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Chopping down the Christmas Tree

20 Sep 2013
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

As you’ve read over the last two weeks, the introduction of the Christmas Tree wasn’t always met with warm embraces, especially by the old guard, who had honed their spidey senses to enable them to get a good leave on the flagman’s signal, and I remember reading somewhere that there were even those cunning drivers who purposely mowed down the fragile and spindly new-fangled contraptions to put them out of business for the race weekend. Most tracks only had one of the devices on hand and maybe some spare bulbs, but they generally weren’t ready for a full-scale Tree demolition.

While I can’t finger any particular driver for this transgression, I scoured our files and came up with a smashing selection of Tree-chopping chariots from over the years. Eventually, racetracks and sanctioning bodies grew weary of the expense and delay that resulted from the misguided melees and finally wised up by either putting their Trees atop concrete blocks or suspending them above the racing surface, but sometimes even that didn’t stop them, as you will see over the next two installments. Feel free to share your photos and stories about drivers literally chopping down the Christmas Tree!

This injected-fuel dragster only gave the Tree a mild sideswipe that removed just a few ornaments from the bottom branches of the Tree at Irwindale Raceway. Glenn Menard, who managed the famed Southern California track in the early 1970s, remembers new owner Steve Evans going to the suspended Tree at The Dale when he arrived in 1973. “Lions also hung its Tree to reduce the chance of cars driving over it since it was a tad narrow,” he remembered. “We also had a variable Pro Tree timing switch because you still could have red-lights with the four-tenths Pro Tree in existence, which killed the show. The Pros in 1972-74 would race on the three-tenths and all others on the four-tenths Tree.”

The Christmas Tree in Pomona took a pounding on the opening day of the 1972 Winternationals. Maybe it was due to it being the first day of the first race of the season and drivers were still shaking off the rust, but as these photos from Steve Reyes can attest, two altereds did a pretty good job of altering the Tree.

(Above) Comp racer Don Waite, who lived in Temple City, just down Interstate 10 from the racetrack, did a real number on the Tree, sending bulbs and bits everywhere, but at least he was gentleman enough to stop his A/Altered and dismount to look back at the carnage, as seen in this classic shot at right of the crippled Tree being cradled in its final moments by a distraught official.

(Below) Gregg Bellemeur, from similarly nearby Monrovia, also did a number on the Pomona Tree that day with his supercharged-gas AA/A Fiat Topolino at an early 1970s Winternationals, then later went fuel altered racing and won the Fuel Altered Spectacular at OCIR with alky in the tank!! Greg is the father of current Top Alcohol Funny Car standout Sean Bellemeur.


 

(Above) The driver of this injected B/Altered convertible sports car ended up with the chopped Tree on his hood after center-punching it. It’s a good thing he had one of those bubble shields for protection.

(Left) I’m 99.9 percent sure that this is Camp Stanley broadsiding his popular, supercharged Just Luv’n It Chevy Luv truck into the Tree in E-town. Stanley was one of the real characters of the popular Wild Bunch group that brought their brand of supercharged madness to tracks up and down the East Coast in the 1980s with blown bad boys like Stanley’s truck, Tommy "the Who" Howes’ 300ZX, and Elmer "Dr. Wacko" Wachter’s Jeep

(Below) This sure looks like Englishtown back in the days before the guardwalls were right up against the track, but I’m not 100 percent certain. One thing that does seem certain about this Tree-crushing T-bucket is that it appears to be facing the wrong way on the track, based on the end of the launch pad and what looks like a finish-line scoreboard behind him.
 


It’s bad enough any time you run into the Christmas Tree, but there can’t be many worse places than to do it on the big stage at the U.S. Nationals, as former national event-winning Comp racer Ralph Hope did. On the plus side of his ledger, the talented Canadian also was the low qualifier at Indy in 1990 and 1991.

Then, of course, there’s this most famous of failed attempts to trim the Tree by my great, great friend and driving mentor Frank Mazi at the 1978 SPORTSnationals in Bowling Green, Ky. How could a feature like this run without a photo like this, a moment captured by former National Dragster photographer Richard Brady? While Mazi didn’t harm a hair on the Tree, he did a pretty good job on the concrete support on which it was (apparently wisely) placed and, of course, on his God of Hellfire Opel.

Lest you get the impression that Sportsman drivers (or even altered drivers) were the only ones causing the carnage, I’ve got photographic proof that a number of drivers in other classes — especially in Funny Car — also have put the Tree in their targets.