Just got back from a great trip to St. Louis. For all the traveling I’ve done over all the years, this was my first trip to the city and to Gateway Motorsports Park. It’s one of the few tracks on the tour I hadn’t been to, so it was fun to have a new experience in a new town to look forward to. That occasion seems to be a perfect springboard for the follow-up to the “first experience” columns I ran recently, these being those memorable first trips to the drags.
I’ve received quite a few, many with considerable length, so I’m going to run this in two parts, today and Friday, and then, with a few weeks at home before heading to Las Vegas, I can resume normal column business. So here goes: Your first trip to the drags.
Darryl Barclay: “As an early teen, I lived at the western edge of Baldwin Park, Calif., that was about a quarter-mile from the original San Gabriel dragstrip. It consisted of a narrow paved road with a white line down the middle. The races were all street cars and were started by a flagman. Elapsed times were measured by two people with stopwatches, one for each lane. They would start the ‘clocks’ when they saw the flag go up and stop it when the front wheel crossed a painted line. I would walk over there Sunday afternoons and stand by Rivergrade Road and watch the races. When L.A. County built the flood-control drainage system, the track was torn up.
Tommy Ivo at San Gabe
“Being a kid, I didn't know the people and politics involved. I vaguely remember hearing that the Tice brothers were going to build a new track on the west side of the drainage channel. This was the first time I saw a sign, San Gabriel Dragway. I would go over during the week and watch the grading, paving, line-painting and the building of the tower. I was there opening day and remember the crisp air, the sound of open headers, and the sound of competition cars. This is also where I got my first snort of nitro fumes. I spent many a Sunday in the stands and the pits over the following years. I saw lots of what became prominent names of the day: Don Nicholson, Dick Landy, Tommy Ivo, Boyd Pennington, 'Lefty' Mudersbach, Ed Pink, Keith Black, Dave Zeuschel, Gene Mooneyham, Larry Faust, Bourgeois & Wade, Don Radican, Toney Nancy, Kenny Safford, Norm Weekly, and the list goes on. I saw Ivo's four-engine dragster make some of its first passes and saw my first jet dragster at San Gabe. The jet didn't melt the glass in the tower, but it sure did a pretty good job of sandblasting some of the cars in the parking lot. I remember Don Nicholson was driving his '61 409 Chevy one day, and his e.t.s were in the 12.90s to 13.10s at about 106 to 108 mph. Like all good things, this track got whacked because the power company was going to run high power lines right through where the track was.
"By this time, I was old enough to have friends that were driving, so we got our dose of the drags by going to Pomona. Here, they had some telephone poles lying down and some straw bales next to them for the edge of the parking lot. No bleachers; everyone either stood up by the starting line or sat on the straw bales that were about 50 feet from the track. This is where I ran my first car on the strip, a '54 Ford with a 239-cubic-inch engine and three-speed. Poor thing ran a great 19.40 at 68 mph, but I was racing. Then along came Irwindale. It was about three miles from where I lived in Baldwin Park. I can remember trying to study on Saturday night and hearing the fuel cars make their runs. Then Uncle Sam gave me an invitation that I couldn't refuse. I was an avid reader of Drag News and had a subscription for many years, even when I was overseas in the service. I think my first NHRA Winternationals was 1961. We went to the track Saturday night and slept in the car so we would be early and get good parking and seats. No reserved seating then. We were cold and sore but having fun. I experienced the losses of all the dragstrips in Southern California -- the closing of Fontana, Irwindale, Lions, San Fernando. By the time they closed OCIR, I was married and moved away from California. That pretty much covers my introduction and growth in the sport of drag racing. I saw the growth from flag starts to handicap starting with the Christmas Tree, from front-engine dragsters to rear-engine dragsters. The morphing of SS/S, A/FX -- crazy-looking altered-wheelbase cars with long tube injectors to superchargers -- to tubes and fiberglass, and, yes, the loss of some great people in accidents. I could add more, but this has gotten way too long already for what you needed.”
Wayne Meinberg: “After a long week of digging swimming pools in the early 1960s, I was invited to go with a co-worker, Chuck Barnes, to Lions Drag Strip. Over the last year, on many occasions, he told me how much fun he was having, helping a friend with his race car. So I went with him one Saturday. On our way to Lions, we stopped at Wilcaps in Torrance to pick up some nitro. I was so clueless; I thought it was a solvent and that we were going to clean some parts with it. As we approached the main gate, I could hear the cars going down the strip. I watched in awe as we entered just as a dragster was warming up, coming down the push-start area. Wow! The noise blew me away! My first whiff of nitro. Unbelievable! It attacked my senses, burning my eyes and shaking my body. It was thrilling!
“We headed over to the pits to find his friend, passing many beautiful dragsters on the way. I was really starting to like this as we pulled up next to a tilt trailer with a roadster on it. ‘That's it!’ he said, as a smiling young man came over to greet us. ‘Hi, my name is Gary Cochran.’ The tank of the race car was filled, and we set off pushing it down the start-up road to warm the motor. I was able to help that day instead of sitting in the stands. Wow! We qualified and lost in the first round, but I was hooked. In those days, it was a low-budget affair, and everyone worked out of their garages, having too much fun. Everyone was friendly and helped each other while doing a lot of bench racing. That first day was the beginning of my long love affair with drag racing, and I later became a permanent crewmember of Gary Cochran's Mr. C. Roadster. And all these years later, most of those early weekend warriors are in the Hall of Fame, and the Who's Who of drag racing."
Kevin Cooley: “Everyone, if they have paid attention, will be able to recall key moments or experiences that have helped shape the direction of their life. One of those moments for me was an afternoon in the late spring of 1971 when a neighbor took me to Century 21 Dragstrip, just east of Denver. Had that day been like most weekends at the local track, filled with dozens of modified production cars and a handful of open-wheeled injected dragsters, it might have resulted in just another afternoon easily forgotten by an 11-year-old. But the big draw was a best-of-three match race between Roger Guzman’s Assassination and Art Ward’s Avenger nitromethane-fueled Funny Cars. When the crewmen fired up their supercharged engines and the drivers engulfed the grandstand in tire smoke from their burnout ritual, I may have already been hooked; I was certainly hooked after the flash of green and each driver responded with wide-open throttles, the engine noise creating pressure waves that could be seen; a few seconds later, both race cars were nearly out of sight at the far end of the shutdown area. I was still in the same seat but on my way to a lifelong fascination with fuel drag racing. Within a week, I had a small paper route to finance my newly discovered interest.
"There were several racetracks in the area, Dragway Denver, Bandimere Speedway, Continental Divide Raceways, and Century 21; none was within walking distance, but the Rexall drugstore was just a quick bike ride away, and there was a newsstand full of monthly car magazines, Hot Rod, Popular Hot Rodding, Super Stock & Drag Illustrated, and many others that presented feature articles and event coverage involving Top Fuel and Funny Car racing across the country. On occasion, one of the local fuel cars would be mentioned or have a photograph, making that issue particularly fascinating. The Rexall drug had another benefit, nearly an entire aisle of ready-to-assemble plastic replicas of the very cars I would read about each month; many of these models found their way into my parents’ home. Assembling models wasn't as good as being at the track, but it would do until my older brother was able to drive and became the primary means of transportation to and from the races.
“Forty years have passed from that spring day. I've owned and driven econo dragsters, crewed on a Funny Car, and regularly contribute event coverage to Web-based racing magazines. I've shot race photos standing alongside some of the greats (thank you, Steve Reyes, for your encouragement). The excitement that I felt the first time I heard and saw a pair of those amazing fuel machines in action has never diminished, enriching a life with motivation, direction, and focus.”
Karl White: “I was born in 1956, and about the time I started high school in Anaheim, my focus was on getting my California driver’s license and a Ford Super Econo van. The Supers were about 6 or 8 inches longer, and at the time, the van craze was just kickin’ in. According to Hot Rod and Car Craft, everyone had a van with a waterbed and wood paneling and a 14-color candy or pearl paint job with bucket seats and a ‘massive’ 60-watt stereo. I was gonna get me one o’ them vans! (And then a girlfriend.)
“I started high school in September 1972, and one of my first classes was auto shop, which I took along with a buddy, Chuck Beck. Chuck’s dad was a middle-level executive with Ford Motor Company, and Chuck had been going to various racing and car-related events all his life. Our shop teacher, on the first or second day of school, announced he had a couple pairs of tickets to a race at OCIR in a couple weeks: ‘Who wants ’em?’ Chuck fires his hand up and gets a pair, looks over at me, and tells me, ‘We’re going; you’ll dig this.’
“Still short of getting our driver’s licenses, Chuck’s mom or dad or someone drops us off at OCIR for a Manufacturers Meet on a hot, hot Saturday about noon: ‘Meet me right here at 11 (or midnight, whatever), here’s a few bucks for dogs and Cokes, you boys behave.’ So we head in; I’d never been to a dragstrip before in my life. To that point, I hadn’t given it a lot of thought, seen it on TV a couple times, that’s about it. We work our way down towards the starting line and find an old rickety sawhorse to sit on, maybe, literally 35 or 40 feet from the tower-side starting line. We stayed out of the way, and nobody paid us any mind. Sat there in the sun, 90-plus degrees out, no hat, 2 by 4 sawhorse to sit/lean on, and watched Funny Cars, fast bracket cars, the occasional wheelstander launch all afternoon and night. A true life-changing experience. Truly.
"Three things I took away from that day were: One, I got the single-worst headache I have ever had in my life -- noise, breathing tire smoke, ground shaking, nitro fumes directly in the face, more tire smoke. I’m 15, I don’t carry aspirin with me; we just lived with it. It was great; two, we never moved from that spot except to get a Coke and go use the men’s room, stayed right there for 10 or 11 hours straight; three, I never again, in my entire life, ever once, thought of a van or a truck in any way other than as a potential tow vehicle. Billy Meyer won the race that day; he was 17, he had long hair, he was kinda an awkward kid. And he won! I’m thinking by the time we leave that night, ‘I’m 15, I’m awkward, I have long hair. Hey, I can do this!’
“Now, almost 40 years later, while we never got to the AA/FC level, I do have a front-engine injected dragster. I’ve never owned a van with a waterbed, but I have always had a rack for fuel jugs next to the toolbox in my vans and trucks, and Chuck has been out with us, twice just this year, working on the car and helping me suit up in the lanes. He’s brought his boys over the years. Other guys that crew for me bring their sons.
"Just a couple months ago, we took the car to the eighth-mile track in Barona near San Diego, and my wife’s youngest son and his fiancée went with us for their first time ever at a dragstrip. We’re taking them to Pomona in February for their first national event. They dig it."
Alex Malon: “My parents had a very negative view of drag racers and never promoted drag racing to me or my brother. Then one day, a guy we knew who was older than us who drove a 1960 Ford who converted to a three-speed floor shifter asked us both to come along with him to the Alton, Ill., drag races. We both thought this guy was pretty cool, and we both considered him a drag racer. Little did we know about drag racing and the different classes. When we arrived, there were the stockers making pass after pass, and every now and then, someone would break a hundred -- boring. Then ‘the Greek’ was up to run with his dragster. I think he was running against Art Malone, but I’m not sure. All I can remember of that day was sitting in the car facing the track and hearing the sound, along with him smoking his tires down the quarter-mile. Then getting out of the car and walking up to the guardrail as ‘the Greek’ finished his run. My eyes were stinging from the nitro fumes and the rubber in the air. The weed-sweeper heads were blowing directly on to me as he went by. The noise was wonderful! Right then and there, I became hooked on drag racing.
“Fast-forward to 1970, where I partnered with two other guys and owned and ran an A/FC that year; we ended up being part of the UDRA circuit and one of their tough competitors. That year, we also won The World Series of Drag Racing in Cordova, Ill., and we were class winners at the Indy Nationals and went two rounds in Comp eliminator. In 1971, things turned what I thought was ugly between us, and I did not race in 1971, but I still stayed active in the sport. In 1972, I realized my dream of touring with a pro. I helped Don ‘Mad Dog’ Cook and Jerry Dawson build a new rear-engine dragster to replace the one he had wrecked in Green Valley, Texas. At the completion of the car after seven days, I went to work for Cook, and in a total of 10 days, we made our first pass in the new car. After going to work for Cook, I met and hung out with people I only read about in magazines: Steve Carbone, John Wiebe, Ronnie Martin, Jim Nicoll, Don Garlits, Billy Traylor, Lester Guillory, Chip Woodall, Dale Emery, and many, many more! ‘The Greek,’ the guy who started it for me, happens to be a good friend of Cook’s, and we would stay with ‘the Greek’ and hang with him while in Chicago. I still pinch myself and say it was not a dream!”
Paul Nadeau: “As a young kid of 12, my first race was actually a road race at Riverside that my dad took me to. I was hooked! Sports cars were all I dreamed about. My slot cars were all sports cars. In high school, my friend Kenny Bobbitt was always telling me how great drag racing was, but I wasn’t interested. My dad told me, ‘All they do is go pffffffft, and it’s over,’ so I didn’t think it was worth the bother then. Finally, I accepted an invite from Kenny and his dad to go to a small meet at some place down by the beach called Lions. We get there in the late afternoon, and the final round of Funny Car qualifying is starting. I walk up to Bob Pickett’s Barracuda (the white one with the orange paint drop scheme) and think 'Wow, what a cool paint job!' A car next to his fires up, and I’m introduced to a full load of nitro! Coughing and gagging, I get pulled out of the line of fire, and I realize that this is probably the most bitchin’ thing there is on the planet! I think the Hawaiian is there and the Durachrome Bug and others, including some fuel altereds, and I really don’t remember much else about it except it got so cold I froze my butt off and so windy they were using a guy dropping the rag for the start (can’t remember why the Tree had a problem), and they only ran eighth-mile. They were so loud and so fast; it was magical that night, the fire out of the headers, all the parts on the other side of the wall as we shuffled further down the track so my buddy could scare the crap out of me when the fuel cars came pointed right at us! It was amazing.
“Living in Southern California with Lions, Irwindale, OCIR, Ontario, Riverside, we went to everything drag racing. We were at all the meets at OCIR and Irwindale and most everywhere else all throughout the ‘70s. Eventually, I thought that bracket racing would be fun, so I started driving my ‘68 Bug to the races and raced it. I ran OCIR and Ontario. It ran in the high 19s and was real consistent. I’d usually go a few rounds running against 12- to 14-second cars. Seems like they red-lit more often than not as I’d be half-track before they’d get the green. I loved it. I’m still a drag race nut. Kenny and I got together last year to go to Pomona. Neither of us had been to a race in person since the early ‘80s, I think. You know, I’ve been watching them on TV the whole time, but nothing prepared me for that first blast of cars! I was ducking under the stands every time they hit the gas! And now they are so fast, it’s just like my dad said – ‘Pffffft, and it’s over!’ -- but I still love it, and we’ll be there in November, sniffing the fuel and feeling the ground shake!”
David "Mick" Michelsen: “In 1976, I was going to a small college in Lakeland, Fla. A friend of mine from Pompano Beach, Fla., my hometown, came to Lakeland to pick me up and take me to the Daytona 500. I have always been a fan of anything that goes fast and love all types of racing. I am a total Ford man, and David Pearson was my favorite NASCAR driver. The 1976 Daytona 500 was the one where David Pearson and Richard Petty crashed off of the fourth turn while fighting for the lead.
“Anyway, the next weekend, a dorm mate that knew I was into racing told me he would buy my tickets to an AHRA event at Lakeland Dragway if I would drive us there. Damn right I will. Several top teams were there, such as Garlits in Top Fuel and the Blue Max and Black Magic in Funny Car. We did not have pit passes, so we had to watch as spectators.
“The Blue Max fired up to make a qualifying run, and I was standing at the fence, as close as I could get, when he did his burnout. As I think happens to all nitro junkies, the first time you hear a burnout from a nitro car, you think the world has just come to an end. None of your senses work. Your brain nor body knows what to do to handle what just happened. About the time you can get your fingers to your ears, they have finished their eighth-mile burnout and are backing up. About the time you are getting it together, they do a dry hop. Remember, this was the ‘70s. Now your senses, mind, and body have another total meltdown as they try to figure what the hell just happened, again. Then, a full run the whole quarter-mile, and you are hooked. No roller coaster, skydive, or any other extreme sport gives you that kind of mind-blowing experience. I have been so hooked since then; I’ve been an NHRA member since 1978 and have attended every Gatornationals since then, along with several other national events. I’ll pick NHRA over NASCAR any day, and I try to take a ‘virgin’ to the Gatornationals every year. The greatest feeling is watching them get their first taste of it.”
OK, so there's Part 1 of your memorable first drag race. I'll have Part 2 on Friday! Thanks for hanging out while I traveled, and welcome back!