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Sorting through the Inbox

22 Nov 2013
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

It may only be Nov. 22, but it already feels like Christmas Eve for this Orange County Int’l Raceway pit rat looking forward to the OCIR Reunion tomorrow at the NHRA Motorsports Museum. Even though I never got a chance to visit Lions Drag Strip, I attended the Lions Reunion at the museum last year and got a real kick out of it, so I’m certain that hearing the legends of the sport talk about the dragstrip (home of my youth) will bring back lots of great memories. John Force, Don “the Snake” Prudhomme, Tom “the Mongoose” McEwen, “TV Tommy” Ivo, Roland Leong, Carl Olson, Ed Pink, Gary Densham, OCIR founding President and General Manager Mike Jones, and others will be on the panel sharing their memories and answering questions from what’s sure to be a packed house. I’ll have a full review of the affair next week. In the meantime, you may enjoy reliving this three-part column I did on OCIR five years ago on the 25th anniversary of its closing [Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3].

Apparently my giddiness didn’t allow me time to focus on a subject-oriented column (though I have a bunch in the works), and I noticed that the ol’ mailbox is starting to overflow again with comments about topics past and present, so I thought I’d spend this time sorting through the many contributions from the Insider Nation.

Last Friday’s column, which included mention of Don Garlits’ use of the Donovan engine in 1977, inspired Fred Gunton to send along the photo at right of “Big Daddy" and Donovan in mid-discussion in Seattle in late 1976. That’s Gunton on the right in the cap. “I was chatting with Don, and Donovan walked over and asked him if he could ask him a question. [Don] replied, ‘Go ahead,' and then the offer came!”

According to his book, Don Garlits and His Cars, Garlits writes that Donovan “offered me an engine deal I couldn’t refuse” and convinced Garlits to abandon the Dodge Hemi 426 he had run for the previous 13 years for the new Donovan 417. The deal appears to have been free parts, and, because Garlits was spending the then-whopping sum of $60,000 a year with Keith Black, he jumped all over it.

The Donovan first went into Swamp Rat 23 (the car with which he had won the IHRA championship while boycotting NHRA over disagreements about how some aspects of the 1975 title chase was handled), and the car set low e.t. and was runner-up to Jerry Ruth in its debut in his return to NHRA competition at the 1977 Winternationals. He also was runner-up (to James Warren) at the March Meet but was using up a ton of parts trying to figure out the necessary fuel volume, so with his hometown Gatornationals next up, he hauled Swamp Rat 22 (the 5.63, 250-mph car) out of mothballs and reverted back to the K-B and won the race, then returned to the Donovan project.

He and the recently departed Don “Mad Dog” Cook built Swamp Rat 24 (the blue and white God Is Love car) specifically for the Donovan. They again set low e.t. (5.771) at the Winternationals in 1978 but lost in round one to Richard Tharp, then in quick succession won the AHRA Winternationals at Beeline Dragway outside of Phoenix and the Gatornationals again in Gainesville. They ran the Donovan for all of 1978 but ultimately switched back to the K-B at the start of the 1979 season because the Donovan “was just not strong enough for the horsepower being produced in 1978.”

A few years ago I ran several columns showing off some great, old dragstrip flyers [Part 1Part 2] and just got the image at right from my pal, memorabilia maven Mike Goyda, showing a promotional item from Augusta Int'l Speedway in Georgia. Although the flyer says it's located “south of Augusta” and “2,400 feet of Tobacco Road,” my research tells me that it was located in the bucolic town of Hephzibah, Ga., and was host not only to a dragstrip but also a three-mile-long road course, one-mile dirt oval, a two-mile-long tri-oval superspeedway, and a half-mile paved oval. NASCAR great “Fireball” Roberts won his last race there on the road course in November 1963, shortly before being killed in a fiery wreck in Charlotte.

Anyway, this flyer is advertising the appearing of “your hero and mine,” Tommy Ivo and his four-engine dragster, which makes it 1961. (The track opened in 1960 and closed in 1969.) But that’s not the real reason Goyda sent it to me. If you look closely at the image (or, better yet, click on the link below it to view a larger version), you’ll see that two weeks later, the track was holding its first Turkey Race: “25 turkeys will be turned loose for spectators to catch and carry home.”

“I thought you might do a column on the numerous whacked-out ways dragstrip promoters have found to promote attendance,” Goyda postulated. “I thought I had heard them all until this. At least they didn't insult Tommy by holding the Turkey Race in conjunction with his appearance, although being the showman that he was, he might have welcomed it.”

Great idea, Mike. So if anyone has any stories to share about crazy track promotions (like, say, if someone hypothetically had decided to drop turkeys out of a helicopter), I want to hear them. The weirder the better.

This just in: Shortly after this column was published, I got an email from Ron Pellegrini, who took over the controls of Ivo machine later that year (the movie studios didn't want their golden child driving such a wild machine). and drove the four-engined car at Augusta. "And if my memory is correct I went back on the 19th with the twin," he wrote. "I remember seeing  live turkeys being thrown out of the bed of a pickup. After much pulling and tugging by the spectators some lucky (or unlucky) few went home with various parts of the same turkey."

Hint: I'm the good-looking one on the right.

Backtracking just a bit, I finally met up with Heather LeVay, daughter of the late fan-favorite Funny Car shoe Tripp Shumake, in Pomona for an update on the progress of the book she is writing about her father. You may remember a couple of stories [Part 1Part 2] that I wrote in this column about a year ago remembering “240 Shorty,” and to which Heather graciously shared her memories of her dad and also talked about her desire to do a book.

She’s been on the road ever since, collecting literally reams of remembrances from all kinds of folks to include in her book, which she hopes to self-publish next April. She’ll be including those two columns (including some of the great comments some of you contributed) and a treasure trove of photos she’s collected over the years. She’s been diligently trying to track down permissions from some of the photos she has, and I’ve been working with her to figure out some of that.

In the meantime, if you have any great photos of Tripp and/or his cars and you give Heather your permission to include them in the book, you can send them, plus any thoughts you want to share about him, to her at [email protected].

She’s poured her heart and soul and a daughter’s love into this book, and I’m really looking forward to the finished product, and I’m sure it will bring back lots of great memories from those of you who also knew Shumake. I’ll let you know when it’s available.

OK, that's it for today. Have a great Friday. I know I'll have a great Saturday, and I hope to see some of you there.