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You've got questions, we've got answers

10 Oct 2008
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

Another week, another zillion ghost-track requests. … I'm slowly working my way through your latest batch of submissions and stories and will present them sometime next week. It takes time to track them down, research a little history, pinpoint their locations, etc., but I was dealt an ace earlier this week when a good friend, who's pretty much the Indiana Jones of finding lost tracks, offered his help with some of the trickier ones. He doesn't want the glory of having his name mentioned, so I won't, but I thank him.

With well over 1,000 dragstrips built on this continent alone, and a couple hundred of them still active, that's a lot of ghost tracks, and you guys seem determined to list all of them. Even good ol' Mr. Wilber is playing along over at the Team CSK blog.

In the meantime, and following on the heels of last week's well-received Q&A format, for your reading entertainment and information, here are some more actual questions from actual readers.

 
 

"Phil, coming to the Reunion this weekend?" – Submitted by about a dozen people

Yep, I'll be there, probably Saturday only due to my other NHRA.com responsibilities covering this weekend's NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series event in Virginia. I'm a bit ashamed to admit that even though this year's California Hot Rod Reunion is the 17th annual, it will be my first CHRR. I can hear you asking, "But Phil, how can that be? You love drag racing!"

I do, but for a variety of reasons, usually involving workload and family obligations, I never got the chance to go. Although I've always fancied myself the possessor of a good history of the sport, it wasn't until this column really took off that I rekindled some of the magic of "being there."

I've been noting, with some chagrin, that some people have begun to refer to me as a historian of the sport, and although my long and deep involvement in the sport has provided me the resources and contacts to assemble a pretty good mental encyclopedia, there are probably a dozen guys – guys like  Greg Sharp, Steve Gibbs, Bob Frey, Bret Kepner, Dave Wallace, Don Prieto, Forrest Bond, Bill Pratt, Danny White, et al. – who are better suited to carry that appellation. I prefer to think of myself more as a storyteller, or re-storyteller, sharing the tales of yesteryear in a new and interesting fashion, uncovering some stories and details not normally known, and giving some of these great pioneers another dose of glory long after they've left the saddle.

I enjoy setting the history books straight on some levels and turning topsy-turvy long-held "facts" – that Gary Beck was a Canadian, that Jim Nicoll first got his "Superman" nickname from surviving crashes, neither of which is true – and I did work diligently (and seemingly in a race against time) with Wally Parks before he passed to make sure that I understood and had cataloged his version of many key points in NHRA history, but I'm not the guy to ask about who drove what car in the 1960s or to identify an anonymous slingshot dragster based soley on its injector scoop as so many others can.

I picked Saturday mostly because of that night's Cacklefest and for a chance to be part of the annual group photo for the Standard 1320 e-mail group, an amazing collection of individuals who not only lived but also remember well the early years of drag racing, plus cool cats like Drag Fink cartoonist Jeff DeGrandis, whose work is seen above. I just largely sit around and absorb their knowledge and memories and hope to be able to share some of it with you. I also hope to walk away from the Reunion with a treasure trove of interviews and contact information that will stoke the fires of this column for a long time to come.

 

"We all know that Rob Bruins is the only guy to win an NHRA Pro championship without winning a single national event (1979). Who has the flip side of the coin: Most wins in a season without winning the title?" -- J.B. Green, Tacoma, Wash.

Looks like Greg Anderson and Dave Connolly earn that dubious prize for each putting eight wins on the Pro Stock scoreboard last season and still finishing second and third behind Jeg Coughlin, who had just four event wins. Coughlin also had four runner-ups and four semifinals; Anderson only had two semifinals and four runner-ups, and Connolly only had one other runner-up and five semi's.

In Top Fuel, there's a tie between Cory McClenathan, who won six races in both 1997 and 1998 yet finished second to Gary Scelzi both years, and Larry Dixon, who also chalked up a half dozen new Wallys but finished second behind Tony Schumacher in 2001.

Tony Pedregon has the most Funny Car wins in one season without getting the big number 1; that happened in 2001, as a teammate to John Force.

Angelle Sampey and Andew Hines hold the Pro Stock Motorcycle portion of this hall of disappointment, each with five wins and no title, Sampey in 1999 when she finished second to Andrew's big bro, Matt, and Andrew last season, when he was runner-up to Matt Smith.

For the record, although Bruins did not win any national events, he did win a handful of divisional events that year, and, lest we forget, only 10 national events were on the calendar that year.

 

"Just what kind of guy is John Force, really?" – Norman Schmidt, Cleveland

In a casual situation, if you can ever get him away from racing, you might have a tough time reconciling him with the madman talking 1,000 words a minute in television interviews. He can be thoughtful, introspective, and uncommonly caring. I've known Force for 20 years, the first 10 of which were mostly professional, but in the last few years, I've seen new sides of him. I think we all thought of Force as this guy relentlessly pursuing his championship hopes, sacrificing whatever had to be sacrificed to make it happen. To many, it seemed a bit selfish and a bit Don Quixote-like --a little guy tilting at windmills named Prudhomme and Beadle trying to make his dreams come true --and anyone who ever watched Driving Force knows the toll it took on his marriage and his family.

But it's great to see his whole family together, laughing and pulling for each other. It's cool as hell that the entire team pours out onto the starting line whenever possible to watch whoever among them is running, whether it’s the Funny Car foursome watching Courtney and Brittany or Laurie and the girls cheering on the Fords. I'm not going to pretend that he and I sit around his Jacuzzi drinking mojitos, but the John Force I've seen and to whom I've spoken on many private occasions is a deeply caring guy, more than I'm sure he's ever let on.

As successful as he is, he'll probably always be part old truck driver, part poor kid from Bell Gardens, part hapless high school quarterback, because those are his roots, and Force isn't the kind of guy who forgets from where he came. He values family and loyalty above all else; I can’t remember the last time I talked to him that he didn't ask me about my grandkids, because I know his granddaughter, little Autumn, is the apple of his eye. He cares so deeply for this sport that's given him so much, and the sometimes fractious nature of political agendas in the pits just seems to rip at him. And, just as he was spared last year in his horrible accident, his whole outlook on life seems reborn. He's found focus on the things that are important to him and pursuing them relentlessly. He's far from that sometimes one-dimensional view that TV watchers get. That's my take, at least. Your mileage may vary.

 

"I have a problem with 'the Chase,' at least as it pertains to Funny Car. With four cars and the biggest budget in the class, all of John Force's cars usually qualify, thus he controls 25 percent of the field. He can almost guarantee all his cars will be in 'the Chase.' Now he can exercise control of 40 percent of the finalists." -- Robert Freeland, Seminole, Fla.

Even if Force did get all four cars in the Funny Car field – no guarantee lately -- the likelihood of them racing each other is not that great. Consider that this season Ashley Force has raced her dad just twice (in Atlanta, where she won, and in Dallas, where she lost) and Robert Hight and Mike Neff once each (Chicago and Memphis, respectively, both wins) – hardly enough to make it a viable Countdown (not "Chase"; that's NASCAR talk) strategy. Plus, Force doesn't have the only multicar team; Schumacher has four cars, Pedregons two, Kalitta four in Top Fuel, etc.

The specter of a dive will always be out there anytime two teammates face one another in any sport, but considering that each of Force's cars has a high-dollar sponsor behind it, it would be hard to explain to Sponsor A why the team decided to go in the tank for Sponsor B. I'm not saying it's never happened or will never happen again in drag racing, but with just six races in the Countdown, it's pretty hard to get far enough out of the running to start giving away round-wins.

Plus, as Mike Dunn often points out, Funny Cars are so unpredictable by nature – ask any crew chief who stood scratching his head after his car went up in smoke for no reason – how do you tell when it's done on purpose?

 

"What do you hear about a 'Jungle Jim' movie being made? How cool would that be?" -- Monty Kragen, Baltimore

That would be way cool, Monty, so I dropped a quick line to "Jungle Pam" Hardy, J.J.'s longtime cohort, who confirmed the rumor and says it's looking good.

"A 'Jungle Jim' movie is in the works," she says. "The movie focuses on the years 'Jungle' and I were together. The leads have yet to be chosen."

Wow, who the heck could play the 'Jungle' couple? Suggestions, readers?

She also encourages fans to pick up a copy of Lou Hart's new book, Drag Racing Funny Cars, for which she wrote the foreword.

And check out her great Web site, www.junglepam.com. It's chock-full of great historic photos of her and J.J. throughout the years. Cool stuff.

 

"What’s up with the Lucas sponsorship going on Dave Connolly's car?" – Confused in Ohio

Dear CIO, there are two answers to this question. The first is the business aspect, in which Charter has agreed to run some Lucas Oil ads on its programming, reaching nearly 6 million homes, which is a great way for Forrest Lucas to expand his products' exposure.

Being the non-millionaire that I am and always will be, I think it's also a way for Forrest Lucas, being the huge fan of racing he is, to have some fun in the Countdown. I saw disappointment being written all over his face in Indy when first his son, Morgan, couldn’t crack the Top Fuel Countdown in qualifying and then, a day later, when Hector Arana's Lucas Buell lost a winner-makes-the-Countdown first-round match with Karen Stoffer, leaving him without a major player in the Countdown. His other two main cars, the Top Fueler of J.R. Todd and the Pro Stocker of Larry Morgan, had tough years and also didn't make the playoffs. Lucas already had done a swell thing by adding his logo to Gary Densham's Countdown-clinched Funny Car to have someone to root for, but now he has another driver to enjoy the ride with.

It makes you wonder how teams could benefit like this in the future; in much the same way that pro sports teams pick up players from other teams for their playoff run, an underfunded drag team that makes the Countdown might be able to sell the space on the side of its car to the highest-bidding sponsor who wants the extra exposure generated by the Countdown and the chance of being the sponsor of a world champion.

 

"With the Countdown getting close to the finish, I got to thinking. Which driver has the most career national event wins without ever winning the championship? Cory Mac? – Bernie Stanfield, Medford, Ore.

Cory Mac surely has had his disappointments, including four second-place finishes, but Kurt Johnson owns this sad category by quite a margin. K.J. has collected 39 Pro Stock Wallys but doesn’t have the big shiny gold one to go with them, and, like C-Mac, has four second-place finishes. Johnson's win total is nine more than Doug Kalitta (three second places) and McClenathan.

Behind them are Ron Capps (25 wins, three seconds); Capps' current crew chief, Ed "the Ace" McCulloch (22 wins, just one second place, but six Indy wins!); Mike Dunn (22 wins, one third place); Del Worsham (22 wins, one second place); Whit Bazemore (20 wins, two second places); Darrell Gwynn (18 Top Fuel wins, two seconds – plus a Top Alcohol Dragster championship); and Brandon Bernstein (17 wins, three thirds, including the last two seasons).

Maybe this will be K.J.'s year.

 

"Being the former OCIR pit rat that you were, I'm surprised you haven't included it in your ghost tracks column. Why not?" -- Stan White, Wichita, Kan.

Funny you should ask, Stan. I've got a bunch of stuff planned about OCIR for later this month, including a ghost-track deal. I was fortunate to be contacted recently by a gentleman named Karl White, whose office in JAE Electronics today sits about where the OCIR parking lot used to be.

I asked, and he obliged and sent me some photos of what it all looks like now that I will share later this month. Needless to say, there ain't a trace of the old gal visible.

"If you haven’t been this way lately, it’s a high-tech industrial park now, called The Irvine Spectrum," he said. "I’ve got 48 people in our office, and I’ll bet you $5 not four of them know a dragstrip was ever here except for me telling 'em. Sad, just sad."

Look for all of this OCIR goodness later this month.

"What's the better date for me and my girl: A night at a fancy restaurant or a day at the drags?" – Jason Roberts, Clearwater, Fla.

Did you forget who you addressed this to? Comparing a day at the drags to dinner at, say, world-famous Gordon Ramsay in London (voted the city's top restaurant), it's easy to see by the chart below what your decision should be. Plus, although the price of gas is plenty steep, it pales in comparison to airfare. Getting there may be half the fun, but only when it's you, your gal, the open road, and some Bruce Springsteen on the radio. "Come take my hand, we're riding out tonight to case the promised land, oh oh oh oh, Thunder Road, oh, Thunder Road, oh, Thunder Road …"

FEATUREDRAGSTRIPRESTAURANTADVANTAGE
BLINGChrome exhaust, paint by Gerdes, shiny tools ... lots of shiny toolsElegant stemware, stainless-steel cutlery, crystal chandeliers

ATMOSPHERELaid-back, funStuffy

ANNNOYANCESAll of that access to the stars of the sport; simply not enough time to personally
talk to all the greats of the sport
Snooty maitre d'

DURATIONAll day and most of the nightWhat, two hours?

MAIN COURSEDrag Dog and Nitro Nachospigeon with foie gras and Cornish lamb

PRICE OF FOOD
(1 serving)
$13$183

BACKGROUND MUSICRoaring exhaustMuzak

YOU MIGHT SEE ...John Force, Don Prudhomme, Kenny
Bernstein, dozens more
Madonna, Sting, Paul McCartney

I SMELL …Spent exhaust fumes, burning rubber, nitro!Duck l'orange

 

Okay, gang, that's it for the week. Keep those cards and letters coming. Hope to see some of you at "the Patch" Saturday and, if not there, back here early next week!