NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

Welcome back, 'Mr. Everything'

Legendary Funny Car racer Pat Foster battles back from health issues
07 Mar 2008
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

(Above) The Barry Setzer Vega was unchallenged on the match race circuit in the early 1970s and went to three straight national event finals in 1973. (Below) Pat Foster, left, son Cole, and team owner Setzer with Linda Vaughn in the winner's circle at OCIR's fabled Manufacturers Meet.

It was the great American author Mark Twain who wrote, after reading his own obituary in the newspaper, "The reports of my demise are greatly exaggerated."

I'm happy to say that the same can be said for Pat Foster.

The legendary driver, chassis builder, and master restorer was struck down by an aortic aneurysm the day before Thanksgiving and nearly died. He battled back, and we almost lost him again in early December. The situation was so dire, in fact, that he was on life support, and his kidneys were failing. Even though his eldest son, Cole, had supreme faith in his father and proclaimed, "Don't put Dad in the ground yet," a close family friend wrote me Dec. 7 and said the end looked near. I went home that night and wrote an obituary that thankfully never had to be printed.

John Drummond later told me that Cole, who had rushed home from a business trip in Japan when his father was stricken, planned to go to the hospital and tell him, "Okay, Dad. It’s time to get up, man. Final round is here. Now or never. Get up now, Dad!” I don’t know if he ever did tell him that, but Patty bounced back miraculously, is doing physical therapy Monday through Friday, and, although it looks like he'll be in a wheelchair from here out, is on the road to recovery.

"Dad was 250 on fire, no chutes, headed for the fence," Cole admitted, "but I believe he will get to tell some more lies to us all."

I bring this story up for three reasons. First, I am a huge Pat Foster fan. Everyone else in the club raise your hand. If your hand's not in the air, you either never saw Patty Foster break someone's bucking bronco of a Funny Car of its bad habits or wheel the Barry Setzer Vega to numerous wins or you weren't into drag racing in the 1970s. The P.F. Flyer was that bad.

Second, it's to remind everyone that Cindy Arias started a collection last week to raise money for Foster's family's extended stay near the hospital and for funds that can be used to help him in his rehabilitation. Thanks to some very generous donations from some of the top stars of yesterday and today, she's already crested the $10,000 mark and is shooting for 20-large. She’ll be set up in the grove behind the grandstands this weekend at the March Meet. You can find the donation info at the end of this entry.

And third, I bring it up because yesterday I spent a half hour on the phone with Mr. "Sit Low" for a story for this week's National DRAGSTER recounting his many, many famous rides. He sounded a little tired and beat up, as could be expected, but got up to speed as we went along.

He estimated once that he'd driven 50 or more different race cars, some for a season or more and some just to shake them down for their owners. I knew he wouldn’t have the staying power to go through all of them, so I spent a few days researching what I could. Bill Pratt's excellent DragList.com Web site was an immense help and a treasure trove of anecdotes. I pored over his photo file and through old National DRAGSTERs and Googled every car name I could think of for details to make the interview as easy as possible on him. Heck, I can’t remember what I had for breakfast last week; how is he supposed to know what kind of mill was in front of him in Rocky Childs' R&R Engines digger?

With the help of his sisters, Linda and Kay, I caught up to him yesterday in room 426 –- how appropriate -– of his hospital. Good thing, too, as he was being moved today to a new facility to further his rehab.

The article, filled with great photos and remembrances of his time driving for Setzer, Joe Pisano, Roland Leong, John Mazmanian, and other flopper greats, is part of our always eagerly awaited Readers Choice issue that prints next week. I called it "Mr. Everything" because, truly, Foster could do it all: drive 'em, build 'em, tune 'em, and restore 'em.

We barely got through the 20 or so cars I had picked before he began to tire, but between was some priceless stuff. I asked him specifically why he thought the Setzer Vega was such a killer car. "We went after it seriously every run, like every run was for the national championship," he said. "We got chided by some of the smaller teams for running that way, but I told them I had a car owner who wanted to tip the world over every time we went to the starting line and that was my job."

He also spoke glowingly of his time driving for another SoCal favorite, "Lil John" Lombardo, calling it "one of my most pleasant experiences. John was such an easy guy to get along with and was very smart. He ran the car the way I would run a car."

I'm sure that I speak for a lot of you about the sadness we feel as many of our early heroes have reached the age where they'll be leaving us. In the last two years alone, we've lost, of course, Wally and Barbara Parks, as well as great and memorable characters such as Sush Matsubara, John Mazmanian, Ronnie Sox, Dick Landy, Malcolm Durham, Art Arfons, R.C. Sherman, Connie Swingle, Don Gay Sr., Ray Romund, Doug Moody, Dick Custy, Chuck Kurzawa, Johnny Loper, Billy Holt, Jack Muldowney, Jim McClennan, and, in the last week, John Buttera and Lew Arrington. We've lost friends off the track, too, such as Dick McClung, Dave Danish, Richard Shroeder, Hot Rod founder Robert E. Petersen, race organizer Creighton Hunter, chassis builder Ken Cox, Hurst's Jack Duffy, former Division 2 photographer Marty Johnson, Anne Lepone, Glenn Angel, and many more.

In the newspaper business, writing obituaries is one of the first things to which new staffers are assigned, and they’re generally not happy about it. Me, I take it as an honor to be able to bid our heroes farewell. It's a sad little ritual that I undertake when I write their epitaphs for NHRA.com and National DRAGSTER, but I try to fondly make them as great a tribute as I can muster to give them an appropriate send-off.

They'll always be our heroes, but even as we write last words about them, we know still that they'll be fondly remembered by our generation and hopefully by those who follow us.