NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

It's a two-for-one celebration special

22 May 2009
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

Just in case Facebook/Outlook/your local authorities didn't alert you, today is my birthday. The big 4-9 … woo-hoo! Sunday also will be a huge day of celebration, speeches, and downtown parades hosted by The Society of Friends and Fans of Phil Burgess as it will mark my 27th year of employment with the NHRA. So, in the spirit of the tough economy, I'll give you this twofer chance to celebrate with me.

You don't need to be a math major to deduce that I've spent 27/49ths of my years (that's just over 55 percent) hammering keystrokes under the big red, white, and blue oval, so, yeah, it's been an NHRA life for me. Although I had some experience and success as a freelance writer before I came here, I started this gig feeling more like a fan who just landed a dream job than a professional writer landing the job he was destined for. All these years later, I'm still the former who grew into and appreciates the latter.

No, I'm not going to spend this column reminiscing about all of the good times I've had, the people I've met, and the things that I've seen and done (now that the statute of limitations has expired); I thought instead I'd take the occasion to show you some of my non-writing handiwork with a brag column of crazy photos I've taken. It's my gift to you, the loyal readers of the Insider Nation (okay, where's yours to me?).

I offer these today not just to show off (well, sorta) or just because it's my birthday and I get to do anything I want (well, sorta) but to promote NHRA Publications' new collection of books, which includes the NHRA Photo Greats: Wild Rides series (the books, not the DVD). We've already published one this year, and I'm working on the second, which we hope to have out soon, and I'm proud to have some of these photos included in the first two and some planned for later books. You can order the awesome first book (as well as other books we produced) online at Lulu, eBay, or Amazon. They're full of really swell reproductions of great photos spanning all decades, all types of cars, and all types of incidents and are annotated with informative (and sometimes funny) captions.

I traveled extensively during the first 15 or so years of working at National DRAGSTER – before accepting a larger role with more responsibility and duties – and, in addition to my normal reportorial duties at the event, I'd also shoot photos at the finish line. I'd usually climb atop the television-camera scaffold and perch myself on the ledge, legs dangling freely, just below the TV camera. I loved watching the races from that vantage point, following the cars through the camera lens, composing the photo with the zoom lens as the race unfolded and then snapping the photo at just the right moment as the cars crossed the win stripe. It also was, of course, the place to be when things went wrong.

Such was the case with this photo from the 1993 Kragen O'Reilly NHRA Winternationals Top Fuel final. If you look closely at this photo, you can see that Kenny Bernstein's not exactly taking the optimal line to the win stripe. KB was actually leading Joe Amato at half-track before the No. 2 connecting rod broke. That snapped leg broke a handful of others, and debris punctured his left rear tire and sent him into a 221-mph slide across the finish line. The car swung 180 degrees, backed into the guardwall, flew in the air, spun around again, landed on the other side of the rail, turned sideways, pitched the engine out of the car, and rolled once before stopping right-side up facing uptrack. Bernstein got his bell seriously rung – he groggily compared the hit to smacking into the wall in his "Nastin Cup" (NASCAR Winston) car – but was otherwise uninjured.

This photo, which I snapped at the top end in Houston in 1991, did two things: 1) It let the teams know that their chassis were being severely flexed to the breaking point by massive rear- and front-wing downforce and 2) It made Jim Head look like a genius for refusing to run without a wheelie bar as so many of the fuel-dragster teams were doing at the time. Today they're a given, but it took Head nearly breaking his car in two to get everyone's attention. The shot I took just before this one is much more dramatic (and also much less in focus <g>) and showed the rear tires off the ground. I kind of kicked myself for missing the "money shot" of the car all but flying through the air, but …

… I only had to kick myself for two years before "Pontiac Jack" Ostrander had a similar experience in Gainesville in 1993. Ostrander was very fortunate that he safely landed his car because, unlike Head, he was not running a wheelie bar. Note the shower of sparks as the nose dug into the Gainesville quarter-mile.

Gainesville was also the site of this mind-blowing (and cylinder-head-throwing) blast by Gene Snow in 1989. It was Thursday qualifying, I believe, when "the Snowman" launched. I remember seeing the car beginning to labor, and from my perch in the finish-line grandstands, I watched this incredible explosion unfold. What's great about this pic – which ran as a two-page spread in the first Wild Rides – is the cool arc of flame that follows the airflow off the car's rear wing. Truly a special shot and one of my faves.

I've shown you this photo here before -- just prior to last year's Dallas event -- and I still love this image of Mark Oswald vaporizing the Candies & Hughes Funny Car at the Motorplex in 1990. I remember sitting on my TV perch with Diamond P camera operator Wayne Womack and watching a fine shower of carbon-fiber confetti falling like snow on us. A couple of things worth noticing here: the chunk of blower keeping up with the car and how the airborne front bumper and rear clip in the top right are all that's left of the body. The full version of this photo will appear in a future Wild Rides book.

Indy used to be a great place to shoot top-end stuff from the old tower that was several hundred feet past the finish line. You were nicely elevated three stories up and had a good view of all the action from a unique vantage point. I'm not sure that a side shot of Brad Tuttle's disintegrating Nitro Bandit would have shown the severe distortion of the hood. This interesting image also is slated for one of the upcoming books.

Bandimere Speedway's unique layout – with the track below the level of the pits – allows you to shoot from the rise down onto the track, which is how I captured Don Gay Jr.'s scary final pass in a nitro Funny Car. The second-generation racer smoked the tires hard in qualifying alongside Don Prudhomme, then lost the handle and drove it headlong into the wall, knocking him out. The car caught fire and idled downtrack ablaze. Prudhomme jumped in to help the Safety Safari extricate Gay from the burning car and get him loaded onto an air ambulance. After a short stay at a local hospital, he was released, but he never drove a Funny Car again. This photo will appear in the next Wild Rides book.

In Pomona, I only manned the TV tower for Sunday's eliminations, choosing to spend the qualifying days with the fraternity of crash shooters on the east side of the track. It's a loud and fast crowd with a razor-sharp gallows humor, and the bench racing is unreal. It was from this vantage point that I – and pretty much everyone else in the joint – caught John Force turning turtle in qualifying at the 1992 Finals during his slightly crazed pursuit of points leader Cruz Pedregon. Wyatt Radke had already shut off in the other lane and almost was rear-ended by Force's upside-down ride; Radke later told me that it was only a quick glance at the big screen as he idled downtrack that alerted him to Force's plight behind him and allowed him to step on the gas to stay out of harm's way.

Pro Stock racer Ed Heck also couldn’t keep the shiny side up at the 1994 Finals, losing control of his Pontiac and kiting it big time in an incident we described on the cover of National DRAGSTER as a "Heck of a wreck." He wasn't hurt, but his car was no longer pretty.

I didn't always man the top end; sometimes you get some cool stuff sitting at midtrack. This was also early in qualifying, this time a session of Top Alcohol Dragster at Texas Motorplex in 1990. I usually don’t have the camera up and ready for the alky cars, but for some reason I did this time and was shocked when Jay Payne launched into a monster wheelstand that ultimately had the car resting only on the rear wing. It landed hard, destroying the car, but he was unhurt and put his engine into Bruce McDowell's car to continue competing at the event. This image, and a grounds-eye view shot by Leslie Lovett, were in the first Wild Rides book.

File this one also under the "Thank goodness I was looking through my camera" file. It was the first round of Funny Car at the 1988 Brainerd event. I was stationed a couple of hundred feet downtrack on a ladder on the return road to try to get some side-by-side races in front of the BIR grandstands. Bernstein's car rolled to a stop after the burnout, and he was having problems getting it into reverse. The crew and clutch wiz Lanny Miglizzi sprinted downtrack to help and lifted the body. I hefted my camera to my eye for no reason other than to see through the telephoto lens what they were doing. The next thing I know, the car lurches forward, the crew scatters like quail, and I have my finger buried in the motor drive. Jim Mahle, at the front right tire, took the biggest spill as he was hit by the tire while crew chief Dale Armstrong, who was under the body talking to Bernstein, had to dive for cover. The crew, which included current NHRA Contingency Program honcho Charlie Nielson, took it all in stride and showed up at the next race, Indy, with tire tracks printed on their team T-shirts.

I also sometimes ventured down to the shutoff area to grab parachute shots, but Pro Stock racer Nick Nikolis never got that far at the 1986 Gatornationals. The car got loose in the traps, crossed the centerline, and clouted the opposite guardrail. The car was in pieces, as is evident from this "walking door" shot that I grabbed after I interviewed a shaken but uninjured Nikolis.

Then there's this shot of Aussie Gary Phillips in a world of hurt later that same year in Columbus, Ohio. The car was blazing big time, and Phillips wasn't able to get the laundry out for some reason. He pitched the car sideways to try to scrub off speed, which also pulled loose the body, resulting in this rather thrilling photo, which ran on the front page of The Columbus Dispatch sports page the next morning, much to my delight.

And finally, here's probably one of my most popular (and semi-famous) photos. A hand-colored version (by ND Photo Editor Teresa Long) of this photo appeared on the cover of the first specialty book that NHRA did – a collection of John Force quotes back in the early 1990s – and it's one of those photos that speaks volumes about the NHRA Safety Safari. This was Montreal in 1991, and I was stationed at the first turnout on a tall ladder behind the Safari truck. Force's engine lost a spark plug that led to this pretty significant blaze, and I'll always remember the Safety Safari already starting to roll as Force's blazing machine neared our position. They had his car (and him!) hosed down in nothing flat. I loved the Montreal race (I was there when Force finally won his first event in 1987) for its charming nature (check out the houses in the background), but it also had a mean side. The area behind the guardrail is where Shirley Muldowney ended up after her near-career-ending crash in 1984 and where Don Prudhomme ended up after his 1990 blowover, his second of his first season back in Top Fuel.

Okay, race fans, that's it for the day. I hope you enjoyed this little photographic trip down memory lane. I'm going to head out and enjoy what's left of my birthday while you order up a copy of our first Photo Greats book for yourself (it also makes a fine Father's Day gift!). I'll see you next week with a new installment of the Misc. Files.