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'Cool is in the eye of the beholder'

15 Feb 2011
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

Whatever your definition of cool – and based on the avalanche of submissions I received in the last four days, it's a pretty wide definition – I can say that you guys are sure cool. I couldn’t believe the number of e-mails I received or the wide variety of names being submitted. Thanks for playing!


A number of you followed the guidelines with great descriptions of why certain people were worthy of the "cool" designation, and many of you – and you know who you are; you were probably some of those kids I always saw after school stuck in detention – just submitted your lists. So I'll go through this in three parts, with the detailed ones first, then some briefly quoted ones, and then a compilation of your lists at the end.

So, what's cool? Who's cool? One thing that many agreed on was that the great Leslie Lovett photo of "the Snake" in his front-engine dragster is the ultimate in cool, but far too many of you thought that he was flashing the peace sign when in fact it was the legendary V for victory sign. It was way cool to do back then, but not used much anymore. Larry Dixon still does it today on occasion, which is another reason that I think he's cool.

Joe Wiles said that the photo "oozes cool for a multitude of reasons: 1) The shot itself is not only cool, it's WAY cool. The mental vision of the photog being directly in front of a speeding fuel car (even though we know he isn't) sends chills; 2) Contents of the photo: full-blossom chute, "Snake" logo in full view on the helmet, fire mask/goggles with the driver's eyes distinctly visible, supercharger still wound up ... need I go on?; 3) The idea that anyone would actually have the presence of mind to remove his/her hand from the wheel of a speeding fuel car for a photo op is ballsy cool; 4) And, of course ... it's "the Snake." He is confident enough with himself that he would actually do that, cool as in ice in the veins."

Plenty of other folks took their own stab at defining cool. Dennis Davison opined, "Coolness is the physical manifestation of confidence, confidence that is born out of being highly competent. He cited Pat Galvin ("the original 'crew chief to the stars' ") as an example. "He wrenched for most of the heroes of his day. His mannerisms were not unlike 'the Snake." Galvin and Prudhomme were both very, very good at what they did. They knew it; so did everyone else."

To that point, I got a note on Facebook from Holly Smith Shanks, who worked for "the Snake" at his shop for several months. "I had the privilege of working for Don as a receptionist in 2003-04," she shared. "He's cool because he doesn't need people to reach out and 'worship' him, as some celebrities do. He only shares his opinion when he has something to say, and he's as real as a person can be. I only worked for him for seven months, but I never saw him be unkind to anyone or kiss up to anyone. He called a spade a spade and had a realistic view of what the business of drag racing was all about. Working for him was one of those rare opportunities that we get sometimes in life."

Scott Barratt wrote, "The late great drag racing innovator and low-dough icon Bill Phillips from Division 6, and I coined a phrase that I put on my team shirts and still use to this day: 'Cool is a Dying Art.' Besides 'Snake' (who's cooler than a Cobra's back in December), one of the coolest cats I remember was Kenney 'the Action Man' Goodell; he was always looking stylin' (his cars looked almost as good as he did)! I'll never forget sitting in his trailer with Kenney and 'Jungle Jim' at midnight as the 64 Funny Car human avalanche oozed its way out of S.I.R. ... I thought Kenney was cool, and he was digging 'Jungle's' action, proving one thing for sure: Cool is in the eye of the beholder."

Dennis Friend, who runs the twin-engine dragster specialty site Two To Go, sent the great montage above, showing Chris Karamesines and Don Garlits shaking hands then and now, with photos of them racing each other. "This is cool!" he said. I agree!

While "the Snake" has his legions who agreed with the pick of Prudhomme as the sport's coolest, Don Thomas likes his running mate: " 'Snake' is the coolest, but I've always thought Tom McEwen was cool. He did his thing, and nothing ever seemed to bother him. He went about his routine in a very Tom McEwen, systematic kind of way. And he always had this devious kind of grin on his face that I thought exuded a certain confidence but also gave me the notion that he was up to some kind of practical joke. He seemed to never let things rattle him. It was always a no-problem kind of attitude. He did what he did with tongue in cheek and a grain of salt, and that was that. Unrattled, unshaken ... Tom McEwen was (is) cool!"

Patrick Haeg agreed: "Starting back in the mid-'70s (wow, 36-37 years ago), my cousin and I would go to Minnesota Dragway on the north side of the Twin Cities to see the big names come to match race. For sure, the Cool Cat ('Snake') was there with a triple-axle trailer and duallie pickup truck (big-time stuff). He and Bob [Brandt] would be working hard, sweating like dogs, while 'the Mongoose' was cool, standing in the shade of his trailer doorway watching his guys do all the work. My cousin brings this up all the time; I guess we always thought 'the Mongoose' was pretty cool. P.S. Being from Minnesota, we also think Tom "Showtime" Hoover and his Ma and Pa were cool, too!"

"Chicago Jon" Hoffman also was solidly in the McEwen camp; "Tom McEwen. What's cooler than that? Tom McEwen in his Foster Grants. What's cooler than that? The picture of 'the Mongoose' that Hot Rod ran with their coverage of National Challenge '72, McEwen, wearing the Foster Grants, on a payphone, holding a SHOTGUN. ... Yeah, pretty cool."

Patrick Henry Perry nominated longtime former Garlits crew chief Tommy "T.C." Lemons. "I wrenched for Ray Godman and Preston Davis on the Tennessee Bo-Weevil in 1970-71," he wrote. "We match raced 'Big' and 'T.C.' between NHRA events; sometimes they won, and sometimes we did. 'T.C.' had every reason to swagger because of what he did and who he did it with, but he didn't. He was friendly and always dropped by our pit and would never hesitate to help us if we needed it. He made us laugh every time he said something. When we asked a technical question, he would answer it with a question: 'Well, how do you think it works?' If you answered correctly, he would respond with a big grin; if wrong, he'd ask, 'Are you sure?' or 'How do you know?' Before he left, you'd learned from him usually with an 'a-ha moment.' Skip ahead 38 years, and we ran into him at the Bowling Green Hot Rod Reunion, and he remembered us like it was yesterday. The following year, he was inducted into the Reunion honorees and received a Wally. When I congratulated him, he said, 'I may be the first tire wiper to win a Wally at this event.' Now that's cool! Of course, Ray Godman and Preston Davis are cool, but they are my best friends, and I'd never tell them that. They let me race with them back in the day and introduced me to many of the greatest legends of drag racing in Top Fuel. Raymond never let a Korean War sniper's bullet and a wheelchair slow him down. Preston could drive better than anyone back then and with his enthusiasm and swagger reminds me of John Force today. Yeah, these guys are way cool."

Steve Blashfield has multiple East Coast favorites from the 1970s: "Roger Toth of the Hemi Hunter Top Fueler. I met him in about 1972, and that dude just breathed cool in my book. Just his actions and swagger along with his personality, and he could defiantly attract the ladies. I always meant to sit with him and find out his secret. He was a good friend, taught me a lot. Second was Dodger Glenn of the Frantic Ford; he had the personality. I can remember him coming over to our trailer just to BS and you could just see people’s faces light up just at his presence. I never knew what was going to come out of him; sad he was taken from us so early in life. Third was the original Jade Grenade guys: Bill Flurer, Pete Lemhoff, and Ted Thomas. Just watching them work together, you could see they, too, had the swagger, knowing what they were doing. I can remember Ted always had the look of intensity, that 'I’m going to kick ass' expression. And lastly, Sammy Miller. I remember a fuel meet at E-town one night. He had that new wedge Top Fueler -- no paint -- and I can remember him laying across the top of the cowling taking a snooze in the staging lanes. … I remember thinking, 'Yeah. That’s cool.' "

Dave Dugas: " 'Snake' sure tops it, but Austin Coil has got to be a close second. He is not only probably the greatest tuner of all time but played it straight alongside John Force for so long; cool just oozes from this dude."

Tom “Fasthair” Scott: "The 'King of Speed' Kenny Bernstein is cool. That red Budweiser car was always cool to look at, and the Batmobile is one of the coolest Funny Cars of all time. And being the first to go over 300 mph for sure adds to the cool points total. I sure miss seeing that red car, don’t you? Think about this, too. Having the King of Beers as a sponsor for 30 years was pretty damn cool, too. Yup, KB is right up there with 'the Snake' in the cool department! I always thought Del Worsham was pretty cool, too. I mean, the first hot rod you ever drive is a nitro Funny Car. Just how cool is that? Not to mention just like 'the Snake,' he’s just a hell of a nice guy to boot. A cool hot rod, to me, has always been a '30s Willys with a straight axle up front and a blower sticking out of the hood. Growing up in small-town Iowa, I didn’t get to see a lot of cool people because, well, there just weren’t many. But Tom Kirkpatrick was cool because he had a '33 Willys with a blown Rat motor, straight axle, and this bitchin’ paint scheme of orange with black fenders. Not to mention Tom was pretty (handsome) hip looking to this snot-nosed kid and always dated the prettiest girls. But one thing is for sure, that car was cool!"

Gregory Safchuk: "Dale Pulde and Al Segrini. Despite successfully driving some of most awesome fuel coupes on the planet through the years, they, like Don Prudhomme, didn't have out-of-control egos but a certain modest swagger and confidence that says cool." He even submitted his own photo of the two. That's cool.

Greg Gorian has those two on his list as well. "Dale Pulde; do I remember correctly that he once got a ticket for doing a burnout in his Funny Car on a city street in Long Beach? Al Segrini; loved watching him win the Winternationals two years in a row on fire in the lights."

Bill King had another Funny Car racer in mind: "Having been a friend of Tripp Shumake, I always thought he was cool, Tripp was 10 to 15 years older than me, but I remember as a kid seeing him all the time out at Beeline Dragway. He didn’t know the meaning of lifting off the throttle, especially in an altered. Later on in life when I got to meet him while working on Paula Martin's Funny Car crew and became friends with him, we would talk about the old days. Reading your article about the 250-mph club really pulled at my heartstrings, since I know personally how proud he was of that accomplishment. He always wore that ring and was wearing it the last time I saw him a couple of days before his accident. He was cool because of how proud he was of his place in the sport yet was one of the most down-to-earth people I’ve ever known. To me, he was cool."

A lot of you thought that Pro Stock guys were cool, too. To wit …

Dave Sullivan: "I think Lee Shepherd (pictured at right) was one of the coolest racers that ever lived. 'No Brag, Just Fact.' He said very little and never needed to. I remember once racing at Baylands Raceway Park, and I wanted to get a close look at their car. I wandered over to their pit, and in those days, it wasn't much different from ours in a Sportsman class, Anyway, I stood there for a while and didn’t see Lee until I noticed that he was in fact standing right next to me. One guy had dropped a nut on the grass and was scrambling for it when 'Cool Man Lee' said in a kinda soft and quiet voice, 'Man I hate when that happens.' Funny. I sure do miss him and his cool attitude."

Gary Wilson: "No one defines cool to me like Jeg Coughlin. He defines cool with his look, his persona, his confidence, his ability, and how much he appreciates the grassroots heritage of the sport. Anyone that can win in Pro Stock, Super Stock, Competition, and Super Gas is cool in my book. At the [NHRA Finals], when he announced that he was stepping away from Pro Stock and would spend his time Sportsman racing, added another element to his cool demeanor. The man is at the top of his game, one of the best ever in Pro Stock, and to just walk away from it because he can … how cool is that!!! I almost forgot to mention the Bo-Dyn Bobsled Challenge … the man can race on ice, too!"

Tom Connolly: " 'Da Grump'! You can’t ignore Bill Jenkins. He built the baddest GM Pro Stock cars and took on the Chrysler teams. First the Camaros, and then the tube-frame Vega that was a game changer in the Pro Stock class (for better or worse, depending on your point of view). He was cool … and still is!"

Texas Super Gas racer Joe Scarlata picked two, one geographically and one in his class, naming current Blue Max driver and partner Ronnie Young and transmission guru and racer Jim Hughes (pictured at right). "[Hughes] is absolutely cool because he will stop everything and sell you a converter and help you install it, then put you in the trailer, then come over after the race and thank you for the opportunity to race you," wrote Scarlata. "These two guys were born cool!"

David (Mick) Michelsen: "Yes 'the Snake' is cool. Probably one of the coolest ever. I believe 'cool' is keeping the same laid-back attitude no matter what happens. I remember Steve Evans interviewing 'the Snake' right after he hit the wall in his Pepsi Challenger and 'the Snake' saying his wife had hit him harder than that. Raymond Beadle was/is cool. How about after barrel rolling his Blue Max in Gainesville and climbing out like it was nothing? Is John Force cool? Yes, but in his own way. He sure isn’t laid back. He’s more 'far out,' like 'Jungle Jim.' Kenny Bernstein? Yep. Remember when his car, driven by Roberto Guerrero, is on the pole for the Indy 500 and crashes on the pace lap? Did Kenny go crazy? Nope, just hung his head for a minute, then went on with business.
 
"I think NHRA Drag Racing has the most cool athletes than any other sport. Too many to list."

But list them you did …

Russell Biles categorized his cool factor:
James Bond cool: Greg Anderson
Rich Texan cool: Billy Meyer
Rumble or drive a fuel coupe cool: Al Hofmann
Young Guns cool: Spencer Massey
Jokester cool: Gary Scelzi
Crew chief cool: Mike Neff
Southern-style cool: Allen Johnson

Sometimes you get alerted to people off your radar screen, which was definitely the case in Gary Roda's selection. "I would definitely nominate Northern California Sportsman racer Don Hudson (pictured at right), a popular and successful Alcohol Dragster and Funny Car campaigner for years in Division 7. Don always exudes coolness in a John Milner-like/'50-Mooneyes-equipped way on or off the track; he has even owned '50s collectables/nostalgia retail shops in California as a day job. He never strays into the Sha Na Na schlock '50s excess, just has the right attitude and cool-guy vibe; very 'Snake'-like. Anyone who’s met Don Hudson would I’m sure agree -- he’s cool."

As a father, I'm also particularly struck when someone really likes their dad enough to write about him being cool. Certainly us dads always want our kids to think we're cool, and Rusty Ellis thinks his dad, Benny Ellis, was. "We lived in Long Beach [Calif.] in the early to mid-'60s," he wrote. "He would pile my brother (2 at the time), my mom, and me (6 at the time) into the family ride, a '55 two-door hardtop, and hightail it to Lions anytime there was an event. We lost 'Pops' in 2005. Thanks, Dad, for raising a couple of lifelong gearheads who have in turn raised gearheads of their own. Cool personified!"

Lou Kenkel: "I don't know if you know Jerry Dawson or not, but he is from the St. Louis area and is a great fabricator and used to race front-engine 'big boy' dragsters with Don Garlits and those guys back in the day. He reeks cool, plus he lets me hang around his shop, which I enjoy to the max. He still builds nostalgia cars and a lot of neat stuff for the street."

Ken Haselhorst: "Of those living, I have to agree with Don 'the Snake' being at the top of my list. I also think John Force is cool. His demeanor at the track, his speeches, etc. As for those past, No. 1 is Elvis. How can anyone not think that? I grew up with him being one of the coolest, musically. There are more cars I can remember being the coolest than people. The ’55-’57 Chevy, the ’64 ½ Mustang, and the Barracuda come to mind."

Michael Thomas: "The ultimate cool figure in NHRA today is Jim Head (pictured at right). He has the look of cool. He has the chiseled face and the great gray messed-up hair. He looks like a racer from the '60s. He just oozes cool." I'd have to agree. Check out the great interview I just did with Head in this week's National DRAGSTER.

Dean Beck went with Northwest legend Earl Poage: "I went to work for Earl at his gas station in 1969. He was already out of the cockpit by then (except for a brief return in Jack Merrill's Top Gas car), but he was almost a 'Snake' clone. Long and lean with that kinky, curly hair, and the way he carried himself. People listened in a way when he spoke that I'd never seen in my 18 years, or since for that matter. Everyone who was anyone in the drag racing world always made a point to stop at Earl's Mobil for fuel and a chat on their way to and from the next race. If you came to the Northwest to race, you stopped at Earl's. When he tried something, serious or just for fun, you knew it was going to work. One day we were changing the front shocks on the station van, a 1965 flat-nose Chevy. The new shocks didn't come in, so when Earl left for the day in the van, sitting at the stoplight, he honked to get our attention. When the light changed, he made like 'Wild' Bill' and pulled a wheelie through the intersection. He just made it work."

Paul Cuff: "I'd like to nominate Dick Oldfield, first driver of the Motown Missile, for cool recognition. I've come to know Dick fairly well, and he, like so many others, downplays his part in drag racing history. Dick ran a number of Super Stockers in the '60s before joining Ted Spehar and several others with the Missile team. I rarely hear Dick speak in terms of himself about the time he spent with that crew; it's always 'we' or 'us.' To me, the coolest guys are those who remember that they have fans who admire them but are never too big to spend a few minutes with them. Not just dashing off an autograph, but just taking a minute to let the fans know they truly are special and appreciated. Prudhomme did it; Dixon, Capps, Glidden, and many others do it, too. Why? Because they're cool!"

Moving on, the following lists, observations, and comments were attributable to a large number of readers, including David Allgeier, Joseph N. Atwell, Mark Brenner, Gary Crumrine, Pete Davis, Jim Deatsch, Robert Ehmann, Rob Emmett, Gary Goetz, Chris Good, Brian Goodloe, Greg Gorian, Don Hiett, Mike Hooks, Bob Kovacs, Frankie Locascio, Jeff Mittendorf, Steve Reyes, Tina Scolaro, Paul Schwan, Terry Spencer, and James F. Williams.

Kalitta and McCulloch: Drag racing bad asses. And only "the Ace" could rock a pink hat and make it look cool. Or at least not have anyone tell him otherwise.

A number of personalities' names were mentioned multiple times on people lists, including Connie Kalitta ("ultimate bad ass"), Ed McCulloch ("ultimate bad ass II"), Don Garlits, Willie Borsch ("Anyone who falls a sleep in the staging lanes getting ready to drive a fuel altered is the essence of cool" [Ed. note: Willie had no choice: He had narcolepsy.]); Dick Landy, Billy Meyer, Allen Johnson, Alan Johnson, Scott Kalitta ("He was cool; talk about your own drummer"); Raymond Beadle ("1982 Gatornationals … enough said"), Melanie Troxel, Mike Dunn, Gary Beck ("dominant with a cool  moustache"), Bruce Larson, Eric Medlen, Keith Black, Chris Karamesines, and Ronnie Sox.

This group was lauded with the accompanying comments: Bob Glidden ("Dude drove Fords and kicked ass"); Mickey Thompson ("What a loss"); Dean Skuza ("miss the guy, and he always had a Social Distortion decal on his car"); John Force and Tony Pedregon ("for giving good TV at the 2009 U.S. Nationals"); Joe Amato ("as cool a customer as drag racing ever met; a killer in the lights, and a humble winning attitude off the track"); Mike Kuhl ("just because of the name); "Dandy Dick" Landy ("with that cigar hanging out of his mouth and never lit"); Luigi Novelli ("great nice guy, but with that ponytail, he became cool");  and Lee Beard ("never ruffled, never a hair out of place").

Austin and Anderson: It was a cool rivalry, too.

On the contemporary side, we also received votes for (in no particular order) Tony Schumacher, Del Worsham, Dale Armstrong, Pat Austin, Brad Anderson, Kyle Seipel, Vinny Barone, Frank Manzo, Warren Johnson, Elmer Trett, Larry McBride, Jack Beckman, Larry Dixon, Antron Brown, Jeff Arend, Blaine Johnson, Jason Line, Cruz Pedregon, Bernie Fedderly, Lori Johns Angel, Shelly Anderson Payne, all the Force girls, Peggy Llewellyn, Eddie Hill, Karen Stoffer, Angie McBride Smith, Erica Enders, Darrell Alderman, and Dave Schultz.

Single votes also were cast for these all-time greats (again, in no particular order): Art Chrisman, Bruce Larson, Larry Dixon Sr., Bob Muravez, Shirley Muldowney, Ron Scrima, Norm Weekly, Keith Black, Woody Gilmore, Leonard Stone, Shirley Shahan, Linda Vaughn, Larry Stellings, Jeep Hampshire, Mel Reck, Jon Lundberg, Twig Ziegler, Jerry Ruth, Rance McDaniel, Gary Ritter, Dennis and David Baca, Gary Cochran, Dale "the Snail" Emery, Lew Arrington, "Kansas John" Wiebe, Steve Carbone, John Mulligan, Jim Liberman, Red Lang and the Dead End Kids, Tony Nancy, Kenny Safford, and The Surfers.

The nostalgia racer's best friend, Steve Gibbs, also received a vote, as did announcer Bob Frey ("The word 'cool'  was coined to describe Bob Frey.").

I found it interesting — and quite flattering -- that an embarrassing number of you thought that I was cool, and several of you also tapped my good pal and fellow blogging addict Bob Wilber as cool.

Dave Gibson called Wilber "Captain Blog," which I think is pretty funny, so I whipped together the little Photoshop image at right for my amusement. And the aforementioned Perry called Wilber "the most dedicated blogger on the NHRA site and very good at what he does; no, he's the best! He's one of the nicest guys in racing and always takes time to meet those who come by just to say hello. His blogs have had me laughing and tearful, especially when he talks about someone he met who has fallen on hard times and needs a lift. Bob's writing skills alone could make him swagger, but he doesn't. He's a regular guy, one of us. And that's cool!"

While I and "Captain Blog" certainly appreciate the kind thoughts, I know that both of us are just doing something that we really love (writing), something that comes naturally, and something that – thanks to the interaction with our readers – makes all of the hard work so worth it.

And that, my friends, is cool.