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Bob Bommarito, and welcome to the Misc. Files

17 Apr 2009
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

Tuesday's story about the OCIR Constructors Championship had the desired effect of creating some buzz from fans who remembered it and those who had long forgotten about it, but the most interesting feedback was from a racer mentioned in passing, Bob Bommarito, who wrote to thank me for remembering him, even if it was only to mention that he had been beaten.

Some of you may wonder why I go into detail to list names of early-round losers in the midst of a story about a race like this, but it's exactly for this reason. I hope that some of those early heroes will again get to see their names in print, if only in my column. They definitely deserve it.

I think a lot of us have a weak place in our hearts for the underdogs, and though I tried to coax Bommarito into telling me about racing in the 1970s against the big dogs, he didn’t think he was star-worthy of such treatment. But, as I told him, for every James Warren, there were probably 10 Bob Bommaritos, little guys who knew they didn’t have a very good chance of beating Warren & Coburn or Don Prudhomme head to head but were out there for the love of it and whose very presence made the shows that much bigger. Sure, many times, they were little more than cannon fodder for the big guns, and they knew it, but they did it for the love of the sport. So, going against his humble wishes, here's a quick look at the short career of one of the sport's lesser known but still vital pieces of the drag racing universe.

Bommarito, who was based in Long Beach, drove a number of cars from 1973-76, including the Bommarito & McKinney entry, John Durke's Pegasus, Jim Thomas' Genuine Suspension, and for Dick Stahl, and he even had his own car, sponsored by the U.S. Air Force (as a teammate to Mert Littlefield's Funny Car).

"I was just one of many little guys that tried our best," he said. "I never had any money and only had a sponsor one full season. The Air Force [sponsorship] was more of a display and working with recruiting than a money deal. We ran mostly local (and never won) but had a lot of fun back in the day when you ran a Top Fuel car out of your garage. Pete Kalb and I were partners for a season, and Steve [Kalb] helped me and was my main guy. I wish there was a story, but I don't think my years in Top Fuel is much to write about."

Bommarito later moved to Illinois and even ran one season in the Frank Hawley Drag Racing School series that briefly was contested at NHRA national events, then owned some Division 3 Super Comp cars. In 2001, his son, Joseph, began racing Jr. Dragsters.

"My son is now 17 and in his last year in Jr. I am so proud of this young man who is the light of my and my wife's life," he said. "He's an honor-roll student and made Eagle Scout at age 15 and has more talent driving a race car in his little finger than I ever had. He has won in every class he has driven in and won series championships and track championships and some of the biggest Jr. races in the Midwest.

"I will never forget Lions, OCIR, Irwindale, Ontario, Bakersfield, Pomona, and all the rest of the left-coast tracks where I had the privilege to drive a Top Fuel car," he added. "Lions was special with the huge crowds and the roller starters, but nothing was more exciting than pushing down the fire-up road at OCIR in front of thousands of fans hearing them cheer as the motors fired and we waved to the crowd, headed to the starting line and making the loop to get into position for the burnouts. Thanks for the mention; you made my day."

Ditto, Bob.

Okay, welcome to a new and semiregular feature of the DRAGSTER Insider that I call The Treasures of the Misc. Files. The aforementioned Mr. Bommarito does not have photo file of his own in our voluminous archives, so sometimes we have to dig through the Miscellaneous folders we have for every letter of the alphabet. It's the place where one-shot wonders and might-have-beens go to rest until someone like me happens across them while searching for stuff.

No magic here; I'm just going to be sifting through those files on occasion (read: when I don't have another "real" topic at hand) and showing you some of the lost treasures. There won’t be a lot of star power here but some great and interesting shots. Most of the photos in these files were not taken by NHRA's photographers, so I'll attempt to give credit when it is supplied. I think you'll find these walks down the seldom-taken path interesting. I know I do.

Welcome to the Misc. Files, Letter B. Because I was already in the Bs looking for Mr. Bommarito, let's start there. We'll get back to A some other time.

I really love this photo of Dick Boynton working on his B/FX Dodge D-100 truck and accepting a socket wrench from a young lovely who definitely has more of his attention than the awesome dual-quad powerplant in his unique entry.
 
I did some research and discovered that this truck weighed more than 3,900 pounds and got power from a 426-cid Mark II Ramchargers Max Wedge fitted with an experimental Crower camshaft and steel tube headers made up of four individual pipes, each 42 inches long, running into a collector. The truck set a lot of track records with mid-12-second e.t.s at more than 110 mph and won class at the 1963 Winternationals.

Boynton was the director of sports and news programs for radio station KDEO in San Diego at the time. He took his own life in 1986, reportedly despondent after losing his decade-long job at KBEE in Modesto, Calif. His truck is still fondly remembered by fans of the early Mopar machines.


Okay, so I guess that random shots of Bakersfield do belong in the "B" file, but it could be there for "bummer" as well. Nothing ruins a great day at the drags like that wet stuff descending from on high. There are a lot of things I love about this uncredited photo, from the old-school "mobile studio" for radio station KAFY ("The Big 55") to the various reactions of the fans. While some are hightailing it for their cars, there seem to be plenty of diehards in the stands equipped with wet-weather gear to wait it out. Based on the various parked cars, this is probably an early 1970s photo.


Speaking of the 1970s, who doesn't love 1970s Funny Cars? Heck, there's a whole Web site devoted to them! Here are a couple that I had never seen. Above is Steve "Okie" Bernd, who earned his real fame as a crew chief for Gary Burgin, Tom McEwen, and others but also drove. Here he is at the wheel of Pancho Rendon's Desperado Dodge Dart, which Bob Pacitto also drove. It was Detroit-based Rendon, of course, who gave Shirley Muldowney her first wheel time in a Top Fuel dragster in his Logghe-chassised Frito Bandito entry. Below is an even more obscure nitro flopper, Ralph Bradford's Satan's Angel Vega, carrying the front wheels in a race with Dee Simmons' Camaro. In the 1970s (this was 1974), it almost seems as if anyone who wanted to have a Funny Car could have one. Fun!


And speaking of the 1970s, didn't those 1970s AA/DAs have this very distinct look? The rounded injector scoop and the rather upright driving position? Pro Comp was a class for the masses, and hundreds of these cars sprung up across the nation. This car, the Minneapolis-based Blasters & Peabody car (which ended up in the Bs because no one knew who was driving it when it was filed) was owned by Howard Marjama and driven by Keith Peabody, which makes you wonder why it wasn't called Marjama & Peabody. Who were the Blasters? Maybe photographer Bernie Rausch knows.


Okay, here's a bit of an oddball and a mystery. The caption handwritten on the back of this photo by Paul Wasilewski Jr. reads, "Jim Bowen finally had all 16 working in his unorthodox AA/FD, but was only able to muster a 7.27 at 171 mph, not quite enough to make the program." Now while the photog says "AA/FD," DragList.com says this car was a AA/D, yet the side of the car reads "T/F." The AA designation on anything typically meant supercharged, which this car clearly is not (I'm beginning to sound a bit like Vizzini from The Princess Bride in his "battle of wits" with the Man In Black). What's clear is that it's two Chrysler Hemis. NHRA adopted the TF designation for the kings of the sport in 1971 (which is when DragList says the car was active), and in this photo, taken in Epping, N.H., you can clearly see Mike Fons' early '70s Mopar in the other lane. Truly, I have a dizzying intellect but still don't know what class this car ran in. Help?

 Ladies and gentlemen, say hello to Kenny Brown, motorcycle daredevil, who, along with guys like Lee "Iron Man" Irons, the late Bob "Bullet" Bailey, and others, plied his trade at West Coast tracks with neat stunts like these, which usually involved sliding down the track behind a motorcycle. Here, not only did Brown slide down the track but into a wall of fire. Okay, it's not much of a wall, but the pics, by Bob Jones (left) and OCIR regular George Visosky, are priceless. I wonder how many more people we could get to come to the nationals with this kind of between-rounds entertainment.


And finally, there's this cool old photo, which speaks volumes to me. The image, by Adrian Photography from Syracuse, N.Y., tells us the location, and it was received by National DRAGSTER May 22, 1969 (my 9th birthday!). The caption on the back, written by our own Leslie Lovett (I recognize the handwriting),  reads simply "John Button," though the cowl shows his first name as "Jon," which turns out to be correct. By the injectors, I'd say it's probably a gas dragster or Jr. Fueler. The cowl tells us that the car was an eighth-mile record holder somewhere and had numerous accomplishments in 1966-68.

What I really love about the pic is that this is clearly a husband-and-wife team, and, as is often the case, the Mrs. is making sure her man is tightly strapped in. He still has a cigar clenched in his teeth, but check out the other details in this bigger version: the parachute-release handle on his right shoulder, the bicycle-style handlebar grip on the brake lever, the electrical-tape covering on the roll-bar padding.

Poking around, I discovered that Button also was a very successful stock-car driver. Known as "the Chittenango Cheetah," he won the Mini Stock class track championship at Utica-Rome (New York) in 1968 and, after he quit drag racing in 1972, switched to dirt stock cars and won several championships before he retired from racing at the end of 1987 and became a tech inspector for DIRT Motorsports. Button was inducted into the New York State Stock Car Association (NYSSCA) Hall of Fame in 2001.

Okay, that takes care of the B file. There's a lot in there, but I tried to cherry-pick a variety of interesting stuff for the limited space here. I hope you enjoyed our first trip to the Misc. Files