NHRA - National Hot Rod Association


Gator madness!

25 Feb 2008
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

The Phoenix event may have finished just a day ago with high drama in the desert, but it's pretty clear that a lot of people are Gators-obsessed already, even though the event is still three weeks away.

Track manager Don Robertson dropped this photo in the email to us, showing off the now nearly completed timing tower that will serve as the backdrop to this year's ACDelco NHRA Gatornationals. It's kind of NHRA meets The Jetsons, as Double-B pointed out in his blog Thursday, but his photo was missing one very important feature: the new Gators mascot sculpture that now hangs on the wall facing the track. It's 10 feet tall and looks awesome. Local company Darkhorse Productions, which has created sculptures for Disney, Universal Studios, and numerous casinos in Las Vegas, did an amazing job on reproducing the grinning gator that we all know and love as well as the NHRA-logo sculpture below it. In case you missed it, last Wednesday ND staffer John Jodauga shared the story behind the racin' reptile's creation; scroll down to find it.

In that article, I mentioned that prominent use of wheeled animals on racecars and heard from Mart Higginbotham, who originated the Drag-on name in nitro Funny Car and he and Jim Robbs later sold the rights to the name to Frank Cook and Chuck Landers, who ran their version in the alcohol ranks.

I found this pic of his car over on 70sfunnycars.com, which also had a brief bio on Higginbotham, who started out driving for "Big Mike" Burkhart in the late 1960s before striking out on his own in 1970 and was elected to the Cars Magazine Top Ten Funny Car Drivers of the Year list after his inaugural solo Funny Car season. This car, the site reports, was one of the first Don Long-built Funny Cars to feature the "semi-laydown" position still prevalent in today's floppers.

"Believe it or not I still to this day get requests to sign picture and cards," said Higginbotham. "The first time advertising was done on the roof of the car at the 1970 Winternationals and the NHRA recognized the effectiveness of people being able to look down and see ads from the top."

I also got a nice email from Tom Curnow, who passed along a copy of dragon-themed ad that was produced in 1969 when he was the adverting and promotion director for Mickey Thompson.

"The original ad copy met with some controversy, as it read 'Orange Colored ... Exhaust Suckn, ET Eat'n, Dragon Mutha' rather than what you see in the ad here," wrote Curnow, who gives an assist to Bill Marcel -- the crew chief of the Ernie's Camera Shutter Bug Top Fuel car in the 60s and later an MT division manager and MT confidant -– who still had a copy of the ad and shared it with Curnow after seeing last week's article.

I love the look; it's so '60/'70s retro, and Curnow explained that the ad was the first real "first class professionally produced ad we published. Prior to this ad I produced most of the ads in that era in our little art room. I had little talent but fortunately had very artistic support from such notables as Bob Kashler [and] Kenny Youngblood. Additionally, I had vast technical recourses from MT and no less than 20 active Top Fuel racers that were also employed by MT at that time, as well as a host of world class fabricators like John Buttera, Pat Foster, and another 30 tech guys who either knew all the answers or at least could make up good ones."

Curnow went on to tell the tale of the ad's debut in the February 1969 edition of Hot Rod Magazine, how he made the day -– temporarily –- of newly minted ad salesman Sal Fish (who later operated SCORE International with Thompson), and how the first ad was not completed until after Hot Rod Magazine's deadline and Fish called his boss at Petersen and got a special consideration for a late insertion. The ad was air-freighted directly to the printer for insertion on page 3 and, because of its late arrival, the ad was never seen by anyone other than the pressmen before it was printed.

"In those days Hot Rod had a circulation of just over one million, every high school in the country was on the comp list," he continued the tale. "When the 'Orange Colored Dragon Mutha' showed up in the Cleveland-area St, Ignatius High School library, all hell broke loose. The local archbishop called Petersen and heads began to roll; I do not remember the adverting director's name, but he was sent packing for letting such a mishap occur. Sal was innocent, so all he got was a lot of 'attaboys' and back slapping from his Petersen advertising colleagues. It was a great beginning to a relatively short run of high end MT advertising (Mickey sold Enterprises to Holley a few months later).

"Many of us old-school MT graduates are still active in the industry at many levels, M/T Ent was literally the hotbed for innovations and innovators that set the foundations for many continuing companies and stars of today. What a great place for a young guy to begin a 45-year career in the hot rod biz; 'Gee if a guy could clear a hundred bucks a week work around all these cool folks, and get paid go to the races, what more could you want or need? And we all made almost $100 per week, take home. Life was good."

So was the story; thanks, Tom.

Continuing on the gator theme, ND Photo Editor Teresa Long, who has been choosing photos to adorn the rooms and hallways of the new Gainesville tower, came across this photo from the inaugural event in 1970 where, yes, Virginia, there were actual alligators. This one was fenced in, patrolling the island that some wag had proclaimed as the protest area. Great sense of humor those tech guys …

I dug out the original issue and the caption seems to indicate that this was not the lone inhabitant of the pond, that perhaps there were more like him.

The gators were a regular sight at the event well into the 1980s, and one even developed the pet name Clyde. Not sure how or even what became of him, but his legend lives on.

Bill Holland also reminded me of another, perhaps slightly-less famous gator that prowled the G-ville quarter-mile, Chase Knight's coolly unique turbocharged and supercharged Alcohol Dragster, the Golden Gator. The car, which Knight campaigned with Al Lidert, was one of many that had carried that name for Knight, but this technological marvel was fitted with a 6-71 supercharger in conjunction with two Schwitzer turbos putting out 60 pounds of boost funneled into a Hilborn injector. With it, Knight won the Division 2 championship in 1977 and was runner-up two other years. Knight has worked at Florida-based Crane Cam for about 40 years and currently is the company's Valve Train Products Manager. He'll be at the Gatornats, no doubt manning the Crane display on the midway. Knight recently got his Gator back -- it had been hanging in a restaurant in Texas that went out of business -- and is on display in Don Garlits' Museum of Drag Racing.