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Seattle: My kind of place

08 Aug 2013
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

This is going to be a little short and sweet column, written earlier this week because The Man Who Never Takes Vacations is taking a couple of days off at the end of this week (two days counts as a vacation, right?) to refresh and recharge before we head into Brainerd and Indy and the Countdown playoffs, which is just going to be a sea of lunacy with points battles raging left and right and rumors raging all around.

As I mentioned last week, I was up in Seattle last weekend for the great event there. After being a steady visitor there throughout the 1990s, I hadn’t attended that race for more than a decade due to the vagaries of scheduling and staffing, so I was really looking forward to it. If you haven’t been, it’s really a bit of a throwback to the 1970s as far as look and atmosphere are concerned, which, as the regular followers here well now, is just fine by me. After hitting the race in Epping this year at the throwback New England Dragway facility, it has been a nostalgic kind of year.

There aren’t exactly a lot of ways to get to the track, and on the half-hour trip from our hotel in Renton, winding up the tree-studded hills of Highway 18, I couldn’t help but think of all of the duallies and Chaparral trailers that had traversed the same route over the decades en route to the track’s annual 64 Funny Cars, Northwest National Open, and other big-name match races under the supervision of guys like Bill Doner and Jim Rockstad.

I’m pretty certain that the unique layout -- with fans parking among the trees, the odd pit-area arrangement in the loop of the road course, and the angled behind-the-starting-line grandstands -- also hasn’t changed much. Sure, they’ve added some nice grandstands and a larger tower (though nothing like the towers in Pomona or Chicago, for example), and the Fiorito family has been making continued improvements to the facility since they took over, but, again, I’m not complaining: I love the place and the atmosphere.

The only thing not to love, of course, is the rain and – of course – it hadn’t rained in the region for more than a month until the NHRA (often derided as standing for Next Heavy Rain Area) rolled into town. We lost most of Friday to a steady drizzle/sprinkle (drinkle? sprizzle?), but that turned out just fine for me, too, as I had arranged to sit down at the event with the Northwest Terror, Herm Petersen, for a future column. With the rain, I was able to get about two hours of mostly uninterrupted time with him that I might not have had the race gone on as scheduled.

Yours truly, flanked by Herm Petersen, left, and Rob Bruins

I’ve been trying to hook up with Petersen to share his incredibly inspirational story for a few years, but we kept missing one another’s windows of opportunity. Sure, we could have done it over the phone, but it was so much more meaningful for me to sit with him, to see the scars and wounds of his misfortune, to be able to look him in the eye as he described the joys and the horrors of his career, and to watch him smile throughout the retelling.

Look for that story, I hope next week. I have a lot of recording to transcribe to get that far, and it’s rich in detail and emotion.

Petersen was there to show off his two cars – his Cackle slingshot (which he since has sold to the World of Speed motorsports exposition in Wilsonville, Ore.) and its push car, a '52 Willys that is a re-creation of Petersen’s first race car. With Petersen (and in the cockpit of the digger) was a great friend of this column, former Top Fuel champ Rob Bruins, who drove for Petersen after his retirement in 1976. We had a great time catching up.

The Cacklefest that took place Sunday before the final rounds was packed with Northwest legends. In addition to Bruins and Petersen, there were Jerry “the King” Ruth, former NHRA Funny Car champ Frank Hall in Jim and Betty Green’s B-Boys gas dragster, “Gentleman Hank” Johnson in the Dailey & Johnson fuel rail, Walt Austin’s twin-engine Top Gasser, Hugh Tucker’s roadster, and more.

It was a great event all around: thrilling nitro action and pure emotion in seeing Shawn Cowie -- so devastatingly injured two years ago in a street motorcycle accident -- get back to the winner’s circle and long-suffering Dan Fletcher finally get his first double after eight misses. Good stuff.

One funny story before I go. I mentioned a few weeks ago that Mike Goyda (goyda.com) was able to pull together a near-complete collection of Drag Racing USA magazines from the early 1970s for me, and I’ve been enjoying going through them and reliving some great memories. In the It’s A Small World After All aspect of our great sport, I had just finished reading the December 1972 issue’s coverage of the 1972 U.S. Nationals and getting a bit of a chuckle out of the photo at right showing a crewmember from the Motes & Williams Top Gas team taking a spill in the Indy water box. The next day, I was doing an interview with Jeff Koron following his Top Dragster win at the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals, and he mentioned that his current crew chief is R.C. Williams, the tuner of that fabled twice-motored rail, and that they’re still friends with the driver, Ray Motes, and how Koron used to work on their crew back in the 1970s, and hey, maybe I had seen the famous photo of him falling in the bleach box in Indy. Are you kidding me?

“Yeah, that was me,” he assured me with a chuckle. “I remember that like it was yesterday. That isn’t actually Ray in the Motes & Williams car at the event – it was Jim Bunker – and I was the only guy there to help him. I had to push-start him, then run up there real quick and put the bleach down for him to do the burnout, and I slipped in my cowboy boots. Bunk told me he was so embarrassed he damn-near dropped the clutch and ran over me.”

(Top Gas was no longer a class in 1972; the car probably was running in Comp after winning the final two Top Gas season championships in 1970 and 1971.)

“R.C. and I are from the same town [Russell, Kan.], which is where they kept the car, and they’d let me work on it at night and run around and get stuff for them, and when my parents would let me, I’d go to the races with them. We still talk about that photo all the time. I’ve been trying and trying and trying to find a copy of that photo; I bought stacks and stacks of National Dragsters off of eBay looking for it. I guess I was looking in the wrong place.”

I scanned the image from the issue and emailed it to him; it’s not quite the same as having the photo, but at least now he has visual evidence to go with the story.

The famous twin was discovered a few years ago in a barn, totally stripped other than for the body, and was resurrected by Williams and Koron. They display it, cackle it, and even do burnouts in it for exhibitions.

OK, gang, that's it for now. My last official duty is turning this column live just as I'm ready to pull out of the driveway for my mini getaway, hence its day-early appearance. See you next week, hopefully with the Petersen story.