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Top 10 lists, the one that got away ... and a white-knuckle SIMO

A Winternationals Top 10 list that almost got me fired; Don Ewald's tough Winternationals loss; Stuff in my Office: Riding a rollercoaster with John Force
09 Jan 2008
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

Monday's entry about the Don Prudhomme/David Letterman Top 10 list brought back a painful memory from 1989, when the DRAGSTER staff concocted a story for the Winternationals souvenir issue that was a series of Top 10 lists --Exciting Finals, Winningest Drivers, Unforgettable Crashes, Memorable Debuts, Unforgettable Moments, Weird, Occurrences, etc. – that drew the ire of Wally Parks. As you may have heard, Parks could be a bear when it came to his beloved DRAGSTER, and anything that he thought was inappropriate or did not reflect positively on the NHRA led to a sitdown across from him as he held an issue marked up with his concerns.

For some wiseguy reason that escapes me at the time, we had added, in very small print in the very bottom right hand of one of the pages, a true-life Letterman Top 10 list": "The Top 10 Ways Life Would Be Different If Dogs Ruled The World" (#3: "TV commercial altered so dog catches and devours little chuckwagon"). When we heard that Wally wanted to talk to us about the Top 10 article, we were sweating bullets and were ready, quite literally, to be in his doghouse. We gulped as he opened the issue. Maybe it was his 66-year-old eyesight or maybe he had bigger fish to fry, but he instead took us to task for glamorizing the crashes and nary a mention of the dogs. Whew! (That issue's cover, displayed here, is still one of my alltime favorites.)

Reviewing the story now, my eye was drawn to one of the "weird occurrences" we cited, which was Don Ewald's first-round loss to Don Garlits at the 1975 event. "Big" smoked the tires and was dead in the water, but Ewald, driving R.J. Trotter's car, crossed the centerline. Garlits later said that had he lost that first-round race at the season opener, he never would have chased points that year (which means he wouldn't have won the world championship -- Gary Beck probably would have -- and we might never have seen his stupendous 5.63, 250-mph run at Ontario at year's end).

Coincidentally, I had received an email from Ewald the other day. Ewald runs the popular nostalgia website We Did It For Love (wdifl.com) and recently discovered my column. I asked him what he recalled about the race; his reply was swift and thorough, and well worth sharing.

"The day before I'd become the 17th person (day late and a dollar short) to run in the fives and was feeling pretty good about things. I had 'Big' in the first round and had lane choice. Well, I'd run my 5.97 in the right lane so that's where I was going until my buddy [Dale] Funk dumped the entire bottom end of the Frakes car right on the line. After a long clean up I swapped lanes and put Gar in the sweep. It went downhill from there.

"After my burnout my guy lined me up crooked (toward the centerline) and nobody caught it. Halfway through low gear the car went into violent tire shake, so I short shifted to bring it out but that didn't completely work so I grabbed some brake. By the time I could see again I was at halftrack and real close to the centerline. I jerked the pig left and thought I was okay. I ran a weaksuck 6.22 but Gar was a mile behind me. I didn't go over the line but back then all you had to do was touch it and you were out. I touched it by about three inches. [Competition Director Steve] Gibbs told me later it was one of the hardest calls he ever had to make.

So, 33 years later that's what most people remember about my eight-year Top Fuel career. I won the Irwindale Gran Prix later that year (low ET and top speed) but the Pomona deal hung over me. I won my share but that was the fish that got away. Damn near every time I see the old man he thanks me AGAIN! Gary Beck, on the other hand, found no humor in the whole deal -- ever! If I had one day in my life for a do over that would be it."

The WDIFL site is well worth visiting. Now in its 10th year, it contains more than 78,000 historic photos as well as stories about "the good old days." Ewald launched it in early 1998, self-teaching the self-professed "old dog" new tricks, like websites and scanners. "By March of 1998 I'd learned just enough to be dangerous. I got some space on a free site and managed to put up 10 photos. In the course of that someone asked about the money we made racing. After we got done laughing, I typed back that it wasn't about the money, we did it for love. Someone said that would be a great name for the site -- and so it was.

"Instantly everybody was asking for more photos, and pictures started coming out of the woodwork. Early on it was just a way for us to share photos but it soon took on a life of its own as THE place for the preservation of drag racing history (pre-1979). By 2000 I'd outgrown the free server and starting sharing a real server. By 2002 I was comfortable enough to move what was becoming a monster to its own server (which has had to be upgraded three times). By 2004 the site was eating bandwidth like M&Ms and I could no longer afford the server fees. Plus it was turning into a fulltime job that had no income. I was going to pull the plug but my brother had a plan to at least cover the expenses: a modest membership fee. I was against it, but ultimately he was right as there are enough people who still care about our history to support the site. Since then all it's done is grow and grow and grow. Over the years we've expanded the original format (1950 to 1971 dragsters) to include pre-1979 rear-engine dragsters, drag boats, and, most recently, Funny Cars. In 2000 I started to include coverage of the Nostalgia Top Fuel dragster meets. Basically something for everybody.

"It's been a great ride that entails a lot of work. But foremost, we thank all the contributors who dug up old photos that would have never been seen by anyone if not for this outlet. Without them none of it would have happened and hundreds of those who did if for love would have been forgotten. It's also been fun working with the NHRA Wally Parks Motorsports Museum (a literal preservation of our history) and Cacklefest.com, where we are seeing more and more long-forgotten cars enjoy a new life. It's been an amazing 10 years and God willing we'll have many more."

Stuff In My Office, part cinco: Here's a funny photo that I've published before, in National DRAGSTER I believe, that is probably an appropriate coda to John Force's rollercoaster 2007 season. It's Force (and yours truly) riding the Manhattan Express rollercoaster at the New York New York casino that was taken exactly 10 years ago on this date, Jan. 9, 1997.

You gotta admit, Force looks a little more concerned than me, especially for a guy who makes his living at speed. (Then again, maybe it was my No Fear sweatshirt.) The photo was taken in the midst the coaster's 144-foot plunge.

The DRAGSTER editorial staff was in Vegas as Force's guest, a magnanimous gesture thanking us for being so good to him during his amazing 1996 season in which he had won a record 13 events. As a treat, he loaded us all in his bus for a daylong trip to Vegas. It was Force at his best, relaxed and kicked back, spinning stories on the drive over, We stopped at then Top Fuel racer Roger Primm's casino on the California-Nevada border and rode their Desparado coaster (one of the world's tallest and fastest coasters) before continuing on to Sin City. Force gave us each $50 to have fun in the casino, which we did, and then treated us to a nice dinner. The man did not get to be so popular by treating people in a second-class fashion.