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Gordie Bonin, your memories

13 Dec 2013
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

Praises and love continue to roll in in the wake of Gordie Bonin’s unexpected passing two weeks ago, and the level of admiration is touching. I’m sure that “240” knew he still had a lot of fans, but maybe not the depth of the attachment.

Even though Bonin primarily was a star of the1970s, I’ve read a lot of message-board and email-group praise for him from people who think that the 1960s was drag racing’s golden age or those who are modern-day fans and know only of him from the history books. By what counts as a measure of popularity today, the original story of Bonin’s death that I wrote that Friday night garnered more than 1,100 Facebook shares and more than 250 tweets. The outpouring of remembrances to my email has been impressive, and I want to share some of them now, but you'd better pull up a chair. This may take a while.

As I wrote last week, even though he was 65 -- not at all an expected age for someone to pass – Bonin still had that youthful enthusiasm that made you think he was half that age, which I think is why his passing was such a shock.

I can report now that Bonin’s death was heart-related. His mother, Marie – sadly on whose birthday he died – wanted his friends and fans to know the truth and that Bonin had been dealing with a serious heart condition the last few years of which not many people were aware because he didn't want any pity. He had several hospital stays the last couple of years and had been hospitalized not long before taking the trip to Las Vegas. He ignored friends' requests to come home to Red Deer, Alta., for further care because he wanted to make a West Coast swing to see his old racing pals. Maybe he knew what was coming, maybe he didn’t, but, like the way he lived, he did it Gordie’s way. He was cremated in Las Vegas and his ashes flown home to Red Deer.

I really wanted to hear from a couple of people, chief among them Ed “the Ace” McCulloch, who often shared top billing with Bonin at those great Northwest flopper fests and who famously won his second straight U.S. Nationals Funny Car title at the expense of first-time finalist Bonin in 1972. I had hoped to include his remembrances in the column a week ago Monday but wasn’t able to catch up to him until after that went online, but he still was happy to share his memories.

No matter the decade, Bonin vs. McCulloch at Seattle was always a battle.

“I remember the first time I met Gordie, when he and [Gordon] Jenner came down from Canada. The car ran good, but at the time, we had no idea how much of a force he was going to be once he and Jerry Verheul hooked up.

"We raced one another a lot. We had a lot of good times together and traveled together. When I moved back down to California and lived in Sanger, they’d come down with both cars – Gordie’s Funny Car and Graham [Light]’s dragster – and stay at my place. We’d grill and drink and raise hell, then go on to the next race. There was friendship, but there was always a rivalry for who’s going to come out on top. Those big races in Seattle always drew a lot of Canadian fans, so when he’d come down there, it was like, ‘You’re Canadian, I’m American,’ and it was a lot of fun, then we’d go run Calgary and Edmonton.

“I thought an awful lot of Gordie. He was always very positive and had a very cheerful way about him. Gordie always had something in the fire and something on the back burner and something he was chasing. That was just Gordie. We’ll all miss him.”

The other person I really wanted to hear from was Phil Elliott, who made an art form out of covering the Northwest scene for so many years and became a great and trusted friend to so many of the legend’s heroes. “Flyin’ Phil” came through with the nice piece of work below for us.

Larry Pfister

Gordie Bonin was just like the story of the lead singer in a local high school garage band being noticed by a record company, cutting a hit record, and instantly touring the country. He’d quickly moved from street racing a big-block Chevelle to wheeling a nationally competitive fuel Funny Car. He loved what he did – it was easy to tell – and he was good at it.
 
Everybody in the business has a way of rating Funny Car drivers, and they have their favorites. Each would put Bonin in the top five all time, and many (like me) would put him in their top two spots.
 
When I produced my magazine Drag Racing News & Views, I traveled with the Pacemaker team, usually Jerry Verheul, Steve Hutcheson, and me in the truck. If it weren’t for them, I would not have gotten to many of the events I did. I worked menial tasks around the shop during the week too.
 
At the big events, it was often as difficult to keep those separated who were interested in spending time with Gordie as it was to service the car. There was always a pretty-sounding musical voice asking, “Where’s Gooorrrrdddiieeeee?” His fans loved him as much as we did.

Gordie Bonin takes out John Force at Boise (Phil Elliott photo)

One time that worked exactly backwards for him was during the running of Verheul’s favorite project, the turbocharged nitro engine. It was an experiment in 1979 and 1980, not to gain horsepower but to save costs. Nitromethane had increased in cost by 100 percent, and Jerry figured he could build a turbocharged engine that would produce the same power on about 50 percent nitro.
 
Turbos intrigued Jerry, but not so much Gordie, who didn’t like experimentation that gave him less of a chance at winning. Verheul was a genius, and through the turbo trials, he proved it. The turbocharged nitro engine took time to develop and had a number of phases. It had several different intake manifolds, plenum designs, headers, turbo mounting locations, and several different wastegate configurations. Dave Benjamin was machinist, fabricator, and weldor on most of the many pieces.
 
I went to several early testing sessions, all sans body, and with Frank Hall in the seat. They were among the most boring of all -- start the engine, short burnout, back up, launch, smolder the tires, back up, shut off. The engine was very quiet and due to the header configuration spit unburned fuel straight out, which sometimes even puddled under the rear tires.
 
Each time, Jerry learned and changed things around until they suited him. One of the things that continued to impress him was the amount of boost the engine produced just before the tires came loose.

Phil Elliott

A trip to a Sacramento WCS came in 1980, and I didn’t go. Word had gotten around, and track operator Dave Smith requested the turbo car and was willing to pay (most nitro cars were bought in to the points races at the time). So off to Sacto they went. As I recall from Jerry’s and Gordie’s stories, there were three qualifying passes. The first was a stumbling shutoff, the second similar but better, and the third a tire-roasting, piston-melting deal that qualified the car. Race day rained out, so the Pacemaker group made an I-5 blast back to Seattle and returned with conventional setup to win the race the following Saturday. Did I forget to mention that the turbo engine was complicated and almost impossible to work on away from the Pacemaker shop?
 
It was a month or so later that the turbo car made its biggest impression on me.
 
It was at Portland for 32 Funny Cars, easily the biggest one-day motorsports event in Oregon. And Gordie was among the top fan favorites of all time there. I say that because of his competitive spirit. Although he was smiley and fun to be around to the fans, he wanted to WIN every match race, national event, and tiddlywinks competition he entered.
 
But that day, he was ruffled. He had made it known that he did NOT like the turbo car, and until it showed more consistency and controllability, he felt the conventional engine was the better choice. After all, he knew he could win with that, and the Pacemaker team was remarkable at Portland. But there was a second and arguably much greater reason.
 
Jerry knew it was a perfect opportunity to test on a well-prepared track AND get paid for it. There were even words between Jerry and promoter Bill Doner, but Verheul assured him the package was ready.

Larry Pfister

Earlier in the year, we discovered a new lady in Gordie’s life. My magazine had debuted at one of the radio-station-backed extravaganzas that were the norm — probably 16 nitro and 16 alky Funny Cars. On the way back north, Larry Pfister described a photo he’d shot of Gordie looking at a copy of DRNV with “one of the most beautiful girls” he’d ever seen. Later, I used the photo as a subscription ad.
 
The girl was Karen Minick, daughter of Pat Minick, part owner and driver of arguably the most famous Funny Car in history, the Chi-Town Hustler. It seems that Gordie was in the process of stealing her from Ron Colson, who had driven Chi-Town but was then in the seat of Roland Leong’s Hawaiian.
 
It was a rather distraught Gordie Bonin who strapped in behind Jerry’s turbocharged hemi that night at 32 Funny Cars. He was fighting for the heart of a fair maiden on a horse with weak legs.
 
I have always been skeptical that the first-round pairings were coincidental, for there came the Hawaiian Corvette to face the Pacemaker Firebird.

The crowd reacted negatively to the Pacemaker’s nearly silent burnout, although from a smoke standpoint, it was in the A category. There were a couple of dry hops — Verheul gave Gordie every chance he had, then the two drivers staged. Both left well, but the turbo Firebird pulled two open on the stout Corvette. My heart leaped with the thought that maybe, finally, the car was going to perform up to Jerry’s expectations. But alas, just past the transition from concrete to asphalt, right at the shift point, the big M&Hs churned, and the Hawaiian moved around for the easy win.
 
Still, for about a two-second moment in history, the stars had aligned.
 
Gordie didn’t end up with that win, but he did end up with the girl, and they remained friends.

We should have known that Bonin, far lane, would be good after he was runner-up in Seattle less than one week after he licensed. (Rich Carlson photo)

Gordie was certainly good at what he did those years. In the years of the team-up of [Ron] Hodgson, Verheul, and Bonin, they were as good as any Funny Car in the country. They won races locally, regionally, nationally. They toured. They won some more. Jerry had always wanted a deal like this, where he could run a car that thundered, be able to experiment some, match race, run national events, travel at his whim, and do it on someone else’s dollars. Ron wanted exposure for his businesses and believed Jerry could do it with a very fast Funny Car. Gordie not only drove the wheels off of anything he sat in, but his charm was a natural when it came to marketing the team.
 
Gordie did have some personal baggage, but he was one of the most genuine individuals I’ve ever known. Like everyone else, I’ll miss him – I’ll miss him like the brother I never had.

Bonin, second from right, with, from left, NHRA pals Brian Tracy, Don Kraushar, and then-president Dallas Gardner dirt-biking near Lake Arrowhead, circa 1985.

It has been mentioned several times that Bonin worked at NHRA for six years in the middle to late 1980s, and I remain good friends with the guy who was responsible for his hiring back then, former NHRA Vice President-Sales/Development Brian Tracy. I asked, and naturally, he had fond memories of a guy who not only worked for and with him, but also with whom he had been friends before all that.

“Bonin and I became good friends not long after I joined NHRA back in the mid-'70's,” he wrote. “At the Gatornationals one year back then, I was walking through the pits and stopped to watch him and [crew chief Jerry] Verheul and the boys in a full thrash after a run that resulted in much engine damage. Bonin saw me standing there and tossed me a rag saying, ‘Don't just stand there; wipe the body down for me!’ So I did, and the rest, as they say, is history. Given his gregarious personality and great rapport with sponsors, he really interested us when we went to the marketing-services event-staffing strategy as we increased races and added title-rights sponsors in the early 1980s.

“He was a natural at it and did a sensational job with people like Kenny Cason of Chief Auto Parts, John Dangler of Motorcraft, John Gardella of Castrol, Bud Lyons of Quaker State, Ron Winter of Budweiser, and many others as they activated their event sponsorships. Racers were always (and probably still are) wary of NHRA ‘stealing their sponsors,’ and Gordie was great at dispelling that myth, particularly because he was one of them. Probably my greatest memory of Gordie was after he went back to driving and was wheeling the Hawaiian Vacations Funny Car for Roland Leong. The sponsorship by the Hawaiian Visitors Council of the car came under great fire by a very influential and powerful newspaper columnist for the Honolulu Star. With the pressure ratcheting up by this columnist, Gordie, Roland, and I decided to have a press conference in Honolulu, invite all the local media, civic dignitaries, and particularly the columnist to specifically outline the marketing strategy and return on investment of the sponsorship. Well, the dog and pony show came off just great, with one minor problem. The columnist didn't show up. So we scouted around and found out what bar he frequented after he got off work (newspaper guys back in the day always had a bar they hung out in), and sure enough, we found it. The guy was so big in town that he had his own private booth at the bar with an old manual Royal typewriter mounted on the table. The guy comes in and at first wouldn't give us the time of day, but Bonin poured on the charm (as only he could) and by the end of a very liquid cocktail hour had the guy eating out of his hand. The end result was that the guy declared a truce and never wrote a word about the sponsorship (one way or the other) ever again. In many ways, Gordie was always a game changer, and in some ways, he was often a heartbreaker. But he was truly, truly one of a kind.”

A nice tribute posted on YouTube

Mitch Cooper, whose dad, Jim, covered the Northwest drag racing scene for Drag News in the 1960s, joined the NHRA Marketing Department in 1989 on Bonin’s departure and even inherited Bonin’s phone extension (240, of course). He shared this with me via email: “This one just hit WAY too close to home for a lot of us, mainly because Gordie was always ‘one of us.’ My meeting Gordie was very much similar to yours. I had been a fan of his since honestly I could remember going to the drags with my dad and watching his cars being built in Al Swindahl’s shop. During my first week or so working at Firebird [Int’l Raceway] in 1988, Gordie flew out for some advance planning for the Fallnationals. My head was already spinning from now being a part of the ‘community,’ and now I’m sitting in on meetings and having lunch with 240! He took me under his wing without hesitation and seemed to appreciate my Northwest drag background.

“Gordie was one of the last TRUE personalities of the sport that extended from his successful career behind the wheel to behind the desk and back again. His accomplishments may not match those of Prudhomme or Force, but the life he lived around this 1,320 feet of asphalt world seemed to be always with an eye towards squeezing the most out of every second and every opportunity he had.

“He had the utmost respect and reverence for the people that helped to create, direct, and propel the sport of drag racing: Wally and Barbara Parks, T. Wayne Robertson, all the way to legendary Tacoma [Wash.]-based chassis builder and mutual friend Al Swindahl (whom he just referred to by the nickname ‘Chassis’). Gordie NEVER lost his enthusiasm for the sport and was not shy at all in sharing his unabashed excitement with anyone and everyone whenever he had the opportunity to strap on his helmet. GB, you made us race fans in the Northwest proud, and you will be missed by all.”

Ed Eberlein, a sometime crewmember for the Bubble Up team who was on the crew when Bonin beat Don Prudhomme in the final round of the 1977 World Finals, wrote, “Just read the obit on 240 … and tears fill my eyes. He was one of the good guys in racing. I was always welcome on his team anytime: photographer and oil dumper and whatever else needed to be done. Even ended up in the winner’s circle twice; once at the Governor’s Cup in Sacramento when he had the Monza body and again later when he beat ’Snake’ at Ontario. I will always recall him reaching into ‘Snake’s’ Army car after ‘Snake’ had strapped in and wishing him good luck. Then we beat him. He, Jerry, and Chuck were always welcoming. Knowing Gordie allowed me to connect with Mike Miller and Ro[land Leong] and Ron Colson. Damn. He is missed.”

Insider regular Frankie LoCascio added, “I didn’t attend my first drag race until ’84, so I hadn’t seen Gordie in his prime, but due to my reading and watching everything I could about drag racing of years gone by, I was well aware of who he was. I was excited to see when he made his comeback in both the Top Fuel car and Funny Cars and to see him win a few more national events. I never really had a chance to speak with him until I went up to Spokane [Wash.] for the ’03 AHRA World Finals. I was working on the Neese & Knowles AA/FC at the time. Gordie was at that event, and it was cool to finally get to talk to him a time or two over the weekend. As luck would have it, we made it to the finals and raced Vinny Arcadi (RIP). At the hit, Vinny went up in smoke or had an issue of some kind. Steve Neese (our driver) was having issues of his own, but being that he didn’t see or hear Vinny, he stayed after it. Up on the right header and then back on all fours, up on the left header and back down on all fours before the eighth-mile without hitting the wall or crossing the centerline; Steve went before turning on the win light. What does all this have to do with Gordie, you’re asking. As we piled into the van to go get Steve, Gordie came up to the van, shook all of our hands, and said that was without a doubt the wildest Funny Car pass he had ever seen. Coming from ‘240 Gordie,’ that was saying something. I think that was just as cool as winning the race, having ‘240 Gordie’ pay us a compliment like that. There will never be another Gordie Bonin. Godspeed, Gordie. Thanks for the memories!”

Even the background had a smile for Bonin.

Terry Morrow, who grew up crewing on some great Northwest cars (he was with Pat Austin during his heyday) and today handles engine/fuel-systems tech and sales for Alan Johnson Performance Engineering, wrote, “Growing up in the Northwest and working on Gaines Markley’s Top Fuel car, I met Gordie in Gaines’ garage (Gaines would put Gordie’s third members together). I always liked to pit next to him because he would always have the prettiest girls around; if they put on one of his halter tops in the trailer, they would get it for free! Gordie, Terry Capp, and Bernie Fedderly would bring all of us (kids back then) some kind of Canadian booze and turn us loose in the pits after the race. Gordie was always happy, nice, and wearing a smile. If you look at the trophy pic of him in the Hawaiian firesuit, look behind him at the writing on the wall. Awesome.”

“Canadian (Manitoba) gearhead” Allen Lasko wrote that Bonin “was someone I cheered for from afar, reading of his exploits in magazines back in the day. In 2009, I went to an Indy car race in Edmonton, and they had a paddock filled with local sports cars. There, in the midst of them, was one of Bonin’s Firebird floppers. It drew me like a magnet; seeing that car was indeed a big highlight of my weekend. RIP, 240.”

Karl White, whom you may remember from the photos and old programs from OCIR he shared during the Ghost Tracks thread, had many good memories of watching Bonin race and an especially fine memory of his actual meeting with the man.

“Maybe 15 or 17 years ago, give or take, I was at a race at Pomona (Winters, World Finals, maybe one of the old Goodguys vintage races, I really forget), and ‘240’ was working at NHRA at the time. I was at the track with a friend of mine, Takaru, a Japanese national. I worked for a Japanese aerospace company at the time and enjoyed taking visitors to the drags when I could because it’s something uniquely American that they just don’t get to see much in Asia. So, we’re at the races, and at one point during the afternoon, we come across somebody’s pit area, again, I forget exactly who, long time ago. Standing there bench racing, right in front of us, is Gordie Bonin and Roland Leong and a couple other guys. My buddy starts taking pictures, mostly of the car; he didn’t know ‘240’ or Roland Leong from Adam. I spent some few minutes explaining to my friend who these guys are and why they are such a big deal in the world of drag racing. He understood and was duly impressed, all things considered. After a few moments, Gordie sees us and, of his own accord, asks if Tak would like his picture taken. Sure, great! Gordie holds up the rope, Tak hands me his camera and steps in, and I take a photo of my buddy standing between Gordie Bonin and ‘the Hawaiian’ himself. Cool beans! We say thanks and move along.

“Now, the cool part. About a month later, we get the photos developed (this is long before digital stuff), and that particular shot came out perfectly. It’s in focus, perfectly framed, great color, everyone’s smiling right to the camera, one of those lucky shots. A professional in a studio could not have gotten a better shot. I got the negative and had a color 8x10 made. I knew Gordie was working at NHRA in some capacity, so I write a quick note and ask ‘240’ if he’d autograph it for my buddy, and I’ll send it to him in Japan for a surprise. Couple weeks go by, nothing. A month, no reply. Six, eight weeks, I just forget about it; guy’s busy, some secretary probably tossed it. Oh well.

Bonin was fast on two wheels, too, beating KHJ disc jockey "Machine Gun Kelly" in this fun pairing at Irwindale during the track's KHJ Funny Car Special event in 1976.

“Musta been four or five months later, I get a call at work. ‘I’m looking for Karl White,’ and suddenly, I’m on the phone with one of these ‘legend-of-the-sport’ guys. We talk, and he’s as pleasant as can be; talks to me like we’ve been friends for 30 years. I know my mouth was hanging open. He explained that he’d left NHRA and was working at the Las Vegas Speedway as a marketing/sales guy; he’d just been going through old mail that had been forwarded from Glendora and found my photo and note. He’s apologizing for getting back to me so late. Gordie Bonin is telling me he’s sorry about getting back late on some autograph request from some guy he cannot possibly remember meeting. Really!?

“So, after we talk, he sends the picture back, signed personally to my friend, and he adds his business card and a note on the back with Roland Leong's home address. He tells me to send this to Roland and have him sign it, too. Mr. Leong also gives it a personal touch, and I was able to forward the final product to Tak back in Tokyo, where it becomes one of his prized possessions. It’s still hanging in the hallway of his house in the Shibuya-ku section of Tokyo. I still have Gordie’s business card with the note on the back, looking at it right now. Takura will be sorry to hear of the passing of ‘240 Gordie.’ I know I am.”

Thanks for all of your sharing and help in giving him the sendoff he deserved; I know that “240” would have enjoyed it, too. Obviously, we’re not the only people remembering Gordie. Check out the great tribute to him posted on the Speedzone website or read the story from his hometown paper, the Red Deer Advocate.

Here are some parting words from someone else who truly appreciates it. I was extremely pleased to hear from Gordie’s son, Scott, who agreed to share his thoughts about his dad with us.

“My dad was definitely one of a kind,” he wrote. “As he was in racing, he lived life five seconds at a time. He lived life to its fullest. He was able to put a person at ease and make you feel like you were his best friend within minutes of meeting him. His smile and sense of humor was intoxicating. When talking to people who never had met him, I used to say he was the oldest 16-year-old I knew.

“Over the past few weeks, I have been reminiscing over the memories of him; one that keeps coming to mind I guess you could call my very first driving lesson. I think I was about 5 at the time. He took me out to go kite flying in his new 1970 Chevelle SS. So we went to an open field to fly the kite. We had a great time. But when it came time to leave, he realized when he parked the Chevelle, the front wheels were in a rut. So he tried backing out, but no go, the tires would just spin. So here is where my lesson came in -- he asked me to sit in the driver’s seat, and when he pushed the front end of the car, he asked me to tap the gas pedal. But being 5 and having to stretch my legs just to even touch the pedal, the tap turned into more of a stomp. Well, the car came out of the rut … with the tires squealing and him chasing me and the car. He was able to catch up and take control of the car without any further mishaps. I was so worried I was going to be in trouble, but once the shock of what had just happened wore off, he just chuckled and said, ‘Maaan, was that fun,’ and we laughed about it all the way home.

“He will be sadly missed by fans, friends, and family. I would like to thank everyone for their condolences and sharing of stories about my dad. It has warmed my heart and has made this time a little easier. Through these stories, I was able to learn more about the man that was my dad; until this, I never knew that for the past 20 years, he has gone to Joliet, Ill., every year to play at a charity softball game that helped raise money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. These stories will also allow his grandchildren (Daniel Andrew Trey and Emily) to learn about what type of man he was.”