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The DRAGSTER Insider answering machine

20 Nov 2008
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

"Hi, this is Phil Burgess at The DRAGSTER Insider. I'm either out of the office or on another article right now, but if you leave your name and your question, I'll get right on it. Thanks for calling."

Beeeeeeeeeeep.

Q: Hi, Phil. Matt Benoit from Bellingham, Wash., calling. I know that Rob Bruins was the first driver to win an NHRA title without winning a national event during the season, but had he ever won any national events before 1979? Because otherwise, that would make Eddie Krawiec the only driver in NHRA history to win a championship without a single NHRA career victory to his credit, right?

A: Right you are, Matt, and funny you should ask. I just dropped Rob an e-mail the other day to ask how he felt about Krawiec joining his "club."

For the record, Bruins' 1979 championship didn't come as a huge surprise to a lot of people as he and team owner Gaines Markley had closed the 1978 season with back-to-back wins at the Fallnationals in your shared homestate of Washington and at the World Finals in Ontario, Calif. Although they were winless on the national tour in 1979, they did win several divisional races, which back then counted toward the national championship.

I asked Rob how he has viewed his unique accomplishment all these years – was it a source of pride or an albatross?

"Winning the championship without that national event win has been both a source of pride and the albatross you mentioned," he said, "but it has always been nice to hear your name come up toward the end of every season when someone is in the hunt but hasn't won an event yet (remember Tony Schumacher's championship a few years ago [1999] when he didn't win until the next to the last race of the season?). I don't know if it is any big deal, but Eddie K. had 17 chances for a win, and we only had seven.

"The truth is I liked being the only one who had accomplished that feat. Gaines and I had a couple of magical seasons in '78 and '79 when we attended a total of 11 divisional points races and won nine of them. In '78, we only attended four national events -- Pomona, Indy, Seattle, and Ontario -- and combined with our Division 6 races, we finished third behind Kelly Brown and a guy named Garlits. In '79, we only attended seven national events and combined four races in Division 6 and two Division 5 races (that we fit into our schedule as we were crossing the country to attend national events).

"Contrary to a lot of people's opinions that guys ran the division races because the competition was easier, consider that at all the Division 6 races you had Jerry Ruth, Hank Johnson, Graham Light, Terry Capp, and Ernie Hall, plus whatever California cars would show up, like Kelly Brown, Dave Uyehara and Larry Dixon Sr. and the Utah Charger guys (Garth Widdison) that we saw in both divisions. No, the only things easier about division races were they were generally closer to home and you were only at that track for two days so you could be off match racing to make money so you could afford to go the national events."

By the way, Bruins retired in August from his civilian job with the Department of Defense, where he spent the last 25 years working with Trident submarines as a nondestructive testing test examiner, approving testing procedures and certifying inspectors to conduct inspections on the subs' welds and metals using X-ray, ultrasonics, and magnetic resonance. Since then, he has stayed pretty busy.

"I've reroofed my garage, rebuilt the decks on the front and side of the house, and found a little time to attend Bakersfield [the California Hot Rod Reunion], a couple of Northwest nostalgia events, and put some miles on my 'old school' hot rod roadster that I finally got on the road this summer," he wrote. "It's nothing fancy; I built it the way I would have when I was a kid in high school. It's a '31 coupe body, sans the top, mounted on a '32 frame with a big kick up in the back. We were able to put over 1,300 miles on it between rain showers this summer."

Q: Hey, Phil … it's Mike Bockius. I don't know if anybody has mentioned or has realized that out of the last 18 seasons there have been only three drivers to win the Funny Car championship: Force 14 times, Cruz twice, and Tony twice. Just observations.

A: Noted, Mike. Force's long reign definitely put the hurt on us stats lovers who loved the cool symmetry of the 1970s-80s Funny Car champs. Don Prudhomme won four (1975-78), then Raymond Beadle bagged three (1979-81), Frank Hawley and the Chi-Town Hustler just two (1982-83), and, finally, Mark Oswald and the Candies & Hughes team tagged just one (1984).

When Bernstein won a "Snake"-like four titles (1985-88), we wondered if the next guy would again win three and so on, but Force ended 1989 champ Bruce Larson's reign at one. Then Force won two (1990-91) before Pedregon snapped his streak, and we all began to wonder if we'd see the reverse of the 1970s rotation with Cruz winning three and so on, but Force jumped right back to the top in 1994 and stayed there. As close as Funny Car is these days, I'd be surprised to see anyone ever win three or four straight anytime soon.

Update: Stop the phone calls! Yup, both of us forgot Gary Scelzi, who won the title in 2005, Dang, the guy's not even barely out of sight and he's out of mind? Sorry, Wild Thang!

Q: Hey, buddy. Pete Davis from Clatskanie, Ore., here. Each year, I use the DragStats figures [in National DRAGSTER] to find out who the winners will be. I check the drivers' positions in e.t., mph, and r.t. and add those positions' numbers all the way across for every driver, and usually the lowest number total is your winner. Using the Nov. 7 issue, it worked at the Finals on every Pro except in Pro Stock Motorcycle. How about that, Phil? I told all my friends who was going to win. They now want to know how I know; I told them you and I were friends and you told me. You guys are killer. Now if I can only turn this into money. Ha-ha. Happy off-season.

A: Interesting stats keeping there, Pete, and probably not something you would have seen in the old days. Competition is so much tighter today that you seldom see the one who has the best e.t. feel comfortable enough to back off on the Tree as in days of yore when the No. 1 qualifier was separated from No. 16 by tenths instead of hundredths. Just look at what happened last month in Virginia, which boasted the quickest Pro Stock field of all time, where Greg Anderson qualified No. 1 with a 6.564 and in round one had to race No. 16 qualifier Steve Spiess, who had run 6.590 – just .026-second between 16 cars. The fast guys have to be fast on the Tree and the track or they'll have their lunch eaten by these hungry lower qualifiers. If you figure out how to make a living off of this, we expect some royalties.

 

Q: Hello, Phil. It’s Neil Marks, calling long distance from Spain. I had to write a quick message to you after reading your blog of Monday. Your comments about the bittersweet feelings of attending the last meet of the season really resonated with me, and I had to smile about your pain of the "too long" TWO-MONTH off-season. Phil, count your blessings! The European FIA championship finished this year Sept. 7 and starts in 2009 on May 22. That's an off-season of full FIA competition of EIGHT AND A HALF MONTHS. I am English but now live in much warmer and sunnier Spain. Unfortunately, the Spanish have never even heard of drag racing, so I have to travel back to the UK twice a year to get my adrenaline injection. This year, BOTH of the FIA rounds held at Santa Pod Raceway in the UK (the season opener in May and the finale in September) were decimated by rain. Over a combined period of six (expensive) days attending the track, I think I saw about three hours of racing in total. Now, don't you feel much better?

A: Much! Thanks, Neil. It's readers like you who bring sunshine to my day. Good friends (and fellow Englishmen) Roger Gorringe and Andy Wilsheer can’t stand the long Euro off-season either and are regular visitors at the Pomona events. You should try it sometime. A little three-month vacation. Take in Las Vegas, both Pomonas, preseason testing … yeah, that's the ticket.

For a little taste of Spain, check out Neil's Web site here. Pretty cool stuff.

Q: Phil, it's Robert Nielsen. I see that you are planning to do a segment with Larry Sutton. Ever see him without his hat on? He is bald as a cue ball! I was sitting in the stands at the Winternationals one year, probably about 1972 or so. Larry was driving his Jr. Fuel dragster, and they were pushing back up the return road. Larry is sitting in the car waving to the crowd. I yell down to him to take his hat off, which he did, and the stands erupted! It was quite funny, and Larry took it all in to the enjoyment of everyone.

I was at Lions one Saturday evening, and Larry was there, as usual, as the starter. I did a couple of short burnouts behind the line when my car started to fill with smoke. Turned out the battery cable in the trunk had shorted when an isolating grommet had worn out and allowed the cable to short to the car body. I opened the trunk to try and pull the cable loose. Larry calmly walks over, takes out his keys, which have a small but adequate crescent wrench on them, and disconnects my battery cable. Talk about being prepared for every eventuality!

A: Hey, Robert, here's a pair of appropriate photos, with and without the famed black chapeau, to match your question. Yes, we have seen him sans hats, but it’s more rare than seeing an albino tiger. Even Sutton admits, "I can walk though the pits without my hat on, and no one would recognize me!" I've just wrapped writing my homage to Mr. Sutton, which will appear Monday, complete with the story of how the infamous black cowboy hat came to be.

 

 

Q: Hi, Phil. Tom Hall here from Baldwinsville, N.Y. I got the drag racing bug in the early '60s, so I’ve been amazed by this sport for the better part of 50 years; it never ceases to excite me. Way back in the day, early to mid '60s maybe, Eddie Hill had a twin Pontiac-powered rail, which I think was on nitro. Now the oddity of this thing was that the Big Chiefs were mounted side by side on an angle, and to further add to its oddness, it had dual slicks. I also seem to remember that there was a piece of what looked like plywood that was mounted down at the front axle and ran up to the front of the blower drives, which I guess was supposed to deflect air. (Did it have a big Howards Cams decal on that chunk of wood?) Man, this thing was a sight to behold. He was at some track, and when he launched, the dual slicks literally tore up the blacktop on the starting line. Maybe it was a fresh pave job and couldn’t handle the width of those four Racemasters once Eddie “the Thrill” Hill stabbed the foot speeder. Seeing a picture of this rail again would sure be a treat, not to mention knowing where and when “the Thrill” actually did this deal would be the icing on the treat.

A: Your wish is my command, Tom. The famed Double Dragon ran in several configurations, but I couldn’t find one with the plywood you mention; perhaps you’re confusing it with the Howards Cams Twin Bear? Jack Chrisman drove the Bear, which was powered by two Chevys, to the win at the 1961 Winternationals and is shown here with NHRA founder Wally Parks. Below are a couple of pics of Hill's twin.

Anyway, Hill spent four months designing and seven months building the Double Dragon. The 92-inch-wheelbase dragster featured side-by-side blown Pontiac gas-burning engines, each with its own clutch, driveshaft, and ring and pinion. Hill ran four rear slicks in open competition and two rear slicks for smokier burnouts at match races.

It was with this car that Hill's tires literally dug holes in the starting line at the 1961 NHRA Nationals in Indianapolis. In 1962, two years after Chris Karamesines picked up the first 200-mph time slip running nitromethane and two years before Don Garlits would run the first official 200, also on nitro, Hill ran 202.70 mph in Hobbs, N.M.

 

 

Q: Hey, Phil. You know how in Las Vegas they have "graveyards" with all the old signs and billboards from the old casinos? Someone should have one that has all the old towers, timing boards, guardrail sections, everything. That would be one hell of a museum. Keith Litke, signing off!

A: Great idea, Keith. I imagine it might look a little something like this.

 

 

Q: Any more calls today, Phil?

A: Nope, that's it for today. The ND editorial staff is heading out for lunch for our annual Best of awards luncheon, two hours of haggling back and forth on whether we think Robert Hight's 4.00 was a better run than Tony Schumacher's 3.77 or if Hector Arana's PSM win in Norwalk was a bigger upset than Tony Bartone's flopper victory in Seattle, etc., etc. Then, as I said above, look for an in-depth look at the career of Lions/Irwindale/OCIR starter Larry Sutton next week and maybe, just maybe, some more ghost tracks.