NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

Of jackrabbit finishes and faked photo passes

07 Oct 2011
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

The return of Fan Fotos brought interesting feedback and fun stories to light.

There were a lot of nice submissions about the Burkholder brothers, including the photo at right from Dave LeRoy, which shows his blown gas dragster -- with Henry Walther driving – taking on (and beating!) the Burkholders’ fuel entry at Sacramento Raceway in January 1971.

“Henry won this round,” he reported. “The temperature was in the 30s. We were so underpowered against the fuel cars. My Chevy could run on snot or ice and run the same e.t.s. Henry hit a jackrabbit in the lights, but he said he had never beat Harry, so he wasn't going to let off! We had jackrabbit parts everywhere. His helmet had guts on it, but we won!”

Wow, I’ve heard of jackrabbit starts, but never jackrabbit finishes. If ever there was a story that needed fleshing out (pun not intended), it’s this one. Walther has been a good friend and great contributor to this column throughout the years, so I asked for his memories.

“The photo was taken during my Combo eliminator (Top Gas, Jr. Fuel, Fuel Altered) driving days,” Walther remembered. “The stint in Dave's Top Gas car was a one-off deal as he lived in Tacoma, and I lived in Sacramento. He had asked me to drive at that race when his regular driver was unable to make it that weekend. It turned out well as we won the race. He was right about the weather as it was so cold it was spritzing snow. As I recall, we wanted to split the money with the other car and not run the final, figuring that the one guy left sitting in the spectator bleachers wouldn't mind, but the track management insisted we run it. Instead of having to cool the cars down, we were having to heat them up before rounds. It was one of those days when being beat and sent home was almost welcomed. But, if as they say, a win can cure cancer, then frostbite was no big deal.

“I did hit a rabbit in the lights at Sacramento. It wasn't so much that I wasn't going to lift against Burkholder, it was more that I had no time to react when I saw the rabbit. He was just a momentary blip in my peripheral vision and then a small thump. The impact bent the tie rod and caused the front wheels to toe out, but I got the chute out, so it didn't require too much extra steering input to keep the car in my lane. I didn't realize at first that I had hit a rabbit, so my main concern was why the car was trying to wander. When I got out of the car, I could easily see what had happened. It was an ugly mess from the front axle to the roll cage. There was rabbit stew and fur on the front end, down the framerails, on the front of the engine, the windscreen, the roll bar, and on my helmet and face mask. Easter hasn't been the same since that day.

“Racing against the Burkholder brothers ('Hairy,' the driver, and brother Pete) was great fun. They were good racers and even better friends. My racing against them extended back into earlier days when I had a modified roadster and they had an Olds-powered, Austin-bodied altered. Since Pete and I both worked at Tognotti's Speed Shop and we would occasionally work on each other's cars, our matchups became a matter of pride. The loser didn't want to go to work on Monday morning and suffer the ribbing of our fellow employees.”

Walther also passed along the other photos you see here, including a couple of LeRoy's car on the day described, and the one above, of Walther racing against the Burkholders’ car with his own Jr. Fuel car, a race he lost thanks to a giant wheelstand, the beginnings of which you can see in the photo. “Things got rather spectacular shortly thereafter,” he recalled. “ 'Hairy' wasn't driving the fuel altered that day. It was being driven by the late Jim Herbert, who was another fellow employee from Tognotti's, after 'Hairy' broke his foot riding motorcycles. Monday morning at work was brutal that next week, but looking back, I wouldn't trade those memories for the world.”

Seeing the name of Steve Bovan listed among those who had driven for Nelson Carter prompted Bob Post, esteemed author of the highly regarded drag racing history book High Performance: The Culture and Technology of Drag Racing, 1950-2000, to reflect that Bovan was among the many racers sponsored throughout the years by Don Blair, longtime fabled proprietor of Blair’s Speed Shop, who passed way last Thursday.

“Steve was one of many, many drag racers for whom Don provided support over the years,” wrote Post. “His shop on Foothill Boulevard in Pasadena was as much a mecca as Alex Xydias' in Glendale. It was Gray Baskerville, I believe, who nicknamed Don ‘Double Dollar,’ and he did get a lot of my dollars over the years. But a nice guy too, and always honest and above board.” Above is a pic of the radical Blair’s Chevy II driven in 1965-66 by Bovan as an answer to Jack Chrisman's stunning Sachs & Sons Chrisman’s Comet entry. Power came from an alky-burning 389, and best performances were in the 9.20s at 160 mph. He later sold it to Ed Carter, who campaigned it in Northern California as the Chevy II Much. There’s also a pretty great story online about Blair that will be in the October issue of Rod & Custom; you can find it here.

bm2_0.jpgPat “Ma” Green is pretty sure that the photo of the primered Chi-Town Hustler was taken at Sacramento Raceway and had the story behind the story. “Unless I'm mistaken (which is very possible), that photo was taken after Chi-Town had returned from racing in Hawaii,” she wrote. “The paint had been ruined on the boat coming back, resulting in the primer. The boys ask Kenny Green (my then hubby) if he could slap some letters on but didn't want anything permanent. So Kenny used poster paint. It looked great, BUT every time they made a run, some of the dried paint flaked off. Kenny spent most of the day patching the paint as they ran!”

Gary Crumine got a chuckle out of Butch Massoni’s admission that he gained access to the starting line at OCIR with faked photo credentials.

“I had to laugh over the lied-about credentials comment," he wrote. “I too spent many happy times alongside the pros, standing on the line shooting roll after roll of film. I never once was asked for credentials at the many tracks, including national events. I guess I must have either been lucky or it happened in a time before things got serious. I did strike up a conversation with Steve Reyes at the Mile-Highs one year. Very nice guy. He knew I was a pure amateur, and as long as I stayed out of his way, he didn’t mind sharing a little asphalt with me. I think I learned more in that couple of hours of watching him than I had learned over years on my own. I could not afford the equipment he had around his neck, but he treated me as equals for just a moment. In some ways, the photogs were a breed unto themselves. The drags were their medium, but it was that chase to get the perfect shot that we all were chasing.”

p2b.jpgI, too, plead guilty to having taken some starting-line liberties back when it was a lot easier to do so and photographer credentials weren’t so sophisticated, uniform, or obvious. I had friends who worked in the camera department of a large department store who had access to all sorts of sleight-of-hand trickery through their jobs, and we made up some pretty convincing passes, with the word “Photographer” in large blue letters as the prominent design feature.

I fessed up to this in a column way back in December 2007 about how I and good pal C. Van Tune (who, like me, would go on to pursue his automotive-journalism dream and ended up as an editor, he at Motor Trend) used them to get access to the starting line at Irwindale Raceway in early 1976 and got a chance to get up close and pesonal with "the Snake's " Army Monza. After I told my tale, I got a playful-but-stern admonishment from the aforementioned “Ma” Green, who also handled credentials at the ‘Dale. D'oh! Look out, Butch!

Kids, don’t try this at home. It doesn’t work anymore.