Get-togethers at the NHRA Motorsports Museum are always fun, and its Southern California location ensures an all-star cast of drag racing greats, so it’s no surprise that they showed up in force at the Orange County Int’l Raceway Reunion to talk about one of the region’s most memorable and storied tracks.
Legendary racers Don Prudhomme, Tom McEwen, John Force, Tommy Ivo, Roland Leong, and Carl Olson were joined by former OCIR owners Mike Jones and Bill Doner as well as nitro engine maestro Ed Pink and former NHRA Competition Director Steve Gibbs for the festivities this time, which again were held in a panel-discussion format, followed by audience questions.
There’s not really a lot of structure or themed “discussion” among the panel – no real bandying with one another on a given topic – but rather, each guy gets to share his thoughts and stories, prompted by questions offered by emcee “Hot Rod Bob” Beck, a longtime local writer, announcer, and racer. What that leads to is a lot of interesting soliloquies and cracked jokes, and the best way for me to share some of the fun is just to report it that way.
As I mentioned in my preface last week, Doner drew the lion’s share of attention and love, which is really saying something when you’re in the same room with guys like Prudhomme, McEwen, and Force. There’s just something very likable and open about him, and he's quick to admit that he was in many ways the prototypical all-about-the-Benjamins promoter and equally quick to skewer himself and his personality for being so. Doner and Steve Evans and the antics that they got into, paid for, or were witness to are legendary in the sport’s annals.
Doner, never one to let an easy line escape him, especially at the expense of his old pals, told how he used to go with his dad to the drags at Santa Ana when he was a kid – “I remember seeing Tom McEwen and Don Prudhomme race then when I was about 4,” he barbed (even though at 74, he’s roughly the same age as the duo) – and how, as sports editor for the local Orange Coast Daily Pilot, he went to opening night at the County. “I had never, in any dream in my life, imagined I’d end up being involved in operating the track or even in drag racing.”
Doner noted that at one point, his empire consisted of nine dragstrips that ran 1,000 events a year, and it all started at the Seattle facility, which he successfully converted from primarily a sports-car track to a drag racing mecca in the Northwest that helped spawn the outrageous Funny Cars up and down the West Coast.
“It really started with 16 cars in Seattle, and getting 16 in one place at one time at the time was a challenge,” he recalled. “We even brought up ‘Big John’ Mazmanian for a one-shot deal – Evans did the ad: ‘The candy apple legend is on its way up the freeway coming to Seattle’ – and, of course, Jerry Ruth beat him in the first round, but it worked pretty good, not fabulous. I got more tracks in the Northwest – Spokane and Portland, and Yakima and Puyallup, then Fremont, and by then, Lions had closed, so we grabbed Irwindale and later Orange County.
“By the time we got OCIR, Larry Huff had turned it into an AHRA track, but it was pretty closed. I walked out there, walked the track clear to the finish line, the wind was blowing papers, the windows were broken out in the tower; gawd, it was a mess. It was mess, but it looked better than anything else we had. The rent was $12,500 a month. I think I only paid $12,000 a year in Seattle.
“We had tried running 32 cars at Irwindale, but you can only get so many people in, so we took over Orange County. So, what’s the next increment? We went right to 64. Can’t really afford to do it, right, so we’ll just chisel … no, we can’t chisel the racers … but we went to 64 Funny Cars with my usual things like jets, rockets, wheelstanders, KiteCycles, nude women ... whatever we needed because my rent was high.”
Asked how he managed to get 64 Funny Cars into the track, Doner leaned into the microphone and pointedly said, with a raised eyebrow, “You notice in the ads that I never said ’64 Funny Cars or your money back …’ I used to tell guys, ‘If you can get the body up on that Cadillac over there, roll it out to the starting line. Anything that flops we’re counting tonight.”
Doner was asked about the famous nude skydiver who parachuted into the track during the streaking craze of the 1970s: “How do you think that came about?” he was asked.
“How do you think?” Doner responded smartly.
“He landed right on the starting line,” the questioner added.
“He wouldn’t have gotten paid if he didn’t.”
Doner’s events were known for their colorful side acts (there’s the old probably-not-true chestnut about a worker telling Doner of a woman behind the tower with her hair on fire and Doner telling the worker, “Give her $100 bucks and send her down the track”), and he recounted a story about having NHRA executives, including Wally and Barbara Parks and then-Division 7 Director Bernie Partridge, on hand one evening.
"We’re firing up all the cars on the [track], and here comes Bill Shrewsberry’s [L.A. Dart wheelstander] up the track the wrong way, but he’s not even in the car; Steve Woomer [of Competition Specialties, who sponsored the car and many others in that era] was in the car. About that time, McCulloch did a fire burnout on the return road, and my KiteCycle guy lands on Roland’s car. Bernie turns to me and says, ‘You’ve broken 41 rules, and you haven’t even started the race.’ I said, ‘Stick around because it could get worse.’ "
Prudhomme also was effusive in his praise for Doner. “He was the promoter. We had deals worked out with him to run all of the tracks he ran. He’d bring a lot of people in and have a ball. He had some parties upstairs in that tower. I was busy racing, of course, but I heard about them all.”
For all of the folly and stunts and faults throughout the years – OCIR announcer Mike McClelland, son of Hall of Famer Dave, later told me that sometimes on hot days they couldn’t announce on the PA at the same time that cars were running or it would overload the electrical circuits -- OCIR remains a legend in the minds of many.
Ivo raved, “The tracks back East weren’t as good as the return road at Orange County,” and Pink called it “the Taj Mahal of racetracks.” Olson, like many on the panel, was at Orange County the day it opened and the day it closed, but he also had the unique vantage point of being there as a crewmember, a driver, a car owner, a winner, a fan, and an NHRA official.
“Those of us who grew up in Southern California -- at places like Colton, Lions, Pomona, the old San Gabriel track, Irwindale – that Orange County Int’l Raceway was the supertrack," said Olson. "Usually when you see artist renderings of places under construction, you just know that when they open the gates, it’s not going to look like that, but when this place opened the gates, it actually looked better. Mike Jones and his crew did such a fabulous job of building, maintaining, and operating that track. It really set the standard for dragstrips in this country and around the world. It also was at the forefront of safety, not just in its original design but for the entire time it was in existence with developments like double-Armco barriers and onboard fire extinguishers.”
Jones offered a brief history lesson about the track, how originally his team had been tasked with building a racetrack outside the city’s baseball stadium, home to the then California Angels. The city had lost its bid to have an NFL team play there and was looking for other opportunities to utilize the spacious grounds.
“It wasn’t very long before we figured that we’d have to be racing around the schedule of baseball games, and we’d have to advertise every event, and that just wasn’t going to work,” he said. “But rather than give up on all of the hours we spent putting the proposal together, we went to the Irvine Co. They had just turned down Jim Hall and Carroll Shelby and even some of their shareholders for use of the land, but somehow, we got it.
“The property had a lot of opportunity due to its proximity to [Interstate 5]. When I went back East to sell the signage to the tower to Champion, that [location] was the key because the car count on the freeway offered exposure that was second to none.”
Asked about the track’s grand design and revolutionary scoreboards, he explained simply, “We wanted to set ourselves apart from the other tracks that we were in competition with,” which at the time included a lot of tracks like Lions, Irwindale, San Fernando, and many more. “The timing was perfect for the track, and I was privileged to be there at that time and be involved.”
And, of course, there were more stories and great lines.
Gibbs was managing Irwindale when OCIR opened in 1967 and was very envious of the track they built. “Of course, we all have good memories of these old places,” he said, “but when you look back at Irwindale, it probably wasn’t the garden spot of the world, what with the rocks at the top end and the guardrail that probably didn’t have a straight panel in it.”
Asked if he had won the first Top Fuel race at OCIR, McEwen self-deprecatingly deadpanned, “I don’t remember,” then, looking into the front row where his longtime pal/nemesis Prudhomme sat, added, “Prudhomme says ‘No.’ He says if I won he must not have been there that day.”
Ivo recounted a very funny story about how his “alligator mouth” got him into a bad jam while racing at the track. “I was down there for one of Doner’s spectacular 32 Funny Car races. In the first round, Ed 'the Ace' McCulloch was racing some guy, and they had some problem with the staging, and the guy thought McCulloch burned him down. So I was in the pits for the next round, and the guy comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, you watch that Ed “the Ass” McCulloch so he doesn’t screw you around on the line. My car just happened to be running pretty good that night, and we were in the staging lanes, and some troublemaker spectator came by and said, ‘McCulloch says he's going to wipe the track with you.’ I said, ‘Oh yeah? Well tell “Ed the Ass” to bring his lunch.' It went from my mouth to McCulloch’s ears, and when we got down to the other end and they lifted up [the body], I look out, and there stood the Incredible Hulk. McCulloch is a pretty stout guy who would just as soon pop you as argue with you. His fists were all rolled up, and to top that, it was a night race, and he was facing the starting line, and the downtrack lights reflected off his eyes, and they looked like they were on fire. My whole life passed in front of my eyes; I knew I was a dead man walking. He reached in and grabbed me by the firesuit and went to pull me out of the cockpit to paste one on me, but I hadn’t loosened my seatbelt yet. I can say for sure that that time, seat belts saved my life.”
Leong had mixed memories from the County. “I was there for the first race and also the last race, which Hawaiian Punch sponsored [it also sponsored his Funny Car at the time], and had a lot of times between. There was some good, some not so good,” he said, citing as good his win at the 1969 Hang 10 Funny Car meet with a brand-new car after Larry Reyes had spectacularly crashed the car at the Winternationals and not so good when driver Mike Dunn got knocked out by tire shake and motored off the end of the track, destroying the car, and the 1983 World Finals, where they blew the crank out of the bottom of the engine and Dunn ended up barrel-rolling at the finish line.
Like Leong's, Pink’s memories of the track were mixed. “I have a lot of great memories and some sad memories. I remember being on the return road with one of my customers when Mike Sorokin lost his life. That was a sad, sad night. I remember some of the Manufacturers Meets there – big, big Funny Car races --- and seeing Gas Ronda win with one of my Ford engines and Don Schumacher and Pat Foster winning with our Chrysler engines. I remember when we were doing the engines for the Super Shops fuel altered, and at the end of the night, the two quickest cars were Don [Prudhomme] and the fuel altered, and they ran off against one another. There was a lot of drama that went on at Orange County; if you never went there back in the day, you missed a heckuva show.”
Prudhomme agreed with his old engine builder, reminiscing with relish the pre-race excitement and procedures of Funny Cars of the day. “We’d do our burnouts, stop out there, back up, and the flames are coming out on 100 percent nitro,” he said, really getting into it. “You’d stage the car and do a dry burnout – rrrruppp! – and the fans would just about piss all over themselves. That was so cool to do the dry hop, then you’d back up and hit it again before you went to the starting line. It was a real show. Doner and Steve Evans are screaming over the mike, and the party’s going on … it was a helluva time.”
Once Force took the mike, the show became all his. He complained about McEwen “conning” him into coming to the reunion, relaying, in his best McEwen impersonation, “You’re going to see all of your old buddies, and they’re going to feed you good [there was no food] -- just like he did at Orange County. You think I forget that [stuff]? You and ‘Snake’ abused me.” (Earlier, McEwen had bragged that “John was the whipping boy. He got beat by everybody.”)
And turning to Pink, he said, “You ask me why I never had an Ed Pink engine? Bank of America. I didn’t have that kind of money. The first time I tried to drive to the shop of the great Ed Pink, I ran out of gas. Plus you were in the [San Fernando] Valley; I might as well have been driving to Florida. That’s how broke I was. I got most of my motors from ‘Flash Gordon’ Mineo. I’ll never forget when I got my first aluminum motor; it had rods that had been kicked out of it, but I’d never had an aluminum motor before. We [his uncle Gene Beaver and his cousins the Condit brothers] went home and threw a party. Man, I hate to say it, but I wanted to be ‘the Snake’ or ‘the Mongoose’; it’s a curse that follows me. I wrote Mineo a bad check, and he drew a gun on me. I said, ‘What is this, a John Wayne movie?’ I was a pretty tough kid – thought I could fight – and he draws a gun on me. My uncle says, ‘You’d better cover that check; they’re all nuts. These are drag racers. If you don’t pay him, he’ll put more holes in you than that block he sold you. I wrote him another check, and he took it.”
Force’s financial struggles as a neophyte racer are legendary and well-known, sleeping 10 to a room and subsisting solely on bologna sandwiches, but you never know where to draw the line between fact, fiction, and entertainment, which Force seems to mix equally. “I’d watch some of these guys throw their junk [parts] in the trash can, and me and Uncle Beav would take ‘em out,” he said. “One time at Orange County, we looked out the trailer, and there’s Ivo screaming at Prudhomme, and Prudhomme’s screaming back. They started throwing pistons at each other. When they went back into the trailers, I went down there and picked up those pistons. That’s the way we lived.
"Doner? If I told you the things he’d done to me, they could put him in jail. I used to get on the phone with him, begging him to put my name in the radio commercials with Prudhomme and McEwen and Roland. I was trying to impress my wife; we’re going out to the track, listening on the radio to the ads [screaming DJ voice]: ‘It’s “the Snake,” it’s “the Mongoose,” it’s the Hawaiian,' and he’s ripping off the names, and it’s coming ... Radici & Wise, the Blue Max, and on and on, and then it’s ‘and many more,’ and you have to look over at the girl you’re in love with and [scream] ‘That’s me!’ Doner told me that it would help if I got a sponsor, and he would put me in the ads. He said, ‘I can make you a star or leave you a leaker’; when I got Leo’s Stereo, I heard my name in the ads.”
Doner sometimes was not too kind to the problem-plagued Force at the track, either. “You smoke the tires and hit the guardrail, and you’re coasting along, kind and thinking you’re the man because you lost, but [at least] you were there, and then, in front of the lady you’re in love with who’s coming down in the pickup truck to get you, you hear [Doner] over the PA say, ‘I wish he’d take his boat fishing …’ I said, ‘Take his boat fishing? I don’t own a boat.’ It took me years to figure out what you meant, Doner … and it really hurt.”
With the main show complete, the panel members spent a long time chatting with fans and old acquaintances and signing autographs. Prudhomme was the big autograph attraction -- it’s not many places I’ve been this year where Force didn’t have the biggest line – but everyone showed a lot of love to all who made the evening special, which is a fitting coda for a place that remains special in the hearts of many.
I’m sure I caught some of you off guard with my impromptu Monday post on Gordie Bonin, but I really needed to share that. Since then, I’ve gotten a lot of other comments about “240” – I finally got in touch with Ed McCulloch, who was Bonin’s main on-track and fan-favorite opposition in the Northwest -- and I’m open for still more from fans and fellow racers alike. I’ll share those thoughts here next week.