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Open for business, again

09 Aug 2011
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

As any of you who have been around this cantina for any length of time full know, it’s as much your own memorable morsel as the main course that I serve up that makes this column the popular potluck it has become.

Despite me hanging out the Closed sign on the food-at-the-drags thread, apparently I cleared the table a little too quickly because you guys weren’t quite finished, and because several of you still had delicious details to share – and because my momma taught me it’s polite to share – looks like I’ll open it up for another round of memories. Some of them are kind of long, and I’ll just run them one after another until you’ve had your fill.

Sky Wallace, brother of longtime drag racing journalism guru Dave, was among those drag fans who got their first taste of the digs from the business side of the concession stands, his at another fabled SoCal strip, San Fernando Raceway.

“I spent some time working in the trailer-type snack stand that was parked in the hot pits at the Pond, circa 1967-68,” he said. “Howard Stevenson was the concessions owner, and after giving up my career as Drag News/Drag Sport Illustrated/Drag World salesman (due to allergies that were fired off by wandering through the weeds in front of the cars parked above the hot pits) and stints at both the hot-pit (the best for spectating and racer schmoozing) and main-pit gates, he asked me to work for him.

“I quickly found out that working the main snack stand sucked, as I could only see the cars launch, but after a few months, he asked if I wanted to work the trailer, and I jumped at the chance. He also asked if I could drive a stick, as the pickup used to haul the trailer to and from the hot pits was so equipped, so of course I said, ‘Sure!’ although, at age 14, I had never been behind the wheel of anything.

“Luckily, it was a four-speed with a granny gear, so it was really hard to stall when getting it rolling, and I had watched enough folks driving sticks to have the basic shifting concept down. The first couple of weeks, ‘Steve’ hooked the trailer to the truck and would drive it down, unhook it, bring the truck back to the main snack bar, and at the end of the day, he'd drive the truck to the trailer and hook it up, and away we went.

"The good news is that he would crank the wheel and stab the throttle to turn the truck into position to get it outta there after unhooking in the morning and again for the afternoon hookup, scattering dirt and gravel in the process ... once he figured I was competent to take care of the trailer transport myself, I felt compelled to continue that tradition, which was also great slide-the-ass-end driver's training for this punk kid ...

"I had to cook the hot dogs and burgers upon request, but being allergic to onions (which were dried, to be reconstituted with hot water) and avoiding them as much as possible, I never bothered to put them on anything unless requested by the customers, which included all of the heavy hitters.

“Unfortunately, as attendance (and business) declined, he discontinued using the trailer, and I was back in the main snack stand until the place closed ..."

How good were the In-N-Out-based burgers at Irwindale? Steve Morse, whose brother Vic used to drive the Mister T Funny Cars of the late 1960s, remembered one night in the mid-1970s at Irwindale with his brother. “We had gone up for a 16-car Top fuel show (which I’m sure James Warren won), and as we were walking from little end to big and back on the pit side, every time we passed by that stand, we ate a cheeseburger; I counted 10 each!! Vic thinks I suffer from the fish-was-that-big syndrome, but I swear 20 burgers were purchased.”

Jim Moriarty’s tale from the ‘Dale was a little less appetizing. “I was in high school back in the early ‘70s. My buddies and I would go to Irwindale on the weekends. I bought a hot dog and walked over to the condiment table to add a little mustard to my dog. I noticed that the pump/lid was askew. Just as I reached for the pump, a frog jumped out all covered with mustard. It took several years before I put mustard on a dog again.”

Jeff Foulk, of Finagler Funny Car fame, couldn’t resist chipping in. “I envy you West Coast guys, at least on this one subject,” he wrote. “Here on the East Coast, back in the day, dragstrip food was something to be avoided, at risk of your life. It was all uniform: It all sucked! Fortunately, I was rarely hungry on race day.”

Others weighed in with their favorites, both at and away from the racetrack.

“There’s a vendor at Pomona behind the grandstands who makes the best meatloaf sandwich I’ve ever had; served on garlic toast, it’s bad to the bone,” weighed in “Berserko Bob” Doerrer. “Maple Grove also makes a really good fried bologna sandwich. I like it with ketchup, mustard, and pickle relish.

“When in Gainesville, everybody raves about Sonny’s Bar-B-Q (which is a Southern chain), but there’s a vendor at the track whose pulled-pork barbecue is equal to the best barbecue joints in North Carolina. With about a half-dozen sauces available, I eat there every time I go to the Gators. Last but not least, the best dragstrip lemonade is at Atlanta Dragway. It's available at vending kiosks throughout the pits; the lemons are squeezed right in front of you, and it’s made fresh when ordered. A plus is that they always have cute babes working the lemonade stands. Send me a Double-Double will ya?”

David Michelsen, who has been going to the Gatornationals since 1978 and had his share of Sonny’s, remembers that in the 1980s, it was Skeeter's, “Home of the Big Biscuit,” that packed ‘em in, especially at breakfast.

“I always went there for breakfast, and the place was always packed with drivers and crews,” he said. “The pancakes were as big as the plates, and the biscuits were huge. One of my all-time highlights was opening the door to go in, and out walks Gary Beck, who at the time was the national record holder and I believe defending national champ. Skeeter's closed its doors years ago, but I bet almost any racer that was around in the ‘80s and early ‘90s will fondly remember it.”

I can definitely attest to his memories as in 1984, when I rode to the Gatornationals from California with Beck and the Larry Minor team – for a memorable cross-country first-person story for National DRAGSTER – it was Skeeter's every morning.

Alan Collums is another Sonny’s fan. “I was happy that you mentioned Sonny’s Bar-B-Q in Gainesville,” he wrote. “In 1974, my brother Jerry took me to my first Gatornationals. I was 16 at the time and had never ever seen that many race cars. We didn’t have much big-time drag racing going on in Mississippi, so to see that many race cars in one place, I was on sensory overload to be sure. This was back in the day when all the cars left the track at night, and we would cruise the hotel parking lots to see who was out working on their cars. We went to Sonny’s after Saturday qualifying, and as we were waiting for our food, I suddenly turned around and started looking out the window at the parking lot. Jerry asked me what was wrong, and I said I heard a fuel engine in the parking lot and that somebody must be working on a car right there at Sonny’s. He started laughing at me and pointed out that what I heard was actually the guy in the booth behind me stirring his glass of iced tea! I promise you the sound of someone stirring sugar into a plastic glass of iced tea sounded just like a cackling fuel engine! This story has a happy ending. Along about 1978, we got our very own Sonny’s in Jackson and now have two locations. Sonny’s remains a favorite of mine.

“I’d like to add Ethel’s Seafood in Baton Rouge. It was owned by two brothers and was named for their mother. Neil worked the floor, and his brother took care of the kitchen. Ethel’s was a favorite during the Baton Rouge divisional race, the Cajun Nationals, and the Division 4 Bracket Championships. The thing I liked most about going to Ethel’s was that besides the Cajun and creole food being so good, Neil would walk around and visit with everyone. It didn’t matter if you were Darrell Gwynn, John Force, Bob Glidden, or Alan Collums, Neil was just as happy to see me and my fellow Sportsman racers as he was the Pros. He treated everyone the same. He would come to the track during the daytime and walk around to visit with everyone. They had hundreds of race car pictures on the walls of the restaurant, and Neil would make you autograph yours when you gave it to him. For us guys who seldom got autograph requests, this was a big deal. Ethel’s was also a big favorite of Eddie and Ercie Hill’s. Neil had a few broken parts mounted on the wall, and one in particular was a gigantic valve from a cylinder head that must have been from some sort of huge diesel engine or something. Underneath the valve was a sign that read, ‘Eddie told Fuzzy he used the wrong size valve!’ Unfortunately, without the big race weekends, Ethel’s went the way of the Cajun Nationals and closed just a few years after the Cajun Nats left town.”

Don Burt, whose memories of Lions were topped by helping on his friend’s green altered-wheelbase B/A '55 Chevy, the Rat's Sass, also had plenty to say about the concessions. “The tamales and chili are also great memories,” he noted. “Alex's tamales and about 75 percent fat brick chili. I liked mine smothered with raw onion. They also gave little packs of saltine crackers. I could eat a tray full in the afternoon and still taste it at midnight on the way home. They also provided a lot of exercise for your arm, rolling down the windows every few minutes.”

Count “Chicago Jon” Hoffman among those who crave the fresh donuts in Indy, but he admits that his concession stories are limited. “I suppose the reason I don't have a wealth of food stories is that I don't have a lot of ... wealth!” he admitted. “Tickets, gas, camping -- suffice it to say that there’s been a lot of PB&J through the years. Indy this year will be no exception, but I always had those special ‘Indy extras’; there had to be money for an event shirt, a pin, getting DRAGSTER from that guy (who had nothing on P.T. Barnum) working out of a station wagon, 1,000-foot east side, the donuts, you had to, HAD TO, get your program from the elderly gentleman who wore the gigantic sombrero, and, here it comes, the forerunner of a popular dessert treat at Wendy’s: a frosty malt, and, like the program guy, you had to buy it from this great guy who always wore a red and white vendor smock (that didn't fit altogether well!) and called out the familiar phrase, ‘FRAAHHHSSSIE MAHLLLT!’ Someone once told me the vendors got paid on how much they moved, so I always rooted for sombrero guy and smock guy and as such only bought from them."

And finally, from Tommy Naccarato comes this Texas-sized tale involving “Diesel Louie” Force, brother of the 15-time champ, and the famous Big Texan Steak Ranch restaurant in Amarillo, Texas, home of the free 72-ounce steak – if you can eat it in an hour. I first learned of this place while reading Drag Racing USA’s coverage of the 1972 World Finals (funny how you remember these things) but didn’t know a lot of details about the requirements to complete “the deal.”

I wasn’t able to track down Louie – who is “far crazier than John by a rather great margin,” according to Naccarato -- to verify the story you’re about to read, but Naccarato did say that Louie would verify the details (more or less), so, in the tradition of good ol’ bench racing where no one lets the facts get in the way of a great story, here we go …

“Louie was there with Gene Beaver and a few others from the Condit-Beaver-Force clan after racing at Amarillo. When they told Louie, an infamous and notorious eater, that they had a steak that if you ate it all you got it for free, he wanted all of that! Of course, at the time in the ‘70s, in typical Force fashion, he didn't have the money to pay for it either! Louie being Louie, he ordered it.

"Now at the Big Texan, purportedly (I haven't had the good fortune to experience this place but have heard a lot of drag racer tales about it), to get the 72-ounce steak for free, you had to:

• Eat a shrimp cocktail
• Eat the entire dinner-sized salad (with dressing of choice)
• Eat the 72-ouncer with all of its helpings, including baked potato and bread

"As a reward for eating those portions of the meal, you were given a strawberry shortcake for dessert that had to also be finished in under one hour. The dessert portion of the meal became extra important to Louie, and he said, ‘Not a problem!’ Gene Beaver, in fear of not being able to pay for the steak, told him, ‘Louie, this thing has to be completed, or you’re going to be washing dishes!’ Louie told his waitress, who was dressed in typical Big Texas garb, to bring it on!

“After the salad and shrimp cocktail, Louie was ready to get to work when the 72- ouncer arrived. I've been to places that have done the same -- like Saylor's Country Kitchen in Beaverton, Ore. -- and you can't believe just how big the steak is! Well, when they delivered it to the table, Louie sort of started getting scared, or maybe it was Beaver, who probably had ideas of dining and dashing running through his head. When 25 minutes had passed, Louie wasn't anywhere near completed. The waitress, seeing this, walked up to him and told him, ‘Listen, honey, you finish that, and I'll give you a double helping of strawberry shortcake!’ From the Big Texan point of view, she made a huge error.

"Louie, now challenged, reached for a bottle of Worcestershire sauce that was on the table, opened it up, and took off the sprinkle top and proceeded to drink the entire bottle -- to help lubricate the steak he was about to shove down his mouth. Mind you that Worcestershire sauce is primarily made of sodium, or some great amount of the stuff. Louie not only devoured the steak but made it with two minutes to spare and got his double helping of strawberry shortcake. Gene Beaver was spared the humility of having to tell them that they would repay for the steak by check or other -- who knows, maybe even in L.A. Hooker T-shirts, but on the way out, they took a picture of Louie, got into the crew cab, and left, only to stop down the street to fill up for the ride to the next stop. Louie went inside the convenience store of the gas station and came out with a bottle of Bubble-Up and two candy bars because he was parched from drinking the Worcestershire sauce, which he said tasted like it was liquid salt.

"The next year, it was either Beaver, Steve Plueger, or Steve Condit who went to the Big Texan, and sure enough, up on the wall was a picture of Louie with a sign under it that said ‘King of the 72 ouncer’ alongside that of a short and thin older lady who polished the thing down in like 25 minutes. Hopefully others will have Big Texan stories to share of their own. A pretty popular place!”

The Big Texan has a pretty cool website, which includes live webcams of the stage where those who take the challenge try to complete the meal, and there’s also a list of everyone who has ever completed the challenge, so I went looking for “Diesel Louie’s” name so I could put a date and a year on this story and maybe see if I spied other famous drag racing names on the list from when NHRA held the Finals in Amarillo, 1971-73. Unfortunately, anything from before 1976 was destroyed by the fire and the records from 1991 back were damaged by water in a sprinkler-system accident, so the list is incomplete (those who still have their certificates can get their name added back to the list, which is now computerized, but I’m sure that, based on its previous history, the restaurant probably will soon experience a hard-drive failure).

Even with the truncated list, there are more than 2,200 names (2,263 to be exact) of those who chowed down and made it through to the other side. The record is 10 minutes — which somehow doesn’t seem possible – set by 300-pound David “Huey” Lowe Aug. 3, 2002. I’d say that kids should make sure they keep their fingers away from Huey’s mouth at all times.

OK, so there you have it. The final (I think) drag food extravaganza. Thanks to everyone for playing, and pass the Pepto-Bismol, please.