NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

Fan Fotos: Minnesota

15 Sep 2009
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

There's no doubt that  Fred von Sholly's photos, which I showcased here a few months ago, struck a nostalgic vein, as did Al Kean's photos from Seattle. Though von Sholly was a credentialed pro shooter (in fact, NHRA's official Division 1 photographer for a time) and his photos allow uncluttered entrée to Memory Lane, there's something still very attractive about the fan photos I get from time to time.

After all, those of us in the business all started in the grandstands and on the other side of the pit ropes, snapping shots of our heroes with whatever camera we could get our hands on. As a fan, I went to the races with everything from a self-developing Polaroid to a 110 Instamatic to a full-blown 35mm rig and shot everything I saw. The fan photo has that distinct look; it's the spot from exactly where you and I and every hard-core fan has sat or stood. In the grandstands peering past fellow spectators or light poles. In the pits, as close as we dared get to the work without having to duck a flying 9/16 open end.

Insider reader Kent Ewer knows the drill. He spent a lot of time at the track in his younger days, frequenting Minnesota Dragways and Brainerd Int'l Raceway before moving southwest for the almost antithetical weather of sun-baked Tucson, Ariz. He passed along some of his favorites from those days that I thought I'd share and introduce another semi-regular wrinkle to the column that I will call Fan Fotos.

Ewer didn't include any captions (other than the naming of the photos that designated the track), so I'll supply those. I've also taken the (very light) liberty of cropping some of the photos and color-correcting them in Photoshop (an overzealous one-hour photo technician who liked yellow?) to give them a better look, but not too much. They are fan photos and supposed to be a bit imperfect, right? (No offense, Kent!)

You can't talk about Minnesota nitro racing without talking about Tom Hoover, and, in my opinion, this was his prettiest car. The Showtime Corvette had a dazzling paint scheme, and the moniker was painted on its flanks to look like neon lighting. Cool! This photo, taken at Brainerd, appears to be from 1980, the year after Hoover won the Winternationals with this car. What was especially notable about Hoover's Pomona win, the second of his career, was not only that he upset Raymond Beadle's Blue Max in the final but that Hoover broke Don Prudhomme's four-year stranglehold on the season opener.

And speaking of Prudhomme, here's "the Snake" and his bad-ass Army Monza battling Ed McCulloch's Revellution Dodge at Minnesota Dragways in 1976. No telling whether "the Ace's" big lead is an ill-gotten gain or not, but not many drivers showed Prudhomme the taillights in that season, in which he won seven of eight NHRA national events and his second of four straight world championships.

And speaking of pretty floppers, here's Roger Guzman's gorgeous Westminster, Colo.-based Assassination Arrow, which Robbie Williams shoed to a number of Division 5 championships (remember when nitro cars ran for division championships?) and the national speed record at 247.95, burning out at Brainerd. No real fancy paint scheme, but this candy-red beauty still was undeniably a great looker. Guzman owned a long line of entries with this name, dating back to an Anglia gasser that Dick Montoya wheeled for him. Guzman's first Funny Car, a Chevy Corvair, was built for the 1968 season and driven by longtime compatriot Art Ward and then by John Dekker. Williams came into the saddle in 1977 in a car jointly owned by Guzman and Ron Kerchal, a partnership that only lasted a couple of years. One of the highlights of the Guzman/Williams association was their runner-up to Raymond Beadle at the 1980 Mile-High NHRA Nationals, a 6.19 to 6.22 battle that was notable in that it was recorded as the first side-by-side five-second Funny Car race, albeit altitude-factored (NHRA used to award national records using a mathematical formula that converted times at the mile-high Bandimere Speedway to sea-level equivalents). I couldn’t find the formula anywhere, but it was reported that an altitude time of 6.224 seconds was equal to a 5.99 at sea level.

When you talk about perennial Division 5 champions, you have to talk about Vern Moats. The Iowa-based legend has won 15 titles in the land of the High and Mighty with his long string of successful Top Alcohol Funny Cars, and the grand old man continues to race; he had an impressive showing last week in Indy. In the 1970s and 1980s, Moats was not only a great racer but a savvy businessman, too, earning sponsorship from Olympia beer on this Vega (the cleverly named Oly Roller) and later on his barrier-busting Hamm's beer Datsun.

Here are a couple of grandstand shots from Minnesota Dragways. Based on the paint schemes of those involved, I'd say that this was late 1975. (Above) This is one of my all-time favorite cars, the Warren & Coburn Rain for Rent Special that terrorized Division 7 for decades. That's Roger Coburn at far left helping push James Warren back to the line. Although the Bakersfield, Calif.-based bunch — known as "the Ridge Route Terrors" for their forays over the Grapevine from central California to Southern Cal; legend has it that spotters from rival teams would watch for the W&C rig to come down the hill and see which freeway it took toward which track and then head in the opposite direction to a different track — primarily plied their trade on the West Coast, obviously they weren’t afraid to head east. It was with this car that Warren won his second – and final – NHRA national event, at the Gatornationals in 1976. (Below) Chris "the Golden Greek" Karamesines lined up against Terry Capp. This car for "the Greek" is the follow-up to the famous 24-karat-gold car he wrecked at the 1975 Gatornationals, and Capp's car sports those popular front-wheel pants, which, like hot pants and bell-bottom pants of the same era, soon fell out of favor.

There probably wasn't anywhere that "Jungle Jim" Liberman didn't race, and, sadly, this is probably the last time that the king of the Funny Car match racers competed at Brainerd. This sharp-looking new Monza, which he debuted in 1977, was his first non-Vega-bodied entry since 1972. We lost "Jungle" later this year in a highway accident, on Sept. 9, at just 32 years of age. Imagine how the drag racing world might have been different had he lived to even 40 …

STOP THE PRESSES: Eagle-eyed expert Bret Kepner tells me this is, in fact, NOT the Jungle man, but Ron Salzbrunn in what apparently is a JJ tribute car, taken some years after Liberman's death.

Here's "the Snake" again and the first of a couple of pit-area shots. This is either 1982 or 1983, when Prudhomme was running the Pepsi Challenger Pontiac. Man, there's still no one cooler, is there?

(Left) Here's our old pal Roland Leong, center, and his driver, Johnny West, right, in the Brainerd pits. I'm not sure what they were reading/signing, and the year is impossible to tell because West drove Leong's Hawaiian Punch Dodge for several seasons, beginning in late 1985 (when he replaced Rick Johnson) through 1988, and posted a career-high fifth-place NHRA finish in 1986. I e-mailed Leong to ask him about the third guy in the pic, and Leong thinks it is the late Carl Swanson. Swanson, who lived in St. Paul, drove Al Tschida's Cheetah Funny Cars for more than a decade before retiring to Florida. (Right) Here's a guy I'll be seeing next week when I travel to Dallas: Billy Meyer. Based on the Hawaiian Tropic logo on his shirt, I’d say this photo was probably taken in 1979 or 1980 when the motivated Texan enjoyed sponsorship from the sunscreen manufacturer on his Chevy Citation Funny Cars. "Waco Willy's" Funny Car career spanned 17 years, from an impressive teenage debut in 1971 through his last car in 1988, but today's he's best known as the owner and architect of the first all-concrete dragstrip, Texas Motorplex, which will host the O’Reilly Super Start Batteries NHRA Fall Nationals presented by Castrol Syntec beginning next Thursday, and I’ll be there.

Like Meyer, Dale Pulde got an early start in his Funny Car career, racing as a teenager in the late 1960s in Charlie Wilson's Vicious Vette and Vicious Too machines and hot and heavy through the late 1980s in more machines than I can count; today, he wheels a nostalgia Funny Car. Pulde is probably best remembered for his and Mike Hamby's decade-long successful string of War Eagle entries beginning in 1977. Well, the car wasn't able to stay branded as the War Eagle beyond 1983, when the team landed sponsorship from Miller beer. As the story goes, the Miller folks asked Pulde and Hamby to rename the car because archrival Budweiser used an eagle prominently in its logo, so the car was rechristened the Miller High Life Warrior. I can read just enough of the side of this photo to see that this is from the Miller era, with the paint scheme suggesting 1983.

And finally, here’s the world champion Chi-Town Hustler, wearing the colors of the Team Strange operation. The Hustler, with current John Force crew chief Austin Coil on wrenches and Frank Hawley behind the wheel, came out of nowhere (well, out of match race mode, at least) in 1982 and scored a stunning win at the Gatornationals. They added wins in Columbus, Ohio, and Brainerd and finished the season as world champ, then duplicated the feat the next year with Team Strange colors. Team Strange was a group of Chicago-area racers handpicked by Strange engineering owner Bob Stange that also included Chris Karamesines (Top Fuel), Don Coonce (Pro Stock), Al DaPozzo (Top Alcohol Dragster), and Fred Mandoline (Top Alcohol Funny Car) plus Larry Kopp (Comp) and Keith Lynch (Super Stock).

OK, that's the set. Thanks again to Kent for sharing. If you have some Fan Fotos you'd like to share, send  your 10 best shots to pburgess@nhra.com. Please include as much info as you have (date, place, what's happening in the photo if not obvious, etc.), and I'll take it from there.

I'll catch you later this week.