Al Hofmann’s unexpected passing last week took a lot of people by surprise because the last we heard of him, as reported by National DRAGSTER’s John Jodauga in one of his popular Where Are They Now? columns, he had retired from his business and was enjoying life traveling around the country with his wife, Susie. His loss adds to the already staggering toll I tallied last week that includes many of the sport’s greats who have left us in the last two years.
I’ll be honest; I didn’t really know Hofmann all that well. Covering the events for ND, I was the Top Fuel specialist, so I didn’t get to the Funny Car pits as often as I should have, but I knew and respected Hofmann for the scrappy kind of guy he was. As a Funny Car racer, he started with nothing. He sold his construction company and bought the Radici & Wise Vega but didn’t even know how to start the fuel motor that came with it.
His early years showed both a lack of budget and experience – I’ve seen quite a few photos of the China Syndrome entry ablaze – but also a gutsiness to hang in there. We all know where that took him. He worked hard, learned hard, hired good people (like Tom Anderson and "Jimbo" Ermalovich), and won over sponsors like Western Auto, BDS, and GM Goodwrench with his no-BS attitude. The fact that he made the 300-mph Club in a Funny Car when several well-known Top Fuel teams could not speaks volumes.
He had a tough look about him but actually had a softer side to the gruffness, I’m told. To me, he looked hard as nails, streetwise, and the kind of guy I’d want with me in the bar when I accidentally knocked over that biker's beer.
He wasn’t afraid to keep his foot buried when he had to. He could drive it on fire, on two wheels, up in smoke, and sideways. He probably could have driven it upside down. He wasn’t reckless, just determined.
He’s the guy John Milner in American Graffiti probably dreamed of being.
I remember well Hofmann’s fiery win at the 1997 Gatornationals. He was one of the class’ top stars then and crossed the finish line well ahead of Mark Oswald, who had smoked the tires in the In-N-Out Burger Avenger, to pull to within 45 points of class front-runner John Force. The engine let go just before the lights, turning the car into a rolling inferno. As Hofmann used to joke about fires, he definitely had the heater on. He lost control of the car and hit the guardrail past the finish line, breaking his right arm. Interestingly, the victory was the 13th of his career. He returned later that year and won the fall race in Dallas in what was truly a feel-good story. He beat, of all people, Force.
Force and Hofmann met in 13 final rounds in the 1990s. Hofmann lost the first five but finally beat Force in Columbus, Ohio, in 1995. Although he was 4-9 lifetime against Force in finals, he won their last meeting that fine October day in 1997 at Texas Motorplex.
Force had nothing but admiration for the guy who gave him fits in the early to mid-‘90s. Earlier this week, he released a statement that spoke reverently of his respect for the man.
“I remember going to the hospital after he crashed,” Force said. “I felt so bad when I saw him in that state, all broken up, laying in the hospital bed, but then he turned to me and said, ‘Force, get the hell out of the hospital.’ He said I was only there to steal his media. That was Al Hofmann.
“Al may not have won the NHRA title,” Force said, “but in my opinion he was still a champion because he fought me to the wire every year, on the track and off. I remember the gut-wrenching feeling of just having to look at him knowing how bad he wanted to win. I gotta hand it to him, he pulled no punches. He would fight with you or he would just tell you to go to hell, [but] as mad as he made me, I gotta say I loved the guy for it because he came up just like me on the old East Coast match race circuit, fighting every day just to feed himself and buy race car parts.
“But there’s a side of him that a lot of people don’t know. When I sent my bus to take him home from the hospital, Bob Fisher told me that when he took him home [to Umatilla, Fla.], you’d have thought the president had come home. You won’t believe it, Fisher said, but they love this guy.
“His team loved him, his family loved him, his neighbors loved him, and his fans loved him. It just goes to show that we all have our own way, and I gotta say that in the later years, he would call me up from time to time and tell me, ‘Force, don’t let those guys beat us up.’ ‘Cause I was just like him. He was a real drag racer, a guy I really raced.”
High praise indeed.
I also heard from Jac Lindell, a longtime friend of Hofmann’s, who wanted to share some Al stories too.
“The last time I saw Al and Susie was at the last race he was at in Vegas,” he wrote. “We were headed to my house for dinner in my ‘59 GMC and ran out of gas; the nearest station was a half-mile behind us and downhill. Since neither of us was into pushing, we coasted backwards at about 25 mph the wrong way on a major street (Sahara Avenue) in Vegas in the parking/turn lane until we backed into the station.
“One of my more memorable things he did at the track was (I believe) in Pomona. He was racing Cruz [Pedregon], who had a performance advantage at the time. On the way to staging, he told me and Tommy (Anderson) he was going to give 'Cruzer' ‘a little something to think about.’ After he staged first, he stopped; when Cruz staged, Al rolled in and turned the top light off. Cruz hit the throttle and red-lighted huge. Al, of course, recounted the story at dinner with his way of understating how sneaky it really was. I remember Al’s body coming off the car, also in Pomona; we worked most of the night patching it up as there were no spare parts back in the BDS days (when Al and Helen, his wife at that time, made a few extra bucks selling blower belts to other racers and half of the crew were volunteers who were friends or the guys from BDS).
“I remember after Rob Flynn got married at Circus Circus, Al, Whit Bazemore, and I cruised the Strip in Vegas in my blown ‘55 (Al’s idea -- he got a big kick out of the attention my car got; I never understood why because he was going 300 mph in his car.). I remember working on his car in the off-season before the Western Auto deal in a two-car garage; Al threw the old rods and pistons out back with the alligators. Literally all of the car was done by Al, even the paint. When the sun went down, we had to close the garage door or be eaten by mosquitoes.
“And I remember how much he changed when he got with Susie and how happy he was. When we talked last he was on his way back from a car show with Susie and was happy, building and restoring show cars and was talking about nostalgia fuel racing and someone wanting to pay him to drive a six-second streeter in some big-money race in New Jersey. I remember taking huge amounts of teasing for having a print of John Force in my house that was given to me for my birthday by Kenny Youngblood and his wife, even though Al really liked Force.
“I think I can sum up Al as a racer by what a friend of mine, who I meet in the suites at the Vegas race each year, says all the time. He misses seeing Al on the track as he was the last of the breed that really drove the wheels off a car. For me, he was just my friend, and I will miss him.”
We all will, Jac. We all will.