NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

The Time Machine: 1973

Step into the Wayback Machine and set the dials to 1973, when nine of the 16 nitro winners were first-time winners, three new world champs were crowned, and policies and procedures from records to safety were overhauled.
17 Aug 2018
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

1973.jpgFrequent Insider contributor John Bell cut the best light in reaction to my invitation on last Friday’s second installment of the Time Machine series, asking for a recap of 1973, the first year that he became an NHRA member and subscriber to National Dragster. How could I resist? It was also the year that Aerosmith released its debut album, the popularly subversive show Laugh-In was canceled, Billy Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in tennis' Battle of the Sexes, and Bruce Lee and Pablo Picasso (both artists in their own way) both died.

As I was doing my research on the 1973 NHRA season, I found a number of crossovers to previous columns, so I've linked them throughout for some followup bonus reading in case you missed them the first time around (if they're disruptive to your reading, let me know). Anyway, set your Wayback Machine dials to 1973, back to when gas was 39 cents a gallon (but not for long) and world was all about about Watergate.

The NHRA season kicked off with its own version of "water gate" and one of the longest events in NHRA national event history as rain forced the Winternationals to be postponed on back-to-back weekends (though it would be supplanted in the pain and suffering department five years later at the 1978 Winternationals) before the third time was the charm for a trio of Dons.

Don Schumacher won the Winternationals Funny Car title, his fifth and final NHRA national event, when he ran a 7.18 at 220.58 mph, low e.t. and top speed, in the Funny Car final to defeat Kenny Bernstein, who was competing in his first national event in Funny Car. At the time, the win tied Schumacher with Ed McCulloch as the sport’s winningest Funny Car driver. (Don Prudhomme would not win his first in the class until later this season in Indy; more on that later).

Don Garlits, who also had low e.t. (6.51) and top speed (235.60), defeated an up-in-smoke Dennis Baca in the Top Final for his third career Pomona score while “Dyno Don” Nicholson scored in Pro Stock to make in an all-Don winner’s circle.

Due to a winter rules change, the Winternationals was the first NHRA national event where national e.t. and speed records would be certified and recognized in the three Pro classes. Previously, national records could only be set at designated record meets, such as divisional events or National Opens. Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins wasted no time laying claim to the first such mark, running 148.76 mph during Pro Stock qualifying in the short-lived (and just plain weird-looking) red and white Grumpy's Toy Vega and Nicholson the e.t. record in the final with a 9.33 against Don Carlton.

All of those performances took a back seat to Tony Fox's Pollution Packer hydrogen peroxide-fueled rocket dragster, driven by Dave Anderson, which, after another winter rule change, earned the honor of being the first rocket car allowed to run at an NHRA national event. Anderson ran 5.57 at 281.03 mph on the car’s maiden voyage then, a few months later at the Springnationals in Columbus, made the first four-second run in NHRA history (almost 15 years before Eddie Hill did it in a Top Fueler) with a 4.99 at a then-stunning 322 mph. 

The 1973 season was a good one for first-time nitro winners as nine of the 16 captured their first Wally. Herm Petersen piloted his dragster to a stunning breakthrough Top Fuel victory at the Gatornationals, defeating Jim Bucher, who earlier had set the national e.t. record with a 6.07. Garlits, who had low e.t. with a 6.05, set the national speed record at 243.24 mph. Pat Foster, driving Barry Setzer's amazing Vega, set the national e.t. record in Funny Car with a 6.36 en route to his first and only national event win, defeating Schumacher in the final. Schumacher ran 230.76 mph, also a national record. Winternationals winner Nicholson set both ends of the national record in Pro Stock en route to his second straight national event win with runs of 9.01 and 150.50 mph. 

Butch Maas suffered serious burns at the Gatornationals when Mickey Thompson’s Revelleader Grand Am became a rolling firebomb. He didn't meet his end, as Steve Reyes' iconic photo suggests, but spent two months in the local hospital recovering, and it was just the latest in a series of Funny Car fires that prompted NHRA into action. NHRA immediately announced that, as of June 1, all Funny Cars must be must be equipped with at least 20 pounds of Freon fire extinguishing agent, among other fire-related requirements including “fire windows” on the firewall and a closed breather-dump system. The next month, NHRA took delivery of a pair of specially constructed "entry suits" for use by emergency crews at national events to extricate drivers from burning vehicles and to combat fire at close range.

Also, as hard as it is to believe, it was until July 1 of 1973 that Pro Stock drivers had to be officially licensed by the NHRA. Until that time, only drivers of supercharged and/or fuel-burning vehicles were required to be licensed but NHRA broadened its requirements to include drivers in Pro Stock and in the unblown Competition eliminator classes. (The Alcohol Dragster and Funny Car classes did not officially exist yet.)

Speaking of licenses, in April Shirley Muldowney, driving Poncho Rendon’s dragster, became the first woman to qualify for an NHRA competition license in Top Fuel. Garlits was one of the licensed drivers to sign her application.

"Kansas John" Wiebe and Dave Beebe became the next first-time winners when the won Top Fuel and Funny Car, respectively, at the Springnationals. Wiebe defeated Garlits in a rematch of the 1971 Springnationals final for his first national event win, and Beebe drove Larry Huff's Soapy Sales Dodge Challenger to a final-round victory against an up-in-smoke Foster for his first. Carlton defeated a red-lighting Butch Leal in the Pro Stock final, and Judy Lilly became the first woman to win multiple national event titles with her victory in Super Stock. 

Clayton Harris added yet another first-time (and only-time) winner to the list when he won Top Fuel at the Summernationals. Harris, runner-up at the World Finals and the Gatornationals in 1972, made the field as an alternate and in the final defeated a broken Bucher. Bill Wigginton, driving the Candies & Hughes entry, ran a 6.03 in qualifying for a national record. Even though the first five-second pass had been run at the end of the 1972 season, it took until Indy before the record was set in the fives.

Leroy Goldstein, also driving for Candies & Hughes, wheeled the Cajun 'Cuda Funny Car to final-round victory over Foster for his third and final career win. In Pro Stock, which featured the quickest field in history, Jenkins defeated Leal in the final for his second straight Summernationals title though Leal set the national speed record in the final with a 151.77-mph blast. 

Pat Dakin, who’s still competing today in Top Fuel, drove Gary Rupp's Donovan-powered Top Fueler to victory at Le Grandnational-Molson, defeating red-lighting Jeb Allen in the final. It was Dakin’s second career win and his most recent. I think he’s way overdue for a third.

In Funny Car, veteran Dale Emery won his (repeat after me) first national event, as did "the California Flash," Leal in Pro Stock. Emery, driving Jeg Coughlin's Camaro, defeated Frank Mancuso, and Leal, after back-to-back runner-ups in Columbus and Englishtown, beat Bob Glidden in their respective finals. 

A year after stunning the drag racing world with a win at the U.S. Nationals in his major Top Fuel debut, Gary Beck went back-to-back at The Big Go, becoming the third driver in seven years to accomplish that feat in Top Fuel at Indy (behind Garlits (’67-’68) and Prudhomme (’69-’70). Beck not only won the event, but finally put the national record in the fives (5.96) and booted the speed record to 243.90 in beating Carl Olson in the final.

Prudhomme, meanwhile became the first driver in drag racing history to win a national title in both nitro categories with his Funny Car victory. Prudhomme, who won the U.S. Nationals Top Fuel title in 1966, 1969, and 1970, defeated defending event champ McCulloch in the final. In Pro Stock, eventual winner Glidden led the quickest field in history with a 9.03 at 152.54 mph, a national speed record, en route to a final-round victory over Wayne Gapp. The event also marked the debut of Don Schumacher’s swoopy Wonder Wagon Vega, which won Best Engineered Car honors, but not much after that.

At the World Finals in Amarillo, Texas, Jerry Ruth won Top Fuel –- and with it, the world championship -- for his (say it with me) first national event win, stopping Beck in the final, while Frank Hall pulled off the exact same feat winning his (surprise!) first career national event win in Jim and Betty Green's Green Elephant Vega to also become a somewhat unlikely world champ. Meanwhile, Gapp prevented Jenkins from claiming a second straight Pro Stock championship, defeating him in the final.

Even though the champs had been crowned, the racing didn’t end as NHRA hosted the Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway, where Tom McEwen (pictured above, center, with his fellow winners) finally won his first national event. He didn’t even qualify for the race, but when Bobby Rowe was unable to make the first-round call after a fire in qualifying, “the Mongoose” sprung into action, beating Dave Condit, Jim Dunn, and Jim Nicoll then, in the wildest of circumstances, got a bye in the final after the body of Emery’s JEGS Camaro was destroyed in a semifinal win over low qualifier Prudhomme.

Garlits reset both ends of the national record at 5.78, 247.25 en route to his 10th national event win. Gapp also set a national e.t. record with an 8.87 in his final-round victory over Glidden, who reset the national speed mark with an 8.96 at 152.80 mph. Don Enriquez's win was the first in NHRA's newest eliminator, Pro Comp. In the final, Enriquez's A/Fuel Dragster defeated Ken Veney's A/Funny Car, 7.02 to 7.35.

OK, so that's 1973, in about 1,500 words. These are fun. I hope you're enjoying them. It's a great excuse for me to go on photo-finding missions! I've got future columns planned on 1972 and '86 (based on the next reader requests) that I'll roll out in the weeks ahead.

Phil Burgess can reached at pburgess@nhra.com