Posted by: Phil Burgess

It’s no great secret that we’ve lost a lot of our drag racing heroes in the last decade, and if you’ve been following this column for any length of time, you know that I agonize over the losses and sometimes struggle to put a finger on even my own pulse of the situation to try to put the losses into some sort of perspective that makes sense in my head and in yours, too.

Last Sunday, as part of National Dragster’s popular Backstage Pass program, wherein we take select NHRA Members into the driver-introduction area during the pre-race ceremony for private meet and greets with the racers, I was standing with one of our guests, Daniel Curtis, whose drag racing fan pedigree goes back to the early 1970s. We were talking about these losses and how tough they are, and he said, “You know, when I hear about one of these guys dying, it feels like I’ve lost a member of my family.”

Wow. That is exactly what I’ve been always trying to say and never found those exact words. It fits. After all, in many cases, these are the people who have been around your whole life, who have provided you with untold great memories, and whose joys and heartaches you have loyally enjoyed and endured. They are like family.

I didn’t know it at the time, but just a day earlier, we had lost another valuable and important part of NHRA’s family with the passing of Bud Coons, the leader of NHRA’s original Safety Safari in 1954, at age 90. Taking Curtis’ analogy to heart, if Wally Parks was the father of our sport, Coons would certainly have been one of my favorite uncles. I always enjoyed seeing him and talking to him when he came out to the drags in Pomona and to a track, as you will read, for which he was partly responsible.

And now he’s gone, just like fellow Safari members Bud Evans (2014) and Eric Rickman (2009) before him. Only Chic Cannon survives the group, the last cowboy from the original roundup.

You just can’t underestimate the value and importance of the work of Coons, Cannon, Evans, Rickman, and the other assorted members of that mid-1950s troupe of drag racing Johnny Appleseeds as they drove around the country and helped plant the roots of our sport, setting up some of its first organized drag races. They brought with them not just all of the equipment necessary -- timing equipment, a PA system, and miles of wire to bring it all to life – but the expertise on how to use it and how to organize and run an event, from safety inspection through trophy presentations.

Pomona Police Department Sgt. Bud Coons befriended Pomona-area hot rodders, opening a dialogue that led to organized drag racing in Pomona.
(Above) Early drag racing in Pomona was all about safety. (Below) In April 1953, Pomona hosted the first sanctioned NHRA event, which played to a large crowd.
The Safari crew and Coons' dirty and well-traveled wagon gassed up, as always, at a Mobil station and met a lot of local hot rodders along the way.
Coons, seated, right, met with members of the Cincinnati Cam Lifters and Covington (Ky.) Valve Jumpers during the 1954 tour.

Before he became nationally famous – by being constantly featured in the pages of Hot Rod magazine – Coons came to Parks’ attention for his work in helping the Pomona Choppers car club win the right to use a corner of the LA County Fairgrounds for its rodding. Eldo J. "Bud" Coons himself had been a hot rodder, and it was the result of a fateful traffic stop by a Pomona police officer that Coons’ future was cast. The officer was Ralph Parker, who would become chief of police. He liked Coons and thought they could use a man like him on the force. As chief, Parker called upon Coons’ hot rodding background to have him meet with the Choppers, which had lost some of its members to street racing, to see if they could combine efforts to do something about the increasing death toll in Pomona due to illegal street racing, which had reached 16 in 1949.

“If you can’t control them, join ‘em,” Parker is said to have told Coons. “Then we’ll see what happens.”

Coons attended a club meeting, and his first appearance in full uniform was reportedly met with wariness. He went to the next meeting in jeans and a T-shirt to ease any tension.

“Listen, I’m a cop,” he told them, according to an article in Hot Rod. “But I’m a hot rodder, too. We’re not trying to throw the book at you guys. I want to join you. Together we can save lives, run fast on Sunday, have some fun in get-togethers.”

Trust was established, and wonderful things happened. He was voted into the club as an honorary member – club members anonymously dropped colored marbles into a cigar box to vote; three black marbles, and you’re out – and helped design a racing program at Pomona for the Choppers, complete with insurance. The city agreed to pave a dragstrip -- eight-tenths of a mile long and 70 feet wide – on the Fairgrounds at a cost $5,378, to be paid for over time by the Choppers via entry and admissions fees. Drag racing in Southern California suddenly became legit.

Did it work? Street racing deaths decreased to two in 1951. So impressed was he that Chief Parker even authored an article about the success in the December 1951 issue of the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, which is distributed to law-enforcement groups throughout the United States.

The Choppers eventually changed its name to the Pomona Valley Timing Association and went on to stage NHRA’s first sanctioned event, the Southern California Championships, April 11-12, 1953. Between 2,500 and 3,000 people showed up to watch the first day's time trials, and an estimated 15,000 were on hand for the final day. The entry list included 375 vehicles.

All of this great work did not escape the attention of Parks, and by 1954, Coons had been hired as NHRA’s new executive manager, charged with taking his Pomona template and spreading it nationally to promote and develop organized drag racing. They created the NHRA Drag Strip Crew and mapped out a 10-stop tour for 1954.

It was in a two-door ’54 Dodge station wagon that the Safari – which later became known as the Drag Safari – traveled the country, towing the little Viking trailer behind them, but what few know is that it was Coons’ personal vehicle; he had traded in his own Studebaker for something with a little more room. Coons, Cannon, and Rickman were joined along the way by either Don Cox or Bob Huff and spent three months on the road, leaving California June 10, 1954, headed east to Caddo Mills, Texas, for the first meet, June 19-20, then on to Mansfield, La.; Edna, Kan.; Scribner, Neb.; Linden, N.J.; Pennellville, N.Y.; Akron, Ohio; Detroit; Pocatello, Idaho; Ogden, Utah; and Salt Lake City before concluding at the Bonneville speed trials event, tying the sport’s past with its future.

With all of the technical and electrical equipment packed into the trailer, it has been said that their most important weapon -- optimism and hope – rode up front with the boys.

Typically, the team would roll into a town, usually on a Wednesday or Thursday, and stop at the local Socony Mobil gas station – Mobil was the Safari’s only sponsor, providing free fuel for the long drives – and once word filtered around that they had arrived, hot rodders from all over swarmed the station. The Safari members would meet with local law-enforcement and civic officials -- Coons' status as a former police officer helped lend credibility – and Coons would powerfully and eloquently explain how organized drag racing and regulated dragstrips could help stop the scourge of illegal street racing. Coons, who also was charged with public relations and publicity, would sometimes do radio or television interviews to promote the upcoming weekend’s event. With the help of the car clubs, they would set up the racetrack, sometimes even erecting a temporary timing and announcing tower.

In 1955, the Drag Safari – which now included its fourth full-time member in Evans -- embarked on its second nationwide crusade, an 18-week, 20,000-mile tour, helping sanctioned strips present 18 official Regional Championships in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Colorado, Iowa, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, Tennessee, and Texas. Gone was Coons' personal two-door wagon, replaced by a four-door '55 Plymouth wagon. It was during this tour that many newspapers began to refer to the Drag Safari as the NHRA "Safety Safari." The Safari's final stop was Great Bend, Kan., where NHRA staged its first National Championship Drags, Sept. 29-Oct. 2, on the 8,000-foot runway of the Great Bend Municipal Airport.

The Safari foursome -- from left, Bud Coons, Chic Cannon, Bud Evans, and Eric Rickman -- on the 1955 tour. (Below) Nearly a half-century later, they reunited at the 1994 U.S. Nationals, which was celebrating its 50th running.
In what was probably one of their last public appearances together, the four -- from left, Cannon, Evans, Coons, and Rickman -- took part in a salute to NHRA founder Wally Parks at the 2007 World Finals, a month after Parks' passing.

Nearly everywhere the Safari conducted its Regionals, names now familiar to race fans began popping up among the list of class winners: Wayne Mahaffey and Dick Maris in Scappose, Wash.; John Bandimere and Kenz & Leslie in Denver; George Montgomery in Indianapolis; Ken Hirata and Otis Smith in Columbus; Jake King in North Carolina; Lloyd Bray and Raymond Godman in Memphis, Tenn.; and John Mulkey and Carl Stone in San Antonio. The Top Eliminator title in Lake City, Fla., went to a kid from Tampa, Fla., Don Garlits. In San Antonio, an aspiring race car driver named A.J. Foyt set top speed at 121.73 mph.

The NHRA Drag Safari kicked off its third and final tour of the country in 1956. Plymouth supplied two new cars for the Safari, a '56 Fury and a '56 Suburban wagon, both painted red, white, and blue, and the team staged 18 Regional Championships events in California, Colorado, Texas, New Jersey, Illinois, Iowa, Utah, and Oregon, with many more of today's well-recognized names taking part, including Bernie Partridge, who won the "C" Stock class at the West Coast Regional Championships at San Gabriel Valley Dragstrip and later would join NHRA and play a major role in its continued development.

The Safari’s plans to hit the road again in 1957 hit a snag when the International Association of Chiefs of Police and later the National Safety Council's Traffic & Transportation Committee inexplicably launched ill-informed attacks on hot rodding, leading several of the Safari's sponsors to drop their backing "like a hot potato," according to the May issue of Hot Rod. Without the funding for the prolonged road trip, NHRA canceled the 1957 Safari tour, and Coons and his crew began concentrating their efforts on that year's National Championship Drags.

Even though the Safari was parked, its three-year effort had done the job. By early 1957, NHRA's sanctioned-track listing included more than 100 venues in 38 of the 48 states, and the Safari team, its work done, was disbanded, though NHRA continued to send as many as 500 How to Form a Club kits each month, and its growing cadre of regional advisors helped keep everyone in line and informed. Contrary to the attacks that led to the Safari’s tour cancellation, an early 1957 survey by a leading safety organization to the nation's police departments asking for each department's evaluation of organized hot rod activities told a different story. Of the approximately 300 replies, 73 percent were favorable, 23 percent were noncommittal, and just 4 percent were against hot rodding.

Although his work with the Safari was done, Coons stayed with the NHRA for years before leaving to form Coons Manufacturing, building recreational vehicles and truck campers in Pomona. He eventually retired to Arizona and then to New Mexico, where he lived with his wife, Beverly, until his passing.

As I mentioned, Coons’ passing leaves only Cannon as the remaining member of the famous foursome. Cannon, who is in the process of finishing his autobiography, Gone Racin’ … From Horseback to Horsepower, has fond memories of his times with Coons, with whom he shared living quarters off the road as well, including for a short time a penthouse apartment they shared with custom-car king George Barris (until their wild parties got them tossed out).

“I could tell you some stories,” Cannon said with a laugh when we spoke earlier this week. “We just had a great time together those years, and we couldn’t have asked for a better or more confident leader than Bud. And with his background as a police officer, it really gave us carte blanche at a lot of places. We almost always got a good reception, but it wasn’t always an easy job – a lot of people didn’t like either Bud or me from time to time because of the rules we were helping put into place – but it’s just unreal what the sport became from those first days, and Bud and I remained great friends all these years after.”

Bud Coons, Bud Evans, and Eric Rickman may be gone, but their legacy will remain as long as NHRA Drag Racing storms down the strip.

(Above) Looking every bit like the California surfer he was, Hank Westmoreland received congratulations after his 1969 Springnationals Top Fuel win. (Below) Westmoreland in one of his famous rides, the twin-engine Busby & Banard Top Fueler.

On the subject of passings, I also learned this week that former Top Fuel driver Hank Westmoreland passed away in late April. He was 72.

“Surfer Hank,” whose real first name was Wade and who drove a number of top-quality cars in his years behind the wheel, was really a surfer, and he, car owner Jim Busby, Bob Ekelberger, and Bill Karges were known as the Beach Boys Racing team in the late 1960s.

“We would actually go surfing and then tow the race car to the track with our surfboards still in the van,” said Busby in Tom Madigan’s book, Fuel & Guts. “We were sometimes confused with the Surfers racing team of Tom Jobe, Bob Skinner, and Mike Sorokin. There was also Don ‘the Beachcomber’ Johnson, who ran a Top Fuel car around the same time. It was all part of the California image, and it helped promote drag racing around the country.”

It was in Johnson’s car that Westmoreland won his only NHRA national event, at the 1969 Springnationals in Dallas, and in the wild Busby & Banard twin-engine Top Fueler that Westmoreland had one of his most memorable rides. The car, which featured twin 255-cid dual overhead cam Ford Indy-car-style engines, was voted Best Appearing Car at the 1971 Winternationals but didn’t stick around long -- but not because of its performance. Reportedly, Busby got offers from USAC racers to buy the engines, and when the offers got too good to pass up, Busby sold them.

Westmoreland also drove for Jim and Alison Lee in Top Fuel early in his career, and he had brief stints with the Allen family and Ed Wills and even piloted Fling Traylor’s wild Turbonique-powered U.S. Turbine I before leaving the cockpit and later going to work with Busby, by that time a successful sports-car racer, working on Busby’s IMSA Porsches.

Two more losses to our sport’s history. Two more losses to our family. We’ll miss them, but we won’t forget them.

Thanks for reading. I’ll see you next week. I’ll be in Bristol but, as always, right here for your Friday enjoyment.

Posted by: Phil Burgess

We’ve spent some time already this year talking about the NHRA Springnationals and about its stops at Dallas Int’l Motor Speedway and National Trail Raceway, but it all began 50 years ago at fabulous new Bristol Int'l Dragway in Tennessee, a track that, because of the facility’s unique geography and a finish line that plows between two hilltops and reverberates with nitro noise, became known as “Thunder Valley.”

When it was built, at the cost of a cool $1 million, the track featured a spectacular timing tower that also hosted suites and the media. It was an NHRA member track in those early days, hosting the NHRA Springnationals from 1965-67 before the track owners had a falling-out with NHRA and, oddly enough, the AHRA Spring Nationals for three years after that.

I say “oddly” because in 1971, Larry Carrier, one of the original track owners, formed his own rival sanctioning body, the IHRA, and Bristol became its flagship. Bruton Smith bought the track in 1996 and remade the place to the tune of $18 million, a two-year project that not only included expanding the spectator seating and pit area, but also physically raising the racetrack level by more than 15 feet. In 2000, it returned to the NHRA big time with the Winston Showdown, a unique race that pitted Funny Cars against Top Fuelers in a non-points exhibition. A year later, the Thunder Valley Nationals was born.

The track is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and part of that campaign includes a look back at some of the track’s 50 most memorable moments. You can find a photo gallery of all of them here, but I’ve cherry-picked a few for your enjoyment and to get you in the mood.

A few years later, you couldn’t get these guys in the same room, but prior to the track’s completion, from left, NHRA founder Wally Parks and Chief Starter Buster Couch posed with the track’s original builders, Carl Moore, Larry Carrier, and Hal Hammrick.
Bristol Int'l Dragway opened in June 1965 and hosted the NHRA Springnationals, one of NHRA’s original four events. This is the cover of the souvenir program from the event showing the track’s entrance and its rainbow-sherbet-colored tower. 

Eddie Hill is well-remembered for tearing up chunks of the Indy starting line with his four-tired dragster, but Art Arfons did him one better when his Super Cyclops jet dragster blew large chunks of the starting-line asphalt through the ground-floor windows.

Taking a cue from its West Coast rivals, the track hosted its only “California Fire Up” during its Funny Car and Sports Nationals in 1977, with 32 floppers being started simultaneously.

The late, great “Bad Buddy” Ingersoll convinced the IHRA powers that be to allow his turbocharged V-6 Buick – a killer on the NHRA Comp eliminator tour -- to compete in Pro Stock in 1985 against IHRA’s "mountain motor" machines, and he actually reached the final round. Although Bob Glidden upheld the naturally aspirated honor with his Thunderbird by winning the final, their peers were none too pleased, and Ingersoll’s combination was outlawed weeks later.

Bruton Smith, right, who would go on to also give us amazing venues such as The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and zMAX Dragway, bought Bristol Dragway in 1996 and totally renovated the place. Here, he talked with then NHRA President Dallas Gardner, center, and NHRA’s then media manager, the late Denny Darnell.

With help from Kenny Bernstein, the original tower was demolished in 1998 to make way for today’s tower.

Here’s pretty much how the track looks today after expanded seating and suites were added above the grandstands in 2005.

So there's a quick walk down Memory Lane for Bristol Dragway. Be sure to check out its website for the other great moments in track history.

I’ll be returning there in a few weeks for this year’s event, and I can’t wait to watch the next chapter unfold. It’s a great and unique place to see a national event, and I highly recommend it.

Posted by: Phil Burgess

We lost Funny Car great Gary Burgin last Sunday, another passing of a fine racer who forever etched his name and his cars into our memory banks.

Burgin liked to brag that he had never driven anything down the dragstrip that didn’t have a blower on it, from his earliest days in the A/Gas Supercharged class through his great Funny Car career (and even the occasional Top Fuel ride). He was a prolific match racer and steady national event competitor, even if his final record showed just two NHRA national event Wallys on the shelf, which, as we’ve learned over time, is just one measure of a racer.

Yet despite his uncanny success on the match race trail, the guy whom we came to know as the “Orange Baron” – he lived in Southern California’s Orange County, but, as you'll read later, that wasn't how he got the name -- forever carved his place in the history and trivia books when he defeated Don Prudhomme in the final round of the 1976 U.S. Nationals, the guy who stopped the sport’s first perfect season dead in its tracks at the most high-profile event on the tour.

When he arrived in Indy, Prudhomme hadn't been beaten since the previous year’s U.S. Nationals, where he fell to Raymond Beadle. Already in 1976, he had won the Winternationals, Gatornationals, Springnationals, Summernationals, and Le Grandnational and didn’t seem to have a performance rival on the stage. Looking through past issues of National Dragster, though, it’s clear that Burgin had a killer car that year and dominated the East Coast match racing scene – far from home and, for whatever reason, seldom on the same track as “the Snake” -- with wins and track records that came in bunches. The smart followers knew what he was capable of, and he showed it that Labor Day weekend.

Burgin made a mind-boggling 12 runs during the Nationals (remember, this was before scheduled qualifying sessions), which included consistent qualifying shots of 6.16, 6.14, and finally a best of 6.12. Prudhomme still looked unbeatable with a national record blast of 5.97 in qualifying and subsequent runs of 6.03, 6.05, and 6.13 before eliminations. Come race day, Prudhomme ran 6.05, 6.13, and 6.15 prior to the final; by comparison, Burgin had run 6.12 and a pair of 6.21s. Advantage, “Snake,” no? No.

Burgin had showed his chops in round two, where he set top speed of the meet at 238.09 mph – the second-fastest speed in class history behind the 241-mph blast by Prudhomme at the 1975 World Finals -- and, after beating 1975 Indy champ Beadle in the semifinals, Burgin took down “the Snake” in the final. Prudhomme’s Army Monza shook violently and smoked the tires to a losing 6.46, 226.70 while Burgin ran 6.25 at an impressive 237.46 mph.

Burgin began his racing career in 1963, helping Dave Braskett campaign an A/GS Willys. After Braskett crashed the car at Irwindale Raceway in 1966, Burgin took over the driver’s seat and later got his own A/GS roadster, also supercharged. “I wanted to go fast right away, so I never messed around with carburetors or fuel injection,” he said.
By the end of the 1960s, it was clear that Funny Cars were the next big thing, and he reunited with Braskett on first a Camaro and then a Vega that not only became a fixture on the Southern California scene, but also set the national record at 6.72 at Lions Drag Strip’s 1972 Grand Premiere (a race that ended with him upside down on the guardrail after a collision with fellow competitor Joe Winter).

After Braskett retired following the 1972 campaign, Burgin switched briefly to Top Fuel and drove Jim Thomas’ Genuine Suspension entry in 1973, then went back to the flops in 1974 behind the wheel of Jim Glenn’s Shady Glenn Dodge Charger, with which he won the Division 7 championship.
After finishing eighth in the 1974 points standings, Burgin went out on his own in 1975 with his new Jaime Sarte-built Mustang and finished a career-high second in the standings behind Prudhomme in 1975, but due to his extensive match race schedule in 1976 (65 dates prior to Indy), even his Indy win couldn’t carry him into the top 10 again. Burgin would, however, finish in the top 10 three more times (eighth in 1977, fifth in 1981, and seventh in 1982). The 1979 season marked the debut of a new Sarte-built Mustang that carried him to his second victory, at the Springnationals, where he stopped world champ Beadle in the final. He almost won the Big Go again, in 1982, but lost in the final round to Billy Meyer.


Even though he was still winning and doing well on the match race scene – and even landed a small sponsorship deal that 1979 season with Pete Rose’s new Supercharg’r Bar energy bar -- the bookings were beginning to dry up.


“When the match races were at their peak during the mid-1970s, a lot of tracks could book four to five nitro shows a year,” Burgin told National Dragster in 2013. “But as our expenses went up, so did the appearance fees, and eventually, the dragstrips backed down to two or three nitro match races a year. So I went from about 70 bookings a season down to 40 or less, which wasn’t enough to cover my expenses. And because I wasn’t like Billy Meyer when it came to obtaining corporate sponsors, I had no choice but to pull the plug with my own race car operations in 1983.”

Burgin was more than a great driver; he was a cerebral racer, too, capable of driving and tuning and knowing how the pieces interlocked. A few weeks ago, Prudhomme himself paid Burgin a huge compliment during an interview we were doing, saying, “He was very, very good and a very bright guy. He was one of those guys who could not only drive but really understood the engine.”

Gary and Gerry Burgin, in an image posted on her Facebook page.

I spoke to his wife, Gerry, earlier this week to express our condolences and to get her thoughts about the man to whom she was married for nearly 45 years. She was there for his glory days of Funny Car racing, and although her ability to travel was limited due to their young twin daughters, Sara and Reina, she did fly to a lot of races, and she was there for her husband’s grand moment in Indy.

“He loved the racing and loved working on the cars, but he wasn’t really a people person; that was my job,” she said, and I could almost detect over the phone a small grin at the happy memory. “He was all business at the racetrack.

“There was a reporter who once interviewed him after a run, asking Gary to tell him what happened on the run. Gary, being a very technical guy, told him the technical things that happened, and the guy just kinda looked at him like, ‘Uh, and what does that mean?’ and Gary just said, ‘I’m done with this interview.’ He was never one who liked to be in the spotlight.

“He was a quiet man, and he was very smart. He wasn’t much of a reader unless it was an instruction manual, and then he’d read it cover to cover, and then it was in his head, and he just knew it.”

Burgin’s mechanical brains didn’t come in college, where he actually majored in marketing, which returns us to my earlier tease about the origin of his “Orange Baron” nickname and the imaginative logo shown at right of a World War I-vintage triplane and pilot with a fluttering scarf. It’s another classic Dragster Insider moment that I live for, finding out those “stories behind the stories” that I live and breathe for.

“Gary tried and tried to get a big sponsor but never could,” Gerry told me, “and he actually created the ‘Orange Baron’ name when he was trying to get a sponsorship with an orange juice company. It didn’t have anything to do with where we lived. He came up with the logo and everything, and even though the deal never came through, he kept the logo on his letterhead ever since.”

Her memories of her husband’s big win in Indy are still fresh in her mind, and, again, the joy of them was clear in her voice as we spoke.

"Oh my gosh; that was the most exciting day,” she said. “I was so excited that I just climbed into the back of the truck to pick him up and was jumping up and down in the back of the truck. I got grease all over my feet from the [fifth-wheel hitch], but I didn’t mind.”

She was just happy that her husband had finally achieved one of his goals and was quick to remind me that he won again a few years later in Columbus.

After he stopped driving in 1983, Burgin went on to tune for the likes of Jody Smart, Al Segrini, and Tom McEwen during the next couple of years but found his real second calling when Swedish Top Fuel racer Pelle Lindelow asked him to build a couple of Hemi engines and fly overseas to help him compete in the FIA European Drag Racing Championship Series. The Europeans were impressed, and before long, Burgin was flying to Europe six or seven times a year to assist his growing list of clients.

Burgin eventually formed Gary Burgin Enterprises, which exported everything from complete engine packages to related car components to racers around the globe.

“We’re basically an international one-stop shop for anyone racing with supercharged drag racing engines,” he said in our 2013 interview. “We now have about 500 customers from all over the world.”

The expansion into the global market allowed others around the world to know what we already knew – that Gary Burgin was one helluva nitro racer. He’ll be missed. 

Posted by: Phil Burgess
Steve Reyes photos

I don’t know who illustrated the reading you did as a kid, whether it was Dr. Seuss or Charles Schulz or Sergio Aragones, but for me, my favorite reading was usually accompanied by the photographs of Jim Kelly, one of our sport’s most prolific and greatest photographers, whose work filled the pages of magazines such as Drag Racing USA and guided this nascent fan’s journey and infatuation with the sport.

Guys like him, Steve Reyes, our own Leslie Lovett, Jere Alhadeff, Alan Earman, Jon Asher, John Shanks, Paul Sadler, Tim Marshall, Barry Wiggins, and many others were my eyes and ears for a wonderful sport happening beyond the boundaries of my pre-car teenage days, whisking me off to Beeline, Tulsa, Spokane, Green Valley, Maple Grove, Capitol, or wherever they chased the racing and brought it to my bedroom. There's little doubt that their memorable work -- I can still repeat great passages from their reports and instantly recognize photos and their location, date, and significance -- inspired me to join their world years later.

We lost Kelly earlier this week to the cancer he had fought and fought hard, and a little bit of all of us who lived those years died with him. Just reading the comments posted on Facebook pages by his peers and even the racers he worked with back in the day brings home what he meant to so many.

I’ll be honest; other than by reputation and a casual “How’s it going?” I hardly knew Kelly at all, but I always wanted to. I remember seeing him a few years ago at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood for the premiere of the Snake & Mongoose movie. I asked if he’d like to sit down and talk about those golden days on the road, but he politely declined. “I’m pretty much over all of those old days,” he said plainly, and I understood. I know there’s more to that story and reasons that I won’t go into here, but because I never got the chance to tell his story, I reached out to those who did know him, intimately, and will let them tell us all about him.

Here’s what I do know about Kelly, as gleaned from an article that he wrote about himself in the April 1975 Issue of DRUSA.

He started out on the other side of the camera, racing his ‘56 Austin Healey at places like Lions, San Gabriel, Riverside, San Fernando, Colton, and Bakersfield, and was pretty successful. Like many racers, he would buy photos of his car from local track photographers, including a fellow named Al Johns, who was a contributor to Drag News. When the Healey was totaled in a street-car accident, he knew that he wanted to stay in the sport and, realizing all of the money he had spent buying photos of his car, decided that photography might be the way to do it. Easier said than done.

“Boy, were my pictures bad,” he wrote. He got some advice from Johns and continued shooting for his own personal collection. Then one fateful day in May 1962, Johns didn’t have a shot that Drag News needed, and he asked Kelly to look through his own shots. Kelly had the photo, it got published, and Drag News publisher Doris Herbert thanked Kelly by giving him his first press card. And the rest, as we say, is history. Before long, he and Phil Bellomy had their own magazine, Drag Sport Illustrated, that specialized, as the name might indicate, in high-quality and larger photos. The racers loved it, but it only lasted three years. In 1963, he went on tour with Tommy Ivo as a crewmember and, naturally, brought along his camera and sent back photos of everyone and everything he saw and became fast friends with the era’s top racers, who admired his work.

With a reputation now as his calling card, he got work from everyone. He traveled to England for the 1963 U.S. Drag Team meet and covered it for Super Stock & Drag Illustrated, where he went to work after DSI died. He had a short stint in his dream job at Petersen Publishing, home to Hot Rod and other great titles, and eventually became the official photographer for the AHRA and, eventually, editor of its magazine, Drag World.

In the article, Kelly credited Asher for their partnership in those AHRA days as being the guy who put the words with his photos, and, fittingly, it has been Asher who kept us all up to date these late few weeks on Kelly’s condition, and it is Asher who kicks off the memories here. (You can find the full text of his remembrances, as well as some great photos, here.)

“James E. Kelly,” Asher wrote, “was so much more than ‘just’ a photographer. He was a friend to so many people both in and out of our little world of drag racing. He was thoughtful in ways both big and small. If you were among his inner circle you’d long since lost the ability to be surprised at the little unexpected gifts he’d send, because those gifts would arrive sporadically and seemingly out of nowhere.
“We met on Aug. 13, 1966, at Capitol Raceway Park outside of Baltimore. The event was billed as the 1st Annual King of Kings Funny Car Invitational. I thought I was hot stuff because I was shooting for Dodge (covering the Gary Dyer-driven Mr. Norm’s Grand-Spaulding Dodge altered wheelbase ‘65 Coronet), but in actuality, I knew nothing. Kelly sensed that, and so did the guy he introduced me to, Jeff Tinsley (who would go on to become a photographer for the prestigious Smithsonian Institute). They and every other shooter on the scene made fun of me because I not only didn’t know what a strobe light was, I was shooting with flashbulbs, dropping the dead ones on the ground after each shot. I’m embarrassed even thinking about it, but Kelly was cool, even taking me aside to ask some pointed questions about what I was doing and what I knew about photography and drag racing. My lack of knowledge was more than obvious.

Wherever Jim Kelly went, he was surrounded by friends and fellow photographers, many of whom owed their careers to him. (Above) In Gainesville, circa mid-1980s, from left, are Tim Marshall, Jon Asher, Kelly, Leslie Lovett, Steve Reyes, and Bob McClurg. (Below) Kelly made it out to the starting line one last time at the recent Las Vegas event. From left are Kelly, Richard Brady, Asher, and Ron Lewis.

“Just by observing how Kelly dealt with the AHRA managers, and how he approached things when selling photos to the likes of Super Stock & Drag Illustrated, Drag Racing, Drag Strip, Popular Hot Rodding, Hot Rod Magazine, and too many others to list here taught me volumes. As much fun as Kelly was having, he always treated photojournalism as a business. He taught me that as much as I might love drag racing, there was no point in spending the time and effort it took to do it if it didn’t produce enough revenue to make a living. He was the first one I heard say something like, 'The bank isn’t going to accept a photo credit in place of the house payment. You have to get paid for what you do.' He was oh so right.

“He loved to laugh, and he loved practical jokes. Mike Brenner, who was then shooting for SS&DI (I think), shared a room with us at the Holiday Inn in Bristol in 1969. The mirror in the bathroom was surrounded by screw-in 100-watt bulbs, but when I left the room (a mistake I rarely made again), Kelly and Brenner replaced every bulb with giant screw-in flash bulbs. They then conned me into turning on the lights, but luckily for me, I was partially turned away when the lightning struck. Every bulb went off with a bang -- and every light in the hotel went out. The power surge literally melted a huge junction box that was located right behind the wall of our room. Within seconds the flash bulbs had been replaced with regular bulbs, and the three times the hotel staff knocked on our door asking if we’d done anything with the power, we played dumb. Power was restored some six hours later. Kelly spent most of those hours quietly chuckling.

“In some ways it’s unfortunate that so many of today’s younger drivers never got a chance to meet Kelly, or witness the artistic merits of his sensational photography. I’m sure that Jack Beckman, who is a true historian of the sport, knows who Kelly was and what he did, but sadly, few others of the current generation are likely to know his name. What Kelly did was to chronicle history with a series of Nikon cameras. None of us thought we were doing anything that meaningful, but in reality, Kelly really was. He was creating images that would help spread the word about drag racing. His photos of West Coast competitors found their way into East Coast publications and vice versa. His memorable images of the AHRA Grand American Series helped make drivers like Hall of Famers ‘Mad Dog’ Don Cook and ‘Kansas John’ Wiebe into nationally known racers. He did the same for his close friends ‘TV’ Tom Ivo and Tom ‘the Mongoose’ McEwen. Not intentionally, probably, but nevertheless, Kelly helped make those racers familiar to fans from coast to coast. And, when he went to Europe with a team of American racers, he produced the first really meaningful international media coverage the sport had ever received.

“Kelly made a surprise visit to the spring race in his hometown of Las Vegas in April, where he was warmly greeted by the older shooters and ignored by the younger group -- until they found out who he was. It was nice to see how many of them asked to be introduced. It just demonstrated how important to drag racing his work had been, and the younger guys knew it.

Even the broken leg that Asher mentions couldn't slow down Kelly. Steve Reyes took this great photo of Kelly shooting a car feature on Don Cook at Lions.

“We shared everything on our journeys -- until the fateful day 45 years ago when Kelly and his gorgeous companion were cruising down Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles on his motorcycle and a car turned in front of them. They hit the car and flew over it, Kelly ending up with a broken leg and his companion with painful scabs in the most uncomfortable of places. That ended the 'sharing.' For the next three months or more I not only had to carry all my gear, I had to carry his, too. That also meant loading and unloading everything from the Cadillac and carrying it into the hotels we stayed at. Kelly always did the check-in, and I swear he asked for upstairs rooms just to watch me struggling up to our room.

“When Pat Minick and the Chi-Town Hustler Dodge Charger began doing the monster burnouts that made them famous, I called Kelly from my place in Chicago and told him how they were going to knock ‘em dead when they came to the coast in October. I was there when they ran at Orange County for the first time, and after the first burnout the announcer told the crowd that I was the one who’d 'invented' the big burnouts. It wasn’t even remotely true, but it was just one of those things that Kelly did for people. He wanted everyone to be famous for something, even 'inventing' a burnout.

“When Kelly is mentioned to drag racing’s most well-known competitors and builders, his name brings a smile to their faces. That he built lifelong relationships and friendships with the likes of Tom Ivo, Shirley Muldowney (who he introduced me to in 1969), Tom McEwen, Drag Racer Magazine editor Pete Ward, parts manufacturer Sid Waterman, and so very many others should come as no surprise. His outgoing personality, professionalism, and obviously sincere love of drag racing was evident to everyone he came in contact with. And he never forgot those friendships despite the passing of years or career changes. He remained close with his old high school buddy Don Gregory – who took him to his first drag race (slightly after the invention of the wheel), just as he did with Don Prieto, who got him into the car hustling business, providing vehicles for media evaluations, about three decades ago. If you were Kelly’s friend, you were friends for life. And, when you really think about it, the best of all of those little gifts and goodies Kelly was always sending your way was that friendship. It’s something I’ll never forget."

Bret Kepner, right, with Kelly and his wife, Suzy, who for years also contributed to the sport as a social columnist.

Bret Kepner also wrote a wonderful piece on Kelly, which, again, I will only excerpt here -- you can read the full version here – but, as always, Kepner nailed it.

“Within the drag racing mainstream, Jim Kelly will forever be known for his amazing photographic work. For those deep within the sport, he will live forever in the careers of the many to whom he gave guidance, wisdom, and purpose. Kelly’s legacy was not defined by color center spreads or circulation numbers. Possibly more than any other person, Jim Kelly was responsible for the rest of the drag racing media.

“While he held the ear of most important individuals within the industry, Kelly also had an eye for new talent. When he found somebody whom he believed could better serve the sport, Kelly nurtured their skills and often even became a father figure to help them develop spiritually and intellectually. If their work deserved it, Kelly would either hire the newcomer for his own use or send them to other businesses where they could perform to the best of their abilities. These ‘students’ included other photographers, journalists, technical writers, salesmen, and even drivers and mechanics. Jim Kelly was the sport’s 'headhunter.'

“When Jim Kelly eventually retired to Las Vegas in the last decade of the 20th century, he bore witness to the sport’s evolution from its earliest days to its modern entertainment principles. Throughout the metamorphosis, however, the sport grew and improved because of people Jim Kelly found and brought into drag racing. Moreover, Kelly maintained a relationship with virtually everyone he ever knew. The loyalty of his friendship was renowned.

“In that same half-century, it would be nearly impossible to find a photographer, writer, or adman who didn’t owe Jim Kelly a debt. In many cases, it would be difficult to find people in those same lines who didn’t owe Jim Kelly their livelihood. In the end, there were a surprising number of folks who simply owed Jim Kelly their entire existence. Most of the biggest names in drag racing media were simply 'made' by Jim Kelly. His own contributions to the sport, as well as those he made through his mentoring of others, were finally recognized in 2003 when Kelly became one of only a handful of drag racing media members inducted into Don Garlits’ International Drag Racing Hall of Fame.

“Jim Kelly will be mourned throughout the sport of drag racing. Many will extoll the loss of a true artist. Even more will remember his relentless pursuit of excellence for the manner in which the sport is reported. Within the group enduring the loss, however, will be hundreds to whom Jim Kelly gave the greatest possible gift, a direction in life."


(Above) Kelly with wheelstander great "Wild Bill" Shrewsberry. (Below) Doing a little light reading in an unusual place.
Kelly, center, with longtime pals Don "the Wavemaker" Prieto and "TV Tommy" Ivo

Dave Wallace Jr., whose father himself was a drag racing photographer and who followed Dad into the reporting biz, remembered Kelly’s earliest days at the track.

“Kelly was already a celebrity the first time I saw him at San Fernando Drag Strip, circa 1962. It must've been wintertime, because famous photographers almost never came to The Pond unless one or more of the bigger L.A. strips got rained out. Kelly never big-timed anybody out there. He was always friendly and complimentary to my father, who might've been the only published track reporter-photographer shooting Polaroid film (enabling Monday delivery of 'instant' B&W photos to the drag weeklies in time for that week's editions). Kelly knew the rules and obeyed them, getting great shots without demanding special access. I never saw him big-time anyone, but you knew he was someone special by the way other photographers reverentially clustered around him between runs, sucking up the stories. That scene repeated itself wherever Kelly appeared for as long as he shot photos. ‘Diamond Jim’ owned every photographers' area.

"Kelly was in the center of one of those circles the Sunday I finally worked up the courage to introduce myself, soon after Dave Jr.'s byline succeeded Dave Sr.'s in Drag News and Drag Sport Illustrated. Big, big mistake; the experience was so painful that it seems like a year or so ago, not a half-century. The last thing a skinny, insecure 15-year-old writer needed or expected was needling inflicted by one of his journalistic heroes, let alone in the company of other, older photographers. My youth and inexperience were easy targets. Seeking only to blend into a club I desperately wanted to join, I became its punching bag. The joke was on me. Everyone laughed. It seemed like forever before the action resumed and I could slink away. I tried to hold a smile through the whole ordeal, but one of the other guys, a stranger, must've felt my pain. Whoever he was tracked me down in the trophy room to say something like, ‘You must be OK with Kelly; he doesn't break balls unless he likes a guy, you know.’ I learned a lasting lesson that Sunday about the man, and about life.

"Most of the memories we shared were made in the mid-'70s, in Jim Tice's employment. He was pulling double duty as AHRA photographer and Drag World editor. I was OCIR's PR guy, second in command, and backup announcer. Whenever Kelly returned to California to cover AHRA's back-to-back Grand American meets at OCIR and Fremont, he sought me out during and between events for more ball-breaking, along with an occasional meal away from the madness. One day in my ground-floor office in OCIR's tower, he pulled a fresh stack of Drag World issues out of his briefcase, handed me one, and asked my opinion of his work. When I turned to a spread showing jam-packed bleachers down both sides of some AHRA track, shot from behind the starting line, he stopped me and asked, 'Do you notice anything unusual about these two photos?' Hard as I tried, I did not. Finally, he reminded me that this strip had grandstands along one lane, only. By printing a second crowd shot backwards, Kelly created the impression that AHRA had put twice as many butts in the bleachers.

“He was the Ansel Adams of drag racing photographer, a gentle giant of our sport, and one of the best friends I ever had, on or off the track.”

Reyes was another of Kelly’s traveling buddies and shared a few memories with me.

“We drove together and shared motel rooms, food, cameras, film, and sometimes women,” he wrote. “Kelly and I drove together to Gainesville in 1974. We drove 54 hours straight in Kelly’s van from L.A. I would also tour with Asher, and we would hook up with Kelly at the racetrack. At West Marion, Ohio, we got rained out, so I showed Asher and Kelly how the game of eight ball is played. Neither Asher nor Kelly would ever play pool with me again. Kelly was a big-time NFL football fan, and when he found out I had been attending NFL games (49ers and the first seasons of Oakland Raiders) when I was 3 years old to 14 years old, he thought that was the greatest thing since sliced bread. He liked hearing about all the Hall of Fame players I saw play; his eyes would light up when I began one of my NFL stories.

“He and I did a few goofy things, including setting a motel room on fire while trying to cook on a mini barbecue in our room. When I wasn’t touring the match race circuit, we all at one time traveled together -- me, McClurg, Marshall, Asher, [Don] Gillespie, [Norman] Blake, [Richard] Brady and, of course, Kelly. None of us were making big money, so we kind of traveled as a unit from major race to major race. We all (except Asher) processed film and did prints in a motel bathtub. Kelly did it for Drag World, and I did it for Drag News and sometimes National Dragster.

"Kelly paid me the best compliment I ever had early in my career. He told some of the early California drag racing photographers (including Lovett) that he hoped I never discovered color film or they would all be in trouble.

“Yeah, I cried when I heard he had passed; he was a mentor to me and a friend.”

Wrote Alhadeff, "Kelly was a spark in the life of everyone who knew him. He made it look so easy and encouraged all of us to do our best. I learned that we were all in this together and that WE SHOULD HAVE FUN! This photo is Kelly at San Fernando showing off the latest Polaroid and teasing us that with it he would put us all out of business! I will always smile when I think of him."

"About 40 years ago, I was two months into my four-month hospital stay after an accident. I hadn't heard from Kelly in a while and was surprised one morning when he walked into my room eating from a bag of potato chips. He told me that he had to come see me because I was the only one who visited him at home when he was recuperating with a broken leg after a motorcycle accident in the late 1960s. We both laughed, and then he crumpled up the potato chip bag and lifted up the mattress on my hospital bed and placed the bag underneath it. I explained to him that the last thing I needed in my hospital bed was ants! We both laughed some more, and he removed the bag and took it with him.

"In the early 1970s, Kelly was working at AHRA as their press guy and was determined to increase their professionalism. He mailed me one of the first AHRA press cards and explained that all I had to do was show it at an event to get press/photo credentials. Fremont, in the San Francisco Bay area, was at that time AHRA and was holding an AHRA national event. Following Kelly's directions, I showed up at the event and flashed my AHRA press card at the press gate. The guy at the gate looked at both sides of the card and asked if I had an NHRA press card. I asked him why I would need an NHRA press card at an AHRA event? I knew at that moment that Kelly had his work cut out for him if these people didn't even have credibility with themselves. When I later told Kelly about this encounter, all he could do was shake his head.

“Kelly was a great soul. He was unique and deserves praise and thanks from every drag race photographer he preceded.”

“This was when Kelly was the track photographer at OCIR," Alhadeff remembers. Shrewsberry was doing wheelies and suddenly stopped next to where Kelly was shooting and motioned him to get into the L.A. Dart. Kelly quickly set down his camera and got in. He then smiled at me from the passenger window as they flew by. He was ever the showman.”

Jim McCraw, who has written for just about every car magazine out there as well as many high-profile magazines outside our universe, called Kelly “a legendary figure in the art of drag racing photography, a funny, stylish man with a heart as big as California, and a great friend.”

McCraw posted the funny photo of Kelly at right on his Facebook page and forwarded it and his comments to me for inclusion here.

“I wasn't going to show this photo, because I've always considered it private and personal,” he wrote, “but in Jim Kelly's honor, and to show just what kind of wonderful nut he was, here is Jim Kelly in a photo, obviously shot by someone else, standing on the passenger pegs of his Honda 750, riding down Ventura Boulevard in the Valley, with a grease pencil notation in his own handwriting saying, ‘World's Fastest Sissy Bar.’ He gave me this print, I hung it on my bulletin board at Hot Rod magazine, and the next time he came in, he grabbed a grease pencil and rewrote the notation, rather sloppily, to read 'World's Fattest Sissy Bar.'
"I loved him, and I'm going to miss him for a long, long time.”

Shute took this neat photo of Kelly with Don Schumacher, for whom he had once served as a public relations guy back during Schumacher’s driving days.

Richard Shute, owner of the prolific Auto Imagery empire that today services many racers in the way that Kelly did, remembers his first meeting with Kelly, at Orange County Int’l Raceway in the early 1970s.

“I had not been shooting very long at trackside,” he remembers. “I was sitting on that big white utility box in the little triangle area by the tower. I think it was a PDA or Grand American event, and I had really no experience shooting fuel cars. So I saw Kelly -- I knew who he was, as did anyone that followed our sport back then -- walking from the staging lanes along the guardrail, stopping, turning around looking back towards the bleach box, walking a little further downtrack, stopping , looking back, and continuing down to maybe 300 feet. Then he walked back along the same guardrail towards the tower. I jumped down to go introduce myself, and I asked him what he was doing. This was to be my first lesson in shooting drag racing correctly. He explained that he was picking out backgrounds that he wanted, and that he would come out with the lenses that created the scene he wanted, incorporating those backgrounds. He taught me the importance of what is seen behind the cars. Lovett summed it up later for me: long glass on Thursday and Friday, wide angles on Saturday and Sunday to show off the crowds. Kelly gave me his business card and told me if I had any other questions, to please just ask or call. At the bottom of his business card, it stated, ‘Over a decade of Drag Racing Photography.’ As I walked away and thought about what he just told me, I couldn't help but think to myself, 'How the hell do you do this for a decade?' Kelly and I spoke often back in the ‘70s, and he continued to teach me that this is a business, and to treat it as such.

“Much of what I do today and how I do it goes back to that dumb kid walking up to Kelly that day, decades ago. He was a mentor, a business advisor, a hero, and most of all, a friend. Wiggins and I had a nickname for him; we called him ‘National.’ I saw him as my ‘National Hero.’ My words cannot convey how much I owe Kelly and what a profound loss I feel. Thank you, Jim Kelly, and may you rest in peace.”

The loss of Kelly is just the latest of many I’ve seen in my years in the midst of some of the most fun and dedicated chroniclers of our sport. Of course, the losses of our own Leslie Lovett and Bill Crites are among the more painful, but the list is long and filled with great talents, including others with whom I worked at National Dragster or in their time after they left here, most notably my mentor, John Raffa, as well as guys like Dick Wells, Steve Evans, and Eric Brooks. In the last few decades, we’ve lost great drag journalists and photographers like Steve Collison, Woody Hatten, Eric Rickman, Gray Baskerville, Les Welch, and Pete Pesterre; electronic-reporting pioneers like Ed Dykes, Mike Hollander, and Darryl Jackman; and industry leaders like Robert E. Petersen, Tom McMullen, and Tom Senter, most of whom I knew to some degree and all of whom I greatly respected.

We’re still a tight bunch, those of us today who travel to and from events by air instead of in someone’s van, and at every race, it’s great to see the same faces along the guardwalls and in the media centers, all carrying on the tradition, and all doing our best to keep alive the torch passed to us by the guys I’ve mentioned. I’m proud to be in the club, that’s for sure.

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