By the time this gets published, it’ll be the day after Thanksgiving, and some of you may be reading this on your phones or tablets in a line somewhere awaiting Black Friday stores to open. While I’m thankful I won’t be among you, I spent this week thinking about being thankful and started to write a list of all of the things for which I am thankful, which grew to include the fact that the list came effortlessly to me.
It was then that I realized that I’d done this same column four years ago. I was a little red-faced until I went back and read that column, and I realized that everything I wrote back then — just a few months after I’d turned 50 — still holds true today, so I thought I would re-gift you with those thoughts (and gift my copy editors with the fact that half of this column has already been through the editing cycle before).
I am thankful …
… that I not only got a chance to meet Wally Parks but also got to work with him and, ultimately and most importantly, gain his trust and respect.
… that, by a combination of dumb luck and good timing, I have been able to blend my two passions — drag racing and writing — for almost three decades.
… that my stepfather, a great man who for more than 40 years has been the dad I lost so young in my life, decided that I might like to see a drag race. He has no idea what he has created
… that I studied hard in class, both my textbooks and racing magazines, both of which continue to help today.
… that I have been — at NHRA in general and National Dragster in particular — surrounded by some of the finest, most talented, ambitious, hardworking, and dedicated people I will ever have the honor to know.
... that the printed word still has a place in this age.
… for the camaraderie and support of my pals in the racing world, who have been there to pick me up when I needed it and allowed me to do the same for them. They know who they are.
… that me, a humble fan like many of you, has had the thrill to rub shoulders, speak openly, befriend, joke, break bread, and work with many of my early racing heroes. I still am in awe that I can phone Don Prudhomme or Don Garlits or Shirley Muldowney, and that they will gladly take my call.
… for a job that took me to places I never dreamed of going — Tennessee's Smokey Mountains, Quebec, and Lake Placid, to name but a few — to meet people I never would have met.
… that I got the chance to visit hallowed places like Orange County Int’l Raceway and Irwindale before they closed.
… that my first car was one that required me to learn how to change the distributor points and to learn the agony of knuckles busted open trying to tighten header bolts.
... that I became involved in this sport in a point in its history where things were still wild and wooly and characters that even Hollywood couldn’t have invented walked our Main Street.
… that so many of the legends of our sport are still with us, with keen minds and sharp memories, and that they’re willing and eager to share with me.
… that I got to see drivers like Prudhomme and Glidden in their prime and that I get the chance to marvel at current dominators like Schumacher and Dixon.
… that for all of the miles I have traveled, they have been safe miles, filled with little peril, minor aggravations, and good times.
… for family and friends I cherish, for friends and loves I have had and lost, and for friends yet to encounter.
… that for all of the incomprehensible, unthinkable, and impossible things in life that I have had to face on occasion, I was never truly alone.
… that I've been blessed with good health; I can still play hockey twice a week, my fingers can still type, my hearing is intact (selectively, of course), and that my memory is still pretty decent (anyone seen my car keys?).
… that despite all of the stupid things I have done and said in my first 50 years, the damage has been minimal, nothing that a few stitches, a few weeks in a cast, or a sincere apology couldn’t help repair, and that the scars I carry, physically and emotionally, are mostly of my own doing and provide a roadmap for the future.
And, finally, I am thankful the support and admiration that the readers of this column shower upon me, which only drives me harder to make every column a special one, and I am thankful for the opportunity and the venue to increase our combined knowledge of the history of this sport we so love and to remember and salute those who have made it so.
One thing that I am not thankful for this year — or any year — is the ever-growing roll call of names of the departed who mean so much to so many of us, and death takes no holidays. It’s been a tough month or so for the NHRA family, with the losses sadly piling up seemingly without end.
Division 1 lost a couple of its great veterans, with Hank Endres passing away Oct. 4, Dale Thierer Nov. 13, and Scott Weney Nov. 19. My immediate NHRA family also was hit hard by the deaths of longtime former National Dragster Associate Editor Bruce Dillashaw Nov. 14 and last weekend by the passing of former NHRA Director of Communications Denny Darnell.
A U.S. Naval reserve veteran, Endres raced a series of dragsters out of Pennsylvania, most famously his own Nirvana and with partners Tom Steed and Bill Keenum on the Mr. Boston entry and, later, in the 1980s, as part of John Carey’s multidragster effort before retiring from driving in 1989.
Endres got his start in racing at old Woodbine Dragstrip in New Jersey with a flathead-powered ‘34 Ford roadster before teaming with Biddy Windward on a blown altered, and then with Junior Culler and Joe Cantrell in the Jr. Fuel ranks before striking out on his own with an ex-Lew Arrington dragster powered by a 392. He moved to Top Fuel in 1971 with Ed Pink’s now-famous Don Long-built Old Master slingshot then worked his way up the ranks and into the first Nirvana car, an ex-Dick LaHaie piece built by Wayne Farr with partners Chip Brown and Dave Oberhofer in 1976-77; the latter is the father of Kalitta crew chiefs Jim and Jon. “Hank was an awesome guy!” remembers Jim O. After finishing second twice, Endres won the 1978 NHRA Division 1 Top Fuel title.
Endres was inducted into the National Nostalgia Drag Racing Association Legion of Honor in 2012 for his contributions to the sport. In his later years, he was involved in restoring and showing classic cars. Endres, as nice a guy as you’d find in the pits, always welcoming and informative, died as the result of complications from Parkinson's disease. He was 76. In lieu of flowers, the family asked that donations be made to aid dementia research.
(Above) The Hemi Hunter could lay down the smoke. (Below) Thierer, right, with the Lewis brothers and Division 1 Director Darwin Doll in the winner's circle.
I wrote a bit about Thierer last year in my column about the Lewis brothers, for whom Thierer drove their Sparkling Burgundy entry for a number of years, but his career also spanned a number of other cars, most memorably the Chevy-powered Hemi Hunter in which he was the 1971 Division 1 Top Fuel title. I think it may have been the only Chevy-powered nitro car to win a divisional title.
The Korean War veteran was a mechanic for local auto dealerships in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley region before turning to racing, teaming with Karl Santer in the late 1960s on the provocatively named Clock Teaser dragster in Comp. He later teamed with Jim Johnson, Gary Peters, Dan Rauch, and Wayne McCullough on a S&W-built Hemi Hunter that won the division title and a few years later joined Mike and Kent Lewis and fell just shy of winning the 1973 division crown
“Dale had a unique talent of getting the most out of our low-budget car, and we won numerous divisional races at Epping, Maple Grove, Englishtown, Cecil County, Capital, Cayuga, and Sanair,” Mike Lewis told me via email. “He remained a great friend over the years.”
The Lewis team was parked in 1975, and Thierer went on to drive for a number of years for the veteran team of Jim and Alison Lee. In the last decade, though, Thierer had reunited with Peters and the Hemi Hunter team and the Lewis brothers to compete at nostalgia events.
Thierer passed away at the age of 68 after suffering a massive hemorrhagic stroke, according to his wife, Sally, who wrote on Facebook, “I don't think he had an enemy in the whole world. We have been inundated with good wishes and love, and he would be so happy to know this. He was a quiet unassuming man but had the heart of a giant. I've been blessed to have him for 35 years and be the mother of three of his beautiful children.”
The family asked that memorials in his name be made to Sarcoma Alliance (775 East Blithedale #334, Mill Valley, CA 94941), St. Jude Children's Research Hospital (501 St. Jude Place Memphis, TN 38105), or the Wounded Warrior Project (P.O. Box 758517 Topeka, KS 66675).
Weney was well-known to the sport in large part due to the family business, S&W Race Cars — founded by his father, Walt, in 1959, the same year Scott was born — that built chassis for Pro and Sportsman racers alike for decades. Scott started there from the ground floor as a kid sweeping the shop and rose to become its president. Along the way, Scott became acquainted with many of the East Coat’s top teams who patronized S&W, and he worked as a crewmember for many of them, including the likes of “Rapid Roy” Harris and Ted Wolf (an S&W employee), absorbing their knowledge before becoming a driver himself.
Walt Weney won the 1975 Gatornationals Alcohol Dragster title, and two years later Scott took over as driver of their Weekend Warrior digger and won the 1977 divisional championship. His greatest moments still lay ahead, as he won his home-state Keystone Nationals back to back in 1992 and 1993 in Ken Sheetz’s Olds Cutlass. He won the 2000 IHRA Funny Car championship but actually raced in the nitro classes in the mid-1980s in the Florida-based Gold Coast Challenger machine of Gary Richards (the ex-Custom Body Enterprises machine).
The last several years, Weney raced successfully in the Sportsman and bracket classes — he was the Super Comp runner-up at the 2007 reading event — and lately had turned promoter, forming S&S Race Promotions with Scotty Richardson and creating the “Fun in the Sun” race series.
Darnell’s passing also sent a shockwave through motorsports, especially in the NASCAR community, where he spent so many years and mentored so many. I worked with Denny here at NHRA from 1990 through 1998, and while we weren’t the best of friends — he was pretty tough on the Dragster staff back in those days, making sure that we didn’t monopolize the end-of-day pressroom interviews with our technical or inside questions that might alienate the more-important “straight” press on hand — you could see he knew what he was doing.
He passed away suddenly, surrounded by friends at a weekend barbecue, and it didn’t take long for social media to explode with tributes to the southern gentleman whom many called “The General.” Current NASCAR star Brad Keslowski tweeted that Darnell was “Such a great, classy pro,” and Kasey Khane added “Denny was always such a great person and friend to so many people” while NASCAR legend Darrell Waltrip called Darnell “one of the nicest guys that's ever been in racing, he'll be missed.”
In addition to NHRA, Darnell worked for the likes of Bristol Motor Speedway, Sports Marketing Enterprises, and Dodge; he retired from the business earlier this year. His obituary contained this humorous passage. “He was often asked, ‘How are you enjoying retirement?’ His answer was, ‘I didn't do anything today, and I didn't get finished, and I plan on doing the same thing tomorrow.’ “
And finally there’s our old buddy Bruce, who wrote for National Dragster from late 1992 through 2006 before he returned to his native Texas. And while his sudden passing did not create the ripple that Darnell’s did, he was remembered by several on Twitter, including recently crowned two-time NHRA champ Luke Bogacki, who remembered Dillashaw as the track reporter at Texas Raceway when he raced there, and by Cole Coonce, drag racing journalism's answer to Tom Wolfe, who opined, “His Top Fuel reports were always a must-read.”
Bruce was a racer first and a writer second, and I mean that figuratively and literally. Like a lot of us, he saved his money to buy drag racing magazines as a kid before he began attending racing events in 1968 in San Antonio. In 1984, he bought a used front-engine dragster chassis and began competing in Super Pro and qualified for the Division 4 E.T. Finals in 1985 and 1986. In the fall of 1987, he discovered his love of writing and combined his two passions and, while working at a number of jobs (including pest control and chauffeuring) to pay the bills, eventually began getting his stories published in numerous magazines, which led to our hiring him late in 1992. He covered the Top Fuel beat and loved tech stories.
At the time of his hiring, Bruce said, “Sometimes hard work and perseverance pays off. It’s finally OK to do nothing but think, talk, and write about drag racing.”
Amen, brother. You’ll be missed and not forgotten.
To my friends in the Insider Nation, thank you, and remember to thank those around you before they join our sad list.
Shortly after this column as posted, we lost a great friend to many of us, Dale Armstrong. Obviously, I will write about him next week here, but in the meantime you can find some information about him in Dave Densmore's wonderfully written obituary here, and in our Top 50 Racers profile here.
Last weekend’s 50th anniversary Auto Club NHRA Finals was steeped in nostalgia, with vintage-car displays, Cacklefests, and, the highlight for me, more Legends chats, this time involving “TV Tommy” Ivo, Ed “the Ace” McCulloch, Tom "the Mongoose” McEwen, Kenny Bernstein, Shirley Muldowney, Don "the Snake” Prudhomme, and “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, with the equally legendary Dave McClelland as the emcee.
Everyone who came got one of the cool "credentials" shown at right, which also served as an "admission ticket" to the autograph session later in the day ... no ticket, no autograph session.
Unlike the lengthy shows at this year’s Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, the presentations at the Finals were much shorter. Originally discussed as being themed toward the drivers recounting their great moments from World Finals events past, McClelland freelanced a little and also got them to talk about themselves and their careers as a whole.
As inevitably becomes the case, a lot of familiar ground is covered for the newbies in the audience, but I never grow tired of hearing it, never knowing when will be the last time I’ll hear them tell those old chestnuts and not willing to be absent for one chance I have. Folks like you and me have heard the stories time and again (or read them here), so I’ll skip repeating them, but there were still great little sound-bite nuggets to share that I’ve seldom or, in some cases, never heard.
Ivo kicked off the deal at 10 a.m., which is pretty funny to those of us who know that his day usually begins as the sun is going down and ends when it’s coming up (“Ivo time,” as he likes to call it. “I have a little vampire in me,” he admits.) The 78-year-old hero of yours, mine, and especially himself likes to joke that I-V-O stands for “I’m Very Old,” but his energy was still as young as ever.
Of his famous rollover top-end crash at the 1974 Winternationals, Ivo recalled, “When it first happened, it was absolutely sheer terror. I wasn’t even worried about getting hurt because I knew that was it. That was curtains. I read a book somewhere where someone falling out of a building [said] on the trip down, it was kind of pleasant [he obviously survived the fall to share his tale]. When this thing went over, it wasn’t exactly pleasant, but when you decide in your own mind that ‘That’s it,’ you get a euphoric feeling. It just killed the car. It blew it up on the inside, and when it rolled over, it ate up everything on the outside, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. It was worth the price of admission. The only thing that made me mad was that it scared me so bad that I closed my eyes and missed the whole show.
“Those old steel guardrails would grab you and eat your car alive. That’s one of the problems of being a pioneer: You get arrows in your ass.”
Ivo, on why he wanted to race: “The movies I’d done for 20 years; I wanted to go racing. Also, I was 115 pounds soaking wet, and those [firesuits] were Robocop outfits I could strap on and go racing against the varsity guys.”
McCulloch was up next, and “the Ace” looked and sounded good. I had the chance to spend some time with him the day before in the tower – where he was hanging with Bill Doner; talk about a great pair to listen to -- to talk about both the past and the present. He’s incredibly introspective about his career and up to speed on today’s group of drivers. I need to sit him down someday to get some of this on the record.
McClelland asked which he preferred, Top Fuel or Funny Car. (Interesting to note that six of the seven legends – Garlits was the exception – drove both in their careers.) “Funny Cars, you can’t see anything; a dragster you see everything. You manhandle a Funny Car; you finesse a dragster. Either way, if it burns nitro, I’m good to go,” he answered.
He noted that a lot of people associate him with the Northwest – with good reason, as I’ll explain – but he was actually born and raised in Visalia, Calif., 45 minutes north of Bakersfield, where his family farmed the San Joaquin Valley. They moved to Portland, Ore., right when he finished high school, and before long, he became a racer, teaming up with Jim Albrich on the Northwind Top Fueler that he claims neither wanted to drive, which was kind of shocking to me to know that such a driving hero might never have ended up behind the wheel.
“I never really wanted to drive,” he confessed. “I was always more interested in the mechanical end of the cars, building them, working on them.”
They had built the car for Bob Haines, who ended up driving instead of Larry Stellings. Dave Jeffers drove the car for them for a while, but he was based in Southern California, and flying him up to the Northwest for dates got to be too expensive, so it had to be either McCulloch or Albrich behind the wheel, and when Albrich’s wife vetoed him doing it, suddenly McCulloch was a driver. And a damned good one.
On June 13, 1965 – the date is etched in his brain – McCulloch beat Pete Robinson in Woodburn, Ore., for the Drag News No. 1 spot. “That’s when people heard of Ed McCulloch,” he said. It wasn’t long after that that Seattle-area sportswriter Jim Cooper wrote a headline after McCulloch beat Jerry “the King” Ruth that read “What beats a king but an ace?” And a nickname was born.
“When my driving career was over, it was pretty easy to make the transition to being a crew chief,” he added but noted that he wasn’t a big believer in the early data recorders that printed their results rather than displayed them on a monitor. “You used to roll this paper out -- it looked like a piece of toilet paper three feet long -- and we’d put two runs [on top of each other] and hold it up to the light to try to look at them. I remember thinking, ‘This computer deal will never fly.’ “
Of his career, he concluded, “We had a helluva time. It was tough competition. We didn’t have any money. We were just making enough money to get to the next race and keep the lights turned on, but we had a good time.”
Horse lover and would-be cowboy McEwen
The fabled “Mongoose” was next up and talked about his career with the successful Albertson Olds car and his less successful initial stint with the rear-engine Hemi 'Cuda that took flight at Lions Drag Strip on one of its first runs.
"All of a sudden, I’m seeing sky, and I’m not sure what’s going to happen next, but I know it’s probably not going to be good,” he said. “I shut the engine off and opened the chutes. It rolled over real smooth and came down on its side in the lights and slid down the track, then onto its roof -- it ground through the roof and caught the headliner on fire.”
Snake bite, Part 1: “Prudhomme got the nickname ‘Snake,’ and he’ll tell you it’s because of his lightning reflexes, but I think it was because of his attitude.”
Snake bite, Part 2: “When they first presented [the Snake & Mongoose script] to Hollywood, they didn’t think it was exciting enough because they’re not drag racing people. Prudhomme wanted to make it more X-rated, so I was going to be the drunk, dope-smoking, bad father, womanizer, [BSer] who raced on the weekends and got beat by him, and he was going to be the preacher with the wife and the daughter and was perfect.”
Asked by McClelland what he would have been had he not been a drag racer, McEwen answered obliquely, “Some kind of a cowboy,” which raised some eyes until he went on to explain, “I had horses from the time I was 16, and I always liked country-western music and that kind of stuff. I even went to veterinarian school before I went to college. My mother was so mad at me when I quit college: ‘You’re just going to be another drag race bum,’ she said. ‘You’re going to end up like your father [a Navy test pilot killed in the line of duty when McEwen was 2].' She’d never come to the races, but she’d watch me on TV and tell her friends all about me.”
Bernstein showed up California casual, in shorts, still in great shape (he still walks every day, a habit he started with longtime friend McClelland after “Big Mac” had heart problems a few decades ago), and covered a wide variety of topics, from his early years in Funny Car to his days running an IndyCar team.
“It was a tough game when I started,” he said of his first flopper years. “It took me a couple of years to get going. 1981 was a good year with Ray Alley as my crew chief, but Dale Armstrong came aboard in 1982, and after struggling a couple of years, he found the magic that he was so capable of tapping; it really put us on the map, and that continued into Top Fuel with the 300-mph run in 1992.”
“Another Dale Armstrong invention” was how Bernstein described the notorious Batmobile Buick LeSabre Funny Car body that Armstrong craftily designed within the letter (but not the spirit) of the existing rules in 1987.
“He told me what he wanted to do, and I told him, ’Well, the rules are pretty much open; you don’t have any reason not to,’ " recalled Bernstein. “We had to build the plug and the mold before the first body ever gets kicked out, so it was a big, expensive proposition. I told him to tell me when we got to that point so I could take a look at it.
“So [when the first body was done], I go over there and look at it and say, ‘What in the world is that?’ I couldn’t even recognize it as a body. It was supposed to be a Buick, but I have no idea where that Buick came from. I said, ‘Oh my god; we’re in serious trouble; this is going to be tough. We’ve got to get NHRA down here; this is not going to be easy.’ Dallas Gardner, Carl Olson, Steve Gibbs, and three or four other guys came to see it, and you could hear a pin drop; they were astonished. ‘This is going to be a Funny Car body?’ They said to me, ‘We’re going to have some lunch and think about this.’ I said, ‘I’ve got $300,000 in this; go have a big lunch.’ They came back and told me I could run it for a year.”
About Roberto Guerrero winning the pole at the 1992 Indy 500 in Bernstein's car then spinning out on the parade lap, Bernstein refused to throw him under the bus all these years later. “It wasn’t really his fault, even though it looks that way even today,” he noted, citing the unusually cold conditions that led to cold tires and the massive and quick turbocharged power boost that came from the Buck engines after even a light tap on the throttle.
Bernstein received a huge round of applause – I think even he was surprised – and the cheers kept on coming when Muldowney stepped to the stage after her introductory video. True to fashion, she pulled no punches. Here are just some of the highlights:
“In 1971, we won the first Funny Car meet we ever entered, with Jack Muldowney turning the screws and wrenches,” she remembered. “We went to Lebanon Valley, which was in full bloom, and there they were: the Ramchargers, Brutus, the Tasca team – anyone who was anyone was there – and they all went home losers. That was the beginning of a long war, but I liked what I was doing, and it started to pay.”
“I loved driving that Funny Car, I really did – except when it was on fire. I had some blazers. [My crew] would try all kinds of new innovations … and I was kind of like a sitting duck and not smart enough to realize that I was probably where I shouldn’t be. When it would push out the gaskets, immediately you’d have 14 quarts of nitrated oil on the exhaust, and guess where it went – this way [pointing to herself]. That got very old.”
“I acquired my [Top Fuel] license, which was no real effort because I’d already run well over 200 mph, and Tommy Ivo signed for my license – willingly – and Don Garlits signed for it because he figured, ‘I’m going to get in on this exposure; she’s not going anywhere.’ He knew everyone would want to book the girl who was beating the boys, and he would tell the promoters, ‘If you’re going to book her, you have to book me.’ There’s always been a method to his madness.”
On her AHRA Top Fuel championship: “It wasn’t softball as compared to hardball [with NHRA events]. They were all there: Garlits, Tharp, all the guys who were tough to beat were at those AHRA races because they thought it was easy money – until I drove through the gate. I was not popular.”
By the numbers: “They were fun years. They were rewarding years. They were not that profitable; everything that came in the right hand went out the left.”
Asked about what she’s doing now – she recently moved from Michigan to North Carolina to be near longtime friend and ally Doug Herbert – Muldowney got into the mode she probably once reserved for her toughest dragstrip enemies, on and off the track: “I’ve always had a love for animals. Right now, I fight very tough, dirty, mean – roll-in-the-dirt fight – over animal rights and animal abuse.” She loves her two Chihuahuas and answered the question on the minds of some as to why she was wearing two watches. The right watch was California time; the left watch was” Chihuahua time” back home, so she could monitor their well-being.
Don Prudhomme thinks John Force (above) is the man now but that "Big Daddy" (below) was the hero of their generation.
Prudhomme came to the stage after his introductory video – which showed his first-in-the-fives run at the 1975 World Finals – and, in typical mock-cocky “Snake” fashion, proclaimed, “Pretty good, wasn’t I?”
McClelland asked him about the 1974 Finals, where Shirl Greer won the world championship after a qualifying fire, and his role in getting Greer back on track, which he downplayed.
“All I knew was he was a really nice guy, and he needed a hand,” he said. “Shirl was a lot older than me; I was just a pup coming up [sorta true, I guess; Greer was 40, Prudhomme 33].
“Back then, the world championship didn’t really mean anything. It didn’t pay a whole lot,” he explained. “Winning a national event, yeah, but winning the championship wasn’t recognized that much at the time because we had to run some goofy deals [a mixed national and divisional schedule]. We were making our living out on the road touring. The following year, Winston came into the sport, and they brought in lots of money. They put up $25,000 for the winner of the world championship, and guess who won it? You’re looking at him. And for three years after that. I had my day in the sun. It was a good run. Great times. We came up in the entire best time for drag racing.”
Asked how he’s handling his post-racing retirement, Prudhomme said, “I had to start a whole new life. I drag raced for 50 years, and it took me about two or three years of nitro rehab to cut down, but I’m still a gearhead.”
Comparing the drivers of his era to those today, Prudhomme generously asserted, “I’d say that the guys and girls today are better drivers than we were doing it. They’re in better shape, they have better reaction times, they have a specific job to do. When Tony Schumacher drives that car, his most important job is leaving the starting line. They could go to the other end of the track with the front wheels way up in the air and make it through, but if they were late, you’d call them ‘a no-driving son of a bitch.’
“When we drove, yeah, you had to be on time, but you got out of the car at the other end and said, ‘We’ve got to put more weight on the clutch’ or ‘We have to do this or that,’ which is why I like to think that guys like Garlits and myself were quite successful because we knew how to tune the car. Today [because of data loggers], the [drivers] come back to the pits, and for the most part, they don’t say anything – they better not because the crew chief will slap them. You had to know what the car was doing, what the pistons looked like – if it was running lean or rich or if it needed more clutch.
“John Force has all the records today, and I love him, and let’s say he’s the best racer today, but for my generation, Don Garlits was amazing. He could weld the car, build the engine, tow it across the country, pull it out of the trailer, and set records and kick everybody’s ass. He was amazing.”
Garlits was up last, and he and McClelland spent a lot of time talking about his battery-powered effort to breach the 200-mph barrier, with “Big” championing them as the cars of the future for being neighbor friendly. “They’re quiet, but they’re exciting to watch; they do burnouts and everything but make the noise,” he said. He envisions a national event schedule where the teams would have to run their electric cars instead of their nitro cars so they don’t disturb the local communities at events like Pomona and Englishtown where the tracks are close to homes.
He’s clearly geeked up on the technology and its possibilities and for the chance to tinker once again.
“These [modern Top Fuelers] are all spec cars; I have no interest in anything like that,” he proclaimed. “If I can’t come back to the dragstrip every week with a change or some new idea, I ain’t interested. I’m like Dr. [Edward] Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, when they asked him about fusion, and he said [imagine Hungarian accent], ‘If it does not explode, I’m not interested.’ If I can’t make changes to my car and come back here next week with something different, I ain’t interested.”
His next shot at 200 on batteries – to match his first 200 on nitro -- will come in early December when he comes back from England, where he’s being inducted into the British Drag Racing Hall of Fame. Garlits added that he gets letters from all around the globe and invitations to take the car everywhere to display or run.
Speaking of “around the globe,” one of Garlits’ funniest stories involved his irrepressible crew chief, T.C. Lemons. “We used to barnstorm all over the country, running three or four times a week, and Tommy Lemons would tell me, ‘You’ve got to quit booking races [by] looking at the globe; you need to look at an actual map,’ ” said Garlits, with a laugh. “On the globe, it didn’t look that far from Florida to New York."
Like most of the others, Garlits was asked by McClelland what he would have been had he not been a drag racer. “My mother would have liked me to be an accountant,” he said, “but my stepfather stepped in and said, ’Don, you love cars, that’s what you should do,’ so I quit my job at the big department store making $39.50 a week and went to work in a body shop for $22.50. My mother had a fit, and my girlfriend never spoke to me again. It’s OK; I got a better girlfriend and a wife [Pat] out of it.” He went on to start his own garage, then a speed shop, then a Hall of Fame career.
Even though the shows were shorter than the Indy shows I reviewed here, I still enjoyed them. McClelland took a different tack than Indy emcee Bob Frey, and they’re both the best in the business, trusted and respected by those they interview, which allows them to ask the questions you and I couldn’t or wouldn’t.
On a side note, we had our new The History of the NHRA World Finals book for sale at the event (buy yours here!), and I decided that I’d try to get the legends to autograph four of the books as giveaways at the NHRA Membership Hospitality Center tent Sunday, which gave me the fun opportunity not only to welcome each of the legends, but also to spend a little time with each backstage while they signed the books. They each also received a free copy of the book as National Dragster’s gift to them.
They were all very gracious, even though they’d already signed their names a zillion times. I practically had to tow them backstage through the sea of admirers that stopped them every two feet for autographs – which they courteously signed even though there was a planned autograph session later in the day – to get their signatures. I’ve never been a big autograph seeker – trying to pretend I’m the cool, professional reporter instead of the supercharged fan I really am – but somehow, a fifth book was also there for them to sign, which they did.
I must have “accidentally” put my copy down there next to the others. Lucky me.
I have to admit, I was pretty stunned earlier this week when online voting concluded for the Most Memorable Moments in NHRA World Finals history and Shirl Greer’s amazing comeback from a nasty fire in qualifying to win the 1974 Funny Car championship was named to the top spot.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge Greer fan and am intimately familiar with the histrionics of that weekend at the 1974 World Finals at Ontario Motor Speedway, but it was up against a huge juggernaut in Tony Schumacher’s fabled “The Run” from the 2006 Finals and one of the most improbable performance-based scenarios in the sport’s history.
Also, 10 years ago, when we did a similar vote during the event’s 40th anniversary, Greer’s moment finished just ninth. This time, Greer’s rise from the ashes garnered a full third of the vote, easily outdistancing “The Run,” which earned 22 percent. John Force’s rollover at the 1992 event – winner of the vote 10 years ago – finished third with 11 percent, just ahead of Jeb Allen’s thrilling 1981 championship, which earned 10 percent (helped no doubt by the humbled-to-be-remembered Allen’s recent email exhorting friends to “vote for this guy,” showing a photo of the now fit and healthy champ on his mountain bike).
We lost Greer four years ago, but his sons, Brian and Van, continue to honor their father by annually presenting an award they call the Old Champs Choice award to racers they think their dad would have liked and through Brian’s creation with Anthony Dicero of a Nostalgia Funny Car reminiscent of his dad’s Mach I.
I heard from Brian earlier this week, and it was clear what the vote meant to him and his family. “I wanted to thank you and the entire staff at NHRA for listing Dad's championship as one of the top 10 moments,” he wrote. “It is a huge honor for my family and myself. Again, I cannot thank you guys enough and express how much it means to me and my family to be a part of the rich history of NHRA, and I thank you for all that you have done for us and for Dad.”
In honor of the win, I’d like to share some of the details of that great comeback, which I chronicled earlier this year in our National Dragster Readers Choice issue. I think a lot of people know the basics, but I was able to chat with many of those who helped to get about as complete a retelling as I think is possible. I think you’ll discover why the voters felt as they did.
From 1965 through 1973, NHRA’s championships were decided at the World Finals, where the top division finishers converged and the winner of the event’s final eliminations was crowned world champion. To some, it seemed an inequitable way to settle the season, with a year’s worth of hard work possibly disappearing in a millisecond of bad luck or breakage.
In 1974, NHRA returned to a points-based system (NHRA had crowned its first champions, from 1960 to 1964, on a points basis that relied heavily on divisional events), and few will forget that groundbreaking year, especially for the drama in one class, where it took a literal trial by fire for a champion to be forged.
Most people remember how Greer clinched the championship, but that was only the dramatic final act of a dream season that earned him the title he proudly wore until his passing in 2010.
A rough start
Greer’s championship was largely won on the divisional circuit, where he suffered through some rocky outings but often emerged victorious.
Greer’s championship season certainly didn’t start on a good foot. He skipped the first Winston Championship Series (WCS) divisional event of the season to run a well-paying match race, then bowed out in round one of the Gatornationals, where, despite holding lane choice, he picked the wrong lane and went up in smoke against Al Bergler.
In a late 1974 interview with National Dragster, Greer remembered, “When the year started and I had heard about that points deal, I thought it seemed like a pretty good idea, so we decided to give ’er a try. … I wasn’t aware at the time that you got bonus points for running all of the WCS races in your division, and that really hurt me later. [Losing early at the Gatornationals] really put us in a bad spot.”
With no incentive to race exclusively in his home division, Greer and crew traveled to the Division 4 event at La Place Dragway in Louisiana, where he not only won the race but qualified No. 1 and set low e.t. and top speed, all of which were worth points.
The momentum seemed ready to continue when Greer qualified No. 1 at his next event, the Division 2 WCS race at Virginia’s Suffolk Raceway, but when crewmembers dived into the trailer for a fresh batch of pistons to replace some they had burned, they discovered that their spare pistons had accidentally been left at home. He ran the engine on burned pistons in round one but could only run the car to 800 feet before throwing in the towel.
Paul Smith, Greer’s toughest competition not only in his division but, ultimately, in the battle for the season championship, won the event and assumed a commanding points lead.
Greer won the next Division 2 event in Blaney, S.C., but it also was not without adventure. He qualified No. 6 but again damaged the engine. As he was adjusting the valves, one of the springs worked loose and catapulted itself off the cylinder head and hit Greer, knocking him to the ground and out of action for a while. Ultimately, the team repaired the damage and Greer recovered and, showing remarkable composure, won the event on three straight holeshots, including in the final, where he beat Smith, 6.80 to 6.70.
Greer’s next event, the Springnationals in Columbus, was a humbling “die by the sword” experience because this time, he was the holeshot victim, losing to lower-qualified Tom McEwen on a 6.62 to 6.60 count. To make matters worse, Smith reached the semifinals, putting Greer further behind, and both trailed 1973 champ Frank Hall, who had won two of the three Division 4 events to date and had been runner-up at the season-opening Winternationals.
“When I look back at all of the dumb things we did early in the year, it really surprises me that we won [the championship],” Greer later admitted.
Things begin looking brighter
En route to the championship, Greer also scored his first (and only) Funny Car victory when he defeated Kosty Ivanoff in the final in Montreal.
What happened next changed the whole complexion of Greer’s season. Engine woes also knocked him out at his next race, the Summernationals, in round two, but Smith had bowed out in the opening stanza.
“If Smith hadn’t gone out in the first round, I would have quit the whole thing right there,” Greer said. “But he didn’t gain any more points on us, so I figured that we should give ’er one more try.”
That try took place at NHRA’s only non-U.S. event, Le Grandnational in Canada, where Greer and Smith qualified No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. Smith was upset on a semifinal holeshot by Kosty Ivanoff, and Greer defeated "Pee Wee" Wallace, Al Segrini, and, in the final, Ivanoff to claim his first national event win and pull within 21 points of Smith for the lead.
Hall bounced right back into the lead with a win at the Division 6 event in Seattle, but that was his final divisional event of the season, and when he surprisingly failed to qualify at his final points-earning national event, the U.S. Nationals, his total was sealed at 4,220, setting a goal for the two Southern rivals.
Greer, too, surprisingly failed to qualify in Indy, and Smith just barely scraped into the field in the No. 16 spot and lost in round one. Prudhomme won the race in what incredibly was his first Funny Car victory in more than two years in the class, and he suddenly became a factor for the championship battle.
Greer’s victory at the final Division 2 event of the year in Gainesville — which included a holeshot semifinal win over Smith, 6.91 to 6.77 — had momentarily given Greer the points lead over Smith, but Smith got bonus points for competing in all of the division’s races that year, which gave him the lead, 4,409 to 4,235, heading into the World Finals at Southern California’s Ontario Motor Speedway. Prudhomme was fourth, behind Hall (who could not earn points) and Greer (by 270 points).
A fiery finish
Incredibly, Smith failed to qualify after hurting his good rear end, and Greer was already solidly qualified and, with 200 points in the bank, in the points lead when he pulled to the starting line in Saturday’s final qualifying session hoping to better a 6.47.
At about the 800-foot mark, a crack in the crankshaft caused the main bearing to spin, and the No. 2 and No. 3 rods exited the side of the block. Oil poured onto the headers, igniting a ferocious blaze. Greer hit the fire bottles, but the engine kept running, pumping more oil into the blaze.
“The fire bottles would put out the flames some, but that oil would still keep coming out of the block as that engine just kept idlin’; it seemed like it would never shut off,” recalled Greer. “Before I knew it, the flames would just start coming up again.”
The entire rear section of the car had been burned away, and Greer was transported to a local hospital with second-degree burns on his hands and lesser burns on his face.
“As they took me away on the stretcher, I looked at the car and said to myself that that was the end of that one, and there was no way I was gonna get enough points to win,” said Greer.
No one wanted to see Greer’s season end that way, and in a wonderful display of sportsmanship and camaraderie, season-long rival Smith, fellow Funny Car racer Al Hanna, and a large group of others began thrashing on the wounded Mustang. From his hospital bed, Greer assured his crew that if they could fix it, he would find a way to drive it.
The remains of the car were hauled to engine builder Steve Montrelli’s nearby shop. Hanna took the lead role in the thrash, tearing apart the car’s driveline — clutch, two-speed, and rear end — while Montrelli built a new engine. Smith and his crew, meanwhile, took dimensions for the back half of the car and went to chassis builder Don Long’s shop to begin building a replacement rear end out of aluminum.
“We knew we didn’t have enough time to do it with fiberglass because there wasn’t enough time for it to set up, so we had to use aluminum,” recalled Smith.
Rising from the ashes
The newly formed rear end was attached to the remains of the body using rivets, screws, and duct tape, and everyone involved wrote messages on the aluminum and even drew on taillights and a license plate with a Magic Marker. It took 17 hours to resurrect Greer’s mount, and although the car certainly wouldn’t win any Best Appearing Car honors, it was deemed race-worthy.
“I got back to the track at 11 in the morning on Sunday, and when I saw the car all patched back together, I couldn’t believe it,” said Greer.
“It looked dastardly,” said Hanna, “and NHRA was really concerned about it, and it was Prudhomme — the guy with the most to lose and nothing to gain — who convinced them they needed to give Greer a chance.”
LeRoy “Doc” Hales was in his second year as medical director of the NHRA Safety Safari, and it was his duty to determine whether Greer could safely drive the car.
“Shirl’s hands received some nasty, painful, second-degree burns in the fire,” he remembered. “Fuel drivers were still wearing poor glove protection because they wanted flexibility with their fingers and hands.
“Jack Hart was the event director at that time and came to me and said he wanted to make sure that Shirl was safe to drive because of his burns. Jack and I called Shirl to the event office and told him to bring all the driving gloves he had. I examined his bare hands, which had the aforementioned nasty burns, and asked Shirl how he felt about driving.
“He said that his hands hurt, but he would be good to do what he had to. His hands were bandaged with ointment and gauze. I asked him to put on two pairs of gloves, which he did. I then put three of my fingers out and told Shirl to grab them with his hands, one at a time. I told him that if I could not pull my fingers from his grasp, he could drive; if I could get loose, then he couldn’t drive. I thought Shirl would break my fingers, he squeezed so hard, but I couldn’t pull my fingers out from his grip after two tries. Shirl wore his two pairs of driving gloves and WON! I am still grateful that Shirl held on during my ‘finger test!’ Imagine how I and everyone else would have felt if I and Jack Hart had disqualified him from driving that day.”
Greer’s safety equipment had been damaged in the fire, so Hanna loaned his buddy his firesuit and helmet, and Prudhomme came to the rescue by providing a set of garden gloves to cover Greer’s bandaged hands before he put on his fire gloves.
Down to the wire
Prudhomme had entered the race 270 points behind Greer, so he needed to go two rounds further than Greer to catch him.
Both Prudhomme and Greer won their first-round races; Prudhomme beat Gene Snow, but Greer’s victory over Leroy Chadderton was not without drama. In the hectic pit work, the blower bolts had only been put on hand-tightened, and although it survived until near the end of the run, it backfired in the lights, damaging the body again and the windshield.
There wasn’t a spare Mustang windshield to be found, so while the other mechanical work was being done, another pair of Funny Car racers, Gordie Bonin and Paul Radici, set about adapting a Vega windshield to the car. When the second round began, the team was still in the pits, working hard, but all work stopped for a second, and ears were tuned to the PA system when Prudhomme pulled up to race Dale Pulde. Pulde beat Prudhomme with a stunning 6.16 national record blast in Mickey Thompson’s Grand Am.
“We were still working on the car right up until the minute that Pulde beat Prudhomme and still probably could’ve got ’er done with just five or 10 minutes more time,” said Greer. “But when Prudhomme got beat and they started announcing that I had won the world championship, I told everybody to just forget it. Everyone had worked too hard already, and it would’ve been pretty shaky to make another run.”
Greer finished with 4,641 points, Smith with 4,409, and Prudhomme with 4,380.
“All the rest of the day, I just couldn’t believe that we actually won, and it took a while for it to hit me,” said Greer. “I just can’t thank all the people who helped me enough. All of the racers, especially Smith and Prudhomme, who lost out on a lot of money with me winning the title, were just tremendous. I can’t thank ’em enough.”
“It was a well-deserved championship, to come back from that fire and still run,” admitted Prudhomme years later. “They don’t make ’em like that anymore.”
Congratulations to Greer and his family, again. It was a moment well worth remembering and saluting.
After a two-week side trip down the memory lane of Raymond Beadle’s life, let’s return to our previous thread on photo hoarding. As noted previously, I believe that it’s a widespread practice among drag racing fans – yours truly included – while browsing the Internet. If they spy a particularly fetching photo, they can simply right-click on it and save it to their hard drive for their viewing or sharing pleasure. I showed off a few from my relatively small collection in that first column.
Alan Earman shot this famous photo of Tom McEwen for a DRUSA story.
I also noted that I’m pretty fervent in seeing that photographers get credited for their work, even if it has been pilfered from the Web. Unfortunately, none of the photos I posted have had their creators identified, but I’m hopeful that they, and those in my second batch below, will be duly credited.
Between that column and this, I was proud to hear from Alan Earman, another of the small but talented group of 1960s-70s photographers whose work populated those great early drag racing magazines. Being one of those whose works do get re-used beyond the original copyright, I was interested in his take.
“In the early days of drag racing, a photographer would receive photo credit as payment for the pictures and a press pass that would get you entry to a track, and the recognition the photographer got when their photos were published with a photo credit meant something to them,” he wrote. “They became part of the drag racing fraternity. And to a great many of them, that was more important than the little monetary compensation they got if you were lucky enough to get paid. I find it very sad that most of the older photos I see online today, there is no mention of the photographer. I'm happy however to know that the interest is still there for the older photos.” Amen, brother.
And with that, on to Part 2 of Phil’s Treasures.
Believe it or not, I had this photo tabbed to be included before we lost Beadle because it’s a pretty rare item. OK, let’s overlook for a second that this Funny Car is doing a burnout in the staging lanes at Orange County Int’l Raceway and focus on the machine itself. Yes, race fans, this is the Blue Max before car owner Harry Schmidt christened it as such. In its earliest incarnation in 1969, the car (driven by Paul Gordon and Jake Johnston) was lettered just with Schmidt’s name. It wasn’t until later that year, when Schmidt saw the movie Blue Max and fell in love with the emblem, that the car got its name.
||This one tugs at my heartstrings. Two of our dearly departed heroes, Pat Foster, right, and Gordie Bonin, were officially welcomed into the Cragar Five-Second Club as its third and fourth members during the 1979 World Finals at Ontario Motor Speedway.
Foster cracked into the fives April 8 of that year in Fremont with a 5.98 in the Super Shops Arrow, and Bonin joined him after a 5.97 at that year’s U.S. Nationals in his memorable Bubble Up Firebird.
For a complete listing of the clubs (and all other NHRA Performance Clubs), click here.
Even the best of drivers lose the handle from time to time. Here’s Brad Anderson chasing the starting-line staff at Fremont Raceway in what I’d guess would be about 1973. I saw Anderson a ton during my many years at OCIR but only saw him crash once, later in 1983. The car got loose off the starting line and hit and then climbed over the guardrail. Anderson couldn’t repair the car in time for the Finals (also at OCIR that year), so he borrowed Mike Grieco’s similar car and won the race. (Gary Aronson photo)
As I said before, the photos that I hoard are the ones that strike a chord in me, and this one does. It’s the crew of Lew Arrington’s Brutus, their evening done for whatever reason, perched atop their ramp truck to watch the rest of racing. Love the period clothing, too. Sweet photo.
I’m a sucker for one-off Funny Car bodies, and Sheldon Konblett, founder of the Service Center line of hot rod shops, is one of my heroes for that. After fielding a Lawdawri kit-car-bodied car called Chicken Little, Konblett introduced his successful Ford LTD flopper (dubbed Peanuts) in 1966, which he followed with this wild 1961 Jaguar XKE that he called Snoopy. I talked to Konblett’s son, Greg, earlier this week, who shared info about his dad and the cars. (Sheldon died in a boating accident in 1986.) The names for the final two cars were inspired not just by Konblett’s love of the Peanuts comic strip, but also because they ran in what was commonly called “the funny pages” -- funny pages, Funny Car. By all accounts, Peanuts was an ill-handling car, with some blame attributed to the body itself and possible loads it put on the tires. The car, which was featured on the cover of the November 1967 issue of Car Craft
under the blurb “Snoopy’s Laughing Jag,” got so scary that Konblett’s wife forbade him to drive the car. Johnny Hoffman, a 26-year-old driver from Norwalk, Calif., took over the controls, and on his maiden pass on March 30, 1968, the car went out of control at more than 170 mph at Lions Drag Strip and rolled six times. Hoffman was killed, and Konblett, grief-stricken by the accident, retired from serious racing. Pretty sure this photo was taken by the late, great Bob "Plum" Plumer.
Here’s another oddball Funny Car, Texan Ray Capps’ Head Hunter Dodge Charger, circa 1967. It’s hard to believe that he could see through the windscreen with the top so severely chopped, but this photo just invokes for me that “Well, we’ll never know until we try it” methodology of the sport’s pioneers.
Gotta love this pic of the late, great Jack Chrisman blasting off the line in his GT-1 Mercury Comet, circa 1967, with the exhaust blasting under the car in the days before zoomie headers. The car stunned the Funny Car crowd at the 1967 Nationals with a 7.60 blast; no other car ran in the sevens.
I remember first seeing this stunning pic in one of those wonderful Drag Racing Photo Greats magazines that Mike Doherty used to publish and had forgotten all about it until I came across this copy of it online a while ago. The first good news is that, thanks to that old magazine (which I still have, of course), I can tell you that the photographer was Marty Lemmermann and that the driver was Gerry Studnicka, who actually got away with relatively minor injuries. And, thanks to my good pal and jet-car pioneer Roger Gustin, I can tell you exactly what went wrong with this jet-powered, Romeo Palamides-owned AMC Javelin. According to Gustin, the event was the annual Labor Day race at Great Lakes Dragaway in 1972, and thankfully for him, Gustin turned down a chance to drive the car because he had his own car, the Time Machine jet Funny Car (his first jet car).
“This was two years before I got the jets approved by NHRA,” he reported, “and at that time, there were no rules or safety standards or tech inspections for jets. (It will be 40 years, on Nov. 10, since NHRA approved the jet-car program, and I received the first license to race jet cars). I was on the return road and watched this horrible scene.”
Gustin said that a number of factors, including rotted fuel lines and the use of a J-34-36 Westinghouse engine – the only jet engine ever built to use gasoline rather than J-P4 kerosene or diesel fuel – were to blame. “All the other jet cars with this type of engine had a gas-start system, and as soon as the engine started, they would switch to kerosene because gas is much more flammable than kerosene,” he remembered. “Romeo chose to use gas only for fuel, and the main fuel line split at high PSI, which sprayed fuel into the driver area. [Because there were] NO rules, there were no fire bottles. Note also that Gerry had no gloves or face shield. His only injuries were his hands and face; the heat boiled the master cylinder, so he had no brakes, but the car stopped on its own. He was a very lucky guy. Romeo did destroy this car, and it never ran again.''
If you’ve been around for a while, you’ve probably seen the famous photo of wheelstander king “Wild Bill” Shrewsberry standing up through the windshield of his L.A. Dart in mid-wheelie at Fremont, but I bet you’ve never seen this one of “Wild Bill” doing the same at Orange County while a passenger in Gary Watson’s Paddy Wagon, which is probably where he got the idea. I emailed Watson to find out how the heck this magic moment came about. “It was at the end of an eight-car show, and the track had all eight at the starting line for fans to vote on best show,” he remembered of the run, which was in November 1967. “They asked us all to return to the pits, and ‘Wild Bill’ jumped in and rode to finish line up in the air.” And you wonder why they called him “Wild Bill.” (Here’s the answer
I’ve loved Jim Dunn since the first time I saw Funny Car Summer
, and his rear-engine Barracuda was not only the most successful of the breed, but also a lot of fun to watch, as this photo from Lions Drag Strip attests.
Speaking of rear-engine Funny Cars, here’s a pretty interesting shot of Gary Gabelich’s ill-fated, four-wheel-drive, rear-engine car minus its Vega panel wagon body. That’s Cragar President Roy Richter trying out the cockpit with Gabelich showing him the controls. I wrote about this car here
a few years ago during the rear-engine Funny Car thread.
And speaking of four-wheel-drive cars, here’s a wonderful shot of Tommy Ivo’s four-engine, all-wheel-drive Showboat. It’s the only color action shot I’ve ever seen of the car, but Ivo tells me there are others, but, this, too, is one of his favorites. What’s clear through all the smoke is that it’s Ivo’s car and that the photo was taken at Lions Drag Strip (check out Lions manager C.J. “Pappy” Hart, right, and starter Larry Sutton watching in the background). What’s not clear is who was driving. Ivo and Ron Pellegrini disagree. Ivo tells me that it’s Tom McCourry (who replaced Don Prudhomme after the pre-“Snake’s” short stint in the car), and Pellegrini swears that the helmet is too high in the cage to be Prudhomme and thinks that it’s himself in the car.
Pete Everett was the man behind the popular Pete’s Lil Demon Funny Cars of the early 1970s, driven by Leroy “Doc” Hales, Bob Pickett, and a few others. Everett also owned a Southern California Chevron gas station, which explains this great photo. It's from Hales’ driving era, but, according to the good doctor, whom I reached by email earlier this week, that’s not him climbing out of the car but Everett’s son, Bill. Hales was unable to attend the photo shoot because he was in medical school classes at the time. You can read a whole lot more about Hales in the column I wrote a few years ago (Leroy 'Doc' Hales: World's fastest doctor
“Pete Everett and I had a GREAT relationship,” he went on to tell me. “I grew up without a father, and from the age of about 16, when I began working at Pete's Chevron gas station, we developed a relationship that was somewhere between a father and big brother. Pete was the best man at my wedding in 1974. We had a great time racing on a modest budget but didn't travel much, mostly because I was in college at USC, then medical school at UC Irvine. Pete and I did almost all the engine work, except for machining, with tuning help from Gary Smith (Ansen wheels and Arias pistons). Pete had a great work ethic and loved the adulation of fans and the companionship of fellow racers. We held our own as relatively low-budget weekend Funny Car racers. Those were some of the best times of our lives for both of us. The last time I actually saw Pete was when I took him to the Bakersfield Hot Rod Reunion in 1997. We stayed in touch until he died from complications of Alzheimer's disease about five to six years ago.”
Gee, I can’t think of a single reason why Don Kohler called his Top Fueler the Defiant One, can you? Wayne Farr built this shorty car, which was fitted with a ’23-T body. The car was later lengthened and fitted with a more conventional body.
To say that the early Pisano Bros. Funny Cars were cursed would be like saying that the sky was usually blue over Orange County Int’l Raceway. After a safe 1968 with the ex-Doug Thorley Corvair, brother Frankie Pisano wiped out their new Corvair in an on-track tangle with Randy Walls at Irwindale Raceway in early 1968. Then, later that year, as pictured here, Sush Matsubara (in what I understand was his first drive for Papa Joe) lost the handle and backed Joe P’s third Corvair into the top-end guardrail at OCIR. Matsubara then stacked up Pisano’s Camaro at the 1970 Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway after breaking the rear end. In 1971, a big fire at the Fremont Raceway PDA event claimed the next Camaro. The car was so cursed that Drag Racing USA
devoted a whole story to the travails in the November 1971 issue.
Lil' John Lombardo was known as one of Southern California’s most consistent and hard-running Funny Car racers, but his choice in paint schemes sometimes left something to be desired.
In addition to being one of the best Top Fuel racers of the 1970s, ol’ “Big Daddy” Don Garlits was also a bit of a pyro. Fire burnouts were a frequent part of Garlits’ match race show. Another photo by Plum I believe.
Give Steve Reyes due credit for this photo of “the world’s fastest hippie,” Mike Mitchell, lighting up his 'Cuda at Irwindale Raceway. This photo, one in the great line of Pop Rod Show Stopper images that appeared in each issue of Popular Hot Rodding
magazine in the 1970s, brings back nostalgic memories to me, as I practically wallpapered my bedroom with them.
OK, that’s it for today. I have a few more in my “collection” that maybe I’ll share someday. I’ll also offer up the chance for some of you to share your hoarded collections in the future; send your 10 favorite pics to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll publish the best. See you next Friday.