Usually I write about racers in this column, most of them heroes of my youth whose exploits I watched from the other side of the magazine page, and all too much lately, I’ve written about not just their careers but their lives in the past tense, as we’ve been losing them at an alarming rate. They’re obituaries in the guise of biographies and my final salute to them and their stories, eulogies that I feel compelled to give.
Today again I come to eulogize two more fallen drag racing heroes, though these two never won a drag race, never performed a smoky burnout for an appreciative crowd, and never had their names speed-read in a Steve Evans radio commercial.
They were parts of the NHRA family that I joined three decades ago, people who became my kin not just through association and familiarity but in dedication to the cause of promoting hot rodding and the NHRA. In the course of just a few days last week, we said our final goodbyes to former NHRA Safety Safari member Bud Evans and Phillis Jean “P.J.” Partridge, wife of former NHRA Division Director and Vice President Bernie Partridge.
I don’t use the term “family” here lightly or for lack of a better word.
When I joined the NHRA staff in May 1982, the headquarters was still in North Hollywood, and it was a small group – probably fewer than 30 people – but I could instantly tell there was a family there. Wally Parks was our stern but guiding father, Barbara the fiery yet devoted mother, and everyone else was like aunts and uncles and cousins and nephews. I thought it was very cool that so many husbands and wives were working together: the Parkses, the Partridges, Dale and Glynanna Ham, Darrell and Polly Zimmerman, Greg and Martee Xakellis, Buster and Ann Couch, and so many more.
I'd never seen such a dedicated group, dedicated because long before I got there, most had been forged in the fires when nothing was easy, when they had to scrape and scratch for every ounce of respect. They had to earn it through good old-fashioned legwork and the moral high ground. In those earliest days, every victory, every reluctant group of town fathers or law-enforcement agency won over must have felt like another brick laid in the foundation of Wally's dream, the dream they all believed in. You could tell that everyone there believed in the mission; these weren't people just cashing a paycheck.
The going was not easy, nor was it swift. There was no Internet or social media to spread the message, just the willingness of those who believed it to carry the message forth. Instead of email and fancy graphic flyers printed on slick stock in four-color, it was black and white and probably run off by hand on one of those old mimeograph machines we all remember from school, then tucked into envelopes and mailed to the early supporters.
From left, Bud Coons, Chic Cannon, Bud Evans, and Eric Rickman, on safari, 1955
The crew, reunited in Indy in 1994: from left, Rickman, Cannon, Coons, and Evans
The message also was delivered by hand, and Evans was one of those who helped. As a key member of the NHRA Drag Safari that began crisscrossing the land in 1954, Evans and his dedicated cohorts brought what Wally liked to call “hot rodding know-how” -- long before NAPA Auto Parts started using the term – to the masses. Southern California back then was the hub of acceleration activity, and years of setting up drag races and speed runs on the dry lakes gave them a lot of experience that they were willing and eager to pass along.
Led by Bud Coons, a former sergeant in the Pomona Police Department handpicked by Wally as the field director, they packed into a station wagon hitched to a trailer that carried everything needed to set up a mobile event: early timing equipment, a PA system, field telephones, a one-cylinder generator, and miles of stainless-steel wire to bring all the electronic equipment to life. Evans was the leader and mouthpiece to the multitude of car clubs who eagerly awaited their arrival at each stop. Chic Cannon, who had a background in engineering and car building, ran tech. Photographer Eric "Rick" Rickman was along to chronicle the action to be published in Hot Rod magazine, where Wally was still the editor. Evans, a lakes racer and announcer at the dragstrip in Colton, Calif., was, naturally, the announcer.
Typically, they’d roll into a town, usually on a Wednesday or Thursday, and stop at the local Socony Mobil gas station – Mobil was the Safari’s only sponsor, providing free fuel for the long drives – and once word filtered around that they had arrived, hot rodders from all over swarmed the station. The Safari members would meet with local law-enforcement and civic officials, and Coons would sometimes do radio or television interviews to promote the upcoming weekend’s event. With the help of the car clubs, they would set up the racetrack, sometimes even erecting a temporary timing and announcing tower.
Evans, who was a member of the Winders Car Club and the SCTA, didn’t join the team full time until 1955 – in 1954, it had been Coons, Cannon, Rickman, and assorted others, including Evans. Evans often joined Cannon at the pre-race tech inspection and created a large file of index cards with information on each car -- the engine and drivetrain specs, where it was based, and how fast it had gone – to aid his announcing.
With his bird's-eye view, Evans also was one of the first to spot potential trouble, whether an issue was brewing in the pits or whether some hot dog hot shoe was pushing a car beyond its or his limits. “When they ran, if they weren't straight arrow, I was screaming bloody murder,” he told Hot Rod in a 2009 interview. “Because as the meet progresses and they go faster and faster -- dump the can to it, you know -- if he's not good in the beginning, he's going to be worse as he gets going.”
Evans, 86 who remained a constant visitor to the drags twice a year in Pomona, is the second of the iconic foursome to pass away. (Rickman died Jan. 24, 2009 at age 90.)
"Peej" and "the Bird": so happy together
P.J. and Barbara Parks: Two forces to be reckoned with.
The Partridges, right, with Wally, far left, and Barbara, center, and Dale and Glynanna Ham, who ran Division 4.
P.J., right, with Rondi, left, and Joni Elmslie, circa mid-1980s
Unless you were a Division 7 racer, you probably didn’t know P.J. Partridge -- “Peej” to her close friends – but her influence and fingerprints were all over NHRA’s West Coast operations. Bernie died in April 2012 after a long illness and was joined by his loving wife just two years after; she succumbed to a brain tumor Oct. 5, at her home in Hawaii.
In the early 1980s, when I first sat down at an NHRA typewriter, NHRA’s National Field Office was not located within NHRA headquarters as it is now. As I mentioned, the HQ at that time was in North Hollywood in the famed San Fernando Valley, but the NFO was in Upland, Calif., about a half-hour ride east. For a kid who grew up in the population-dense South Bay area of SoCal, Upland might as well have been on the moon, the NFO staff like early settlers in a distant region.
The Partridges ran the place, where the important task of coordinating divisional activities and approving competition licenses took place, and like Barbara was the den mother in NoHo, P.J. held an equally tight rein in Upland.
Before it was brought into NHRA headquarters in Glendora, the Partridges ran NFO in Upland while the NHRA was still in North Hollywood, and P.J. helped run the operation with a firm hand. P.J. had been married to Bernie since the early 1960s and was there throughout his rise in the NHRA ranks, from track manager of Inyokern Dragstrip to NHRA regional advisor to division director and chief announcer to regional director, national field administrator, and, finally, to vice president-field administration before his retirement in 1989. P.J. stayed on an extra year before she, too, left the company to enjoy the golden years with Bernie and left behind indelible memories for those she mentored there.
Joni Elmslie, my longtime National Dragster colleague, was one of a group of young women under P.J.’s charge back in those days, a group that also included her sister Rondi as well as Billie Petty, Cindy Gibbs, and Carman Mitchell.
“I was a very young and naive 17-year-old when I went to work for ‘Peej’ on the timing clocks in the tower during the Winternationals and World Finals at Pomona, knowing very little about drag racing,” Joni recalled. “I remember always wanting to do the best job I could (many nights during the races dreaming in e.t.s and mph), not so much for Bernie, our always-entertaining track announcer, but for P.J., the true matriarch of the National Field Office family.
“I still remember the day she told me that it was approved and official, I was now a full-time employee of the NHRA: Dec. 1, 1980. P.J. always ran a tight ship and allowed Bernie to be the ‘out-front’ entertainer. Although always working side by side for endless hours, whether at a divisional or national event, P.J. was tireless and expected the same of those around her.
“When the NFO and HQ merged in Glendora in 1987, I was given the opportunity to try my hands at something different and work for National Dragster. My only apprehension with taking that position was leaving P.J., not that I would be miles away, but just down the hall behind the ND glass door. I remember she took me aside and told me she didn’t want to hold me back; she wanted me to take the step, so I did. Thanks, P.J., for teaching me that if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. Godspeed.”
Billie, who also came to work for ND after a while, working in the Membership Department, remembers P.J. as “an amazing dichotomy: the consummate old-fashioned gal and the ultra-modern woman. There is a very long list of successful women that have been mentored and promoted by P.J.’s efforts, yet she never sought the limelight herself, comfortable as the wife of Bernie and the mother of their four sons. Her love and loyalty for Bernie and her family is beyond measure.
“The first time I met P.J. was through her family. She was warm and welcoming; thus began a relationship that would endure for many years. She gave me my first office job, as she did for many other young women. She taught me how to use the English language in new and surprising ways – vocabulary was huge with her – and she was a master of the hug!
"The last time we all had dinner with P.J. was right before she moved to Hawaii. We all laughed and talked about our lives and what our future plans might be. At the end of the evening, several of us were talking about when we might see her again, as her new adventure was taking her to the islands. We were excited for her but saddened for ourselves, just as we are now that she has once again moved on to another great adventure. P.J. was a very private person, and as a sign of respect, I will continue that legacy for her. Each of us has our own memories of a very special woman, and she will be missed. Her care, concern, and mentoring will always be appreciated and recognized as a contribution that created who we are today and gave dimension to the sport of drag racing!”
Cindy Gibbs, daughter of former NHRA Competition Director and Vice President Steve, also was among the young ladies who learned from P.J.
“My memories of P.J. are all over the place, from being a young girl, getting a ride-along with my parents in Bernie and P.J'.s speed boat on Puddingstone Lake to delivering a special egg-salad-sandwich lunch to only her during the Pomona events to watching her put a wayward drag racer firmly in his place,” she reminisced. “Lemme tell ya, no one could do that quite like 'Peej.' I giggle when I say that I was deathly afraid of her when I was young; yes, always pleasant to me, but I knew I never wanted her angry with me, for sure. As a mother of four boys and running the Pacific Division with her husband, she needed to be that way; it was absolute self-preservation, as I would find out firsthand many years later.
“I went to work for NHRA in 1985 as part of the National Field Office under Bernie and P.J.'s guidance and had some of the very best years of my life during that time. The team of people I worked with will always be family; with racing in my blood, I loved every minute. P.J. taught me so much, much more than I ever realized until I found myself in Spokane [Wash.] 24 years later, in a racetrack-management position. I would sit at my desk, having just dealt with a fired-up racer, and I would think of her. It took me a good year or so to grow some thicker skin like P.J. always had yet not lose myself in the process. I'm happy that I got the chance to thank her the last time I saw her for those lessons she taught me; she flashed me her classic P.J. grin, and I knew she was pleased. Her last comment to me was 'Ohana' ['family' in Hawaiian], sealed with a hug.”
As I mentioned earlier, the sense of camaraderie and unity of purpose I felt way back then still resonates with me. Losing Barbara and then Wally, Dick Wells, Bernie, P.J., and many others who helped forged the path, not just for drag racing but for me, is heartbreaking. I was so blessed to be surrounded by so much dedication and purpose.
The day that Barbara died, in 2006, I was driving down the freeway, listening to the radio and thinking about her. She had been tough and fiery and scared us all yet was perhaps misunderstood as an unforgiving taskmaster when really what it was about was an unflinching, unrelenting desire to help Wally forge the dream. I remember the radio playing “Drift Away” by Dobie Gray, and this verse summed it all up for me when I think about those passionate people who let me be part of the family and part of the effort.
Thanks for the joy that you've given me,
I want you to know I believe in your song.
The rhythm and rhyme and harmony
You helped me along, makin' me strong.
To all of them, I say thanks from us all for all that you did. Thanks for giving us the joy of a sport we love. Thanks for being the ones who created the verse and melody for us all to dance along to. Thanks for everything you did to make us strong. And I still believe in your song.