The Snail” qualified in the No. 10 spot and lost to surprise No. 2 qualifier “Jungle Jim” Liberman in round one. (Below) Jim Paoli, “the Yankee Pack Rat,” just missed the Funny Car field, ranking 18th, one spot behind Raymond Beadle in Don Schumacher’s second machine.
“The Old Master,” Ed Pink, left, consulted with Gene Snow in the pits at the 1971 event. Snow qualified just No. 13 and lost in round one to defending event champ Don Schumacher.
Al Hanna’s Eastern Raider Pinto, 1972. Hanna defeated last week’s Insider feature subjects, Preston Davis and the Ray Godman-owned Tennessee Bo-Weevil, in round one before falling to eventual winner Ed McCulloch in round two.
Two shots from the 1977 event. (Above) I always liked this version of Tom Hoover’s always-pretty Showtime entries. The faux neon lettering is awesome. (Below) Larry Brown’s Okie Smoker Arrow. Neither machine could make the field.
Dale Pulde qualified Mickey Thompson’s one-off Grand Am in the No. 7 spot at the 1974 event before being upset in round one by Pat Foster. Later that year, Pulde set the national record with this car at 6.16 at the World Finals to beat Don Prudhomme and decide the world championship in favor of Shirl Greer.
Minneapolis’ Jerry Boldenow surprised a lot of folks at the 1976 event when he qualified Steve Gold’s Moby Dick Corvette Funny Car in the lofty No. 6 spot. No. 14 qualifier Tom McEwen harpooned his hopes in round one.
Phoenix-based John Luna called his Vega Funny Car the Luna Lander (after the early-1970s Apollo moon missions), but he couldn’t land in the Funny Car field at the 1974 event.
OK, that’s a whole slew of cool Funny Car pics. I’ll be back next week with some of Kasch’s Top Fuel and other interesting photos. Thanks to Tom for sharing!