Don Prudhomme, left, and National Dragster's Leslie Lovett, two-wheelin' it
Fred Mooneyham’s brief mention last week about dirt-bike riding with his nitro peers in the 1970s and motocross racing against fellow 1970s Top Fuel driver Don Moody at Irwindale sent me scurrying through old emails and saved snippets of tales from days gone by to dig up correspondence I’d had with Moody on the subject a half-dozen years ago.
After a few minutes, I found my notes and enjoyed the tone and liked the thought of those bygone days, so I thought it would make an interesting column, another of those nostalgic “How cool were the ‘70s?” vibes with an off-track twist.
As I dug deeper and expanded the scope of my interviews to include fellow riders Don Prudhomme and Tommy Ivo and more long-distance chats with Moody, I tapped into a vein of wonderful memories and camaraderie that these guys and their peers shared on the desert excursions. Prudhomme and Ivo very generously dug through their scrapbooks for photos, and I made up for the lack of images for certain stories by enlisting the talented pen and fertile mind of ND's own John Jodauga to "re-create" the scenes with cartoons. Good stuff.
As we're all aware, the 1970s was a different time for drag racing, and not just because the nitro cars had transmissions and the drivers wore breather masks and open-face helmets. There was a genuine sense of community and Band of Brothers mentality that only is forged in the fires of all-night tows to match race tracks and seeing each other not just every other weekend but sometimes three or four nights a week. Some of the racers today, of course, are friends off the track and do things together – thanks to the centralized hub of the drag racing world in Brownsburg, Ind. – but it’s a different world. That’s not a knock on today’s professionals. After all, compared to their 1970s counterparts, the pressures are different, the schedule is different, the political climate is different, and the obligations are different.
In the 1970s, NHRA could get away with not only dreaming up the somewhat hokey idea of a pre-Winternationals roller-skating party, but also having all of the sport’s big guns actually show up and skate. Can you picture that today? Me either. There was no media opportunity (other than National Dragster), yet everyone was there, and the proverbial good time was had by all. Different times, different world.
The dirt-biking phenomenon had hit pretty big then, and the first stadium motocross events created heroes like Roger DeCoster, Jim Pomeroy, Brad Lackey, and Bob “Hurricane” Hannah. Drag racing’s heroes were all over it.
Southern California-based guys like Moody and Mooneyham, along with Prudhomme, Kenny Safford and partner Don Gaide, Ed Janke, Ivo (all five friends from their days as members of the Burbank Road Kings), and a wild and varied assortment that included Funny Car racer Sush Matsubara, chassis builder Lil John Buttera, engine ace Ed Pink, Don and Bob Spar (of B&M fame), National Dragster’s own Leslie Lovett, and many others would load up their Husqvarnas, Bultacos, Montesas, Maicos, Yamahas, and CZs and head out to the hinterlands so tantalizingly close to LA: the high desert just north of Pomona, Jawbone Canyon, Holiday Mountain, Hi Vista, Red Rock Canyon, publishing magnate Robert E. Petersen’s ranch in Tehachapi, or even the man-made motocross mecca at Indian Dunes near Valencia. Whenever there was a spare weekend, they’d ride together, laugh, and try not to get hurt.
“Man, those were the days,” Prudhomme reflected, warming to the recollection when we spoke earlier this week. “If we weren’t drag racing, we were riding. The guys would come by my house and pick me up, or we’d all meet somewhere. We’d go out there, get it on, then lay under a tree and smoke a cigarette and shoot the [breeze]. We were all great friends, and we rode the hell out of our bikes. We’d ride hard, and by the time we got home, we were sore and beat up; we were pouring people into the bathtubs for a hot soak.”
“Those were great times in life with great friends; I had just as much fun dirt biking as drag racing,” Moody enthused via email, from his home in Thailand. “Throughout life (if you live long enough) you compile endless memories, but dirt biking in the desert is indelible in my head. There’s not many times do you get to spend time with great friends on the edge of disaster, whether it was on the dragstrip or tearing across the desert.”
And the stories … oh, man. Here’s a sampling of some of the great and wild times that they experienced.
While many of his peers were riding 360cc CZs, Huskys, or Bultacos, Moody, in typical drag racer style, had hot-rodded his Montesa to run straight alcohol. “Jack Engle calculated all the necessary jetting for the alcohol versus the gasoline, and the air-cooled engine loved the alcohol,” recalled Moody, who then worked at Engle Cams with longtime partner Wes Cerny. “I had a new steel tank (it melted the fiberglass one), a new 36mm Bing carburetor, nice new fenders; it looked like new money, but it burned fuel like a dragster. The first day in the desert, I remember Prudhomme kept badgering me to let him ride it. Well, he rolled out on a fire road, shifted to 2nd gear, and proceeded to roll right over backwards. It didn't even hurt the ‘slithering Snake’ but ruined both of my new fenders and dented my steel tank. All he could say was how impressed he was with the power. Huh!
As on the dragstrip, "the Snake" took no prisoners. Here he smokes it up a hill after blasting past one of his riding pals.
“At one of our early get-togethers in the Holiday area, Safford, Gaide, Janke, Prudhomme, myself, and some others were more or less in line and following too close and way too fast. Safford went into a washout with all of us right behind. Prudhomme passed me in the raw desert and crossed in front, right over Safford's right shoulder. The reason I remember this so vividly is that Safford was wearing a new bright yellow Engle Racing Cams jacket; when we got back to camp, Prudhomme tried to say he had clearly missed everyone, but Safford had a giant knobby track across his right shoulder on his new jacket! The word ‘Lift’ was just not in our vocabulary, and ‘the Snake’ was going for the finish line.”
I asked Prudhomme – who, by the way, had always been the king of those roller-skating parties, having raced on skates at the Rainbow Roller Rink in the San Fernando Valley as a teen, before his drag racing days – if he had been as good on two wheels as he was on four.
"Yeah, I could hold my own, but everyone was good, except 'the Mongoose,' " he said, unable to resist the chance to once again poke fun at his old buddy Tom McEwen. “He would show up and look like a drugstore cowboy – the best motorcycle you could buy, the best pair of leathers, the best jacket – but he just couldn’t ride to save his life.
“Moody was awfully good,” he added. “You knew who was good when you’d be riding hard, look back, and see who was still with you, and Moody was always there.”
Moody, too, had a good “Snake” and “Mongoose” story to tell.
“I can remember when McEwen came to the desert with us for the first time (he should have stayed home),” recalled Moody. “The bike he had borrowed (from Don Gaide) quit in the middle of nowhere. ‘The Snake’ and I made our way back to the truck and proceeded to go back for ‘the ‘Goose.’ It started raining like the devil, and it was already dark, and what road we had looked like a river. Prudhomme kept saying, ‘Turn around; he's not going to be out here; let's get out of here before we're stuck,’ but I kept going to the spot where I thought he was. I was losing confidence fast, and Prudhomme was yelling, ‘We gotta get outta here!’ and finally, here's the ‘Drowned ‘Goose,’ huddled under the same mesquite bush, right where we had left him. History would surely have changed that rainy Sunday had we left him in the desert.”
As with all things mechanical, trouble usually reared its ugly head.
“If we had seven guys, it would take two hours to get ‘em all lit,” Moody recalled. “It was always a feat in itself to be able to get seven or eight two-strokes fired up anywhere near the same time. Ed Janke had a 175cc Bultaco Sherpa that wouldn't start with the kick-starter. We had to tow him all over the desert to get it to light, then, after it warmed up, he had to change the spark plug to a cooler one or it would burn up the engine on the ride. I remember John Buttera was too light to start his Husky; he had to take the plug out and squirt fire starter in the cylinder to start the bike.”
From left, Prudhomme, Don Moody, Tommy Ivo, Kenny Safford, and Billy Record at Holiday. It was Ivo's first (and last) trip.
It may have taken a while to kick-start some of those bikes, but my prodding email to Ivo proved he didn’t need any warm-up time to start reminiscing about those desert days.
“Going to the desert to ride bikes with a bunch of lop-eared fuel dragster drivers was my first mistake,” he wrote with his typical flourish. “They don't call them ‘murder-cycles’ for nothing, you know. And then putting them in the hands of a bunch of ‘accidents looking for a place to happen’-type guys like that was a volatile combination at best.
(Above) Ivo's first ride didn't last long after a collision with Safford (below), who came away dirty and dusty but otherwise unharmed.
“On one Saturday night at Lions, Prudhomme walked up to me and said they'd just found something to do that was like being able to drive your dragster for miles on end, and it doesn't even kick the rods out when you stand on it, either. Hmmmmm … sounded good to me I thought, and the hook was set! I ran right out and bought myself a brandy-new, badass, top-of-the-line Husqvarna that I was told was the gold standard of dirt bikes at the time. And I wasn't going to have anyone kicking sand in my face if I went out with them!
“The first barrier that I had to overcome was that those Looney Toons-ers were up and at ‘em on the way to the desert just as the sun was starting to come up. Talk about a huge culture shock, between world time and Ivo time, because that was my normal ‘vampire time’ for going to bed. They said it was cooler out there in the morning time. Yee gods, man! It was in the middle of winter, and it was so cold out there that my nose turned white.
“We were getting the bikes unloaded, and I donned my many layers of sweaters and a fleece-lined, heavy-duty leather jacket. When you’re 120 pounds, you don't have much insulation to ward off the frosty winter desert air. I always had a tenth of a second on anyone driving the same dragster because of my jockey size, so I theorized that it would become even more of an advantage on a smaller vehicle like a bike, and I was all set to kick ass and take names.
So, while they were all finishing getting things ready, I rode out away from where we parked the trucks to get a feel of the bike. And I noticed Kenny Safford making a big circle swing around on the flat area and was coming right at me. So I thought, ‘OK, he's going to drive up next to me and have a little drag race.’ WRONG! For some strange unknown reason, he just kept on coming at me and plowed right into the side of me! Didn't he realize a motorcycle’s front wheel loses in a confrontation with the side of another bike in a collision?
“After everyone got done running around in circles like a Chinese fire drill for a few minutes, we all decided Kenny was going to live, and we were off and at ‘em once again. Then Prudhomme came up with the bright idea of climbing up the side of the hill that was running along next to us and says to me, ‘Follow me!’ Now, I'd not realized yet that he was trying to kill me one way or another and followed along like an obedient little puppy dog on a leash. BUT -- and here comes that ‘but’ again -- halfway up the hill, I stalled my bike -- Great! Just to add insult to injury, I almost didn't have enough lard in my ass to kick-start the bike on flat ground, let alone on the side of a hill. When that two-stroke motor kicked back while starting it, it would throw me right over the handlebars.
“So the ‘evil Snake’ (remember how much trouble an evil snake got us all into in Garden of Eden?) says to me, as he reeled me in, ‘Point the bike downhill, and I'll give you a little shove off and just pop the clutch to get it started.’ Right! And I bought it hook, line, and sinker. When I popped the clutch and the engine came to life, can you imagine how fast that damn thing accelerated downhill? And off I went, full-tilt boogie down the hill doing cartwheels -- front wheel, back wheel, front wheel, back wheel -- yelling ‘Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch’ every time I ended up on the bottom side as it rolled over and over all the way to the bottom of the hill.
“I went home and sold the bike the next day!”
As Ivo alluded, injuries were inevitable. The most notorious of the casualties was Matsubara, who broke an arm and a leg in a crash just days before the 1975 Winternationals and had to turn the seat of Joe Pisano’s Funny Car over to a replacement driver. Famed car owner Roland Leong, one of Matsubara’s good friends, told me earlier this week that Matsubara knew he was in trouble when his left leg was over his right shoulder. “They had to drive the truck a little ways into the desert and use the ramps they used to load the bike to put him in the back of the truck to take him to the hospital,” he recalled. “He never raced again.”
According to Moody, that wasn’t the first brush with two-wheel wounds for Matsubara, who often rode with longtime friend Glen Okazaki (who had been partners on a Funny Car with Leroy Chadderton and worked on both the Pisano car and the famed Mondello & Matsubara Fiat), Okazaki’s brother, Richie, and Mikio Yoshika, who worked with Chadderton at Precision Products in Pomona, then one of the premier machine shops in the nitro world.
“I remember when I first coaxed Sush to buy a dirt bike and come to the desert,” Moody recalled. “He must have had six or eight friends. On our first ride at Holiday, I was trying to show them the trail. I climbed to a ‘razorback ridge’ and stopped. When I looked back, there was nothing but a cloud of dust approaching me like a tornado. Over the ridge was blind and a big drop-off. I got off my bike and started waving my arms and shouting, ‘Stop! Stop!’ as loud as I could; what a joke! First it was Sush, who didn't pay any attention to me. Crash, bang, boom down into the chasm over the ridge. I'm still waving my arms trying to get the rest to stop; just a waste of time. When the dust cleared, there was nothing but Japanese piled in the gulley.
“I'm yelling at Sush, asking why he didn't stop. Through his bloody lips, covered with sand and dirt, he very calmly says, ‘You don't expect us to take orders from a "Yankee Running Dog," do you?’ Sush was the commander, and they didn't listen to anyone else. We had a good time together, and we were best friends, but from that day forward, I didn't try to tell his guys anything.”
For all of his tales of everyone else’s woes, Moody was not immune to injuries himself.
“I was riding with Safford, Gaide, Prudhomme, and a couple of others,” he shared. “All the guys were on a fire road, and I was out in the desert zipping along. I sailed over a berm, and my front wheel left the fork tubes -- not good. I somersaulted in the air and landed flat on my butt. I had a bruised tailbone and had to sit on a rubber-cushioned donut for over a year at work.”
(Nor is Moody out of harm’s way these days. He has traded in motorized two-wheelers for high-dollar road bicycles and flirted with disaster about a month ago when he ran head-on into another rider on a blind corner. “I did what we call a ‘Flying W’ over the handlebars,” he related. “I managed to fracture some ribs, tore a piece in an oblique muscle, and knocked down my shoulder. It's taken about six weeks to recover some rhythm and breathing, and still have considerable pain at times, but at 75, I don't heal as quickly as when I was 25. The only consolation to the mishap was my nice Klein [bicycle] hardly got a scratch.”)
Bangs and bruises notwithstanding, everyone seemed game each time the call of the wild was sounded, and no one was more eager than Moody, even if it meant a little cajoling of his pal Prudhomme.
“Prudhomme’s words still ring in my ears: ‘Moody! This is the last time I'm going to let you drag me out here; you've led me astray the last time,’ then I'd wait until Wednesday evening or Thursday the next week, give him a call; he'd say, ‘Well, OK,’ and we would be out doing the same thing again,” Moody recalled with a laugh. “With me in Santa Monica and him in Granada Hills, [his house] was on the way to the desert. I look back at those times, and though they were glimpses of memories, at the time, the experiences were all-consuming, just like the look on Prudhomme's wife’s face as we drove out of his driveway -- her with a frown and hands on hips -- she looked like I was taking him to storm the beaches of Normandy. I don't think I was real popular with Lynn.
“Twenty years ago or so, Wes Cerny mentioned to Prudhomme that I might come back to America and would he like to test the desert one more time? I understand that ‘the Snake’s’ reaction was, ‘Hell no, and I don't even want to see his picture.’ I loved the guy, and I can't remember in my life having more fun than drag racing unless it was dirt biking in the desert with all those yahoos."