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What's it all about?

01 Jan 2016
Phil Burgess, National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

No real new column today – even the Insider deserves a week off to celebrate the holidays – but just a chance to once again express my thanks to the loyal visitors to this little cyber pit space. It seems impossible that since I rolled out this column in the summer of 2007 we’ve shared more than 700 columns worth of drag racing memories. If you’ve been around this gin joint long enough, you know that it’s a collaborative effort, with me developing the storylines and themes and you good readers sharing your additional memories, information, and photos.

We’ve covered so much ground and so many wonderful topics that I wondered if there was any way to graphically represent it all, and I found it in Tagxedo, a cool little interface that allows you to load a series of words then creates what many might call a “tag cloud,” based on the number of times a word is used. The bigger the word, the more commonly used.

I uploaded a list of all 715 column titles to Tagxedo and this is what I got. I love how “remembering” and “stories” are two of the biggest, along with “photos” and “memories” and “years,” because, really, that’s what we do here.

If you look closer, you’ll also see words like “Indy” and “Garlits” and “farewell” and “ramp” (remember the long-running ramp truck thread?) and “fun” and “friends.” Really says it all, doesn’t it.

Anyway, thanks again for the love and support, the contributions and the conversation. Let’s keep it going. Happy new year.

(Also, another reminder to bookmark this page to make it easy to find in the new year.) 

I wrote the column above just before NHRA closed for the holidays Dec. 23, not knowing that some dark days lay ahead for the drag racing community, which has been rocked by a series of losses the last two weeks of 2015. I just couldn’t let it go unmentioned until my next column.

Just a week earlier we’d lost Roger Gustin, who worked tirelessly with the NHRA in the 1970s to set new standards of safety for jet-powered drag racing vehicles and went on to become one of the most popular drivers of the thrust-powered exhibition vehicles. Gustin, who died of brain cancer Dec. 15 at age 76, was one of the nicest guys I’ve met in the sport, and certainly one of the most successful, following his hall of fame jet career with as second calling as the owner/operator of the popular Super Chevy series..

The day after Gustin’s passing we lost hall of fame motorcycle drag racer Ray Price, credited by many as the “Father of the Funny Bike." The renowned designer and engineer reportedly was the first drag racer to be sponsored by Harley-Davidson and also to develop the first wheelie bar and first two-speed automatic racing transmission for motorcycles.

Four days later, racers everywhere in every class were stunned by the death of Tim Hyatt, one of the preeminent experts in drag racing clutches and a staple of the NHRA Manufacturers Midway for decades, who passed away suddenly December 20. He was 61. I remember Tim well from my time hanging out with the Mazi family, who ran a Hays clutch in their wild supercharged Opel. As I’ve read countless times on message boards across the internet, he was always there with a helpful hand and a ready smile and, more often than not, the perfect solution to your woes.

The day before Christmas, the sport, especially those on the nostalgia racing trails, were shocked by the death of Henry Gutierrez, a longtime friend of the sport and owner of the Jungle Jim Tribute Funny Car, who was found murdered in his Schertz, Texas home Dec. 24. “Big show” fans may not have been as familiar with his name, but will know of his largesse as owner of Bexar Waste, which sponsored, among others, Spencer Massey, Paul Smith, and Blake Alexander.

Christmas Day brought more sadness when we learned of the passing of famed Top Fuel and Funny Car driver “Superman” Jim Nicoll, who died of an apparent heart attack in Arizona. I had the pleasure to interview Nicoll on several occasions, and wrote this column about him several years ago. I and many other fans of his were able to touch bases with him again last year at Indy when he and Don Prudhomme shared memories of Nicoll’s notorious 1970 U.S. Nationals crash.

The day after Christmas, many of us got the news we knew was coming but that we hoped never would, as former National Dragster editor George Phillips died Dec. 26 after a brave battle with cancer. He was 69. George was one of just two people on the editorial team when I joined NHRA in May 1982 and it working with him that I learned much about how National Dragster went together. He served a brief stint as editor – I was his successor – but also had so many other important roles within NHRA, especially in the Jr. Dragster ranks, where he was known to legions of young racers as “Uncle George.”

The very next day, we learned of the passing Gary Meadors, founder of Goodguys Rod and Custom Association, from a heart attack Dec. 27. Meadors launched Goodguys in 1983 and watched it grow into a 10-event hot rod and custom car schedule. Meador also was a member of the Bonneville 200-mph club as well as recipient of the Street Rodder magazine Lifetime Achievement Award and the Hot Rod Industry Alliance Lifetime Achievement award, as well as induction into the Street Rod Marketing Alliance Hall of Fame.

The bad news continued Dec. 30 when I heard from Cory McClenathan of the passing of respected veteran alcohol crew chief Ora Vazquez. Vazquez, a fixture in the sport for more than 60 years, had helped McClenathan in his early days, and went on to work with drivers like Blaine Johnson, Bucky Austin, Pat Austin, Tiffani Hyland, Russ Parker, Lee Callaway, Artie Allen, and Dennis Taylor to name a few. The former three-time divisional Crew Chief of the Year was 85 years old. “The man helped make me the person and the racer I became,” said McClenathan, “I will miss him very much.”

The next day, word came down that former NHRA Division 7 Director Warren Smith had passed away Dec. 30. Smith succeeded Graham Light as Pacific Division Director in December 1986 and remained in that position until the end of the 1990 season.

All of this sadness brings me back to the original intent of the Dragster Insider in general and this column in specific. What's it all about? It's about community. And when we lose members of this close-knit community, we all grieve. And the past two weeks have been tough on us all. Very tough.

Here's to a happier 2016.