Before the U.S. Nationals slips too far into our rearview mirrors, I wanted to share the photos below with you. They come from former NHRA Division 1 photographer Phil Hutchinson, who has been going to Indy for a long time and has quite a keen eye (in retrospect, at least) for some subjects I thought you’d enjoy as a dessert to the smorgasbord of photos I shared from Tom Kasch. He recently scanned about 70 images from his early days behind the lens and offered to share some with us. (The rest are on his website; address at the end of this column.)
“Some of these are from the stands in Indy (the old wooden stands on the east side were great), and some are taken from the starting line after I snuck out there! Yes, before I became a legitimate photographer, I used to sneak out to the starting line at least once during an event. Richard Brady knew me pretty well from my getting thrown off the starting line, and after I did become a credentialed photographer, he told me it was good to see me with a vest!! I shot slides over film as I would have a slide show each year at Indy using the motel-room wall or a sheet for the screen."
As much as I enjoy writing in-depth features about people, places, and things from our sport’s history, you know that I also dig seeing other people’s photographs, and if my email is any indicator, so do a lot of you, so enjoy these pics. He didn’t include years on any of them, so I’m going to give them my best shot.
Don Prudhomme set the drag racing world on its ear at the 1982 U.S. Nationals when he powered his Pepsi Challenger Trans Am to an unheard-of 5.63 clocking during qualifying. Prudhomme dominated (but did not win) the event; he repeatedly broke wrist pins, leading to engine damage and fires like this one. There’s a lot of debate on whether this was the result of nitrous-oxide use; “Snake” says no. You can read more about that great event and nitrous-or-not controversy here.
Here’s Larry Dixon (Sr.) riding out a blaze in Jerry Johansen’s Chevy-powered Howard Cam Rat. My gut says this is 1975, but it could be 1976 or 1977. Dixon was the seventh member of the Cragar Five-Second Club and the first (and only) Chevy-powered driver in the club thanks to his 5.94 at the 1973 Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway.
Jack Ostrander, who recently was an honoree at the NHRA National Hot Rod Reunion, is best known as a hard-running independent Top Fuel racer through the 1980s and 1990s, but he was involved in nitro racing long before that, then spent the1970s racing Blown Fuel Hydro boats before returning to Top Fuel in 1979. “Pontiac Jack” (so named for his Pontiac, Mich., hometown) was one of the most friendly and appreciative racers out there. At the time he was racing, he owned a bowling alley, which explains his permanent number: 300. I’d guess this photo of him launching the blower in a big way is from the very early 1980s.
Here are two pretty famous guys before they became really famous, and not only can I give you a year but the exact round, too (go me!). That’s Frank Manzo in the near lane taking on Joe Amato in his Alcohol Dragster in the third round of Pro Comp at the 1980 event. Manzo was fresh off his first career win at that year’s SPORTSnationals, and Amato had won that year’s Le Grandnational in Canada. Pro Comp back then was a 32-car field, so this was the quarterfinals; Amato beat Manzo’s altered, 6.70 to 6.75, before red-lighting to Darrell Gwynn in the semifinals.
Gwynn didn’t win Pro Comp that year; he lost in the final to the late Billy Williams, whose car you can see here closest to the camera parked alongside another tough-running machine, that of Joe Severence, right before the 1979 final. Williams, affectionately known to many as “the Munchkin” for his diminutive stature, raced like a giant in those days. He was the reigning world champ when he came to Indy that year, where he was the low qualifier and made the event’s two quickest runs, 6.579 in the quarterfinals against Ken Veney and 6.581 in the final against Gwynn, whose engine expired at half-track. It was Williams' second straight Indy win and ninth career victory (all since 1977).
I’m going to go out on another limb here and say that this photo of Gary Smart’s Alcohol Dragster is from 1981 or 1982, during his long association with driver Gary Southern, who was a tree surgeon based in Glendora, Calif., now the home of NHRA. The duo went on to make big history in Indy in 1988 when they dominated the class with the then-new PSI supercharger. You can see the Arias engine in the car, and I heard from Nick Arias III, who's seen in this photo on the left packing the 'chute along with crewmember Mark Peterson. "This was the U.S. Nationals in 1981, where Gary was runner-up to Brian Raymer in the rain-delayed Tuesday morning final," he remembered. "More heartbreaking to me than the loss was not being there Tuesday morning as I was at the airport catching the plane home. My dad, Nick Jr., and Dale were longtime pals, with Dale being instrumental in the Arias Hemi's success. We lost Dale much too early and miss him daily."
Pretty cool photo of Ron Mancini’s Super Stock pit area, showing his two SS/AA Darts, with “Dyno Don” Nicholson’s 1970 Mustang Pro Stocker in the background, This would be 1975 or 1976, when a couple of NHRA Pro Stock racers traded in their Pintos to run the longer-wheelbase older Mustang to take advantage of a generous weight break that NHRA allowed them to run.
Gary Scelzi was just appearing on the radar screens of race fans in the 1980s as the driver of this Alcohol Dragster. He won the 1985 World Finals and 1986 Winternationals and was runner-up at the 1986 Indy event to Eldon P. Slick. What I love most about this photo is the old finish-line tower in the background. It was atop this structure that all of the great “crash shooters” gathered and where I met for the first time greats like Steve Reyes and Norman Blake as we stood up there waiting for the next calamity to unfold before our lenses.
Neil Mahr was a great friend to the media, and it was a sad day when we lost him in April. In addition to competing in Top Fuel in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Mahr produced what I remember as the first commercially available drag racing calendars (Superstars of Drag Racing, as I recall).
I’ll finish up with this great candid shot of “Big Daddy” Don Garlits guzzling a nice Hawaiian Punch. I’m going to say that this was after his incredible comeback win at the 1984 event, taking my clues from the Old Milwaukee hat he’s wearing (which that year was sponsoring the Candies & Hughes team), the beverage itself (sponsor then of Roland Leong’s Funny Car), and the Schlitz Racing (sponsor of Raymond Beadle’s Blue Max) hat on the gentleman at the right. That’s right, folks; I’m the world’s greatest detective.
Thanks to Phil for sharing these pics. They’re just a small sample of what he has on his NortheastDragReview.com website; you can go directly to the gallery by clicking here.