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Farewell to 'the Dones'

Legendary 1970s racetrack operator and promoter Bill Doner, who died last week, was a lot of things to a lot of people -- benefactor, starmaker, friend, adversary, storyteller -- but above all he was loved, revered, and respected by those in his universe.
23 Aug 2019
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider
Bill Doner

The first time I ever saw Bill Doner was in a photo that was circulating among the National Dragster staff in 1982, my first year at the magazine.

Now, that might sound like a pretty crazy admission by someone who attended pretty much every match race that Bill Doner promoted at Irwindale Raceway or Orange County Int’l Raceway in the 1970s, but then again you could have gone to Disneyland and never seen Walt Disney, visited Graceland and never caught a glimpse of Elvis, been invited to the Playboy Mansion but never lay an eye on Hugh Hefner or, more appropriate to my analogy, you could have gone to a million circuses and never see P.T. Barnum.

The photo in question showed Doner laying on a bed in Mexico, where he’d moved to start a sport-fishing business after finally giving up on OCIR in 1980. And he was covered in what I have to assume were $100 bills.

The image fit perfectly my 1970s fan’s perspective of Doner. He was the creator of the Fox Hunt events where women got in free, which only brought in more men ("Foxes, bring your bikinis," the radio ads would implore). There’s the old chestnut of a story about Doner being informed that there was a woman in the pits with her hair on fire and Doner saying, “pay her $50 and have her run down the track.” To me, he was a wild man charlatan who raked in piles of cash and rolled in it with abandon. 

The last time I saw Bill Doner was three weeks ago at Pacific Raceways, where I was covering the NHRA national event. Doner always came back to Seattle, a town he ruled as dragstrip operator, Unlimited Hydroplane series commissioner, and general Man About Town. 

We sat and chatted for about an hour, him retelling stories I’ve heard a hundred times and me sitting there, as rapt as the first time I heard them. The man could tell a story.

Somewhere between 1982 and now, he embraced me, and I him. In the end, I saw him in a whole different light. I think that the first time I met him was at one of Don Prudhomme’s celebrated racing legends lunches in 2010, which I described here. The Insider column was still new, but he got that I loved to tell stories as much as he did, and he appreciated my love of the sport’s history and its people.

We’d see each other at various get-togethers, and he’d always have time for me. We’d talked about getting all of his great stories down on paper. We talked about it in earnest in early December 2015, at a Christmas party at Prudhomme’s house, he and I and guys like Tom McEwen all agreeing the stories needed to be told, but not yet, that we’d have to “wait for a few more wives to die first.”

Three weeks ago in Seattle, “Dones” agreed maybe it was time we do the story. We exchanged phone numbers again, I told him to work on his Top 10 Stories, and I promised to call “soon.” 

“Soon” didn’t come fast enough as a few days later he was gone at age 80. William Lee Doner, as original of a character as you could ever imagine, will tell no more stories. We’ll just have to remember those that we heard and remember him through those who knew and loved him.

:: THE DONER WAY ::

P.T. Barnum would have loved Doner. Doner and cohort Steve Evans knew how to do things big. Every race was a spectacle, and although Doner loved Funny Cars — at the infamous Bill Doner roast in 1979, Top Fuel racer Gary Beck, with as much a straight face as he could muster, said right into the camera, “He's ruined Top Fuel racing on the West Coast. He’s done less for Top Fuel racing than anyone I know.” -- but you also knew you’d see jets, wheelstanders, and wild stunts like Bob Correll and his hang-glider-equipped motorcycle or the ill-fated “Leapin’ Larry” McMenamy, who died at OCIR trying to jump his go-kart over a bunch of parked cars. Doner called these “Grand Kinko” races and packed them with every sideshow he could book.

Fans jammed into Doner’s places –- he once bragged that he had a 10-mile backup trying to get fans into one of his 64 Funny Car races in Seattle -– but the joints often were too crowded, and a fistfight or a riot was only one spilled beer away. Longtime OCIR starter Larry Sutton remembered, "The Doner and Evans regime always had a spectacle, and there were always way too many people and not enough security. There was one race that I ran, and I saw legs all the way down the racetrack with people sitting on the guardrail."

He famously (infamously?) convinced adult-film star Linda Lovelace to come to the 1973 Northwest National Open in Seattle, where the salicious rumor started (or was planted; take your pick) that she would be the “prize” for the day’s Funny Car winner, which was Ed McCulloch, who, in all fun, has generally refused to confirm or deny that myth. Doner used to tell a funny story about a bunch of his pals showing up at his house the night before the race with Lovelace in tow, which did not impress Doner’s wife. “(Billy Lee, your little friends are here …”)

The Lovelace appearance didn’t sit well with some of the racetrack sponsors either, so Doner did a full 180 the next year and brought in child actor Rodney Allen Rippy, who was a beloved television spokesperson for Jack in the Box, to sing “God Bless America.”

Doner’s International Raceway Parks conglomerate stepped in to buy the expensive-to-run and thus always financially unstable OCIR, but with his never-shy way of promoting events (oh, those radio commercials!) and Evans' steady hand on the tiller and a return to the NHRA fold, things began to look good at "the County" for a short while.

“By the time we got OCIR, Larry Huff had turned it into an AHRA track, but it was pretty closed,” Doner recalled. “I walked out there, walked the track clear to the finish line, the wind was blowing papers, the windows were broken out in the tower; gawd, it was a mess. It was mess, but it looked better than anything else we had. The rent was $12,500 a month. I think I only paid $12,000 a year in Seattle. We went to 64 Funny Cars with my usual things like jets, rockets, wheelstanders, KiteCycles, nude women ... whatever we needed because my rent was high.”

But before long, things got out of hand. Drunkenness and rowdy fans -– in the most notorious incident, a 24-year-old man died after being hit in the head with a beer bottle -- were no doubt spurred on by events such as rock concerts staged in tandem with the races, such as the Redbone concert at Irwindale shown above, and events such as the annual Fox Hunt and 64 Funny Cars.

Doner was once asked about the famous nude skydiver who parachuted into OCIR during the streaking craze of 1974: “How do you think that came about?” he was asked.

“How do you think?” Doner responded smartly.

“He landed right on the starting line,” the questioner added.

“He wouldn’t have gotten paid if he didn’t.”

Or the time that NHRA executives, including Wally and Barbara Parks and then-Division 7 Director Bernie Partridge, were on hand one evening for one of Doner’s events at OCIR.

"We’re firing up all the cars on the [track], and here comes Bill Shrewsberry’s [L.A. Dart wheelstander] up the track the wrong way, but he’s not even in the car; Steve Woomer was in the car," Doner recall. "About that time, McCulloch did a fire burnout on the return road, and my KiteCycle guy lands on Roland’s car. Bernie turns to me and says, ‘You’ve broken 41 rules, and you haven’t even started the race.’ I said, ‘Stick around because it could get worse.’ "

:: DON PRUDHOMME ::

In Doner’s 1970s heyday, he owned pretty much every major track on the West Coast, and Prudhomme was his guy, the one he knew would always help him pack the place, whether that was Seattle, Portland, Fremont, OCIR, or Irwindale. He loved “the Snake” and “the Snake” loved him.

They first crossed paths in 1967, when Doner worked for Carroll Shelby –- as you can read later in this column, Doner was much more than a track operator/promoter -– and Prudhomme and Lou Baney walked in looking for a sponsorship for their Top Fueler, and is best recounted by “the Dones” himself in this story he told at the surprise 70th birthday party thrown for “the Snake” at the NHRA Museum in 2011: "Right in the middle of the negotiations, Shelby looked at his watch, got up, and left. Baney looked at me and said, 'What does that mean?' and I told him, 'Well, it’s not the best news I ever saw.' They walked out shaking their heads, and I was shaking my head ... what the hell was that about?" That deal went through and became the famed Shelby Super Snake dragster.

“We’ve been pals ever since 1967,” Prudhomme reminisced earlier this week. “I raced for him up and down the West Coast and, as far as I’m concerned, he really made Funny Car racing what it is today. He gave a lot of guys opportunities by booking them and he always made sure the racers got paid before he got paid. He was the best. It’s too bad the current Funny Car guys never got a chance to race for Doner. It was a whole lot different and a whole lot more fun, and Doner made it that way. We partied pretty hard back then, and Doner was the ringmaster. Just so many great times, great stories. 

“We were all still very tight after all of these years. We’d get together for dinner; if there was a party going on, you’d always say, ‘Where’s Doner? You always gotta invite Doner.’ It’s not a party without Doner. He’d have people sitting around him listening to him telling stores and just laughing their asses off.”

A misty-eyed Doner also told the story of how Prudhomme had agreed to come to Doner’s Seattle racetrack for just $1,000 –- well under his standard booking fee –- to help Doner out of a financial jam that had the bank ready to foreclose on the place.

“We were the John Force of those days with those Army cars,” Prudhomme reasoned, “but Doner always brought in the very best cars and they were tough races to win. You go to 64 Funny Cars and that was for keeps. That was like trying to win a national event, and to a lot of us, it was bigger than a national event. And the stuff he’d bring in? Evel Knievel, the rocket go-kart [Capt. Jack McClure], the guy on the kite [Correll]. Man, he’d put all of the cars on the track and the guy would fly over all of the cars. That was Doner.”

:: ED McCULLOCH ::

Ed “the Ace” McCulloch was one of Doner’s favorite people -- the last two stories Doner recounted to me were two of his favorites, the infamous McCulloch punching out “Flash Gordon” Mineo tale and the hilarious yarn about overzealous, steroid-fueled high school jocks hired as security for a fancy function trying to clear out the drag racers and telling them, “We can do this the easy way or the hard way” and the barrel-chested “Ace” stepping forward and saying, “Let’s try it the hard way” -- and there’s no doubt that McCulloch revered Doner right back.

“I don’t believe that Bill Doner got really the respect or acknowledgement for what he did in the early days of drag racing,” he told me earlier this week. “His ability to put people together and his ability, along with Steve Evans, to put on a show and bring in a crowd, and then create a riot over the PA by hyping everything to such a degree –- it’s just unmatched.

“A lot of times, promoters will overlook the local guy and hype the big guys coming to town. I was a local guy, but after Art [Whipple] and I went on tour back east and made a name for ourselves, Doner had the foresight to realize that we could be a big value to him; ‘local guys make good.’ 

“We talk about the Western Swing today; Doner is the one who invented the real Western Swing. We would race from Eugene, Ore., Portland, Seattle, Yakima, Calgary, and Edmonton all in about 10 days. He didn’t own all of those tracks, but he booked the events. What I could make on those 10 days was my funding to get ready for the next year.

“I’ve heard people call him a crook, but I have to stick up for him 110%. He was always fair and level with the me,” McCulloch told me another time. “He might get weather or have a bad crowd, and he’d say, ‘Ace, I really took a bath here. If you could help me out on this one, I’d make it up to you at the next one,’ and he always would. Whatever we were short, he’d take care of it with a little extra the next time.

“I remember seeing one time when there were so many fans trying to come into Seattle that Doner was taking their money out on the entrance road. There were four or five kids in this Camaro and they didn’t have enough money. Doner asked them what they had; all they had were some cassette tapes. Doner told them, ‘Ill take that; go on, get in there.’ He was really something.”

:: JERRY RUTH ::

Doner was the king of Northwest promoters and, of course, the Northwest’s racing king, Jerry Ruth, was always part of the Doner package, playing up the royalty and the challengers to the crown. 

Ruth had been racing in the region for a decade before Doner showed up, but they were a great match. “He didn’t make me –- he inherited me –- but he know how to use me, that’s for sure,” said Ruth. The fact that the duo were once part owners in a Seattle tavern called The Hatchcover certainly didn’t hurt.

Ruth, like me, got to spend an hour with Doner at this year’s Seattle event as Doner, always the bridger of gaps, brought ‘round a bevy of current stars to meet “the King” and do some interviews.

“We had a really good time; one of his sons called me after he passed, telling me what a great time his dad had talking with me,” recalled Ruth. And it’s clear the affection ran both ways.

“Bill Doner was a mover and a shaker; he changed everything, the whole scene up here,” Ruth recalls fondly. “For years, [the first week of August] was always a date for Seafair, the Unlimited Hydroplane race down on Lake Washington. It was free to get in so they get a lot of people, but Doner wanted that date.

"By the time Bill got done with them, they changed the date because he was wiping them out in attendance. Everyone wanted to come to 64 Funny Cars or the Fox Hunt and paying to get in instead of going to the free boat race. He’d have them cheering ’64 Funny Cars!’ all day long. We had a lot of fun together.

"Losing Bill Doner is the end of an era.”

:: JOHN FORCE ::

Prudhomme’s earlier comments about Doner helping put people on the map certainly applied to today’s king of the Funny Cars, John Force, who a few years ago at the OCIR Reunion, told this story:

“I used to get on the phone with him, begging him to put my name in the radio commercials with Prudhomme and McEwen and Roland. I was trying to impress my wife; we’re going out to the track, listening on the radio to the ads [screaming DJ voice]: ‘It’s “the Snake,” it’s “the Mongoose,” it’s the Hawaiian,' and he’s ripping off the names, and it’s coming ... Radici & Wise, the Blue Max, and on and on, and then it’s ‘and many more,’ and you have to look over at the girl you’re in love with and [scream] ‘That’s me!’ Doner told me that it would help if I got a sponsor, and he would put me in the ads. He said, ‘I can make you a star or leave you a leaker’; when I got Leo’s Stereo, I heard my name in the ads.”

Doner sometimes was not too kind to the problem-plagued Force at the track, either. “You smoke the tires and hit the guardrail, and you’re coasting along, kind and thinking you’re the man because you lost, but [at least] you were there, and then, in front of the lady you’re in love with who’s coming down in the pickup truck to get you, you hear [Doner] over the PA say, ‘I wish he’d take his car fishing …’ I said, ‘Take his car fishing? I don’t own a boat.’ It took me years to figure out what you meant, Doner … and it really hurt.”

:: A LONG STRANGE TRIP ::

Doner, of course, was much more than a race promoter and racetrack owner. He started as a sportswriter in the 1960s and became sports editor of the Orange Coast Daily Pilot in Costa Mesa right out of college before moving to Seattle. He played tennis at Newport Harbor High and subsequently at Orange Coast College and was quite good and later promoted tennis and bred racehorses. His media background gave him the insight into telling stories and a savvy understanding of the media.

When the World Football League was organized in 1974, league founder Gary Davidson offered Doner a franchise. As I mentioned previously, after he got out of the racetrack business in 1980, he moved to Cabo San Lucas where he ran a sport-fishing business with a fleet of seven charter boats. In 1983, he caught a record-setting 1,234-pound black marlin.

In 1987, he was lured out of promotional retirement by the folks at Caesar’s Palace, given the title of vice president of marketing, and produced the Marvin Hagler vs. Sugar Ray Leonard fight.

In 1994, while he was splitting time between promoting the Molson Vancouver Indy car race, the Commonwealth Games in Victoria, B.C., and putting together a marketing company for recreational vehicle parks, Doner’s longtime friend and boat owner Steve Woomer (pictured, left, with drag racer  Jerry Verhauel looking over the engine from his Pay 'N Pak boat  -- Photo by Rusty Rae) practically dared him to take on the seemingly rudderless hydroplane racing series, and he became the commissioner for the American Power Boat Association in the 1990s and within a few years had doubled its annual race schedule and scored a television contract with ESPN. (When they hired him, he famously told them, “I feel like Jack Nicholson (as the Joker) in Batman when he comes in and says, ‘Wait’ll you get a load of me.’ " His work in the region earned him a spot in the book The Great Book of Seattle Sports Lists and includes this notation: “You either traveled with him or got run over."

Doner proudly told me that he was the first commissioner in the series to ever hand out fines. And, in the same way that his drag races were also part stunt shows, he tried to infuse that into boat racing.

“What we need at some of the other races is a side show,” he said. “If it takes hiring Evel Knievel to jump over some boats, I’ll get him. If Don Johnson and his wife have a spat, I want them to have it in the pits at Seattle, and then they can make up in the pits at San Diego. Whatever it takes, I want Unlimiteds to be talked about.”

He resigned in 1998 after a power struggle between the factions. I’m not sure what happened to him in the next decade, but he later emerged as a leading promoter in the Nostalgia Funny Car scene, proposed a dragstrip in his then hometown of Lake Havasu City, and remained well-known and loved by all.

:: HOWARD HULL ::

His name certainly isn’t well known like the others, but Howard Hull, a frequent contributor to the Insider, got to know Doner well during his OCIR years. Hull started out parking cars at OCIR as a teen in the 1960s and worked his way into selling Cokes in the stands and eventually ended up working in the tower until the track closed in 1983. He spent a lot of time with Doner and shared some of those memories with me.

Bigger than life:
I first met Bill Doner as a 16-year-old kid driving him and another couple out on the town in Newport Beach in a limo that we had at Orange County Raceway that came from the Academy of Defensive Driving, which was a driving school located at the track. It was a fun night and Bill was a pretty fun guy I thought, so far.

The late Steve Evans had been running the track for a while when Bill moved down from Seattle and settled in Newport Beach. The races quickly started getting bigger and better, with Bill on the radio and the advertising we saw quickly the crowds go up and the food was running out early in the stands. Bill would bring out the local racers with jet cars and the wheel standers, the fans really enjoyed the change in the programming. Our sister racetrack, Irwindale, had been previously run by the Snyder family of In-N-Out fame and the track kept their food program, which came over to OCIR. We at OCIR then did the same and bam! Out of food by 9:30 p.m. on our second race.

100 Funny Cars! 

Bill knew how to wrap a program together with the mix of the race cars. Now remember this is 1976-77 and there were many independent racers so we could do 32-car fields or 64 Funny Cars.

I remember clearly being up on the second floor of the tower were the announcers would be with the timing equipment and Bill was telling the crowd about the next big race in October. ‘64 Funny Cars. That’s right, count them, 64!.’ 

He then he turned to me and smiled and said, “Watch this.”

“OK folks, how about 100 Funny Cars ? That’s right! 100 Funny Cars!” 

Now at this point the crowd was already whipped up and they went crazy. Now we are in trouble! It is going to be a huge gate and we already had a lot of parking, but we now had to find more. We arranged to have a person from the railroad drive the cars across the railroad tracks onto El Toro Marine Base for the overflow parking. Michael Brown Grandstands came and set up extra stands and we ordered all of the food we could and stored it under the grandstands for the big night. I would come to work after high school and work late into the evening; thank God I had a Dad who grew up working for a family business during WWII and understood long hours. Bill flew down staff from Seattle Raceway as well. It was all hands-on deck: Irwindale, Seattle, and the gang from OCIR. Well, Bill, Lynn Rose, and the staff pulled it off; the crowds came and came. The opening is where the racers rolled their cars to the track. They lined up both sides with the bodies up and they lit their engines. I was standing on the top of the tower and of course, will never for get the sight of the cars, the fireworks and the screaming fans. 

The Racers
Bill brought in a lot of the out of town talent to come and race the West Coast racers and with seven races tracks on the West Coast, he could bring them out for a month. He would run them at Seattle, Fremont, and then OCIR for the final. He did this one year with Shirley and Garlits; again, record crowds and the fans loved it. This is back when Conrad and Shirley were still an item, and they would stay at Bill’s house up in Spyglass Hill -- many a late night in the pool!! Bill had a close relationship with Raymond Beadle and they not only would race at the tracks, but go out and have fun … lots of it! I got to know many of the racers and the owners over time. Many are still friends today. 

“NO, he is always on fire and slows down the race!”

We all know how John Force started out, always either crashing or on fire. The guy is truly Superman but he was a “leaker” from the word go. Many times, he would barely make the show when time came to make his run. On time, Bill was upset at John for some reason or another about a prior race. So, one race Doner told when he comes into the gate to turn around and go home! We all pleaded with Doner to give Force another chance and let him race. Bill said he had enough of him and had plenty of cars to run. The events in those days was a round robin set with best e.t.’ and winners to the finals. The late Kenny Green, who was the track manager at Irwindale, told me to let him in and he would “Handle Doner.” Kenny said something to Force, who had just hired Steve Plueger to tune the car. John ran hard that night and for the first time in months. No leaks, No fire! The rest was history as they say! 

Superbowl XI: “30 Bloody Mary’s to go!”

Bill loved his sports betting; it is what got him in trouble earlier in life when he was the sports editor for a local newspaper. Superbowl XI was being played at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., Jan. 1. and my soon-to-be alma mater, USC, beats Michigan and all is well, I am settling into my last semester in high school and what else could happen? Bill decides that it is going to be Super Bowl Week for him. He and his second wife had split and he was out of the house. 

The Raiders are staying at the Marriot Hotel in Newport Beach, the Vikings in neighboring Costa Mesa at the Westin. Well, every night we are out in the limo at a variety of parties. Along in tow is Bill’s close friend, the late Steve Woomer of Competition Specialties fame, who flew down from Seattle for the week of carnage. I don’t know how Bill pulled it off; we were at every big party, from the sponsors to the Playboy Bunny extravaganza. (Damn, no smart phones back then.) I was exhausted and told Bill that between high school and driving him around, “we” needed a break. Well, why not Saturday night, first night in a week that I was in bed before midnight?

"Well, along comes January 9, Super Bowl Sunday --Vikings versus the Raiders -- and I have Bill in the car and we swing by the Hyatt where Woomer is staying. I get everyone into the car and we cannot find Bill. Bill decided to stop into the bar for a Bloody Mary and orders “30 to go.” Out comes the bartender with two trays of cocktails and off we go to Pasadena. Bill knew how to party! A side note, those glasses lasted me through three years of college! 

Dad
Bill had two sons and two stepsons and was a dad to them all. Every time that I would see Bill and catch up with him, we would talk about how proud he was and how they all were doing. He was so proud of them all: Brian getting to go to USC and a successful commercial real estate broker; Jeff a noted surfing cinematographer in Hawaii and owner of a world-class Judo studio as well; Chris, owner of a business where he handles high tech packaging for the aerospace industry; David, one of his stepsons, passed away more than a decade ago.

It goes without saying (he wrote, even as he prepares to say it anyway) that Bill Doner meant a lot to a lot of people, and not just the racers he promoted and paid and helped star-build. I see the reverence of today's stars who get the chance to meet and hang out with him -- guys like Ron Capps and Jack Beckman -- who, like me, first only knew of him by reputation. There was just something very likable and open about him, and he's quick to admit that he was in many ways the prototypical all-about-the-Benjamins promoter and equally quick to skewer himself and his personality for being so; he had a great and kind heart. Yeah, he could throw the barbs with the best of them, but you always knew it was in fun. He was a master of the microphone back then and he still was. His acceptance speech at his 2012 induction into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame had everyone in stitches, including old pals like "Waterbed Fred" Miller and Prudhomme in the photo above. I'm glad he got inducted.

I wish I had asked to have a photo with him in Seattle, but I figured there was still plenty of time ahead. Instead, here's a photo of me and Doner and sometime Insider contributor Don O'Byrne from a few years ago in Seattle. I'm glad I at least have this.

I'm going to miss sitting down with him and hearing him tell those stories that mean so much to me -- and, I know, to many of you as well -- and the insight he could offer to those earlier, wilder days. He used to say that when he was announcing, it was all about creating storylines and getting the crowd whipped up, and he could do that to an audience of five as easily as to 10,000. As many times as he told certain stories, I don't think anyone would ever jump in and say, "Yeah, I've heard that one before" or try to finish the story for him.  You always wanted to hear how Doner was going to tell it, how he might even embellish it a little from the last time you heard it.

I was so looking forward to spending time with him on the great story that will never be, but I, and many more like me and many more closer to him than I ever was, will always remember "the Dones" and what he meant to us. Rest in peace, pal. And tell "Jungle" to get his ass up to the starting line.

Phil Burgess can reached at [email protected]

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