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Motorplex memories and mishaps

19 Sep 2008
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

It's Friday morning at Texas Motorplex, and it's good to see the old gal again. I haven’t been here in a few years, and even then it was to attend the Division 4 NHRA Summit Racing Series Finals and not an NHRA national event.

The Plex is 22 years old, and old enough for me to hoist a cool one in her direction for all she's given us over the years. Since 1986, Billy Meyer's all-concrete racing surface has borne witness to more drag racing records than just about anywhere else and plenty of moments of high drama.

When I traveled more, I always had the Motorplex high on my wish list when it came time to make our coverage assignments for National DRAGSTER. It seemed that if ever anything dramatic were going to happen, it was going to happen in Dallas. From Bob Glidden's milestone 50th win in 1986 and Eddie Hill's first-in-the-fours blast in 1988 through John Force's scary crash last year, the place has electrified fans.

Back then, I contributed photographically to our national event coverage as well, and my post was the finish line, hoping to catch the razor-thin finishes and whatever else may transpire in the final milliseconds of a race. Typically, I perched atop the finish-line camera scaffold, sitting on the leading edge, my head inches below the swinging lens of the TV camera. Wayne Womack, who for years was Diamond P's top-end camera operator, and I shared many a hot day up there with one of the best seats in the house.

All of this comes to mind now because of a project that the NHRA Publications group has been working on, an NHRA Photo Greats book – one of four planned in the next two years -- packed with some of the wildest and most unforgettable moments on the dragstrip as captured by the cameras of National DRAGSTER photographers during the past five decades. Old-time race fans will remember the Drag Racing Photo Greats magazines of the 1970s, filled with the wildest images of the era as seen through the lenses of a wide cast of photographers, but ours is all homegrown stuff.

Basically, we went through our photo files from one end to the other, grabbing everything that looked interesting, then boiled that down to about 400 of the best images. We parceled those out for the four books, making sure that each set included a good mix of old and new, color and black and white, all classes and types of mishaps, plus some humorous photos.

A lot of my work is in there, and a lot of it came from the Motorplex, as you can see here. I chose five of the more interesting shots to talk about today.

It was Thursday, it was warm in Ennis, the kind of Texas day that was headed toward sweltering. I was working the grandstand beat at about 300 feet downtrack. My name's Burgess. I carry a camera.

I can't remember who I was working that 1990 race with, but my fellow reporter left to go to the concession stand or the restroom as the Top Alcohol Dragsters came to the line for the first qualifying passes. Jay Payne, today a Top Alcohol Funny Car and Pro Mod hero, launched his blank digger off the line in a wheelstand that simply grew and grew. I buried my finger into the camera's motor-drive button and watched in shock as it went up, up, and farther up until the rear tires left the ground and was levered into the air by the rear wing. Everyone held their breath as the car pirouetted in the air and slammed down nose first on the concrete quarter-mile. By the way, that's current Top Fuel shoe Troy Buff in the near lane.

As devastating as that crash was, Payne wasn't done. He transplanted his powertrain into fellow racer Bruce McDowell's dragster and qualified for the race the next day but didn't make thec all for the first round due to engine damage. I talked to Jay on flight yesterday and he said that the fuel pump had been damaged in the rollover but they did not discover it until later, after they had wounded the engine.

On Sunday of that same event, I was following Mark Oswald and the Candies & Hughes Probe through my viewfinder. Oswald had already won in Seattle and Topeka that year and was the No. 3 qualifier in Dallas with a 5.20. His first-round opponent, Al Hofmann, had broken just off the starting line, so there was no real reason to hold the camera to my eye as the normally rock-steady C&H car flew down the track.

But just as the red and white rocket entered the speed traps, a catastrophic engine and blower explosion turned the Ford body to confetti before my very eyes. If you ever see video of this one, you'll see Oswald briefly waving a hand in the air as he reached for the roof-mounted parachute levers that were no longer there. Oswald barely battled the bouncing chassis to a stop after twice bouncing off the left guardwall as a light fiberglass rain continued to flutter down on Wayne and me.

What started with a rocker-arm adjuster failure led to the massive explosion that literally blew the engine into two halves.

Oswald still managed a 5.40, 256.62 clocking, but, obviously, the team could not make repairs in time to make its next-round date with Richard Hartman and the Raybestos machine. Mike Dunn, with dad Jim tuning, went on to win the race, his first for team owner Ed Abel and sponsor Snickers in just their third outing together.

Two years later, I had the best seat in the house for two more spectacular incidents. In the first round of Top Fuel, in what was becoming a bit of an epidemic, Doug Herbert suffered a blowover while racing Rance McDaniel.

The car stood straight up early in the run, caught wind, and, well, we all know what happened next. The car flipped over and ground to a halt on its side right in front of me and Wayne. Despite his Dougzilla-sized self, Herbert did a great job of wriggling out from the cockpit and scampering over the guardwall to safety.

McDaniel lost in the next round to Joe Amato, who lost in the round after that to Ed McCulloch, whose Lee Beard- and Mike Green-tuned McDonald's dragster defeated Hill in the final round.

Right before "the Ace" and "the Thrill" got it on in the final round, I was witness to one of the weirdest Funny Car finals in memory when John Force squared off with McCulloch's McDonald's teammate, Cruz Pedregon. To put the moment into perspective, you have to realize that after finally climbing to the top of the heap in Funny Car, winning championships in 1990 and 1991, Force was on the verge of losing his throne to Pedregon, who had entered the race up by about three rounds with just the World Finals remaining. In storybook fashion, they qualified 1-2, with Force on the pole, and reached the final. We all know Force's determination to win, and there was no way Force was going to let the "Cruzer" get another round up on him.

Force left first, .463 to .479, but both cars went up in smoke, Pedregon first, at about 200 feet due to a broken water hose, then Force, whose car simply overpowered the track at about 400 feet. Force lifted and nailed the gas again, but the car had over-rotated slightly, and when Force buried the gas, it picked up the front end slightly, and he bounced his Castrol Olds off the left guardwall. Race over, right? Hardly.

Pedregon had pedaled, smoked the hoops again in his own water, lifted, and nailed it again. Force, hearing all of this commotion, buried the loud pedal again, too, and hit the guardwall again another hundred feet or so downtrack. This time, Force finally gave it up, and Pedregon came streaking past in a cloud of tire smoke and still beat Force to the finish line, 7.76 to 7.85. I had a fresh roll of film in the camera and pretty much used up all 36 frames.

Force suffered a concussion and bruised chest and spent that night at Baylor Medical Center, where he would return last September, 15 years later, after his top-end crash alongside Kenny Bernstein.

Pedregon entered the Finals with an 834-point lead, but Force still had hope. If he could win the race and set low e.t. and have Pedregon exit in the first round, he could do it. Of course, it only got worse for Force in Pomona, where his Castrol Olds turned turtle in qualifying after the throttle stuck and Pedregon became the only driver other than Force to win a Funny Car championship in the 1990s.

Finally, here's an interesting pic for you from 1994. Not interesting in the fact that it's a Top Fueler making like a blowtorch and trailing a 50-foot wall of flame but in the driver. Unless you're a regular subscriber to "Bloggin' Bob's" CSK journal, you might not be aware that Funny Car hero Del Worsham also competed occasionally in Top Fuel in Roger Primm's dragster for parts of three seasons, 1993-95.

In 22 outings, Worsham and Primm DNQ'd 13 times and scored just four round-wins in the car that was sponsored by the Primm family's Whiskey Pete's and Primmadonna casinos (in Primm, Nev.).

Interestingly, the guy who took over the wheel of the car won four rounds at one event to earn his first NHRA Wally: eventual Funny Car ace Ron Capps, who won in Seattle in 1995.

Worsham has had a lot more success in his 360-race Funny Car career, racking up 22 national event titles and a 335-308 win-loss record, according to the accounting firm of Wilber, Wilber, and Wilber.

Anyway, I'm excited to be in Dallas and excited about the upcoming book and another one that is under way, a history of Pro Stock as compiled by our Pro Stock expert John Jodauga. He's been rifling through the photo files and researching the factory hot rod class from its inception, tracing the class' evolution through old issues of National DRAGSTER and Super Stock magazine. We expect to have both of these books ready for your enjoyment well in advance of the holiday shopping season, so it's time to start dropping those hints.

Thanks for visiting, and for your support.