NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

More tall tales of the Tree

13 Sep 2013
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

I got some interesting feedback and pats on the back from a number of people about last week’s column on the history of the Christmas Tree. For a device that’s so central to what we do, it’s certainly had some major changes over the years, and with the spotlight on the new Snake & Mongoose movie showing plenty of full-Tree nitro racing, it came at a pretty good time to explain its evolution.

As I mentioned last week, not everyone was in favor of the newfangled device, and this Kaye Trapp photo proves that in spades. It shows Top Fuel driver Gary Cagle, who was still recovering from a bad wreck in the Cagle & Herbert fuel dragster in 1959, about to put the smack-down on the Tree with his cane. At first I thought it was a crowbar, but his son, Troy, who sent the photo, clarified. “He, among others, hated the new Tree setup, but he didn't whack it with the cane. This staged shot was taken in the early '60s at Bakersfield.”

Dave Shipman, who was a photographer in the 1960s and spent a lot of time watching the starts up close and personal, remembers the scene at Lions Drag Strip in the early 1960s. “It seemed that just about every Saturday night, Mickey Thompson (who ran Lions at the time) was confronted by angry racers that thought they got the bad end of whatever system was being used that week,” he wrote. “Lions had a flamboyant starter (Danny Lares). As you mentioned, the starter was responsible for determining if a driver red-lighted and pushing the car back so they could try it again if he did declare that one of the cars left early. While I think Danny was fair, the loser often disagreed. The first attempt at 'automating' detection of a red-light was rather interesting.

“There were, of course, disputes as to whether or not Danny caught a red-light or not, so Mickey installed a Polaroid camera aimed across the starting line. When the flag came up (and the switch released), the camera shutter was activated and a picture taken. The camera was aimed down the starting-line beam so you could see the beam and the front wheels of both cars to see if either lane had started before the flag was raised. Polaroid film took 60 seconds to process, so the race couldn't be declared official until the 60-second development time was complete and somebody could review the image. Not an ideal situation as the crowd waited to get confirmation that it was a legal start.”

The whole column got Cliff Morgan wondering about the use of flags as a device to begin a race, not just in drag racing, but also in other forms of motorsports “and how they came up with green flags, red, yellow, black, checkered?”

That’s an excellent question that caused me to do a little digging. While the first “flag starter” may never be known, it’s well-documented that during the chariot races of the Roman Empire, the emperor (or sponsor who was hosting the races) would drop a cloth known as a mappa, signaling the beginning of the race once all of the chariots were properly positioned (chariots on the outside track got a head start). It’s not a far stretch of the imagination to envision a larger, more colorful, and easier-to-see cloth being implemented as the years went on.

But how did we get to the green-yellow-red colors, colors that obviously translated from flag to Christmas Tree? One can understand that the glaring red hue is an attention getter and should be used for stop, but how did green become go and yellow become the symbol for caution? I have no idea.

The first known traffic light to use the green-red paradigm was installed in London in 1868, using red and green gas lanterns on a semaphore pole. The arms were raised and the red lantern was displayed for stop, and the arms were lowered and the green lamp was displayed as a go signal (see diagram at right). Other noncolored designs used the words “stop” and “proceed.” The first electric traffic light was developed in 1912 by Lester Wire, an American police officer of Salt Lake City, who also used red-green lights. The first three-color traffic light was created by police officer William Potts in Detroit in 1920.

But what of the now-famous checkered flag (and its painted variation on guardwalls at the dragstrip finish line) and its origins as the signal of the end of a race? Anecdotal evidence exists that settlers in the American Midwest staged horse races before large public meals, and that when the meal was ready, a checkered tablecloth was waved to signal the racers that it was time to stop racing and start eating. Others say that a high-contrast flag was chosen to be more easily visible to drivers as they battled through dust on early dirt tracks. The book The Origin of the Checker Flag: A Search for Racing's Holy Grail traces the flag's origin to an employee of the Packard Motor Car Co. who in 1906 devised the flag to mark "checking stations" (now called checkpoints) during rally-style events.

But I digress.

Paul Greven Jr., who used to race at Irwindale Raceway, OCIR, and Sacramento Raceway on a regular basis in the 1970s, said that the Pro start varied between four-tenths and five-tenths from track to track or even between national and divisional events. “I wondered what I was doing wrong when I went to the Winternationals and started red-lighting,” he remembered. “That’s when I found out the difference and had to adjust accordingly. It was the only time of the year that I ran a .500 Tree, and it was definitely a challenge.”

I mentioned last week that the 1970 Supernationals was the first NHRA national event to go to a one-amber “Pro start,” but that was still a five-tenths Tree. I looked and looked but can’t find (yet) where the first four-tenths Pro Tree was used. Of course, the fact that NHRA didn’t keep reaction-time records back then doesn’t help either.

Fabled Lions Drag Strip was one of the early tracks to adopt a combo flagman/starter (though not the system where the flagman pushed a button with the tip of the flag), and I remember reading somewhere how Lions regular Tom McEwen was so good at anticipating the aforementioned Lares’ moves that he won regularly there, including against Don Prudhomme in their much-ballyhooed first official match race Sept. 12, 1964, at “the Beach.” In round one, “the Mongoose” beat “the Snake,” 8.19 to 8.14, and Prudhomme smoked the tires in the second heat, sending McEwen off on an epic bragfest that made “the Mongoose” a household name.

“There was a bulb hanging over the track, and Danny would point at you to make sure you were ready, then he’d turn and push the button to turn on the bulb,” he told me earlier this week. “As soon as he turned, I left. I did that for years because my own cars weren’t usually as fast as the other guys’ cars, so that was my only chance. I never understood why everyone else didn’t do the same thing."

I also thought it might be a hoot to get the recollections of Rick Stewart, the recently retired NHRA chief starter and another Lions regular, from back in the days when he was known as “the Iceman.” Like McEwen and others I’ve interviewed, he had gotten pretty good at reading a starter’s almost-imperceptible “tells” that he was about to either flag off the cars or release the button with the flag. “The guy at Fontana, every time he was ready to lift the flag, he’d squint his eyes; that was my sign to go,” he remembered. “I stopped watching the flag and just watched his eyelids.

“The Christmas Tree coming along was OK with me, but we all had our learning experiences with it, and sometimes even the electronics could mess up. It was an interesting time, for sure.”

Stewart reminded me that the anniversary of one of his unforgettable moments as a driver recently passed. It was Aug. 14, 1965, when he suffered a massive engine explosion that led to an off-track excursion and a basal skull fracture. “I got covered in oil and didn’t have a clue where I was at,” he remembered. “There were no guardrails in the shutoff area, and all of the cars were on the way back up the return road, and I didn’t want to run into them and hurt someone, so I just made a hard right turn, went off the track, and hit a ditch and then a telephone pole.”

That fateful day was also during the infamous Watts Riots in Southern California, when more than 1,000 buildings were damaged by fire or vandalism.

“I woke up in Long Beach Memorial Hospital, and it looked like someone had dropped a bomb on LA while I was out,” he said. “I later found out that people had been having trouble even getting to the race because there was gunfire out on the freeway. It was crazy.”

Since publishing the column last week, other information has come to light about the creation of the Christmas Tree and its creator. I came across an archived article from the La Verne, Calif., newspaper about Ollie Riley, whom many of you know for his creation of the Chrondek company that became so famous for making the precision timing system. The name Chrondek is an amalgamation of the Latin words “chron” (time) and “decca” (tenths).

Riley, who worked on top-secret precision-timing devices at Pomona’s Convair plant, was enlisted by NHRA Safety Safari boss Bud Coons in the mid-1950s to help create a portable timing system. He opened his business in La Verne, at the corner of D and Second streets, not far from the Pomona racetrack.

According to the story, NHRA National Field Director Ed Eaton approached Riley in 1962 with the idea of a step-light countdown system and brought Division 1 Director Lew Bond, who owned the Dragtronics timing business, into the project. Bond and Riley then worked together to develop the first Christmas Tree.

Another claim to the Christmas Tree’s creation goes to W.H. David (dah-VEED), of Lafayette, La., who was the founder and president of Pel State Timing Association, which he ran with his wife, Jayne, at the airport in Opelousas, La. (Pel State being short for Pelican State, as Louisiana is known).

According to one story, David created a traffic-signal-like device to start races that also incorporated an early handicapping system. As shown at right, the original had two separate poles both with lights, and he gave it the name Christmas Tree because the original mock-up used small glass Christmas tree lights from the 1950s.The story goes on that he then sold the rights to Riley and Chrondek, which mass-produced the Tree.

Dave McClelland, who announced for the Pel State Association and whose nationwide travel brought him into contact with many early forms of drag racing, was asked his opinion. “My personal feeling? They all could be given some props as being the originator, but, and it’s a big but, which was first? All three are widely scattered: Oliver on the West Coast, David in the Deep South, Eaton on the Eastern seaboard; most likely they were all working on it at the same time, maybe with knowledge of the other, maybe not. Communications were not as sophisticated as today. But it is ironic that all the claims of origination occurred roughly in the same time frame. As you can see, it’s almost a matter of ‘Whom do you believe?’ ”

So there you have it, as clear as bayou mud. I’m certainly not in a position to verify any of the claims, and despite a lot of research, no clear claim can be made, and many of the principals are no longer with us (Riley died in the late 1990s; not sure of David).

Regardless, I can’t imagine our great sport without its iconic Christmas Tree, no matter what form it took or may take.