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Unforgettable: Lions' 1972 Grand Premiere

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

Two weeks ago, when I started the 1975 thread with a report on Irwindale Raceway’s wild and wacky Grand Premiere, I mentioned the event’s Lions Drag Strip roots, a race that kicked off the fabled SoCal racing facility’s final season in 1972, and that I would write about it soon. I could tell that quite a few of you were eagerly licking your chops at the prospect because it was the kind of race that left an indelible impression on you whether you saw it firsthand or, like me, read about it in the magazines.

The final headline that came out of the race was the stunning Top Fuel final between Don Prudhomme and John Wiebe in which both ran elapsed times of 6.17 – the quickest in history by a fair margin – and the skepticism cast upon those numbers. The other unforgettable part of the event was that it was, as my good pal Bret Kepner would describe it, “a crashtacular” and included an overbackward Top Fuel wheelstand, an on-track collision between two Funny Cars, plus two nasty fires and a roof-removing blower explosion among the floppers. So much for getting your season off to a good start.

When the 1972 season kicked off at Lions, no one had a clue it would be the beginning of the last waltz for the track. Steve Evans had taken over management of the fabled facility the previous summer and given the place a complete makeover. The death knell – some will say sounded by neighbor complaints of an expanded racing schedule that included a new motocross track – came Aug. 30, when the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners ordered that the racing facility be vacated by Dec. 31 of that year to make way for a scheduled cargo-container holding facility for the greater Los Angeles port district.

So, when the Grand Premiere went into the history books, everyone was just calling it another unforgettable night at “the Beach,” a place that had been the site of so much history and so many great runs in its 17 previous years. No one knew the end was so near.

The track was good, no doubt about it. During Saturday’s NHRA national record session, Tony Nancy also reset the national speed record in Top Fuel to 233.16, and “Dyno Don” Nicholson lowered the Pro Stock e.t. mark to 9.54.

Gary Burgin set the NHRA Funny Car national e.t. record in the Braskett & Burgin Vega Saturday; his Sunday didn't go quite as well.

Gary Burgin, in his and Dave Braskett’s new Vega, ran 6.72 in qualifying to break the 6.80 national record set by Leroy Goldstein and the Candies & Hughes team at the previous year’s World Finals in Amarillo, Texas. As good as Saturday was for Burgin, his Sunday would be disastrous: He would cross the centerline in round one and be rear-ended by opponent Joe Winter, with near-disastrous results.

(Oddly, Burgin’s 6.72 fell well short of the track record, which had been set a month earlier at Lions’ Grand Finale by Bill Leavitt, who ran a stunning series of passes – 6.48, 6.51, and 6.53 – though national records were not available for those runs. And although Burgin got the record, he wasn’t even the low qualifier – that honor fell to Kelly Brown in the Mr. Ed Charger at 6.64 during the non-record-eligible portion of qualifying – and eventual winner Gene Snow ended up with low e.t. for his 6.54 final-round blast against Bobby Rowe’s 6.55. Weird, right?)

Qualifying was also highlighted by Jack Martin’s overbackward Top Fuel powerstand in the Penner-Beach-Martin dragster. Martin’s car launched hard, went near vertical, then pirouetted 90 degrees before slamming down onto its left side and sliding across the centerline and backing into the opposite-lane guardrail. The car was destroyed, but Martin emerged uninjured. Bob McFarland then rode out a hellish fire in his Dodge Demon flopper and was rescued by Mickey Thompson, but not before being severely burned over both legs and part of his torso.

I was surprised to find this Grand Premiere clip from Don Gillespie's Lions DVD trilogy on YouTube. You can buy the whole series yourself in the NHRA Store.

The carnage continued Sunday with the First Round from Hell for the Funny Cars. In the second pair, Stan Shiroma defeated Tom McEwen, but a deafening blower explosion tore the roof off his Midnight Skulker Barracuda. He was not able to return for round two.

Then came the Burgin-Winter shunt. Already ahead of them, they had seen Dale Pulde get crossed up in beating Leavitt and “Mighty Mike” Van Sant and the Stone, Woods & Cooke Mustang cross the centerline to hand the win to Pat Foster in Barry Setzer’s Vega, so maybe it was the track. Burgin launched hard with the front wheels dangling but crossed the centerline on touchdown and got up briefly on two wheels, all of this right in front of Winter, who had no place to go. Winter rear-ended Burgin and pushed him out of the way in what looks like the world’s fastest PIT maneuver. Burgin’s car turned turtle and slid on its roof along the guardrail. The roof was ripped off, but Burgin otherwise emerged unscathed. Winter’s front end was heavily damaged, and he, too, could not make the second-round call. Four pairs later, Omar “the Tentmaker” Carrothers lit up his Mustang in losing to Rowe.

All of this brings us back to the much-talked-about Top Fuel final, which pitted Prudhomme and his new lightweight Kent Fuller-built Yellow Feather rear-engine dragster against Wiebe, one of the last slingshot holdouts, who was coming in hot after debuting Ed Donovan’s new aluminum 417 at the 1971 season-ending Supernationals, where he was the No. 1 qualifier with a 6.54 low e.t. and was runner-up. The week prior to the Grand Premiere, Wiebe had won Orange County Int'l Raceway's All-Pro Series opener (originally slated as OCIR's 1971 season closer in December but delayed by rain until January) with a best of 6.44.

At Lions, Prudhomme ran 6.42 against Carl Olson’s red-light and, after an easy second-round bye, ran 6.39 to defeat Bob Noice to reach the final but had done so at the expense of some of Keith Black’s finest parts. Wiebe, meanwhile, who had Donovan in his corner, had run a shutoff 6.54 to beat Jim Nicoll, then took an easy pass when teenage Randy Allison red-lighted before pounding SoCal’s other teenage phenom, Jeb Allen, with a 6.41.

Two angles of the final show that Don Prudhomme got out to a healthy lead on John Wiebe.
(Leslie Lovett/Jere Alhadeff photos)

In the final, Prudhomme jumped out to about a car-length lead, but Wiebe began to nibble away at it when Prudhomme’s engine again began to labor. Wiebe ran out of racetrack, and Prudhomme lit the win light, 6.174, 235.60 to 6.175, 236.22. Almost immediately, doubts were expressed about the e.t.s. Sure, Don Garlits had run 6.21 in Indy the year before in what was a stunning pass, but to have two cars run four-hundredths quicker was pretty unbelievable considering that neither driver had even run in the 6.30s the year before. There was talk that the staging beams had been out of kilter throughout the race so that low-slung cars like Wiebe’s stayed in the beams for the first car length.

Drag Racing USA thought so much of the controversy that a cover blurb on its May 1972 issue read "Wiebe and Prudhomme 6.17 E.T.s: For Real?"

According to the DRUSA report, Wiebe was quoted at the time as saying, “There is no possible way this car can go 6.17. It just isn’t possible.” Prudhomme, however, commented, “If you doubt it, just watch what happens in Pomona [the Winternationals].” What happened in Pomona was Prudhomme ran a best of 6.57, and Wiebe, who ran 6.78 at Orange County Int’l Raceway the weekend after the Lions event, couldn’t even crack the 6.90 bump in Pomona.

In light of Leavitt’s stunning Funny Car times at the end of 1971 and the dual 6.17s, I asked Lions historian Don Gillespie, whose seminal three-DVD history of “the Beach” is a true treasure, if it was possible that the Lions clocks were somehow “juiced” since the renovation. His answer was an emphatic “no.”

“Lions was always known as a racer's track,” he asserted. “Places like OCIR catered more to spectators. To that end, Lions always had many of the top racers, plus press and manufacturers on hand -- a tough crowd to ‘fool,’ I would think. Sorta like sneaking a starving artist’s felt painting into the Louvre and passing it off as van Gogh!”

So, after all this research, my jury was still out, but I was leaning toward the numbers being legit. So, 43 years later, here comes Mr. Insider, with the bright idea of getting to the “story behind the story.” But what will Wiebe and Prudhomme think – hell, even remember – four decades later?

(Above) Prudhomme's Yellow Feather dragster tipped the scales at 1,190 pounds, about 400 less than the wedge that preceded it. (Below) Wiebe's slingshot was running the still-new revolutionary aluminum Donovan 417.

Unfortunately but understandably, Prudhomme’s memories of the event are lost to time and the sheer number of events in which he competed in 30-plus years in the cockpit and even more as an owner. I walked him through the facts, and he thoughtfully pondered the two-tenths drop in e.t. between his best run and the final and was a bit conflicted.

“I don’t know how you drop two-tenths unless you’re falling down a mineshaft, but I don’t think Lions ever had phony clocks,” he said. “I’m sure we had it hopped up for the final, but the rear-engined car was still really new to us. We had the wedge the year before – that was a huge mistake; it was terrible – and the new car was so much lighter and better. We even milled the outsides of the block to take weight off of it. That car hauled ass.

“It’s possible we ran 6.17, but I don’t remember,” he said, then added in typical “Snake” fashion, “But the most important thing I heard in this conversation is that I won, so I like that.”

Wiebe, however, had no problem recalling the race in detail, and, contrary to the comments attributed to him at the time, he firmly believes that he ran the 6.17 and that he could have run even quicker with the right tune-up.

“We were still running the car kinda safe by the time we got to Long Beach, and I was really just out there to have fun,” he recalled. “Someone told me that Prudhomme and Black were really out to get me in the final, and I look over there, and Keith Black himself is working on the car; it looked like he had an army over there. Still, I think I was a bit nonchalant about the whole thing. I think I put a couple [more percentage of nitro] in the tank and advanced the cam two degrees and maybe put one or two [degrees of timing] in the mag to turn the wick up a little bit. Ed [Donovan] told me to put a bigger bottom pulley on to get some more overdrive for the blower. After all that, I still think we had even more room, and in retrospect, I wish I’d have laid its ears back a little further because it might have run a .12 or a .13. Even though he got the jump on me at the line, I chased him down, and I actually thought that I had won based on how much of his car I could see at the finish line. I remember that I was pretty devastated by that loss because I didn’t put more into it. We weren’t even close to smoking the tires. I just played it too safe.”

Regardless of any controversy, advertisers were all over the e.t.s in the next issue of National Dragster with Black, Fuller, and Pennzoil all touting Prudhomme’s e.t and Mondello and M&H bannering Wiebe’s performance. The numbers gained more post-legitimacy within a month when Clayton Harris drove Jack McKay’s New Dimension to a 6.16 (also at Lions) and Garlits ran 6.15 and 6.17 the next month en route to winning the Gatornationals. And, of course, by year’s end, low e.t. would be a 5.91 by Don Moody at the season finale in Ontario, Calif.

"Wiebe and Prudhomme 6.17 E.T.s: For Real?" You decide.


My chat with Wiebe, who hasn’t given a lot of interviews in the years since he quit racing in 1977, was a great chance to learn more about his career, which I’ll share next week. His time in Top Fuel was only about 12 years, but he packed a lot of racing into it.

I also was pleased to hear from Fritz Allison, the younger brother of the aforementioned Randy Allison, who with Jeb Allen, John Stewart, and Billy Meyer led a successful teenage revolt in the nitro ranks in the early 1970s. Fritz gave me contact info for Randy and his crew chief Gary (also their brother), so I hope to talk to them soon, too, to shed some light on their efforts, which haven’t received quite the ink that Allen, Meyer, and Stewart have in the years since.

So many columns, so little time. Just the way I like it. See you next week.