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Going Hawaiian

03 Mar 2009
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

Later this week, the National DRAGSTER writers will be hammering away on this year's Readers Choice selections, eight article suggestions handpicked from scores of ideas received via e-mail and snail mail from our loyal readers for our annual member lovefest. If you're not familiar with the concept, each year, we reserve one issue whose content is largely drawn from reader suggestions. It's that rare opportunity to have the article of your dreams written for you on the obscure (or not-so-obscure) topic of your choice and to receive, in print, credit for your amazing and original idea.

It has always been a win-win for us because we know that the readers really look forward to this issue each year for obvious reasons, and we, as writers, get an excuse to delve into articles we might not otherwise have the time or opportunity to pursue. I don't want to give away all of the contents here – hey, anticipation is half the fun – but I will share my assignment with you because it's kind of neat and gives you an idea about what goes into the creation of one of these articles and the kind of researching fun there is to be found.

James F. Williams of Memphis thought it would be cool for us to come up with the definitive list of drivers of the Hawaiian dragsters and Funny Cars of Roland Leong. I found it an interesting suggestion because I have seen, throughout the years, a few such lists, and no one seems to be able to agree on an order let alone the makeup of the list. I already have a good relationship with Leong, so I volunteered.

I had already reached out to Leong, who warned me that his memory wasn't all it could be going back that far, so I promised him I would do the heavy lifting. Although we have at our disposal every issue of National DRAGSTER printed, sometimes that's just not enough, so I'm gonna throw shoutouts to some pretty good sources that I can always turn to when I need to get a fast leg up.

Bill Pratt's amazing DragList Web site has always been an immense help when you know what you're looking for, such as the rides that a driver has shoed throughout the years or, in my case, the car owner's name. The info there is mostly accurate and probably beyond what one could expect of such a large endeavor with so many people feeding him info. I already had my list (one that I had cribbed together a few years ago with the help of Pratt's historian, Danny White), and I assembled in rough order all of the drivers, but with some drivers' tenures mistakenly crossing into that of others, I knew I couldn't rely solely on the site.

In the years where there was a lot of confusion, notably 1972-76 when Roland changed drivers like some of us change socks -- Bobby Rowe, Leroy Chadderton, Gordie Bonin, Mike Van Sant, Denny Savage, Norm Wilcox, and Larry Arnold drove for Leong between 1972 and 1976 – I hit the issues of National DRAGSTER hot and heavy, scanning match race and national event stories for mentions of who was driving when. Sometimes that worked and sometimes it didn't, and each time it didn't, I silently cursed the reporter. Sometimes the driver was mentioned with no car owner or name, and sometimes, especially at match races, the reporter only wrote that it was the Hawaiian, without a driver name. The trickiest year was 1974, when Chadderton, Van Sant, and Savage were all listed as drivers.

Because I remembered seeing a photo of Savage riding out a fireball at Ontario that year, it was obvious that he was the year's last driver, and I knew that Chadderton had driven the car beginning in 1972, but it didn't make sense that he had driven it all those years because I was pretty sure that Bonin was in there too, somewhere. I quickly cleared up that confusion after setting up a Facebook page (yes, finally) and "friending" Bonin. Before I could say "Bubble-Up Pacemaker," I was interviewing Bonin via Facebook's live chat (oh, sure, I have his phone number and e-mail address, but doing it via Facebook is just sooooo 2009), and he confirmed that he had taken over for Chadderton after the Hawaiian was stolen in late summer 1973. Bonin began 1974 with Leong, then handed it over to Van Sant, who gave way later that year to Savage.

Okay,  I finally determined the order, so the next thing to figure out was who drove what. I grabbed Leong's huge photo file (about six inches thick) from the Photo Department and immediately knew there was a problem. So many of his Chargers and Monzas looked alike, and most of them had driver names too small to read even with a magnifying glass or photo loupe. What was easily discernible was the driver numbers. I knew (as any so-called superfan should) that Pat Foster's longtime number was 740, but who knows Van Sant's number? So I turned to valuable Asset 2, Don Ewald's amazing We Did It For Love site, which houses (among many other cool things) a largely complete list of driver numbers dating back in time. A quick trip to http://www.wediditforlove.com/FCdiv7drivers.html and related pages got me the numbers to go with the names (for those of you keeping score at home, Van Sant was 727), and I began assembling the final pieces of the equation. Some of the photos in the file had years written on the backs and a few even had captions, so that helped some. Some of the drivers' photos were included, but many weren't, so I had to hit those drivers' files individually to come up with headshots for the article; before long, the floor of my office looked like a Hawaiian jigsaw puzzle.

Once I was sure I had as much info as I could muster, I called Leong, and we spent a very enjoyable hour going over details. Although some of his whys and wherefores of hirings and firings are lost to history, it's clear that even now, 30-plus years later, he didn't want to burn any bridges. The funny and off-color things he told me about some of his drivers were strictly off-the-record stuff, though he did admit that much of the time he was the one doing the separation for reasons varying from personality incompatibility to tuning disagreements to commitment (e.g., more interested in the social aspects of being a driver than sleeping the night before the big race) and that some of them just couldn't handle the travel and almost manic touring pace that Leong scheduled.

Leong couldn't remember how he first hooked up with Larry Reyes, who drove (and flew) the first Hawaiian Funny Car, but he gave me Reyes' number, so that was a nice follow-up call once Leong and I had finished. Most of these old-time drivers are off the grid, so to speak, and reachable only at Hot Rod Reunions or with their wired pals, so getting them is not always easy, and sadly, of course, guys like Mike Snively, Mike Sorokin, Foster, and Chadderton are no longer with us to provide their insight. I also had been in e-mail contact with Arnold and Savage, so I dropped them a line and reached out to ND columnist Mike Dunn for his memories. Savage replied almost immediately and in great detail about how and why he replaced Van Sant, which is amazing and wonderful.

So far, I'd say that the article is coming together nicely. It's due at the end of the week, and there's still a lot of writing to be done, so I'm gonna slip on out of here.