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Dueling Winternationals kicked off 1975 season

16 Jan 2015
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

NHRA’s incredible 1975 season didn’t officially begin until the Winternationals in Pomona Jan. 21, but by then, a lot of nitro already had been burned. As I mentioned last week, Don Prudhomme kicked off what – at the time – was the greatest season in NHRA nitro-racing history (six wins in eight national events) with a pair of early-January match race wins in California, and though those victories may have fattened his checkbook, they didn’t earn him a point toward his long-awaited and anticipated first championship season. This week, I continue my look at the early stages of that great year, later highlights of which I will chronicle occasionally throughout this year on the occasion of the 40th anniversary.

Even before the troops assembled in Pomona for the 1975 Winternationals, a heavyweight battle was going on the weekend previous in Arizona, where AHRA staged its Winternationals at Beeline Dragway outside of Phoenix. (Interestingly, the following year, Beeline would switch to NHRA sanction and host the Winter Classic the weekend before the Winternationals as a sort of final test 'n' tune before the season kickoff.)

Although Prudhomme would win the NHRA Funny Car title and Don Garlits the NHRA Top Fuel crown, neither began the year with the car in which he’d finish and neither had great success at the AHRA Winternationals. As I wrote last week, Prudhomme ran his 1973 Barracuda at his early-year match races and didn’t debut what would become the almost invincible Army Monza until the Beeline race. Garlits, meanwhile, began the year in a dragster that he originally built for Funny Car star “Jungle Jim” Liberman; when “Jungle” decided to stick to the flops, Garlits christened the car Swamp Rat 21 and went racing with it. Later that summer, he’d replace it with Swamp Rat 22, which was the famous 5.63, 250-mph car.

Reigning NHRA Funny Car champ Shirl Greer opened 1975 with a win at the AHRA Winternationals in Phoenix with his new Mustang II-bodied entry.

Prudhomme’s new John Buttera-built Monza rolled into Beeline a little late and plenty unceremoniously, on the end of a wrecker hook, the crew cab and Chaparral trailer having broken down outside of Phoenix, and things didn’t get a whole lot better for “the Snake” and crew chief Bob Brandt. A broken rear end halted their opening pass 100 feet into the car’s maiden voyage, and they smoked the tires on their second hit. He finally nailed down a 6.40 to qualify No. 3 behind Neil Leffler’s 6.32 in Jim Terry’s Mustang and the 6.35 registered by Mike Miller in Jim and Betty Green’s Green Elephant Vega. World champ Shirl Greer, in a brand-new Mustang II to replace the aging beast he had melted down in winning the title at Ontario Motor Speedway, was fourth with a 6.53. Liberman, Tommy Grove, Pat Foster (in Lil John Lombardo’s Vega), and Bill Leavitt held down the bottom of the top eight.

Other interesting Funny Car developments in the 16-car field were Jake Johnston taking over the wheel of the Pisano & Matsubara Vega after Sush Matsubara broke his leg in a motorcycle accident the previous weekend; Billy Meyer at the controls of the Snowman Vega after Gene Snow had back surgery (Meyer had been precluded by his sponsors from drag racing in 1975 to take part in a land-speed-record effort, but the car was not ready yet); Gordie Bonin in a new, unpainted Monza; and Richard Tharp in the cockpit of “Big Mike” Burkhart’s new Satellite (in which he would win the Division 4 championship). Russell Long, in Dennis Fowler’s gorgeous new Sundance Monza, and Raymond Beadle, who won the event the previous year in Don Schumacher’s Super Shoe Vega, were among those on the DNQ list.

Marvin Graham, who won the 1974 season-ending AHRA event at Beeline Dragway, repeated with a Top Fuel win at the 1975 season opener.

Gary Read, in the C.C Dunne & Co. rail, was No. 1 in Top Fuel with a 6.18, sparking memories of unheralded Mike Wagoner’s surprising Top Fuel win at the previous year’s event (capped with a final-round 6.18 after Garlits lost his brakes on his final-round burnout and couldn’t stage), but Read would be gone after round one. Garlits was No. 2 after burping an engine on his opening pass and struggling with tire shake that twice broke the welds on his wing struts. Shirley Muldowney, who by year’s end would grab everyone's attention, was third, and Marvin Graham was fourth. Graham, who had seemingly come out of relative national obscurity to win the U.S. Nationals the previous September, was riding a curious streak. After winning Indy, he DNQ’d at the 1974 NHRA World Finals (his 6.20 was nowhere near the blistering 6.05 bump; in fact, he wasn’t even in the quickest 32 gunning for a spot in the 16-car field), then won the AHRA Finals – also held at Beeline – on his way home to Oklahoma.

Reigning Top Fuel champ Gary Beck was fifth, and Pat Dakin was sixth, but he and G.L. Rupp were fortunate to still have a car after Funny Car shoe Dale Pulde subbed for an AWOL Dakin on one qualifying pass and got wickedly out of shape at the 1,000-foot mark and nearly wrecked the car. The 16-car field stretched back to Tom Toler with a 6.50. Among the DNQs were Dick LaHaie in his and Poncho Rendon’s new car and Dwight Salisbury.

Garlits lost in the semifinals to Graham, 6.64 to 6.82, surprisingly slow numbers considering that both Beck and Warren had run 6.10 earlier in the previous round. The other semifinal went to Warren, who had been battling head-gasket problems all weekend, but he still took out Beck, who oiled the track after his own head-gasket issues. Graham, who had beaten Billy Graham (no relation) and John Wiebe in the first two rounds, kept his Beeline magic alive when Warren’s Rain for Rent Special turned into a Roman candle on the line after the head gaskets gave out yet again in the final.

Bob Glidden unveiled a "new" 1970 Mustang to take advantage of a favorable weight break for long-wheelbase cars.

Prudhomme didn’t make it as far as Garlits, falling to Meyer in round two. Meyer dropped out a round later to Leffler, who then squared off in the final with Greer. Leffler had already beaten Bonin and Pulde, and Greer had worked his way past Tharp and Jim Dunn, then took a bye in the semi’s when Miller was unable to fire the Elephant. Greer won the surprisingly slow final, 7.03 to 7.08.

Pro Stock was part of the show, too, and the event marked the debut of Bob Glidden’s 1970 Mach I Mustang, which was created to take advantage of an NHRA (and I assume AHRA) rule that afforded a favorable weight break for longer-wheelbase cars after the compact Pintos dominated the 1972 and 1973 seasons. Glidden led the field with a 8.96, just ahead of archrival Wayne Gapp and the four-door Gapp & Roush Maverick, which posted a 8.97 despite being forced to carry a lot more weight (more on that in a bit).

Glidden won Pro Stock at Beeline for the second straight year to jump-start what would be his second straight NHRA championship season, defeating Dick Landy, Don Nicholson, Kevin Rotty, and, in the final, Wally Booth and his Hornet, 8.99 to 9.12.
 

This flurry of January activity had everyone’s engines revved for the NHRA kickoff in Pomona, where Garlits, Prudhomme, and Glidden prevailed to launch what would be championship seasons for each, but, of course, what makes this subject so interesting to me is all of the behind-the-scenes stuff.

So many new and amazing things were happening for NHRA in 1975. For one, the season marked the end of reserved “provisional” qualifying spots for defending event champs. Two, NHRA banned the use of bleach in the burnout box as it was determined that the caustic liquid was wreaking havoc with the Sperex/VHT traction compound with which NHRA had begun experimenting in 1972 and that had led to huge performance gains between the 1971 and 1972 Supernationals (6.53 to 5.91) and between the 1973 and 1974 Winternationals in Pomona (6.60 to 5.84). The 1975 season also was the last in which Top Fuel push-starts were allowed (though many had already abandoned the procedure). Comp eliminator was running under a whole new format, with handicapping provided by a controversial new index system (so familiar to us today) that supplanted the age-old process of running off the existing national records. And, finally, the Fallnationals in Seattle was added to the schedule, making it an eight-race season.

(Although not of interest to this story, 1975 also marked the NHRA return of jet cars after a 12-year absence; Romeo Palamides’ Untouchable was the first of the new breed of what were billed as lighter and safer cars to be approved. Old jet cars typically weighed 5,000 to 6,000 pounds; the Untouchable was 2,550 pounds.)

And, perhaps most significant, although the season did not begin under its umbrella, Winston provided title sponsorship of the series for the first year in 1975 and an increased points fund that paid each of the Pro champions $20,000. (The Winston deal was announced in April, right after the Gatornationals, which Prudhomme also won, so I find it hilarious that in his championship story in National Dragster at the end of that year, Prudhomme said that, as a result of the Winston announcement, “That’s when we really got serious about winning the title.”)

But back to Pomona …

(Above) Don Garlits should have been on the trailer after round one but caught a lucky break against Don Ewald, then went on to win his fourth Pomona title.

As I mentioned, Garlits was racing a dragster that he built for Liberman, and the cockpit was built quite a bit wider than Garlits’ personal specs to accommodate “Jungle’s” larger frame. When Liberman backed out, it all kind of worked out for Garlits because his 1974 car had sold quicker than he expected, and he hadn’t had time to build himself a new car, so he painted the “Jungle” car his trademark black (because, as the cosmos-curious Garlits explained, black is a good color for Capricorns, according to astrologers) and went racing.

Despite his discomfort in the cockpit, Garlits won the Winternationals, though it took a huge break in the form of first-round opponent Don Ewald crossing the centerline after Garlits blazed the tires in the remnants of Dale Funk’s oildown. Garlits had qualified just No. 12 and had ceded lane choice to Ewald, who you all know today as the operator of the fabulous We Did It for Love website. I’ve written about this misadventure before, way back in 2008, when Ewald was magnanimous enough to relive for us one of the low points of his career (though he did win Irwindale’s Grand Prix later that year); you can read Ewald’s story here. Garlits called it “the biggest break of the whole year for me” and said that the early win gave him extra incentive to run hard that season and ultimately win his first NHRA world championship.

Qualifying was filled with surprises. Ohio journeyman Paul Longenecker led the field with a 5.93, well ahead of the 5.971 of reigning world champ Beck, the 5.973 of dark horse Read (the low qualifier at Beeline), and the equally surprising Ewald, who was driving for R.J. Trotter. Maybe even more surprising was one of the guys who didn’t qualify, West Coast powerhouse Warren, whose 6.11 was only 19th-quickest. Qualifying also was not kind to teenage sensation John Stewart, who rolled his dragster three times, and Gary Cornwall, who suffered facial lacerations after running into the hay bales that lined the top-end catch net.

After escaping the Ewald race, Garlits beat Dick LaHaie with his best run of the meet (6.00), then took out Rick Ramsey, who broke in the pretty Keeling & Clayton California Charger, to set up a final-round rematch from the 1974 World Finals against championship runner-up Dave Settles. Garlits then easily won his fourth Winternationals title when Settles’ Candies & Hughes machine went up in smoke.

Funny Car continued to be a game of musical chairs, and Pomona fans who had attended the World Finals in nearby Ontario a few months earlier really needed a program to keep track of the players at the Winternationals.

As I mentioned last week, Pulde had left the seat of Mickey Thompson’s Grand Am to drive for Joe Mundet, who had relocated the Eastern Raider Pinto to the West Coast. Larry Arnold took his place but got burned in preseason testing, so Charlie Therwanger took over the car in Pomona and reached the semifinals before falling to Prudhomme. Meyer remained in recuperating Snow’s car, but Joe Pisano asked Foster to drive his car in Pomona to replace Johnston, who had driven for him in Phoenix after Matsubara got busted up in a motorcycle accident. Foster, who had been driving for Lombardo, declined, but when Lombardo decided he wanted to drive his own car at the Winternationals and Pisano opted not to race at all, Foster was left without a ride. Johnston, meanwhile, climbed back in the California Charger Mustang but finished the season (and two more after that) driving for Pisano after Matsubara hung up his driving gloves. Finally, after they just missed out on winning the 1974 Funny Car championship, Jerry Ruth let driver Frank Hall go during the winter, then had to call him back at the last minute to drive the car in Pomona after getting his fingers mangled in the air-conditioner belt of his crew cab Wednesday night in a scary incident that resulted in a dozen stitches. Got all that? Can you imagine these scenarios taking place in this day and age?

Don Prudhomme kicked off a six-win season with his Army Monza, the first of four straight Winternationals that "the Snake" would win.

Despite a successful 1974, based on his less-than-stellar debut with the Monza in Arizona, Prudhomme’s Pomona win was hardly written in the stars, and, in fact, it took a pretty big gamble by “the Snake” and Brandt to pull it off. They had already gone into Pomona with some trepidation based on the Monza’s shaky debut at the AHRA Winternationals, and a lot of their peers were openly questioning why they would park the successful Barracuda. But, as always, they were thinking a step ahead of the game. They had left the 'Cuda ready to run – fresh engine, clutch, the entire combination – at Prudhomme’s shop in Granada Hills, which was about an hour’s drive from Pomona.

Despite those concerns, the Monza ran a stout 6.25 early in qualifying, although it did so at the cost of the engine, so they simply drove back to Granada Hills and transplanted the entire drivetrain from the 'Cuda into the Monza.

As good as Prudhomme’s 6.25 was, it didn’t lead the field. That honor went to Bill Leavitt and his “new” Quickie Too Mustang II (the body was new; the chassis four years old) with a 6.21, and “Big Jim” Dunn’s 6.45 anchored the quickest 16-car field in Funny Car history. Greer surprisingly did not qualify. Qualifying was also highlighted by the jaw-dropping backflip by Dennis Geisler’s Hindsight rear-engine Funny Car (you can read all about it in a column I wrote in late 2011: In Hindsight, maybe not such a great idea).

Prudhomme later admitted that “things looked pretty chancy on Sunday morning” because of the engine swap, but the Monza found its pace, avenging its Beeline loss to Meyer with a 6.39 that was low e.t. of the round. An early-shutoff 6.37 in round two dealt out Leffler, and, in an armed forces semifinal showdown, Prudhomme’s Army Monza beat Therwanger in Thompson’s U.S. Marines Grand Am with a 6.28.

For the second straight year, Jim and Betty Green’s Green Elephant was in the final round. In 1974, they and driver Frank Hall had lost the final to breakage against Dale Emery in Jeg Coughlin Sr.’s Camaro, and they would have to settle for runner-up honors again in 1975 when new shoe Miller went up in smoke against “the Snake,” who roared to what would be the first of four straight Winternationals victories with an emphatic 6.24, his best run of the meet.

Glidden, near lane, defeated Wayne Gapp on a holeshot in the Pro Stock final between two long-wheelbase Fords, Glidden's Mustang and Gapp's Maverick.

As I mentioned, there was some discontent in the Pro Stock ranks. The Gapp & Roush team’s Taxi had debuted in late 1974 and had run under a 6.45-pounds-per-cubic-inch weight break afforded to cars with wheelbases longer than 105 inches, allowing it to run some 100 pounds lighter than its shorter peers, but, even though Gapp didn’t win the championship, his Maverick was soon assigned a 7.10-pound break -- the same as Glidden’s “new” old Mustang -- for 1975. In 1974, Glidden’s Pinto had run on a 7.30 weight break. Wally Booth’s AMC Hornet, which also had run under the 6.45 break, got penalized, too, but only up to 6.90, so you can understand why the Gapp & Roush team was upset.

Gapp still qualified No. 1 with an 8.81, and Glidden was right behind him at 8.82. In Sunday morning’s free time-trial run (remember those?), Gapp pounded out an 8.79 to Glidden’s 8.81, sending Glidden into frantic action in the pits. Whatever knobs Glidden turned, they were the right ones: His Mustang reset low e.t. and top speed in round one with an 8.77 at 156.25 mph that bettered his own 8.81 national record from 1974. Glidden then ran an 8.78 to beat “Dyno Don” Nicholson’s similar mount and Dave Kanners’ Hornet with an 8.82. As strong as Glidden looked, it was reported that he had one cylinder leaking as much as 18 percent. By comparison, Gapp had been all over the board, from a first-round 8.81 to an 8.98 against red-lighting Bill Jenkins in the semifinals, as they fought what they thought was a tire-compound issue, but just prior to the final, Jack Roush discovered that the fault actually was in water that the Maverick was dragging from the burnout box to the starting line and had Gapp change his burnout routine for the final. As he had to start the day, Gapp actually outran Glidden in the final, 8.78 to 8.79, but lost the race on a holeshot.

Don Enriquez and Gene Adams dominated Pro Comp eliminations to win the season opener for the new AA/DA class.

The 1975 season also marked the debut of what we now know as Top Alcohol Dragster, and the new AA/DA combination was not only popular but fast. Six of the seven top qualifying spots – led by Grand Premiere winner John Shoemaker (6.81) -- went to AA/DAs; the lone exception was defending event champ Dale Armstrong, who qualified the U.S. Nationals-winning AA/Altered (on loan from pal Simon Menzies) in the No. 3 spot but went into the catch net in qualifying after a chute failure. The car was repaired in time for eliminations, where Armstrong went two rounds.

Nine of the 16 qualified spots and all four semifinal slots were occupied by AA/DAs. In the final foursome, Shoemaker beat Wayne Stoeckel, and Don Enriquez bested chassis builder Ron Attebury. Enriquez and his cagey partner, Gene Adams, dominated Sunday, running low e.t. of 6.71 in round one followed by passes of 6.78 and 6.77 and, in the final, a 6.85 that held off Shoemaker’s 6.89. The AA/DAs were so dominant that NHRA immediately adjusted their weight break from 4.15 pounds per cubic inch to 4.50 and limited them to two-speed transmissions and two valves per cylinder.

The new rules definitely helped as A/Fuel Dragsters driven by Walt Weney and Don Woosley won the Gatornationals and SPORTSnationals, then Joe Ortega won the Springnationals in his AA/DA before the BB/FCs took over with wins by Ken Veney (Summernationals and Le Grandnational), Dale Armstrong (Indy and the Finals), and Wilfred Boutilier (Fallnationals). Coughlin’s AA/DA was runner-up to Armstrong in Indy.

NHRA’s new index system for Comp, which was created using data from 10,000 runs recorded during the 1974 season, also required some tinkering after the event. Racers were proclaiming the new system The End of the World As We Know It. Jim Dale, NHRA’s national tech director, called for patience as the system was perfected, which he hoped would happen by midseason. “We’ve built the engine, and now we're involved in the fine-tuning,” he said.

IHRA held its Winternationals in Florida in March (!), where Glidden completed an impressive sweep of curtain-raising events, beating – big surprise – Gapp in the final, though both were back in their Pintos because IHRA did not offer the same long-wheelbase weight advantage. Garlits overcame some serious mechanical issues to win in his home state, going two-for-three in Winternationals, and Raymond Beadle and the Blue Max dominated Funny Car for his first national win in the car. Before long, he would reach his first NHRA final (a loss at the Springnationals to Prudhomme), then win Indy (over Prudhomme). Prudhomme did not attend the IHRA Winternationals.

The IHRA event also is worth noting because it marked (I believe) the first time that qualifying was done in sessions like we know today, instead of randomly pulling a dozen or so cars at a time from the lanes throughout the day. It was super fan-friendly and, of course, was adopted by everyone not long after.

I love this little slice of the drag racing timeline for what it showed us about how different things were and for the clues it gave us to what lay ahead. I hope you enjoyed reading and remembering it as much as I did researching it.