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Open houses, early chutes, and finals gone wrong

16 Sep 2011
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

As I knew it would, Tuesday’s column about early shutoffs elicited a few more head-slapping incidents of drivers lifting too soon or woofing the chute prematurely. So let’s take a look at a few more prime examples, then we’ll expose a little sleight-of-camera trickery foisted upon us and other good stuff.

Before we get into all of that though, I wanted to alert you to the upcoming open house at Don Prudhomme's Vista, Calif., shop, Saturday, Nov. 5. It's the first time in 10 years that "the Snake" has opened his doors to the public, so it's a can't-miss affair. The open house is in tribute to Prudhomme's 50th anniversary in the sport in 2012 and precedes by a week the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals in Pomona.

In addition to finally getting your chance to see the restored yellow and red Hot Wheels ramp trucks together, “the Snake" will have his entire collection of cars on display as well as the Shelby Super Snake from the NHRA Museum. They also are working to secure other notable nostalgia/cackle cars.

There will be an autograph session with “the Vipe” his own bad self and, knowing his extensive collection of chums, probably quite a few other big names on hand. There will be some very cool door prizes from Prudhomme’s personal collection (word is they might even include an original embroidered, race-team-worn uniform shirt) and all kinds of other great stuff. The fun goes from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Point your GPS units to 1232 Distribution Way in Vista, and I’ll see you there!

Now on with the column ...

Christopher Clough, who writes the Out in the Marbles motorsports blog for the Green Bay Press Gazette, cited the 1977 Springnationals, where Eddie Pauling threw the chute too soon in round two against Bob Pickett, and passed along the photographic proof, courtesy of the Pop Hot Rod Drag Racing Yearbook. You can actually see Pauling's hand reaching up for the chute lever and the chute just exiting the pack. My records show that Pickett won the race, on a holeshot, 6.217 to 6.213, and the speeds -- 228.42 for Pickett’s Mickey Thompson/U.S. Marines Starfire to Pauling’s tailing-off 198.67-- also seem to bear out the drastic effect that the blossomed chute had on his performance. Pickett went on to beat Billy Meyer in the semifinals and Prudhomme in the final, 6.22 to 6.26, to claim his first of two national event wins.

“Chicago Jon” Hoffman also had an example and his own photo to illustrate Tim Grose’s first-round loss to Frank Hawley and the Chi-Town Hustler at the 1984 U.S. Nationals. “Of course, me being a Division 3 guy, you know the cast of characters I'm gonna be rooting for, and going into round one, there was the matchup of Tim Grose, who was already in a tough weekend, having torn up his main body on Thursday, up against Frank Hawley,” he wrote. “Now, you, me, and the fly on the wall all expected the Chi-Town boys to dispense with Tim, but as they were coming downtrack, there was a ‘Do my eyes deceive me?’ feeling, and as you can see from the way I was focused, I was anticipating Frank to bag this one, but with Grose pulling away, I dropped the hammer. Ours is a sport of thousandths of a second, and as I snapped, the ol' brain bucket went, "WAIT!?!?.” Pulling my rig from my face, sure enough, with the win in the bag, poor Tim was like that skier dude on the Wide World of Sports opening montage: The agony of defeat.”

Hoffman also said he has some 8mm film of Prudhomme “almost blowing the second round” at the 1974 U.S. Nationals to Al Bergler, which National DRAGSTER’s coverage verifies. Prudhomme got out to a good lead against “the Tin Man,” then shut off early and won, 6.437 to 6.439. That doesn’t take into account reaction times (not given then), but it was probably closer than “the Snake” wanted.

Hmm, no camera on the cage, different throttle linkage, different injectors, different breathers. Yeah, not the same car.

The Hurst Performance-produced video clip that I shared drew an interesting note from Bruce Dyda, who said that the filmmakers played it quite fast and loose with the Top Fuel final-round footage that seemed to feature on-car footage from Prudhomme’s winning entry. It was, in fact, according to Dyda, footage shot earlier in the event on Don Garlits’ car.

“Love those old videos, especially when the camera shot ‘Snake’ leaving and how the car magically turns into Garlits,” he chortled. “ ‘Snake’ has an Enderle injector, and the run shows a Crower hat. Garlits was the only one I know of that used a Crower injector. Well, they are both named Don, so I guess it’s all good. Other points (as if it really matters): ‘Snake’ had a spoiler plate on the front axle, round breathers, and a Don Long throttle linkage. Gar had a front wing, cast aluminum breathers, and direct link from pedal to injector. Some say I need glasses.”

If you review the video (go ahead; I’ll wait), you can clearly see what he’s talking about and, in hindsight, also note that in the full shots of Prudhomme’s car, you also can clearly see that there’s no camera mounted on the cage. Another myth debunked by the Insider Nation.

While he had my rapt attention, Dyda also asked, “Wasn’t there an issue with Larry Minor and Gary Beck at Bakersfield where Gary broke something and slowed down, and when Minor, in the other lane, realized it, it was too late and won, and Gary lost some championship points?”

Mostly right, except that it happened at the 1983 Cajun Nationals. Team owner Minor wasn’t really running for points but nonetheless had showed himself to be a capable pilot and not just some rich-guy owner living out his fantasy (Minor, of course, had been very successful in sand drag racing before switching to asphalt).

Beck and Minor qualified on opposite sides of the eight-car ladder, Beck with his usual No. 1 at 5.582 (low e.t.) and Minor No. 6 with a 5.73. Minor, in just his fourth event in Top Fuel, beat Jody Smart in round one and Gene Snow in round two; Beck had it considerably tougher in getting past Richard Tharp and Shirley Muldowney.

Larry Minor, near lane, was a reluctant winner against teammate Gary Beck in the 1983 Cajun Nationals Top Fuel final.

It made no points sense for Minor to beat Beck – even though Beck had beaten him in their two previous matchups that season – but when the light turned green, everything went out the window. Beck’s mount tossed the blower belt and Minor shut off, then did everything but yank the brake handle out of its mounting trying to let powerless Beck around him. He failed and took the win with an 8.73 at 63.42 mph to Beck’s 8.95 at a slightly faster 85.46. Insider pal Henry Walther was on the Beck/Minor team then, so I asked for his memories, which he was happy to share.

“As I recall, there was no 'prearranged' winner deal going into the run,” he said, “but there may have been an 'unspoken understanding.’ Not far into that run, Gary shucked the blower belt off of the engine, and it knocked the body panel alongside the engine off of the car. It went under the tire, and that pretty well sealed the outcome. Out of power, out of traction, out of collecting the winner's points. Minor was behind at the time all of this happened, and as he shot past Beck, it took him a moment to realize that he was about to rob his own championship-contending car of some valuable points. Larry, you will remember, was only running sporadic events and not chasing the points as Beck was. When Minor woke up to that realization, he started grabbing a handful of brake, but it was too late; he couldn't get it whoa'ed down enough to let Gary coast back around him. As it turned out, our team car, which was the second-quickest car on the circuit in 1983, proved to be one of the toughest competitors we had to beat to win the championship.”

Beck went on to win the championship anyway, by a comfortable 2,000-plus points (10 rounds) over Joe Amato, and Minor finished eighth despite a short schedule. Beck ran 15 of the year’s 16 quickest e.t.s, with only Tharp’s fifth-quickest 5.44 between Beck’s 5.391 and 5.513 string; Minor also ran 5.513.

OK, that’s it for today. All eyes now focus on Charlotte and the opening of the Countdown playoffs, the first of three straight weekends of pressure-packed Full Throttle action. I’ll be heading next Thursday to Dallas for stop two, so Tuesday’s column will be the only one next week. I’ll see ya then.