Buster Couch looks over as the Funny Car approaches the staging beams and winks at the new arrival, a tousle-haired kid with a lead foot whom he has known since the lad was in diapers. Scott Kalitta moves forward as longtime Kalitta crewmember Doug Dragoo peeks in to check the oil pressure. It's rock-solid, as it always is in drag racing heaven.
In the stands, Doug Kalitta Sr. grins as his nephew readies to squeeze the loud pedal, pulling Scott's mom, Marianne, tight as they watch his first pass unbound from the rules of Mother Earth.
In the other lane, Eric Medlen does the same; "Uncle Beavs," Gene Beaver, is guiding him in for nephew John Force, who's not ready yet to race here. In the stands, Betty Ruth Force, mother of the 14-time world champ, smiles proudly at her adopted grandson.
On the other side of the guardwall, Leslie Lovett angles his Hasselblad for a perfectly composed, perfectly lit image for the next cover of Heavenly DRAGSTER. There's a mini Hot Rod Magazine reunion on the starting line as Ray Brock and Robert Petersen shoot the breeze, with fellow early NHRA stalwart Ak Miller chiming in to share his memories of the good old days. They're all wondering the same thing: Where's Wally?
In the tower, Buster's wife, Ann, enters Kalitta's info into the race computer under the watchful eye of competition director Jack Hart. In the media center, Ed Dykes does the same for his online reports. In heaven, everyone has a high-speed connection. John Raffa and Ed Sarkisian are covering the day's action for DRAGSTER, rubbing shoulders with Stevie Collison and Shav Glick. Pete Millar has his own spot in the pressroom, his pencil sketching the scene at 300 mph.
Kalitta and Medlen dry hop their mounts the last few feet – yes, there are dry hops in heaven – and the crowd, made up of every drag race fan who has "shuffled off this mortal coil" – your relations, mine, and everyone else who ever dug the digs – rises as the Tree goes green.
Roof-high header flames erupt from the pipes, the Goodyears grab hard, and the front tires dance just off the ground. Less than five seconds later, the chutes are out, and the win light appropriately shines in both lanes as Bernie Mather calls out the e.t.s to the crowd.
As they clamber from their cars and grin goofily at one another, Kalitta and Medlen are greeted by Steve Evans and camera operator Joe Rooks for a post-run interview. As Kalitta steps away from the camera, he's greeted warmly by Wally and Barbara Parks. "Hi, champ," Wally meets him with a hug. "Thanks for all you've done for drag racing and the NHRA."
"I think it's time for some ice cream," interjects Medlen, sending everyone into hysterics.
Back on the starting line, as John Zendejas steps onto the track to spray down a little more traction compound, action in the staging lanes and the pits is picking up.
There's a pretty good lineup of Top Fuel cars piling into the lanes, and because some of these guys wouldn't be caught with that big ol' beautiful thumping mill anywhere but in their face promising them an oil bath at the finish line, Top Fuel is divided into two classes, the slingshots and the back-motored boys.
Suiting up and ragging his gloves in lane 1, John "the Zookeeper" Mulligan is ready for the push start, heading a line that includes Tony Nancy, Steve Carbone, "Lefty" Mudersbach, Mike Sorokin, Gary Cagle, Jim Davis, Bob Sullivan, Connie Swingle, "Terrible Ted" Gotelli and Denny Milani, "Red" Case, Mickey Brown, Gene Goleman, Ron Correnti, Bobby Hightower, Julius Hughes, Gary Gabelich, Jim Hundley, Boyd Pennington, Jim Paoli, Jack Williams, John Wenderski, "Q Ball" Wale, Glen Ward, and, still smiling after all these years, Jimmy Nix.
"Young punks," says Calvin Rice with a laugh. He and the real old-timers, guys such as Leonard Harris, John Mulkey, Art Arfons, Jack and Lloyd Chrisman, Jim "Jazzy" Nelson, Lloyd Scott, Setto Postoian, Emory Cook, Dave Gendian, and Jim McClennan, are watching an amazing progression of the history of their sport tow past them.
Dickie Harrell, Malcolm Durham, Don and Roy Gay, Dick Loehr, Gerry Schwartz, Harry Hudson, Marv Eldridge, Jim Lutz, Dick Jesse, Art Ward, "the Flying Dutchman" himself, Al Vander Woude, and "the Israeli Rocket," Leroy Goldstein, are ready to go at it '60s-style in their early floppers while mega owners such as Mickey Thompson, "Diamond Jim" Annin, Curt "Bones" Carroll, John Keeling, "Pa and Ma" Hoover, Sid Masters, Jim Marsh, and Dick Mortiz are all eyeing the talent, trying to figure out who they'd like to have shoe their machines ... of course, Mickey is just itchin' to be in charge of the whole day's program. Mazmanian has his hands doubly full; he also has Fred Stone, Tim Woods, and Doug "Cookie" Cook waiting on him in the pits, and there's some serious trash-talking to be done.
A few lanes over, the rear-engine cars are lining up for as far as the eye can see, with veterans such as Mike Snively, Marvin Schwartz, Chuck Kurzawa, Leland Kolb, Gaines Markley, Mike Tarter, Dan Rightsell, Bruce Hagestad, Ernie Hall, Clayton Harris, Pete Kalb, "Poncho" Rendon, Gene Domagalski, Fred Forkner, Jim Plummer, and Satch Nottle in one lane and the likes of Darrell Russell, Blaine Johnson, Gary Ormsby, Keith Craig, Bob Edwards, Bobby Baldwin, Wayne Bailey, and Richard Holcomb in the other; Lucille Lee has been reunited with the man who tuned her to her only win, Marc Danekas. Guy Allen has son Les suited up and ready to go, and Jim Bucher's Chevy is primed and ready to upset the Hemis.
Keith Black, Ed Donovan, and Don "Milodon" Alderson are having their own "block party," and there's a pretty good exchange of ideas going on in the fuel pits, where Al Swindahl is still trying to convince Scotty Fenn that a 300-inch wheelbase is better than a short one, and Tony Casarez, Frank Huszar, Rod Stuckey, and Don Tuttle are laughing their butts off. John Buttera and Nye Frank are sitting in the corner doodling designs for "the next big thing," and every few seconds, one of them says something like, "Wait, I've got an even better idea!" Meanwhile, "Cheating Chico" Breschini is huddled in a corner with "Sneaky Pete" Robinson discussing who knows what, and Lou Baney is out trying to cut deals with the racers, trying to match sponsors and drivers and owners.
"Jungle" is prowling the fiberglass forest trying to coax his fellow flopper foes into a high-dollar burnout contest, and the only takers seem to be "Mr. Sit Low," Patty Foster, who has the Barry Setzer Vega with him, and Al Hofmann. Down the row are the groovy 'Stangs of Lew Arrington and Dodger Glenn, Larry Fullerton, and Dick Custy, and down past Sam Harris and a line of his Chaparral trailers, Texans "Big Mike" Burkhart and "Flash Gordon" Mineo, Kosty Ivanof, Bruce Sarver, Ray Higley, Gary Hazen, Tony McCallum, Larry Ladue, "Nitro Nick" Harmon, Ray Romund, Steve Bovan, Carl Swanson, Joe Winters, Joe Clement, Billy Grooms, Les Cassidy, Billy Holt, and "the world's fastest hippie," Mike Mitchell, are in flip-top heaven. Joe Pisano is reunited with Sush Matsubara, tuning the prettiest car on the grounds with the help of his brother, Carmen, and longtime team wrench Gary Slusser. (Tom Stratton and Ted Miller are judging the prettiest paint job competition.)
Meanwhile, Johnny Loper and Tripp Shumake are conferring by their car, R.C. Sherman and D.A.Santucci are playing rock-paper-scissors to see who gets to drive the Black Magic car, and Dave Wise finally has Paul Radici pointed the right way.
Wrenches Don Maynard, "Fat Jack" Bynum, John Hogan, Chester Garris, Jerry Verheul, Herb Parks, Jack Muldowney, Ray Attebury, and Dan Geare are standing nearby, comparing tune-ups throughout the decades, but all seem to agree with the old adage "If some is good, more is better, and too much is just right." At least that's what "the Greek" always told Maynard. "Fuzzy" Carter is still looking at his altimeter and trying to figure out how, despite their lofty perch, no matter what day it is or how the weather feels, the corrected altitude always reads "sea level."
Down by the tower, John Bandimere Sr., Vinnie and Richard Napp, Bob Daniels, Terrell Poage, Kenny Green, Dave Danish, Gus and Bert Leighton, Bill and Mary Hielscher, Glenn Angel, and Marvin Miller stand listening with big grins on their faces as C.J. "Pappy" Hart, wife Peggy, and partner Creighton Hunter talk about the early days at Santa Ana, then share their own tales of woe and wonder from the management side of the quarter-mile.
The alky burners are just finishing their tune-ups in the pits, with Al DaPozzo giving a ration of crap to everyone while "the Munchkin," Billy Williams, watches with great amusement. The Bell Boys, brothers Dick and Charlie, and "the Idaho Kid," Jett Field, are also there when up walks Doug Moody on two strong legs. Off in the corner of the pits, Creedence is blasting "Bad Moon Rising" as Mickey Winters and Chuck Phelps put the screws to their howling-fast machine. Down the line, you look and see the dragster trailers of Mike Troxel, Bill Barney, John Shoemaker, Dave Hage, Dale Smart, Carrie Neal, and Shelly Howard, all readying their rides.
Over along the Manufacturers Midway, Phil Weiand and Vic Edelbrock Sr. are again having the dual-plane versus single-plane manifold discussion while Hurst PR honcho Jack Duffy is working with Lenco founder Leonard Abbot on a new way to shift gears. Dick Moroso, Robert Goodwin, Gene Mooneyham, Paul Schiefer, Dean Moon, Chuck Potvin, Roy Richter, and the Johansens -- Howard, Elizabeth, and Jerry – tend to eager customers with stuffed wallets and hot rod dreams.
Frank LeSueur is dispensing nitro like water, and Ernie Hashim is checking out everyone's tires, which never seem to wear, let alone blemish their sidewall lettering.
There's an all-out manufacturers battle raging in the Pro Stock pits, where Dick Landy is chomping on his cigar while trying to convince NHRA tech guru Bill "Farmer" Dismuke that the Mopars need a better weight break while "Dyno Don" Nicholson stumps for the Ford contingent. Chevy front-runner Lee Shepherd is standing coolly by, taking it all in from behind his Ray-Bans, chatting with partner Buddy Morrison Bowtie brother Paul Blevins. Ronnie Sox is leaning on the fender of his red, white, and blue machine giving pointers to "the kid," Scott Geoffrion, while Lee Hunter, Bill Staley, and Mickey Tadlock toil on their carbs. John Hagen pauses for a few seconds between jet changes to check out NHRA.com to see who his protégé, Greg Anderson, is stomping this week.
In the two-wheeled Pro Stock pits, father and son, Dave and Brian Schultz, are prepping their bikes to continue their amazing rivalry with John Myers, who's certainly no less popular up there than he was on Earth. All three of them are trying to get up the nerve to ask Elmer Trett if they can ride his nitro Harley.
With their noses buried under their hoods, doorslammer legends John Lingenfelter, Larry Kopp, Al Eckstrand, Bill Lawton, Les Richey, Dave Kempton, and "Old Reliable," Dave Strickler, are checking the jets and the timing.
There's also a full slate of exhibition passes in the offing later in the day, with "Wild Willie" Borsch ready to one-hand it in the appropriately named Winged Express against Leroy Chadderton and the Magnificent 7 fuel altered, and Richard Schroeder and Bob Perry will go wheels-up in their 'standers. Just down the pit lane, Dave Anderson is readying the Pollution Packer rocket car for another four-second hydrogen-peroxide-fueled blast; "Slammin' Sammy" Miller just looks up from his Oxygen machine and smiles; heck, he has a three-second ride beneath him. Chuck Suba and the X-1, Romeo Palamides, Russell Mendez, and Ancel Horton also are prepping their machines, ready to wow the fans again and again. And waiting in the wings to set the world on fire is "Flaming Frank" Pedregon.
Yes, it's a glorious day … as they all are. Every run is low e.t., the oil stays in the pan, the lanes are equal, and our heroes race on forever. It's truly heaven.
About this article: Obviously, it's impossible to include the name of every person we've lost, nor was it my intention. This is a salute to those who raced a little ahead of the rest of us to the finish line and left us too soon, by the hands of time, nature, or fate. I cribbed a lot of the names for this list from Don Ewald's amazing memorial page on We Did It For Love, which covers up to 1979, and through stories from NHRA.com. Any omissions or oversights are not intended as slights to the amazing people who have populated our sport since its inception, and I know that before long I'll be slapping my forehead remembering someone I forgot, but I tried to also include mostly the names that will mean something to a larger number of readers of this column.