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Being thankful, and more fond farewells

28 Nov 2014
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

By the time this gets published, it’ll be the day after Thanksgiving, and some of you may be reading this on your phones or tablets in a line somewhere awaiting Black Friday stores to open. While I’m thankful I won’t be among you, I spent this week thinking about being thankful and started to write a list of all of the things for which I am thankful, which grew to include the fact that the list came effortlessly to me.

It was then that I realized that I’d done this same column four years ago. I was a little red-faced until I went back and read that column, and I realized that everything I wrote back then — just a few months after I’d turned 50 — still holds true today, so I thought I would re-gift you with those thoughts (and gift my copy editors with the fact that half of this column has already been through the editing cycle before).

I am thankful …

… that I not only got a chance to meet Wally Parks but also got to work with him and, ultimately and most importantly, gain his trust and respect.

… that, by a combination of dumb luck and good timing, I have been able to blend my two passions — drag racing and writing — for almost three decades.

… that my stepfather, a great man who for more than 40 years has been the dad I lost so young in my life, decided that I might like to see a drag race. He has no idea what he has created

… that I studied hard in class, both my textbooks and racing magazines, both of which continue to help today.

… that I have been — at NHRA in general and National Dragster in particular — surrounded by some of the finest, most talented, ambitious, hardworking, and dedicated people I will ever have the honor to know.

... that the printed word still has a place in this age.

… for the camaraderie and support of my pals in the racing world, who have been there to pick me up when I needed it and allowed me to do the same for them. They know who they are.

… that me, a humble fan like many of you, has had the thrill to rub shoulders, speak openly, befriend, joke, break bread, and work with many of my early racing heroes. I still am in awe that I can phone Don Prudhomme or Don Garlits or Shirley Muldowney, and that they will gladly take my call.

… for a job that took me to places I never dreamed of going — Tennessee's Smokey Mountains, Quebec, and Lake Placid, to name but a few — to meet people I never would have met.

… that I got the chance to visit hallowed places like Orange County Int’l Raceway and Irwindale before they closed.

… that my first car was one that required me to learn how to change the distributor points and to learn the agony of knuckles busted open trying to tighten header bolts.

... that I became involved in this sport in a point in its history where things were still wild and wooly and characters that even Hollywood couldn’t have invented walked our Main Street.

… that so many of the legends of our sport are still with us, with keen minds and sharp memories, and that they’re willing and eager to share with me.

… that I got to see drivers like Prudhomme and Glidden in their prime and that I get the chance to marvel at current dominators like Schumacher and Dixon.

… that for all of the miles I have traveled, they have been safe miles, filled with little peril, minor aggravations, and good times.

… for family and friends I cherish, for friends and loves I have had and lost, and for friends yet to encounter.

… that for all of the incomprehensible, unthinkable, and impossible things in life that I have had to face on occasion, I was never truly alone.

… that I've been blessed with good health; I can still play hockey twice a week, my fingers can still type, my hearing is intact (selectively, of course), and that my memory is still pretty decent (anyone seen my car keys?).

… that despite all of the stupid things I have done and said in my first 50 years, the damage has been minimal, nothing that a few stitches, a few weeks in a cast, or a sincere apology couldn’t help repair, and that the scars I carry, physically and emotionally, are mostly of my own doing and provide a roadmap for the future.

And, finally, I am thankful the support and admiration that the readers of this column shower upon me, which only drives me harder to make every column a special one, and I am thankful for the opportunity and the venue to increase our combined knowledge of the history of this sport we so love and to remember and salute those who have made it so.

 

One thing that I am not thankful for this year — or any year — is the ever-growing roll call of names of the departed who mean so much to so many of us, and death takes no holidays. It’s been a tough month or so for the NHRA family, with the losses sadly piling up seemingly without end.

Division 1 lost a couple of its great veterans, with Hank Endres passing away Oct. 4, Dale Thierer Nov. 13, and Scott Weney Nov. 19. My immediate NHRA family also was hit hard by the deaths of longtime former National Dragster Associate Editor Bruce Dillashaw Nov. 14 and last weekend by the passing of former NHRA Director of Communications Denny Darnell.

A U.S. Naval reserve veteran, Endres raced a series of dragsters out of Pennsylvania, most famously his own Nirvana and with partners Tom Steed and Bill Keenum on the Mr. Boston entry and, later, in the 1980s, as part of John Carey’s multidragster effort before retiring from driving in 1989.

Endres got his start in racing at old Woodbine Dragstrip in New Jersey with a flathead-powered ‘34 Ford roadster before teaming with Biddy Windward on a blown altered, and then with Junior Culler and Joe Cantrell in the Jr. Fuel ranks before striking out on his own with an ex-Lew Arrington dragster powered by a 392. He moved to Top Fuel in 1971 with Ed Pink’s now-famous Don Long-built Old Master slingshot then worked his way up the ranks and into the first Nirvana car, an ex-Dick LaHaie piece built by Wayne Farr with partners Chip Brown and Dave Oberhofer in 1976-77; the latter is the father of Kalitta crew chiefs Jim and Jon. “Hank was an awesome guy!” remembers Jim O. After finishing second twice, Endres won the 1978 NHRA Division 1 Top Fuel title.

Endres was inducted into the National Nostalgia Drag Racing Association Legion of Honor in 2012 for his contributions to the sport. In his later years, he was involved in restoring and showing classic cars. Endres, as nice a guy as you’d find in the pits, always welcoming and informative, died as the result of complications from Parkinson's disease. He was 76. In lieu of flowers, the family asked that donations be made to aid dementia research.

(Above) The Hemi Hunter could lay down the smoke. (Below) Thierer, right, with the Lewis brothers and Division 1 Director Darwin Doll in the winner's circle.

I wrote a bit about Thierer last year in my column about the Lewis brothers, for whom Thierer drove their Sparkling Burgundy entry for a number of years, but his career also spanned a number of other cars, most memorably the Chevy-powered Hemi Hunter in which he was the 1971 Division 1 Top Fuel title. I think it may have been the only Chevy-powered nitro car to win a divisional title.

The Korean War veteran was a mechanic for local auto dealerships in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley region before turning to racing, teaming with Karl Santer in the late 1960s on the provocatively named Clock Teaser dragster in Comp. He later teamed with Jim Johnson, Gary Peters, Dan Rauch, and Wayne McCullough on a S&W-built Hemi Hunter that won the division title and a few years later joined Mike and Kent Lewis and fell just shy of winning the 1973 division crown

“Dale had a unique talent of getting the most out of our low-budget car, and we won numerous divisional races at Epping, Maple Grove, Englishtown, Cecil County, Capital, Cayuga, and Sanair,” Mike Lewis told me via email. “He remained a great friend over the years.”

The Lewis team was parked in 1975, and Thierer went on to drive for a number of years for the veteran team of Jim and Alison Lee. In the last decade, though, Thierer had reunited with Peters and the Hemi Hunter team and the Lewis brothers to compete at nostalgia events.

Thierer passed away at the age of 68 after suffering a massive hemorrhagic stroke, according to his wife, Sally, who wrote on Facebook, “I don't think he had an enemy in the whole world. We have been inundated with good wishes and love, and he would be so happy to know this. He was a quiet unassuming man but had the heart of a giant. I've been blessed to have him for 35 years and be the mother of three of his beautiful children.”

The family asked that memorials in his name be made to Sarcoma Alliance (775 East Blithedale #334, Mill Valley, CA 94941), St. Jude Children's Research Hospital (501 St. Jude Place Memphis, TN 38105), or the Wounded Warrior Project (P.O. Box 758517 Topeka, KS 66675).

Weney was well-known to the sport in large part due to the family business, S&W Race Cars — founded by his father, Walt, in 1959, the same year Scott was born — that built chassis for Pro and Sportsman racers alike for decades. Scott started there from the ground floor as a kid sweeping the shop and rose to become its president. Along the way, Scott became acquainted with many of the East Coat’s top teams who patronized S&W, and he worked as a crewmember for many of them, including the likes of “Rapid Roy” Harris and Ted Wolf (an S&W employee), absorbing their knowledge before becoming a driver himself.

Walt Weney won the 1975 Gatornationals Alcohol Dragster title, and two years later Scott took over as driver of their Weekend Warrior digger and won the 1977 divisional championship. His greatest moments still lay ahead, as he won his home-state Keystone Nationals back to back in 1992 and 1993 in Ken Sheetz’s Olds Cutlass. He won the 2000 IHRA Funny Car championship but actually raced in the nitro classes in the mid-1980s in the Florida-based Gold Coast Challenger machine of Gary Richards (the ex-Custom Body Enterprises machine).

The last several years, Weney raced successfully in the Sportsman and bracket classes — he was the Super Comp runner-up at the 2007 reading event — and lately had turned promoter, forming S&S Race Promotions with Scotty Richardson and creating the “Fun in the Sun” race series.

Darnell’s passing also sent a shockwave through motorsports, especially in the NASCAR community, where he spent so many years and mentored so many. I worked with Denny here at NHRA from 1990 through 1998, and while we weren’t the best of friends — he was pretty tough on the Dragster staff back in those days, making sure that we didn’t monopolize the end-of-day pressroom interviews with our technical or inside questions that might alienate the more-important “straight” press on hand — you could see he knew what he was doing.

He passed away suddenly, surrounded by friends at a weekend barbecue, and it didn’t take long for social media to explode with tributes to the southern gentleman whom many called “The General.” Current NASCAR star Brad Keslowski tweeted that Darnell was “Such a great, classy pro,” and Kasey Khane added “Denny was always such a great person and friend to so many people” while NASCAR legend Darrell Waltrip called Darnell “one of the nicest guys that's ever been in racing, he'll be missed.”

In addition to NHRA, Darnell worked for the likes of Bristol Motor Speedway, Sports Marketing Enterprises, and Dodge; he retired from the business earlier this year. His obituary contained this humorous passage. “He was often asked, ‘How are you enjoying retirement?’ His answer was, ‘I didn't do anything today, and I didn't get finished, and I plan on doing the same thing tomorrow.’ “

And finally there’s our old buddy Bruce, who wrote for National Dragster from late 1992 through 2006 before he returned to his native Texas. And while his sudden passing did not create the ripple that Darnell’s did, he was remembered by several on Twitter, including recently crowned two-time NHRA champ Luke Bogacki, who remembered Dillashaw as the track reporter at Texas Raceway when he raced there, and by Cole Coonce, drag racing journalism's answer to Tom Wolfe, who opined, “His Top Fuel reports were always a must-read.”

Bruce was a racer first and a writer second, and I mean that figuratively and literally. Like a lot of us, he saved his money to buy drag racing magazines as a kid before he began attending racing events in 1968 in San Antonio. In 1984, he bought a used front-engine dragster chassis and began competing in Super Pro and qualified for the Division 4 E.T. Finals in 1985 and 1986. In the fall of 1987, he discovered his love of writing and combined his two passions and, while working at a number of jobs (including pest control and chauffeuring) to pay the bills, eventually began getting his stories published in numerous magazines, which led to our hiring him late in 1992. He covered the Top Fuel beat and loved tech stories.

At the time of his hiring, Bruce said, “Sometimes hard work and perseverance pays off. It’s finally OK to do nothing but think, talk, and write about drag racing.”

Amen, brother. You’ll be missed and not forgotten.

To my friends in the Insider Nation, thank you, and remember to thank those around you before they join our sad list.
 


Shortly after this column as posted, we lost a great friend to many of us, Dale Armstrong. Obviously, I will write about him next week here, but in the meantime you can find some information about him in Dave Densmore's wonderfully written obituary here, and in our Top 50 Racers profile here.