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Your first race, Part 2

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

Here’s Part 2 of Your First Race. I have to say it has been really cool reading through the submissions. Some of you I don’t know at all, and some have been previous contributors to the column, but I find all of the stories enthralling. As I prepare them for publishing, I edit them the best I can for spelling and grammar and take a stab at shortening them a bit for the sake of clarity and brevity (before turning them over to our own Lorraine Vestal for a precision copy tune-up), but I find it very hard to trim them. I can almost feel the emotions that are poured into these stories and, in my mind’s eye, picture the scene and compare it to my own memories.

The entries below are mostly "first time at the drags,” but there are also a few that talk about early influences (from our first “brush with greatness” thread on this topic), but they all have that feel of people remembering their first touchstones to the sport.

Gary Crumine, an eloquent and frequent contributor here, said it well: “After reading all these stories of how we caught the bug, one thought came to mind. There is a thread that ties everything together. That thread is that for the most part, we all got our indoctrination to motorsports by some pretty famous and downright decent people who took the time to invite us into their world. Passing along the motorhead gene is both a privilege and a responsibility we all share. I’ll be forever grateful for the time I spent just hanging out and rubbing elbows with the greatest of people. Much is said about motorsports in general, and drag racing in particular, but I will say this: Drag racers are the friendliest people on the planet. Always ready to help when asked, always willing to lend advice, and not afraid to give you the secret formula to their success. Drag racers want you to beat them, and work hard doing it. They don’t crash you or trash you or thrash you. They genuinely celebrate your successes even if you beat them in the process. Drag racers are REAL people.”

Very well said and, I believe, a universal sentiment in the sport. OK, enough preamble, on to the stories …

Howard Hull: “My first trip to the races was in 1967 when we loaded up the station wagon and went to the inaugural race at Orange County Int'l Raceway. Because several of the founders were friends of the family, we were treated to some behind-the-scenes that most don’t get to see. Actually, we went and saw the facility under construction about five months earlier, and the tower was finished being framed, and the skin was being hung on it. The grandstands were taking shape, and the track was graded and ready for asphalt. As we walked around, Larry Vaughn, one of the founders, pointed out to us how the staging lanes were going to work and where the pit area was going to be. Now, all of this was Greek to me; five months later in August, it became a part of my DNA.

“The event featured Tom ‘the Mongoose’ McEwen. The place was filled with folks, and seeing the flames coming from the exhaust pipes from the dragsters as they inched their way up to the starting line and then watching the Christmas Tree blink down had me hooked. The bracket racing with the handicaps had the crowds going as one racer pulled up to the line in a station wagon next to a gas dragster. When the dragster caught the station wagon at the top end, the crowd went wild.

“Within a few years, I went from selling Cokes in the stands to running the concession stands and loving it. I went through the AHRA and [Bill] Doner years and Charlie [Allen] and Lynne [Rose] show. They were great people and really had the place humming at the end, and it was too bad the Irvine Co. had to develop that parcel right after Don Bren bought the company. Over the years, I was lucky enough to travel with the FRAM program at NHRA events all over the U.S. Getting to seeing the different racetracks that I had read about in National DRAGSTER and Hot Rod and comparing them to OCIR was always fun. The track was way ahead of its time for sure! I still think of the place every time I drive by!”

Kris Miller: “I grew up outside of Pittsburgh. The first time my dad took me and my friends to Pittsburgh Int'l Dragway (PID), I had no idea what to expect, but there were nitro fuel cars, which, for some reason, that sticks out in my mind 40-plus years later. The race was in the late ‘60s; I was a teenager with a limited knowledge and experience of drag racing, outside of what I read in Hot Rod magazine. One other keen memory that I have and will never forget was ‘the Greek,’ Chris Karamesines, was at the race. I wish I knew where my picture(s) from that day are located now. I find it ironic a few weekends ago in Charlotte, my 20-year-old daughter was able to have ‘the Greek’ autograph a T-shirt she purchased.”

Dick Pruett: “I used to go to Irwindale as a teenager back in the day. Lots or memories. The late, great Steve Evans used to announce as he did for the speedway motorcycle track on the same grounds. I ended up racing at the speedway for several years -- exciting and a great experience. I saw John Smyser’s Terrifying Toronado, a four-wheel-drive two-blown-motor exhibition car, jump the guardrail not more than 50 feet out of the gate. I saw Charlie Allen, Dick Landy, and altered-wheelbase nitro-injected early Funny Cars. What sticks in my mind is the really tall Hilborn injector tubes sticking through the hoods; as a youngster, they looked like they were 3 feet tall to me. This is when they did a lot of match races and used rosin during their several burnouts. I saw a bunch of others, Gas Ronda, 'Dyno Don,' Gary Densham, and Doug Nash's Bronco Buster, an injected 289 Ford Bronco, no windows and I believe a fiberglass body. He would run in the show against all the big-blocks and at times would win. I probably saw everyone of that time by going to Lions, Irwindale, and Orange County. I was able to experience so much, memories I still carry today.”

Herman Wallace: “I was 13 years old in the summer of 1963. My father had just died, and we had just moved to a home on the southeast side of Chicago. I was riding my bicycle following the sound of a roaring engine. The sound took me to a Shell gas station two blocks from home, where I saw a 1961 Chevy chained to the floor running at full throttle on what I discovered was a Clayton chassis dyno. Lettered on the sides of the car were a shamrock and the name Kelly O'Brien, along with other decals that I don't recall. I stood there in awe of what was going on, and when the engine stopped, out of the car came Kelly O'Brien, who ran the station and owned and raced the car.

“I was allowed to come in the bay when the car was turned off, and this became a hangout and my intro to hot rodding. Whenever I heard the roar, I pedaled my feet off to get to the station to get the rush of sound and power firsthand. That was only a taste of what I would see as I started high school in the fall, traveling by bus across the city to a tech school and passing twice a day, morning and afternoon, past 69th and Damen, nearly breaking my neck to see what might be going on in that garage with the sign on the roof Engine Specialists. I occasionally caught glimpses of some kind of race car, and, after thumbing through magazines in the drugstore, I figured this might be a dragster. Little did I know of what history was passing me from the bus window, but I learned quickly when my neighbor, who was a couple of years older, was allowed to take a carload of us to U.S. 30 in his dad’s ‘59 Chevy wagon. That was just a beginning as in August of 1967, I lost my summer job at the NAPA parts store when I announced I wasn't coming to work because I was going to Indy to get my first taste of the Big Go. I never got off the bus to look in or hang out; had I, I might have met then someone I would meet in the fall of 1967 when, after graduating high school, my mother bought me a 1968 Plymouth Valiant with as much as I could coax out of her, a 318 engine and a four-speed. I asked the service manager about hot rodding the car, and he sent me to the back of the garage to see 'Joe.'

“There I met Joe Krupinski, who suggested I come to his new shop a couple of miles from my home. I visited the shop and frankly was a little scared as there at my feet was Krupinski's fuel dragster, Twiggy. I couldn't get enough and found myself there several times a week. I was jealous as they loaded the car onto the trailer for a weekend race, knowing the sound and smell of drag racing, and I was determined to learn more about this nitro thing. I spent more and more time at the shop and worked my way into the back door, being allowed to wash parts and hold this or that while the engine was being assembled. I felt I really arrived when Joe allowed me to fill nitro jugs for customers like Dale Creasy Sr.

“There was an afternoon that I will never forget. It was a weekday, and I was a student in the local junior college. Joe asked that I come to the shop as early in the afternoon as I could. I did, and there on the street in front of the shop was a station wagon and a fuel dragster and a guy with a rather large movie camera. Shortly thereafter, a police car came and blocked the street, and Joe announced they were going to start the car and film a burnout for a commercial. The station wagon pushed the fueler, but it wouldn't light, so we had to back down the motor, pushing the car by hand backward to clear the fuel from the cylinders. The car lit, the burnout was made, and now came a police lieutenant hollering because traffic was backed up for blocks. Nobody went to jail, just a lot of screaming by the cops and the smell of nitro and rubber in the Chicago air. I was now an official hanger-on crew kid and was invited to travel with Joe’s car to the Olympics of Drag Racing at Union Grove. My heart was pounding as we loaded the car. The driver, ‘Animal Al’ Marshall, drove the pickup and trailered the dragster to the Grove. Joe's main mechanic and engine assembler, Alan Puchalski (pardon the spelling), wasn’t old enough to get a driver’s license. What a weekend. Garlits, Kalitta, getting the car lined up in front of the pickup for the push-off, pulling the car back after the burnout, a lifetime of excitement in two days. What I have come to learn over the years is that while I rode the bus past 69th and Damen, Krupinski was working for Engine Specialists and called Don Maynard his mentor. I have since been to ‘the Greek’s’ shop, but I wish I had gotten off the bus and wandered down that alley.”

Steve Morse: “In 1967, I would always hear the radio ads for Sundays for Balboa Dragstrip, an eighth-mile track near Eugene, Ore., and they talked about a guy named Snidely Whiplash. I knew that my brother, Vic, raced, but I did not know what he raced, so one day, my mom and I drove to the 76 station that Vic owned, and I say to Vic, ‘Why don't you beat this Snidely guy?’ I'm just 12 years old, and Vic comes around to my window and sticks his hand out and introduces himself as Snidely Whiplash. I was floored. He used the name so as not to aggravate Dad and Grandad because racing was outlaw to them. The first car I ever worked on was the Bob McCutcheon-owned, Vic Morse-driven Kent Fuller car, a 392 Hemi on 85 percent nitro. I remember us pushing him down toward the starting line, and when he let the clutch out and hit the mag switch, the entire cab of that push truck filled with The Elixir of the Gods. We had to turn the cars around by hand to point them the right way, and I'm getting hammered by the zoomies and nitro; I have no idea what's coming next. Well, the rest is history, as they say, and I've never been quite the same.”

Joe Juhan: “My first experience at the dragstrip was at the ill-fated Yellow River dragstrip in Covington, Ga. The year was 1965. My dad was a car dealer and had taken me to see Arnie ‘the Farmer’ Beswick at Tabor Pontiac in Atlanta on Thursday prior to a match race on Sunday with ‘Dyno Don’ Nicholson. Arnie was a super-nice guy and instantly became my hero. Arnie was in the Mystery Tornado ’64 GTO, 'Dyno' in the ’65 Comet, which, by this time, was sporting an altered wheelbase and Hilborn injectors, and both were on healthy doses of nitro. ‘Dyno’ took the two out of three. Also on the card that day was the 43 Jr. Barracuda driven by ‘the King’ [Richard Petty] against Huston Platt’s Dixie Twister. The next year, Arnie showed up with the Tameless Tiger '63 Tempest, ‘Dyno’ with the first flip-top car, the ’66 Logghe-built Eliminator I, but was eliminated by ‘the Farmer.’ That Tempest had no wheelie bars (maybe bumper-mounted wheels) and stood up on every pass, hauling the mail. I saw some of the wildest early Funny Car match racing there during those years. My brother and dad ran in Modified eliminator around the South, and there were some killer gassers and modified production cars in the area. That was the golden age for me as a boy. I lived and breathed drag racing, and I’m glad I was around to see it.”

Glenn Gaskey: “My first trip to the drags was like all of my trips to the drags as a little boy: absolutely awesome. I actually can’t remember my first trip because I was an infant, but as a very young boy, I do remember spending a lot of weekends at Lions and Irwindale, then later driving through south Orange County in the bed of my dad’s '56 Ford pickup tow vehicle, mostly on the side streets lined with eucalyptus trees. We would load up the altered-wheelbase Mustang (392 Hemi on 75 percent, I think) on Saturday mornings and head down Santa Fe Avenue from North Long Beach to 223rd Street and into the gates at Lions. After helping Dad and whoever else he could get to come along with us unload the car, I would run off by myself. I used to try to hang out on the bridge over the staging lanes and watch the cars head away downtrack. When I got told to get off the bridge, I would wander around the pits and get handouts from the big-time guys. It didn’t matter if I already had 10 of them from the Rain for Rent guys, I wanted 10 more. These were my baseball cards. My parents did worry a little about me from time to time, but this was a different time and a different place. All these racers were family, and they all looked out for one another and kept an eye out for us brats. My favorites were always the Funny Cars, Beebe, Dee Keaton, Ed Lenarth, Joe Pisano, and, as a young boy, I will never forget the back-window mural on the L.A. Hooker! In the later days of Lions, my dad ran with A/FC guys. Lions Dragstrip was my playground, and I had a hundred babysitters every weekend."

Pete Ross: “Years ago at the now-defunct Motion Raceway near Assumption, Ill., I was walking through the pits, and they had wheelstanders there. Bill Golden was having a hard time getting the big metal plate bolted to the tailgate of his truck. I asked what I could do, and he said, ‘Put those bolts in and start the nuts on the other end.’ Afterwards, I went back, and he signed a picture of his truck and gave it to me. I am glad to have met him.”

Craig Sanburn: "I have a great story of drag racing and my youth. The problem is, I've never been able to find out just whose house it was I lived by! While in the third or fourth grade in Dallas, a new student arrived. Her family had moved into a house across the street from my grade school, Edwin J. Kiest Elementary. All I remember is her name, Rene. I think their last name was Coslow or something close to that. While walking home, I noticed a bunch of trailers, some with dragsters inside. Rene told me her dad painted dragsters for a living in their garage. She took me inside, and there were dragster bodies everywhere. They even had the front nose off a car that had wrecked, and the driver had died from injuries. One car I totally remember getting painted was the Wienerschnitzel dragster. It was beautiful and in the following years showed up in several magazines. The paint was amazing! In the many years since, I have inquired to many a Texas racer (I now live in Northern California) and can’t find anyone that knows who Rene's dad was; I even asked Eddie Hill, and he couldn't remember anyone in Dallas painting dragsters. So I'm wondering if anyone knows the answer to this question that I've carried for over 40 years. If you could get this out there, maybe one of your readers will remember. The time was around 1965 to 1968 when we moved away. Like I said, there were always several trailers and cars around their house, so maybe there's a reader that knows!”

Joe Wiles: “It was spring 1982. My parents bought me a 1967 Firebird for my first car. My dad was definitely NOT a gearhead, but I was always fascinated by mechanical things but did not have a clue how to work on a car. One afternoon, my dad catches me with the hood up and the breather off. His exact words (minus the expletive): ‘Leave that SOB alone. It runs just fine.’ Well, you know what that did: Spark the fire.

“Flash-forward to fall 1983. Leaving school one afternoon, some in-duh-vidual turned in front of me and totaled my ‘bird. Well, we got the insurance money, and now enters the 1969 Nova, complete with a wicked 307 two-barrel, chrome reverse wheels, and air shocks. This was one BAD machine. I could spin that right rear tire like there was no tomorrow. I managed to get myself a job at the local service station (remember those?). I still didn’t have a clue how to work on cars, but I muddled my way through it. My first oil change on a customer’s car was an experience in itself. Well, time and experience progress, and I wind up with a boneyard 300-horse 327 four-barrel out of an Impala. The guys at the station kept telling me about this Tex Cooper guy that was a racer and could get me all kinds of parts for my 327. Unbeknownst to me, this guy lives around the corner and half a block from my house. I managed to muster the courage to go talk to him about getting some parts. He worked for Gaerte engines, which didn’t mean crap to me because, well, I didn’t know crap about cars. This guy’s name could have been Charlie Manson, and it would not have meant anything to me. Anyway, Tex gets me a cam, rings, bearings, and some dress-up goodies for my 327. I began to hang around the Cooper house quite a bit asking stupid questions and probably became quite a nuisance.

“I finally decided to tackle the 327 build. Remember the part about not knowing crap about cars? It didn’t matter. Well, after installing and removing the rods and pistons a few times, I finally get the engine put together. I get it dropped in the car, hooked up, turned the key. It sounded like I left the plugs out of it. Who knew you had to line up the marks on the timing chain? Well, after several trips to Tex’s house bugging him with questions, he finally caves and comes down to look (probably just to get me to quit bugging him). Apparently, he felt sorry for me. The next day, he brings me a good (not new) set of valves from the shop to replace the old bent ones. Well, I get it all fixed, and Tex starts giving me tuning tips, and I hang around and ‘help’ him in his garage. Oh, did I mention the blown 392 Hemi that sat in the corner of his garage? Pictures on the wall show that it used to sit between the rails of an old Datsun pickup. Next to the pics of the Tex’s Twister nitro Funny Car and the blown gas ‘57 Chevy, that is.

“So, I start to follow drag racing and begin to know the names of the guys (and gals) associated with the sport. So one year (1983, I think) he takes me to the Nationals. We make our way to the pits. I’m following him around like a lost puppy totally enamored with what’s going on. Then, he totally blows my mind. We walk up to Gene Snow’s pit, and he ducks under the ropes and proceeds to enter the transporter. I’m mortified. What the hell is he doing? Then out walks Gene, who says, 'Marc, how the hell are you doing?’ Marc? Who the hell is Marc? Well, not only did I figure out that Tex knew Gene Snow, his name was not Tex at all. Anyway, we proceed around the pits, and he’s talking to all these guys I read about. He was even boyhood friends with Gary Harwood. You cannot even imagine how taken back I was. As years progressed, he never ceased to amaze me how many people he knew in the sport. Over the years, I got more and more stories and met more of the guys I read about and some that I didn’t. I owe it all (or the blame thereof) to my father for doubting me and Tex for dragging me along. I’m great friends with my dad and still great friends with Tex. That friendship has lasted nearly 30 years now.”

Gary Augliera: “I grew up in West Haven, Conn., home of Macey & Suraci's Lead Zeppelin Hemi 'Cuda and Lead Zeppelin II ‘66 Plymouth wagon. It is also the town where Bill Flynn had his shop. My father, a Chrysler guy, was, I think, a gearhead down deep, but he could not show it because my two brothers and I were already car crazy.

“My father's moving company garage was about a mile between both Flynn's and Macey & Suraci's shop on the Post Road. He would come home and say, ‘Get in the car,’ and take us to see Macey doing burnouts in the street. Macey would back into the street and do burnouts back into the garage. Sometimes we would go see Flynn unload the car and drive it in his shop. Bill was not all that friendly, although late in life, he really was a good guy.

“One of most impressionable things in my life was when my father took us to Lorrello Motors, the Dodge dealer in West Haven; Flynn had his '65 altered-wheelbase Coronet on display in their showroom. It was a wooden building. When he started the injected Hemi, it shook the building; my father dragged us outside fearing the place was going to come down on us. Then Flynn did some dry hops on Campbell Avenue, about a block from the police department. That night changed my life!"

Donnie Heaton: “I feel I was the luckiest kid on the planet. For almost 20 years when Don Garlits came to the West Coast, he would stay with my family. One of my best friends during these visits was T.C. Lemons; he’d take me with him to pick up tires, fuel, and to go testing at Pomona. My dad's shop (Bud's Muffler) was a hangout for many racers -- Garlits, Jim Dunn, Gary Southern, 'Starvin' Marvin' [Schwartz], Les Ritchey (who worked on my dad's car), Les Hawkins, Norm Weekly, Nick Serino … way too many people to remember. I grew up at the drags and to this day still attend and work on race teams. My dad loved to help these racers; some had no money, but that didn't matter -- it was about racing. I still have my dad's club jacket (Ground Shakers). How lucky I was!”

I’d like to close with more words on the topic by the aforementioned Mr. Crumine (pretty soon I’m going to have to start paying this guy) that, again, I think we all can agree on: “Sitting here reading everyone’s story really takes me back. And it really highlights just how much drag racing has changed over the years. Between Funny Car and Pro Stock grudge matches, wheelstander and jet car exhibitions, and the gasser wars, there sure is a lot that I miss. Just the whine of a blower from the far end … priceless. I really miss the dry hops of the fuel cars. The pre-race rituals of laying down the rosin, and Pro Stocks making several wheels-up launches, and all while the announcer is screaming at you in an attempt to get the crowd worked up into a frenzy … as if we needed any more hype to get the juices flowing. No energy drinks needed; we ran on pure adrenaline. The absolute unpredictability of the gassers and fuel altereds. Man, things have changed. How can a person convey what this was like? To grow up and live through the golden age of drag racing, and motorsports in general. It makes us the luckiest people in the whole world. Thanks to everyone for sharing. It proves that no matter where you grew up, what your financial situation was, your ethnic background, etc. that we all lived similar experiences and were drawn together by something much bigger than politics. A little thing called the drags.”

Amen, brother. Thanks, everyone, for sharing.