Here we are, at just the 330-foot mark of the year, and already it’s been a sad, sad one. Pat Foster, Al Hofmann, John Shoemaker, Lew Arrington, Dick McClung, Jon and James Herbert, John Buttera, Boyd Coddington, and then in the last week, in quick succession, Jim Paoli, Leroy Chadderton, and Ron Correnti. It’s becoming painfully obvious that many of the drivers of drag racing’s golden age have reached that fragile point in their lives, and we, the fans and the media, their friends and former foes, can only watch helplessly, waiting for the next sad news. I’m tired of writing obituaries. Not the best way to start a Monday, I know.
Let’s move on to happier thoughts, with a cruise through the ol' Inbox. This is going to be a mash-up column because it’s gonna be a busy day. We have a Month in Review meeting for DRAGSTER, then I have to drive Mom to the airport at lunchtime. She’s been in town this weekend from Oregon and finally got to meet her new great-grandchildren, Trevor and Maddy, and spend precious time with grandkids. We watched old home movies, and she told a lot of embarrassing stories about me to my kids that I now have to live with. We pre-celebrated her birthday (April 23) yesterday along with that of my son, Chris (19), who was born April 6, just like Don “the Snake” Prudhomme and Tommy Johnson Jr. Then it’s off to see Bruce Springsteen at Honda Center tonight. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen New Jersey’s finest export, and I’m really looking forward to it. (Thanks, Ken!)
Okay, on with the column …
Speaking of New Jersey, Pat Welsh of Welsh Media Productions sent along this great photo, taken at the 1983 Summernationals showing Connie Kalitta’s massive starting-line fireball. It happened in the semifinals against Jody Smart, and there have been a couple of conflicting versions of what transpired. I’ll have to ask Kalitta PR guy Todd Myers to get us the real story. The report in National DRAGSTER says that Kalitta’s mount had no oil pressure and that he came to the starting line gambling on a Smart red-light, which he didn’t get. The car never even made it to the Tree before it was consumed in this huge fireball. That doesn’t really strike me as 100 percent believable because, as hard a racer as Kalitta was, I find it doubtful he would have tromped on the gas with the oil-pressure needle on the peg. Not that that hasn’t happened before; sometimes gauges go bad, and racers take chances.
Former NHRA Competition Director Steve Gibbs recalls that Smart had done a really long burnout and took his time staging, perhaps causing Kalitta’s engine temp to soar past critical mass. I do remember Kalitta bailing out of his car, which came to a stop a couple of hundred feet downtrack, and charging back to “talk” with Chief Starter Buster Couch in what Gibbs recalls was “a typical (for that era) Kalitta tantrum.” Buster’s comeback line to the flustered Kalitta is classic Buster, something on the order of: “I’ll roll around in the grass and rassle with ya if you want.”
Speaking of great photos, an unbelievable outpouring of admiration for Steve Reyes filled my Inbox after Friday’s Five Favorite Fotos feature with the king of drag racing crash and burn, all of which I forwarded to him. Pat “Ma” Green wrote that she well-remembered Joe Winters’ altitude-record body toss at Fremont because she owned the souvenir booth at Fremont. “Flash Gordon” Mineo also chucked his body that same weekend, and she bought both junked bodies for $25 each, cut them up, and sold the pieces.
“I got some criticism for doing so, but since neither driver got hurt, I didn't see any harm,” she said. “Joe Winters even sat in my booth and autographed the pieces! The bodies were delivered outside my booth, and we took saws and cut them up. Fenders, with names on them, doors, etc. Remember the photo of the kid in a phone booth, on the phone, holding a piece of door panel? That was from that deal at Fremont. I think I made a total of $200 with both bodies.”
I remember that classic photo of the fan in the phone booth, lit only by the booth’s light, calling home to tell his friends about his great souvenir. The pic made it in all of those cool drag racing photos greats magazines back them. Guess who shot that one, too? Reyes. Here it is, as shown in Funny Car Fever, his great photo book on Funny Cars.
Back to Foster and Chadderton for a moment. Both, as you may know, were former drivers for Roland Leong, and to the best of the figuring of yours truly and of drag racing historian Danny White, here’s the complete list of drivers (in no particular order) who have driven for Leong: Danny Ongais, Mike Snively, Mike Sorokin, Don Prudhomme, Larry Reyes, Leroy Chadderton, Stan Shiroma, Butch Maas, Larry Arnold, Gordie Bonin, Mike Van Sant, Mike Dunn, Jim Dunn, Pat Foster, Rick Johnson, Bobby Rowe, Denny Savage, Johnny West, Jim White, Norm Wilcox, Ron Colson. Reminds me of the old saying, attributed to everyone from Austin Coil to Pancho Rendon: “Drivers are like spark plugs; you burn one out, you screw in another one.”
I also got a big kick out of this photo of recent Int’l Drag Racing Hall of Fame inductee Dave Wallace, perhaps drag racing's preeminent historian and most seasoned journalist, which Chris Ouellette took a few years ago and has kinda been marinating in my Saved Messages folder for sometime. It was shot outside the WallyPark parking facility across the street from SeaTac airport in Seattle ("It's premier parking, Seattle style," raves the Web site, whatever that means, and "dedicated to the unique needs of airport travelers departing from Seattle." They also have outlets in Denver and Los Angeles). Anyway, the ever-clever Dave fashioned an "S" to hold in front of the sign out front as a tribute to NHRA's founder. You know, sometimes it's still hard to believe that Wally's gone.