NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

The 5 Ws: The where, what, when, and why of Who

The life and times of former Indy champ Marvin "Who?" Graham
13 Sep 2007
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

"Hi, my name is Marvin Graham. You might not remember me, but I used to race in Top Fuel."

It took every ounce of willpower I could muster not to respond with "Who?"

Of course, he would have said "Exactly," and we would have launched into the drag racing version of Abbott & Costello's famed "Who's on first?" routine.

(Above) Marvin Graham earned the famous nickname "Who?" by coming almost out of nowhere to win Top Fuel in Indy in 1974, capping the race with a final-round victory over R. Gaines Markley. (Below) Thirty-three years later, Indy hardly looks like the same place.


For those of you who weren't into racing back in the '70s or those not up on their U.S. Nationals history, Marvin "Who?" Graham pulled off one of the all-time U.S. Nationals upsets when he won Indy in 1974. He was a relatively unknown 32-year-old television repairman from Okalahoma City when he outlasted a 32-car field that included most of the day's big hitters. His rise to national prominence from virtually nowhere led to his unique nickname. Unfortunately, it wasn't a social call because Graham, who last wheeled a fuel dragster in 1982, was calling to report the death of the man who tuned him to that upset Tuesday win 33 years ago in Indianapolis. If you can name that crew chief, consider yourself a king of drag racing trivia. You can Google it, but you'll never find it, which makes the loss of Chester Garris a bit more sad.

I never knew Garris –- honestly, had never heard of him -- and Graham's career was just ending when my began here at NHRA, but as a teenage fan in the '70s, I remember Graham well, so I didn't pass up the chance to pick his brain for memories to learn more about his largely unknown history; that's right, race fans, the staple of good journalism: the whats, whys, wheres, and whens of Who's hows. Graham had raced a variety of cars before switching to Top Fuel in 1972, including a prolific C/Gas Dragster and a Top Gas dragster, but he may never have even been launched onto the national stage had it not been for Garris, who was a well-known and popular tuner in Oklahoma, eager to help anyone in need.

"I wouldn’t have even gone to Indy if it weren't for Chester and Steve Hodkinson," he admits. "A week or two before the race, Mike Kuhl had dropped off my new crankshaft and parts, but I got the flu and was too sick to build the engine. Chester and Steve told me they'd bundle me up in a blanket in the garage so I could tell them how to put it all together, and they drove me to Indy. I crawled into the sleeper, and up we went and won the race."

Graham defeated Gary Hazen's Panic! dragster in round one with a 6.19, then posted a 6.18 to advance past up-in-smoke Hank Johnson. Graham made his best run of the event, a 6.08, in round three to trailer Jim Herbert, then posted a 6.18 in the semifinals after Dwight Hughes woofed the blower on the Berry Bros. & Hughes machine. In the final, Graham's Donovan-powered digger ripped a 6.17 to stop Markley's tire-smoking 6.49. Although he admits he initially "hated" the "Who?" nickname, he grew to love it (his e-mail address includes marvinwho), and as he points out, "I think I backed up my résumé after that win. Between NHRA, IHRA, and AHRA, I think I ended up with 12 wins."

Graham's Indy win catapulted him to the road to take advantage of his new-won fame, but Garris, with a wife and kids, was unable to follow the gypsy-like procession from national events to match races at far-flung destinations. "Racing was in his blood, and he really loved it," recalled Graham. "It's a shame he couldn’t stay out there with me."

(Above) Graham, second from right, landed a role as a technical adviser for Heart Like A Wheel and even a bit part as Connie Kalitta's crew chief. He's pictured here with his castmates, from left, Bonnie Bedelia, who played Shirley Muldowney; Beau Bridges, who starred as Kalitta, and Jesse Aragon, who played Kalitta crewmember Carlos. (Below) Graham worked with an all-star cast behind the scenes including stunt drivers Kelly Brown and Tommy Ivo, Brad Anderson, Bernie Lewis, and Kirk Peters to lend the film a ton of authenticity.

Graham won the 1975 Springnationals, defeating Shirley Muldowney in her first final, and was runner-up at the Fallnationals in Seattle later that year. After a runner-up at the inaugural Cajun Nationals in 1976, he scored at the 1980 Grandnational in Montreal with Marc Danekas' TR-3 Resin Glaze dragster, which he also drove to a 5.68, which at the time was the fourth-quickest run ever and the quickest in about five years, to lead that year's Indy field and scored another runner-up in Seattle later that year. He added a runner-up at the 1981 Winternationals before again reaching the winner's circle in Montreal. He made his last final-round appearance in Fremont in 1981, where he was runner-up to Jeb Allen. He began 1982 at the wheel of Ray Fisher's Fisher's Fever and qualified No. 1 in Gainesville before the financial wheels fell off the operation.

After the Fisher ride went away, Graham began a second career in the movie industry, which was kickstarted by a role as technical adviser of the Muldowney biopic Heart Like A Wheel. Graham worked with stunt drivers Kelly Brown and Tommy Ivo as well as mechanical geniuses Brad Anderson and Bernie Lewis to lend the movie an air of authenticity and even ended up on the shiny side of the lens as crew chief to Beau Bridges' Connie Kalitta. I cruised through the National DRAGSTER photo archives, where we have an extensive collection of stuff from HLAW, including camera scripts, press kits, and lots of photos that Leslie Lovett shot while the movie was being filmed at Orange County Int’l Raceway. These are just a couple.

"That really started my movie career," Graham recalled. "I met a couple of guys who wanted to put together a commercial driving team using my name, and later I joined the Shotmaker camera-car team of Bill Fredericks [of Budweiser rocket-car fame]," where he was further able to put his driving experience to good use, wheeling high-speed camera-toting cars in chase scenes. Although he's now left the wheel work to younger hotshots, he's still heavily involved in the transportation end of the business. He has worked on the popular show The O.C. and tons of movies but never forgot drag racing.

"I stayed away from drag racing for 20 years, like an alcoholic needs to stay away from drinking; plus I'm not a good spectator," he said.

Lately Graham made his way to Pomona to rekindle friendships with Kalitta, Don Prudhomme, and other former peers, but mostly he spends time with his former babysitting charge, Tommy Johnson Jr., who at least partially credits Graham's influence for pursuing a racing career.

"Yeah, I used to babysit Tommy, but now I've turned the tables; he gets to take care of me," said Graham with a laugh. The fact that Graham wanted Garris remembered all these years later speaks volumes about the team nature of our sport and the bond that can be formed between two like-minded individuals who not only pursue a common dream but accomplish it as well. Here's to Chester.