NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

At a loss, again ...

24 May 2011
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

Another Tuesday, another sad duty to report another substantial loss to our sport. Yesterday, about 5 p.m., just a week after the death of James Warren, we lost 1970s veteran fuel Funny Car campaigner Dick Rosberg, adding to the already staggering toll this year has taken on our sport. Last Friday, we also learned of the death of popular Division 4 announcer Lynn Nickerson who, while not as well-known a name as Rosberg or Warren, was widely loved and respected by those whose names he called out over the PA.

A lot of people have a fascination with "deaths in threes," but, honestly, I've lost track of it all. If you toss in the great Bill Summers – admittedly more known for his land-speed efforts with the Goldenrod than for drag racing but nonetheless another national treasure among speed freaks like us -- and Ed Mabry it gets really sad.

"Berserko Bob " Doerrer, one of the Rosberg's closest friends, had told me that Rosberg's days probably were numbered as he battled stage IV melanoma, but that didn't make the news any easier. Double-B was the first to break the news to us, followed shortly thereafter by Bill Novak, who sent me a nice note about his former partner on the mid-1970s Fighting Irish fuel flopper.

I also heard from Suzy Beebe, who was married to Tim Beebe in the time that he campaigned the Fighting Irish car with Rosberg at the wheel. It was Beebe's return to nationwide racing after the tragic 1969 death of John Mulligan in Indy after racing locally with brother Dave in 1970. Suzy, who writes a social column for us in National DRAGSTER, fondly recalled the guy that he and Tim called "Whale Belly."

"A great talent that Dick had was mimicking almost any sound imaginable," she remembered. "He was our own personal sound effect. Rosberg was known to fall asleep under the old Fighting Irish Funny Car while we were living in Brooklyn, Mich. Once, the truck fell on top of him; thankfully, we were on a dirt driveway and the rear jack held. He drove that night in Martin, Mich., with a bruised ego and ribs. You'd have liked Dick a lot, great personality. In all the years I knew him, I never saw him without a smile on his face and never saw him lose his temper. Ever."

I asked her about the nickname and about those given to others on the team.

"Back in those crazy days, everyone had a nickname," she said. "We named Dick 'Whale Belly' because he had a big belly. Tim, aka 'Chops,' got his nickname because he loved pork chops as a child, not because he was chubby as so many think. Mine was 'Zerk' (as in zerk fitting, to keep my jaw lubricated). 'Chops' ' brother, Richard, was known as 'Lurch' after the Addams Family TV show. God, where did we find them?"

jw1_0.jpgJames Warren was laid to rest Saturday in front of a legion of friends and family, among them Tom Jobe, of Surfers Top Fuel fame, who shared this great report with his friends via email. 

"The service for James got under way, and the preacher went right into a serious sermon. We were all listening and looking for some shade as it was obviously going to be a while before he finished up. There was an older lady standing in front of me where I found some shade, and when the preacher finished his sermon, the signal was given to fire up a nicely restored front-engine Warren, Coburn, and Miller car on a nice load of nitro. This car was maybe 50 yards down the hill from us.

"The lady in front of me seemed to have no idea any of this was going to happen, and from her reaction, I doubt she had ever heard a fuel dragster in her life. When the car first lit, she about jumped out of her skin, but then she got into the deal and listened to it. When they switched it over to nitro and it started to hit harder, she didn't quite know what to think of it. Once she had gotten used to the nice cackle sound, they whacked the throttle, and she almost did a backflip! When the cackle was over, she turned around and looked me right in the eye and said something like, 'That is the most beautiful music I have ever heard; it's better than any song!'

Remembrances and photos of Warren kept pouring in after I published Friday's column, including a note from Noel Reese, who was part of the W-C-M crew in its 1960s and 1970s heyday.

Noel Reese included a clipping from his favorite race, the 1973 PDA event at OCIR, where James Warren beat Don Garlits in the final. In this Steve Reyes photo, from left, are Sid Waterman, Reese, Doug Kruse, C.J. Hart, the race queen, Warren, Bob Bradley, and Doug Kerhulas. "Oh, what a night!" remembered Reese.

"It’s been a few days since Roger’s daughter emailed me to let me know her Uncle James had died. (James was married to Roger’s sister Juanita)," he wrote. "All I’ve been able to think about was my last trip to Bakersfield to attend Roger’s funeral. His daughter, LeeAnn, had asked me to speak at his funeral. Being a pastor now, I am always hopeful to be able to share the love of God with someone. I saw many old friends at the graveside, and from there, we went to the fairgrounds for the reception. James’ wife, Juanita, shared with me that James was suffering from memory loss. He didn’t recognize me at first, then 10 minutes later was joking it up with me. Inside the auditorium, where lunch was to be served, the Miller boys asked if I would pray a blessing over the food and the gathering. As I was finishing, I heard the unmistakable thunder of a lit fueler outside. I went out to find they had fired up the restored front-engine car (the one I started with), with James behind the wheel, smiling, fingers over the ears, like he did hundreds of times in the past. It’s hard to believe it’s been 30 years since the last time I saw James behind the wheel. It was too much for me; I couldn’t take it and had to leave. I really loved these guys, their wives, kids, brothers, and sisters; it was one big family. Touring with them allowed me to mingle with the extended family (all the other racers). Oh man, was it a group of crazys! James and Roger, as so many have said, the gentle giants, and the traveling circus of wild performers during the '70s. I felt like I was standing between Abe Lincoln and Gary Cooper surrounded by the Little Rascals. I pray for the comfort of God for the families and friends of these guys. Yes they will leave a void, but there are a bunch of great young men and women stepping up to fill it. So, boys and girls, there are some big shoes to fill, do your best, be kind to everyone, give of yourselves, be humble, and be thankful that God has let us have so much fun!"

As a great segue from the Reyes winner's circle image above, I also heard from said Reyes, one of drag racing's all-time greatest photographers, who shared a couple of his favorite Warren photos. I really, really dig the photo above, showing the team's new midi at OCIR, flames streaming from the pipes, streaks of light portraying the speed and power. As dynamic as the shot is with all that, what really got my juices flowing was the shadow cast by the car from OCIR's lighting. You can clearly see not just the silhouette of the car but also of the flames. Magic stuff. The car at right, of course, is probably the car that brought them their first major fame, the front-engine Ridge Route Terrors machine with which Warren was runner-up to soon-to-shave Don Garlits in Indy in 1967 and carried the Terrors to victory at the 1968 Winternationals. Reyes' attachment to the team goes beyond the dragstrip. As many of you know, when Reyes – temporarily, thank goodness – hung up his drag racing/car-feature lenses, he began to shoot NHL hockey, especially the Los Angeles Kings. At Kings games, he often would see Marvin Miller and his grandkids, and they'd spend time before games chatting about the sport's golden days.

Yet another great longtime lensman, Don Gillespie, shared the photo above, showing Warren in the lights in Bakersfield in what he believes was 1983. "Moments before the shot, the announcer said this was to be Warren & Coburn's last-ever pass in competition ... ironically at Bakersfield," he said. "I can't vouch for the accuracy of that, but still, it's James at the wheel, flat-out across the stripe, all pipes still lit, at his and Roger's home track. The Ridge Route Terrors were the best of people at the perfect time in drag racing. RIP to another true hero!"

Bob Casper joined the photo fun with this wonderful shot of Warren at the wheel of that first rear-engine car, in what he thinks was December 1972. "I believe I took this shot at the Lions Last Drag Race, just a little before metafile data, but it is right around that time," he said. "The look in James' eyes, way cool, ready for another awesome ride into the darkness. Wayne King always tells me to do something with my shots, so here is James; he was one of my faves back then and a favorite shot to this day."

Right after I received Casper's email referencing former Top Fuel driver King, I got a note from "the Peregrine" himself (nicknamed by the master nicknamer himself, Ed Donovan) expressing his thoughts about Warren. "I had started writing to you many times before today, but the tears got in the way. Damn, I miss him and Roger; I cannot imagine what it's going to be like in October [at the California Hot Rod Reunion]. All of us Bakersfield boys have always had lunch together on Monday after the Reunion."

I also heard back from Cliff Morgan in reaction to the photo of Warren in the rear-engine car with just goggles protecting his face. "Ya know, that was not uncommon in the very first days of the back-motor cars," he remembered. "Lots of people thought, 'OK, the motor is behind me; if it blows up, no big deal.' They didn't realize that fire could come into the cockpit even in a rear-engine car, so just wearing goggles and no face mask didn't last long. I think maybe the drag racing associations of the time put a stop to that real quick. That really was an exciting time, to see the transition from front-engine to rear-engined Top Fuelers. It was like by mid-1971, back-motor cars were everywhere. I saw Jeb Allen get his license at Lions in a Woody back-motor car. I remember John Rodeck making his rear-engined debut (with a Chrysler) at OCIR. Also 'Snake' with that wedge car I loved so much. James Warren at Lions with the car you showed with the shorty body and a Sid Waterman 'elephant motor' (big change from the 392 they always ran) … all that in 1971. That was a wild year, topped by Garlits' unreal 6.21 at Indy. Sheesh, slow Pro Mods run 6.21 now, but back then, that was the run of the century. Well, it is fun to remember those things. I think I'm like a lot of guys out there -- what I wouldn't give to go back to Saturday night at Lions just one more time."

Steve Delgadillo dropped this photo by the office yesterday, which shows Warren at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum in February 2007 sitting in front of the iconic Garage Photo of him and Roger Coburn and their garage "shop."

And, finally, is this lament from East Coast racer Bob Lukas, which I really enjoyed. "Once again, the changing of the guard strikes; it is hitting my family (I am now the eldest), friends, and my beloved drag racing. Having been an East Coast drag racer, I pored over every racing newspaper and mag I could get with good tech articles: how to rebuild four-speeds, head work, blowers, etc., and National DRAGSTER could not come soon enough in the mail. I yearn for the grassroots racer, flat towing or simple trailers, no corporate money or multimember teams. No matter where you raced, there was always someone who might run better than you but was willing to help you run better. Being an 18-year-old kid with a Hilborn-injected gasser, there was always someone coming over with more experience, putting his hands on my engine and teaching me how to tweak it. I always wanted to get to the promised land (California) for a couple of summers to see and be with the gods. Never happened. Uncle Sam and starting a family took care of that, and now another great one passes on. At least I got to be with the ones who came east for match races and NHRA points meets. My condolences to the families that have lost."

OK, I am really, really ready to move on from all of this sadness and get back to great stories.