You do not want to piss off this guy.
“You’re going to make me pull out what little hair I have left!”
That was the way my Monday began. On the other end of the phone was Larry Sutton, and he didn’t sound very happy.
Sutton, of course, is Southern California’s most famous starter and was at the controls of the Christmas Tree that launched Don Prudhomme and John Wiebe to their controversial dual 6.17s to kick off Lions Dragstrip’s 1972 season at the memorable Grand Premiere event about which I wrote last week.
Sutton began working at Lions as a teenager handing out time slips and by late 1959 was the chief starter, a position he held for the track’s remaining 13 seasons, so, as you can imagine, he holds a very large and soft spot in his heart for “the Beach.” He was good-naturedly bristling this fine morning that I would even suggest that Lions’ clocks could be called into question. We’ve had a good relationship for decades, cemented no doubt by the column I wrote about him here back in 2008 [The Good Guy in the Black Cowboy Hat], but it was still cool to hear him in a bit of a huff.
“Lions was always on the cutting edge when it came to the clocks,” he insisted. “We were part of Chrondek’s testing group, and we were constantly upgrading the clocks to the newest and greatest thing. We always had good clocks. As to any funny stuff with the clocks, it would not happen. There was never a phony e.t. or time slip given at Lions. There was never any B.S.
“Why was Lions always so quick? The track itself was very good. It had a very dense asphalt, like none I’ve ever been on, and we never scraped any rubber off the track. We would take a firehose and Tide and a street sweeper to scrub the track, which is why there was never any oil on the track. VHT was a local manufacturer and helped us out with product; they would give us drums of the stuff [traction compound], and we used it a lot. We were constantly prepping the track, which was not common in those days. The air was so good, and we had the best racers from throughout the nation coming to Lions.”
In the days since the column printed, I’ve also exchanged numerous emails with Wiebe and heard (twice) from two longtime Insider readers whose names should be familiar to longtime column readers: Lions regulars Robert Nielsen and Cliff Morgan. I didn’t think people would accept the challenge of stumping for legit or not.
There are several unknowns that make this a tough call, not the least of which is the lack of reaction times or other incremental times like we know today. The other is Wiebe’s memory, which, while still sharp, still is trying to refire 43-year synapses. It’s his recollection that he was just a few feet behind Prudhomme at the finish line that raises the most eyebrows considering his big starting-line deficit.
“One important thing to remember that current drivers are probably not aware of is that if you are in a rear-engine and see only your opponent’s front tires, you might be very close in the lights,” Wiebe explained. “In a front-engine, you sat so much further back you saw more of the opponent’s car in the lights. That is why my memory bank says about half-a-car.
“The e.t. is probably disputable,” he admits, “but not the close finish.”
In a classic slingshot vs. rear-engine dragster match, John Wiebe, near lane, defeated Jeb Allen in the semifinals of the 1972 Grand Premiere with a 6.41 best, then improved more than two-tenths to a 6.17 in the final. Possible?
Nielsen’s debating skills have become legendary, so I knew when he began his email with “There is ABSOLUTELY POSITIVELY no way both of these cars could have run 6.17 in that specific race,” I was in for some interesting reading.
His first position was similar to one that Prudhomme had suggested, that a drop of more than two-tenths in one round (Prudhomme’s previous best was 6.39, Wiebe’s 6.41) was a big hurdle.
“I would like to think that fabled Lions starting-line bite could have caused this dramatic improvement, but that, too, is unreasonable. I would challenge anyone to come up with another example of this type of performance gain for one round of racing only to have the cars then go back to what they were running after that single round. In drag racing, that just plain does not happen.
“All right, that is the subjective argument. Now, let us look at this particular run from a more analytical perspective and how the race actually played out. For sake of argument, let us first assume one of the cars did in fact actually run a 6.17. If we look at the starting-line photographs, they clearly show Wiebe being dead late off the starting line. Wiebe was able to nearly make up this starting-line deficit by the time they got to the finish line (confirmed by Wiebe’s recollection: ‘I chased him down and actually thought that I had won based on how much of his car I could see at the finish line.’)
“In order for Wiebe to make up the starting deficit, he would have had to run a faster elapsed time than Prudhomme. Therefore, there is absolutely no way Wiebe and Prudhomme could have run almost identical elapsed times under this scenario. Prudhomme’s elapsed time had to have been slower than Wiebe’s!”
Because reaction times and 60-foot times were not recorded (according to Nielsen, Lions never had reaction-time clocks let alone incremental timers), he put together some assumptions based on estimated wheelbase and 60-foot clockings (since the best photo shows Prudhomme about 60 feet into his run).
Nielsen estimated Wiebe’s wheelbase at 240 inches and did some fancy calculating about how long it would take his car to cover that first 60 feet, and although the numbers he used were not accurate, he estimated that Wiebe would have had to run more than two-tenths quicker than Prudhomme to make up the distance shown in the photograph.
(Wiebe does not remember the exact length of his car, so I did some comparative shopping. Don Garlits writes in his book, Don Garlits and His Cars, that his Swamp Rat 13 slingshot, built in late 1969, was 220 inches, and multiple sources report that Swamp Rat 14, his first rear-engine car, was — surprise — only 215 inches in wheelbase; Wiebe’s slingshot was built in 1970 by Roy Fjastad at SPE, so I think 240 might be a bit of a stretch, so to speak.)
Flipping the script the other way and assuming that Wiebe did really run 6.17 (which he has said he believes) means Prudhomme would have run somewhere near his previous runs (low 6.30s to mid-6.40s) for him to surrender his big lead so that they arrive together at the finish line.
Finally, Nielsen posits the theory that Wiebe’s low slung chassis allowed the elapsed time clocks to start when the rear tires cleared the beams (about a 20-foot advantage), which his (albeit flawed) math again showed to be more than two-tenths of a second, meaning that if Prudhomme actually did run 6.17, Wiebe ran somewhere back in the low- to mid-6.40s, which was what he had run in previous rounds.
(Wiebe’s response: “I don't think I would argue with the guy. Some of his numbers might be inflated and maybe not; a lot of fans are smarter than a lot of racers I have discovered.”)
This whole thread is wearing me out. What about you, "Kansas John"? Thought so.
I sent Nielsen’s theories to Morgan, another regular attendee at Lions shows, and he weighed in, “Wiebe's car wasn't 240-inch chassis, probably more like 200 inches, give or take. Front-motor cars were not that long, and 220 inches is about the most I remember for those cars. The 60-foot time would have been way slower than today’s cars, maybe 1.5 seconds (??). I agree that ‘Snake’ put a car length on Wiebe at the start, so say he was maybe a tenth better off the line. So for ‘the Weeb’ to make that time up, he would have had to run real close to .10 quicker than ‘Snake’, just to be even with him at the finish. Did the fact that Wiebe's car didn't have the front body on it have anything to do with the times? Back then, the front wheels were what broke the beams, both at the start and finish.
“I was at that race, and, of course, the final round is what stands out in my mind. I look back at it now and think, yeah, they could have run those times, but back then I thought they were maybe bogus. I always thought Lions' clocks were honest, but this could have been a malfunction. My vote would be ‘bogus times,’ just based on neither driver even coming close to backing up the 6.17s at that event.
“I think they both had the power to run 6.17 regardless of chassis style. It was getting the power to the ground that was the ‘problem’ then. Interesting that 1972 started off with world record of 6.21, set by Garlits at the 1971 Nats (yes, I know he had a staggered wheelbase), and then 6.17 at Lions, 6.15, 243 by Garlits at the Gators, then a bunch of 6.0s by various racers, and finally the first five by either Tommy Ivo or Mike Snively, and finally, that 5.91 by Don Moody at the Supernats that year. BIG drop in e.t.s, from 6.21 to 5.91. Interesting time in drag racing history.”
(What’s missing from this discussion is the proverbial “hot dog wrapper blowing through the lights” and triggering the e.t. beam prematurely, and although I did receive one anecdotal story that claims, in a roundabout way, that’s what happened, after a lot of consideration, I respectfully decided that what this mystery didn’t need was a grassy knoll.)
Forget “Deflate-gate” — we’ve got Lions-gate on our hands here.
I asked Sutton about the possibility of low-slung cars messing with the timing lights or other trickery that might have come into play from time to time.
“There were always guys trying stuff, like hanging things below their cars; I caught a lot of people doing that,” he remembers. “I would always look at the cars very carefully, and I’d watch the beams as they backed up from their burnouts, and if they didn’t just quickly flash, I knew something was hanging below the car. One guy was really good at it; he was always running fast and winning and never red-lighted. Then I noticed that he would always wait until I turned away to do his dry hop. When I wasn’t looking, he would flip a cog and lower the car. Guys were always trying things.
“I watched that stuff like a hawk, every bit of it. Parachutes, helmets, too low — everything. I was fanatic about it, not just for safety but so we could have a good, fair race. I wasn’t just up there to push a button.”
So we’re ready to move on, right? Wiebe is. Well, except for this one race in 1976.
“Remember when I was runner-up to Tharp at Indy and they said I red-lighted? So did all the other Pro category drivers, and they were all in the left lane as was I with the sun low in the west. We need to speculate on that one.”
Two weeks ago, when I started the 1975 thread with a report on Irwindale Raceway’s wild and wacky Grand Premiere, I mentioned the event’s Lions Drag Strip roots, a race that kicked off the fabled SoCal racing facility’s final season in 1972, and that I would write about it soon. I could tell that quite a few of you were eagerly licking your chops at the prospect because it was the kind of race that left an indelible impression on you whether you saw it firsthand or, like me, read about it in the magazines.
The final headline that came out of the race was the stunning Top Fuel final between Don Prudhomme and John Wiebe in which both ran elapsed times of 6.17 – the quickest in history by a fair margin – and the skepticism cast upon those numbers. The other unforgettable part of the event was that it was, as my good pal Bret Kepner would describe it, “a crashtacular” and included an overbackward Top Fuel wheelstand, an on-track collision between two Funny Cars, plus two nasty fires and a roof-removing blower explosion among the floppers. So much for getting your season off to a good start.
When the 1972 season kicked off at Lions, no one had a clue it would be the beginning of the last waltz for the track. Steve Evans had taken over management of the fabled facility the previous summer and given the place a complete makeover. The death knell – some will say sounded by neighbor complaints of an expanded racing schedule that included a new motocross track – came Aug. 30, when the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners ordered that the racing facility be vacated by Dec. 31 of that year to make way for a scheduled cargo-container holding facility for the greater Los Angeles port district.
So, when the Grand Premiere went into the history books, everyone was just calling it another unforgettable night at “the Beach,” a place that had been the site of so much history and so many great runs in its 17 previous years. No one knew the end was so near.
The track was good, no doubt about it. During Saturday’s NHRA national record session, Tony Nancy also reset the national speed record in Top Fuel to 233.16, and “Dyno Don” Nicholson lowered the Pro Stock e.t. mark to 9.54.
Gary Burgin set the NHRA Funny Car national e.t. record in the Braskett & Burgin Vega Saturday; his Sunday didn't go quite as well.
Gary Burgin, in his and Dave Braskett’s new Vega, ran 6.72 in qualifying to break the 6.80 national record set by Leroy Goldstein and the Candies & Hughes team at the previous year’s World Finals in Amarillo, Texas. As good as Saturday was for Burgin, his Sunday would be disastrous: He would cross the centerline in round one and be rear-ended by opponent Joe Winter, with near-disastrous results.
(Oddly, Burgin’s 6.72 fell well short of the track record, which had been set a month earlier at Lions’ Grand Finale by Bill Leavitt, who ran a stunning series of passes – 6.48, 6.51, and 6.53 – though national records were not available for those runs. And although Burgin got the record, he wasn’t even the low qualifier – that honor fell to Kelly Brown in the Mr. Ed Charger at 6.64 during the non-record-eligible portion of qualifying – and eventual winner Gene Snow ended up with low e.t. for his 6.54 final-round blast against Bobby Rowe’s 6.55. Weird, right?)
Qualifying was also highlighted by Jack Martin’s overbackward Top Fuel powerstand in the Penner-Beach-Martin dragster. Martin’s car launched hard, went near vertical, then pirouetted 90 degrees before slamming down onto its left side and sliding across the centerline and backing into the opposite-lane guardrail. The car was destroyed, but Martin emerged uninjured. Bob McFarland then rode out a hellish fire in his Dodge Demon flopper and was rescued by Mickey Thompson, but not before being severely burned over both legs and part of his torso.
|I was surprised to find this Grand Premiere clip from Don Gillespie's Lions DVD trilogy on YouTube. You can buy the whole series yourself in the NHRA Store.
The carnage continued Sunday with the First Round from Hell for the Funny Cars. In the second pair, Stan Shiroma defeated Tom McEwen, but a deafening blower explosion tore the roof off his Midnight Skulker Barracuda. He was not able to return for round two.
Then came the Burgin-Winter shunt. Already ahead of them, they had seen Dale Pulde get crossed up in beating Leavitt and “Mighty Mike” Van Sant and the Stone, Woods & Cooke Mustang cross the centerline to hand the win to Pat Foster in Barry Setzer’s Vega, so maybe it was the track. Burgin launched hard with the front wheels dangling but crossed the centerline on touchdown and got up briefly on two wheels, all of this right in front of Winter, who had no place to go. Winter rear-ended Burgin and pushed him out of the way in what looks like the world’s fastest PIT maneuver. Burgin’s car turned turtle and slid on its roof along the guardrail. The roof was ripped off, but Burgin otherwise emerged unscathed. Winter’s front end was heavily damaged, and he, too, could not make the second-round call. Four pairs later, Omar “the Tentmaker” Carrothers lit up his Mustang in losing to Rowe.
All of this brings us back to the much-talked-about Top Fuel final, which pitted Prudhomme and his new lightweight Kent Fuller-built Yellow Feather rear-engine dragster against Wiebe, one of the last slingshot holdouts, who was coming in hot after debuting Ed Donovan’s new aluminum 417 at the 1971 season-ending Supernationals, where he was the No. 1 qualifier with a 6.54 low e.t. and was runner-up. The week prior to the Grand Premiere, Wiebe had won Orange County Int'l Raceway's All-Pro Series opener (originally slated as OCIR's 1971 season closer in December but delayed by rain until January) with a best of 6.44.
At Lions, Prudhomme ran 6.42 against Carl Olson’s red-light and, after an easy second-round bye, ran 6.39 to defeat Bob Noice to reach the final but had done so at the expense of some of Keith Black’s finest parts. Wiebe, meanwhile, who had Donovan in his corner, had run a shutoff 6.54 to beat Jim Nicoll, then took an easy pass when teenage Randy Allison red-lighted before pounding SoCal’s other teenage phenom, Jeb Allen, with a 6.41.
Two angles of the final show that Don Prudhomme got out to a healthy lead on John Wiebe.
(Leslie Lovett/Jere Alhadeff photos)
In the final, Prudhomme jumped out to about a car-length lead, but Wiebe began to nibble away at it when Prudhomme’s engine again began to labor. Wiebe ran out of racetrack, and Prudhomme lit the win light, 6.174, 235.60 to 6.175, 236.22. Almost immediately, doubts were expressed about the e.t.s. Sure, Don Garlits had run 6.21 in Indy the year before in what was a stunning pass, but to have two cars run four-hundredths quicker was pretty unbelievable considering that neither driver had even run in the 6.30s the year before. There was talk that the staging beams had been out of kilter throughout the race so that low-slung cars like Wiebe’s stayed in the beams for the first car length.
Drag Racing USA thought so much of the controversy that a cover blurb on its May 1972 issue read "Wiebe and Prudhomme 6.17 E.T.s: For Real?"
According to the DRUSA report, Wiebe was quoted at the time as saying, “There is no possible way this car can go 6.17. It just isn’t possible.” Prudhomme, however, commented, “If you doubt it, just watch what happens in Pomona [the Winternationals].” What happened in Pomona was Prudhomme ran a best of 6.57, and Wiebe, who ran 6.78 at Orange County Int’l Raceway the weekend after the Lions event, couldn’t even crack the 6.90 bump in Pomona.
In light of Leavitt’s stunning Funny Car times at the end of 1971 and the dual 6.17s, I asked Lions historian Don Gillespie, whose seminal three-DVD history of “the Beach” is a true treasure, if it was possible that the Lions clocks were somehow “juiced” since the renovation. His answer was an emphatic “no.”
“Lions was always known as a racer's track,” he asserted. “Places like OCIR catered more to spectators. To that end, Lions always had many of the top racers, plus press and manufacturers on hand -- a tough crowd to ‘fool,’ I would think. Sorta like sneaking a starving artist’s felt painting into the Louvre and passing it off as van Gogh!”
So, after all this research, my jury was still out, but I was leaning toward the numbers being legit. So, 43 years later, here comes Mr. Insider, with the bright idea of getting to the “story behind the story.” But what will Wiebe and Prudhomme think – hell, even remember – four decades later?
(Above) Prudhomme's Yellow Feather dragster tipped the scales at 1,190 pounds, about 400 less than the wedge that preceded it. (Below) Wiebe's slingshot was running the still-new revolutionary aluminum Donovan 417.
Unfortunately but understandably, Prudhomme’s memories of the event are lost to time and the sheer number of events in which he competed in 30-plus years in the cockpit and even more as an owner. I walked him through the facts, and he thoughtfully pondered the two-tenths drop in e.t. between his best run and the final and was a bit conflicted.
“I don’t know how you drop two-tenths unless you’re falling down a mineshaft, but I don’t think Lions ever had phony clocks,” he said. “I’m sure we had it hopped up for the final, but the rear-engined car was still really new to us. We had the wedge the year before – that was a huge mistake; it was terrible – and the new car was so much lighter and better. We even milled the outsides of the block to take weight off of it. That car hauled ass.
“It’s possible we ran 6.17, but I don’t remember,” he said, then added in typical “Snake” fashion, “But the most important thing I heard in this conversation is that I won, so I like that.”
Wiebe, however, had no problem recalling the race in detail, and, contrary to the comments attributed to him at the time, he firmly believes that he ran the 6.17 and that he could have run even quicker with the right tune-up.
“We were still running the car kinda safe by the time we got to Long Beach, and I was really just out there to have fun,” he recalled. “Someone told me that Prudhomme and Black were really out to get me in the final, and I look over there, and Keith Black himself is working on the car; it looked like he had an army over there. Still, I think I was a bit nonchalant about the whole thing. I think I put a couple [more percentage of nitro] in the tank and advanced the cam two degrees and maybe put one or two [degrees of timing] in the mag to turn the wick up a little bit. Ed [Donovan] told me to put a bigger bottom pulley on to get some more overdrive for the blower. After all that, I still think we had even more room, and in retrospect, I wish I’d have laid its ears back a little further because it might have run a .12 or a .13. Even though he got the jump on me at the line, I chased him down, and I actually thought that I had won based on how much of his car I could see at the finish line. I remember that I was pretty devastated by that loss because I didn’t put more into it. We weren’t even close to smoking the tires. I just played it too safe.”
Regardless of any controversy, advertisers were all over the e.t.s in the next issue of National Dragster with Black, Fuller, and Pennzoil all touting Prudhomme’s e.t and Mondello and M&H bannering Wiebe’s performance. The numbers gained more post-legitimacy within a month when Clayton Harris drove Jack McKay’s New Dimension to a 6.16 (also at Lions) and Garlits ran 6.15 and 6.17 the next month en route to winning the Gatornationals. And, of course, by year’s end, low e.t. would be a 5.91 by Don Moody at the season finale in Ontario, Calif.
"Wiebe and Prudhomme 6.17 E.T.s: For Real?" You decide.
My chat with Wiebe, who hasn’t given a lot of interviews in the years since he quit racing in 1977, was a great chance to learn more about his career, which I’ll share next week. His time in Top Fuel was only about 12 years, but he packed a lot of racing into it.
I also was pleased to hear from Fritz Allison, the younger brother of the aforementioned Randy Allison, who with Jeb Allen, John Stewart, and Billy Meyer led a successful teenage revolt in the nitro ranks in the early 1970s. Fritz gave me contact info for Randy and his crew chief Gary (also their brother), so I hope to talk to them soon, too, to shed some light on their efforts, which haven’t received quite the ink that Allen, Meyer, and Stewart have in the years since.
So many columns, so little time. Just the way I like it. See you next week.
NHRA’s incredible 1975 season didn’t officially begin until the Winternationals in Pomona Jan. 21, but by then, a lot of nitro already had been burned. As I mentioned last week, Don Prudhomme kicked off what – at the time – was the greatest season in NHRA nitro-racing history (six wins in eight national events) with a pair of early-January match race wins in California, and though those victories may have fattened his checkbook, they didn’t earn him a point toward his long-awaited and anticipated first championship season. This week, I continue my look at the early stages of that great year, later highlights of which I will chronicle occasionally throughout this year on the occasion of the 40th anniversary.
Even before the troops assembled in Pomona for the 1975 Winternationals, a heavyweight battle was going on the weekend previous in Arizona, where AHRA staged its Winternationals at Beeline Dragway outside of Phoenix. (Interestingly, the following year, Beeline would switch to NHRA sanction and host the Winter Classic the weekend before the Winternationals as a sort of final test 'n' tune before the season kickoff.)
Although Prudhomme would win the NHRA Funny Car title and Don Garlits the NHRA Top Fuel crown, neither began the year with the car in which he’d finish and neither had great success at the AHRA Winternationals. As I wrote last week, Prudhomme ran his 1973 Barracuda at his early-year match races and didn’t debut what would become the almost invincible Army Monza until the Beeline race. Garlits, meanwhile, began the year in a dragster that he originally built for Funny Car star “Jungle Jim” Liberman; when “Jungle” decided to stick to the flops, Garlits christened the car Swamp Rat 21 and went racing with it. Later that summer, he’d replace it with Swamp Rat 22, which was the famous 5.63, 250-mph car.
Reigning NHRA Funny Car champ Shirl Greer opened 1975 with a win at the AHRA Winternationals in Phoenix with his new Mustang II-bodied entry.
Prudhomme’s new John Buttera-built Monza rolled into Beeline a little late and plenty unceremoniously, on the end of a wrecker hook, the crew cab and Chaparral trailer having broken down outside of Phoenix, and things didn’t get a whole lot better for “the Snake” and crew chief Bob Brandt. A broken rear end halted their opening pass 100 feet into the car’s maiden voyage, and they smoked the tires on their second hit. He finally nailed down a 6.40 to qualify No. 3 behind Neil Leffler’s 6.32 in Jim Terry’s Mustang and the 6.35 registered by Mike Miller in Jim and Betty Green’s Green Elephant Vega. World champ Shirl Greer, in a brand-new Mustang II to replace the aging beast he had melted down in winning the title at Ontario Motor Speedway, was fourth with a 6.53. Liberman, Tommy Grove, Pat Foster (in Lil John Lombardo’s Vega), and Bill Leavitt held down the bottom of the top eight.
Other interesting Funny Car developments in the 16-car field were Jake Johnston taking over the wheel of the Pisano & Matsubara Vega after Sush Matsubara broke his leg in a motorcycle accident the previous weekend; Billy Meyer at the controls of the Snowman Vega after Gene Snow had back surgery (Meyer had been precluded by his sponsors from drag racing in 1975 to take part in a land-speed-record effort, but the car was not ready yet); Gordie Bonin in a new, unpainted Monza; and Richard Tharp in the cockpit of “Big Mike” Burkhart’s new Satellite (in which he would win the Division 4 championship). Russell Long, in Dennis Fowler’s gorgeous new Sundance Monza, and Raymond Beadle, who won the event the previous year in Don Schumacher’s Super Shoe Vega, were among those on the DNQ list.
Marvin Graham, who won the 1974 season-ending AHRA event at Beeline Dragway, repeated with a Top Fuel win at the 1975 season opener.
Gary Read, in the C.C Dunne & Co. rail, was No. 1 in Top Fuel with a 6.18, sparking memories of unheralded Mike Wagoner’s surprising Top Fuel win at the previous year’s event (capped with a final-round 6.18 after Garlits lost his brakes on his final-round burnout and couldn’t stage), but Read would be gone after round one. Garlits was No. 2 after burping an engine on his opening pass and struggling with tire shake that twice broke the welds on his wing struts. Shirley Muldowney, who by year’s end would grab everyone's attention, was third, and Marvin Graham was fourth. Graham, who had seemingly come out of relative national obscurity to win the U.S. Nationals the previous September, was riding a curious streak. After winning Indy, he DNQ’d at the 1974 NHRA World Finals (his 6.20 was nowhere near the blistering 6.05 bump; in fact, he wasn’t even in the quickest 32 gunning for a spot in the 16-car field), then won the AHRA Finals – also held at Beeline – on his way home to Oklahoma.
Reigning Top Fuel champ Gary Beck was fifth, and Pat Dakin was sixth, but he and G.L. Rupp were fortunate to still have a car after Funny Car shoe Dale Pulde subbed for an AWOL Dakin on one qualifying pass and got wickedly out of shape at the 1,000-foot mark and nearly wrecked the car. The 16-car field stretched back to Tom Toler with a 6.50. Among the DNQs were Dick LaHaie in his and Poncho Rendon’s new car and Dwight Salisbury.
Garlits lost in the semifinals to Graham, 6.64 to 6.82, surprisingly slow numbers considering that both Beck and Warren had run 6.10 earlier in the previous round. The other semifinal went to Warren, who had been battling head-gasket problems all weekend, but he still took out Beck, who oiled the track after his own head-gasket issues. Graham, who had beaten Billy Graham (no relation) and John Wiebe in the first two rounds, kept his Beeline magic alive when Warren’s Rain for Rent Special turned into a Roman candle on the line after the head gaskets gave out yet again in the final.
Bob Glidden unveiled a "new" 1970 Mustang to take advantage of a favorable weight break for long-wheelbase cars.
Prudhomme didn’t make it as far as Garlits, falling to Meyer in round two. Meyer dropped out a round later to Leffler, who then squared off in the final with Greer. Leffler had already beaten Bonin and Pulde, and Greer had worked his way past Tharp and Jim Dunn, then took a bye in the semi’s when Miller was unable to fire the Elephant. Greer won the surprisingly slow final, 7.03 to 7.08.
Pro Stock was part of the show, too, and the event marked the debut of Bob Glidden’s 1970 Mach I Mustang, which was created to take advantage of an NHRA (and I assume AHRA) rule that afforded a favorable weight break for longer-wheelbase cars after the compact Pintos dominated the 1972 and 1973 seasons. Glidden led the field with a 8.96, just ahead of archrival Wayne Gapp and the four-door Gapp & Roush Maverick, which posted a 8.97 despite being forced to carry a lot more weight (more on that in a bit).
Glidden won Pro Stock at Beeline for the second straight year to jump-start what would be his second straight NHRA championship season, defeating Dick Landy, Don Nicholson, Kevin Rotty, and, in the final, Wally Booth and his Hornet, 8.99 to 9.12.
This flurry of January activity had everyone’s engines revved for the NHRA kickoff in Pomona, where Garlits, Prudhomme, and Glidden prevailed to launch what would be championship seasons for each, but, of course, what makes this subject so interesting to me is all of the behind-the-scenes stuff.
So many new and amazing things were happening for NHRA in 1975. For one, the season marked the end of reserved “provisional” qualifying spots for defending event champs. Two, NHRA banned the use of bleach in the burnout box as it was determined that the caustic liquid was wreaking havoc with the Sperex/VHT traction compound with which NHRA had begun experimenting in 1972 and that had led to huge performance gains between the 1971 and 1972 Supernationals (6.53 to 5.91) and between the 1973 and 1974 Winternationals in Pomona (6.60 to 5.84). The 1975 season also was the last in which Top Fuel push-starts were allowed (though many had already abandoned the procedure). Comp eliminator was running under a whole new format, with handicapping provided by a controversial new index system (so familiar to us today) that supplanted the age-old process of running off the existing national records. And, finally, the Fallnationals in Seattle was added to the schedule, making it an eight-race season.
(Although not of interest to this story, 1975 also marked the NHRA return of jet cars after a 12-year absence; Romeo Palamides’ Untouchable was the first of the new breed of what were billed as lighter and safer cars to be approved. Old jet cars typically weighed 5,000 to 6,000 pounds; the Untouchable was 2,550 pounds.)
And, perhaps most significant, although the season did not begin under its umbrella, Winston provided title sponsorship of the series for the first year in 1975 and an increased points fund that paid each of the Pro champions $20,000. (The Winston deal was announced in April, right after the Gatornationals, which Prudhomme also won, so I find it hilarious that in his championship story in National Dragster at the end of that year, Prudhomme said that, as a result of the Winston announcement, “That’s when we really got serious about winning the title.”)
But back to Pomona …
(Above) Don Garlits should have been on the trailer after round one but caught a lucky break against Don Ewald, then went on to win his fourth Pomona title.
As I mentioned, Garlits was racing a dragster that he built for Liberman, and the cockpit was built quite a bit wider than Garlits’ personal specs to accommodate “Jungle’s” larger frame. When Liberman backed out, it all kind of worked out for Garlits because his 1974 car had sold quicker than he expected, and he hadn’t had time to build himself a new car, so he painted the “Jungle” car his trademark black (because, as the cosmos-curious Garlits explained, black is a good color for Capricorns, according to astrologers) and went racing.
Despite his discomfort in the cockpit, Garlits won the Winternationals, though it took a huge break in the form of first-round opponent Don Ewald crossing the centerline after Garlits blazed the tires in the remnants of Dale Funk’s oildown. Garlits had qualified just No. 12 and had ceded lane choice to Ewald, who you all know today as the operator of the fabulous We Did It for Love website. I’ve written about this misadventure before, way back in 2008, when Ewald was magnanimous enough to relive for us one of the low points of his career (though he did win Irwindale’s Grand Prix later that year); you can read Ewald’s story here. Garlits called it “the biggest break of the whole year for me” and said that the early win gave him extra incentive to run hard that season and ultimately win his first NHRA world championship.
Qualifying was filled with surprises. Ohio journeyman Paul Longenecker led the field with a 5.93, well ahead of the 5.971 of reigning world champ Beck, the 5.973 of dark horse Read (the low qualifier at Beeline), and the equally surprising Ewald, who was driving for R.J. Trotter. Maybe even more surprising was one of the guys who didn’t qualify, West Coast powerhouse Warren, whose 6.11 was only 19th-quickest. Qualifying also was not kind to teenage sensation John Stewart, who rolled his dragster three times, and Gary Cornwall, who suffered facial lacerations after running into the hay bales that lined the top-end catch net.
After escaping the Ewald race, Garlits beat Dick LaHaie with his best run of the meet (6.00), then took out Rick Ramsey, who broke in the pretty Keeling & Clayton California Charger, to set up a final-round rematch from the 1974 World Finals against championship runner-up Dave Settles. Garlits then easily won his fourth Winternationals title when Settles’ Candies & Hughes machine went up in smoke.
Funny Car continued to be a game of musical chairs, and Pomona fans who had attended the World Finals in nearby Ontario a few months earlier really needed a program to keep track of the players at the Winternationals.
As I mentioned last week, Pulde had left the seat of Mickey Thompson’s Grand Am to drive for Joe Mundet, who had relocated the Eastern Raider Pinto to the West Coast. Larry Arnold took his place but got burned in preseason testing, so Charlie Therwanger took over the car in Pomona and reached the semifinals before falling to Prudhomme. Meyer remained in recuperating Snow’s car, but Joe Pisano asked Foster to drive his car in Pomona to replace Johnston, who had driven for him in Phoenix after Matsubara got busted up in a motorcycle accident. Foster, who had been driving for Lombardo, declined, but when Lombardo decided he wanted to drive his own car at the Winternationals and Pisano opted not to race at all, Foster was left without a ride. Johnston, meanwhile, climbed back in the California Charger Mustang but finished the season (and two more after that) driving for Pisano after Matsubara hung up his driving gloves. Finally, after they just missed out on winning the 1974 Funny Car championship, Jerry Ruth let driver Frank Hall go during the winter, then had to call him back at the last minute to drive the car in Pomona after getting his fingers mangled in the air-conditioner belt of his crew cab Wednesday night in a scary incident that resulted in a dozen stitches. Got all that? Can you imagine these scenarios taking place in this day and age?
Don Prudhomme kicked off a six-win season with his Army Monza, the first of four straight Winternationals that "the Snake" would win.
Despite a successful 1974, based on his less-than-stellar debut with the Monza in Arizona, Prudhomme’s Pomona win was hardly written in the stars, and, in fact, it took a pretty big gamble by “the Snake” and Brandt to pull it off. They had already gone into Pomona with some trepidation based on the Monza’s shaky debut at the AHRA Winternationals, and a lot of their peers were openly questioning why they would park the successful Barracuda. But, as always, they were thinking a step ahead of the game. They had left the 'Cuda ready to run – fresh engine, clutch, the entire combination – at Prudhomme’s shop in Granada Hills, which was about an hour’s drive from Pomona.
Despite those concerns, the Monza ran a stout 6.25 early in qualifying, although it did so at the cost of the engine, so they simply drove back to Granada Hills and transplanted the entire drivetrain from the 'Cuda into the Monza.
As good as Prudhomme’s 6.25 was, it didn’t lead the field. That honor went to Bill Leavitt and his “new” Quickie Too Mustang II (the body was new; the chassis four years old) with a 6.21, and “Big Jim” Dunn’s 6.45 anchored the quickest 16-car field in Funny Car history. Greer surprisingly did not qualify. Qualifying was also highlighted by the jaw-dropping backflip by Dennis Geisler’s Hindsight rear-engine Funny Car (you can read all about it in a column I wrote in late 2011: In Hindsight, maybe not such a great idea).
Prudhomme later admitted that “things looked pretty chancy on Sunday morning” because of the engine swap, but the Monza found its pace, avenging its Beeline loss to Meyer with a 6.39 that was low e.t. of the round. An early-shutoff 6.37 in round two dealt out Leffler, and, in an armed forces semifinal showdown, Prudhomme’s Army Monza beat Therwanger in Thompson’s U.S. Marines Grand Am with a 6.28.
For the second straight year, Jim and Betty Green’s Green Elephant was in the final round. In 1974, they and driver Frank Hall had lost the final to breakage against Dale Emery in Jeg Coughlin Sr.’s Camaro, and they would have to settle for runner-up honors again in 1975 when new shoe Miller went up in smoke against “the Snake,” who roared to what would be the first of four straight Winternationals victories with an emphatic 6.24, his best run of the meet.
Glidden, near lane, defeated Wayne Gapp on a holeshot in the Pro Stock final between two long-wheelbase Fords, Glidden's Mustang and Gapp's Maverick.
As I mentioned, there was some discontent in the Pro Stock ranks. The Gapp & Roush team’s Taxi had debuted in late 1974 and had run under a 6.45-pounds-per-cubic-inch weight break afforded to cars with wheelbases longer than 105 inches, allowing it to run some 100 pounds lighter than its shorter peers, but, even though Gapp didn’t win the championship, his Maverick was soon assigned a 7.10-pound break -- the same as Glidden’s “new” old Mustang -- for 1975. In 1974, Glidden’s Pinto had run on a 7.30 weight break. Wally Booth’s AMC Hornet, which also had run under the 6.45 break, got penalized, too, but only up to 6.90, so you can understand why the Gapp & Roush team was upset.
Gapp still qualified No. 1 with an 8.81, and Glidden was right behind him at 8.82. In Sunday morning’s free time-trial run (remember those?), Gapp pounded out an 8.79 to Glidden’s 8.81, sending Glidden into frantic action in the pits. Whatever knobs Glidden turned, they were the right ones: His Mustang reset low e.t. and top speed in round one with an 8.77 at 156.25 mph that bettered his own 8.81 national record from 1974. Glidden then ran an 8.78 to beat “Dyno Don” Nicholson’s similar mount and Dave Kanners’ Hornet with an 8.82. As strong as Glidden looked, it was reported that he had one cylinder leaking as much as 18 percent. By comparison, Gapp had been all over the board, from a first-round 8.81 to an 8.98 against red-lighting Bill Jenkins in the semifinals, as they fought what they thought was a tire-compound issue, but just prior to the final, Jack Roush discovered that the fault actually was in water that the Maverick was dragging from the burnout box to the starting line and had Gapp change his burnout routine for the final. As he had to start the day, Gapp actually outran Glidden in the final, 8.78 to 8.79, but lost the race on a holeshot.
Don Enriquez and Gene Adams dominated Pro Comp eliminations to win the season opener for the new AA/DA class.
The 1975 season also marked the debut of what we now know as Top Alcohol Dragster, and the new AA/DA combination was not only popular but fast. Six of the seven top qualifying spots – led by Grand Premiere winner John Shoemaker (6.81) -- went to AA/DAs; the lone exception was defending event champ Dale Armstrong, who qualified the U.S. Nationals-winning AA/Altered (on loan from pal Simon Menzies) in the No. 3 spot but went into the catch net in qualifying after a chute failure. The car was repaired in time for eliminations, where Armstrong went two rounds.
Nine of the 16 qualified spots and all four semifinal slots were occupied by AA/DAs. In the final foursome, Shoemaker beat Wayne Stoeckel, and Don Enriquez bested chassis builder Ron Attebury. Enriquez and his cagey partner, Gene Adams, dominated Sunday, running low e.t. of 6.71 in round one followed by passes of 6.78 and 6.77 and, in the final, a 6.85 that held off Shoemaker’s 6.89. The AA/DAs were so dominant that NHRA immediately adjusted their weight break from 4.15 pounds per cubic inch to 4.50 and limited them to two-speed transmissions and two valves per cylinder.
The new rules definitely helped as A/Fuel Dragsters driven by Walt Weney and Don Woosley won the Gatornationals and SPORTSnationals, then Joe Ortega won the Springnationals in his AA/DA before the BB/FCs took over with wins by Ken Veney (Summernationals and Le Grandnational), Dale Armstrong (Indy and the Finals), and Wilfred Boutilier (Fallnationals). Coughlin’s AA/DA was runner-up to Armstrong in Indy.
NHRA’s new index system for Comp, which was created using data from 10,000 runs recorded during the 1974 season, also required some tinkering after the event. Racers were proclaiming the new system The End of the World As We Know It. Jim Dale, NHRA’s national tech director, called for patience as the system was perfected, which he hoped would happen by midseason. “We’ve built the engine, and now we're involved in the fine-tuning,” he said.
IHRA held its Winternationals in Florida in March (!), where Glidden completed an impressive sweep of curtain-raising events, beating – big surprise – Gapp in the final, though both were back in their Pintos because IHRA did not offer the same long-wheelbase weight advantage. Garlits overcame some serious mechanical issues to win in his home state, going two-for-three in Winternationals, and Raymond Beadle and the Blue Max dominated Funny Car for his first national win in the car. Before long, he would reach his first NHRA final (a loss at the Springnationals to Prudhomme), then win Indy (over Prudhomme). Prudhomme did not attend the IHRA Winternationals.
The IHRA event also is worth noting because it marked (I believe) the first time that qualifying was done in sessions like we know today, instead of randomly pulling a dozen or so cars at a time from the lanes throughout the day. It was super fan-friendly and, of course, was adopted by everyone not long after.
I love this little slice of the drag racing timeline for what it showed us about how different things were and for the clues it gave us to what lay ahead. I hope you enjoyed reading and remembering it as much as I did researching it.
James Warren (above) won Top Fuel, and Don Prudhomme (below) scored in Funny Car at the 4th annual Grand Premiere at Irwindale Raceway to help kick off 1975.
Forty years ago last Sunday, Irwindale Raceway kicked off what I still think is one of the greatest and most interesting seasons in drag racing history. The 1975 campaign began in a storm of rules controversy, welcomed new cars and new classes, was highlighted by Don Prudhomme’s incredible six-win season, and ended with two of the greatest runs, Don Garlits’ awe-inspiring 5.63, 250-mph Top Fuel pass and Prudhomme’s barrier-breaking 5.97 Funny Car run, both at that year’s World Finals at Ontario Motor Speedway. In the next couple of weeks, I’ll get to all of that, but I’ll kick off this year’s Insider with a look back at that wild first race, the Grand Premiere, which took place Jan. 4.
Prudhomme won Funny Car, West Coast powerhouse James Warren won Top Fuel, and John Shoemaker blitzed Pro Comp, and there were plenty of stories behind each.
The Grand Premiere event itself had debuted at Lions Drag Strip in 1972 to kick off the fabled track’s final season. Fans with long memories will remember that race as the site of a jaw-dropping Top Fuel final between Prudhomme and John Wiebe in which both recorded 6.17 e.t.s, the quickest in history, times that were disputed. The race was a real crashfest and probably could (and probably will be) a column unto itself before this thread is done.
The Grand Premiere was moved to Irwindale in 1973 and kicked off Steve Evans’ management of the newly refurbished facility, and the 1974 edition hosted the Cragar Five-Second Club race (won by Garlits), so the event had a lot of momentum going into 1975.
Prudhomme, fresh off a victory days earlier at Fremont Raceway’s New Year’s Day event, won the Grand Premiere, too, not in his soon-to-be all-conquering Army Monza, but in the familiar Barracuda that he had raced to two wins, a runner-up, and second place in the points behind Shirl Greer the previous year (the car was actually his 1973 'Cuda, pressed into action after his new low-riding John Buttera Vega was shelved after just two events in 1974).
The event also marked the Southern California debut of the new Blue Max Mustang II with Raymond Beadle at the wheel. The car had debuted in December in Florida during the 1974 Winter Series, where it won the Snowbird Nationals with a decent 6.45 best.
The late, great “Jungle Jim” Liberman was the low qualifier in Funny Car with a 6.30, just two-hundredths off of “the Snake’s” track record but eight-hundredths ahead of the man himself. The rest of the field comprised (in order) Neil Leffler in Jim Terry’s surprisingly quick Mustang, Jim Dunn, Gary Burgin, Beadle, Gene Snow (who shortly would undergo back surgery and sit out most of the season), Mike Halloran, Gervaise O’Neil, Gary Densham, Norm Wilcox (in Roland Leong’s Hawaiian, his first Funny Car ride after a strong Top Fuel career), Clarence “Boogaloo” Bailey, Dennis Geisler (in the ill-fated rear-engine Hindsight), Dale Pulde (in his new ride in Joe Mundet’s Eastern Raider Pinto after leaving Mickey Thompson’s national-record-setting Grand Am), and Bryan Raines.
After Burgin and Geisler (who were supposed to run one another) as well as Pulde and Wilcox failed to make the first-round call, Liberman, Prudhomme, Leffler, Snow, and Dunn won their races, and Beadle and Pickett, in Pete Everett’s Pete’s Lil Demon, “singled” together for their bye runs from Pulde and Wilcox. Prudhomme’s victory came on a stout track-record 6.26 pass against O’Neil.
Then things got weird.
(Above) Milliseconds after this photo was taken, the rods exited the block, and Raymond Beadle and the Blue Max did a big ol' 180 on the starting line. Madness ensued. (Below) Prudhomme defeated Jim Dunn to capture Funny Car honors and his second match race win in the first four days of 1975. (Jack Reece photos)
After “Jungle” smoked and lost to Dunn, Beadle and Leffler fired their engines. Oil immediately began spewing from a broken oil-pump gasket on Leffler’s engine, and he was shut off. Beadle, never one to just go through the motions, waded into a monster burnout with the Max but kicked out a rod. He slid in his own oil, doing a 180-degree spin, smacked the A-board, and ended up facing the wrong way. Leffler’s crew, seeing this happen, refired his leaky mount hoping to at least stage and get the win. According to the account in Drag Racing USA, Steve Montrelli tried to stop him but was grabbed by Sid Waterman, who had built Leffler’s engine (in fact, Leffler was the shop foreman at Waterman Racing Engines). Prudhomme stepped in and grabbed Waterman. A lot of pushing and shoving and name-calling ensued before Leffler was shut off.
Asked what he thought of the scene, Evans told DRUSA’s Steve Alexander, “I loved every minute of it because nobody was mad at me.” That sentiment might not have lasted long as Evans surprisingly reinstated Beadle because he had already been declared the winner when Leffler initially shut off and didn’t even have to do a burnout. “What was I gonna do?” he asked rhetorically. “Make them push it down the track? They’d had enough trouble.” (I gotta think that the always-promotions-minded Evans saw a bigger fan appeal to keep the Max in the show.)
Once the shenanigans were complete, Snow beat Pickett, and Prudhomme, who had the bye run after the nonexistent Burgin-Geisler race, barely navigated his slick lane to a 15-flat win to end the round.
Beadle also lost traction in the semi’s against the cagey Dunn, who somehow ran 6.46 through the mess, and Prudhomme then beat Snow, 10.16 to 10.32, but nearly collected the guardrail in the process. Prudhomme saved his best for last and, despite not holding lane choice, beat a crossed-up Dunn in the final with a 6.32. Two match race wins in the first four days of the season probably should have been an indicator that "the Snake" was going to have a pretty good year, and he didn't even have his new car yet.
Top Fuel was a little more straightforward. The “Ridge Route Terrors” dominated qualifying with a 6.05, well ahead of the dual 6.24s of Flip Schofield and Leland Kolb. Stan Shiroma was fourth at 6.29, followed by Gary Read, Gary Ritter, Tony Nancy, Gary Hazen, and Danny Ongais, all in the 6.30s. Bob Noice, Tom Toler, Shorty Leventon, Frank Prock, Bill Carter, Rick Uribe, and Don Ewald (6.67) rounded out the field. About 30 dragsters tried to qualify.
Warren scored his fifth straight win at Irwindale when he defeated Walt Rhoades in the Top Fuel final. (Steve Reyes photo)
Warren got a bye run when Ongais’ crew couldn’t fire the Vel’s/Parnelli Jones mount, then reset low e.t. with a 6.04 in round two over tire-smoking Read. Warren got another bye when Toler’s team couldn’t fire his car, and he was joined in the final by Walt Rhoades, who made the field as an alternate, then beat Shiroma, Hazen, and Ritter. Despite dealing with the same oil-soaked track as the floppers, Roger Coburn spun the knobs the right way in the final, and Warren blasted to a stunning 6.01 at 239.36, low e.t. and top speed, to claim his fifth straight win at the ‘Dale. Rhoades was second through with a 6.18.
Shoemaker dominated Pro Comp from start to finish in what was the introduction of the AA/Dragster class (also known as BAD, for blown alcohol dragster). More than 50 drivers turned out looking for a spot in the 16-car field, including Dale Armstrong, who was awaiting completion of his new BB/FC and showed with a BAD after running pretty much every other configuration in 1974. Shoemaker’s 6.89 led the field by almost a tenth, and he ran 6.91, 6.96, and 6.90 to reach the final when everyone else was struggling in the sevens. The only other driver to find the sixes consistently was Don Enriquez, in his and Gene Adams' converted ex-Top Fueler, which ran 6.98 in the semi’s. Shoemaker took no prisoners in the final with a 6.87 to fend off Enriquez’s 7.00. The BADs were so, well, badass at the start of the year that NHRA changed their weight break after the Winternationals.
The Grand Premiere also was memorable because it provided the first test of NHRA’s new index handicapping system for Comp eliminator (which previously had been handicapped based on national records) and for the introduction of the C/Econo Dragster class (then reserved only for four-bangers), which later became one of the most populated in the eliminator.
The Grand Premiere was certainly that and set the stage for the dueling AHRA and NHRA Winternationals that followed a few weeks later to kick off their respective seasons. We’ll take a look at those launchpads next week.