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Down the video rabbit hole: Watching 1970s match racing on the small screen

It all started innocently enough, with one YouTube video showing roller starters in action, and the next thing you know, it was hours and hours of 1970s match racing. Well, there goes your Friday.
12 Jun 2020
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
Dragster Insider

It all started innocently enough, with Insider reader Eric Arnett sending me a link to a YouTube video showing the roller starters in action in 1973 at fabled U.S. 30 Drag Strip in Gary, Ind., a nice little add-on to my recently in-depth piece about roller starters. It wasn’t really going to be the topic for this week’s column, but, well, y’know …

Well, as anyone whose ever gone on YouTube will know, the site’s suggestion algorithm is pretty strong, and the next thing you know, I was watching hours of 1970s match racing. Here’s a look at some of the best.

This is the video that started it all. You can see the roller starters in action right from the get-go as Gene Domalgaski raced Jim Bucher in a Top Fuel round. As you tell by the name on the video, this was a life broadcast, which was pretty cool. According to the Bret Kepner, the authority on Midwest drag racing, this “is an example of the closed-circuit videotape system in use at U.S. 30 for most of the '70s. It was a four-camera production and recorded the track P.A. audio, as well, which is why it can be considered a ‘live recording.’ Ben Christ worked a deal with a few local TV stations to air the condensed versions of each race day taping as its own show and they were quite well received in the area. Announcing was usually done by Jan Gabriel.”

A couple of interesting things to note in this segment. Although it’s not called out in the video, you can see the words “Cha Cha” lettered on the cowl of Domagalski’s car, which was actually the Frito Bandido of Poncho Rendon and the car in which Shirley Muldowney first licensed in Top Fuel. Sadly, Domagalski lost his life in this car in March 1974.

This second U.S. video from the same race shows the rollers in relation to the orientation of the track (15:50 into the video). I never got to U.S. 30 but the videos let you get a real look at what a nice facility it was, with a big timing tower and grandstands. It may not have been as palatial as my West Coast-leaning Orange County International Raceway, but it was definitely the OCIR of the Midwest when it came to great shows.

Here’s U.S. 30 the following year with some great Funny Car action as shot by Steven Reinke. It’s in color and not the ”live feed” of the previous two but gives you a sense of what Funny Car match racing in the 1970s was all about: night racing, dry hops, tricky track conditions, and a wide variety of cars. In this near-five-minute with slightly sketchy video and sounds, clip we see “Flash Gordon” Mineo, Tom Hoover, Al Bergler, Barry "Machine Gun" Kelly, Bob Mayer (Tom & Jerry's Nitemayer), Charlie Proite in the Pabst Blue Ribbon Charger, David Ray in "Big Mike" Burkhart's Vega, Mike Young's Blackhawk Vega, Dale Pulde in Mickey Thompson's Grand Am, and "Superman" Jim Nicoll and the Speed Equipment World Vega.

This one, also shot by Reinke, is from May 23, 1975, and includes Roger Lindamood and Color Me Gone, Ed O'Brien's Fever Corvette (one of the few Corvettes at the time), Dale Creasy and the Tyrant, the Chicago Patrol Mustang II (not sure if it's Ron Colson or Pat Foster, as both drove the car that year; I can't make out the car number nor the announcer call, but that's definitely a "Patty Faster"-style burnout) with it's revolving "bubble gum" lights on the roof, Hoover again, Tom Prock in the Custom Body entry, and a couple of others I don't recognize/can't clearly see.

Fast forward a couple of years to Great Lakes Dragaway and an interesting clip without a lot of actual on-track action but some really cool pit footage featuring Shirley Muldowney, Chris Karamesines, Don Garlits, Don Prudhomme, Bill Jenkins, Don Nicholson, and others. A reminder of just how up close and personal you could get to the stars back then.

This video, from 1971 at Great Lakes, is Part 4 of a five-part series called “Asphalt Digout” and shows Top Fuel racing from that seminal year in the class’ history, There’s Big Daddy” with the revolutionary rear-engined Swamp Rat 14 (a design that pays off later in the video with a blower-chucking explosion) and the similarly back-motored (but wingless) mounts of Jim Nicoll facing and Arnie Behling in Bruce Dodd’s Spirit off against the likes Don Prudhomme and Tom McEwen in their “slab-sided” Hot Wheels slingshots, Tommy Ivo’s sleekly bodied front-engined rail, and many more. You’ll also see the wheelstanders of “Wild Bill” Shrewsberry, Fran Monaghan, Richard Hutchins, Dale Emery (I believe, in the Flying Red Baron Mustang), Bill "Maverick" Golden and the Little Red Wagon, Bob Riggle in the Hemi Under Glass, and a wild moment between the Bob Perry-driven Fugitive Corvette wheelstander and the Connie Swingle-wheeled Trash Truck that ends up with Swingle leaving the track and crashing through the track-side advertising boards (insert your own joke here).

Woody Hatten was a great and knowledgeable writer for Super Stock & Drag Racing Illustrated in the 1970s and ‘80s who also tried his hands at video (one of the first crossovers in our sport) and someone put together this great montage of his clips. Some (like the wild 1975 Springnationals Funny Car final between Don Prudhomme and Raymond Beadle). Dale Emery’s wild nose-dive into the Indy guardrail at the 1977 U.S. Nationals, and Bob Mayer decimating the Christmas Tree at the Gatornationals are from NHRA national events but others are from smaller events. Some wonderful stuff here, like Les Cassidy losing the handle on his burnout in the family’s Grand Am at E-town and going cruising through the grass (nicking the right quarterpanel on the guardwall), then staging and making a run anyway, a clip of Dennis Geisler in Bert Berniker’s Hindsight rear-engined Funny Car a week before his famous backflip at the 1975 Winternationals (which follows a minutes later; the only footage I know that exists of this incident), Tom Crevsasse with a body-tossing wheelie (Suffolk, Va., I believe) in Fred Wells’ Sir Wells Charger, Dave Bowman almost rolling the rear-engined California Stud Vega panel Funny Car at Beeline, and much more, Some great stuff, minus only any audio.

OK, well that's probably as far down the rabbit hole as I need to take you because I'm certain the YouTube is already making other suggestions to you based on these. Say goodbye to your Friday!

Stay well, everyone.

Phil Burgess can be reached at pburgess@nhra.com

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