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Play it again, Sam

07 Aug 2012
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider
Sam Schermerhorn today, with girlfriend Paula and their pal, Budda

I have a pretty good grasp of drag racing’s history and even of some of the more obscure names from its past, but I’ll admit that until last Wednesday, as I was writing about Larry Lombardo’s crash at the 1977 U.S. Nationals, I had never heard of Sam Schermerhorn, and I’m guessing that 99 percent of you hadn’t either until you read on Friday that he was the guy in the other lane when Bill Jenkins’ Monza slid out from beneath Lombardo and crashed and caught fire during qualifying.

Lombardo couldn’t remember Schermerhorn’s name, only the car, and he’s only visible in one frame from that famous photo sequence, so it took a little detective work to pull the unusual name out of the air, but I’m glad that I did because, lo and behold, out of equally thin air came an email from Schermerhorn, thanking me for acknowledging him in the article. The power of the blog at its finest.

I had no idea if Schermerhorn was still alive or even still followed the sport, let alone that he was a reader of this column, but now he has gone from a name you never knew to a name you’ll never forget, a story behind the story, which is what we do best here.

Schermerhorn believes this photo was taken on the fateful run in Indy.

Schermerhorn confirmed Lombardo’s story that he had let Schermerhorn leave first in their qualifying pair, which, in retrospect, may have prevented a nasty Kenny Koretsky-Bruce Allen-like midtrack collision.

“I did talk to Larry before that run, and he did say they were testing a new set of tires and he was not going to cut a good light,” remembered Schermerhorn. “As it turned out, I broke a rod just before 3rd gear. As I was moving out of the groove, I saw him go by, then his car just made a hard left, and I’m thinking, ‘Don’t hit “Grump’s” car,’ so I went into the right lane. Larry’s first hit was with the right front, which spun it around, and that's when the rear hit and it caught fire. I had a small extinguisher onboard, but when I saw Larry get out, I figured he was OK; he actually can run pretty fast. I think he beat me to the turnoff! That was the only time I was glad I blew the motor.”

Prior to buying the Motown Missile Pro Stocker, Schermerhorn had raced an A/Altered with another Insider reader, John Hoyt, who currently owns the El Toro fuel altered. They had a Barracuda that they took to the Troy, Mich., shop of Pro Stock racer Mike Fons to get it backhalved; Fons had the Missile sitting in the corner of his shop, and they left with it instead. Schermerhorn licensed at the Indy points meet. His stay in Pro Stock was short-lived – only two seasons and just two NHRA national events – and although he did not qualify at that 1977 Indy race, he had made the field of the Springnationals a few months earlier, qualifying No. 16 with a 9.010 and losing in round one to Bob Ingles, 9.00 to 9.19. (Among the nonqualifiers at that event were world champ Richard Tharp and Division 7 champ James Warren in Top Fuel; "Jungle Jim" Liberman, in one of his last national event appearances before his death, and Ed McCulloch in Funny Car; and future Top Alcohol Funny Car world champ Bob Gottschalk in Pro Stock.)

Schermerhorn's best Pro Stock outing was at the IHRA Northern Nationals, where he beat Wayne Gapp in the first round and went to the semifinals.

“We stopped in late ‘78 because my partner and I had different ideas on how to run the class, so we split up,” said Schermerhorn, who owns an auto-repair shop in Toledo, Ohio, where he is restoring one of the El Toro AA/FAs. “Things like [Indy 1977] are hard to forget, but it also showed me how drag racers help each other. We took our car to C.J. Rayburn’s shop, and he and Walt Maynard let us use his machine shop to build a new motor. ‘Grump’ even came by our pit to see how we were doing.”

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Larry Lombardo, 1977
Larry Lombardo, 2012

That Jenkins would take an interest in Schermerhorn’s progress spoke volumes about the kind of guy that “the Grump” was, sentiments echoed by Lombardo in our conversation last weekend.

“If you had half a noodle, he’d help you out,” said Lombardo. “If you were an idiot, he wouldn’t.”

Lombardo, who drove for Jenkins from 1972 through 1979, has been attending a lot of Jenkins tribute events this year following Jenkins’ passing in late March and sharing great stories of their times together, and he believes he’s uniquely qualified.

“There are only two people who know the real Bill Jenkins: me and Linda Vaughn,” he asserted. “People don’t really know Jenkins. He wasn’t 'the Grump.' He was probably one of the funniest guys out there. I spent seven years, 365 days a year, out there with him. I could tell funny stories all day about Bill. Of course, there are some I couldn’t tell, too. But he was hilarious.”

So I’ll just share some of his great quotes, with no particular thread tying them together other than a good belly laugh.

  • “We were a father-son deal. He was always ‘Bill’ to me, and I was ‘Larry’ or ‘Hey.’ He never grumped at me. We got along great.”
     
  • “We’d talk every now and then, a couple of times each year, but I’d always call him on his birthday, Dec. 22. We’d be small-talking, and I’d wish him happy birthday, and he’d say, ‘Well, thank you,’ which blew my mind because I won six national events and a world championship for him, and the best I ever got was, ‘That’ll do.’ That was the biggest compliment I ever got from him while we were racing.”

  • “I crashed his Vega the first year I was driving for him, match racing Ronnie Sox at Sunshine [Dragstrip, in Florida]. It was like my fifth or sixth time in the car. I had told him, ‘Hey, Bill, there’s oil out there on the track at about 2nd gear,’ and he said, ‘[Grunt] It’ll be OK.’ Well, he’s Bill Jenkins, and he says it’s going to be OK, so we leave, and I pull 2nd gear and had the front end up, but the left rear tire was right in that oil, so it made a left-hand turn, and bam, I totaled that car and a good chunk of the guardrail. On the same run, Ronnie locked up his brakes at the top end and slid backward into a telephone pole and hurt his back.

    “I didn’t get to drive again until 1974; finally, I told Bill he had hired me as a driver not a crewman, and either he was going to let me drive or I was going to leave. He said, ‘OK, but you have to win. I don’t have to win, but you do.’ "

  • “A lot of people don’t know this, but at some of those best-of-three match races, if Bill would lose the first round, he’d put me in the car for the second run. I was quite a bit lighter than him, maybe 100 pounds, which was about a tenth on the track. [Dick] Landy and some of those other big boys bitched and moaned, and because of me, they changed the rules that the cars were weighed with the driver.”

  • “Bill had a $50 Corvair with about $500 worth of tape holding it together. I said, ‘Bill, get a real car.’ He said, '[Grunt] Theft-proof.' I asked him what he meant. ‘Who would steal it?’ he asks. 'I can take it to the airport and leave the keys in it. No one’s taking that son of a bitch.’ "

  • “Any products we got – heads, manifolds, any part – he had to do something to it after he got it, then it was OK. He’d even tweak a comb after he got it. He had to put the Jenkins touch to it.”

  • “Bill always wanted me to help the other guys. We helped them all: Ronnie [Manchester], [Frank] Iaconio, Richie Zul. We even helped John Lingenfelter with some heads for his [Super Stock] Corvette, and he went like a second and a half under the national record at Indy. We were at a match race one time and all caught up, and he sent me over to help Bob Brandt work on Don Prudhomme’s car because they were running late. I didn’t know anything about a blown Funny Car, but that’s who Jenkins was.”

  • “Jenkins had this concrete retaining wall built next to his shop, and he told [the guy building the wall] to follow the contour of the land, and he did. When the ground went down, so did the wall; when it went up, so did the wall. It looked like a roller coaster. Jenkins loved it because it was unique and because the guy did what he told him to. It became a conversation piece and a signature Jenkins thing.”

  • “We always had to be late arriving at the races. I asked why we always were late and had to rush and get the ramps out and get the car ready. ‘[Grunt] They [the fans] have already seen everyone before we got here; now they’re all going to come over here.’ And he was right; people would flock around our pit 10 deep. If we all got there the same time, the Ford people would go to the Ford cars and the Chrysler people to the Chrysler cars, but when we showed up late, everyone came to us. The one thing he taught me was you had to have a reason for everything you do; you don’t just do something.”

  • In the course of my research about the 1977 Indy crash, I discovered that Jenkins himself had crashed the Monza’s twin, their match race car, July 17 at an event at Illinois’ Oswego Dragstrip called Beat the Grump, which offered the chance for three of the track’s local E.T. racers to face the legend. “I was running at Budds Creek [Md.] that day and got a call at 11 o’clock that night telling me I had to go to Detroit because Bill had a match race scheduled there the next day. We left at 11:30 and drove straight there. We hadn’t been planning a trip, so we had to stop at a Kmart to get shaving gear and underwear.” The match race car was fixed at SRD but was back home in Malvern, Pa., when Lombardo crashed the national event car.

    And finally, this gem:

  • “We checked into a motel for a match race in Tennessee, and Bill wasn’t always too good with the ol’ heel-toe on the clutch and drifted back and smashed the hood of this Volkswagen Beetle all the way back to the windshield. He gets out of the truck and comes back about five minutes later and asks, ‘Where are the pictures [handout photos]?’ I told him they were in the sleeper. He takes one, goes back to the guy, then comes back a few minutes later. ‘Hmrrph … all he wanted was an autographed picture.’ This guy was so proud and happy that Bill Jenkins had totaled out his car that all he wanted was an autograph. Bill not only autographed the picture but the car as well.”