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Moving-day treasure trove

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

Well, I'm all moved into my new digs, with the exception of a few boxes that still need unpacking and stuff that still needs sorting. It was an interesting trip back to 1993, which is when the Publications Department moved out of the Financial Way headquarters just down the road a piece on Route 66. A lot of stuff got boxed up and pretty much forgotten about, but with the need to consolidate to fit everything in my new office, I went through every box on a treasure hunt. Man, the stuff I found … the stuff I kept. What was I thinking?

One drawer had press kits from the early to mid-1990s -- for the McDonald's team (Cory Mac, Cruz Pedregon, Jim Yates), Mark Pawuk, Gordie Rivera, Connie and Scott Kalitta, Dean Skuza, Eddie Hill, Team Castrol, Rachelle Splatt/Luxor, and more – and a Shirley Muldowney 1993 20th anniversary press kit that referred to her as "Drag racing's 'chief chick.' " Wonder how she felt about that one…

The first thing out of the box and to find its place back on display was my full-size Wally from winning my first of two NHRA Staff Drags titles in 2000, followed by the rest of the stuff that makes up my shrine: my OCIR mug (one of two things I swaddled in bubble wrap); a "limited edition" (No. 144 of 1,999) piece of the original U.S. Nationals grandstands; two Chrysler Hemi pistons (badly damaged by a dropped valve) from my time behind the wheel of the Mazi family's supercharged Opel in 1984; my 2004 Gold Medal from the International Automotive Media (we're encouraged to enter these contests every once in a while to be able to continue using the term "award-winning" in our DRAGSTER ads); a framed photo of the November/December 1997 cover of Jr. DRAGSTER featuring my son (then 8, now 21); an autographed Darrell-Gwynn-throws-out-first-ball-at-charity-softball-game print; and my rotating diecast of the month choice (Cory Mac's special-edition JEGS Top Fueler (1 of 1,248)).

In no particular order, here's what else I found:

My first-, fourth-, and sixth-grade class photos. You remember those, where they had all of the individual headshots on one page, along with your teacher's photo? I was a good-looking kid.

A Silver Anniversary NHRA Winternationals button (1985).

Junior-high yearbooks (Marina Del Rey Junior High School, 1974 and 1975); high school yearbooks (Venice High School, 1976 and 1978). I was a good-looking teenager.

Dozens of Dungeons and Dragons mini figurines that I had meticulously hand-painted in the early 1980s (hey, don’t judge).

A collection of NHRA year-in-review coffee-table-style books, 1991-96, produced by UMI. Former ND staffer Todd Veney and I used to write them for that company.

1971 PDA Championships program from OCIR (my first drag race).

Copies of various magazines (Popular Cars, Custom Rodder, Popular Hot Rodding) with articles I freelanced before beginning my career at ND.

The Little Black Book of Secrets ("New 1996 Edition!"), a pocket-size publication sharing with me the secrets of the universe: safest eats on an airplane, world's best hiccup cure, seven questions to ask a surgeon before you let him operate, five common etiquette mistakes, how to spot bad checks, what to do when you win the lottery, bills it's OK to pay late (and their typical grace periods), how to save your life if you walk in on a burglary, and so much more. Invaluable.

A stack or Polaroid photos from a mid-1980s New Year's Eve party with the Mazi family (including special guest Bill Bader).

Some old Far Side cartoons clipped from the newspaper (oblivious dog in the backseat of a car, bragging to his yard-bound canine pal that he's "going to the vet's to get tutored").

Letter from The Superior Court, Juvenile Court Traffic Division from February 1977. Ahhhh, who can forget that first traffic ticket? It only took me nine months to get written up. "Exhibition of speed." Nice. Mom and Dad were so proud …

"Our Family History," as written by my mom in June 1998, recounts her young life, meeting my father, our emigration to the United States from England, their subsequent divorce, my father defying the custody order and spiriting my sister and me back to England literally under cover of dark, and the frustrating (and failed) legal battles to get us back, her remarriage, my father's passing and our return to the U.S., and so much more. (No mention of the traffic ticket … whew.) It answered a lot of questions I had and will continue to be a source of comfort for me. I think I'll tell her that at Christmas next week.

Two In Memory of Leslie Lovett window stickers, an Eric Medlen: True Hero-True Friend-True Champion patch, five Scott Kalitta: Champion-Hero-Friend stickers, three In Memory-Bobby Baldwin stickers, two Get Well Soon Darrell Gwynn stickers.

July, 20, 1989, issue of the Rocky Mountain News with the blaring headline "Denver flight crashes in Iowa, up to 113 die." The day before, we had just stepped off the plane to attend the Mile-High Nationals, which was back on the schedule after a one-year hiatus for facility upgrades. The airport was abuzz with people screaming about a Denver plane crashing. There were no details available at the moment — and wouldn’t be for a lot of people across the nation — but I remember rushing to the phone to call home to let everyone know I was OK, lest they hear on the news only the words "Denver" and "plane crash." Man, just thinking of that moment still chokes me up 20-plus years later.

Front section of the March 5, 1992 Houston Chronicle, with the headline "City deluged as skies open." We landed in a heavy downpour at Houston Intercontinental en route to the Slick 50 Nationals at Houston Raceway Park and rolled out of the rental-car lot into a scene from a disaster movie. "Freeways flowed like rivers and thousands were stranded by swiftly rising water Wednesday as Houston was paralyzed by some of the worst flooding in its history," the story reads. We crawled along the freeways and finally reached our hotel hours later. More than 7 inches of rain had fallen in downtown that day; in Baytown, where the track is, they reported only "trace" rain.

One of my favorite books, Confessions of a Pregnant Father, autographed by my favorite author, Dan Greenburg. The book, which humorously recounts his concerns heading into fatherhood, echoed my own experiences. It took me two years to get it back from him to be autographed. I also found the hilarious "phone memo" taken by the operator when I missed his call: "Returning your call, two years late."

Dave Barry's Greatest Hits and other pearls of journalistic wisdom by my second-favorite writer.

Four copies of Bob Post's brilliant High Performance book from 1994: one soft cover, one hard cover, an early uncorrected proof with photocopies where many of the photos would later go, and the 2001 revised version.

Feb. 11, 1989, LA Times Sports section with my photo sequence of Eddie Hill's Winternationals blowover on the front page (four photos!).

Autographed copy of Wally Parks' 1966 book, Drag Racing, Yesterday and Today.

Official program (50 cents!) from the 1961 Nationals, the first held in Indy. It has Barbara Parks' name written across the top, so I must have inherited it from her somehow, sometime. It's a pretty cool keepsake from that era. Inside is a full spread detailing the prizes to be awarded to the competition car and the stock car world champs. The former was to receive a '61 Thunderbird, "equipped with Cruise-o-Matic transmission and the famous 300 h.p. Thunderbird Special engine." The stock car champ got a '61 Pontiac Catalina that was a replica of the Royal Pontiac entry that won the 1960 title. The cars were awarded at the Nationals based on who had collected the greatest number of points at the end of the season. Individual eliminator winners at the Nationals earned 348-horsepower Pontiac "trophy engines" and transmissions equipped with Hurst's dual-pattern shift linkage. The program, of course, has an entry list, and an impressive one at that, stretching over eight pages and 897 entries. There's also a handy racing-lingo page paced with gems such as "box" (poor car), "stooge" (mechanic's assistant), "to tiger" (to drive to limits beyond one's ability and sometimes beyond), "canvas" (retaining wall or guardrail), and "buckets" (pistons). So, lemme see if I've got this figured out. "His car was a real box; even the stooge couldn't make it fast, so he had to tiger it out to the canvas and ended up burning the buckets." Pretty hep, eh?

Time magazine, Feb. 10. 1986, issue, with the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion on the cover; I'll never forget where I was when that happened: playing video games with the late Bill Crites at the 7-Eleven down the street from NHRA's headquarters in North Hollywood. We raced back to the office and watched in horror, over and over again, the replays on Leslie Lovett's small black-and-white TV in the photo darkroom.

Empty boxes for some of the earliest drag racing computer games ever: Family Software's Drag Race Eliminator (1986, for IBM compatible), Gamestar's Top Fuel Eliminator (1987, for the Apple IIe), and Cosmi's Shirley Muldowney Top Fuel Challenge (1987, for Commodore 64). The latter still includes the original 5 ¼-inch floppy disk. Wow. Anybody have a Commodore lying around?

Special 2003 Limited Edition chrome Deora 2 Hot wheels car, in a collector's box, which served as the amazing invitation to the 2003 Hot Wheels Hall of Fame awards at the Petersen Automotive Museum, where NHRA founder Wally Parks and NASCAR king Richard Petty were honored.

OCIR time slip from my first pass down the quarter-mile in 1981 (16.79 at 80.78 mph … whoo-wee!).

A sleeve of 20 transparencies I took of the first new car I ever bought, an '87 Firebird Formula that I bought in late 1986 to replace my high-powered/low-fuel-efficient hot-rodded AMC Javelin.

Set of Finish Line NHRA collector cards from the 1993 season, which was pretty cool because in addition to the usual photos of drivers and crew chiefs, they included aerial photos from the national event tracks.

Not one, not two, not three ... no, sir, four pica poles, the ruler-like measuring devices used in the printing trade (1 inch equals about six picas).

A still-in-the-sealed-box copy of I Saw Elvis at 1,000 Feet, a book we produced in 1995 filled with memorable John Force quotes and photos.

A Legends of the Strip collector-card set, produced for NHRA by Sealed Power during NHRA's 50th Anniversary season. I have no idea what the cards inside look like, nor how many there are.

Two unopened Fleer Race USA drag action photos card packs (gum still inside!) that I believe are from 1972. Bet that gum tastes good. I also have a near-complete set of those cards but hesitate to break the seal on these two packages looking to fill out my set. Do you have any idea how hard it is to resist?

Unopened limited-edition blister pack of Classic 1991 Hockey Draft picks, including future stars like Eric Lindros, Scott Neidermayer, and Peter Forsberg (No. 26,642 of 175,000). Complete boxed set of 1990 Score NHL cards.

A set of Countdown to the Championship 2008 collector cards.

Two complete and sealed collections of 1992's ProSet NHRA Winston Drag Racing cards, plus one opened full set and hundreds of duplicates. Didja know: I, Leslie Lovett, and Steve Gibbs were supposed to be part of that 1992 set. We had signed contracts, and I already had mentally spent the $3,000 license fee they were going to pay us, but it was decided by management that it was not appropriate for us to be part of the set.

Two unopened ProSet collections of cards celebrating Kenny Bernstein's breaking of the 300-mph barrier.

(Man, I have a lot of cards.)

Two complete uncut sheets of Mega drag racing cards.

1991 boxed set of Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing collector cards by Racing Legends.

Various other boxed sets from the folks at Big Time Drag Cards.

A bunch of photos from our old Drag City feature, in which readers sent in pictures of signs that had references to racing or racers, such as this great one, the Golden Greek restaurant in Mount Clemens, Mich. (known better as the former hometown of Shirley Muldowney), sent by Fred Fritzam of Royal Oak, Mich. (better known as the hometown of former Pro Stock racer Sam Gianino).

A July 1987 certified letter from Triangle Publications, chastising us for using what we thought was a pretty generic term – TV Guide – in our Table of Contents to direct our readers to the television listings for NHRA events. So we changed it to "Television Guide." A month later, a second letter arrived: "The name 'Television Guide,' among others, is registered as our trademark … [and] cannot be used to describe any other type of television information." I think we settled on "Television Playdates" and crossed our fingers. No third letter came.

A detailed report on traffic from the first NHRA audiocast, which was at the 1997 U.S. Nationals. Even though Internet penetration back then was still in its relative infancy, we had listeners from Japan, Italy, Australia, the Netherlands, Finland, the United Kingdom, and Greece. Pretty cool.

Emergency-room statement from Centre Hospitalier Honore-Mercier for "lacération 3cm arcade sourcilière gauche. soins d'urgence: sous locale sutures," which, roughly translated, means I got treatment for a 1-inch gash above my left eye, was given emergency care, and had stitches under local anesthetic. And that was how I spent the Saturday evening of 16 août (Aug. 16) during the 1986 Le Grandnational. My great, great old pal Bill Crites had challenged me to a game of racquetball at our hotel, the Auberge de Signeurs, in the charming little town of Saint-Hyacinthe. Long story short, he hit a ball that he didn’t think I could get to and decided to return it himself, not knowing that I was plunging recklessly after it. Backhand follow-through met eyebrow, and the next thing I know, I'm flat on my back looking up through a red haze as blood pooled in my eye socket. Sweet! We spent three hours waiting for me to get sewn up (that's me at right showing off my war wound before getting stitched). I've told this story before, but the most interesting thing about the whole experience came the next afternoon, when Shirley Muldowney, in her first return to Montreal after the devastating 1984 accident there, rode out a frightening rear-tire explosion in the traps at about the same spot she had crashed two years earlier. I rolled up on my minibike to where the car had stopped to check out the situation, expecting to find a shaken Shirley. Instead, cool as ever, she told everyone she was fine, looked at me, and said, "How are you? I heard you got hurt last night." Wow.

A thinking-of-you get-well card from Anne Lepone, the sweet, sweet, sweet mother of former Pro Stock racer Joe Lepone Jr., acknowledging the above ("I hope your boo-boo healed and your good-looking face is back to normal"). The card, as always, contained a crisp $1 bill (as always, "for ice cream"). I've met a lot of people over my many years in this sport, and she'll always be one of my most fondly remembered. I have about a half-dozen cards from her, all of which came with a dollar (one, in 1990, actually came with two dollars enclosed, one for my newborn daughter, Amanda), and those are dollars that I will never, ever spend. We lost her about four years ago, and the world has never been the same.

Speaking of injuries, here's photo of me, taken by Michael Mihalko, on one of the DRAGSTER staff bicycles, at Maple Grove Raceway in 1996. We had brokered a deal with Top Alcohol Dragster owner Gary Taylor, who owned GT Bicycles, to get the staff some swift wheels to traverse the track and pits. Fans have sent me a lot of photos of me over the years, but this one is a painful reminder because just a few months earlier, I had taken a nasty fall on this bike at the Houston event, hitting something in the road and doing a sweet endo over the handlebars. Fortunately, there was only one witness to my pratfall. Unfortunately, that witness was alcohol racer Jay Payne, who – and those of you who know Jay can relate – had some very complimentary words for me about my riding prowess. Injury was limited to my ego.

More than two-dozen "Wally Memos," missives from our late, great founder. They cover the gamut of things I should have done, could have done, and should do when it comes to championing NHRA in the pages of National DRAGSTER. As any of my fellow memo-receiving peers here will attest, he often was very direct about your Shortcoming of the Week, but, if you got enough of them (and I surely did), you saw where he was coming from, that his intention was not necessarily to chew you out but to show you the way. That, folks, is how NHRA has gotten to where it's at. I keep them to remind me of that and read them occasionally.

Apparently, the only person to write to me more often than Wally did is Kenny Bernstein. I have a folder with 30 thank-you letters from him, thanking me personally or the staff as a whole for articles, photos, and covers published on his team. They span all the way from my first year here through this year, and they were always much-appreciated acknowledgments of our hard work. And that, folks, is how Kenny Bernstein got to where he's at.

Others have written about me. I came across some thorough job evaluation from 2003 that I don’t remember taking. It must have been some kind of online deal where you answer a zillion questions and then have it all explained to you in painful detail. "Phil appreciates others who are team players and will reward those who are loyal. ... He prides himself on his creativity, incisiveness, and cleverness. … When faced with a tough decision, he will try to sell you on his ideas. Logic and people who have the facts and data to support this logic influence him. … He admires the patience required to gather facts and data. He is a good problem-solver and troubleshooter, always seeking new ways to solve old problems. … Phil has the ability to ask the right questions and destroy a shallow idea. Some people may feel these questions are a personal attack upon their integrity; however, this is just his way of getting the appropriate facts. … He may lose interest in what others are saying if they ramble or don't speak to the point. His active mind is already moving ahead. … Phil has a tendency to: make 'off the cuff' remarks that are often seen as personal prods; set standards for himself and others so high that impossibility of the situation is commonplace; have trouble delegating -- can't wait, so does it himself." Yeah, that's pretty much spot-on.

Without a doubt, one of the most surprising finds was my high school Advanced Composition work folder, filled with old essays. My auto-obsessed teen leanings were obvious. There's a character sketch I wrote on one of my old street racing buddies. A "fact to conclusion" essay ("racing can be dangerous"). An essay called "The Super Car, An Endangered Species." Our teacher was hard but fair. Of one cause-and-effect essay about the use of drugs by high school students, she scolded me, "You're a chef d'oduerve of 'figures prove' fallacies and/or manipulations." Another chided, "Clever wording, clear structure, but spurious and careless reasoning." Story of my life … I still earned an A.

You know what? I could go on and on, but I've already gone way overboard, but it has been a very cool reminder of all of the good times I've enjoyed in the past 28 years. Seems like every trinket brought back a memory (not always good), but it made me grateful for the people I've met, the places I've had a chance to visit, the things I've had opportunities to do, and the job that I still love. Just don’t ask me to move again anytime soon.