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Pioneering in Pomona

John Collins and the Pioneer Express Datsun Funny Cars
30 Jan 2008
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

In case you haven't heard or have forgotten (yeah, right), the CARQUEST Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals starts a week from tomorrow, the beginning to another glorious season of NHRA POWERade Drag Racing and the kickoff of what promises to be an entertaining year. The Pomona event will mark the debut of the new Countdown to the Championship format, the new qualifying format, the return to 90 percent nitromethane, and the class debuts of Melanie Troxel, Antron Brown, and Bob Tasca III.

There's a lot of new going on, but that's par for the Pomona course, as longtime fans can attest.

Don Prudhomme got his first career win at Pomona in 1965. Bill Jenkins won the first Pro Stock title at the 1970 race. The 1982 event marked the debut of the 500-cid Pro Stock rules. The list goes on and on, but you have to go a way to top the 1980 event for shaking things up.

It was at that race that announcers first were hooked into a computer screen to get competitor info. Seems like a simple thing these days, but back then it was pert-near science fiction. Super Gas made its debut (when the index was 9.80 and the class was called Pro Gas) and got its first official winner in Bob Tietz. The 1980 event also marked the debut of Kenny Bernstein's Budweiser sponsorship and the requirement that all Top Fuelers be equipped with reversers; old timers out there remember that for years crewmembers hand-pushed the cars back to the line after their burnouts, a show unto itself.

But the 1980 event also marked a significant but long-forgotten ruling that first allowed the use of foreign bodies in Funny Car, a change that is still reflected today in cars like Scott Kalitta's Toyota and other cars. It also marked the introduction of a new bonus program concept to reward the low qualifiers in Funny Car.

For those final two, fans can thank former Funny Car racer John Collins, who helped bring them both to our world. I bring this up not merely for nostalgic remembrances of that event – I borrowed my parents' camper and camped out on a chilly Wednesday night in the Fairgrounds parking lot to be among the first into the place when it opened – but because earlier this month I heard from Collins, who's still alive and kicking, still comes to the races to hang out with old pal Lee Beard, and has found a new calling.

There's an old line that goes "old racers never retire, they just re-tire," but, no, unfortunately, the former driver of such quality rides as the Pioneer Audio Express and JVC entries isn't planning a driving comeback but is instead doing some marketing work for a friend who's hoping to break into the Pro Stock class this year.

It's been a while since we've seen John – a costly divorce in the late 1980s forced him to the sidelines -- but those of you who were around for the 1970s and 1980s remember him as one of the friendliest and marketing-savvy racers in the pits. He won a handful of national events, was involved in one of the sport's most memorable two-car collisions – his tangle with Ed McCulloch at the 1984 Cajun Nationals – before leaving early, but leaving behind his mark.

Collins actually had the Pioneer deal long before Shirley Muldowney, on the original Hot Wheels Duster he had purchased from Tom McEwen, for whom he drove in '74-'76. Back then getting a sponsor was a different world.

"I actually got the Pioneer deal through the Federated Group chain of stereo stores," recalled Collins. "I told Keith Powell, who's now the president but then was vice president, that I could draw 500 people to his store on a Friday night if he'd put me in his newspaper ads and put 10-second tags on his radio ads promoting my appearance. The first promotion I did drew 700 people. He introduced me in 1977 to the Pioneer people, who had never been involved in any kind of motorsports."

Pioneer became involved with NHRA on the Pioneer Supertuner award, a precursor to the Bud Shootout that followed a few years later. It wasn't nearly as lucrative a deal as today's Pro bonus programs. The low qualifying crew at each race got 16 points (on down to 1 point for No. 16) and a Pioneer product and the team with the most points at season's end got $2,000 plus a complete Pioneer car stereo system. Kosty Ivanof was the surprise low qualifier in Pomona, but eventual season champ Raymond Beadle and tuners Dale Emery and "Waterbed Fred" Miller won the Supertuner season title handily, by 50 points over Roland Leong and his Ron Colson-driven King's Hawaiian Bread entry.

NHRA was involved with Pioneer for in-store and at-track sales promotions and, according to Collins, it was the Japanese-based company's aggressive plans and their desire to showcase their name on a Japanese car -- as they were doing in other motorsports -- that opened the door for the first Datsun 280ZX Funny Cars. Datsun had actually been the "official pace car" of NHRA since 1976, so the synergy was right.

Collins debuted the first Z car at Pomona, but his 6.37 fell well shy of the Jim Dunn's 6.21 bump. As the middle photos I took way back when attest, I was enamored of this car, which had clean lines and a nice paint job. It didn't stay pretty long as the body was destroyed in a confrontation with the guardrail at that year's March Meet in Bakersfield. (I had actually planned to write more about the Datsuns today, but there's a nice new and comprehensive piece over on CompPlus that does the job. That's what I get for sitting on my Collins article and saving it for Winternationals time.)

Collins, who was born and raised in Southern California and had a house there from 1976, moved to Oklahoma in 1995, but stays in touch with Beard, whom he met through the late Gary Ormsby.

"Ormsby and I were great friends," he recalled. "I'd go up to see him in Northern California and stay with him for a couple of weeks. Lee and I would spend a week fishing and Gary and I would spend a week pheasant hunting. Gary was a great hunter. I also still talk to John Bateman, whose gave me my first Funny Car ride in his Atlas Oil Tool Special Mustang. I've known John since I was 10 years old and he still calls me two or three times a month."

Although Collins is out of the cockpit, he hasn’t completely given up on the idea of ever driving again.

"I tried to get other deals for a comeback the way it needed to be done, but nothing ever came of it," he said. "I left in the top 10 and if I was able to do it again I'd want to do it on the same level." .