NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

Remembering Gordie Bonin

03 Dec 2013
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

It has been three days since I got the news, and I still can't believe that Gordie Bonin is dead. The death of the popular former Funny Car star last Friday took the community by surprise and by shock, the first reports coming from longtime partner Ron Hodgson that the man whom most of us just called "240" had been found dead in his hotel room in Las Vegas. His Facebook posts revealed that he had been to the ICU of a local hospital several times recently but had been released.

Black Friday indeed.

I received the news that night from NHRA's Graham Light, Bonin’s longtime friend, former teammate, and fellow Canadian, just a few hours after he was discovered. Graham knew that, primarily, on a personal level, I'd want to know -- although everyone was Gordie's friend, there were those of us who had known and worked with him who were closer -- and, secondarily, that I needed to know to start spreading the sad news to the community.

Before I could write the story for NHRA.com, I sat in stunned silence for a moment. I tweeted out my shock to my Twitter followers and was quickly met with an echo of disbelieving replies. It's not that Bonin, at age 65, should have been immune to the ravages of age like the rest of us or that he wasn't the same physical and perhaps even mental specimen that he had been in the 1970s, but in my mind, he’s still the fair-haired prince of flopperdom and forever young.

Three days later, those first thoughts still are a bit raw on my emotions, so I decided today to do what I always do for clarity in times like this, to seek understanding and comfort in writing about it, to explore not just my own feelings but those of friends and acquaintances who knew him better, so I started writing and interviewing and wanted to share it in this unplanned edition of the column where we bond over shared experiences and admiration.

Like many young Funny Car fans in the 1970s, Bonin was one of my favorites. I always thought that the green Bubble Up Monza was one of the sharpest-looking cars out there, and the subsequent Bubble Up Firebirds were truly fearsome speed machines that earned him his speedy nickname. I remember that I started drinking Bubble Up in high school just because of those cars.

Bonin seemed to have it all: a good-looking, blonde-haired driver of one of the era's best cars, respected by his peers and loved by the fans, especially the female ones. I'd see him on his treks south to OCIR and Irwindale, but mostly I knew of him from his histrionics on the national event tour, especially his odd streak of every-other-year victories at the Gatornationals (1977, 1979, and 1981). I was a fan and rooted for him.

So imagine my surprise in 1983, just a year after leaving the spectator ranks to join the National Dragster staff, to find myself working with Bonin at NHRA, where he had been hired in the Marketing Department. We were co-workers for six years, me and this Funny Car star, and became lifelong friends. Even after he left NHRA and returned to the cockpit where he belonged, and even in his roles after his driving career ended, we stayed in touch via email or Facebook. I saw him this year during the national event in Seattle. He was quite a bit heavier but still had that friendly smile. We chatted for a few minutes, I milked him for detailed information for the My Favorite Fuelers column I was writing for NationalDragster.net, and we said goodbye. I didn't know it would be the last time I would see him, or it would have ended differently.

After the story had been posted on NHRA.com, the first person I reached out to was Roland Leong. I sent him an email that night, expressing my sorrow at his loss -- Bonin was, after all, the only driver of 20 to get two stints in the Hawaiian -- and asking for an interview. I didn't want to call him that night and intrude on his grief, but I've known Roland long enough to know that he'd understand. He was my first call this morning.

Gordie Bonin, center, with Roland Leong, right, and the late, great Steve Evans, in the Irwindale Raceway winner's circle.

Leong hired Bonin late in the summer of 1973, after his operation had been stolen from the parking lot of a Holiday Inn in Gary, Ind. When Leong returned to Los Angeles to rebuild, his then driver, Leroy Chadderton, decided he had had enough of the road and quit. Bonin was available after the Pacemaker team of Hodgson and Gordon Jenner had parked their car for a short time, and Leong hired him. Bonin lived with Leong during this time, and they stayed together into the 1974 season before Bonin left to rejoin the Pacemaker team and was replaced by Mike Van Sant. They reunited nearly 20 years later when Leong signed a short-lived deal with the Hawaiian tourism board, but the sponsorship ended almost after just a half-season.

“He was a good driver, and we got along pretty good,” Leong said of his longtime friend. “When drivers left me, it was usually because of personality conflict. I have to admit that back then, I felt like I’d had enough success that I wasn’t going to let a driver tell me how to run my car. Right, wrong, or indifferent, it was my car, and a lot of times, the drivers had some strong opinions because of other cars they’d driven, but Gordie was really easygoing and upbeat, and we had real good communication. He didn’t do stupid things behind the wheel, which can be hard not to do at times when you’re driving a Funny Car. You just have a split second to make a decision, but he was pretty good at making the right decision.”

“Easygoing” was a common description that many shared. There’s no doubt that Bonin sometimes led a complex personal life – much to the amusement of his teammates at times -- but he was always upbeat and smiling through it, at least publicly.

I also spoke to Hodgson and to Light, who had both known Bonin for decades from their shared Canadian roots.

Bonin at Seattle in the first Pacemaker Funny Car
(Rich Carlson photo)

Hodgson began his long association with Bonin when Bonin bought a Hurst shifter from Hodgson’s Pacemaker Automotive speed equipment business. That eventually led to their teaming on a Funny Car and the great success that followed for more than a decade.

“Gordie just had a real feel for driving Funny Cars,” said Hodgson. “We didn’t have computers in the cars at the time, but Gordie was our computer. We had some great crew chiefs -- guys like the late Dan Ferguson, Gordon Jenner, and Jerry Verhuel – and Gordie was a big part of our success because of what he could share from a run.

“He was a drag racer from Day One. Racing was his life; even when he quit racing, he never quit racing. He’d do anything to get to the next race. We had a lot of fun together, at the track and on the road. He was off the wall sometimes but a lot of fun. I spent some time with him and Terry Capp about a month ago -- he and Terry were both incredibly popular in Edmonton – and Gordie was still talking about driving; he couldn’t get it out of his system.”

Light knew Bonin from as far back as the late 1960s, when they had competed against one another, Bonin in an injected nitro dragster and Light a blown gas dragster, in a Super eliminator-type class in Canada. Each took separate career paths, but their lives converged when Light worked for (and eventually took over control of) Hodgson’s Edmonton Int’l Speedway. In 1977, Light and car owner Bob Lawrence teamed with Hodgson, Jenner, and Bonin, adding their Top Fueler to the Bubble Up Funny Car. They enjoyed an amazing weekend at the 1977 World Finals in Ontario, where Bonin won Funny Car and Light was runner-up in Top Fuel to Dennis Baca.

“Gordie was always enjoyable to be around, always very positive, and, in my opinion, one of the best Funny Car drivers of that era,” said Light. “When I came to work at NHRA in 1984, Gordie was already here. I was new to California and spent a lot of time with him that first year and during his time with NHRA. Even after he left, we stayed in occasional contact, and the one thing about Gordie is that he wanted to be a Funny Car driver for life; even right to the end, he was talking about a comeback. He lived an amazing life to its fullest; a guy would have to live 150 years to enjoy what he packed into 65.”

Just as Bonin was Light’s tour guide when he came to Southern California, former National Dragster Editor Bill Holland took Bonin under his wing a year earlier.

“I met the two ‘Gordons’ (Bonin and Jenner) back in the early '70s and immediately took a liking to them —as did the rest of the Dragster staff,” he said. “I remember we all went to El Tepeyac in East Los Angeles and had fun watching the Canadians wrestle with those famous, monstrous ‘Hollenbeck’ burritos. When Gordie moved to California to work for NHRA, he stayed at my home until he got settled. He felt obligated to help out around the house, so it was kinda fun to watch ‘240’ mow the lawn.

“After I left NHRA to go into the advertising/PR business, I got a call from Gordie, as he and Ron Hodgson were putting a deal together with Canada Dry, who owned the Bubble Up brand, and needed help PR-wise. Back then ‘the Snake’ was at the apex of his career and dominated Funny Car racing. So we had to get creative to get noticed. I managed to convince the local Bubble Up bottler to set up a huge ‘wall’ of bright green soda pop cans, and we shot the car in front of it for what became a full-color center spread in Hot Rod magazine.

“I remember attending a function in Red Deer, Alta., where native son Gordie was honored. Noted author George Plimpton was also feted at the event, and it was fun listening to the two of them swap stories. Despite trying, Bonin couldn't convince Plimpton to try driving a Funny Car as one of his ‘Walter Mitty moments.’

“Gordie's enthusiasm and friendliness were appreciated by both the media and drag fans across North America. In the 40-plus years I knew him, he always had a ready smile. And that's the way I'll remember him. RIP, 240."

Larry Pfister, who covered the Northwest racing scene in-depth for more than 30 years, writing for local publications before founding his popular Horsepower Heaven site in 1995, has many vivid memories of Bonin.

“His Seattle fans were legion,” he wrote, “often louder than those of the Max, ‘Jungle’ or McCulloch. And they had reason to cheer as he was our wild man … our ‘Jungle Jim' of the Northwest and Canada. His 400-foot powerstands at Seattle, Mission, and Portland were insane, his burnouts as big as anybody’s, his mastery of control when there was so little, simply a sight to see. I was shooting a feature in ‘89 when he came to Seattle to test the new TF car. His first hit behind the wheel was a full pull and a great number. No warm-up, no test, just foot to the floor after many years away.

“He knew who he was, never forgot his roots, and had a well-deserved and enjoyable resurgence with the recent nostalgia craze. He told me many times he had no interest in getting behind the wheel of a nostalgia car. He would laugh and say he had his time and it could never be better today than yesterday.

"Many who knew him were aware of his demons but loved him just the same. His friendship to so many and his love for his mother were legendary. There will only ever be one drag racer known by two numbers. Two Forty. We will never forget. Thank you, my friend, for some truly unforgettable memories.”

I also heard from everyone’s favorite blogger, Bob Wilber, who first crossed paths with Bonin while Wilber was doing PR for the Worsham family and its Checker Schuck’s Kragen deal.

“He was a manufacturer's rep at the time and had a product he was hoping to get on the shelf at Checker, Schuck's, and Kragen stores, so he approached me to see if I could introduce him to the correct buyer,” Wilber remembered. “He treated me with such class and interest, I was almost taken aback (I was fully aware of his career and his illustrious history as a legend in the sport), but at the time, I just figured he was putting on the charm as a networking technique, hoping to generate some business. The only problem with that theory was the fact he treated me like a dear friend for the next 15 years, shouting my name when he'd spot me at a racetrack as if we were lifelong buddies. 

“When I joined Team Wilkerson, he was among the first to reach out and congratulate me, letting me know that he now considered himself a loyal Wilk Warrior and that he'd be rooting for us from that point forward. He subscribed to my PR mailing list, and of all the many people who receive my daily email updates during races, he was the most prolific in terms of taking the time to reply to even the most mundane message. If my email blast on a Saturday night simply said ‘Wilk qualifies ninth,’ he'd shoot back a reply within minutes, wishing us luck and signing off as ‘240 - Loyal Wilk Warrior.’ I'm unable to count how many times I'd see his emails and think to myself, ‘I can't believe Gordie Bonin sends me these notes, week in and week out.’ On the day before I learned of his passing, I was actually telling my wife about all of this, to let her know about this special guy who treated me with such class, interest, and respect for so many years. For some reason, I was thinking of him that day, and I felt the need to share this story as if there was some urgency to tell it. Turns out, there was. Gordie will always remain one of my favorites in this sport, and the NHRA world is a little emptier now that he's gone and I know I won't be getting those email replies from 240.”

As Hodgson and Light alluded to, Bonin had his eye on a return to the sport even up until the time of his passing. He was working various angles, including nostalgia Funny Cars, international tours, and more. Even if it were just wishful thinking, none of it will have a chance to come to fruition now, and maybe it’s better that way, better that we can remember “240” from his glory days, for his carefree joy in life, and the way he touched ours.

Godspeed, friend.