NHRA - National Hot Rod Association


Fan Fotos: The Midwest

09 Oct 2009
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

The response to my Fan Fotos offer has been overwhelmingly positive, and I already have a good stock of photos that, combined with other subjects I am working on and the culmination of the Misc. Files (thought I'd forgotten, did ya?), will easily see us through to the end of the year.

I'm really enjoying seeing everyone's submissions because, as I have mentioned, it's where I come from. I was a kid in the stands who fancied himself a future Leslie Lovett or Steve Reyes … if only I had a chance to shoot from the guardrail, dammit! Well, most of you never will (I was lucky!), but that doesn't mean that there aren’t some dynamite shots to be grabbed from the seats and the fences, as we've already seen. And, unlike looking at someone's home movies or vacation slides, they’re actually something we all love: race cars!

Steve Scott is today's guest photographer. A former resident of that current drag racing hotbed known as Brownsburg, Ind. – which would explain his many U.S. Nationals photos -- Steve and his wife have lived in Fort Worth since 2001.

"I saw my first Nationals in '69 and was absolutely hooked," he said. "Nothing like a nitro car to set its claws into you, and never let go. I traveled to races as much as finances would allow in those days, which wasn't nearly often enough. I always made the Nats, up to Byron once for the Funny Car championship deal, Springs in Columbus for many years, and Martin 131 for the Pop Rod Meets; even made it to Edgewater a couple of times, and US 30 once. Since moving down South, I've been to the Dallas race a few times, including this year. Went up to the Fuel Altered, Jr. Fuel race in Denton just the other night. Guess you could say I'm just a drag racing junkie, like so many others.
"In addition to drag racing, I always had fascination with photography, and it was a big day when I could finally afford that Minolta SRT101 and a 200mm lens. Man, I'm cookin' now! I can be just like Reyes, Blake, Lovett, Asher, Brady, et al. Those guys were my heroes in drag photography and still are to this day. So I shot the best I could from the stands for the on-track stuff. Even back then, the starting line was beginning to get real cluttered with all the 'real' photogs, vehicles, ladders, gear bags etc., and it was very difficult to get good clean burnout shots. After panning for the downtrack stuff, eventually it all started to look the same to me. I still tried to get some good pit shots, though. While still attending races, I just got tired of lugging around my camera equipment for results that were very similar to past efforts. And the drag racing photo stuff just stopped.
"I recently upgraded to the digital age with a Nikon D60 and a couple of lenses. Met Chris Graves of Max Cackle Photography, and he's been very helpful in learning this new camera and giving tips on racing shots. Maybe I can finally get as good at this deal as my old photo heroes are/were, even though I'm just an amateur."

I'd say he's well on his way. Here are Steve Scott's 10 favorite Fan Fotos, along with my background material and comments  ...

The Custom Body Enterprises name had a deep history in drag racing from the late 1960s, from original shoe/owner Phil Castronovo through drivers like Rick Johnson, Tom Anderson, Tim Grose, Bobby Hilton, Al Segrini, and Denny Savage, but other than Castronovo himself, no driver is more closely aligned with memories of the Custom Body cars than Tom Prock. Prock drove it for five seasons – from 1972 through 1976 (when Castronovo again briefly drove it before putting Segrini in the car). Steve captured Prock in mid-burnout at the 1976 U.S. Nationals in perhaps the team's most successful car, this Dodge Dart. It was in this car that Prock, who never was fortunate enough to win an NHRA national event, was runner-up to Don Prudhomme three times – at the 1975 and 1976 Grandnational in Canada (which preceded Indy on the schedule) and at the 1975 Gatornationals. Longtime fans may remember the wacky outcome of that Gainesville final round, where Prudhomme was shut off on the starting line with an oil leak, affording Prock what looked like an easy solo run to his first win ... until the Custom Body car shelled the rear end on its dry hop. Both teams were given time to repair, but Prock couldn't make it back in time. Prock also owns the distinction of being the guy in the other lane in the final at the 1975 Summernationals when "Jungle Jim" Liberman won his only NHRA title. A lot of people know Prock today because of his son, Jimmy, who tunes Robert Hight's Automobile Club of Southern California Mustang for John Force Racing, but the senior Prock – who first came to fame driving the Prock & Howell Willys and later was known for his own hard-running car, the Detroit Tiger Monza – made plenty of headlines on his own.

Joe Pisano and driver/partner Sush Matsubara had a lot of good-looking Funny Cars, and this was always one of my favorites, even though Matsubara was not driving. Behind the wheel, again in 1976 in Indy, is Texan Jake Johnston, who took over the butterfly when Matsubara retired from driving in 1975. Although Joe P later became known for his high-speed Oldsmobiles in the 1980s, his early cars were all Chevys, including this Monza, which Johnson drove under the P&M name through the late 1970s, by which time Matsubara's name had disappeared from its flanks, and it became a Trans Am, then an Arrow (a replica of which Cruz Pedregon will drive at the California Hot Rod Reunion next week), an Omni, and a Daytona before that first Olds Firenza, driven by Mike Dunn, in 1987.

This great shot is from 1975 in Columbus, Ohio, at the annual Springnationals. The one thing about shooting from the stands is it's much easier to get these great "pan blur" shots than it is up close. No, that's not "the Snowman," Gene Snow, behind the wheel, or even the aforementioned Jake Johnston, who used to drive for Snow. The driver is a Texan (despite the 306 permanent number on this Vega), and it's fearless fuel-altered hero Dale "the Snail" Emery. Emery, who wheeled  the notorious Pure Hell fuel altered in the late 1960s, drove a slew of early Funny Cars in the 1970s, including Jeg Coughlin's Ohio-based flopper (hence the Division 3 number), which was the subject of that famous body-tossing blower explosion photo from Ontario in 1974 where the fuel tank lid came uncapped (helping create the rule for locking fuel caps). Emery drove for a quite a few car owners around this time before landing in what would be his final ride, Mike Burkhart's Camaro, which spectacularly went on its head (after a giant nose grind) in Indy in 1977, leaving him with a broken arm. From there, Emery went on to fame as one of Raymond Beadle's key crew guys on the vaunted Blue Max.

Steve calls this photo "Fiberglass Forest" in a riff from one of Steve Evans' great radio commercials ("Man, I miss Steve Evans," he lamented; we all do), and this photo, too, was snapped at the 1975 Columbus event. Obviously (if you read the info above), that's Emery/Snow at front left, next to the Fireball Vega of Harland Thompson. Behind them are Tom "the Mongoose" McEwen's English Leather/Navy Duster, Shirl Greer's Mustang, Jim Nicoll's Good Times Vega, and barely visible, the Blue Max. Looks as if everyone is heading to the staging lanes; how much would you give to be in the stands getting ready for this?

Two great pit shots from the bicentennial-year 1976 Springnationals; at left is the legend himself, "Big Daddy" Don Garlits, checking the nitro percentage before another haul-ass run in his Swamp Rat. At right is a pretty historic photo as it shows Shirley Muldowney cradling her first NHRA Wally trophy after her initial Top Fuel victory. She shared the winner's circle with another legendary Don, "the Snake" hiss-self, as well as Pro Stock winner Wally Booth, who scored one of AMC's rare Pro Stock wins with his and Dick Arons' Hornet, and Miss Winston Mary Larson, who seems downright giddy about the outcome.

Looks as if Dale Funk is about to be wingin' it without the wing on the English, Frakes & Funk Kentucky Moonshiner digger in this fine shot from the 1976 Nationals. This actually was Funk's last race as he had announced his retirement beforehand, and it may have been a timely decision. Things got even scarier for Funk in round one when a massive engine explosion sent him through the lights sideways and on three wheels (as depicted in our recent Wild Rides photo greats book) while losing to Lee Weller. Talk about going out with a bang! By the way, that's former Insider profile subject Bill Pryor in the near lane in the Pryor & Narramore entry.

Steve says this Billy Meyer photo is from the Popular Hot Rodding Meet in Martin, Mich., in 1976 or 1977, but I'm thinking it's more like 1976 based on the Mustang II body. Meyer ran a Camaro in at least part of 1976 and 1977 as I recall – the 1977 one got melted down in a big way in Montreal – which was followed by an Arrow and then the first of those pretty ugly Chevy Citation bodies. Based on the primered portions of the body, it's obvious from this photo that Meyer's Mustang was coming off some sort of nasty incident at a previous race.

Also from U.S. 131 Dragway is longtime Top Alcohol Funny Car standout Bob Gottschalk. Gottschalk had been racing Funny Cars since the early 1970s – first an injected car then blown alcohol cars – before jumping into an ill-fated stint in the nitroburners in the early 1980s. He returned to his alky roots later that decade and raced throughout the 1990s before a career-ending crash in Ohio in 2000.

And, finally, there's this amazing shot. The subject is, of course, "Jungle Pam" Hardy, the comely sidekick of master Funny Car showman "Jungle Jim" Liberman, who became as much a part of his popular act as his long burnouts, fast backups, and never-lift mentality. I've seen a lot of great "Jungle Pam" photos over the years, but I have to say that this one really stopped me for its candid nature and the amazing way in which it's composed, either intentionally or unintentionally. There's JP, surrounded, as usual, by adoring fans, dressed in her trademark halter top (this one from Trick Titanium), and it appears as if she's looking right past and through the multitudes to smile at our photographer, one of those great one-on-one eye-contact moments that we've all had (or at least imagined we were having) with drag racing superstars we can meet freely in the pits.

Okay, that's Steve Scott's super 10. (You can see more of Steve's pics here or visit his Facebook page here, where there also are a lot of photos.) I'm glad he shared them with us even though he admitted, "Getting specific on the details of these photos is a difficult deal, as they were shot 30-some years ago, and I never thought of cataloging or indexing, in some fashion. Like many other fans who took photos of that era, after the initial viewing, the photos/slides were tossed into shoeboxes and languished in a closet for years."

Which is exactly why it's time for YOU to drag out your old Kodachrome slides and FotoMat prints, scan them up, and send them to me here. These homegrown memories are the last great treasures of those golden days that we'll probably see unearthed, and everyone is just dying to see them.

Start sending, guys. I'll see you next week.