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Final farewell to a legend

07 Dec 2010
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider
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From left, Danny Broussard, Jack Beckman, Tom Jobe, and James Warren

The California drag racing community came together last Saturday to lay to rest Roger Coburn, the tuning genius behind James Warren's romp through the SoCal fuel dragster classes in the late 1960s and 1970s, and, as befitting the legend, the turnout was strong and star-quality.

Warren, of course, was in attendance, with his wife, Juanita (Coburn's sister), and they were joined by a familiar group of racers past and present, including Don Prudhomme, Jack Beckman, Larry Bowers, Marvin Graham, Danny Broussard, Tom Jobe, Wayne King, Doug Kerhulas, Tony Waters, John Edmunds, Bob Crowe, Gary Guinn, Noel Reese, Mike and Jeff Miller (sons of "Ridge Route Terrors" partner Marvin Miller), Kennard Warren, Joel Gruzen, Mark Prudhomme, plus original Smoker’s starter Kenny Lowen, founding Smoker’s member Hut Watkins, and Steve Gibbs,.

Mike Aaby, who owns the restoration of the Warren-Coburn-Miller slingshot, had the car there, and it was cackled, with Warren fittingly in the cockpit.

The rest of the column contains farewells to Coburn, in the form of remembrances and photos sent by the readers of this column. I also wrotea nice sendoff article for this week's National DRAGSTER, with the story of the Rodge Route Terrors. RIP, Roger.

This photo, taken by Bill Schneider at the 2009 California Hot Rod Reunion presented by the Automobile Club of Southern California, shows the boys, Coburn and Warren, in their usual spots, in Aaby's re-creation of "The Ridge Route Terrors" car. The two remained close through their senior years.

Kirk Peters, a journeyman crew chief who has tuned a host of nitro cars, tipped his hat to Coburn. "There were three guys in my racing career that influenced me. First was my uncle, Barry Lewis, who showed me how to build engines; Don Prudhomme, who told me nitro racing was about fuel and clutch management; and Roger, who showed me how to run a nitro car. Without those three, there wouldn't have been the list of drivers such as Doug Kerhulas, Ray Stutz, Brad Tuttle, Richard Holcomb, and Al Hofmann, who I was able to send down racetracks with some success. Roger's easygoing smile has been missed around racetracks for some time, but we will now be missing it in life. And just as Jon Asher stated, I am guilty about saying every year that I was going to the Bakersfield event and stop by and say hi to Roger. RIP, Roger … miss you, big guy!

Veteran SoCal race-watcher Cliff Morgan shared two quick memories about the WCM team. "When they built their first back-motor car, the team switched from the 392 Chrysler to a Sid Waterman 426 engine," he recalled. "I remember seeing the car at Lions, and Sid was there. I asked Sid if he was gonna put the car in the (6).20s, which was quick back then. Another time at OCIR, Warren went off against Don Garlits for the Top Fuel final. It was at night, the track was dewy, and both drivers had to pedal, and Warren won. Garlits was always my favorite, but I cheered Warren that night. He was one of the few drivers that could outfox 'the Old Man.' Sigh. RIP, Roger."

Regular Insider reader and contributor Mark Watkins, an OCIR pit rat, remembers seeing Warren and Coburn at an OCIR PDA race. "It was around 7 p.m. in the hot pits, and WCM had their awesome slingshot on jack stands with a tray of barbecue coals under the oil pan. My 10-year-old brain couldn’t comprehend why these racing deities would do such a thing. I remember tall, happy men going about their business working on their car."

Watkins also sent this tribute, penned by his dad: "Other than hanging around their pit, I never really met either one of these men, but I can honestly say I know of no other two guys that I admired more. They were a genuine throwback to the days when it all started. One particular incident comes to mind. It was at a race at OCIR, and it was between rounds, and Roger was pulling one of the heads off when he twisted one of the head bolts off. Warren was sitting in his chair observing, and when Roger held up the twisted-off head bolt, and showed James, he just grinned and shrugged his shoulders. I think if it was anyone else, they would have gone berserk, but that just wasn't their style. If there were ever two more cool guys, I would like to meet them. There are a lot of people that knew Roger and a lot that didn't that are saddened by his passing, me included. Fair winds and smooth seas to you. One of your old fans."

Jon Asher's tale behind the fabled "Garage Photo" was well-appreciated by many, including former Blue Max crewmember and drag racing bon vivant "Waterbed Fred" Miller, who wrote, "In my 40 years in the sport, it is still the best poster I own. That was a great story on Warren and Coburn. They were a great bunch of guys. Guys like them are the reason I go to the Reunion in Bakersfield."

Reader Chuck F. added, "I never knew these two guys, but, man, that photo just jumps right out and says DON'T MESS WITH US. It will now be my new desktop wallpaper. It is just way too cool."

Frankie LoCascio sent this photo ("a not-so-good one from my phone," he admitted) of the WCM front-engine dragster that he took in July. "Apparently, the current owner of the car either lives here in the Phoenix area [he does – PB] or it's an easy drive from SoCal because I've seen the car twice lately," he wrote. "On this particular night, the car was at the celebration of life of Mark Niver. At the wheel of the car is Bob Langston, Mark's brother-in-law. In all the years Mark and Bobby raced together, he never sat in any of the Billet Bullet entries during warm-ups. He was always the one who started the car. Well, on this night, Bobby was at the wheel of the famed car when they fired it up. There wasn't a dry eye in the house, and it wasn't from the nitro. I know it's part of life, but drag racing and Division 7 in particular have lost at least two great names this year. RIP, Roger Coburn."

Stephen Justice sent these two great images. At left is a magazine ad for Rain for Rent, the agricultural-water-services company that sponsored the team for so long. At right is an Isky ad celebrating the team's domination of the Bakersfield March Meet, featuring an awesome drawing by the legendary Pete Millar of "The RRT." That's Coburn on the left, Warren on the right, and "the Camfather" himself, Ed Iskenderian, in the cockpit.

"Nitro Noel" Reese passed along this photo, his favorite of the 1970s back-motor car (my personal favorite of all of them) in action, which was featured in a Petersen Publishing calendar. "This one is my absolute favorite," he said. "The intensity of James staging, full flames, and I’m standing to the right in the white Danekas T-shirt with Roger towering behind me."

That pretty much sums up the way that people thought of Roger Coburn … towering over the landscape. And his presence wasn't just measured in feet and inches (though he had 6 of each!) but in his skills, stature, reputation, kindness, and generosity. He'll be missed.