Well, the new year is only a week old, and already it has been packed with a lot of newness, not the least of which is the new NHRA.com format that launched Thursday. The new design allows NHRA fans easier access to the wealth of stories available on the site – including the exclusive columns written by the National Dragster staff as well as video and other multimedia offerings – in what is commonly known as a “river” format, where news runs down the length of the page seemingly endlessly.
First and foremost, I want to thank everyone who wrote – some of you in distress – about the absence of a Dragster Insider link on the new-look NHRA.com home page. If you’ve found your way to reading this, you obviously did it by following the story item on the home page, and, at least for now, that’s how you’ll find the column if you don’t have it bookmarked (which is why I was heavily encouraging you all to do this in the last several columns).
If you’re not the bookmarking kind, you can always find the column by typing Dragster Insider into the search bar throughout the site.
It’s my hope that we can restore some sort of permanent home-page link in the “river bank” that runs alongside the “river” stories, not only for this column, but also for the others that the National Dragster staff is now posting on NHRA.com instead of NationalDragster.net. As much as we loved having our original content on our own branded website, having it before a larger audience on NHRA.com will expose it to many more people and help reinforce the brand image of the National Dragster staff as experts in the sport.
1966 World Finals winner Eddie Schartman
A lot of other stuff is going on behind the scenes here, but I’m especially excited about an announcement that will be made next week concerning a yearlong celebration of Funny Cars. Although the Funny Car concept was around for months before the event, the 1966 NHRA World Finals marked the first time that NHRA contested the eliminator at a national event, so that provides the platform on which we’re going to build. The official announcement of this program will come early next week, along with more details, but what I can tell you is that it’s going to get a huge kickoff at the Circle K NHRA Winternationals that you won’t want to miss.
As you may know, Lewis Bloom, known to NHRA TV viewers as one of our sport’s top stats experts, has relocated to Southern California and is working out of NHRA HQ in Glendora. Lewis, who, like me, has a deep love and knowledge of our sport’s history, will be contributing stories to NHRA.com and National Dragster. He has already filmed one video segment reflecting on the 1982 Winternationals, which marked the debut of the 500-cid Pro Stockers, that should be on NHRA.com before long. He has been like a kid in a candy shop poring over our enormous photo files, so you history buffs can expect to see more nostalgic goodness from him from time to time.
Thanks also for the massive amount of feedback on some of the more recent columns concerning Ontario Motor Speedway and my “letter to my younger self.” I’d like to share some of it with you below to clear a backlog of emails before we start with fresh new columns this year.
I got so many comments about my letter to myself that I can’t even begin to think about publishing them all, but here are a few that stood out.
From Racepak President Tim Anderson: “I just saw my life pass before my computer monitor. That pretty much mirrored my youth, just replace OCIR and Irwindale with Bristol, Darlington, Rockingham, and other backwoods racetracks. I lived on National Dragster, SSDI, and Pop Hot Rod, memorized every page (there actually was a small, local newsstand that carried Nat Drag), and somehow knew that useless information would come in handy, someday.
“Now, every so often, I will hear a familiar voice outside my office, look around the corner, and see Roland, Del, or until he passed away, Gary Burgin, stopping by to pick up parts and pieces for their data systems. It has definitely been a very, very interesting ride. From small-town Bristol, Tenn., to South Orange County, I can’t complain, but as you also indicated, it was really, really tough to get here. It’s a long way to the top, if you wanna rock and roll, right??
“P.S. … I did take typing … so I could check out the chicks, but that has also paid off.”
From Ken Brodsky: “Just had to write and tell you how wonderful and moving your Christmas Letter to My Younger Self was. I, too, lost my dad (at age 8) and grew up with a stepfather, so I know what it is like. I also wanted to be a writer but got into accounting as my girlfriend at the time convinced me it was a better idea. Still think she was wrong but a bit late now!
“The one point your story brings out is don’t be afraid to take a shot at a career move you really feel right about regardless of the immediate monetary value. I meet and interview way too many kids today who expect big bucks to start – they have no clue what it takes to be successful. I only hope a bunch of kids read your letter and feel inspired to follow their hearts into life.”
From Cliff Morgan: “Boy, it struck a chord with me on a lot of stuff, especially getting the hook in deep with drag racing (and typing with two fingers. Ha!). Quick memory share: San Fernando Drags, 1962(?). Top Fuel race, little blown Chevy takes on a blown Chrysler. At the drop of the flag, the Chevy goes into a wheelie, comes down, goes into another wheelie, and off they go. Chrysler has to lift about halfway down – too much tire smoke, I think – and the Chevy wins. All those years ago, and I still see that in my mind. That's what put the hook in and why I love the sport so much today.”
From my old AOL Drag Racers Forum pal Terry Spencer: “I had a little tear in my eye as I related to similar feelings and experiences as a kid growing up and following my drag racing heroes at places like San Gabriel, Pomona, Irwindale, OCIR, Fontana, and Lions. Of course, I had to be driven to these places by generous and indulgent parents. So thanks for dedicating yourself to your craft to clearly put into words what many of us cannot. But you blew it by skipping the Springsteen photo op!”
Also a lot of great feedback on OMS.
Scott New, whose family runs popular and nostalgia-happy Firebird Raceway in Idaho, sent me the image at right of a cool find in his family scrapbook: passes from that inaugural Supernationals. “I’ll never forget how blown away he was by the massive buildout they did with Ontario,” he wrote. “I remember [my dad] telling us boys about some type of sit-down restaurant/bar, and he said the hospitality was amazing given the rarity of it anywhere in racing at the time.”
Famed chassis builder Don Long wrote me after reading the history of the Supernationals/World Finals that the first three Top Fuel winners – the Keeling & Clayton California Charger, Hank Johnson’s entry, and the Walton-Cerny-Moody machine all came off of his jig. Additionally, and fantastically coincidentally, two of those three cars are back in his shop. The restoration of the Charger chassis is finished and awaiting pickup by its owner, Brent Cannon, and the restoration of the W-C-M chassis is just beginning for its owner, Hal Sanguinetti. Pretty cool!
Chuck Rearick raced at Ontario in Pro Comp in 1977 and remembers it well.
“Back then, you had to qualify to attend the race by being one of the top cars in your particular division via point standings,” he wrote. “The track was smooth as a billiard table, and on our second qualifying pass, the car broke an axle at midtrack, which resulted in a pretty exciting ride. Luckily, I did not hit the guardrail or anything else and made the first turnoff. My crew, who was on the starting line, said that you could read our names on the side of the nosepiece. It was pretty sideways. When I got out of the car, the right rear tire was sitting there at an angle, and when the weight of the car was taken off, the wheel and what was left of the axle fell off. The axle sheared just inside the bearing. Unfortunately, a replacement axle was not available, even though we tried, so we were done for the weekend. We ended up helping another Division 4 racer, Dave Settles, who won the event against Dale Armstrong.
“Back then, the pit area was accessed from Haven Ave. on the right side. Additional parking was available on the left side of Haven. It is all commercial areas now, but back then, it was an open field – literally. I don't think Rancho Cucamonga had been invented yet. Before retiring, I used to travel to the Inland Empire on business in the late ‘90s and into the 2000s and was amazed at how the area has grown since ‘77. I believe the berm for the OMS Turn One is still there alongside one of the restaurant/shopping-area roads.”
Be sure to turn on the closed captioning.
Al Kean, whose name may be familiar to many who’ve read this column for his iconic photo of Don Prudhomme’s 'Cuda flying through the lights on fire in Seattle, took up my closed-caption challenge from vintage footage.
“I immediately thought of the 1980 NHRA Fallnationals in Seattle. I remembered that the announcer in the tower (Bernie Partridge?) had trouble pronouncing the name of the Stock eliminator winner (in a rerun not shown in the TV coverage): Calvin Queahpama. Steve Evans was the host of the TV show (trivia tidbit: this was the first drag race EVER broadcast on ESPN!). Looking up the coverage on YouTube, www.youtube.com/watch?v=GDLE3lJxYlg, the Stock eliminator coverage starts at 19:13 with ‘Doc eliminator.’ Sportsman Cup winner Ray Cook (‘Rachel’) racing Calvin ‘Obama.’ Steve Evans described the Stock eliminator class (‘One you wouldn't like to have a problem with republican river in Europe you can actually driving to the grocery store'). The show carries on with Shirley winning Top Fuel with a 5.84 ('584 is pretty overweight'). Pretty funny stuff.”
Mark Watkins added, “Excellent review of a track that was light-years ahead of its time. All of the 'super tracks' of today stand on the shoulders of OCIR and OMS. I do remember it was not a great place to watch a race after being spoiled by being 10 feet away from the action at Lions.”
The 1976 Finals video I showed brought back lots of memories to Dan Tuttle. “I think that might have been the last time I was able to sneak into the races,” he recalled. “I was 12. In 1975, I could tell you the exact spot where I was standing when Garlits backed up the 5.63: right at the finish line looking over the logo for the Big O. He must have been three cars ahead of whoever was in the other lane. Nobody ever remembers the other guy! Only who was there when he did it. I knew it was something special backing it up, but looking back, it was like you know where you were when Neil Armstrong did that thing that he did. (We were at Disneyland.)
“So, in 1976 for the semi’s in Funny Car, I was standing at the fence right on the starting line when ‘Ace’ blew the blower off. Funny thing is I don’t remember Foster driving the Shady Glenn. OMG, being in the 50s sucks! The blower comes off 'Ace’s' car, almost in slow-mo. Just surreal to see it again. That’s the one thing that stands out in my memory from then. Oh, to be 12 again. I would pay so much more attention to my dad when he was trying to explain something.”
Don Luke actually lived in Ontario in the late 1970s and got to attend many of the last events there – in addition to the national event, occasional Funny Car match races were run at OMS – thanks to a local connection.
“Our neighbors across the street were retired,” he wrote. “Talking with them, we found out he was working as a security guard at Ontario to pick up some extra money in retirement. He told us that for every event, he was given four tickets and a parking pass for preferred (or VIP) parking in front of the grandstands. The seats he usually got were on the start/finish line in the grandstands. He told us since he was working during the events, he never used the tickets and wanted to know if we were interested in them. Needless to say, we said we were willing to take the tickets off of his hands. He gave them to us for no cost. We attended as many events as we could until the facility started shutting down.”
OK, that catches me up with a lot of the correspondence. As always, some neat memories to add to our collection here. Thanks to everyone, including those whose submissions I didn’t use.
I’ll see you next Friday.
No real new column today – even the Insider deserves a week off to celebrate the holidays – but just a chance to once again express my thanks to the loyal visitors to this little cyber pit space. It seems impossible that since I rolled out this column in the summer of 2007 we’ve shared more than 700 columns worth of drag racing memories. If you’ve been around this gin joint long enough, you know that it’s a collaborative effort, with me developing the storylines and themes and you good readers sharing your additional memories, information, and photos.
We’ve covered so much ground and so many wonderful topics that I wondered if there was any way to graphically represent it all, and I found it in Tagxedo, a cool little interface that allows you to load a series of words then creates what many might call a “tag cloud,” based on the number of times a word is used. The bigger the word, the more commonly used.
I uploaded a list of all 715 column titles to Tagxedo and this is what I got. I love how “remembering” and “stories” are two of the biggest, along with “photos” and “memories” and “years,” because, really, that’s what we do here.
If you look closer, you’ll also see words like “Indy” and “Garlits” and “farewell” and “ramp” (remember the long-running ramp truck thread?) and “fun” and “friends.” Really says it all, doesn’t it.
Anyway, thanks again for the love and support, the contributions and the conversation. Let’s keep it going. Happy new year.
(Also, another reminder to bookmark this page to make it easy to find in the new year.)
I wrote the column above just before NHRA closed for the holidays Dec. 23, not knowing that some dark days lay ahead for the drag racing community, which has been rocked by a series of losses the last two weeks of 2015. I just couldn’t let it go unmentioned until my next column.
Just a week earlier we’d lost Roger Gustin, who worked tirelessly with the NHRA in the 1970s to set new standards of safety for jet-powered drag racing vehicles and went on to become one of the most popular drivers of the thrust-powered exhibition vehicles. Gustin, who died of brain cancer Dec. 15 at age 76, was one of the nicest guys I’ve met in the sport, and certainly one of the most successful, following his hall of fame jet career with as second calling as the owner/operator of the popular Super Chevy series..
The day after Gustin’s passing we lost hall of fame motorcycle drag racer Ray Price, credited by many as the “Father of the Funny Bike." The renowned designer and engineer reportedly was the first drag racer to be sponsored by Harley-Davidson and also to develop the first wheelie bar and first two-speed automatic racing transmission for motorcycles.
Four days later, racers everywhere in every class were stunned by the death of Tim Hyatt, one of the preeminent experts in drag racing clutches and a staple of the NHRA Manufacturers Midway for decades, who passed away suddenly December 20. He was 61. I remember Tim well from my time hanging out with the Mazi family, who ran a Hays clutch in their wild supercharged Opel. As I’ve read countless times on message boards across the internet, he was always there with a helpful hand and a ready smile and, more often than not, the perfect solution to your woes.
The day before Christmas, the sport, especially those on the nostalgia racing trails, were shocked by the death of Henry Gutierrez, a longtime friend of the sport and owner of the Jungle Jim Tribute Funny Car, who was found murdered in his Schertz, Texas home Dec. 24. “Big show” fans may not have been as familiar with his name, but will know of his largesse as owner of Bexar Waste, which sponsored, among others, Spencer Massey, Paul Smith, and Blake Alexander.
Christmas Day brought more sadness when we learned of the passing of famed Top Fuel and Funny Car driver “Superman” Jim Nicoll, who died of an apparent heart attack in Arizona. I had the pleasure to interview Nicoll on several occasions, and wrote this column about him several years ago. I and many other fans of his were able to touch bases with him again last year at Indy when he and Don Prudhomme shared memories of Nicoll’s notorious 1970 U.S. Nationals crash.
The day after Christmas, many of us got the news we knew was coming but that we hoped never would, as former National Dragster editor George Phillips died Dec. 26 after a brave battle with cancer. He was 69. George was one of just two people on the editorial team when I joined NHRA in May 1982 and it working with him that I learned much about how National Dragster went together. He served a brief stint as editor – I was his successor – but also had so many other important roles within NHRA, especially in the Jr. Dragster ranks, where he was known to legions of young racers as “Uncle George.”
The very next day, we learned of the passing Gary Meadors, founder of Goodguys Rod and Custom Association, from a heart attack Dec. 27. Meadors launched Goodguys in 1983 and watched it grow into a 10-event hot rod and custom car schedule. Meador also was a member of the Bonneville 200-mph club as well as recipient of the Street Rodder magazine Lifetime Achievement Award and the Hot Rod Industry Alliance Lifetime Achievement award, as well as induction into the Street Rod Marketing Alliance Hall of Fame.
The bad news continued Dec. 30 when I heard from Cory McClenathan of the passing of respected veteran alcohol crew chief Ora Vazquez. Vazquez, a fixture in the sport for more than 60 years, had helped McClenathan in his early days, and went on to work with drivers like Blaine Johnson, Bucky Austin, Pat Austin, Tiffani Hyland, Russ Parker, Lee Callaway, Artie Allen, and Dennis Taylor to name a few. The former three-time divisional Crew Chief of the Year was 85 years old. “The man helped make me the person and the racer I became,” said McClenathan, “I will miss him very much.”
The next day, word came down that former NHRA Division 7 Director Warren Smith had passed away Dec. 30. Smith succeeded Graham Light as Pacific Division Director in December 1986 and remained in that position until the end of the 1990 season.
All of this sadness brings me back to the original intent of the Dragster Insider in general and this column in specific. What's it all about? It's about community. And when we lose members of this close-knit community, we all grieve. And the past two weeks have been tough on us all. Very tough.
Here's to a happier 2016.
Seems like it’s all the rage these days, especially among sports stars and rock 'n' rollers – of which I am neither – to offer up a little something called “Letter to My Younger Self,” in which one shares the wisdom of a lifetime with one’s childhood self. So here’s mine, with a Christmas twist.
Merry Christmas 1970, my little friend. I’m you, 45 years from now. I know, impossible, right? That surfer long hair you’ll be growing soon is mostly gone, and I have grandkids as old as you, but, yup, I’m you, and I have to tell you that life is pretty grand at 55, so hang in there.
I know it has been a rough couple of years, kid. You lost your dad about a year ago, bringing a two-year, two-continent custody fight between your mom and dad to a sad end. You’re back home in Southern California, in your old bed, with your old friends, your old school, your old life, and a new “dad.” He’s OK, especially for an ex-Marine – but ease up on those “bald” jokes; payback will be a bear from your own kids in about 40 years -- and your mom seems happy enough, so you're happy, too, but I know you’re still looking for something else.
And guess what, bucko? Something pretty magical is about to happen. You’ve always played with toy cars. In England, where you lived for two years with your dad, that meant Matchbook and Corgi cars, but in the good ol’ USA, that means Hot Wheels. And boy, does Santa have something cool under the tree for you. I won’t spoil it for you, so run over there and unwrap a few presents. I’ll wait.
You’re back? Good. I know, I know. What’s a Funny Car, right? And who are these guys with animal nicknames? The Snake? The Mongoose? What is this, The Jungle Book?
No, little Mowgli, those are race cars – really, really fast race cars – and they’re about to change your life. Yeah, go ahead, lift up the body. The bare necessities, right? That glob of misshapen chrome, that’s the engine. It sings the kind of tune old Baloo can only dream of. You watch the TV commercials and are enthralled. Don Prudhomme and Tom McEwen become your heroes almost overnight.
Guess what, kid -- in about a dozen years, you’re not only going to get to meet both of them, but they will talk to you. That “Snake” guy, he’s going to be a little bit of a Grumpy Gus, but that’s just him, at least for now. He’ll age like fine wine. “The Mongoose,” he’s quite the fun-loving character. Complete opposites. Someday, kid, they’re going to be great friends of yours. “Mongoose” will call you all the time to make sure you know the latest news. You’ll even get invited to “the Snake’s” house. I know. Crazy, right?
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
In a few months – on July 24, 1971 -- your parents are going to take you to the Happiest Place on Earth. No, it’s not Disneyland. It’s a place called Orange County Int’l Raceway, and there your dreams will come alive.
The burnout smoke boiling off the rear tires and billowing into the night sky. The snorting and snarling call-and-response ritual of dry hops. The anticipation hanging as heavy as the burnout smoke as the drivers stage. The thump in your chest as the cars launch that reaches from the racetrack all the way to your spot midway up the spectator-side bleachers. You will be mesmerized and somehow know that you have found “it.”
You’ll be taken back several more times to OCIR and to Irwindale Raceway, which compared to palatial OCIR is a rock quarry, but the magic is the same. For some unfathomable reason that will haunt you the rest of your days, even though it’s closer to your home than OCIR or Irwindale, your parents won’t take you to Lions Drag Strip, and before long, there won’t be a Lions to take you to. See if you can fix this oversight before it’s too late because you'll end up writing about the place for 30 years.
Before long, you’ll discover car magazines, and the money that used to go to Hot Wheels will go to purchasing shiny new copies of Drag Racing USA, Super Stock & Drag Illustrated, Popular Hot Rodding, Car Craft, and Hot Rod, over whose pages you will obsess. You will memorize winners and cars and photos and arcane facts; you won’t know why you’re obsessed with that, but be glad that you are. Guys like Steve Reyes, Jim Kelly, Jere Alhadeff, Jon Asher, Bob McClurg, and Tim Marshall will be your guide to far-off exotic tracks, and you’ll marvel at how anyone could possibly be so lucky to travel around the country covering drag races for a living.
This may sound a bit goofy, but you will emulate their stories, writing up accounts of the 64-car Hot Wheels battles that take place weekly in your bedroom, and you’ll discover that, hey, I think I can do this. You’ll start reading other things, trying to find a voice.
You won't be the high school quarterback, but you will be able to do this.
Then, one magical day, you’ll accidentally discover your stepfather’s stash of Playboy magazines, and as you thumb through them (for the articles, of course), you’ll read a very funny story by a man named Dan Greenburg. You will never forget this name, and he will become your non-drag-racing hero. You will go to the library and check out all of his books and marvel at his ability to tell a story, and you will decide that, yes, I think I would like to be a writer. And guess what, my little friend? Years later, you will send him a fan letter, and eventually, you will become friends with him, too, and although you won’t get to go to his house, he will – gasp -- ask you to read some of his in-progress manuscripts and ask your advice about key plot elements. He will include you in his acknowledgements for that book, and it will feel almost as good as if Prudhomme asked you for tune-up advice.
No matter what you think you’re good at in school right now, writing will be your thing. You’re going to ace all of those writing classes and receive a lot of encouragement and guidance from some very helpful teachers. But, hey, don’t forget to work hard on that math stuff. You’ll need it later in life, believe me, especially that decimal stuff with tenths and hundredths and thousandths.
Sure, you’re going to play sports in school, too, but, sorry pal, you’re not going to be very good, but you will learn invaluable lessons about teamwork and camaraderie and, yes, leadership that will follow you the rest of your days. Embrace those lessons, and they will embrace you throughout your life. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
As you work your way through high school, you’ll meet a guy. Actually, you’ll meet him because of the 1970s fad, the CB radio. He goes by the handle of “Blue Streak,” for his awesomely fast Chevy Monza. (You, of course, will be “Drag Man.”) He’s pretty much your complete opposite -- you’re the blue-collar kid with the shaggy hair and the sprouting mustache, and he’s the clean-cut, well-off kid from the other side of the tracks with the fancy name of Courtland Van Tune, but you and Van will quickly bond over fast cars, Jefferson Starship, “cruising for babes,” and the love of the written word. You'll burn through countless tanks of gas to be part of the scene at popular places like Van Nuys Blvd. and at clandestine car clashes on Pershing Drive behind the L.A. Airport. You’ll collaborate on a goofy little newsletter for the CB club you both belong to and will become lifelong best friends. He’s your brother from another mother. Later, your busy lives and careers will mean you see each other less and less frequently, and I hope you can do a better job than I did in cutting the distance.
Two guys, a girl, and a borrowed Cadillac. What could possibly go wrong? You, left, Van, and longtime friend Shelly.
Van will actually beat you to becoming a real writer for a real car magazine, but he’ll open some doors for you to follow. Freelance gigs mostly, short car features for some second-tier magazines, but you’ll hone your skills. Later, when he goes to work in the big time at Popular Hot Rodding, Van will meet a guy named Cam Benty, who used to work at a magazine that you buy every week at Super Shops. It’s called National Dragster.
In early 1982, Cam will tell Van that he heard that National Dragster is looking for a writer. This is a key juncture in your life, so pay attention. Compared to where you’re working, the pay will be lousy. The commute will be hellish. Eventually, you’ll have to move. This will cost you your live-in girlfriend. It will be scary. But do it. For heaven’s sake, apply for the job.
Prepare yourself. You’ll be hauled into a conference room at NHRA headquarters in North Hollywood and face a jury that includes the small National Dragster staff and – oh my gawd, I can’t believe it’s him – Wally Parks. They will grill you about your writing ability and your knowledge of the sport’s history, but you will have the answers because they have been there for a decade just waiting for this moment. You will be offered the job -- $15,000 a year, about 10K less than you’re already making as a facility maintenance handyman where your stepdad works in machine maintenance – but you will say yes, and it will be the smartest decision you’ll ever make.
The staff will be wonderful and welcoming. Leslie Lovett, the photo editor, will introduce you to all of his racer friends at tracks across the country, and they will welcome you, too, because Leslie has blessed you. He will teach you how to compose and shoot photos. He will entrust you with one of his precious Nikon cameras.
National Dragster staff, circa 1983
You will meet and work with a lovable array of people. The word-savvy hippie who gifts you with Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, a bible for writers. The former editor of Drag Racing USA who becomes your boss and thinks you should lead the magazine, and then makes it happen. The “burned-out loony” who’s a walking encyclopedia of drag racing. The grizzled newspaper veteran. The skirt-chasing ad salesman. The wacky but lovable art director. You will owe so much to all of them, so enjoy them while they’re still alive, because one by one, many of them will be taken from your world.
Those early days will be a trial by fire because the staff is so small, but hang in there. You will write stories until your fingers are numb and be charged with sorting through hundreds of submissions from track reporters across the country, and you will learn how to turn other people’s coal into diamonds. Keep your mouth shut and your ears open and be a sponge. Learn everything you can about everything there is to learn, and then keep reaching. Amazing new technology will keep coming. There will be something called the Internet and phones so small you can carry them in your pocket. But you will stay on top of all of it so that even when you’re my age, you won’t be that old dog who can’t learn new tricks. Because there are always new tricks.
Life at National Dragster is so amazing that you’ll stay there for decades, and you will love almost every second of it. As you drive to work each day, you will look at other people drudgingly on the way to their 9-to-5 jobs and pity them because you can’t wait to slide behind your desk and wonder what the day will hold and for that magic moment when your fingers touch the keyboard and the creation process begins. The work will be incredibly tough sometimes -- crushing deadlines, red-eye flights, lost luggage, missing hotel reservations – but incredibly rewarding.
You will drive an actual race car on an actual racetrack and do it well enough to earn an NHRA competition license. You will write openly and self-deprecatingly about that adventure in National Dragster, and people will never forget it. In some ways, it will come to define you. The people
crazy brave enough to let you drive their race car – the Mazi family – will become like a second family. You will not be able to thank them enough, but try anyway.
See this wild piece of ill-handling, supercharged machinery? You're going to drive it someday.
You’re going to get to meet another of your future heroes, rock 'n' roll icon Bruce Springsteen, on his home turf one year at the Summernationals in New Jersey. You’ll chat him up just enough to let him know you’re a fan, but you’ll resist the temptation to tell him you own all of his records and can recite every word of every song and hum the notes of every saxophone solo. You’ll play the professional journalist and pose him for a photo with another member of the NHRA staff and not ask for one with you in it. You will regret this. Deeply.
Eventually, you will meet many of your boyhood heroes, become good friends with some, and, because of your respect for their accomplishments and sacrifices, many will embrace you as one of their own. This may seem so silly to you as you read this at age 10, but this acceptance will become one of your most treasured “possessions.”
The wife, two of the three children, grandkids, and son-in-law. You did good, kid.
You'll get married -- girls don't really have cooties -- and raise three wonderful children, each with their own wonderful qualities. One of your daughters will share your love for words, the other your love of adventure. Just as you inherited your dad's love for soccer, your son will embrace your love of hockey, and you will play together on the same team for years (he's pretty good, you're still pretty average; sorry), just as you wished you could have with our dad. Family is everything; I know you got off to a bit of a rocky start, but it all works out in the end.
Some final words of advice from your future: When they offer typing class in school, take it, so you don’t spend your days pecking with index fingers alone. You may be blindingly fast with two fingers, but still. Take the class. Don’t accept that invitation to hang out with that kid at school who just got out of juvie and has a six-pack of Schlitz Malt Liquor and a grudge against the world. Don't use the neighbor kids as substitutes for cars as you leap over them on your bike after seeing the Evel Knievel movie. Learn to play the guitar so one day you can master “Hotel California” on something other than the air.
And don’t street race.
Merry Christmas, kid,
Your future self
While I was researching my last couple of columns about Ontario Motor Speedway and the Supernationals and World Finals, I used my typical National Dragster and magazine article resources but also got sucked into watching some of the old Diamond P Sports coverage of those 1970s events and found them really interesting for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, with NHRA on the eve of a new era in television coverage with FOX Sports and all of the wonderful technological and story-telling things that are being planned and promised (if you haven’t already, check out the interview I did last week with broadcasting VP Ken Adelson here), there’s a certain charm to these old broadcasts with their dated on-screen graphics and camera angles.
Second, obviously, it has been 40 years or so since these races were run, and there are just a tremendous number of changes that have happened throughout the sport that come to life in these videos. I could show you all of the still images in our vast library and still might not be able to convey what you see in 10 seconds of footage.
Below is just one example, chosen semi-randomly by me, that I found on YouTube covering the 1976 World Finals, which was one of the first programs ever produced by Diamond P, which for years would provide this service for NHRA.
Below the video, you can find the notes that I would have written in the margin – if videos had margins – commenting about what I’m seeing. Sort of an Editor’s Commentary edition, if you will. Below all of that, you’ll find something else interesting that I discovered that I hope will amuse you as much as it did me.
I love the opening montage, especially Tim Grose's notorious Springnationals wreck and the "Oh well" expression on his face and Raymond Beadle's infamous Gatornationals barrel roll and subsequent salute to the fans.
We all recognize NHRA Hall of Famer Dave McClelland as the anchor; the co-host and pit reporter is Frank Furino, who then was a vice president at Diamond P and went on to cover NFL football, championship boxing, space shots, political conventions, and the Olympics. Today, he is a successful writer and producer for primetime/daytime TV programs. Gotta love their very-'70s blazers, partially unbuttoned shirts, and gold neck chains.
Much of their “in-booth” footage was filmed against a green-screen background and was all post-produced to look as if they were looking in on the action. There’s a particularly compelling instance of this during the Top Fuel semifinals later in the show.
Not sure why, but probably due to broadcasting rules of the day covering sponsorships, the word “Winston” in the Winston World Finals logo is omitted.
The on-screen graphics are decidedly crude, and the crazy three-way split screen – close-ups of two drivers plus a side-by-side angle – is at once distracting and intriguing.
You also see early that the camera angles are extremely limited, and the race footage is shot largely from a grandstand view. The absence of runout cameras in the shutdown area is particularly telling.
2:15: First round of Top Fuel. Oh, the names of the drivers back then; I miss seeing so many of them – Stan Shiroma in the Lidtke & Zeller car, Ray Stutz in the Hibbard & McCarty machine, "Backdoor Bob" Struksnes. Also, check out how low the rear wings were to the rear tires.
3:50: NHRA Chief Starter Buster Couch with his perm. Classic.
5:40: A short segment with Furino talking about OMS and giving a bit of a visual layout of the place.
7:45: Here’s some old-school Top Fuel stuff, showing Richard Tharp being pushed back after his burnout. I remember this great old tradition, a moment in the sun for every tire wiper. Reversers were not required until the 1980 season. Gotta love those dry hops, too.
Nice little interview with James Warren vignetted into the top left corner talking about Roger Coburn. Miss them both, too.
And how about Tharp losing the blower and it bouncing down the track behind his opponent? Now you know why there are blower-restraint rules.
9:00: Terry Capp’s Top Fueler with those cool wheel pants. Love ‘em.
10:55: Nice interview with NHRA President Wally Parks and Furino. Man, I miss Wally. And no rain the entire year? What must that be like?
12:15: Key moment in Pro Stock as Warren Johnson loses to Larry Lombardo, 9.00 to 8.91, on a first-round holeshot. The announcers credit Lombardo's driving job, but a major factor also was a mechanical malfunction with W.J.’s line loc, as you can see in the National Dragster photo below of his front tires still locked up and skidding past the Christmas Tree.
Also notice how few of these Pro Stockers use parachutes. I guess at just 153 to 154 mph they didn’t really need them, especially with OMS' long runout.
16:10: Furino returns to show more of OMS' "plush aspects," this time in the Hall of Fame restaurant, with Brian Tracy, who worked at OMS before joining NHRA, where he was a vice president of marketing and sales. B.T. was one of my favorite people at NHRA when I came to work here in the early 1980s and certainly one of the keys to NHRA’s growth in the 1970s.
17:50: Don Prudhomme vs. Jerry Boldenow and the Moby Dick Corvette. Nice little interview with “Snake,” a look at the fabulous Army Monza in action, and more dry hops.
12:55: Rick Johnson and the Bill Schifsky's Bear Town Shaker Mustang II vs. Pat Foster and the Shady Glenn, with one of the nasty fires that seemed to happen a lot at Ontario. The body thankfully comes off, and Johnson spins ‘er out in the infield grass. The coverage is really hurt here with the lack of a runout camera, relying only on a blowup of the original grandstand footage.
Wow, Rick, $3,000 for a body? $11,000 for an engine? Those were probably big bucks in 1976, but only a fraction of today’s cost.
Also, check out Johnson’s chassis being hauled away roughly on the end of a wrecking hook instead of the flatbed that we use today. Crude!
22:50: Gotta love the vintage Sportsman coverage, with the long-countdown Tree. Cool to see the Pro Comp, Comp, Modified, Super Stock, and Stock finals.
27:45: Furino checks out one of Ontario’s two infield lakes (complete with ducks!) and the sheep that grazed on the infield grass.
32:30: Here’s something you didn’t see very often at Ontario: Bob Glidden losing. This was Glidden's only loss in the seven years that the Finals ran in Ontario (1974-80).
33:00: You can tell it’s the end of the season by the battered look of the paint on the Bob Pickett-driven Revelleader Grand Am.
33:55: Ed McCulloch’s crazy semifinal starting-line blower explosion in the beautiful Revellution, and Foster crossing the centerline to hand him back the win. The body deformation in the super slo-mo gives you an idea of the percussive force.
36:15: Back in the pits, work begins on installation of a new windshield in McCulloch’s body. That looks like shirtless Gordie Bonin (complete with “farmer's tan”) plus Roland Leong and Ron Colson, driver of the Hawaiian (remember that Bonin had driven for Leong a few years before).
40:00: The wacky conclusion of Funny Car, with McCulloch delayed in getting to the staging lanes, then apparently making it there, but not before Buster sends “Snake” off on a solo. I wonder how “Ace” took that …
Notice the lack of sponsor plugs by winners (except for Prudhomme with Army, then it’s just one) in their interviews. Was it because most of them didn’t have that big-name sponsor or because no one knew any better?
Well, that was fun. Want even more fun? Try watching the same video again with the closed captions (click on the CC) button. OMG … too funny. I’m not sure what kind of program or algorithms or whatever YouTube uses for this, but obviously, the challenge of 40-year-old audio is way too much for it.
Especially the names … I know that we have some challenging names (Muldowney, Struksnes, etc.) to decipher, but poor Jerry Ruth, who has a pretty common name, had his name slaughtered. He became, at various times, Jerry Route, Jerry Road, Your Roof, Jerry Reuss, Jury Room, and Jerry Ruefully. Poor Ray Stutz became Raced Up; Stan Shiroma became And Jerome and Stand Your Honor; Richard Tharp was Richard R, Mister Bar, and Richard Start, and let’s not forget Bob Scructures (Struksnes), Pat They Can (Dakin), John Wavy (Wiebe), Games Parkway (Gaines Markley), Dennis Vacco (Baca), and -- two of my favorites – While The Bar (Wally Parks) and Popular But Later (Top Fuel eliminator).
And the extended dialogue? Wow. Do you remember that scene from the movie Airplane! where the subtitles were translating the “jive” talk? Well, this is that in reverse. Look at the photos below and try to guess what was said.
Surely you understood this, Lowell: "Shirley has to be considered the favorite; she has low elapsed time."
Dave and Frank really be saying, like, "Fastest drag strip, Ontario Motor Speedway"
The lithium artists formerly known as "the Lidtke and Zeller car and Stan Shiroma"
Roger, roger? "He don’t want to make no banzai runs" (referring to crew chief Roger Coburn).
Blond moment: "I don’t know how it can be, but I'm hoping for it" (referring to 1977 potentially being better than 1976).
I’m still laughing, and it makes me want to go back and try this same thing on other races. If you find something equally as funny (or funnier), send it to me.
OK, guys, that’s it for this week. Next week, NHRA headquarters closes Wednesday for the holidays and stays closed until Jan. 4, but I'll still be here Christmas Day with a new column, something a little off the usual mark and, in a way, a gift to myself (you'll understand when you read it). I hope you'll enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it.
I also want to encourage you to begin bookmarking this page for easy reference. There will be a pretty substantial change to the NHRA.com home page next year, and I want you to be able to find it easily.
Merry Christmas to everyone.