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23 Sep 2008
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

Yesterday was a travel day home from Dallas, so I spent some time finishing this entry. During the weekend, I not only covered the big event but also did my darnedest to catch up on some correspondence I reckon I owe y'all (maybe I was in Texas too long). One of the great things about this column is the interchange with the readers, who often contribute as much as they receive. It makes this column like an ongoing bench-racing session.

So, without further ado, here you go (literally).

 

Reaction to my interview with Bill Shrewsberry ("They didn't call him 'Wild Bill' for no reason," Sept. 15) was, predictably, strong. If you ever saw or were lucky enough to meet "Wild Bill," he definitely left an impression.

Pat "Ma" Green, who worked NHRA tracks up and down the West Coast, was well familiar with "Wild Bill" and his, well, wild antics.

"I had to pick him up at the San JoseAirport, driving a little VW station wagon that belonged to Lesley Evans (Steve's then wife). As I'm trying to get up speed (not an easy thing to do) to get on the freeway, Bill reached down and pulled on the emergency brake. I nearly wrecked the car and then killed him. He was always so quiet and sneaky. You never knew what he would do next."

Bob Honeybrook of Sydney, Australia, who worked at a couple of tracks that Shrewsberry ran in Australia, recalled, "He made a great impression on all who witnessed his four (I think) tours of Australia. What a showman! He came back to Australia as a guest of honor at the 1995 Ultimate Bench Race in Sydney. We paid for him to come and be part of the 30-year anniversary of drag racing in the state of New South Wales. He will be always welcome in Australia. I have the remains of one of his engines in my shed; I used it in my AA/DA in 1974, and it served me well."

Kevin Hardy wrote, "My brothers and I were at Lions back when [Shrewsberry] drove the Hemi Under Glass 'Cuda. He came out to do some wheelies, and his first pass down the track was wheels up to the finish line. A crowd formed around the starting line to watch him come back up the strip, wheels up. Bill may have lost track of how close he was getting to the starting line, as he kept his foot in it a little too long. He set the car down and saw all the people standing there. They scattered in all directions, and Bill spun the 'Cuda out … right behind the line! It was great! (I was safely in the stands!)"

Brian Christiansen was at Fremont for Shrewsberry's famous standing-through-the-windshield pass. "I was sitting at the starting line in the stands, and when 'Wild Bill' came back to the starting line, it looked like he didn't know what to do next. He turned the car around behind the starting line, and the next thing everybody saw was 'Wild Bill' climbing through the windshield and standing straight up. 'Wild Bill' then started whacking the throttle, and the crowd went wild! All of the photographers were scrambling to get the best shot, but two friends of mine got the best pictures and movie film of 'Will Bill' doing wheelies standing straight up. Those guys were Jamie Jackson and Steve Reyes!

"Too bad things like that don't happen today! Long live the king of the wheelie, 'Wild Bill' Shrewsberry!"

 

Speaking of Steve Reyes, I heard from the dean of drag racing photography this weekend, who tells me that he just supplied the cover art for a book of poetry by John Donlan, one of Canada's best-known poets. One might expect that a book of poems would have some flowery cover, but not this one. The cover of Donlan's Spirit Engine boldly depicts a swirling front-engine Top Fuel fire burnout by Billy Tidwell in Mike Kuhl's slingshot. It's the same image that adorns one of Reyes' books, and apparently Donlan came across it and wanted it for his own.

Mike McClelland, son of the legendary Dave McClelland and himself an announcer at OCIR in its final years, wrote, "Loved the story on Shrewsberry. As you noted, he and 'Big Mac' are longtime pals, and the first time I ever met him was in 1969 or 1970. Anyway, the old man was running Southland Dragways in Houma, La., at the time, and WB brought the Dart down for one of the big shows. Since he was going to run at I think LaPlace sometime during the next week, he stayed at our house and parked the ramp truck with the Dart in front of the house. Now, if we weren’t the coolest kids in town already (our dad ran the dragstrip, after all), we really were with a wheelstander parked in front of the house. As for his show at Houma, after all the prerequisite long burnouts, etc., he takes off on his run. Through the lights, past the first turnout, past the second turnout, is he ever going to put this thing down? Nope, on the rear wheels, off the end of racetrack into the sand, where he proceeds to spin it around, still on the rear wheels, and drive back up the racetrack: 4,200 feet down the track, spin it around in the sand, and probably 3,500 feet back up the racetrack, never setting it down. Wonder if Jack Hart ever knew about that one."

Longtime DI reader Howard Hull, who also worked at OCIR in its glory years, added his own "Wild Bill" tale. "It was a warm summer night race at OCIR, and Bill was on top of the game," he wrote. "His son Steve handled the crewing for the race car, and I was standing in the announcing level of the tower with the late, great Steve Evans, who was announcing that evening. Bill did his normal burnout down the track to warm up the car to the delight of the crowd. However, when he backed it up and attempted to run the car down the track, he couldn’t get the car to rise up. Now this went on a couple of times. I remember the thumping of the engine as he backed it up. Steve Evans started chanting, which of course the crowd joined in, 'Get it, "Wild Bill," come "Wild Bill," get it up! You can do it, "Wild Bill!" ' Well, the whole place is chanting away when his son Steve reached down into the back of the car and removed the travel brace, which kept the car secure in the trailer (which he later admitted he forgot to remove). As he was doing this, Steve uttered the best line of the night that I will never forget. 'What’s wrong, "Wild Bill?" Can’t get it up? Don’t worry; it happens to every man once!' Well, at this point, the place went crazy, and 'Wild Bill' raced the car down the tracks on the back two wheels into the night! Shrewsberry at his best!"

Longtime Crane Cams rep and former Top Alcohol Dragster racer Chase Knight has vivid memories of Mark Oswald's top-end explosion at the Motorplex in 1990 ("Motorplex memories and mishaps," Sept. 19). "The Mark Oswald boomer was one of the all-time explosions I've ever witnessed," he reported. "Although it seemed like a 'normal' explosion, the way the oil was distributed on the track seemed rather unusual. Rather than a trail of the greasy stuff down his lane, there was just a 60-foot-diameter puddle at the finish line -- wall to wall, first mph clock to finish line -- as if the engine had sneezed all the lube out at once. It kept the Safety Safari from traveling too far for the cleanup. The visualization of that one is pretty well-etched in my mind."

 

Jack Hodson, who grew up going to Orange County, Irwindale, Lions, Fontana, and Riverside, was in Dallas for that wild 1992 race with Herbert's blowover and the Force-Pedregon final (replayed yesterday in the first round, with a different outcome), but said, "My whole reason for going to Dallas that year was in hopes of seeing the second 300-mph pass as no one had done it since Bernstein at Gainesville, and I figured that with the fall weather in conjunction with the Motorplex's all-concrete surface, that that is where it would happen. Of course, it was in my own backyard at Pomona two weeks later by Herbert, correct?"

Well, I'll give you quarter-credit, Jack. Actually, Bernstein also ran the second and third 300-mph passes that year, following his monumental Gainesville run of 301.70 with a 300.40 clocking in E-town and a 301.20 in Indy. Herbert did become the second driver to surpass 300 mph, and he did do it in Pomona, but not at the 1992 Finals. He did it at the 1993 Winternationals (Feb. 13, 1993), where his 301.60-mph clocking made him the second member of the Slick 50 300-mph Club. That Winternationals was especially memorable because that's where Bernstein had perhaps the nastiest wreck of his career in the Top Fuel final, blowing an engine and a tire and sliding across the centerline and backward into and over the rightside guardrail. As you can see from this photo I took, I had the best seat in the house from my finish-line camera-platform perch. It was pretty unforgettable.

My ode to Culver City ("Be true to your school," Sept. 17) inspired former ND Editor Bill Holland to acknowledge that while Quincy Automotive in nearby Santa Monica "was a 'must' for aspiring hot rodders, there was another place in Santa Monica called Shells that had lots of used stuff -- perfect for this low-buck high school kid who bought a manifold with three Stromberg 97s for his '52 Ford flattie. There was a similar place out in the Valley called Hot Rod Henry's." Holland went to Hollywood High, a rival of my Venice High alma mater in the Western League, which, according to Holland, had its fair share of drag racing notables, including chassis builder Kent Fuller, Bob and Don Spar (of B&M fame), Ratican-Jackson-Stearns, and Jimmy Albert (of Childs & Albert).

Dick Hedman said that their famous header shop was just two blocks east of Albertson Olds in Culver City on Washington Boulevard and right next door to Ted Halibrand, who was making wheels and quick change rear ends. The company originally was known as Belond Exhaust Systems when the Hedman family bought it; they changed the name to Hedman Muffler and Mfg. and later to Hedman Hedders. Culver City was where it was at back then," he assured me.

Mart Higginbotham, who ran the Drag-on Vega Funny Car in the early 1970s, enjoyed my interview with Leonard Woods ("Stone, Woods & Cook: From the inside," Sept. 8). "I remember back in the fall of 1970 at the Manufacturers Meet where Don Long was talking about building new Funny Cars. I made it a point to find his shop and drop by; his hours are crazy, so it had to be in the evening. When I did, I ran into two gentlemen who I did not know by sight and was informed by Don that it was Tim Woods and Fred Stone of A/GS fame. I introduced myself, and needless to say, they didn't know me from Adam. I got the chance to talk with them about the 'wars' and learn firsthand what special people both of them were. We visited for about an hour, and I got to learn about their time and place in history. It was really fun, and now the memories really come back."

 

Bob Warren got to see Stone-Woods-Cook race "Big John" Mazmanian at Detroit Dragway in (he thinks) 1963. "The promoter that ran Detroit would put on a show with some dollars attached on the Tuesday night after the U.S. Nationals at Detroit Dragway," he remembered. "It would always draw some of the best-known names in drag racing. I saw SWC run 'Big John,' and it stuck with me ever since that night. I always thought that those Willys were the most impressive race cars as they seemed to leap off the line and fly down the track. I know they had a reputation of being an ill-handling, tough-to-drive car, but they were neat. A few years later, at the old Motor City Dragway that was east of Detroit, I saw SWC run 'Jungle Jim' Liberman. This was during the time of Match Race Madness in the late '60s when everybody had gone to the Funny Car or long-wheelbase match race cars. They were running the Mustang with a blown Hemi, and, as there were no formal pits, they were parked not too far from the starting line, and you could walk right up to the car and look. Doug Cook was working on the car after a run, and I got to talk to him. He was a pretty nice guy, and I told him how good their car looked and how I was always a fan of the Willys they ran before this match racing all started. It is good to have seen this and always is fun to tell when you start talking about the past."

It's hard to talk about Stone, Woods, and Cook without talking about "Ohio George" Montgomery. NHRA Division 7 photographer Bob Johnson (who, oddly enough, lives in Division 3 country) sent me this photo at right of "Ohio George," who was the Hot Rod Hero at a recent nostalgia event at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk.

The results of the Favorite Race Car Ever poll ("And the winner is ...," Sept. 5) were roundly well-received, and even those who voted for others – or drove the others – bowed to the greatness of the SWC team.

"I was elated that Stone, Woods & Cook won the honor of best car ever," wrote reader Jeff Griffin. "I was very lucky to see them race at Fremont, Kingdon, and HalfMoonBay. I also built at least two versions (one blue and one black) of the Revell model. When I go to Infineon to see the 'circus' each summer, I am still in amazement to think back to days when people couldn’t even afford to trailer their race cars and had to use a tow bar to get them to the races. When SWC brought their black Swindler A to HalfMoonBay to make its NorCal debut there, more people crowded around it than the brand-new Hawaiian AA/FD that Prudhomme was driving for the first time outside of L.A. Who knows, besides being the first integrated racing team I had ever seen, I think that SWC was truly the first common man’s drag racer."

Legendary wheelstand king Bill "Maverick" Golden, whose iconic Little Red Wagon finished second to the Winged Express in the Exhibition Car poll, wrote, "I was happy to see the world has not forgotten my Little Red Wagon. I ate and slept with the Wagon for 40 years. Doris Herbert (of Drag News) named me and the Little Red Wagon 'the Babe Ruth of drag racing.' I was at a race at Detroit Dragway, and one of my overzealous competitors yelled, 'Why don't you put a big number one on it?' "

Speaking of wagons, Don Schumacher's trick Wonder Wagon Vega Funny Car was nominated for the 1970s Funny Cars poll but didn't win, though it still has a fond place in our memories. Drag racing artist John Bell, who used to do quite a bit of drag racing art in the 1970s-80s ("from designing paint schemes to rendering sponsor proposals; I thought I’d become the next Youngblood. Then I discovered that drivers would rather spend $100 for parts than art. So I began my long journey into the entertainment industry working in character design." www.johnbellstudio.com) captured the WW in one of his wonderful works of art and was curious if I knew what had happened to the car. "I don’t recall reading that it crashed or burned," he wrote. "A car so innovative couldn’t have been chopped up … could it? If you can, drop Don a note. I think fans would like to know what happened."

So I did.

"The Don" responded: "The 1973 Wonder Wagon Vega had the nose cut off of the body and a 1974 nose put on it, and I ran it in 1974 as the Revell Super Shoe car and then sold it to some people in Texas. I do not know what happened to it after that." Schumacher was also very interested in having a print for himself. Who wouldn't?

Preston Davis, who wheeled Raymond Godman's famous Tennessee Bo Weevil machines, of course, would have voted for it had it been nominated. "That said," he wrote, "there is no doubt in my mind which car on your list was the most dominant in its class during that period, period. It was John Peters' Freight Train. This car ran such incredible times and speeds for its class that the AA/GD boys tried to get a petition signed to outlaw twin-engine dragsters! And this was done with small-block Chevy motors! Simply amazing! Other than the Freight Train, if I had to pick a Top Fuel car from your list, it would have to be the green car of Beebe and Mulligan. We lost a very good person when we lost John [Mulligan] at Indy, and I had to be the next car down that lane in qualifying. Even though we were from different parts of the country, we were friends, and I still miss him and the great racers we have lost over the years."

And finally, Marty Gauss wanted to share his Jim Nicoll memory after reading my column on the former Top Fuel and Funny Car racer ("Superman lives!" Aug. 20). "Back in 1972 (I believe) at Indy, we used to pour water on the highway outside the main gate on [Highway] 136 so everyone could do their best imitation of the big boys. Saturday evening, I was pouring water, and a big dually pickup stopped and said to pour water on the tires, and he would show us how the real big boys do it. It was a rather impressive burnout, and, of course, it was Jim Nicoll. He pulled into the campground to talk to us, and he was the campground favorite ever since. I was at the infamous 1970 Indy and have been back every year since, and still at the same campgrounds."

That's it, gang; the mailbag is officially empty. Thanks, as always, for your contributions, memories, thoughts, and support. See you later this week.