Top 20 list: The fans weigh inFriday, April 08, 2016

Our Top 20 Funny Cars list was released last Thursday – a day late due to some technical glitches – but my accompanying Insider column was a day early, so it all evened it. Voting began last Thursday and will continue through May 3, and I was thrilled (and quite relieved) that the 20 were well-received and that no glaring omissions were brought to my attention. All in all, I think we collectively nailed it.

Voting is racing along at a nitro-fueled pace, and I want to encourage anyone who hasn’t yet voted – especially folks like you who understand why these cars made the list – to weigh in with an informed vote to give the poll the most accurate results possible and reflect the importance of each car and not be just a popularity or social-media-influenced ballot.

On a side note, I had a couple of interesting conversations with two guys with cars on the list – Jack Beckman and Don Prudhomme – to get their thoughts about being included. I lobbed the question to Beckman in the media center last weekend in Las Vegas, where he was the low qualifier, and he was very enthused. “That was some cool stuff,” he said. “I have to tell you that I almost didn’t want to read [the list]. I mean, I’m an historian, and I would have understood if it didn’t make it because how do you get it down to 20? That’s a tough deal. And the fact there was 19 years between Force’s [1996 Firebird] making it and ours. That’s almost at the top of my drag racing list.”


Don Prudhomme's 1977 Arrow

I had texted “Snake” Wednesday to wish him a happy birthday (his 75th; hard to believe) and asked him about the list. Surprisingly, he hadn’t seen it, and when I told him he had three cars in the top 20, his response – good-naturedly, I assure you – was “Just three?” which led to a follow-up call yesterday to see if he agreed or disagreed with our list -- after all, he had raced against most of the cars on the list.

“Yeah, that’s a pretty cool list. I dig all those cars,” he said. “You know, the cars were so cool back in the ‘70s, with the dry hops and all that. They were a blast to drive. I mean, the driver was the computer, and you had to know your [stuff], y’know? Plus we all only had one car, not like today. I thought all of my cars were badass, and those three were really good ones for sure. I actually think the white Hot Wheels car, the one that John Buttera built, was better than that first one that [Ronnie] Scrima built because it ended up being copied by a lot of guys. It was more like a dragster, lightweight, with the headers over the framerails and the narrow chassis. It was a bad hombre; I still have that car. The [1977] Arrow won me a world championship, too; I still have that car, too. The Skoal Bandit Pontiacs were pretty tough, too, especially the one that won Indy and the Big Bud shootout that year [1989].”

I was pleasantly surprised – but not altogether shocked – that several readers took me up on my pre-list-release challenge to try to suss out the Top 20 list given some meager clues and, again, not too surprised that their accuracy level was pretty good.

Mark Elms wrote, “Last week I started a spreadsheet and typed in Buick, Mercury, Plymouth, etc., by your numbers that were involved. Then the three Prudhomme and two Bernstein floppers; hey, I am batting 1.000 at this point.


Gordie Bonin

"I made a column for 'Absolutely' and a column for 'Maybe' (which by the way had very few cars in it). I aced the ‘60s and ‘70s. I didn't have the Hawaiian with Jim White as driver (so many Hawaiian floppers. I thought Mike Dunn was better, but the driver I would have chosen would have been Ron Colson, the man that drove the longest for Roland). I would have put Ashley Force in ahead of White and the Hawaiian. Now, McEwen, voted the top NHRA moment for winning the ’78 Nationals in his Corvette. Another thing about McEwen -- if you put the Snake Hot Wheels 'Cuda, you have to include his Duster; after all, he was the businessman behind hooking himself and ‘Snake’ up with Hot Wheels. But I'm not disappointed. Dale Pulde's War Eagle Trans Am was the one car I had on my 'Maybe' list. I figured ‘240 Gordie’ and his Bubble Up Trans Am would have been there on performance alone. But I'm not disappointed. The only other little blurbs between the final list and my final list was that I had ‘Jungle Jim’ in his ‘75 Vega or ‘76 Monza, but I had ‘Jungle’ in there. I also had Beadle in there, but in the ‘79 Arrow. I figured if a Blue Max was on the list, it would have been Richard Tharp. I had them all in one way or another except for the Hawaiian. Great list; now to sort them out.”

Dave Wesolowski got Nicholson, Ongais, Snow, Goldstein, Liberman (right car, wrong year), Pulde, Force, both Bernstein cars, and one of the three Prudhomme cars (missing the 1970 and 1982 cars by going with 1974 and 1978). His misses were all memorable cars -- Tommy Grove’s ’67 Mustang, Doug Thorley’s Corvair, the 1970 Hawaiian, ‘71 Candies & Hughes 'Cuda, Bonin’s Bubble Up Pontiac, the Blue Max EXP, the ’82 Chi-Town Hustler, and Chuck Etchells’ four-second-barrier-breaking Daytona.


Dale Pulde

Tom “Fasthair” Scott submitted his complete list (ranked, to boot) and got off to a fine launch through the first five – at which point he interjected, “Crap; this is harder than I thought it was going to be” – then started dropping cylinders by guessing that my much-expressed affection for the Mickey Thompson Grand Am would have landed it a spot in the show, but, alas, it did not. The car certainly was a runner – witness Dale Pulde’s 6.16 national record in 1974 – but had a pretty patchy record otherwise.

Scott also had Don Schumacher’s ’73 Wonder Wagon, which was on one of my personal preliminary lists for its outside-the-box thinking but didn’t make the final cut (though it was in Lewis Bloom’s top 20), as well as Gas Ronda’s Mustang, Shirley Muldowney’s Satellite, the Candies & Hughes 'Cuda, the Sachs & Sons/Chrisman Comet, Arnie Beswick's GTO, and the L.A. Hooker.

Gary Crumine tried to guess the eight Mopars on the list and correctly picked the Chi-Town Hustler, Hawaiian, Gene Snow, Ed McCulloch, and Prudhomme/McEwen, without citing specific cars or years. He also had Dick Landy’s ’65 AWB Dodge and Mr. Norm's Charger and the Blue Max (I guess either the Arrow or the Horizon), all worthy names but not in the final field. He went for Ed Schartman over Don Nicholson but got Jack Chrisman among the Mercurys and the Blue Max as one of the Fords and “Jungle” as one of the Chevys.


Dick Landy

Bob Fleischer thought the members of the list were "truly deserving" but had hoped to see one of the 1965 altered-wheelbase cars on it. “These cars are, as everyone knows, where the term ‘Funny Car’ came from,” he reasoned. “Technically, the class was named after them. Look at ‘Dyno Don's’ Comet: anything ‘Funny’ about it? Not really, it pretty much looks like a Comet -- no altered wheelbase, not skinnier than a standard Comet. I can't see why anyone would use the term 'Funny Car' for it. So I believe that one of the first Funny Cars, the ones responsible for naming the class, should be included, at least as a Very Honorable Mention.”

Eric Widmer really dug my description of the list as “the baddest and most influential Funny Cars of the last 50 years” but can’t see a list without the car that Prudhomme called “one badass Funny Car,” the black ’73 'Cuda, but agrees with the influence that the “Snake” and “Mongoose” Hot Wheels cars had on the world – including him.

“I remember when I was 12, 13, even 14 years old and loved Funny Cars,” he remembered. “I would talk to anyone who was willing to listen about them and always looked for ways to include Funny Cars in the conversation as I just was so influenced by the beauty and power. If those folks weren’t sure what I was talking about, I’d then ask if they’d ever heard of the ‘Mongoose’ and ‘Snake’ Funny Cars and dragsters. Much of the time, folks would answer in the affirmative. I wasn’t asking if anyone ever heard of Rambunctious or 'Dyno Don’ or Ramchargers or Ed ‘the Ace.’ It was simply 'Mongoose and Snake' or maybe ‘Big Daddy’ Don Garlits that folks seemed to be familiar with.

“There was an electrifying magic in the air when speaking about Funny Cars to those in the know and equally to those not familiar with Funny Cars. And to bring the point home, mentioning the ‘Mongoose’ and ‘Snake’ Funny Cars was just as instrumental in electrifying the magic in the air as the Funny Cars themselves. Of the 20 finalists, Don Prudhomme has three of them, KB has but two, and the rest of the group only one each. That alone makes Don Prudhomme’s cars the baddest of the bunch due to sheer quantity. I realize others have multiple cars that did not make the cut. Nevertheless, ‘Snake’ has several that did make the cut, so that speaks volumes. As far as influential, the duo of ‘Mongoose‘ and ‘Snake’ won the world over to Funny Cars. Maybe if there had been a Blue Max Mustang II and Orange Baron Monza Hot Wheels set, things could have been different.

“As for me, I wish there were a million Funny Cars as I just cannot get enough of ‘em!! And I’m grateful knowing there are tons of folks just like me who feel the same way.”

Only everyone who reads this column, Eric.

Top 20 Funny CarsThursday, March 31, 2016
 

In case you missed the announcement today on NHRA.com, we’ve revealed the final Top 20 list of Funny Cars from which fans can vote over the next six weeks or so, so welcome to a early edition of the Dragster Insider to help you make your choice. The voting, part of NHRA’s 50 years of Funny Car celebration this season, asks fans to vote for the car that they think has been the most important/influential/successful in the class’ long history.

As I discussed here last week, a tremendous amount of effort and care went into creating the list, weighing fan input and the criteria put upon our panel of experts, and I’m very happy with the final list, even though not all of my 20 made it to the final ballot.

So here’s a quick overview of the list, in chronological order:

Don Nicholson Eliminator I Comet (1966)

 
The sport’s first flip-top car, it forever changed the basic look of the class: a tilt-up body hiding a tube-frame chassis and a thumping nitro engine. The car was a terror on the track, too, challenged only by Mercury teammate Eddie Schartman.

 

Jack Chrisman Comet (1967)

 
Two years after blowing fans away with his original stock-appearing nitro-burning Comet at the 1964 Nationals, Chrisman’s lightweight flip-top Comet, with considerable engine setback, ran 190-mph speeds.

 

Chi-Town Hustler Charger (1969)

 
The car largely credited with creating the performance-enhancing burnout was a popular and successful match race machine with Pat Minick at the wheel and Hall of Famer Austin Coil turning wrenches.

 

Danny Ongais/Mickey Thompson Mustang (1969)

 
Built by Pat Foster, this car popularized the narrow-framerail chassis and dragster-style roll-cage design still used today. The car, along with Foster’s twin, was the first to use zoomie headers. The car won both the Springnationals and Nationals in 1969.

 

Ramchargers/Goldstein Dodge Challenger (1970)

 
The Ramchargers brought its engine savvy to the Funny Car class after years in Top Fuel and created a winning combination with driver Leroy Goldstein. The car broke the six-second barrier in June 1970.

 

Don Prudhomme Hot Wheels Barracuda (1970)

 
“The Snake” and partner Tom McEwen brought Corporate America to the dragstrip through their deal with Mattel-backed Funny Cars, and the former dragster drivers became household names and brought drag racing into living rooms around the world.

 

Gene Snow Rambunctious Challenger (1970)

 
“The Snowman’s” direct-drive Dodge was the unchallenged king of top speeds in the late 1960s and early 1970s and enjoyed success in multiple sanctioning bodies, including a three-win NHRA season that culminated in the class’ first NHRA world championship.

 

Ed McCulloch Revellution Duster (1972)

 
This car, backed by Revell, maker of plastic model cars, really put “the Ace,” already a successful Funny Car pilot, on the map by winning four of eight events in 1972: the first three and the U.S. Nationals.

 

Pat Foster/Barry Setzer Vega (1972)

 
Although Foster’s national event statistics don’t bear it out, the pretty maroon and gold Vega, owned by textile magnate Setzer, was the baddest Funny Car on the planet in 1972-73, running low e.t. almost everywhere it went.

 

Jim Dunn/Dunn & Reath Barracuda (1972)

The first and only rear-engine Funny Car to win a national event (1972 Supernationals), the car also was the star of a feature film, Funny Car Summer, that exposed the masses to the sport. The combination of savvy Dunn’s handling skills and a Woody Gilmore design opened up endless possibilities, but their success was never duplicated.

 

“Jungle Jim” Liberman Vega (1973-74)

Drag racing’s premier showman wowed fans from coast to coast with this car, performing crowd-pleasing fire burnouts and racking up an impressive win-loss record on the match race scene.

 

Don Prudhomme Army Monza (1975-76)

On a per-race basis, one of the most successful cars to compete, winning 13 of 16 events and two championships in 1975-76. The car also made the sport’s first five-second Funny Car pass.

 

Raymond Beadle Blue Max Mustang II (1975)

Beadle went from journeyman racer to superstar with the resurrection of the famed Blue Max name and was Don Prudhomme’s toughest rival in the mid- to late 1970s.

 

Dale Pulde War Eagle Trans Am (1977)

One of the prettiest cars to ever grace the dragstrip and a steady performer in multiple series. The car set the NHRA national speed record at 245 mph.

 

Don Prudhomme Pepsi Challenger Trans Am (1982)

The first Funny Car to exceed 250 mph, it carried “the Snake” to two wins in 1982 and one of the greatest runs in class history, a stunning 5.63 clocking at the U.S. Nationals.

 

Kenny Bernstein Budweiser King Tempo (1984)

Bernstein and crew chief Dale Armstrong spent hours in the Ford wind tunnel perfecting the aero shape of this car with rounded fenderwells, a full belly pan, enclosed side windows, and more, beginning an attention to aero detail that continues to this day.

 

Kenny Bernstein “Batmobile” Buick (1987)

Bernstein and Armstrong broke the mold – almost literally – with this car that took advantage of every loophole in the Rulebook with a wider and higher rear deck that created a lot of downforce with very little aerodynamic drag. Ugly to a fault but beautiful in results, the car was legal only for one season, but the ideas it inspired live on.

 

Jim White/Hawaiian Dodge (1991)

Any number of Roland Leong’s Hawaiian entries could have made this list, but the White-driven Hawaiian Punch Daytona was a standout, running the class’ first 290-mph pass and winning both the Big Bud Shootout and U.S. Nationals in the same weekend en route to a second-place championship finish.

 

John Force Castrol Firebird (1996)

Another driver who could have had multiple cars on the list, Force set class records in 1996 with this entry, scoring 13 wins in 19 events en route to yet another championship.

 

Jack Beckman Infinite Hero Dodge (2015)

Beckman and crew chief Jimmy Prock shook up the Funny Car ranks in mid-2015, moving the needle on what had been a stagnant performance barrier and not only repeatedly lowering the class e.t. mark but also inspiring the rest of the class to follow suit, leading to unprecedented leaps in performance over four months.

 

That’s quite an impressive list spanning the history of the class, and so many more could have -- and some might argue, should have – been on the list.

Among those that just missed cracking the top 20 are (in no particular order) Cruz Pedregon’s McDonald’s Olds Cutlass (1992); the Joe Pisano/Mike Dunn Cutlass (1988-90); the Pisano & Matsubara Vega (1973-74); Pulde’s Miller High Life Warrior Buick Somerset (1985); Tom McEwen’s Hot Wheels Duster (1970) and Indy-winning English Leather Corvette (1978); the Frank Hawley-driven Chi Town Hustler Charger (1982); the Mark Oswald-wheeled Candies & Hughes Pontiac (1984); the Gary Dyer-driven Mr. Norm’s Dodge; Liberman’s ’66 Chevy II and '69 Nova; the Stardust Mopars of Don Schumacher (1969 and 1973) and Schumacher’s aero-trick Wonder Wagon Vega (1973); Bruce Larson’s USA-1 Camaro (1970) and his championship-winning Cutlass (1989); Beadle's Blue Maxes from 1978 and 1981; Tom Hoover’s Showtime Corvette (1976); Tony Pedregon's championship-winning Castrol GTX Mustang (2003); Gas Ronda’s Russ Davis Ford Mustang (1968); Jim Epler’s Rug Doctor Cutlass, which broke the 300-mph barrier (1993); Chuck Etchells’ Kendall Dodge, the first in the fours (1993); McCulloch’s Miller High Life Cutlass (1988); John Mazmanian’s Rich Siroonian-driven Barracuda (1971); the Beach City Corvette (1968-69); and Matt Hagan’s Mopar Express Lane Charger (2015).

So, there you have it. Voting on NHRA.com runs through early May, so weigh in. As the list order is revealed, we can discuss the pros and cons of each throughout the season. I’m sure you guys will have plenty to say. Let’s hear it!

And, of course, GO VOTE!

Top 20 Funny Cars: We have a list!Friday, March 25, 2016

Don “the Snake” Prudhomme has three, Kenny Bernstein has two, and 15 other drivers and teams each have one. That’s the breakdown after weeks of analysis and consultation that resulted in the compilation of a list of 20 of the baddest and most influential Funny Cars of the last 50 years, part of NHRA's 50 years of Funny Car celebration taking place this season.

Fan voting to rank the 20 selected cars will begin next Wednesday, March 30, with the reveal of the list and run for six weeks. The cars will then be revealed in reverse order, once a week, on NHRA.com and Facebook. We'll of course keep track here as well and welcome your feedback and input.

The arduous task of trying to pick 20 entries from among the more than 7,500 floppers that have competed since 1966 began earlier in this column, home to some of the most knowledgeable and dedicated fans of the sport’s history. My Jan. 15 call to action led to hundreds of suggestions from readers that I distilled to about 100 finalists.

As you can imagine, the problem with asking for suggestions is that people often vote with their hearts and not their heads. I received many nominations for cars that were clearly of the sentimental variety, perhaps the first car they had ever seen or their local favorite. As much as you may have enjoyed seeing Curt Wheeler’s Sudden Impact Monza (and I did) or rooted for “the Underdog,” Ric Deschner, they don’t belong on this list (although I can think of several on which they do belong).

Once I had the field narrowed, I called on some of my best drag racing buddies, guys whose opinion on this topic I respect immensely, and guys who also were part of the panel I assembled in 2000 to help create the Top 50 Drivers list from NHRA’s first 50 years. Given that you follow this column, they’re all names that should be familiar to you: former NHRA national event announcer and drag racing historian Bob Frey; Lewis “the Stat Guy” Bloom; historian and obscure facts wunderkind Bret Kepner; former National Dragster staffer, Funny Car racer, and lifetime Funny Car fan Todd Veney; and Danny White, researcher and curator of several websites devoted to the thousands of floppers that have patrolled the world’s dragstrips.

Each was asked to submit an unranked top-20 list based on the list of finalists he was presented. The criteria were relatively simple, with historical significance, on-track success, and fan popularity being the big three.

I was not surprised that among the five, there was great but not universal consensus. With the votes of yours truly added as the sixth expert, I ran the numbers through several spreadsheets to arrive at the final 20. Conveniently enough, exactly 20 appeared on at least three of the ballots and helped decide the list rather quickly.

As evidence of the tough task at hand, 49 different cars were nominated by our experts, but only three were listed on all six ballots, and only four made it on five of the six ballots. That should provide plenty of room for armchair crew chiefs to debate the final list ("I can’t believe that Mike Faser’s Chicago Fire didn’t make the list!”).

You’ll have to wait until Wednesday to see the reveal of the list on NHRA.com, but here are some stats to mull over:

Exactly half of the cars on the list were from the 1970s, clearly one of the golden ages for the class. Four were from the 1960s, and six from 1980 to present. Five Dodges, three Fords, three Chevys, three Plymouths, three Pontiacs, two Mercurys, and one Buick make up the list. So, if you can just match the decades with the car makes, you should be able to figure out the entire list, right? (I dare you.)

Or you can just wait until Wednesday.

 
"Buddy" Garner, of Hobbs, N.M., was crowned NHRA's first points-based champion in 1960, after a nearly perfect season with his C/A Plymouth.

It’s a pretty fair bet that the knowledgeable citizens of the Insider Nation can recite by heart many of the major firsts in NHRA history -- first Nationals winner, first female winner, first five-second runners, and on and on – but I doubt that many know or remember the name of NHRA’s first points-based world champion.

In 1960, Hobbs, N.M.’s James “Buddy” Garner Jr. earned that piece of drag racing history with a nearly perfect season of racing his Chevy-powered C/A Plymouth coupe. Garner passed away last Friday, March 11, in Lubbock, Texas, at the age of 76, and I thought I’d salute him here this week.

A lot of people think that NHRA didn’t crown its first points-based champion until 1974 because from 1965 through 1973, the winners of the annual World Finals were crowned the season champs. And though that’s true – it was a points-based system (points accrued at divisional races) that earned them the right to race at the Finals – Garner earned the first NHRA world championship in a true points-based format.

NHRA implemented its new championship points program in 1960 aimed at determining a national points champion "in an effort to add more interest for those active in drag racing, regardless of their competition class or geographical location." In many ways, it’s similar to how today’s Sportsman champs are crowned in that it allowed racers to accumulate points locally instead of traveling across the country.

To ensure that no region could benefit from favorable climatic conditions that would allow its racers to run more events, the points-earning season ran 26 weeks, from April 3 until Sept. 25. Points were given at all NHRA-sanctioned dragstrips, with 10 points awarded to the winner in each class at weekly events and 10 additional points going to the winners of the overall Top, Middle, Little, and Stock eliminators for each meet. Winners of NHRA regional and divisional meets received 20 points for a class win and 20 points for Top, Middle, Little, and Stock eliminator wins. Winners at the NHRA Nationals, held again that year in Detroit, received 50 points for a class win and 50 points for Top, Middle, and Little eliminator wins.

Garner, a member of the Charioteers Car Club, won the C/A class at 24 of the 26 races of the 26-week season and scored 21 Little eliminator wins at strips including Hobbs Air Force Base; Walker Air Force Base Drag Strip in Roswell, N.M.; Tri-City Drag Association in Abernathy, Texas; Amarillo Dragway; and the Tarrant County Modified Auto Association strip in Fort Worth, Texas, battling the likes of four-time Nationals class champ John Mulkey’s B/Street Roadster, Don Delozin’s A/Gas Pontiac, and Kurt Reed’s C/Competition Coupe.

Four of Garner’s wins came at bonus events that earned him extra points, which may have been the difference maker. Garner’s final score of 500 points was 10 more than that of the runner-up, Earl Rowe and his Richmond, Va.-based S/SA Pontiac. The two were locked in a tight battle from midseason on and never were separated by more than 40 points.

So dominant was Garner’s Plymouth that it was torn down on several occasions for class verification by NHRA South Central Division Director Dale Ham and was also subject to spot fuel checks. During the season, Garner also set the C/A national record at 13.09 seconds on his home strip in Hobbs in June of that year.

Garner’s 2,630-pound Plymouth, dubbed Flop II, was powered by a 301-cid Chevy V-8, bored .125 over with a stock stroke; Jahns pistons; Grant rings; and a balance job by Culvert Balancing of Denton, Texas. A Hilborn fuel-injection unit fed air and gas to McGurk ports and oversize valves activated by an Engle cam. Power was transmitted through a Chevy three-speed transmission to the 4.89 Studebaker rear end and on to 7:10x15 M&H Racemaster slicks.

As the grand prize for his championship, Garner received a '61 Chevy pickup equipped with a V-8 engine, oversize tires, and heavy-duty springs to carry tools and racing parts and topped with a custom-built cab-over camper, manufactured by original NHRA Safety Safari leader Bud Coons at his business in Kansas.

Garner was recognized in the Lea County Museum in Lovington, N.M., to which he donated some of his trophies, and was inducted into the NHRA Division 4 Hall of Fame. Garner is survived by wife Belinda; sons James “Buddy” III, Chase, Devin, and Dustin; sisters Eugenia Fazzino and Robbie Casey; and a brother, Robert.


 


Garner met Jody when both were just teenagers. They raced together, got married, and started a family. "We went from being babies together to having babies together," she said.

I talked to Jody Reed, who was Garner’s girlfriend when he won the championship and later became his wife and mother of Buddy III and Chase. The two had met as teenagers when his family moved from Mississippi to New Mexico in 1956, and not only was she his constant companion at the races, but she also was pretty handy with a wrench and submitted reports to National Dragster under her maiden name, Jody Smith.

He was not yet 21 when the 1960 season started, and she was two years his junior. Despite his young age, Garner was already a respected racer in the region – having started by street racing his ‘57 Chevy before turning to the track -- so when NHRA announced the championship program early that season, there was no doubt he would be all in.

“When NHRA announced there was going to be a championship, he said, ‘If they’re going to have a contest, I’m going to win it,’ and there was no stopping him. That’s just the way he was with everything he did. If he got into something, it was that or nothing, which is why he did so well in drag racing. He had a passion and desire to do the very best he could. He put his heart and soul and hard work into everything he did. He put everything he made into that car.

“We’d get off of work Friday afternoon – Buddy owned a sign business, Sign-Glo Signs -- and hop in the car, and drive to wherever we were going. It was never a question of, ‘Are we going racing this weekend?’ because we always went, and he was always back to work on Monday morning. He was true-blue racer.”


Garner's eldest son, Buddy, still has the cowl of his dad's dragster.

A year after winning the championship, Buddy built a AA/Dragster just before he and Jody were married in September 1962 – the car was named Jody’s Honeymoon because racing didn’t take a break after the nuptials -- and just before he was drafted and sent to basic training in California, which put his racing career on hold. During training, he injured both ankles and was not deployed overseas. He returned home and continued racing, and the sign business flourished to include big contracts with the likes of Chevron and Exxon. The Garners would often fill their cars with neighborhood kids for a trip to the drags, inspiring a new generation of New Mexico enthusiasts.

I got a chance to talk to Garner’s youngest son, Dustin, 30, who grew up surrounded by his father’s racing trophies and enjoyed hearing his stories. Together, they built a Firebird that Dustin races in Hobbs and a ‘57 Chevy that they worked on with Devin. His dad suffered from Parkinson’s disease the last 10 years of his life, which made communication difficult and left a lot of his questions unanswered, but Dustin made the most of his time with him.


Garner, left, and his sons

“I remember him telling me the story of how scared he was before going to one race because something was wrong with the car, and he couldn’t figure it out and didn’t want to lose,” recalled Dustin. “He’d done a compression test, checked the transmission, and everything was fine, so he just had to go out there and race it. By the time he got it to the track, as soon as he lined it up, he said he knew everything was going to be OK, and he said he had one of the best races of his career.”

I also spoke briefly with his oldest son, Buddy, who supplied me with a treasure trove of images chronicling Garner’s career, everything from old race reports to pit passes, correspondence with manufacturers, and so much more taken from the pages of scrapbooks that he filled during his racing career.

The pride that his entire family has is very telling, from the oldest to the youngest, and seemingly from everyone who crossed his path. His legacy as NHRA’s first champion is a great one, but no greater than the one he leaves behind with a loving and proud family.

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