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It's in the cards

21 Dec 2010
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

If you read last Friday's column, you know that I have a huge trove of drag racing collectibles. I'm sure it’s just a drop in the bucket compared to what some of the actual collectors out there among you have stashed away, but it's a pretty good pile o' stuff, and some things I'm sure are worth a pretty penny.

I've accumulated all of this in my years on the job here, but the first drag racing collectibles of any sort I owned were the Fleer drag racing cards that were available in the early 1970s. I own a partial set of RaceUSA collection (58 of 74, plus those two unopened packs I bragged about) but I didn't realize that the RaceUSA set is actually the third and final set of quarter-mile cards offered by te Philadelphia-based company. Mark Bruederle, who many of you know as one of the Midwest's finest photographers and a regular at Great Lakes Dragaway, was kind enough to scan up some articles written by Geoff Stunkard, one of the pre-eminent experts on drag racing memorabilia. Stunkard wrote about the cards in his Quarter-milestones column in Racing Collectibles Price Guide magazine in early 1993 and was able to track down the details of each of the sets as well as a collection checklist.

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Naturally, "Big Daddy" Don Garlits is a prime draw. He has four separate cards in the RaceUSA set, including this happy photo.

The first Fleer set, issued in 1971, was the brainchild of Matt Strong of Racing Media Specialists, who approached Fleer executives and showed them images shot by top era lensmen Jim Kelly and Jon Asher. The 63-card set that resulted was called Official Drag Champs, and, after a successful test sampling in the Midwest and East Coast (though curiously not in the sport's SoCal hotbed), about six million cards were put into circulation in the United States and Canada. The photos in the set -- shot mostly by Kelly and Asher, but also some from Strong -- were taken during the 1970 season and, although AHRA was involved in the cards (its distinctive shield is featured on the back of each card and Kelly was the official AHRA photographer at the time), not all of the images were shot at AHRA tracks, according to Stunkard. The backs of all three sets include biographic and statistical information on the driver (more on that later).

According to the article, the Official Drag Champs set remains the easiest of the three to find, and the Canadian-printed set is slightly more valuable that the U.S. printing. In 1993, the Canadian set was valued a $325.

The success of its initial pass down the drag racing card circuit apparently was successful enough to spawn the two subsequent sets, which featured a larger variety of images (including driver personality photos): The Drag Nationals set consists of 70 cards and features images shot during the 1972 AHRA season at a number of facilities, including at the notorious PRO race in Tulsa staged against NHRA's Nationals and, interestingly, at Lions Drag Strip's Last Drag Race in December 1972 (even though by then Lions had become an NHRA track). The entire 74-card RaceUSA set, meanwhile, was photographed during the 1972 AHRA Winternationals at Beeline Dragway in Arizona (which also later became an NHRA track)

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Photo selection is kinda head scratching at times, like this awful shot of Tom McEwen's Duster, with the sprinting crewman blocking the view

Maybe it's because they're 40 years old, but the photo quality on the RaceUSA set isn’t that great. There's some weird cropping and photo choices, but also some pretty good stuff, which you can see in the galleries at right. (The cards shown here are solely from my RaceUSA collection.)

Being a writer myself, naturally I was interested in the content on the card backs as well, which varied from 60 to 100 or so words, but, all in all, was excellently done. There is a lot of good (and accurate) information on all of them, and the repetition is kept to a minimum. (Believe me, when you’re churning out copy for 74 of anything, it's quite a chore to keep the copy fresh and lively.) The most egregious error is committed on Twig Zeigler's card, where his surname is spelled "Zigler" throughout.

Because the sets are AHRA endorsed (Kelly says that Fleer paid him to shoot the first set and that AHRA paid him for the images for the second), NHRA accomplishments are not included. For example, Steve Carbone's 1972 RaceUSA card lauds his win at the 1971 AHRA Winternationals but fails to mention his monster win against Garlits at the 1971 NHRA Nationals (the famous "burndown"). Paradoxically, Ronnie Martin is credited with his 1970 NHRA Top Fuel championship (though the N-word is not used). Overall, a B-plus for writing.

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The RaceUSA set had some nice personalty-type photos, like this great shot of "Dandy Dick" Landy, cigar and all

There seems to be some confusion as to the issue dates and order of release for these final two sets. According to Stunkard, the Drag Nationals set is by far the rarest of the three collections, but also the most poorly produced (including some out of focus images) and may have been prematurely yanked by Fleer and replaced by the RaceUSA set, which to me, with its single-location focus, reeks of "rush job." He quoted collector Joe Kovaks of North Carolina saying that the ratio of cards he could find at memorabilia shows was roughly 20 to 1 for Drag Nationals versus Official Race Champs as about 5 to 1 for RaceUSA versus Official Race Champs.

However, based on a check of the collation of cards found in two unopened 48-pack (five cards per pack) boxes of RaceUSA cards, Kovaks noted that cards 15-28, 52-65, and 72-74 appeared to be in short supply, meaning that those cards may have "short printed". However, of my 16 missing cards -- 1, 5, 13, 14, 17, 29, 33, 34, 38, 39, 42, 45, 46, 47, 51, and 66 -- only one, No. 17, appears in those ranges, so either I'm lucky or the two-box test is too small of a sample to make for empirical data.

Prices (again, from 1993) were $375 for the Drag Nationals, and $260 for RaceUSA. Below are set checklists. As you can see, there are some pretty cool and diverse set of subjects in all of the sets.

 Official Drag Champs 
1. "Akron Arlen" Vanke22. AHRA Pro Funny Car category43. Stampede Super Stock
2. John Wiebe23. Chris Karamesines44. Ma & Pa Hoover
3. Super Shaker Funny Car24. AHRA Super Stock category45. Beyer & Young Cougar
4. Steve Carbone25. Jim Nicoll46. Durachrome Bug VW FC
5. Ramchargers Funny Car26. Dick Landy47. Bruce Larson
6. Hawaiian Funny Car27. Shirley Shahan48. Paula Murphy
7. Stardust Funny Car28. Dick Harrell Super Stock49. Bruce Dodd's Spirit
8. Infinity V Funny Car29. Candies & Hughes Funny Car50. "Jungle Jim" Liberman
9. Mr. Chevrolet Funny Car30. "Fast Eddie" Schartman51. Sam Auxier
10. Grumpy's Toy Super Stock31. Ed Terry's Super Stock52. Duane Ong
11. Super Charger Funny Car32. Hubert Platt53. Ray Godman
12. Sandy Elliott33. Gary Kimball54. AHRA Pro Top Fuel category
13. Chi-Town Hustler Funny Car34. Gary Watson55. King & Marshall
14. Boss Maverick Funny Car35. "Big John" Mazmanian56. Robert Anderson
15. Rambunctious Funny Car36. Crietz & Donovan57. Mallicoat Bros. Gasser
16. Warhorse Funny Car37. Blue Max Funny Car58. Hiner & Miller Camaro GT-3
17. Tin Indian GT-2 Firebird38. Sox & Martin59. "TV Tommy" Ivo  Top Fueler
18. Don Garlits39. Mike Burkhart Funny Car60. Mr. Bardahl Super Stock
19. Engine Masters Funny Car40. Don Grotheer Super Stock61. Tony Nancy
20. K.S. Pittman41. "Sneaky Pete" Robinson62. CKC Chevy II Funny Car
21. Hemi Duster Super Stock42. Larry Christopherson63. "Dyno Don" Nicholson
 
 Drag Nationals 
1. Don Garlits Swamp Rat25. Paddy Wagon Vega48. Candies & Hughes FC
2. Don Garlits Swamp Rat26. "Mongoose" Funny Car49. Telstar Dodge Funny Car
3. Don Garlits Swamp Rat27. "Snake" Funny Car50. Walton, Cerny & Moody
4. Cyr & Schofield's Top Fueler28. Gary Cochran Top Fueler51. Stardust Funny Car
5. Charlie Therwanger's Hombre FC29. White Bear Dodge Funny Car52. Green Mamba Jet
6. Bill Leavitt's Mustang Funny Car30. Revell Snowman Funny Car53. Arizona Wildcat Funny Car
7. CKC Vega Funny Car31. Steve Carbone Top Fueler54. Tom Grove Mustang FC
8. Blue Max Mustang Funny Car32. Courage of Australia Rocket55. Dunn & Reath Funny Car
9. "Kansas John" Wiebe Top Fueler33. "Kansas John" Wiebe Top Fueler56. El Diablo Top Fueler
10. Steve Carbone Top Fueler34. Carpet Bagger Top Fueler57. California Flash Funny Car
11. Mr. Norm's Dodge Funny Car35. Smokin Sun Devil Funny Car58 Grumpy's Toy Pro Stocker
12. Jim Hayter Pro Stock36. Drag-On Vega Funny Car59. Watson, Cerny & Moody
13. Sox & Martin Pro Stocker Dodge37. Chris Karamesines Top Fueler60. Ramchargers Dodge FC
14. Don Grotheer's Pro Stocker38. Gary Cochran Top Fueler61. Researcher Funny Car
15. Rod Shop Demon Pro Stocker39. Don Cook Top Fueler62. Brand X Funny Car
16. The Boss Pro Stocker Plymouth40. Creitz & Dill Top Fueler63. Special Edition Top Fueler
17. Rundle's Chevrolet41. Chris Karamesines Top Fueler64. Trojan Horse Funny Car
18. Grumpy's Toy Pro Stocker42. The Boss Plymouth Pro Stocker65. Peter Paul Vega Funny Car
19. Landy's Dodge Pro Stocker43. White Bear Dodge Funny Car66. Whipple & Mr. Ed Funny Car
20. Motown Missile Pro Stocker44. Braskett & Burgin Funny Car67. Smokey Joe" Lee Funny Car
21. Drag-On Vega Funny Car45. Lil' John Lombardo Vega Funny Car68. Green Mamba Jet
22. Revell Snowman Funny Car46. Hot Wheels "Snake" Funny Car69. Mickey Thompson Funny Car
23. Motown Shaker Funny Car47. Hot Wheels "Mongoose" Funny Car70. Paddy Wagon Vega
24. Mickey Thompson Vega  
 
 Race USA 
1. Tom McEwen Funny Car26. Steve Carbone Top Fueler51. Paddy Wagon wheelstander
2. Tom McEwen Funny Car27. Don Cook Top Fueler52. Arlen Vanke Pro Stocker
3. Tom McEwen28. Gary Cochran Top Fueler53. Whately Bros. Camaro
4. Don Prudhomme Funny Car29. Mike Burkhart Funny Car54. Rapid Ronnie Funny Car
5. Don Prudhomme30. Tom Akin Top Stock55. Polaris T/S Mustang
6. Don Prudhomme31. Garlits - Driver of Year56. Sandy Elliott Pro Stocker
7. Blue Max Funny Car32. Larry Christopherson57. Bobby Yowell Pro Stocker
8. Quickie Too Funny Car33. Larry Christopherson Funny Car58. Don Garlits
9. Gremlin 401-XR stocker34. Sox & Martin Pro Stocker59. Don Garlits Top Fueler
10. Bob Lambeck Pro Stocker35. Sox/Martin/Jake King60. Don Garlits
11. Butch Leal Pro Stocker36. Don Schumacher Funny Car61. Jeg's S/S
12. Dick Landy37. We Haul Vega Pro Stocker62. Hemi-Fiat Fuel Altered
13. Dick Landy Pro Stocker38. We Haul Vega Pro Stocker63. Jon Petrie Pro Stocker
14. Kimball Bros. Camaro39. Scott Shafiroff's Camaro64. Rod Shop Demon
15. Tom Hoover Top Fueler40. Barry Setzer Funny Car65. Nanook Fuel Altered
16. White Bear Funny Car41. Chris Karamesines Top Fueler66. The Mob Fuel Altered
17. "Dyno Don" Nicholson Pro Stocker42. Dave Russell Top Fueler67. The Mob Fuel Altered
18. Ken Holthe's Camaro43. Twig Zeigler Funny Car68. Praying Mantis Top Fueler
19. Don Grotheer Pro Stocker44. Robert Anderson Top Fueler69. Jim Nicoll Top Fueler
20. Eddie Schartman Pro Stocker45. M/T Pinto (Dale Pulde)70. Ed Sigmon Opel
21. Gapp-Roush Pro Stocker46. M/T Pinto Funny Car71. Gene Snow
22. Mr. Ed Funny Car47. M/T Mustang Funny Car72. Gene Snow Funny Car
23. Boss Hoss Funny Car48. Revellution Funny Car73. Gene Snow Funny Car
24. Gene Dunlap Camaro49. Revellution Funny Car74. Gene Snow Top Fueler
25. Drag-On Vega50. John Wiebe