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Remembering Bobby Rowe

20 Oct 2009
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

Former Funny Car racer Bobby Rowe, who died late last week at age 64, left behind not just a legacy as one of the many great Funny Car drivers to come out of the early 1970s, but also a story of hard work and perseverance. Many know him as the national-record-setting driver of Ed Willis' Mr. Ed Satellite, but he didn’t get there overnight.

Rowe didn't start out in a nitro Funny Car like so many in those formative days of the class, but once he got there, he certainly showed that he belonged. Rowe was Robert Hight before Hight was born, learning the ropes on the crew side of the sport, earning a reputation as a hard worker before getting his shot at nitro glory.

Rowe began drag racing before he had a driver's license. In 1959, at age 14, he registered 14-second times at Lakeland Drag Strip near Memphis with his C/Gas '50 Chevy and campaigned the car for several years. In the early 1960s, the Memphis native was hired by former Division 2 Director Buster Couch to work on the Division 2 certification team at national and divisional events. Rowe performed a variety of duties, everything from working the starting line to tech inspection and fuel check.

After spending four years as part of "Buster's Rebels," Rowe went to work for camshaft wizard Joe Lunati, grinding cams at the business and helping on Lunati's A/Modified Sports entry while fielding a pair of Studebaker M/Stockers, with which he set multiple national records.

His racing career was interrupted in the mid-1960s while he served his country for two years in the Vietnam War, but once Stateside, he returned to the quarter-mile with a P/S '55 Chevrolet, and he and Sportsman legend Dave Boertman traded the national record back and forth.

But the big circus was calling, and Rowe answered. He left Lunati to hit the match race trail, doing engine and transmission work for Bill Taylor's Super 'Cuda and Larry Coleman's Super Ford and for Roland Leong's Hawaiian team.

"I always liked Funny Cars," Rowe told National DRAGSTER in 1994. "I got a chance to crew for Coleman & Taylor's Super 'Cuda, and I just couldn't pass it up. I remember one time I had the ramp truck parked in my driveway, and my mother saw the car. I told her I wanted to drive one someday, and she said the thing looked like a coffin. I said maybe it does, but if I get killed in one, you'll know I died happy."

Bobby Rowe's first Funny Car ride was in Bill Taylor's Super Duster.
Rowe was tremendously successful on the match race scene in Don Schumacher's second Stardust 'Cuda.
Rowe set national records and almost won the 1973 NHRA world championship in Ed Willis' Mr. Ed Satellite. He crashed heavily in this car in Ontario later that year and suffered a broken back.
Rowe's final Funny Car ride was the Rowe-Henderson-Smallwood Vega.

Rowe knew Funny Cars from A to Z, which eventually landed him the ride in Taylor's Super Duster the next year when Larry Reyes left the team to drive for Leong. It wasn't an easy apprenticeship – he almost fulfilled his mother's fear when the car exploded the blower in a ball of fire on his first pass at Lakeland Drag Strip – but within a year, Rowe had reached his first final round at the 1971 Gatornationals, where he was runner-up to Leroy Goldstein and the Ramchargers.

When Hawaiian pilot Butch Maas suffered severe burns in a match race fire in the spring of 1971, old pal Leong came calling, and Rowe took over the wheel of the famed blue and white Dodge and later moved on to drive Don Schumacher's second Stardust Barracuda. The car was a big-time match race winner; Rowe estimated that he won 89 percent of all the Coca-Cola Cavalcade of Stars Funny Car circuit events in 1972. Rowe clinched the series title easily, set 26 track records, and posted the first 6.3-second Funny Car clocking, a 6.38.

In 1973, Rowe moved into the saddle of the car for which most remember him, the Fresno, Calif.-based Mr. Ed Satellite, in which he set the national speed record with a 232.55-mph blast at the U. S. Nationals, which he bettered at the World Finals with a 232.99 while setting the national e.t. record at 6.29. After winning the Division 7 championship, he just missed winning the world championship when he suffered a final-round loss to Frank Hall in Jim Green's Green Elephant Vega.

The year ended horribly, though, as a huge fireball in the car at the NHRA Supernationals carried him into the Ontario Motor Speedway retaining wall, and the impact broke his back.

During his recuperation, and despite still wearing a back brace, Rowe drove Jeg Coughlin's Ford Pinto Pro Stocker at the 1974 Winternationals. The day after the race, the star-crossed Rowe crashed his motorcycle near Ed Pink's shop in Van Nuys, Calif., breaking his leg so severely that he wore a cast for more than a year.

Rowe made his return to Funny Car racing in 1975, partnering with Gary Henderson and T.B. Smallwood on the Rowe-Henderson-Smallwood Hillbillies Vega Funny Car, first on nitro then on alcohol, but soon after hung up his driving gloves.

Although he was no longer driving, he remained in the high-performance industry. He formed a partnership with NFL quarterback – and soon-to-be Top Fuel racer – Dan Pastorini to race drag boats for a few successful seasons. They were blown fuel jet champions in the Southern Drag Boat Association in 1976 and in 1983 won Competition Hydro in the World Series of Drag Boat Racing.

In 1979, Rowe opened Crankshaft Specialties and ran it until selling to his brother, Doug, in 1985 to briefly reunite with Pastorini on the Quarterback Sneak Top Fueler. Although Pastorini won in Atlanta in 1986, Rowe never won a Wally as a driver.

"I would have liked to have won one of the big NHRA races," Rowe said, "but it didn't happen. Still, I can say I've driven a lot of cars, everything from M/ and P/Stockers to Pro Stocks and Funny Cars. I have no regrets about anything. Well, now that I think about it, I'd like to have avoided that wall at Ontario 20 years ago."

A funny line for sure, but there's nothing funny about losing another of our heroes.

Rowe is survived by his children, Jerene Rowe and Robert Rowe Jr.; granddaughter, Brielle; and siblings Jerene Sykes, Tina Dugan, and Doug Rowe.

Former NHRA Pro Stock and Sport Compact racer Shaun Carlson was lovingly remembered at the Formula Drift season finale – ironically dubbed Judgment Day – at Irwindale Speedway over the weekend. Carlson, who had transferred his copious talents into the drifting world as a car owner and builder after NHRA's Sport Compact program ended, had died two weeks earlier.

In Irwindale, Carlson's car, driven by Sam Hubinette, was wrapped with special red camo graphics featuring images of Carlson and his trademark Mohawk haircut on its flanks and on the hood.

Before the start of Saturday's action, a moment of silence was observed for Carlson, and a video tribute played. Hubinette's dream of a win to salute his friend ended in the round of eight, and the team finished fourth in the standings.

"I felt we got some extra strength from Shaun above," said Hubinette, who with Carlson won the Formula Drift championship in 2004 and 2006. "We wanted to win for him, and I'm bummed we didn't, but we made the Great 8, which I think is remarkable given all the things the team has been through. I'm so proud of the NuFormz team, and I know Shaun would have been, too."

The team's crew chief, Scott Stanwood, known to most simply as "Chip," added, "Shaun Carlson meant the world to me and this team. We nicknamed him ‘Dad' because he looked over us; he was our mentor. He was so iconic to the drifting and sport compact racing worlds; you can't even put words to it. Shaun would have never wanted us to miss a race. We pushed ahead and made a good representation of the team. We gave Shaun a front-row seat with this paint scheme is how I see it."

Top honors did, however, go to another NHRA connection as another former Sport Compact hero, Gary Gardella, whose front-wheel-drive Cobalt terrorized the Pro FWD ranks, got his second win of the season with driver Ryan Tuerck; they just barely missed winning the season championship with their Mobil 1-sponsored Pontiac Solstice.

Another team of former NHRA stars, Pro FWD world champs Ed and Ron Bergenholtz, also shined at the event as their driver, Justin Pawlak, was the runaway No. 1 qualifier after a near-perfect run in the brothers' Mazda RX8. "JTP" racked up a stunning score of 96.8 out of 100. Tuerck qualified No. 2 with 88.5 points.

That's it for today; see ya later this week.