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TUNE IN TO FS1 AT 11 P.M. EASTERN FOR SATURDAY NITRO FROM THE LUCAS OIL NHRA NATIONALS IN BRAINERD

1975's Grand Premiere

09 Jan 2015
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider
James Warren (above) won Top Fuel, and Don Prudhomme (below) scored in Funny Car at the 4th annual Grand Premiere at Irwindale Raceway to help kick off 1975.

Forty years ago last Sunday, Irwindale Raceway kicked off what I still think is one of the greatest and most interesting seasons in drag racing history. The 1975 campaign began in a storm of rules controversy, welcomed new cars and new classes, was highlighted by Don Prudhomme’s incredible six-win season, and ended with two of the greatest runs, Don Garlits’ awe-inspiring 5.63, 250-mph Top Fuel pass and Prudhomme’s barrier-breaking 5.97 Funny Car run, both at that year’s World Finals at Ontario Motor Speedway. In the next couple of weeks, I’ll get to all of that, but I’ll kick off this year’s Insider with a look back at that wild first race, the Grand Premiere, which took place Jan. 4.

Prudhomme won Funny Car, West Coast powerhouse James Warren won Top Fuel, and John Shoemaker blitzed Pro Comp, and there were plenty of stories behind each.

The Grand Premiere event itself had debuted at Lions Drag Strip in 1972 to kick off the fabled track’s final season. Fans with long memories will remember that race as the site of a jaw-dropping Top Fuel final between Prudhomme and John Wiebe in which both recorded 6.17 e.t.s, the quickest in history, times that were disputed. The race was a real crashfest and probably could (and probably will be) a column unto itself before this thread is done.

The Grand Premiere was moved to Irwindale in 1973 and kicked off Steve Evans’ management of the newly refurbished facility, and the 1974 edition hosted the Cragar Five-Second Club race (won by Garlits), so the event had a lot of momentum going into 1975.

Prudhomme, fresh off a victory days earlier at Fremont Raceway’s New Year’s Day event, won the Grand Premiere, too, not in his soon-to-be all-conquering Army Monza, but in the familiar Barracuda that he had raced to two wins, a runner-up, and second place in the points behind Shirl Greer the previous year (the car was actually his 1973 'Cuda, pressed into action after his new low-riding John Buttera Vega was shelved after just two events in 1974).

The event also marked the Southern California debut of the new Blue Max Mustang II with Raymond Beadle at the wheel. The car had debuted in December in Florida during the 1974 Winter Series, where it won the Snowbird Nationals with a decent 6.45 best.

The late, great “Jungle Jim” Liberman was the low qualifier in Funny Car with a 6.30, just two-hundredths off of “the Snake’s” track record but eight-hundredths ahead of the man himself. The rest of the field comprised (in order) Neil Leffler in Jim Terry’s surprisingly quick Mustang, Jim Dunn, Gary Burgin, Beadle, Gene Snow (who shortly would undergo back surgery and sit out most of the season), Mike Halloran, Gervaise O’Neil, Gary Densham, Norm Wilcox (in Roland Leong’s Hawaiian, his first Funny Car ride after a strong Top Fuel career), Clarence “Boogaloo” Bailey, Dennis Geisler (in the ill-fated rear-engine Hindsight), Dale Pulde (in his new ride in Joe Mundet’s Eastern Raider Pinto after leaving Mickey Thompson’s national-record-setting Grand Am), and Bryan Raines.

After Burgin and Geisler (who were supposed to run one another) as well as Pulde and Wilcox failed to make the first-round call, Liberman, Prudhomme, Leffler, Snow, and Dunn won their races, and Beadle and Pickett, in Pete Everett’s Pete’s Lil Demon, “singled” together for their bye runs from Pulde and Wilcox. Prudhomme’s victory came on a stout track-record 6.26 pass against O’Neil.

Then things got weird.

(Above) Milliseconds after this photo was taken, the rods exited the block, and Raymond Beadle and the Blue Max did a big ol' 180 on the starting line. Madness ensued. (Below)  Prudhomme defeated Jim Dunn to capture Funny Car honors and his second match race win in the first four days of 1975. (Jack Reece photos)

After “Jungle” smoked and lost to Dunn, Beadle and Leffler fired their engines. Oil immediately began spewing from a broken oil-pump gasket on Leffler’s engine, and he was shut off. Beadle, never one to just go through the motions, waded into a monster burnout with the Max but kicked out a rod. He slid in his own oil, doing a 180-degree spin, smacked the A-board, and ended up facing the wrong way. Leffler’s crew, seeing this happen, refired his leaky mount hoping to at least stage and get the win. According to the account in Drag Racing USA, Steve Montrelli tried to stop him but was grabbed by Sid Waterman, who had built Leffler’s engine (in fact, Leffler was the shop foreman at Waterman Racing Engines). Prudhomme stepped in and grabbed Waterman. A lot of pushing and shoving and name-calling ensued before Leffler was shut off.

Asked what he thought of the scene, Evans told DRUSA’s Steve Alexander, “I loved every minute of it because nobody was mad at me.” That sentiment might not have lasted long as Evans surprisingly reinstated Beadle because he had already been declared the winner when Leffler initially shut off and didn’t even have to do a burnout. “What was I gonna do?” he asked rhetorically. “Make them push it down the track? They’d had enough trouble.” (I gotta think that the always-promotions-minded Evans saw a bigger fan appeal to keep the Max in the show.)

Once the shenanigans were complete, Snow beat Pickett, and Prudhomme, who had the bye run after the nonexistent Burgin-Geisler race, barely navigated his slick lane to a 15-flat win to end the round.

Beadle also lost traction in the semi’s against the cagey Dunn, who somehow ran 6.46 through the mess, and Prudhomme then beat Snow, 10.16 to 10.32, but nearly collected the guardrail in the process. Prudhomme saved his best for last and, despite not holding lane choice, beat a crossed-up Dunn in the final with a 6.32. Two match race wins in the first four days of the season probably should have been an indicator that "the Snake" was going to have a pretty good year, and he didn't even have his new car yet.

Top Fuel was a little more straightforward. The “Ridge Route Terrors” dominated qualifying with a 6.05, well ahead of the dual 6.24s of Flip Schofield and Leland Kolb. Stan Shiroma was fourth at 6.29, followed by Gary Read, Gary Ritter, Tony Nancy, Gary Hazen, and Danny Ongais, all in the 6.30s. Bob Noice, Tom Toler, Shorty Leventon, Frank Prock, Bill Carter, Rick Uribe, and Don Ewald (6.67) rounded out the field. About 30 dragsters tried to qualify.

Warren scored his fifth straight win at Irwindale when he defeated Walt Rhoades in the Top Fuel final. (Steve Reyes photo)

Warren got a bye run when Ongais’ crew couldn’t fire the Vel’s/Parnelli Jones mount, then reset low e.t. with a 6.04 in round two over tire-smoking Read. Warren got another bye when Toler’s team couldn’t fire his car, and he was joined in the final by Walt Rhoades, who made the field as an alternate, then beat Shiroma, Hazen, and Ritter. Despite dealing with the same oil-soaked track as the floppers, Roger Coburn spun the knobs the right way in the final, and Warren blasted to a stunning 6.01 at 239.36, low e.t. and top speed, to claim his fifth straight win at the ‘Dale. Rhoades was second through with a 6.18.

Shoemaker dominated Pro Comp from start to finish in what was the introduction of the AA/Dragster class (also known as BAD, for blown alcohol dragster). More than 50 drivers turned out looking for a spot in the 16-car field, including Dale Armstrong, who was awaiting completion of his new BB/FC and showed with a BAD after running pretty much every other configuration in 1974. Shoemaker’s 6.89 led the field by almost a tenth, and he ran 6.91, 6.96, and 6.90 to reach the final when everyone else was struggling in the sevens. The only other driver to find the sixes consistently was Don Enriquez, in his and Gene Adams' converted ex-Top Fueler, which ran 6.98 in the semi’s. Shoemaker took no prisoners in the final with a 6.87 to fend off Enriquez’s 7.00. The BADs were so, well, badass at the start of the year that NHRA changed their weight break after the Winternationals.

The Grand Premiere also was memorable because it provided the first test of NHRA’s new index handicapping system for Comp eliminator (which previously had been handicapped based on national records) and for the introduction of the C/Econo Dragster class (then reserved only for four-bangers), which later became one of the most populated in the eliminator.

The Grand Premiere was certainly that and set the stage for the dueling AHRA and NHRA Winternationals that followed a few weeks later to kick off their respective seasons. We’ll take a look at those launchpads next week.