It’s no great secret that we’ve lost a lot of our drag racing heroes in the last decade, and if you’ve been following this column for any length of time, you know that I agonize over the losses and sometimes struggle to put a finger on even my own pulse of the situation to try to put the losses into some sort of perspective that makes sense in my head and in yours, too.
Last Sunday, as part of National Dragster’s popular Backstage Pass program, wherein we take select NHRA Members into the driver-introduction area during the pre-race ceremony for private meet and greets with the racers, I was standing with one of our guests, Daniel Curtis, whose drag racing fan pedigree goes back to the early 1970s. We were talking about these losses and how tough they are, and he said, “You know, when I hear about one of these guys dying, it feels like I’ve lost a member of my family.”
Wow. That is exactly what I’ve been always trying to say and never found those exact words. It fits. After all, in many cases, these are the people who have been around your whole life, who have provided you with untold great memories, and whose joys and heartaches you have loyally enjoyed and endured. They are like family.
I didn’t know it at the time, but just a day earlier, we had lost another valuable and important part of NHRA’s family with the passing of Bud Coons, the leader of NHRA’s original Safety Safari in 1954, at age 90. Taking Curtis’ analogy to heart, if Wally Parks was the father of our sport, Coons would certainly have been one of my favorite uncles. I always enjoyed seeing him and talking to him when he came out to the drags in Pomona and to a track, as you will read, for which he was partly responsible.
And now he’s gone, just like fellow Safari members Bud Evans (2014) and Eric Rickman (2009) before him. Only Chic Cannon survives the group, the last cowboy from the original roundup.
You just can’t underestimate the value and importance of the work of Coons, Cannon, Evans, Rickman, and the other assorted members of that mid-1950s troupe of drag racing Johnny Appleseeds as they drove around the country and helped plant the roots of our sport, setting up some of its first organized drag races. They brought with them not just all of the equipment necessary -- timing equipment, a PA system, and miles of wire to bring it all to life – but the expertise on how to use it and how to organize and run an event, from safety inspection through trophy presentations.
Pomona Police Department Sgt. Bud Coons befriended Pomona-area hot rodders, opening a dialogue that led to organized drag racing in Pomona.
(Above) Early drag racing in Pomona was all about safety. (Below) In April 1953, Pomona hosted the first sanctioned NHRA event, which played to a large crowd.
The Safari crew and Coons' dirty and well-traveled wagon gassed up, as always, at a Mobil station and met a lot of local hot rodders along the way.
Coons, seated, right, met with members of the Cincinnati Cam Lifters and Covington (Ky.) Valve Jumpers during the 1954 tour.
Before he became nationally famous – by being constantly featured in the pages of Hot Rod magazine – Coons came to Parks’ attention for his work in helping the Pomona Choppers car club win the right to use a corner of the LA County Fairgrounds for its rodding. Eldo J. "Bud" Coons himself had been a hot rodder, and it was the result of a fateful traffic stop by a Pomona police officer that Coons’ future was cast. The officer was Ralph Parker, who would become chief of police. He liked Coons and thought they could use a man like him on the force. As chief, Parker called upon Coons’ hot rodding background to have him meet with the Choppers, which had lost some of its members to street racing, to see if they could combine efforts to do something about the increasing death toll in Pomona due to illegal street racing, which had reached 16 in 1949.
“If you can’t control them, join ‘em,” Parker is said to have told Coons. “Then we’ll see what happens.”
Coons attended a club meeting, and his first appearance in full uniform was reportedly met with wariness. He went to the next meeting in jeans and a T-shirt to ease any tension.
“Listen, I’m a cop,” he told them, according to an article in Hot Rod. “But I’m a hot rodder, too. We’re not trying to throw the book at you guys. I want to join you. Together we can save lives, run fast on Sunday, have some fun in get-togethers.”
Trust was established, and wonderful things happened. He was voted into the club as an honorary member – club members anonymously dropped colored marbles into a cigar box to vote; three black marbles, and you’re out – and helped design a racing program at Pomona for the Choppers, complete with insurance. The city agreed to pave a dragstrip -- eight-tenths of a mile long and 70 feet wide – on the Fairgrounds at a cost $5,378, to be paid for over time by the Choppers via entry and admissions fees. Drag racing in Southern California suddenly became legit.
Did it work? Street racing deaths decreased to two in 1951. So impressed was he that Chief Parker even authored an article about the success in the December 1951 issue of the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, which is distributed to law-enforcement groups throughout the United States.
The Choppers eventually changed its name to the Pomona Valley Timing Association and went on to stage NHRA’s first sanctioned event, the Southern California Championships, April 11-12, 1953. Between 2,500 and 3,000 people showed up to watch the first day's time trials, and an estimated 15,000 were on hand for the final day. The entry list included 375 vehicles.
All of this great work did not escape the attention of Parks, and by 1954, Coons had been hired as NHRA’s new executive manager, charged with taking his Pomona template and spreading it nationally to promote and develop organized drag racing. They created the NHRA Drag Strip Crew and mapped out a 10-stop tour for 1954.
It was in a two-door ’54 Dodge station wagon that the Safari – which later became known as the Drag Safari – traveled the country, towing the little Viking trailer behind them, but what few know is that it was Coons’ personal vehicle; he had traded in his own Studebaker for something with a little more room. Coons, Cannon, and Rickman were joined along the way by either Don Cox or Bob Huff and spent three months on the road, leaving California June 10, 1954, headed east to Caddo Mills, Texas, for the first meet, June 19-20, then on to Mansfield, La.; Edna, Kan.; Scribner, Neb.; Linden, N.J.; Pennellville, N.Y.; Akron, Ohio; Detroit; Pocatello, Idaho; Ogden, Utah; and Salt Lake City before concluding at the Bonneville speed trials event, tying the sport’s past with its future.
With all of the technical and electrical equipment packed into the trailer, it has been said that their most important weapon -- optimism and hope – rode up front with the boys.
Typically, the team would roll into a town, usually on a Wednesday or Thursday, and stop at the local Socony Mobil gas station – Mobil was the Safari’s only sponsor, providing free fuel for the long drives – and once word filtered around that they had arrived, hot rodders from all over swarmed the station. The Safari members would meet with local law-enforcement and civic officials -- Coons' status as a former police officer helped lend credibility – and Coons would powerfully and eloquently explain how organized drag racing and regulated dragstrips could help stop the scourge of illegal street racing. Coons, who also was charged with public relations and publicity, would sometimes do radio or television interviews to promote the upcoming weekend’s event. With the help of the car clubs, they would set up the racetrack, sometimes even erecting a temporary timing and announcing tower.
In 1955, the Drag Safari – which now included its fourth full-time member in Evans -- embarked on its second nationwide crusade, an 18-week, 20,000-mile tour, helping sanctioned strips present 18 official Regional Championships in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Colorado, Iowa, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, Tennessee, and Texas. Gone was Coons' personal two-door wagon, replaced by a four-door '55 Plymouth wagon. It was during this tour that many newspapers began to refer to the Drag Safari as the NHRA "Safety Safari." The Safari's final stop was Great Bend, Kan., where NHRA staged its first National Championship Drags, Sept. 29-Oct. 2, on the 8,000-foot runway of the Great Bend Municipal Airport.
The Safari foursome -- from left, Bud Coons, Chic Cannon, Bud Evans, and Eric Rickman -- on the 1955 tour. (Below) Nearly a half-century later, they reunited at the 1994 U.S. Nationals, which was celebrating its 50th running.
In what was probably one of their last public appearances together, the four -- from left, Cannon, Evans, Coons, and Rickman -- took part in a salute to NHRA founder Wally Parks at the 2007 World Finals, a month after Parks' passing.
Nearly everywhere the Safari conducted its Regionals, names now familiar to race fans began popping up among the list of class winners: Wayne Mahaffey and Dick Maris in Scappose, Wash.; John Bandimere and Kenz & Leslie in Denver; George Montgomery in Indianapolis; Ken Hirata and Otis Smith in Columbus; Jake King in North Carolina; Lloyd Bray and Raymond Godman in Memphis, Tenn.; and John Mulkey and Carl Stone in San Antonio. The Top Eliminator title in Lake City, Fla., went to a kid from Tampa, Fla., Don Garlits. In San Antonio, an aspiring race car driver named A.J. Foyt set top speed at 121.73 mph.
The NHRA Drag Safari kicked off its third and final tour of the country in 1956. Plymouth supplied two new cars for the Safari, a '56 Fury and a '56 Suburban wagon, both painted red, white, and blue, and the team staged 18 Regional Championships events in California, Colorado, Texas, New Jersey, Illinois, Iowa, Utah, and Oregon, with many more of today's well-recognized names taking part, including Bernie Partridge, who won the "C" Stock class at the West Coast Regional Championships at San Gabriel Valley Dragstrip and later would join NHRA and play a major role in its continued development.
The Safari’s plans to hit the road again in 1957 hit a snag when the International Association of Chiefs of Police and later the National Safety Council's Traffic & Transportation Committee inexplicably launched ill-informed attacks on hot rodding, leading several of the Safari's sponsors to drop their backing "like a hot potato," according to the May issue of Hot Rod. Without the funding for the prolonged road trip, NHRA canceled the 1957 Safari tour, and Coons and his crew began concentrating their efforts on that year's National Championship Drags.
Even though the Safari was parked, its three-year effort had done the job. By early 1957, NHRA's sanctioned-track listing included more than 100 venues in 38 of the 48 states, and the Safari team, its work done, was disbanded, though NHRA continued to send as many as 500 How to Form a Club kits each month, and its growing cadre of regional advisors helped keep everyone in line and informed. Contrary to the attacks that led to the Safari’s tour cancellation, an early 1957 survey by a leading safety organization to the nation's police departments asking for each department's evaluation of organized hot rod activities told a different story. Of the approximately 300 replies, 73 percent were favorable, 23 percent were noncommittal, and just 4 percent were against hot rodding.
Although his work with the Safari was done, Coons stayed with the NHRA for years before leaving to form Coons Manufacturing, building recreational vehicles and truck campers in Pomona. He eventually retired to Arizona and then to New Mexico, where he lived with his wife, Beverly, until his passing.
As I mentioned, Coons’ passing leaves only Cannon as the remaining member of the famous foursome. Cannon, who is in the process of finishing his autobiography, Gone Racin’ … From Horseback to Horsepower, has fond memories of his times with Coons, with whom he shared living quarters off the road as well, including for a short time a penthouse apartment they shared with custom-car king George Barris (until their wild parties got them tossed out).
“I could tell you some stories,” Cannon said with a laugh when we spoke earlier this week. “We just had a great time together those years, and we couldn’t have asked for a better or more confident leader than Bud. And with his background as a police officer, it really gave us carte blanche at a lot of places. We almost always got a good reception, but it wasn’t always an easy job – a lot of people didn’t like either Bud or me from time to time because of the rules we were helping put into place – but it’s just unreal what the sport became from those first days, and Bud and I remained great friends all these years after.”
Bud Coons, Bud Evans, and Eric Rickman may be gone, but their legacy will remain as long as NHRA Drag Racing storms down the strip.
(Above) Looking every bit like the California surfer he was, Hank Westmoreland received congratulations after his 1969 Springnationals Top Fuel win. (Below) Westmoreland in one of his famous rides, the twin-engine Busby & Banard Top Fueler.
On the subject of passings, I also learned this week that former Top Fuel driver Hank Westmoreland passed away in late April. He was 72.
“Surfer Hank,” whose real first name was Wade and who drove a number of top-quality cars in his years behind the wheel, was really a surfer, and he, car owner Jim Busby, Bob Ekelberger, and Bill Karges were known as the Beach Boys Racing team in the late 1960s.
“We would actually go surfing and then tow the race car to the track with our surfboards still in the van,” said Busby in Tom Madigan’s book, Fuel & Guts. “We were sometimes confused with the Surfers racing team of Tom Jobe, Bob Skinner, and Mike Sorokin. There was also Don ‘the Beachcomber’ Johnson, who ran a Top Fuel car around the same time. It was all part of the California image, and it helped promote drag racing around the country.”
It was in Johnson’s car that Westmoreland won his only NHRA national event, at the 1969 Springnationals in Dallas, and in the wild Busby & Banard twin-engine Top Fueler that Westmoreland had one of his most memorable rides. The car, which featured twin 255-cid dual overhead cam Ford Indy-car-style engines, was voted Best Appearing Car at the 1971 Winternationals but didn’t stick around long -- but not because of its performance. Reportedly, Busby got offers from USAC racers to buy the engines, and when the offers got too good to pass up, Busby sold them.
Westmoreland also drove for Jim and Alison Lee in Top Fuel early in his career, and he had brief stints with the Allen family and Ed Wills and even piloted Fling Traylor’s wild Turbonique-powered U.S. Turbine I before leaving the cockpit and later going to work with Busby, by that time a successful sports-car racer, working on Busby’s IMSA Porsches.
Two more losses to our sport’s history. Two more losses to our family. We’ll miss them, but we won’t forget them.
Thanks for reading. I’ll see you next week. I’ll be in Bristol but, as always, right here for your Friday enjoyment.