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Vodnik, Garlits, and the Mysterious Winternationals

28 Feb 2014
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider
Bobby Vodnik, second from right, consults with the Masters & Richter team after losing fire in the first round at the 1964 Winternationals.

The great thing about this column has always been the way that one story can cascade into another, and that’s especially true for today’s column.

Shortly after I posted the tale of Jack Williams at the 1964 Winternationals two weeks ago, I got an email from Bobby Vodnik, who gained national fame by upsetting Don Garlits in the final round of Top Eliminator at the 1963 Nationals and also competed in that 1964 Pomona event, asking me to call him, which, of course, I eagerly did. Even though he never reached another national event final, everyone remembers Vodnik and his place in Indy lore, and I was eager to hear his story.

Vodnik wanted to take issue with part of the report I’d written on the Winternationals, specifically his first-round race with Garlits. I was working from the report in National Dragster and Vodnik from personal — albeit 50-year-old — memory, but it was worth hearing. While he admits that he lost fire on the line against Garlits, he also swears that Garlits fouled on his winning run, and they were both disqualified and that Garlits did not run against Kenny Safford in the semifinals, where I had reported him losing on a red-light.

Vodnik, now 70 years old and feeling a bit under the weather — medically and literally after five feet of snow in the Chicago area, where he still lives — the day we spoke, was emphatic about what happened.

“I remember it clearly,” he said. “When I let go of the brake to grab the steering wheel, I tripped the mag switch. The tire never made a complete turn. I was so pissed I just turned right off the track, but Garlits red-lit. Both of us were disqualified.”

I’m not sure if the famed “first or worst” rule was in use then, which would have re-instated Garlits’ lesser infraction against Vodnik’s lane-crossing violation, and I couldn’t find any supporting material, online or in books, to support what did or didn’t happen.

“I was very pissed off that they might let Garlits back in,” he remembered. “I told Masters & Richter, ‘You get this car ready to run; if they let him back in, they’ll have three cars on the line,' and I was dead serious about it.”

With such a conflict, I was intrigued, so, naturally, I reached out to “Big Daddy,” his own bad self, for clarification. Over the years, I’ve known Garlits to be a fair and accurate historian of his own career, but, alas, he was not able to shed any new light on the subject.

In what I find to be a deliciously ironic photo, Don Garlits, near lane, squares off against Norm Weekly on a qualifying run. Garlits' own Swamp Rat VI did not qualify, but Weekly then stepped out of the Frantic Four car to let Garlits drive it on Sunday. Note that the Christmas Tree is laid down on its side between them; apparently it was not used during qualifying?

“That race has left my memory completely,” Garlits admitted. “I would tend to believe ND. Over a long period of time, a lot of the memories change, and the person thinks his memory is fact, when they are not. I have had a lot of experience with this because I have all the records here to draw on and see hundreds of people telling me stories that are just not true. However, I do not contradict the story teller; it just upsets them!”

One could hardly fault Garlits for not remembering one run out of a career that spanned thousands, especially a first round. I also don’t think he meant anything derogatory toward Vodnik.

Still, I remained perplexed. I went through the photo department’s contact sheets from the event but could not find Garlits racing Safford. The problem was somewhat exacerbated by my less-than-thorough ability to pick out cars from that era, especially when the cockpit was enveloped in smoke from the run. Safford’s car had a very unique cockpit area — squared off and heavily upholstered — but you can’t see that when it’s covered in tire smoke. Garlits was driving that day for Weekly, Rivero, Fox, and Holding after he had failed to qualify his own car (he was not alone; Don Prudhomme, Tom McEwen, Art Malone, Connie Kalitta, and other big names also failed to make the quick eight); had Garlits been driving his own Swamp Rat VI, it would have helped, but he was driving the Frantic Four car Sunday. While there are many from that era who can identify the bare bones, bodyless slingshots by their injector scoops, headers, front-wing size and placement, and other clues, I’m not one of them.

Fortunately, I have no lack of friends with great resources. I know that Bob Frey keeps incredible records on these things and has the magazine collection to back it up, so I asked for his help. I also reached out to Dave Wallace, who I knew would have the Drag News — "the Racer's Bible"from that event.

Frey went above and beyond the call, searching through multiple sources. Here’s his report:

“I have often said that the reporting of races back then was an antiquated and flimsy as the cars that raced. It is very confusing, but I will try to do my best.

"Garlits faced Vodnik in round one, and according to most reports, most but not all, Garlits won the race and advanced to the second round. There, he faced Kenny Safford, fouled out and was eliminated. According to Car Craft magazine, May 1964, ‘ … the next round (second round) was a different story, however. Garlits came back against Kenny Safford and, gambling for an edge on the line, hit the foul lights.’ That would mean that Garlits did advance to round two.

Hot Rod Magazine, May 1964, has a mini-ladder in their report, and it shows the #71 car (the one driven by Garlits) advancing to the second round where it fouled out against Safford. But there is no mention in their article or ladder about the fact that the car was driven by Garlits; all references are to Norm Weekly.

“To further muddy the waters, Modern Rod magazine, in their July 1964 issue, states, ' … Daddy got a red-light on a strong, smoky run, but Vodnik’s engine coughed when 50-feet out. He turned off, and both were disqualified. … In the next round, Safford made a wind-blown single to prepare for his go with Ivo in the semifinals.’

"Drag Racing Magazine, July 1964, says this about the Garlits-Vodnik race: ‘Both dropped out as Garlits got a red-light, and Vodnik’s engine coughed on the line. He turned off early and was disqualified.’ It added, ' … Winds pushed Safford to a single speed of 195.22.' The Modern Rod and Drag Racing magazine stories have the feel of being written by the same guy, which could account for the similarity in wording.”

So that seemed like a bit of a push to me, but Frey then turned to even better source material, Garlits' own King of the Dragsters book, which was published in 1967. It reads, “I got some revenge against Bobby Vodnik by putting him on the trailer with an 8.17 at 187.88. Then I went up against Kenny Safford and gambled a particle of a second too much with the Christmas Tree starting system and drew a red-light.”

Opined Frey, “That sounds like proof positive to me that he ran in the second round. [Garlits’ writing was] current enough that I think the race would be fresh in his mind, so I certainly think it's correct. I would think that stories that have him racing in round two would be more correct than ones that say he wasn't there. It easy to miss a round, as they often did in those early stories and recaps, but it's impossible to make up a round.”

Yet as they say on TV: But wait, there’s more …

Wallace scanned me the pages from the Feb. 22, 1964, Drag News coverage of the event, which reported thusly: "Next up was the M&R Special against Weekly, Rivero, Fox, and Holding with Don Garlits at the controls; the Weekly crew felt that Garlits knew the Christmas Tree best, so they let him drive ... Don was just a little too quick and got a red-light and lost the race with an 8.17 and 187.88, but M&R blew something and were unable to continue in competition." And later in the story, it reads, "Second round of Top Fuel started off with Safford making a single at 7.95 and 195.22."

So there you have it. Clear as mud. Anyone have any other evidence to add?

Just as that tidbit about the race seemed to still be spinning out of control, Frey sent me a couple of scans from the 1964 issue of Drag Racing Magazine that also dismisses the romantic notion of the Crossley-Williams-Swan’s tow back to Bakersfield to repair an ailing engine and their police-led escort through the Grapevine snow back to Pomona.

In an article blurbed on the cover as “How I won the Winternationals,” Williams confirmed the engine damage (a cracked cylinder wall just before Saturday’s class final led to no water on that side of the engine) and, because they didn’t have a spare engine, the Bill Crossley and Don Swan headed home to Bakersfield to repair the engine. “Don and Bill sleeved the block, bored it again, and spent all night fixing it up for Sunday afternoon,” he wrote. “On the way back, they were slowed up in the mountains, because of rain, but rolled into Pomona just in time. The stories about the police escort leading them through a snowstorm made a good human-interest item, but were only a figment of some announcer’s imagination.”

Man, I hate it when the facts get in the way of a good story …

OK, that’s it for today; make of all of that what you will. Next week, I’ll talk about the short-but-very-interesting career of Vodnik and a follow-up on last week’s Cassidy brothers column.