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Here, There, and Everywhere

19 Sep 2014
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

If this is Friday, it must be Dallas, right? Well, a combination of Charlotte and Dallas, I guess. Yes, the weather gods decided to play more scheduling tricks on us, so just as it was in Indy, where we had to complete the balance of Brainerd eliminations, we’ll finish off rain-hampered Charlotte in Dallas, where we’ll also finish Dallas, unless we need to finish it in St. Louis next weekend ... or something like that.

But before I took back to the friendly skies for my annual trip to the Texas Meyerplex, I absolutely had to tie up all these loose ends from past threads and maybe unravel a few new ones. It’s stunning how one thing leads not to two or three but whole handfuls of related things that need to be addressed and aired for the sake of thoroughness.

So that’s why we’re here today. Strap in — it's a bumpy ride, from Indy to Reno, Nev., from Culver City, Calif., to Merlin, Ore., from Connecticut to Colorado, and several points in-between.

SnakeIn Indy, I helped run a Twitter chat on the NHRA account with Don Prudhomme, where he answered questions from fans (My favorite: “Any advice for up and coming racers?” Answer: “Get a nickname. Stand out in the crowd.” If only it were that easy.) and talked about his current restoration project on the Shelby Super Snake, for which he has enlisted the original chassis builder (Don Long) and engine builder (Ed Pink) to bring the car up to truly accurate condition.

While Prudhomme was in the media center, I chatted with Skip Allum — Prudhomme’s right-hand man — about “the Snake’s” restoration projects over the years and if they’d had any success trying to get back the famed 1976 Army Monza from the Harrah’s museum in Nevada. Prudhomme famously traded the car to Harrah’s for a Ferrari 308 back in the day, and despite offers of higher value for its return, the museum refuses to part with it, which is a true shame (and perhaps the reason) given its role in NHRA lore as one of the cars with the winningest race percentage (13 NHRA wins in 16 starts over two years, plus countless points meet and match-race wins).

Although the museum apparently is not about to give the car back, they did roll it out late last year, and Prudhomme was there to plant a loving kiss on its roof and to retake his place behind the wheel of the car in which he enjoyed so much success, and Skip was kind enough to share those photos with me.

Speaking of Prudhomme, fast-fingered Bret Kepner decided to see if “the Snake” really won the 1970 U.S. Nationals Top Fuel final by “half a spoke,” as he claimed during one of the legends shows at this year’s Big Go; looks like way more than that, thanks to Kepner’s fast finger on the pause button for the video. It was good to see my fellow fact-infatuated friend at Indy after he had a bit of a rough summer.

This photo, taken from the Isky collection as it appeared in the fine book, Merchants of Speed: The Men Who Built America's Performance Industry, shows the building in the late 1950s, According to the book, Isky built the building on a piece of property he bought there.

On the weekend between Indy and Charlotte, I drove back to my old haunts in Culver City to have lunch with my sister, who was in town from Northern California to attend some legal seminars. I’ve written a few times in this column about the rich hot-rodding history of the area, which was home to early speed-equipment heroes like Ed Iskenderian, Dick Hedman, Ted Halibrand, and more and also home to Albertson Olds, sponsor of Leonard Harris’ 1960 Nationals-winning dragster, as well as notorious hot-rod hangouts like the Piccadilly Drive-In and Nineteen (named for its 19-cent burgers). "Culver City was where it was at back then," Hedman once assured me.

(I wasn't around in the days of the Piccadilly and Nineteen, but growing up there, I remember what was known as "Thunder Alley,” in the 11000 block of Jefferson Boulevard, which housed the shops of Lance Reventlow, TRACO Engineering, Troutman and Barnes, Dick Gulstrand, and actor Jim Garner’s American International Racing.)

Anyway, I built in some time before lunch (she bought; after all, she’s a high-falutin’ attorney) and spent an hour or so checking out my old haunts, driving by the house where I grew up (site of many Hot Wheels national events); past my old elementary, junior high, and high schools; and retracing my old weekend cruising routes — the usual stuff.

I couldn’t resist stopping by to check out the old Iskenderian shop on Slauson Avenue, which sits just across the street from where said sister got her first job slinging doughnuts at Winchell’s (also still there). I was stunned that Isky’s is not only still there but also still lettered with the company name.

The shop (6338 Slauson for all you Google Street View freaks) was Isky’s return to Culver City. After grinding his first cams from his home garage, he’d originally set up shop at 5977 Washington Blvd., just behind the Mercury Tool and Die shop, owned by his good friend and high school buddy, John Athan. He moved twice more before returning to Culver City and setting up his business at this shop on Slauson in the late 1950s. I’m not sure when he outgrew this place, but the company has been based in Gardena, Calif., (about a half-hour down the 405 Freeway) since 1966 and moved there after leaving Culver City and relocating to Inglewood, so I’m thinking it’s been 50 years or so, yet the place still bears his name.

I parked across the street and walked up the place, trying to peer through the windows. I couldn’t see much, so I walked down the street and around the back and discovered an alley and two garage doors. It didn’t take much of an imagination to wonder about how many famous racers had pulled their rigs into this alley or had walked through that front door in search of more horsepower. Had “Big John” Mazmanian sat at the counter with Isky, discussing lift and duration in a bid to out-horsepower Engle-equipped Stone, Woods & Cook? Had one-time Isky user Don Garlits dropped by during a trip to the Winternationals? The mind reels.
 

The "Stat Guy," Lewis Bloom, and Eddie Krawiec, both denizens of Raceway Park in Englishtown, will probably enjoy this great find, sent to me by reader Dave Wesolowski. It’s a gallery of photos (195 to be exact) from the 1968 Springnationals. Now, you might ask, “But Phil, why would some Jersey Boys be interested in that? The Springnationals was run in Bristol and Dallas in the 1960s, right? And Englishtown hosted the Summernationals, not the Springnationals, right?”

The answers to those two questions are “yes” and “yes”, but venerable old Raceway Park also hosted the Springnationals in 1968, after its three-year stint in Bristol (1965-68) and before its three-year run in Dallas (1969-71). The Summernationals went to York, Pa., for a year, and then Raceway Park began hosting the Summernationals in 1971.

The gallery, which is located here, is hosted on the servers of California’s Stanford University and comes courtesy of The Collier Collection and The Revs Institute for Automotive Research Inc.

In my Father’s Day homage to my stepfather, I had written about how good he was with his hands and how he built, with spare tubing and without any plans or outside help, a 20-foot-plus tower on to which he could mount our CB radio antenna. I got the chance to stop by his place in Oregon for a day in early August on the way to the Seattle event. Walking around his land, I stumbled upon the tower, which he’d brought north with him when he and my mom moved from California in 1980. It’s a little worse for wear but still largely intact (though a little tweaked), and the blue paint I helped apply is still there. I noticed now that he’d used pip pins to connect the sections as he raised it and how beautiful the welds were. It’s not hard to get me all nostalgia over welded-together tubing in the first place, but even without any wheels attached, this one brought back some sweet memories.


  
 

In the first of two parts of U.S. Nationals photos from the Tom Kasch collection, I showed a photo of the Eastern Raider Pinto Funny Car in the pits at the 1972 event, and quickly heard from Al Hanna’s son, Rich, who had his own story behind the story, as illustrated by the photo above.

“Al and partner Joe Mundet had a new combination in the car fresh out of Keith Black’s engine shop,” he wrote. “The very first run on it would be the first qualifying session at Indy. The car made a powerful launch and lifted the front end several hundred feet out, forcing Al to abort the run. Afterwards in the pits, Al found Keith to ask his opinion on a change to the tune-up, clutch, etc., for the next run, which would be the following day. Keith said simply to the effect of ‘If I were you, I’d add 150 pounds to the front end.’ Al thought he was kidding at first, but it was in all seriousness. So the two went to a local scrap yard to find weight to add to the car, which they did for the next day’s session. The next run: 6.61 and No. 11 qualifier at the U.S. Nationals! Sometimes things can get too over engineered, and they need someone with some good old common sense like Keith Black to right the ship.”

When Insider regular “Chicago Jon” Hoffman shot the above photo at the 1978 U.S. Nationals and shared it as part of our “Things That Aren’t Here Anymore” thread (i.e. the Hurst Bridge), I’m sure he had no idea that more than 35 years later someone would step forth and identify the random fans in his moody photo, but after it was published, I heard from Christine Friederich, who wrote to say that’s her husband-to-be, Carl Friederich, in the yellow shirt leaning on Gary Ormsby’s car in the staging lanes. That’s his brother, Steve, standing with him. “My husband said that he was in the sixth grade when his older brother stopped on his way to Indianapolis and took him to the track,” she wrote. “He doesn't remember the picture being taken but was excited to see it and share it with our children as well as the memories of the trip.” That’s what we do best around here, Christine … glad we could help!

Click here to see a larger version.

Tom Edwards’ photos from Connecticut Dragway are still drawing response, this one from Connecticut Dragway regular Bob Miclette, who recalled the days when touring match races would put out a call to the spectators for a tow vehicle because their own big haulers sometimes weren’t suited to the task. “Well, one day I just happened to be one of those spectators,” he wrote. “I don't think it took me two seconds to get to the Fullerton/Doheny pit that day to answer the call! They deemed me and the pickup I was driving (it belonged to my buddy's father, and I don't remember why I had it that day), good to go, so I became an official crewmember for the day. I was in Seventh Heaven!

“Back then, after you towed them to the starting line, you pulled alongside of them so they could start the car and put the starter and body prop in the truck. After they did the burnout, you lined up right behind them, and when they made the run, you followed them right down the track! One pass I took off too fast and dumped their toolbox on the starting line. And the last pass, he blew up in a huge fireball! His girlfriend Angel was with me in the truck, and she was freaking out, telling me to hurry up, go faster! I'm banging gears in this mid-‘60s Chevy pickup with a three on the Tree and six cylinder, trying to get there as fast as I could. By the time we got to where he had stopped, he was out of the car, and the fire was out.

“All in all, they still said I did a great job and thanked me for the help! What a nice bunch of guys (and gal)! They signed a picture for me, which I still have to this day. That was the first time I ever got to ‘work’ on a fuel team but not the last. Thanks to their mode of transporting the car, I got that opportunity. I attached the pic they signed for me. (I asked Angel to write ‘something nice,’ so she did!)"

If this car looks familiar, it should. It's the ex-Tommy Ivo/ex-Don Prudhomme dragster that Thompson and Heth bought from "the Snake" in 1963.
Father and son (above) with their home built "giant killer (below).
Dave Thompson developed and sold high-performance parts, too.

Last week, I bemoaned the fact that lately this column (and this writer) has had more than its share of reporting losses to our sport as the pioneers age and pass away. Obviously, it’s not just the likes of well-known guys like John Farkonas and Bob Brooks that we're losing but also guys who kicked ass on a regional level and never made it to the national event spotlight yet who are fondly remembered by the friends, fans, and families. Space and time dictate that I have to make judgment calls on who gets featured; sad, but true.

I received word last week that Dave Thompson had died. I didn’t know the name and would have normally consigned it to appear in our “Quarter-milestones” listing in National Dragster, but the fact that guys like chassis builder and former Top Fuel racer Mark Williams and former ND editor Bill Holland thought I should know about his passing, I took notice, and when his son, Mark, also wrote and offered to share some photos, how could I resist?

Thompson, who was part of the Heth & Thompson Chrysler Top Fuel team out of Denver in the early ‘60s, died Sept. 8 at the age of 85 due to complications from a bad fall suffered last October. Here’s his story, in his son's own words.

"Dave Thompson will always be remembered for being the innovator, as so many in our sport are. As his son, I remember him as my best friend that always had the answer. The first thing he taught about the sport was that the view of a follower never changes — you always see the leader’s ass. Dad quit racing after the flood of 1965, when Gordon and he lost everything: a brand-new car and three brand-new engines in the flood. They were planning to join Tommy Ivo and the gang on tour, but instead the family was transferred to Rockford, Ill., where Dad was working for Sunstand Aviation. While I was growing up during the gas crisis, Dad always said Championship Drag Racing will never survive; that is why he quit. Who knew that 15 years later he would be right back in the hunt again, although not at the level of his glory days?

“When he retired from being an engineer, he came to work with me at my little speed shop in Thornton, Colo., because my mother couldn’t stand him around. Dad never gave me a helping hand into the sport at all. He told me at the age of 8, when we were helping Vern and Brain Raymer in Pro Comp. ‘I will know you are serious about racing when you show up in front of my house with a truck, trailer, and a car; until then don’t bother me!’ He just didn’t want me to grow up spoiled.

“Although we didn’t have the money to win anything on the NHRA circuit, we enjoyed fielding a '23-T altered in Super Comp and later, Comp. For 14 years, we had a blast putting the big boys on the trailer (once in a while) with a homemade car, just like the old days. 'Never buy what you can make' was the second thing he taught me.

“We built the whole car in the garage of Vern Raymer. He always enjoyed working on new ideas. He always was the quiet one, always wanted the racing to do the talking. I, on the other hand, speak like John Force, just a little bit bigger. Dad came up with a lot of things that are used to this day in our sport. One story we were talking about the last time I visited him was how he came up with the spoke wheel for the dragster. He and Gordon Heth were making much more power in the new 331 Hemi that they were shattering the OE steel wheels on the front end of the dragster after it came down from the wheelie. They were sitting around after the Saturday race drinking beer when Faye Myers, who owned the local Harley dealership, rode up on his new panhead (to show off, of course). While a few more beers were consumed, Dad came up with the idea to get a couple of Harley wheels and re-hub them to fit on the dragster.

“Anyway, here’s to one of the Rocky Mountains original high and mighty Top Fuel racers that we all have much to thank him for. From all the original Strippers and DTA members, we will miss you, Dave.”

Thanks, Mark. That was a great read, and I’m proud to help others know about your racing efforts. As I said earlier in this column, this is what we do, as a sport, as a family, and as part of our little band of merry memory makers in the Insider Nation.

I'll see you next week.