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Bits and pieces, Part 2

25 Oct 2012
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

Thanks to everyone for the kind and inspiring words concerning what, at least for the short term, will be a change in the publishing schedule here. I’m committed to keeping this great watering hole alive and well, which means I expect to have at least one column a week. If things are going smoothly, there might be two, but the day(s) of publishing may vary, so be sure to check out the NHRA.com home page from time to time and look for a new photo and “Last updated” date. You just never know when something new will be added.

Take today, for example. I’m headed off for Vegas this morning (Thursday), and with championships in the balance in all four Pro classes, it figures to be a crazy-busy weekend, which explains why this column is coming out today as opposed to tomorrow (which, technically, would make it tomorrow’s column today, or something like that). Anyway, today’s/tomorrow’s column is Part 2 of Bits and Pieces. Enjoy.

As expected, the first installment of your collection of Bits and Pieces last week drew a few more cool keepsakes. Collectibles king Mike Goyda sent this pic to show just part of his amazing collection: the cowl off the Jade Grenade after its crash at New England Dragway in 1975, which hangs in his garage.

“When I bought it a number of years ago, my intention was to sell it, but it fit perfectly between the garage doors, so it is now part of the archives,” he said.

Thanks to a good friendship with driver Don Roberts, I’ve covered the Jade Grenade crash – which cost Roberts a leg yet inspired his unforgettably good-humored quote, “After the third flip, I lost control” --  in this column on a couple of occasions. It was his first (and last) pass in the car, which was equipped with front wheel pants that he partially blames for the accident. Still, for all it cost him, he clearly has a connection to the car.
 
“I had heard that Goyda had the cowl in his collection,” Roberts said after I forwarded him the picture. “Part of me wants to see how much he wants for it, but the other part tells me the number is huge. Maybe I'll just blow the picture up and put it on the wall between my doors in my shop downstairs ...

“The Grenade was the only car I ever had my name and number on -- how ironic that it was a one-run special.”

“Chicago Jon” – "call me Columbo” – Hofmann was intrigued by the photo of former ND Photo Editor Leslie Lovett’s office from the old NHRA HQ building in North Hollywood, Calif., and went all detective on us.

“As I was reading through the entries in the post-crash-collectibles edition of Insider, upon seeing the picture of Les Lovett's office, I knew there was something within beckoning me, and so I printed the photo and began going over it with a magnifying glass," he wrote. "And bingo, there it was, now glaringly plain as day, in the upper left of the shot, the end plate from Shirley Muldowney’s wing from her accident at the U.S. Nationals, 1983 edition.
 
“Shirley fans already know where this is going, but for the benefit of those who don't, Ms. Muldowney had herself one scary mishap at the '83 running of the Big Go; I believe the 'smoking gun' on that incident was a front tire unraveling, binding up the steering components and sending her into the guardrail in the shutdown area. The Safety Safari is quick to respond, Shirley is intact, but the car is gonna need some work, so the crew hustles it back to the pits and begins thrashing away. 

"A little bit later, I too am in the pits, and while everyone’s eyes are on Shirley and the car, I noticed some interesting ‘baggage’ on the back of Mr. Lovett’s scooter: the same end plate from the office photo, and who’s to say, but the right-bank headers that appear below the 1980 world champion banner might be Shirley’s as well.”

 

Right he is on both counts. Lovett was a very close friend of Shirley’s, so it would be no surprise if she donated her unsalvageable parts to his collection. The headers clearly were unusable, and the team undoubtedly had to go to a backup wing anyway after the car's heavy shunt with the top-end guardrail.

I remember the incident very well as it occurred at the first U.S. Nationals I attended. I was perched on the roof of the old top-end tower (which used to be the old starting-line tower and now is the tower that overlooks the oval track) with the usual group of top-end shooters (Reyes, the Indy Star’s Vern Atkins, and others) when Shirley’s run went awry in what, as Hofmann pointed out in his very long and typically verbose and funny emails, was a precursor to her near-career-ending wreck a year later in Montreal, to which I also was an unfortunate witness.

“I wonder how many other stories will emerge based on that shot of Leslie’s office,” Hofmann mused. “As they used to say, ‘There's a thousand stories in the naked city’ and this was just mine ... anyone?”

How good are your detective skills? Here’s a link to a larger version of the photo. See anything else familiar? (One hint: Think Canada and biplanes.)
 

Robert Nielsen also spent time perusing the pic. “I could not help but notice in the photo of Les Lovett’s office the lack of the shock absorber from the Pisano & Matsubara Funny Car that he tried to stop with his leg while shooting the 1970 Super Nationals at midtrack,” he wrote of the famed-within-these-walls accident that broke the ankle of our intrepid hero.

“I would have thought this would have been a significant part in his collection. Of course, he probably was in no shape to immediately go souvenir hunting when this occurred. And maybe he did end up with the shock absorber and it is sitting prominently on a corner of his desk that we cannot see in this photo.”

I asked Teresa Long about that famed shock absorber, and she didn’t remember it being among his collection, but, as she said, echoing Nielsen’s thoughts, he wasn’t exactly running around looking for souvenirs. The souvenir he did get is an amazing sequence that he snapped before he had to (unsuccessfully) bail out.

Dave Labs has the fiberglass fragment at right from Whit Bazemore’s Fast Orange Ford Probe Funny Car, which, as shown above in this television screen grab, met an inglorious end at the 1993 NHRA Springnationals at National Trail Raceway in Ohio. A massive engine explosion and a blown tire sent his car rocketing from the left lane into the right-lane guardrail, then back across the track on its side into the left rail. Click here for a video of the crash.

“This event was the first multiday national event that my mom, dad, and I had attended,” he remembered. “My dad and I were sitting in the stands watching the first session of Pro qualifying. Here came Bazemore and Del Worsham down the track. Suddenly, Bazemore's car exploded literally right in front of us. From where we were sitting, I swore he was going to hit Del in the other lane. Obviously, he didn't make contact with him but hit the guardrail pretty hard. The car then rolled over and slid into the opposite guardrail before rolling back right side up and then sliding to a stop. The incident totally blew my mind, as I had never witnessed anything like that. Of course, I had seen plenty of drag racing crashes on the great Diamond P event coverage over the years but never in person. The two things I remember most about it were the heat wave and the smell. 
 
“Later that day, we were walking through the pits and came upon the Bazemore pit area. There was a huge crowd of people looking at what was left of the body. I asked one of the crew guys if Whit was OK, and he assured me he was fine. I then asked him if I could buy a chunk of the body. He said, ‘Save your money, kid; go tear off a piece.’ So I went over and saw the only piece that looked like it would be easiest to remove. I pulled and pulled, and finally the fiberglass cloth ripped, and away I went with my piece of the action. I really felt bad for Whit, but I was happy I got something cool. What can I say, I was just a kid.”
 

 

Johnny Cola shared a very neat story about cast-off parts that he witnessed at the 1994 Summernationals in Englishtown.

“Bobby Lagana lost to John Force in round one of Funny Car but torched the car to just about the ground doing so. As the remains lay in a blackened pile in the pits, his son (about 9) was wading through the parts, picked up a charbroiled, totally toasted magneto, and carried it to Bobby. ‘Daddy, I think we can use this again.’

“At a time when Bobby would not have been blamed for getting upset with the kid from frustration, he put his hand on his shoulder and said with a smile, ‘Yanno what? We may be able to. Put it over there, and we'll look. I'm glad I have you helping me.’ "

I dropped a quick line to Dom Lagana, whom I figured to be about that age, and though he didn’t remember the incident specifically, he said it was probably him (he would have been 9 then) and added sadly, “That was the end of our Funny Car days.” The Laganas since have switched to Top Fuel, first with Bobby Jr. and now Dom driving, and have acquitted themselves extremely well against the big guns on just a fraction of the budget.

The photo shown here was taken by Gil Rebilas, whose son, Mark, has famously followed his father into the limelight as one of the premier crash shooters (and photographers) in the sport.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t take time to acknowledge the loss of one of the drag racing fraternity whom you may or may not know but whom those of us who work in the words game surely appreciated. Jon Knapp, a longtime public relations specialist for numerous teams throughout the years — most recently for the dynamic duo of Greg Anderson and Jason Line — died Monday night after a brief but brave battle with cancer.

The relationship between the PR world and the editorial world can sometimes be a curious and uncomfortable one. Editors like me realize that it’s the job of these individuals to not only keep us informed of the latest happenings of their charges, but also to convince us that their drivers are worthy of this, that, or the other thing more than the next guy. It’s a tough gig.

Jon and I worked together on a number of “top-secret” announcements throughout the years concerning his drivers, and I always found him to be among the most genuine and forthright people in the biz. He knew his role, his responsibility, and the limits of his persuasion and understood that I would help him as much as possible, and he was appreciative of everything that we could do for him and his clients.

As a group, the PR workers on the NHRA tour are amazing, as funny as they are talented. A pressroom can at times be a notoriously hostile environment and not a place for those of thin skin, and Jon always took as much as he gave, and no matter whom he occasionally zinged, it was all in good fun. The tributes on his Facebook page this week -- and a blog entry by our common pal Bob Wilber -- reflect that I’m not alone in thinking of him as a gracious, kind, and positive human being, eager to work with anyone, to help anyone, and to be a friend to anyone.

Our thoughts are with his wife, Joanne, with whom he formed his own dynamic duo, and I know we’re going to miss him this weekend in Las Vegas and for a long time to come.
 

OK, gang, that’s all for today. I’ll be back next week with more stuff. Off to Vegas!