Back safe and sound and mostly caught up after the Big Go (my 29th straight!), and I thought I’d wrap up a few loose ends before moving on to our next topic. The 1977 NHRA U.S. Nationals Yearbook continues to be a favorite topic (I’m actually quite surprised that it affected so many people the way it did me), so I’ll begin with that.
After interviewing John Plisky, son of the yearbook’s late driving force, I was put in touch with another member of the editorial team, Richard Pasley, courtesy of East Coast photo ace Norman Blake. Pasley had lots of great memories of working on the book and offered his remembrances of its creation, which I share below. It’s quite a long read but offers great insight.
“I have such incredibly fond memories of that project, and some serious regrets as well, principal among them not keeping in touch with John Plisky,” he wrote. “Dreamers are a dime a dozen, but he put absolutely everything he had and more into that project, with nothing but the purest of intentions driving his mania. I was just a kid back then, but John was a bigger kid than I ever was in his absolute love for drag racing and the amazingly complex associations that the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes that the sport implants in the hearts and minds of diehard fans. He took a leap with that project that may have been somewhat foolhardy, but how many of us can say that we produced something that, after 34 years, is still fresh in the minds of those who were there and those who had the good sense to lay out $7 for what was really a groundbreaking endeavor. It's really interesting to me that an insurance guy (typically not the biggest risk takers) had the heart and soul of a fearless, pedal-to-the-metal racer when it came to realizing his true passion.
“I'm very sad that I did not act on the passing impulse to try to track down John Sr. a few years ago, especially since he was still alive at the time. Oddly, and a bit frighteningly, this is very similar to when I thought years ago to reconnect with Leslie Lovett after many, many years of having strayed from my involvement in drag racing. Email and the Internet had made digging into the past much easier, but I was crushed to read that Les had died just a week or so before the spirit had moved me to reconnect. He, even more so than John Plisky, had had a really significant impact on my career, and I missed that opportunity to thank him personally.
“Growing up in New Jersey, I had been a drag racing fan since the age of about 11, when my younger brother, Pete, and I used to beg my older sister to get dropped off at the spectator gate to Island Dragway. I was also a budding photographer, with fantasies of shooting at OCIR, Lions, and Irwindale and meeting heroes (to me) like Steve Reyes and Les Lovett. My brother and I then upped the begging ante and scored a few trips to the Summernationals in the early 1970s. I shot from the spectator-side bleachers, since we were both too young to get into the pits (back then, New Jersey law prohibited minors in the pits). When I was probably 14, I sent a package of black and white prints, pitifully duped slides, and a fan letter off to my idol, Les Lovett, in North Hollywood, expressing my desire to become a shooter like him someday. Well, about a week later, the phone rings, and my mother yelled out into the yard that it was a guy named Les Lovett calling for me. Of course, I couldn't believe it and was a wreck when I took the phone, but Les was incredibly nice and supportive and asked me if I'd like to help shoot for ND at that year's Englishtown race. I jumped at the chance, of course, and showed up that first year with my non-motor-driven Mamiya Sekor 1000D with a bag of crappy lenses. Got some great shots, though, and seeing dozens of my images in the event pictorial a couple of weeks later when my ND arrived was surely the highlight of my young life (best shot I remember getting was a monstrous wheelstand by Paul Smith taken with a 300mm from directly behind the starting line).
“I was a very shy kid, but Lovett and [NHRA photographer Bill] Crites were just the nicest guys and always encouraged and supported me, and they were a blast to hang with. Lovett invited me (along with my brother) back each year, and in 1977, after my freshman year at college, this newly credentialed guy with a notepad named John Plisky was hanging around the starting line talking to anyone who'd listen about this book project that he was going to do. He had already lined up a top Madison Avenue designer (Steve Philips) and a highly accomplished freelance shooter (Jim Joern), but he really wanted others who actually knew the sport (neither Philips nor Joern knew the first thing about drag racing) and, most of all, the blessing of NHRA. So he was chatting up Lovett quite a bit, but Les was understandably unable to really offer any support. But Lovett did suggest to John that he consider the Pasley kids; they worked like dogs, knew who was who, and took (for that time in the sport) great photos. By the way, I should probably mention that to this point, I'd never made a penny taking drag racing photos; any shooting I'd done for ND was done for the privilege of getting credentialed and my images published, which was fine by me. So Jack (John's nickname) recruited my brother and me to go to Indy a few months later to shoot the U.S. Nationals -- again, for expenses only. We agreed immediately, unbelievably excited at the prospect of shooting Indy.
“I cannot remember exactly how this happened, but a few weeks after Englishtown, for some reason, Lovett (maybe wary that I might be exploited by this unknown guy) requested that I shoot for him at Indy. I think he didn't want to see my spirit for shooting ‘professionally’ deflated by what he saw as a potentially risky crapshoot. Shooting for him and ND guaranteed getting lots of images published, while shooting for Jack might result in a whole lot of nothing. There may have been more politics to it, but my real loyalty was with Les anyway, so I agreed to work primarily with him. But I still wanted to shoot for Plisky (whose aspirations and planning were definitely top-notch; shooting nothing but Kodachrome and looking for revealing, personality-driven images from an insider's point of view, which is really what I and my brother loved to focus on), so I ended up splitting my time between coverage for ND and for Jack's project. My brother, on the other hand, shot exclusively for Jack, and the bum got some of the best photos in the book, my favorite probably being the long-lens shot of Dale Emery's burnout from above and behind (Pete was on the bridge behind the starting line) seconds before Emery had his crash at speed that broke his arm severely. But I got my share of shots in the book, too, including the one of ‘Grumpy’ that you showed earlier. Another favorite of mine is the full-page vertical of Garlits working in the pits, if only because my brother is standing in the background, sweaty and sunburned, staring eagle-eyed at ‘Big’ with a camera slung over his shoulder. In retrospect, of course, I wish I'd devoted the entire event to John's book, which cost him his shirt but left a truly lasting mark on the mythological and visual history of the sport at the tail end of the era of huge 32-car fields.
"John and his boys were all over Indy, soaking it in like a ShamWow and directing Philips and Joern to organize and execute some pretty sophisticated staged shots. Though Jim was an aloof NYC big-time shooter (believe it or not, he only shot with Leica Rangefinders), he did come away with a lot of awesome images, and he did catch much of the spirit of drag racing, but he had no idea who the individuals he was photographing were, and his action shots sucked.
“After the race, in what was definitely the most frustrating part for me, Lovett went west with his Ziploc bag full of my film and Plisky went east with his Ziploc bag full of my brother’s and my film, and I flew back to college in upstate New York. John would be in touch off and on during the design phase, and I remember going to some shop in central Jersey to view chromalin proofs of some of the spreads ... it was then that I realized just how different this book was going to be. The image editing was great, the design was very clean and smart, and the reproduction quality was beyond belief, at least relative to the standards of magazine publishing at the time. But it was also clear that selling the product was going to be the hardest part, considering that the core audience was not accustomed to, nor particularly interested in, clean, smart design or a comprehensive, even poetic, narrative. Unfortunately, that was what proved to be the biggest flaw in the plan, and I'm afraid that John and his family paid a very high price for him to realize his vision. But no one can say that John Plisky didn't give it his all ... he put his future on the line at the biggest race in the sport and made it to the finish line, burning a bunch of pistons on the way, but with the heart of a champion. To this day, I'm extremely proud of the work I did on that project and cannot thank John enough for the invitation to participate in his dream.
“You've also definitely made my day. I've got two girls now the age that young John and his brother, Jimmy, were back in '77, and I've shown them the yearbook a few times, telling them how unique and innovative it was, to which they've of course said, ‘Sure, Dad; whatev ...’ In fact, until this Insider article appeared, I probably believed them more than myself.”
Scott Weney, who qualified for Indy in his debut in 1977 (that's his mugshot from the yearbook at right), wrote to Plisky, “This was and still is a great book. I was lucky enough to have raced and qualified at Indy that year and also won the Division 1 points championship, all in my first year driving a race car. I think the way it was done and the fact that it included Pro Comp was the great thing. Now everything is all about the Pros, and that just gets to be the same old stuff. In 1978, I couldn’t wait to see the next yearbook. Let me know if you ever are going to do another book like this; my company would buy ad space. If you ever come to the Maple Grove Nationals, we are only a half-hour drive from the track; stop in. I would like you to sign my copy.”
John Murnan II echoed the general sentiment for the book’s place on any serious race fan's bookshelf. “It is, hands down, the best drag racing publication I ever bought,” he wrote. “I still have it and will keep it forever, and I read it at least once a year. No surprise that this usually coincides with Labor Day weekend, I guess. I wish there had been more demand, as I would have bought a copy every year. I loved the comparisons between the drivers and cars and knights and their steeds. I was saddened to read that Mr. Plisky passed away at the too-young age of 71, but I wrote to his son and told him how proud he should be of his dad's efforts. Certainly, this was one of the best drag racing publications ever put together. Thank you for taking the time and making the effort to add details to the story. As always, your writing and your contacts have made my day more enjoyable. And thanks to Craig Hughes for prodding you to tell the story and even loaning you his copy of the book. Now you need to get yourself one.”
Funny he should mention getting a copy. As you may remember, I turned down one fan’s offer to give me his – just didn’t seem right – but I was more than happy to accept the generous offer from former fuel-racing great Richard Tharp, who had a spare. After winning Top Fuel at the 1976 event, Tharp was runner-up at that 1977 U.S. Nationals to Dennis Baca. ("Garlits went over there and worked on his car and gave him his tires and his blower," reported Tharp). He offered his praise for the book: "Everybody was in it; it's unbelievable."
Tharp also told me that he had planned to be in Indy this year with his former car owner, Bob Creitz, to cackle their old car (the one that Tharp was driving alongside "Big Daddy" when Garlits had his infamous 1970 Lions accident), but Creitz passed away just before the event.
I also heard from several people who added updates to Chuck Rearick’s Where Are They Now? list of Pro Comp qualifiers. I had purposely left Rearick’s comments intact (other than correcting that Gary Southern had died, which he hadn’t) and knew that some of the gaps would be filled in by the Insider Nation.
Jim Buxton, manager of vehicle verification, Mitsubishi Motors R&D of America Inc., filled us in on Marlis Williams. “Several years back, Marlis worked for Mitsubishi Motors in Cypress, Calif. He was my manager, and I enjoyed working with him as he had many good stories to tell. He told me that many years back, while drag racing, he had a terrible crash and was in the hospital for several months. After that, he quit racing. Marlis left Mitsubishi and ended up in Arizona working for someone building hot rods. The last time I saw Marlis was at the L.A. Roadsters show in about 2008.”
Mike Lewis, former general manager at Maple Grove Raceway and current VP at Don Schumacher Racing, noted that Bob Chipper passed away a few weeks ago and that Al Kenny is still active as a Super Comp racer. He also became Jeg Coughlin Jr.'s father-in-law when his daughter Samantha married Jeg. "Great yearbook. Great story.”
And funny this should come up, too. I was on the starting line in Indy watching Samantha intently in the semifinals of Super Comp (where, sadly, she red-lighted), and Al himself stopped me to make sure I was going to let everyone know he was doing much more than the bracket racing Rearick had cited, including his Super Comp win at the 2003 Finals.
As far as “Wild Wilfred” Boutilier goes, I had heard from his wife, Sue, a few months ago, who reported, “He is alive and well and at age 72 still working a 60-hour week. He is self-employed (W.W. Engineering) and a manufacturer of rocker arms and flat tappet lifters for the racing industry. I am very proud of him and his accomplishments as we have customers all over the world. I don't think he will ever be able to get racing out of his blood.
“Tom Ridings is in SoCal, now a Porsche collector of sorts,” wrote Glenn Gaskey. “He likes the obscure ones. Have seen him at the Irvine Calif., Cars and Coffee gathering every Saturday morning. My dad (Leo Gaskey) worked for Bud Ridings at Ridings Cadillac in Long Beach, Calif. Tom began to hang out at our house, where we kept our Killer Whale A/FC; it was a Ken Cox-chassised nitro-burning cast-iron 392 hemi. My dad and Tom got together and bought Mert Littlefield’s old Air Force Vega and ran BB/FC for a little while. After Tom got out of drag racing, he raced off-road cars and had a Yamaha dealership where Reath Automotive used to be on Cherry Boulevard in Long Beach. He now owns the buildings after his parents passed away. He is still around and doesn't look much different than he did 30 years ago.” (Jon Langel reported that Ridings owns and operates Long Beach Motorsports.)
And finally, there’s this great tale about the yearbook. Frederick Franz had a copy but also wanted to go to Indy, so he put his copy up for sale on eBay, where it was quickly gobbled up for the princely sum of $135 by our old Insider friend Simon Menzies. Franz got himself a Monday ticket, and although we missed connecting in Indy, I’m glad that both he and Menzies got what they wanted.
Bob Frey, himself a collector of old magazines and programs, was shocked at the price that the yearbook commanded (most other copies go for below $50), joking that my articles surely had driven up the price and would I be interested in writing articles about some of his collectibles to help inflate their value. I wrote a joking note to Simon – “Wow, I guess you really wanted that book!” – and he pointedly responded, “I only wanted it $1 more than the guy who bid $134. I lost mine in a flood years ago, and this was the first one I've seen for sale. Thanks to your column, I'll have another copy.”
Just one more quick note. Today is the 34th anniversary of the passing of the great “Jungle Jim” Liberman, whose life ended way too soon in an early-morning collision with a bus in West Chester, Pa. I share with you another quick story of a fan’s interaction with "Jungle,” from prolific Insider contributor “Chicago Jon” Hoffman.
“I especially liked the story from Tom Haman, who wanted that ‘ultimate souvenir,’ because it strikes close to home, but after shaking the cobwebs loose, I realize that in telling MY story, I have to challenge none other than ‘Berserko Bob,’ certainly no small feat, so allow me to explain.
“ ‘Jungle Jim’ wasn't on the East Coast the weekend before Indy in 1977; he was at Great Lakes Dragaway for the National Challenge. Now, since B.B. has been to, like, a ba-ZILLION more races than I, it’s fair to give him a mulligan on this one, but after qualifying on Saturday, I caught up with Jim by the concession stand. We were both engaged in the all-American activity of looking at chicks! This gal came by, she had a T-shirt that said 'High Roller' with giant dice strategically placed on her ... well, you get the idea! Jim busts out a big ol' smile and yells out, ‘Hey, roll me a seven!!’ I followed up with something truly inspired, probably ‘Duuhhhh ... good one ‘Jungle!’ It was at this point that I noticed he had a box under one arm, which he then upended into a nearby trash barrel. ‘Jungle’ strolls away, and I look in the can -- he threw away a piston! You never saw someone dive into a garbage can so fast in your life!!
"Sunday’s eliminations were rained out, and so the following weekend was Indy. Only late on Sunday afternoon did I notice ‘Jungle’s’ truck in the pits, scribbling down in my journal at 5:35 p.m., ‘Why didn't you run, Jim?’ And then, and it’s sort of a ‘Where were you when Jack Kennedy was shot?’ deal, the following weekend, at the makeup for the National Challenge, the announcer told us on the PA what had happened in West Chester on Thursday.
“There’s no way of accurately tracking a racer’s schedule from 34 years prior, and the chance is that when I saw ‘Jungle Jim’ racing that night at 'Broadway Bob’s' that it was the last pass he took down the quarter-mile. Looking at the calendar, there’s the possibility of two Wednesday-night-under-the-lights deals somewhere, but I find myself a bit of a hopeless romantic sometimes, and if my mind wants to twist it that I have a piston from at least one of -- if not his final -- pass down the track, well, what can I say?? Of all the stuff I've hauled home from the track, be it freebie hero cards, big $$ diecasts, shirts fired from a cannon, whatever, in my display case in the bar is this piston that my big dumb head knows came from a legend, albeit via a trash can.”
Jon also made light of a jestful comment I made concerning the growing number of Liberman and Chi-Town Hustler stories I was receiving after an item on them. Referring to the literary flood of stories and photos that followed the months-long wedge-dragster thread a year ago, I wrote, “Too bad neither had a wedge Top Fueler.”
Jon challenged, “You once said you have a love of Photoshop, so you should craft up a 'Jungle-wedge,' because you know that this is where this is heading, ha-ha!”
So, in a few minutes, I crafted this. It ain’t graphics-designer perfect or pretty, but it kinda makes you stop and wonder, “What if,” no? Hey, that’s what I do.
RIP, JJ. We still miss ya.
Whether you’re lost in the woods or tortuously filling and tying off scores of water balloons for your 4-year-old grandson’s “swim party,” it’s good to know you’re not alone, and when it comes to admiration for the 1977 NHRA U.S. Nationals Yearbook profiled here last Friday, it’s plenty clear that I’m not all wet.
I probably helped set some kind of record for drag fans racing to attics and tearing through old boxes of drag mags in search of their copy of the treasured tome for a chance to once again revel in the words and photos of its creators.
I heard back from interview subject John Plisky, who was moved to tears by my retelling of his dad’s legacy – I took a quiet moment to think about both of them Saturday, on the anniversary of the senior Plisky’s passing – and heard from another of his children, mystery writer and columnist Jennifer Plisky Vido, who got me all misty eyed. “On behalf of my family,” she wrote, “I want to thank you for the beautiful article you wrote about our father. Your timing is impeccable. What a perfect way in which to pay tribute to his memory. I know he would have been honored by your kind words."
I also heard from East Coast photo ace Norman Blake, who reported that Richard Pasley, one of the photographers for the yearbook, had provided photos for National DRAGSTER’s Summernationals coverage a few times, and he promised to have Richard get in touch to tell his side of the story.
Reader Craig Hughes, who got this whole thing kicked off by loaning me his copy (it’s in the mail back to you, Craig!), expressed a common thought of the group. “I am disappointed that the person who did all of the work and took a financial risk is no longer with us,” he wrote. “I'm glad to hear from his son that he felt people enjoyed his efforts. He did do an excellent job, and you can tell he had a great love of drag racing and the Nationals from the book. I would have bought his book each year.”
I also heard from former NHRA Eastern Region Tech Director Jim Fagan, who is the guy pictured with Bill Jenkins in the image from the book at right that I printed last week. “It's quite a pleasure to see the picture in your column today of Bill Jenkins working on the race car,” he wrote. “I happen to have that same publication because the guy in the blue shirt working with him is me! Of course that was 30-plus years ago, and we've both changed somewhat -- my hair especially changed color. Thanks for bringing back some more memories.” Because he was working with “Grump” at that race where Jenkins driver Larry Lombardo famously crashed the team’s Monza when it cut a valve stem, leading fellow competitor Ronnie Manchester to loan them his car, I asked Fagan to gather his memories of that pretty amazing moment in our sport’s history to share with us at a later date.
More praise for the book …
Dave Cox: “I bought that '77 U.S. Nationals yearbook and still have it. It's a great book. Now I know why it wasn't published every year. Throughout the ‘70s, I had been trying to make my way to from Virginia to Indy. I remember ordering that book because it was the last 32-car field, and I had missed it. The book continued to inspire me to get to Indy, though, when I'd leaf through it. After not looking at it for a few years, it was always a treat to find it again. In about '91, I was living in Atlanta. A buddy and I left the Braves game late on a Thursday night in an old motorhome. We flipped a coin to see if we were going to Darlington or Indy for the weekend. Indy won out, so I finally made it. Stayed in the campground that I saw in the yearbook, and although things had calmed down considerably, it was way cool.”
Richard Pederson: “Throughout the history of racing -- especially drag racing -- there have been stories such as this, of those who give up a large part of their well-being, fortune, even family and marriage to pursue their dream. Although John Plisky did not have the financial gain and perhaps a job he had hoped, he did something that touched so many that he never knew and did indeed set the bar perhaps too high. I have seen this book somewhere, thought it was great, have never seen another, and wondered, then and now, 'Why?' So your story has brought back some memories.”
Billy Donahoe: “I happen to have one. Super Stock & Drag Illustrated ran an ad for it sometime in '78, I guess. I snapped it up as quick as I could. It is I think the best coverage of a national event ever written. The photography is outstanding, but it's the writing of the story that makes it priceless. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought to compare it to a medieval contest, but it just seemed to fit. I've never been an autograph hound, but to get all 96 qualifiers’ signatures is a feat in itself.”
Second-generation racer Wes Tarkington wrote directly to Plisky and copied me on his correspondence. “Just read Phil Burgess’ piece on the ’77 yearbook … brought tears to my eyes. I was just 6 years old when the 1977 event took place (even more remarkable is that my wife, Aspen, also a drag racer, had not even been born yet). As it was a yearly trek from the Dallas area to Indy, my family attended the event. This particular year was especially memorable because it was the first and only U.S. Nationals we attended as competitors. My father, Dennis, was partners with Watus Simpson campaigning a Pro Comp car (AA/DA No. 444). Sadly, we did not qualify. Seems those aluminum Donovan blocks and three-speed Lencos were no match for our $57 iron 392 blocks and the outdated two-gear Lenco. Many of our Division 4 friends made the field, though. We stayed at the track until the very end on Monday.
“My parents ordered the yearbook for me. I recall bugging them for months on end as to when it was going to arrive. Part of me was insanely curious if there was a photo of our Chicken Lips Simpson & Tarkington dragster included or if I was in the right place at the right time watching my family and team work on the car. Maybe even a glimpse of me in awe of Beadle, Prudhomme, Muldowney, Garlits, or some of my other heroes from my childhood. When the yearbook finally arrived, I ripped open the packaging and spent the next decade thumbing through the photos and rereading each page, virtually memorizing the publication. Fairly certain, too, that there was more than one book report covering your dad’s work at one of the schools I attended in Dallas, Kansas City, and Riverton, N.J.
“Somewhere in the house or the race shop, packed away in a container, rests my well-worn copy of the yearbook. If not for the 105-degree heat today, you would find me in the attic searching for the book. We are expecting our first child in February; the yearbook will most certainly find its way into the nursery and into the hands of our future drag racer/hockey player. Your father’s work (and yours, as well) was a huge part of my life growing up in the sport my family chose. To say it meant a great deal to me and others would be a gross understatement.”
Mike Hedworth: “I can't agree with you more about your feelings of this book. Not only do I have a copy, the ‘77 Nationals was first one I had attended. I have been to three others since. Like you said, this book gives you the whole feeling of the experience because that is what Indy is, an experience instead of just a race. I would like to thank you for bringing this up. I think I will pull it out of my bookcase tonight and have another look at it.”
David McGriff: “I still have the copy I bought at the racetrack the following year. As I recall, they had a table set up along the chain link fence at the old west side walk-in entry. I can remember as clear as a bell walking by there and spending the last $10 bill I had on that book (the $3 change went a lot further in those days) but I still had to beg my buddy to buy me one of those Italian sausages you mentioned in an earlier column. Wow, What great fun! My issue of that book remains one of my favorites and it is proudly displayed next to my Carl Hungness Indy 500 yearbooks, which it always reminded me of. Looking through it, it still has the old insert in the back cover for ordering other copies. The photos are top notch and every one I show it to wants to know where I got it.”
Steve Wilhelm: “As I sat down at my computer this morning and looked forward to reading the DRAGSTER Insider, I thought about my copy of the 1977 NHRA U.S. Nationals Yearbook on the shelf. Since Indy is a few days away, I was going to look through my well-worn copy of the yearbook and remember the trips to the U.S. Nationals I took with my wife in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. I opened your blog, and there was your column about the yearbook. I believe that the yearbook is the best description of a drag racing event that has ever been published. I look at the yearbook every year around U.S. Nationals time. My favorite part of the yearbook is the pictures of all the qualifiers and class champions. A lot of these racers are no longer with us. John Plisky can be proud of his father's efforts. No, my copy is not for sale.”
Like Tarkington, Chuck Rearick and his team were part of the Indy Pro Comp action that year – he qualified 29th after runner-upping earlier that year at the SPORTSnationals – and backed up something that Todd Veney had told me but was unable to confirm, that all of the qualifiers listed in the book got a free copy from Plisky. That’s cool.
“Your article motivated me to pull out this great publication and blow off the dust,” he wrote. “It sure brought back some fond memories such as 60-plus cars (I believe) from all over the country trying to qualify for a 32-car Top Fuel field and the same amount in Pro Comp. During Pro Comp qualifying, there would be two cars on the starting line, two waiting to do a burnout with the motors running, and two more ready to fire. It was like someone put a pill down on the ground, just added water, and ‘poof’ another car would appear.
“On qualifying days, we would get in line outside the track around 5:30-6ish for a 7 a.m. gate opening. Some of the best racing I ever saw was once the gate opened, everyone racing to their trailers, unloaded the cars and hauled ass to the staging lanes to get a good spot for first round of qualifying. We would prepare the car and warm it in the staging lanes -- pretty crazy, but great. After the first round of qualifying, we got right back in line, and unless we had major damage, got the car prepped for the second round of qualifying. We were in line with the car up on jacks, alongside Dennis Baca. He asked us if ours was one of those alcohol cars that didn’t need any maintenance. Indy was always an endurance contest as well as a happening and true melting pot of racers. We didn’t qualify until the last round of qualifying, so I didn’t get my picture taken and autograph signing until just before first round. At the time, I was a young 37 years old. For the record, we got beat first round by Don Woosley. I raced him earlier that year at the Cajun Nationals and won on a holeshot, a tough task against Woosley, so we were 1-1 against him. Going through the book and remembering all the Pro Comp guys I raced with and against was great. Following is an update on some of the qualified Pro Comp cars, with page number:
Page 164, Dale Armstrong – Still active in car restoration in California
Page 164, Ken Veney – You know where he is
Page 165, Billy Williams – Passed away some time ago from injuries in a Funny Car crash
Page 165, Brad Anderson – Still active as a manufacturer
Page 166, Dave Settles – Still involved building fuel pumps. I see him every year at the Geezer luncheon in Dallas. We had some good battles in Division 4 racing that year
Page 166, Pat Cress – Unknown
Page 167, Ron Boggs – Unknown
Page 167, Simon Menzies – Last I heard, he was back in California
Page 168, Marlis Williams – Unknown. I think he and his partner Dick Bohl only raced one or two years. Had to race him first round at the SPORTSnationals in Bowling Green and won
Page 168, Bob Chipper –
Unknown Died July 10
Page 169, Gary Southern – Alive and well. He had an Arias “hemi-Chevy” for power
Page 169, Jeff Rapp – Unknown
Page 170, Don Woosley – Passed away a few years ago
Page 170, Butch Osmon – Moved up to Top Fuel driving for Jim and Alison Lee. We raced him second round at Bowling Green and won
Page 171, Don Gerardot – Still active as a manufacturer
Page 171, Bill Wallace – Unknown
Page 172, Lou Gasparrelli – Just recently passed away
Page 172, David Beaty – Unknown
Page 173, Kenny Cook – Unknown. Had the only small-block Chevy to qualify. There was one more Chevy car entered by Al Mallory, who did not qualify. He now runs a Jr. Fuel car
Page 173, John Davis – Unknown
Page 174, Scott Weney – Still active as a manufacturer
Page 175, Mark Niver – One of the all-time really good guys and a good friend. Passed away prematurely last year
Page 176, Wayne McMurtry – Retired to a life of ease with NHRA. Another of the good guys
Page 175, Vern Moats – Still active with a TAFC
Page 176, Wild Wilfred Boutilier – Dropped out of sight after ‘77 or ‘78
Page 176, Bogie Kell – Unknown
Page 177, Jim Archer – Still active in nostalgia racing with Gene Adams in NTF or J/F. I usually get to visit with him at the reunions. Beat me in the SPORTSnationals final in Bowling Green
Page 177, Tom Ridings – Unknown
Page 178, Chuck Rearick - Still active with a Jr. Fuel car. Was partner with Pic Mauldin, who passed away in 2006, and John Dearmore, who is still active with a cackle car
Page 178, Al Kenny – Last I heard, was still an active bracket racer
Page 179, Mike Kosky – Still active in TAD
Page 179, Jeff Richardson – Unknown
I’m sure that we’ll hear more about people on Rearick’s list, but I did recently hear from Menzies, whom I profiled here way back in December 2007. He’s involved in the aerospace industry, making, among other things, cowlings for commercial and business jets with customers like Airbus, Boeing, Cessna, and Lear. "When you look out the window on your next trip and see the large circular silver ring on the inlet of any jet engine, remember it came with a little drag racing influence right here from sunny California," he noted.
In the spirit of the topic, Menzies passed along the photo above, taken at the 1977 U.S. Nationals, showing a group of racers around Dale Emery, who was back at the track after breaking his arm in that wild qualifying accident. That’s Menzies at far right, next to “Big Daddy” Don Garlits. Next to Garlits is Emery, then "Waterbed Fred” Miller, chatting with crewman to the stars, Pat Galvin.
“Everyone was relieved to see [Emery] at the track the next day with only a broken arm,” Menzies recalled. “Looks like I was keeping company with some awesome folks back then.”
OK, and speaking of Indy, that’s where I’m heading Thursday, so, unfortunately, no new column Friday, and because I’m traveling back Tuesday, probably no column then either, so I might not get another column together until the Friday after that (Sept. 9). Oh, the horror.
Before I go, I want to acknowledge the passing of several good friends of drag racing whom we lost in the last couple of days. During the weekend, Dave McClelland dropped me a line to let me know about the passing of Ray Harris of Shreve Automotive fame, one of the Southwest’s most ardent supporters of our sport. No sooner had I posted an obituary for Harris than Tom McEwen called to let me know of the passing of Bob Creitz, who was a good friend to so many people in our sport and one heck of a talented tuner. His obit can be found here. Also this past weekend, I learned of the passing Thursday of Judy McCormack, who with her husband, Jack, ran some pretty quick stockers in the last couple of decades. A tough week already.
I can’t wait to get to Indy. Be sure to follow along with us with the return of the Interactive@Indy live chat, the daily photo blog, and much more. The 2012 NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series schedule should be announced this weekend along with who knows what else, so stay tuned. I’ll see ya after Indy.
Drag racing fans still love the printed word (thank goodness for me!), which explains why a lot of us still have library-worthy collections of old drag racing magazines – Super Stock, Drag Racing USA, Drag News, Hot Rod, Popular Hot Rodding – sitting on our shelves. And for many hard-core fans, their collection might not be considered complete without the book pictured at right, the 1977 NHRA U.S. Nationals Yearbook.
I’ve been in this publishing business for more than a quarter-century, and it’s still, hands-down, the prettiest, most impactful drag racing book I’ve ever read. (Yes, better in some ways than anything I’ve ever been in charge of or involved with during my time here at NHRA, which I think is some pretty high praise.) The book, written by a virutal unknown in the field, captures the essence of Indy in beautifully descriptive words with great photos and a wonderful layout. If there were one book I wanted to give to someone to describe what Indy feels like, this would be it.
The sad truth is that for some reason, my collection does not include one of these wonderful books, and I hadn’t even seen a copy for years, but thanks to Insider reader Craig Hughes, I was able to enjoy it once again. Craig was interested in the story behind the book and asked if I’d ever done a column on the book or if I’d be interested in doing so and offered to lend me his copy. (Yes, he made sure he underlined the word “lend” in his email, and I don’t blame him. I'm going to apologize right now for the quality of the photos here, but there was just no way to scan the book on a flatbed scanner without risking damaging it.)
My old pal Todd Veney, with whom I collaborated on the writing of a series of NHRA season annuals for UMI Publications in the early 1990s, echoed my praise for it. "Phenomenal," he called it. "I've read it about 100 times." His copy comes courtesy of his famous dad, Ken, who recieved a copy of the book from the publisher. (Ken was runner-up in Pro Comp that year to Dale Armstrong.)
When Hughes' book arrived, I couldn’t wait to get at it. Cracking it open, it even smelled old, that musty smell that books get when they’re packed away, but I tore through its now-nostalgia-laced pages again in a couple of hours, marveling at not only the writing and the photography, but also at the completeness of the package even 34 years later.
The book not only tells the story of the event, from the early-arriving campers to the crowning of champs, but also has a great stats package that includes complete ladders for Top Fuel (32 cars!), Funny Car, Pro Stock, and Pro Comp (32 cars as well!) and a thick section with a headshot, car shot, short bio, and autograph for all 96 of the drivers who qualified for those fields (can you imagine how hard it must have been to get all of those 96 signatures?). There’s also a huge Sportsman class-winners section with car shots of ALL the class winners.
The writing is incredibly colorful and descriptive. No nuance is left untouched, from the preparations made by the teams to those made by the concession staff and along the Manufacturers Midway, along with knowing comments about how, day after day, the same routine is played out: the same drive to the track, the ever-more-familiar security guards and ticket takers. How clutch dust just never seems to come off your hands; how tires get heavier as the weekend wears on. (“They slip in one’s hands and fall against one’s chest, leaving their rings of black.”)
Early on, the author compares the scene to a medieval tournament, how the tents in the campground are like those in the fields of yore; the drivers become knights in their driving armor, their cars the steeds (the dragsters, it is pointed out, even have lance-like bodies). The pit area is their kingdom, the transporter the castle, its rear doors open like drawbridges. The announcer’s voice is the trumpet, calling them to battle.
Each day has its own chapter, and the results are reported, but not in newsy fashion. Larry Lombardo’s crash and fire in Bill Jenkins’ Monza and Ronnie Manchester’s loan of his car to the team and Dale Emery's wild nose-wheelie Funny Car crash are recounted in detail. The author clearly knew the cars, the engines, and the crews and was up on current news, such as Billy Meyer’s fire in Montreal just weeks earlier.
He captured the look, the feel, the smell of everything from the first rays of day, when the dirt areas of the pits are undisturbed and the grass wet with dew, to the trailer lights flickering on and the whir of the electric winch. Subtleties such as “tires and fuel tanks shielded from the burning sun” are noted, and astute observations are made even about fellow members of the media.
He describes the movement of the crowd as it tramples the grass and raises clouds of dust in the gravel; how kids race from trailer to trailer as they arrive but by mid-afternoon are sapped of energy by the sun and how their heads start to droop and weary wives just hope to survive the day.
Technical details about the cars and procedures are explained in everyday but colorful terms. Photos of the campgrounds and campers huddled in sleeping bags or simply passed out from too much partying share space with race photos, all of which are handsomely laid out through the pages.
After I was done marveling at the book and how it reminded me of things I forget about the event or take for granted, the detective work began. Now I, too, wanted to know the story behind the story.
Externally, the book carried only its title and the company name, Bold Horizon Enterprises. Google came up empty. But inside, tucked away in the back between the class-winners photos and the ladders, was a brief acknowledgements page listing those involved in the project and signed by John C. Plisky. There was a phone number in the credits, but, naturally, it was no longer in service, but it was connected to a city in New Jersey. A Google search combining those terms yielded a phone number and led to one of those “This may be the weirdest question you hear this week …” introductions and a series of good news-bad news moments.
John Plisky, a man with a dream
The good news is that I reached John Plisky. The bad news is that it wasn’t that John Plisky. The good news is that it was his son. The bad news is that his father passed away last year at age 71 from complications of pneumonia. The good news is that his son was involved in the publication and had great recall of the history of the yearbook. And there’s also one piece of amazing serendipity that I’ll save for the end of the column.
The “In retrospect” page in the book shared information about the team that the senior Plisky had assembled, which included professional photographers Jim Joern and Steve Phillips; the latter also served as the book’s graphic designer. Also on the team were New Jersey high school sophomore Peter Pasley and his older brother Richard and Plisky’s sons, John and Jimmy, whose “boundless enthusiasm” their dad credited.
What came to light after my interview with his son is that the publication was a grand dream, pushed forward in the face of impossible odds, cost, and logistics through sheer love of the sport and determination of heart.
“My dad grew up in Linden, N.J., and they used to run cars at the local airport there in the 1950s, and his dad would take him to the races, and he later began to take my brother, Jimmy, and I to the races in Englishtown in the early ‘70s, and we even drove out to the Supernationals in California in 1972,” explained Plisky.
“He knew that there was always an annual publication after each year’s Indy 500, and he wanted to do one for drag racing’s biggest event. He had very romantic notions about the whole idea, but he was very naïve. He had no experience in publishing or advertising or selling books and no cash-flow-management skills, but his enthusiasm was infectious. He just lit up when he talked about doing it, and that inspired the people to get involved.”
The senior Plisky was so committed to the project that he quit his job at an insurance agency and dug into the family savings to finance the book. “It was a huge, huge leap,” his son admitted.
The team pulled together throughout the Labor Day weekend, arriving early each day at the track and staying well past dark to capture the entire scene.
The junior Plisky, age 12 in Indy
“I was on the line shooting photos, but none of them made it in the book,” said the younger Plisky, who was 12 at the time (photo guidelines have since changed significantly). “I remember leaving every night half dead and covered in rubber specks and throwing away my T-shirt knowing that my mother was never going to wash it.
“My dad wasn’t a very accomplished photographer, and we shared an Olympus OM-2. He took the driver portraits for the back of the book; I got all of the autographs. The drivers had no idea what this was going to be, and it was more likely that a kid would get the autograph than an adult, but the drivers were very accommodating.”
And once the event ended, the work was just as daunting.
“I helped cull through hundreds of rolls and rolls of slide film to find the images for the book,” he recalled. “It was like, ‘OK, we need a headshot picture of Prudhomme,’ and I’d find them all, and we’d decide which one was best.”
His dad, whose only journalism experience came from a few articles he had written for Super Stock, did all of the writing, an impressive feat, and one that clearly came from the heart as much as the fingers.
“You can see his romantic notion of the event comparing it to knights in shining armor,” said his proud son. “That’s the way he looked at the whole process.”
As time-consuming and mentally draining as the writing must have been, bigger hurdles lay ahead.
“We didn’t have much of an ad budget; almost everything went into getting it created,” said Plisky. “He underestimated the cost and the cash flow of laying it all out upfront. I think he convinced the photo-separation people to do all of the separations before being paid. I remember going to the printer up in New Hampshire, trying to convince the guy to release the book so we could fill orders. It went something like, ‘Well, I don’t have the money now, but the ads are in National DRAGSTER next week …’ It was definitely an adventure.”
His son couldn’t remember exactly when the book was completed, but if you believe the flyleaf, it was 1978 by the time it hit the market, which only made selling the book that much harder.
Plisky today, holding the yearbook and one of the ads for the book.
“Artistically, it blew everything away, but I’m not sure how many we sold. It wasn’t that successful at the time. I think the original print run was 10,000, but I know we didn’t sell anywhere near that many,” he admitted. “The problem was, it was a 1977 yearbook, and once it turned to 1978, there were some people who wanted to look back, but it became stale. There were other people who thought it was the event program and not a yearbook, so the sales tapered off pretty quickly. We drove out to the ‘78 Indy event and sold some. At the time, I think the official souvenir program sold for a buck, so it was a hard sell at $7. People who looked at it said they had to have it, but to get them to look at a $7 book wasn’t easy.”
But with a handsome finished product in his hands, the senior Plisky hoped it would impress NHRA officials to do one the following year as well.
“My dad thought that NHRA would be blown away by it because it was so much better than the program was at the time, and he’d done all of the thinking and put it all together, and that they might incorporate him into the fold and put him in charge of doing it,” he said. “He had meetings with Wally Parks and NHRA’s merchandising person at the time, but NHRA already pretty much had a procedure and people in place at the time for the program, and they didn’t believe anyone would spend $7 on a yearbook.”
Father and son shared an office through the end of his life, administering retirement plans for small companies; they talked occasionally about the book, and the senior Plisky died knowing that his book was much-appreciated in the end.
“It ended up costing him money – he went through a lot of his savings – but if he had the chance to do it every year, he would have been living his dream. He would have been over the moon. In the end, he knew that it was appreciated; it’s just too bad it wasn’t a business success.”
I couldn’t agree more, and I wish more people had the opportunity to see it. Plisky says he has considered making the book available again – everything from a DVD or CD-ROM containing just the raw pages up through on-demand publishing – to share his father’s work, but, like the original, there’s no way to gauge whether the expense would match the demand (I’d sure be interested to hear how much demand there is; you can email your name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org with "US Nationals Yearbook" in the subject line to be notified of any developments).
I’ll close this inspirational tale with the amazing tidbit I promised earlier in the article. Well, “amazing” perhaps is the wrong word, but “appropriate” seems, well, appropriate.
Although I got the email about the book from reader Hughes on June 21, I had been holding off work on the article so that I might present it around the time of this year’s Indy event. I interviewed Plisky on Tuesday and told him my plan was to publish it today, Aug. 26.
That’s when he told me that tomorrow will be the one-year anniversary of his father’s passing.
“What a great tribute to me dad,” he said.
Again, I couldn’t agree more.
Truth be told, I hadn’t planned on continuing the Chi-Town Hustler/”Jungle Jim” Liberman thread past last Friday’s column, but, as seems to always be the case here, one pile of great memories only serves as creative fuel for the fire for the rest of you to burn up my email with even more salutes and tributes. Too bad neither had a wedge Top Fueler.
Walking, talking drag racing photo great Steve Reyes saw the Hustler in its earliest days while a photographer in Northern California and passed along the photo at right of the Hustler Barracuda pre-ramp truck, circa 1968. Pitted to the right, also on a tagalong trailer, is Terry Hedrick’s Seaton’s Shaker Corvair.
“Jon Asher would write about the Chi-Town Hustler’s burnouts in All-American Drags magazine in early 1967 before they came west,” he recalled, referencing Friday’s discussion about when the Hustler took to fogging out racetracks with long smoky burnouts. “Those guys set the bar for smoky burnouts. I think I saw Pat Minick, Ron Colson, Frank Hawley, Clare Sanders, Minick’s son [Wayne], and Pete Williams all drive the Hustler. Maybe ‘Jungle’ drove it in SoCal, but I’d believe Russell Long drove before ‘Jungle’ would have on the West Coast. Back then, Russell was the go-to guy if you needed a substitute driver for your AA/FC. The [Liberman] poster at Long’s was a centerfold from [Popular Hot Rodding magazine] that I shot at OCIR.”
I also mentioned last Friday how the Hustler was a Ford (Mustang II) for a short time when Pete Williams drove in 1977, and Reyes supplied this photo of the car in its Hustler afterlife as the Drastic Plastic entry of Tom Motry, driven here by the late Ron Correnti.
“I watched it crash at a PHR event at Martin, Mich.,” Reyes recalled. “It hit the sand pile at the end of the track when the chute failed. The car stood on its nose and then flopped on the roof in the sand. I had pix, but they stayed with Argus [Publications, publisher of PHR] when I left there in 1994. I think the crash was in 1973-75.
“When I stayed at 'Jungle’s' house in 1973, I awoke and ventured downstairs to his work area to find him taking hits off a bong and building an engine. Here’s a pic of 'Jungle’s' rig, the ramp truck [barely visible to far left], with a second Funny Car in front of his house in Pa."
Guy Radcliffe saw Liberman in his heyday, seeing “Jungle” race several times in 1970 and 1971 at Atco Raceway in New Jersey. “Due to economic hardship, I wouldn't see 'Jungle' race again until August 1977 (again at Atco),” he wrote. “For those who loved nitro Funny Cars in the early ‘70s, 'Jungle's' death became symbolic of the absence of Funny Cars to the local dragstrip. Nitro Funny Cars had been something you could see at the local dragstrip once or twice a month or more. Now, you can only see them on TV.”
Another reader, Bob Lukas, shared his "Jungle” memories, too. “I was 17 in 1964 and could not see enough of the early A/FX cars always going to Connecticut Dragway, Dover Drag Strip (I first saw Phil Bonner there and 'the Grump' with Doc Burgess and the Black Arrow Plymouth), Lebanon Valley, Englishtown, or wherever they had an early Funny Car meet. I would catch a ride from the local speed shop owner (who grew up with my dad); all you had to do was show up early Sunday morning, and the racers mostly treated me like one of them. I became good friends with the late Bill Flynn from his speed shop and later Al Hanna.
Austin Coil’s comments about a four-wide race at Bytron Dragway stoked some nostalgia for Gary Crumine, too. “Man, that brings back memories,” he wrote. “Ron Leek would put on four-wide gasser shows where another famous local car, the Shake, Rattle and Run ‘57 Chevy, was cleaning up everywhere it went. Between the SRR and the Hustler, we would get a big match race at least twice a month. Then, when Funnys took off, we’d get guys like ‘Fast Eddie’ Schartman, Arnie ‘the Farmer’ Beswick, ‘Dandy Dick’ Landy, Mr. Norms … you name it. Wow, what good memories I have of it. They never disappointed us.”
Here's a really great peek down the barrel of the eight-hole injector as "Jungle" gets sideways at US 131, From the DRAGSTER files; photographer unknown
Tom Haman also added his recollections to the growing Liberman memories pile. “I was a track photographer for Cordova Raceway in Illinois in the mid-‘70s to early ‘80s,” he wrote. “I always made it to the World Series of Drag Racing every year as it was the place for the big boys to tune up prior to Indy because it was always the weekend before the Nationals. Anyhow, it was either '76 or '77, and I was shooting on the tower side at the starting line. ‘Jungle’ was in my lane (I don't remember who was in the other lane). He took off hard with flames shooting skyward in the cool, humid August Saturday night when he got to half-track and popped the blower at least 150-plus feet in the air (no fire, just BOOOOM!). It split at the base of the Crower eight-hole injector, sending the injector with scoop and the blower flying in two separate paths. I followed the injector/scoop to the high dewy grass, where it sent out clouds of steam. I thought I had the souvenir of a lifetime! I was about to pick it up when one of the crew guys came up and said it was still repairable. Being just a kid of 21 and trying to cooperate, I gave it up. On the other hand, a spectator a bit further up track jumped the chain-link fence, grabbed what was left of the blower shell, and hightailed to parts unknown. He got away clean, but I really wanted that Crower injector and scoop.”
Ma Green, a West Coast drag racing management staple, of course crossed paths with Liberman and company, but her memory is painted from a different brush. “Back in the late '60s, Chi-Town came to Sacramento for a booked-in race. It had been to Hawaii just prior, and the body was damaged on the way back, so it showed up in Sacto in gray primer. We had become friends with the guys, and they asked Kenny (my hubby at the time) if he could throw some letters on the car. They didn't want permanent lettering, so he used poster paint. It looked great; however, every time they ran, some of it would flake off, so Kenny spent most of the day doing one side and then the other trying to keep lettering on the car. Don't know if Austin remembers that or not.”
Dennis Friend commented on the Richard Wood photo I used to illustrate the Charger’s smoky burnouts. “I was fortunate enough to be at Rockford that day, and you see one thing done to the Charger was to keep the smoke out of the cockpit,” he observed, then added, “Don’t get me wrong, 'Jungle Jim' was great, but I think Arnie Beswick deserves a lot of credit for where Funny Car racing went before J.J.”
Where Funny Car racing might have went with Liberman also was discussed last Friday in Bobby Doerrer’s great recollections of how the late Vinnie Napp was a driving force behind a new 7-Eleven sponsorship for “Jungle,” so I was happy to hear from my buddy David Napp, Vinnie’s son, who now owns the fabled Raceway Park facility with brother Alex and who clearly was genetically imprinted with admiration for Liberman.
“It was great to see my dad's name in your column along with such notables,” he wrote. “He rarely spoke of two people who passed before I was born. One was his father, the other was ‘Jungle.’ I think it hurt him too much to lose not only a friend but someone he had great aspirations for in business as well.
“As a kid, I heard the legendary tales from everyone, but not from Dad. In the infrequent times he did, he spoke highly of ‘Jungle”, with a look of ‘what could have been’ in his eyes. He tried to find another driver who had that ‘it’ quality that is indefinable but obvious when one possesses it. Many came close for him, but none equaled Jim.
"Jungle Jim" Liberman, E-town 1975, en route to Summernationals win
“I still have the black and white composition notebook my father kept for the 7-Eleven East vs. West Funny Car Nationals, Aug. 21, 1977. Kosty Ivanoff, Castronovo, Lani, ‘Jungle,’ Eastern Raider, Cassidy, Frantic Ford, Burgin, Mineo, Burgeois, Loper, Trojan Horse, Creasy, Fireball Vega are scribbled in pencil. On one page regarding Jim, it says, ‘Jungle Himself 2000, (loaned 2500).’ Guess my pop was a part-time banker for a racer in need. Along the bottom, the attendance: 5,706. Wish I had been one of the lucky people that day. My brother Alex can only remember my parents being dressed up and dropping him at a friend's before the funeral, but that's the only ‘Jungle" memory he has. Being born in 1976, I never got to see the legend himself. Luckily, Steve Bell came across video of ‘Jungle’ racing here, and it was played on ESPN. We finally got to see ‘Jungle Jim’ race down our strip. Thought I'd never see it. A great thrill to say the least.”
And with that, I’m going to swing out of here on a “Jungle Jim” vine. See you Friday.