“Obits have next to nothing to do with death and absolutely everything to do with life.” -- Margalit Fox, staff writer on the Obituaries desk of The New York Times since 2004.
Well said, Margalit and, with that sentiment as a motto, let’s celebrate the life of Dale Emery, former Fuel Altered and Funny Car driver and championship-winning nitro crew chief, who passed away last Friday. The man affectionately known as “The Snail” lived his life at a much faster pace, even as health issues conspired to slow him down. He was in England this past November with a group of other heroes for the British Drag Racing Hall of Fame gala and had accepted an invitation to be part of our Legends Tour at the upcoming event in Houston.
Emery had been battling health woes for some time, but just couldn’t fight it off this time. We learned he was in dire straits yet remained hopeful. Richard Tharp was kind enough to keep me in the loop and then to share the sad news. In a sign of ultimate respect, NHRA produced a video tribute to him that aired on the Gatornationals FS1 TV show, and “Fast Jack” Beckman gave him a nice shoutout from the event.
If you’ve been around this column long enough, or read the obituary that I prepared on Emery, you’re probably familiar with the column I wrote on Emery back in 2012, which told his life story and shared some of the wild moments from his amazing career. What those probably didn’t do was tell you what an amazing and interesting guy he was without a butterfly wheel or a wrench in his hands.
I’ll leave that now to some of the guys who knew him way better and race with and alongside him (I tried very hard -- via phone, text, email, and Facebook -- to get in touch with Pure Hell owner Rich Guasco but could not before press time. Maybe that's a column unto itself.)
Fred Miller, best known to racing fans as “Waterbed Fred,” was part of that history-making Emery-led Blue Max team that dominated Funny Car racing in the late 1970s and early 1980s and he’s the last left standing. We lost Raymond Beadle in 2014 and D. Gannt earlier this year and now Emery. Miller's relationship with Emery goes back more than five decades.
Miller was working at the shop of wheelstander driver Bob Riggle in his hometown of Mansfield, Ohio, when Emery and Gantt rolled into his shop with Gary Watson’s Flying Red Baron Mustang wheelstander. Emery and Gantt had met while Emery was driving Rich Guasco’s Pure Hell fuel altered and Gantt was wrenching for Fuel Altered legend “Wild Willie” Borsch.
Later, when Emery and Gantt came back to deliver Don and Roy Gay’s Infinity Funny Car to new owner Riggle, Emery ended up driving and Miller tagged along to a match race in Lancaster, Pa. (“Dee tried to show me how to open a can of oil with a screwdriver; after I ruined three cans, he took the screwdriver away.”) A few years later, their paths crossed again when Emery was driving and Gantt wrenching on the JEGS Camaro Funny Car of Jeg Coughlin Sr. Miller went with them to an IHRA national event in Bristol, which they won, defeating Pat Foster in the always tough Barry Setzer Vega.
When the team headed back west, Miller went with them and became part of the crew that won Le Grandnational in 1973 and the Winternationals in 1974. The Winternationals win came with a new lightweight body that Emery had constructed after they blew the body off at the 1973 season finale in Ontario; weight, says Miller, was always Emery’s No. 1 target.
“We’d leave the shop at night and he’d stay behind, working all night on this little lathe he had,” Miller recalled with a laugh. “I’d come in the next morning and he’d say, ‘Do you see all these [metal] chips on the floor? You don’t see them sticking to the ceiling, do you? That means they weighed something.’ There was no bolt that had two threads sticking out past the nut, and all of the bolts were titanium.
“He was fanatical about weight, and you saw it in the body. Jaime Sarte built us a car and Dale put his magic to it, lightening everything, especially that body. We used to leave the body outside when we worked at [Ed] Pink’s shop and we were right next door to where ‘Snake’ worked on his cars. ‘Snake’ had just gotten that fancy [John] Buttera car with the Vega body and all the louvers all over it and it weighed a ton. After we won [the Winternationals] he walked over and could pick up one side of our body by himself; that Buttera body took four guys. ‘Snake’ was furious and immediately sold that car to [Tom] Hoover.”
Coughlin parked the car after the 1974 Gatornationals (“What a shame,” Miller lamented. “It was such a cool car and was just fixing to be the baddest car out there.”) and everyone went their separate ways, but Coughlin, who celebrated his 80th birthday this past weekend, remains in awe of Emery’s abilities.
“Dale was fantastic; he was the greatest guy in the world to work with, he was very meticulous in everything he did,” said Coughlin. “When he got a car ready to go, it was fast, and he did a great job of keeping the motor together. I could throw my wallet down there on the table and tell him to buy whatever we needed, and he would do it very sensibly. He was just a great guy.”
Although he continued to run his own cars locally, Jeg was too busy running his mail-order business to take a Funny Car on the road, so he turned Emery and Gantt loose, and they brought home the bacon with two national event wins in less than a year.
“We did great and had a lot of fun with it, but eventually I decided that I didn’t want to have a second team and running JEGS was still my No 1 priority, so I parked the car,” Coughlin explained.
Miller, Emery, and Gantt reunited a few years later on the Blue Max after Emery broke his arm at the 1977 U.S. Nationals –- ironically with the Blue Max in the other lane -– and was hired by Beadle. Within a year Emery turned the struggling car into a championship winner.
“We hadn’t been running good and were having problems even qualifying,” recalled Miller. “[Original owner and tuner Harry] Schmidt was burned out, so Beadle hired Emery. He still had his arm in a cast, but it changed our lives forever once he got it sorted out.
“He did it all. He epitomized being a drag racer. Like a Garlits, he could build it, drive it, tune it, the whole thing. When we went to the 16-spark plug heads, Dale handmade everything. I saw him take a billet chunk of aluminum and make a fuel pump out of it. It was a vane pump with impellers and round, like a basketball, and he made it from nothing. He even made his own nozzles. That’s a crew chief. He’s one of a handful like that, like Austin Coil, Dick LaHaie, Tim Richards, and Alan Johnson, who can make something out of nothing.
“He was a brutally hard worker. He was a fun guy, always joking around -– he hung with guys like Guasco, Dale Funk, and ‘Tarzan’ [John Austin] –- who were always blowing [stuff] up or doing something crazy, but when it came time to work, he was dead-ass serious.”
Don Prudhomme had every reason to not like the Blue Max team after they ended his four-year reign atop the Funny Car pack in 1978, but the exact opposite is true, and remains that way today.
“When Beadle and Emery and ‘Waterbed’ used to beat us, I hated to like them, but couldn’t help myself,” he told me earlier this week. “They were, by far, the best group of guys we ever raced against. Beadle would get out of the car and damn near apologize for beating you -– I was just the opposite, mad as hell -– and Emery was always great because if you had a problem he’d help you out. He’d offer his flowbench or whatever you needed. ‘Waterbed’ and I remain the best of friends -– I was the best man at his wedding -– and Raymond and I stayed real close until he passed. Emery was the braintrust there at the Blue Max. I don’t know if they were better than us, but, I’ll tell you, I don’t think we were better than they were, that’s for damn sure.”
(For the record, Beadle felt the same way about Prudhomme and Bob Brandt. At Prudhomme’s surprise 70th birthday party in 2011, Beadle told us, "If you didn't race against the Army car, you had no idea what we went through. I'm standing here, and I see him, and I see 'Weasel' [Brandt] staring at me, and I have nightmares just thinking about these two. That was as bad as it gets. If you beat those guys, believe me, you earned it. Nobody beat him forever. It just didn’t happen. They were the best of the best.")
Pat Galvin, who crewed for a Who’s Who of the sport but never directly for Emery, nonetheless enjoyed an especially close relationship with Emery, who became a mentor to him. Ironically, Emery passed away on Galvin’s birthday last Friday.
“When I was running McEwen’s car, we ran the same races as the Blue Max, so we all traveled together –- me and ‘Waterbed,’ Dale, and Dee -- stayed at the same hotels, the whole thing,” Galvin recalled. “Dale was always looking out for me, keeping me on the straight and narrow. I would be out during the week chasing women or drinking and maybe get to bed at three in the morning and at 6:30 a.m. Dale would be beating my door down because he wanted to go to breakfast. It wasn’t a question of whether I wanted to go. It was ‘Get your ass out of bed.’ He would rip the sheets off and dump ice water on me. I’d tell him, ‘ “Schnoz,” [another favorite Emery nickname in reference to his large nose], I don’t work for you,’ and he’d say, ‘I don’t give a [damn].’ He definitely looked out for me.
“He was just a wonderful guy, and smart. There was nothing he couldn’t do. He could think out of the box, similar to an Austin Coil or a Dale Armstrong. He could build anything. You could go to dinner with him and spend hours talking about fuel systems and clutches and application. There were many times he’d come over after losing to whatever car I was working on to help or to bust my balls if I did something stupid.”
Crewmembers of that era were galvanized by the long hours of travel running match races across the country and toiling endlessly on their respective cars.
“At the end of the day, everyone who ran out of Ed Pink Racing Engines –- the teams at that time were Prudhomme, [Mike] Burkhart, both when Tharp and Guy Tipton had it, Dale and Dee, Super Shops, and Shirley Muldowney] -- waited for everyone else,” Galvin explained. “We all cleaned up together, went straight to whatever restaurant we were going to. We ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner together.
“Crew guys all ran together whatever town we were in. You counted on everyone going together. If there was a concert there were tickets for all of us. if there was a dinner, there was a chair for everybody. If there was a banquet, you were going with them. It was a great time and we got paid and got to race. How lucky was I?”
Galvin even brought his sons, Nick and Trevor, to meet Emery and his wife, Brenda, at his home outside of Dallas where Galvin had stayed many times, and watched Emery walk his sons through the large collection of keepsakes from his career, giving the youngster an unprecedented living history.
“My kids marvel at the fact that I have so many 40-year friends that I’m still close to,” he said. “But when it came to Dale, I was the lucky kid who stood at the fence at Irwindale and watched him drive, and then ended up working on Funny Cars and got to know him and became very close. Every conversation I had with him ended with, ‘I love you, kid,’ and I would go, ‘I love you, too, Dale.’ “
That goes for all of us, Dale. You’ll be missed.
Memorial services for Emery will be held at 1 p.m., Saturday, April 14 at Midway Baptist Church in Pilot Point, Texas. That's the weekend between Las Vegas and Houston events.
Phil Burgess can reached at [email protected]