Food for thoughtFriday, July 29, 2011

It may well be the most famous and photographed concession stand in drag race history, showing up in the background behind superstar racers burning rubber at Irwindale Raceway in the 1960s and ‘70s, and also Ground Beef Zero for any discussion about dragstrip food. This Irwindale snack bar, located behind the starting line on the right side of the famed Southern California raceplant, was in direct line of sight between the photographers’ area and the burnout box, and I’m guessing that a pretty sizeable percentage of photos ever shot at the ‘Dale had that concession stand in the frame. There were two concession stands at Irwindale, the one mentioned above and another on the other side of the track closer to the finish line, and I gotta believe that the lucky folks who got to work the starting-line stand had one of the best seats in the house ever enjoyed by a burger slinger.

So, why does Irwindale which closed in 1977, still hold such a high place in the pantheon of dragstrip food? Six simple letters: In-N-Out.

Even today, out-of-state race teams and others who flock to Pomona each year always seem to have one thing on their mind besides the racing: A Double-Double burger and fries from the iconic SoCal fast-food giant. And with good reason: In-N-Out’s impeccably crewed and tightly-run stores predictably serve up the best burgers on the planet. It’s that good. The menu is very short: burgers, fries, drinks -— the “we do one thing, but we do it very well” school of thought. (Regulars know can get variations of the basic items, such as ordering their burger or fries “animal-style”; extra spread, grilled onions, and other additions.)

Founded in 1948 by Harry Snyder and his wife, Esther, In-N-Out remained pretty much a small (but cherished) Southern California secret for years — nearly 30 years after its founding, there were only 18 drive-thru stores — but a lot of racers and race fans who went to Irwindale (me included) probably never knew that the concessions stands were serving up In-N-Out burgers. The reason they were served there was simple and genius: Harry Snyder owned a 50 percent stake in Irwindale Raceway.

It’s such an important part of the In-N-Out story that it spans six pages in BusinessWeek writer Stacy Perman’s definitive book In-N-Out Burger: A Behind-the-Counter Look at the Fast-Food Chain That Breaks All the Rules. According to the book, a golfing buddy of Snyder’s convinced him in 1965 to invest in the newly-opened track. “The investment soon proved to be a canny move that further solidified the association between cars and In-N-Out that began with the drive-through,” wrote Perman.

Only about 10 In-N-Out stores existed then, all in the San Gabriel Valley, and serving the burgers at Irwindale — although they were never explicitly advertised as coming from In-N-Out — exposed them to a wider audience. I also read somewhere that In-N-Out used to promo upcoming Irwindale events with a flyer tucked in with your order, but I can't verify that.

(Above) Tim Grose, 1985 (Auto Imagery photo); (below) Melanie Troxel, 2011

“Harry used his In-N-Out people to run the concessions, so burgers were identical, except they didn’t use tomatoes,” recalled Steve Gibbs, who managed the Irwindale track from 1966 to 1968. “Snyder built the In-N-Out empire on serving up good food at reasonable prices, and he saw to it that the Irwindale food was the same."

Snyder’s sons, Guy and Rich, worked the concessions stands and did other odd jobs for Gibbs, like handing out time slips, and being around the fast cars obviously led to their support of NHRA Drag Racing when they took over the company following the death of their father in 1976. The Snyder family sponsored Funny Cars, and Guy even raced quite successfully in Comp. Rich died in a plane crash in 1993, and Guy passed away in 1999, but the company’s support of drag racing continues today under the leadership of Lyndsi Martinez, Guy’s daughter and the lone grandchild of Esther and Harry, who took over the reins of the company after Esther died in 2006. Thanks to her passion for the sport, the company today sponsors Melanie Troxel’s R2B2 Funny Car.

“During that entire time I managed Irwindale, the food was Snyder’s/In-N-Out," said Gibbs. "He sold his interest not long after I moved on, but the Doner operation was smart enough to hang on to some good concession people and tried to maintain the same quality.”

According to the book, Snyder sold his interest in the racetrack around 1972 to concentrate on his growing empire. I asked Bill Doner, the notorious West Coast racetrack tycoon of the 1970s, about the post-Snyder years when he owned Irwindale, beginning that same year.

“Actually, we had a purchase contract with ‘Hamburger Harry,’ and he agreed to assist us with the concession food,” said Doner. “We kept a lot of the ex-In-N-Out workers on our payroll and in fact shifted a good portion of them to Orange County when we took it over [1975].”

If you're looking for menu variety, this ain't the place; if you're looking for America's best burger, you found it. Thousands of drag fans can't be wrong.

Like any SGV kid, Gibbs grew up on In-N-Out goodness and quality. “In-N-Out has been a ‘way of life’ for many of us who grew up in the San Gabriel Valley,” he testified. “Gloria and I started dating in our junior year of high school and used to hang out at the original #1 In-N-Out [in Baldwin Park which recently — and sadly — was closed]. There’s more than 250 stores now and recently they moved into Texas with major expansion plans. My daughter works at one of the new Utah stores, in West Jordan.”

Photographer Jere Alhadeff, one of the great drag racing shooters of that era, also worked for Gibbs at Irwindale, and although he lived closer to Lions Drag Striip, his reasoning was simple. “I first went to Lions as a spectator while in high school and then was the track photographer," he said. "One thing was consistent: the food at Lion's was blah. I don't remember eating there more than onc, or twice. Fortunately, there was a great Italian deli, Santa Fe Importers, just a couple of miles away near Mickey Thompson's place. We always stopped there first.

"In the winter, Lions raced Saturday night, while Irwindale ran Sunday so I could go to both on the same weekend. Irwindale's food was unofficially In-N-Out Burger, so it was a gourmet's delight! I had always admired Steve Gibbs and he called and asked me if I'd like to be the Irwindale track photographer. At the time I was living in Newport Beach, so Lions was less than half the distance to Irwindale. However, Irwindale had In-N-Out! I told Steve I would do it for the same amount of money, plus two cheeseburgers!”

Growing up far from the San Gabriel Valley, a trip from my Culver City hometown to Irwindale with my stepfather seemed as long as a drive to the moon for this pre-teen (“Are we there yet?”), but eating at any concession stand was a treat because, back in those days kids, there wasn’t a fast-food joint on every corner and families just didn’t eat out that often, and if Mom was going to take a night off from the kitchen, we sure as heck weren’t going to the Golden Arches. That Irwindale’s food was that good was a super bonus.

Although today there are a half-dozen In-N-Outs within a few miles of my house (now don’t be hating), I was terribly deprived in my teen years because the nearest In-N-Out was a long drive away into the San Fernando Valley, at an In-N-Out in North Hollywood, where we’d stop after a night of cruising fabled Van Nuys Boulevard. I couldn’t have known it at the time, but years later, I would dine often at that same In-N-Out, which was just around the corner from NHRA’s headquarters when I joined the staff in 1982.

From The Burgess Photo Archives: The cat in the CAT hat is my best bro, future automotive journalism/TV superstar and muscle-car bon vivant C. Van Tune, in line for burgers at the OCIR concession stands. The preppy behind him? No clue.

Despite having a somewhat In-N-Out connection, my other main haunt, Orange County Int’l Raceway, couldn’t totally match Irwindale’s food but nonetheless left a lasting impression on my eating habits. Being a typical kid, I never ate onions on my burgers until one summer night at OCIR in the mid-1970s while we all waited interminably for “Leapin’ Larry” McMenamy to make what would be a final (and fatal) attempted leap on his go-kart over a row of parked cars (has there ever been a worse idea?). It was so damn cold and typically OCIR dewy that night that McMenamy’s plugs kept fouling. I was starving and cold, and with just enough money to buy a burger, I wanted every little morsel of the burger to starve off my rumbly tummy. I found that onions aren’t so bad, and while they’re still not a favorite condiment, every time I eat a burger with onions, I harken back to that night.

Mark Watkins, an Insider regular who shares so many of the same memories as me that I’m certain he’s the brother my parents traded for those 1971 PDA tickets, has has own great OCIR memories:

“In the mind of a 12-year-old drag racing fanatic, one of the best parts of a Saturday night at OCIR was when my dad sent me down to the concession stand (actually built under the pitside grandstands at about 300 feet out from the start line) to grab a burger for him and I. Nothing in the world tasted better. He made me pay for that burger, though. Later that night, I was the coffee mule for him and his pals. This was in the days before some genius invented the coffee lid. Try being 12 and carrying two or three coffees with no lids at a dragstrip with all of the hazards of large crowds, loud noise, and vibration. The penalty for sloshing coffee was pretty painful. I have to tell you, I would carry coffee all day to have just one day back at OCIR in the early ‘70s.”

OCIR also served up its nachos with optional hot sauce atop the cheese, and I simply can’t eat nachos any other way even today. I’m not alone in remembering the nachos.

Jerry Allen Hurd wrote, “I really miss the Super Gas Nachos from OCIR, their burgers were at times the best, but Irwindale fries created a craving I can't fill to this day!!! Maybe it was just being at the track that made the food better, but the tastes are just as strong in my memory as the sights and smells. It was the best of times.”

I told Jerry I thought they were called “Nitro Nachos” (a common usage even today). “I heard them many times being hawked at OCIR on the PA as Super Gas Nachos whenever the Sportsmen were there; Nitro Nachos for the Pro shows, as I remember it.”

Either way, I think it’s pretty funny — in a teenage boy kind of way — for any type of concession-stand food to be called Super Gas anything.

Topping off the SoCal triple-play was, of course, Lions Drag Strip. Stephen Justice worked in the concessions at Lions from 1962 to 1966, when the food and beverage concession was contracted to Harry Taylor (who was probably a Lions Club board member), who ran the concession with his wife and three adult children. He also would take issue with my earlier comment about the great view from the stand at Irwindale.

(Above) The main food stand shown in a photo from both a normal early Saturday or Sunday with only a couple of customers (Blanche Taylor photo) and (below) a night shot from the crowded Last Drag Race Dec. 2, 1972. (Kelly photo).
The arrow points to the mid-track stand on the west side, where Justice worked. (Don Gillespie collection)
“There was a main concession behind the grandstands, one in the pits, another one on the tower side close to the starting line, and two downtrack," Justice remembers. "I ran the stand on the west side at the eighth-mile point — absolutely and positively the best view to see the entire race at this strip. Harry was a kind gentleman who hired primarily young kids for his stands. It should also be mentioned that the Aumack brothers (later known for their gas and fuel dragster exploits in Northern California) were also employees of Taylor Concessions at that time. In fact, older brother Bruce was a ‘boss’ of sorts over us younger guys.

“So, what was the food like? OK. The hamburgers and cheeseburgers were not legendary like Irwindale but damn good by dragstrip standards. Everything was fresh, and the burgers were garnished with chopped lettuce and onion; no French fries but plenty of hot popcorn. Probably the item best liked by the fans was the tamale and homemade chili prepared by Harry’s wife. I have heard some negative comments about the t&c, but when I was there, I thought it was pretty good. There was no grill at the eighth-mile stand, so I did not have to cook burgers. I had a steamer and served hot dogs and chili dogs, soda, chips, and candy. It was a cool job: I saw the drags for free, ate for free, and met a lot of racers and fans. I also fed some of the racers from time to time; well, the ones I liked. On top of my list was Dave Beebe, who drove the Beebe-Vincent-Sixt Top Fuel dragster. Dave was the nicest guy ever and almost unbeatable at Lions during the summer of 1966. He would come down to my stand before eliminations with his wife and kid, and I made sure they were treated right. I left for college in October 1966, and that ended my little stint at Lions. I think it would be accurate to say that during that time I only missed one, maybe two races, in all those years. OK, two cheeseburgers, two popcorn, and two cokes — that’s $1.50, sir.”

Don Gillespie, whose three-part DVD documentary about Lions is a must for any fan, also worked the concessions at the famous strack at Alameda and 223rd Streets, and supplied the photos at right from his vast collection.

"I remember applying for a job with food concession owner Mr. Taylor, around age 15, especially to work in the main food stand near the starting line," he said. "While talking to him a Top Fuel car was fired up on the roller starters. My eyes were immediately glued on the smoke and fury just a handful of yards away. After all of the noise subsided, he politely said I would never be able to cut it. Why, I asked? ‘Because you're too interested in the cars,’ he stated flatly. Looking back, it never dawned on me to inquire about the other food stands there, especially the one at mid-track.

“As for my personal food intake, I was mowing lawns and pulling weeds - anything just to be able to afford getting in to the track. Sometimes only a hot dog and/or Coke was all that it took (and all that I had) to keep me in hot rod heaven. Also purchased at their food stands was the latest copy of Drag News, which actually took precedence over the food! And a cup of hot chocolate in the wintertime, of course. Later, when I could afford a Drag News, hamburger, Coke, and a couple of the L&M Films wallet photos on a weekly basis, I knew I had moved up to the big time!”

Burgers certainly are a good part of any concession stand, but let’s be honest, when you think of dragstrip concession, you’re thinking primarily of the venerable hot dog or, as it’s become derisively known, the Drag Dog.

Of course I still have it!

Long before ZZ Top penned the song "Tube Steak Boogie" (probably not about hot dogs <g>), I first learned of that slang word for a hot dog in sixth grade, when I bought a book through that Scholastic Book Services program where elementary-school kids could buy mail-order books. My first was The Complete Book of Stock-Bodied Drag Racing, and it included a thorough (15 pages!) glossary of drag terms. It was written by Lyle Engel and the staff at Auto Racing magazine, but the foreword was written by Mike Doherty, who I didn’t know of at the time but who would become a god to me (and many of you) as publisher of Drag Racing USA, the Drag Racing Photo Greats books, and other great pieces of straight-line literature. Anyway, the entry there was “Tube steak — a hot dog; the main staple of a drag racer’s meal.”

Cliff Morgan, another SoCal drag veteran, knows the dog I’m talking about and relished the chance (see what I did there?) to reminisce about it.

“The infamous Drag Dog (or Drag Dawg, if yer in Texas),” he mused. “How many stories about people eating hot dogs at the strip and are close to death a few hours later? Ha! I remember once at Lions that I was in the pits, where the concession stand was, and ‘Snake’ comes up and gets a burger, or maybe it was a drag dog. I was astonished that Prudhomme actually ate at the concession stand. Figured he'd have his own food, but there he was. I can remember the concession stands at Irwindale, Lions, and OCIR, but not at San Fernando, which I think was a trailer. Never got sick from the food, though, at any track I ever ate at. My favorite track for food is Speedworld in Phoenix. Good food, not expensive, and it's a fun place to go to the drags. Try their breakfast special, SOS on scrambled eggs.”

While we’re dissing track food, here’s Peter Howell’s diatribe: “At da races, ‘Drag’ has a different meaning when it comes to food. 1) Expensive, as expected; 2) The condiments are warmed by the SUN, as expected ; 3) The burger patties are cold, as expected.; 4) The sodas are too cold, too much ice, as expected.; 5) Hot dogs are more of a phallic symbol than edible food, as expected.; 6) The small family racing teams serve their own WONDERFUL food and drinks, as appreciated!; 7) Eating at the concessions brings to mind another word: Diet.”

Don Hirsch wrote, “As a fellow Irwindale pit rat of the ‘70s, seeing a pit-side photo, with the In-N-Out stand (yeah, it didn't say In-N-Out, but we all knew) in the background always brings a smile. The bad thing is it set a standard that is tough to match. I would say of the many tracks I've been to, Pomona had food to be avoided if at all possible in the past, but to their credit, they now have many choices, and it's actually edible.”

“Most dragstrip food I ever encountered was not worth remembering,” agreed Gibbs, “although one exception was the Italian sausage sandwiches that a guy named Leonard Beck used to serve up at Indy. I couldn’t wait for one of those, each return trip to the Nationals. The New family in Boise deserves a tip of the cap for giving their customers good quality food at very reasonable prices. All too often it’s the other way around.”

I, too, remember the Leonard Beck Experience, first introduced to me in 1983 by Leslie Lovett. As noted earlier, I’m not big on onions and had my sausage sandwich without additions that seemed to be enjoyed by the others. In a few years, I forged my own Indy tradition: a corn dog and a lemon shake-up. If hot dogs are bad for ya, then a corn dog has to be doubly bad, but it just reeks of carnival atmosphere. For those unfamiliar with the lemon shake-up, it’s probably equally as not good for you: A big cup of water, a heaping helping of sugar, and a squeezed lemon. They make it before your eyes, putting the ingredients into a cup, capping it with another cup, and shaking it to mix the ingredients together. Simple, yet effective. Today, a more health-conscious me limits myself to one Phil Burgess Indy Experience per visit.

OK, I can hear those of you who know me or who have traveled with me smirking about my “health-conscious” eating habits as I also find the inexplicable need to visit a Steak ‘n’ Shake in any racetown that has them (especially Indy and Gainesville) because we don’t have them out here; kinda like my reverse version of the In-N-Out phenomenon. I know I’m not alone in my S ‘n’ S addiction. Then there’s also Sonny’s Bar-B-Q, which is a Gainesville tradition for just about every racer I know. There’s one located just two miles from the track, and it’s packed every night during the Gatornationals.

Laura Bruederle, wife of longtime Midwest photog Mark, has her own sweet Indy memory. “Mark and I traveled to Indy, getting to the track early, racecars still snug in the trailers we would walk the pits," she remembers. "There calling us by the sweet smell of fried dough, we watched like two kids the magic machine squirting little circles of dough into hot boiling oil, and then the conveyor belt scooping them up and dropping them into either powered sugar or cinnamon sugar. The donut man then would scoop them up and put them into a white bag. We would get a large ice cold Pepsi and would have a breakfast that nothing has even come close to. I don't know if it was the perfect day to start a perfect race, or the perfect guy that i ended up marrying.”

But Indy is not the only sausage-lover’s heaven, according to John McLean, who remembers “the sweet smell of Italian sausage cooking away on the grills at E-town during the Summernationals — it doesn't get any better! From the ‘70s when the Summernationals was actually conducted in the heat of a July in New Jersey until the current version of a few months back, one of the consistent memories is sitting in those stands, be it spectator or pit side, and smelling that sausage grilling away. My mouth is watering.”

'Shake's' jambalaya and crawfoil boil at the '83 Cajun Nationals. I understand a similar tradition continues today at the JEGS NHRA Cajun SPORTSnationals.

Another legendary NHRA food memory was never on the menu at State Capitol Dragway during the NHRA Cajun Nationals, but plenty of visitors to the Baton Rouge, La., track sampled the Louisiana delicacy of crawfish thanks to an after-hours get-together thrown by a guy known only to us as “Shake.”

“ 'Shake’s' claim to fame was his ‘Jambalaya by Shake,’ “ remembers Gibbs. “It was pretty good Cajun food ... when it came out right. He cooked the stuff in a giant metal pot, and I remember once, when he bought some bad onions, and he had to dump the entire batch, probably a few hundred pounds. They didn’t sell crawfish at the track, but 'Shake' would cook up a batch of the ‘mud bugs’ for a ‘private party’ around the base of the tower after Saturday night’s racing. Boy did it smell bad the next day!”

Mike McClelland, son of legendary announcer Dave, who had plenty of Louisiana roots, remembered the annual brain-sucking feast well. “At the 1982 Cajun Nationals, I asked what was in the jambalaya, which he made in about a 50-gallon kettle. His response: ‘If you gotta know what's in it, you don't want to eat it.’ Classic.”

I’ll pass.

Bret Kepner has made a career of visiting dragstrips (276 to date), so, as you might expect, he admits, “I’ve tasted a few straight-line snacks in my time,” but he clearly has his favorite drag delicacy.

“For just shy of 20 years, I spent each Memorial Day announcing the action at ‘Broadway Bob’ Metzler’s Great Lakes Dragaway in Union Grove, Wis. The concession area featured the infamous ‘beer garden,’ which included a bandstand and every conceivable food or beverage item. During a break at the Olympics in the early 1980s, I stumbled upon a little stand that sold what was advertised as Cocao Bars, pronounced ‘koh-CAY-oh.’ I instantly fell in love with this astonishing item and marveled at what remains to this day the largest ice cream bar I’ve ever seen. In fact, I’m not sure I can ever accurately describe the delight of a Broadway Bob Cocao Bar.

“Metzler’s track manager, the inimitable Mike Plantamura, called it ‘a bowl of ice cream on a stick’ and, although that’s exactly how I hawked them over the public address system, that was an understatement. A Cocao Bar was a brick-sized hunk (honestly) of mint-flavored ice cream on a stick dipped in an exorbitant amount of chocolate sauce and then rolled in crushed mixed nuts. It was not only heavenly but heavy; these things could barely be supported with one hand, and small children could barely balance them by the puny piece of wood protruding from the bottom of the bar.

"I can put away my fair share of sweets, but the Cocao Bar was so large I seldom could handle more than three in a 12-hour shift at the microphone. Regardless, they were ‘can’t-find-the-words’ delicious, and I asked 'Broadway' the origin of these magnificent treats. 'A farmer down the road makes ’em,’ he revealed, 'and I get ’em for next to nothing. They’re one of my highest-profit items, so sell a bunch of ’em for me.’ That task was certainly no problem. I loved these things, and I sold hundreds of them by coercion alone.

Kepner couldn't find them at Great Lakes, but Laura Bruederle found them online now as Kent's Big Bar at

“My good friends, Mark and Laura Bruederle, would tease me about my love of Cocao Bars before I’d arrive for the Olympics each year. Mark was the track photographer for decades and had the opportunity to eat one every weekend, and he tortured me with that information whenever he could. They both knew how much I looked forward to grabbing one the minute I parked my car on the property.

“Around 1994, I drove up for my annual stint at the Olympics and, as soon as I could, headed immediately for the little shack that sold my beloved Cocao Bars. In an instant, my heart stopped when I realized the Cocoa Bar stand was gone. I rushed to the other concession buildings, but it quickly became apparent there were no Cocao Bars to be had. Horrified, I ran to ‘Broadway’s’ office and, in a near panic, asked why I couldn’t find any Cocao Bars at the track. Broadway responded with a quizzical look and a confused, ‘Huh?,’ to which I replied, ‘You know … the Cocao Bars! The gigantic ice cream bars dipped in chocolate and rolled in nuts! The ones the FARMER down the road makes for you every year!’

“ 'Broadway' suddenly realized what I was asking and, waving his hand as if to blow off my frantic query, said, ‘Oh! That guy? The FDA shut him down last winter.’ “

That’s the main course, for now. Have other culinary curiosities or dragstrip delights to share? Dish ‘em out, and I’ll serve ‘em up for our hungry audience here for dessert.

A farewell to Dave ConditTuesday, July 26, 2011

 1 of 3 
Dave and Steve Condit, at the 2010 March Meet (Marc Gewertz photos)
I was all set to kick off a discussion of dragstrip food when I learned yesterday about the passing of former Funny Car racer Dave Condit. I guess John Force mentioned it on the air during this weekend's ESPN2 show from Denver, but because I was elbow deep in mud trying to repair a leaky sprinkler pipe, I must have missed it. I received an email from a fan asking me about it and, as fate would have it, received a phone call from Force yesterday morning — on a non-related topic — and was able to confirm the sad news.

Force, as many of you are aware, was cousins with the Condit brothers — Dave, Steve, and Billy — and the nephew of their longtime partner and crew chief, Gene Beaver — aka “Uncle Beavs” — so it hit him kind of hard. I also learned that Richard Beaver, who also worked on the long line of Condit/Beaver cars, had passed away the previous Sunday. If you’ve ever listened to Force go on about the influence that his family had on him, you know it was a special group (more about that later).

The Condit/Beaver L.A. Hooker Funny Cars are as much a part of my early drag racing history as “the Snake” and “the Mongoose” — after all, that car name … wow! — and I watched and loved their cars for years. Their ’72 Mustang was on one of the first hero cards I ever got at the drags, and I think a lot of us rooted for them in the weekly wars up and down the California coast. We lost Gene quite a few years ago and Billy Condit in 2005, so Steve Condit is the only surviving member of the original group.

I reached out to Adria Hight, Force’s daughter, who was very helpful in getting me some dates about Condit’s passing for the obituary I wrote yesterday, and she said to expect a phone call from Steve, which I looked forward to but didn’t come in time for today’s column, because I had questions that maybe now only he can answer.

Again, I am kicking myself in the butt for not interviewing Dave when he called me a few months ago to ask for help in getting one of NHRA’s 60th Anniversary passes, which were being made available to past national event winners. I never met Dave, but like way too many of the phone calls I get from yesterday’s heroes who have been out of the limelight for a while, the call began with, “I’m not sure if you know who I am, but …”

Even though he only had the one NHRA national event win to his credit — at the 1974 Supernationals, best remembered for Shirl Greer’s heroic comeback to win the Funny Car championship — of course I knew who he was. I helped validate his accomplishments with headquarters to get the pass. He later called to thank me, and I asked for his phone number so I could do a column on him. He agreed, and I planned to do it this summer; I had no idea, of course, it was a limited-time offer, but through some research and old issues, I was able to pull together some stuff for a fitting send-off.

 1 of 7 
The first L.A. Hooker was this ex-Nelson Carter Charger, in 1970
National DRAGSTER had profiled Condit right after his World Finals win, so there was some good info there. I also cruised through our pretty-thick Condit photo archives for some of the great pics on this page showing some of the team’s cars. You might not know it, but Condit actually began his driving career in Top Fuel, from 1965 to 1969, before the team jumped on the Funny Car bandwagon for 1970.

The team bought Nelson Carter’s Super Chief Dodge Charger, and with minimal changes to the paint scheme, it became the first L.A. Hooker, its name inspired in part by the Chi-Town Hustler. Getting its feet wet in the new class, the team eventually clocked a 7.01 best by year’s end. For 1971, Steve Plueger, who would offer Condit the seat in his Plueger & Gyger Mustang a few years later, built the team a new Maverick that ran really well and carried Condit to a runner-up at the March Meet behind Jim Dunn’s rear-engine 'Cuda. It was in the Maverick in which Condit famously was runner-up to Don Prudhomme at the Hot Wheels Northwest National Open in Seattle, the race that Prudhomme won while flying across the finish line on fire with the front end 5 feet in the air. You can just see the nose of Condit’s car in the background of that famous Al Kean photo.

“I had a pretty good view of that one,” said Condit, “but that’s something I certainly didn’t like to see. I was just glad that he did come out of it alright.”

The team got its most memorable car, the first Mustang, in 1972 and was part of the Coca-Cola Cavalcade of Stars tour and enjoyed continuing success. Beaver was quoted in Condit’s PROfile article as saying that in 1971 the Hooker won 48 of 50 match races it participated in during the 1971 season and 22 out of 39 Coke events in 1972, “with runner-ups at just about all the rest.

“When he was racing with us, he was always limited by the fact that we were relatively ‘poor,’ and we couldn’t provide him with the best of equipment. He’s always had the talent, and I think that everybody finally realizes that after what happened last weekend.”

After a “not quite as productive” 1973 season, the Hooker team sat out 1974, and newlywed Condit stayed close to home, running locally in the Plueger & Gyger Mustang that led to his big win in Ontario, Calif., where he upset new national record holder Dale Pulde on a semifinal holeshot and red-hot Ed McCulloch in the final.

The Hooker was back at it in 1975 with a new-gen Mustang II body, but the Condits branched off on their own for a couple of seasons beginning in 1978. They reunited with Beaver in the early 1980s, but the sport had changed so much that they weren’t up to their usual competitive level and parked the car in the middle 1980s.

Steve Condit, left, and Dave Condit, accepted the 2005 Phoenix Wally trophy from Force, on behalf of their late brother, Billy.

In researching Condit, I came across a great article on Force’s website from 2005, written after Billy died. Force had won the Phoenix event that year and dedicated the win to Steve and Dave and their mother, Bea, who was the sister of Force’s mother.

“I admired and looked up to Billy,” Force said. “He was an individual who, in the early days, inspired me with the stories that he told about driving across the country, following the racing circuit. He’d tell me stories about all the race teams out there — how they partied and how they played — and that was my early introduction to racing. I knew when they were going back on tour, and I knew that when they came back in the winter, the stories would start again. It was almost like he was a seaman who went off to sea, and when he’d come back, he’d have all these stories about the places he went and the people he met. Racing was a different world back then, and I lived for those stories.

“[Billy’s death] was a big loss to the whole family, especially to my Aunt Bea. Everybody used to stay at the house or come by for dinner. [Jim] Dudley and 'Honda Doug' [Woiwood], guys who do hospitality for Schumacher now, they used to be over there all the time, just like family. People don’t know how rich the family of racers is. Everybody knew Ma, and when the racers came to L.A., they stayed at the house. She was like a racing institution. Billy Meyer lived at the house one winter. That’s why the Woiwoods and the Dudleys were always there: for a meal and to have a good time. I said Aunt Bea was like the Ma Barker of racing. Ma Barker took in every outlaw there was. 'Pretty Boy' Floyd. 'Babyface' Nelson. Well, Aunt Bea housed some of the biggest outlaws in drag racing. That’s our roots.

“I remember in the days as kids, the Condit boys used to take me outside and we’d have some big ol’ free-for-alls and fistfights. It was always me and Stephen fighting David and Bill. It’s just where we came from.

“The Condits, the Forces, and the Beavers. It was never about winning championships, it was about surviving,” Force said, “but I remember every year I’d be playing football [at Bell Gardens High School], I’d call Beaver and ask, ‘Has Billy got home yet?' cause I knew Billy would bring back the stories from the East Coast about all the feuds and the fights and people like Shirley Muldowney and ‘TV Tommy’ Ivo and Raymond Beadle, the Blue Max.

“My dream was that one day I would be a part of that.”

I’d say he made it pretty good and has the Condits and Beavers in part to thank.


Even though we’re clear of the Prudhomme/McEwen/Hot Wheels thread (for now), I couldn’t let pass the news of the death of the father of Hot Wheels, Elliot Handler, who died Thursday at 95. Handler, along with his wife, Ruth (who created the Barbie doll using their daughter Barbara’s name and later that of son Kenneth), and their business partner, Harold Mattson, founded Mattel in 1945. The Mattel name was a combination of Mattson and Elliott. After Barbie’s success with girls, Handler wanted a toy specifically for boys, and Hot Wheels was it.

Without Elliot Handler, my youth certainly would have been much more boring and maybe not have led into a career in drag racing.

I've already received a few early entries of the dragstrip food column, but there's still time to send in your gastronomical hits and misses, memories, and heartburns. I know you have stories. Do you have the stomach to share them? Or is that the reason you have that stomach? Inquiring minds want to know!

See ya later this week.

(Above) The "slightly off" Rapid Transit paint scheme and (below) the real deal.
(Above) The same Rapid Transit car, new '91 grille treatment, another kinda-sorta paint scheme. (Below) This car on display at a Rapid Transit show.

I use the word “finally” in the headline not as a measure of time – as in, “Well, he finally speaks about the subject” -- but to let Don Prudhomme himself bring a close to the subject of his early Barracuda Funny Cars. “The Snake” has been following with interest the discussions here in the last few weeks and wanted to help clear up a few topics we’ve discussed recently.

First off, he (like me) is really impressed with the depth and breadth of the knowledge and information we share here, and although he didn’t use the word, it’s pretty clear that he’s flattered that anyone still cares about the trivial details of a 40-year-old race car. “It’s amazing, isn’t it?” he marveled.

Prudhomme and Skip Allum also added some interesting new meat to the meal by sending a couple of the images at right, which came out of a 1970 Plymouth press kit. As we’ve already established, Ronnie Scrima at Exhibition Engineering built two matching Funny Cars for “the Snake’s” 1970 Funny Car debut. He ran one, and the other was used by Plymouth in its Rapid Transit rolling display. Prudhomme sold his car to Sammy Miller and Ken Poffenberger, and the car was heavily damaged or destroyed a few years later. Prudhomme and Willie Wolter found the Rapid Transit version and restored it, which is the car now in his possession, most usually strapped to the back of the yellow ramp truck.

The first thing you will note in the photos is that the Rapid Transit car does not exactly match the paint scheme of the race car, especially the “Snake” lettering.

“They built both of the cars at Scrima’s, and I didn’t really know much about what they were going to do with the other car,” Prudhomme admitted. “All I knew was it was a spare car. The next thing I knew, they shipped it to Detroit, where all of the Rapid Transit stuff was going together, and they painted it there like my car, probably off of photos they’d seen of my car. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the exact same paint scheme, more like the theme. Someone obviously used their imagination a bit. You can also see it has a flat grille where my car had a molded grille. I don’t know why they filled it in. The car went on the tour, and I never did ask them to change it. I never really gave it much thought because the cars just didn't cross paths. We were racing, and the other car was pretty much going to dealerships.

“The following year, when we built the Buttera car and added the white paint scheme and the red flames, they updated the Rapid Transit car, too, and that wasn’t exact either. The flames are a lot different, and they changed the grille, too, for the next model-year Barracuda.”

The roof spoiler: Time for more corrections of an age-old assumption. We started talking about the notorious short-lived roof-mounted spoiler on the car when it debuted in 1970, which almost everyone I know thinks was put there by some well-meaning Plymouth engineer who knew nothing about Funny Cars. Truth is, it was the idea of the team itself.

“When we built the cars, we thought it would look pretty cool to have the spoiler on the roof instead of the rear deck,” Prudhomme admitted. “We thought we could just move it forward and it would have more downforce being way up there and plant the whole car. Plus we thought it just looked cool. Unfortunately, that’s not how aerodynamics work. I read somewhere that someone said we took it off because it was picking up the front wheels, but it was the complete opposite of that. I remember running the car at Pomona, one of the first times out with the car, it started to spin the tires near the finish line. It was actually picking the back end off the ground. [Larry] Maxwell at Chrysler said, ‘You’ve got to get those things off of there; that’s not right. You need to put them in the back, and here’s why.’ The air was coming off that spoiler and tumbling and picking the back end up. So we cut them off and put them on the back, and it was like night and day. “

The front-spoiler lip: One discussion on aerodynamics led to another, so I asked “Snake” about the front spoiler that reader Jon Hofmann had pointed out. Prudhomme definitely remembered the spoiler extension that debuted early in 1973 but mysteriously disappeared later that season.

“We added an aluminum lip to the spoiler to keep air from getting under the car, like a cowcatcher,” he said. “No one at that time really had a car that was that low, but we were just trying to figure out how low we could go. It was great. It was just about scraping the ground, and it really helped a lot, but NHRA made us take it off because it was messing with the lights, both in staging the car and at the finish line. If you remember, back then, the lights were a lot higher off the ground than they are today. I think that shortly after that they came up with a spoiler-height [ground-clearance] rule. None of us knew much about aerodynamics back then, and no one was putting a car in a wind tunnel, but we made so many runs back then that we could do stuff like that and figure out pretty quick whether something worked or not. It was all just trial and error.”

The black Snake III 'Cuda: “We just didn’t have time to paint it,” he admitted. “I thought it looked pretty cool and would have loved to have left it that way. It was just primer with the decals on it, so it was real lightweight without the paint.” Prudhomme couldn’t remember how many events he ran with the car nor about the Beeline appearance speculated upon recently.

The “other” black car: I asked Prudhomme about the second black 'Cuda, which ran for a short time in 1973 after a fire at Green Valley Race City. He couldn’t recall the details or the amount of damage inflicted in the fire that might have caused him to get a new body but thinks that was the case. “It probably was a new body because they didn’t last long,” he said. “We went through several bodies. They were just fiberglass. You’d have a date coming up, and if you couldn’t get it painted in time, you’d put whatever decals on that you needed to put on, then paint it when you got a chance. I think we did that several times.”

The red Duster: There was a bit of a brouhaha when Prudhomme and Co. unveiled the restored ex-Tom McEwen Dodge ramp truck because they also repainted the blue “Mongoose” Duster they already had on hand to match the truck. While the truck itself rightfully drew raves, plenty of folks seemed upset that the Funny Car wasn’t the perfect mate like Prudhomme’s yellow 'Cuda was for his own restored truck. The McEwen Duster was in no way original -- nor ever represented to be; it was a display piece for the 35th anniversary Hot Wheels celebration a few years ago – and was just a convenient addition to the truck. The body and chassis were not right, nor was some of the lettering on the car, but eventually, cooler heads prevailed, and everyone got into the spirit of the display.

“This McEwen car thing, I think you explained it well,” said Prudhomme. “All it really is is a prop on the back of the truck because it’s not the real car. I suppose that if I had made the paint scheme exactly like the old car, people would have said, ‘Well, it’s still not the real car,’ so it is what it is. If it bothers people that much, I guess we could fix the paint, but it’s still not the real car, y’know? The cool thing would be for someone to find the original car, then I’d be all over that, but it’s not. To me, it’s like a hairpiece: No matter how you comb it, it’s still a hairpiece.”

I’m not going to get into a whole “What happened to the real red Duster?” but I may try to talk to John Collins, who, as we understand it, may have been the next owner. But it’s time to move on. Thanks, "Snake."

OK, so I fibbed; “Snake’s” not going to get the final word, but only because after I talked to him Tuesday, I received a couple of interesting emails that kind of round out the discussion but also leave a little sense of mystery, as probably befits anything historic.

Michael Rabenau put on his Sherlock Holmes hat and magnifying glass and detected a couple of subtle differences about the first 'Cuda Funny Car, and I dug out a couple of photos from our file to back up his point. The black and white is from the 1970 Winternationals (the "roof flap car"), the other also from 1970, but no month is available.


"Look at the front grille," he cited. "There is no Plymouth logo on the roof flap car.  [The other version] had it as well as two cartoon roadrunners on the driver’s side above the grille. I'm not sure if the Plymouth logo was molded into the fiberglass or a decal. I thought maybe the windshield injector opening was a clue, but I've seen round and square openings on both cars. Hope this helps, but it'll probably make things worse!”

Excellent work, Mike. Note also the change in the "Snake" lettering on the front spoiler, which gained a white outline. However, we do know from photos that once the roof spoiler was removed, the original body stayed in business at least for a while. At first I thought this might be just minor cosmetic work done after a fender bender or something that forced a front-clip fix, although as Prudhomme noted above, he (and others) went through quite a few bodies in those days. The injector opening looks significantly different, but upon close inspection, you can see it's the same tin but with a slot cut into a full windshield, which now covers most of the tin.

BUT ... If you scroll down to the post before this, though, you can see in the first photo-gallery image the roof spoiler still on but the new windshield treatment. The second photo, showing the car spoilerless, has returned to a conventional injector opening. Maybe there are more 'Cuda bodies than we believed, or maybe it's just a series of additions/deletions to the original.

Then there's the photo below, from the season-ending Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway, showing the new John Buttera car car with a '71-model grille treatment. Closer inspection also reveals a different injector opening and roof/hood stripe (note the width and number of the "outside" stripes). Another new body? Here comes that headache again ...


Artist's conception (Jimmy Hoffa figure not included)

OK, before we (really this time) close this chapter, we have to end it with a cliff-hanger. People might not know where Jimmy Hoffa's body is buried, but what about “the Snake’s” 'Cuda body?

I heard from longtime Florida pal Steve Gruenwald, who befriended Poffenberger in his later years.

“He had moved down here to Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., to retire,” reported Gruenwald. “He had a street rod that he took to a friend’s shop for some work. My friend, Wayne Smozanek, ran a blown Willys, and Ken took interest. He then told Wayne about his past racing exploits. Wayne told me about this former Funny Car racer whom he had met. I finally got to meet him, and he was surprised that I knew so much about his cars. I showed him the Super Stock & Drag Illustrated with the article on his Corvair Funny Car, and we hit it off. We talked about his rides, and I knew that he had driven the ex-Prudhomme 'Cuda. He told me before he died that the back half, from the firewall back, was in a container at his old gas station, which his son still ran. I went to the CHRR in 2009. I saw Prudhomme and told him what I knew, and he said he had heard the same story. He tried to contact [Poffenberger’s] son but never got a return call, so he blew it off. It is a shame Ken is not here to straighten this mess out.”

Indeed. And, with that, we say goodbye to the "Snake" Cuda thread and move on. I'd wager it's not the last time the subject in broached, but for now: case closed.

Conversation starter: Among all the sound and fury of a drag race comes also the smells. The sweet scent of nitro in the air, the acrid cloud of burned rubber, and, of course, the heavenly scents of that other dragstrip mainstay: the concession stand. Next Tuesday, I’ll talk about the ties in my life between drag food and real life and look forward to your gastronomic regalings of food at the drags – the hits, the misses, and the in between. Bon appetit.

All Snake, all the timeTuesday, July 19, 2011

Over the wails of frustration from the few residents of the Insider Nation complaining about the current “all-Snake-all-the-time” format … sorry ‘bout that, and here we go again.

Last Friday, I left the floor open for further comments/discussion about the fate of the original yellow Snake 'Cuda, and quite a few of you decided to stroll out for a little dance of your own, and, boy, can you guys tango.

Dan Tuttle was among the first to weigh in. “Comparing photos 9 and 10, if you look closely at the location of the top framerail in comparison to the cylinder head, you can see an obvious difference. On the Scrima car, the top framerail is above the headers on the outside of the valve covers. In the next shot, a year later, the top framerail is tucked under the headers. The Scrima car also was a sprung-rear-end car with ladder bars, while it is hard to see it on the Logghe car. Looking at it from the chassis builder's perspective, in order to make those changes to the car, the top framerail would have been replaced naturally. Also, the entire chassis would have been cut in two down the middle and narrowed 6 to 8 inches to get the framerails inside the cylinder heads. With this big of a change, most chassis builders would recommend buying a new car, as the cost of updating to this extent would be about the same. I would say that those are not the same chassis.”

Among those weighing in was NHRA historian Greg Sharp: “Like you, I have a headache and won’t even begin to get into this one with people a lot more knowledgeable than me about early Funny Car history! I will however comment that [Bret] Kepner’s 'damned Prudhomme-initiated Keystone SS wheels on the front' were actually Cragars and a reflection of Prudhomme and McEwen’s long relationship with Cragar Industries, Bell Auto, and Roy Richter, one of the great innovators and true gentlemen in this industry.” I should have caught that as the Cragar decal was omnipresent on Prudhomme’s cars, and if you go back to the installment, you’ll see that I’ve fixed this in blogger-cool strikethrough fashion that leaves his original statement intact yet corrected. I’ve begun to realize that any single Insider column taken out of context of the whole column (which is probably how people will find it via search engine) might not have the final word after you all have weighed in. I wish I had done that from the outset of the column.

Lance Peltier observed, “Looking at the Mr. Natural pictures, I would disagree that is the original Snake body. When looking at the rear view of the wreck, the rear-window shape is totally different (it arches more in the bottom center), the B pillars meet the fenders differently, there is more top of fender on the yellow body, and the bottom of the roof on the yellow body has a molding strip molded in. Also, the side body lines that run down the sides of the car on the yellow car are more distinct, and the Mr. Natural has side marker lights, none on the yellow body.”

 1 of 12 
Don Prudhomme with the roof spoiler in 1970
Bill McLauchlan was next and commented on several photos in the gallery, which I have reposted here.
Photo 1: Original yellow Snake car was Exhibition Engineering with a Fiberglass Trends body (molded grille, door lines, etc. as described; you can find a similar body on John Mazmanian's '70 'Cuda -- of course, without roof spoilers). Cragar SS front wheels (not Keystones), Halibrand rear wheels (polished in this photo), weedburner headers, small cutout for injector, roof spoilers
Photo 2: Roof spoiler gone (primered), zoomie headers, "gold" unpolished Halibrand mags on the rear, revised opening for injector, small black spoilers added to rear
Photo 4: Still the same as photo 2 except primered roof now yellow
Photo 6: Same car as photo 2 and 4 but now Sam Miller Construction lettering; any other changes are obscured by the track personnel
Photo 7: Same car, now Ken Poffenberger Super Puffer lettering, Sam Miller Construction reduced to rear quarterpanel, small Plexiglas spoiler extensions. Still has Cragars, gold Halibrands
Photo 8: Same car now blue, small spoilers look white (or natural aluminum), still has Plexiglas extensions
Photo 9: Same car with flames, different set of rear Halibrands (polished rim, gray center; may be aluminum instead of magnesium)
Photo 10: This is a 1972 car, Logghe chassis, Fiberglass Ltd. body (no molded-in grille but does have front and rear side marker lights), Cragar SS front wheels, American Racing Equipment rear wheels. This is not a repaired version of the Scrima car
Photos 11 and 12: This is the blue car from photo 10, now painted red in 1973. American rear wheels are in place, the frame is a Logghe frame, Fiberglass Ltd. body (note side marker lights). These photos also correspond to the Snyder photos of the wrecked car on the ramp truck: Logghe frame, American rear wheels, etc.

“The black and white photo of a wrecked chassis is definitely an Exhibition Engineering chassis with the Halibrands from photo 9. Not sure what happened to it after that wreck or the final chronology of the first 'Snake' Funny Car.
“I do know that the Logghe brothers often repaired cars that were crashed and/or burned in the Midwest or East Coast, even if they were not originally Logghe cars. In fact, ‘the Snake’ ran his Don Long dragster off the end of the strip in the summer of '69, took it to Logghe's for front-end repairs (and short Al Bergler body panels under the headers since the nosepiece was ruined) and won Indy a few weeks later.”

I heard from Tony Williams, who worked at Atco as the announcer and starter from 1972 to 1998 and sent the great photo at right (and several others), showing the Mr. Natural 'Cuda on the starting line for what Williams said is the beginning of the fateful April 1973 run at Atco in which Tom Hall scorched the body.

Some of you might have wondered why I didn’t try to contact Poffenberger or Miller directly to ask about the 'Cuda. It’s pretty common knowledge that Miller died in an oilfield accident some years ago, and I was pretty sure I had read that Poffenberger had passed away. Sure enough, I heard from Jerry Smith, who’ll soon be enjoying his own 60th anniversary, who follows the column regularly and grew up in New Jersey with an older brother, Keith, who ran a Funny Car at the time; they were friends with Sammy Miller and Ken Poffenberger. He confirmed that Poffenberger also passed away a few years ago and gave me contact info for Miller’s son, Sammy Jr., whom he thought might know something.

In my column about the Snake III 'Cuda, a few wrote to ask about my inclusion of Beeline Dragway in its history, as most people know only of its debut at the 1972 Supernationals and its runner-up to Tom McEwen at Lions Drag Strip’s Last Drag Race Dec. 2. To be truthful, I had to rewrite that portion of the column just before publishing after receiving the Steve Reyes photos at right of the car racing against McEwen’s Mongoose II Duster at the famed Arizona raceplant.

Regular Insider photo contributor Bob Snyder was among those tossing question marks my way; he had attended the AHRA Winternationals in January 1973 and insists that the car was not there and sent photos of “Snake” driving his yellow Hot Wheels Top Fueler as proof and says that Prudhomme’s name is not on the list of 32 qualified Funny Car drivers at the event. We’ve already established that Prudhomme did not run the car at the NHRA Winternationals and debuted its 1973 livery (Carefree Gum) Feb. 23 at Irwindale Raceway, so that leaves a small window between the end of the Supernationals (Nov. 19) and the Dec. 2 Last Drag Race and between Dec. 3 and Feb. 24. I can ask “Snake” and McEwen, but I doubt they will remember.

Don Thomas really dug the installment on the Snake III Cuda. “Here's the thing,” he testified. “I don't think ‘Snake’ or anyone else had any idea of the lasting impression and impact this unfinished race car would have on the very history of drag racing. It was merely to most if not all (at the time) just an incomplete, lethal throat ripper passing through on its way to the paint shop. Who knew?! Another characteristic that made this black, stealthy 'Cuda somewhat unique was its low-slung stance, which only enhanced that sinister black primer coat. Compared to other Funny Cars at the time, the attitude and profile of this piece was noticeably different. In its short stint in that form, it IS, and will forever remain, one of the iconic race terrors in drag racing history.”

As to the mystery of the black car’s extended spoiler, Ricky Farrow dug out the magnifying glass and observed: “It appears to me that it was an aluminum piece attached to the front spoiler. If you look closely at the front spoiler in the ‘73 Indy photograph, you can at least see rivet holes.

"The front spoiler extension reappears at Ontario [1973] when he ran that then-unbelievable 6.16, which was I think a tenth quicker than the rest of the field and remained on the car 'til its first retirement at the Irwindale Grand Premiere. I remember it being on the car when he bought it out of retirement to win the Gatornationals in ‘74, then it went away for good by the spring. I was fortunate to keep a couple drag racing magazines from that period.”

Skip Allum at Prudhomme’s shop dropped me a line late last week to announce the official debut of the Mongoose ramp truck and repainted Funny Car. Prudhomme will have both ramp trucks on public display for the first time at Crower’s 3rd annual Customer Appreciation Car Show July 23 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Crower headquarters, 6180 Business Center Court, San Diego, CA 92154. For more info, email

FLASH! THIS JUST IN: Just as I was ready to publish this column, I received a FedEx package from Allum that includes original Chrysler-Plymouth PR photos of the Rapid Transit version of the 'Cuda and extra and interesting info that I'll share Friday. Stay tuned!

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