Last Thursday, on the eve of the national event at his old home track, former NHRA Chief Starter Mark Lyle was remembered by family, friends, and the racing community at a celebration of life at Pacific Raceways. As he was eulogized by many, the recurring theme was that while Mark had a firm hand on the starting line, he was willing to debate his decisions with anyone who asked.

And, of course, parallels were drawn between Lyle and the man who for so many years personified the position, the late great Eddie Hiram “Buster” Couch. We lost Buster a long time ago – Jan. 12, 2002, to be exact – but I think it’s safe to say that everyone who followed him – Rick Stewart, Lyle, and now Mike Gittings – probably feels that he still was watching their every move.

Lyle was the chief starter evolved, someone mentally prepared to deal with the complexities of the sport today, where sponsorships, egos, pressure, scheduling, and everything else seems to be magnified tenfold. Couch was the self-professed Georgia redneck, the “Not in my house” kind of guy necessary back in the early days of the sport when Couch himself once professed that “fighting was as much a part of the sport as racing.”

Couch was a big fella – 6-foot-2, 255 pounds – a Golden Gloves boxer in his youth and a part-time bar bouncer as an adult, so he cast an imposing figure on the starting line. The story I shared a few weeks ago about Couch reaching into Pat Foster’s car on the starting line to “force” him to shut it off brought to mind many great stories from his years on the starting line.

Buster stories have been handed down like cherished family memories, especially among members of the Dragster staff, who if we didn’t witness them were certainly told about them by people who did. He was tough but loved, and back in an era of less political correctness and a more relaxed atmosphere, you never knew what was going to happen on the starting line.

For as big and fearless of a guy as Couch portrayed, he was deathly afraid of spiders and snakes, and of flying. Former Top Fuel driver Frank Bradley thought it would be fun to terrorize him, so as “the Beard” was smoking out past Couch on a burnout, he tossed a rubber snake out at Couch’s feet; I believe this was at either the 1982 or 1983 World Finals at Orange County Int’l Raceway. Retribution came swiftly. When Bradley came back for his next pass, Couch was ready. As Bradley eased his digger into the staging beams, Couch calmly poured two buckets of ice into his lap. That’s a scene you’d never see today, but as I said, things were a little more “relaxed” back then.

There are countless tales of drivers trying to tell Couch how to run “his” starting line, all of them met with Couch’s special brand of response.

The name of the driver and even the class escape me, but one Super-class driver came to “visit” with Couch before a run, telling him in no uncertain terms of his own preferred deep-staging procedure and how Couch should handle it. Pretty much the gist of it was that when the racer was staged how he preferred, he would give Couch a nod, and then he could start the race. Of course, as soon as that driver’s front tire tickled the beam, Couch threw the switch, then later calmly explained to him, “I couldn’t remember if you said you were gonna wave or nod.” Message received.

In an interview Couch did with LA Times reporter Shav Glick on the eve of his retirement from the starting line in late 1995, Couch recollected, "One guy had a reputation as a quick starter, and I heard he was bragging about how he knew when I was going to press the button because my thumb moved first. Well, one day he was on the line, and I twitched my thumb, and he was halfway down the track before the green light came on. I doubt if he ever checked my thumb after that.”

I remember the 1983 Summernationals, where Connie Kalitta got into a protracted staging battle with Jody Smart in the semifinals. The story goes that Kalitta came to the line with suspect oil pressure; maybe Smart knew that, maybe he didn't. When the Tree finally turned green, Kalitta fireballed an engine. He pulled off the track into the grass (there were no guardwalls then), slammed his helmet to the ground, and charged back to the starting line to complain to Couch about the length of time it took to get the Tree. Kalitta was hot, and Couch reportedly just grinned and told him, "I’ll roll around in the grass and wrassle with you if you want.”

This is one of my favorite photos of Buster, and it speaks volumes. That's NASCAR king Richard Petty seeming a bit overwhelmed by the power of side-by-side burnouts by Connie Kalitta and Doug Herbert at the 1992 U.S. Nationals. The look of joy on Buster's face is priceless.

Former NHRA Vice President Steve Gibbs, NHRA’s longtime competition director, was Couch’s boss, tasked with oversight. For all of his bluster, Couch was so deeply loved and respected and even watched over lest his “redneck tendencies” get the better of him. Gibbs remembers visiting Couch’s dear wife, Anne, in the hospital as she lay dying from cancer. “Her sole concern while she was dying was Buster,” he recalled. “She had a little yellow notepad, and she’d write, ‘Make sure Buster does this’ and “Make sure Buster does that’ and ‘Buster will need this.’ We all looked after him.

“He was a challenge,” Gibbs remembered fondly. “He liked to fight; he told me once he should have been a hockey player so he could get paid to fight. He was a unique individual, and I just had to deal with it because there’s no doubt that he was the man we needed for that time in the sport’s history. It was a different time, a different era.

Couch emphatically gave the universal shutoff sign to Top Fuel racer Steve Hodkinson at the 1982 Winternationals after Hodkinson's engine sprung a severe fuel leak.

“He was as good a starter as there’s ever been. He didn’t let the racers start him, and some of those guys are pretty crafty. He probably wouldn’t like the job today with as much automation as we have now – Auto Start and all of that, which I think is necessary – because Buster started every race, deciding with his thumb when it was time for the cars to go.”

And Couch was not above a little showmanship to let people know he was the boss.

“I remember one year at Atlanta, [Larry] Morgan and [Bob] Glidden got into a burndown. Buster was out there waving his arms, putting on a show, and finally backed them both off,” said Gibbs. “He walked over to each of the cars, acting like he was really mad. He opened Glidden’s door, and Bob’s waiting to get yelled out, and Buster just says. ‘Hey Bob, how ya doing? How’s Etta? How’s the kids?’ Then he slams the door and storms over to Morgan’s car. ‘Hey Larry, you having a nice day? How’s it going?’ Then slams his door. They fired up and raced and were laughing so hard at the other end of the track about how Buster took the edge off the whole thing by doing that.”

Drivers like John Force loved Buster, and he loved 'em right back.

As much as drivers liked to prank him – beyond the snake-tossing episodes (there was more than one) – there was love and respect, too. Top Fuel driver Dale Funk was seen handing Couch a cold beer one time, and Chris Karamesines once reached out and handed him a bottle of booze as he was staging.

Couch was good with giving a practical joke, too. Gibbs remembered at the first Gatornationals how the division directors (“a pretty rowdy bunch back then”) were seeking adult beverages in the dry county, and Couch, with his local knowledge after years as the Division 2 director, pointed them down the road to sleepy Waldo, Fla., with tales of an underground speakeasy below a gas station. Of course, it didn’t exist, but the DDs spent the night roaming around looking for it.

I remember an early-1980s story being told of how Scott Kalitta, then driving an A/Fuel Dragster, was having some relationship problems with his girlfriend and reportedly had been dodging her phone calls. So, of course, when he pulls to the starting line for a qualifying pass, Couch handed him a telephone as he was preparing to stage.

Wally and Barbara Parks with Buster; I miss all three of them.

My personal favorite memories of Buster are of a Foghorn Leghorn-like uncle, always ready to give you a little crap (“Son! I say, son! Don’t walk across my starting line like that.”) but a genuine good guy. Back in the 1980s, we would finish proofing the magazine Wednesday, hop on a red-eye while the issue was being printed Thursday, and have a dozen or so FedEx’d to the event to give to that week’s cover or feature subjects, and I always saved one for Buster. He would see me coming his way with one in my hand, and his face would light up with a big ol’ grin. “Thank you, Mr. Burgess. I surely do appreciate it.”

There have been a lot of larger-than-life characters in our sport – guys like Richard Tharp, Funk, Chip Woodall, “the Greek,” Raymond Beadle; gosh, I could go on and on – but Buster Couch will always be among the larger, both for his presence on the starting line and impression he left on everyone who knew him.

More Seattle 64 Funny Cars storiesFriday, August 12, 2016

Bench racing and remembering with Insider regular Robert Nielsen (above) and Don O'Byrne and Bill Doner (below) in Seattle.

I’m back from an incredible weekend in Seattle, where, appropriately, after last week’s column about the track’s legendary 64 Funny Cars events, the floppers were the star of the show with nine of the quickest times in history, national record-setting passes, the first side-by-side 3.8-second eliminations round (two of them!), and more made it paradise for loves of the fuel coupes.

While cruising the pits there, I was able to connect with a pair of names familiar to longtime Insider readers, my “nemesis” Robert Nielsen, who has contributed to widely and expertly to this column over the last nine years with his expertise of early Southern California racing (he has lived in the Great Northwest the last 10 years but still has treasured memories of Lions and the other great SoCal tracks) and with Don O’Byrne, who last week shared his copy of the souvenir program and some of his buddy’s photos from the 1976 64 Funny Cars race, which got the whole discussion started.

I had some great bench racing moments with both, recounting our shared experiences, and even roped my old pal Bill Doner, the legendary race promoter who made 64 Funny Cars in Seattle a true happening, into posing with me and Don.

I got a great email from another great friend of the Insider, 1970s Funny Car racer Jeff Courtie, with some brief remembrances of his time at the 64 Funny Cars shows, which prompted me to call him and get him to expand on them to help paint a better picture of the scene, and he even shared with me some of his great old photos.

Courtie, who raced up and down the West Coast from 1971 through 1978, was the perfect guy to reflect on this period. He was neither a star nor a leaker, just your average guy who, as was possible back then, could afford to race a Funny Car and did so, getting the opportunity to run side by side with the legends of our sport and creating a lifetime of memories.

This great pic from Courtie's scrapbook was given to him by photographer Philip Howard and shows fans atop the long-gone staging lane bridge. As Courtie pointed out, they've removed some of the signage for a better view.

“I had to work for a living — at one time I was working at Ed Pink’s doing blowers for $4.25 an hour — and still living with my mom and dad so I could race,” he recalled. “I’d get off work Thursday night and drive straight through to Seattle,” he said. “It would usually take about 24 hours to get there — some of the ‘big’ guys made it quicker because they had bigger gas tanks and didn’t have to stop as often for gas — and then we’d crash out for the night.”

Courtie and his fellow Funny Car gypsies would stay at the SeaTac Inn, which was the Great Northwest’s answer to SoCal’s Marco Polo motel, filling the parking lot with all manner of ramp trucks and trailers.

“We’d head to the track Saturday morning, and there’d always be a long line of trailers waiting to get in down that two-lane road to the track,” he recalled. “There’d just be this long line of ramp trucks, [pull-along] trailers, and [fifth-wheel] Chaparrals, plus all of the fans trying to get in; it could take you an hour just to get in. The 64 Funny Cars race was like Woodstock to the fans up there; they weren’t spoiled like we were in Southern California with a race every weekend at three or four different tracks. Doner and [Steve] Evans would advertise non-stop for like two weeks before the event.

“The fans were just crazed. They sold beer there from first thing in the morning, and you never knew what they’d do. We’d have to stop the races because they’d be sitting on the guardrail in the lights with their legs hanging over, drinking beer. If you lost, the fans would throw beer bottles at you when you came back down the return road.”

I asked Courtie about the lighting situation I wrote about last week, with just the one light pole mounted behind the starting line.

Philip Howard

“The lighting was a little skimpy,” he agreed. “When you’d get to the shutdown area, it was like running at Irwindale — pitch black — and they’d have a 25-watt light bulb at each turnout. and invariably the last one would be burned out. You’d get down there and no one, including your crew, could find you. But that was only usually your last run. It stays dark until almost 9 o’clock there that time of year, so we’d run about 7 and then again at maybe 10:30 or 11, and they’d run the final after midnight.

“The biggest issue was always the weather; seems like it was always damp, whether it was raining, misting, or just humid. We’d have to get packing blankets and throw them over the windshield until we ran.”

Courtie, who raced the 64 Funny Cars meet from 1973-78, also was able some years to run both the Seattle event and the 32-car race Doner hosted at Portland Int’l Raceway the weekend before. There, the local hotel was the Thunderbird Inn, right on the Columbia River that separates Oregon from Washington.

Philip Howard

“Doner was really good to the racers,” recalled Courtie. “He’d get some guys like me to run the two races, and he paid well. In 1974, I got $800 from him to run in Portland and $800 to run in Seattle, which doesn’t sound like much, but it was good money for a guy like me back then. Some of the bigger guys would run a whole northern circuit for him — Portland, Seattle, Bremerton, and up into Canada — before everyone headed to Indy.”

I asked Courtie if Doner or other track managers offered extra incentives for longer, smokier burnouts, and he practically scoffed at the notion.

“Hell, no; they didn’t have to. We all loved doing them,” he said. The long burnouts, the fast backups, the dry hops, we were always just trying to outdo one another because we loved doing them. It was just standard operating procedure for everyone.”

To read more about Courtie’s history, check out this column I wrote about him way back in 2008: Jeff Courtie: A pair of pretty sound careers.

Reader Steve Ojard had been to his fair share of Seattle events and shared his laundry list of memories.

“Bill Doner's beloved radio spots on KJR-AM ("You tell 'em, Jungle Jim!" …. "Drag Racing is faaaaar out!"), urging fans to come out to the drags on Seafair weekend because, to paraphrase, ‘who wants to go watch a bunch of slow, sputtering boats anyway?’ (a reference to the hydroplane races on Lake Washington). To this day, I say AMEN to that!

“Lights out at the track around 10 p.m., not because of closing time but for drama, as ‘Jungle’ fires up in the dark behind the spectator lane side pits, rumbles out from behind the angled grandstands, turns onto the right lane at the starting line as the lights come on, and rips a burnout the full length of the track. The place went berserk!

“After dark, calls from the announcer for people to ‘back away from the edges downtrack so the cars can run or we'll have to shut ‘em down.’ Those ballpark lights you wrote about were the only lights on the track but still not all that bright I'd imagine when they're behind you, looking out the windshield of a flying flopper while trying to stay in the groove at 1,000 feet.

Found this gem on YouTube from the 1977 64 Funny Cars race in Seattle

“Going out of my parents’ house one morning — we lived in a residential neighborhood in West Olympia, 50 miles from SIR — and seeing [Roger] Lindamood's Color Me Gone on an open trailer about 10 feet from our driveway, just across the street from me, a rabid, magazine-devouring teenage drag nut? It was like Christmas! Seems to me it was there at least a day. I believe our neighbor lady in that rental house was an ‘acquaintance’ of his.

“That gorgeous ’76 L.A. Dart pictured in your article, squaring off with Richard Schroeder's Bad Bossa Nova. Before they ran, a test of nerves first: ‘Wild Bill’ wheelies downtrack, bounces, and slides sideways to a stop, then wheelies back to the starting line to thundering applause. So then, not to be outdone, Schroeder follows up with the longest, smokiest, in-place burnout I have ever seen in my life that didn't destroy the slicks in the process. You couldn't see the tower when he was done; it was covered. After that, they raced, and I don't remember who won. Sensory overload, the house was rockin'!

“A flying Yamaha 400 Kite-cycle.

“Jerry Ruth and another driver (or a crewmember, I'm not sure) standing aside the tower lane grandstands, suddenly taking off on foot after some moron who ran out onto the track to grab a chunk of blower case that had just departed its engine. (Straps, what straps?)

“Those were the days, my friend. Magical! We'll never see the like again.”

Seattle 64 Funny Cars, 1976Friday, August 05, 2016

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By the time that most of you read this, I’ll be at Pacific Raceways covering the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series national event at the track formerly known as Seattle Int’l Raceway, which is perfect timing for this week’s subject (I love it when a plan comes together).
Canadian Insider reader Don O’Byrne recently sent me some scans from the 16-page souvenir program of the 64 Funny Cars race held 40 years ago at SIR on this very weekend in 1976, and they are so cool and timely that I thought I’d share them with you here (minus the ads). I’ve created the little gallery at right for you to thumb through. (Start by clicking on the “larger image” link so you can see them better, then use the “Next” navigation to scroll through them.)
“I paid a whole U.S. dollar for the program back then, which was not bad for a Canadian because the U.S. and Canadian were about par then (unlike now),” he wrote.
The program itself is so cool for history buffs like us. It has some interesting profiles, including of Jim Liberman (“as super hero ‘Jungle Jim’ he fights for Truth, Justice, and the American Fire Burnout”), Raymond Beadle (oddly, an old bio from when he was driving for Don Schumacher; by then he was already in the Blue Max), Gene Snow, Pisano & Matsubara, and “Gordy” Bonin. There are also mini bios of some of the drivers from the Coca-Cola Cavalcade of Stars who were part of the show, including Dick Bourgeois, Roger Lindamood, Dale Creasy, Fred Goeske, Mike Van Sant, Tripp Shumake, Dick Custy, and Al Hanna.
Also included is a nice introduction to bracket racing (with a great photo of future NHRA Division 6 Director Gene Bergstrom bracket racing his Ford Falcon) written by Northwest drag scribe legend “Flyin’ Phil” Elliott that includes one of the best Funny Car introductions since Steve Evans’ legendary “What in the hell am I doing here?” radio spot. It reads: “Imagine flying a WWII fighter, wrestling King Kong, matching IQs with Einstein, having the reflexes of a cobra snake, and holding a vial of nitroglycerin between your knees – all at once! That’s a little of what driving a Funny Car is like.”
The program also has a handy scoresheet that O’Byrne partially filled out that gives an idea of the lineup. I dug through the NHRA National Dragster archives to find our coverage of the event and to check out the competitors.
While favorites Don Prudhomme and Tom McEwen were back East on the national event trail, the lineup was still a solid one: Beadle and the Blue Max, “Jungle Jim,” Ed McCulloch, Jim Dunn, Lil John Lombardo, Snow, John Collins in McEwen’s No. 2 Duster, Russell Long and the Chi-Town Hustler, Frank Hall in Jerry Ruth’s car, Twig Ziegler, Kenney Goodell, Mike Miller, Gary Densham, Gary Southern in John Lindsay’s Impulse, Jeff Courtie, Chris Lane, “Nitro Nick” Harmon, Dave Uyehara, Terry Capp, Rich Rogers, and the Coke Cavalcade machines of Lindamood, Hanna, Van Sant, Bourgeois, Shumake, Custy, Creasy, Larry Palmer, and Rick Johnson in Bill Schifsky’s Bear Town Shaker.
And, oh yeah, some guy named John Force.

Raymond Beadle and the Blue Max took top honors at Seattle's 1976 64 Funny Cars show, stopping Mike Miller in the final round.
Beadle won the event (which actually ran Sunday, Aug. 8, after a Saturday rainout), posting low e.t. of every round (and the meet, 6.31) and beating program cover subject Miller and his Boredom Zero entry in an all-Mustang II final round. Custy won the Coke Cavalcade final over Shumake, who crossed the centerline in Dennis Fowler’s pretty Sundance Monza.
You can do math as well as I can, so (as was almost always the case) the 64 Funny Cars were not all nitro burners. Brad Anderson won the Alcohol Funny Car (then known as BB/FC) portion of the show, defeating SoCal neighbor Lou Gasparrelli in the final. Other competitors included future nitro pilots Tom Ridings, Sherm Gunn, and Ray Romund, plus Dale Van Gundy, Doug Moody, Kenny Randolph, Larry Garcia, Chris Christensen, Richard Day, John Gazso, Tom Lemons, and Joe Amato (“Wiskey Joe,” not future Top Fuel Joe). A Northwest contingent of BB/FCs ran a separate eliminator, with the win going to Rob Bruins (taking a week off from driving Herm Petersen’s Top Fueler) over Barry Price.
O'Byrne also forwarded me (with permission) a set of photos from Bob Jackson that appear on the All Northwest Drag Racing Facebook page and chronicle the 1976 race. Here are a few choice ones.

64 Funny Cars!

"Jungle Jim," doing his thing ...

The Chi-Town Hustler, doing its thing, as Austin Coil looked on

Some guy who nicknamed himself "Brute Force"

Ed "the Ace" McCulloch and the Revellution against Chris Lane and Joe Pierce's Phoenix

John Collins in Tom McEwen's No. 2 Duster vs. Rick Johnson in Bill Schifsky's Beartown Shaker Mustang II

Dave Uyehara and the Oswald & Uyehara Kamikaze Mustang vs. Terry Capp and the Wheeler Dealer Vega

"Big Jim" vs. "Jungle Jim"

Chuck Poole's legendary Chuckwagon wheelstander

Always a Doner favorite, "Wild Bill" Shrewsberry and the L.A. Dart wheelstander

The issue of ND that had the report of the 1976 64 Funny Cars show also had coverage of the 32-car show that SIR owner Bill Doner confirmed via email that he also staged the week before at northern Oregon’s Portland Int’l Raceway, making for a mini Western Swing for a lot of the drivers who competed at both.
Liberman, who wowed the fans with a fire burnout before laying down low e.t. of the meet at 6.28, won the Portland nitro show on a solo when Bonin couldn’t make the final-round call due to breakage (which may also explain why he was not mentioned in the Seattle coverage). Goeske also was supposed to appear in Seattle but crashed and burned his Vega in round one of the Coke Cavalcade race, which eventually was won by Creasy over Van Sant. Anderson scored the BB/FC title over Lemons.

Don Prudhomme won a series of July match races with the Army Monza, including this one at Quaker City Dragway (Leo Taugher photo)

Ron Jackson's Mandingo Vega scored at New England Dragway.
(Jack Colahan photo)
As evidence of the amount of quality match racing going on at the time, the issue also included Lebanon Valley Dragway’s Northeast Funny Car Nationals (won by Prudhomme, who had low e.t. of all three rounds of the Chicago-style eliminator, including a 6.49 in the final to beat Harland Thompson and the Fireball Vega); York U.S. 30’s Super Stock Nationals (won by Prudhomme over a stout 16-car field that included McEwen, Liberman, Ivo, Bob Pickett in Mickey Thompson’s Grand Am, Tom Prock, Bruce Larson, and Gary Burgin); Quaker City Dragway results (another Prudhomme win, over a four-car field of McEwen, Pickett, and Stan Bowman and the Flying Dutchman Vega); Sacramento Raceway’s Fox Hunt (won by Dave Condit and the L.A. Hooker over “Jungle Jim” in a best of three); as well as unnamed races from U.S. 131 Dragway (Tommy Ivo beat  Larry Arnold in Roland Leong’s Hawaiian in a Funny Car field that included Prudhomme, Beadle, “Wild Willie” Borsch, and others, and Jeb Allen shut down Gary Beck, Dick LaHaie, and Shirley Muldowney in a star-studded Top Fuel show), New England Dragway (Ron Jackson and the Mandingo Vega got into the final via the break rule and beat Prock for the title); and Bonneville Raceway (Dan Richins wheeled the Iron Horse Top Fueler to a final-round victory over Paul Schoenfeld’s Wild Bird entry).
One final Seattle note from O'Byrne that I had never considered. If you've ever been to the track, you know that there no light poles are mounted on either side downtrack. So how did they hold these amazing until-1-in-the-morning 64 Funny Car shows? According to O'Byrne, and confirmed by Doner, all the light that the track needed emanated from one single source, the high-mounted bank of lights behind the starting line. According to the story, the lighting was designed by Boeing engineers to cast enough light all the way to the end of the track.

Now that's an illuminating thought. See ya next week.
“Finally, a full load of the Setzer/Foster/Buttera/Pink Vega straight into my veins!” enthused Insider reader Paul Nadeau after last week’s column in which we, the drag racing fandom, finally heard Barry Setzer share his memories of his two years as owner of the Pat Foster-driven Vega Funny Car that is indelibly engraved in the memories of many of us who saw it run.
As I said last week, it was a story too long in the coming, and I was happy and proud to play my part in bringing his story back into the limelight, and Cole Foster, Pat’s son, the final link in the effort to track him down, was more than happy to keep the conversation going, sharing a ton of personal images and memories.
Especially interesting to me were his insights into two of his dad’s more memorable national event losses.
Foster’s loss to Jim Dunn in the final round of the 1972 Supernationals -- the one that made Dunn’s Barracuda the first (and, as we know, only) rear-engine Funny Car to win a national event – has been a mystery to me for years. Why would Foster, usually rock-steady behind the wheel and with the better and more consistent car by a mile (6.29, 6.30, and 6.31 to Dunn’s patchy 6.60, 6.77, and 6.44) red-light to Dunn in the final?
According to Cole, “The idle accidentally got set really high in the final round; Dad said it was using clutch and getting hot. He bent the brake lever pulling on it trying to keep the car from creeping in the staging lights. He had the field covered that year and Dunn was tenths slower, but the car moved out of the beams and caught a red-light and gave Dunn the famous national event win. Ironically, Dad built Dunn’s car at Woody Gilmore’s.”
(Man, I live for this kind of minutiae to fill in the cracks between the details of the facts we already know.)
The team would win its first national event early the next year at the Gatornationals but probably would have won it in 1972 had the car not caught fire on the starting line in the semifinals against Winternationals champ Ed McCulloch. Foster, the No. 1 qualifier, was hot off a class-best 6.52 in a round-two drubbing of Don Schumacher and by all accounts had the car ready to run the class’ first 6.4-second pass against “the Ace.”
Depending on to whom you talk, either the crew had wrapped rags around the valve-cover-mounted breathers (not an uncommon tactic) or a rag was accidentally left in the body tin beside the blower hat, but a fire started, and flames began licking out through the injector hole. Foster refused to shut off the car until Chief Starter Buster Couch insisted (ahem) with a little Mr. Spock-like Vulcan nerve grip. (Oh, how I miss Buster.)

Chief Starter Buster Couch, right, moved in for the "kill" in this photo from the June 1972 issue of Car Craft.
“They lifted the body and grabbed a rag and put out a tiny fire,” said Cole. “The body went down, and Dad moves in to stage it, and the little fire lights back up. Dad knows what’s burning and knows it will go out in 20 feet. Buster tells him to shut it off; he won’t and moves in to stage. Dad said he was tunneled in and nothing mattered except running for the win. Buster reached into the window with the car running and grabbed Dad ‘Spock’-style between the neck and shoulder. Dad said it was unreal how strong Buster grabbed him, so he shut it off, and ‘Ace’ made a single for the win. Those were the type of small things that kept that car from winning more national events.”
Cole also shared photos of the Setzer 1973 press kit, with its cool three-car cover drawn by my good pal John Jodauga. Here are some snippets from the material inside:
There were just seven people on the Barr Race Cars payroll: Pro Stock driver Bruce Walker and his team -- Gordy Foust (crew chief), Eddie Sain (crewmember), and Frank Schmidt (mechanic) -- plus Foster, crew chief Larry Wagner, and crewmember Harold Crisp.
“Desires for racing program: To have each of the three Barr Race Cars recognized as the best appearing, best prepared, and best performing machines in drag racing.”
“Immediate goals in 1973 are to win everything.”
The material also cited that the Barr Group (the holding company for his many businesses) expected projected sales of $40 million in 1973 but went on to clarify, "In spite of appearances, my racing program has not been handled with an open checkbook. We are taking a very businesslike approach to drag racing and feel our programs are built on very sound financial advice.”
Setzer, who, according to his bio, had in his youth served as a deckhand on Ohio River barges for the Ashland Oil Co. (Pennzoil), described himself thusly: “I classify myself as an entrepreneur. My strong point is creating ideas and then turning them over to an experienced staff.”
Cole has also promised to share in the (very near, I hope) future what it was like growing up the son of a Funny Car hero -- summers spent on the road with his dad, sacking out in the sleeper between match race dates, hanging out with Don Prudhomme and Bob Brandt at the Ed Pink garages, and nightly guests such as Raymond Beadle, Jim Liberman, and Billy Meyer around the Foster family dinner table. I can’t wait.

Last weekend’s unveiling of the aforementioned Dunn & Reath rear-engine Barracuda as the No. 11 car in the Top 20 Funny Cars fan poll means we’re halfway done and ready for the top 10.
Here’s what has been revealed so far with a quick recap of the fan vs. Insider vote.
Car Fan vote Insider vote
Jim Dunn/Dunn & Reath Barracuda 11 13
Ramchargers Dodge Challenger 12 12
Pat Foster/Barry Setzer Vega 13 8
Ed McCulloch Revellution Demon 14 16
Danny Ongais/Mickey Thompson Mustang 15 9
Kenny Bernstein Bud King Tempo 16 14
Don Prudhomme Pepsi Challenger 17 19
Jim White/Hawaiian Punch Dodge 18 18
Gene Snow Rambunctious Challenger 19 15
Jack Chrisman Comet 20 17
The biggest disparities between the fan and Insider votes are the six-spot difference of opinion on the Thompson Mustang and five-spot disparity on the Setzer car, both of which I “blame” on the lack of current mainstream knowledge about both.
So, what that all means is here's a look at who’s still in the hunt (no spoilers; presented in chronological order):
Don Nicholson Comet (1966)
Chi-Town Hustler (1969)
Don Prudhomme Hot Wheels 'Cuda (1970)
“Jungle Jim” Liberman Vega (1973)
Don Prudhomme Army Monza (1975)
Raymond Beadle Blue Max Mustang II (1975)
Dale Pulde War Eagle Trans Am (1977)
Kenny Bernstein’s “Batmobile” Buick (1987)
John Force Castrol Firebird (1995)
Jack Beckman’s Infinite Hero (2015)
It’s an interesting mix with five decades represented (2000s! What happened to you?), which is perfect and probably represents a good cross section of Funny Car fans. As you can see, the Insider Nation and the fan poll agree on eight of the top 10 (I had only six of those in my personal top 10, the other four being the Setzer Vega, the Thompson Mustang, Prudhomme’s Pepsi Challenger Trans Am, and Bernstein’s Tempo).
Tony Pedregon, in his role as NHRA FOX analyst, also has been offering his personal Top 20 list, though his criteria seem to be more personal than analytical, which makes for a cool juxtaposition with the other voting. Here are his picks so far, which, like for many of us, are very 1970s-centric:
11. "TV Tommy" Ivo Nationwise Dodge (1976)
12. Bruce Larson USA-1 Camaro (1969)
13. Roland Leong/Ron Colson Hawaiian Monza (1977)
14. Joe Pisano/Tom Ridings Arrow (1978)
15. Dale Pulde War Eagle Trans Am (1977)
16. Jim Green/Richard Rogers Green Elephant Vega (1977)
17. Gordie Bonin's Bubble Up Trans Am (1977)
18. Al Segrini's Black Magic Vega (1974-75)
19. Dale Armstrong/Mike Kase Speed Racer Omni (1980-81)
20. Tom Prock’s Detroit Tiger Monza (1975-76)
So we plunge into the top 10 beginning this weekend. The reveal for No. 10 will take place during Saturday night’s FS1 program. If you miss it or don’t have FS1, I’ll post it on Sunday morning.
Thanks for reading and contributing. I’ll see you next Friday.
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