The legend of "Big Mike" Burkhart
A couple of weeks ago, my weekly My Favorite Fuelers column on the National Dragster website centered on Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers from the great state of Texas. I purposely omitted known heroes, like Eddie Hill, Raymond Beadle, and Kenny Bernstein, and focused on those a little further down the fame food chain, including the colorful “Big Mike” Burkhart.
I knew just the basics of Burkhart’s long career, but I reached out to longtime email pal Mart Higginbotham, who had been partners with Burkhart in the 1970s and remained close friends with him over the decades until his death in 1997, for some more background. He gave me a treasure trove of memories, so I also reached out to a couple of others, including Beadle, who once drove for Burkhart, and current Nostalgia Funny Car star (and occasional “big show” driver) John Hale, who worked for Burkhart in his non-racing businesses in the early 1980s and learned so such from him that he created a tribute car in 2010. Figuring that I now had the goods to deliver a column here, I also spoke to “the guy” linked to both Burkhart and Hale, Guy Tipton, who was Burkhart’s crew chief in the 1970s and now wrenches on Hale’s current Burkhart tribute car.
And away we go …
|Mike Burkhart and Harry Schmidt were partners on a trio of early Funny Cars in the mid- to late 1960s, including this wild, injected Chevy II (above) and a couple of Camaros (below).|
Although Burkhart was, as they say in Texas, "a big boy," the layouts of the early Funny Car cockpits were more generous in size, which allowed his large frame to fit comfortably.
Even though they attended different Dallas-area schools, Higginbotham and Burkhart were pals since high school. While Higginbotham was off in college in the mid-1960s, Burkhart, who cut his racing teeth in the Super Stock ranks with a '57 Chevy, teamed with Harry Schmidt, who later would go onto his own fame with the Blue Max Funny Car, on an injected, altered-wheelbase Chevy II, sponsored by Friendly Chevrolet; a homebuilt ’67 Camaro Funny Car; and then a Don Hardy-built Camaro flopper that was run with backing from another Dallas-based dealership, Doran Chevrolet.
Burkhart came by his nickname honestly. During his racing days, he always weighed more than 300 pounds, which wasn’t a – ahem – big problem in the early days when the Hardy and Logghe chassis had square roll cages; Hardy even made the left door open of Burkhart’s car open and close like a real car to make it easier for Burkhart to get in and out, especially the latter in case of emergency.
By late 1968, Burkhart and Schmidt had parted company, and Burkhart had the car repainted. He had the car out at Green Valley Race in Smithfield, Texas, doing some burnouts and testing and had renowned photographer D.D. Cleveland taking pictures for his handouts and track promotions, but a broken brake caliper caused him to crash that day. Higginbotham, who began racing a stock car in the AHRA Formula class after completing college, was there to witness it.
“He turned around in the middle of the track and came back towards the starting line and blipped the throttle, and at that same exact time, a Hurst brake caliper broke, and he ran into the crowd and hit some posts,” recalled Higginbotham. “It damaged the car, but no one was hurt.
“I saw Mike after the accident at his ramp truck, and we talked. I told him I would pay for the repair to his car if we could build, as partners, another Hardy car and make it a Chevy II — we saw the fans’ reaction to ‘Jungle’s’ [Jim Liberman] Chevy II. He agreed, and we ordered the car that week. Mike said he thought he could get Ed Doran to sponsor another ramp truck, and we were off.”
Using the power of Burkhart’s name for booking, they fielded two cars — a Camaro for Burkhart and the Chevy II for Higginbotham — with Burkhart’s name on the back quarterpanel of both.
(Above) Mart "the Dart" Higginbotham and "Big Mike" teamed up to field a pair of Funny Cars (below). Note the working door in Burkhart's Don Hardy-built flip-top Camaro that made ingress and egress a little easier.
Higginbotham and the RFI-sponsored Vega take on Frank Oglesby.
Richard Tharp at the wheel of Burkhart's only non-Chevy, a Plymouth Satellite.
Charlie Therwanger in "Big Mike's" Vega.
David Ray in one of Burkhart's later Vegas.
Dale Emery drove for Burkhart for three seasons. This sleek Camaro met an unforgettable end at the 1977 U.S. Nationals.
Burkhart's last flopper was this Monza, run and driven by Gordon Mineo.
“Prior to driving the Chevy II, I drove Mike's Camaro in two match races to gain experience, and who would have thought? I won both of them and seemed to be a natural,” Higginbotham said. “Bookings came easy, and the car ran very well, ending the season by winning the AHRA World Finals in Tulsa, Okla., and winning the Manufacturers Meet and the 64-car Funny Car show at Irwindale.”
Bookings were going so well that that winter they had Dick Fletcher build them a third car, which Higginbotham drove while Paul Gordon inherited the Chevy II for races in the five-state area surrounding Texas. The new car, however, proved an ill handler, and, fearing for his safety, Higginbotham got back in the Chevy II.
About this time, Charlie Therwanger, who previously worked for “Mr. Chevrolet,” Dickie Harrell, got out the military and wanted to drive, so he was added to the team to run match races while Higginbotham went up north and to the East Coast following AHRA’s Grand American series.
When Don Long began building Funny Cars in California, Burkart and Higginbotham were his second customers (Leroy “Doc “Hales was the first). The car had a '71 Vega body, and Burkhart and Higginbotham got Jim Robbs at Racing Fuels Inc. to sponsor it and pay for a Chrysler 426. A second Vega was painted identical for more advertising. “The engine came from the Ramchargers, and the car was very light and quick,” Higginbotham recalls. “We ran in all the AHRA Grand American series, some NHRA races, and in the Midwest and up and down the East Coast. That year the car ran 107 races. We had a fabulous time and won the NHRA race in Palm Beach, Fla.”
Burkart and Higginbotham also agreed to let Therwanger spend what he needed to redo the Fletcher car and put a new Kirby body (more narrow and windshield lowered) on it to make it sleeker. He also put a Crowerglide and Lenco two-speed in it,” recalled Higginbotham. “It was booked on the East Coast and at all IHRA meets. It quickly became the country’s quickest and fastest all-Chevy-engine and -body car. Charles won the IHRA Rockingham Meet the same weekend I won in Florida.
“Mike was so well known in the area that all the track promoters would call him for shows, and he put together many six-eight-car meets and charged the other drivers and stayed busy all the time.”
They raced together through another successful season in 1972 — Burkhart with a Tony Casarez-built car and Higginbotham in another Long machine — capped by Higginbotham’s Grand Am win in St. Louis. They split up late in the year, each to pursue his interests. Burkhart created a fabulously successful business, Auxiliary Gas Tank Co., that sold (surprise!) auxiliary gas tanks for cars and trucks, just in time for the Energy Crisis that consumed the country in the following years, while Higginbotham raced on his own.
“The split was perfect and friendly, and I can't say enough good things about him,” said Higginbotham. “He taught me all that I knew about Funny Cars and how to drive them. Mike was a great driver and was one of the best levers on the Christmas Tree that I ever saw,” he added, “probably due to the Chevy-engine years. Leave first and wait for that big Chrysler to come on at the big end. Size and traction compound always helped a Chevrolet.”
In May 1973, Higginbotham quit racing due to a divorce and went back to being a C.P.A. Eventually he went into the wrecker business with former racing friend Jim Coursey and built Walnut Hill Wrecker in Dallas. He got married and had two wonderful kids, one a lawyer and the other a college soccer coach. Mike and I saw each other occasionally over the years until he died.
Before he passed away in November 1997 , Burkhart had several other drivers, including Beadle, David Ray, Richard Tharp, Dale Emery, and “Flash Gordon” Mineo, who kept his name alive in the Funny Car ranks for many years. Mineo was the final driver in 1979, although Burkhart’s involvement in that car was minimal; Burkhart having decided to back off after Emery’s unforgettable accident at the 1977 U.S. Nationals.
I ran into Beadle at the event in Dallas last month, where he and Tharp and Dave Settles and other Texas legends were holed up in Billy Meyer’s private suite at Texas Motorplex. He was one of the last people to see Burkhart alive.
“Mike was diabetic and was always bumping his leg on his desk, and one time, he got a big ol’ sore on his leg that forced him to go into the hospital,” he remembered. “While he was in there, he got a staph infection, and that’s what ended up killing him.”
Burkhart played a big role in Beadle’s career, too, hiring him in late 1972, and Beadle’s debut was a great one, reaching the semifinals of the PRO event in Tulsa.
“Everybody in the world was there,” Beadle recalled. “I had to sit on a pillow to be able to see over the steering wheel with his big ol’ seat. All the spare parts he gave me could fit in a cigar box: some spark plugs, a set of bearings, some rings … we used up everything. We got down to the semifinals, and all four of us — me and Bo-Weevil and [Don] Prudhomme and [Tom] McEwen agreed to split the money four ways. We’d been low e.t. every round, but I said, ‘Hell, count me in,’ and then I went out and kicked the rods out that run. Good timing. I called Burkhart and told him we’d made it to the semifinals but kicked the rods out, but the good news is that we cut the money up. That made him happy.”
Beadle didn’t stay with Burkhart long because Don Schumacher hired him (“and everyone else there,” he laughed) to drive his second car. Ray followed Beadle into the cockpit and won the Coca-Cola Cavalcade series championship.
Beadle remembers Burkhart as a fun guy but an interesting character.
“Mike liked to collect things … cars, antiques, pinball machines, you name it. He had warehouses full of [stuff]. He’d buy stuff from all over the place and put them in the warehouse. No one knew what he had until he died, except him. Trust me, he knew where everything was," said Beadle. "He was very meticulous, writing everything down in this little-bitty print. He could write an encyclopedia on a postage stamp. If you’d have him do something for you, he’d give you a bill — it’s comical now, but back then, it wasn’t — he’d have ‘washer, three cents,’ this or that for a penny, two cents. He didn’t give you [anything] for free, but you couldn’t bitch about the bill because it was all legitimate.”
I caught up with Hale and Tipton as they were on the road to Bakersfield for this weekend’s California Hot Rod Reunion. I’d first met Hale earlier this year while covering his “big show” debut in Seattle, where he’d shared his background with “Big Mike,” and continued the conversation this past Tuesday as they motored west to California.
Hale first went to work for Burkhart in 1979, following his brother, who had worked on some of Burkhart’s Funny Cars, into his employ. Hale worked at Auxiliary and learned, through Burkhart’s four-wheel-drive accessories company, how to install tanks, work on suspensions, and “a lot about life,” he added.
“Mike was a good guy, but he could be hard on you, so I learned at an early age about working hard and being tough,” he said. “
Hale worked for Burkhart through the mid-1980s and saw a lot of the same traits mentioned by Beadle; Burkhart was very good with money.
“Once he got interested in something, it became a collection, no matter what it was,” he remembered. “He would buy and sell stuff by the truckload for his business. We’d be unloading tons of grille guards and realized that they’d probably make a new model of the truck it was designed for before we ever sold them all, but he was always thinking. In his mind, if he bought them for half-price, he was going to find a way to sell them.
“He paid us cash under the table, but if you showed up late one day that week, he’d knock your hourly pay down a dollar for that week. He’d loan you money if you were short on cash, but he’d charge you a dollar for every 10 he loaned you. I heard that if you came by his trailer at the races to borrow even a gasket, he’d write it down or make you pay for it; even if he got it free through a sponsorship, you didn’t get it for free.
“He always carried a roll of money, probably a couple of grand, in his shirt pocket — that was his cash register for the truck and tank shop — but he had an even bigger roll in his left front pocket; we think he always had another 10 grand in there. If someone came in with a car or something they wanted to sell out in the parking lot, he didn’t have to go to the bank.”
Hale’s job description also called for mowing Burkhart’s lawn and running errands for Burkhart and his wife. “I wasn’t just a regular employee, he trusted me, and that always stuck with me,” he said. “When I decided to build a Funny Car in 2010, I remembered seeing a picture of his ’74 Monza on the wall of an office at the gas tank company. It was just a bitchen-looking paint job; I had no idea I’d ever own a Funny Car. When I finally got the car, I was kicking around ideas for the paint jobs and putting my name on the side of the car, and John Powers told me, ‘No one gives a damn about John Hale; you need to do a paint job that everyone can relate to.’ It took about 20 minutes for me decide to use the paint scheme from the Monza. Even though it’s not a sponsor [it’s a Camaro], the paint looks correct, and I don’t think anyone cares.”
Tipton joined the Burkhart team in 1967, when Burkhart and Schmidt were campaigning the homebuilt Camaro. He had known the duo from the local racing season, and, while partnered with Bill Hielscher, had competed against Burkhart in the Super Stock ranks. He was there through the team’s rapid growth and expansion, through Burkhart’s retirement from driving, and remained friends with him long after he left his employ.
“He was real good, real honest, and real strict, and real gung-ho about racing,” Tipton reflected. “After Emery crashed, he just kinda gave up on it. He’d already had to stop driving because of his size and the way the new cars had a more narrow cage.”
Tipton worked for a number of teams in the three decades since, highlighted by his work on Kenny Bernstein’s 2001 Top Fuel championship team, but also worked for Earl Whiting and Gene Snow and spent four years on Tom McEwen’s ’57 Chevy Funny Car that, in a way, began the whole nostalgia Funny Car craze.
He knew Hale from his time with Burkhart and became friends, so when Hale approached him with his idea to honor their mutual friend, he didn’t have to think twice, and championships and race wins have followed with regularity.
“It was an easy decision; it was like going back 30 years,” he said, “with the same kind of combination and better parts. We don’t win all the races, but we run real good wherever we go. It’s been a lot of fun.”
A tribute that I’m sure "Big Mike” would enjoy.