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Winning time

Winternationals celebrations, including a young Larry Dixon in 1970; vintage Dixon family press release; more Simon Menzies
14 Feb 2008
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

One of the best parts of any race is the time spent in the winner's circle. You're surrounded by very happy people, whether it's the racers basking in the glow of victory or a group of tired but pleased NHRA staff members enjoying the satisfaction of having completed another event.

There's a lot of back slapping and handshaking, hugs and smiles. The racers are joking and sometimes clowning, the immense pressure of the day seemingly washed clean by a healthy bathing from the photographers' flashes. The Wallys are hugged and kissed and, in some cases, passed around to crewmembers as if they were the Stanley Cup ready to be paraded around the ice.

No one ever forgets his or her first visit to the winner's circle, a near-fantasy experience that probably seems as if it ends too soon. Some racers never make it to the winner's circle, and that's a terrible shame.

Some racers have been there so often it's almost like a second home. In addition to his 125 personal appearances with Wally, John Force has been there on dozens of occasions as team owner. You can tell the teams that have been there before; they bring an armload of hats from different sponsors so that each can get a photo of the team wearing their hat sent to them after the event, or be in the photos themselves. Force's team must have posed for two dozen photos, which also included pictures with Rob and Tara DiPinto (Lokkii BBQ Briquettes), Kirby Boone (Old Spice), Rick Lalor, Jeff Prokop, and Tom and Megan McKernan (Auto Club), Niranjan Singh, Dan Davis, John and John Jr. Szymanski (Ford), plus Castrol representatives and customers and representaitives of BrandSource. The whole time, crewmembers from all the Force teams waited and smiled patiently in the background. Even poor Chad Light, busted hand and all, stood proudly by.

The women behind Force Racing also got a fun group shot with Prock and Hight that included, from left, Ashley, Brittany, Laurie, and Courtney Force, Joan Rice, Lana Chrisman, Kelly Antonelli, Alicia Lawrence, and Adria Hight and daughter Autumn, plus, up front, Kelly Ozga, Shannon Casertano, and Amy Huszar.

My favorite moment, though, came when Hight posed with Autumn, first with the Wally and later through the roof hatch of the Automobile Club of Southern California Mustang. It was kind of a last-second deal because Hight had jumped into the car to prepare for it to be pushed out of the winner's circle to make room for the next celebrants. Someone handed Autumn to him and set off an electrical storm of flashes from the photographers standing nearby, including Ron Lewis from regular NHRA.com contributor Auto Imagery, who supplied us with this photo.

Of course, for those of us who have been around forever, it immediately drew comparisons to the iconic photo of a young Larry Dixon, cradled in his dad's arms after winning Top Fuel at the 1970 Winternationals and flashing the V-for-Victory sign, something he's been doing his whole life since.

You don't really see it as much anymore, but that V symbol was popular back in the day, either from drivers flashing it to photographers as they staged or the bold ones holding it high out of their cockpit as they motored to victory. The last driver I can remember who did that was drag racing tree surgeon Gary Southern, who in 1988 powered his way through the traps at Indy in Dale Smart's Alcohol Dragster – in the debut of the PSI screw blower -- just inches ahead of John Speelman while holding his V-fingered hand into a 227.96-mph wind. The PSI gave them a huge advantage; his run was five mph faster than the national record. Speelman was winning the race for the first 1,200 feet before Southern whipped past his puny 217-mph effort as if he were standing still. "I never saw him until the first mph light," said a dejected Speelman. "When I hit high gear, I said, 'I have this thing won.' Then the freight train came through at 228 mph." Said the always cocky Southern, "I was going to lift both hands in victory, but I wasn't sure I'd won, so I only put one up."

I'm not sure how many of you will think this is as cool as I do, but I'll share it anyway. Cruising through Larry Dixon Sr.'s file for the images above, I came across a press release from the 1970 season. It's not the first time I've found one that Leslie Lovett ferreted away in the files for good measure, but this one was cool because it was submitted –- maybe even typed -- by the Dixons themselves. In these days where teams have PR reps who do mass e-mailings, here's an original copy (not a photocopy, mind you) that was sent to DRAGSTER. It's stamped as received Aug. 24, 1970.

I'm not sure if Dixon Sr. himself wrote it, but the second paragraph begins, "A national victory gives a man a great deal of public recognition and a very personal kind of pride." Very nice. It goes on to talk about how the Dixon racing effort is a family affair, including "Larry's attractive wife, Pat" (I hope it was Dixon who wrote that) and "3-year-old Larry Jr. [whose] dad is the greatest of all heroes."

It chronicles Dixon's rise through the ranks, how the son of a mechanic built his first car for the Stock ranks then ran supercharged gassers, gas dragsters, and roadsters and finally Top Fuel. He recounts his Winternationals victory, right down to blowing the engine in the semifinals and his pit, "in the spirit of good sportsmanship characteristic of drag racing," being swarmed by fellow competitors, some of whom he didn’t even know, down to the detail of final-round foe Tony Nancy blowing a freeze plug.

The release also came with detailed spec sheet of Dixon's entry: a 392 Dodge topped by a Bowers blower spinning at 27 percent over, rated at 1,500 horsepower (just slightly more than what a Pro Stocker makes these days) fitted into a 1,500-pound (!) Speed Products Engineering-built car. The spec sheet says 72 percent nitro, which is surprising to me; I thought teams ran "the can" (100 percent) back then. A truly priceless document.

And, speaking of originals, this wonderful picture finally makes the return trip to National DRAGSTER after a near-30-year vacation in the offices of Simon Menzies, whom you've read about here before. Leslie Lovett's not here to give me his Five Favorite Fabulous Fotos, but Menzies sent me this Lovett original to include here.

"Les often joked that this picture was his favorite mistake," Menzies wrote. "We were at OCIR in '78 or '79, and I was occasionally prone to tripping the first mph light on my burnouts. What fun! Les was at the big end and had just finished shooting some black and whites when he saw me coming. He loaded some color film and started shooting, forgetting to change the B&W setting on the camera. Voila! His favorite mistake.

"He gave me several prints and told me that he would find a place for the shot. He selected it for the World Finals pocket brochure. I have a lot of pictures in my shop, and I always think of Les when I focus on this one. She's an original with a few nicks, but I thought you might enjoy."

Thanks, Simon. We smile a lot, too, when we come across double L's stuff, and everyone enjoyed seeing it, as I'm sure the readers of the column will. If only all our mistakes looked this good.