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Catching Up

19 Jun 2015
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

It’s been a crazy couple of weeks here at Insider Central as I actually snuck in a mini vacation — I went all the way to Spokane, Wash., to see an Eagles concert — between the Topeka and Englishtown events, and by the time you read this, I’ll be in Bristol for the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals, so there’s a few things that I’ve wanted to share with you to catch up.

As I was traveling to E-town, Don Prudhomme texted me this great photo of the work in progress on the Shelby Super Snake Top Fueler on which his team has been relentlessly working the last few months.

“Thought you might like this picture of Bill Carter painting the Shelby car; now if we only had Von Dutch for the pinstriping,” he wrote. That “Snake” would put Carter in the same sentence as the legendary brushmaster Von Dutch shows his admiration of Carter’s talents.

It was great to see Carter still in action. He was a prolific race car painter back in the 1980s — Shirley Muldowney’s choice for years — and worked with the National Dragster staff on some cover shots from his base in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley. According to Prudhomme, Carter heard about the Shelby project and offered his services to Prudhomme. “He still knows his [stuff]!” Prudhomme enthused.

Heather LeVay, daughter of the late and well-loved Funny Car racer Tripp Shumake, has finally finished her published tribute to her father, titled 240 Shorty, which was her short-on-stature, large-on-heart father's nickname. The book is available for sale on Lulu.com, which is a fine outlet for self-publishers; we’ve used it here at NHRA in the past.

I’ve been in on this project from the ground floor, assisting and advising where I could, and couldn’t be more happy or proud of how it turned out. The book is a true labor of love, which is well evident in the lengths that Heather went to as she gathered memories from many of Shumake’s peers as well as many, many others, all of whom were eager to help keep alive his memory long after he was taken from us in a hit-and-run accident on his motorcycle in November 1999.

She acknowledges this in the book’s foreword: “Writing this book has been a most amazing journey. Being able to learn more about my father through the memories of his friends and family has been such an unexpected gift. Over the last two years, I’ve travelled across the country interviewing many of his friends, some of whom I’ve never met, and hearing wonderful and funny stories from all of them. I would like to thank everyone for taking the time to speak with me and for sharing their thoughts about Tripp. … This book is for all of you. It is a celebration of Tripp. He was only with us for a short time, but he has left a lasting impression on us all. He had a great ride. He lived, he loved, he made us laugh, and most importantly he loved the Lord. Thank you all for allowing me to do this.”

The book intertwines a thorough history of Shumake's life with great photos, memories, and stories shared by dozens of folks, including such famous names as Prudhomme, John Force, Kenny Bernstein, Raymond Beadle, Dale Pulde, Joe Amato, Bob Glidden, Tom Hoover, Billy Meyer, Cruz Pedregon, Whit Bazemore, Donnie Couch, Pat Galvin, "Honda Doug" Woiwod, and many more, plus a whole section from his family and friends, and excerpts from some columns written about Shumake, including several from the Insider column. I read it on the long flight to Bristol, and can say it's the definitive piece on one of the great ambassadors of our sport and, as a bonus, you'll find out a lot more about the personalities of some of the racers whose paths he crossed.

One of the Insider column’s great friends and sources, Henry Walther, also grabbed a copy right away, and sent a note to Heather, parts of which I will share here:

“I have just finished reading your book, and I must tell you that you have ruined my last 36 hours. Although I had a schedule of things that I needed to do, all of that went into the dumpster once I started reading the book. I wasn’t able to put the book down. … Your book was compelling, but it was not an easy read. It was compelling because it transported me back into a time that I very much enjoyed. I was once again surrounded by so many people that I called my friends and took me to places and events that were my history, too. It gave me the opportunity to spend more time with my racing family, with Tripp and Susie, and others that contributed to the memories of my time on the road. Because I knew so many of the people mentioned in your book, it was a joyous reunion for me.”

“To those who may read this book who didn’t know Tripp, they'll spend the first 224 pages falling in love with the irascible prankster, only to end with a sense of loss. But you put everyone’s mind at ease. Your last time and days with your dad made it OK for us to say goodbye to Tripp.”

You can order 240 Shorty here: http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/240shorty

A lot of folks were shocked to read about Gary Burgin’s passing a few weeks ago — fans who remembered that great Indy final and some fellow racers — but I was most pleased to hear from European fuel racer Pelle Lindelöw, for whom Burgin consulted for about a dozen years after he retired from driving. Lindelöw’s thoughts, shared below, give you a real idea about some of the challenges faced by our European brethren and also show what a great and expert resource Burgin was for those racers.

“In 1986, we had a terrible season,” Lindelöw remembered. “Almost every run cost us a motor, and both the wallet and temper were running dry. For the Midnight Sun Internationals in Piteå (just south of the Polar Circle), we hired Jerry Gwynn to help us sort things out. He did a great job, but sorting a Top Fuel operation out over one weekend is an impossible task, even for a guy like Jerry.

“We had to buy another block and crank at the track because we simply ran out of blocks. At the same time, we noticed that our main competitor, Monica Öberg, had hired another ex-racer from the U.S., namely Mr. Burgin. They had a good meeting and a very successful season. At last, we finally made a five-second run and had promised to shave our mustaches off, so we did. At the track, we cut all facial hair, put it in a dirty envelope, and put it on the mailbox without any comments. I've never heard if it reached the Gwynns in Miami. Probably they thought it was a very sick kinda joke from someone they didn't know. Or didn’t want to know.

Still in the Miller colors of Dick LaHaie, Lindelow burns out at Mantorp in his "new" car, the first on which Gary Burgin worked.

“Over the winter, we decided that we reached the point where we had to make up our minds — put the helmet on the shelf or start from square one again. Our friend and part supplier in the U.S., Swedish Finn Jarmo Pulkkinen, knew that Dick LaHaie's spare Miller beer car was for sale. Everything was organized, and we gave Jarmo instruction to purchase the car for us. After a few months, Jarmo called me and said Gary had offered his services and could put a brand-new motor together and ship it here. After consulting the bank and sponsors and investigating the alternatives, we gave it a go. Gary assembled the motor and shipped it to Sweden. Together with the motor we received page after page with handwritten instructions. After a while, we agreed that he should also come here and make sure everything was done correct.

“Gary arrived to my house, and we went immediately to the shop to overlook everything. The car was loaded into the trailer, and the day after we went to Mantorp for some practice and later that same week the first race. From that day, Gary was coming to all our races in the U.K., Germany, Norway, and Finland.

“One year, the week before Easter, I was called up by the promoter at Santa Pod asking if we could come to a race there. As Easter is a couple of months early for our planned season, I called Gary asking if he could come over and bring the spares we needed for the race. ‘When do you want me there?’ he asked, and I said ‘Next week Thursday,’ and Gary just replied ‘I'll be there.’ That's the way things worked those days, he never let us down.

“We had a great time with Gary working as our crew chief and part supplier. Gary was the first American who understood the situation we were living in. Everything we bought had to be shipped airfreight and add to that taxes and duties, so what is expensive in the U.S. is even more expensive over here. Gary understood this and was always looking for good deals and as crew chief always going small steps not to take any risks with the material. I'm extremely thankful for that because it kept us in the business with our limited economic resources.

“Being a racer himself, he never shipped anything he wasn't sure would fit. If I ordered the ‘wrong’ part, he immediately called and asked if I was sure and proposed another solution. Our experience earlier was that we (in best cases) got what we ordered, even if it wasn't the correct part. Also, he used his big network to find good used stuff. Gary was our crew chief between 1987-1998 and parts supplier until 2002 when we sold the entire operation to Andy Carter. I was talking to several racers, and we all have the same experience: quick deliveries, correct parts, and invoice the week after. With the very short season over here, these criteria are vital. There are many racers here that saved their racing efforts thanks to Gary.

The 1993 championship team with Lindelow, far left, and Burgin, second from right.
(Karl Anders Alfeld photo)

“In '93, when we finally won the European Top Fuel series — six-races long series — we ran all races in the 5.3-second zone. Never the quickest car at the meeting but constant performance. Actually, we never removed the block from the frame that season. A fantastic year! Six races, five wins, and one semi when the race was cancelled due to rain. In '94 and '95, we were representing Europe in racing in Japan, organized by NHRA.

“As my mentor, Gary shared a lot of his experiences from his own long racing career. “Gary was one of a kind, and what you mentioned Gerry said in the interview is exactly my perception of Gary´s personality. He once told me: ‘I’d rather repair KBs all night than do a five-minute interview.’ And that’s the way things worked with Gary; he didn’t like the spotlight. He was never a man of big words. When I won a final at Mantorp against a quicker competitor, he said, ‘You gave her a driving lesson.’ It made me so proud, and coming from Gary, I know he was as happy I was.

“We used to go to the U.S. once a year and every time staying by Gary and Gerry in San Clemente [Calif.], and it was like coming home. One week, with a lot of travelling and sourcing parts, Gary also was coordinating when we bought the ex-Bernstein Kase car (the Budweiser banana) and the ex-Cory McClenathan McDonald’s cars. In both cases, we had the cars adjusted/rebuilt to fit me. Gary knew people all over the place, and they were fixed before being shipped to Sweden.

“Over the years, Gary’s business grew, and his list of customers showed customers all over Europe and Australia. The people I've talked to are all very thankful customers. A couple of years ago, a customer at my day job at Hansen Racing needed new shirts for an upcoming exhibition. The producer refused to send them direct to Sweden, so I called Gary and asked if he could buy the shirts and send ASAP to Hansen Racing. Gary just replied, ‘I'll take care of it,’ and so he did. The shirts arrived via FedEx three to four days later and in time for the exhibition. Shipper: Gary Burgin Enterprises. That's how things worked; he knew when we asked for speedy action, we got that, no hassle.

“Gary Burgin will be deeply missed both as a personal friend to all of us at P&G racing and supplier to many, many racers all over the world! In my mind, Gary should be awarded a place in the drag racing hall of fame for everything he did for drag racing in Europe and Australia.”

Speaking of Burgin, there's a nice tribute page on him, created on Facebook by Pat Welsh. Check it out here and share your own memories.

If you’re like me, you love cool T-shirts, and I’m definitely going to put in an order for one of these new offerings by the Quarter Mile Foundation, the group that for the last few years has been doing in video what I’ve been doing here: trying to get all of the stories on record before it’s too late.

The shirts, with the We Are Legend tagline, are covered with the names of some of our sport’s greatest racers, and apparently there will be a couple of versions.

“We have listed as many legend names that we could based on the print area allowed,” the foundation said in an email. “While we were doing this, we discovered that this is going to have to be a series of tees in order to get as many of our legend's names as possible for fans and racers alike to be able to proudly wear all your favorite ‘Legends’ names that you have watched and grown up with."

Bob Glidden. Don Prudhomme. Connie Kalitta. Raymond Beadle. James Warren. Dale Armstrong. Ed Pink. Eddie Schartman. Joe Schubeck. Pat Foster. Kenny Youngblood. Carl Olson. Dale Pulde. Eddie Hill. Steve Evans. Bruce Larson. Steve Reyes. Mickey Thompson. All of your faves and many more are listed. Click the "View larger" link at right to see them all. Very cool!
 
The Series 1 are now available and will not be re-printed. You can order them here, from the foundation’s eBay page.
 
All proceeds of the shirt sales will go to the Quarter Mile Foundation to further its mission of preserving and sharing our legend's stories through a documentary film made for television. The Quarter Mile Foundation is an approved 501(c)3 charitable organization by the IRS.



 

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the 50th anniversary of Bristol Dragway, and this year also is the 50th anniversary of racing at Englishtown’s Raceway Park, but one that I missed that has a special SoCal connection to all of the longtime racers and fans from this area was the 50th anniversary being celebrated by Valley Head Service, which has done work over the years for many of the giants in automotive racing like Mickey Thompson, Don Prudhomme, Ford Motor Co., Holmann/Moody, Carroll Shelby, General Motors, Warren Johnson, Smokey Yunick, American Motors Co., Jim Hall, George Follmer, Justice Brothers, and "Fast" Jack Beckman.

Born in the family chicken coop in the San Fernando Valley to the famed alleyway shared with Race Car Specialties and Jim Hume to its current location in Northridge, sole owner Larry Ofria still is working to make more horsepower. Today, when it comes to drag racing, Valley Head Service mostly caters to Nostalgia Sportsman racers here on the West Coast and Cacklefest cars seen at the California Hot Rod Reunion but still has customers worldwide and still is called upon on occasion by General Motors for their cylinder head R&D programs. They also race their own A/GS '57 Chevy Bel Air in the NHRA Hot Rod Heritage Racing Series and the American Nostalgia Racing Association, where they were 2005 and 2006 champs with Larry doing the driving and 2010 champions with driver Andy Hiemstra. Congrats, VHS!
 

OK, that’s it for this week. I’ll also be traveling late next week, so between that and all of my Bristol responsibilities, I’m not certain that I’ll have a new column for you next Friday. That’s the bad news. The good news is that I have an ever-growing list of really cool and interesting column projects lined up and, in some cases, partially under way. I’d also like to thank the many great Insider readers who stopped me in E-town to express their love of the column. I get a great welcome almost everywhere I go, and I can’t tell you how much it means that I have found such a devoted and kindred audience for who these stories resonate. Thanks so much.