I didn't know that ...Friday, August 12, 2011

It’s a fact of life that just when you think you know everything about something, you get slapped upside the head, which happened to me (again) this week.

Everyone knows the story of the great Chi-Town Hustler, how engineering ace John Farkonas, tuning wiz Austin Coil, and deft driver Pat Minick turned the Funny Car world on its ear with the first burnouts and ran their Dodge-bodied cars at match races from coast to coast, then in 1982, with Frank Hawley at the wheel, took on the touring Pros and won the first of two straight NHRA world championships from under the noses of Don Prudhomme, Billy Meyer, Kenny Bernstein, Raymond Beadle, et al with their low-dollar, high-consistency Dodge Charger. We know that Coil left the team to work for John Force and went on to create more history.

If you’re a real Chi-Town fan, you also probably know that drivers like Ron Colson, Denny Savage, Clare Sanders, and Pete Williams wheeled the car in the 1970s before Hawley took over in 1980.

But I bet you didn’t know that the Hustler also had a couple of other drivers who took brief albeit memorable rides in the famous flopper: a couple of guys named “Jungle Jim” Liberman and Austin Coil.

Wild, right? I know! One of the most popular Funny Car drivers ever and nitro racing's most succesful tuner both drove one of the most famous Funny Cars ever! I didn't know that. So, how did this come to light?

Insider reader Bill Klinger sent a scan of a newspaper clipping that included the photo at right showing Coil posing with the jungle man and the race queen after winning an event at Southeastern Dragway in Dallas, Ga. From the style of the caption and the headline font, I knew it came from the pages of National DRAGSTER, but no date was included. It was clear to me from “Jungle” sitting in the opened “driver’s side” roof hatch that this was the famed offset-driver car, but it’s also a car that ran from 1969 through mid-1971, so I didn’t want to have to thumb through three years of DRAGSTER looking for it.

(The funny thing about this is that I'm sure I have seen smaller versions of this photo -- it's kind of a memorable pose -- but never in a big enough image to see that it was Liberman and not Minick in the car.)
Fortunately, I have Coil’s email address, so I forwarded him the picture, and, with amazing recall, he knew exactly when and where the photo was taken (March 1971) and more details about the event, the Spring Funny Car Nationals. I located the article and even found the original Marty Johnson photo in our files. Sensing a column just waiting to be told, I called him to spare his typing fingers, which was when I learned that he, too, had driven the Hustler, and on numerous occasions.

Coil was headed to the grocery store preparing for a casual trip up the coast to Oregon – “I’m so busy doing nothing I can’t hardly get caught up,” he said, clearly not missing the big show. Well, that's not exactly true: “I miss it like a toothache," he said – but chatted with me for a good half-hour on the topic alone, displaying an uncanny memory for details even 40 years later.

Before the 1971 season, Minick had to have hemorrhoid surgery and wasn’t race-ready when the Chi-Town match race bookings began in Jacksonville, Fla., in late February, so Coil hopped into the car to fulfill the date.

“I drove using Minick’s firesuit, which did not fit me worth a [darn] – it wouldn’t even zip up all the way; it’s amazing the stupid [stuff] we’d do sometimes – but I said, 'I’m not driving the thing next week,' so we started looking for drivers for the race in Dallas.

Pat Minick and the Hustler, doin' their thang ...

“Arnie Behling was available, but we remembered that he’d one time turned the Ramchargers car upside down on the return road [trying to make a U-turn] at a match race. Minick knew all about that and didn’t want him to drive it because it was all we had; it wasn’t like we had two or three cars. ‘Jungle’ said, 'Ah, Arnie’s fine; I’ll let him drive my car, and I’ll drive yours. We said, ‘[Heck] yeah!’ ‘Jungle’ was probably one of the most natural drivers ever born. He ended up driving our car and won the race, Behling drove his car and didn’t crash it, so everyone was happy.”

Racing at Southeastern was done on the 1,000-foot distance (another reason Klinger sent the pic), and Liberman beat Richard Tharp and the Blue Max on a holeshot in round one, 6.76 to 6.74, but the other two rounds weren’t reported. The final-round combatants were determined on a points basis, and Liberman squared off against Tommy Grove and took the victory with a 6.65.

Coil and “Jungle,” by the way, were good buddies from crisscrossing the country for years, and the Chi-Town gang would stay at Liberman’s place in Westchester, Pa., while on the East Coast, and Liberman often would camp out at Coil’s place during his Midwest forays.

Coil had actually driven the Charger even before that, in its maiden outing for a four-wide event at Rockford Dragway. The Chi-Town team also brought its predecessor, a Barracuda (which had been sold to Herman Lesmeister, but the team was still in possession of), just in case the new Charger wasn’t up to speed. Minick made checkout passes in the new car in the morning and all was fine, but when one of the other cars didn’t show, track manager Ron Leek asked the Hustler crew to use the old car to round out the quartet.

“Herman wasn’t keen on me driving his car, so Minick drove the old car, and I drove the new car, and everyone survived,” said Coil. Turns out that Coil also had driven the Barracuda on a couple of occasions and had even driven the altered-wheelbase car that Farkonas and Minick had before the Hustler.

A million-mile miracle
Before it was boxed by Austin Coil in the winter of 1975-76, the Chi-Town truck was a conventional ramp truck.

With all of the excitement the last few years about Prudhomme restoring his and Tom McEwen’s ramp trucks, while I had Coil on the line, I asked him whatever became of the notorious Chi-Town Hustler box-style ramp truck that was the team’s trademark through its barnstorming days clear up through its two world championships, when it was an aging anachronism in an era of 18-wheel tractor-trailers and even fifth-wheel Chaparral trailers.

“Last we heard, it belonged to some street-racer bunch in Minneapolis,” said Coil, who figured that they put right around a million miles on the old gal in 17 seasons. “We went through a lot of motors and transmissions and rear ends. I got a lot of truck experience.

“In 1970, we ran 96 match race dates; we probably didn’t make many more runs than a team makes today, but it was three runs here, three runs there, and you spent more time in the truck than at the racetrack. Our most diehard weekend was a Wednesday night date in Cincinnati, a Thursday night  (because it was the Fourth of July) in Martin, Mich., Friday afternoon in Suffolk, Va., and Saturday night and Sunday at Miami-Hollywood [Fla.].”

He also gave me the backstory on the truck, that it originally belonged to Butch Leal, who sold it to Norm Krause (of Mr. Norm fame). Because it was owned by Chrysler when Leal used it, the truck never was titled when Leal had it, so when it was sold to Grand Spaulding Dodge, they titled it as a 1967, but it actually was a 1965. The Chi-Town team bought it in 1968 and ran it through the end of the 1984 season. The truck originally was your typical open-bed ramp truck, but Coil himself constructed the now-famous box in the winter of 1975-76.

So there you have it, the tale of how “Jungle Jim” Liberman and Austin Coil both drove the famed Chi-Town Hustler. File it away under “Things I didn’t know before today,” and hopefully I’ll keep adding to that file for you. See ya next week.

Open for business, againTuesday, August 09, 2011

As any of you who have been around this cantina for any length of time full know, it’s as much your own memorable morsel as the main course that I serve up that makes this column the popular potluck it has become.

Despite me hanging out the Closed sign on the food-at-the-drags thread, apparently I cleared the table a little too quickly because you guys weren’t quite finished, and because several of you still had delicious details to share – and because my momma taught me it’s polite to share – looks like I’ll open it up for another round of memories. Some of them are kind of long, and I’ll just run them one after another until you’ve had your fill.

Sky Wallace, brother of longtime drag racing journalism guru Dave, was among those drag fans who got their first taste of the digs from the business side of the concession stands, his at another fabled SoCal strip, San Fernando Raceway.

“I spent some time working in the trailer-type snack stand that was parked in the hot pits at the Pond, circa 1967-68,” he said. “Howard Stevenson was the concessions owner, and after giving up my career as Drag News/Drag Sport Illustrated/Drag World salesman (due to allergies that were fired off by wandering through the weeds in front of the cars parked above the hot pits) and stints at both the hot-pit (the best for spectating and racer schmoozing) and main-pit gates, he asked me to work for him.

“I quickly found out that working the main snack stand sucked, as I could only see the cars launch, but after a few months, he asked if I wanted to work the trailer, and I jumped at the chance. He also asked if I could drive a stick, as the pickup used to haul the trailer to and from the hot pits was so equipped, so of course I said, ‘Sure!’ although, at age 14, I had never been behind the wheel of anything.

“Luckily, it was a four-speed with a granny gear, so it was really hard to stall when getting it rolling, and I had watched enough folks driving sticks to have the basic shifting concept down. The first couple of weeks, ‘Steve’ hooked the trailer to the truck and would drive it down, unhook it, bring the truck back to the main snack bar, and at the end of the day, he'd drive the truck to the trailer and hook it up, and away we went.

"The good news is that he would crank the wheel and stab the throttle to turn the truck into position to get it outta there after unhooking in the morning and again for the afternoon hookup, scattering dirt and gravel in the process ... once he figured I was competent to take care of the trailer transport myself, I felt compelled to continue that tradition, which was also great slide-the-ass-end driver's training for this punk kid ...

"I had to cook the hot dogs and burgers upon request, but being allergic to onions (which were dried, to be reconstituted with hot water) and avoiding them as much as possible, I never bothered to put them on anything unless requested by the customers, which included all of the heavy hitters.

“Unfortunately, as attendance (and business) declined, he discontinued using the trailer, and I was back in the main snack stand until the place closed ..."

How good were the In-N-Out-based burgers at Irwindale? Steve Morse, whose brother Vic used to drive the Mister T Funny Cars of the late 1960s, remembered one night in the mid-1970s at Irwindale with his brother. “We had gone up for a 16-car Top fuel show (which I’m sure James Warren won), and as we were walking from little end to big and back on the pit side, every time we passed by that stand, we ate a cheeseburger; I counted 10 each!! Vic thinks I suffer from the fish-was-that-big syndrome, but I swear 20 burgers were purchased.”

Jim Moriarty’s tale from the ‘Dale was a little less appetizing. “I was in high school back in the early ‘70s. My buddies and I would go to Irwindale on the weekends. I bought a hot dog and walked over to the condiment table to add a little mustard to my dog. I noticed that the pump/lid was askew. Just as I reached for the pump, a frog jumped out all covered with mustard. It took several years before I put mustard on a dog again.”

Jeff Foulk, of Finagler Funny Car fame, couldn’t resist chipping in. “I envy you West Coast guys, at least on this one subject,” he wrote. “Here on the East Coast, back in the day, dragstrip food was something to be avoided, at risk of your life. It was all uniform: It all sucked! Fortunately, I was rarely hungry on race day.”

Others weighed in with their favorites, both at and away from the racetrack.

“There’s a vendor at Pomona behind the grandstands who makes the best meatloaf sandwich I’ve ever had; served on garlic toast, it’s bad to the bone,” weighed in “Berserko Bob” Doerrer. “Maple Grove also makes a really good fried bologna sandwich. I like it with ketchup, mustard, and pickle relish.

“When in Gainesville, everybody raves about Sonny’s Bar-B-Q (which is a Southern chain), but there’s a vendor at the track whose pulled-pork barbecue is equal to the best barbecue joints in North Carolina. With about a half-dozen sauces available, I eat there every time I go to the Gators. Last but not least, the best dragstrip lemonade is at Atlanta Dragway. It's available at vending kiosks throughout the pits; the lemons are squeezed right in front of you, and it’s made fresh when ordered. A plus is that they always have cute babes working the lemonade stands. Send me a Double-Double will ya?”

David Michelsen, who has been going to the Gatornationals since 1978 and had his share of Sonny’s, remembers that in the 1980s, it was Skeeter's, “Home of the Big Biscuit,” that packed ‘em in, especially at breakfast.

“I always went there for breakfast, and the place was always packed with drivers and crews,” he said. “The pancakes were as big as the plates, and the biscuits were huge. One of my all-time highlights was opening the door to go in, and out walks Gary Beck, who at the time was the national record holder and I believe defending national champ. Skeeter's closed its doors years ago, but I bet almost any racer that was around in the ‘80s and early ‘90s will fondly remember it.”

I can definitely attest to his memories as in 1984, when I rode to the Gatornationals from California with Beck and the Larry Minor team – for a memorable cross-country first-person story for National DRAGSTER – it was Skeeter's every morning.

Alan Collums is another Sonny’s fan. “I was happy that you mentioned Sonny’s Bar-B-Q in Gainesville,” he wrote. “In 1974, my brother Jerry took me to my first Gatornationals. I was 16 at the time and had never ever seen that many race cars. We didn’t have much big-time drag racing going on in Mississippi, so to see that many race cars in one place, I was on sensory overload to be sure. This was back in the day when all the cars left the track at night, and we would cruise the hotel parking lots to see who was out working on their cars. We went to Sonny’s after Saturday qualifying, and as we were waiting for our food, I suddenly turned around and started looking out the window at the parking lot. Jerry asked me what was wrong, and I said I heard a fuel engine in the parking lot and that somebody must be working on a car right there at Sonny’s. He started laughing at me and pointed out that what I heard was actually the guy in the booth behind me stirring his glass of iced tea! I promise you the sound of someone stirring sugar into a plastic glass of iced tea sounded just like a cackling fuel engine! This story has a happy ending. Along about 1978, we got our very own Sonny’s in Jackson and now have two locations. Sonny’s remains a favorite of mine.

“I’d like to add Ethel’s Seafood in Baton Rouge. It was owned by two brothers and was named for their mother. Neil worked the floor, and his brother took care of the kitchen. Ethel’s was a favorite during the Baton Rouge divisional race, the Cajun Nationals, and the Division 4 Bracket Championships. The thing I liked most about going to Ethel’s was that besides the Cajun and creole food being so good, Neil would walk around and visit with everyone. It didn’t matter if you were Darrell Gwynn, John Force, Bob Glidden, or Alan Collums, Neil was just as happy to see me and my fellow Sportsman racers as he was the Pros. He treated everyone the same. He would come to the track during the daytime and walk around to visit with everyone. They had hundreds of race car pictures on the walls of the restaurant, and Neil would make you autograph yours when you gave it to him. For us guys who seldom got autograph requests, this was a big deal. Ethel’s was also a big favorite of Eddie and Ercie Hill’s. Neil had a few broken parts mounted on the wall, and one in particular was a gigantic valve from a cylinder head that must have been from some sort of huge diesel engine or something. Underneath the valve was a sign that read, ‘Eddie told Fuzzy he used the wrong size valve!’ Unfortunately, without the big race weekends, Ethel’s went the way of the Cajun Nationals and closed just a few years after the Cajun Nats left town.”

Don Burt, whose memories of Lions were topped by helping on his friend’s green altered-wheelbase B/A '55 Chevy, the Rat's Sass, also had plenty to say about the concessions. “The tamales and chili are also great memories,” he noted. “Alex's tamales and about 75 percent fat brick chili. I liked mine smothered with raw onion. They also gave little packs of saltine crackers. I could eat a tray full in the afternoon and still taste it at midnight on the way home. They also provided a lot of exercise for your arm, rolling down the windows every few minutes.”

Count “Chicago Jon” Hoffman among those who crave the fresh donuts in Indy, but he admits that his concession stories are limited. “I suppose the reason I don't have a wealth of food stories is that I don't have a lot of ... wealth!” he admitted. “Tickets, gas, camping -- suffice it to say that there’s been a lot of PB&J through the years. Indy this year will be no exception, but I always had those special ‘Indy extras’; there had to be money for an event shirt, a pin, getting DRAGSTER from that guy (who had nothing on P.T. Barnum) working out of a station wagon, 1,000-foot east side, the donuts, you had to, HAD TO, get your program from the elderly gentleman who wore the gigantic sombrero, and, here it comes, the forerunner of a popular dessert treat at Wendy’s: a frosty malt, and, like the program guy, you had to buy it from this great guy who always wore a red and white vendor smock (that didn't fit altogether well!) and called out the familiar phrase, ‘FRAAHHHSSSIE MAHLLLT!’ Someone once told me the vendors got paid on how much they moved, so I always rooted for sombrero guy and smock guy and as such only bought from them."

And finally, from Tommy Naccarato comes this Texas-sized tale involving “Diesel Louie” Force, brother of the 15-time champ, and the famous Big Texan Steak Ranch restaurant in Amarillo, Texas, home of the free 72-ounce steak – if you can eat it in an hour. I first learned of this place while reading Drag Racing USA’s coverage of the 1972 World Finals (funny how you remember these things) but didn’t know a lot of details about the requirements to complete “the deal.”

I wasn’t able to track down Louie – who is “far crazier than John by a rather great margin,” according to Naccarato -- to verify the story you’re about to read, but Naccarato did say that Louie would verify the details (more or less), so, in the tradition of good ol’ bench racing where no one lets the facts get in the way of a great story, here we go …

“Louie was there with Gene Beaver and a few others from the Condit-Beaver-Force clan after racing at Amarillo. When they told Louie, an infamous and notorious eater, that they had a steak that if you ate it all you got it for free, he wanted all of that! Of course, at the time in the ‘70s, in typical Force fashion, he didn't have the money to pay for it either! Louie being Louie, he ordered it.

"Now at the Big Texan, purportedly (I haven't had the good fortune to experience this place but have heard a lot of drag racer tales about it), to get the 72-ounce steak for free, you had to:

• Eat a shrimp cocktail
• Eat the entire dinner-sized salad (with dressing of choice)
• Eat the 72-ouncer with all of its helpings, including baked potato and bread

"As a reward for eating those portions of the meal, you were given a strawberry shortcake for dessert that had to also be finished in under one hour. The dessert portion of the meal became extra important to Louie, and he said, ‘Not a problem!’ Gene Beaver, in fear of not being able to pay for the steak, told him, ‘Louie, this thing has to be completed, or you’re going to be washing dishes!’ Louie told his waitress, who was dressed in typical Big Texas garb, to bring it on!

“After the salad and shrimp cocktail, Louie was ready to get to work when the 72- ouncer arrived. I've been to places that have done the same -- like Saylor's Country Kitchen in Beaverton, Ore. -- and you can't believe just how big the steak is! Well, when they delivered it to the table, Louie sort of started getting scared, or maybe it was Beaver, who probably had ideas of dining and dashing running through his head. When 25 minutes had passed, Louie wasn't anywhere near completed. The waitress, seeing this, walked up to him and told him, ‘Listen, honey, you finish that, and I'll give you a double helping of strawberry shortcake!’ From the Big Texan point of view, she made a huge error.

"Louie, now challenged, reached for a bottle of Worcestershire sauce that was on the table, opened it up, and took off the sprinkle top and proceeded to drink the entire bottle -- to help lubricate the steak he was about to shove down his mouth. Mind you that Worcestershire sauce is primarily made of sodium, or some great amount of the stuff. Louie not only devoured the steak but made it with two minutes to spare and got his double helping of strawberry shortcake. Gene Beaver was spared the humility of having to tell them that they would repay for the steak by check or other -- who knows, maybe even in L.A. Hooker T-shirts, but on the way out, they took a picture of Louie, got into the crew cab, and left, only to stop down the street to fill up for the ride to the next stop. Louie went inside the convenience store of the gas station and came out with a bottle of Bubble-Up and two candy bars because he was parched from drinking the Worcestershire sauce, which he said tasted like it was liquid salt.

"The next year, it was either Beaver, Steve Plueger, or Steve Condit who went to the Big Texan, and sure enough, up on the wall was a picture of Louie with a sign under it that said ‘King of the 72 ouncer’ alongside that of a short and thin older lady who polished the thing down in like 25 minutes. Hopefully others will have Big Texan stories to share of their own. A pretty popular place!”

The Big Texan has a pretty cool website, which includes live webcams of the stage where those who take the challenge try to complete the meal, and there’s also a list of everyone who has ever completed the challenge, so I went looking for “Diesel Louie’s” name so I could put a date and a year on this story and maybe see if I spied other famous drag racing names on the list from when NHRA held the Finals in Amarillo, 1971-73. Unfortunately, anything from before 1976 was destroyed by the fire and the records from 1991 back were damaged by water in a sprinkler-system accident, so the list is incomplete (those who still have their certificates can get their name added back to the list, which is now computerized, but I’m sure that, based on its previous history, the restaurant probably will soon experience a hard-drive failure).

Even with the truncated list, there are more than 2,200 names (2,263 to be exact) of those who chowed down and made it through to the other side. The record is 10 minutes — which somehow doesn’t seem possible – set by 300-pound David “Huey” Lowe Aug. 3, 2002. I’d say that kids should make sure they keep their fingers away from Huey’s mouth at all times.

OK, so there you have it. The final (I think) drag food extravaganza. Thanks to everyone for playing, and pass the Pepto-Bismol, please.

The slingshot's last hurrahFriday, August 05, 2011
Who had the first slingshot dragster is certainly debateable, but Mickey Thompson long took credit for it with this car, pictured in 1954.

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of a very telling date in drag racing history, for it was Aug. 6, 1972 — 39 years ago — that the last front-engine Top Fueler was pushed into the winner’s circle at an NHRA national event. Art Marshall’s name was forever cemented into the NHRA history book when he drove his and Don Young’s dragster to victory at Le Grandnational outside of Montreal to claim the last major victory for a front-engine Top Fuel dragster.

The fabled slingshot dragster — a term coined by early adapter Leroy Neumeyer for the driver’s position, which hung out behind the rear axle “like a rock in a slingshot” — had been the dragster design of choice since the mid-1950s, when it was adopted by drivers like Mickey Thompson and Calvin Rice and became the iconic symbol of the sport to the masses; to some, it still is.

All of that began to change, of course, in 1971, when Don Garlits won the Winternationals with his rear-engine car, the genesis of which came following Garlits' horrific transmission explosion the year before that sawed off half of his right foot. As power had increased throughout the 1970s, slipper clutches were introduced to control the power, but they also generated massive heat, and despite improved bellhousings, clutch explosions began to claim lives at an alarming rate, so it made great sense to put all of that running gear behind the driver instead of at his feet.

Front-engine dragsters continued to held their own in 1971, with only Garlits (who also won the Springnationals) and, surprisingly, Arnie Behling (Summernationals) winning in rear-engine machines. Steve Carbone famously beat Garlits in the “burndown” Indy final with his slingshot, and Jimmy King, Pat Dakin, Gerry Glenn, and Hank Johnson all won in front-engine cars; Glenn’s win at the World Finals also made him the final front-engine world champ.

Chatting with Art Marshall, right, and car owner Brian Beattie in Gainesville.

The handwriting seemed to be on the wall, though, when Carl Olson (Pomona), Garlits (Gainesville), Chip Woodall (Columbus), and Jeb Allen (Englishtown) opened 1972 with rear-engine wins before Marshall momentarily turned the class on its head with his unexpected win at Sanair Int’l Dragstrip. Think David and Goliath with a slightly more powerful slingshot.

I met Marshall for the first time earlier this year in Gainesville, where he was driving Brian Beattie’s immaculately restored Jim & Allison Lee Great Expectations II front-engine Top Fueler in the Cacklefest. As soon as the motors went silent, I hopped the guardwall and introduced myself to him, and he seemed genuinely surprised yet very pleased that he still was remembered for his lone win. With this column in mind, I got his phone number and, after a little phone tag, we connected. I had all of my research lined up, but he asked for some time to gather his recollections and those of some of his old crew and promised to send me his memories via email, which, a few weeks later, he did and did wonderfully, supplying me with detail about the event beyond what I can find in the pages of National DRAGSTER’s coverage. I’ve saved them just for this week to honor the anniversary of the end of an era.

Former NHRA Chief Starter Buster Couch, left, with Marshall (rear) and his young team: Pete Keller, Don Young, and Jack Bashford.

Marshall’s journey to Top Fuel trivia question actually begins the year before when he buckled into his first Top Fuel entry, the unusual injected twin-engine big-block dragster shown at right that then was allowed by the rules. Although the car ran in the low 7.0s at more than 200 mph, Garlits had run as quick as 6.21, and the other fuel dragsters were well into the sixes as they had been since 1967.

Seeking a more conventional machine, Marshall and Young set their eyes on the so-called “slab-sided” front-engine Hot Wheels dragster of Don Prudhomme (not Tom McEwen’s similar car, as had been erroneously reported for years). Prudhomme already had made the switch to a rear-engine car in mid-1971 with his John Buttera-built wedge and subsequent Fuller-built lightweight “yellow feather.”

The duo headed west from their Springfield, N.J., home base in their old '64 Buick station wagon push car and purchased the car, along with an engine, trailer, spare shorty body, and spare third-member, for $5,700. (“It is true, I did go through Roland Leong’s garbage at Keith Black’s and found some usable spare pistons that came in handy in Canada,” admits Marshall.)

The team painted the once-white car black and campaigned it in 1972 with crewmembers Pete Keller and Jack Bashford, but even with a famous car in the possession, it still was a struggle for the sparsely funded team of eager young racers. Marshall himself was just 23.

“Our ‘shop’ was my parents’ single-car garage,” he remembered. “Because of a make-shift engine hoist, my mom would always know when we were pulling out the motor because her china closet on the other side of the garage wall would act like it was in a 7.0 earthquake. Since I worked at Van Iderstine’s Speed Centers, we had a small sponsorship for nitro and small parts.”

After an unspectacular early season, the team loaded its equipment to head north of the border for Le Grandnational, which was only in its second year, and its victory was certainly no walk in the Canadian park. After driving all night, the team arrived at Sanair Friday morning and did its normal maintenance in the car, but on its first qualifying pass, a 6.55 at 223.88 that eventually landed the team in the No. 7 spot in the eight-car field otherwise exclusively comprised of rear-engine cars, things went horribly wrong.

“Coming through the lights, I was in a ball of fire,” Marshall recalled. “We burned a few pistons very badly, and oil was pumping out of the headers feeding this inferno. I hit the fire bottle and went for the chutes. Immediately, the flames claimed the pilot chutes, and they burned right off. Once we got back to our pit, NHRA officials were there to look over the car and inspect my flamesuit. It wasn’t pretty; both the car and I were covered in oil.

“We loaded the car up and headed for the nearest handheld coin car wash. We stripped the car totally down, pressure washed the oil from everything, scraped most of what was left of the pistons off the cylinder walls, then loaded the car back up and drove around Montreal to try to borrow a cylinder hone. That was not as easy as it sounds because of our limited French, all of us being so young, and having little money, but we somehow got lucky and found someone willing to help. With an extension cord running from this little auto-repair shop, we honed the cylinders right in the trailer. Ready for assembly, we headed back to Sanair.”

The team spent the rest of Saturday rebuilding the car, and it wasn’t until around midnight that it was finally able to fire the engine to check everything. After a few hours of sleep, the tired crew headed back to the track Sunday morning.

“We just happened to be pitted next to Clayton Harris, who we were to run in the first round,” recalled Marshall. “He knew the engine was hurt badly and came over to us and said, ‘I hope you guys fixed it real good.’ I guess it was his way of playing with our minds. We knew that game, too, so before taking the car out of the trailer, Pete poured STP down the pipes of the hurt cylinders. Once the car was unloaded, we started it for the warm-up, and smoke began billowing out of the zoomies. Looking over at Clayton Harris’ pit, he was walking around, shaking his head with a smirk on his face. Hey, when you are running against the best in the business, you need every advantage you can think of.”

Marshall advanced to the final round on red-lights by Clayton Harris (above) in round one and Winternationals champ Carl Olson in the semifinals (below).

From that point on, things just went Marshall’s way. Harris, the No. 3 qualifier, and Olson, No. 6, both red-lighted to Marshall, setting up a final-round encounter with Allen, who was hot off his own history-making moment in Englishtown a few weeks earlier where, at age 18 years, 1 month, he became (and still rules as) the youngest Top Fuel winner in NHRA history.

(I’d be remiss in my telling of this tale if I didn’t acknowledge two things. First, a five-tenths Tree inexplicably was being used in Canada instead of the four-tenths Tree used in the other events that season. Second, there are some who think that Marshall and team may have extended their push-down and staging procedures in another bit of gamesmanship. The ND report says that Harris “had problems holding [the car] on the line,” causing it to “lurch” off the starting line, typically the result of an overheated clutch. Olson admitted to a similar experience on his foul, but, to avoid any sour-grape concerns, declined further public comment. You be the judge.)

“We had a lucky break or two, but were solidly there round after round, bringing our A game to the starting line every time,” said Marshall, whose 6.62 was right with Harris’ invalidated 6.60 but whose piston-eating 6.72 was outdistanced by Olson’s negated, early shutoff 6.65.

Allen, meanwhile, had raced from the No. 6 qualifying spot past Herm Petersen on a huge holeshot, 6.58 to 6.47, then beat Canada’s quickest fueler, the Ken McLean-driven, Gary Beck-tuned entry, again on a holeshot, 6.44 to 6.39, in the semifinals.

Marshall wrapped up his historic victory by defeating Summernationals champ Jeb Allen, near lane, who smoked the tires in water from his overheated engine.

With Allen holding a better than two-tenths performance advantage and Allen’s sharp starting-line reactions, it seemed like the teenage sensation from Bellflower, Calif., might win again.

In the final, Allen’s dragster went up in smoke when percolating water from a too-warm engine surged past the O-ring on the fill cap — this is back when the fuel engines ran water in the blocks and heads — and spilled beneath his rear tires. (Again, in the interest of fair reporting, Allen, like Olson, deferred from finger-pointing but remembered that Marshall’s car was just being pushed down the fire-up road as he was beginning his burnout.)

Marshall’s underdog victory was staggering and no doubt brought a smile to those die-hard fans and racers who still thought that the only place a fuel engine belonged was in front of the driver, and it certainly made for a career day for Marshall, Young, and team.

“The win paid $2,500 from NHRA and about $5,000 in contingencies — wow, making money drag racing!” joked Marshall, who also went on to win the Division 1 Top Fuel championship that season.

Marshall, with "trophies" in hand.
Marshall today: Still a slingshot driver.

“Naturally, it took a few years for anyone to recognize the significance,” said Marshall, who now lives in West Palm Beach, Fla., where he’s licensed to fly and repair helicopters and also works at former NHRA Sport Compact world champ Nelson Hoyos’ Driven2Win drag racing school. “Over the years, I was mostly a trivia question, but now with the nostalgia movement and the reunions, the interest in the front-engine cars is back."

Although front-engine Top Fuelers continued to race even into 1973, they never again reached the winner’s circle. The design once thought to be state-of-the-art and that had captured 35 Top Fuel wins was clearly inferior to its rear-engine counterpart in almost every way, and the handwriting was on the wall, this time in indelible ink.

Marshall’s car now resides at Don Garlits’ Museum of Drag Racing in Florida, where it rests in history, albeit restored to its original white Hot Wheels paint scheme.

Second helpingsTuesday, August 02, 2011
Yeah, and they have pretty cool t-shirts, too ...

Friday’s "Food for Thought” column about dragstrip delicacies may have been the main course, but plenty of other cheeseburger-crazed members of the Insider Nation decided that the entrée needed a little dessert.

In-N-Out, naturally, was a topic of much discussion, but I also was able to verify through Steve Gibbs that the burger chain did include flyers for upcoming Irwindale events with their food, at least during Gibbs’ tenure there (1966-68). Gibbs not only delivered the artwork to the stores but also did the artwork!

Pat “Ma” Green, who also worked at the ‘Dale in its heyday, added, “When we had a big race, the concession receipts were almost as big as the gate receipts. I know some racers who used to have two or more Double-Doubles during an event. Best racetrack food I ever had!”

Her praise certainly was not a lone voice.

Terry Spencer, whom I first met back in the mid-1990s when we were both part of the pioneering Drag Racers Forum chat on AOL, remembered, “As a kid who grew up in the SGV [San Gabriel Valley], my parents would take us to In-N-Out #2 on San Bernardino Road in Baldwin Park for burgers before going on to the Edwards Drive-In for a movie. When I got older and started going to Irwindale and got one whiff of the savory smells coming from that concession stand, I knew it was an old, familiar culinary call. I later learned as you pointed out that Harry Snyder was an owner of the track, so it made sense. One thing that has also been a hallmark of In-N-Out is the fact that they pay their workers far more than the average fast-food outfit does. Harry’s theory was that if he was going to have 18-year-olds running his stores, he wanted the best 18-year-olds out there. The drags have always been about the senses, and it would never be complete without the requisite mix of nitro (of course) and rubber, amazing sound, and all the various odors coming from the food vendors, all mixed together in a glorious feast for those of us who will never get it out of our blood.”

Former SoCal resident Drew Hierwarter added, “At the time, I never realized why those Irwindale burgers were so good, but now I know! We left SoCal for Tennessee five years ago, and to this day, I only miss two things: the beach and In-N-Out!”

Howard Hull, who worked at Orange County Int’l Raceway for years, was there when Bill Doner brought the In-N-Out expertise to OCIR. “[At the time], the only good burger we had in the OC was Wendy’s, so Steve Evans [Doner’s partner and, yes, the hall of fame announcer/TV guy] took me up to work a drag race at Irwindale that next weekend. He bought me a couple of In-N-Outs. Now this 16-year-old water polo player loved to eat, and I’ll tell you what, it was heaven. In short time, we were using the Irwindale setup at OCIR, and at the first big race, we pretty much ran out of food! That good! We would do the prep just like the In-N-Out stores. What fun it was as we would run the grills full bore all night long as the crowds would line up after the fuel cars would finish each round!”

Hull also provided details about the Nitro/Super Gas Nachos that Jerry Hurd and I raved about. “That was Carrera Concessions, Larry Vaughan’s company, that had the original food deal in the beginning and created the recipe,” recalled Hull. “As an 11-year-old, I would get all of the ingredients in a box, and I had to open the cans and mix them into a large pot and combine them on the stove around 9 a.m. and let it simmer and cook. The tortilla guy from Santa Ana [Calif.] would come by and drop off boxes of the tortillas cut into triangles, and we would deep fry them all night long and pour sauce on them. They were great on a cold, damp night for sure.”

The great Lions photos provided by Don Gillespie sparked more memories from his fellow Lions concession-stand employee Stephen Justice, who worked there for the Taylor family.

“I have two photos to share: one courtesy of Don Ewald and the other from my collection. The shot of Ronnie and Jeep Hampshire was taken in 1965 and shows the tower-side stand in the background. It was immediately below the stands to the north and not really visible in Don’s photo. I worked that stand a few times, and although one could not see the actual race, the Top Fuel dragsters would stop directly in front of the stand while the engine guy went through his pre-run checks. How about a 1,500-horsepower Top Fuel dragster cackling just a few feet away! The colorful mobile concession truck shown in the other photo came after I left in 1966. I believe the food dispensed from that ‘meat wagon’ was a subject of much scorn.

“Harry Taylor had three children: Eric, Butch, and Pam,” he remembered. “Blanche was married to Harry’s oldest son (Eric). Butch was a contemporary of Tom McEwen and, like McEwen, a graduate of Long Beach Poly High School. Pam was a very attractive blonde and the object of much lust among the young male workers. In Blanche’s photo, one can see that the main concession stand consisted of two sections: the left side served hot dogs and tamales and chili; the right side, hamburgers and popcorn. In the aerial shot (previous column; see below), it is easy to see that I had an unimpeded view of the dragstrip. Note the fire-up lanes between the spectator fence and the track. Before the rollers, the dragsters would push down, fill the lane, and await their turn to push onto the track to fire up. I believe the original idea was to fill one lane and use the other to fire up. But, in the end, the race cars pushed onto the track to fire up. Amazingly, there was never an incident between those staged dragsters waiting to run and a runaway race car."

And, naturally, praise also was sung for other great food at other great dragstrips.

“I loved the article, but if we are on the subject of great track food, there was only two words needed: Hemi Burger!” announced Bob Smith. “The burgers at Fremont were and are still the best I have ever had. Come to think of it, the criss-cut fries were unbeatable also. Jim McLennan was responsible for the Hemi Burger, as I was told by his son, Bobby, the current Nostalgia Top Fuel world champion crew chief."

Hank Schneider weighed in: “My favorites at Indy have always been sausage sandwiches and lemon shake-ups, but I always loved the corn on the cob stand manned by the local nursing school students. At US 30 in Gary, Ind., my favorite was grilled ham and cheese on the intake manifold and BBQ chitlins that tasted like Canadian Bacon after marinating overnight. The best thing at Broadway Bob's Great Lakes Drag-a-way was the cold Old Style on tap!”

Former NHRA southeast advisor and photographer Eddie Vidrine admits that the concession-stand food at his local haunt, Phenix City Dragstrip in Alabama, was “not all that memorable” but did have great memories of another Phenix City legend.

“Pritchett's Kitchenette was a catfish place in town that everybody went to on Friday or Saturday night when the NHRA Division 2 race was being held in the late 1960s,” he recalled. “When you went in the front door, you looked right into the kitchen at what looked like 15 deep-fat fryers. When your number was called, your group was directed down a hallway into your own private dining room. The dinner was served family-style with pans of catfish and fries, bowls of slaw and hushpuppies, onions, pickles, iced tea. When you emptied a pan or bowl, you would walk to the door and flip a switch to turn on a light bulb out in the hallway. An employee would come a'runnin' to get your request for a refill. Again and again. I recall that Danny Ongais ate there, and every time he saw [former NHRA Safety Safari member] Jim Frizzell in later years, they would talk about eating at Pritchett's. That place did well when the racers came to town.”

Speaking of catfish, I remember the Catfish Plantation restaurant in Waxahachie, Texas, that was a longtime favorite of the NHRA crew that went annually to the event at Texas Motorplex. The place, originally someone’s home, had recently reopened when we first went there in 1986 and was a favorite of a number of officials like Buster Couch and our own Leslie Lovett. I was shocked to see the Catfish Plantation on one of those paranormal-experience TV specials a year or so again and that the joint was haunted. In fact, it is “one of the most haunted restaurants in the entire country,” according to the group Fort Worth Paranormal, and “the most terrifying restaurants in the entire country,” according to the TV show Extreme Restaurants. You can read more here and see some haunting videos here. Judge for yourself. Maybe Buster is one of the spirits.

And, finally, just goes to show ya that you never know who will read this column, I was pleasantly surprised to hear from Tom and Kathy of Kent's Ice Cream, whose delicacy was raved about by Bret Kepner. Turns out they were such big fans of the bars that they bought the company that made them.

“There are many people who carry a passion for the tradition of one of these bars,” they wrote. “We were also big fans of the bars. They were called Cacao bars back in the ‘80s. We always bought them, too. There are a few facts that are different then posted. The concessionaire used the excuse that the 'farmer' was shut down by the FDA. That isn't true. He bought them from Kent's Ice Cream in Fort Atkinson, which we now own. We bought the business in 2000 when the couple who made the bars wanted to retire. The photo of us in your article is still the business that made the Cacao bars that Mr. Kepner remembers. Back then, the business only made vanilla and mint, dipped in chocolate and rolled in nuts. There have been many changes over the years, but it is still a two-person dairy plant, and we only make them to sell at events -- mainly auto-related -- around southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois. We also use the recipes that date back to 1941. Real ingredients and hand-made. Thanks for letting us set the record straight.” You can check out the company’s site at KentsBigBar.com

OK, that’s a wrap on food at the drags for now. Coming Friday: a very special anniversary 39th anniversary.

Check, please.

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