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Where have all the nicknames gone? We've got 'em right here …

A super-dumb column in which we decide to give modern-day drag racers nicknames
05 Mar 2008
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

"The Snake" and "the Mongoose" and "the Zookeeper."

"Big Daddy" and "the King" and "the Ace."

"Superman" and "Dandy Dick" and "the Smilin' Okie."

Where have all the nicknames gone? Back in the day, a great nickname was a calling card, a necessary persona that helped ensure regular match-race bookings, a name that could be screamed over radio commercials to draw fans to the track. Today, not so much.

Don’t get me wrong; we still have them in our sport. Of course, "the Snake" and "the Bounty Hunter" and "Grumpy" and "Big Jim" are still with us, though no longer in the cockpit. We've even got a few drivers still with cool nicknames: "Hot Rod" Fuller and "Fast Jack" Beckman, and "DougZilla," Doug Herbert. Robert Hight's "Top Gun" nickname –- from his trapshooting days -- never stuck and Brandon Bernstein's "B-Squared" also seemed to have a short shelf life.

(Did you know that Fuller's and Beckman's nicknames were with them long before they sat in their first race car? “My uncles raced, and when I was born, my mom knew I was going to be a race car driver," says Fuller. "She wanted to name me Hot Rod Fuller. My dad said, ‘You’re not naming my boy Hot Rod Fuller on his birth certificate.’ They compromised and chose Rod." Beckman's story: "I bought a Yamaha FJ 600 brand new in 1985. I was in the Air Force, and had a '69 El Camino that I spent all of my money hot-rodding. I told my buddies that we all needed nicknames if we were gonna race. One of my friends' moms kinda stuck the name on me. The 'FJ' on the Yamaha was the initial impetus, and once I mentioned it to her she kinda committed it to me." Now you know ...)

Well, your pals here at the DRAGSTER Insider (the D.I., for short), in conjunction with your blogging buddy Bob Wilber, are out to fix the sobriquet shortage, to put an end to this moniker deficit, and bestow some nicknames on those less fortunate. Plus it was a slow Tuesday yesterday.

Okay, first we'll have to dismiss from our list anyone whose last name is Johnson, because they have a built in nickname: A.J., T.J., K.J., W.J. Former Pro Stock racer Morris Johnson was MoJo, which was cooler. But I digress.

Most of you know that Wilber and I are big hockey fans, and no one knows nicknames like hockey players. Everyone on a hockey team has a nickname, usually derived from their first or last name with a "y" or an "s" or "er" added to it. Therefore, players like the L.A. Kings' Patrick O'Sullivan and Michael Cammalleri are known to their rostermates as "Sully" and "Cammy." The Ducks' Chris Pronger is "Prongs" and so on. They do this for several reasons, most notably locker-room bonding and on-ice communications, plus it sounds so much cooler in an interview. You'll never hear Anze Kopitar say, "Well, Patrick and Michael made a nice play to get me the puck." That just sounds too weird. And using their last names would sound too stilted.

(The NASCAR guys get around this whole situation by calling the other drivers by their car number -- "The 20 just wrecked me!" -- or perhaps a well-chosen expletive. We're so far above that.)

So, let's pick the low-hanging fruit. Ron Capps would have to be (and is to John Force) "Cappsie." It'll never follow "Sunday, Sunday, Sunday:" in a commercial, but I like it. Jason Line? Liner. Antron Brown? Brownie. Beckman wouldn’t be "Fast Jack"; he'd simply be "Becks." Long last names are a hassle. Tim Wilkerson already is known as "Wilky," Bob Gilbertson as "Gilby," and Cory McClenathan, of course, as "Cory Mac." Wilber suggests Bob Vandergriff Jr. could be simply "BeeVeeGee."

Some drivers are harder. Wilber's own Del Worsham for example? How the heck do you nickname-ize Worsham? "Delsie?" Wilber offered weakly. "There's really no other choice unless you just called him 'Kid' from his 'Kid From The Coast' days." Problem is there's been lots of drag racing "kids" -- Darrell Gwynn, Darren Davis, and Billy Stepp to name a few.

Once I got "Wilbs" -- a one-time almost pro baseballer familiar with such team-oriented shenanigans -- revved up there was no stopping him. This is a bad idea, I think, but like a driver who keeps his foot on it when the engine turns sour, I'll keep the hammer down.

"Capps could be called 'Lids' but 'Toddsie' is too easy for J.R., so maybe he'd be 'Junie' (for Junior). Jim Head would be 'Cabbie' [for the Spanish cabeza] and Hillary Will might be 'Minnie' (because she's small). Scelzi would be 'Trogg' (for the singers of the song 'Wild Thing'). Doug Kalitta would be 'DeeKay' and, taking Grubnic to the next level, you'd just call him 'Dirt.' "

Huh? Dirt?

"Grubnic already is 'Grubby,' " he patiently explained. "Any good hockey player would take that one more step and just call him 'Dirt.' "

Got it.

"Hight might end up being called 'Waiter' (Hight to Weight to Waiter) and a hockey player might call John Force 'Gretz,' just because he's the Great One. Max Naylor would be 'Hammer' (in effect, a 'nailer'). Mike Ashley would be 'Shmasher' and Tony ['Shoe'] Schumacher would be 'Loafer' or 'Sneaker. 'Johnny Gray would be 'Shades' (as in 'of gray'), Larry Dixon would be 'Dixie' and Shawn Gann would 'Ganner' or 'Gannsie.' Tom Hammonds could be 'Hoops' or 'Stretch' or 'Baller,' and Bob Tasca III would be 'Trips' or 'Trey' (for 'the third'). Ryan Schnitz would be, obviously, 'Schnitzel' and Craig Treble would be 'Bass ' I've got a million of them."

This was a really bad idea. I blame Wilbs. We now return you to your originally scheduled programming, or OSP, for short.

Favorite nicknames? New nicknames? Let me have 'em.

Before we get too far away from the Winternationals, here’s a little unfinished business, or UFB, as we call it. We ran this infamous 1978 shot in National DRAGSTER after this year's event as part of a "memorable Winternationals" feature. We neglected to give credit where due, so I'm here to fix that.

Longtime fans know well the photo, which has appeared in numerous publications besides DRAGSTER as perhaps the ultimate Winternationals photo. It even ran in the Los Angles Times with the blatantly understated caption: "A man checks the track at Pomona Raceway."

"The man" was veteran scribe Al Kirschenbaum and the photographer the ubiquitous Jon Asher.

"We were both employed at Car Craft magazine; Asher as Competition Editor and me as Feature Editor," remembers Kirschenbaum. "Due to wintery conditions, it took seven days (over a period of two-and-a-half weeks!) to run the event. On the sixth day, snow fell on Pomona. While the flurries were still falling, I attempted to strut the sculpting skills I'd honed over decades of East Coast winters by piling up a small snowman in front of the Winternationals A-board. That's when Jon shot the photo."

Added Asher, "Someone from NHRA, and I can't remember who, asked me if I would shoot some of the snow stuff, as no one from DRAGSTER was out there. I shot at least part of a roll and gave it to the media guy, and Leslie [Lovett, ND Photo Editor] processed it. That's how you ended up with the print. The shot of Al was the only one that got used."

"What Jon couldn't see behind him was, in my mind, THE image of the event," added Kirschenbaum. "Wally Parks standing alone in the open ground-floor doorway of the old timing tower, staring up dejectedly at the steady snowfall. His thoughts were perhaps best expressed the next day, the Tuesday of final eliminations, by NHRA's Competition Director, Steve Gibbs. When asked what other surprises he had in store, Gibbs replied, 'The locust plague is going to be here at noon.' "

Funny stuff. Thanks for the memories, guys.