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Drag racing on the tee-vee, 1976-style

18 Dec 2015
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

While I was researching my last couple of columns about Ontario Motor Speedway and the Supernationals and World Finals, I used my typical National Dragster and magazine article resources but also got sucked into watching some of the old Diamond P Sports coverage of those 1970s events and found them really interesting for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, with NHRA on the eve of a new era in television coverage with FOX Sports and all of the wonderful technological and story-telling things that are being planned and promised (if you haven’t already, check out the interview I did last week with broadcasting VP Ken Adelson here), there’s a certain charm to these old broadcasts with their dated on-screen graphics and camera angles.

Second, obviously, it has been 40 years or so since these races were run, and there are just a tremendous number of changes that have happened throughout the sport that come to life in these videos. I could show you all of the still images in our vast library and still might not be able to convey what you see in 10 seconds of footage.

Below is just one example, chosen semi-randomly by me, that I found on YouTube covering the 1976 World Finals, which was one of the first programs ever produced by Diamond P, which for years would provide this service for NHRA.

Below the video, you can find the notes that I would have written in the margin – if videos had margins – commenting about what I’m seeing. Sort of an Editor’s Commentary edition, if you will. Below all of that, you’ll find something else interesting that I discovered that I hope will amuse you as much as it did me.

I love the opening montage, especially Tim Grose's notorious Springnationals wreck and the "Oh well" expression on his face and Raymond Beadle's infamous Gatornationals barrel roll and subsequent salute to the fans.

We all recognize NHRA Hall of Famer Dave McClelland as the anchor; the co-host and pit reporter is Frank Furino, who then was a vice president at Diamond P and went on to cover NFL football, championship boxing, space shots, political conventions, and the Olympics. Today, he is a successful writer and producer for primetime/daytime TV programs. Gotta love their very-'70s blazers, partially unbuttoned shirts, and gold neck chains.

Much of their “in-booth” footage was filmed against a green-screen background and was all post-produced to look as if they were looking in on the action. There’s a particularly compelling instance of this during the Top Fuel semifinals later in the show.

Not sure why, but probably due to broadcasting rules of the day covering sponsorships, the word “Winston” in the Winston World Finals logo is omitted.

The on-screen graphics are decidedly crude, and the crazy three-way split screen – close-ups of two drivers plus a side-by-side angle – is at once distracting and intriguing.

You also see early that the camera angles are extremely limited, and the race footage is shot largely from a grandstand view. The absence of runout cameras in the shutdown area is particularly telling.

2:15: First round of Top Fuel. Oh, the names of the drivers back then; I miss seeing so many of them – Stan Shiroma in the Lidtke & Zeller car, Ray Stutz in the Hibbard & McCarty machine, "Backdoor Bob" Struksnes. Also, check out how low the rear wings were to the rear tires.

3:50: NHRA Chief Starter Buster Couch with his perm. Classic.

5:40: A short segment with Furino talking about OMS and giving a bit of a visual layout of the place.

7:45: Here’s some old-school Top Fuel stuff, showing Richard Tharp being pushed back after his burnout. I remember this great old tradition, a moment in the sun for every tire wiper. Reversers were not required until the 1980 season. Gotta love those dry hops, too.

Nice little interview with James Warren vignetted into the top left corner talking about Roger Coburn. Miss them both, too.

And how about Tharp losing the blower and it bouncing down the track behind his opponent? Now you know why there are blower-restraint rules.

9:00: Terry Capp’s Top Fueler with those cool wheel pants. Love ‘em.

10:55: Nice interview with NHRA President Wally Parks and Furino. Man, I miss Wally. And no rain the entire year? What must that be like?

12:15: Key moment in Pro Stock as Warren Johnson loses to Larry Lombardo, 9.00 to 8.91, on a first-round holeshot. The announcers credit Lombardo's driving job, but a major factor also was a mechanical malfunction with W.J.’s line loc, as you can see in the National Dragster photo below of his front tires still locked up and skidding past the Christmas Tree.

Also notice how few of these Pro Stockers use parachutes. I guess at just 153 to 154 mph they didn’t really need them, especially with OMS' long runout.

16:10: Furino returns to show more of OMS' "plush aspects," this time in the Hall of Fame restaurant, with Brian Tracy, who worked at OMS before joining NHRA, where he was a vice president of marketing and sales. B.T. was one of my favorite people at NHRA when I came to work here in the early 1980s and certainly one of the keys to NHRA’s growth in the 1970s.

17:50: Don Prudhomme vs. Jerry Boldenow and the Moby Dick Corvette. Nice little interview with “Snake,” a look at the fabulous Army Monza in action, and more dry hops.

12:55: Rick Johnson and the Bill Schifsky's Bear Town Shaker Mustang II vs. Pat Foster and the Shady Glenn, with one of the nasty fires that seemed to happen a lot at Ontario. The body thankfully comes off, and Johnson spins ‘er out in the infield grass. The coverage is really hurt here with the lack of a runout camera, relying only on a blowup of the original grandstand footage.

Wow, Rick, $3,000 for a body? $11,000 for an engine? Those were probably big bucks in 1976, but only a fraction of today’s cost.

Also, check out Johnson’s chassis being hauled away roughly on the end of a wrecking hook instead of the flatbed that we use today. Crude!

22:50: Gotta love the vintage Sportsman coverage, with the long-countdown Tree. Cool to see the Pro Comp, Comp, Modified, Super Stock, and Stock finals.

27:45: Furino checks out one of Ontario’s two infield lakes (complete with ducks!) and the sheep that grazed on the infield grass.

32:30: Here’s something you didn’t see very often at Ontario: Bob Glidden losing. This was Glidden's only loss in the seven years that the Finals ran in Ontario (1974-80).

33:00: You can tell it’s the end of the season by the battered look of the paint on the Bob Pickett-driven Revelleader Grand Am.

33:55: Ed McCulloch’s crazy semifinal starting-line blower explosion in the beautiful Revellution, and Foster crossing the centerline to hand him back the win. The body deformation in the super slo-mo gives you an idea of the percussive force.

36:15: Back in the pits, work begins on installation of a new windshield in McCulloch’s body. That looks like shirtless Gordie Bonin (complete with “farmer's tan”) plus Roland Leong and Ron Colson, driver of the Hawaiian (remember that Bonin had driven for Leong a few years before).

40:00: The wacky conclusion of Funny Car, with McCulloch delayed in getting to the staging lanes, then apparently making it there, but not before Buster sends “Snake” off on a solo. I wonder how “Ace” took that …

Notice the lack of sponsor plugs by winners (except for Prudhomme with Army, then it’s just one) in their interviews. Was it because most of them didn’t have that big-name sponsor or because no one knew any better?

Well, that was fun. Want even more fun? Try watching the same video again with the closed captions (click on the CC) button. OMG … too funny. I’m not sure what kind of program or algorithms or whatever YouTube uses for this, but obviously, the challenge of 40-year-old audio is way too much for it.

Especially the names … I know that we have some challenging names (Muldowney, Struksnes, etc.) to decipher, but poor Jerry Ruth, who has a pretty common name, had his name slaughtered. He became, at various times, Jerry Route, Jerry Road, Your Roof, Jerry Reuss, Jury Room, and Jerry Ruefully. Poor Ray Stutz became Raced Up; Stan Shiroma became And Jerome and Stand Your Honor; Richard Tharp was Richard R, Mister Bar, and Richard Start, and let’s not forget Bob Scructures (Struksnes), Pat They Can (Dakin), John Wavy (Wiebe), Games Parkway (Gaines Markley), Dennis Vacco (Baca), and -- two of my favorites – While The Bar (Wally Parks) and Popular But Later (Top Fuel eliminator).

And the extended dialogue? Wow. Do you remember that scene from the movie Airplane! where the subtitles were translating the “jive” talk? Well, this is that in reverse. Look at the photos below and try to guess what was said.

Surely you understood this, Lowell: "Shirley has to be considered the favorite; she has low elapsed time."
Dave and Frank really be saying, like, "Fastest drag strip, Ontario Motor Speedway"
The lithium artists formerly known as "the Lidtke and Zeller car and Stan Shiroma"
Roger, roger? "He don’t want to make no banzai runs" (referring to crew chief Roger Coburn).
Blond moment: "I don’t know how it can be, but I'm hoping for it" (referring to 1977 potentially being better than 1976).


I’m still laughing, and it makes me want to go back and try this same thing on other races. If you find something equally as funny (or funnier), send it to me.

OK, guys, that’s it for this week. Next week, NHRA headquarters closes Wednesday for the holidays and stays closed until Jan. 4, but I'll still be here Christmas Day with a new column, something a little off the usual mark and, in a way, a gift to myself (you'll understand when you read it). I hope you'll enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it.

I also want to encourage you to begin bookmarking this page for easy reference. There will be a pretty substantial change to the NHRA.com home page next year, and I want you to be able to find it easily. 

Merry Christmas to everyone.