I don’t remember which of our zany cast of characters here at National Dragster in the 1980s first labeled Top Fuel racer Earl Whiting “the likeable logger,” but whoever it was nailed it spot-on. The Washington state racer, who graduated from being a financial partner watching from the sidelines to a top-line driver in the sport’s quickest and fastest class, was one of the most friendly guys I’ve met in all my years here, and we lost him Tuesday of this week at age 72. Although Whiting had been out of the seat for decades, I'm proud to say that the nickname had remained, and probably not just in our drag racing circle. There aren’t many guys more friendly than he was.
In the early 1980s, Whiting owned Northwest Log Inc. of Hoquiam, Wash. (hoquiam is a Native-American word meaning "hungry for wood"), and he first partnered with Northwest tuning legend (and former driver) Gaines Markley and his driver, Rob Bruins, not long after Bruins won the 1979 NHRA Top Fuel championship.
They raced together like that until the 1982 NHRA Winternationals, where they failed to qualify. Bruins left the team, in part due to personal reasons and in part due to the team’s struggles, and was replaced by SoCal veteran Dwight Salisbury, who later that year won the Mile-High NHRA Nationals. The Whiting & Markley team, however, lost the handle on the tune-up, and by the 1984 Winternationals, it failed to even qualify and was running low on parts. Things looked bleak.
Sitting a few pit stalls down was another dejected team, the Danell brothers – driver Danny and Mike and Bill – former sand racing champions who had burst onto the Top Fuel scene in early 1983 with a stunning victory at the March Meet capped with a final-round upset of Shirley Muldowney and followed with a big win at OCIR’s Nitro Championships event in June. The brothers, who were California cotton, hay, and barley farmers, also had failed to make the cut for the 1984 season opener, and even though they had a stockpile of parts, they didn’t have the financial funding to go on tour.
Can you see where this is headed?
The two camps knew one another through mutual friend Larry Minor – against whom the Danells had raced on the sand and against whom Whiting had raced in boats – and before long, a partnership was struck, contingent on Danny Danell driving. Salisbury was regrettably let go. Markley stayed onboard, though the team was rebranded as Whiting & Danell and had former Kalitta tuner Ron Barrow and young Andy Woods on wrenches.
The efforts of the team were respected by their better-heeled and -experienced peers, including Joe Amato and Minor, who were frequent visitors to their pit area with advice and ideas. That’s how likeable Whiting was.
(Above) Earl Whiting went from team owner to driver and went on to finish in NHRA's top 10 and win two IHRA national events. (Below) This photo from the 1988 Supernationals reflects the disappointment of Whiting, second from right, after he failed to qualify, but Eddie Hill was forever grateful for Whiting's generosity.
Unfortunately for all, the logging business took a downturn in the early to mid-1980s, and before long, the car was parked, and when it did return in late 1985, Whiting was behind the wheel. He qualified in his debut at the 1985 World Finals and went on to race for four seasons, enjoying some backing from Valvoline for a short time (before it ended up on Amato’s car). Although Whiting never reached a final round on the NHRA ledger and finished a career-high 10th in 1987, he won two IHRA events – back to back – in 1989 and finished seventh there. From my records, that was his final season as a driver. I wish I knew why.
The one memory that sticks in my mind about Whiting and speaks volumes about his character is from the 1988 Supernationals in Houston. You all remember that race, right? No one had run a four in NHRA competition before that event, but by Sunday evening, Eddie Hill had set the national record at 4.990 and won the race with a stunning final-round 4.93. And he would have never done it without Whiting’s selfless help.
Hill had exploded superchargers on three straight qualifying passes, and broke and befuddled by the banging blowers, he announced in a press release prior to the final qualifying session that he was out of parts and packing it up to head home to Wichita Falls, Texas, to regroup and contemplate the rest of the season.
Several teams, including the Gwynn family, offered parts, but it was Whiting who supplied what many figured would be another sacrificial blower, and it was Whiting who sat on the bump spot of the field when Hill made his final attempt – and knocked Whiting out of the field. Hill, another of the most genial guys to ever step foot on the dragstrip, apologized to Whiting for the deed, but Whiting quickly quieted all of that. “It’s not your fault,” he told Hill. “I should have run quicker.”
That’s just the kind of guy Earl was, and not just at the dragstrip. I got to spend some time on the phone earlier this week with his wife of 52 years, Linda, who was there to see it all.
“No matter what he did, Earl was always very well-liked,” she said. “We’ve had lots of phone calls since we lost Earl, and there hasn’t been one person who had a derogatory thing to say about him, whether it was from the racing world or business world."
Considering the sometimes cutthroat nature of both endeavors, that's really saying something. Whiting at one time employed 150 employees and had 20 trucks rolling in his logging business, but when logging regulations began to strangle his business, he got out of that end of the business and founded Olympic Fiber to serve the pulp and paper industry, supplying the raw material for toilet paper and paper towels for the famed Quilted Northern brand.
Whiting retired from the business several years ago and enjoyed his retirement on two wheels, riding his Harley up and down the coast with Linda and a group called Desert Motorcycle Riders to escape the rainy Washington weather. He came infrequently to the drags – most recently a few years ago as a guest of TJ Zizzo – but never missed a show on TV and was still in love with the Top Fuel class, rooting especially for Larry Dixon, according to Linda. He was slowed after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease last summer but still remained a fan of the sport and enjoyed watching John Force’s antics.
Even though she admitted to being anxious when Earl began driving, Linda remembered, “Racing was a real family affair with us. The kids [daughters Cindi and Kristin and son Eric] would come with us to as many races as they could, and we had a great time. It was a neat time in our lives.”
The family will hold an open celebration of life for Earl on Aug. 13 at 2 p.m. at South Sound Manor in Tumwater, Wash.
We’re going to miss “the likeable logger.” RIP, Earl.
Last week’s announcement by the NHRA concerning Pro Stock rules changes targeted the concerns of many about the class, covering everything from technological relevance – i.e., no “factory hot rod” today has a carburetor – to fan appeal, and to me, certainly one of the most interesting parts of the rules changes concerned the reduction of wheelie-bar length.
You know me, I’m largely a nitro nut, but I fondly remember seeing Pro Stock in the early 1970s when these bad boys would rip the front tires off the ground not only on the launch but often at the 1-2 gear change (done manually, of course, with a clutch). I really miss seeing that. Full credit to today’s Pro Stock teams -- they’ve made their machines into precision instruments of acceleration, with no time for the nonsense of wasted motions like going up instead of forward. I’m not sure what the new wheelie-bar rule will mean when it’s introduced – along with EFI – in 2016, but I’m sure it won’t mean bumper-scraping wheelies. Still, I thought it might be fun to grab some photos from our 1970s Pro Stock archives to look at some fun wheels-up launches.
Of course, back in those early days of Pro Stock, not everyone even ran wheelie bars. Check out Mike Fons airing out the Rod Shop Challenger in Martin, Mich.
“The Grump,” Bill Jenkins, at the 1972 Winternationals. Doesn't look as if he has bars on in this shot, either. Actually, I found very few photos of Jenkins’ cars doing starting-line wheelies; maybe he had the “efficient” launch thing down well before his peers.
Here’s Jenkins’ Vega two years later, in Englishtown, with Larry Lombardo at the controls, picking ‘em up at the downtrack shift. Love those old-style wheelie bars.
Ditto for Wayne Gapp, rowing through the gears in Indy in 1972.
As with Jenkins’ cars, I didn’t find a whole lot of big-air launches by the vaunted Reher-Morrison-Shepherd Chevys, especially once the Texas terrors got it figured out. This is early in their Pro Stock career, in 1978 (note the 444 permanent number for Lee Shepherd. By year’s end, he was able to remove two of the fours – not a bad first full season.)
Ditto for Bob Glidden, shown launching in his famed Pinto at the 1972 World Finals at Ontario Motor Speedway -- typically not a lot of wasted motion, but nonetheless an aesthetically pleasing look.
“The Red-Light Bandit,” Bill Bagshaw, yanked the front tires at the 1972 March Meet in Bakersfield.
Great low-angle shot of Melvin Yow, driving the Duster of one of the class’ more “colorful” characters, Billy “the Kid” Stepp, at the 1974 Winternationals.
Thunder and fury as “Dyno Don” Nicholson wheeled his Maverick out of the gate at the 1970 Winternationals, the debut event for NHRA Pro Stock.
“The California Flash,” Butch Leal, flashed off the line at the 1972 Gatornationals.
Paul Blevins never made it to an NHRA Pro Stock final – he won four times in Modified and was the 1972 world champ – but his Pro Stockers always ran hard, as evidenced by this cool launch at the 1974 Le Grandnational in Canada.
And, of course, no article on Pro Stock wheelies would be complete without this photo of Herb McCandless going sky-high in his Dodge Demon against “the Grump” in the semifinals at the 1972 Summernationals. The wheelie bars broke, but McCandless still managed a 10.35 pass and came back later in the year to runner-up to Jenkins at the famed Tulsa PRO event.
It’s one thing to create a legacy doing something and quite another to create two legacies while doing two completely different things, but that’s how Doug Nash will be remembered. Fans of this column certainly will remember Nash for his incredible Bronco Buster Funny Car of the mid-1960s, and many others will remember him for the eponymous transmission units he developed after he left the driver’s seat. We lost Nash July 12 at the age of 73 after a battle with cancer.
Douglas Edwin Nash was born in Detroit, where he attended Garden City High School and developed his love of cars. By 1963, he had found himself behind the wheel of a new 289-equipped Ford Fairlane that ran out of the Dearborn, Mich.-based Bob Ford dealership. According to the book, Total Performers: Ford Drag Racing in the 1960s, the car ran in G/Stock and initially was developed as a test mule for high-performance Ford parts (the car was wrenched by Ernie MacEwan, who was the engine builder for Ford’s Experimental Vehicles Garage). It was not expected to win, built merely to test parts, yet the combination of driver, tuner, and some innovative parts, including a lengthy set of traction bars and some manifold swaps, soon made the car unbeatable, even when it was moved to C/Gas.
Nash’s skills got the attention of the Detroit suits and offered him a Mercury Comet in 1964. The car, which was one of five 289-equipped Comets that Lincoln-Mercury had built that year to show off the engine’s reliability by lapping Daytona Motor Speedway for 100,000 continuous miles at an average speed of 105 mph (and just one of 15 built by the factory that year), was soon converted into a B/FX entry dubbed the Cyclone. It, too, ran amok in its class, capturing several big wins for the marquee and further establishing Nash’s name.
As the FX class that begat Funny Cars began to grow in popularity, Nash jumped in with both feet with one of the sport’s most unusual and well-remembered entries, the Bronco Buster, built around a '66 Ford Bronco. The project, which was “loosely associated” with Ford, mated the unique and boxy body with — what else? — a 289 powerplant bolted into an aluminum chassis. He reportedly was offered one of Ford’s hot new 427 SOHC cammer engines but felt more comfortable with the high-winding 289, but he did have to trade in his favored four-speed transmission for a modified C4 automatic. According to charitable published reports, the car weighed just 1,700 pounds when it debuted in 1966, but there are rumors it weighed much less (around 1,400, with Nash aiming for the 1,200-pound area). Other than being O-ringed and honed and fitted with a cast-aluminum girdle, the 289-cid block was stock, yet it propelled Nash toward the 8.60s and, with the addition of a blower later that year, into the 8.30s at 180 mph. If not for the car’s erratic handling, it may well have gone much quicker.
Here are some good looks at the car, from a car feature shot by Chester Kirk for the February 1967 issue of Drag Strip.
Looking nothing like the swoopy cars of today — or even yesteryear — Nash's Bronco Buster cut an unusual silhouette.
The body was unique, too, in that it was in two parts, as shown, to ease maintenance. Someone somewhere along the line humorously wrote on the back of this photo, "Say, did we tell Doug we put new brakes on his car?"
There wasn't a whole lot to the chassis of the Bronco Buster, leading to its light weight.
This photo was the center spread for the February 1967 issue of Drag Strip and also used as an inset on the cover.
Nash and the Bronco Buster put it to Bob Sullivan's Pandemonium VI Camaro at Michigan's Motor City Dragway.
The Bronco Buster was a big draw. Why else would the promoters of the famed Super Stock Nationals pose this photo of Nash, right, handing in his pre-entry form for the event to "the Voice of Drag Racing," Jon Lundberg?
Nash’s ride soon became a top draw with match race promoters, but it was short-lived, killed off with a double-tap when NHRA outlawed both aluminum chassis and Jeep and pickup-type bodies the following year.
Nash hung up his driving suit and gloves and founded Doug Nash Equipment & Engineering, initially doing prototype engine work for Detroit, before he went on to design and build his now-famous four- and five-speed racing transmissions, known by their straight-cut spur gears and crash shifts. So famous did his transmissions become that General Motors eventually came calling, seeking to put the Doug Nash "4+3" transmission — a four-speed manual coupled to an automatic overdrive on the top with three gears — into its epic C4 Corvette from 1984 to 1988.
After retiring, Nash and his wife, Lesli Diane, traveled extensively in pursuit of vintage model trains and to fish. They retired to the Cayman Islands for several years before returning to the United States, and they settled in the Florida Keys, where they started a boat-rental business with Doug’s brother, Dan.
In addition to his wife and brother, Nash is survived by daughter Noelle, granddaughters Violet and Emmeline, sister Darlene, and a niece and nephew. In his continuing quest to help and benefit others, Doug donated his body to science.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the American Cancer Society or, due to his love of animals, to any local No-Kill Shelter.
Last week, I shared some of the interesting tidbits that I’ve gathered throughout the years, little random bits of flotsam and jetsam that otherwise would have just floated around on my hard drive. Those were from my notebook; today, we delve into my “quotebook.”
It’s one thing for me to tell you a story, but it’s infinitely more interesting to hear it from the source, and so I also stockpile interesting things I hear or read, again hoping that one day they’ll make their way into one of my columns, and, again, not having the patience to wait until that naturally occurs, I’m sharing some of them with you.
Drag racers can be a quotable bunch, and I won’t rehash any of the many memorable lines we’ve heard – such as Don Garlits’ classic "Retiring is easy; I've done it dozens of times” or Don Roberts' hilarious “After the third flip, I lost control” (well, OK, a little rehash) – but instead share some you may never have heard, quotes that I hope will entertain, amuse, and enlighten you. Let’s start with a couple from “Big Daddy” himself.
“Large Father” has had an amazing career filled with incredible moments – championships, race wins, broken barriers, crashes, rivalries, and more – that are seared into our memories, but I was surprised to read this: “People often ask me what was the greatest moment in all of my experiences during a half-century of racing. That’s like picking a favorite child. Every win and every experience was very special to me, from the first to the last. But if I had to pick one, it would have to be Oct. 20, 1987, when my record-breaking Swamp Rat XXX was enshrined in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., near Charles Lindbergh’s the Spirit of St. Louis and NASA’s first manned space capsule. There were no checkered flags or trophies that October day back in 1987, but it would be tough for me to imagine another racing moment better.”
It’s no secret that longtime rivals Garlits and Shirley Muldowney have traded more than their fair share of barbed comments – who could forget Muldowney on TV famously labeling Garlits a “marginal” driver prior to their 1982 Gatornationals final? – but I always sensed that beneath the very real emotions of their heated rivalry was deep respect, so I was not overly surprised to see this Garlits quote on the espnW site last year, talking about her: "She's the greatest woman race car driver on the planet. Now somebody may come along and do better -- and this is all categories of auto racing -- but don't hold your breath for it."
And here’s an interesting one from Muldowney, talking about the reception she received upon joining the Funny Car ranks in 1971. She clearly was popular with fans, but not so some of her male peers: “Oh, god, it was brutal. I thought they were going to commit suicide. All of the guys were awful except ‘Jungle Jim’ [Liberman]. He was the most gracious, and he would constantly tell me, ‘You drive like a man.’ And I thought that was the best compliment.”
Fame has its privileges and its pitfalls. In a 2005 Sports Illustrated
article on Don Prudhomme, “the Snake” talked about signing Hot Wheels cars for fans, as he had done for more than 30 years, and the weird aura of celebrity: “Signed one this morning, and the guy just about pissed all over himself. I sometimes feel like Mr. Spock at a Star Trek
Although Prudhomme came to great fame in the Greer-Black-Prudhomme fueler, tuned by legendary engine maestro Keith Black, he also was quite successful while driving for Dave Zeuschel and Kent Fuller before that – and, in fact, it was Fuller who recommended “the Snake” to Black for the new ride – but Prudhomme admitted once to me, “I had no idea anyone was even taking note of what I was doing. I didn’t really know anything. When Keith Black called, I didn’t even know who he was.”
No one in the sportswriting business will ever dispute that the late Jim Murray was the king of columnists, so when he wrote about Prudhomme in the Los Angeles Times
in 1976, I clipped it out and still love this great description: “Donald Ray Prudhomme makes more money doing less in a car than any automotive genius who ever lived. Not A.J. Foyt, not Henry Ford, Gustav Daimler or the inventor of the self-starter or chairman of the board of General Motors gets as much money out of the internal combustion engine as he does: $6,000 a second. By comparison, A.J. Foyt works the black gang in the hold of a ship for his money, Franco Harris is a steeplejack walking steel beams in 100-mph winds. Foyt drives 500 miles at a crack for his millions. Don Prudhomme drives 1,300 feet. Foyt’s drives laid end to end would probably stretch around the world several times. Prudhomme’s wouldn’t take you to the drugstore. Some people take longer to back out of the driveway than he does to win 30 grand.” Priceless stuff.
Murray also had an interesting take on Kenny Bernstein in a November 1996 L.A. Times
column: “What you have here is a man who walked away from a $17-million-a-year business and a four-phone desk in an executive suite to get in a flameproof suit and climb in a car that burns up a gallon of $30 fuel every 50 feet. And they call the cars ‘funny.’ "
A trio of quotes, all allegedly attributed to Roland Leong, who changed drivers like you and I change socks. “Drivers are like spark plugs. Screw one out and screw another one in" or “Drivers are like spark plugs. If one's too hot, you just replace him with a cooler one" or, of course, “Drivers are like spark plugs; you burn one out, you screw in another one.”
Speaking of the Hawaiian, everyone remembers the 1969 edition taking flight at the Winternationals. Driver Larry Reyes once told me he had a premonition something bad was going to happen after Chrysler’s “engineers” decided to add a spoiler to the front of the Charger body but not the back: “I remember sitting on the starting line, ready to stage, with the car idling, yanking the belts tight, and saying, 'Lord, please don’t let me hurt anyone.' "
“We had no money. We hustled everything that we could. It wasn’t about trying to win a race. It was trying to do something that we loved, just to be a part of it. To say that I did a burnout next to Prudhomme or Kenny Bernstein and was able to stage and go down the racetrack, you know. We were chasing a dream. I had all the struggles of no money.” -- John Force, remembering his early days
Tommy Ivo is renowned as a practical joker (replacing hotel shampoo with motor oil, etc.), but he met his match in this story he shared with me a few years ago: “Chris Karamesines used to treat me like a son, patting me on the head and saying, 'Now, don’t hurt yourself.' Then I beat him one time, and he was whimpering about the deal, so the next round, I carried a shop towel with me, and when we beat him to win the two out of three, I pulled out the shop towel and said, 'Here, Chris ... here's a crying towel for ya.' He reached in the glovebox and pulled out a .45 and said, 'I've got your crying towel right here.' That's the last time I practical-joked him.”
Early Funny Cars had round steering wheels, but Tom McEwen didn't take long to switch to a butterfly steering wheel: “Most all of the early Funny Cars had round steering wheels because that’s what the Super Stockers had,” he once explained to me. “I liked the butterfly because the dragsters had them, and I always liked that. Besides, round steering wheels are for going around corners.”
“Yeah, I liked the Funny Cars, but I couldn't get the smoke to come out the front wheelwells like my pal Patty Foster. Nobody could.” – Don Roberts, who drove in Top Fuel and Funny Car, on Funny Car burnouts and the P.F. Flyer
"Driving the tank at speeds approaching 140 mph is like trying to carry a piece of plywood in a 30-mph wind." – Wheelstander pilot Bob Perry, on driving his Hell on Wheels tank
Former NFL quarterback Dan Pastorini had a brief but somewhat successful career as a Top Fuel driver with his Quarterback Sneak dragster, which initially was tuned by former Funny Car great Bobby Rowe. According to a 1985 Sports Illustrated
article, Pastorini’s decision to go fuel racing was not just some post-career audible: "I called the NFL Players Association at four o'clock in the afternoon and said, 'I'm retiring from football.' I called Bobby Rowe at 4:02 and said, 'You wanna go racing?' "
And, finally, this random quote from comedian Christopher Titus, a huge NHRA fan. It came from his long-ago canceled TV show, but I think it has a fine place in the drag racing pits, or maybe in the subject matter of this column: “He didn’t fail so much as he succeeded in finding out what doesn’t work.”
See you next week.