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To the friends we lost: Thank you

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

Today is the annual day of thanks – thanks for the people and things we have in our life and, to me as well, thanks for the people we have had in our lives. As we sit around the table today, flanked by good company and good food, let's remember the families sitting around tables today where an empty chair marks the place a loved one shared at this time last year.

Each year for National DRAGSTER, I prepare a story called – as this column is – "Friends we lost," an acknowledgment of those who left us in the last calendar year, whether by natural or accidental causes, and it never fails to take my breath away … and not in a good way.

As we travel the 12 calendar pages, we fill certain boxes with crosses and other memorials, yet we know we will eventually turn a page and begin a new month clear of sad markers. The losses aren’t forgotten, but the hope of a better month is ahead. It's not until you sit down at the end of the year and leaf through the pages that you see the losses as more than individual tragedies but as a gaping hole in our community.

Though we can’t chronicle every passing of anyone related to the sport, certain names catch the heart and the eye, and every year, the list includes about 30 people well-known to those who love and follow the sport. Every year, another couple of our childhood heroes, another couple of pioneers and forward thinkers, another couple of close friends and mentors leave us. Sometimes the loss is so staggering because it's hard to think of this world without some of them who seem to have always been part of our scene and whom we somehow expected always would be. In the same way that entertainers such as Bob Hope and Johnny Carson were ever present on our television for as long as we could remember and how it seems implausible that they're gone, we feel the losses of those in our community.

Whether you’re an old-timer who sees the passing of a fellow pioneer who helped you carve out the history of the sport or a fan who mourns the death of racers you grew up watching, the losses are painful. selfishly, we lose a bit of the history of our sport, and the tales these guys could spin and the oral history of our sport that trumps any written piece.

Below is the list I compiled through today; it's hardly the definitive document, and the photos below don't include a few of those listed, but I hope you understand the sentiment. Please, think of those families missing their loved ones today and offer up your thanks that you knew these wonderful folks who shared our passion for the world's great motorsport.

Jon, 17, and James Herbert, 12, sons of Top Fuel racer Doug Herbert, who were killed in an automobile accident, Jan. 26.

Lew Arrington Jr., 69, one of the early stars of the Funny Car class in the 1960s and '70s, who died Feb. 24 of heart disease.

John Buttera, 67, who built a series of winning Funny Cars and dragsters, who died March 2 after a long battle with cancer.

Veteran racer John Shoemaker, 65, who died from injuries suffered when his nostalgia Top Fuel dragster crashed during qualifying March 8 at the March Meet in Bakersfield, Calif.

Former NHRA national-event-winning Funny Car driver Al Hofmann, 60, who died March 20 of a heart attack.

Legendary Funny Car racer, fabricator, and race car restorer Pat Foster, 68, who died March 27 after a short illness.

Billy Williams, 63, the 1979 NHRA Pro Comp champion and two-time Mac Tools U.S. Nationals winner, who died April 14. Williams was critically injured March 22, 2002, after a crash in his Top Alcohol Funny Car.

Paul Blevins, one of the successful campaigners in NHRA's Modified class and later a standout racer in Pro Stock, who died April 22.

Former NHRA Top Fuel world championship car owner and driver Gaines Markley, 66, who died April 24 after a lengthy hospitalization.

Jim Paoli, the 1970 and 1971 NHRA Division 3 Top Fuel champion and later Funny Car racer, who died April 3.

Leroy Chadderton, a well-known Southern California-based driver of fuel altereds and Funny Cars in the 1970s, who died April 3 after a long battle with cancer and heart problems.

Ron Correnti, 65, who raced everything from door cars to gas dragsters to nitro Funny Cars and died April 5.

Former Top Fuel racer Bobby Hightower, 72, who died April 11 after a lengthy illness.

Veteran Comp racer Doug Stewart, 52, a two-time national event winner, who died April 23 of a heart attack.

Al Eckstrand, 79, who campaigned the Lawman series of Dodge Stockers and toured them overseas to entertain U.S. troops in the 1960s, died May 10 after a short illness.

Two-time world champ Scott Kalitta, 46, who died June 21 from injuries suffered after his car went out of control and crashed in Englishtown.

Ralph Truppi, who during his longtime partnership with Tommy Kling built engines for many top Super Stock and Stock entries in Division 1 since the 1960s, who died July 27 after a long illness.

Longtime Division 6 Oldsmobile Stock racer Bill Kost, 67, who died unexpectedly Aug. 2.

Greg Weld, 64, founder of Kansas City, Mo.-based Weld Wheels, who died of a heart attack Aug. 4.

Ed Justice Sr., 87, the last of three brothers who founded Justice Bros. Inc., who died Aug. 30 of complications due to kidney failure.

David Daniels, son of Eileen Daniels and the late NHRA Division 3 Director Bob Daniels, who died Aug. 5 as the result of injuries suffered in a motorcycle accident in Florida.

Pro Modified racer Steve Engel, who died Sept. 15 in Indianapolis of injuries sustained in a racing accident.

Super Gas competitor Doug McRobie, 49, who died Sept. 21 after he was involved in a racing accident.

Longtime NHRA Director of Emergency Medical Services Dan Brickey, 58, who died Sept. 22 after a lengthy illness.

Michael F. Hollander, 62, a motorsports journalist who effectively invented online racing news reporting in 1979, who died Sept. 24 after battling mesothelioma.

Veteran racer Bobby Martindale, 65, who suffered fatal injuries Oct. 4 in an accident in Atlanta

Famed camshaft manufacturer Jack Engle, 88, founder of Engle Racing Cams, who died Nov. 14.

Robert "Jocko" Johnson, 72, who built some of drag racing's swoopiest machines, including his notable but unsuccessful JockoLiner with Don Garlits, who died Nov. 14 of a massive heart attack.