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Your Heroes, Part 1

09 Feb 2010
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

Way back in early January, I asked the readers of this column to submit their list of racing heroes. (You thought I'd forgotten, didn't you?) Response to my request was a bit overwhelming, so I'm going to parcel these out in two columns.

I have to say that I'm truly impressed not only with the range of people whom you look up to -- everyone from the superstar pros to less-well-known mentors -- but your skill at conveying your admiration. I heard from all over the globe, including England and Australia. There are some very meaningful and deep-rooted emotions here, and I loved every minute of reading. I hope you all do, too.

"My all-time favorite motorsports personality is Gary Beck. #1: A great driver (two world championships, three U.S. Nationals wins, 19 national event wins, first to run in the 5.60s, 5.50s, 5.40s, and 5.30s). #2: A great mechanical mind (made innovations in nitro fuel systems still in use today and made the McGee quad cam engine competitive when it looked like it was always going to be an uncompetitive 'leaker'); I really think that if he chose the path, he could have become one of the all-time great crew chiefs after he left the driver's seat.

"#3: A great sportsman. He suffered absolutely painful final-day world championship losses in 1975, 1980, and 1981 but never felt sorry for himself and carried on to win again. He handed the bottle of champagne (for celebrating his championship if he won) to Shirley when she beat him out for the championship on the last day in 1980. #4: Great with the fans; I had many fascinating conversations with him in the pits, and he always made time to talk to fans. #5: He never made excuses; example: At the 1982 Springnationals, his chute came out when leading an engine-smoking Lucille Lee. Instead of saying it just vibrated out (happens all the time), he admitted that he pulled the chute by mistake when he was reaching for a fuel valve.

"What more needs to be said?" -- Al Kean

"Top of my list is still Mr. Darrell Gwynn. While Darrell accomplished some great things during his racing years, I strongly feel what he has done in the years since his terrible accident should be an inspiration to all of us. Had he not been hurt, would Darrell have won more races and perhaps even an NHRA Top Fuel championship or two? Almost certainly. However, since his accident, he has impacted so many people, in such a positive way, and despite his disabilities.

"It can be argued he has probably accomplished more in life since 1990 than he would have had he continued racing. Would any of us have been able to do the same and show the same attitude if we were in his situation? Something to think about for all of us!" -- Reg Kenney

"My hero in drag racing is Shirley Muldowney, which I know sounds very cliché, but I believe she has helped influence my favorites in other sports/arts. I was born in 1976, so while I was alive during Shirley's prime, I was still very young and have limited recollection of it. It has been as I have grown older and developed my feminist tendencies that I have been able to truly appreciate what I enjoy about her, and why she, pop icon Madonna, and figure skater Michelle Kwan are my 'trifecta' of female competitors.
 
"I was always a huge fan of female superheroes (Wonder Woman and She-Ra, later Buffy), and it's only been in the last 20 years that I have been able to appreciate how much of a superhero Shirley Muldowney truly was. To hear the tales of what she had to go through, to watch how tough she is in interviews, and to see her do it with so much passion for the sport she loves is truly inspiring.
 
"I think she infused a lot about why I like Madonna and Michelle Kwan. For Madonna, I think she has the outspoken nature of Shirley Muldowney that I truly admire. Also, there is a confidence level about Shirley Muldowney, and her capabilities, similar to Michelle Kwan on the ice. When she came back from her accident and Steve Evans asked her why she came back, the first thing she said was "Because I'm good at it." Fabulous!
 
"I think all three ladies have helped educate me and inspire me to live my life to the fullest. Confident. Fierce. Proud. Passionate. Resilient. Competitive. Controversial. Fascinating. And always striving for excellence.
 
"I know for me, going to the races hasn't quite been the same since I made the cross-country trek to see Shirley's Last Pass in November 2003. And it was truly an honor to be there." -- Billy Anderson

"As a sign painter, I was influenced by the works of Kenny Youngblood and Nat Quick (both worked at Kirby's in the '70s in Bellflower, Calif.). I wanted to work in a shop lettering race cars all day, just looking at their work. Their lettering and design skills influenced me and so many more to where I chose to self-teach myself the trade. I've been lettering race cars and signs since 1975.

"I've met Kenny [pictured right] a number of times, but I finally got to meet Nat at a get-together in Syracuse N.Y., in '08. What a wonderfully talented individual. It was and still is a highlight. He shared stories of the days gone by at Kirby's. He and Kenny are responsible for most of the 1970s Revell model paint designs and the actual paint and lettering of those cars.

"As a racer, Frank Mazi [below right] and Wally Clark are my heroes. I think Frank is a hero to many; Frank could and still can do anything. I met Frank at a little eighth-mile race track in Lancaster, N.Y., just outside of Buffalo in 1975. He had purchased Jimmy Oddy's BB/G Opel, and it was the first time I saw the car since the sale. Remembering that Oddy was the kingpin around here and the Opel was just the coolest thing at the racetrack (not to mention Oddy's talent of driving). Frank was so easy to talk to, and from that day, he and his family have done nothing short of adopting me. I'd drive the 180 miles from Buffalo to Eastlake, Ohio, just to spend a weekend sitting around Frank's garage taking in whatever was going on. He always took the time to explain and encourage not only me but many others. He pointed me in the right direction and to this day still takes no credit for it. He'll never know how much difference he has made in my life and career choice.

"I met Wally Clark, the Canadian Super Stock racer, when I was 12 years old at the old Niagara Drag Strip on the airport base in Niagara Falls, N.Y. Wally was one of the people at the track to pay any kind of attention to me. I loved the sport so much back then. Too many reasons to share, but I've lettered countless numbers of race cars for him, watched him win races, helped and travel with him after I stopped racing myself. He is also one of the funniest guys I know. Through all his kidding, there was always a serious side, and when I needed that, he was there, too, same as Frank Mazi. Wally encouraged and advised me when needed. I owe a lot to both of them.

"Finally, my dear friend John Oldfield. John was like concrete to the local drag scene. He was Superman to a lot of us younger racers. After my folks died in 1989, John and his family kept close to make sure I was all right. John was just one of those guys; hard to explain, but he was. I wanted to move forward with my sign business and build a standalone shop. With his advice, I did and found a piece of land and contracted out the project. John was a master plumber and guided me through the whole deal with what to do and what not to do (the what not to do being the key); I couldn't have done it without him. Sadly, John never saw me put the key in the door as he died in October 1991 at the age of 46. I finished the building shortly thereafter. I'm still heartbroken to this day. I owe a lot to him and for that reason the faith he put in me to succeed. I hope I haven't failed him. If his name sounds familiar, his brother is Dickie Oldfield of the Motown Missile fame. Dick lives in town here and we see each other all the time … talk about hero! Anyway, there you have it. Maybe these people don't mean anything to many people, but they do to me, and I don't know where I'd have been without them." -- Dan DeLaney
 

"My two favorite racers are two old-time competitors: fuel altered racer Mike Sullivan and front-engine slingshot racer driver and innovator Pete Robinson. Sullivan always had a commitment to the altered class even after fuel altereds were fading and Funny Cars were the coming thing. Who can forget his flag-draped Fiat. He brought class to the class and a record of fine performances."  -- Pete Oldengarm

"I guess my list has to start with a 'D.' #1: Don Garlits – Need I say more? #2: Danny Ongais – He did so much for bringing credibility to drag racing. He could win in just about anything he tried – Top Fuel, Funny Cars, Top Gas, IMSA, and, of course, Indy cars. At his peak, he could race side by side with Foyt, Andretti, Unsers, Mears, etc. (and beat them). #3: Dale Earnhardt." -- Mark Brenner

"One stands out among the rest, not only for drag racing, but in life. Like probably a million others, Don Garlits gets my vote. He always has appeared to me to be an example of a hardworking, extremely gifted, and, as far as I can tell, humble person. He rarely failed, and his perfection of the rear-engined dragster probably did more for the category than anything else.

"I could go on and on, but check this out. Back when I was in the eighth grade, a college student came to my middle school. I was selected for a poll that asked students different questions, like what do they like to do, friends, etc. One of the questions was who were my heroes. Besides my dad, who always is No. 1, I mentioned Garlits. This was in 1973, a few years after his great 1971 comeback. I explained to the student about Garlits' accident, his perfection of the rear-engined dragster, his comeback, and his success. Suffice it to say, she had never heard of Garlits but knew a lot about him after speaking to me. He's always been that way to me. I actually got to finally meet him in 2006 at a custom car show, where he autographed one of his books for me. I didn't tell him about the hero story." -- Joe Faraci

"I would like to add Tom 'the Mongoose' McEwen to your list. Tom paved the way for several of the heroes and legends to find sponsorship resources to make drag racing their lifetime careers. The Mattel Hot Wheels agreement was probably the turning point in drag racing. Media followed the sale of millions of Hot Wheels at the races and off the track as well. This was not the first non-automotive sponsorship Tom solicited. Tirend, English Leather, and others were signed up to start the marketing ball rolling for professional drag racing. These sponsors were convinced by Tom that exposure to their products was a valuable use of marketing resources, especially with the addition of television to the sport.

"Tom also was a true pioneer in this wonderful sport. Taking street racing to the track was the main reason the Lions Club of Long Beach opened Lions Drag Strip. Who did they convince to race at the track and not on Cherry Street? Tom, of course. The rest is history, including being inducted into two Halls of Fame." -- Dr. Rick Smith
 

"It's difficult to pin down just one hero to me, so I'll try to explain why I have several. Let me begin with local Rochester, N.Y., racer Ed Miller. In the '60s, Ed was one of the hot Super Stock racers and was of invaluable assistance in helping me when I was only 18 get so many Mopar parts for my old Plymouths and Dodges. He was always approachable and down to earth.

"Another big influence to me was Ronnie Sox [right]. I'm pretty sure that my first few cars were Mopars because of Miller and Sox. I even designed and had a car painted very similar to one of the Sox & Martin cars. I've written to his widow, and we've exchanged several e-mails. The most impressive thing to me about S&M cars was the preparation. Immaculate! You could eat off of the chassis. The attention to detail was second to none.

"One series of cars I used to admire, because they were so innovative, was the Motown Missile series of cars. This brings me to a man I never dreamed I would ever meet, let alone become good friends with. Dick Oldfield was the first driver of the Missile as well as a bunch of other Super Stock cars in the mid- to late '60s. I met Dick through my neighbor Jason Oldfield, Dick's nephew. Now Dick and I hang out with Jason, with and without his race car, on and off track. Dick thinks at a level most can't even begin to consider. I've been witness to what he's capable of at the track, and if someone could talk him out of retirement, he'd make one hell of a crew chief. If I ever return to racing cars, Dick is the first guy I want next to me at the track.

"I used to race a Pro Gas Suzuki. One of the my big heroes was Elmer Trett. I encountered him at many races and was very proud when he took the time to approach me in the pits and compliment my bike. To watch his wife and daughters work on the bike was to realize that they had probably forgotten more about motorcycles than I ever knew. I can't think of anyone who had a bad word for Elmer. Everyone just plain, flat admired him. I recall the sad news from the Nationals the day he died. I wept openly and can only imagine where motorcycle drag racing would have grown to if he were still with us.

"The last person on my list, though far from least, is Tommy Ivo [right]. I met him when he was sponsored by Honest Charley of America. Part of his deal was to leave his car and trailer at the nearest shop if he was in the area. I met him at our store and took him and his crew chief out to dinner. We all know that 'T.V.' was a cut above the rest. His rig was something to behold, and there were rarely better-looking cars. I've run into Tommy several times since we first met in 1973. I was 23 at the time then. In the times we've met since, he has always been very gracious and has remembered me, which is VERY flattering. He even introduced me to Don Prudhomme, Ron Capps, and Larry Dixon, and I was invited to breakfast with them at the Gators one morning.

"Drag racing is the one sport that ANYONE can walk up to their favorite driver, anytime they simply pay for a pit pass [ticket], and get an autograph. I've been lucky enough to have been around long enough to meet and even reacquaint myself with many of the racers I've admired. I'm almost 60 now and have been a fan of drag racing since I was 7 and a racer myself, in various forms, since I was 16. I may not be as famous as some, but I have certainly enjoyed the trip and will continue to do so." -- Paul Cuff

"My hero was local guy named George Warren here in the Phenix City, Ala., area. No football or baseball player could touch him as far as I was concerned. He could put on a show. I first saw him in 1970 when I was 13. He drove a 1970 AMX. I have seen the biggest names in drag racing who came through Phenix Drag Strip at that time from Don Garlits, Sox & Martin to Bill Jenkins and Larry Fullerton, but that white AMX was what I wanted to see. I am proud to have seen all the drag racers who came through Phenix City, but I'm even more proud to call George Warren my father-in-law." -- William Burch

"Has to be 'the Snake.' Seems to me he was always there. Every national event since 1964, except for one year, many division events even outside his own division (I hated when he raced Division 1), and match races out the kazoo. He raced front engine, funnies, rear engine, and did it successfully, plus he does quite well as an owner. I don't think in all the racing I've witnessed anyone who works harder or is cooler. I remember once at Maple Grove on a hot Saturday night he was racing someone, and back then, we could stand practically alongside the cars. His opponent decided to burn him down, and I could feel the heat and flames grow in intensity. I thought 'the Snake' would be getting upset, so I watched his hand on the brake to see if he flinched a finger. After all was said and done, he put a bad holeshot on his desperate opponent. Then there was a Summernationals at Raceway Park on a 90-degree humid day. He worked rebuilding, honing, changing motors, all without even a canopy, and after winning the event, I stayed to watch some more. He left the track after midnight, working with drop lights long after everyone was gone. He was generous with parts, never played games, and on the run above even asked what lane I wanted. Not that it mattered, he left me in the dust." – Frank Mancuso

"My motorsport hero has to be the late Sammy Miller. From that first awesome sight of Vanishing Point blasting away to an unseen or unbelievable speed/e.t at Santa Pod many years ago. He was a superb showman who was easily approachable and loved the fans. Always an innovator and a true hero never to be forgotten." – Karl Alcock

"I have always been a huge Ford fan, thus for me, Bob Glidden has always been a hero. When all others abandoned the Ford oval, Bob soldiered on virtually alone against first the huge GM contingent and later, to a lesser extent, the Mopar onslaught. His on-camera persona of proud but reserved competitor and always nice family guy was a breath of fresh air compared to some of the other egomaniacs. Bob always evoked the best example of good sportsmanship even in the face of almost insurmountable odds and showed them all in an understated way how it should and was done. He and his family will always be in my heart as the best example of what hard work, great manners, and family values bring to a family-oriented sport." -- Daryl Judd

OK, so there's the first batch of your heroes.Great stuff, guys. I'll probably roll out Part 2 after Pomona, depending on what happens the rest of this busy week. We're all keeping one eye on the skies as it's supposed to rain through Wednesday but clear up for the first day of the season Thursday. Everyone here is just so super excited for the season to kick off, especially with the caliber and depth of this year's 50th anniversary event. If you're coming, see ya here. If you couldn't make it, my condolences.