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Teen Terrors of the '70s: John Stewart

04 Sep 2015
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

John Stewart will forever be remembered by drag racing fans of the 1970s as the teenager who beat “Big Daddy” Don Garlits in his first ever side-by-side competition, but the kid from Sacramento, Calif., with the long hair and perpetually bare feet went on to become much more than just a driver in a career that has spanned five decades and continues today.

In one form or another, Stewart has been racing almost his entire life. He was racing go-karts before he was 10, became a Professional Top Fuel driver before he turned 18, and today keeps his hands busy and wrenches spinning as a crew chief, tuner, and adviser for multiple drag racing efforts. In addition to his current roles as crew chief on Bob Bode’s Funny Car on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, Dan Horan’s Nostalgia Funny Car in the NHRA Hot Rod Heritage Racing Series, and Urs Erbacher’s Top Fueler in FIA competition in Europe, Stewart is also part owner, with Aaron Brooks and the Lagana brothers, of another Funny Car and involved with both Lagana Top Fuelers, all of which have run in the NHRA “big show,” and also owns a sprint car, driven by Austin Prock, son of fellow nitro crew chief Jimmy Prock. He also runs a business specializing in clutch floaters and discs. So, yeah, he stays pretty busy.

Stewart got his first taste of competition in go-karts at age 8, and he eventually became good enough to land a factory sponsorship from Margay. When he was 15, he won the International Karting Federation’s 1970 grand enduro national championship, sealing it with a victory on the road course at, of all places, Indianapolis Raceway Park, home to NHRA’s U.S. Nationals. Oddly enough, Stewart had never even been to a drag race. Even though his karts were capable of reaching nearly 130 mph on the course’s main straight — the fabled dragstrip — a faster future awaited him.

Stewart’s uncle, LeRoy Lehman — the husband of his father’s sister — owned a Jr. Fueler and thought that his nephew might do well driving only on the straightaway. The day after he got his driver’s license, Stewart buckled into the cockpit of a carbureted front-engine econo dragster that Lehman had built for him. He quickly mastered the little 10-second car and stepped into the set of Lehman’s seven-second Jr. Fueler. Before long, that became old news, too.

Stewart, with his father, Bernie, center, and uncle LeRoy Lehman.

Seeing his nephew’s prowess, Lehman suggested they take their efforts to the next level and late in 1972 purchased Herm Petersen’s Woody Gilmore-built Top Fueler and accessories.

“I was all, ‘Yeah, that looks fun; let’s try it,’ ” recalls Stewart, whose father, Bernie, had grown up in Southern California and gone to school with Mickey Thompson and always loved racing. Bernie supplied the financial backing through his company, Sacramento Insulation Contractors, which did insulation installation for everything from commercial to home use in California, Arizona, and Nevada. And S.I.C. Racing was born.

With everything in place, they drove down to Southern California in early December to get the kid licensed and headed to Lions Dragstrip on what was most a memorable and sad occasion: It was the first weekend of December 1972, the weekend of Lions’ Last Drag Race, and although the kid licensed impressively with a 6.47 best, it was not without adventure.

“The worst part was the roller starters they used to have there at Lions,” Stewart remembers. “My uncle went through the whole program with me: Spin it over to build oil pressure, and once you get oil pressure, nod your head to let me know, then turn on the fuel and hit the [ignition] switch. The one thing he forgot to tell me was to push the clutch back in. The engine started and I was thinking ‘I’ve got this,’ but once the guy stopped the rollers, the car shot forward. My uncle had been holding the front wheels to keep the car steady — I think Larry Sutton was helping him — and they disappeared real quick when the car leaped off the rollers. He yelled at me until I reminded him he’d forgotten to tell me about the clutch.

“The biggest thing about driving the car was getting used to how fast everything happened. My uncle told me to go to 330 feet and shut it off. I stepped on the gas and lifted and was thinking I did a good job, and he gets down there and starts yelling at me again, ‘How far do you think you drove it?’ I told him that I didn’t know, that it was kind of dark. ‘You drove it to 950 feet!’ ”

Track manager Steve Evans, who oversaw the licensing procedure, was nonetheless impressed. “The kid is incredible,” he raved. “The car got out of shape once. He never cracked. He just pulled it out and got back into the accelerator.”

Stewart made his Pro debut in early 1973 at Irwindale Raceway, where he beat Don Garlits in his first head-to-head race.

Early the next January, Stewart, then still a 17-year-old junior at El Camino High School, calmly walked in to see his auto shop teacher one Thursday.

“I told him I was going to L.A. to drive a Top Fuel dragster and wouldn’t be at school the next day; he kind of laughed,” Stewart recalls with a laugh of his own. “When I came back Monday, he had the sports page taped up on the blackboard. From that point on, I was able to bring the car into the shop there and work on it. The other kids loved seeing it.”

What got his teacher’s attention — and the attention of everyone in the sport — was his performance at Irwindale Raceway’s Grand Premiere. Forty cars showed up looking for a spot in the 16-car field, and Stewart qualified solidly alongside veterans like Garlits, John Wiebe, Supernationals champ Don Moody, Dennis Baca, James Warren, Don Prudhomme, Danny Ongais, and Larry Dixon.

Garlits qualified No. 1 with a 6.37, Stewart No. 9 with a 6.52, and anyone who remembers ladder pairings back then knows that meant a first-round date, and when Garlits had to pedal halfway through his run, Stewart was right there to pounce, taking a shocking 6.45 to 6.54 upset victory.

“I totally underestimated the kid,” Garlits later admitted.

“It was the first time I’d ever been on the track with anyone else,” Stewart recalls. “It took a little while to sink in on how special that was, beating someone with Garlits’ history. I could have quit right then.”

But he didn’t. Not content with his Goliath slaying, Stewart moved on in eliminations but, before he could take on Ongais, he found that his safety belts wouldn’t latch. His uncle frantically got a replacement buckle and got it installed. Stewart remained cool throughout the ordeal and then defeated Ongais.

“Look at him,” Garlits went on to add. “He’s overcome a 20-minute problem with his seat belt, and he should be folding under the pressure, but he looks like he hasn’t a care in the world.”

“I had raced under a lot of pressure with go-karts,” Stewart told me earlier this week. “I’d have 70 guys in my class in karts and only one in drag racing, but I tried to never pay attention to who was in the other lane. But to this day, every time I see him, Garlits says ‘I hate you, kid.’ ”

Although Stewart lost on a 6.60 to 6.58 holeshot to Moody in the semifinals, the word was out, and a month later Stewart scored his first win, Feb. 25, at his Sacramento Raceway home track, qualifying No. 1 and beating Jim Herbert in the final. Herbert had beaten Garlits the round before, denying them a rematch.

With the attention also came scrutiny, but early on, Stewart got some good advice from fellow teen terror Jeb Allen.

“Me and Jeb were pretty good friends,” he said. “He told me the kind of things the other guys might say about us being kids. He just told me to be myself and don’t do anything stupid, and I’ll be fine.”

The team raced everywhere, including this memorable matchup at Orange County Int’l Raceway’s Big 4 Constructors race in May ’73, a team competition that pitted cars powered by Keith Black, Ed Pink, Sid Waterman, and a group of independents (who won). Stewart beat Ed McCulloch’s Funny Car in round one but couldn’t return for round two.

The team hit the road to take advantage of their newfound fame. Stewart, his uncle, and one of John’s high-school classmates (who was too young to drive) headed east at the wheel of a Ford truck supplied by a local dealer, sometimes caravanning with Gary Beck. It was another new experience for Stewart, who, because of his status with the factory, had always flown to his go-karts events but now found himself doing the bleary-eyed crawl across the country, with just he and his uncle splitting driving duties to hustle from race to race.

“It seems like we were running every other night somewhere,” he recalled. “We ran all over because that was how you made the money to get to the big races. We had a spare short-block, which was pretty big back then, an extra set of heads, and a few pistons. Those were the days, man. You didn’t leave your car at the track. You’d load it up and drive it to the hotel and work on it in the parking lot. You’d get up in the morning and wait for the maid to come down the hallway so you could steal some towels off her cart to take to the track.

“It was a lot of fun. I loved driving the car, but I didn’t really enjoy working on them at first. I just wanted to go hang out with my friends. It was like [to his uncle] ‘This is your car, you fix it, and when it’s ready, I’ll come drive it.’ I think that came from my go-kart years. All I had to do was show up and drive. But after a month or two, I got more into working on the dragster.”

And schoolwork still had its place alongside pitwork.

“I’d get all of my homework Thursdays and take off, then do my homework in the truck on the way to and from the races,” he explained. “The majority of the teachers were very supportive and helpful. I wasn’t a good student by any means, but I got by because if I didn’t keep my grades up, I didn’t get to race.”

Stewart joined the Keeling & Clayton team just before the 1973 World Finals in Amarillo, Texas, and drove its sleek California Charger, far lane, to round two before losing to eventual winner Jerry Ruth.
After joining the Cragar Five-Second Club during qualifying, Stewart was on his way to beating tire-smoking Gaines Markley in the semifinals of the Supernationals but couldn't hold off Markley at the big end. (Below) The race almost turned disastrous as Gaines crashed heavily and almost took out Stewart in the process.

The team had such a good season that they finished high enough in the Division 7 points to qualify to attend the World Finals, which then were held in Amarillo, Texas. But funds were low, and the team didn’t think they could go. It was at that point that Stewart really hit the big time. John Keeling and Jerry Clayton asked him to drive their stunning California Charger dragster at the event. Their driver, Rick Ramsey, had not earned enough points and also was preparing to transition into the team’s new Funny Car.

“That car was beautiful,” he marveled. “They had the Revell sponsorship. I got a percentage of models that they sold. I was hot stuff. I was 17, had moved to L.A., driving for this big team, making money. I even had a real uniform and firesuit.”

Stewart acquitted himself well, qualifying the car — tuned by Bill Schultz, also in his debut with the team — in the fifth spot among west region racers with a 6.37 and then beat strong-running Flip Schofield in round one before bowing out to eventual winner Jerry Ruth in the second frame.

Excited by their success, the team stayed together for the 1973 Supernationals a few weeks later at Ontario Motor Speedway in Southern California, where, on Nov. 16, Stewart became a member of the Cragar Five-Second Club with a 5.92.

Stewart’s run was good enough for the No. 2 spot, just a few ticks behind Garlits’ field-leading 5.90, and the two seemed on a collision course for the final. Stewart avenged his Finals loss to Ruth, then beat Norm Wilcox in the Skyjacker in round two and was leading tire-smoking Gaines Markley in the semifinals until the car began fading. Markley got back around him by inches, 6.54 to 6.56, but at a cost, as his freewheeling engine gave out, bombing the supercharger, which took out a rear tire and the wing and sent the car careening into Stewart’s lane. Stewart deftly took evasive action, driving through a minefield of scattered parts and, with no time to pull the parachute, ended up well around the oval course runout for the pit-road dragstrip. According to Clayton, they were inexplicably not allowed back in via the break rule, and Garlits singled for the win.

The team stayed together for one more race, the Cragar Five-Second Club event the following January at Irwindale. The field consisted of the eight club members — Stewart, Garlits, Moody, Ivo, Beck, Warren, Dixon, and Richins — with Mike Snively, who was without a ride at the time, taking the role of honorary starter. (Snively, who was slated to drive the Keeling & Clayton Funny Car, took his own life not long after.)

Stewart drove out of a big wheelstand in round one and still chased down Warren to get the win, then pulled up alongside Garlits in the semifinals. No one had forgotten what had happened there just a year earlier, but history did not repeat itself. Stewart cut a better light, but Garlits ran him down to win, 6.33 to 6.37.

(Above) The Cragar Five-Second Club, ready for battle at Irwindale Raceway in January 1974. Front row, from left, Tommy Ivo, Don Garlits, John Stewart, Larry Dixon Sr.; back row, from left, Don Moody, James Warren, Gary Beck, Mike Snively, and Dan Richins. (Below) A year after their initial meeting at Irwindale, Garlits got revenge on Stewart in the semifinals. (Steve Reyes photos)

A few weeks later, disaster struck Stewart at Sacramento Raceway’s season Grand Opener. Stewart, back behind the wheel of the family car for this weekend, defeated Ron Attebury in round one, 6.20 to 6.47, but his throttle stuck at the finish line.

“Back then, you practically had to put both feet on the dash to pull the fuel shutoff, and by the time I got it pulled back, I was at the end of the track,” he said. “There was a bump there, and the car just took off, and that was the last I remember until I woke up in the ambulance, which was going through the pits. I was thinking to myself, ‘Man, I’m dead. I’m in heaven,’ but the [ambulance attendant] told me I was all right. They told me the car cleared a six-foot chain-link fence and stuck nose-first into the grass. The car broke off at the footbox like it was supposed to, but in addition to cuts and bruises, I had a broken collarbone from where the seatbelts were.”

Stewart was eager to get back to racing, though his mother had seen enough.

“I had no worries,” he remembers. “When you’re young, you don’t think about that. My mom, on the other hand, was convinced that my uncle was trying to kill me. I had to tell her, ‘Mom, be quiet; I love it.’ ”

Stewart tried it on his own in 1974 but struggled financially. The car was lost in a top-end accident at the '75 Winternationals.

By this time, Keeling and Clayton were cutting back on their racing. Clayton was an in-demand airline jumbo jet pilot, and Keeling, an aircraft ground mechanic, got married. Even though Stewart had a great reputation and probably could have found another ride, he decided he’d stage his own comeback. He had local chassis whiz John Shoemaker build him a new car.

“I wanted my own car; it one of the dumbest things I ever did,” he admitted. “I just thought it was time. I was learning more about how the cars worked and wanting to tune it. I had some potential sponsors lined up, but nothing ever came of it. I tried to run the thing myself but didn’t have enough money to keep it going.”

The car ran sporadically that year and opened 1975 at the Winternationals. At the end of a qualifying pass, the parachutes failed to open.

“It started bouncing and hopping, and I tried to make the turn down there, but it started rolling over,” he recalls of the reported triple barrel roll. “I wasn’t hurt, and when I got out, I kicked the tire, and the parachutes fell out. Typical deal, right?

(Above) Stewart got his first win as a nitro crew chief with Tim Wilkerson, in 1999, in Chicago,. It was also Wilk's first Pro win. (Below) Stewart also tuned Jim Epler to a huge U.S. Nationals win in 2000.

“The car was hurt pretty bad, and by that time, I was married and had a kid. My wife told me I needed to figure out something else to do, so I quit racing. I started my own construction and insulation business with my sister. I still wanted to go back to racing but not as a driver. I was OK with that. We were pretty fortunate and did pretty good in the short time we ran.”

Stewart returned to the sport in 1979, working for fellow Sacramento resident Gary Ormsby, and started at the bottom. He spent a couple of years there, then went to work for Shirley Muldowney until she suffered her near-career-ending crash in Montreal in 1984. Before long, he found himself working for Connie Kalitta and soaking up knowledge from the team’s new tuner, Dick LaHaie.

“That’s where I really started to learn about how to run these cars,” he recalled. “Everyone would go home or go out for drinks, but I didn’t drink, so I’d sit there with LaHaie. What better guy to teach you? I didn’t even know how to turn on the computer. I just sat down there, paid attention, asked a lot of stupid questions, and otherwise kept my mouth shut.”

By 1998, after years of apprenticing under a number of tuners, Stewart’s first crew chief gig was for a fledgling nitro racer named Tim Wilkerson. After runner-ups in Pomona and Richmond, Va., they finally struck gold together at the 1999 Chicago event, where they beat John Force to earn Wilk his first Pro win.

Two years later, Stewart was part of Jerry Toliver’s two-car WWF entry, tuning the Kane Camaro, driven by Jim Epler, while Dale Armstrong tuned Toliver’s The Rock-branded entry. Toliver won the Winternationals and Gatornationals, and Stewart kept the smackdown coming when he tuned Epler to the win at the first Las Vegas event, but the best was still to come.

After a runner-up in Brainerd, Epler and Stewart were runner-ups Sunday at the Big Bud Shootout at Indy, then turned right around and won Monday’s Big Go. Two weeks later, the car burned to the ground at the Keystone Nationals.

In the years since, Stewart has been everywhere and anywhere. He has worked for Darrell Gwynn, Cruz Pedregon, Shelly Anderson, Dean Skuza, Bob Vandergriff, Don Prudhomme, and the Carrier Boyz before starting a seven-year stretch with Morgan Lucas Racing. Smith’s son, Josh, also later joined the team (and was best man at Lucas’ wedding) and stayed for four years before moving on and, at one time, drove his dad’s late-model car and the sprint car he co-owns with the Wingo brothers.

Even though he remains a well-known face among his peers in the pits on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, Stewart is much more recognized when he’s on the nostalgia tour, with people who grew up watching him race.

“It’s surprising how many people remember me,” he said. “When they hear the name they say, ‘Oh yeah, you’re that kid that beat Garlits.’ ”