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Get 'er Dunn (and happy anniversary to us!)

24 Jul 2008
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider
 

I’m putting the finishing touches on all the research-doing, photo-grabbing, and poll-making for the next step in our Favorite Race Car Ever poll, which will cover 1970s Top Fuelers -- look for it Monday, and, in the meantime, don't forget to vote in the other open polls below -- but couldn’t let the Seattle event pass into the books without a salute to one of my SoCal favorites, Jim Dunn, who guided Tony Bartone to his first victory last weekend in Funny Car.

 

If you’ve been around this column since its inception – yesterday was our one-year anniversary together; more on that later – you’ll know that choosing the subject for each week’s cover of National DRAGSTER is never a decision taken lightly. I mean, I truly have to agonize over it sometimes, but such was not the case this week. With both Tony Schumacher and Jason Line having graced the cover many times, it was a no-brainer to put "T-Bone" and Dunn’s Canidae All Natural Pet Foods car on the cover, as shown here.

What wasn’t such an easy call was the cover headline, or blurb, as we call it in the biz. Again, those of you who have been around ND for years know that nothing revs my engine faster than a good cover blurb. Sometimes it gets pretty tough to come up with witty or rhyming words (what the heck rhymes with Kalitta?), but with a target-rich environment, such as pets? Oh boy.

Senior Staff Photographer Marc Gewertz proposed “Dog Day Afternoon,” which I really liked until I was reminded of the plotline behind the movie, and the gimmee – “Every Dog Has Its Day” – seemed a bit of a slam on Bartone and the Canidae car.

My mind raced. How about “Bartone Collars First Win” or “Dunn Unleashes Big Power” or “Bartone Fleas From Field” … nah. How about “Bartone Rolls Over, Plays Winner” or “Win, Boy, Win. Good Boy!” or even “Bartone Fetches First Win” or — well, you get the picture. As howlingly funny as those might have been, we settled on the suggestion by Marc’s wife, Membership Promotions & Marketing Manager Paula, who came up with “Top Dog."

 
Tony Bartone and car owners Jim and Diane Dunn

 
Jim and Diane in the winner's circle at the 1981 World Finals, "Big Jim's" final win as a driver.

 
Before he moved to Funny Car, Dunn had a successful career with nitro-burning altereds and Top Fuelers.

 

As a longtime fan of “Big Jim,” I also wrote the column below for this issue but thought it was worth sharing along with the cover story.

You didn’t need to be a longtime fan of the sport to understand that Tony Bartone’s Funny Car win at the Schuck’s Auto Supply NHRA Nationals in Seattle was a special moment, and not just because the victory marked the first Pro win for the likable “T-Bone” after collecting 28 previous Wallys in a very successful championship-winning career in alcohol cars.

The procession of drivers, crew chiefs, and owners who walked up to congratulate and shake the hand of team owner Jim Dunn as he walked away from the starting line after watching his Candiae Pet Foods Chevy turn on the win light in the final round speaks volumes about “Big Jim” and his standing in the sport and the popularity he enjoys after more than 50 years as a driver, crew chief, and owner.

Dunn is as old school and sometimes as gruff as they come, but his ability to get the most from his machines and his drivers and stretch not just his parts and pieces but also his budget is well-known. He runs a tight ship, doesn’t suffer fools lightly, and suffers tomfoolery even less. Although he has relaxed considerably over the past few years — you can even see him smile sometime — he’s still all business.

The win was the 11th of his combined career inside and outside the cockpit, having piloted his own Funny Cars to two wins and tuned drivers like Kenji Okazaki, Frank Pedregon, and even his own son, racer-turned-ESPN-color-commentator Mike Dunn, to national event victories. Thanks to his breakthrough victory at the 1972 Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway in Southern California, he’s still — and likely will remain so — the only Funny Car driver to score an NHRA national event win in a rear-engine Funny Car, his famed Dunn & Reath Barracuda.

But even before he drove a Funny Car, his AA/Altereds, fuel altereds, and front-engine Top Fuel dragsters were winners up and down the West Coast. He won the fabled Bakersfield, Calif., March Meet five times — with his fuel altered in 1963 and 1964; in Top Fuel in 1969, the same year he was the Division 7 Top Fuel champion; and in Funny Car in 1971 and 1980 — and in 2001, he was voted number 27 on NHRA’s Top 50 Drivers list in its first 50 years, ahead of more prolific winners such as Dick LaHaie, Darrell Gwynn, Frank Hawley, Richard Tharp, and other notable racers. He also has an NHRA national event Top Fuel runner-up to his credit, at the 1966 Winternationals, where his Green Mountain Boys dragster was runner-up to Mike Snively and Roland Leong’s Hawaiian, and he was runner-up at the 1963 Winternationals, in Middle Eliminator.

He was the star of the 1972 cult-classic Funny Car Summer that followed his racing efforts around the western United States (and first introduced us to his son), and when he wasn’t scorching the dragstrip, he held down one of the noblest professions: that of firefighter and, later, fire captain.

Drag racing journalist and historian Dave Wallace Jr. once wrote of Dunn, “Had Dunn not resisted temptations to turn Pro along with peers such as [Don] Prudhomme and [Tom] McEwen in the 1960s, he, too, would’ve attained superstar status, in my opinion. He repeatedly overcame a chronically low budget through innovation and driving skill. As the star of Funny Car Summer, he exposed drag racing — Funny Cars, in particular — to millions of people worldwide.”

Although he never won the prestigious Mac Tools U.S. Nationals as a driver — he was runner-up to Raymond Beadle’s Blue Max at the 1981 Big Go — he won it with Pedregon in 1999, which was his most recent win until he struck gold again in Seattle.

Even though the drivers who contested the Funny Car final, Bartone and Ron Capps, were newer-generation shoes, it was not lost on veteran Seattle racegoers that the money round pitted Dunn against rival crew chief Ed McCulloch in a battle waged 35 years ago at this very racetrack from the cockpits of their Funny Cars — Dunn with his Fireman’s Quickie entries and McCulloch his famed Revellution Dodges — and at other events, such as the Seafair Nationals and 64 Funny Cars. Dunn was also a two-time runner-up at the NHRA Fallnationals, the late-season race that was held in Seattle through 1980.

Although Dunn retired from the cockpit in 1991, 10 years after his last win as a driver, the 1981 World Finals, he doggedly remained passionate about racing and fielding a top-line car. Former NHRA Vice President Steve Gibbs, a Top 50 panel member who ranked Dunn within his top 10 in the 2001 vote, once paid him the ultimate compliment, “Always there,” he wrote, “A dedication to the sport second to none.”

Despite years of battling better-funded opponents, Dunn once famously said, “I never felt like an underdog when I went to the starting line. I had every part they had. I just didn’t have the crew, a pretty trailer, or a fancy truck. But my race car always has and always will have anything it wants, or I’ll quit.”

Today, of course, Dunn does have that fancy trailer and a big-name, impressive sponsor in Canidae All Natural Pet Foods emblazoned across the side of it, his cars, and the team uniforms, and, for at least a weekend in Seattle, as this week’s cover proclaims, “Big Jim” and his team were once again the top dog.

As I mentioned at the head of this column, yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of this column. Since then, I’ve written more than 130 columns and shared some 225,000 words covering a wide variety of topics. If you were with us from the beginning, it started out as kind of a National DRAGSTER blog, telling you about upcoming stories and what the staff was doing. I wrote about how we research stories and keep stats, about our vast library of photos and back issues.

Somewhere along the way, the column became less about what we do here at DRAGSTER and more about sharing our memories and our research about the history of our sport, and if you chart the progression of the column’s popularity, it’s clear that the latter is a more interesting topic to many. With the urging of people like Bob Wilber and Dave Wallace, I changed the name from Inside DRAGSTER to DRAGSTER Insider and more aggressively promoted it on the home page with the design of special images like those at right. I’ve watched the traffic soar from just a few hundred visits a day to as high as 30,000 a day on a few occasions, with an average today of about 5,000 visits a day.

I shared with you the birth of my grandson, and we all crossed our fingers together after John Force’s crash in Dallas. My "Hurry Back, Superman" column, written that night while I waited for an update from the hospital, eyes practically propped open with toothpicks, struck a note and led to all of the Superman buzz about Force. Since then, we’ve grieved together over the losses of Wally Parks, Pat Foster, Al Hofmann, Jon and James Herbert, Gaines Markley, and Scott Kalitta, and I’ve introduced you to some people you may not have known or remembered, or just needed to be reminded about, folks like Simon Menzies, Johnny Abbott, Jim Green, Shirley Shahan, Clive Skilton, Jeff Courtie, and “Backdor Bob” Struksnes. We shared childhood tales of Hot Wheels and “hotter” models, shared with you Favorite Fotos from famous fotographers, talked about the evolution of the Christmas Tree, push-starts and other obsolete racing skills, cursed Corvette, The Pond, and so much more. If you’re new to this column, take a scroll back through the many pages archived here and enjoy our trips to the past.

As entertaining as it’s been for all of you, it’s been equally rewarding for me. Every column brings dozens of notes of thanks and support and suggestion, and the list of famous racers from the past who follow the column and have reached out to me has been staggering and flattering. My recent “Dry Hops From Heaven” column also touched a lot of people and made many grown men cry, surely not my intention but as true a testament to any writer that he or she hit a note with readers.

I certainly can't take credit for all of those 200,000-plus words because part of what makes this column so great is the input of readers who take the time to share their tales and memories and the racers who share their knowledge and make us all a little smarter.

Thanks again to everyone for a great year; I hope to be able to continue this wonderful column for a long, long time.