Of fading friends, heroic moments, kind deeds, and good memories
The news of the passing of "Smokey Joe" Lee earlier this week and the loss this morning of 1974 NHRA Funny Car world champ Shirl Greer was a double tough blow to longtime fans like me and many of you who remember these guys in the nostalgic heyday of Funny Car racing.
I never saw Greer run outside of national events much because he was from back East but remember "Smokey Joe" living up to his nickname many a time at Orange County Int’l Raceway or Irwindale Raceway match races. As big of a Don Prudhomme fan as I was, I also loved the independents of the 1970s and even early 1980s, guys like Lee, Jeff Courtie, Bob Pickett, Roger Garten, Neil Leffler, Jim Terry, Clarence Bailey, Willie and the Poor Boys, Ray Romund, Al Arriaga, and Mike Halloran. I remember Halloran winning Irwindale's famous Grand Prix of Drag Racing in 1973 over a strong field. He beat Ed McCulloch in the semi's and even set top speed, then got a bye in the final when Jim Dunn's Satellite was broken. What a "little guy" win that was!
Looking at the list of guys we've lost recently, it's very stunning. As Courtie told me in an e-mail yesterday, "It's been a rough couple of years for guys from the 1970s." Going through the NHRA.com archives, I see that in the last two years alone, we've lost racers Jim Paoli, Leroy Chadderton, Ron Correnti, Bobby Hightower, Dick Loehr, Al Eckstrand, Jocko Johnson, Red Gobel, Chuck Finders, K.S. Pittman, Joe Allread, and Lou Sattelmaier as well as iconic manufacturers Chet Herbert, Jim Deist, Sig Erson, Marv Rifchin, Ralph Truppi, Ed Justice Sr., Pete Jackson, Greg Weld, Rocky Childs, and Bob Tasca Sr., not to mention more contemporary figures such as Don Woosley, Gene Fasching, Jim Harrington, Ronnie Marcum, and Tom Baum.
Even my own journalism world has been rocked with the losses of guys such as online pioneer Mike Hollander, DRAGSTER's own Dick Wells, Bill Crites, and Eric Brooks, Charlotte Observer motorsports veteran David Poole, former Safety Safari member/Hot Rod photographer Eric "Rick" Rickman, Fast News' Darryl Jackman, and photo ace Bob Hesser. Going back three to four years, we also lost nitro stalwarts Chuck Kurzawa, Dick Custy, Billy Holt, Romund, Jim McClennan, and Tom McCourry. It's very tough to see your heroes dropping one by one.
While working up background info on Greer, I thought it would be a good time to retell the story of his heroic efforts in winning the 1974 world championship, so it's the focus of this week's Pure Nostalgia column in National DRAGSTER. I interviewed Paul Smith, who was leading the points coming into that final race but didn’t qualify and ultimately led the group of guys who put Greer's fire-ravaged Mustang back together, as well as Prudhomme, who battled Greer down to the wire yet still had the class and sportsmanship to offer Greer a pair of gloves to cover his badly burned hands. I also got some info from Gordie Bonin, who was in on the thrash.
Greer's championship ended the best bid that Smith ever mustered for the title – he finished second – and denied Prudhomme what would have been his first championship.
"He was real strong and had a good-running car," remembered "the Snake," who finished third. "He had my respect. He was an independent guy, but he was a real threat. It was a well-deserved championship, to come back from that fire and still run. They don’t make 'em like that anymore."
Through 1973, the world championship had been decided by whoever won that year's World Finals; 1974 was the first year of a true points-based championship, though it relied heavily on points meets as much as national event competition. Prudhomme didn't run as many divisional races as Greer, and that probably cost him the chance to win his first title.
"That was the year before Winston came into the sport, and I have to say it was Greer who made me well aware of winning the championship, so we really went after it the next year," said Prudhomme. "Drag racing was really beginning to take off."
Smith, who battled with Greer throughout the season in Division 2, was actually inspired by Greer to compete in the class.
"The first I saw Shirl was down at Miami Dragway, and here came this Funny Car – a car called Tension. (I had never had a Funny Car – just an old bracket car)," he remembered. "It was injected at the time, but the next time I saw it, it was blown. That's when I said, 'I've got to get me one of those.' I kind of followed him and watched and learned from what he did."
Smith, known more today as the journeyman crew chief for aspiring racers and a guy who could get a car down a dirt road, had a great car that year, the Fireball Vega, owned by Gary Phillips, whose family was in the jukebox business, and Jim Shores of Shores & Hess Anglia gasser fame.
"We ran good," remembered Smith. "We had Ed Pink engines and all the good stuff. We had a good record with that car and almost never oiled the track. I'm not the kind of guy who's going to throw down a $100 bill to jump over it to get a $20 bill. You have to run them like a business to stay out here. Greer was the same way. We liked racing together. If I needed something, he'd give it to me, and I’d do the same. We were good friends, and I tried to help him as much as I could."
Bonin appended his recollection of that 1974 race with a funny story about Greer that actually will help segue into my next topic. Last weekend at the March Meet, John "Tarzan" Austin regaled Bonin and friends with a story about how he and Greer dealt with a pushy policeman one year at the Summernationals.
Bonin paraphrased "Tarzan's" story thusly: "There we were, me and Shirl Greer in our firesuits, watching the rounds in front of us when this little bastard comes up to us and tells us we have to leave. We ignore him, so he pushes Greer, who doesn't even budge. Now, I'm a big boy, but Shirl topped me by about 5 inches. We look at each other, put one arm each under Barney Fife's arms, pick him up, and walk to the side of the burnout box and deposit him head first into a trash can."
Man, the stuff you could get away with in the '70s!
Bonin bringing Austin into the tale is a perfect transition for a follow-up to a query from the aforementioned Courtie about my statement in Tuesday's Fan Fotos that Austin had never won a national event. Courtie was sure that he had but that the car owner had kept the trophy and that years later "T.V. Tommy" Ivo had bought a replacement Wally trophy for Austin, his longtime friend and former crewmember.
I knew that Austin had never driven to a win, so I asked Ivo for clarification.
"Right church -- wrong pew!" he responded. " 'Tarzan' did win Englishtown in 1971, but not as the driver. He was the mechanic, and Arnie Behling was the driver."
(At right is a photo of Behling accepting that Wally -- with Wally! I couldn't find a group winner's circle with Austin in it. Bonus points if you can tell me, without looking it up, whom Behling beat to win the 1971 Summernationals. Answer at the end of the column, or click here to jump there now if you just can't wait).
"I had a Wally made up for him a couple of years back and gave it to him in the front of the DoubleTree Hotel on Friday night during the [California Hot Rod Reunion]. He had complained to me some time before that that even the [team] truck drivers nowadays get a Wally as a team member (if the boss buys them one, of course).
"So I walked up to him with it in a box in my hands and said, 'You always said I never gave you anything,' to which he replied, 'What's that, box of hundred-dollar bills?' When I said it was better than that and whipped out the Wally and explained to him what it was all about, it was the first time I saw him without anything to say, and he rushed off to put it in his truck. He actually had a tear in his eye. That's a first! It's times like that that really make my day. As I've said before, 'Tarzan' was all but my real brother!"
(Gregory Safchuk photo)
Ivo also attached this photo of him and Austin celebrating in the winner's circle in Epping, N.H., after winning the track's big meet of the year.
" 'Tarzan' went for the bottle of champagne (and is drinking it … with a cigarette in his other hand … with a team 'Tommy Ivo' T-shirt on … NOT. Sigh.) instead of handling the trophy like he did with Arnie. That's my ex-wife Inez in the middle. Nice boots, but I should talk with my bell-bottom pants."
Courtie was happy to get the straight story, right from one of his favorite drivers. "Ivo was a childhood hero of mine when I used to ride my bike up to San Fernando starting when I was 12 years old," he said. "Now it's great to know him and talk to him about the old days; a really great guy!"
Another item from Tuesday's Fan Fotos – this one concerning Jeg Coughlin Sr. -- elicited the same question from readers Jack Adamson and Chris Van Unen, who not only were sure that "the Captain" had skippered a nitro Funny Car – contrary to my story – but also cited the same car and race as "evidence."
"I remember a picture of a JEGS flopper way back when that experienced an engine explosion," wrote Adamson. "The only way I remembered that picture was in the pic you can see the cap from the fuel tank had been blown off of the tank at the same time the picture was taken. Was this a nitro car or an alcohol car? I think the Funny Car body was a Camaro, but I can’t give you the year. I seem to also remember that because of this there was a rule change on the attachment of the fuel-tank caps."
"If I am not mistaken, the infamous photo of why we went to screw-on fuel-tank caps is Jeg in a nitro Funny Car," wrote Van Unen. "The body was exploding off the car on the line due to the tank igniting, and the old-style hinge cap had seen its last days."
Both are spot-on with everything but the driver, who was Dale Emery and not Jeg Sr. The race was the 1973 Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway, and the great photo was taken by a guy I regard as one of the all-time great clutch photographers, Don Gillespie, who has frozen some of the wildest blowups in history (see Mike Dunn, OCIR 1983).
Emery, of course, was the fearless driver of Rich Guasco's original Pure Hell fuel altered from 1966 to 1969 and then the shoe of Guasco's similarly named Duster Funny Car (and others) after that before a two-year stint with Coughlin. After Coughlin parked the Funny Car following the 1974 season, Emery drove other cars, including fellow Texan Mike Burkhart's Camaro, in which he made his ill-fated pass that ended up in another infamous photo – of the car on its nose, perpendicular to the ground, after hitting the guardrail in Indy in 1977. Emery broke his arm in that accident and retired from driving but, of course, went on to greater things as a key member of the crew in Raymond Beadle's three consecutive Funny Car championships.
Behling follow-up: The runner-up to Behling at the 1971 Summernationals, in what also was his only final-round appearance, was Jim Harnsberger. Harnsberger's story was pretty amazing: He beat Don Garlits on a holeshot in round two, 6.76 to 6.69, then narrowly beat Herm Petersen in the semifinals in a bout in which both drivers ran 7.09. The win was costly to Harnsberger; though; he blew a rod and had no spares. It was a typical hot, humid, and nasty Summernationals day, and Harnsberger almost passed out due to heat prostration. He was whisked to the hospital — against his wishes — in an ambulance but talked the ambulance crew into bringing him back to the track, and he watched Behling solo to the win.
Interestingly, Behling's Spirit dragster was one of just a few rear-engine dragsters in the field – Garlits' iconic Swamp Rat 14 was in it, of course, as was Prudhomme's Hot Wheels Wedge – and, going through photos of the event, it looks as if, of the few back-motor cars, only Garlits' and Behling's had wings. Garlits' was mounted conventionally, but Behling's was mounted atop the engine (shades of Garlits' Swamp Rat V!).
Behling's Spirit dragster probably should hold some sort of historical footnote. It was only the second rear-engine Top Fueler to win a national event, after Garlits, who famously won the Winternationals (in the car's debut) and the Springnationals. Jimmy King won the season's other early event, the Gatornationals, in a front-engine car.
I could probably make some kind of argument here about how the win by the previously unheralded Behling spurred along the acceptance of rear-engine Top Fuelers as much as Garlits' histrionics, as Behling not only proved the worth of the design and that you don’t have to be "Big Daddy" to win in a rear-engine car, but I'll leave that one to supposition.
Thanks for reading. See ya next week.