Even though NHRA’s Springnationals was born in Bristol and moved to Englishtown and then, as noted last week, to Dallas before ultimately ending up at its current home in Houston, in my brain, and I’m sure in the brains of many of you like-minded readers, the event is most closely associated with Columbus and National Trail Raceway.
Although the venue certainly had its quirks – a short shutdown area and a penchant for rainy weekends and sometimes flooded pits – it was host to so much history and drama throughout the years that I could fill several columns covering it all, but, in the spirit of the way this column kicked off this year with a 40th anniversary look back at the start of the 1975 season, I thought that the wild 1975 Springnationals was well worth another look.
The Springnationals had moved to National Trail Raceway – well east of the actual city of Columbus and almost equidistant between Kirkersville and Hebron (its city of mailing record) on U.S. Route 40 (once known as the National Road, hence part of the track name) – in 1972, when Chip Woodall scored his one and only Top Fuel win, Ed “the Ace” McCulloch set a Funny Car class record with his third straight victory, and Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins scored his second of what would be six wins in eight races in Pro Stock that season. The following year, John Wiebe (Top Fuel) and Dave Beebe (Funny Car) scored their only NHRA national event wins, and in 1974, Gene Snow captured his fourth and final NHRA Funny Car victory. Of course, at the time, no one knew those would be the lone/last wins for those racers, and with the benefit of 40 years of hindsight, it’s easy to point it out now, but the 1975 event had a couple of very important NHRA firsts that everyone knew would become important parts of NHRA history.
Perhaps the most obvious to longtime fans was that the event marked the first final-round appearance by a woman in an NHRA Pro class, that being Shirley Muldowney’s runner-up to Marvin Graham. As we’ve discussed here recently, three female Sportsman winners (Shirley Shahan, Judi Boertman, and Judy Lilly) reached the winner’s circle before Muldowney, but I’d guess that their wins were not nearly as celebrated – or, in some corners of the pits, fretted about -- as was Muldowney’s runner-up.
I have plans (and a tentative date for an interview) to recap Muldowney’s early Top Fuel days in a future column, but, in a nutshell, her NHRA fuel career had been a struggle. Thanks to stats provided to me by Bob Frey, I find that before Columbus 1975, she hadn’t won a round in her six previous Top Fuel starts (dating back to her Englishtown 1973 debut in Poncho Rendon’s car), accumulating DNQs at her first three races and first-round losses at her next three, including at the 1975 Winternationals. In Funny Car, she had one round-win in four starts, beating Jim Murphy at – ironically – National Trail in 1973. (It’s worth noting, and I’m sure she’ll appreciate me noting, that she had won the 1971 IHRA Springnationals Funny Car title in Rockingham, N.C., and was runner-up there in 1972.)
Still, all of that was a long way from reaching an NHRA Top Fuel final, though it might be easy to see that her qualifying efforts had improved – she qualified No. 8 in Pomona and No. 9 in Columbus after qualifying 14th and 27th in Columbus and Indy (32-car field) the previous year.
Muldowney did not have an easy road en route to her historic final-round berth, though two of her three pre-final-round opponents went onto two wheels trying to beat her.
Low qualifier Rick Ramsey, who had taken over the seat of the Kuhl & Olson dragster after Carl Olson’s retirement from the cockpit, qualified the Donovan-powered K&O “Fast Guys” machine No. 1 with a 6.01 – a few ticks ahead of Graham’s 6.03 – and Muldowney had qualified her pink English Leather dragster No. 9 with a 6.14, setting up their first-round match.
Everything was fine until about the 700-foot mark, when, as you can see above, Ramsey got way out of shape and almost rolled his machine. He landed it safely, but by then, Muldowney was long gone to an impressive 6.06 victory.
According to Olson, Ramsey told him that the rear slick made a skid mark about three feet wide for quite a distance. “He laughed about the fact that after it happened, dozens of people came by the trailer to congratulate him on his miraculous driving job in getting the car back onto four wheels,” said Olson. “He said what was so funny was that when it happened, he took his hands off the steering wheel and put them over his face because he was sure he was in the process of crashing. He said the car bounced a couple times real hard, and when he took his hands away from his face, he was back on four wheels and headed straight down the track though with absolutely no input on his part. He hit the brakes and brought the car to a safe stop with very minimal damage.”
Division 3 champ Paul Longenecker was the next to fall, succumbing to breakage in round two against Muldowney, who registered a shutoff 6.32 at just 192 mph for the win and set up a match that had the fans on the edges of their seats: Muldowney vs. Don Garlits.
Garlits, who suffered a stinging holeshot loss to Muldowney in a Memorial Day match race at Great Lakes Dragaway, appeared to launch first, but his Swamp Rat dragster climbed into a big wheelie. The National Dragster report described it as “skyscraping”; you can’t tell that from this photo, so we’ll take their word for it. Whatever the height, it was too high to drive out of, and he clicked it early to a 13.31 and watched Muldowney light the historic win lamp with a 6.26 at just 187.89, a broken blower belt aborting the pass early.
Despite the aborted run, Muldowney still had lane choice over Graham, who had beaten Clayton Harris with a 6.30, and Muldowney might have even been the favorite based on her 6.06, which was better than Graham’s best of the day, 6.13, also in round one. A lot was at stake for both: Muldowney hoped to make history and firmly assert her right to be there, and Graham a) didn't want to become an ignominious footnote in history as the guy she beat for her first win and b) wanted to show people that his surprising win in Indy the year before was no fluke, either.
Muldowney was first off the line but hazed the tires early while Graham was straight and true to a 6.19 to 6.36 victory. The drama didn’t end there as Muldowney’s car suffered a parachute failure, but she again proved her driving chops by getting the car hauled down to a safe speed before nosing into the net with only minimal damage. It would be another year – and after another final-round loss, to Garlits in Indy in 1975 – before Muldowney would reach the winner’s circle, but Columbus 1975 let people know she was for real.
The other historic first that weekend came off the track: The event marked the first official involvement by R.J. Reynolds and its Winston brand as they began a long title-rights sponsorship of the sport that would run through 2001. Signage and banners across the greater Columbus area directed fans to the event, contributing to a 13 percent increase in spectators from 1974.
The Graham-Muldowney final was not the only memorable final of the weekend. Who could forget Raymond Beadle’s body-shedding wheelstand against Don Prudhomme? The Blue Max Mustang shell flew through the air like its namesake while Prudhomme rocketed to his third straight win of the season – tying McCulloch’s remarkable 1972 accomplishment – and giving him career win No. 11, just one behind “Big Daddy,” two behind Jenkins, and four behind the man he would pass a year later, Ronnie Sox.
The Pro Stock final between winner Jenkins and runner-up Roy Hill also provided several historic footnotes. With Jenkins’ Chevy Vega and Hill’s Plymouth Duster contesting the round, it marked the first time since the 1973 Summernationals that the Pro Stock final did not include a Ford. It fact, the previous five events had been all-Ford finals between Bob Glidden and either Wayne Gapp or Don Nicholson.
Glidden, who had won the final two events of 1974 and, like Prudhomme, the first two of 1975, behind the wheel of his long-wheelbase '70 Mustang, had his streak ended in round two when he got out of shape against Hill. Gapp, who was driving his own long-wheelbase entry, a four-door Maverick, also bowed out in round two, to still-rising Warren Johnson, who was seven years from his first win.
Hill, who also had been runner-up at the Springnationals the year before (to Glidden) and never made it to another final round after, was no match for Jenkins, who stepped up from a series of 9.0s in the early rounds to an 8.98 to easily best Hill’s 9.16.
The event also marked Lee Shepherd’s final Modified win before jumping to Pro Stock the next season, when he won the inaugural (but non-points-counting) Cajun Nationals. Shepherd was driving an E/MP Corvette in just his second season with partners David Reher and Buddy Morrison and bested Bruce Sizemore’s I/Gas Pinto. As with Muldowney, even bigger days awaited Shepherd and company, and with the benefit of historic hindsight, we can see that both were destined for greater things.