Salisbury’s Stake in Top Fuel history

Thirty-five years ago at the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals, Dwight Salisbury scored his lone NHRA Top Fuel win in a career that was filled with many other accomplishments.
21 Jul 2017
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider
Dwight Salisbury

sals1.jpgSalisbury steak: A savory dish made from a blend of ground beef and other ingredients and  usually served with gravy or brown sauce.

Salisbury’s $take: A speedy Top Fueler made from a blend of a great driver and other ingredients and usually served with a victory.

You know me, I’m a sucker for a good pun, so Dwight Salisbury’s Salisbury's $take car has always had a special place in my heart if not my stomach. The fact that he was Southern California-based and that I saw him regularly at West Coast national events and match races didn’t hurt the cause either.

Salisbury’s long journey from a mechanically inquisitive teenager to NHRA national event champion was a long road, one 20 years in the making, but, like a good Salisbury steak, it’s tender one, flavored with many ingredients that added up to a winning recipe and a two-decade career driving The Kings of the Sport.

sals2.jpgI had the chance last week to talk at length with Salisbury, who now lives in Aurora, Colo., having retired to the Rocky Mountain State after his Top Fuel career ended in the mid-1980s. It’s a good weekend to be telling his story because it was in the Denver area, in 1982, that Salisbury won his lone NHRA national event, at the Mile-High Nationals.

Salisbury’s road to the top began as it did for so many in the early 1960s with membership in a car club, in his case the Bel-Airs of Glendale, Calif., where he not only soaked up all of the mechanical knowledge at offer from guys like “Wild Bill” Alexander, but also got a chance to drive the club’s project car, a ‘34 Ford C/Fuel Altered powered by a Hilborn-injected, fuel-burning ‘56 Chevy engine, at El Mirage.

Spurred by a tell-article by Don Garlits in the November 1964 issue of Hot Rod Magazine, Salisbury set his sights on a Top Fueler, and teamed with talented club member Al Rounds, who was building a front-engined, Chevy-powered Jr. Fueler. It took almost two years to build and by the time they were ready to debut it, they’d decided that Top Fuel was the place to be.

sals3.jpgThe car was competitive right out of the gate, hitting 197 mph at a time when the big dogs were running in the low 200s, and before long was winning races at Irwindale Raceway.

Salisbury eventually ended up partnered with Bob Christensen until the latter got an invitation from Uncle Sam and went into the service. Salisbury, who worked as a service writer at Terry York Chevrolet, couldn’t make it his own –- “We’d only use three gallons of nitro a run and we never worried about the clutches, but I’d cry like a baby when I’d shred a blower belt and have to pay $45 for a new one” -- and partnered for a short time with future National Dragster Editor Bill Holland and John Guedel, with whom he shared a shop, and then drove a number of other cars, including Chuck Paragian’s Aremenian and the Childs & Albert Addict.

stellings.jpgHolland remarked of his longtime friend, “Dwight was one of the absolute best 'leavers' in the Top Fuel class. More than one race was won with his starting-line prowess. He was also good at getting the car down the track, and drove for a number of folks between having his own privateer rides. For example, Bill Doner flew him up to Seattle to drive the Ruthless car (the ex-Stellings & Tapia car, pictured at right) that Doner owned and pitted against Jerry Ruth, etc. He also drove for Jim and Alison Lee for a spell, and probably some others that I can’t think of. I won’t dwell on the point that he drove our 'Art Linkletter’s All-American' at Irwindale once and went quicker than my partner, John Guedel, ever did in that car. And because he built his own motors and tuned the car, he was very good at not pushing things beyond safe levels.”

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It was in Rocky Childs’ new and still unpainted Addict that Salisbury, who had gained a reputation among his peers as a “leaver,” tasted his first real success with a runner-up finish at the ’68 Winternationals. Salisbury defeated Ron Rolstad in the semifinals for the right to face James Warren for the title but damaged the clutch.

“It revved up right in the lights and when we got back to the pits we found that the bolts that hold the pressure plate onto the flywheel were seized,” he remembered. “We were cutting on them trying to get them off but it was a mess. We just couldn’t get it fixed in time.”

sals5.jpgMaybe it was Salisbury’s Pomona performance or the local reputation he had gained, but when "Surfer Hank” Westmoreland decided to temporarily retire from driving Jim Busby’s Beach Boys fueler, Salisbury got the call.

“Rocky wasn’t really planning on running his car all that much, and he was very supportive of me leaving,” Salisbury said. “I was all up for going on tour, and it changed everything for me.”

“I couldn’t think of anyone I’d rather have in my car than Dwight,” said Busby in an interview I found online. “His incredible reflexes, mechanical knowledge, and clean-cut class were just what the doctor ordered.”

(Unlike Westmoreland, Salisbury was far from being a surfer; “I was a valley guy; I hardly ever even went to the beach, let alone surfed!”)

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Salisbury and the Beach Boys car took on John Dekker's Funny Car in a match race.

Salisbury and Busby set out on tour right away (or, more exactly, as he recalls, Salisbury and his future wife drove the rig to the races and Busby and crew met them there) and immediately started piling up the performances at national, divisional, and match races –- launching with a runner-up in Las Vegas and wins in Denver and Amarillo -- en route to accumulating a 78-percent win ratio. Salisbury also survived a rollover crash in the car in Las Vegas just before Indy, and they had to borrow a car just to compete and went a few rounds.

Salisbury’s old buddy Christensen occasionally came to the races on weekend furloughs, and when he was discharged the two rejoined forces, buying the Beach Boys car, which by now also had backing from the Smothers Brothers, and campaigning it by themselves in 1969.

SALS6.jpg“I guess he was just done with,” Salisbury said of Busby. “He even tried driving it himself one night at Irwindale. He asked me to help him. He made a couple of runs and decided it wasn’t for him. I had brought my firesuit, hopped in the car, and won the race.”

Even though the Smothers brothers deal did not pan out financially for Salisbury, they kept the name on the car for its booking power. “They didn’t seem to mind,” he said of the comedy duo.

sals8.jpgAs Top Fuel began to transition from front-engined design to a rear-engine layout in the early 1970s, Salisbury ordered one, an innovative two-piece chassis from pioneer Mark Williams, but couldn’t afford to finish putting the car together, so engine builder Paul Gommi stepped in and they ran the car together.

He also did seat time in the Marc Danekas-and Sid Waterman-tuned Korody-Colyer entry and the Gommi-powered Drespling Bros. car in 1971, then partnered with Al Weiss –- who had campaigned a successful Top Gas car with Jimmy Scott -- on a front-engined fueler that enjoyed local success with a stock-stroke 392 that ran as quick as 6.32 by mid-‘72.

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En route to victory at the '73 March Meet, Salisbury beat Don Garlits in round three.

The 1973 season was Salisbury’s first by himself after buying out Weiss’ part of the team -– Weiss would reunite with Jimmy Scott and win three Pro Comp events in 1974 –- and Salisbury cemented his name in drag racing lore with a huge win at the 1973 March Meet, where he beat such no-names as Steve Carbone, Rick Ramsey, Don Garlits, Herm Petersen, and, in the final, Randy Allison, but the win surely didn’t come easy.

Severe tire shake during a Friday qualifying run not only broke the chassis but also contributed to a burned crankshaft in their new Donovan 417 engine. The team headed back south to Salisbury’s home base in Van Nuys, Calif., and spent the night at Don Tuttle’s chassis shop, then spent the next day at Salisbury’s home thrashing together a steel-block 392, all the while hoping that their Friday qualifying pass would stick in the 32-car field. When they called the track late that day they found out there still were in the show, albeit in the No. 17 spot, which meant a first-round date with low qualifier Carbone and the Soapy Sales entry.

sals10.jpgThey trailered back over the Grapevine – through a snow storm, no less – and saddled up to race Carbone. As luck would have it, Carbone’s mount developed a fuel leak on the burnout and had to be shut off, giving Salisbury and his untested 392 a free run to round two. After besting Ramsey, Garlits, and Petersen, he faced off with Allison’s wounded mount and took an easy win when Allison’s engine expired.

“In my head, I still consider that Bakersfield win the biggest accomplishment of my life – bigger than the Mile-Highs win – because I owned everything, tuned, and drove it,” said Salisbury. 

The great moments continued in 1974 when Salisbury ran 5.97 at the Winternationals to become the 12th member of the prestigious Cragar Five-Second Club, but eventually, as the cost of fuel racing went up, it drove Salisbury out of the game. He sold his operation at the end of the 1976 season.

Although he drove occasionally – his resumé also includes short stints with Henry Velasco, Jim Thomas, Jim and Alison Lee, and others -- Salisbury was largely idle for three years before teaming with Larry Frazier in 1979, and then with Frazier and Bill Rice in 1980 with a Jet X car that was a quasi-teammate to Johnny Abbott’s car.

sals11.jpgIn 1981, Salisbury teamed with boat racer Ray Fisher on the Fisher’s Fever entry, which turned out to be one of his best rides in a while. The duo qualified No. 2 at Indy behind Gary Beck and were runner-up to Beck at the World Finals, in a memorable final round that helped decide the world championship. Beck needed to beat Salisbury and reset low e.t. and top speed. He did all but the latter, and fell just short of passing Jeb Allen. Salisbury was the runner-up behind Beck’s blistering 5.57 run, and some broken wrist pins led to a huge fireball that added insult to injury.

“A lot of cars were having a problem with pins at the time, and we were hurting the engine every run,” he remembered. “I knew there was a lot at stake in that final but I couldn’t think about it. We had so much trouble of our own oiling on every run. We even had to borrow a new parachute from Johnny Abbott for the final because ours was covered in oil.”

sals12.jpgIn 1982, Salisbury teamed with Earl Whiting and Gaines Markley, replacing former world champ Rob Bruins behind the wheel. Salisbury was working at Childs & Albert when Whiting offered him the ride in a car that was basically floundering. He made his debut at the March Meet and a few months later was standing in the winner’s circle at the Mile-High Nationals holding his first NHRA Wally trophy.

Salisbury defeated Butch Blair and Doug Kerhulas, then lowered the boom on reigning world champ Allen with a low e.t. 5.90 blast in the final round, which was held in the wee hours of the morning after a lengthy rain delay.

“We had been coming to Bandimere to run exhibition match races so we had a good idea on how to run the car up there,” said Salisbury. “We set the track record in the final but I’m not sure how many people were still there when we won the race, but we still had a pretty good celebration.”

sals14.jpgThe team finished in 10th place, Salisbury’s only Top 10 finish, and the team raced together for another season, but called it quits after the 1984 Winternationals, where they failed to qualify.

“I spent the whole winter in Escondido [Calif.] at Flip Schofield’s shop getting the car ready for the season – he was off somewhere in his Lear jet, surveying kelp in Florida – and it looked like a new car when we finished. When we didn’t qualify in Pomona, Earl said that he just couldn’t continue to fund the car, so they went there way and I went mine.”

sals13.jpgSalisbury’s way led him to Colorado, where he became a Jeep Eagle salesman and then a transmissions expert for Abbott’s dealership, and later became a fleet and leasing manager, where he stayed for 15 years.

Salisbury still follows the sport religiously on television and has been a regular attendee at the Mile-High Nationals. A few years ago, he got the chance to reunite with Childs, and cackled a reborn version of the famed Addict Top Fueler, and also made a few passes in the car. Salisbury also was named an honoree at the 2011 California Hot Rod Reunion.

“I had a great career and a great time doing it,” he said. “It was a good time to be a racer with a lot of good cars and good competition.”

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My Beach Boys tribute of two weeks ago brought out a lot of love for the band – clearly they provided an outlet for those who didn’t live near a beach; I guess everybody truly did have an ocean -- and last week’s piece about the unrelated Beach Boys Top Fueler even more so.

joel.jpgJoel Turpin, who sent me a CD of his great collection of  the 30 greatest car songs from the '50s through the '80s and a thick binder of lyrics (thanks, Joel!), remarked, “I so remember that car. Since I grew up in that era as a teenage drag racing nut, articles like yours bring back great memories. And cars and drivers from that era are still of interest to guys like me. Mark Watkins said in your article that he could not imagine what the Beach Boys meant to kids growing up in Nebraska. Well, that is me! I grew up in St. Louis, Mo., and was a teenager all through the ‘60s.

"Tell Mark that the Beach Boys meant ESCAPE to us land-locked kids whose only water was the dark-brown, turbulent, dangerous, and swift-flowing variety found in the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. While we were not surfers, the Beach Boys music gave us an vignette of an unattainable dream world. We built skate boards by putting roller skate wheels on 2x4s and pretended to be shooting the pier at the Trestle. But what we didn't have in blue ocean water, we did have at our local drag strips, and that is where the Beach Boys literally sang to our hearts. We didn't know surfing, but we did know cars, girls, and drag racing -- the Beach Boys' favorite topics!”

Longtime Insider contributor Robert Nielsen added, “I, too, love the Beach Boys for many of the same reasons you do – surfing, cars and being an American band! When I was a high school junior the Beach Boys came and played a special daytime concert in the boy’s gym. The following year our school got invited to a taping of a television broadcast and I was lucky enough to be one of the ones that got to go to this event also!

dc.jpg"You had a picture of their Little Deuce Coupe album included in your column. The thing that always bothered me about this album cover is the engine in this car appears be an Oldsmobile, not a flathead Ford! That being the case it probably also has an Hydromatic transmission, not a four-speed manual (although the Hydromatic was a 4-speed transmission). One would have thought there would have been plenty of show quality deuce coupes with flatheads and manual transmission (probably three-speeds) in the So Cal area to make them more representative of the car in the song than this car! Of course, as you point out there probably were not any gearheads around the Beach Boys entourage to identify these obvious errors! 

"This latest column spurred a lot of fond memories from the past (as do a lot of your columns). After the trip down nostalgic musical lane I needed to dig out and watch one of my all-time favorite movies, Bruce Brown’s Endless Summer and watch it for about the 50th time! This was immediately preceded by my wife screaming 'Not again!' It is a CLASSIC, like Casablanca, and I never complain when she wants to watch that movie again and again!”

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Mike Galewski and Scott New (the latter of Firebird Raceway fame) sent along the photos above of the Beach Boys fueler.

“I was a young kid from Minnesota just out of Navy boot camp and attending Radiomens school in San Diego when I took a bus to Pomona to see all the top-name Funny Cars, Top Fuelers and Pro Stocker I had been reading about in the magazines,” said Galewski. “Up to that point I had only been to Minnesota Dragways a few times and to say Pomona blew my mind was an understatement. It was fantastic. Really good memories.” 

Remembers New, “Childhood hero Dwight Salisbury was always a fan favorite at Firebird. My father captured this Polaroid print during Firebird’s second race season. I think us boys would’ve been 8, 6, and 2.”

Great stuff, thanks readers!

Phil Burgess can be reached at pburgess@nhra.com