NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

Friday feedback frenzy

More memories of R. Gaines Markley, Shirley Shahan, and Clive Skilton
02 May 2008
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

Heading into what promises to be a busy weekend of perhaps record-breaking performances at Gateway Int’l Raceway, I think it’s a good time to take it easy. I’m gonna back the feedback machine out of the trailer and fire ‘er up to share some of the great notes I’ve received the last few weeks. In other words, you guys are pretty much gonna do the work while I put my feet up on the desk and enjoy.

The outpouring of love for the recently departed Gaines Markley was strong. His niece Maria Markley created the video tribute at right, which contains wonderful childhood photos of the former Top Fuel racer and world championship car owner as well as cool vintage race pics.

Rob Bruins, who drove Markley’s Top Fueler to that championship in 1979, reported that Markley’s services were attended by a Who’s Who of Northwest drag racing, including Markley’s pal Gary Beck (who with Bruins spoke at the services), Walt Austin, Herm Petersen, Jerry Ruth, Wayne King, Dick Kalivoda, "Gentleman" Hank Johnson, Jerry King, Lauran Ott, Ted Gord, Jeff Sayer, Bobby Mitchell, Jack Verhilst, Bob and Paula Gage (alcohol racers and Markley's partner in a machine shop; Bob also spoke), and a number of sprint car boat racers for whom Markley had built engines.

“Gary spoke of their youth together and how Gaines taught him about mechanical things and how he always felt Gaines was much more of a natural driver than he,” said Bruins. “I spoke of his wit, knowledge, and mentoring with a few stories of typical Gaines stuff. Bob relayed Gaines’ compassion for helping others and how he was concerned with others not getting proper recognition for the things they did and how if you didn't ask Gaines specific questions on his accomplishments, he wasn't about to toot his own horn. Gaines' nieces and nephew referred to ‘Uncle Gaines' emergency hot line,’ on call for all emergencies, anytime, their personal resident auto-repair guy.”

John Lindsay, owner of the notorious Impulse! line of Funny Cars, dropped me this remembrance of Markley, whom he called “one of the nicest guys that I have ever met.”

“In 1975 or 1976 I had booked my first ‘tour’ -- all of two races with the Impulse! Vega. We had a match race in Edmonton, Alta., on Wednesday night and then had to be in Seattle three days later for the Sea-Fair 64 Funny Car show. On the final run in Edmonton, the Dana 60 rear end in the race car came apart, breaking the ring and pinion and the outdated Posi-traction unit. I ordered a new gear set and a late-model spool from California to be shipped next-day air to Seattle, and we headed down the highway to Washington.

“When we got to Seattle, the gears were there, but the airline had lost the spool. I just HAD to make the Seattle race just to have enough gas money to get home, so in a panic I called Jim Eubanks, who was helping me with the car in California. He had lived in the Seattle area before moving to California, and I thought maybe he had an idea to get me out of a jam. All he said is, ‘Call Gaines, tell him that you are a friend of mine, and tell him what you need.’ I had never worked on a Dana rear end and knew nothing about them, but Jim told me that Gaines ran one and could fix ANYTHING! I called Gaines, who I had never met, and explained my problem. His reply was typical: ‘WELL, I can’t fix it until you get it over here, so you had better hurry.’

“I told him that I had all the parts except the spool, and he told me not to worry, that he would come up with something. He gave me directions to his house in Federal Way, and when I got there, he was taking the spool out of his dragster to put into mine. I didn't even know this man until I called him an hour earlier. He totally set up the rear end, showing me the do's and don'ts of the breed, and all for the price of ‘You owe me a favor if I ever need one.’ Gaines never missed stopping by my trailer every time I was in Seattle just to say hi after that day. He will be missed!”

As excited as I was to have stumbled across a display photo of the Markley-Beck-Rhoades BB/GD that I ran in last Friday’s column, I was even more excited to hear from the man who shot that photo, John Dutton. Because the image in our possession did not have a photo credit on the back, I had no idea who shot it until Dutton’s e-mail showed up, complete with a scan of the original proof sheet from the photo shoot, which Dutton says took place Sept. 22, 1968, at the Mayfair Shopping Centre in Victoria, B.C., to promote an upcoming BB/GD match race at Van Isle Dragways – where Dutton was the strip photographer and relief announcer during the mid- to late 1960s -- against Gary Shepheard and Bert Sweeting of Victoria.

Beck confirmed the story, adding that Canada Dry soft drinks and drink mixes sponsored their car for that match, hence The Basic Bar sign propped next to the dragster. Dutton was a busy guy back then; he also covered Mission Raceways and was a weekly columnist for Drag News (Canada Notes), plus a regular contributor to International Wheelspin News, Road and Motorsports Magazine, and, of course, National DRAGSTER.

Northwest dragster veteran Sayer also got a kick out of that old photo and, like Lindsay above, received a welcome tech answer to a problem courtesy of Markley. “Seeing the picture of the Markley, Beck, and Rhoades BB/GD brings back some real memories. The first dragster that my wife, Carol, and I had was a similar Harris-chassised BB/GD, and we were bit by them several times while they were winning the Division 6 Super Eliminator championship. Even then, there was a lot of talent in the other lane whenever I pulled up to race them. Gaines always took time to talk whenever we were at the track, whether it be a local match race or a national event. I remember in Pomona in the early ‘70s, we were in the staging lanes with our Top Gas dragster looking at some dents in the rocker covers from the ‘trick’ exhaust rockers I inherited from somebody. We were undecided on how to attack the problem before the dents became holes; Gaines took one look and said, ‘Double up on the gaskets, but be sure you glue them together.’ It worked, and we got in.”

Greg Ozubko, whose paint schemes have adorned famous drag cars for years, grew up in Edmonton and had the opportunity to work with Markley and Bruins. “When I was a young boy, growing up and virtually living at the track in Edmonton, I did everything I could to help just about any or every racer who came to town. There were four of us who did this: Ian DeLaSalle, Brian Davidchuk (who later drove in TAD), Rob Flynn (now crew chief for Top Fuel’s Rod Fuller), and me. I had the immense pleasure, both at the time and even now when I think back, of being allowed the privilege of helping Rob Bruins and Gaines Markley in the world championship year when they came to Edmonton for the divisional points meet and, as I recall, another race that year or the adjoining years. I was allowed the privilege of working on the car doing really trivial things that to me at the time were huge and the ultimate thrill of riding in the tow vehicle. Seems to me there were no reversers then, and pushing the car back after the burnout might have been the ultimate. I did this for many teams, but to this day the one that treated me the absolute best and allowed a pain-in-the-ass kid a truly great thrill was Rob and Gaines. Rob was the consummate gentleman. Gaines funnier than the day was long and, yes, always deeply thinking, but in somehow a funny way. They both have always had a special place in my mind and heart, and I am ever grateful for that. I was very saddened to learn of Gaines’ death. I wish I had the chance to thank him in person.”

Following my recent hero-worshipping of Shirley Shahan, reader Dan Tuttle dropped me a line to not forget the late, great Roberta Leighton. Leighton, who passed away Nov. 15, 2002, was another super-talented female driver in the early 1960s and the sister of longtime former NHRA whirlwind P.J. Partridge. Leighton began racing in 1953 and worked with NHRA founder and President Wally Parks to lift the notorious no-females ban in place through mid-1962. She rewarded his faith and decision by winning the J/Stock class championship in Indy that year, becoming the first woman to win a trophy of any kind at an NHRA national event. She competed in NHRA class competition through 1978, then bracket raced for 12 years, served as a track official at many national, divisional, and local races, and played a major role in the operation of Division 7's Inyokern Dragstrip. Her son, David, is a reader of this column, so I hope he will share some stories with us in the future.

I also heard from Bob Kenworthy, president of the Colorado AMC Club and director of the American Motors Owners Association, which put on the 2007 American Motors Owners Association Mile High International Convention at which Shirley was pictured in my previous column.

Kenworthy picked up Shirley and husband Ken from the airport in an AMC Jeep Wagoneer limousine, and Shirley and fellow former AMC racer Lou Downing, the original pilot of the Pete's Patiot AMX, were scheduled to be guest speakers and were the talk of the convention all weekend.

When the action shifted to Bandimere Speedway (fast fact: John Bandimere Jr. once owned and raced a '69 SS AMX, known as the Frog), Kenworthy arranged a special heads-up match between Shirley, in her restored Drag-on Lady AMX, and Downing, in the famed Pete’s Patriot. According to Kenworthy, the two AMXs had never met heads-up in all their years of racing. Unfortunately, Downing’s mount threw a rod on a test run, so he had to find a suitable substitute and came up with an appropriately painted red, white, and blue '71 Gremlin owned by a local racer to help kick off the night. Shirley, who hadn’t been to Bandimere Speedway since 1972, laid down a pretty burnout and showed that she still knows the fast way down the track with a 10.4-second clocking.

At the convention banquet, Shirley and Downing talked about their racing histories, and, according to Kenworthy, “You could have heard a pin drop in the room with over 400 people enjoying their stories.”

I know the feeling!

You’ll have to scroll all the way to the bottom of the page, to the March 31 entry, to find the origin of this one, which is a tale about Englishman Clive Skilton’s victory over “Big Daddy” Don Garlits in a 1977 match race in Jackson, Miss., as told by Billy Donahoe, who was there.

“It was late March '77,” he recalled. “Two friends went with me to the track, Riverside Raceway, in Pearl. One of my friends was a fan like me; the other one, this would be his first time at the track. We had built up ‘Big’ for two weeks, telling him that this was going to be an easy race for ‘Big.’ One thing my friend had in common was our love for Led Zeppelin. The concert movie The Song Remains the Same had come out a few months before, and we had caught it a few times at the midnight movies. If you've seen the film, you know that each member of the band had a fantasy scene in the movie. The late John Bonham's fantasy was much more regular than the other three: riding his chopper, driving his hot ride, having a brew, and driving a Top Fuel dragster. Clive Skilton's dragster. Since I was into the sport, I thought this was pretty cool.

“When we got to the track, Clive was already there parked in the staging lanes, which was about the only paved spot. When he opened the side door on the trailer, there was a picture of the car from the movie. To say the least, we about had a fit. ‘Big’ showed up later. When he rolled out his car, I almost had another fit. The year before, he had match raced Shirley there with the long '76 car. This time, he rolled out the 5.63/250 '75 car. I knew we would not see any times close to that, but it just made me that much more positive that ‘Big’ would win all three rounds.

“It was a very cloudy day. You could almost feel the rain in the air, but they managed to get all three runs in. Clive got the win all three rounds. I don't recall what the times were; scoreboards were not even a dream at that point, at least at this track. We left the track a little wiser, a little more humbled. And realized that ‘Big’ was human after all.”

And, finally, it didn’t take long after my version of the Vallco Drag Racing Game arrived for the troops to gather round the cardboard quarter-mile for a little match race. Senior Editor Kevin McKenna, Copy Editors Sarah Barnes and Melissa Pasillas, Editorial Assistant Miesha Payne-Reid, NHRA.com Webmaster Jade Davidson, and yours truly each blindly drew a pair of cards from the 1977-season Funny Car deck and set to qualifying. Falling back into my old habits, I, of course, kept notes while the ladies got a bit of a history lesson on Funny Car racing, ‘70s style.

Miesha rolled Dale Pulde’s gorgeous Mike Hamby-tuned War Eagle Trans Am to the low qualifying spot at 6.14, followed by Dale Armstrong in Mike Kase’s Speed Racer (6.18) and Kenny Bernstein (6.20); Tom Hoover’s Showtime Corvette was fourth at 6.21 to round out the top half of the field. Gene Snow’s Arrow was slotted fifth at 6.21, followed by Billy Meyer’s Hawaiian Tropic Citation (6.24) and Al Segrini in the Custom Body Arrow (6.26). Alaskan Jim Moore rode the bump with his Arrow at 6.33, which bumped out former world champ Shirl Greer’s 6.38. Qualifying was a bit of a flametacular as Rob Williams in Roger Guzman's Assassination Arrow, Denny Savage in the Powers Steel Camaro, and Kosty Ivanoff and the Boston Shaker Corvette all experienced debilitating top-end fires and missed the cut.

We went old-school with the ladders, with No. 1 facing No. 5. Armstrong had low e.t. of round one with a 6.14 to 6.36 whacking of Meyer, followed by Pulde’s narrow 6.19 to 6.26 melting of “the Snowman.” Segrini nipped Bernstein, 6.25 to 6.32, and Hoover advanced easily over Moore, 6.29 to 6.55. Hoover took charge in the semi’s with a brilliant 6.05 (low e.t.) to best tire-hazing Armstrong’s 6.22, and Pulde continued his march with a 6.13 win after Segrini’s mount nosed over at the top end and slowed to a 6.59.

The final was all Hoover, as he and I mowed down Pulde and Miesha wire to wire, 6.17 to 6.37. I could also feel the smiles emanating from Minnesota.

Yesterday it was all about Top Fuel. Brad Littlefield masterfully guided Connie Kalitta through a tough eight-car field that sported a 6.05 bubble that was too stout for the likes of Graham Light (yes, that Graham Light), Chris Karamesines, Clayton Harris, and seven others. Dave Uyehara and I qualified low and had low e.t with the Good, Bad, and the Ugly car at 5.77 but lost to "the Bounty Hunter’s" 5.84 in the semi’s. Kalitta had run 5.86 in round one to best Jeb Allen and outdueled the Sarah-wheeled Gary Beck machine on a 6.08 to 6.02 holeshot in the final. Vegas better beware if Brad ever steps up to the craps table.

Years after I first played the game, the thrill still holds, and the fun is big for old-time fans like me. Game creator Greg Zyla reports that he has gotten great feedback and stories from longtime customers and has sold off a lot of his surplus of games since my article here last week, but he’s offering a wide variety of options. You can reach him at extramile_2000@yahoo.com.

Suddenly, I feel the need to roll some dice. I’m outta here.