I have to admit, I was pretty stunned earlier this week when online voting concluded for the Most Memorable Moments in NHRA World Finals history and Shirl Greer’s amazing comeback from a nasty fire in qualifying to win the 1974 Funny Car championship was named to the top spot.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge Greer fan and am intimately familiar with the histrionics of that weekend at the 1974 World Finals at Ontario Motor Speedway, but it was up against a huge juggernaut in Tony Schumacher’s fabled “The Run” from the 2006 Finals and one of the most improbable performance-based scenarios in the sport’s history.
Also, 10 years ago, when we did a similar vote during the event’s 40th anniversary, Greer’s moment finished just ninth. This time, Greer’s rise from the ashes garnered a full third of the vote, easily outdistancing “The Run,” which earned 22 percent. John Force’s rollover at the 1992 event – winner of the vote 10 years ago – finished third with 11 percent, just ahead of Jeb Allen’s thrilling 1981 championship, which earned 10 percent (helped no doubt by the humbled-to-be-remembered Allen’s recent email exhorting friends to “vote for this guy,” showing a photo of the now fit and healthy champ on his mountain bike).
We lost Greer four years ago, but his sons, Brian and Van, continue to honor their father by annually presenting an award they call the Old Champs Choice award to racers they think their dad would have liked and through Brian’s creation with Anthony Dicero of a Nostalgia Funny Car reminiscent of his dad’s Mach I.
I heard from Brian earlier this week, and it was clear what the vote meant to him and his family. “I wanted to thank you and the entire staff at NHRA for listing Dad's championship as one of the top 10 moments,” he wrote. “It is a huge honor for my family and myself. Again, I cannot thank you guys enough and express how much it means to me and my family to be a part of the rich history of NHRA, and I thank you for all that you have done for us and for Dad.”
In honor of the win, I’d like to share some of the details of that great comeback, which I chronicled earlier this year in our National Dragster Readers Choice issue. I think a lot of people know the basics, but I was able to chat with many of those who helped to get about as complete a retelling as I think is possible. I think you’ll discover why the voters felt as they did.
From 1965 through 1973, NHRA’s championships were decided at the World Finals, where the top division finishers converged and the winner of the event’s final eliminations was crowned world champion. To some, it seemed an inequitable way to settle the season, with a year’s worth of hard work possibly disappearing in a millisecond of bad luck or breakage.
In 1974, NHRA returned to a points-based system (NHRA had crowned its first champions, from 1960 to 1964, on a points basis that relied heavily on divisional events), and few will forget that groundbreaking year, especially for the drama in one class, where it took a literal trial by fire for a champion to be forged.
Most people remember how Greer clinched the championship, but that was only the dramatic final act of a dream season that earned him the title he proudly wore until his passing in 2010.
A rough start
Greer’s championship was largely won on the divisional circuit, where he suffered through some rocky outings but often emerged victorious.
Greer’s championship season certainly didn’t start on a good foot. He skipped the first Winston Championship Series (WCS) divisional event of the season to run a well-paying match race, then bowed out in round one of the Gatornationals, where, despite holding lane choice, he picked the wrong lane and went up in smoke against Al Bergler.
In a late 1974 interview with National Dragster, Greer remembered, “When the year started and I had heard about that points deal, I thought it seemed like a pretty good idea, so we decided to give ’er a try. … I wasn’t aware at the time that you got bonus points for running all of the WCS races in your division, and that really hurt me later. [Losing early at the Gatornationals] really put us in a bad spot.”
With no incentive to race exclusively in his home division, Greer and crew traveled to the Division 4 event at La Place Dragway in Louisiana, where he not only won the race but qualified No. 1 and set low e.t. and top speed, all of which were worth points.
The momentum seemed ready to continue when Greer qualified No. 1 at his next event, the Division 2 WCS race at Virginia’s Suffolk Raceway, but when crewmembers dived into the trailer for a fresh batch of pistons to replace some they had burned, they discovered that their spare pistons had accidentally been left at home. He ran the engine on burned pistons in round one but could only run the car to 800 feet before throwing in the towel.
Paul Smith, Greer’s toughest competition not only in his division but, ultimately, in the battle for the season championship, won the event and assumed a commanding points lead.
Greer won the next Division 2 event in Blaney, S.C., but it also was not without adventure. He qualified No. 6 but again damaged the engine. As he was adjusting the valves, one of the springs worked loose and catapulted itself off the cylinder head and hit Greer, knocking him to the ground and out of action for a while. Ultimately, the team repaired the damage and Greer recovered and, showing remarkable composure, won the event on three straight holeshots, including in the final, where he beat Smith, 6.80 to 6.70.
Greer’s next event, the Springnationals in Columbus, was a humbling “die by the sword” experience because this time, he was the holeshot victim, losing to lower-qualified Tom McEwen on a 6.62 to 6.60 count. To make matters worse, Smith reached the semifinals, putting Greer further behind, and both trailed 1973 champ Frank Hall, who had won two of the three Division 4 events to date and had been runner-up at the season-opening Winternationals.
“When I look back at all of the dumb things we did early in the year, it really surprises me that we won [the championship],” Greer later admitted.
Things begin looking brighter
En route to the championship, Greer also scored his first (and only) Funny Car victory when he defeated Kosty Ivanoff in the final in Montreal.
What happened next changed the whole complexion of Greer’s season. Engine woes also knocked him out at his next race, the Summernationals, in round two, but Smith had bowed out in the opening stanza.
“If Smith hadn’t gone out in the first round, I would have quit the whole thing right there,” Greer said. “But he didn’t gain any more points on us, so I figured that we should give ’er one more try.”
That try took place at NHRA’s only non-U.S. event, Le Grandnational in Canada, where Greer and Smith qualified No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. Smith was upset on a semifinal holeshot by Kosty Ivanoff, and Greer defeated "Pee Wee" Wallace, Al Segrini, and, in the final, Ivanoff to claim his first national event win and pull within 21 points of Smith for the lead.
Hall bounced right back into the lead with a win at the Division 6 event in Seattle, but that was his final divisional event of the season, and when he surprisingly failed to qualify at his final points-earning national event, the U.S. Nationals, his total was sealed at 4,220, setting a goal for the two Southern rivals.
Greer, too, surprisingly failed to qualify in Indy, and Smith just barely scraped into the field in the No. 16 spot and lost in round one. Prudhomme won the race in what incredibly was his first Funny Car victory in more than two years in the class, and he suddenly became a factor for the championship battle.
Greer’s victory at the final Division 2 event of the year in Gainesville — which included a holeshot semifinal win over Smith, 6.91 to 6.77 — had momentarily given Greer the points lead over Smith, but Smith got bonus points for competing in all of the division’s races that year, which gave him the lead, 4,409 to 4,235, heading into the World Finals at Southern California’s Ontario Motor Speedway. Prudhomme was fourth, behind Hall (who could not earn points) and Greer (by 270 points).
A fiery finish
Incredibly, Smith failed to qualify after hurting his good rear end, and Greer was already solidly qualified and, with 200 points in the bank, in the points lead when he pulled to the starting line in Saturday’s final qualifying session hoping to better a 6.47.
At about the 800-foot mark, a crack in the crankshaft caused the main bearing to spin, and the No. 2 and No. 3 rods exited the side of the block. Oil poured onto the headers, igniting a ferocious blaze. Greer hit the fire bottles, but the engine kept running, pumping more oil into the blaze.
“The fire bottles would put out the flames some, but that oil would still keep coming out of the block as that engine just kept idlin’; it seemed like it would never shut off,” recalled Greer. “Before I knew it, the flames would just start coming up again.”
The entire rear section of the car had been burned away, and Greer was transported to a local hospital with second-degree burns on his hands and lesser burns on his face.
“As they took me away on the stretcher, I looked at the car and said to myself that that was the end of that one, and there was no way I was gonna get enough points to win,” said Greer.
No one wanted to see Greer’s season end that way, and in a wonderful display of sportsmanship and camaraderie, season-long rival Smith, fellow Funny Car racer Al Hanna, and a large group of others began thrashing on the wounded Mustang. From his hospital bed, Greer assured his crew that if they could fix it, he would find a way to drive it.
The remains of the car were hauled to engine builder Steve Montrelli’s nearby shop. Hanna took the lead role in the thrash, tearing apart the car’s driveline — clutch, two-speed, and rear end — while Montrelli built a new engine. Smith and his crew, meanwhile, took dimensions for the back half of the car and went to chassis builder Don Long’s shop to begin building a replacement rear end out of aluminum.
“We knew we didn’t have enough time to do it with fiberglass because there wasn’t enough time for it to set up, so we had to use aluminum,” recalled Smith.
Rising from the ashes
The newly formed rear end was attached to the remains of the body using rivets, screws, and duct tape, and everyone involved wrote messages on the aluminum and even drew on taillights and a license plate with a Magic Marker. It took 17 hours to resurrect Greer’s mount, and although the car certainly wouldn’t win any Best Appearing Car honors, it was deemed race-worthy.
“I got back to the track at 11 in the morning on Sunday, and when I saw the car all patched back together, I couldn’t believe it,” said Greer.
“It looked dastardly,” said Hanna, “and NHRA was really concerned about it, and it was Prudhomme — the guy with the most to lose and nothing to gain — who convinced them they needed to give Greer a chance.”
LeRoy “Doc” Hales was in his second year as medical director of the NHRA Safety Safari, and it was his duty to determine whether Greer could safely drive the car.
“Shirl’s hands received some nasty, painful, second-degree burns in the fire,” he remembered. “Fuel drivers were still wearing poor glove protection because they wanted flexibility with their fingers and hands.
“Jack Hart was the event director at that time and came to me and said he wanted to make sure that Shirl was safe to drive because of his burns. Jack and I called Shirl to the event office and told him to bring all the driving gloves he had. I examined his bare hands, which had the aforementioned nasty burns, and asked Shirl how he felt about driving.
“He said that his hands hurt, but he would be good to do what he had to. His hands were bandaged with ointment and gauze. I asked him to put on two pairs of gloves, which he did. I then put three of my fingers out and told Shirl to grab them with his hands, one at a time. I told him that if I could not pull my fingers from his grasp, he could drive; if I could get loose, then he couldn’t drive. I thought Shirl would break my fingers, he squeezed so hard, but I couldn’t pull my fingers out from his grip after two tries. Shirl wore his two pairs of driving gloves and WON! I am still grateful that Shirl held on during my ‘finger test!’ Imagine how I and everyone else would have felt if I and Jack Hart had disqualified him from driving that day.”
Greer’s safety equipment had been damaged in the fire, so Hanna loaned his buddy his firesuit and helmet, and Prudhomme came to the rescue by providing a set of garden gloves to cover Greer’s bandaged hands before he put on his fire gloves.
Down to the wire
Prudhomme had entered the race 270 points behind Greer, so he needed to go two rounds further than Greer to catch him.
Both Prudhomme and Greer won their first-round races; Prudhomme beat Gene Snow, but Greer’s victory over Leroy Chadderton was not without drama. In the hectic pit work, the blower bolts had only been put on hand-tightened, and although it survived until near the end of the run, it backfired in the lights, damaging the body again and the windshield.
There wasn’t a spare Mustang windshield to be found, so while the other mechanical work was being done, another pair of Funny Car racers, Gordie Bonin and Paul Radici, set about adapting a Vega windshield to the car. When the second round began, the team was still in the pits, working hard, but all work stopped for a second, and ears were tuned to the PA system when Prudhomme pulled up to race Dale Pulde. Pulde beat Prudhomme with a stunning 6.16 national record blast in Mickey Thompson’s Grand Am.
“We were still working on the car right up until the minute that Pulde beat Prudhomme and still probably could’ve got ’er done with just five or 10 minutes more time,” said Greer. “But when Prudhomme got beat and they started announcing that I had won the world championship, I told everybody to just forget it. Everyone had worked too hard already, and it would’ve been pretty shaky to make another run.”
Greer finished with 4,641 points, Smith with 4,409, and Prudhomme with 4,380.
“All the rest of the day, I just couldn’t believe that we actually won, and it took a while for it to hit me,” said Greer. “I just can’t thank all the people who helped me enough. All of the racers, especially Smith and Prudhomme, who lost out on a lot of money with me winning the title, were just tremendous. I can’t thank ’em enough.”
“It was a well-deserved championship, to come back from that fire and still run,” admitted Prudhomme years later. “They don’t make ’em like that anymore.”
Congratulations to Greer and his family, again. It was a moment well worth remembering and saluting.