NHRA - National Hot Rod Association


My first Gatornationals

24 Feb 2009
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
My first trip to the Gatornationals as part of the ND staff was in the cab of a race car hauler in 1984 as part of Jim DePasse's Alcohol Funny Car team. That's me at left, Willie Wolter driving, and Jim DePasse Sr. and Jr. sacked out in the sleeper, somewhere in the middle of New Mexico.

In a little more than two weeks, I'll be winging my way east to once again attend one of the grandest races on the NHRA schedule, the ACDelco NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville. My first Gatornationals was 25 years ago, at the historic 1984 event, where Joe Amato became the first Top Fuel driver to exceed 260 mph and was followed into that twilight zone about 90 minutes later by Kenny Bernstein in his Budweiser King Funny Car, but I wasn't there as a race reporter for National DRAGSTER in the strictest sense of the word.

Back then, travel to national events was tightly controlled for the DRAGSTER staff. For some races, only a photographer went and brought home just his film and best recollections of what transpired, and we reporters wrote the stories based on the ladder sheets and the observations of the photographers. It was tricky work sometimes. "Why did Garlits only run 8.70 in the second round? Did he smoke the tires or break something?" we might ask. "I don't remember; I think he might have hurt something," might be the reply, which we translated into reporting as "Garlits ran into trouble on his pass" or something similar. There were no cell phones or e-mail to reach racers still on the road home to ask them these questions nor PR people to write press releases, so we winged it based on the photos and the sketchy memories of the shutterbugs. Still, the skills we learned in those days served us well and probably continue to do so in some ways.

No, I made my first Florida foray not as a reporter but as a stowaway of sorts, a young cub reporter eager to experience life on the road as a traveling member of a race team, to see what this whole circus life was all about.

In my first 18 months on the job, I had become good friends with several racers, among them Alcohol Funny Car driver Jim DePasse and his family. They were regulars at Orange County, former sand drag racers trying their luck on the asphalt, and they did quite well for themselves. Jim and his son Jimmy, who was about my age (early 20s), and crew chief Richard Broos always welcomed me into their pit, and when the unexpected and unprecedented chance came for them to travel to the Gatornationals came, they invited me along. I was young and single, and my biggest life quandary was "You want fries with that?" How could I say no? Plus it sounded like a helluva first-person story for ND.

The DePasses – Jim and wife Shirley and kids Jimmy and Missy -- lived in Hemet, which any drag racing fan worth his salt knows also was the home base for Larry Minor's mega operation in the 1980s. That year, Minor, himself a former sand racer, enlisted DePasse to carry his personal Top Fueler along with DePasse's new Corvette Alcohol Funny Car in DePasse's new 18-wheeler on a nationwide tour. Though DePasse would have to pay his own expenses, the carrot was a state-of-the-art Minor-built engine for DePasse's hot rod. (Well, that and a rare chance for a local hero to make the national tour …)

Shirley and Missy picked me up from my unspacious North Hollywood bachelor pad the night before our departure, and I spent the night on their couch (after a raucous good-luck/going-away party hosted by Broos, who actually wasn't going with us), and we assembled the next morning at Minor's shop, where the cars were all loaded and ready to hit the road.

Current John Force Racing brain-trust member Bernie Fedderly, left, was part of Team Minor back then and shared some of his sage advice with DePasse.

The Minor team at the time was anything but minor. Reigning world champ Gary Beck drove the team's number-one Miller Lite car, which was tuned by future hall of famer Bernie Fedderly, whom you obviously know and love as Austin Coil's sidekick with John Force. Another hall of famer, Ed "the Ace" McCulloch, was wheeling the team's Olds flopper. Both made the grueling trip with us -- no hero drivers taking first-class flights here.

I hopped into the cab of the DePasse tractor with the DePasse boys and Minor crewmember Willie Wolter (who after Minor would go on to have a nice -- and still ongoing -- career with Don Prudhomme), and off we went on our little 48-hour cross-country jaunt. "Take a good look at the waitresses, guys," Wolter said during a brief lunch stop at the California/Arizona border. "They get uglier from here on out, but they'll start looking better after a couple of days on the road."

By 3 p.m. we were in New Mexico, and it was just a short time later, during a fuel stop in Deming, that we had a first encounter with the local constabulary.

One of Deming's finest sauntered up to us, eyeballed Beck real suspicious-like, and said, "Hey, ain't you Gary Beck, the drag racer?"

We all exchanged quick uh-oh glances, but it turned out that the young officer had seen Beck on "the TEE-vee" and recognized him and continued to word-worship him for the next five minutes.

Ed McCulloch, left, drove Larry Minor's Funny Car and, like everyone else on the team, offered an experienced eye as he oversaw DePasse's warm-up. That's Team Minor crewman Jimmy Scolaro Jr. at right

Beck grew a bit uncomfortable with all of the salivating, kindly pointed to McCulloch, and said hopefully, "Well over here is the famous Funny Car driver Ed 'the Ace' McCulloch!"

"Never heard of him."

The rest of us probably looked as if we were having seizures as we tried to stifle laughter brewing deep inside and were pretty sure that 10 years earlier, "Ace" probably would have tied him into a pretzel.

It was at this point in the journey that I made the fateful decision to ride out the next leg of the trip in the lounge of the trailer. Now, when I say lounge, it wasn't anything like the beautiful air-ride wonders of today. It was pretty much an eating area and a small sleeping area. Jimmy crashed out in the bed and I on the wafer-thin cushion on the bench that proceeded to hammer my ribs throughout most of Texas. We stopped for fuel in El Paso, and my frantic pounding on the walls of the trailer to let me out – the door could only be opened from the outside -- went unheeded or unheard, so it was back into the spin cycle. "Help, Mr. Wizard! I don’t want to be a drag racing journalist anymore!"

When we stopped next, just outside of Ozona, Texas, I was ready to gnaw my way through the door if necessary, but Willie opened it, and "I leaped from the trailer like a prisoner on a jailbreak" (as I described it in the story I penned for ND). I was surprised to see that a) we were still in Texas and b) that it was dawn of the next day as I stood there blinking in disbelief that Texas could actually be that big. Although my family had toted me all over the western U.S. on camping trips, I'd never been to Texas, and the city boy was at a bit of a loss for words at just how big "big" is in Texas. Dah-yum!

By 8:30 a.m. – 24 hours after we'd left Hemet – we had already covered nearly 1,200 miles, quite an impressive pace considering stops for fuel and food. (No, you don't get to spend the night in a motel.) It wasn't until 6 p.m. that we crossed the border from Texas into Louisiana.

Some makeshift trailer bracing got us out of a real jam in Louisiana.

As the journey progressed, I remember being quite impressed with the resourcefulness of the Minor team. At one food stop, the fuel-shutoff valve on one of the tractors had vibrated in such a way that the engine couldn't be shut off, so they leaped right in and got it fixed. No time for waiting for Triple-A. Farther down the road, we discovered that the deck on which DePasse's flopper rode above Minor's dragster in the trailer had cracked and was threatening to turn Minor's digger into a pancake. Fedderly and a couple of the guys jumped into one of the team's chase cars – an Olds station wagon – and headed off into the unknown, searching for an open hardware store while we limped slowly down the road trying not to bounce too much. Before long, we rendezvoused with them in Lafayette, where they bought some precut 2x4s and nails, which we pounded in with ball-peen hammers to create makeshift bracing.

Just after midnight, we hit Mississippi and two hours after that Alabama, slowed only by heavy fog and truck scales. By 3:40, we were in the Florida panhandle and reached G-ville about 10:30 a.m., tired, dirty, and hungry but eagerly looking forward to racing. We made the one-way trip of 2,322 miles in about 46 and a half hours, which comes out to just under 50 mph, which is pretty amazing considering fuel and food stops and repairs to the trailer. I gained a whole new respect for the crews and what they do to get the cars from Point A to Point B.

We didn't qualify for the race, but it wasn't from lack of effort, including a massive teardown to replace a wounded piston and cylinder head.
Turn left, Jim ... no, your other left!

I wish I could say that DePasse won the race, but that just wasn't so, which, in retrospect, gave me an even deeper appreciation for life on the road. Try as we might, we didn't crack the field; frankly, we didn't even come close. All those hard miles, and we DNQ'd.

It wasn't for lack of effort; the two Jims and I worked our butts off, especially after an injector screw worked its way loose and into a couple of the cylinders, forcing us to strip the block down to remove a dented piston and repair a wounded cylinder head. Although I'd worked on my own cars for years, I'd never worked on an honest-to-goodness drag car, and it was as hard and pressure-packed as it was fun. There was a tremendous esprit de corps not just among the three of us but also the extended Minor family and even the other racers, like Jerry Gwynn, and systems specialists like Sid Waterman (fuel) and Bob Devour (clutch), who all stopped by to offer advice and encouragement.

I got to back up DePasse from his burnouts, stand on the starting line with a rag in my back pocket, and otherwise play pit-crew poseur.

The fuel system on the new engine wasn't quite dialed in, so tire shake became our new "friend," and, try as we might, the best we could muster was a 6.89 at 204.54, well short of Court Durkalski's 6.67 bump spot and good only for the No. 8 alternate spot. The senior DePasse also had a nasty case of gout that caused the big toe on his throttle foot to swell up like a balloon Friday morning, but he toughed it out despite barely being able to walk.

If there was a good part to not making Sunday's show, it was that I got to see history being made by Amato and Bernstein and contributed to the staff's reporting of the historic event. That wasn't my first plan for the weekend, but because we weren't given any invitations to the winner's circle – though our "teammate," Beck, came close and was runner-up behind Amato's sizzling 262-mph blast in the final -- it made for a fine Plan B.

I hopped a plane back to California while the boys hit the bumpy road again, grateful to have seen my first of what would become many Gatornationals and to have experienced up close the agony of defeat that often is a more realistic – and certainly more prevalent – part of racing than are champagne showers in the winner's circle.

I haven't really seen much of the DePasses in the years since -- I still get a chance to see McCulloch and Beck and Wolter during the year, either at the national events or nostalgia races – but I'll never forget the things I learned, the places I saw, and the thrills I experienced on that great nine-day adventure. I've been to Gainesville many times since, but none has been as memorable.

I'm sure that today the rigs are nicer, the roads smoother, and the coordination better, but every time that I walk into the pits and see those rows and rows of glimmering semi trucks, I know that the now-shiny rigs just spent the last several days rumbling down a highway, covered in bugs and road grime, and chauffeured and pampered by a group of eager young bucks fueled up on truck-stop eats and Full Throttle who also can’t wait to get to the digs, drag out their hot rod , and put it to the ultimate test.

Makes me almost wish I was back with them ... almost.