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The Perils of Billy Meyer

30 Oct 2015
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

As I teased in last week’s column, Billy Meyer’s road to Funny Car fame was not without some painful bumps, a trio of which I will share with you this week.

As you read in the previous column, the impressive start of Meyer’s Funny Car career came as no surprise to him because he had been taught from an early age that success was born of imagination, desire, and follow-through, of which he possessed all three. “I thought I was invincible,” he told me, then added jokingly, “which is also probably why I got hurt so many times."

In our multiple interviews in the past two weeks, Meyer shared the tales of three of his scariest racing moments.

1973: Lakeland splashdown

Bob McClurg
Billy Meyer ended up in a lake with his Funny Car at the end of the track in Lakeland, Fla., and only quick thinking by crewmember Ronnie Guymon (below) saved his life.
Steve Reyes

It was 1973, Meyer’s first full season in Funny Car. It had started ingloriously in Pomona at the three-week-long, rain-soaked NHRA Winternationals, where he failed to qualify his new car, mostly due to track conditions.

“We never got down the track,” he remembers, “and it’s by the grace of God that I didn’t get down the track because I might have gotten killed.”

Meyer and company left the NHRA Winternationals and made the cross-country trek to the IHRA Winternationals in Lakeland, Fla. On his first qualifying pass, the body caved in at speed and hung the throttle wide open, and the parachute failed to deploy. If this had happened in Pomona, he surely would have gone off the end of the track. In Lakeland, however, the end of the track meant (surprise!) a lake.

“As I hauled ass through there, I see a lake and a house on the lake,” he recalls. “The turnaround area had a little bank to it, and when it hit that bank, it was like a ramp that shot me into the air, over a fence, and 250 feet into the middle of the lake.”

The body disintegrated on impact, and the car nosed down into the deep lake but, miraculously, was kept from sinking by the air inside the rear slicks.

“I was unconscious, but when I woke up, I could see that the car was aimed straight down to the lake bottom,” he said. “The only thing that saved me from drowning was that the breather-mask filters were keeping the water out. I tried to hit the seat-belt release, but the water pressure stopped me from getting enough force. I remember my hands floating away and passing out, but just as I was passing out, I remember seeing hands.”

Those hands belonged to crewmember Ronnie Guymon, who had raced the length of the track in the team’s crew cab and drove right through a multilevel barbed-wire fence that had stopped the rescue crew. The wire ripped the lights off the top of the cab but did not deter Guymon, who dived in and saved his boss.

The medical team revived Meyer, who spent three days in the hospital before being rescued (again) by Gene Beaver and company, who had taken the fledgling flopper pilot under their wing that season. Together they drove out to the track.

“We were standing there looking at the scene, and a guy comes out of the house and says, ‘I was on my balcony watching [the accident]. They killed that guy so bad.’

“Beaver says, ‘Nope, this is him,’ and the guy was like, ‘No way! That scared me to death.’ Turns out that he was so panicked when he saw the accident and was shaking so bad that he dropped the key to his locked door into his shag carpet and couldn’t get out of the house to help.”

1977: Pomona pit pileup

Meyer returned to team ownership in 1977 with a new car and an 18-wheeler, plus a spiffy crew van (below). The car and the van would not survive the Winternationals.

After selling his team in late 1974 and driving for other people in 1975-76 while waiting for the land-speed-record deal to come to fruition (which it never did for him), Meyer decided to return to racing full-time in 1977. He had saved enough money to come back first-class, which included the first 18-wheeler ever seen in the nitro pits. He not only liked the idea of a rolling billboard for his sponsors (which, for this car, was his father’s Success Motivation Institute), but also the safety factor because the day’s fifth-wheel trailers were becoming increasingly overloaded with extra equipment and parts.

The SMI Motivator Camaro arrived at Pomona Raceway for the Winternationals with only a few match race runs on it. Meyer was warming the car in the pits Thursday when the throttle hung open. And remember, this was before jack stands were required in the pits. (“I am the jack-stand rule,” he quipped.)

“The car was so new that I hadn’t had time yet to put nonslip tape on the throttle pedal,” he recalls. "I used to wear cowboy boots all the time back then, and my boot slipped and the toe stuck under the bellhousing. The car ran full throttle into my van and someone else’s truck – I think it was Butch Leal’s – and hit a Porta Potti so hard it knocked [fellow Funny Car driver] John Collins right out of it.”

Meyer was knocked unconscious and was transported to nearby Pomona Valley Hospital, where he remained unconscious for more than two days. He received 180 stitches to his head and suffered a broken collarbone, broken ribs, and a punctured lung.

“That’s the most I’ve been hurt in my life, and it didn’t even happen on the racetrack,” he mused.

Meyer was back in action in time for the Gatornationals six weeks later.

1977: Canadian bakin’

Bob Boudreau
Meyer's wild ride ended in a ditch, but another wild ride awaited him.
Meyer didn't sit idle long and, bandaged hands and all, drove the Funny Car owned by fellow Texan Johnny White, left, a week later at a points race in Louisiana.
1977 wasn't all bad for Meyer. Late in the season, he won his first of 12 NHRA national event titles at the Fallnationals in Seattle. Crew chief Ronnie Swearingen is second from right, and NHRA founder Wally Parks is second from left.

If the Pomona pit accident was the worst he had been hurt, what happened later that star-crossed year certainly had to be a close second. And what happened in the aftermath may have scared him worse than both.

Meyer’s 1977 hadn’t gotten much luckier since Pomona. He made the final at the rain-delayed inaugural Cajun Nationals (at the time a non-points-earning exhibition event) but lost an 85-cent oil-pump gasket on the burnout and had to shut off, allowing Johnny White a solo to his first win. A month later, he reached the final of the Summernationals, but the car wouldn’t start because of a loose idler pulley against Don Prudhomme. Things were about to get a whole lot more unlucky.

A month after his Summernationals runner-up, Meyer qualified No. 4 at Le Grandnational in Quebec and had just defeated Al Hanna in round one when the engine let go, creating a massive fire. Things went from bad to worse when the fire got into the fuel-tank vent, causing the tank to explode. Meyer rode the rolling Molotov cocktail to a halt in the ditch that lines the left side of track and suffered second- and third-degrees burns to his hands after the threads that held the two sides of his fire gloves together burned away. He was transported to a local hospital for care.

“Jeb Allen’s wife [Cindy] went to the hospital to get me because they weren’t doing very much for me there; they just told me I needed to see a doctor when I got back to the States,” recalls Meyer. “I went back to the racetrack and didn’t know how bad I was hurt – I was still just a dumb-ass kid – but Shirley [Muldowney] unwrapped my bandages to see how bad the burns were and almost puked and told me I need to get outta there right now. She went and got Connie [Kalitta], who went and got his airplane and actually landed it on the track.”

Ann Arbor, Mich., and its respected burn center, about a four-hour flight, was the destination, but it was a bad day to try to get out of Canada because Canadian air controllers had just gone on strike, complicating travel matters for all, including our own late, great photographer, Leslie Lovett, who needed to get his film back to California for that week’s issue. Kalitta agreed to also take Lovett along as far as Michigan to help his plight.

Meyer was strapped into the passenger seat of Kalitta’s Cessna, the back seat of which had been removed in favor of cargo storage. With no other choice, Lovett pulled up a milk crate to sit on. Simply getting out of Canadian airspace was the first hurdle as they also were low on fuel.

“We tried to stop at the Montreal airport, but they wouldn’t let us, so Connie gave them a few choice words that you’re probably not supposed to say over the air,” said Meyer with a knowing laugh. “Connie told me to look out the window for other airports, and I finally spotted one, so Connie starts circling to see if they have fuel tanks. I spotted a fuel truck, so we landed and refueled.

“So we take off, and now it’s getting a little cloudy, and now it’s getting a little bumpy, and now it’s getting a little darker, and now it’s raining, and it just keeps getting worse. I asked Connie if we could just land or turn around or do something. He said, ‘Aw, it’s not bad unless there’s lightning.’ I’m telling you what, it was like turning on a switch. As soon as he said that, a big lightning bolt hit right in front of us. Leslie screamed, I screamed. He said, ‘Well, it’s bad now.’ I was more scared then than I was in the fire, and Leslie wasn’t a great flier under normal conditions, so we were both pretty terrified.

“Connie makes a big U-turn and descends from 8,500 feet to like 1,500 feet, then turns right back around and starts flying back into the storm. I said, ‘What are you doing?!’ He said, ‘I can pick my way through it easier at low altitude.’ I said, ‘Why don’t you just use the autopilot?’ so he turns the autopilot on, and the thing almost does a barrel roll. He turns it off and says, ‘Does that every time.’ I said, ’Well, can’t we just land?’ and he said, ‘We’ll get killed hitting a wire.’

“We had no radar down that low, but we started picking our way through it. I asked if there wasn’t anyone, for God’s sake, that we could call, and he finally got hold of ground controllers in Cincinnati, but they told us because we weren’t in American airspace, they couldn’t talk to us. He said, ‘Well, if I keep going this direction, ya think I can make it?’ They recommended we deviate 15 degrees north to avoid the cell, then swing back around. When we finally got on the ground, I was never so happy to go into a burn center."

Meyer didn’t stay there long, checking himself out to continue his pursuit of the championship. He drove White’s Houston Hustler Mustang II at a Division 4 points meet the next weekend at State Capitol Dragway in Baton Rouge, La. (ironically, the same racetrack where White had soloed to victory against Meyer a few months earlier), and wheeled Al Bergler’s Motown Shaker Mustang II at the Division 3 Bowling Green, Ky., points meet.

“Deist made me some mitten gloves like you would wear in the kitchen so I could drive, but my hands were bandaged for eight months, and I couldn’t play golf for five years; I almost lost both thumbs because of the burns.”

He ultimately finished third that year – behind Prudhomme and Gordie Bonin – thanks to finally scoring his first NHRA national event win, beating Jim Dunn in the final at the Fallnationals in Seattle, where, at age 23, he became the youngest Funny Car winner in NHRA history (a title that has been held by Del Worsham since 1991, when he won at age 21 years, 2 months).

Greater things and a lot more success awaited Meyer in the remaining 10 years of his driving career, but he won’t soon forget those three scary moments from the 1970s.