NHRA - National Hot Rod Association


More Things That Aren't Here Anymore

11 Jul 2014
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

You guys are sooooo predictable. Any time I gush about “the good ol’ days” with memories about how cool things used to be, I get a tsunami of emails echoing my declarations and patting me on the back for being a genius and a keeper of the flame ... which is why I love you guys.

(You guys also love Linda Vaughn; she was on so many lists that I decided to include her just once and followed form with other duplicated additions.) As John Blake wrote, “ 'The Show' just wouldn't have been complete without her decorating the grounds for so many years. A true legend of the sport that probably never took a competitive lap, turned a wrench, or put on a firesuit.” L.V. is still with us, just not the ever-present icon she once was.

Anyway, here are some of the great reader-suggested additions to my list:

“Driver nicknames like ‘Big Daddy’ … cars with names like Budweiser King instead of just the sponsor's name ... seating so close to the racing surface you can feel the sound rattle your bones ... the chance to see the top names at a local track via match racing or weekend events.” — Michael Ostrofsky

“Tennis balls tied together in the injectors ... pit crews in white pants and white T-shirts ... everyone smoking in the pits …wheelstanders.” – Gary Crumine

“ ‘Smokin US 30’ near Gary where you had a Funny Car show every Wednesday night. We used to have our buddy drop us off on the side of Route 30. We would run across, dodging traffic, and sneak in through a farm field loaded with briars and sticker bushes. Left a lot of blood and hide in that field as a teenager! … Union Grove, Wis., there was the motorcycle wheelie rider, ‘the Magnificent Maurice’; he did his antics between rounds ... and let’s not forget the kids in the trees on the farmer side of the track watching the fuel cars at the ‘Grove.' ” — Glenn Swiderski

“San Fernando Drag Strip every Sunday ... twin-engine dragsters ... going to Lions for a Saturday night Top Fuel race and seeing low e.t. of the world. ... the OCIR Funny Car shows ... Ontario Motor Speedway … the AHRA Winternats at the old Tucson Dragway ... Firebird and  Speedworld in Phoenix.” — Cliff Morgan

“The beautiful, often under-dressed females who would back up the cars after the burnouts. What a show they provided; the ‘backup ladies’ and female crewmembers were a very colorful part of drag racing way back when!” — Craig Hughes

“Kodachrome and Tri-X film ... Hot Rod Magazine’s Gray Baskerville ... CJ Hart ... ‘Jungle Pam’ working the crowd ... Lions and Fremont dragstrips ... Silver firesuits ... Top Gas and AA/FA.” — Steve Reyes

“The outstanding drivers and teams lost to the dollars. They gave a lot of blood sweat and tears to the sport.” — Gary Watson

“In the days before computers, when fuel cars could run best ever times by a tenth or more on a single run ... manually pushing back Top Fuelers … the qualifying method where they would go through all classes from Stock to Top Fuel, then start all over again ... driving through hotel parking lots during national event weekends to see all the cars on ramp trucks and open trailers.” — Jim Prezlock

“Using a portable tape recorder to capture the radio-commercials for a race, then dissecting the names to see EXACTLY how many cars would be there ... anything on ABC had to have Keith Jackson (no offense to Bill Fleming or Chris Economacki, but 'Oooohh, Doctor!’ Keith just seemed like he actually dug being there) ... having to systematically find the perfect seat location, wanting to get the least amount of poles in your shot, and yet NEEDING the pole with a PA horn, to know what was going on … the 'Blue Goose' at Byron ... Being the first guy at school with the newest SS&DI, DRUSA, Hot Rod, etc. ... track food; it might have been the most mundane burger/Sloppy Joe/whatever in the world, but when you’re eating it while watching Garlits fire up, it tasted like heaven ... before ‘hero cards' became an actual industry where every team has them, only a select few teams did it, and it was referred to in less-compact jargon... (‘hey, Snake has free pictures of his CAR!!’) … seeing drag racing on The Munsters and Adam 12 and Walter Brennan racing Tommy Ivo on The Tycoon ... waiting for Funny Car Summer to come to ‘a theatre near YOU!’ " — “Chicago Jon” Hofmann

“Multiple teams helping in late-round thrashes … streakers … three-four events televised per year … Diamond P and TNN American Sports Cavalcade … starting-line burndowns … sleeping in slicks … nobody staging the cars (drivers actually did it on their own) … burnouts without throttle stops … shoe polish on front wheels to prevent red-lighting … Funny Car front tires on Top Fuelers … Garlits’ rear view mirrors … hand written e.t. slips … paint bubbled on bodies by the header flames … interviews that didn’t mention sponsors … five-yellow-bulbed Christmas Trees … burnout contests … cars changing lanes after being fired … the Popular Hot Rodding and Super Stock Nationals … Fire bottles on the steering column …canards on Funny Cars.” — Rich Hanna

"Your list reminds me why I loved drag racing in the early years, but you left one thing out: 'Jungle Pam!' " — Guy Wills

“Diamond P Sports ... Steve Evans’ pitch for NHRA membership on each event broadcast ... NHRA Today ... embroidered crew uniforms ... injector hats that sit JUST above the top of the rollcage ... Larry Minor vs. Paul Candies bidding wars at the DRAW auction …teams rolling their cars back from between the trailers for warm-ups ... the Car Craft All-Star Drag Racing Team ... single fuel pump/single magneto “cackle” … the starting-line banner at Pomona … rain-delay poker games.” — Mitch Cooper

“Powder Puff races … Coca Cola Cavalcade of Stars, ‘T.V. Tommy’ vs. ‘Big Daddy’… hot pants and halter tops … regional match racers … station wagon tow vehicles … straight-axle gassers ... slicks out past the rear wheel wells.” — Anthony Groff Sr.

“The Daily Dragster during Indy week ... Pro Comp (best class ever) ... Modified Eliminator ... print mags like Drag Racing USA and SS&DI ... injected nitro Funny Cars (Jack Ditmars and later Ken Veney) ... airplane front wheels on dragsters.” — Nunzio Valerie Jr.

“Gassers! Any and all, but especially Stone, Woods & Cook and either of ‘Big John’ Mazmanian's Willys or Austin ... cruisin' Whittier Blvd. on Friday and Saturday night outside of Bob's Big Boy … the original Guasti Homestyle Café in Ontario [Calif.], where so many of the race teams 'fueled up' on breakfast before heading to Pomona.” — Ken Hamer

"Jolly Jack Williams — former Top Fuel driver, ad man, promoter of races and pyramids — pacing around chewing on his unlit cigar … John 'Zookeeper' Mulligan quietly puffing on his stogie contemplating his next run … Dick Landy clutching one between his teeth looking dandy … CJ Hart would puff on an old stogie, too, gave him a look of distinction. Also on several occasion, CJ, riding his little Honda motorbike, would charge the starting line, lock up the brakes, and slide across it sideways to the roaring approval of a cheering crowd.” — Alan Earman

“K-rail guardrails; you could see much more as the rails were lower than today’s concrete walls … watering stations. Dragsters would gather at a multihosed spigot to drain and refill the blocks after a run. … pit passes. Only the true drag racing lover would step up for another $1.50 to $3 for the privilege of leisurely touring the pits to get close to the cars and drivers … stands very close to the starting line. Some stands were so close to the fire-up road the zoomie headers would blow your hair if you had a front-row seat … ‘Weed Sweeper’ headers … Jr. Fuel … dragster bodies that were show-car quality works of art with paint to match.” — Terry Spencer.

“Quarter-mile nitro drag racing … the smell of real rubber ... real rivalries …the smell of In-N-Out burgers cooking behind the concession stand at Irwindale Raceway ... Moroso parties in the middle of nowhere at Indy ... having a rag in your pocket meant you were part of the crew and you walked out to the starting line with the car ...class acts like Paul Candies ... watching drag racing and figure skating on the same TV show … 32-car Top Fuel fields … when Indy was really something special … when you went to a national event, the local racers showed up and made each event a little different … Mazzarella ‘Pig Outs’ at the Finals.” — Michael Anderson

“US 30 dragstrips in York, Pa., and Gary, Ind. … roller starters (starting line at Lions, pits in Englishtown) …Fuel Altereds in Comp Eliminator ... hydrazine ... the English Leather Calendar Girls ... ‘Broadway Bob’ Metzler.” Mike Lewis

Zane Shubert's round-wheel-equipped Top Fueler (1965)

“A motel parking lot full of the guys you only read about working on their cars … Having your parents never find out that you skipped school and hitched a ride out to the track to see the guys from the motel parking lot race … Tech in a supermarket parking lot ...  A trip to Indy in an old Ford van pulling an open trailer with your best effort and life savings sitting out in the open ... Very quietly and discreetly spending the night in the pits because all the money went to just getting there, never mind getting home ... Having a car that didn't need much between rounds so you could catch up on sleep with a shop rag over your eyes, laying on a jacket, on the open trailer, during fuel qualifying … a section of grandstand downtrack full of the guys like Prudhomme, McEwen, Roland ... old West Texas Dragstrips … Winston and Miss Winston … ping pong or rubber balls in injector stacks all somehow chained together ... all 32 of them little red balls in Ivo's injectors … 'You oil it down, you clean it up!' … Being able to get a junkyard engine, go fuel racing, and not having it blow up because you know how to run it … the things you used to do that you wouldn't dare do now … trophy girls ... cam grinder rivalries … car manufacturer rivalries ... round steering wheels on dragsters.” — Richard Pederson

“You left out Pontiac and Buick from your Chrysler vs. Ford vs. Chevy vs. Oldsmobile in Top Fuel listing. There certainly were a number of racers that used Pontiac and Buick engines back in the day (Eddie Hill’s dual Pontiac engine quad rear tire car and ‘T.V. Tommy’ Ivo’s dual- and later four-engine Nailhead Buick powered cars). ... The variety of engines and chassis being used. Everyone was always experimenting with someone different; unlike the cookie-cutter cars today, where they are all pretty much the same. ... race team and manufacturer rivalries like between Stone, Woods & Cook and ‘Big John’ Mazmanian and how the Engle/Iskenderian ‘Camshaft Wars’ played out each week in the Drag News and National Dragster advertisements." — Robert Nielsen

Nielsen, and quite a few others, didn’t know about some of the things that I wrote and thought that a little explanation might be in order.

The 10-10-10 tune-up: This one wasn’t as well-known as I thought it was, but I remember hearing about it. It was the 1960s tuner’s Hail Mary combination: 10 percent more nitro, 10 percent more blower, 10 degrees (or 10 percent in some people’s books) more magneto. Mix well. Close your eyes. Austin Coil tells me that this was something that teams were more likely to do when they went from running at sea level to altitude “and that was still a bit too much.”

As Jim Nicoll is shut off, Don Schumacher, middle, prepares to move in to face "the Snake" in the 1973 Tulsa, Okla., PDA event Funny Car final.

The break rule: If a winning driver were unable to return for the next round due to breakage or a crash, the losing driver was allowed back in his spot. There are some famous examples of final rounds where three cars towed to the starting line, with the third team (the one with low e.t. of the two eliminated semifinalists) hoping that one of the other two couldn’t fire or would run into trouble before staging. The most famous example of this is from the 1973 PDA event in Tulsa, Okla., when Don Schumacher was waiting in the wings when Don Prudhomme and Jim Nicoll staged for the Funny Car final. Nicoll developed an oil leak and a header fire and had to be shut off, and Schumacher, who already had his engine running just in case, moved in to face (but would ultimately lose to) “the Snake.”

Additionally, for the longest time, the Pro classes allowed for unqualified drivers to make the first-round call if one of the qualifiers couldn’t make it. That practice was discontinued about a decade ago because of allegations of lower-financed (but qualified) teams selling their spots to big, sponsored names who didn’t qualify (the qualified car would suddenly be “broken” overnight).

“Ragged” gloves: As in “gloves with rags attached,” and not as a state of worn-out gloves. Back in the old front-engine days, when top-end oil baths were not uncommon, some drivers would tape rags to the knuckle side of their gloves to be able to quickly wipe clear their goggles if they became covered with oil during a run.

Arnie Beswick has modified the round steering wheel in his Funny Car, cutting off part of it (visible just above the injector) in what might have been one of the first moves toward a butterfly wheel.

Round steering wheels on Funny Cars: Yes, believe it or not, the butterfly steering wheel didn’t always exist. It evolved because the ever-tightening cockpits, allowing drivers to give it a quarter turn to slide between their legs as they squeezed into the business seat. You can see the progression of this in some photos, where Funny Car drivers had three quarters of a round wheel for this purpose. I have no idea who invented the butterfly wheel.

“Leavers Lose”: Also known as "Losers Leave." A one-time popular alternative to the Christmas Tree, it featured a single-lit amber bulb followed by a randomly timed green-light start.

Real bleach in the “bleach box”: The use of actual bleach helped heat, clean, and soften the rubber of early tires, but as you know, it’s also very destructive and caustic stuff. After NHRA began using sprayed traction compound to prepare racetracks in the early 1970s, bleach was prohibited because it destroyed the traction compound.

Unlimited qualifying/working on cars in the lanes: Some of you hadn’t heard about this or had questions. Longtime Division 3 photog Tom Schiltz remembers it well. “Before NHRA instituted qualifying sessions, they used to pull a percentage of cars in each class out of the lanes to qualify, so you never knew when you would get a qualifying shot, so immediately after your run, you pulled back into the lanes and waited,” he wrote. “It might be an hour, or it might be never. You might get five qualifying runs, or you might get one. The true fans would sit in the stands from sunup to sundown (no lights at Indy) so we wouldn’t miss anything. NHRA had a rule that there were to be no race cars in the pits overnight, so the racers were forced to work on their cars at the hotels. It was a great part of the experience to go hotel hopping at night to watch the action. We always knew that during the Nationals, Tommy Ivo stayed at the Howard Johnson’s on West Washington Street. He’d park his rig right on the street, unload, and work on the car right there.”

I had a chance to talk about their very subject with Graham Light, when he and I were stuck in Dallas last weekend with a three-hour layover en route to Norwalk. Light, as some may recall, raced Top Fuel throughout the 1970s, most famously with the Bubble-Up team car to Gordie Bonin. He told me that racers would hop the fence early in the morning, before the pit gates opened, open their trailers, then stealthily push their cars to the lanes and begin working on them. Back then, of course, there were no pneumatic tools, so a small toolbox would do. When the gates opened, they could bring more stuff from the trailer with the tow vehicle. They’d run, get back in line, drop the pan to check the bearings, pull a cylinder head if needed, and wait. You could even test-fire the cars in the lanes. Then NHRA officials would come and take 50 or so cars from different lanes to run. Crazy!

Push starts: Nielsen also added some commentary about the fire-up process so popular in the 1960s (and in today’s staged Cacklefests). “I personally think this was one of the more exciting things that is missing from drag racing today. Sure, it may have slowed down the process of getting the cars to the starting line, but there was nothing like seeing them come down the fire-up road in front of the spectator stands (or, at times, even the opposite way on the track), hear the clutch engage the engine, build oil pressure, and then have the engine come to life when the magneto switch was hit! Of course, this was followed by a carefully (and sometimes not so carefully) choreographed turn around behind the starting line, followed by a burnout and, without the aid of a reverser, the crewmembers having to push the car back to the starting line. And if the driver was a little upset (pissed off) at his crew, he might even drag the clutch a little to make their job a little harder.”

Push starts were eliminated with the start of the 1976 season. Reversers were made mandatory in 1980.

"Grumpy" spreading the "gold dust" at Byron Dragway (Richard Brady photo)

Gold Dust rosin: Powdered rosin that was spread, sometimes in copious amounts, on the starting line to enhance traction; it’s still used on occasion at our national events. It literally looks like gold dust. Back in the match race days, especially in Pro Stock, the spreading of the gold dust was a big production, oftentimes with the driver and/or crews personally applying it and using a broom to smooth and spread it. It was quite a site to see someone like Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins doing the manual labor before he performed the final part of the ritual, “burning in” the rosin with a huge burnout.

Cheater Slicks: Nielsen also did a great job explaining this one for me: “There was a time when stock classified cars had a requirement that the rear tires need a minimum of at least two treads running the circumference of the tire at least 1/16-inch deep. There were a number of tire producers, like Inglewood Tire (Inglewood, Calif.), that took their regular slicks and added the two treads to them, making them 'cheater slicks.' I had these on my '56 Ford, and they resulted in a minor accident when, on a rainy, wet road, I hydroplaned into a street light. Fortunately, this was at moderately low speed, so no real damage was done, except to the light pole and my front bumper!”

The slang: “Dropping the laundry” (deploying the parachute); “nailing the anchors” (hitting the brakes); “driving it out the back door” (the finish-line speed trap used to span the finish line, 66 feet before to 66 feet after, so when drivers stayed on the gas past the finish line to get a better speed, they were “driving it out the back door”); “brain bucket” (helmet); “smoking the hoops” (losing traction and spinning the tires); “running the can” (running 100 percent nitro; sometimes also described as running "the can, lid, and label!"); “putting a leg out” (breaking a connecting rod so that it pokes out through the block).

That was fun! Thanks for all the contributions. I thought I had made a pretty thorough list, but you guys outdid yourself. Such great memories; thanks for helping me keep them alive. See ya next week.