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Second helpings

02 Aug 2011
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider
Yeah, and they have pretty cool t-shirts, too ...

Friday’s "Food for Thought” column about dragstrip delicacies may have been the main course, but plenty of other cheeseburger-crazed members of the Insider Nation decided that the entrée needed a little dessert.

In-N-Out, naturally, was a topic of much discussion, but I also was able to verify through Steve Gibbs that the burger chain did include flyers for upcoming Irwindale events with their food, at least during Gibbs’ tenure there (1966-68). Gibbs not only delivered the artwork to the stores but also did the artwork!

Pat “Ma” Green, who also worked at the ‘Dale in its heyday, added, “When we had a big race, the concession receipts were almost as big as the gate receipts. I know some racers who used to have two or more Double-Doubles during an event. Best racetrack food I ever had!”

Her praise certainly was not a lone voice.

Terry Spencer, whom I first met back in the mid-1990s when we were both part of the pioneering Drag Racers Forum chat on AOL, remembered, “As a kid who grew up in the SGV [San Gabriel Valley], my parents would take us to In-N-Out #2 on San Bernardino Road in Baldwin Park for burgers before going on to the Edwards Drive-In for a movie. When I got older and started going to Irwindale and got one whiff of the savory smells coming from that concession stand, I knew it was an old, familiar culinary call. I later learned as you pointed out that Harry Snyder was an owner of the track, so it made sense. One thing that has also been a hallmark of In-N-Out is the fact that they pay their workers far more than the average fast-food outfit does. Harry’s theory was that if he was going to have 18-year-olds running his stores, he wanted the best 18-year-olds out there. The drags have always been about the senses, and it would never be complete without the requisite mix of nitro (of course) and rubber, amazing sound, and all the various odors coming from the food vendors, all mixed together in a glorious feast for those of us who will never get it out of our blood.”

Former SoCal resident Drew Hierwarter added, “At the time, I never realized why those Irwindale burgers were so good, but now I know! We left SoCal for Tennessee five years ago, and to this day, I only miss two things: the beach and In-N-Out!”

Howard Hull, who worked at Orange County Int’l Raceway for years, was there when Bill Doner brought the In-N-Out expertise to OCIR. “[At the time], the only good burger we had in the OC was Wendy’s, so Steve Evans [Doner’s partner and, yes, the hall of fame announcer/TV guy] took me up to work a drag race at Irwindale that next weekend. He bought me a couple of In-N-Outs. Now this 16-year-old water polo player loved to eat, and I’ll tell you what, it was heaven. In short time, we were using the Irwindale setup at OCIR, and at the first big race, we pretty much ran out of food! That good! We would do the prep just like the In-N-Out stores. What fun it was as we would run the grills full bore all night long as the crowds would line up after the fuel cars would finish each round!”

Hull also provided details about the Nitro/Super Gas Nachos that Jerry Hurd and I raved about. “That was Carrera Concessions, Larry Vaughan’s company, that had the original food deal in the beginning and created the recipe,” recalled Hull. “As an 11-year-old, I would get all of the ingredients in a box, and I had to open the cans and mix them into a large pot and combine them on the stove around 9 a.m. and let it simmer and cook. The tortilla guy from Santa Ana [Calif.] would come by and drop off boxes of the tortillas cut into triangles, and we would deep fry them all night long and pour sauce on them. They were great on a cold, damp night for sure.”

The great Lions photos provided by Don Gillespie sparked more memories from his fellow Lions concession-stand employee Stephen Justice, who worked there for the Taylor family.

“I have two photos to share: one courtesy of Don Ewald and the other from my collection. The shot of Ronnie and Jeep Hampshire was taken in 1965 and shows the tower-side stand in the background. It was immediately below the stands to the north and not really visible in Don’s photo. I worked that stand a few times, and although one could not see the actual race, the Top Fuel dragsters would stop directly in front of the stand while the engine guy went through his pre-run checks. How about a 1,500-horsepower Top Fuel dragster cackling just a few feet away! The colorful mobile concession truck shown in the other photo came after I left in 1966. I believe the food dispensed from that ‘meat wagon’ was a subject of much scorn.

“Harry Taylor had three children: Eric, Butch, and Pam,” he remembered. “Blanche was married to Harry’s oldest son (Eric). Butch was a contemporary of Tom McEwen and, like McEwen, a graduate of Long Beach Poly High School. Pam was a very attractive blonde and the object of much lust among the young male workers. In Blanche’s photo, one can see that the main concession stand consisted of two sections: the left side served hot dogs and tamales and chili; the right side, hamburgers and popcorn. In the aerial shot (previous column; see below), it is easy to see that I had an unimpeded view of the dragstrip. Note the fire-up lanes between the spectator fence and the track. Before the rollers, the dragsters would push down, fill the lane, and await their turn to push onto the track to fire up. I believe the original idea was to fill one lane and use the other to fire up. But, in the end, the race cars pushed onto the track to fire up. Amazingly, there was never an incident between those staged dragsters waiting to run and a runaway race car."

And, naturally, praise also was sung for other great food at other great dragstrips.

“I loved the article, but if we are on the subject of great track food, there was only two words needed: Hemi Burger!” announced Bob Smith. “The burgers at Fremont were and are still the best I have ever had. Come to think of it, the criss-cut fries were unbeatable also. Jim McLennan was responsible for the Hemi Burger, as I was told by his son, Bobby, the current Nostalgia Top Fuel world champion crew chief."

Hank Schneider weighed in: “My favorites at Indy have always been sausage sandwiches and lemon shake-ups, but I always loved the corn on the cob stand manned by the local nursing school students. At US 30 in Gary, Ind., my favorite was grilled ham and cheese on the intake manifold and BBQ chitlins that tasted like Canadian Bacon after marinating overnight. The best thing at Broadway Bob's Great Lakes Drag-a-way was the cold Old Style on tap!”

Former NHRA southeast advisor and photographer Eddie Vidrine admits that the concession-stand food at his local haunt, Phenix City Dragstrip in Alabama, was “not all that memorable” but did have great memories of another Phenix City legend.

“Pritchett's Kitchenette was a catfish place in town that everybody went to on Friday or Saturday night when the NHRA Division 2 race was being held in the late 1960s,” he recalled. “When you went in the front door, you looked right into the kitchen at what looked like 15 deep-fat fryers. When your number was called, your group was directed down a hallway into your own private dining room. The dinner was served family-style with pans of catfish and fries, bowls of slaw and hushpuppies, onions, pickles, iced tea. When you emptied a pan or bowl, you would walk to the door and flip a switch to turn on a light bulb out in the hallway. An employee would come a'runnin' to get your request for a refill. Again and again. I recall that Danny Ongais ate there, and every time he saw [former NHRA Safety Safari member] Jim Frizzell in later years, they would talk about eating at Pritchett's. That place did well when the racers came to town.”

Speaking of catfish, I remember the Catfish Plantation restaurant in Waxahachie, Texas, that was a longtime favorite of the NHRA crew that went annually to the event at Texas Motorplex. The place, originally someone’s home, had recently reopened when we first went there in 1986 and was a favorite of a number of officials like Buster Couch and our own Leslie Lovett. I was shocked to see the Catfish Plantation on one of those paranormal-experience TV specials a year or so again and that the joint was haunted. In fact, it is “one of the most haunted restaurants in the entire country,” according to the group Fort Worth Paranormal, and “the most terrifying restaurants in the entire country,” according to the TV show Extreme Restaurants. You can read more here and see some haunting videos here. Judge for yourself. Maybe Buster is one of the spirits.

And, finally, just goes to show ya that you never know who will read this column, I was pleasantly surprised to hear from Tom and Kathy of Kent's Ice Cream, whose delicacy was raved about by Bret Kepner. Turns out they were such big fans of the bars that they bought the company that made them.

“There are many people who carry a passion for the tradition of one of these bars,” they wrote. “We were also big fans of the bars. They were called Cacao bars back in the ‘80s. We always bought them, too. There are a few facts that are different then posted. The concessionaire used the excuse that the 'farmer' was shut down by the FDA. That isn't true. He bought them from Kent's Ice Cream in Fort Atkinson, which we now own. We bought the business in 2000 when the couple who made the bars wanted to retire. The photo of us in your article is still the business that made the Cacao bars that Mr. Kepner remembers. Back then, the business only made vanilla and mint, dipped in chocolate and rolled in nuts. There have been many changes over the years, but it is still a two-person dairy plant, and we only make them to sell at events -- mainly auto-related -- around southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois. We also use the recipes that date back to 1941. Real ingredients and hand-made. Thanks for letting us set the record straight.” You can check out the company’s site at KentsBigBar.com

OK, that’s a wrap on food at the drags for now. Coming Friday: a very special anniversary 39th anniversary.

Check, please.