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The name may not be familiar, but ...

19 Mar 2010
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

Sad news earlier this week sent by reader Craig Eagle, advertising accounting assistant at The Columbus Dispatch, pointing me to an online obituary for former NHRA event worker Ron Rickman. Rickman, who also worked at times as an official for the Ohio and National Tractor Pullers Associations and was an avid bass fisherman, died last Thursday at age 71.

You may not know the name, but if you've been around these woods for a while, you certainly will recognize the image at right, which shows Rickman getting ready to play dodgeball with Connie Kalitta's crashing Top Fueler at the 1971 U.S. Nationals.

This accident occurred during Thursday qualifying when Kalitta, running in the right lane, lost the handle on his new wedge dragster – a car that I believe was owned by the late Pancho Rendon and was similar to the Hot Wheels wedge of Don Prudhomme and another owned by Leland Kolb – and, as you can see at right, got it completely on its side as he crossed the centerline. He impacted the left guardrail and then the Marathon scoreboard/win light.

Rickman did not suffer any injuries, nor did Kalitta, shy of some pretty fair bruises, but as you can see in the third photo, the same can’t be said for the scoreboard. That's Rickman beside the mangled remains, checking out debris from the crash while the Safety Safari and ambulance crews tended to Kalitta in the background.

Longtime NHRA Competition Director Steve Gibbs remembered the incident well.

"[Rickman] was the guy who used to sit in a chair at the quarter-mile to spot debris on the track. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but after Kalitta nailed the scoreboard in the wedge car, it brought an end to that idea. When Jack Hart and I were helping to clean up the crash scene, we both thought we were going be picking up Ron in pieces and kind of panicked when we couldn’t find him for a while. A little later, I found him in the bottom of the finish-line tower drinking a Coke … not a scratch on him. He and wife Geri worked fuel check for a while but dropped off the NHRA tour quite a few years ago."

The other part of this story that's often forgotten is that Kalitta not only returned to action later in the event to qualify his Funny Car but also reached the semifinals. Shirley Muldowney also qualified but lost in round one to Henry Harrison, and Kalitta went on to beat Jake Johnston, then got a bye run when a broken clutch spring caused the Richard Tharp-driven Blue Max to lock up on the starting line. Kalitta lost in the semifinals to Ed McCulloch, who went on to score his first of six U.S. Nationals crowns.

As mentioned earlier this week, the rear-engine cars were starting to come out in force following Garlits' wins at the Winternationals and Springnationals and the Summernationals win by Arnie Behling in Bruce Dodd's Spirit. Garlits qualified No. 1 at 6.21, miles ahead of No. 2 qualifier (and eventual winner against Garlits in the great burndown) Steve Carbone, who ran 6.39 in his slingshot; behind them were the back-motor cars of Kuhl & Olson (6.41) and Behling (6.46), but they were chased by the front-engine cars of world champ Ronnie Martin, Gerry Glenn (Schultz & Glenn), Butch Maas (Creitz-Donovan-Maas), and "Kansas John" Wiebe.

I don't have a full entry list at hand, but skimming the photos in ND's coverage, here's a pic below of Kolb's wedge; Prudhomme had a rear-engine car, too, but not the wedge he ran in Englishtown. In contrast to Kalitta's misfortunes, Kolb reached the third round (quarterfinals of the 32-car field) before losing to first alternate Gary Cochran.