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Cleaning out the mailbag

30 May 2012
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

Welcome to the day-late-and-a-topic-short DRAGSTER Insider for this week. I’m a day behind, like most of you are, after Memorial Day, and with travel Thursday to Englishtown for one of the greatest events on the tour precluding any chance of a column later this week, this seemed like a good time to clear out the Inbox of recent items so that we can get a fresh start sometime next week. I have a couple of interesting ideas for columns just begging for the time, and I’ll have most of June off to get them launched before I hit the trail for back-to-back outings in Chicago and Norwalk. After that (lucky me), I get the summer off and won’t travel until Indy before it gets busy again in the fall.

Into the mailbag …

First, thank you, thank you, thank you to the many of you who took time to congratulate me on my 30-year anniversary with NHRA. Many of the emails were very touching and rewarding to read. I’m honored to have such a big impact on your workweek and in rekindling your drag racing memories.

I’ve grown to know many of you in the nearly five years we’ve been writing this column and heard from many old friends, too, like Dan “the Sign Man” DeLaney, whom I first met in the 1980s while driving the Mazi family Opel, who shared this great thought.

“I've personally enjoyed being a member since 1974 and still have the membership cards to prove it., but the passion started in the late '60s with that first trip to the 1320,” he said. “I, too, couldn't get enough and so wanted to be a piece of the drag racing puzzle. I mirror the fact that we both enjoy and have the passion for the sport. I believe we both have found the paths we were to take. I, too, every now and then stand in front of my building like you did in front of the headquarters and stare and wonder and with a deep breath ... put the key in the door. Your articles have brought smiles to my face and yes even tears of joy and sorrow for those we love. Look forward to the articles you write twice a week here and in newsprint. When someone can stay at their job for 30 years and still enjoy every minute of it, there is something to be said. Retirement is never an option. Like myself, it's in the blood; the love of the people, the sport, and the job are what keep it going.”

Reader Jim Dodd, who “started following drag racing when many of the Top Fuel cars still had the motors up front” and once was a neighbor of longtime NHRA Chief Starter Buster Couch, echoed many of you guys’ thoughts when he wrote, “I want to tell you how much I enjoy reading your column. It makes me happy and sad at the same time. I am saddened by my heroes passing away but thoroughly enjoy the walk down memory lane.” He went on to cover a number of topics, including his thoughts of the sport today, but what really intrigued me was his last comment: “In that 1985 photo of you sitting at your desk, I noticed that nice watch you are wearing. Is that a Casio?”

Man, the funny things people pick out in a photo. But, to be honest, when I pulled that photo out of the archives, it was one of the first things I noticed, too. No, it’s not a Casio, but from what I’ve read throughout the years, it did have an interesting history. My folks actually bought it for me on the cheap at Sears when I was a teenager; I wore the thing forever, and it never ceased to amaze me. It would take a beating and never falter, and the battery lasted forever. I never changed it in the time I wore it (I still have it, but the battery is finally dead). You won’t find this on any urban-legends website, and I only found out about this because someone remarked on it once, but apparently through some kind of misunderstanding/mislabeling, it was actually a high-end watch sold by Sears at a price way under its value. We got lucky, I guess. If anyone knows the story behind this, I’d love to hear it. I no longer wear a watch; like many of you, my cellphone keeps the time for me now.

Perhaps the highest honor bestowed upon me in congratulations on my tenure is the inclusion of the photo of me backing up Jim DePasse’s Top Alcohol Funny Car in Gainesville on Rich Venza’s Facebook page dedicated to "Drag Racing Back-Up-Girls." Wrote Rich, “I broke one of my hard and fast rules and added your backup photo to my Facebook page. I expect it will become the ONLY such photo to be included. I bet your files have thousands of Back Up Girl photos, but my page has only one Back Up Boy.” I’m so honored. Check out and Like Rich’s great page here.

Readers are still blown over by the blowovers thread, and, yes, we’ve found another addition to the list. In the October 1973 issue of Drag Racing USA, Joseph Faraci found a color photo of Jim Bucher going skyward at Great Lakes Dragaway. I had been hearing rumors about this one but hadn’t received any confirmation about it until just now. Bucher’s son, Mike, confirmed the incident, which I’ve added to the official list that appeared in the May 22 column. “My dad did have a blowover (but it was more a power wheelstand),” he wrote. “It ended up pointing straight up and twisted around while straight up, then came down. That was the end of the car that set the 6.07 e.t. record in 1973.”

Aaron Wilson from England weighed in with a European blowover that I will add to the list as well. Germany’s Rico Anthes, who competed in the U.S. for a short while, had a classic blowover at England’s Santa Pod Raceway in 1993. ”I was only 9 or 10 at the time and remember the car stopping directly in front of me,” he wrote. “I was standing on the far side of the track. The beginning of the incident looks very similar to Scott Kalitta's with the wheels up very early in the run. I remember him saying that he had lifted early but couldn't stop it in one of his interviews. He was uninjured and doing interviews afterwards. The video [at right] is in German, although I’m sure there is an English version; it may only be on tape from a season or meeting review.”

The blowover is shown from two angles, but it only takes up the first 30 seconds of the two-minute video that also includes the jet truck of Les Shockley and the jet limo of Jim Neilson. As you can see in this video of the blowover, the continent makes little difference in the outcome as it lands almost on its wheels after the half gainer.

For every blowover, there probably are handfuls of “almosts” that a driver saved. Craig Sanburn remembers Butch Blair (in Joe Amato's former streamliner) standing it up in the lights in Sonoma. “Fortunately, he was downtrack enough that he was on the uphill part, and it came down just fine,” he remembered. “I'm not even sure it hurt anything, but it sure looked crazy from back by the starting line! Not a total blowover but real close!"

reyes-pics.jpg
Speaking of which, our ol' pal Steve Reyes sent a care package of some of the "almosts" he has grabbed on film, including sequences of Top Alcohol Dragster racers Jack Cambra and Bubba Sewell in Pomona and Marvin Graham's one-wheel act, which, as I recall, was at the Popular Hot Rodding meet in Martin, Mich., in 1980 or 1981 in Marc Danekas' TR-3 Resin Glaze machine in which he became the 12th member of the 250-mph Club in Fremont, Calif., in the fall of 1981.

Buck Hujabre from the cast of Jersey Boys wrote to ask about another memorable near blowover.
 
“I seem to vaguely remember Mike Dunn doing a fantastic job of stopping his dragster from going completely over in the late ‘80s or early '90s. I can't for the life of me remember if it was the Yankees/Gwynn years or the La Victoria salsa car.  As a matter of fact, I only remember seeing it once in a compilation video (probably a Diamond P release), so it may not be as well-known.  I just wanted to check in and see if you had any video or further information on that since you have most of the great blowovers documented in your fantastic articles.”
 

The incident in question was from qualifying at the 1997 Brainerd event and is especially memorable because Dunn had a camera on the front wing looking over at his qualifying mate, Jim Head (in the appropriately named Close Call entry). I’ve looked online and can’t find any footage of it (surprising!), so I did the next-best thing and called Dunn for his memories and dug out the still photo at right from our archives, which was shot by current NHRA Division 5 photographer Barry Bergeron. Dunn’s car was the Mopar entry, owned by Darrell Gwynn and tuned by Ken Veney.

The conversation with Dunn brought to light interesting things about blowovers and perhaps why he succeeded in halting his where others failed. As longtime National DRAGSTER readers will recall from his insightful The Final Take column, Dunn was one of the few “hand-brake” drivers out there, deft enough to use the hand brake to slow wheel spin and other unfortunate occurrences, and he believes it saved his bacon on this one.

“The car would carry the front tires over the 60-foot clocks a lot, and you’d just give it a little brake to bring it down, but the problem is that when it comes up in the middle [of the run] like that, air gets under the wing and carries it back. The problem comes when the clutch locks up downtrack when you still have the front end up, which is what happened here. It was driver error; I let it get too far.

“I thought it was going over,” he admitted, as did crew chief Veney, who, watching from the starting line, told ND back then, “The next thing I expected to see was the body panels flying off.”

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the brakes did save it,” said Dunn. “I grabbed the brake as hard as I could; I have a photo somewhere showing the car standing straight up, and the brake rotors are bright red. I couldn’t believe it when it started coming down. For a brief second there, I thought about feathering the throttle a bit to keep it from smashing the front end, but then I thought, ‘No; let’s just get it back to the ground …’ "

They were able to repair the car – in typical racer fashion, jacking up the middle of the chassis with the front end wedged under an immovable object like a truck or trailer to remove the bow, then clipping a wedge out of the top bars of the chassis ahead of the A-arms, jacking it up, and rewelding it to get the wing height right – and made it to Sunday’s eliminations, where they lost in round one, but, as Veney – never one to be easily impressed -- pointed out, “The only reason we could use the car again was because of our driver.”

And finally, Ronnie Lahn, whose fuel-car roots go back to the late 1960s when he crewed for the Shipman’s 'Cuda Funny Car of Wendell Shipman (crew chief: Frank Pedregon Sr.), asked, “Didn’t Larry Dixon have a blowover while testing at Bakersfield in his early days driving for ‘Snake’? I think it happened on the second pass.”

Good marks for memory, but points off for detail. Though Dixon – like Prudhomme in late 1989 for his 1990 return to Top Fuel – did crash in Bakersfield, it wasn’t a blowover like Prudhomme experienced but rather the result of a blown left-rear tire during the pre-Winternationals testing. Earlier in that test session, Dixon and the Miller Genuine Draft machine had run 4.717 – the second-quickest pass in history – and the wreck occurred on his final pass. The car was junked and a new one brought into action for the season opener, and we all know what happened after that. Dixon won in his second start, in Phoenix, then embarked on an impressive sweep of the NHRA “majors” with wins in Gainesville, Englishtown, and, of course, Indy, en route to being the runaway winner of the rookie of the year award. Here’s a pic of him and “Snake” sharing the Indy winner’s circle that year.

OK, race fans, that’s it for today and for the week. As I mentioned, I’m off to New Jersey Thursday (I’ll be the one in the airport wearing the L.A. Kings T-shirt), and I’ll have a column sometime next week, depending on travel and other intangibles. Thanks for reading.