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Your dads (and moms)

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

Thanks so much for all of the kind words on my Father’s Day article last Friday. It was an article that I’d long wanted to write but nonetheless found it difficult, both emotionally and in straying from our usual fare here, but your responses made it all worthwhile.

Several of you also wanted to share your stories about the father (and mother) figures in your life, so that’s what we’re going to celebrate today. Thanks to all for sharing.

(Above) Best Appearing Crew at the Mile-High Nationals; Dad is third from left. (Below) Dad was honored by Tony Schumacher’s team for his Vietnam service. 

Kevin Montoya: “So many of the traits that you listed about fathers are true about my dad, and as you say in your column, the dads of the gearheads and pit rats that follow your column regularly have a lot of common traits. Many of the things you wrote are true with my dad.

“On top of being a dad that has taught me many things in life, my dad introduced me to cars and the sport of drag racing. We attended the Mile-High Nationals fairly regularly while I was a kid, and once my brother turned 16, we ventured into the sport with a ’64 Ford Falcon that my dad’s friend had parked years before. After the Falcon, we got into a dragster and worked our way up to Super Comp, where we shared some success at local Bandimere Speedway races and some Division 5 Lucas Oil Series races (one runner-up finish).

“As I look at my life and reflect upon my dad this Father’s Day, I realize that my dad has molded me in many ways (good and bad), and he has also brought into my life a sport and hobby that I love dearly. The memories I have with and of my dad at the racetrack will be some of the best memories of my life, and though we have stopped racing for the time being (due to my own kids being busy chasing their hobbies), I long for the days that my dad and I shared at various tracks. It is my dream to win a divisional or national event with my dad.

“One of the best racing memories I have is a divisional race at Douglas Motorsports Park in Douglas, Wyo. It was one of our first Super Comp races, and we could not get the car to run the index. We battled all weekend and could not come close. We stayed at a hotel that weekend, and driving to the track on Sunday morning for round one, we were laughing about how we would at least be on our way home early and would beat the summer Wyoming heat. We went many rounds that day, suffered through a faulty transbrake, and were battered by the heat (we bought sno-cones in the pits, and to this day, that was the best sno-cone I ever had), and we enjoyed an awesome day of racing. We also beat a young racer (Rod Fuller) in round one that day. When Rod was driving for David Powers, I had him sign a hero card at the Mile-High Nationals that I have on my office wall that says, ‘To Kevin: Thanks for beating me in Douglas, Wyoming. ... ’ There are racing stories and memories of laughs, arguments, beating racers that we still think very highly of (we were amazed we raced with and beat them at times), and just memories I hold in my mind of seeing my dad at the racetrack, being proud of the operation that he assembled along with his friends and racing buddies Bill and Harley.

"I have never said this, but I thank my dad for introducing me to one of the loves in my life: drag racing. I also thank my dad for allowing a young man (no longer am I young) to get into a race car, drive it, and experience what many boys want to experience in life but don’t get the chance to experience. I hope I can give my boys the same memories and experiences that my dad has given to me. Happy Father’s Day, Dad (Tony Montoya). Thanks for all you have given me, allowed me to experience, and for the memories and experiences that I cherish more than you will ever know.”

Fred Simmons, Milford, Maine: “One of my earliest memories, relative to racing, was when I was 6 or 8 years old and my father was working as a salesman for Bowes Seal Fast. They sponsored an Indy car in the early ‘60s, and he had this yellow metal model of an Indy roadster that I can still picture in my mind. I remember watching the Indy 500 with him, being intrigued by the racing and him telling me how dangerous racing was.

“I was introduced to drag racing by a friend in my early teens and immediately fell in love with the combination of racing and show-quality cars and wanted a car of my own to race. My father helped me locate a ‘65 Plymouth Fury with a blown engine and an old open stock car trailer. With the help of a friend, who owned a service station, we rebuilt the engine (my father made an engine stand for the project) and added four-wheel surge brakes to the trailer as they were required by law in New Hampshire. It was a good thing we added those brakes as the first time out, we were cut off by a passing car and then stopped by a New Hampshire state trooper (checking for brakes on the trailer) just before the gate going into New England Dragway. I was so nervous the first few times we raced the car that my father drove it to the track towed behind my ‘66 Plymouth Fury III. I don’t know who was more excited when I won my first trophy, my father or me. Like most people, I ended up selling my car and trailer when I got married, bought a house, and started a family.

"My father passed away from smoking-related cancer, like many of the greatest generation, when my son was very young. While he did get to see me introduce my son to cars, like he had done for me, he did not get to see him race and share in the excitement of his successes both on the track and in a racing-related business. My son and I often reflect on how happy and proud my father would be and how we wish he could have been here to share in my son’s accomplishments. I also know how happy my father would be that my son’s business and home are located in the town he grew up in.

"I’m writing to you sitting in a hotel room in China while my son is out on the Hot Rod Power Tour with a smile on my face thankful for what my father gave to me and what I’ve been fortunate to be able to pass on to my son. Thanks again for the great story and the impetus to reflect on many fond memories of my father.”


That was pretty cool, but what really surprised me was the email that showed up a few days later from Fred Simmons Jr.

“My name is Fred Simmons Jr., and I am writing to you after my dad forwarded me an email that he sent to you about HIS dad and how he got started in the car hobby, so I figured I would share part of my story, which might actually be a continuation of MY dad's story.
 
"After reading my dad's story that he sent to you, I realized I had never heard how he got started in the car/drag racing hobby, so it was kind of cool to read about it; however, not much has seemed to change. He STILL gets nervous on the way to the racetrack when we are racing, and he STILL doesn't even drive to the track when we're racing. ... I DO!!!
 
“I would say my dad and I are pretty damn close. I don't EVER remember a time where he wasn't there for me. He has always been supportive of everything I ever done or wanted to do and has always helped me achieve the goals and dreams I have set out to accomplish. Though sometimes I feel I am still struggling through building up our custom performance car business, my dad always seems to come in to the shop on Saturdays and lend a hand; it sometimes drives me nuts, but I figure that's all payback from me driving him nuts from when I was a kid!
 
“I'd like to share a story of one of my greatest memories I have had with my dad drag racing. I'd also like to tell you a cool story about that old engine stand that my grandfather made for my dad's first engine build. As long as I can remember, I have been passionate about cars and drag racing. I'm sure my dad could give you an exact age, but cars and racing have always been a part of my life. At about 3 years old, my dad started taking me to NHRA national events down at Englishtown. We have SO many memories down there from my early years. We used to make suicide day trips from our hometown of Milford, Mass., to E-town (about a 4.5-hour drive each way): Get up early, drive down, watch racing all day, and drive back. Crazy, you would think with a 3-year-old, right? But as I'm sure he would tell you, I NEVER EVER complained or wanted to go home; better yet, I would make car sounds with my mouth ALL DAY. I would even leave the earmuff ear protectors on my head because the car noises I was making sounded cooler to me that way!

“I got my start in drag racing with the Jr. Drag Racing League. I was able to get a ride driving Lebanon Valley Dragway's track-sponsored car. We had a good go at racing, won a few races, made a few special tools that I STILL use to this day in our shop, and had LOTS of fun. As I grew older and was ready to head off to college, the Jr. dragster got sold, along with our enclosed trailer, and into our home garage comes a 1989 Chevy Cavalier V-6 automatic and an open car trailer. Over a short period of time, we turned a worn-out street car into a, well, not-so-worn-out bracket machine. We quickly got a handle on the car and were able to win a track championship at New England Dragway with the car in 2003. That was awesome; we had so much fun doing it, and we have PLENTY of stories to tell about our road to the championship. But that's not the story I want to share.

“The following year after winning the championship, we decided to start traveling to go racing. Dad always said, ‘You will only get better if you race better competition.’ Well, traveling just so happened to bring us back to Englishtown. The NHRA Sport Compact Series was in full swing around this time. So having a front-driver Cavalier, we said, ‘Let’s do it.’ We made the trek with our Cavalier and open trailer down to E-town, just like old times. However, instead of him driving me down there, I was driving him, towing the car trailer and talking along the way. The racing in E-town is ALWAYS tough, and that day was no different. We battled through a tough bracket field, making it through to the finals. Dad was nervous as hell; even though he tried not to show it so that I wouldn't get nervous, I could tell he was. He always put on a good game face, but checking the tire pressures 100 times before we raced gave him away (sorry, Dad).

"As soon as I launched the car, I knew it was going to be one heck of a race. As I was looking over my shoulder waiting to see my competitor get closer as he was chasing me down, I never saw him; a quick pedal job at the top end gave us the win light!!! Taking home my first national event win and a Wally! As I was about to make the turnoff at the top end, it was like I had a flashback of all the memories we had at this track when I was young, how many hours we spent walking the pits looking at cars and how many hours we spent in the stands watching racing and watching the Christmas Tree run after run, pretending like it was a practice Tree and mashing my foot down like I was mashing the gas pedal on a race car. It all just sort of sunk in how special that one run could be. Once I grabbed the time slip and made the turn up towards the pits, I could see the smile on my dad’s face from about 200 feet away. My mom, my cousin (who was my crew chief), and my friend Jon (who helped dial the car in) were all there, but it was my dad's smile that I saw. After getting out of the car, he gave me a big excited hug, and it was then I knew that this win would always stick with me as one of the best. That Wally is currently sitting on my dad's desk in his new mantown (my old room now that I've moved out), where I'm sure he enjoys looking at it every time he's in there.
 
“That old engine stand that my grandfather made, well, it’s still around. I built my first engine on it, too! Several years after we won that national event, we started building a newer-body-style Cavalier with a turbo to further compete in the NHRA Sport Compact Series, and that same old engine stand was what I built my first motor on. That SAME engine stand is STILL in our shop with an engine on it for one of our customers, providing that person with the memory of his first engine build. Sort of cool I think, even though my grandfather might not have been in the flesh to see what I have become and what my father has been able to give to me, he is there every day in spirit watching it all from an engine-stand view.”

Joel Brunk, Centennial, Colo.: “When I was young, my dad was big into VWs. I have many memories of the huge Bug-Ins at OCIR, and later, him drag racing a pretty fast Bug at those events. However, the car that really brought us together was his 1965 Sunbeam Tiger. That car represents so much to me. He built it in ‘93-94, after I spent a year doing the body and paint work on it. I was in my early 20s at that time, and we were not getting along too well. However, this car brought us together. It gave us something to talk about other than what we were disagreeing on. I have very fond memories of finishing it (literally) the night before the ’94 Grand National Roadster Show. We came home with Best Sports Car of show! Carroll Shelby even stopped to talk to Dad for nearly 30 minutes about the car. He parked the car about 10 years ago after getting tired of it overheating. Other interests took over, and the car just sat.

“About two and a half years ago, he was diagnosed with internal melanoma. It is very rare and always terminal. In June of 2013, he was rushed to the hospital in San Francisco. I jumped on a plane and flew out that night. Most of the family was there, and we were crowding the hospital room. The second morning there, I was feeling pretty helpless. Dad and I started talking about the car and some of the memories it brought back. It was great medicine for him ... he perked up noticeably! I decided to drive to his house near Santa Cruz and see exactly what was needed to get it back on the road. He already had all the parts to address the cooling issue; I just needed to install them. Par for the course with this car, NOTHING went as planned! The new four-core aluminum radiator was just big enough that a stock water pump would not fit. The timing cover had two stripped holes. The thermostat housing was corroded ... you get the picture. After a few days, I was able to get everything together and running! The next trip out (two weeks later), he was back home. It was such a proud moment to take him for a ride in his car. After some more tweaking, we drove it to a small show-and-shine in late August. That was the last time he rode in the car. Sadly, he lost his gallant battle in October. The night he died, I just sat in the garage with the car and cried.
 
“I hope to instill the same passion and love for cars in my boy. He was not born into our family (we adopted him at 7 years old, 4 years ago), but he already loves cars. We went to Bandimere Speedway last month with tickets he earned from the Race to Read program. It reminded me of being at OCIR many years ago with my dad ... answering his questions, hearing him pick race winners, and asking drivers questions in the pits ... just like I did with my dad!  Father’s Day will never be the same without my dad around.”
 

Mark Watkins: “One of my favorite memories of growing up in south Santa Ana (my high school cross-country team used to regularly run by the old Santa Ana dragstrip that was foolishly turned into a regional airport) is working with my dad on his cars and trucks.

“I stood with him at Chief's auto supply on Bristol Street as he BS'd with the counter guy and bought oil for his 1963 Chevy 10 pickup. Castrol GTX, even before that famous racing family was a family.  I regularly was his tool chaser while he worked on our cars, and I grew pretty good at anticipating what tool he would need.

“He did two things that changed my life (other than whipping my ass when I screwed up). He introduced me to a man he worked with named Norm LaBell. Norm was a truck driver by day and fabricator by night. My dad took me over to his garage, and I saw the mechanical wonders (to me) Norm constructed with his own two hands. I left that garage believing I could learn to weld, grind, machine, and paint. If Norm could do it, so could I. Today, I have a small machine shop in my garage, and I happily build parts for my race car there.

“The other thing my dad did to change my life was in 1968. On a warm Saturday night, he took me to OCIR. We walked in on the spectator side at dusk, and I was instantly and permanently smitten with the smells, the colors, and the sounds of drag racing.”

Richard Pederson, Mesa, Ariz.: “I'll write a few lines about my dad, Perry Pederson. He couldn't put together an early-‘60s barbecue grill that I, a 7-year-old, came home from Sunday school and promptly pointed out how to put together correctly. He wasn't good at mechanical things, and he jokingly reasoned it must have skipped a generation because his father was a blacksmith and mechanic who could make or fix most anything. What I did get from my white-collar dad was an example of honesty, a good work ethic, the tenacity to do my best and finish what I started.

“Dad never said much about my cars and racing other than his disappointment how they consumed my time and drained my wallet. Having won several races locally with the car he'd seen me working on for a few years, it wasn't until that familiar Camaro appeared on TV (they did that back then) after winning the local national event, he then said he wanted to go to the races with me. The next year, I took him out on a Friday. In between our time passes, he and I toured the pits in a borrowed golf cart, but he needed to go home before seeing a fuel car run in person. He was impressed with the ‘friendly racers’ who knew me and how we raced ‘on the same track as John Force,’ one of a few names he had come to know of and liked. A man of few words, praise or criticism, on the way home, he told me how he now understood what I'd been doing all those years. That was the most meaningful thing he ever said to me. Dad never questioned anything I did after that, and neither did my more vocal mom.

“By 1991, a year after we won the Arizona Nationals (Kenney Vasseur won in my car), my dad was on dialysis three times a week, and it was quite a show of, dare I say, courage to come out to the races with me as he was weak and would be gone less than two years later. Most who knew of him were surprised to see him there and were quite gracious. Obviously one of my more endearing memories.”

Chris Williams: "My dad was a mechanical engineer and also could design about anything. He has loved cars and planes his whole life and used to race a 1929 Essex, just about like the one pictured here, in the late '40s. I can't imagine it was fast, but my friends' dads say my dad was the fastest guy in the Utica/Rome, N.Y., area. My dad says the car was not that fast, but he was a really good shifter. He built some timing equipment they used to use on quiet roads around Rome late at night. Before that, he built go-karts, and in the family closet up in Rome, there is a box of pictures of him in the Rome newspaper. He was quite famous for cruising around town on the go-kart at age 12 or so.

“Despite his love of cars, he really did not like noise. After begging for years, my dad took my brother and me to a Funny Car match race at the eighth-mile Utica Rome Dragway. It was 1972, and I recall two of the cars: the Hills Brothers 'Cuda with working headlights and the Shark Corvette. My boyhood idol, Phil Castronovo, was there to help with his '71 Mini Charger that he had sold to a fellow Utican, but I don't think the car was booked in, and it did not run. Anyway, my dad HATED the noise, burning Clorox, etc., and despite my brother and I having the time of our lives, he never would take us back. And that track booked in some great cars (Ivo, Muldowney, etc.). I think by the time I got my license, the strip had closed, so I never was able to go back.

“So my dad fostered my love of cars, but unlike your stepdad, my dad did not approve of any modifications, at least by the time I was around. He felt cars were designed the way they were designed and should not be altered in any way. It is a little odd how he became so conservative over time. He went to Watkins Glen when they still raced in the streets, drove to Indy for the 500, etc., but somehow he seriously mellowed.

“But if it was not for him, I would not be mechanical, would not know much about race cars, would not like sailing, would not have the education I have, etc. He is 88 and slipping but was, like your stepdad, an incredible influence on my life.”
 

Gary Watson, longtime driver of the Paddy Wagon wheelstander: “In 1956, at age 16, I won my first trophy in Dad’s Comet. You can take that 6-inch trophy and a dime and get a cup of coffee. He went on to support my racing from fuel dragsters to running a dragstrip for five years with a highlight of having Don Garlits there on Jan. 1, 1973 and a high temp of 39 degrees and 5,000 folks in the seats. 1973 was the start of the gas shortage and 55 mph, and I got his support when I quit a real job to go drag racing with a wheelstanding team of three cars (Paddy Wagon, Red Baron, Fugitive). He was not only a dad but a cheerleader.”
 

Mike Quigley: “Your article really touched me, but not for the reason you might think. I actually honor my mom. Sounds weird, but here's the story. When I was 5 and my brother 13, my dad up and moved to Florida. He left Mom with a ton of bills and a house that was one-third finished. He owed everyone in town. My aunt and uncle took my brother in, but I stayed with Mom. She finished the house mostly by herself (she hired for the heating and plumbing). Yes, she roofed it, did the hardwood floors and everything else. Even today at 93, she tells the story of working in the crawl space putting in insulation on Halloween when some neighborhood kids knocked on the door. She was directly under the door and yelled, ‘Come back later.’ She still laughs as she talks about the kids screaming and running home to their parents.

“As I grew up, she taught me to hunt, fish, and all things manly. She even tromped brush piles so I could shoot rabbits. When it came time to learn to drive, our old ‘58 Chevy Bel Air was the vehicle, and my uncle’s pasture was the location. Other than running over a few hay bales, I did pretty good. As my skills improved, Mom introduced me to the finer points of driving. That stopped when she was teaching me to turn donuts in the snow and ran the car into a ditch. A stern warning of ‘Don't you dare tell anyone’ was all it took. Later, when a local friend and male acquaintance loaned a then college freshman his son's 427/435-horse ‘Vette convertible to take his girlfriend out and he was too shy to really get on it, she took the keys and proceeded to smoke the tires through 1st and 2nd gears. 

“She also taught me as much as possible about mechanics (she ran a wrecker on her own a few times), not to the degree that your dad did, but enough to get me by. She traded cars at 90 and continues to keep me on my toes with quips and barbs. She was a mother and a father when that wasn't the norm.

“She was as much, or more, of a father than many men. Every time I watch a team tear down and rebuild a motor, I smile knowing that, at the right age, she could jump in and hold her own.”

Steve Huss: “My dad took me to my first drag race when I was 10 at Pomona. Saw the flying Hawaiian and have been to quite a few more since. This picture (at right) is of the last time my dad, brother, and myself went before he passed. Good times, good memories.”

Thanks for all of the great submissions. I hope that you guys have shared these thoughts with your dad or, if he’s not around, with people who knew him. Although it almost goes without saying, I’ll say it anyway: Tell the people you love how much you love them.

I was able to call my stepdad on Father’s Day (he was with my sister and my mom in Northern California for my nephew Matt’s college graduation and without Internet access) and have my sister show the column to him on her iPad. Even though I’ve told him many times over the years what he has meant to me, it was nice for him to know that I am proud enough of our relationship to share it with the world.