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They belong to a fraternity founded in the 1960s, back when they were all younger men with limitless dreams in their heads and scores of quarter-mile runs in their future. Theirs is a friendship forged in the fires of competition, strengthened in years together on the road, and cemented by camaraderie in pit areas across the country, where their common bond allowed them to understand one another, regardless of the type of car that they drove or owned or what kind of engine was in the framerails.
It's a band of brothers, if you will, whose passions continue to burn long after their last header flames were extinguished, and a family of friends that 40-something years later still seek the company of one another, to catch up on one another's lives after drag racing, to retell and exaggerate old tales, and to bask in the warm glow of careers that made many of them more famous than they ever dreamed.
They came together again Monday at what can only be described as a mini Hot Rod Reunion, far from the dusty trails of Bakersfield and the sweltering heat of Bowling Green, at the Southern California shop of perhaps the most famous of their own, Don Prudhomme, and I was the lucky fly on the wall.
I had been jealously reading about the planned get-together in some of the drag racing e-mail groups to which I subscribe, but belonging to such a group does not earn you an invitation; that came from Roland Leong, legendary owner of the Hawaiian Top Fuelers and Funny Cars, who has been a great friend over the years. He didn't have to ask twice.
I had only seen a partial list of expected attendees, and I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I rolled up to "the Snake's" shop in Vista, but whatever I could have imagined or dreamed of could never have matched what I walked into: a Who's Who of Southern California drag racing royalty, all chitchatting amicably inside Prudhomme's cavernous shop, sharing space with his incredible collection of restored Funny Cars.
Roland Leong and Dode Martin
Harold Miller, left, and Danny "Buzz" Broussard (Tom Jobe photo)
Some of them I knew already, and many I’d only heard about, but Leong and Steve Gibbs kindly offered up introductions to the ones I didn't know. Man, where to start?
How about 85-year-old Dode Martin, founder of the famed Dragmaster chassis company, whose headquarters is just down the road in Carlsbad? Decades after changing the way in which race cars were built and sold, they’re still in business, still selling parts and pieces and, on occasion, an entire dragster to a retro-crazy clientele. Leong introduced me to him as his first boss, as it was in the Dragmaster shop that he first landed when he came Stateside from Hawaii. Martin is in the process of restoring the team's famous Dragliner entry.
Leong also pointed out Harold Miller, the only black member of the original Bean Bandits team that ruled Southern California drag racing in the 1950s and later a crewmember for guys like Bill Leavitt and Jerry Baltes.
I spent some time talking to two old pals, Dale Armstrong and Donnie Couch, guys I've known for decades from interviewing them in the pits. As Prudhomme later pointed out, you know it’s a big deal when Armstrong shows up because the perpetual tinkerer usually has to be pried from his garage with a 10-foot crowbar. Couch, a standout crewmember for so many of drag racing's biggest stars, is now a bright light himself on the nostalgia circuit thanks to his West Coast Funny Car Factory, where he assembles machines to do battle in the nostalgia wars.
There was "Snake's" old crew chief, Bob Brandt, with whom I've also created a great friendship, and another former Prudhomme crewmember, Pat Galvin, who, like Couch, has a résumé of famous employers as long as a dragstrip. There was Wes Cerny, who crewed for Leong and Prudhomme, and Mike Kuhl, former partner with past Winternationals Top Fuel champ Carl Olson.
From left, Tom Jobe, Broussard, Willie Wolter, and Dale Armstrong
Who else? How about Tom Jobe, a third of the famed Skinner-Jobe-Sorokin Surfers team? Jobe and I have exchanged numerous e-mails over the years, but this was our first meeting. (He also kindly sent me some of his photos to round out this column.) I listened raptly as he told tales of the Red Apple motel, where the trio kept and worked on its famed dragster between events, and how Bob Skinner's mom managed the place and was quick to give the heave-ho to any customers who complained about the noise her boys were making. Armstrong told Jobe, whom he hadn't seen since then, how he had gone to see the Surfers at the Santa Monica, Calif., motel to buy a helmet from Sorokin, one that he sure wishes he still had.
Hey, look, there's Frankie Pisano, Joe's brother and owner of Venolia pistons, and Tom Prock, who drove Funny Cars such as the Bergler & Prock, Custom Body, and Detroit Tiger (not to mention the Prock & Howell F Troop Willys gasser) before becoming the general manager at Venolia. I chatted with Bob Muravez (aka Floyd Lippencott Jr.), the famous driver of the Freight Train Top Gas dragster, while we stood on the landing high above the shop to take photos.
I met Dan "Buzz" Broussard, owner of the Garrison-Davis-Broussard-Ongais Top Fueler of the 1960s. I interviewed him last year for the story I wrote on the late, great Leonard Harris but never had met him. Leong also introduced me to Larry Bowers, whose superchargers once proliferated the nitro pits and who drove gas and fuel dragsters (you'll remember him from the famous shot of the entire bellhousing being blown out of his car at Orange County Int’l Raceway).
Bill Doner, "Wild Bill" Shrewsberry, and Armstrong relived West Coast memories.
I also got to meet the legend that is Bill Doner, the dragstrip impresario who once owned a good chunk of all of the famous West Coast dragstrips from Seattle down to Orange County, and famed wheelie king "Wild Bill" Shrewsberry, whom I'd seen in action dozens of times but only spoken to on the phone. Doner still has 'em eating out of his hand; people gathered around as he wove stories about promoting events and the lengths he'd go to, including the famous Linda Lovelace-at-Seattle story. Doner also fondly remembered a forever-trying, forever-unsuccessful Funny Car racer who begged to be in his famous radio ads in the 1970s, even telling him that he'd accept less money to race if he could only be in the ads so that his mom could hear his name on the radio. That racer was John Force.
Spider Razon, half of the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Dead End Kids dragster team (who is now in the apparel business), was there, as were Danny Porche, former car owner of the famed Howard Cam Rattler, and Roy Miersh, who worked on the car and now helps his son, Larry, on an injected nitro dragster. Harold Owens, whom SoCal racers know from the staging lanes in Pomona or from Inyokern, was there along with fellow Inyokern/Dust Devils alumnus Dennis Garrett.
From left, Roland Kleinsorge (who worked with Tommy "the Watchdog" Allen's Top Fueler), Jess Sturgeon, and Bill Pitts (Tom Jobe photo)
Who else? How about Dominick Cordoza, driver of the Huff & Cordoza Top Fueler and co-owner of "Diamond Jim" Annin's Mike Snively-driven Top Fueler? Bill Pitts, owner of the Magicar Top Fueler. Jess Sturgeon, driver of the Sturgeon Bros. Top Fueler from the 1960s. Roger Garten of War Horse Funny Car fame. Former Pro Comp wiz Jimmy Scott and alky dragster ace Don Irvin. Chassis builder Bob Meyer. Pete Eastwood and Derek Bower, who did the incredible restoration of the Mondello & Matsubara fuel altered. Billy “Bones” Miller, longtime friend of "the Snake" and "the Mongoose" who brought many sponsorship deals to the latter. Harold Meziere of the famed SoCal racing family. Former Drag Racer magazine editors Scott Cochran and Randy Fish and former San Diego-area photographer Mike Mitchell were on hand, as were Top Fuel owner/driver and WDIFL.com photographer John Ewald and everyone's favorite "wavemaker," Don Prieto. The list goes on and on. In all, probably 70 or 80 of SoCal's drag racing royalty were under one roof.
I also met Ralph Whitworth, to whom Prudhomme had once sold many of his restored cars that they had hoped would form part of a collection at Whitworth's Nevada museum, America's Car Collection, before the project got derailed. Whitworth's newest project, with the help of Prudhomme and Willie Wolter, is Tom Cobbs' historic roadster, which, as legend has it, was part of what is considred the first "legal" drag race in history, against Fran Hernandez at the Santa Barbara Municipal Airport in April 1949. Armstrong is helping, too, with engine work on the old blown flatheads.
So many of these famed racers stopped by to tell me how much they enjoy this column, which was music to my ears. They like what we're doing here, and that makes me happy.
Drawing almost as much attention as Prudhomme's fleet of floppers is his collection of vintage racing jackets from places like Lions, San Gabe, Irwindale, and Pomona, plus a Road Kings jacket and more. Too cool! (Tom Jobe photo)
(Tom Jobe photo)
After a couple of hours of extreme bench racing, we headed off to lunch at nearby Nucci's Italian Café, where more than 60 of us packed one wing of the restaurant, and the good times rolled on. I sat with Leong, Brandt, and Jim "Dudley" Rickart, whom many of you may know as the wheelman for Jim Jennard's coach, but he's been around a long time, too, and seen a lot. More stories flowed over pasta and salad, and, unfortunately for you, most of them can’t be told to protect the "guilty" parties.
As we sat there, Leong looked around the room, and he, too, was amazed that this group of guys, who all pretty much started together as young men – he was always among the youngest, and he's 65 now – are still hanging out all these years later.
The party broke up after lunch, and a few of us headed back to "Snake's" shop. I wanted to check on the progress on the former Tom McEwen ramp truck (see below) and maybe chat with Prudhomme a while longer. Goodbyes were said and promises made to do it again real soon.
Back at Snake Racing, I sat with Prudhomme for a half hour, talking about his absence from the sport ("Y'know, I miss parts of it, like the competition and that moment when you’re standing behind the car as it's ready to launch, but there are definitely parts of it I don’t miss") and especially about the day's get-together.
"Man, this was really cool," he assessed. "You know, to have all of these guys come back together and still be friends all these years later, it really says something. To me it says that drag racing is one of the best things that ever happened to them in their lives."
I couldn't agree more.
She ain't beautiful ... yet
Cutting the ramp off the truck
El Jefe himself got on a creeper to check out the progress.
Work is well under way on the former McEwen hauler, and there's a lot of work to be done. Although Wolter said that the interior of the truck is in better shape than Prudhomme's when they found it, there's going to be quite a lot of labor put into the old girl, who's pretty rusted in areas.
The ramp is cracked (probably for the short time when it also hauled a tractor puller), and the cabinets have been altered and pretty beat up. The truck actually runs and is drivable but is still probably better than a year from active duty.
When I was there, a couple of workers were crawling around and underneath the behemoth, using cutting torches to hack off brackets so that the entire back section could be lifted off and both parts could be worked on. Once it's freed, they'll lift it off the chassis with a pair of forklifts and place it on a rolling dolly so that repairs can be made and the entire truck prepped for painting.
There's little doubt in my mind that, under Wolter's guidance and with Prudhomme's unquenchable thirst for authenticity, the truck will turn out as smashingly awesome as Prudhomme's own rig. As someone commented, "Man, when it’s done, he's going to have a pretty nice set of bookends."
I can hardly wait.