Drag racing is a multi-generational sport across many platforms, with kids and grandkids following their elders not only behind the wheel on the dragstrip or twirling the wrenches in the pits but into the grandstands but behind the camera lens as well.
A lot of today’s fans know of the work of Chris Graves of Max Cackle Photography fame, whose explosive work covering fuel altered and other wild animals of the quarter-mile is well known, but Chris got his love of the sport and photography from his dad, David, whose work I am sharing this week.
David sent me some links to four extensive photo galleries of images spanning many decades, and, like a kid in a candy store, I picked and chose the ones you see here today to share.
David is actually a third-generation drag racing fan, gifted with the love of the sport by his father, Hugh. David was “at” the races in Caddo Mills, Texas, in the belly of his pregnant mom in the mid-1950s and remembers as a teenager going to Interstate 20 Raceway near Tyler, Texas, in 1970 to watch the lines of Gene Snow, Kelly Chadwick, and Jack Robbins compete and visiting newly opened Dallas Intl Motor Speedway, which was just 15 minutes from his house.
“I would ride my bicycle to the local Holiday Inn where everyone stayed for the big events and see the cars,” he reminisced. Back then the racers did not leave their cars at the track overnight, so the hotels would be full of race cars at night and many were being thrashed on. What an experience and it didn’t require a ticket! Later, in 1970 my Dad took me to the NHRA World Finals at DIMS and that set the hook. All of the cars and stars I would read about in the magazines were there and in action –- a memory to never be lost for me.
“I started taking photos of the races about that time and gradually became consumed with getting shots of my favorite sport. As the years went by, racetracks came and went, but I always made the effort to get to the big events if they were within a day’s drive.
My photography hobby slowly was taken over by my son Chris starting about 1991 when he was about 7-8 years old and could barely hold up a 35mm camera with a 205 zoom lens on it. Chris caught on quick and he has gone on to be a respected drag racing photographer and has far exceeded any skill I had when it comes to capturing the action on the drag strip. He has expanded his drag racing career by stepping into the promotion side, as he is the kingpin for the Funny Car Chaos series that runs across the country today.” That's young Chris at right, on the famed all-concrete dragstrip at Texas Motorplex in 1991.
Today, David and his wife attend races at Dallas (they live about 30 minutes from Texas Motorplex) and have traveled to many other national events over the years, including Epping and Indy for the first time last year.
He and Chris also stepped in front of the lens about 10 years ago and started racing in the Nostalgia Eliminator 1 class, running local events, and have traveled to Bakersfield and Bowling Green for the NHRA Hot Rod Reunions with their “Blown Inheritance” front-engine digger.
“The sport has truly been an Inherited adventure for our family!” he remarked.
OK, without further ado and introduction, here’s some of David’s fine work, with comments and observations by yours truly.
Just a great pit-area shot of one of my favorite people, “Kansas John” Wiebe, tending to the engine in his Top Fueler. Wiebe was one of the last to transition to a rear-engine car, not making the witch to a rear-engined car until 1973, but, of course, was the first to run the all-aluminum Donovan engine at the 1971 season-ending Supernationals.
Bennie “the Wizard" Osborn was another guy who reluctantly went to a back-engined configuration after so much success –- including back-to-back world championships in 1967-68 -– with his slingshot. Love the “shorty” body on the car. I wonder if those old front-engined guys did this so they could still groove on seeing the bare chassis in front of them.
Graves says he doesn’t know who this Top Fueler is and neither do I, but I love the look downtrack at one of his favorite haunts, Green Valley Race City in Smithfield, Texas. Check out those Sprite-branded finish-line markers.
Man, this is just a bitchen shot and shows the eye of an artist. It is, of course, “Big Daddy” Don Garlits watching a Top Fuel burnout, but I love how Graves slowed the shutter speed to catch the car in motion. This is from the ’86 Cajun Nationals.
Ah, “the Mongoose.” It still breaks my heart to see photos of our good buddy Tom McEwen. Still can’t believe he’s gone. Anyway, this is “the ‘Goose” at Green Valley in 1975. This was an interesting era for Funny Cars as they had started adding those front fender bubbles to lower the body the year before and McEwen added those cool-looking louvers to the side and back windows. McEwen had a second car, with the late John Collins driving, which turned out to be a good thing after this car was heavily damaged when it was hit by a fellow racer’s tow vehicle in the shutdown area at U.S. Dragway just four days before McEwen was scheduled for a publicity photoshoot with his new sponsor, the Navy, of him “racing” an F-14. McEwen simply hopped into Collins' car to fulfill the obligation.
Speaking of Collins, here’s a unique perspective of the wild two-car collision between Ed “the Ace” McCulloch and Collins during Funny Car qualifying at the 1984 Cajun Nationals. McCulloch lost the handle on his Miller Lite Olds and collected Collins’ JVC Camaro. The fireball you see is from “the Ace’s” car after the fuel tank was ripped open by a guardrail post. As Don Prudhomme told Steve Evans in one of the Decade of Thrills videos, “We’ve seen some bad ones; that’s a bad one, Steve.” Both cars were destroyed, but neither driver was hurt.
And back to McEwen. Do you know how many times I’ve seen this unique photo of the Hot Wheels cars of McEwen and Don Prudhomme and never knew who shot it? Now I know: David Graves. I always assumed this was a publicity shot for one of the NHRA races at DIMS but it was, in fact, before an IHRA match race there.
Here’s Prudhomme at the wheel of his spectacular and not-all-that-successful Hot Wheels wedge at the 1971 Springnationals in Dallas, as always, drawing a lot of attention, including Best Engineered Car honors. Unfortunately for “the Snake,” he was unable to make the first-round call against No. 1 qualifier Don Garlits after using up a ton of parts in qualifying because he not only had this car but also his Hot Wheels Funny Car and his Hot Wheels slingshot (driven by Mike Snively) in action that weekend. To make matters worse, Prudhomme lost to Richard Tharp and the Blue Max in round one of Funny Car and Snively fouled to Rick Ramsey in round one of Top Fuel. Ouch.
More “Snake” aero experimentation: This is the Hot Wheels Cuda sporting some rare canard wings at the 1972 Green Valley Nationals at Green Valley Race City in Texas. I asked Prudhomme about it and he didn’t remember much, other than to agree that because we never saw them much after, they must not have been worth the hassle.
And speaking of wedges in Top Fuel, check out Gene Snow’s ride some 16 years later. Gene Snow, who had been an early adopter in adding a Garlits-like canopy and small tires (uncovered) at the 1986 Summernationals, also tried his hand briefly with a modern-day wedge, built by Gene Gaddy, at the 1987 Allstars event in Dallas, where it failed to qualify.
Self-described “mad scientist” Jim Head called this Top Fueler “the noodle car” for its extreme flexibility. Note the relative lack of diagonal chassis tubes compared to today’s cars.
Touching photo here of the windscreen on Pat Austin’s Castrol GTX Top Fueler, The Austin family bought the Top Fuel operation of teammate Gary Ormsby in mid-1991 after G.O. succumbed to cancer, but they kept Ormsby’s name on the car. Austin famously drove the car to the first and second NHRA national event “doubles,” winning in Top Fuel and Top Alcohol Funny car at the 1991 Topeka event and 1992 Phoenix race.
Lee Shepherd was really starting to come into his own in 1980 in this battle of Pro Stock giants with Bob Glidden in round one at the Cajun Nationals. Shepherd had finished fourth in the standings in both 1978 and ‘79. Published reaction times still weren’t really a thing back then, but this picture and the fact that Shepherd won this round, 8.54 to 8.49, means he slapped a pretty serious holeshot on “Bad Bob” and the perennially unbeatable Fairmont. Shepherd finished second behind Glidden this year but won the first of four straight championships in 1981.
David Reher, left, was a third of that famed Reher-(Buddy) Morrison-Shepherd triumvirate that kicked Pro Stock ass in the 1980s. Love this great engine swap photo.
So much to love in this photo from that same 1980s Cajuns. That’s Jeg Coughlin Sr., who was competing in Top Fuel then, in the background talking with my old pal and photo mentor Leslie Lovett, National Dragster’s long-running Photo Editor and a friend to everyone in the pits. Coughlin had a decent outing, upsetting Don Garlits in round one before falling to Jeb Allen in the semi’s.
A couple of interesting-to-me notes from that 1980 Cajuns. The Funny Car DNQ list was impressive, with Raymond Beadle, Don Prudhomme, and Dale Pulde –- who were 1-2-3 in the points standings –- all failing to qualify. For Prudhomme, it was his first national event DNQ in nine years of Funny Car competition.
Former pro football quarterback and Super Bowl champ Dan Pastorini was on hand and served as the starter for one Pro qualifying session. Earlier that year, the Houston Oilers management had nixed his plans to buy Beadle’s Blue Max Top Fueler. Pastorini had to wait a few more years before retiring before getting into Top Fuel.
Pastorini acquitted himself well in his brief stint in Top Fuel including a win at the 1986 Southern Nationals and a runner-up in the Winston All-Stars event in 1987. This was the former Kilpatrick & Connell dragster driven by the great Richard Tharp that Pastorini bought from Gene Snow, who not only had signed his license but also was on the losing end of that Southern Nationals finals against Pastorini. Pastorini called that win "better than any Super Bowl win," which is really saying something. Note the Sid Waterman twin-hat injector setup.
Billy Williams was an absolute terror in the Pro Comp ranks in the late 1970s, battling the likes of Dale Armstrong and Ken Veney. “The Munchkin,” seen in action at Green Valley in 1977, had some of the hardest-running Alcohol Dragsters in history. The two-time Indy winner died April 14, 208, more than six years after being critically injured March 22, 2002, after a crash in his Top Alcohol Funny Car.
Funny Car OG Gordin Mineo stayed in the game for a long time but lived up to his “Flash Gordon” nickname at the 1991 Chief Nationals with this flash fire in the former Blue Max Trans Am. Mineo, a two-time NHRA national event runner-up, was tragically killed, along with his wife, Ann, and three others, in a boating accident during a “poker run” race on Oklahoma’s Lake Texoma in September 2006.
Gary Burgin was one of the all-time great nitro racers who probably never got his true due. All of the racers knew he was a badass (and, of course, Prudhomme remembers him as the guy who stopped him from a perfect eight-win 1976 season and he finished No. 2 in points behind “Snake” in 1975) and was a match-race favorite but, I dunno, seems like he could have been remembered alongside the likes of Prudhomme, Beadle, et al, rather than as trivia footnotes. Mad respect for the Orange Baron. This car is worth talking about because it’s wearing one of those weird anonymous Bruce Iversen-built bodies that late great West Coast photographer Tim Marshall used to derisively call “the shoe.” The nose of the body was devoid of headline cutouts, grille, or other features, which had to be painted on.
Rickie Smith fielded two Pro Stock cars, both sponsored by STP, at the 1990 Chief Nationals in Dallas. “Trickie” qualified his car No. 5 with an impressive 7.26 while recently crowned IHRA Pro Mod champ Tim McAmis qualified No. 8 with a 7.28. Both won their first-round races and seemed destined for a semifinal showdown but both lost in round two, Smith to Jerry Eckman and McAmis to Darrell Alderman.
This is a pretty cool photo from the 1988 IHRA event at Texas Motorplex. It’s the Worsham Racing-owned Tinker Toy Alcohol Funny Car, driven by Art Hendey (who would move up to nitro later that year). What’s cool is a young Del Worsham (still two-plus years from taking the wheel himself) working on the engine (with his ubiquitous BMX bike not far away) while father Chuck can be seen in the trailer door. Seems like a lot of carnage that weekend.
See you guys next time. Stay safe out there.
Phil Burgess can be reached at [email protected]
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