NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

Memories of James

20 May 2011
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

As expected, the news earlier this week of the passing of Top Fuel hero James Warren brought forth a sea of sorrow and a wave of nostalgia as fans and friends remembered the West Coast giant and mourned his passing.

A few times over the last couple of months, my sorrow and frustration at these losses and the ones that are sure to come keeps bubbling over and expressing itself in weird ways, as in the ending to Tuesday's column: "This sucks," I less than eloquently wrote.

Thank goodness then for readers like Charles Arford, who more beautifully stated what I think is on the minds and in the hearts of many of us and why it's so hard to see these legends leave us.

"I haven’t written to you in a while, but with the news I read today, I feel compelled because this has been on the back of my mind for quite some time now," he wrote. "We’re seeing a changing of the guard happening right before our eyes. I think we all knew these days would come, but I think we all just don’t want to admit it to ourselves that these days are here. Yes it is sad, but what a treat it was to have been at places like OCIR, Irwindale, Bakersfield, and Lions, to just name a few tracks, and watch these guys not only run but change the face of drag racing forever and set the standard for which all racers to come would have to live up to.

"It was a great time in our sport. No big corporate sponsors. No huge budgets. No multicar teams with crew chiefs and tons of guys to do the work for the drivers. We just knew the cars by their drivers or names on the side of the cars like Rain for Rent, Blue Max, Jungle Jim, Rambunctious, Brute Force, Stardust, and so on. All of these guys were their own crew chiefs, mechanics, and drivers, but more importantly, they were innovators, trying new and different things, and that’s why not every car looked the same. It was a great time to be here in SoCal, and sometimes I daydream and wish I could turn back the clock to watch these guys make one more run. Yeah, it sucks!"

Can I get an amen? Thanks, Charles.

Insider regular Mark Watkins offered a simpler take and posed an interesting question: "You have to wonder if a fuel team that had WCM's charisma and racer-to-the-core mentality could be successful today. I am dying to be a fan of a team of bare-knuckle racers again."

As hard as it may be to believe, I never even met James Warren. He was out of the cockpit before I became an insider, and I never caught up with him at the reunion or the March Meet to thank him for the memories, but a lot of you definitely knew or had met the man, and the impression he left upon you is about what I'd imagine.

Cindy Gibbs, who grew up around the heroes of our sport, was among the first to write. "I know these losses are never easy, but this one truly breaks my heart. I loved James so much; he was so sweet and kind and such a dear, dear friend. Watching him deteriorate this past year was so hard; I spoke with him a few months ago, and at first, he didn't even know me. After a few seconds, he 'woke up,' and I knew he was present. He and I used to sit and talk for hours; I loved his mild manner and was always struck by the fact that this was by far one of the most bad-ass Top Fuel drivers EVER, and yet his demeanor would never, ever tell you that. When Roger [Coburn] died, I was afraid James would be not far behind. At least they are back together now."

Cindy's dad, Steve, known far and wide to everyone who reads this column, also weighed in. "At a time when the passing of old friends has become frequent, I have become more and more accepting -- and hardened to the reality - that this is simply the way it is. When I heard of James’ death, however, it floored me. It has been my good fortune to have been involved with the greatest names in drag racing for over 50 years, and I can honestly say that James Warren was as good as there ever was … both personally and professionally. I will miss him immensely … as I do Roger and Marvin. The Ridge Route Terrors have left us with a legacy and a treasury of memories, for which I will be forever grateful."

Pat "Ma" Green, SoCal drag racing's well-loved "den mother," knew Warren well from her time helping run some of SoCal's great strips. "When I think of James, I think of a classy, humble man who never changed over the years," she said. "When I was doing credentials at Irwindale in the '70s, he and Roger would come up and let me know their wives would be coming later, and could they BUY some extra tickets -- they NEVER asked for freebies; I always GAVE them the extra tickets. They were the ONLY racers who ever did that! They are both sorely missed."

Vic Morse, who became better known later in his career as the driver of the Mister T Corvette Funny Car, was one of many Top Fuel drivers who feared the orange machine and shared this humorous tale. "In 1968 at the Fremont PDA meet, I was driving for Specialty Automotive out of Eugene, Ore.," he recalled. "We made it through the first round due to Bill Dunlap crashing and drew Warren and Coburn in the second round. As I was making the turnaround after push-start, the main steering tie rod end snapped. We had to shut off. Thank goodness, I avoided the humiliation of getting my ass whipped by the iconic James Warren. There is no replacement for these supermen of drag racing."

I wasn't at all surprised to hear from Cliff Morgan, one of SoCal's veteran racegoers and a regular column contributor. "I was saddened by the death of James Warren," he wrote. "I have a lot of memories of that team. One that sticks out was at Irwindale in the early '70s, at one of the Division 7 points races (when they used to run Top Fuel and Funny Car). They had qualified well as usual, and James was lying on top of the trailer and watching qualifying from the pits. It was like 'Who is gonna be runner-up to these guys?' They won the race, and James ran a 5.99 to win, which was a big deal at the time, especially at Irwindale. I also remember that James drove a real short small-block Chevy rear-engine car in the late '50s that didn't go too straight. Sigh. RIP, James."

Larry Solger sent this great pic that he snapped at Sacramento Raceway when the RRT unveiled its first rear-engine car. This look, with the partial body panels, was sometimes referred to as a "midi," originations unknown. Maybe it came from the engines being middle-mounted in the chassis (because, let's face it, they’re not really rear-engined in as much as the engine's not sitting over the rear end, no more than a front-engine car has the powerplant over the front. Truth be told, I'd guess that the engine-to-rear-end measurement might have been fairly close between the two designs, no?). Anyway, it was popular because it allowed fans to still see that this was a "rail job," and the lack of full bodywork had to be lighter and easier/faster to build and maintain.

Alan Davidson grew up in Bakersfield, so he saw a lot of the town's most famous drag racers. He sent two photos, one of the car above, that he shot at the 1972 Winternationals, and the one below of the more famous car, the full-bodied car with the wheel pants that ran beginning in 1973. (Could be the same car for all I know.) Anyway, since you've already seen the midi, I cropped really closely into that pic to show Warren behind the wheel. What I find very interesting is that he's wearing an open-face helmet with goggles and no other facial protection. It certainly looks as if he's about to run the car, but I can’t imagine he made too may runs like this. Later photos of the same car show him wearing a full-face helmet. The photo below was taken at the 1973 March Meet and shows Coburn tuning on the car and the team's iconic station wagon in the background.

Talk about a brush with greatness. Few stories could top this one from reader Marc Holmes: "When I was a youngster, I used to hitchhike from Pomona with my friends Mickey and Tim to Irwindale to see the races. One time in the pits, and this was back when you literally could reach out and touch your heroes, Mr. Warren was doing something on the car and turned around quickly and accidentally hit me in the head with his elbow. I stumbled back, knowing I was at fault for being in his way. He looked down at me for a second (both he and Roger Coburn seemed like they were 8 feet tall), saw the terror in my eyes, and then asked me if I wanted to sit in the Rain for Rent dragster. Few events in my life have matched that moment."

"I am 49 and can relate well to what you write about when referring to the past, whether it is about Batman or James Warren," wrote Mark F. Brown, referencing in part a recent column I wrote about childhood heroes in National DRAGSTER. "My memories of [Warren and Coburn] are vivid, but only from the rear-engine days. Wasn’t there a picture of him in the lights, on fire, with some of the wheels off the ground? I think it had front wheel skirts also." The shot he's referring to is above, a splendid image captured by Hall of Fame photog Barry Wiggins in Tulsa, Okla., during the 1973 PRO meet. For some reason, I only have the black and white version of this; I'm pretty sure I remember a dazzling color version occupying the center spread of every racing magazine that year. And while the tire is not off the ground, it is severely distorted. I remember seeing this way back then, and it was the first time I'd seen the tire distortion that today is so well-known and regularly photographed.

Another great photo veteran, Jere Alhadeff, sent me two of his favorite Warren photos and reminisced about the team. "Both James and Roger were good people," he wrote. "I remember being at Lions one Saturday afternoon, and they announced over the PA that Warren and Coburn had been stuck for several hours while the old Grapevine was closed due to snow. However, they had just called, and the road was now open, and they should be there in a couple of hours, which was after qualifying should be over. C.J. [Hart, track operator] told them that they could unload the car as soon as they got there and make one late qualifying run. Naturally, everyone in the stands cheered, and they did qualify when they got there. Attached are a couple of my favorite Warren and Coburn photos. The front-engined car I believe was the one that originally had a Chevrolet engine and was taken at Stardust in Las Vegas. The rear-engined Woody car is from our beloved OCIR." I really dig the OCIR photo, with the pipes cackling white-hot, the starburst effect on the night lighting ... lots of memories there.

Mike Harris remembered, "My dad took my brother and me to our first drag race at the 1968 Winternationals. I can still hear Bernie Partridge talking about the Ridge Route Terrors' first NHRA national event win and how happy the rest of the racers were for them. My brother and I were hooked and began going to the many SoCal tracks for Top Fuel shows. We saw them win many times at Lions, Irwindale, and Orange County. We would always gravitate toward that orange trailer in the pits. You could not have found a more low-key, nicer group of guys. James and Roger were gentle giants and always willing to talk to a kid filled with awe.

"I witnessed their three-in-a-row wins at the March Meet in '75-77, and each time, it seemed like all of Bakersfield was there to cheer the orange car home. The huge roar that accompanied them each time they pushed down from the top end got louder by each of the five rounds. The poster you showed when Roger died of the two of them in their garage is a true classic; it said it all. Please run it again. Ironic but sad that the two died within six months of each other, but  James Warren driving the Rain for Rent Special and the Ridge Route Terrors will live forever in the annals of drag racing. Rest in peace, James." At right is that famous Jon Asher photo, and here’s a link to the tale of that photo that Asher shared here earlier this year.

J. D. Culbertson wrote, "My dad and I used to follow WCM in the 1960s. I was just a kid, 10 to 15 years of age. My dad talked and got along with both James and Roger and once appeared in Drag News sitting with Roger on the tailgate of their station wagon at the Hot Rod magazine meet in Riverside. I was a shy kid and was afraid to talk to my idol James. That ended a few years ago at Pomona when I mustered up the courage to talk to him; it was a very special moment for me. My fondest memory was at the U.S. Fuel and Gas Championships in Bakersfield (where else?) on Sunday. Before the final round, they had to borrow an engine (I think from Warren and Crowe), and then went out and won the 32-car field. After that final round, they once again had to borrow an engine to face the Surfers for the overall championship. They lost the overall championship, but the chaos between rounds and help they received from fellow racers was a tribute to the family atmosphere that is so much a part of drag racing. I will miss them both. The memories will always be near as that great photo, from their garage, sits framed above the desk in my office."

Bill Gathings sent this great photo of Warren, center, at last year's Winternationals, flanked by Frank Hinmon, left, owner of the restored Warren-Coburn-Miller rear-engine dragster, and Top Fuel racer/engine builder John Rodeck, and added, "I was so sorry to read about James; he remains my favorite all-time. I saw him occasionally at Famoso but didn't get much of a chance to talk to him. Oddly, the last time we saw him was at the Dragfest last year; he seemed really eager to talk and get to know us a bit. My best memory of W&C was at the 1976 division meet at OCIR; they were in the final against the Battleborn car. At the time, they were locked in a tight race for the Winston championship that year and really needed the points from the win to stay in the lead. It was a packed house, with everyone on their feet for the final. After the burnouts, his opponent [Gary Cornwell] couldn't get their car to back up. Despite badly needing the win, Warren chose to only pre-stage and waited and waited as long as possible for his opponent's crew, who were trying everything to get it fixed. Only when they finally gave up and waved him on, he then took a thundering single down the track. It was a great display of sportsmanship, the kind that made him a favorite of so many people."

Barrie Windell shared this great story of the early James Warren. "It was in a little motel in Tacoma, Wash., summer 1965. Clark Marshall had a booked-in Top Fuel north/south show at Puyallup; me and 'the 'Goose,' maybe two of the only guys left out of that trip. I was there with [John] Mulligan, in the Adams & Wayre car. James won the program. It was way after dark on Sunday night, sitting around the motel room, dry county, and James was actually pissed that he had won $1,500 and couldn't even buy a beer. No worries; promoter came up with a few cases of beer. Fun guys, James and Roger."

The loss of Warren certainly transcends California and even this nation. British reader Neil Marks commented, "Although I never saw him in action, he is at least partly responsible for my 32 -year addiction to drag racing. As a teenager, I had a huge poster of an early-'70s version of the Rain for Rent special on my bedroom wall. It was a terrific burnout shot, all smoke and red-orange hues, and that image burned itself so deeply into my 15-year-old brain that I knew one day I would have to make my first visit to a dragstrip. It took another two or three years before I managed that but haven't missed a year since 1979. I hope Mr. Warren's family can take some solace from the fact that he must have inspired many people, both inside and outside of his own country, to get involved in the sport he loved."

As I mentioned earlier this week, we've had some W-C-M stuff in this column previously. After Coburn's passing, I put together this column, with scenes from Coburn's memorial and other great W-C-M stuff; in April 2008, former Top Fuel driver and W-C-M crewmember "Nitro Noel" Reese gave us this behind-the-scenes look at the team; and the second half of this column includes some of your personal memories and photos of the team.
Thanks for sharing. Farewell, James. Thanks from all of us.