The CARQUEST Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals begin in three days and, for the first time since man invented the wheel, Whit Bazemore will not be participating in the season opener. Okay, so it's "only" been since 1994 that the Winternationals were Bazeless, but that field included guys like Kenji Okazaki, K.C. Spurlock, Dale Pulde, Al Hofmann, and Mark Oswald, so you can see how long that's been (in fact, only four current drivers were in that '94 field: Cruz Pedregon, Del Worsham, Gary Densham, and John Force). It's just not going to seem the same without him.
A few weeks ago in DRAGSTER, I wrote an item in Bits From the Pits about Bazemore sitting out the season. If you didn't see it, the good news is that one of drag racing's most controversial figures says that, despite his unceremonious early exit last season – that's two in a row if you’re counting -- he's not hung up the driving gloves for good and that he'd like to return in 2009, hopefully in a Funny Car. He also shared some heartfelt memories of his early days that didn't make it into that piece; lucky you guys … you get to read it here.
Say what you will about Bazemore and his occasional wanderings into no man's land when it comes to speaking his mind, but I've always liked the guy. I respect him immensely for following his dream of becoming a Funny Car driver through the good and bad, working his way through the ranks without a rich relative or big company to finance his dreams. He and my good buddy Todd Veney are kind of cut from the same cloth in that manner, willing to strive and sacrifice their comfort in the short run to reach his goal. It's been cool for me to be around to see the whole ride. You have to admire a guy like that, but Bazemore's ride to the top has been equal parts rocky and Rocky.
Bazemore had a pretty good gig as a photographer in the early 1980s and had high-profile clients like R.J. Reynolds, which then sponsored the NHRA series through its Winston brand. He saved his pennies and he saved his dimes and attended Frank Hawley's Drag Racing School in 1985. He landed a ride in Rich Fenwick's car the next year and, after sitting out 1987, found himself behind the wheel of Floridian Jamie Hopmeier's Bad Attitude Funny Car. That car was not exactly a marquee name and admittedly a step down in terms of visibility and finances from the Fenwick ride. I remember Whit, savvy about PR even back then, writing an article for National DRAGSTER titled "Burgers and Beans," because that's pretty much what the team was living on as it plied its trade and gained experience on eighth-mile tracks in the Southeast.
But, all these years later, after having reached the near-pinnacle of the sport in terms of corporate sponsorships and on-track successes – let's face it, the man has won Indy twice -- Bazemore still recalls fondly those formative days in his career.
"Fenwick had a much nicer operation than Hopmeier, but I wasn't happy there at all in the end. I didn’t race for a year, so by the time I drove for Hopmeier and was running the Southeast match race circuit against guys like Jerry Rhodes and Tommy Payne and all those guys, at that time that was the happiest I'd ever been in my life," he told me. "I remember thinking 'If this is as far as I go, this is great!' We were competitive and I was racing. It was a good time. We had no money. I got paid enough to drive home to Atlanta once in a while, got fed, and had a roof over my head … and I was racing! What more could a guy want? I learned so much then.
"Later it's all about winning and commitment and being part of a team that doesn’t compromise on anything, like it was on Schumacher's or even my own team, but those were good years."
Bazemore got his first fuel ride in 1988 in Ted Combis' often flammable entry and the next year teamed with plucky Aussie crew chief Gary Evans to form their own team. The results sometimes were no less combustible; Bazemore rode out a nasty fire at Indy in 1990 (video at right; "We had no business being at Indy that year," he has often admitted) and wrote another article for ND about the fire called "Like riding inside a Molotov cocktail." After Bazemore's fire and guardrail crash at Columbus in 1993, Bazemore set out on his own and partnered with Rob Flynn and had some great seasons, including 1997.
"I look back at 1997 with my team and we won four races, including Indy, and essentially finished second in the championship – Force's and Tony Pedregon's car were basically one car – and had a $700,000 budget," he said. "That was good, but compared to McDonald's and Copenhagen and Force's cars, we were doing it on less than half of their budget. It was me and Rob Flynn and Chris Cunningham and our guys. We had a great time and a great year."
Whit moved on to drive for Chuck Etchells and, of course, Don Schumacher, before his star-crossed season last year, his first (and maybe last) in Top Fuel, with David Powers. For all the good and bad, he wouldn't have changed much.
"I've done way, way, way more than I ever thought I could," he said. "I won Indy twice, won 20 national events. I went from being a photographer not having any money and wanting to race to actually doing it. I've been very fortunate."
Bazemore counts his fortunes in other ways these days. He and wife are expecting a daughter at the end of February to join 3-year-old son Dashiell so he'll be home for that instead of on the road, but Bazemore still is eying a 2009 comeback, preferably in a return to Funny Car.
“I like Funny Cars,” he said. “The dragster deal was fun, and I enjoyed it, but Funny Cars are something else. A Friday night run in a Funny Car is just really intense. At points last year, I found myself really thinking about that Friday night run in the dragster, and I had to remind myself that I don’t have to work as hard. You can see everything, there’s not going to be any clutch dust, and it’s going to go straight, and I realized I missed the challenge of driving a Funny Car.”
Lots of interesting comments about Wednesday's piece on John Collins. Reader Rick Lind, the lucky dog whose mom used to work at Mattel and regularly brought home Hot Wheels right off the assembly line, said that when his mom was a teenager she actually babysat Collins. His dad, who worked on a number of SoCal cars such as Larry Sutton's Joint Venture AA/BAD and Circuit Breaker Top Fueler, the AA/Bad Guys entry, the Pandemonium Funny Car, and with Doug Kerhulas (and also ran the main beer stand behind the tower at OCIR), used to get duct tape from his work, and would trade Collins tape for shirts. "I always had the latest John Collins T-shirt," brags Lind.
Although I can't find evidence to back up his claim, Brett Nation insists that NHRA's ruling on foreign car bodies being allowed to compete in the Pro ranks was actually made informally in 1977 when the Arrow made its debut because there was much discussion about it being a Mitsubishi product. Verrrrrry interesting.
The Arrow, of course, was the next "must-have" body after the Monza's run ended. The Monza, of course, was the must-have body after the Vega ceased production. Before that? Mustangs. Now we're back to Mustangs …