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Remembering Norm Weekly, Mart Higginbotham

27 Jun 2014
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

The weather was beautiful, the scenery was majestic, and the racing topflight last weekend in New England, where I was working the Auto-Plus NHRA New England Nationals at New England Dragway, NHRA’s second visit to the nostalgic and historic track. It was a great time to be at the drags. Then – BAM! – Friday brought bad news and Saturday even more, with the passing of two more drag racers from the glory days of yesteryear, Norm Weekly and Mart Higginbotham.

 
The Frantic Four dragster (above) was one of the most feared Top Fuel cars in 1963-64, but there's not a single photo of the foursome together in our files, probably because Ron Rivero (below right) was in the service a great deal of the time. (Below left) From left, Norm Weekly, Jim Fox, and Dennis Holding.
  

Weekly was one fourth of the memorable Frantic Four Top Fuel team that terrorized Southern California in the early 1960s. Weekly – known as “Stormin’ Norman” for his aggressive driving style – partnered with Ron Rivero, Jim Fox, and Dennis Holding to create the foursome that actually sprang out of two pairs: Fox and Holding and Weekly and Rivero. But in January 1963, as they were preparing to challenge for the No. 3 spot on the Drag News Mr. Eliminator list, Weekly and Rivero blew both of their engines in their new Rod Peppmuller-built dragster. Fox and Holding, meanwhile, had a sweet 331 engine (punched out to 342 cid) they’d put together during a six-month hiatus from the sport. They pooled their resources, which was a common scenario in those days, and the Frantic Four was officially born. (Born, but not named until a few weeks later when announcer Stan Adams dubbed them such after witnessing their frantic run from Lions Drag Strip in Long Beach, Calif., to Pomona for gaskets for between-rounds repairs; Adams also gets credit for dubbing Weekly as “Stormin’ Norman.”)

The team’s success was immediate and plentiful despite its deployment of its high-revving, relatively small Chrysler against the more common 392-powered entries of its foes. In one of its first outings, at the 1963 Winternationals, it set top speed of the meet at 188.66 mph.

On Dec. 8, 1963, the Frantic Four, now using 353 power, defeated Chris Karamesines 2-1 in Pomona for the Drag News No. 1 Mr. Eliminator spot when “the Greek” crossed the centerline in the rubber match. Karamesines congratulated Weekly after the race by saying, “Take good care of the No. 1 spot, kid.” They did, holding the No. 1 spot on the prestigious Drag News Top 10 list multiple times during the 1964 and 1965 seasons, and the team also set top speed at the 1964 Nationals with a blast of 202.24 mph.

The Frantic Four also became one of the first teams to race two dragsters when Weekly also drove the Orange County Metal Processing entry with a Fox & Holding engine. It defeated the Waterman & Goodsell entry for the No. 8 position on the Drag News list, giving the team the distinction of having two of the nation’s top 10 cars.

After leaving the Frantic Four in 1965, Weekly drove a few more dragsters, wheeling the Purple Gang (Rapp-Rossi-Maldonado) entry, Don Johnson's Beachcomber, and Ted Gotelli's Gotelli Speed Shop dragster, and also briefly drove some Funny Cars, most notably Karamesines' Barracuda and Doug Thorley's AMX.

"Stormin' Norman," doing his thing

After Weekly left the team, Rivero, who had just returned after a stint in the Army, became the driver, and even though Holding also had departed in 1965 for a career in the hot rodding aftermarket industry, Rivero and Fox continued to enjoy success, including a runner-up finish at the 1966 Hot Rod Magazine Championships, back-to-back NASCAR Top Fuel championships in 1967 and 1968, and a huge victory at the 1968 Bakersfield March Meet. The team switched to Funny Car in 1969 with its Frantic Ford Mustang. Rivero left in 1970, leaving Fox as the only original member of the Frantic Four, and he continued to campaign the Funny Cars with a variety of drivers.

There’s too much to really be told here, but there’s a great repository of Frantic Four stuff here, with photos and more. Be sure to check out the parts that Weekly himself wrote, called "Stormin Stories."

I also reached out to Fox, Rivero, and Holding by emails supplied to me by Steve Gibbs and was pleasantly surprised to hear within 30 minutes from Holding, who was calling from, of all places, Brazil, where he has a home (and is watching World Cup games from air-conditioned comfort instead of fighting the masses).

“People forget that we were only together from January 1963 through November 1965,” said Holding, who also oversaw the business aspect of the team. “Norm always idolized Tommy Ivo and motivated us to go out on tour. For Norm, there was no greater motivation than the thought of beating the guy he respected so much. I come from the school of ‘Get ’er done,’ so I had a competitive streak, too. That’s what made it work for all of us. We liked to win and didn’t like to have to put it on the trailer until the end of the day.

“Norm really enjoyed driving the car; I’m sure it scared him a few times, but he never talked about it. We liked to win and needed to win because we didn’t have any money. We were all working multiple jobs to keep the dream alive, especially when we added the OCMP car.”

After the racing ended, the Frantic Four were only infrequently in touch. It took Holding’s dogged determination -- with the support of the old-school community, including original chassis builder Peppmuller and members of the Standard 1320 news group -- to re-create their famous car (the original had fallen victim years earlier to a metal shredder) to bring them all together again. Rivero had well-documented the car’s successes and had lot of photos, and the car was painstakingly and accurately re-created in 2001, along with a period-correct push truck and trailer.

The car made its debut at the California Hot Rod Reunion with Weekly smoking the tires through a tremendous burnout. The four were officially reunited as California Hot Rod Reunion honorees in 2004 and inducted into Don Garlits’ International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 2008.

I’ll conclude with this wonderful and funny note composed by Weekly’s daughters, Kelley and Kerrey, who asked that it be shared with the drag racing community:

“ ‘Stormin' Norman’ is no longer with us. He crossed the finish line last night, peacefully in his sleep with his daughter, Kerrey, at his bedside. Ornery until the end, he spent his last days checking out the various ladies who happened to walk by his room <grin> and comment about how much money everything was costing him. He arrived on the scene in September 1942. A California kid through and through, he enjoyed 71 years of smoking, drinking, racing, boating, gardening, reading Western novels, canning his Nitro Pickles, making money and telling stories about the good ol' days. He wanted everyone to know that he had ‘the best recipe for chocolate chip cookies’ and his daughters are sworn to secrecy about it, along with the Nitro Pickle recipe. <big grin>. Since 2001, the grumpy old man with a kind heart loved hanging out with friends and fans at the many events he attended with the Frantic Four. He always wanted to put on the best show for the fans. Norm is survived by his smart-ass children (Kelley and Kerrey), super-smart-ass grandchildren (there's a lot of them), two sisters (they've prayed for his soul since he was 5), three ex-wives, and probably many more children that we just can't mention <big evil grin>.”

Steve Reyes photos

Higginbotham may not be in a fancy Hall of Fame like Weekly, he never won a national event, and with his bookkeeper glasses, he certainly didn't look the part of a Funny Car racer, but I’d put him in the Insider Hall of Fame if such a thing existed. I never met Mart, but those of you who have been reading this column for years know that he has been a frequent and incredible contributor. I exchanged dozens of emails with him over the years, filled with engaging and insightful comments and notes, and we had planned to meet up in Dallas at the national event last year, but it never happened, and I’m very sad about that.

His tragic passing Saturday afternoon, in a freak highway accident in Dallas that’s still almost impossible to believe, left me not only stunned but also incredibly sad. I won’t go into the details of the accident – you can find them online if you Google his name – but I can think of it in no other terms than “Wrong place, wrong time,” which wasn’t often the case for Mart. He had his hands in a lot of drag racing history. You might be tempted to think it was one of those “When your number is up …” kind of deals, but I think that Mart still had a lot more living to do, even at age 70.

You can learn a lot about Mart’s career in the article that I wrote — with copious help from Mart — about his longtime former partner, “Big Mike” Burkhart (The Legend of "Big Mike" Burkhart). While Mart didn’t have the legacy or number of glory days of fellow Texans like Richard Tharp and Raymond Beadle, he was still one of them.

When I got the email about Mart’s death from one of his friends, Jimmy Garritson, I texted Tharp to share the news. Tharp, who lives not far from the North Dallas Tollway where the accident occurred and snarled traffic for miles, knew of the wreck from the news but not the identity of its lone victim. He quickly called Beadle to share the sad news. That’s how close a community it still is for these retired quarter-mile heroes.

Mart apparently had shared with Garritson some of our past correspondence, so he knew I’d want to know of his passing. Same story with Bob Wolcott, who was another friend of Mart’s and also emailed me.

“Mart talked a lot about his friendship with you, and I thought you needed to know,” said Garritson, which was incredibly touching to me. “He got me to reading your column and gave me your email address in case I ever wanted to write to you myself, but I never thought it would be for this.”

According to Garritson, the two were regular meal companions and talked just about every day, about everything and nothing, and he fondly remembers Mart regaling him with his racing stories.

I wish I had gotten the chance to ask Mart about the time he beat the snake ...

“He could be a crusty character, but it was fun listening to the stories,” said Garritson, who owns a shop in Garland and races in Top Dragster. “We’d go out and eat, or try; I’d call him ‘No-show Mart’; everything I’m telling to you I’ve said – and worse – to his face, but that was the kind of friendship we had. He was a nice guy and a great friend.

“He was just a great character. He told me the story one time about towing his ’63 Corvette from Texas to Georgia with Paul Adams to have it worked on. They were rolling along at 90 to 100 mph and got pulled over by a cop somewhere in Alabama. They pulled over, and the cop ordered them to show their hands. Once the cop found out they were hot rodders, he took a liking to them, and they schmoozed their way out of that deal. That was just Mart.”

Wolcott and Mart often traveled with Don Ross and Bobby and Ruthann Langley to the Hot Rod Reunion in Bowling Green, Ky., with Langley’s famous Scorpion dragster in tow. “The year after Bobby’s death, Mart, Paul Adams, and I took the car to Bowling Green as Don was unable to attend. Mart was a very friendly guy and helpful, too. He was a very astute businessman, with his own accounting firm. I met Mart back when he first started with Mike Burkhart. ‘Big Mike’ grew up in my same neighborhood in North Dallas. At the time, I was in the speed equipment business (speed shop), and any and every one that raced in the late ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s traded with us, so I knew all of them. The Dallas racing fraternity still holds a reunion every year.”

Reader Bill McLauchlan also wrote to remind me that Mart was nearly part of a world championship effort in 1972, when he loaned his Drag-On Vega to the late Butch Maas to run the World Finals in Amarillo, Texas. They qualified No. 1 and reached the semifinals before breaking the rear end. You can read more about that, and Mart’s thoughts on it, in this column I wrote in 2010 about Maas after his death.

Mart is survived by his wife, Linda; son, Ryan; daughter, Kaylee; grandson, Brayden; a granddaughter due in September; sisters Cindy and Peggy; brother Ralph; and numerous nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Services were held Tuesday.

There was a nice obituary about Mart in the Dallas Morning News citing his racing history, and I learned a few things. I didn’t know that a) his given name was Joseph Martin Higginbotham IV or that b) he was the grandson of one of Dallas' founding fathers, JM Higginbotham Jr., whose buildings are historically honored in downtown Dallas and the West End.

Funny the things you learn after you lose someone, but sad that you can’t talk with them about them. I’ll miss talking to Mart.