NHRA - National Hot Rod Association


15 Apr 2011
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

You know what? It has been a pretty lousy two weeks for the NHRA family. Just before the Las Vegas event, we learned of the passing of former Division 4 tech ace Lindy Vencill, known far and wide as one of NHRA's great assets until his retirement a few years ago. Then Monday after the Vegas event came the sad news that we'd all been expecting for a while, the loss of Division 7 Top Alcohol Funny Car pioneer Lou Gasparrelli, who had fought a long and courageous battle against cancer. From a personal standpoint, that one really stung because Gasparrelli and his family had been one of the first racing teams to welcome me to the sport when I joined NHRA in 1982. There wasn't a match race at Orange County Int’l Raceway where I didn’t spend time with them in the early 1980s, and I enjoyed their hospitality and friendship. He was super special to my then-young daughter Kim whenever I would take her to the Winternationals.

A few days later, we learned of the passing of Glynanna Ham, the wife of former longtime Division 4 Director Dale Ham. The Hams were an integral part of the early NHRA family and played a huge role in taming the South Central area. As the division director, Ham got a lot of the credit, but you know what they about who's behind every great man. That same day, we heard that we had lost Joe Mondello, whose cylinder heads are ingrained upon the fabric of our sport, to complications following surgery. I saw Joe at the Tire Kingdom NHRA Gatornationals, where he rightly took his place among a group of drag racing legends signing autographs for fans.

The day after that, we heard that Paul Vanderley had died. A lot of people knew Paul as a top-notch Sportsman competitor who used his Modified Production cars as a testbed for pal Dick Moroso's many new products, but he also had the claim to fame of having driven (and crashed) Swamp Rat III-C, which he bought from Don Garlits (he later hired Connie Swingle to drive).

The day after that, we heard that former Top Gas driver Hal Branin had passed away after a short illness. I didn’t know him but by name, but Branin, like me, hailed from Culver City, Calif., so that meant something to me. That whole Culver City/Mar Vista/Venice area, as I continue to learn, was jam-packed with future stars like Gene Adams, John and Bev Peters, Mike Sorokin, "Jazzy Jim" Nelson, Walt Stevens, Craig Breedlove, Hank Bender, Ron Hier, Bill Adair, and Frank "Root Beer" Hedges, to name but a few (see my column, Be True To Your School).

About that same time, I heard from Les Jackson, of Colorado-based Jackson Bros. fuel-racing fame, that brother Cal, driver of their High Heaven fuel altereds and Funny Cars, had suffered a stroke March 26 and had to have brain surgery to relieve pressure and must be treated for brain cancer. Cards and well-wishes may be sent to Cal Jackson, 66121 Juniper Court, Montrose, CO 81401.

My old pal "Berserko Bob" Doerrer and others have alerted me that former Funny Car star Dick Rosberg, well-known for his line of Fighting Irish nitroburners and numerous jet cars, is struggling mightily these days in his battle with cancer, and I have heard from numerous people that former Top Fuel racer and owner and Superstars of Drag Racing calendar maestro Neil Mahr is not doing well in his battle with the Big C.

Already this year, we had lost Kevin Rotty, Ed Allen, Jim Jackson, and "Pee Wee" Wallace, to name a few.

In my many years here, I've had to write obituaries for many of the guys I used to idolize and watch race, and, sure, as the old saying goes, they did seem to come in groups of threes, I can't ever remember a series of losses like these within a short span. I painfully remember 1996, when we lost our own Leslie Lovett in early summer and Blaine Johnson and Elmer Trett in Indy, and 1991, when we lost Keith Black, Joe Pisano, Gary Ormsby, and, in a terrible boating accident, Darrell Gwynn teammembers Nick Floch and Gary Clark. Hard to believe that's been 15 and 20 years ago.

The WeDidItForLove.com site has compiled a staggering list of heroes we've lost over the years, and, again, I know it only will grow.

As my headline said, "Enough!" but I know it's not going to be that way, that as our heroes of yesteryear grow older and more fragile, I'll sadly be writing a lot more.

To all, it's a very sobering reminder to embrace the legends around you. Tell them what you think of them, encourage their stories and memories so that you may hand them down to help perpetuate the legacies, thank them for where they've helped carry us, and let them know that long after they made their last pass, they'll always still be in our hearts and memories.