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Still more on Kalitta's wedge crash

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

Sorry for the prolonged absence, but between travel to and from Charlotte for the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals, the rain delay there, and a jam-packed issue of National DRAGSTER that not only includes Charlotte results but also our in-depth coverage of the JEGS NHRA Cajun SPORTSnationals and March Meet coverage, it has been a busy few days.

More tidbits keep flowing in surrounding Connie Kalitta's crash of "Poncho" Rendon's wedge Top Fueler at the 1971 Nationals.

Many had posited that the run was Kalitta's first in the car, but Roy Nau says that he saw Kalitta wheel the car at Tri-City Dragway Aug. 22 of that year. He's sure of the date because of a baseball game

"I was 8 years old at the time and remember the wedge because it looked like the 'Snake's,' " said Nau. "Connie Kalitta was working on both the dragster and Shirley Muldowney’s Funny Car. I remember it was a Saturday because my brother didn't go with my dad and me because his Boy Scout troop went to the Detroit Tigers game that day against Milwaukee. Shirley gave me one of her promo pictures (I don't have it anymore), John Muldowney was there, I think they said he was 13 at the time, and 'the Snake,' Gene Snow, Don Schumacher, Gary Dyer, Pat Minick, Leroy Goldstein in the Ramchargers, and 'the Goose' were all there."

(Milwaukee won, 2-1 with Marty Pattin on the hill for the Brewers. Amazing what you can find on the Internet.)

Veteran Division 4 track manager Glenn Menard was in Indy and offered his remembrances of the Kalitta crash. "I was assisting Dale Ham in monitor control, and as [Kalitta] crashed, I grabbed the binoculars to see what was left after the Marathon sign pieces and body parts quit flying. First, we tried to find Rickman, and he was OK. Then we were searching the shutoff area looking for Kalitta, with little luck. There didn’t appear to be any pieces big enough to be Connie. Finally, an NHRA official ran over to something in the track, and it turned out to be Connie, in what was left of the cage."

My old pal Todd Veney – semifinalist in Gainesville in his debut in the Follow A Dream Top Alcohol Funny Car! -- weighed in concerning my doubts about Indy being the location of the second wedge photo. "That pic is absolutely from Indy," he stated. "Behind the starting line, the right side of the track used to sweep back around and into the lanes through 1979. In 1980, they made it run straight back and had a chain-link fence to separate the pits from the starting-line apron. I think that was also the year that NHRA moved the Funny Car pits from the left side of the track to the right, which until then was for Top Fuel, Pro Comp, and Comp."

The pit move for the flops forever ended the annual battle for "the slab," a small but prime piece of paved real estate haggled over by Funny Car crews for years. Much skullduggery was conjured up as teams tried to maneuver to the spot first before it became a rule of sorts that the defending event champ got it.

Last week, I included Tommy Ivo's note about how the producers of Heart Like a Wheel crashed the wedge for the movie, and former Funny Car racer Jeff Courtie, who has been in the movie sound business for years, said that he also worked on the film. "I was the recordist on the Foley stage at the time. The sound of Connie's car crashing into the guardrail was quite a complex sound. First the Foley artists (Bill Phillips was the sound supervisor and his crew) ran a body grinder on a car hood, then scraped the hood along the floor, adding some dirt and debris. On another track, they banged and dragged a bunch of different-size metal pieces to simulate the sound of the car breaking apart. It was also sweetened with sound effects from the sound library; turned out pretty cool for the time.

Scrutinizing the film, Paul Kaufman, who works for the wonderful folks at World Products who sponsor this column, said he couldn't help but notice that the engine from Kalitta's car as it tumbled down the track had no crankshaft in it. "I've seen lots of engines torn out of mangled race cars in my 40-plus years of watching, but I've never seen one lose the crank," said Kaufman, who with partner and driver Dennis Ferrara won the Comp world championship in 1977. "It seemingly vaporized in front of my own eyes! Thanks, Hollywood."

Kaufman has quite an interesting bio. He raced with Ferrara beginning in 1968 with a Stock sedan delivery followed by three years with the Motion Performance A/MP Camaro. He spent 1975 and 1976 with Scott Shafiroff, first with his SRD-built Vega and then a Don Hardy-fabbed Mustang II. They then built a B/Dragster for Comp, which won Best Engineered Car at the 1976 Winternationals, but the car crashed heavily later that year in Englishtown, so they finished the year with the Mustang, with which they won Le Grandnational and were runner-up in Indy and Columbus. He rejoined Ferrara just in time for an amazing 1977 season in which they won the Gatornationals, SPORTSnationals, and World Finals and were runner-up at Le Grandnational with the well-pedigreed ex-Grumpy's Toy/Larson USA-1/Richie Zul Camaro pictured here, which they ran in B/EA. In 1978, he went to work with Bob Glidden -- just him, Etta, and Lady, the dog. "I get tired just thinking about it all," he said in reference to Glidden's penchant for long hours and hard work. "He could wear out a steel ball with a rubber hammer." Kaufman "escaped" (his word choice) Whiteland, Ind., and returned to New York, where he again worked with Shafiroff before getting married and starting a family.