NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

Your heroes, Part 2

26 Feb 2010
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

Great American humorist Will Rogers once wrote, "We can't all be heroes because somebody has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by." That would be me, clapping on the curb to a parade of drag racing stars, past and present, and, from all accounts, you guys, too. A few months ago, I began talking about my drag racing heroes and asked you guys who your heroes were, and the response was pretty overwhelming -- so big, in fact, that I had to cut it into two parts to publish here. You can read the first installment here, and the second begins below. As with the first, your selections were diverse. Some from our great galaxy I certainly expected, and many, whose orbits are lower in the drag racing universe than those of the superstars, were pleasant surprises. Thanks for your contributions and your acknowledgments of heroes.

Here goes ...

"At my first drag race, my grandpa and I were watching all these (what I thought were) street cars going down the track, and this little kid thought, 'OK, cool,' until this one car came out to make an exhibition run. Grandpa said, 'Watch this!' It was Ron Leslie in the 777 Comet. We watched that car fire up, and it was louder, and the smoky burnout was longer, and he launched that car, and I remember the sounds and smell to this day. I was hooked. The rest of that story is that my grandpa knew Ron's dad, Roy Leslie, and his partner Bill Kenz. Yep, my grandpa knew the team that had the first Funny Car in Colorado, the Kenz & Leslies 777. Here's a terrible picture taken with an Instamatic camera, but this picture is priceless to me.
"So time went by, and when I was in junior high, there was a story in the Rocky Mountain News that my grandpa had for me. It was of a drag racer and his chief mechanic, and Grandpa said, 'Do you know the chief mechanic on this car?' And indeed I did: It was my math teacher, and he was a mechanic on a Funny Car. 

"Art Ward was the driver of this car, and between my math teacher, George Willett, and another dear teacher of mine back then (Tawney), they took me under their wings and helped me in every way they could. Part of that was introducing me to Art Ward, and saying that we were all pals from that moment on is an understatement. They all knew that I grew up without a father, and by this time (due to health), Grandpa just couldn't get me to the races anymore, so my mom would even take me (thanks, Mom), as did some dear old friends of mine, Mickey G. and Pat J.

So that's kind of where Art and crew (which also included on his Top Fueler Bob Yetter, who went on to be a part owner of a successful Super Comp car before he was taken away from us due to cancer) would step in and just let me hang out with them. Art liked me for some reason (even when I was a kid), and I looked up to him and his crew (my former teachers) to no end.
"Art is no longer with us, but I'm thankful to say that he knew what he meant to me, and me to him. To say that is priceless to me is way understated. He was my pal.
"Through Art Ward and my friends on his crew, this kid had the privilege to meet countless drivers and owners who I admired and still do, people like Roger Guzman, John Dekker, my friend Robbie Williams, Junior Kaiser, Johnny Abbott, Doug Kerhulas, Dan Pastorini, Jody Smart, Gene Snow, Sush Matsubara, Tripp Shumake, and even back in the day, that's how I first met the guy I call 'Forceman.' I'll never forget what you did for me, Art Ward, George Willett, and Bobby Yetter." -- Keith Dochterman

"Don Garlits. Yes, 'the King,' just like Arnold Palmer in golf. There are now drivers with more wins, but, like Arnie, Don Garlits defined the sport early with personality, performance, and technical innovation. Garlits was the first successful and aggressive touring pro and thrilled fans at tracks across the country. No doubt his personal disaster and the creation of the rear-engined dragster has saved many other disasters. He should receive some type of major honor from NHRA and motorsports while we still have him.
"Don Prudhomme: Another icon of the sport from the formative days when the personalities were clearly developing and marketing was at a high point. 'The Snake' and 'Mongoose' rivalry stirred up people who were not even into drag racing. The Hot Wheels craze put toy Funny Cars into the hands of young kids. 'The Snake' was successful in both Pro nitro categories and continued as a prototype of the corporate team owner. We're really going to miss him on the circuit.

"Ronnie Sox: One of my personal heroes from Cecil County days, and if not the best four-speed shifter ever, then tell me who was better! The famous Sox & Martin Mopars were pushed by Chrysler and marketed from 'shaker hoods' to the paint jobs on Hemi 'Cudas and Road Runners. Also one hell of a guy who would sign autographs for young and old alike.

"Bill Jenkins: Ah, 'the Grump,' another character that I spent some time around at Cecil, especially in his secret test sessions. His name has been synonymous with Chevy horsepower, and many Stock and Super Stockers with national wins sported the famous Jenkins Performance logo. The trademark cigar and snappy personality only added to his persona. And the old bugger is still at it!

"Tony Schumacher: You kidding me?! He's a modern hero, and if there is anyone who defines success, ultracool, and positive thinking, it's Tony. Obviously well-financed, but 2009 proved that he was up to the real test of nurturing a new team to greatness. Not always the quickest off the line, but when it really counts, he's there. And may I add what a great ambassador of the sport and his sponsor, the U.S, Army.

"Kenny Bernstein: Like 'the Snake,' Kenny Bernstein is a veteran of the sport from the real formative days and was another rare success story from both Pro nitro classes. Naturally, he'll be remembered for breaking the 300-mph barrier, but he also was the model for nurturing a world-class sponsor, Budweiser, for 30 years. Kenny got it on how to make a relationship like that work, and no doubt he'd still have the king of beers on board if not for their unfortunate acquisition.

"John Force: Geez, where do I begin! All the stats show he's the king of Funny Car racing, but, like Bernstein, is the new corporate king of sponsorship in drag racing, maybe all of racing. And when God passed out personality, John got a triple dose plus. He is known outside of our sport, which is a rare feat, and probably gets more airtime on NHRA TV broadcasts than any five other drivers combined! But John Force is also nurturing the future of the sport with his daughters, relatives, and trusted friends. Obviously, it benefits John Force Racing, but it also helps the future of NHRA racing.

"Bob Glidden: Here's a guy I watched a lot, and if there is ever a driver who was more modest and flew under the radar more than Glidden, well, I don't know who it is. With his record wins and domination of Pro Stock for so many years, he is probably the first of the superstar Pro Stock teams. And he did it with a manufacturer that had not been a powerhouse until he adopted them. Ford owes him a lot for keeping their brand in the fan's eye in NHRA when everyone else was a GM or Mopar fan.
"Jim Liberman: Maybe a surprise to you or others, but I have a special place in my heart for 'Jungle.' He was a regular at Cecil for a long time but then went national in a big way. He was the first (and only?) to ever 'franchise' a name brand in NHRA. He had other Funny Cars and a dragster and a Pro Stocker with 'Jungle Jim' branding. The inventor of the 1,000-foot burnout, and what a showman. The first real Funny Car star and a prototype of the marketing that was needed to be successful." -- Ken Campbell

"In an era where you can literally build a car from the ground up by simply using your cell phone, credit card, and a catalog, it’s no wonder my heroes are the guys and gals from yesteryear. No matter what motorsports discipline you subscribe to, the guys and gals that did it mostly out of their own pocket, they didn’t have engineering backgrounds, computers, and wind tunnels, or even some old geezers to draw knowledge from -- they were the ones that had to figure it out for themselves. In my opinion, they are the true heroes because they paved the way for the rest of us.

"The challenge has always been the same for everybody: Go from point A to point B as fast as you can as well as faster than the rest of the guys or gals. What made motorsports so interesting back in the day was the different trains of thoughts that came about to complete the same challenge. Innovation was the key. If some guy sitting in his garage looking at his car thinking about how to make it go faster comes up with an idea, then tries it on his car and it works great, he has an advantage over the competition. If it didn’t work, well, they called that the school of hard knocks.

"Obviously, motorsports is not the same anymore. Multimillion-dollar sponsorship deals, the high-paid wheelmen in multicar teams, and the sanctioning bodies trying to control everybody and everything, and then you throw in the cookie-cutter cars -- what a shame. If there is one thing I am grateful for it would be the Sportsman classes in drag racing. What a variety of cars, ideas, and theories all to do the same thing: to go one-quarter-mile as fast as you can and beat the other guy! You just won’t see that anywhere else, eh?

"My heroes of today’s era are all the Sportsman racers who spend their own dime and time to do what they love to do. There’s no big ol' honk’n trophy! There’s no big ol' honk’n check! There’s no ESPN media time at the end of the day for these guys and gals, just the satisfaction that they got to do what they love to do one more time, and if they win, well that’s just icing on the cake. My hat goes off to you guys and gals! You are my biggest heroes!

"When I look back at the years gone by and think about the mainstream guys, there are only a few guys who stand out in my mind. Now granted, I was just a high school kid racing my Cortina at OCIR when these guys were making headlines, but these would be my heroes from yesteryear: Don 'Big Daddy' Garlits, Don 'the Snake' Prudhomme, 'Big Jim' Dunn, James Warren and Roger Coburn, and, of course, Anthony Joseph Foyt. Now I know there were a lot of others that may come to mind for you, but these were the guys that stood out the most in my mind.

"The reason is these guys built, modified, drove, and maintained their own cars. They didn’t have special cars built for different tracks, billion-dollar shops, huge transporters with hospitality centers, 10 or 20 crew guys to do all the work so the driver could mingle with the media and fans. Nope, they built one car and dragged it around the country on the back of a flatbed truck or an open trailer, usually behind the family’s station wagon, and ate bologna sandwiches for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The fancy-pants guys might have had an enclosed trailer or truck. These guys did a lot of the driving, and, as far as crewmembers go, they sometimes had to recruit guys from the stands to help out just so they could do what they loved to do, and that was race. Most of the time, they only made enough money to get to the next racetrack. Again, I know there were a lot of guys doing that, but you have to admit, look what these guys have accomplished. Also, you got to love A.J. Foyt; when he gets out of his car in the middle of the Indy 500, gets a big screwdriver and a small sledgehammer and proceeds to beat on the gearbox linkage trying to free it up … now that’s my kind of guy!

"Guys like A.J. and 'Big Daddy' are household names; however, James Warren and Roger Coburn might not be household names, but I remember when 'the Ridge Route Terrors' came over the Grapevine to my home track at OCIR, they would kick everybody’s ass and take all the money home with them. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then there is a great black and white picture in the Wally Parks NHRA museum that shows James and Roger sitting in their one-car garage with the motor on a stand in the background that depicts just how it was back then. That picture says it all!

"Now every time I go to Fresno to visit my mom and sister and I’m traveling north on Highway 99 and I see that round, black and white sign that says, 'Rain for Rent' with the umbrella in the middle of it, I think for a moment how great racing was back then." -- Charlie Arford


"Don Prudhomme is my longtime drag racing hero since I was a kid with my own Hot Wheels Funny Cars. I built the model of the yellow Funny Car and dragster. I can recall watching the Snake Funny Car in the early '70s and then the backbreaking Army car of the later '70s. I have always idolized the man and studied his intensity. I can remember watching TV and seeing the horrible crash on Wide World of Sports the year at Indy when Jim Nicoll’s car split in half in front of a very young Don Prudhomme. I must admit I wanted to be him! In 2000, I had my kids at the drags in Atlanta, and we were standing in line for autographs from the popular drivers, and right next to the long line we were standing in was 'the Snake,' sitting in his T-shirt trailer with no lines and no waiting! I took a picture of my son and Don standing in the background. I was very upset after reading about his decision to leave the sport, but I feel fortunate to have enjoyed watching his success throughout the years. There are others I could include in my heroes list but none as special as Don 'the Snake' Prudhomme." -- Kris Miller

"Flash back to 1966, Great Lakes Dragaway, Union Grove, Wis. Three guys in their teens with their first race car (1955 Chevy, 327, four-speed) not knowing what they didn't know. Between rounds, we were watching Don Garlits service his Top Fuel car, which in those days consisted of changing the plugs and maybe changing the oil. But anyway, here we are watching and not speaking. The next thing we know, 'Big Daddy' turns around and asks us how things are going. And he carries on a conversation with us like he's known us forever. To have one of the greats in the sport treat us as equals was one of the high points of my life. 'Big Daddy' will always be a hero in my eyes." -- Charlie Brock

"My two biggest heroes are Tom 'the Mongoo$e' McEwen and Jim Fox (Frantic Four AA/FD, Frantic Ford AA/FC). McEwen for his sharp wit, great-looking cars, his promotion of the sport of drag racing, and his ability to attract sponsors and legions of fans from around the world for many, many years. The world of professional drag racing should consider itself very fortunate that McEwen showed up and stuck around our sport. A very colorful character that has no equal. 'Snake' may have beat him in overall on-track performance over the years during the Hot Wheels era, but 'the Mongoo$e' more than made up for it by just being himself. The sport needs more Tom McEwens. Long live 'the 'Goose!'
"Jim Fox is a Hall of Fame mechanic/tuning ace/car owner. Jim never received the credit due him for his long list of accomplishments in the sport of drag racing until 2007 when he was inducted into the Drag Racing Hall of Fame. Jim dedicated many, many years of his life to the sport he loved. His ability to tune a car by ear was astounding. His on-track performance record speaks for itself and will live on in the drag racing history books. A genuine down-to-earth, honest, hardworking guy who deserves mention." -- Bobby Frey

"Bob Glidden drove, was crew chief, engine builder, team marketer, truck driver, built his own engines, and was great to his fans. One time, he couldn’t sign an autograph for a little boy, and he said, 'Come by later, and he will sign him something.' It was my younger brother, and he let him sit in his car, gave him a spark plug from the motor, and signed a poster for him! He always respected his racing rivalries even when they didn’t respect him. I was in Milan, Mich., the day IHRA wanted him to tear down his motor in the pits. Bob said, 'OK, we will do it in the trailer,' and the tech guy said, 'No, out in the open.' Bob just said, 'Well, I guess I will see you later.' He was tough on and off the track and had a lot of class. No disrespect to the nitro racers, but Bob Glidden is and will be the greatest drag racer ever. If they had 23 races per year when he was in his heyday, who knows how many races he could have won! Truly a legend in any sport!" -- Michael Walker

"At the time of his accident, Darrell Gwynn was probably going to win the Top Fuel championship that year. His life was changed forever. He fought through his injuries and became a successful race team owner. But that was not his greatest accomplishment. He started a foundation to help other special-needs individuals. I'm chairman of the board of Project Stable, a nonprofit organization that uses horses and farm animals to help children overcome their disabilities, and Darrell presented a motorized wheelchair to one of our students at the Barrett-Jackson auction in Palm Beach in 2008. He also spent a lot of time with the child that day showing him how to use it and encouraging him to be mobile. I cannot explain the joy on his mother's face. That day also opened the door for someone in the crowd to assist the family for additional therapy to help this child. Darrell's help made a big difference in this child's life." -- Sheldon McCartney

"My admiration of Danny Ongais has several aspects. He is a fellow native Hawaiian, served his country in the Army as a paratrooper, and raced nearly everything with wheels. His picture should be in every dictionary that defines a racer. He raced the widest variety of vehicles and tracks that went straight, oval, road course, on asphalt, dirt, or salt. It is a very small universe of racers who have competed and with many successes in Formula One, Indianapolis 500, 24 Hours of Daytona and Le Mans, Bonneville, USAC, IMSA, SCCA, AHRA, NHRA, CRA, Grand-Am Series. He is associated with the greats of all motorsports: Parnelli Jones, Mickey Thompson, Roland Leong, Ickx, Daly, Piquet, Fittipaldi, Unser, and more. He is honored in NHRA's Top 50 drivers (No. 39), the Motorsports Hall of Fame, the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame, and the Hawaii Sports Hall of Fame.

"I grew up hearing about him racing motorcycles and watched him at the dragstrip in Hawaii. I followed the news as he raced on the mainland with Roland Leong (my other hero) and the Hawaiian dragster. For many years, his name would pop up in nearly every motorsports broadcast on TV. Although drag racing is top of my list, my interest expanded as Danny would be seen racing in the Indy 500, then IMSA, and Formula One. One of my favorites was in 1996 when, at the age of 54, he started the Indy 500 in 33rd as a substitute driver and finished 7th. For me, it was great to watch Danny Ongais from my home state of Hawaii, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, make his mark all over the world as a real racer, an honorable human, and a champion with an honest to desire to win. He is my role model." -- Ken Alagan

"I grew up in SoCal and raced a lot at San Fernando, Irwindale, OCIR, Pomona, and, of course, Lions from about 1962 to 1974. I always enjoyed watching the Top Fuel cars when I was not racing my own car. Probably the one driver who stands out the most in my mind as someone who – to borrow a phrase from another profession – had the right stuff was Danny Ongais. He had a couple of nicknames – as did all of the drivers of that era – including 'the Silent Hawaiian' and 'On the Gas.' The latter of these nicknames earned because he NEVER lifted no matter how crossed up and sideways the car he was driving got. During the time he spent driving Mickey Thompson’s blue 1969 Mach 1 Funny Car, he was almost unbeatable! But the car I particularly liked the most was his Harbor Honda of Wilmington Top Fuel car. Not only was this a beautiful car, but it was equally FAST. Unfortunately at the 1966 Nationals, Danny red-lighted in the final round of Top Fuel to Mike Snively, who was driving Roland Leong’s Hawaiian.

"Around about 1968 or 1969, Danny expressed an interest in driving an Indianapolis car, which was probably one of the reasons he decided to drive Mickey Thompson’s Funny Car since Thompson was running Indy cars at that time. Danny Ongais was without a doubt the best drag race driver ever, be it a Top Fuel or Funny Car. And he was not too bad in the other types of racing he pursued." -- Bob Nielsen