NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

Gone but not forgotten

Southern California racer Jim DePasse made a name for himself drag racing on both sand and asphalt. He wasn't the best-known racer among NHRA fans, but as NHRA National Dragster Editor Phil Burgess remembers him, he was a friend to many.
10 May 2019
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

It doesn’t matter if you’re joining a new racing team, a new neighborhood, or a new job, it always goes easier for you if you find someone who befriends you, welcomes you in, and makes life easier for you. Jim DePasse did that for me in my early years on the job at National Dragster, and now he’s gone, passing away unexpectedly April 18, cutting another tie to my lifelong love affair with this sport and its people.

I was the new cub reporter in the summer of 1982, deemed not yet ready to cover a national event, and tasked instead (yeah, as if they really had to twist my arm) with covering match races at Orange County Int’l Raceway. There was always a good combination nitro and Alcohol Funny Car show going on at the ‘County and the alky guys were way less intimidating (and, honestly, more welcoming) that the Pros I’d idolized all my life. 

DePasse himself was relatively new to the scene, having switched from a successful sand drag racing career to the asphalt just a few years before, but he, along with fellow West Coast Alcohol Funny Car racers like Chuck Beal and Hans Kuesel – also sadly now both gone – welcomed me, put up with my not-yet-honed reportorial style, and always had a warm smile and a cool drink waiting for me when I visited their pits.

As longtime readers of National Dragster (and this column) may remember, DePasse took me on my first cross-country racing adventure, a sometimes rocky but always memorable trip from his Hemet, Calif., home to Gainesville, Fla., for the 1984 Gatornationals which I chronicled in the pages of ND and summarized in this column a few years ago. DePasse was part of the “Hemet Mob” that orbited in the Larry Minor universe and included guys like Gary Beck, Ed McCulloch, Bernie Fedderly, Willie Wolter, Terry Caldwell, Henry Walther, and Dick Veenstra.

The "Hemet Mob" posed for this pic before our long ride to Gainesville. DePasse is fourth from left, with his family, with Ed McCulloch and Gary Beck next to them, along with Willie Wolter, Larry Minor, Darren Capps, Jim Scolaro Jr., and many others.

Jim and I stayed in touch occasionally as he raced well into the early 1990s but we lost touch after he left the sport and later returned to his sand drag racing roots with his son Jimmy, who had been my pal and roommate on that Gainesville trip.

Just a week before Jim died, I had received an email from Terry “Eh” Watson, who also was a Hemet regular. He had stumbled across the above-linked column and reached out to me in his “first non-snail-mail communication” (I’m so honored!) to reminisce.

“I still race with the DePasses, but son Jimmy is our current driver of a blown Hemi Jeep with which we compete with in the Southern California Sand Drags where we often race against a Jeep owned by Larry,” he wrote. “We currently hold the E.T. record of 2.64 seconds and became series champs again in 2018 by a narrow nine points. Except for Jim Jr. we're all just a bunch of old guys still having fun together.”

He said the DePasse family was still in the auto-repair business, with two shops, Jimmy Ds and Mr. Ds, in Hemet. At right is a photo of Jim and Jimmy, and Jimmy’s son, Cooper, who races a Jr. sand rail.

Watson -- a Canadian (hence the “Eh” nickname) who had met DePasse while DePasse was racing in Seattle in 1982, and quickly became a crewmember -- passed along some photos to me which, in an incredibly ironic fashion, had originated from sand drag journalist Tom Bray, whom I had just interviewed earlier that week after the passing of “Famous Amos” Satterlee, who also had major success in the sand. Small world, indeed.

Anyway, I made mental notes to head out to the sand drags this year and reconnect with the DePasses and Wolter, whom I’ve also known for decades through his work on Don Prudhomme’s cars (especially the restoration of the Hot Wheels ramp trucks).

The next email I got from Terry, exactly one week later, was word that Jim had passed. I was shocked. Talking later to Willie, I learned that Jim had been battling some health issues the last few years but no one expected him to pass. It felt a cruel irony that I had just reconnected with his world only to lose it. Another reminder to you and me to get together with those old pals in your life before it’s too late.

Anyway, Tom Bray sent me some more photos of Jim, which you can see below, along with some captions, and this memory of Jim from before he passed.

“A couple years ago, Monday morning after a race in Hemet I was at breakfast when Jim Sr. and one of his crew guys came in the restaurant,” he recalled. “I had a nice hour visit with them; the stories over the years are amazing. It's so neat to me that Jim and Jimmy were both still out racing together and having fun and they are still good friends and competitors of Larry Minor. Jim and Jimmy don't have a big budget operation, but still run with and often beat Larry's top-notch operation with Bob DeVour tuning.”

"Jim behind the wheel of the Jeep (before Jimmy took over driving duties) in Dome Valley, Ariz., 2012. Jim drove the Jeep from 2010-mid 2012, when Jimmy took over driving."

"Jim brought out this altered in mid-2012 with a motor from Larry Minor. This is the motor Larry currently runs in his Pro Mod Jeep. This lasted two passes; Pass 2 resulted in a broken wheelie bar and hard slam down that did significant chassis damage." (Here's a link to a wild video of that run, which was a near blowover: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pD3uvR2lUkM)

"The most recent Jeeps that Jim tuned in Avenal, Calif., October 2018. The white Jeep is the one that Jimmy drives and the black one is piloted by Dave Huffman. Jim took Dave under his wing and taught him to drive it. They worked really well as a two-car team."

"This photo is the DePasse-Huffman crew at the Avenal race." [Phil note: The aforementioned Watson is at far left; Wolter is back row, second from left.]

"Jimmy behind the wheel of the Jeep in San Jacinto (Soboba) in September 2018. That track is where Jimmy set the Pro Mod Jeep record with a 2.644 E.T. "

I’m thrilled that Jim and Jimmy continued to race and has success after they left the asphalt, but incredibly saddened by his passing. I’ll never forget him. To many, his name was not extremely well known outside of California and he never reached the winner’s circle at a big NHRA meet, but he was a great friend and racer. Rest in peace, pal.

Next week I'll take a look at some other drag racers who, like DePasse, made the trip from sand to asphalt during the early 1980s, including many you'll recognize.

I originally had planned to publish this article last Friday, but have decided that I won't consistently publish Insider columns on race weekend because the high homepage "churn" on those weekends can push the column off in less than a day. I write them to be seen, and noticed that page views drop on race weekends. I'm not saying never, but less likely.

That delay allows me to recognize two more friends of the sport who we lost this week: Fred Castronovo and Butch Osmon.

The Castronovo name should be familiar to many of you old-timers as the family behind the successful line of Custom Body Enterprises Funny Cars from the 1960s and '70s. Fred, who passed away last Friday at age 81. I wrote about the family legacy in this column back in 2011 after brother Phil, who drove their car to the 1971 NHRA Funny Car championship, passed away. You can read Fred's online obituary here,

Osmon was a former Top Fuel and Alcohol Dragster pilot in the 1970s and '80s. He drove Jim & Alison Lee's Top Fueler to their only NHRA national event final, a runner-up behind Gary Beck at Columbus in 1981 and also was the Pro Comp runner-up at the 1977 Cajun Nationals. He died last Friday at age 73. The photo above is Butch, right, with the Lees during their enshrinement in the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1995.

My own history with Butch is short but incredibly memorable. No one probably remembers but me, but it was Osmon who loaned me the firesuit for my unforgettable experience licensing in Frank and Linda Mazi's supercharged Opel.  Butch even allowed Linda to have my name sewn onto it but I paid for it when it came time to take the cockpit orientation test, of which he was the judge. Here's a snippet from the two-part "Altered States" article that ran in ND.

The cloth bag from my Simpson helmet will serve as the blindfold, and Butch will administer the test. I take 10 minutes beforehand to familiarize myself with my normal run procedure ... brake, shifter buttons, water pump, ignition, 'Chute release, brake, shifter buttons, water pump, ignition, 'Chute release. OK, we're ready.

In the dark, I listen to Butch. He immediately throws me a curve, "Fuel shut-off."

Fuel shut-off! What!? I forgot all about the fuel shut-off!

Fortunately, the fuel shut-off is hard to miss even groping around and I reach out to where I think it should be and breathe a sigh of relief as my fingers slip around the T-handle. Although the fuel shut-off is not used during the course of a normal run, I should know where it's at, but that thought hadn't occurred to me in my preparation. Butch bounces back and forth between the controls a half-dozen times until he's positive I know the controls inside and out .

When it's clear that Butch is done I slip off the makeshift blindfold and look to Butch. "You failed," he says deadpan. "Forgot to buckle your belts. I got failed for that once." Tense moments follow. Ah, he's joking ... I think. He signs the form. Whew! On to the next step.

The photo of Osmon and the Lees at the top was sent to me by longtime friend Mark Novosel, who wrote, "Butch affected and infected people such as myself to pursue the most and give your all when racing. He inspired many people since 1965. He was always helping other people , race teams and challenging us all to be better racers. "

Amen to that. RIP to all of our long friends.

Phil Burgess can reached at pburgess@nhra.com