Longevity in any field of work is a dual-edged sword. On the positive, the longer you’re around, the more people you meet, and the friendships you make can last a lifetime. The downside is that the more people you meet, your odds of losing one of them skyrockets. The friendship may last a lifetime, but, unfortunately, lifetimes don't last.
When the e-mail appeared in my Inbox late Tuesday, the sender and the subject line shared a common last name, which is never a good sign. Trust me on this. The sender was Jamie Woosley, and the subject was Don Woosley.
I didn't want to open it, but eventually I did and learned that we'd lost "the Wooz" the day before, in his sleep, at age 63. Sad doesn't begin to explain my feeling.
Why should you care? Some of you may not even know or remember the name, but Don Woosley was damned good behind the wheel of the Ale-8-One Top Alcohol Dragster that he campaigned with partners Bill Sharp and Bill Reynolds. They won the 1983 Top Alcohol Dragster world championship, 10 national event Wallys, and seven Division 3 championships. Woosley's battles with the late Al DaPozzo (whom he always called "Albert," much in the same way that Shirley Muldowney calls Don Garlits "Donald") were legendary, including their to-the-wire title battle in 1982.
Woosley was one of the first people I met on the job here in 1982, and he quickly became one of my favorite people. He was easy to talk to, respectful of my job and needs, and, of course, he was a riot, a bearded lunatic with John Force-like material, though proffered with a Southern drawl and even delivery. In fact, one of my most favorite interviews of all time was with Woosley, back in 1986, just before the SPORTSnationals. I called it "Just a TAD crazy" (TAD, of course, being shorthand for Top Alcohol Dragster), and it included comments that still make me laugh.
Although he had won earlier in his career, this is the car that made Don Woosley famous, the Woosley, Sharp, & Reynolds Ale-8-One Special.
Typical of their good-natured rivalry, Al DaPozzo put an exclamation point on his victory over Woosley in the final round of the 1982 Finals.
Partners Bill Sharp, center, and Bill Reynolds readied "the Wooz" for another pass.
This is July 3, 1974, at Beech Bend, where Woosley drove the Woosley & Sharp A/Fuel Dragster to Pro Comp honors over Don Gerardot.
At the 1975 Springnationals in a car called Magic Show. (There's probably a really great story behind that name!)
The first car I could find with Bill Reynolds' name on it, from the 1977 Cajun Nationals.
From 1986, ND Ad Sales czar John Mazzarella causing "the Wooz" some grief.
Because he grew up in horse country in Kentucky, I asked Woosley, who was probably short enough to be a jockey, if he had ever considered a different kind of horsepower than methanol-brewed. In Force-like fashion, the answer quickly dissolved into a story.
"I don’t even like horses," he told me. "I got bit by one once, but he paid. He was a real nice horse. I always used to walk through the field where he was. One day, I just walked by him, and he bit me on the shoulder. The next day, I walked through the same field, I had a croquet mallet in my hand and whacked him and brought him to his knees. Hit him right between the eyes."
The typed word doesn't do justice to the way he told the story, but I always remembered it (over the years, somehow in my mind, I had bent the story so that he had actually clobbered famed thoroughbred Secretariat, who, it turns out, was boarded nearby but was out of mallet range, apparently). I also never forgot something that he said later in our interview, which has stuck with me through all these years, especially when I climb into a car to race someone.
He was assessing his competition; after singling out DaPozzo, Bill Walsh, and "that kid on the West Coast; what's his name? Sleezy?" (he was serious; he meant Gary Scelzi, who had just won the Winternationals) as drivers with "the killer instinct," he said, "You can tell the guys who don’t have the instinct – like when someone comes up [before a race] and wishes you good luck. … Isn't that the stupidest thing I've heard in my life? I've never wished anybody [I race] good luck. I wish 'em a safe trip and all that, but I'm sure as hell not gonna wish 'em luck if they're racing me.
"I can sit around and joke with Walsh and DaPozzo in the staging lanes before the race, but when that helmet goes on, it's war. I wanna kill 'em. They're the enemy, and it's my job to beat the guy next to me."
Long before the Woosley, Sharp & Reynolds dragster was sponsored by regional ginger-ale-type soft drink Ale-8-One ("People around here drink it for breakfast," mused 'Wooz.' "Can you believe that? I could see drinking a good cold beer for breakfast and pouring it on your corn flakes ... but Ale-8?") and became a terror on the track, the trio was tearing up the track in Division 3 with a fuel-injected front-engine dragster.
Woosley first partnered with Sharp, who had been building an Anglia with his brother, who got hurt in a racing accident. Sharp took his engine and put it into an old dragster chassis that Woosley had acquired in trade for a '64 GTO (not a great trade, IMO, especially because "it didn't do much," according to Woosley).
They later got an ex-Top Gas Don Tuttle chassis and later a front-engine Stebbins chassis that became the Magic Show injected fuel dragster with which Woosley won his first Wally at the 1975 SPORTSnationals. I'm not exactly sure when Reynolds joined the duo, but with Sharp building the engines, Reynolds tuning and working the clutch, and Woosley behind the wheel, they were tough to beat, as their seven Division 3 championships attest.
Division 3 Director Jay Hullinger told me that he had been planning to invite Woosley to this year's division banquet so that he could be honored with the other seven-time Division 3 champions, who include Danny Townsend, Jerry Arnold, and, now, Bill Reichert. Hullinger also noted, with a grin, that Woosley's online obituary noted that he was "an avid cat fisherman." And I thought he was just mean to horses.
I texted ND Senior Editor Kevin McKenna after I'd gotten the news from Woosley's nephew, and K-Mac's response was perfect: "I'm sure he's already played a practical joke on DaPozzo." I bet.
On a closing note, I remember that my tape recorder malfunctioned during that 1986 interview, so I had to call Woosley back at his Winchester, Ky., service station and finish the interview again, for which I apologized profusely.
"Yeah, I know how that is with technical stuff," he sympathized and added self-deprecatingly, "I'm in the same position myself when I try to drive home. Y'know, you've got Park and Drive and keys and all that stuff."
I wasn't sure if he was joking, and then he launched into a rambling, Force-like monologue.
"You wasn't bothering me anyway; I wasn't doing a thing. I was sitting here looking at this Chevelle sitting out front. It's a 454. Guy brought it down here to the garage and thought it had a rod knock, but it was just a rocker arm. I don’t want to give it back to him. I'll take it out and get picked up by the police. It's been a long time since I've sat in something you could walk into the four-barrel and the sumbitch would just jump sideways. You can’t get that now. This one here'll do it. I like it. I think I'll drive around and terrorize the neighbors.
"Y'all have a good day. See ya at the Sports[nationals]. Now make that article good, or I'll have to run you out of Kentucky."
A funny ending for a funny guy, and one of my all-time favorite racers. Godspeed, "Wooz."