More Tree topplings
Last week’s first look at errant racers who clobbered the Christmas Tree was almost exclusively short-wheelbase roadsters, but as I mentioned, there’s plenty of blame to go around in all classes, as this week’s column well illustrates.
One of the best-known and certainly most photographed Tree topplings came at the 1974 Gatornationals, where Bob Mayer got really loose on his burnout in the Tom & Jerry's Nitemayer Duster of Tom Woodbridge and Jerry Baltes and sideswiped the Tree, sending glass and bulbs flying.
Ron “Snag” O’Donnell snagged the Tree with his Damn Yankee 'Cuda, and D.H. Laubham had his camera pointed in the right direction to catch it. Based on the paint job, I’m pretty certain this is 1972. I don’t know the track, but the sign in the background touts radio station WMYO, which is a rock station out of Louisville, Ky., so it could be any number of tracks.
Bob Snyder sent me a great sequence of John Roderiquez and his Springfield, Mass.-based 427 Chevy-powered Light My Fire ’68 Corvette tangling with the Tree at a 16-car show at Connecticut Dragway in 1970.
There are two things that I know about this photo and three that I don’t. The scene is definitely Orange County Int’l Raceway and it’s definitely one of “Big John” Mazmanian’s Barracuda floppers. What I don’t know is the year (‘71 or ’72?), the driver (Pat Foster? Danny Ongais? Rich Siroonian?), and, most importantly, whether or not he actually tagged the Tree.
Moving forward a decade, popular Pro Gas promoter Doug Bracey and his Willys pickup tangled with the Tree at the 1983 NHRA Golden Gate Nationals at Fremont Raceway, scattering the ornaments about the starting line.
Even suspending the Tree above the track wasn't foolproof as evidenced by thisphoto sent to me by second-generation announcer Mike McClelland (son of hall of famer Dave) from Irwindale Raceway. Victor Noiron did a power wheelstand in his Blue Baron Fiat, got crossed up in the air, and nailed the Tree in midair before crossing in front of "Big Mac" and his Tuna Tank Fiat and collecting the guardrail in the other lane. I did some research and discovered that this was at the 1975 Grand Premiere event. (Interesting note: According to Bruce Dyda, the Blue Baron Fiat and the Easy Rider Fiat shown here last week sawing down the Tree in Pomona are the same car!)
Eventually, the Tree was moved generally out of harm’s way when it was placed atop a concrete pillar at the end of the starting-line A-board, but that didn’t stop some racers from still taking an unintended shot at the Tree.
Two-time Funny Car world champ Tony Pedregon’s Quaker State flopper didn't get the Tree but tried hard when his car jumped up onto the A-board in a scary accident at the 2005 U.S. Nationals after the body was being raised and caught on the throttle linkage during the normal pre-run beneath-the-hood checkup.
John Irving actually managed to clobber the Tree with his E/SA '85 Dodge pickup at the 2009 Winternationals, but you could hardly fault him because his truck lost the left rear wheel on the launch. Great photo by Roger Rohrdanz!
A similar fate almost befell Super Gas racer Joseph Michaels at the 2012 edition of the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte when his Monroe, N.C.-based ‘80 Plymouth Arrow broke the left rear axle on the launch and veered onto the starting-line A-board.
I also mentioned last week that there were some reports of frustrated drivers actually targeting the Tree in its earliest days to put it out of commission for the weekend. Steve Reyes remembers a WCS event at Fremont Raceway in 1964, the year after the Tree was unveiled, that was rife with red-lights. After Top Fuel driver John Batto red-lighted, one of his crewmembers jumped into his El Camino push truck and ran down the Tree. “It was quite the scene with parts and pieces flying everywhere,” he remembered. “I think it took a hour to clean up the mess of shattered glass. I believe Batto’s guy was arrested and hauled off to jail. How I miss the good ol’ days …” The photo above shows Batto, far lane, racing the Whiz Kids in 1965, with the blue El Camino visible in the background.
Reyes also recalled an instance in the 1970s with Larry Fullerton, of Trojan Horse fame. “He was racing at some small southern track and made his pass and caught on fire. He got the car stopped but started one heck of a grass fire at the end of the track. While the track workers were putting out the blaze, Fullerton took his very crisp Funny Car and loaded it up in the trailer and drove his tow truck up to the tower to get paid. The manager/track owner is some crusty old dude in a wheelchair. Fullerton and the manager get into a heated argument over money due Fullerton. I guess Fullerton didn't make all three passes that he was booked to run. Fullerton became very pissed because now he has a very burnt race car and this guy won't pay him his appearance money. Fullerton loses it and pushes the wheelchair guy down two flights of timing-tower stairs. The wheelchair guy is beat up but alive. Fullerton flees in his tow truck, which is parked in the staging lanes and sets sights on the track's Xmas Tree. He runs directly over said Tree and races down the quarter-mile to his waiting trailer. Fullerton hooks up and smokes it out of the track. Meanwhile the hundred local bracket racers are now pissed when they realize no more racing that evening. So now a bunch of bracket racers storm down the racetrack and into the pits looking for the now long-gone Fullerton."
Reyes also remembered a similar occurrence at an AHRA event that Dave Labs also wrote to report. Labs said (and I found some evidence to back this up) that it occurred at the 1970 AHRA Grand American race at Frontier International Raceway in Oklahoma City at which Stock racer Roy Pogue lost in the semifinals on a break out, and protested the timing system to no avail, then climbed back into his racecar and mowed down the Tree, kept going straight down the strip, turned off at the end, went out the pit gate, onto the highway “and was never heard from again.”
“Because of Roy's antics, the finals in Funny Car and Top Fuel had to be run with the last known flag start at a national event,” Labs added. “In the Funny Car Final, Gene Snow was disqualified for leaving the line before the flag was thrown, giving Don Prudhomme the easy win. As a side note, following the Oklahoma City event, AHRA President Jim Tice awarded Roy Pogue with a lifetime ban from all AHRA national events and sanctioned tracks. Shortly thereafter, Roy received a similar award from the NHRA.”
Again, in the interest of fair reporting, I can't totally verify either of the above accounts, but they make pretty good stories.
Clearly the most unusual Tree trimming came at the 1975 Le Grandnational in Montreal, when a biplane carrying race queen Miss Molson shredded it in front of a disbelieving crowd of fans, racers, and officials. I’ve written about this before here, but it’s worth the repeat of former NHRA Competition Director Steve Gibbs’ telling of the story.
"The pilot of the Stearman biplane had made a practice landing at the track earlier in the week, but at the time, none of the starting-line paraphernalia was in place," he remembered. "When he brought the queen in on race day, he taxied right up to the starting line, as he had before, and you can see the results. I once owned a Stearman, and you simply cannot see straight ahead.
"The Christmas Tree instantly became a fragmented mess of metal, glass, and wires. The pilot was pissed, as the prop was badly damaged ... but the queen never quit waving. I was at about the eighth-mile mark, looking on in disbelief. I was sure the guy would stop short of the Tree. We had a spare Tree, but it took some time for [electronics director] Art Hayward to repair the wiring and connector damage. The plane was not flyable, so it had to be towed to the end of the track for future repairs. The last thing I remember was the queen still waving to the crowd."
And, one that note, this is me also waving goodbye, for the week and probably the thread.