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Top Fuel's 'one-hit wonders'

07 Aug 2009
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider
Carl Olson is known as the Top Fuel winner at the 1972 Winternationals, but he accomplished much more in his career beyond the one NHRA victory.

What do the bands Starland Vocal Band, Paper Lace, and Big Country have in common with Top Fuel heroes Carl Olson, Clayton Harris, and John Mulligan?

Though many of you may know those groups as one-hit wonders, many probably would be surprised to learn that each of those widely respected nitro digger pilots claimed only a single NHRA national event Wally in their long careers, a fact that leaped out at me after last Friday’s final Fred Files, in which I shared the unlikely tale of Arnie Behling’s lone Top Fuel win at the 1971 Summernationals.

They’re certainly not alone. In fact, 41 — nearly half — of the 92 drivers who have scooped up the 658 wins in NHRA Top Fuel history did so only once in the class. I find that a pretty startling factoid worthy of a whole half-hour Lewis Bloom segment.

I feel a little bad calling those drivers one-hit wonders because they all had other spectacular accomplishments in their stellar careers. In Olson' case, there's also a March Meet win and a huge and emotional victory at Lions Drag Strip's Last Drag Race, both of which I know he places high on his list of accomplishments, plus three NHRA national event runner-ups, membership in the Cragar 5-Second Club and Bonneville 200-mph Club, an IHRA Top Fuel world championship, and a lifetime of service to the high-performance industry in one fashion or another. And although Harris and Mulligan's national event win list also has just one entry, each has multiple runner-ups and national records to his credit, and each has a revered place in the annals of drag racing history.

On top of that, for them and many of the 39 other one-race winenrs we need to consider that they competed in an era in which there weren’t as many national events on the calendar and they either match raced substantially -- which, for many, even held a higher importance than the national event stage --  or competed with other sanctioning bodies.

Top NHRA Top Fuel winners
1.Tony Schumacher59
2.Joe Amato52
3.Larry Dixon47
4.Kenny Bernstein39
5.Don Garlits35
6.Doug Kalitta31
7.Cory McClenathan30
8.Gary Scelzi25
9.Gary Beck19
10.Darrell Gwynn18
 Shirley Muldowney18
12.Scott Kalitta17
 Brandon Bernstein17
14.Dick LaHaie15
15.Gary Ormsby14
 Don Prudhomme14
17.Eddie Hill13
18.Mike Dunn12
19.Doug Herbert10
 Connie Kalitta10
21.Kelly Brown8
22.Antron Brown7
 Rod Fuller7
24.Darrell Russell6
 J.R. Todd6

On the other hand, given some of the class’ dominant drivers over the years and their staggering win totals, it’s maybe a little more understandable. Tony Schumacher, with 59 victories, owns almost 9 percent (8.96) of all NHRA Top Fuel triumphs since Don Garlits won the first title at the 1963 Winternationals. Garlits, with 35 Wallys, still ranks fifth overall. Between Schumacher and “Big Daddy” reside Joe Amato (52), Larry Dixon (47), and Kenny Bernstein (39), and it’s only a matter of time before Dixon eclipses retired Amato’s total. It takes just six wins — J.R. Todd’s total — to be among the top 25 Top Fuel scorers of all time. But this column isn’t about those with a Top Fuel Wally space problem on their mantels. It’s about the other 41.

But what constitutes a one-hit wonder in drag racing? Especially when you consider what an honor and a thrill it must be to win in drag racing’s top class even once.

To be fair, that 41 number is probably not legit considering that it includes current drivers such as Spencer Massey, Morgan Lucas, and Hillary Will, who scored their breakthrough Top Fuel wins within the past year or so, had all won in the alcohol classes, and are far from done winning in Top Fuel. The list also includes guys such as Ron Capps, who has 29 Funny Car Wallys to keep his lone Top Fuel keepsake company (Seattle 1995); Tom McEwen, whose feel-good Top Fuel win at the 1991 Englishtown event was preceded by four Funny Car wins, including at the U.S. Nationals; Dave Settles, who scored five Top Fuel runner-ups after his 1974 Gatornationals win, which was preceded by four Pro Comp triumphs; and Bill Mullins, whose 1985 Columbus, Ohio, caper stands beside previous wins in Top Gas and Alcohol Dragster.

Bob Noice, Jimmy Nix, and Jim Bucher also won in Top Gas and Hank Johnson in Alcohol Funny Car, and a goodly portion of the list also posted at least one runner-up.

So I created the chart at the bottom of this column of all of the one-hit wonders. Reviewing that list, you can see that there are only 12 drivers whose only NHRA win was in their only NHRA final in Top Fuel: Art Marshall, Bob Gibson, Chip Woodall, Cristen Powell, Don Moody, Hank Westmoreland, Jim Barnard, Jim Walther, Jimmy King, Larry Dixon, Rick Ramsey, and Stan Shiroma.

Art Marshall's lone Top Fuel win, at the 1972 Grandnational in Montreal, is especially significant as it was the final win by a front-engine Top Fuel car.

It’s a pretty interesting group of winners. Marshall’s victory, at the 1972 Grandnational, was the final win by a front-engine Top Fueler and quite an upset for the unheralded 23-year-old speed shop salesman from Springfield, N.J. His car, the ex-Don Prudhomme high-back Hot Wheels dragster, was owned with Don Young and sponsored by Van Iderstine’s Speed & Auto, where Marshall worked. Theirs was the lone front-engine car in the field, yet he set down hitters such as Olson, Harris, and, in the final, Jeb Allen. Allen was hot off a Summernationals win and probably would have won the race had not a leak gushed water under his tires on the launch, causing him to lose traction.

Shiroma’s victory was the last Top Fuel win with a true Chevy engine, and he beat Rance McDaniel’s Rodeck in the final for it. Sixteen years later, McDaniel would claim his lone win at the World Finals in 1993. And it would be extremely difficult to call Moody a one-hit wonder given his portfolio (as my previous story on him will attest) and the fact that his one win, at that historic 1972 SuperNationals, was capped by a jaw-dropping 5.91 pass.

There are some other interesting things to notice overall in the list. Three of the drivers — Vodnik, Johnny Abbott, and Terry Capp — couldn’t have picked a better place to notch their lone victory: the U.S. Nationals. As lone wins go, that probably has to be tops; a lot of drivers (people like Capps, for example) have lots of wins but none in Indy. And what of Gerry Glenn and Jim Walther, whose only wins were at the World Finals, in 1971 and 1972, respectively, but were crowned world champ on the basis of those wins? I’d say those two guys did a pretty good job of cherry-picking a win.

It’s also interesting to note that five of those wins were at hallowed tracks such as Old Bridge and Pomona, which host prestigious events good for the résumé, and that unlikely venues such as Atlanta and Seattle have had their share with three each. I was in Seattle for two of them, including Michael Brotherton’s wild win in 1992. In qualifying, he had tipped Darrell Gwynn’s Coors Light car onto its head at quarter-track, but the team, led by Ken Veney, worked through the night and came back to win the race Sunday.

All of these drivers may have only had one day in the NHRA Top Fuel winner’s circle, but, as I mentioned earlier, what an accomplishment even that is. Each of them is among only 93 drivers in 46 years who, through a mixture of will, skill, and sometimes luck, outlasted the best the day had to offer and won in the most exotic class in the world’s fastest form of motorsports. One-hit wonders? Nah, more like wonderful one-hitters.
 

NameTop Fuel winTF R/UsOther wins
Johnny Abbott1981 Indy20
Jim Barnard1982 Orange County00
Arnie Behling1971 Englishtown10
Michael Brotherton1992 Seattle20
Jim Bucher1975 Englishtown31
Terry Capp1980 Indy20
Ron Capps1995 Seattle129
Dave Chenevert1970 Gainesville10
Larry Dixon1970 Pomona00
Bob Gibson1970 Dallas00
Gerry Glenn1971 Amarillo, Texas10
Clayton Harris1973 Englishtown20
Hank Johnson1971 Ontario, Calif.11
Jimmy King1971 Gainesville00
Lucille Lee1982 Atlanta10
Morgan Lucas2009 Atlanta511
Art Marshall1972 Montreal00
Ronnie Martin1970 Dallas00
Spencer Massey2009 Chicago13
Rance McDaniel1993 Pomona 240
Tom McEwen1991 Englishtown14
Don Moody1972 Ontario, Calif.00
John Mulligan1969 Pomona20
Bill Mullins1985 Columbus, Ohio22
Jimmy Nix1966 Bristol11
Bob Noice1979 Pomona01
Carl Olson1972 Pomona30
Dan Pastorini1986 Atlanta10
Herm Petersen1973 Gainesville10
Cristen Powell1997 Englishtown00
Rick Ramsey1970 Ontario, Calif.00
Dwight Salisbury1982 Denver20
Dave Settles1974 Gainesville54
Stan Shiroma1977 Seattle00
Jody Smart1983 Denver40
Jim Walther1972 Tulsa, Okla.00
Hank Westmoreland1969 Dallas00
John Wiebe1973 Columbus, Ohio40
Hillary Will2008 Topeka31
Jack Williams1964 Pomona10
Chip Woodall1972 Columbus, Ohio00