Everyone in life should be so lucky to have a mentor, someone who’s been there and done that in your chosen field and is there to help not only show you the ropes, but to inspire you and keep you moving in the right direction.
Doug Rose, the world-renowned jet-car racer and entertainer who passed away last month after an incident behind the wheel of his famed Green Mamba jet dragster, was exactly that person to another jet-powered Doug, Doug Brown, who went on to have a wildly successful career with the Wildfire jet dragster. He shared with me how and how much Doug Rose influenced his career.
“I don't want to make the following sound like my story,” he prefaced his remarks, wanting to make this about Rose more than himself. “However, I want to paint a picture which clearly demonstrates just how important Doug Rose was to me, not only as a friend, but, as a mentor and catalyst in my jet dragster career.
“The most important issue of my success is the fact that I came from poverty. My family did not have two nickels to rub together. I was about 11 or 12 years old and had never been to any kind of drag race in my life. Growing up in Riverside we had 2 AM radio stations, KMEN and KFXM. I can hear the radio ads now: ’SUNDAY! SUNDAY! SUNDAY! This Sunday at beautiful Fontana Drag City, four of the most powerful jet cars in the country! Watch all four of the jets racing side by side! When the jets light the afterburners, you'll be able to hear the sonic booms all the way to Riverside!’
“My older brother asked if I would like to go to Fontana and see the jet cars, so off we went. The four jets that ran were not the sleek little 1,000-pound, skinny things of today. They were the huge 3,000-4,000-pound J-46, J-47, J-79 powered cars of the dinosaur age of jets. And they ran all four side by side on that little skinny track of Mickey Thompson's. Wow! One of the cars running was Doug Rose. That was my first drag race and, obviously, the first time I had ever seen a jet car.”
It would still be years before Doug Brown met Doug Rose, as Brown worked his way from car to car, always looking for that next thrill. I know this is a story about the two of them, but I found Brown’s story about his progression not only interesting but illuminating (and funny).
He continued, “In 1971, I was 18 and had washed dishes at a Denny's to save my money to go to Lion's Dragstrip’s once-a-month ‘High Performance Swap Meet,’ where I bought my first car, a complete A/FD operation with open trailer, spare parts, and cans of nitro for $2,250 (!!!) and blah, blah, blah, ran it, and went broke. The car ran in the sevens at 186 mph –- woo-hoo! –- but, come on, I was making minimum wage at Denny's, nitro was $5 a gallon but when I ran through the spare parts and the nitro that came with the car, I was done. I did indeed bite off more than I could chew. However, I was hooked!
“Next, I bought a complete D/Gas dragster 4-cylinder Pontiac Tempest Mickey Thompson dragster with trailer full of parts and open trailer for $1,000 (!!!) from an ad in National Dragster. This was the Mickey Thompson car that he set all of those FIA world records with. Mickey had run this car with every conceivable engine combination -- on gas, on alcohol, on nitro; carbureted, two deuces, one quad, three deuces, injected and blown (it used the old Moon blower setup where the GMC 4-71 was mounted between the frame rails up in front of the engine) – the car came with all of this stuff plus five or six blocks, cases of pistons, bearings, cams, cranks, on and on. We ran the heck out of this car! Irwindale Wednesday night. OCIR Saturday night. Lions on Sunday. Sometimes at the old Ontario Motor Speedway when they ran monthly events. Riverside Dragstrip. The car came with so many spare parts, I could still be running that thing today! However, I wanted to go faster!”
(“Side story: The Tyler Mall was having a sweepstakes so my girlfriend and I swiped every entry form we could find. It took us two days to fill them all out and we stuffed the entry box. A week later, I got the call that I had won! (Surprise, surprise!). I won a Toyota Corolla that was a POS and I did not need a car. The dealer offered me his invoice cost in cash, $2,000-ish, so I took the cash and bought my first rollaway tool box and tools AND my first enclosed dragster trailer! I bought the Larry and Pat Dixon AA/FD trailer from Larry Dixon for $600. This was his trailer for the blue front engine car. They had just built his red rear-engined car, and it would not fit in this trailer. Heart beating at 200 revs plus and palms sweating, I knocked on the door of this AA/FD superstar. WOW! Was I actually sitting on the sofa with Larry and Pat Dixon in their North Hollywood home? Double wow! Gave him a money order for the $600 and headed home. I was stylin'! An enclosed trailer!”)
“I then upgraded to brand-new C/Gas dragster, which was my favorite car of all time. It was my first car that was built for me from the ground up. Norm Porter and Walt Meers of Race Car Productions in Rialto built the 180-inch three-rail chassis. I built the 350-inch Chevrolet on gas, but I went crazy and sold the car.”
That’s where Brown’s drag racing career took an unpredictable turn. He hired rocket-car guru Ky Michaelson to build him a hydrogen peroxide-fueled rocket car. He didn’t have the money for a dragster or a Funny Car, so he ended up with an 88-inch-wheelbase, open-cockpit, Can Am-looking car he called The Flasher.
“The car almost killed me, it was so evil handling,” he remembers. “I only ran it for two seasons before selling it to save my booty. During the time I ran the rocket car, I got to know some of the jet and wheelstander guys as we would be booked into the same shows, end up at the same hotels, have dinner together, etc. That is when I got to casually know Doug Rose.”
In 1976, Brown sold the car to Texan Dickie Williams who hired Funny Car pilot Clayton Pool to drive for him for they both came to their senses and went on to racing a Funny Car together.
After Brown sold the rocket car, he took some time off to regroup -– “I was patching holes in the road for the road department, once again saving my money to go racing again someday,” he remembers -– when Rose called him up out of the blue and asked what he was doing.
“He ultimately told me that Bob Motz was selling his complete operation -- jet Dragster, trailer, spare jet engines -- and that I should call him," said Brown. "I told him, ‘I don't have that kind of money,’ but he pushed the issue, and insisted that I call Motz. I ended up buying the car from Motz. (Thank you, Doug Rose!) "
Brown christened the car Wildfire and was in the jet-car business, even racing his mentor, Rose. Such was the case on May 28, 1979, at the Orange County Int’l Raceway Division 7 event, when the two squared off on the opening day of the two-day event.
“I beat Rose, but at the finish line at 255 mph, the parachute mounts tore from my car, turning the car sideway and rolling 20-25 times in front of Rose, who had both chutes out and standing on the brakes," he recalled. "I was knocked out on the first roll. It was Rose who helped get me out of the car and the one who helped my girlfriend Pat get the remains of the car back in the trailer while I was off to the hospital.
(“The photo above was taken at the WWCS event, six seconds before I crashed. The crash was on Friday night during qualifying, and not many, if any photographers were at the track. Quoting Bill Donor (from reliable sources) ‘Why couldn't he have done it on Saturday night?’)
“A week after the crash, Rose came over to my shop to see the remains of my car. He asked me, ‘What are you going to now?’ I had no idea. Rose told me about a semi-complete jet car that Fred Sibley had built for Jim Deist that was just sitting at Deist Safety Equipment. Rose told me to call Jim and try to make a deal to drive his car. I did. I leased the car from Deist and made the rest of my bookings that summer (thank you, Doug Rose!).
“The Deist car was, putting it politely, not so desirable. At Seattle International Raceway, Doug came to me in the pits and told me that Wayne Knuth, owner of ‘The Odyssey’ jet dragster (the car in which Tony Schumacher ultimately got his first high-speed driving experience) just had split from his driver, Larry Kisha, and was looking for a new driver and that I should go talk to him. So, I did. I was hired by Wayne to drive the Odyssey. Thank you, Doug Rose!
“I drove both cars for the rest of that year (sometimes both cars in the same eight-car show!) I bought the Odyssey from Wayne, returned the jet car back to Deist, and went on my merry way to earn a living from drag racing for the next 20 years, including multiple tours of New Zealand, Australia, Japan … I would have never been able to afford to do all of that on my own money. Who would have guessed all of that would happen as an 11-year-old poor kid who watched four jet cars running down the dragstrip in Fontana?
"I used to LOVE to match race against Top Fuel dragsters and AA Funny Cars. My biggest thrill was doing two out of three match races with Don Garlits and Shirley Muldowney. Me, a poor, stupid kid from the bad side of town in Riverside, racing against the heroes I used to read about and watch from the stands. I am truly the luckiest person on the face of the Earth!
“And as you can see, Rose was not only a catalyst, but the driving force who time and time again pushed me towards my career in jet dragster racing. During the early years, there was only six or seven jet cars in the entire country. On the West Coast It was Doug Rose and Doug Brown; week after week, it was the Doug vs. Doug Show. We towed together, we stayed at the same hotels, ate meals together. We became very close. The stories are endless. We were very close and had an ongoing practical joke wars. One video I posted recently on YouTube and my Facebook page shows me tossing a military smoke grenade (green, of course) down the tailpipe of Doug Rose's Green Mamba. Then you see Doug Rose retaliate by tossing a string of firecrackers down the afterburner of my car.
"After the races at O.C.I.R., many of the Top Fuel, Funny Car, jet car, and wheelstander guys would stop at a restaurant off the 55 Freeway in Orange [Calif.] for a bite to eat and mass quantities of beer and merry making. As I recall the name of the restaurant was Arthur's. This picture was taken on Dec. 7, 1982 after The Jet, Rocket and Wheelstander Nationals at OCIR. It was also Doug Rose's birthday. Well, gee, I had to something! I bought a whole cream pie and ‘presented’ it to Doug!"
Brown, of course, has a tale to share on the same path as the oft-repeated tales of Rose sending waitresses shrieking by stabbing his prosthetic legs with a steak knife.
“On a different occasion at Arthur's, one of my favorite "Doug & Doug Craziness" incidents happened. We were sitting in a booth, with Doug Rose sitting directly across from me. After ordering, he kept putting his foot in my lap. I pushed his foot over and off of mine, ‘thunk’ hitting the floor. He put his leg in my lap again, and once again I brushed his leg off and onto the floor. Well, this went on and on, as we both were laughing and having fun. Just as the waitress was walking up with one of those huge serving trays balanced on her shoulder with all of our meals on it, Doug Rose threw his leg up into my lap again. I had enough! I grabbed my steak knife in my right hand and his foot in my left hand. As I violently started hacking and stabbing Doug in his foot and leg, I yelled 'Damnit Doug! I told you to stop putting your leg in my lap!' The poor waitress screamed and threw her tray up into the air, scattering all of our food and breaking all of the dishes on the floor, as she ran from the room. By this time everyone is laughing so hard, we almost wet ourselves. For the rest of the evening Doug left my steak knife sticking out of his shin, much to the dismay of other patrons and that poor waitress!
"Touring down south, the Green Mamba vs. Wildfire match race appeared at State Capital Dragway in Baton Rouge, La., on a Saturday night and Lake Charles, La., the next afternoon, but we had five days off prior to our next booking in Gulfport, Miss., the following weekend. We ended up in New Orleans to unwind and ‘par-tay.’ We took an afternoon cruise up the Mississippi River on the Steamboat Natchez, imbibing in way too many of those oh-so-tasty Hurricanes. We headed back to the hotel to regroup prior to heading out to Bourbon Street that night to get serious in our merry-making.
“We went to the pool. Doug took a chaise lounge and threw it into the pool. Wearing sunglasses, he dove into the pool and reclined on the chaise lounge underwater in the deep end of the pool (still wearing his sunglasses). After way too long a time, my girlfriend Pat started to yell that Doug had drowned, which alerted other hotel guests. As onlookers arrived, gasps and shouts erupted as they saw a man wearing sunglasses, with no legs, laying on a chaise lounge under 10 feet of water. "Call an Ambulance!’ and ‘Someone save him!’ they shouted. About that time, Doug surfaced and took a big breath. Exiting the pool (picture him quite intoxicated, and, of course, four-foot-tall tall on his stumps), he's asked, ‘What's all the excitement?’ One lady almost fainted. A couple grabbed up their children and whisked them away. By that time, everyone in our group is busting up, as onlookers still could not understand what had just happened. To this day, I swear he was under water for two minutes or more. Antics like this was a daily occurrence.
“Thank you, Doug Rose, for being my friend and mentor. I will always remember the great times we shared!”
Phil Burgess can reached at [email protected]