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A little bench racing anyone?

06 Jan 2009
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

I had a whole 'nother column scheduled for today but had to move it back for a variety of reasons, but I didn't want to go too long without a new entry lest y'all forget about me. Each column generally takes two to three days to put together, though some take considerably longer depending on the length and depth I choose, the amount of research I have to do, images I have to chase down, people I can't track down to interview, etc.

Fortunately for all of us -- but mostly for me -- I keep files just for this occasion, and in this case, it's a file full of random tales that I've accumulated, either in interviews or as part of certain newsgroups, for which I'd not yet found a home. There are some great storytellers out there, and although each of these probably could have starred in its own column if fleshed out, they are nonetheless emblematic of the great bench racing stories that are told throughout the pits during the years.

And away we go …

Getting 'the Greek': Tom Jobe, a third of the legendary Surfers Top Fuel team with driver Mike Sorokin and Robert Skinner, recently regaled the Standard 1320 e-mail newsgroup with the tale of how the Surfers took a big 7.97 to 7.81 holeshot win – and the cool $500 prize money – in the final round against the legendary "Greek," Chris Karamesines, at Riverside Raceway on Dec. 6, 1964.

"The rounds go on, and it comes down to 'the Greek' and the Surfers for the money," he wrote. "We have a small problem in that we do not have enough 98 percent [nitro] to make a full pass in the final round. In those days, there was no one to borrow 98 percent from, as no one else ran anything close to 'the can' in their dragster. We talked about our dilemma amongst ourselves and decided that our only chance was to make 'the Greek' think we were so nervous that he had the race won and hope Mike could leave on him and coast to the finish line ahead of 'the Greek.' At this time, 'the Greek' was 'the Mole's' [engine builder Ed Donovan] main man, and they had all of the best stuff on that car. It was a Fuller chassis, Donovan parts everywhere, just the very best stuff you could possibly have no matter how much money you had.

"We made sure we were near 'the Greek' and 'the Mole' as we lined up for the last round and went into this whole act of being very nervous. They went for the act and must have figured they had the race won if they just did not do something stupid. Mike Sorokin put a big holeshot on 'the Greek' and coasted to the victory (just barely!). We were very lucky the blower did not come off when it ran out of fuel. We were racing for $500, and a blower explosion at that time would cost us $1,000 or more. We realized the risk, but hey, we were racing the legendary 'Greek' and figured why get worried about going broke now?"

In great bench-racing one-upmanship style, Jobe's tale inspired Roy Steffey, of the equally famous Loghhe-Steffey-Rupp team, to share an encounter with the fabled "Greek."

"It was the 1965 Springnationals at Bristol and the final round on Saturday," he wrote. "The round before that, we had burned a piston, and with the tight timeframe, we knew we didn't have time to change it. This was before having air compressors and impact guns in the pits.

"So we kept it a secret and pulled the two pushrods from that cylinder, grounded the plug out, and wrapped the breathers with rags. (The reason for the rags was with the burned hole in the piston, it created a lot of blowby in the pan, and Maynard [Rupp, the driver] really didn't care for an oil bath, but even with the rags, he still got one. If I remember correctly, he taped a piece of rag to his glove so he could wipe his face shield.)

"Maynard got a big holeshot on [Karamesines], and as 'the Greek' came out of the smoke and saw how far out Maynard was, he jammed his foot down and relit the tires. He only went 100 feet or so and his motor broke. Maynard shut it off before the 1,000-foot mark and coasted through."

The Terrible Towel': Everyone remember the big brouhaha over "the Terrible Towel" on Kenny Bernstein's Budweiser King in the mid-1980s? The rest of the Funny Car crowd was so convinced that Dale Armstrong had some gee-whiz top-secret device on the car because the crew would go to such great lengths to cover it with a towel whenever the body was raised that they even had the Tech Department investigate. Turns out that there wasn't anything really sexy about it and that it actually had its roots in Bernstein's habit of short-shifting that car that almost drove "Double A Dale" crazy.

"When I first went to work with him, I pulled my hair out for the first three-quarters of that year," he told me once. "I’d stand on the starting line and the car would be on all eight cylinders, but the car wouldn’t e.t. I kept asking him where he was shifting, and he’d tell me '400 feet.' Well, turns out he had crashed a couple of cars trying to drive through tire shake, so he learned if he shifted early, it wouldn’t shake. He even had a foot shifter installed so he didn’t even have to take a hand off the wheel to pull the shifter – this was before air shifters – but sometimes, he’d shift almost right after he left the line.

"I went to a junkyard and got a kickdown switch off an old GTO and hooked it to the foot shifter and put a light on the back of the car so I could see where he shifted. The first time he ran it, the light was on at 100 feet. Once we knew that was the problem, Kenny would force himself to drive the car farther without shifting, but sometimes he just couldn’t, which is when we put the shifter on an air timer. Then it started to haul ass.

"So I began looking for a way to put an automatic shifter in the car, but before we made it into a shifter, I tried it out as a high-speed [leanout] that would kick in at 3.6 or 3.8 seconds that would open up a jet. It was unique, so we covered it up, but it wasn’t that big a deal, really. But when everyone made such a big deal about the towel, we made an even bigger production out of it to mess with everyone’s head."

I remember Lee Beard pulling a similar trick a few years later, placing a towel over the throttle pedal in the Castrol GTX Top Fueler after driver Gary Ormsby connected on a series of telepathic lights. Again, nothing to it but shenanigans and getting in the other guy's head.

Practical joker: World-famous "T.V. Tommy" Ivo originally planned to share with me the sordid details of his first season on tour in 1960 with young novice crewmember Don Prudhomme in tow, but we never quite got around to it. Ivo, a renowned practical joker, did regale me with some tales of how he tortured the not-yet "Snake" during their journeys.

Ivo was 24 ("going on 17," he joked) and Prudhomme just 18. "He was just a good kid," recalled Ivo. " He used to have the damndest laugh – kind of a horse laugh – and if something struck him funny, the whole room would be laughing before he was done. But what a grand adventure!

"I had been back East before when we would do barnstorming appearances for my films, so I somewhat was used to the travel, but here it was, just the two of us, off barnstorming the country in my old Cadillac. We had lots of good times, but he paid his dues going with me on tour. I was a practical joker to a fault.

"One time, Ron Pellegrini took us out rat hunting in the city dump in Cicero [Ill.]. He knew the police department and told them we were going out there. They had machine guns and sawed-off shotguns with lights mounted on them. You'd catch a rat in the lights and let 'im have it. The rats all went and hid, so Prudhomme – 'the Great Hunter' – goes walking out onto the pile, so I threw a can by his foot, and he wheeled around and almost shot his foot off with a shotgun.

"Another time, we went waterskiing up in Minnesota, and I put Prudhomme out on the hook, and try as I might, I couldn't shake him. So I just shut the boat off, and he hand-over-handed it up the rope and made it to the back of the boat without sinking. He was pretty coordinated.

"The best laugh probably was at some hotel one day when I dumped out his shampoo and put 10-weight oil in there. He got in the shower, and the more he put on his head with the water, the more it turned to axle grease. He had to use bar soap and washed it about nine times because you didn't want anyone to know you’d been got. He came out, and I asked him if he noticed anything strange -- 'Nope, didn't notice anything' -- but his hair looked like he'd stuck his finger in a light socket."

Flying high, crashing low: After reading my homage to the famed Kite Cycle of Bob Correll, Glenn Menard, who just recently returned to Texas Motorplex to serve as its new president, shared a tale from his first stint with the Texas supertrack.

"In the early '90s, a photo of a 'kite cycle' in full flight came across my desk at the Texas Motorplex with a solicitation for booking the attraction. We had always programmed our July 4 event -- the Budweiser Night of Fire [not original but a great title nonetheless] -- with exotic features, and a great fireworks show. So the 'kite cycle' was booked. The pilot was one Jimmy Lynn Davis, a stuntman from L.A.

"Steve Earwood, our esteemed PR impresario, was very skeptical. He knew of Correll, and 'Jimmy Lynn was no Bob Correll.' Well, as the date approached and Earwood did more investigating, it seemed that our 'kite cycle' had recently crashed at a track in the Northeast, and although Jimmy had spent some time in a hospital, he assured us he would appear.

"On July 3, we got the whole story; he had, indeed, crashed but claimed he suffered no injuries. He said that the promoter demanded he get into the ambulance to make the show better, but when he went to the hospital and was X-rayed, the doctors were shocked at the amount of broken bones that appeared on the film. Jimmy Lynn assured the docs that, as a stuntman, the breaks were old and had to ship his old X-rays to the hospital so he could show that they were all old and he could be released. This meant that he had the X-rays with him, which came in handy later, as you will see.

"Well, on July 4, you guessed it. Earwood insisted that he would not jump, and a wager between him and I (never collected) was made. During his warm-ups for the crowd, the wind was gusting, and the wagers (and the Buds) were flowing that he would use the weather as an excuse not to perform. I went to half-track to interview Jimmy Lynn (and to be there should he decide not to jump). I knew that the crowd, who had waited all day until 10 p.m., would not take too kindly to such an announcement, so I wanted to be the one to deliver the bad news. However, as he sat on his bike/kite and the wind gusts continued, he looked up and said he thought he could time his jump in between the wind gusts.


Glenn Menard

"He made his run up to the ramp at full throttle, hit the ramp, lit the flares on the wing tips, and was airborne. It was the crosswind that did him in. He drifted over the guardwall, the return road, and was headed into the grandstands when he turned back toward the track and stalled the kite. He impacted right on the centerline, split the fuel tank, and the flares lit the spreading gasoline. There I was, watching a flaming kite cycle, at fully stuck throttle, in the center of the Motorplex all-concrete quarter-mile.

"Well, Jimmy Lynn picked up some new lines on his X-ray that night and even promised me from his hospital bed that he wanted to return the following year to complete the task.

"All together a most memorable night and one that was not duplicated, as I never heard from him again."


Simon Menzies

Supercharged sharks: Racers aren’t all business, and they like to get away for a little R&R, and, as all well know, drag racers love to fish. This fish tale got a little out of hand, however.

Former Funny Car racer Simon Menzies, no stranger to Insider readers, remembers a fateful sea trip he took out of KingHarbor in Redondo Beach, Calif., with former U.S. Nationals Top Fuel champ Johnny Abbott and a few friends.

"After a few cocktails at the Sea Bucket [restaurant], we agreed that the intelligent think to do was cross the channel to Catalina for dinner. We were visiting after the World Finals in ’79 or ’80. It was October, and on a good day, you might see a whale migrating south, so we borrowed Bill Simpson's 38-foot Uniflite Coastal Cruiser and headed out to sea. Capt. Simon, girlfriend Jan (the first mate), Abbott (the engineer), and (I think) Chris Karamesines' daughter and a few others went along that fateful day.

"We were under way, about five miles out, when I heard the uproar. John came up to the bridge with a wild look in his eye, demanding I stop the boat and see a whale. Well, as I came down the steps, my whole contingent was leaning over the port side goo-gooing and petting the biggest shark I had ever seen! 'That ain’t no whale, it’s a [expletive] shark, a BIG [expletive] shark! Get your hands back in the boat!'

"The shark submerged and came back up and brushed against the boat. We were just drifting at the time, but the shark physically moved the boat as if he was playing with his new little toy. Oh yeah, the shark was longer than the boat ... a lot longer.


Johnny Abbott

"We got back under way, and the shark started to mirror our moves and was playing in the bow wash, sort of surfing over it like a kid on a boogie board. It was kind of cool watching him until I realized that we were at 15 knots and he was right with us, not showing any signs of tiring. Soon after that, we were joined by two other sharks, one about the same size and the other less than half the size. For a few moments, we were flanked by these behemoths at speed and still close enough to reach out and touch them from the boat. The smaller of the three had a nasty habit of falling back into the prop wash and opening his mouth -- a really big mouth -- and ingesting water from the wash until he slowed down, only to rejoin the party a few minutes later. Sort of an open invitation to dinner, if you get my drift.

"We opted to return to KingHarbor for dinner instead of finishing the trip to Catalina. The next day, I went to work at Simpson, and John went to the library. John’s whales turned out to be basking sharks, the largest sharks on the planet, growing to 60 feet in length and quite harmless. As it turns out, they feed by opening their mouths at speed, ingesting small fish and plankton and the occasional coastal cruiser. We were in a sense, as true drag racers, supercharging their evening meal with the bow and prop wash. One more episode for the book."

Mom's hot rod: After reading last year's story about San Fernando Raceway, "Hemi Dan" Sallia regaled me with a great story to which I think every would-be drag racer who ever borrowed the family car can relate.

"In 1966, when I was 14 years old, my mom wanted to go to the track to see a co-worker race," he wrote. "She asked me and my little brother if we wanted to go because we had been going to the track for a couple of years with friends. We agreed, and then put a plan in place for me to finally get to race down the track. Brother Bill's job was to keep Mom away from the stands when I was racing because I would be racing her car. My job was to try and pass myself off as older than I was so that I could test my driving skills on the track.

"Luckily for me and Bill, we had taken the time to ask Dad to bring home some plugs, points, and condenser for the wagon. He was running Auto Parts Emporium on Van Nuys Boulevard at the time. The Lark was running good, low 15s at just under 90. Dad had a feeling about our flimsy excuse for tuning up the Lark but figured if I was willing to take the chance, it was my butt on the line. He had driven enough with me to know I was fully capable of handling the car. But handling Mom's wrath? Well, I was on my own there.

"Things went well until the final in N/Stock Auto class. The co-worker had lost his race, so Mom decided she would leave him to sulk and watch the rest of the races. Bill tried every stall tactic he could think of, but they sat down just as I was staging Mom's '59 Studebaker Lark wagon. Mom took one look and told Bill, 'Look, there is a wagon just like mine.' As I went by, she realized that it was her car, and she wasn't happy about it.

"I took the win light, and when I got to the time-slip booth, a guy handed me a trophy and a check for $25 and muttered something about 'Congratulations, you won your class.' As I approached the pits, I spotted Mom coming at me with fire in her eyes. Thinking on my feet, I jumped out of the car waving the trophy and check and told Mom, 'Look what your car won!' She paused for a moment and then grabbed the trophy and check and rushed off to brag it up to her co-workers. Saved by the bell." 

Great stories, great times. I'll be back later this week with some other great tales, these about another wild card, our ol' pal Bill Crites. A bunch of us will be getting together Saturday to say goodbye to "our" kid, and I'm sure the stories will be flowing there, too.