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Feedback (and rain) by the bucketful

20 Jan 2010
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

Reactions to Monday's column about Russell Long and yesterday's about Dick Wells came by the bucketful, kind of like the rain we're getting here this week in SoCal. We're getting absolutely drenched, and the biggest storms reportedly are yet to come, later tonight and Thursday.

There was even a tornado and a water spout down by the shore – the latter reportedly lifted a catamaran 40 feet out of the water, spun it around several times, and then dropped it on another boat. And you thought we only had to worry about earthquakes and wildfires!

The one thing that we all keep saying is that we're glad this is happening now instead of three weeks from now when the 50th annual Kragen O'Reilly NHRA Winternationals will be rolling to the starting line for what promises to be an amazing weekend. After last year's wet-a-thon, no one wants to see a repeat of that rain on this year's parade.

But back to the feedback.

I wrote about the impact that Wells had on my career here, and I certainly found that I was not alone in being touched by his generosity and support.

Don C. Mason III wrote, "The legacy Dick leaves is everything that we're doing here today. I was fortunate enough to get to know him personally, and the closer I got to him, the more respect I had for him because he was a highly intelligent man, a highly driven man but a very compassionate man, too. He cared about the sport and the people in it. Dick Wells, by default, is an automotive historian. This has evolved from his more than 40 years with Hot Rod magazine, NHRA, and SEMA. Dick had a remarkable career and an even more remarkable life. Words cannot express how much he'll be missed by myself and by the industry overall.

"I will miss the stories he told about why most drivers back in the day chomped on a cigar while driving in races. He told me they did this because of the rigid chassis of early race cars, and due to the rough surfaces of the tracks (the Brickyard in Indianapolis among them), drivers bit down on a cigar to avoid chipping their teeth while driving in races.

"At Indy in  2003, I sat in the tower watching the races with Dick, and he looked at me and said, 'Isn’t it amazing that the word race car is the same whether you read left to right or right to left?' I responded, 'Yes, that’s amazing.' All while we were watching cars shoot flames several feet in the air accelerating from 0 to 300-plus mph in a quarter-mile. Everything was about race cars or hot rods.

"He would call and tell me about his health or send e-mails that always made me smile. Always looking at the positives, he missed visiting the NHRA events the past year due to the economic crunch and volunteered to reduce his travel and attending expenses for the NHRA. Last year's Indy event was only his third Nationals he missed. He always said he would make up for it in Pomona. Sounds like a racer, doesn’t it?

"Dick Wells was not only a leader in our sport, but he was also a very good friend. Not only did he teach me a lot about our sport, but he taught me numerous lessons about life. It's a huge loss. Dick is someone that I will never forget. I will always remember him for his graciousness and his tremendous passion for the sport. In his e-mails to me, his salutation always stated, President of your fan club. That’s the kind of guy Dick was, and I was one of his biggest fans."

Roland Leong also dropped me a note asking about services for Wells (still waiting for that info) but also told me that in 1965, his mom, Teddie, hired Wells to do PR for the Hawaiian Top Fueler. This was in a era when very few racers had publicists or sent out press releases.

"At Indy, he sent out our press releases to the press," recalled Leong, who with driver Don Prudhomme won both the Winternationals and U.S. Nationals that year, which was also the Chinese Year of the Snake. Wells was working for Hot Rod magazine at the time under NHRA founder Wally Parks, who was more happy that drag racing was getting more exposure than he was upset about his staffer moonlighting.
 
"I guess he was nervous when Wally mentioned something but said that Wally was very happy because no one did anything for Indy, and ours was the only press release out there," said Leong. "Dick told me that story, which I never knew, years ago."

Longtime Insider follower Rich Venza also knew Wells well. "I met Dick while he was president of National Street Rod Association and I was event director for the first Nationals East in Timonium, Md.," he wrote. "That friendship lasted some 35 years. Whenever we crossed paths at SEMA, Indy, or for the last time at the NHRA Museum during the 2009 GT and National Roadster Show, he was always ready with a smile and hearty handshake.

"As you said, one by one, we're losing that generation we all looked up to and learned from. It's our task to be sure we don't let their vision and accomplishments get lost in the dusty corners of history."

I'm on it, Rich.

I also heard from Wells' nephew, Ron Evans, who thanked me for my kind remembrances and added, "There are a lot of people writing a lot of nice things right now, but you have touched on things that most are missing. His gift of storytelling and his well-timed compliments 'when deserved.' As one of his only California family members, we spent a lot of time together; he has been good at dragging me along to many, many races and car shows over the years. He is my hero for a number of reasons, not only his accomplishments but for just the person he was."

My interview with former Funny Car racer Long about his harrowing time in Haiti during and after the major earthquake there apparently quickly caught fire and was passed around not just the racing community but Long's old classmates from Mission Viejo High School.
 
"Your article has made the rounds of the social-networking sites, as we have shared the good deeds of our fellow alumni, friend, and character," wrote one. 
 
Longtime Long fan Reginald Beckham Jr. was so moved by the story that he donated money to the American Red Cross, and another longtime Long acquaintance, Rick DeVoll, dropped me a line to share his history with Long.

Rick, left, then and now ...

"Growing up in Mission Viejo back in the late '60s through my high school years (1976), I was a drag racing addict. I ate, slept, and breathed drag racing; it seemed that every 'game' this 10-year-old boy could come up with revolved around drag racing.

"I would be surprised if Russ would even remember me, but I will say that he was one of my childhood drag racing heroes (and he was only 6 years older than me!). I first met him when he worked at the Union 76 gas station at La Paz Road and the 5 freeway. We were only acquaintances, but I would talk to him whenever my parents would go there to get gas. I didn't get the weekly papers like National DRAGSTER and Drag News back then, and I would be a sponge looking for drag racing tidbits wherever I could. (He was the first one to break the sad news about John Mulligan to me.) I ran into Russ at an OCIR Manufacturers Funny Car race, and he had just landed a spot on Lew Arrington's crew. That was big news for me and my buddies: Russ Long was now on a Funny Car crew - and we knew him!

"He went on to other things including a stint crewing for Tom McEwen when he had the Hot Wheels Duster. Russ gave me a ride home in the infamous flatbed truck with the race car loaded up after one OCIR race. You would have thought I had died and gone to heaven! My only regret was that it was after midnight and nobody was around to see me pull up in that rig. Not even my parents - they were asleep and just thankful that they didn't have to drive out to the races to pick up their 12-year-old son. (Ah, the good ol' days -- being dropped off at OCIR in the morning and hanging all day until midnight -- you can bet I would never let my daughter do anything like that nowadays!)

Long's first real ride was in Charlie Proite's Pabst Blue Ribbon Charger.

"Even though I didn't follow drag racing as intently when I got into my high school years, I did stay in touch with the sport through friends and magazines, and I kind of kept tabs on Russ through those avenues. It wasn't until he was driving the Sundance car and moved in a couple streets down from where we were living in El Toro (now called Lake Forest) that I ran into him again. I only stopped by his place on a couple of occasions but remember seeing the likes of 'Jungle Jim' Liberman hanging out there. Russ' crew chief at the time was also quite the character.

"It's fun to look back at our childhood through the eyes of an adult and enjoy a different take on our experiences, and after reading the story of Russ in Haiti, it doesn't surprise me that he went from being the hero to a couple of young drag racing fanatics to being a hero to a group of kids in a more serious and life-changing environment. I'm sure his presence there will be forever etched in their minds."

I also can’t let another day go by without the acknowledgment of the passing of Jan Gabriel, the legendary voice of the old U.S. 30 Dragstrip, who made "Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!" a household phrase, who died Jan. 11. He was 69.

Gabriel, who urged fans to head out to  "smokin' U.S. 30 Dragstrip ... where the great ones run!" died –  appropriately enough – on a Sunday in his Lombard, Ill., home from complications of a lengthy battle with kidney disease.

According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, the "Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!" commercials were conceived by track owner Ben Christ, who wanted to make sure everyone knew his business was open on Sunday.

According to Steve Cronen of Starbeat Recording Studios in Deerfield, Ill., who produced the ads, about 50 announcers auditioned and were turned down before Gabriel, who had gained notice in racing circles with scintillating descriptions of the circle-track action at Santa Fe Speedway, was called in, and a legend was recorded. "It was the excitement, the way he delivered that line. No one else was able to do that," Cronen said. "That's because he really loved racing."

Cronen also revealed that the original script called for two announcers to trade "Sundays!" but the tape recorder Gabriel used for his first take was set up with a delay that allowed him to handle the line himself, and Christ liked it.

In addition to being the voice of U.S. 30 Dragstrip and Santa Fe Speedway in Hinsdale, Ill., he also had his own television racing show, The Super Chargers, which ran from 1982 to 1994.

Gabriel remained active, even after the closing of his favorite tracks and even after 2005 amputation of both legs below the knees, the result of polycystic kidney disease that would eventually claim his life, and his latest venture, Team Demolition Derby, found a home at Route 66 Raceway.