There are no professional drag racing scouts who tour North America looking for the next Don Garlits in the way hockey’s headhunters in the puck-crazed western Canadian province of Alberta scour the area’s peewee leagues for future Wayne Gretzkys, but if there were, and had they ventured near the Calgary home of the Armstrong family in the early 1950s and found 10-year-old Dale sitting on the garage floor surrounded by his father’s tools, building intricately designed soapbox derby cars, could they have accurately predicted the mechanical zenith of this future drag racing superstar?
I’m still pretty proud of that opening paragraph I crafted eight years ago for a Readers Choice special issue feature on Armstrong, but then again, when it came to anything I wrote about AA/Dale – let alone his life story – I wanted it to be as thoughtful and precise and forward-thinking as the man himself. I’ll make no bones about it, Dale Armstrong may be the greatest human being I have met in my 30-plus years in the sport, and my world is a much sadder place since his passing last Friday.
The reference to hockey in that opening paragraph was my homage to our particular bonding over that sport – we were both big L.A. Kings fans and both had played the game – and any trip to his pits after a particular run could begin with a discussion of the power of his engine just as easily as it could have prompted a discussion of the Kings’ power play. Later, we reveled in the fact that we saw the Kings hoist the Stanley Cup, not once but twice.
There’s no debating that Armstrong was a mechanical genius and an innovator who not only theorized about but also tinkered with pretty much every moving part of his race cars, from clutches to blowers, fuel systems to ignitions, and aerodynamics to data logging, but he was such a regular guy, too. A former ND staffer would sometimes open his conversations with Armstrong talking about the 1950s TV show The Honeymooners, of which they were both big fans.
No question posed was too stupid or basic for Armstrong to answer, and for years, he was the go-to guy for those questions. I remember another Readers Choice request in the mid-1990s that asked for a blow-by-blow description of how nitro crew chiefs make decisions; Armstrong was my first and only choice, and he graciously allowed me to shadow him during the Southern Nationals. He shared his entire thought process, from the downloading of the data logger to the final grams of clutch or degrees of ignition he decided on for the next run. It was exhilarating and interesting and a real honor.
How Armstrong faced his job and his passion is best summed up in this quote from the 2006 story: “If something works on a race car, there’s a scientific or mechanical reason it works, and I always wanted to know why it worked, not just that it did.”
It’s that kind of dedication, in addition to his very capable work behind the wheel, that landed Armstrong in the No. 10 spot on our Top 50 Drivers list in 2001. When you consider his body of work – a world champion as a driver and tuner and architect to Kenny Bernstein’s historic 300-mph pass and the numerous innovations that led to it -- and the criteria for the vote, it’s not surprising that he finished in that lofty position, although he, typically, was surprised. I know he hoped to be in the top 50, and early on, I let him know he had made the cut, just not where, and as the weeks went by and the list unfolded in reverse order to its conclusion, he may have thought I had been kidding him, especially when No. 11 was announced.
“That was a helluva surprise,” he later told me. “As the countdown got into the 20s, I was flabbergasted, especially with the guys who had already been named who, to me, were heroes. To be in the top 10, though, I was very proud and honored to know that the judges felt that highly of me.”
Word that Armstrong was in the fight of his life surfaced earlier this year but was largely kept quiet among an inner circle of those who knew and loved dearly both him and his wife, former Bud King publicist Susie Arnold. He was in and out of hospitals with lung infections, struggling almost every day with his breathing, yet took the time in early September to share his thoughts with me about his longtime mechanical soul mate, Bob Brooks, who had just passed. I wish I had known it would be our last conversation because there was so much I should have said, but when it became clear on Thanksgiving Day that the end was near, I texted Susie to ask her to tell him something personal from me, and she did. Thanks, Susie.
As after the recent passing of another of the sport’s legends, Raymond Beadle, I won’t use the space here to recount his amazing career. You can read all of that in a number of places, including Dave Densmore’s eloquent obituary, in our Top 50 Drivers bio, in the previously mentioned Readers Choice story, and this week's Photographic Memories column on the National Dragster website. Instead, I thought you’d like to hear from those who knew, loved, and raced with him throughout the years, to read their thoughts about one of our sport’s best. All of them had great memories of him, and I really struggled on how to prioritize them before deciding to tell them in chronological order, which ended up telling his story through their words and memories.
The Canuck Chevy II was Dale Armstrong's first serious race car.
rmstrong moved south from his native Alberta to the hotbed of drag racing in Southern California in the early 1960s and put his mechanical expertise to good use in 1965 as a used-car mechanic at Lee White Chevrolet on Pacific Coast Highway in Redondo Beach. Just a few blocks north, at the corner of PCH and 190th Street, was TNT Auto Centre, a Goodyear store where he would sometimes take the cars for tires or mufflers.
The owner was Ken Veney, and the two hit it off famously. Both were relocated farm kids – Veney had moved at age 19 from Ohio in 1959 – both had begun driving and tinkering with cars in their early teens, and both would continue to do so through eerily parallel careers through the alcohol, nitro, and crew chief ranks.
Despite their successes, milestones, records, innovations, and championships, Veney has no qualms admitting that “Dale was a more serious racer than I was. I had a family [wife Rona and soon a newborn son, Todd, who later cried relentlessly throughout Armstrong’s wedding, according to his dad] while Dale was all about the racing when we first met. He raced from 1965 until  and never quit. I would race for a while and get tired of it and do something, then go back and race. I was serious from 1970 until 1982 to do the best with what I had, but Dale was that way his whole life. Dale was always a racer. That was his life, and he was really good at it.
“This should tell you something,” he added. “Dale bought a new 1965 Chevy just to get the 396/425-horse engine and transmission because you couldn’t get it by itself. He got the car, took it behind the dealership, spinning the tires down the street, then wheeled it into the dealership and took the engine and transmission out. He had rebuilt an old 283 Chevy to go in that car and put the 396 in his Chevy II, which was The Canuck. At the time, it was running in B/Modified Production, and I built the headers for that engine. If you look at the photos of the car, you’ll see TNT Auto Centre on the front fender.”
Ken Veney and Armstrong raced one another all across the West in the ultracompetitive California Injected Funny Car Association. This is one of Veney's earliest Funny Cars, the Dirty Bird Firebird, an ex-Gordon Mineo machine.
Armstrong later switched to a Chevy and nitro in the tank and began to make a real name for himself with The Canuck, but before long, both were fielding Funny Cars on the California Injected Funny Car Association trail, racing all across the West before appreciative crowds throughout California; from British Columbia to Boise, Idaho; from Las Vegas to El Paso, Texas; and all points between with a healthy dose of their home tracks of Lions Drag Strip, Orange County, and Irwindale Raceway. By then, Armstrong had his own service station, A&W Union 76.
“We all fell into it about the same time," Veney remembered. “It was a really good class, there were a lot of cars, we’d draw really big crowds, and it really paid good in comparison to what the Top Fuelers were getting paid at the time.”
Life on the road could be hard, but funny, too.
“We match raced in Sacramento Saturday night, and Rona and I were coming home Sunday morning in our one-ton International flatbed truck on which we hauled the race car,” recalled Veney. “We were going up [Highway] 99, and we picked up Armstrong, who was hitchhiking down the road carrying the rear end out of Tom Sturm’s truck, which he was using at the time. He was trying to get back home to Redondo Beach to fix the rear end, then drive back up. Our old truck didn’t have air conditioning, so we’re sitting three across – Rona in the middle and Dale at the right window – and it’s hotter than hell, and I look over at Armstrong, and his face is all black. That old International used to blow oil like a son of a gun, and it was blowing out between the hood and the fender and getting all over his right arm, which was hanging out the window, and he was wiping the sweat off his face with that arm. That was just a really goofy, funny thing.”
Longtime rivals Armstrong and Veney became partners in 1974 and raced for the Winternationals title. Armstrong, near lane, in their A/Fuel Dragster, prevailed over Veney's blown alcohol Funny Car.
The two battled for Pro Comp supremacy throughout the 1970s. Here, Armstrong and the Alcoholic Satellite took on Veney's Vega at Irwindale.
When NHRA started the heads-up dragsters vs. Funny Cars Pro Comp class in late 1973, Armstrong’s and Veney’s cars fit right in. Veney’s A/Fuel Funny Car was runner-up to Don Enriquez’s dragster in the first race, at the 1973 Supernationals, while Armstrong was driving a supercharged Funny Car-engine dragster that Veney had built to try to offset the dragsters’ performance advantage. Armstrong lost early at that race but won the 1974 Winternationals with the car – now sporting an injected fuel engine --beating Veney, of all people, in the final for his first national event win and also setting the first sub-seven-second national record. They raced together like that for several races, but the dragster never won again, and because it wasn’t paying for itself like the Funny Car could, they parked it.
They raced against each other throughout the 1970s – most memorably in the final of the 1977 U.S. Nationals, which Armstrong won – before Veney retired briefly and Armstrong moved into the fuel Funny Car ranks first as a driver and later as a crew chief and used Veney’s cylinder heads to win four Funny Car championships. Veney also drove nitro Funny Cars in a brief but impressive run in the early 1980s, then, like Armstrong, ended up tuning nitro cars into the early 2000s. It’s probably no surprise that when both were inducted (separately) into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 2008, they both lauded one another.
Someone once told me that Ken Veney is almost impossible to impress, but he clearly was impressed by Armstrong.
“In my mind, he’s the best tuner of them all, certainly of his time,” he said. “He was really good at taking something that was there and making it work better. He could get the most out of whatever you had. He was just such a good mechanic who knew the car from one end to the other and what everything did. He could weed through all the BS and figure out what happened to a car when it had a problem. Some guys will look at what a car did and say, ‘That’s what’s wrong,’ but Armstrong would say, ‘What caused that?’ and then, ‘What caused that to make that go wrong?’ He also had a lot of confidence in Dale Armstrong and that he would figure it out. Even when his car was running good, he wasn’t afraid to try something new. A lot of guys won’t do that.”
Service station owner Wilfred Boutilier ran hard against Armstrong and Veney with his Vega Alcohol Funny Cars.
Boutilier, center, with crewmember Ralph Gorr, left, on tour at Maple Grove Raceway in 1975. Note the Dale Armstrong Racing Engines lettering on the car.
f it wasn’t Armstrong or Veney in the winner’s circle – or their nemesis, Rick Greenwood and the Wild Bunch Camaro – in those early injected Funny Car days, it was their South Bay neighbor, Wilfred Boutilier, who also owned a service station (three of them at one point) in nearby Gardena, Calif.
Boutilier, who got his nickname, “Wild Wilfred,” while wheeling an ill-handling AMX Funny Car (the chassis of which was the old Durachrome Bug of Warren Gunter), eventually upgraded to a Ken Cox chassis with a Vega body and kept his race car along with the machines of Armstrong and rising star Billy Williams in the rented shops at Hot Rod City, Torrance, Calif.’s answer to Gasoline Alley. Tony Capanna, the region’s purveyor of nitromethane at the time, owned the 15,000-square-foot complex on Sepulveda Boulevard that was a beehive of racing activity and also home to the likes of Russ Collins’ RC Engineering (which had two young employees by the name of Terry Vance and Byron Hines) and Ron Hammel, whose 10,000 RPM company sponsored Armstrong’s Canuck.
Although they practically lived in the same neighborhood, Boutilier, who like Armstrong was a transplanted Canadian – from Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, in 1965 – first met Armstrong and Veney at one of the injected association meetings. He was three years their senior and had come west to California armed with an engineering degree but not a lot of automotive know-how.
Although Boutilier had been racing a ’57 Corvette with the help of Johnny O’Neil, brother of Funny Car racer Gervaise O’Neil (of King Rat fame), when he got into the service station business in the late 1960s, he admittedly wasn’t much of a mechanic, leaning on the capable hands of Carl Green, who ran a competing Mobil station next door, to learn how to even do a basic brake job, and was up to speed by the time he joined the injected circuit.
“That injected circuit was a lot of fun, and we were all buddies,” he remembered fondly. “We all hung around together and had a lot of fun. Hot Rod City was a great gathering place from 5 o’clock on, after we’d all finished our day jobs. Even Ed Donovan used to stop by almost every evening on his way home. There was a great sense of camaraderie and good-natured competitiveness.”
By the time all three had found their way into Pro Comp – prior to that, Veney and Boutilier had been running their injected fuel Funny Cars in Comp eliminator, with Boutilier’s engine running one of Armstrong’s nitrous oxide systems (legal at the time) – they were well-seasoned and butted heads throughout 1974. Prior to Armstrong’s win at the Winternationals, Boutilier was the talk of the town after recording the first six-second BB/FC run at Irwindale Raceway’s preseason Grand Premiere (“Boy, that still sticks in Veney’s craw,” he said with glee still not contained 40 years later) and followed with a runner-up behind Jimmy Scott in the Weiss & Scott dragster at the Gatornationals, where he suffered a broken cylinder head. Boutilier won his first national event, the Summernationals, where he turned the tables on Scott, who couldn’t fire in the final, and it was Boutilier who fell in the final round of the U.S. Nationals to Armstrong and the Menzies & Foust altered that year.
“He’s not around to defend himself of this, but Dale would have lost that Indy final to me, but I broke another cylinder head,” he explained. “I was out on him and winning the race when it broke. That was as close as I ever got to winning Indy.”
Boutilier raced through the 1982 season and retired from driving to live in Dawsonville, Ga., where he runs a one-man shop building shaft rocker-arm systems for racers and hot rodders.
Of the passing of his good friend, Boutilier added simply, “We lost a good one.”
(Above) "Family photo" from 1974 at Hot Rod City, with Armstrong in the cockpit; Simon Menzies, left, and Jim Foust standing; and Ralph Gorr, left, and Mike Guger kneeling. (Below) The Funny Car above also ran in altered trim and carried Armstrong to his first Indy win, in 1974.
At Donovan Engineering, circa 1976-77, from left, Top Fuel racer Bill Pryor (who used to winter in SoCal in Ed Donovan's "Molehole" guest residence), Armstrong, Menzies, Fred Seayd (who did cylinder-head work for Donovan), and Guger. Armstrong began experimenting with Donovan's block at the end of the 1974 season and became a great resource for "the Mole."
There was always time for fun and games. With an assist from Menzies, Armstrong launched a whipped-cream assault from the cockpit on Popular Hot Rodding magazine advertising director Bill Lloyd at the 1977 PHR Championships.
lthough Mike Guger is acknowledged as Armstrong’s longtime protégé, Simon Menzies can lay claim to being, as he describes it, “the first graduate of the Dale Armstrong School of Hard Knocks,” joining Armstrong on the road in 1970. As a 19-year-old from Toronto (yes, another transplanted Canadian), he was working part-time pumping gas at Armstrong’s service station and saw a progression of Armstrong rides, including his Dana Camaro, Sturm’s Swapper, and Gary Crane’s Traveling Javelin.
When Menzies hit the road with Armstrong, it was with a car that would serve them both well in their early careers, the Armstrong-Hoover-Larsen Barracuda, which was a workhorse, running in blown gas, injected alcohol, supercharged alcohol, and even supercharged nitro.
After campaigning the alcohol circuit, they eventually teamed with Washington state racer Bob Norwood and ran on nitro through 1973 before Armstrong had had enough. Menzies bought out Armstrong’s share and continued to run the car in Texas, where they had been befriended by Bill Wendt, and throughout the Midwest. When the Pro Comp rules were announced, the car was too heavy to run competitively as a Funny Car, but Menzies had blown up his iron 426.
“At the time, I was working for Dale on his and Ken Veney’s A/Fuel Dragster – I was with him when he won the Winternationals – and after they split up, Dale said I should buy the engine and put it in my car and run it as an alternate. It was a 445 with a 427 stock-stroke crank, but Dale said if I could buy the engine, we could put a 454 crank in it to turn it into 473 inches, and it would be the perfect weight break for the altered. I couldn’t afford it, but Jim Foust was there – Dale used to work on his Corvettes – and he said, 'I'd like to give that a shot; how much do you need?' "
Armstrong and Guger took the new car to the AHRA Springnationals in Tulsa, Okla., and won the race, then decided to go to the U.S. Nationals with the car and ended up winning that, too, his first of three triumphs as a driver at the Big Go.
“Foust was so stoked by the success that he wanted to put more money into it,” recalled Menzies, “but I wanted to drive, so I bought them out and moved to Texas to match race the car while they were waiting for the Alcoholic to be built.”
Armstrong and Foust dominated 1975 with their Donovan-powered Satellite-bodied Funny Car, winning the world championship and becoming the first to break the 6.7-, 6.6-, and 6.5-second barriers. Armstrong continued to dominate with the Donovan in an Alcohol Dragster (AA/DA was the class designation then, leading to his “AA/Dale” nickname) – while Menzies teamed with Jim Jackson, who wanted to field a Donovan-powered Funny Car.
“Armstrong had split up with Foust, and we ran our cars out of the same shop,” recalled Menzies. “We were both running the Donovan and won Bakersfield and Fremont together, and even when I was off racing somewhere different than him, I would call him and talk to him about stuff all the time. We used to trade parts back and forth; I couldn’t trade with anyone else because no other Funny Cars were running the Donovan.”
Their comradeship through similarity brought them together again at the 1979 Mile-High Nationals, where Armstrong wounded his engine in a semifinal victory.
“I had lost to Raymond Beadle in round one and had the car in the trailer,” he remembered. “Dale broke some valve springs and tagged some valves, and Guger comes running down to my trailer, said they needed my heads, so we grabbed some lights from Billy Meyer’s trailer [the Mile-Highs was a night race then] and put them on Dale’s car. We lost the final to Billy Williams, but it was a helluva thrash. That was the typical work ethic Dale inspired in me. He would work all day, all night, so that’s what I did. I didn’t know how to do it any other way.”
After retiring from racing in 1979, Menzies managed Simpson Safety Equipment through 1984, then moved to Hawaii, where he worked on the proposed Star Wars defense system, and lost touch with Armstrong for a time.
“We talked occasionally 10 years ago, then I found some of our old equipment, and we got together, and it became a regular thing. In the end, we lived six miles apart and got together as often as we could. Dale still worked hard [restoring and fixing old cars]; I was at his house a month ago, and he’s got this ‘62 409 convertible that he hadn’t driven in six to seven years, and he’s field-stripped the car down to nothing, taken the motor completely apart, and was putting it all back together, and he could hardly breathe. That’s just the way he was. He’d get tunnel vision on a project and work until it was done.”
A friend to both Armstrong and Veney, Menzies really stepped into it one evening during their 1970s rivalry. Menzies at that time also had his own service station, also on 190th, and, like Armstrong in the early days, he would take his exhaust work to Veney, but would spend his evenings at Hot Rod City.
“Ken had just won a race that Dale wasn’t at. Kenny hadn’t won a race in a while, and he came by, and I joked, 'The king returns, eh?' " Menzies recalled with a laugh. “After he left, Armstrong said, ‘You know you’d better pick a side. You’re either on my side or Veney’s side.’ I knew there was a rivalry, but I didn’t know how serious it was, and I told him that. He said, ‘Well, it’s serious. It’s [bleeping] serious.’
“When I think back to those old times, me and Wilfred and Billy, there isn’t one of us who doesn’t owe our success to Dale.”
(Above) Armstrong, right, with crewmembers Mike Guger, center, and Glen Larson formed a dynamic winning trio. (Below) The Armstrong-Hoover-Larsen Barracuda, shown running on nitro in 1973, was a real workhorse in Armstrong's early days.
Guger, left, with Armstrong, was a key member of the Bud King team for years.
ike Guger was just a curious 13-year-old on his bicycle, peering into the shop doors at Hot Rod City when Armstrong befriended him and began a lifelong mentorship and friendship. Guger worked on all of Armstrong's early Funny Cars and for Armstrong throughout most of the Budweiser King days with Kenny Bernstein. That bond continued long after Armstrong retired from the sport and Guger continued to rise in the ranks to his current position as a crew chief for Bob Vandergriff Racing.
“He took me under his wing and allowed me to go racing with him, and look where I’m at now,” Guger told me on the phone Monday, his voice catching and the emotion still evident days after Armstrong’s passing. “When he asked if I wanted to come to the races with him, it was like, ‘Geez. Are you kidding me?’ I just wanted to be a part of it, and through him, I got to meet these guys who were legends in my eyes. Because I [worked for] Dale, I could walk up to Garlits or Prudhomme or Tommy Lemons, and they recognized me.
“He taught me so much about how to run a car and work ethic,” Guger recalled fondly. “Even up until just recently, I could call him -- I probably talked to him more in the last couple of years than I had in a long time – and ask him questions about what I was doing now, and he could still give me a relevant answer. He still understood it very well."
Guger was with Armstrong on some of his earliest Funny Cars – including the Armstrong-Hoover-Larsen car and Veney’s A/Fuel Dragster. Despite his youth, Guger quickly gained Armstrong’s trust, so much to the point that when Guger was just 17, Armstrong turned him loose to drive his duallie and 39-foot fifth-wheel trailer solo from California to Atlanta.
When Armstrong stopped racing in 1980, Guger joined Billy Meyer’s Funny Car team, then ended up back with Armstrong in late 1981 in his driving hurrah with Mike Kase’s Speed Racer and followed him to the Bernstein camp.
“He was just over driving,” remembered Guger. “He accomplished what he wanted to accomplish. I think he liked the driving when he started, but then I think it became a chore, and he was more interested in the mechanical part of it. We were at a match race in Denver, just me and him, sitting in a hotel room when Kenny Bernstein called him and offered him the job. He hung the phone up, turned to me, and said, ‘What do you think?’ I said, 'Why not?' "
Guger came and went from the Bud King camp on a few occasions, oddly not there for any of the championship years, but he was there for the 300-mph run.
Like everyone else, beyond Armstrong's obvious skill in tuning a nitro car, Guger was impressed with Armstrong’s overall mechanical skills.
“He was such a good general mechanic,” he said. "I remember one year, we were coming home from Fremont, but the transmission in the truck was going out. We were going up the Grapevine, from the north to the south, and it’s pretty steep. There was a big rainstorm that brought a mudslide down on one side of the freeway, so both directions were sharing the same road. We had to stop until it was our turn to go; the transmission wouldn’t go. The Highway Patrol was ready to tow us, but Dale told them to wait. He fired up the air compressor, dove under the truck, pulls the pan off, chops a hole in the filter, which was clogged, blows it out, shoves the pan back up, refills it with oil, and got us going enough to get home. Who would know to do that? Anyone else would have been towed off the road.”
Armstrong and Kenny Bernstein were dominant in Funny Car in the late 1980s, winning four straight championships, 1985-88. The 1987 season, with the infamous "Batmobile," was their best, with seven wins (including Indy, pictured) in 14 races.
And there was always time for more whipped cream, as Armstrong let the boss have it with a pie attack after winning the 1983 Big Bud Shootout.
bviously, when people think of Armstrong, it’s his years with Bernstein that come quickly and easily to mind. Innovations like the lockup clutch, data recorder, wind-tunnel-tested bodies, and rare-earth magnets in the magneto helped him and Bernstein win five NHRA championships and 48 national events and, of course, shatter the 300-mph barrier. Although Bernstein had accomplished much before Armstrong, including securing the Budweiser sponsorship and a couple of national event wins, and did much after, with the equally cagey Tim Richards as his tuner, no one benefited more from Armstrong’s inquisitive nature than Bernstein, who has no doubts about the influence Armstrong had on his career.
“I owe Dale a tremendous debt for all we accomplished together because of his ability as an innovator and a forward thinker and for his knowledge and his dedication that allowed us to win all of the races and championships,” said Bernstein. “I look at the fortunate career I had and the fortunate life I have today, and I believe that Dale is 75 percent of the reason for that.”
Bernstein hired Armstrong for the 1982 season after his longtime friend and tuner Ray Alley tired of the touring life despite a pretty successful 1981 season with a third-place finish behind Raymond Beadle and Don Prudhomme. Armstrong at the time was driving Mike Kase’s good-running but lesser-funded Speed Racer Challenger.
“People forget, but we almost won the championship that year; we were leading the points going into Indy but lost in the first round to Beadle, and I didn’t qualify at Fremont and didn’t run good at the Finals,” Bernstein remembered. “Ray didn’t want to travel anymore, and he recommended Dale, who he thought really wanted to work on the cars more than he did drive. We knew he’d be a good crew chief because he tuned all of his own cars and was so far ahead of everyone in the alcohol classes that he almost went off and hid, and he had the Speed Racer running as good as anyone with a very limited amount of money. Ray talked to Dale first, and he was interested, so I talked to Dale and said, ‘This feels good, looks good, smells good – let’s do it.’
“I knew if we gave him the chance and good funding, he could do good things, but even I had no idea he was as good as he was.”
As much success as they had together – including four straight NHRA Funny Car championships (1985-88) – the going wasn’t always easy. In fact, Armstrong became so exasperated with his new driver in 1982 that he mounted a light on the back of the car to tell him when Bernstein shifted, which often was way too early.
“I wasn’t a very good driver when I first started out with him,” admitted Bernstein. “We were in the tire shake days then, and it beat me to death. It got to the point that I was short-shifting the car. The car just didn’t like what Dale was trying to do with it, but he didn’t know that, and all I knew was that I was going to short-shift the thing because it won’t shake if I do that, but it never ran good because it killed the clutch."
It also just about killed Bernstein, who ended up in traction at a local hospital with two ruptured vertebrae in his neck in April 1983, which ended up being a painful but very rewarding experience for Bernstein.
“We were booked in at Orange County [Int’l Raceway], and I told Dale to go drive it. He came in Monday morning, looked at me, and said, ‘We can’t run the car the way we’ve been trying to run it. I almost crashed it.’ That, in all honesty, is what turned us around. I don’t think he realized how bad it was until he crawled in the car and tried it himself. He went in a completely different direction, and the car just took off. That was the turning point.”
Everything wonderful and amazing that happened to the duo came from that point forward, sweeping Indy and the Big Bud Shootout in 1983, the first wind-tunnel Tempo in 1984, the first of four Funny Car championships in 1985, the lockup clutch, and on and on through the transition to Top Fuel, the first 300-mph pass, and a Top Fuel championship in 1996 before amicably parting company in 1997.
“It just came to a point that we needed to go our separate ways,” Bernstein said. “There never were any hard feelings. We just needed to go different ways, but we stayed pretty close. His friendship was very important to me. It’s a tremendous loss to the sport and to me personally.”
As much credit as he gives Armstrong, it was Bernstein’s willingness to give his crew chief the trust and – equally as important -- the funding to experiment and innovate.
The wind-tunnel-designed Ford Tempo body on the 1984 Budweiser King helped Bernstein and Armstrong crush the 260-mph barrier.
Armstrong built this dyno to test nitro engines and used it to test blowers and wear in clutches. The latter was a dirty job. “Wes [Cerny] and I would end up looking like a couple of coal miners by the time we were done,” he recalled.
“I never – not one time – ever told Dale there was something he couldn’t try,” he said. “He would come to me with an idea, we’d talk about, put a budget on it, and off he’d go. We spent a lot of money, and sometimes it didn’t work, but there were too many times where it did work, and when they did, we just jumped out ahead of everybody. I always thought we were a great package because I was fortunate to be able to raise the money and drive the car, and he was a great crew chief and innovator.
“He was at his height back in the days before we had a lot of rules; he just kept thinking up more and more things, and most of them worked. There have been a number of great thinkers like Tim Richards and Austin Coil and Alan Johnson, but Dale was the leader of the bunch because he was the first one who got a chance to do it and gave him the ability to function at a level that was not seen at that time.”
(Not every Armstrong project panned out. Some of them – like the “air clutch” and McGee engine – were mostly a matter of running out of time/patience before full fruition was reached, and others, mostly notably his two-speed supercharger and three-magneto system, were terminated early in their life cycle by a combination of racer backlash or NHRA rules makers. “Where Dale was so good was when the rules were more lax, but we just couldn’t continue down that path,” Bernstein conceded. “The expense was already going crazy, and if we didn’t have the rules we have today, there wouldn’t be but a few cars out there. We have to live within certain boundaries or this sport will not survive. It can’t. No way. As an innovator, it hurt him greatly because that’s what he was really good at.”)
Others quickly took notice of the Budweiser King’s success, and, according to Bernstein, not long after they began to rack up championships, high-roller team owner Larry Minor tried to woo Armstrong with a two-year contract at $500,000 per season.
“I wasn’t going to lose Dale over a few hundred thousand dollars, I’ll tell you that,” Bernstein said. “It wasn’t even a question. I went to Budweiser, and they were phenomenal; they redid our contract to give me the money to be able to keep him. I think I offered him something like $400,000 but for a longer time.”
Bernstein also said that Armstrong was eager to help spread his knowledge to other teams in need of his assistance and did so with Bernstein’s blessing.
“We helped so many people with their cars because Dale felt it was important to help people who were in trouble and to give back to the sport,” he said. “Tom McEwen and Darrell Gwynn are the first ones that come to mind. Dale took our complete engine package and put it into Darrell’s dragster when they were struggling after moving to Top Fuel.”
Interestingly, Armstrong's great impact on Bernstein was not confined to the dragstrip.
“Dale was an avid reader and knowledgeable about everything – everything, even things that weren’t about racing,” Bernstein remembered fondly. “When I had my NASCAR and IndyCar teams, sometimes I would go into Dale’s office with alligators coming out of my ass and ask his advice. I’d lay it out for him and ask him, ‘What would you do?’ and he always, always showed me a different side that I never thought of that would open my mind to his viewpoint even more. Not once, but every single time. That was a great asset to me and something about him that I really loved.
“He was a great man and a great person. I owe Dale so much; I’ve never forgotten that, and I never will.”
(Above) From right, old pals Don Prudhomme, Armstrong, Glen Sanders, and Simon Menzies took in a World of Outlaws race. (Below) From left, Bob Brooks, Larry Dixon, Prudhomme, and Armstrong shared the Pomona winner's circle after Armstrong tuned Dixon to victory at their first race, the 1998 Winternationals. Brooks, who passed away in September, and Armstrong were nearly inseparable throughout the 1990s and are undoubtedly now reunited.
fter splitting with Bernstein, Armstrong joined Don Prudhomme’s Miller Lite Top Fuel team and created more history, tuning Larry Dixon to the sport’s first 4.4-second run, a 4.486, in Houston in 1999.
As he had with Raymond Beadle in his waning days about a month earlier, Prudhomme called upon his good friend Armstrong before he passed.
“We battled him and Bernstein, man, we went nose to nose, but Dale was just a really nice guy; I really liked him. We became pretty tight; he was one of my best buddies. He was the kind of guy who you’d pick up the phone late at night just to shoot the breeze with or have a beer with and have some fun.
“Of course, I always had to check the hockey schedule before I called him; he didn’t want to talk to anyone when hockey was on; he’d be pissed off if you called him when hockey was on.
“We all really admired him. He was the guy who put the crew chief salary on the map for all of these guys, and it was deserved. In his day, he was the best crew chief -- he loved working on all that stuff -- but I enjoyed him more just as a friend. We’d talk about all kinds of fun stuff beyond racing.”
And, like Bernstein, Prudhomme found Armstrong a virtually encyclopedic sounding board.
“Anytime we’re at the shop and something is wrong or something we didn’t know, I’d say, ‘Call Dale; he’ll know.’ It used to irritate Willie [Wolter, Prudhomme’s own jack-of-all-trades] because he’d say, ‘I can figure it out,’ but it was easier to call Dale. He was my lifeline.
“We didn’t race that long together, but the time we had together I treasure.”
Dixon also was impressed with Armstrong in their two seasons together.
“It was pretty obvious to me that Dale wanted to be the first guy to run in the 4.40s,” remembered Dixon. “Winning races and championships still meant something to him, but he was confident that he knew how to do that, and he was after milestones, the next challenge. What he built for us for 1998 was what I consider the first version of what our modern engines are now. He created a setback blower manifold. He wanted to have air come in a different way, so he had Bob Brooks build us a special injector. And then we won in our first race together at the Winternationals. He was always trying to come up with a better way to skin a cat.
“Dale was easy for me to relate to because he was a car guy, and we both loved Chevys. I’d ride to the track with him and Brooks and go to breakfast, and we’d talk about everything but racing. He was a joy to be around and to listen to him and Brooks tell stories.
“The first thing I thought of when Dale passed was that Brooks has his breakfast partner back, and Bob probably knows where the Waffle House is.”
Armstrong and Austin Coil, nitro geniuses
rmstrong had few peers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but Austin Coil was certainly one who obtained that level of success, both on the track and on the drawing board, though Coil points out it’s hard to compare them apples to apples at the same points in history.
“When Dale was dominant, it was a time period where [John Force Racing] didn’t have the budget to innovate,” observed Coil. “I don’t think we reached that point until about 1990, when they had switched to Top Fuel, but at that time, they were running the playground we all dreamed about.”
Despite the budgetary difference, sometimes they thought along parallel lines.
Recalled Coil, “We were sitting around one day [BSing] when it was raining, and Dale was talking about if you could find some way to grab the clutch levers and pull back on them to add more plateload as you get down the track, that would be a great thing, but he hadn’t figured out how to do that. I said, ’What if you put some more levers in there and held them out of action and let them come in later?’ He said, “Aw, I don’t know if that would work,” then he went and built one, which was the first lockup clutch. I started trying to build one, but we weren’t able to progress as quickly as he was; he had his out by Indy [in 1986], and we had ours out at the race before the World Finals.
“I remember one story of when he was trying to build better magnetos. He was working with a guy we all called ‘Sparky,’ Bruce Edey, and they were wondering what difference having a stronger ignition would make. It was kind of an unknown, but they came up with an idea of how to test it. Bruce came to Bernstein’s shop with a capacitor like they use on light poles, about the size of a trash can, but they had to charge it somehow. Bruce scaled a light pole behind Bernstein’s shop and very carefully snapped some cables on a 12,500-volt line and charged it. Of course, then no one wanted to touch it, so they lassoed the capacitor and dragged it to the magneto test stand, where Dale had a cylinder head gasket side up, with a spark plug, and some nitro in the chamber. When you’d do that with a normal magneto, you’d see the plug spark, and bubbles would form in the nitro puddle. We’d made the same kind of tests ourselves.
“Anyway, they rigged up the capacitor using some wooden poles, and when they made contact with the wire, the nitro exploded out of the cylinder head in a ball of flame. It showed them that there was no doubt that more juice was better for lighting nitro. Even though that was more than 100 times the current that’s reasonable for a magneto to make, it showed them the path, and I said to myself, ‘Good one, Dale; I wouldn’t have thought of that.’ “
Darrell Gwynn's and Armstrong's birthdays were close (Gwynn was Sept. 10, Armstrong Aug. 30), and the duo celebrated together in Indy in 1986.
s Bernstein mentioned, Armstrong helped a lot of other teams, but perhaps none more Darrell Gwynn and his family's in its transition from Alcohol Dragster to Top Fuel in the mid-1980s.
“Dale knew Darrell from way back, but I didn’t really know Darrell all that well, but I knew [his dad] Jerry,” recalled Bernstein. “Jerry had helped me one time at a match race in Suffolk, Va., when we had a camshaft go bad, and I didn’t know how to change it or time it, and he came over and showed me how to do it, so I felt like I still owed him, so I said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.' "
Bernstein also had brought the Budweiser sponsorship to the Gwynn team, so there's a lot of history there, but before I could even call Gwynn, this note showed up in my Inbox from him.
“Dale was one of the greatest racers, drivers, crew chiefs, ball busters, and a dear friend of mine. I’ve known Dale since the early ‘70s. Dale actually bought me my first helmet, gloves, and boots before I went to get my NHRA license. I spent a lot of time in the early days with him and Mike Guger; as sad as I am over his passing, and as difficult as this is for me, it makes me reflect on how lucky I am to have had him in my life as a friend for many years. The great memories I have of Dale are countless. I wish I could share all the great and funny stories of how he affected my life on and off the racetrack, but there are just too many to list.
“On the racetrack, Dale was very instrumental in helping me achieve the success I had in a very short period of time. Off the racetrack, I will always cherish the fun times we shared as friends as we drove down the road together from race to race.
“Dale was always looking out for me, no matter who he was working for. I will never forget the grins on his face during the successes we had with his and Kenny Bernstein’s engine combinations in my car. He loved how it affected the rest of the competitors and how they reacted to the success of our car. These reactions motivated him even more to my benefit.
“Dale was literally a driving force in my life. I will forever cherish his memory and the impact he had on my life. Dale, I will miss you buddy.”
Dale and a very proud Susie at Armstrong's 2010 induction into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America. "He was my world," she said.
s much as we all will miss him, no one will miss him more than his wife, Susie. They met when she was Bernstein’s publicist, and she fell in love with the mechanical genius with the poet’s heart nearly three decades ago.
“He was a one in a million guy,” she told me. “He had a heart to match that talented brain, and he especially loved animals and rooted for the underdog in sports.”
As I mentioned, Armstrong was a longtime L.A. Kings fan and was a big fan of Kings coach Darryl Sutter, another good ol’ farm boy from the cold country of Alberta.
“He loved the L.A. Kings and moved his chair within three feet of the TV screen during the playoffs -- said he could watch the puck better sitting 'on top of the TV,' " she shared. “Dale owned Wayne Gretzky's 1999 Dodge Durango, which was awarded to Wayne in his final All-Star game as MVP. We went to Wayne's house and spent some time with him. Wayne was Dale's biggest hero, and he loved getting to spend time with ‘The Great One.’ Gretzky signed the glove box in the Durango and gave Dale a signed jersey. Wayne also called Dale when he was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America to congratulate him.
“Dale grew up on a farm, and when his parents moved to the city, he and his friends spent a lot of time working on hot rods in his parents' garage. He pretty much taught himself. I don't think there was anything he couldn't fix, and that included electrical problems in the house, plumbing problems, an extensive computerized sprinkler system, or anything that could plague a household.
“It’s hard to believe he is gone. But he is at peace, and I hope there's some serious racing up in heaven because I'm sure he has some innovations he hasn't thoroughly tested yet. I envision Dale and Paul Candies catching up on some fun.”
Godspeed, Dale. You’ll be greatly missed, and I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say thank you for all you gave us.
A celebration of Dale's life will be held Feb. 5 -- Thursday of the Winternationals -- at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum. I'll provide more details as we get closer to that. I know I wouldn't miss it for the world.