Well, the new year is only a week old, and already it has been packed with a lot of newness, not the least of which is the new NHRA.com format that launched Thursday. The new design allows NHRA fans easier access to the wealth of stories available on the site – including the exclusive columns written by the National Dragster staff as well as video and other multimedia offerings – in what is commonly known as a “river” format, where news runs down the length of the page seemingly endlessly.
First and foremost, I want to thank everyone who wrote – some of you in distress – about the absence of a Dragster Insider link on the new-look NHRA.com home page. If you’ve found your way to reading this, you obviously did it by following the story item on the home page, and, at least for now, that’s how you’ll find the column if you don’t have it bookmarked (which is why I was heavily encouraging you all to do this in the last several columns).
If you’re not the bookmarking kind, you can always find the column by typing Dragster Insider into the search bar throughout the site.
It’s my hope that we can restore some sort of permanent home-page link in the “river bank” that runs alongside the “river” stories, not only for this column, but also for the others that the National Dragster staff is now posting on NHRA.com instead of NationalDragster.net. As much as we loved having our original content on our own branded website, having it before a larger audience on NHRA.com will expose it to many more people and help reinforce the brand image of the National Dragster staff as experts in the sport.
A lot of other stuff is going on behind the scenes here, but I’m especially excited about an announcement that will be made next week concerning a yearlong celebration of Funny Cars. Although the Funny Car concept was around for months before the event, the 1966 NHRA World Finals marked the first time that NHRA contested the eliminator at a national event, so that provides the platform on which we’re going to build. The official announcement of this program will come early next week, along with more details, but what I can tell you is that it’s going to get a huge kickoff at the Circle K NHRA Winternationals that you won’t want to miss.
As you may know, Lewis Bloom, known to NHRA TV viewers as one of our sport’s top stats experts, has relocated to Southern California and is working out of NHRA HQ in Glendora. Lewis, who, like me, has a deep love and knowledge of our sport’s history, will be contributing stories to NHRA.com and National Dragster. He has already filmed one video segment reflecting on the 1982 Winternationals, which marked the debut of the 500-cid Pro Stockers, that should be on NHRA.com before long. He has been like a kid in a candy shop poring over our enormous photo files, so you history buffs can expect to see more nostalgic goodness from him from time to time.
Thanks also for the massive amount of feedback on some of the more recent columns concerning Ontario Motor Speedway and my “letter to my younger self.” I’d like to share some of it with you below to clear a backlog of emails before we start with fresh new columns this year.
I got so many comments about my letter to myself that I can’t even begin to think about publishing them all, but here are a few that stood out.
From Racepak President Tim Anderson: “I just saw my life pass before my computer monitor. That pretty much mirrored my youth, just replace OCIR and Irwindale with Bristol, Darlington, Rockingham, and other backwoods racetracks. I lived on National Dragster, SSDI, and Pop Hot Rod, memorized every page (there actually was a small, local newsstand that carried Nat Drag), and somehow knew that useless information would come in handy, someday.
“Now, every so often, I will hear a familiar voice outside my office, look around the corner, and see Roland, Del, or until he passed away, Gary Burgin, stopping by to pick up parts and pieces for their data systems. It has definitely been a very, very interesting ride. From small-town Bristol, Tenn., to South Orange County, I can’t complain, but as you also indicated, it was really, really tough to get here. It’s a long way to the top, if you wanna rock and roll, right??
“P.S. … I did take typing … so I could check out the chicks, but that has also paid off.”
From Ken Brodsky: “Just had to write and tell you how wonderful and moving your Christmas Letter to My Younger Self was. I, too, lost my dad (at age 8) and grew up with a stepfather, so I know what it is like. I also wanted to be a writer but got into accounting as my girlfriend at the time convinced me it was a better idea. Still think she was wrong but a bit late now!
“The one point your story brings out is don’t be afraid to take a shot at a career move you really feel right about regardless of the immediate monetary value. I meet and interview way too many kids today who expect big bucks to start – they have no clue what it takes to be successful. I only hope a bunch of kids read your letter and feel inspired to follow their hearts into life.”
From Cliff Morgan: “Boy, it struck a chord with me on a lot of stuff, especially getting the hook in deep with drag racing (and typing with two fingers. Ha!). Quick memory share: San Fernando Drags, 1962(?). Top Fuel race, little blown Chevy takes on a blown Chrysler. At the drop of the flag, the Chevy goes into a wheelie, comes down, goes into another wheelie, and off they go. Chrysler has to lift about halfway down – too much tire smoke, I think – and the Chevy wins. All those years ago, and I still see that in my mind. That's what put the hook in and why I love the sport so much today.”
From my old AOL Drag Racers Forum pal Terry Spencer: “I had a little tear in my eye as I related to similar feelings and experiences as a kid growing up and following my drag racing heroes at places like San Gabriel, Pomona, Irwindale, OCIR, Fontana, and Lions. Of course, I had to be driven to these places by generous and indulgent parents. So thanks for dedicating yourself to your craft to clearly put into words what many of us cannot. But you blew it by skipping the Springsteen photo op!”
Also a lot of great feedback on OMS.
Scott New, whose family runs popular and nostalgia-happy Firebird Raceway in Idaho, sent me the image at right of a cool find in his family scrapbook: passes from that inaugural Supernationals. “I’ll never forget how blown away he was by the massive buildout they did with Ontario,” he wrote. “I remember [my dad] telling us boys about some type of sit-down restaurant/bar, and he said the hospitality was amazing given the rarity of it anywhere in racing at the time.”
Famed chassis builder Don Long wrote me after reading the history of the Supernationals/World Finals that the first three Top Fuel winners – the Keeling & Clayton California Charger, Hank Johnson’s entry, and the Walton-Cerny-Moody machine all came off of his jig. Additionally, and fantastically coincidentally, two of those three cars are back in his shop. The restoration of the Charger chassis is finished and awaiting pickup by its owner, Brent Cannon, and the restoration of the W-C-M chassis is just beginning for its owner, Hal Sanguinetti. Pretty cool!
Chuck Rearick raced at Ontario in Pro Comp in 1977 and remembers it well.
“Back then, you had to qualify to attend the race by being one of the top cars in your particular division via point standings,” he wrote. “The track was smooth as a billiard table, and on our second qualifying pass, the car broke an axle at midtrack, which resulted in a pretty exciting ride. Luckily, I did not hit the guardrail or anything else and made the first turnoff. My crew, who was on the starting line, said that you could read our names on the side of the nosepiece. It was pretty sideways. When I got out of the car, the right rear tire was sitting there at an angle, and when the weight of the car was taken off, the wheel and what was left of the axle fell off. The axle sheared just inside the bearing. Unfortunately, a replacement axle was not available, even though we tried, so we were done for the weekend. We ended up helping another Division 4 racer, Dave Settles, who won the event against Dale Armstrong.
“Back then, the pit area was accessed from Haven Ave. on the right side. Additional parking was available on the left side of Haven. It is all commercial areas now, but back then, it was an open field – literally. I don't think Rancho Cucamonga had been invented yet. Before retiring, I used to travel to the Inland Empire on business in the late ‘90s and into the 2000s and was amazed at how the area has grown since ‘77. I believe the berm for the OMS Turn One is still there alongside one of the restaurant/shopping-area roads.”
Al Kean, whose name may be familiar to many who’ve read this column for his iconic photo of Don Prudhomme’s 'Cuda flying through the lights on fire in Seattle, took up my closed-caption challenge from vintage footage.
“I immediately thought of the 1980 NHRA Fallnationals in Seattle. I remembered that the announcer in the tower (Bernie Partridge?) had trouble pronouncing the name of the Stock eliminator winner (in a rerun not shown in the TV coverage): Calvin Queahpama. Steve Evans was the host of the TV show (trivia tidbit: this was the first drag race EVER broadcast on ESPN!). Looking up the coverage on YouTube, www.youtube.com/watch?v=GDLE3lJxYlg, the Stock eliminator coverage starts at 19:13 with ‘Doc eliminator.’ Sportsman Cup winner Ray Cook (‘Rachel’) racing Calvin ‘Obama.’ Steve Evans described the Stock eliminator class (‘One you wouldn't like to have a problem with republican river in Europe you can actually driving to the grocery store'). The show carries on with Shirley winning Top Fuel with a 5.84 ('584 is pretty overweight'). Pretty funny stuff.”
Mark Watkins added, “Excellent review of a track that was light-years ahead of its time. All of the 'super tracks' of today stand on the shoulders of OCIR and OMS. I do remember it was not a great place to watch a race after being spoiled by being 10 feet away from the action at Lions.”
The 1976 Finals video I showed brought back lots of memories to Dan Tuttle. “I think that might have been the last time I was able to sneak into the races,” he recalled. “I was 12. In 1975, I could tell you the exact spot where I was standing when Garlits backed up the 5.63: right at the finish line looking over the logo for the Big O. He must have been three cars ahead of whoever was in the other lane. Nobody ever remembers the other guy! Only who was there when he did it. I knew it was something special backing it up, but looking back, it was like you know where you were when Neil Armstrong did that thing that he did. (We were at Disneyland.)
“So, in 1976 for the semi’s in Funny Car, I was standing at the fence right on the starting line when ‘Ace’ blew the blower off. Funny thing is I don’t remember Foster driving the Shady Glenn. OMG, being in the 50s sucks! The blower comes off 'Ace’s' car, almost in slow-mo. Just surreal to see it again. That’s the one thing that stands out in my memory from then. Oh, to be 12 again. I would pay so much more attention to my dad when he was trying to explain something.”
Don Luke actually lived in Ontario in the late 1970s and got to attend many of the last events there – in addition to the national event, occasional Funny Car match races were run at OMS – thanks to a local connection.
“Our neighbors across the street were retired,” he wrote. “Talking with them, we found out he was working as a security guard at Ontario to pick up some extra money in retirement. He told us that for every event, he was given four tickets and a parking pass for preferred (or VIP) parking in front of the grandstands. The seats he usually got were on the start/finish line in the grandstands. He told us since he was working during the events, he never used the tickets and wanted to know if we were interested in them. Needless to say, we said we were willing to take the tickets off of his hands. He gave them to us for no cost. We attended as many events as we could until the facility started shutting down.”
OK, that catches me up with a lot of the correspondence. As always, some neat memories to add to our collection here. Thanks to everyone, including those whose submissions I didn’t use.
I’ll see you next Friday.