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Father's Day

13 Jun 2014
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

I’m going to go not too far out on a limb here and work under the assumption that a large majority of the Insider Nation is comprised of guys a lot like me. Some older, some younger, some the same age, but all of us, somewhere along the line, developed a deep love for cars and, of course, for drag racing.

I’m also going to inch a little further out onto the bravado branch and suspect that a lot of you (even the gals) got that way thanks to your dad. NHRA history is packed with stories of the sons and daughters who have followed their fathers onto the quarter-mile — the Bernsteins, the Kalittas, the Forces, etc. — as the video at right can attest.

As you all know (or better know!), Father’s Day is this Sunday, and it’s a special day to most of us, especially those of us who are ourselves fathers. Whether your dad is still thankfully with you or if he’s passed away, the day can be a very emotional one. Mothers, everyone loves them forever (save for a few teenage girls, but it passes), and with good reason. They cuddle, they console, they nurture, they cry with you and for you. Dads have it a little tougher, of course, tasked with helping turn boys into men, to show them all of the "Guy Stuff" they'll need to know. Righty-tighty/lefty-loosey, hold the door for ladies, never let them see you cry, etc. I know plenty of guys who've spent a lot of time thinking that their old man was a rat bastard because he buckled down on them, taught them to be tough at all costs, at all times. Not every dad is like that; in fact, it’s probably a pretty safe bet that no two dads are alike, but I’m guessing that the dads of the gear heads and pit rats that follow this column regularly have a lot of common traits.

It’s at this point that I’ll offer an easy exit for those who come here each week looking for my nostalgic looks back at the sport because this one’s going to be a little less about cars and a lot more about emotions.

Father’s Day is always a tough time for me. I lost my dad 45 years ago this September, when I was just 9, and it seems like I miss having him more each year. It’s not so much the actual missing him — although there's plenty of that — but more of wishing he were here to share it all with me now, to see my kids and my grandkids, to see that his son made something of himself, that I grew up to be a good human being. He had certainly set me on the right path and loved me and my sister so deeply, but he couldn’t have known what would become of us that last evening when he kissed me goodnight, then headed out for a nightly jog, part of a training regimen he had begun for a return to his glory days as a semi-pro soccer player. He died later that night of a heart attack, the price paid for too many cigarettes. Now all I have are just a few grainy Polaroids of him to show my kids.

He and my mother had divorced some years earlier, and my sister and I lived with him in England (long story). My mom remained in the U.S. and remarried during those two years we were apart, and it’s that man, Lee Roy Earhart, who helped mold me into what I am and what I love, and it’s he to whom I now send my Father’s Day cards and my love.

A former Marine, former motorcycle racer, and already the father of six kids by the time our paths crossed following my father’s death, Lee could've been a total hardass on my sister and me. Most of his own kids, victims of his own broken marriage, already were in their teens and a few had been in trouble with the law or dealing with demons of addiction and living elsewhere. One could hardly fault him if he took a deep gulp realizing that he'd just inherited two more to his care.

But he didn’t.

The extended Burgess-Earhart family, some time in the 1980s. That's me, back row, left, in the 64 Funny Cars shirt. My mom is kneeling at far right, Lee proudly posing with all of "his kids" in the yellow shirt.

He never tried to replace our father but became our father anyway, which meant the world to a curious boy like me with a lot still to learn. While my natural father, who, as a tool and die maker, was pretty good with machines, had begun to share me with his secrets of the soccer ball — no cars yet — Lee took me under his wing and showed me what I could do with my hands instead of my feet.

He was a maintenance mechanic for Everest & Jennings, the world’s largest wheelchair manufacturer, at its main plant in Los Angeles, part of a team charged with keeping all of the plant’s many machines — punches, presses, lathes, mills, assembly lines, and the like — up and running. To say that he was good with tools would be like saying that Rembrandt was pretty good with a brush.

He taught me when you should use vise grips instead of a Crescent wrench, when a pair of channel locks were superior to a pipe wrench, how to bust loose a rusty bolt and nut, and how to cuss. I think I’ve told this anecdote before, but it’s worth repeating because it showed me that there is more than one way to approach every problem. As we were fixing my broken bicycle one day, we were lacking a necessary flat washer. We couldn’t find one and the hardware store was closed, so he did what came natural: He improvised. He fished a dime out of his pocket and drilled a hole perfectly through the middle. Voila, instant washer.

I watched him build, from scratch in our backyard, a 30-foot-tall, three-sided tower upon which to mount a large CB antenna (which was an Avanti, the same company that sponsored Roland Leong’s Hawaiian; don’t think I missed that!) using just some scrap tubing, a welder, and a vision in his head.

Sensing my growing passion for the sport, he and my mom started taking me to the drags when I was 11, and he took me as often as he could after that, making the long trek from Culver City to Irwindale Raceway or Orange County Int’l Raceway. I already knew all the players from my devoted magazine reading, but he explained the secrets therein. How an engine worked, why this car was like this but another was like that. He himself was no drag racing expert, but he knew cars like Mozart knew music.

As driving age loomed closer, he invited me under the hood, where he showed me how to change the spark plugs, the points, and the condenser (and how to use an Emery board to clean the points to get a few more miles out of them). When I started to hot rod my first car with the addition of a pair of Cyclone headers, he was right there with me under the car, grunting and sweating and cussing to work them into the only possible position they needed to be to fit. And when he watched me, in my growing frustration, trying to tighten the bolts where they attached to the cylinder head, bolts whose heads you just couldn’t grip onto with a Craftsman open-end wrench, he took my knuckle-bloodied wrench and ground down the bulging outer edges of its jaws so that it slipped on like magic. I still have that wrench somewhere.

When I developed a passion for photography, he built me a darkroom on the back porch; I mean a real, dedicated room, with four walls that he built and erected with his own hands and the skills he had learned from his father.

It was his good standing at Everest & Jennings that got me my first job there, working in a sister department, facility maintenance, where I took the skills he taught me and applied them to fixing leaky pipes, broken windows, worn-out light switches, and more, skills that still serve me well years after I left that job to do something softer and more permanent with my hands.

He was always — always — there for me, to rescue me from myself (and from a broken-down car), to point me in the right direction, to gently but firmly chastise me as a father should when I did wrong, but always with the velvety glove of a man trying to be my father without replacing my dad. When I married years later, the deal came with a kid as part of the package, and I used what he had taught me to grow that relationship into a nurturing and loving one with my stepdaughter, who today is simply my daughter and me her dad. I added two more kids to the collection, including a car-crazy son, with whom I’ve spent hours under the hood of his Mustang repeating the lessons I learned, and a daughter, who inherited her love for word play from me.

The folks moved north to Oregon not long after I graduated high school, but I was well prepared to be on my own. A few years after they left, I landed this dream job, and they follow me and the races religiously on TV and even sometimes here.

My hero, right, with my own son, Chris, left, and my nephew, Matt, a few years ago.

Lee turned 84 this past April, and while he’s the first to admit he’s no spring chicken and that he probably should quit the smokes, he’s still one tough old bird. I shared earlier this year how he was the passenger in a terrible auto accident, and he’s well on the mend. When I talked to him on the phone the other day, he had just finished pulling the engine out of his Camaro. He’s probably going to outlive me.

His own kids turned out swell, too, overcoming their early mistakes to lead productive and happy lives, and I’m proud to say that I have amazing relationships with all of them. They’re big NHRA fans, too, and we see each other every time the drags come to Pomona. Like Lee is not just my stepfather, they’re not my stepbrothers and stepsisters. They’re family.

I like to think that my dad is seeing all of this, seeing the family that I have in my life, seeing the family that I have in my job, and seeing the relationship I have with the man who reluctantly but bravely took his place at my side to guide me on my way. And I know he’s smiling.

That’s my story about my dads; I’d love to hear yours. Just click on my name at the top of this column and send me an email. Tell me what they taught you, what they mean to you, and I’ll share some of the best here next week. Don’t forget the photos!

Happy Father’s Day to all the dads.