NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

A little bit of this, a little bit of that ...

02 Jul 2008
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

Former U.S. President Calvin Coolidge once said, "Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan 'Press On' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race."

That’s the message we all got in Norwalk last weekend. The Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals was a testament to the human spirit, incorporating all of the things that are good and noble about NHRA Drag Racing. It was a testimony to the resilience of those involved, both in the short and long term.

The Bader family likes to call a visit to their wonderful track "the Norwalk Experience," and for me it truly was an unforgettable one. Certainly anyone who has known and watched Hector Arana toil on two wheels the last 18 seasons or ever spoken to the likable Pro Stock Motorcycle rider had to be happy to see him finally cash in after nearly 150 starts.

And to see Doug Herbert standing on the winner’s podium, beaming through his tears, fulfilling the promise he made earlier this year to do well “for my boys,” sons Jon and James whom he lost earlier this year, warmed the hearts of all in attendance, fans and vanquished foes alike.

I’ve known and liked Doug since he was running an Alcohol Dragster, and through his NHRA.com blog (one of the original group with whom we started) and through the time I’ve spent with him since that sad day in January, we’ve become closer, so I just had to hunt the big lug down for a congratulatory hug in the winner’s circle, and omnipresent photog Marc Gewertz stealthily caught the exact moment that Herbert crushed my ribs.

The inspiring victories of Arana and Herbert were just part of a huge get-better weekend for the NHRA community that also included an ongoing salute to fallen world champ Scott Kalitta, who remained heavy on the minds of those in Norwalk. His father, Connie, was greeted by the fans with a standing ovation when the nitro cars hit the track for the first time in qualifying.

Yellow and red ribbons were tacked to shirts alongside photo buttons of Kalitta, waving from the POWERade stage, and the memorial logo was in evidence everywhere, on decals and especially on T-shirts worn by most of his fellow nitro drivers throughout the event. The various Kalitta teammembers wore the white T-shirts in place of their regular uniform shirts during the first qualifying run for each car, and many of the drivers wore their firesuits undone to the waist to display their shirts during driver introductions Sunday morning, forgoing sponsor photo ops to honor their friend. Even John Force, seldom seen without his Castrol shirt, was on the starting line in the second round to watch Robert Hight, proudly still wearing his Kalitta T-shirt.

After all of the tears and solemn moments, one of the funniest came as Hector Arana was conducting his media-center interview after defeating Craig Treble in the final round, when from the back of the pressroom came a final question.

“So, how scared were you of that bad [mother] in the other lane?”

The question came from Treble, who had been alerted to Arana’s interview by ND's Candida Benson, and the fun-loving rider just had to drop in for his final needle of the weekend.

For all the hassles with the water seeping up through the track Friday and dodging rainstorms Saturday and Sunday – including a brief but very intense storm Sunday that, had there been gullies in Norwalk, would have been called a “gully washer” – it was a race that I’ll never forget.

Reader Al Goulder enjoyed Monday’s Jim Murray column on Don Prudhomme and dropped me a line to share his own “Snake” tale.

“Like you, I grew up in the ‘70s, and ‘the Snake’ was my hero and still is! In the third grade, my teacher made us write a letter to our hero.

"I didn't have Prudhomme’s address, but that’s who I was writing to even after she told me not to because I didn't have the proper address and I wouldn't get a response.

“I sent the letter [addressed] to ‘Don Prudhomme, Granada Hills Ca’; that was it. A month later in the mail, I get a mysterious letter from California with no return address with not one but TWO autographed handouts of ‘the Snake’s’ Carefree Funny Car and dragster! I respected my teacher and I was a shy kid, but I made sure the next day at school she knew that ‘the Snake’ sent me not one but TWO autographed pics, because he's the man! Those are the most prized handouts in my collection.”

Yes, fans, Prudhomme was THAT big in the 1970s. Send a letter to him addressed just to his city, and they knew where to find him. You gotta love that.

Mark Collins also enjoyed the article and my personal photos from the 1976 Winternationals and trumped my ticket stub with not just an actual participant’s tag from the event, but one autographed by “the Snake” hiss-self.

At the time, Collins and partners Joe Monden and Ralph Lewis were running a AA/DA in Pro Comp. Nearly 30 years later, Collins brought it with him to the 2005 event in Dallas to have “the Snake" autograph it. “The ticket put a wide smile on his face,” recalls Collins. “He told me it brought back a lot of great memories of a very successful Funny Car.”

Believe it or not, the letters keep coming in for the Corvette Curse.

Reader Craig Sanburn said he remembered that Jim Epler’s Eckler-sponsored new-gen C5 Corvette also had a nasty reputation. I reached out to Jim’s wife, Susan, who confirmed that the car seemed a bit cursed.

“Jim’s first Eckler’s Corvette debuted at Indy in 1998,” she recalled. “It was a big deal with a Friday night unveiling on the starting line right before the run. If my memory serves me right, there were 1,034 entries at that event, and the Corvette won the Best Appearing Car award. I think I remember it as being very evil handling. Jim could probably fill in the details, but I know they made a bunch of changes after a few initial near misses. His final race was Sonoma 1999 where he lost most of the body in an explosion. Jim left that team because of safety reasons. Craig Sanburn has it right – that car blew up a lot, and Jim had a family to consider. I only worried when Jim was worried, and when he was concerned, I knew it was time to go another direction.” The photo at right is from the ND files and shows what was left of the car.

I heard from a member of Paul Smith’s team that the Curse also bit the veteran Funny Car pilot at the 1984 Gatornationals. I dug through some old NDs and discovered that the Smith & Bradford team opened the event with a Camaro body and made a solid 6.17 qualifying run Friday, then worked all night to mount a new and beautiful red and yellow Corvette body. The first pass was a sizzler, a 6.11 at 252.10 mph, but the second pass was a REAL sizzler, with Smith on fire at the end of a 6.22 pass. The fire burned off both rear tires, causing Smith to spin a couple of times and slide off the end of the track and into the woods. The body was destroyed and the chassis heavily damaged, but Smith was not injured.

Another reader recalls seeing Tom Hoover's 1979 Showtime Corvette, which featured a beautiful Kenny Youngblood-designed white-over-black paint scheme that had the name done in an airbrushed neon letter effect, have a bad fire at the Springnationals in Columbus and end up in the catch net at the end of National Trail, which destroyed that body.

I searched through the Columbus results from 1979 and 1980 and found no mention of the incident – in surprising Tim Wilkerson-like fashion, Hoover was the points leader at the time of the 1979 event and was runner-up to Raymond Beadle at the 1980 event – but I’m not saying it never happened at a different time or place.

Our old Insider pal Simon Menzies sent along a bunch of clippings from his unforgettable ”Corvette moment,” which came during qualifying for the 1977 edition of the fabled Manufacturers Meet at Orange County Int’l Raceway and is captured here in a great motor-drive sequence by OCIR regular John Shanks and published in Car Craft magazine. Other images of the inciednt also made it into the Los Angeles Times.

The car is the Jim Jackson BB/FC Corvette, which completed, in Menzies’ words, an “unintentional but spectacular 180-degree turn.”  The car got loose and then slid sideways near the big end, and when it spun around, it shed the body, and the chassis lightly tapped the guardrail. Damage was minimal, but the fans loved it.

Menzies’ explanation was simple and to the point. “I removed the rear spoiler extensions to see if she would mile an hour better,” he said. “Big mistake.”

And finally, I’m really closing in on the Favorite Car poll. I spent a good portion of the rainy downtime in Norwalk compiling all of the favorites – and you guys sure have a lot! -- then dividing them into multiple categories based on era and type of car.

The categories will be as follows: early dragsters; early Funny Cars; early door cars/roadsters; ‘70s Funny Cars; ‘70s Top Fuelers; the 1980s; and exhibition cars. There are about 16 cars in each grouping, so we’ll vote on them separately, then come up with subsequent polls that feature the best of the best. Hopefully I can get this together by next week.

See ya Friday.