Ontario's World Finals, 1974-80Friday, December 11, 2015

We continue our look back at the great facility that was Ontario Motor Speedway this week with a recap of the seven editions of the World Finals held at the Southern California race facility, beginning with the 1974 event.

NHRA’s sudden decision to move the World Finals from its three-year home in Amarillo, Texas, to the still-new OMS in 1974 took many by surprise, and the announcement was not made until late April, but Amarillo itself had been a short-term solution after Dallas Int’l Motor Speedway switched to IHRA sanction in 1971. Perhaps because of the late announcement and the name equity that NHRA had already built with the Supernationals brand, the 1974 event was called the World Finals/Supernationals that first year before being shortened to just World Finals in 1975.

"We had a pretty decent facility with the now-defunct Dallas Int'l Motor Speedway," said former NHRA Competition Director Steve Gibbs, "but when it became a part of the then-new IHRA organization, we switched to Amarillo Dragway. It served its purpose for the time being, but it wasn't the type of track that was needed for an event like the World Finals, so the decision was made to move it to Ontario."

1974: Drama, and lots of it

After a qualifying fire that nearly destroyed his Mustang, Shirl Greer returned Sunday to earn the Funny Car world title.
Don Garlits, far lane, won on a holeshot over Dave Settles in the Top Fuel final.

Bob Glidden, far lane, defeated Wayne Gapp in the Pro Stock final to take the event title, which gave him the points lead and the world title.
Funny Car racer Jeff Courtie felt the sting of the intense Funny Car competition when he blew the body off of his mount in qualifying.

The 1974 event also marked the first time that the world champions in the Professional classes were decided by points instead of the old format, in which points were used only to determine who could compete at the event and the race winner was named the world champ.

"It just made more sense to do it that way at the time," recalled Gibbs in a 2010 National Dragster interview. "When the World Finals race was first established in 1965, there were only three other national events, so having the winners of that race become the world champions was an acceptable procedure. But the schedule had doubled to eight events by 1974, and so it didn't seem fair that the world title would go to someone who might get hot at just one particular event. That concept has been further refined by the Countdown to the Championship format that is utilized today."

The first go-round with the new format provided one of the great finishes in NHRA history as Shirl Greer overcame a qualifying fire that nearly destroyed his Mustang Funny Car and left him with serious burns to win the championship on a fateful Sunday. With the help and good sportsmanship from a lot of his fellow racers, he made a from-the-ashes return and stayed in competition just long enough to fend off Don Prudhomme for the world championship. Last year, I wrote a whole column about the heroics behind that accomplishment, so I won’t go into all of the details, which you can find here.

Prudhomme was stopped in round two by Dale Pulde, who drove Mickey Thompson’s Pontiac Grand Am to new national records of 6.16 and 233.76 mph in beating “the Snake,” then fell in the semifinals to dark horse Dave Condit, in the Plueger & Gyger Mustang, who went on to defeat Ed “the Ace” McCulloch in the final, 6.24 to 6.33.

While a lot of people remember the surreal story surrounding the Greer championship, they forget the drama that was going on in Top Fuel at the same time. Gary Beck came into the event at the wheel of his and Ray Peets’ Export A dragster with a lead of more than two rounds on Dave Settles, driver of the Candies & Hughes entry. Although they ended up on the same side of the ladder, unfortunately for Settles, they could not meet until the semifinals, which is exactly what happened. Beck got past Gary Martin and Jeb Allen, and Settles trailered Paul Longenecker and Jake Johnston. By that point, Settles not only had to beat Beck in the semi’s and then win the final, but also had to break Don Garlits’ 5.78 national record, which had stood all season from Garlits’ efforts at the 1973 Finals.

Settles did not even have a backup for the record, so he needed not only to beat Beck, but also to run at least 5.82 to get the backup – unlikely because low e.t. to that point was just 5.88, set by James Warren in qualifying -- and the chance for a go-for-broke blitz in the final.

It all seemed to be over early as Settles red-lighted against Beck, but incredibly, Beck crossed the centerline, losing on the “first or worst” ruling, then had to wait for the announcer’s call to see if Settles had gotten the backup. Settles missed by a long shot, his 6.06 well shy of the magic number, then, to add insult to his injury, he lost the final round on a holeshot to Garlits, 6.11 to 6.10.

The Top Fuel field as a whole was amazing: More than 65 of the nation's top entries tried to make the exclusive 16-car show, and the bump spot ended up at an unreal 6.05 by Gaines Markley.

Bob Glidden, who had made his Pro Stock debut just two years earlier at the event, scored both the event victory and his first world championship in come-from-behind fashion. He trailed both Wally Booth and Wayne Gapp but set a new 8.81 national record during Saturday qualifying with his Pinto to make up some ground in the points, then outlasted Booth to meet Gapp in the final, where his 8.89 to 8.91 victory gave him the points for the championship. Glidden also set low e.t. and top speed of the event at 8.81, 154.63.

Fuel Bike also provided its share of craziness. Local favorite Joe Smith smashed his own 8.44 national record with an 8.21 in qualifying, then went 8.20 in eliminations and broke Boris Murray’s three-year-old speed record of 174.76 with a blast of 176.47 mph yet didn’t win the race. Smith’s bike broke its chain in the final, giving the win to Marion Owens, who, crazily enough, had walked away with only minor injuries after falling off of his bike during a Saturday qualifying attempt.

1975: Greatest race ever?

Don Garlits’ incredible 5.63, 250.69-mph blast in Top Fuel qualifying — which would stand as a record for seven seasons — highlighted an epic event.
At least partial credit for 1975's performance parade goes to John Zendejas, shown performing his magic earlier in the year in Pomona, who meticulously coated the length of the Ontario strip with traction compound. (Steve Alexander photo)
Don Prudhomme won in Funny Car for the sixth time in eight events and posted the first five-second and 240-mph flopper runs.
Bob Glidden, far lane, continued his domination of the Pro Stock ranks after being reinstated in the second round and in the final defeated Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins.
In 2001, during NHRA’s 50th Anniversary season, the 1975 World Finals was voted the greatest race in the sport’s history, and there are plenty of reasons why.

Don Garlits just about the knocked the earth off of its axis with a stunning 5.63 pass that stood as the class’ best run for almost seven years and recorded the sport’s first 250-mph run. The Top Fuel field was another record setter and, more important, the first all-five-second field in history. Funny Car also had more than its fair share of history as Don Prudhomme, as predicted, became the first flopper driver to cover the quarter-mile in less than six seconds and the first to exceed 240 mph in a Funny Car.


A lot of credit for the great performances at the event has been laid on the foundation of a thorough, hand-applied layer of VHT Track Bite traction compound the length of the quarter-mile. You may remember from last week’s column that the application of traction compound had been done before, but it had been sprayed from a hovering helicopter. By 1975, the job was being meticulously done by hand by John Zendejas (later known as John Zenda, who became part of NHRA’s Historical Services arm that led to the creation of the NHRA Museum). Zendejas has been hired years earlier as track manager at Sacramento Raceway and revitalized the place by reconfiguring the track layout so that the burnout area was closer to the starting line (as was also done in Ontario) and experimenting with mixtures of Track Bite, lacquer thinner, and alcohol to find just the right recipe. Enlisted by NHRA, Zendejas would literally walk the entire track with a spraying device hooked to a truck loaded with gallons of the sticky stuff.

Garlits’ historic 5.63 was run during Saturday qualifying, Oct. 11, and though it wasn’t the sport’s first 5.6-second run – that honor went to Gary Beck, who set the record Friday with a 5.69 to provisionally gain 200 points in his bid to become the first back-to-back champ – it will forever be remembered as one of the sport’s all-time great passes. It was not bettered until July 17, 1982 (2,470 days later), when Mark Oswald surpassed it during the NHRA Summernationals in Englishtown.

“The air was right, the wind was right, the car was right, the engine was super strong, everything was nice,” Garlits wrote in his 1976 autobiography. “It was just a perfect time. I let it warm up real good and built some heat [into the engine]. I let the clutch out on that baby and it carried the wheels out there 400 feet and just pulled like a ripper. I shifted it, and the front end came up again, and I knew I was on my way. I went through the traps and by the time I got lifted I was 150 feet through the traps. I knew I must have some kind of record because it seemed like the fastest ride I’d ever taken.”

Garlits backed up the 5.63 with a 5.65 Sunday to make it official and steal the 200 points from Beck, who then lost a must-win semifinal race with Herm Petersen when he lost the blower belt to crown Garlits the champ. For good measure, Garlits went on to beat Petersen in the final.

Prudhomme had already locked up his first Funny Car championship on the strength of five wins at the season’s first seven events in his Army Monza, then made it six for eight with a dominating performance in Ontario. His 6.15 No. 1 qualifying performance gave no hint that he would later run almost two-tenths quicker, and his 6.32 first-round conquest of Al Hanna reinforced that. “The Snake” hit his stride in round two with a 6.17, then dropped a bomb on archrival (and later great friend) Raymond Beadle with a stunning 5.98 in the semifinals. Prudhomme was not able to back up the five for a national record (that would not happen until Indy the next year), but his final-round  6.15 was more than enough to defeat Denny Savage’s tire-smoking 6.91 in the Chi-Town Hustler in that iconic team’s first national event final-round appearance.

Bob Glidden finished 1975 just the way he finished 1974, by winning the World Finals and the championship with a crazy come-from-behind effort. Glidden’s chances for a repeat title appeared to have ended in round one when he red-lighted against Paul Blevins, but Blevins' Vega came up light at the scales, and Glidden was reinstated. Points leader Wayne Gapp broke a rod in round two, opening the door for Glidden, who raced through it and to the title by reaching the semifinals. Glidden capped his season with a close 8.85 to 8.85 final-round victory over Bill Jenkins.

1976: Prudhomme goes seven for eight

Don Prudhomme closed out 1976 with his seventh win in eight events with the Army Monza.

Don Prudhomme capped one of the greatest campaigns in NHRA history at the 1976 World Finals, winning for the seventh time in eight races that season. “The Snake’s” only blemish was a final-round loss in Indy to Gary Burgin, and he certainly had nothing to prove coming back to OMS, yet he dominated again with low e.t., top speed, the No. 1 qualifying spot, and the win, the 21st of his career, 13 of which had come in the last two seasons.

Shirley Muldowney, who months earlier had scored the historic first NHRA Pro win by a woman, earned her second title by defeating Jerry Ruth in the Top Fuel final.
In drag racing’s first and only all-American Motors Pro Stock title round, Wally Booth, near lane, topped Dave Kanners to triumph for the fourth time in 1976.

With high-90-degree temperatures prevailing on race weekend, it’s probably not surprising that Prudhomme could not find the fives again in Ontario, but he got close with a 6.02 low-qualifying/low e.t. shot, but that didn’t happen until he switched to a high-compression engine for his final qualifying pass. Prudhomme’s run destroyed the previous No. 1 effort of 6.18 held by Ron Colson in Roland Leong’s Hawaiian. On Sunday, Prudhomme beat Jake Johnston, Jerry Boldenow, and Bob Pickett to reach the final, where he faced Ed McCulloch. As strange as it sounds now, McCulloch had not won since the 1972 U.S. Nationals, and this one wouldn’t go his way, either. “The Ace” had barely survived the semifinals, where he blew the blower onto the hood at the hit of the throttle, but advanced when Pat Foster crossed the centerline on what should have been an easy winner. McCulloch’s team thrashed to make the final, but a leaking fuel line stymied their efforts on fire-up, and Prudhomme won on a bye run, albeit a great one, a 6.09, to close a great season.

Any thoughts that Shirley Muldowney’s breakthrough Top Fuel victory earlier that year at the Springnationals – the first Pro win by a woman – was a fluke were erased at the season finale, where she scored again, and in impressive fashion. Her field-leading 5.77 was almost a tenth quicker than No. 2 Pat Dakin, and she was never challenged in eliminations, where she also had low e.t. with a 5.84. Muldowney capped her run with a defeat of former world champ Jerry “the King” Ruth, 5.94 to 6.24. Oddly, neither Muldowney – who had run just four events that year-- nor Ruth finished in the top 10. Despite losing in the first round, Richard Tharp clinched the season championship.

The final event of 1976 also featured the sport’s first and only all-AMC Pro Stock final, in which Wally Booth scored a holeshot win over Dave Kanners in a battle of matching red, white, and blue Hornets. Nevertheless, Booth’s fourth victory of the season wasn’t enough to overtake Larry Lombardo and Bill Jenkins’ Grumpy’s Toy Monza, who was crowned the champion following a dramatic 9.00 to 8.91 holeshot win over second-place Warren Johnson, whose title hopes ended on the starting line when his line-loc reportedly malfunctioned. Booth finished third in the season standings.


1977: A near Bubble Up double-up

Gordie Bonin finished second in the Funny Car standings following his defeat of Don Prudhomme in the final.
Dennis Baca singled to the Top Fuel victory, his second of the season, after Graham Light was shut off on the starting line. 
In the Pro Stock title round, Bob Glidden, near lane, topped "Dyno Don" Nicholson, who had already secured the season title.

These days, it’s pretty common to see Top Fuel and Funny Car teammates in the final round at the same event. Don Schumacher Racing has done it so many times I’ve lost count, but it wasn’t as common back in the day. Even though they weren’t teammates in the sense that, say, Tony Schumacher and Ron Capps are, with a common team owner, Canadians Graham Light and Gordie Bonin were teammates under the Bubble Up soft-drink banner in 1977, and the Edmonton, Alta., natives almost shared the winner’s circle at the 1977 Finals.

Bonin, a winner earlier in the season in Gainesville, claimed the Funny Car crown in his Bubble Up/Pacemaker Trans Am, stopping Don Prudhomme’s bid for a third straight win to go with his third straight championship. Bonin shut down low qualifier Gary Burgin’s Orange Baron in the second round and canceled “TV Tommy” Ivo in the semi’s before facing off against Prudhomme’s Army Arrow in the final. The showdown was appropriate as the duo finished 1-2 in the standings, but not on the racetrack. Prudhomme smoked the tires just off the starting line and Bonin a little farther downtrack but recovered quickly to take the victory.

Prudhomme did in fact claim the championship, but in a sign that the pack was closing in, he “only” won three of the season’s nine events as six different winners shared the limelight and broke up “the Snake’s” two-year near monopoly on the class.

Light, NHRA’s current senior vice president of racing operations, also reached the final round in Top Fuel but was shut off on the starting line after his car began leaking oil, allowing Dennis Baca to solo to the win. Light, who qualified No. 3 at the last three events of the season – in Indy, Seattle, and Ontario – was driving the car that Gary Beck had powered to that barrier-breaking 5.69 at the 1975 event; ironically, Beck did not qualify at this race with his new car.

The Top Fuel win was the second major triumph that year for California carpet king Baca, who had stunned the U.S. Nationals field six weeks earlier. The win was a bit of a comeback for Baca, who had to sit out eliminations at the previous event in Seattle after running short on parts. Baca defeated England’s Clive Skilton and 1976 Top Fuel champ Richard Tharp, then took out newly crowned champion Shirley Muldowney with a 5.84, low e.t of the event, before his final-round single.

At age 50, “Dyno Don” Nicholson became the sport’s oldest Pro champion, but outgoing champ Bob Glidden still had his say, running solidly in the 8.5s for most of the event while the best any of his competitors could muster was mid-8.6s. After beating Richie Zul, Larry Lombardo, and Mark Yuill, Glidden put the finishing touches on the victory with an 8.55, the quickest run of the weekend, in the final against Nicholson.


1978: Glidden unstoppable again

Bob Glidden retired his undefeated Fairmont after bettering Larry Lombardo in the Pro Stock final.

No bones about it, Bob Glidden loved Ontario Motor Speedway. He was runner-up there in his Pro Stock debut in 1972 and in 1973 at the Supernationals, then won six of the seven World Finals that followed, including in 1978, when he was in the midst of one of the greatest winning streaks in NHRA history. Glidden debuted a trick Ford Fairmont midyear at the Summernationals in July and went unbeaten for the next five races, including the Finals, and remained unbeaten until the next year’s Mile-High NHRA Nationals.

Top Fuel winner Rob Bruins ended the season for world champ Kelly Brown in round one before claiming the Wally.
In the Funny Car final, Raymond Beadle, near lane, defeated Tom McEwen to score his first win in two seasons.

Glidden’s victory at Ontario was the 20th of his career and came in typical dominating Glidden fashion. He set low e.t. of the meet in qualifying with an 8.55, then ran 8.61, 8.63, 8.58, and finally an 8.61 to beat No. 2 qualifier Larry Lombardo in the final. Lombardo’s runner-up finish placed him second in the final points standings behind Glidden.

Rob Bruins closed 1978 with a little preview of his 1979 championship season by winning the final two events of the year, the Fallnationals in Seattle and the World Finals, in Gaines Markley’s dragster. Ontario showcased its performance side again as Gary Beck recorded the quickest clocking since the 1975 World Finals, 5.76, and became the fifth member of the NHRA 250-mph Club – joining Don Garlits, Shirley Muldowney, Jerry Ruth, and Richard Tharp – with a blast of 250.00 mph, both in qualifying. Dave Uyehara also hit 250 mph with the Velasco, Cohon & Oswald entry, making it the first time two drivers ran 250 mph at the same national event. Although it wasn’t quite 1975’s all-five-second field, 11 qualifiers posted five-second runs, with the bump spot ending up at 6.03.

Bruins defeated newly crowned world champ Kelly Brown in round one, Uyehara in round two, and Garlits in the semifinals, but with a best run of 5.93, he seemed the underdog against Beck, who had carded a pair of 5.80s in early eliminations. But, just as had happened to Graham Light in 1977, Beck was shut off for a fluid leak, and Bruins soloed to victory with a run of 5.98.

As with Bruins, Raymond Beadle gave a preview of his 1979 championship season in Funny Car by winning the Finals, beating Indy winner Tom McEwen in the final round. McEwen’s race probably already was a success for him, having stopped nemesis Don Prudhomme – newly crowned with his fourth straight championship -- in round two. Beadle’s Blue Max Plymouth Arrow had an easy run in the final as McEwen’s English Leather Corvette smoked the tires. Not counting the non-points 1976 Cajun Nationals, it was Beadle’s first national event since the 1975 U.S. Nationals.

As in 1977, the 1978 season showed that the kind of dominance that Prudhomme had enjoyed in 1975-76 had ended as seven different winners scored in nine events. And even though Prudhomme again had been the No. 1 qualifier (6.09), low e.t. went to Pat Foster and the Super Shops Plymouth Arrow at 6.08.


1979: One-lane blacktop

In a Funny Car final that was a microcosm of the event, "240 Gordie" Bonin, far lane, defeated Tripp "240 Shorty" Shumake, who like so many others smoked the tires in the right lane.
Only one Top Fuel driver was able to negotiate the right lane in eliminations, and that was Don Garlits in the final, where he defeated Bruins.
Glidden’s Arrow carried him to his 27th Pro Stock victory.

Someone got the bright idea to stage a diesel-truck drag race on the Ontario quarter-mile just two weeks before the 1979 finale, and the results were disastrous. Fluids dropped by the big rigs created a mess, exacerbated when the World Finals played out under 100-degree weather, which created a real problem, especially for anyone who drew the right lane. The overall conditions probably played a hand in deciding the still-up-for-grabs Top Fuel and Funny Car championships. Kelly Brown’s bid for a repeat Top Fuel crown were foiled when he failed to qualify, handing the title to Rob Bruins, and Don Prudhomme’s surprising first-round loss in Funny Car led to Raymond Beadle’s initial coronation.

How bad was traction? Only five Top Fuel drivers qualified in the fives -- Dave Settles and the Yancy-Camp Blue Max entry (5.87), Bruins (5.92), Don Garlits (5.97), Hank Johnson (5.97), and Larry Dixon (5.99) -- and only Bruins and Garlits were able to run in the 6.0s Sunday. Only one Top Fuel driver won in the right lane Sunday, and that – perhaps not surprisingly – was wily veteran Garlits, who beat Bruins in the final, 6.36 to 6.40, to reach third place in the standings. More interestingly, it gave Bruins the title of youngest Top Fuel champ ever and the ignominious honor of being the first driver to win an NHRA Professional championship without winning at least one national event somewhere along the way. Bruins was runner-up at the Winternationals, Mile-High Nationals, and World Finals.

The performance of the Funny Cars similarly suffered, and the home of the sport’s first five-second Funny Car run yielded just a 6.22 best, recorded by Pat Foster. Newly crowned world champ Beadle lost in round two and four-time season champ Prudhomme in round one, clearing the path for Gordie Bonin to win the Finals for the second time in the last three years.

Bonin, the national speed record holder at 245.90, won his third national event of the season – one more than Beadle, the year’s only other multievent winner – with his U.S. Nationals-winning Bubble Up Firebird, beating first-time finalist Tripp Shumake and Johnny Loper’s tire-smoking, right-lane-losing Lil’ Hoss Mustang. Of note was the surprising semifinal finish for future 16-time Funny Car world champ John Force, who lost a tire-smoking battle with Shumake.

Bob Glidden already had the Pro Stock championship sewed up and again added the season finale to his win total. Glidden qualified No. 1 for the 15th straight national event and dominated again, this time with his Plymouth Arrow. It was Glidden’s seventh win in nine races, and he clinched it by beating the only guy who had beaten him all year, Frank Iaconio, who had defeated Glidden in the finals in Englishtown and Seattle.

The event also had another historic overtone: Amy Faulk beat Bob Marshall to win the Super Stock title and, with it, the national championship, making her just the second woman to win a season championship, behind Shirley Muldowney.

1980: The end of the road

In his last race in a nitro Funny Car, Ron Colson, far lane, defeated Raymond Beadle in the final.

Not many people knew it at the time, but the fate of Ontario Motor Speedway had all but been decided with its sale to Chevron when the 1980 season finale came to town, but NHRA racers and fans said goodbye to the fabled facility with a great race, emblematic of its history, packed with championship drama in Top Fuel and Pro Stock.

Shirley Muldowney became NHRA's first two-time Top Fuel world champ and was congratulated by NHRA founder Wally Parks.
Season-long Pro Stock points leader Lee Shepherd, far lane, broke the transmission in round two and ended up losing the world championship to Bob Glidden.

Shirley Muldowney’s victory at the Fallnationals had pulled her into contention for the Top Fuel title, trailing Gary Beck and Jeb Allen and just ahead of Marvin Graham, all of whom had chances to secure the crown. Beck and Muldowney were shooting to become the sport’s first two-time champ while Allen and Graham were gunning for their first, and things got real fast. Allen stunningly failed to qualify, eliminating him from title contention, and Graham qualified No. 1 at 5.86 and Muldowney No. 9 at 5.98, setting up a first-round date.

Muldowney, who ran the entire race with a cracked camshaft, got the win, 6.07 to 6.09. Beck, meanwhile, also advanced when Dennis Baca couldn't make the run, but he lost second-round lane choice – and, subsequently, the race -- to strong-running but nationally unknown West Coaster Gary Cornwall.

Muldowney still needed to reach the final round to pass Beck and got halfway there by outrunning Connie Kalitta in round two, then squared off with Cornwall in the semifinals. Cornwall smoked the tires, Muldowney ran 5.93, and NHRA had its first two-time Top Fuel champ. After receiving a celebratory bottle of champagne from good sport Beck, Muldowney then beat Frank Bradley for the event win.

Glidden won his fifth Pro Stock world championship in dramatic and, surprisingly for him, comeback fashion. Lee Shepherd had dominated the season – as he would in the year ahead – and had reached the final with the Reher-Morrison-Shepherd Camaro at every event that year entering the World Finals, but the points leader was felled by transmission breakage against Andy Mannarino in round two.

Glidden still needed to win the event to pass Shepherd and did it in “Mad Dog” fashion, destroying Frank Iaconio in the final with low e.t. and top speed of the meet, 8.42, 159.85.

Ron Colson closed his driving career in high style with a win in Roland Leong’s King’s Hawaiian Bread Corvette, defeating world champ Raymond Beadle, whose Blue Max Arrow blazed the tires in the final. Colson, who enjoyed a long career in a variety of Top Gas and nitro cars, drove from the No. 1 qualifying spot to the winner’s circle with victories against Dale Armstrong, Kenny Bernstein, Roy Harris, and Beadle, who smoked the tires and nearly crossed the centerline.

Early in 1981, after it became public that OMS had been sold and would be razed, NHRA announced that Orange County Int’l Raceway, long a racer and fan favorite facility, would host the World Finals beginning in 1981.

"Probably no racetrack in the nation has been more deserving and better equipped to handle a national event than OCIR," said NHRA President Dallas Gardner, explaining that NHRA had long considered the track for a national event but just couldn’t support three races in the same market as long as the Ontario event was still going strong. "When the Ontario situation arose, there really was no question about where to go with the World Finals.”

Sadly, of course, the Finals only lasted three years at OCIR before it, too, fell victim to rising land values, was closed, and later became commercial property, and the fabled Finals moved to its new (and, hopefully, permanent) home in Pomona in 1984, where it continues today.

The World Finals has been a great race since its 1965 inception, and the years at Ontario were among some of its finest. If you want to relive all of the great World Finals and the event’s many venues and memorable moments, you can still buy the book created last year to celebrate the event’s 50th anniversary. It would make a swell Christmas present, no? Check it out online here at Amazon.com. Tell them I sent you.

I’ll see you next week. 

NHRA Supernationals, 1970-73Friday, December 04, 2015

The 1970 season was, by many accounts, one of the most important in NHRA history. It marked the first season for a new class, Pro Stock, and the first time that a season champion would be crowned in a fledgling class known as Funny Car, which until then had run only sporadically – six times, to be exact -- since its inception in late 1966.

In 1970, the NHRA national event schedule also nearly doubled, from four events in 1969 to a whopping seven for what quickly became billed as NHRA’s “Super Season.” NHRA added two more season-themed events – the Springnationals and the Summernationals – to complement the well-established Winternationals as well as the cutely named Gatornationals in Florida and a second California event to be held at the newly constructed Taj Mahal of tracks, Ontario Motor Speedway, 50 miles outside of Los Angeles but just about the length of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" down Interstate 10 from Pomona, home of the Winternationals.

The Ontario event, being the finale to the “Super Season,” was, appropriately enough, named the Supernationals, and, as you will read in this column, it proved more than an apt name.

In its short 10-year run as an NHRA national event venue, Ontario Motor Speedway became known as the place to set records, an amazing feat considering that the soon-to-be-hallowed dragstrip also doubled as the pit lane for the oval track. Here’s a race-by-race look at the events that cemented “The Big O’s” place in drag racing lore. This week, the Supernationals events, 1970-73; next week, the World Finals, 1974-80.

1970: Inaugural event a big deal, e.t.s not so much

The Keeling & Clayton team originally wasn’t even part of the invited teams for the 1970 Supernationals, but got in when others could not attend, and Rick Ramsey made ‘em all pay by driving the California Charger, near lane, to the Top Fuel win.


The NHRA Hot Wheels Supernationals, scheduled for Nov. 20-22, was sponsored by Mattel and its brand of miniature hot rods, then in its first full season of turning Don “the Snake” Prudhomme and Tom “the Mongoose” McEwen into household names with kids across the country.

The event featured the richest purse in drag racing history, with a minimum base purse of $50,000 and contingencies and other prizes surpassing the record $225,000 offered at the U.S. Nationals. OMS President David Lockton and NHRA President Wally Parks also saw to it that the event received a full international listing on the world racing calendar. (Throughout his life, Parks was a big advocate of getting NHRA recognized internationally, beginning in 1958 when he selected Ed Cortopassi’s streamlined Glass Slipper and Calvin Rice's 1955 Nationals-winning dragster to compete for FIA International Acceleration Records at March Air Force Base in Riverside, Calif.)

Because the event was held after the points-scoring season finale, the World Finals at Dallas Int'l Motor Speedway, entry to the event didn't need to be open to all, and a selection committee was charged with picking the 350 to 400 “top performers” and “superstars” who had the privilege of participating in the event.

NHRA also decided that because points were not on the line, the event was the perfect place to test its new ProStart system, which featured one amber light instead of the traditional countdown Christmas Tree. The event also was aired live to television viewers in more than 70 cities on the American Telesports Network.

Although fans and racers were wowed by the facility, with its enclosed garages, restaurants, theme-park-like spectator parking-lot shuttles, and the like, the first event – in fact, the first two – did not showcase the type of jaw-dropping performance with which the track would soon be associated.

Although the dragstrip had been coated from start to finish with a sticky resin traction compound sprayed from a helicopter, the hoped-for 6.3-second runs never materialized. A number of drivers had run in the low 6.40s in 1969, but the best anyone could run in Ontario was 6.56, recorded by Danny Ongais in Carl Casper’s Young American in round two. Butch Maas was the low qualifier at 6.68 in Prudhomme’s Indy-winning Wynn’s Winder but was upset in round one by “the Loner,” Tony Nancy. Among those not making the 32-car 6.93 cut were Tommy Ivo, Chris Karamesines, newly crowned world champ Ronnie Martin, “Sneaky Pete” Robinson, Kelly Brown, Indy runner-up Jim Nicoll, and many more.

Rick Ramsey drove John Keeling and Jerry Clayton's beautiful California Charger slingshot – which also was judged the meet’s Best Appearing Car -- to the Top Fuel win with a string of steady 6.60s and 6.70s, capped by a 6.70 to defeat tire-smoking Gerry Glenn. What was especially noteworthy about the win is that the team was not initially among the 64 Top Fuel invitees and got in only when a few other competitors had to withdraw. The other little-known fact about that final round is that Glenn had irreparably wounded his engine in the semifinals and, out of desperation, had transplanted the engine from Bill Schultz’s Top Gas dragster into his Top Fueler for the final, running it on methanol.

Newly-crowned world champ Gene Snow took the Funny Car title with his Rambunctious Dodge Challenger.
Sush Matsubara lost the handle on Joe Pisano’s Camaro in round one and crashed heavily, and an errant part broke the ankle of National Dragster photographer Leslie Lovett shortly after he snapped this photo.

Newly crowned inaugural Funny Car champ Gene Snow showcased that title-winning form in beating the Ontario field, but low e.t. of 6.95 was a far cry from the 6.60s and 6.70s blasted at Lions and Orange County Int’l Raceway that same week. Prudhomme did event sponsor Mattel proud by putting his Hot Wheels 'Cuda at the top of the qualifying sheets with a 7.044, just a thousandth ahead of "Big Jim" Dunn’s similar mount, but, like teammate Maas, “the Snake” was on the sidelines after round one, his banishment courtesy of Richard Tharp and the Blue Max. Prudhomme’s Hot Wheels teammate McEwen didn’t crack the tough field, but he had good company in Jim Liberman, Tom Hoover, the Chi-Town Hustler, and the Ramchargers, among others.

Eliminations were marred by a nasty crash in round one by Sush Matsubara, who got loose, hit the opposite-lane guardwall head-on, then rolled. National Dragster Photo Editor Leslie Lovett, standing trackside downtrack, was struck with a shock absorber, breaking his ankle. He was carted off to the hospital for treatment but returned in time to shoot the final rounds.

Both Snow, in his Rambunctious Challenger, and final-round opponent Larry Arnold, in T.B. Smallwood's Kingfish Barracuda, wounded their mounts in respective semifinal conquests of Dunn and Tharp, Snow burning three pistons and both cylinder heads and Arnold wounding three crankshaft bearings and the transmission. Both needed an extra 15 minutes to make the final-round call – spectators helped Snow push his car to the line while he hurried behind them, still trying to don his firesuit – yet, despite that allowance, neither appeared in top form as both “snorted and popped down the strip,” according to a National Dragster reporter. Snow got there first, 7.49 to Arnold's 8.68.

World champ Ronnie Sox won his third event of the season in Pro Stock, repeating his World Finals final-round victory over "Akron Arlen" Vanke, 9.85 to 9.92. Don Cain picked up the Top Gas win in the Pusch & Cain machine when Ray Hadford red-lighted while Don Enriquez drove his A/FD to the Comp title. Modified went to Jim Stevens, Super Stock to world champion Ray Alley, and Stock to Marv Ripes.

1971: First-time winners and big-time tech disputes 

Hank Johnson, near lane, scored his first career win when he defeated John Wiebe in the 1971 Top Fuel final. It was the last all-front-engined Top Fuel final in history.
Ronnie Sox dominated Pro Stock in 1971, but his win was not without controversy.
Jim Bucher, near lane, red-lighted and lost the last Top Gas final ever held but later was declared the winner when opponent Ken Ellis was disqualified.

“Kansas John” Wiebe had low e.t of the 1971 race, but his 6.53 was only a marginal improvement over Ongais’ 6.56 and nowhere near Don Garlits’ 6.21 low e.t. pass from that year’s U.S. Nationals. While OMS lived up to its legend as a supertrack in racer and fan amenities, the performance part of that legend would not crystalize for another year.

Wiebe, with power from the revolutionary new Donovan 417 engine – an aftermarket aluminum version of the workhorse Chrysler 392 -- didn’t win the race, falling in an upset in the final round to the No. 2 qualifier, “Gentleman Hank” Johnson, and his Washington state-based machine. The final round – the last in NHRA history between two front-engine Top Fuelers – was charged with drama as the drivers took part in a protracted staging duel, not unlike the one that had occurred two months earlier between Steve Carbone and Garlits in Indy. Johnson got the win, the first of his career, with a run of 6.61 seconds. The event also will be remembered for the Top Fuel debut of 17-year-old Jeb Allen, who went all the way to the semifinals before being eliminated by Wiebe.

Funny Car e.t.s were a little more respectable; low e.t. was 6.84 – one of the top five runs of the year but nowhere near Leroy Goldstein’s stunning 6.71 from that year’s Gatornationals -- a time recorded both by Don Schumacher in round two and in the final by the event winner, Arnold, who made up for 1970’s disappointing runner-up by going the distance in 1971 with his Kingfish entry for his first win. Arnold’s final-round victim was Mike Snively, whose effort behind the butterfly of “Big John” Mazmanian’s Barracuda was thwarted by a broken rear end. Like Arnold, Snively would only have to wait a year for a better fate at Ontario.

Pro Stock was the scene of an incredible tech hullabaloo in the semifinals. Butch Leal had been vowing all year to stop the rampage of Sox, who by that time had won five of the year’s seven events – and his second straight championship -- and in Ontario, it looked as if Leal finally got the job done when he turned on the win light ahead of the talented North Carolinian in the semifinals. But someone apparently dropped a dime on the famed “California Flash,” whose Duster was hauled off to the tech barn, where it was discovered to be in violation of the class’ weight-distribution rule with more than 55 percent of the weight on the rear wheels (57.2 percent). Sox was reinstated and went on to beat his teammate, Herb McCandless, in the final. Incredibly, the story did not end there. Questions then were raised about the legality of Sox’s Barracuda, and it took until Monday afternoon, and a thorough scrutiny of the car’s dimensions, before Sox was officially declared the event winner.

Tech also played a major role in the Top Gas outcome, which was a shame because it was the last event for the fabled class – inaugurated at the 1963 Winternationals -- which was discontinued after 1971 and the entries absorbed into Comp eliminator. An hour after apparent winner Ken Ellis had collected the trophy, teardown revealed that the displacement of twin Chevy engines “substantially” exceeded the allowed 2.25 pounds per cubic inch weight break, and the win was awarded to “runner-up” Jim Bucher. Ellis had wowed everyone with low e.t. of 7.19 in the semifinals, which set off rumors in the pits regarding the car’s legality and no doubt led to Bucher’s desperate final-round red-light.

Comp was won by Francis Crider, and Modified went to future Pro Stock racer Paul Blevins. Ron Mancini took Super Stock honors and Keith Berg the Stock trophy.

1972: History made at all-Pro show

At the 1972 Supernationals, Jim Dunn became the first -- and the last -- driver to win Funny Car in a rear-engined entry.

NHRA made a radical decision for the 1972 event, sidelining the Sportsman portion of the race in favor of an all-Pro format featuring 16-car fields in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock, and Fuel Bike. What the race lacked in number of classes it more than made up for in histrionics, and the OMS dragstrip finally came into its own as a record-busting quarter-mile.

(Above) Mike Snively, near lane, made history with the first five-second run, a 5.97, but it came on a losing semifinal race with Vic Brown. (Below) One round later, Don Moody dismantled Snively's record with a 5.91 to win the event.

The five-second barrier, which had been under assault all season – and broken, unofficially, in the opinion of some, by Tommy Ivo at a Pennsylvania match race a month before the Supernationals – was officially toppled in the semifinals of Top Fuel when 1971 Funny Car runner-up Mike Snively powered “Diamond Jim” Annin’s wheel-pants-equipped dragster to a 5.97. The downside to Snively’s feat was that it came on a losing run, falling on a holeshot to Vic Brown’s 6.03.

Fans had barely had time to digest Snively’s historic pass when Don Moody destroyed the mark with a 5.91 in the final round to defeat Brown. If you remember a column I did with Moody way back in 2008 (read it here), he easily could have gotten that first five if he hadn’t shut off early on a 6.01, 202-mph semifinal run.

Also worth noting was that Danny Ongais ran the sport’s fastest speed, 243.24 mph, in the Rossi & Lisa wedge in qualifying, but his accompanying 6.27 e.t. wasn’t quick enough to make the top 16, which was the quickest in history by a wide margin. It took a 6.26 to make the field, and even the first 16 alternates also were in at 6.40 and quicker, more than two-tenths quicker than the previous best 16-car bump spot of 6.62, set earlier that year at the Summernationals.

Funny Car also boasted a first – and, in historic hindsight, an “only” – when Dunn drove his rear-engine Barracuda to a surprising victory. Although rear-engine Top Fuelers had become the norm, the dozen or so back-motor floppers that had emerged had met scant success and mostly mayhem, but Dunn’s Woody Gilmore creation proved that, at least on occasion, the concept could work.

The Funny Cars, too, hit their stride on the Ontario strip, with Jim Murphy busting into the 6.30s – a feat accomplished only once previously, by Bobby Rowe at a match race – with a stunning 6.33 low qualifier that, in much the same way Moody upstaged Snively, was bested three times in eliminations by Pat Foster, who cracked the whip on the famed Barry Setzer Vega to runs of 6.29. 6.30, and 6.31 but stunningly fouled in the final against Dunn, whose race best had been a 6.44 in the semi’s. Foster also set top speed at 235.64 mph, the fastest ever by a Funny Car. Like Top Fuel, Funny Car boasted the quickest field ever, with Gary Henderson’s 6.51 on the bump, beating by more than a tenth the 6.64 bump from that year’s U.S. Nationals.

Bill Jenkins, far lane, won Pro Stock over some newcomer named Bob Glidden.

Pro Stock was won by Bill Jenkins – no surprise as he had won four of the season’s previous six races in his revolutionary Vega – but the surprise was his final-round opponent, a fledgling Indiana Pro Stock racer competing in his first national event named Bob Glidden. Jenkins won the final on a holeshot, 9.38, to 9.37, but that obviously was not the last we would hear of Mr. Glidden and his Pinto.

The Fuel Bikes also made their quickest passes ever. Danny Johnson's twin Harley-Davidson qualified No. 1 with an 8.72 – the best ever for the breed -- but lost in round one, opening the door for unheralded T.C. Christenson, the No. 2 qualifier who rode his twin-Norton powered entry to stunning blasts of 8.59 and 8.52 during eliminations to claim the title. As impressive as those numbers were, it’s funny to think that these twin-engine, nitro-fueled bikes wouldn’t hold a candle to today’s gas-powered Pro Stock Motorcycles that run 6.70s.

So, how did Ontario go from a so-so performance track in 1970 and 1971 to the killer strip in 1972? A couple of theories were advanced at the time, including a heavy rain before the event that scrubbed the track and a thorough prepping of the track using a special traction compound, but a lot of others pointed to the fact that the absence of Sportsman competition kept the surface to one basic type of tire rubber constantly being laid down and not scrubbed off or potentially leaked on by hundreds of Sportsman cars.

1973: More records, more firsts

(Above) Tom McEwen soloed in the Funny Car final for his first national event win after Dale Emery was not able to return after an explosive incident in Jeg Coughlin's Camaro (below) in winning his semifinal round.
Don Gillespie
Don Garlits was unbeatable in Top Fuel, running all fives in eliminations and resetting both ends of the national record at 5.78, 247.25 mph.
Bob Glidden, near lane, settled for runner-up honors for the second year in a row, this time to Wayne Gapp, though both made national-record runs in the final.

NHRA retained the all-Pro format for the 1973 race – but expanded it to include the new Pro Comp class for alcohol-burning dragsters and Funny Cars -- which allowed the entry list to swell to more than 60 Top Fuel cars and more than 40 nitro Funny Cars.

Rain that had wreaked havoc on the season opener in Pomona returned to haunt the season finale, wiping out Saturday’s qualifying and returning Sunday, when NHRA tried to hold a combo qualifying/eliminations day, forcing the conclusion to the following weekend, but the first weekend was filled by more Ontario magic. Four Top Fuel drivers ran in the fives, led by Don Garlits’ monstrous 5.80 – a tenth quicker than the 5.90 national record he already owned – followed by John Stewart (5.92), Dan Richins (5.93), and Larry Dixon (5.94), all of whom gained entry to the Cragar Five-Second Club with their passes. Garlits also ran the fastest speed ever, 247.25, raising the possibility of the sport’s first 250-mph run, though it would take Garlits two more years to accomplish that feat at – where else? – Ontario.

Don Prudhomme also dropped the hammer on the Funny Car field, streaking to a 6.16 that was the best official number for a Funny Car by more than a tenth, bettering Pat Foster’s 6.29 from the previous year and the matching 6.29 that Bobby Rowe had recorded at the World Finals a few weeks earlier. Gene Snow’s 6.34 was a distant second. Prudhomme said that he thought that 6.0s were within reach thanks to Ontario’s famous “bite,” but, alas, that also would be an accomplishment two years down the road.

Funny Car qualifying also provided the beginning of what turned out to be amazing turn of events for one of the sport’s most-loved drivers. Rowe powered the Mr. Ed Satellite into the field in the No. 6 spot with a 6.41 in Sunday’s short-lived action but lost the engine and rode out a big fireball before colliding with the Turn 1 wall of the oval. Rowe suffered a back injury and had to withdraw from the race, allowing the No. 17 driver into the field.

That driver was the fabled “Mongoose,” Tom McEwen, who also had failed to qualify at the first two Supernationals. McEwen took full advantage of the situation and parlayed it and a little luck into his first NHRA national event victory. McEwen beat Dave Condit, defending event champ Jim Dunn, and Jim Nicoll with a 6.59 and a pair of 6.50s and exited his car at the top end after the semifinals looking forward to possibly facing his Hot Wheels teammate Prudhomme in the final.

Prudhomme, however, broke the rear end against Dale Emery in Jeg Coughlin’s Camaro, then had a front-row seat as a massive blower explosion blew the body off of Emery’s ride just as it reached the finish line. Emery clipped the end of the concrete retaining wall, spun, and flipped over some hay bales along the track. The car was obviously beyond repair, and McEwen soloed for the title with a 6.60.

Garlits’ Top Fuel win also ended with a bye run, not that anyone could have beaten “Big Daddy” that weekend. Garlits ran in the fives in all four rounds – not one of the other 15 qualified drivers ran in the fives even once in eliminations – running 5.98 to beat Carl Olson, 5.86 to beat recent Insider profile subject Randy Allison, and a first-in-the-5.70s 5.79 to derail Dan Richins’ Iron Horse in the semifinals.

The other semifinal win went to Gaines Markley over another of our recent Teen Terrors, John Stewart, but Markley’s Assassin blew the blower in the lights, which took out the rear tires, the wing, and, ultimately, the rear end. The car slid into the infield grass and did a soft roll before coming to a stop. Markley was unhurt, but it was obvious he wasn’t going to make the final, either. Garlits, being Garlits, didn’t let up just because no one was in the other lane and hammered out a 5.78 to reset the national record and seal his class-leading 10th national event win.

Wayne Gapp won Pro Stock, besting Glidden in the final round, 8.87 to 8.96. Gapp's e.t. was a national record, and Glidden didn't walk away empty-handed either as his losing speed of 152.80 set the other end of the standard.

Enriquez won the Supernationals again and became NHRA’s first Pro Comp eliminator winner, wheeling John Rasmussen’s Gene Adams-prepped A/Fuel Dragster to a final-round victory over Ken Veney’s A/Funny Car. Enriquez lost the engine on his final-round 7.02 or might have clocked the class’ first six-second run. T.C. Christenson wrapped up the list of event winners as he piloted his twin-Norton bike to the two-wheel title, beating Jim Priesler's twin Harley, 8.49 to 8.52.

So, as you can see, over time, the Supernationals more than lived up to the hype and expectations of a race with a name like that. Beginning in 1974, the race became the World Finals, and even though the name changed, the drama and the performance lived on. We’ll take a look at those races next week.
 

Ontario Motor SpeedwayFriday, November 27, 2015

Last week’s column about Funny Car elapsed times and the number of class-best passes that were recorded on the quarter-mile at Ontario Motor Speedway, along with what we have learned over the years about the track’s ability to dish out big numbers in Top Fuel, like Mike Snively’s barrier-breaking 5.97, Don Moody’s 5.91 in 1972, Don Garlits’ otherworldly 5.63, 250-mph pass, and the first all-five-second Top Fuel field in 1975, got me to wanting to learn more about the track and its history, so I delved into the history books and archives to find out some nuggets about what became a very hallowed quarter-mile. I’ll talk about the history of the track itself this week, then look back at the incredible NHRA events at the facility next week.

The idea of a Southern California superspeedway was proposed as early as 1956, with the thought being not only to create "the Indianapolis of the West," as it was hyped, but to create the crown jewel of racetracks with a supporting infrastructure and motorsports-driven economy. Developers envisioned a surrounding complex of race shops and specialty fabricators, plus restaurants and hotels.

Although the 2.5-mile oval track itself was modeled after the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it was one lane wider and had banked short chutes between turns 1-2 and 3-4, which would make OMS slightly faster. And to live up to the “motor speedway” name, developers also planned for a 3.2-mile infield road course and a dragstrip that ran down the oval track's pit lane.

After a few failed starts, a location was chosen that seemed perfect: Ontario, just 50 miles from Los Angeles, with an 800-acre plot right on Interstate 10 (one of the nation’s main east-thoroughfares), and just across the highway from Ontario International Airport.

Ontario city fathers sold more than $25 million (that’s about $165 million in 2015 dollars) in municipal bonds to raise the capital for construction. The facility would then be leased to a group of operators who would run it on a day-to-day basis. A key factor that helped secure the green flag on construction was a signaled interest by the four major motorsports players — Formula 1, NASCAR, USAC, and, of course, NHRA — in holding events at the venue should it ever be built.

Ground was broken in late September 1968, and the track opened less than two years later, in August 1970, hosting a Celebrity Pro-Am Race, which featured stars from the entertainment industry paired with professional drivers. The race was later aired as a TV special on NBC.

The trademark five-story concourse housed a restaurant, bar, VIP suites, media center, and more.

The place lived up to its plush billing, especially in spectator amenities, the most obvious of which was the five-story suite complex that overlooked the start-finish line. (The original layout for the dragstrip was actually a few hundred feet further down pit road than it ended up, but a late decision was made to have the quarter-mile finish line match the win stripe of the oval course, which lined it up exactly in front of the huge concourse.) 

On its first floor was a full restaurant, bar, and banquet hall, and the second floor featured VIP suites. Spectator seating took up where the third floor was, while above that was a deluxe, air-conditioned media center with the latest electronic gizmos (telecopiers and fax machines — oh my!). The fifth floor was dedicated to race control and also housed the 33 IBM computers that would track the 33 individual “Indy” cars that made up the starting field for the track’s first big race, the USAC California 500 event, and showed their positions on the track to spectators in real time during the race via a tall vertical scoreboard. This timing and scoring system was subsequently adopted by the Formula 1 circuit and ultimately by Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

In the pits, 50 enclosed garages were built to accommodate teams, and permanent facilities also were incorporated for tire manufacturers. Racers also had their own restaurant and meeting room in the pits. For the drag racers, roller starters were added to light the nitro cars.

Enclosed garage spaces for 50 cars provided a luxury to drag race teams not known in those days.
Roller starters offered teams another luxury.

The first six months of operation did indeed feature racing from all four major sanctioning bodies, hosting the California 500 (Sept. 6, 1970), Mattel Hot Wheels NHRA Supernationals (Nov. 21-22, 1970), Miller High Life 500 NASCAR race (Feb. 28, 1971), and Questor Grand Prix (March 28, 1971), and each of them drew attendance second only to their established counterparts: the Indianapolis 500, U.S. Nationals, Daytona 500, and U.S. Formula 1 race at Watkins Glen. The 178,000 in paid attendance and $3.3 million gross from the inaugural California 500 remained the largest crowd and highest gross in inflation-adjusted dollars of any single-day sporting event other than the Indianapolis 500 for nearly three decades.

Although the NHRA events — the Supernationals and the World Finals (when it was moved there in 1974) — always drew well (because their action was limited to the home straightaway, seat-selling options were limited), later editions of the oval-course events never came close to filling the 155,000 spectator seats, or even the 100,000 necessary to break even. In its first six years of operation, the place was shut down twice because the track operators couldn’t pay out the $1 million in bond interest each year.

Then the track operators got creative, opening their doors for other spectacles. On the day before the February 1971 NASCAR race, they booked in Evel Knievel to jump over 19 cars — the jump was filmed as the climactic scene for the eponymous movie starring George Hamilton — and 50,000 people showed up. (Knievel successfully landed the jump and set a record that stood for 27 years until Bubba Blackwell jumped 20 cars in 1998.)

The California Jam rock festival concert was held April 6, 1974, and drew a crowd of 300,000-400,000 fans — at the time the largest paid attendance for a rock concert — to see the Eagles; Deep Purple; Emerson, Lake & Palmer; Rare Earth; Earth, Wind & Fire; Seals and Crofts; Black Oak Arkansas; and Black Sabbath. Portions of the concert were televised live on ABC. California Jam II was held March 18, 1978, and drew almost 300,000 to see Ted Nugent, Aerosmith, Santana, Dave Mason, Foreigner, Heart, Bob Welch, Stevie Nicks and Mick Fleetwood, Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush, and Rubicon.

In 1974, Parnelli Jones and the Hulman family, which owned Indianapolis Motor Speedway, were brought in and restored some semblance of order to the racing side of business, but the track always seemed to be living on borrowed time.

That time ran out in late 1980, just after the running of 1980 NHRA World Finals. Land values had soared — from an average price of $7,500 per acre in 1969 to $150,000 per acre — and Chevron Land Company, a division of Chevron Oil, seized the opportunity to take advantage of the speedway’s failing fortunes. They purchased the facility for approximately $10 million (the estimated commercial real estate development value was $120 million) and demolished the track the following year at a cost of $3 million.

The property remained vacant for several years before Hilton built a hotel on about where Turn 4 was, and development has slowly grown over the years to take up over half of the speedway's footprint with condominiums, business offices, retail stores, and the Citizens Business Bank Arena, home to the AHL Ontario Reign (minor-league team to the L.A. Kings), which was built in the general area of Turn 3. Contrary to speculation, the Ontario Mills Mall is not built on part of the old racetrack; it’s on the east side of Milliken Avenue, which was the eastern border of the track.

The legacy of the track does live on in several places, most notably the automotive-themed street names: Jaguar Way, Corvette Drive, Triumph Lane, Shelby Street, Concours Street, Lotus Avenue, Porsche Way, Mercedes Lane, Duesenberg Drive, and Ferrari Lane.

The City of Ontario built racing-themed Ontario Motor Speedway Park a few blocks west of the racetrack site (near the intersection of North Center Avenue and Concours Street), and in 1990 the Ontario Center School, located on what was once the west parking lot for the racetrack, was dedicated to the premise of "Winning Through Education." A circular central hall, similar to the racetrack, was built, and speedway graphics, including the familiar OMS logo, were used in the classrooms. The kindergarten area has green flags on its walls, signifying the start of the educational race. And the sixth-grade area is adorned with checkered flags, the finish line. Three flagpoles in front of the school were from the speedway.

In a way, the dragstrip continues to live on just down the freeway in Pomona. The iconic dragstrip timing tower that manned the starting line at OMS was saved and transplanted to Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, where it was placed behind the starting line and served as race control for a number of years until the current tower was built. Today, the tower stands sentinel in the parking lot and serves as a command post and lookout for facility security.

Ontario Motor Speedway may be gone, but it’s remembered by the city, and especially by hard-core race fans like us who remember its dragstrip as the place where records were set, history was made, and the nationals were truly super.

The OMS track, overlayed on a current Ontario street map, courtesy of InsideTheIE.com. (view bigger)
Funny Car performance, then and nowFriday, November 20, 2015

If you are a fan of the Funny Car class – and hey, who isn’t? – the 2015 season was a spectacular one, not just for its dramatic finish on the final day of the schedule last Sunday in Pomona, but also for scoreboard watchers.

Consider this: The quickest run in Funny Car entering 2015 was 3.959, recorded by Cruz Pedregon at the 2014 Englishtown event. We finished this season with Matt Hagan’s 3.879 as the all-time quickest pass. That’s a drop of eight-hundredths of a second. And Pedregon’s run was bettered not just once or twice, or a dozen times, but – get this – 82 times during this season. I was there when Pedregon ran that .95, and believe me, we all about fell out of our chairs. Today, people don’t exactly yawn at a 3.95, but the grading has gotten pretty steep, and 245 threes have been recorded since Hagan’s barrier-busting run in Charlotte in the fall of 2011.

Consider also that the national record entering 2015 was set at the 2014 Circle K NHRA Winternationals and survived that entire season and half of this season, then was reset an amazing seven times in the second half of the year and ended up with Jack Beckman at 3.884. That’s another drop of eight-hundredths.

It was Beckman, of course, who got the whole performance binge started in Sonoma in late July, when crew chief Jimmy Prock adjusted the header angle (and a few other magic things) to turn the Infinite Hero Dodge into a rocket ship with a 3.921 blast followed by a 3.912 in Seattle and a 3.901 in Brainerd – remember, all of this took place in the span of three races in four weekends – and then Hagan broke another barrier with a 3.879, also in Brainerd (amazing in itself because it’s an altitude track, albeit with tremendous conditions that weekend).

What makes all of this really impressive to me is that, as you can imagine, the quicker you go, the exponentially harder it is to go even quicker. Picking up eight-hundredths when you run in the sixes is a whole lot easier than picking up six-hundredths when you run in the threes.

But you don’t come here to read about the current season; that’s what you have National Dragster for. As always here, I like to look at things through rose-tinted nostalgia glasses. So, just as all of this performance rush was really taking off – and would get more incredible as the season progressed – I chatted in Indy with Dave Fletcher, Don Schumacher Racing’s track specialist, to marvel at the quick progression we had been seeing. “Can you remember another time when this happened?” he asked me, and at the time, I couldn’t come up with the examples, but now I can.

Here are some interesting stats to mull over.

Don Prudhomme had the first Funny Car in the fives at the final event of 1975 and no one else ran in the fives until Raymond Beadle at the 1978 U.S. Nationals.
Leroy Goldstein and the Ramchargers team were the kings of Funny Car e.t.s in the early 1970s.
 
Dale Pulde, near lane, powered Mickey Thompson’s sleek Revelleader Grand Am to a 6.16 national record to defeat Don Prudhomme in round two of the 1974 World Finals and hand the season championship to Shirl Greer.

It took just two years and a few months to get eight drivers into the threes. By comparison, it took more than twice that long -- five and a half years (Don Prudhomme, Oct. 12, 1975, to Tripp Shumake, April 25, 1981) -- for eight drivers to run in the fives. Heck, it took almost three years for Raymond Beadle to be the second driver in the fives. What does that say about today’s parity? Or about how badass “the Snake” was back then?

More recently, it took three and a half years (Chuck Etchells, Oct. 1, 1993, to Whit Bazemore March 22, 1997) to get eight drivers into the four-second zone.

I went back to look at other seasons to see when great performance strides had taken place, and there were quite a few. Consider 1971. Entering the season, the best official Funny Car pass (and the national record) was 6.83, run by Leroy Goldstein in the Ramchargers Challenger in Indy 1970, just a few months after becoming the first in the sixes. Early the next season, Goldstein bettered his own mark by more than a tenth with a 6.71 at the Gatornationals. Goldstein couldn’t back up that number for a new record but did later that year with a 6.80 after moving into the Candies & Hughes machine. Low e.t. of the season was credited to Bill Leavitt, who stunned everyone with a 6.48 at Lions in December of that year and also ran 6.51 and 6.53 the same weekend to dispel any doubters. So, that’s a drop of three-and-a-half-tenths in one year; pretty impressive.

(A quick caveat: All of the e.t.s that I am citing (and will cite) are considered legit by the Funny Car cognoscenti and dismiss some pretty outrageous “popcorn” times dished out at match race tracks with either inaccurate timing systems or overzealous race promoters and track operators.)

Although racers chipped away at Goldstein’s 6.80 record throughout 1972 -- Gary Burgin (6.72, Lions), Leroy Chadderton (6.66, Seattle), Kenney Goodell (6.58, Spokane), Larry Fullerton (6.56, Warner Robins, Ga.), and Sush Matsubara (6.49, Lions) -- Leavitt’s stunning number was not bettered until Bobby Rowe ran 6.38 at Maryland’s Capitol Raceway that summer. Pat Foster capped the season with a 6.29 in the Barry Setzer Vega at the Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway. So, there’s nearly two-tenths.

It was a full year before Foster’s 6.29 was bettered, and that didn’t happen until the final race of the 1973 season, the Supernationals, where Prudhomme fired off a where-did-that-come-from 6.16 with his trusty Barracuda that wasn’t matched for a whole season until Dale Pulde powered Mickey Thompson’s Revelleader Grand Am to a matching number at the World Finals, although Pulde backed up his .16 for the national record, bettering the 6.19 mark that Billy Meyer had established in Indy. And of course, at the next year’s World Finals, Prudhomme broke into the fives with his 5.98.

So, two more thoughts here: Funny Car racers chip nearly seven-tenths of a second off the class-best run from 1971 to 1973 yet don’t improve it by even a hundredth in 1974, then pick up eight-hundredths in 1975? How weird is that? Dear 1974: What happened?

Second, the back-to-back-to-back best of the season all happened at OMS, further cementing its legacy as one of the best performance-coaxing dragstrips – if not the best – in history.

Raymond Beadle was second into the fives at Indy 1978 but would become the first in the 5.80s two years later in Englishtown.

As mentioned, it took nearly three years before Beadle was even the second racer in the fives, and from the end of 1975 until the end of 1979, only Prudhomme was able to better his barrier-breaking (but not backed-up) 5.98, running 5.97 (the first sub-six national record) in Indy in 1976 and 5.95 at the 1979 U.S. Nationals.

So, again, we have four seasons, from 1971 through 1974, when the record books are substantially rewritten, then a performance drought that lasts four years? Weird, right?

The 1980 season opened promisingly, with Prudhomme and the Army Arrow setting the national record in Gainesville with a 5.93 in the semifinals (backed up by a second-round 5.94), but it was newly crowned world champ Beadle who blew everyone away that summer with a spellbinding 5.86 from the Blue Max Arrow at the Summernationals.

So, four seasons with no significant improvement and then a drop of nearly a tenth in 1980? Then, oddly enough, no one bettered Beadle’s .86 in 1981, though Beadle did match that number, weirdly enough, again at the Summernationals.

Are you with me so far? OK, here’s where it gets really weird. Two words: Indy 1982.

Bernstein shocked the troops later in 1986 with a 5.42 at Texas Motorplex.

Beadle’s 5.86 was not bettered until 1982, when Meyer nudged it down to 5.82 (again in E-town; remember, at the time, only the Summernationals held night qualifying sessions), but those marks got destroyed in Indy, where Tom Anderson ran 5.79 and Prudhomme 5.73, and then, of course, Prudhomme dropped jaws across the world with a staggering 5.63. Boom! An improvement of more than two-tenths in one year. (I wrote a whole column on that race and that run three years ago; read it here.)

Prudhomme’s 5.63 was not bettered for two and half years, until the 1985 Winternationals, when Rick Johnson shoed Roland Leong’s wind-tunnel-refined Dodge to a 5.58, which was one-upped later that year by Kenny Bernstein’s 5.56 in his aero-slick Bud King Tempo in the incredible air at the inaugural NHRA Keystone Nationals in Reading.

The 1986 season introduced the lockup clutch to the sport, cloaked in secrecy inside the Bud King until a solo pass at the U.S. Nationals revealed the telltale downtrack engine-pitch change that allowed Bernstein and crew chief Dale Armstrong to run a devastating 5.50 and, a few weeks later, a bombshell 5.42 at Texas Motorplex.

So, if you’re keeping score, Funny Cars went from a 5.63 best entering the 1985 season to a 5.42 best two seasons later. Two-tenths in two years.

By the end of 1987, Ed McCulloch had the best number, a 5.36, again recorded at the Motorplex (the new OMS, it seems), and “the Ace” also made the best run of 1988, a 5.25 in Houston. Prudhomme broke into the five-teens in Indy in 1989 (5.17), a number that was not bettered until Jim White punched Leong’s Dodge through the Motorplex timers with a 5.14 a year later, a run that was not bettered for two years, until Pedregon and Larry Minor’s McDonald’s Olds ran 5.10 in Houston in 1992 and 5.07 in Reading later that year.

The 1992 season is well-remembered for the leap in cylinder-head and ignition technology led by Bernstein and Armstrong that resulted in their 300-mph Top Fuel run in Gainesville. And before long, others were catching on. In 1993, Chuck Etchells broke into the fours in Topeka with a 4.98. By 1996, John Force had set the record at 4.88 and three years later set it again at 4.79. It took until 2004 for the record to reach the 4.60s (Force again, in Chicago, with a 4.66), but the record didn’t budge much from there before quarter-mile racing ended following the loss of Scott Kalitta.

Intrigued by all of this, I called Austin Coil, the architect of Force’s glory years – and the guy who inadvertently gave Armstrong the idea for a lockup clutch – who has retired from tuning but still avidly watches the action, for his historic overview of the seismic shifts in performance, beginning with this season.

“The reason behind this year’s performance increase – laying the headers back -- is so obvious that we all are just looking at each other going, ‘How the [heck] could we not have tried that?’ " he mused. “Cruz Pedregon had them tilted back like that for years, and occasionally he would run really quick on slippery tracks, and we didn’t really understand how he could be ridiculously good under those conditions. We had no clue.”

What’s really interesting about this header design is that it goes against everything that most teams thought. For years, everyone considered the massive downward thrust (3,000 to 5,000 pounds, according to Coil) coming out of the headers as a way to help plant the cars for better traction, but what the teams have newly discovered is that the forward thrust offered by the laid-back headers is more effective in getting the cars going than the better traction offered by the upturned headers, especially on a slippery track. This also means that teams no longer need to max out their rear wings for the launch, a setting that slows the cars at the other end of the track.

The sheer number of performance innovations throughout the years – from wrinkle-wall tires to improved transmissions (and then direct-drive) and clutches, high-flow (and multiple) fuel pumps, programmable ignition timing, improved magnetos, high-flow cylinder heads, setback blowers, better aero packages, slip-tube chassis, et al – have pushed the performances to where they are, but it wasn’t always a bandwagon jump like we’ve seen with the headers craze of this year, probably because of the relative low cost to make the change.

Some things, like the iridium points in Bernstein’s magnetos that reportedly cost $10,000 per set, were financially out of reach for many teams. When Coil hatched the idea for the lockup clutch, Force’s team didn’t have the money to develop it (“We didn’t even have the money to pay for our diesel fuel back then,” he said), but Bernstein did, and they had one months before anyone else did.

While Coil has seen it all come and go throughout the years, when I asked him for the most memorable and forehead-slapping change he remembers seeing, it had nothing to do with performance.

“In the early 1970s, we were at a match race with the Ramchargers, and they had put a pipe from the [valve-cover] breathers that ran out the back of their car to keep the oil off of the engine,” he recalled. “The first thing I thought of is, ‘Why the [heck] didn’t we think of that?’ It was so obvious. How many years had we been silver-taping rags over the breathers and front-motor dragster guys were wiping oil off of their goggles going down the racetrack?

“If you look back in history, kings used to warm their castles with a huge bonfire in the middle of the room, and they would cut big holes in the ceiling to let the smoke out. It took them 300 years to come up with the idea of a fireplace and a chimney.

"Just like in racing, sometimes some things just don’t seem so obvious until they are.”
 

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