NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

I went to a garden party

19 Dec 2014
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

I went to a garden party
to reminisce with my old friends
A chance to share old memories
and play our songs again.

My Christmas present came early this year, in the form of an invitation to a party Dec. 5. For more than five hours, a large group of longtime friends hung out and shared great memories, food, and drinks on a glorious Southern California afternoon and early evening. Stories were shared, lies were told, and exploits were undoubtedly exaggerated. The host was gracious and generous, making sure to spend time with all of us as he worked his way around a backyard made just for this type of gathering. A combination DJ/singer kept the oldies-heavy tunes spinning, playing and singing everything from Al Green to Jim Croce to Bruce Springsteen (and, yes, Rick Nelson's "Garden Party").

This could have been a family reunion or a work-related holiday party, filled with relatives or co-workers, but it wasn’t.

It was an informal get-together hosted by the Prudhomme family — Don “the Snake,” wife Lynn, and daughter Donna — at their home with a drag racing hall of fame guest list of “the Vipe’s” longtime pals. The invitation said that the purpose of the party was the opening of their new “zaguan” entryway (go ahead and look it up; we all did), but, as proud as they were of the new addition to their home, it’s pretty clear that was probably an excuse to once again pull close a family of friends, to enjoy one more time in their company.

Our host, "the Snake," center, with Bill Simpson and Donnie Couch
Here's a great lineup of pals, from left, Jim "Dudley" Rickart, Tom Prock, Frankie Pisano, Couch, Bill Doner, Pat Galvin, and Mike Kuhl.
Couch, Doner, and "the Old Master" Ed Pink, gather 'round "the 'Goose"
Couch with the Bernsteins, "Waterbed Fred" Miller, and photog Gary Nastase

The party was planned long before we lost Dale Armstrong — one of Prudhomme’s closest friends the last few years — and AA/Dale was certainly on the minds of everyone present because the man was that widely loved and respected. The turnout was incredible; then again, when “the Snake” invites you to his house to hang out, who’s gonna say no? Not this guy.

I’ve written before that there’s a good-sized group of these guys who get together on a semi-regular basis to have lunch but nothing like this gathering.

I walked in alongside ‘70s super promoter Bill Doner and his carpooling pal, wheelstander great “Wild Bill” Shrewsberry, and we were warmly greeted by superstar crewguy “Waterbed Fred” Miller. I turned around and there was drag racing pioneer Art Chrisman. And over there was fuel-engine legend Ed Pink, chatting with his new partner, longtime Prudhomme crew chief Bob Brandt. “The Mongoose,” Tom McEwen, was seated poolside, hanging with his buddy, former Funny Car racer Tom Prock. Pat Galvin, who crewed for both Prudhomme and McEwen in the 1970s, was soon joined by his brother-from-another-mother, Donnie Couch. Kenny and Sheryl Bernstein walked in. Frank Pisano was there. So was safety equipment guru Bill Simpson, legendary chassis builder Don Long, Mike Kuhl, of Kuhl & Olson fame (but no Carl!), and notorious dealmaker and bon vivant Billy Bones. Spider Razon. Dan Broussard. Larry Bowers. Mike Thermos. Steve Gibbs. Jim "Dudley" Rickart. The list goes on.

What really struck as I watched these heroes of our sport interact was their genuine friendships, forged after years of traveling the nation’s highways together or racing with and against one another. Their welcomes to one another more often than not were warm embraces rather than handshakes, and “good to see you again” was a common refrain, and, in this year when we’ve lost so many from our sport, you don’t have to look for hidden meaning there.

In many ways, it feels like a high-school reunion, only they don’t wait every 5, 10, or 25 years to get together, and well they shouldn’t. I wonder if this kind of thing goes on in other sports, where old rivals, teammates, and associates stay connected decades later. It’s hard to imagine it happening on a grander scale than this, and it takes someone of Prudhomme’s magnitude to bring them all together.

I’ll be honest, I came to the event armed with a notebook, camera, and tape recorder, salivating at the chance to “report” on the affair, but once I got there, it didn’t feel right. I took one photo (the first one on this page) then put it all away to soak up and enjoy the tremendous vibe of the event and relied on Couch’s Facebook photos to help tell the story (which explains why he’s in every photo).

I flitted from gathering to gathering, groups of a half-dozen or so who stopped circulating to form impromptu bull sessions, but finally landed at a table with two guys who, for unknown reasons, have befriended me above and beyond the call: the legendary “Mongoose” and the almost mythical Doner. I sat with them as they tried to one-up one another in telling me tales of bygone days, of barroom fights and other extra circular activity that made the 1970s memorable for more than just those great old Funny Cars. Doner and I keep talking about getting together one night to get it all down for posterity for a book, but unless I published it under a pen name and changed the names to protect the not-so-innocent, I think that’s just a fantasy we both share, at least until some statutes of limitation run out.

What I thought was especially cool was that Prudhomme also invited some of the upper echelon of NHRA management to the soirée. NHRA President Tom Compton, along with Vice Presidents Graham Light, Gary Darcy, and Glen Cromwell all came and enjoyed the evening. It does my heart good to see the respect that they get from the old-timers who helped create the business they now manage, and I would have loved to hear what ideas and input that Doner was sharing with Compton late in the evening.

Even as the guests began to trickle out late in the evening, “Snake” pulled some of the last diehards together by a patio fireplace just to shoot the breeze and hang a little longer.

I made the two-hour drive home — Prudhomme lives in really southern Southern California — with a big smile on my face, replaying the evening and the thrill and joy of seeing this great extended family of drag racing legends and movers and shakers together once again and to reminisce with my old friends and share old memories.

As joyous as the Prudhomme party was, there was also talk about those we’ve lost, most notably and close to many of those on hand Armstrong’s passing, but before I go for the year, I wanted to mention some other recent losses that have crossed my desk.

Fred “Fritz” Voigt, who was the runner-up to Calvin Rice at the first NHRA Nationals in Great Bend, Kan., in 1955, died recently. When Voigt’s name came up at “Snake’s” party, there were more than a few people who asserted that Voigt helped make Mickey Thompson’s great racing career when he worked for him beginning in the late 1950s, building engines and other projects for M/T, including the powerplants for Thompson’s famed Challenger 1 entry.

Voigt, like his contemporaries, raced first on the dry lakes and at Bonneville and soon partnered with Leland Kolb on a variety of cars, and drag racing became his thing. As I mentioned earlier, he was runner-up in that first Nationals (you can read an account of that race here, where Voigt's name is misspelled, as it regularly was, as "Voight"). I found online a very funny and candid interview that Voigt did earlier this year; you can read that here.

Funny Car pioneer Phil Bonner died Nov. 10 following a sudden illness. He was 81. Bonner was one of a handful of factory-backed Ford racers who got the opportunity to compete with Ford’s lightweight Galaxies in the early 1960s and then transitioned into the nascent Funny Car class. Bonner was best known for his line of entries named Daddy Warbucks Fords, beginning with an altered-wheelbase Falcon, which had a stack-injected 427-cid engine, that he match raced across the country and the factory-built extended A/FX Mustang with a 427 SOHC that he added later. He ultimately retired from racing with the loss of factory sponsorship around the time he built a flip-top Gran Torino Funny Car in 1969. He was inducted into the Georgia Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2007.

Jaime Sarté, who built scores of Funny Cars for the 1970s legends, died Dec. 1, just a day shy of his 73rd birthday, in Panama City Beach, Fla., where he had lived the past 21 years. My good pal Jeff Courtie, who worked for Sarté off and on over the years, sometimes welding up chassis at night in exchange for Sarté allowing him to update his Funny Car in his shop, shared the sad news with me (and shared the great then-and-now photos at right), and also provided a laundry list of Sarté cars over the years, which includes McEwen’s 1978 Indy-winning Corvette and Shirl Greer’s Mustang II (the car built for his title defense after melting down his older Mustang at the previous year’s Supernationals), plus cars for Tommy Ivo, Jeg Coughlin/Dale Emery, Tom Hoover, Dick Rosberg, and Roland Leong, who told me separately that he got the last chassis from his fellow Hawaiian.

Boris Murray, who passed away Nov. 22, is widely acknowledged as the first king of nitro-fueled motorcycle drag racing, with a heyday that spanned from the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s. Murray’s Triumph-powered bikes held the NHRA and AMDRA speed and e.t. records for most of that 10-year span. Although his eight-second, 170-mph performances don’t seem like much compared to the low-six-second, 225-mph times being recorded by current-day stars Tommy Grimes and Damien Cownden, that was really hauling back then. His most famous bike was a twice-motored 750 cc Triumph with T.T. carbs, running 92 percent nitro, high-gear only on 4-inch M&H 4 slick on which he raced and beat the likes of Joe Smith, Ray Price, Sonny Routt, Bonny Truitt, Leo Payne, Dave Campos, and Russ Collins.

DeLoy "Dutch" Naeb, the 1966 NHRA Street Eliminator World Champion and Division 5 Hall of Famer, died Nov. 28 at age 80. Naeb raced stock cars as a teenager, racing with his father in Denver before he began drag racing and won the championship with his victory at the 1966 World Finals at Southwest Raceway in Tulsa, Okla., with his Corvette, named Pooch. After his racing career ended, Naeb drove trucks for years and took up flying but returned to circle-track racing in the early 2000s in his early 70s. In January of this year, he was inducted into the Division 5 Hall of Fame at honored at Bandimere Speedway during the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals for being the division’s first world champion and was inducted into the track’s Taylor-Vertex High & Mighty Hall of Fame and his name placed on a granite memorial at the track.

Note: NHRA headquarters will be closed all next week as we enjoy a brief holiday break, so there won’t be a new Insider next Friday, but I expect to be back in early the next week and have a year-end wrap-up column ready by mid-week before we close again for New Year’s. I'll see you then.