It’s been a somber month in the United States and around the world and it certainly has touched our little NHRA world with the passing of a quartet of diehard old NHRA nitro racers you may or may not know or remember: driver/owners Johnny White and Bobby Tapia and car owners Bill Blomgren and Glenn Solano.
White, who ran the popular Houston Hustler car out of the Lone Star state, passed after contracting the coronavirus and died of COVID-19 on May 13. He was 70.
The news came to us through first through the Facebook page of Top Alcohol Dragster ace (and new Top Fuel pilot) Lee Callaway, who lives in the same town, Channelview, Texas, that White made famous, and whose parents, Dickie and Pat, were crewmembers on White’s Houston Hustler Mustang II when he won his first (and only) NHRA Funny Car Wally at the 1977 Cajun Nationals in Baton Rouge, La. “You’re finally free to fly, you crazy angel,” Lee wrote of a man who also became his lifelong friend.
White was nothing if not fun-loving, as I’ll get to here in a second, but his path of Funny Car stardom took an unusual path.
He got his first taste of drag racing in the mid-1960s with a B/Gas ’34 Chevy at Porter Drag Strip (better known now as Eastex Raceway), but only raced for about a year before leaving the sport to work in his father’s trucking firm and then returned to racing in the circle-track world in 1968 and ’69. By all accounts, he was a pretty good driver winning in sprint cars and super modifieds and was named South Central rookie of the year in ’68.
It only took one trip back to the drags “just for the fun of it” to get him hooked again not only on drag racing but on Funny Cars.
“That was the first time that I ever got to see the Funny Cars since they weren’t around when I ran my old B/Gasser, and as soon as I saw ‘em, I just knew I had to get ahold of one for myself.
“The first car I got was a Mustang with a 426 Hemi and, you know, it was just one of those deals where some guy sold me something that wasn’t nearly as good as it was racked up to be [according to Lee Callaway, this was the Brand X Funny Car]. My first pass was a 7.23 and then every run got worse after that, I soon realized that I had bought a pile of junk and sold it myself not much longer after that.”
He wound up behind the wheel of Albert Reida’s Dodge Fever entry but crashed it in Denver after just four outings and a best pass of 6.83. He then bought the ex-LA. Hooker Mustang from Gene Beaver and the Condit brothers and started getting some help from fellow Texan Gene Snow and Leonard Hughes, the tuning genius behind the Candies & Hughes Top Fueler.
That car died an ugly death, too, burning to the ground in a July 1975 fire. From the ashes of that came the beautiful John Buttera-chassised Mustang II in which he finished fourth in the championship standings in 1976 (behind only Don Prudhomme, Shirl Greer, and Ed McCulloch) and that carried him glory in Baton Rouge the following season.
White qualified fourth in the eight-car field in Baton Rouge with a 6.49 before the race was rained out and rescheduled for a month later. He picked right up where he left off, running 6.45 to defeat Danny Pickett’s Overland Express Monza and (pictured above) a 6.43 to defeat Jake Johnston in the Pisano & Matsubara Monza.
Fellow Texan Billy Meyer, who had set low e.t. with a 6.41 in round two, was White’s scheduled opponent in the final, but an 85-cent oil-pump gasket failed on Meyer’s car during the burnout and he had to be shut off, allowing White to solo to the win.
White was in good company in the winner’s circle, which also included Pro Stock winner Bob Glidden and the Candies & Hughes team and their driver, the colorful and talented Richard Tharp, who knew and admired White on many levels.
“He was crazy,” said Tharp with a laugh. “He was a lot of fun to be around and when I say that about somebody you know they’re crazy.
“He was a good guy and became a pretty good driver. Leonard helped him a lot and bought a lot of parts from us; of course, even [free-spending owner Paul] Candies’ old parts were like brand-new parts to most people. I helped him where I could help him but Leonard was his biggest helper. He was funnier than hell and people might have thought he was full of crap sometimes, but he always tried hard and was a fearless driver; he wasn’t scared of the devil.”
Evidence of White's fearlessness was the number of photos I found of him with the front end in the air including the famous one-wheel wheelie above from Indy 1982 and the more conventional one also from Indy,
White was a huge racing mentor for Callaway, whose family was longtime friends with White and his father, John Sr. Dickie Callaway had known Johnny since they were 12 years old and became a partner and a longtime crewmember on White’s Funny Cars, along with cousin Robby King. That’s the Callaways at left in the front row in the winner’s circle photo from the ’77 Cajun Nationals, kneeling next to King.
“Johnny was a huge mentor to me in my racing efforts,” said Callaway, who was just 4 when White won the Cajuns. “I went with them to the races and remember seeing him do some crazy stuff. One time at old Houston Int’l Dragway, he did a burnout all the way to the lights, turned around and drove it back to the starting line, and then made a run.
“He knew everyone and to the day he died he was the kind of guy who would give anyone anything he had.”
Never was that more evident than in 1977 when, just months after his breakthrough win at the Cajuns, White loaned his Funny Car to fellow Texan Billy Meyer, whose car was destroyed in a terrible fire at Le Grandnational in Montreal. That’s Johnny and a still-bandaged Billy at right. Meyer drove the Houston Hustler at a Division 4 points meet the next weekend, ironically at State Capitol Dragway in Baton Rouge, La., the site of White’s Cajuns win and the same racetrack where White had soloed to victory against Meyer a few months earlier at a Division 4 meet.
White’s life disintegrated with his addiction to drugs and incarceration, but Callaway was always there for him, remaining supportive and encouraging of a guy who was like family to him and visited him in the hospital shortly before he succumbed to COVID-19.
I also love these photos of Johnny and his then-wife, Diane, who clearly played a major role in his racing efforts, too, working on the car and helping him tape up his fireboots. According to Callaway, she also has passed. Johnny White is gone, but won’t soon be forgotten.
Word of the passing of Tapia, a talented and respected Top Fuel driver of the mid-to-late 1960s, came to me from his brother Steve, who I’ve known since he was an early pioneer of online reporting with the likes of Ed Dykes and Larry Sullivan and company, which grew into today’s FastNews Network run by Rick Green that provides the commentary that accompanies NHRA.com’s live timing.
Steve, now a college professor, is no stranger to writing and writing well, and I share with you below the remembrance he provided to me about his brother, accompanied by photos he sent me and some great images provided by my great pal and Insider godsend, hall of fame shooter Steve Reyes.
Robert “Bobby” Tapia passed away on May 2, 2020, in Boston, Mass. He was 82 and died after several massive strokes over the last month.
Born in Santa Monica, California in 1938, Tapia was one of the drag racing’s most formidable competitors in the sport’s early days. He began drag racing in the 1950s. His first taste of major success came racing a ’57 Super Stock Chevy at the drag strips in Southern California. It was in that class that his rivalry with Tom “the Mongoose” McEwen began. In 1957, Tapia won the weekend’s competition in the Super Stock class 13 weeks in a row at the legendary Lions Dragstrip in Long Beach, Calif.
Later, Tapia raced a small-block Chevy-powered D/Gas class dragster that was constructed in his parents’ garage in Torrance, Calif. That car earned the nickname “the Giant Killer” after upsetting Art Arfons’ legendary Green Monster aircraft engine- powered land speed record-challenging car in a July 1959 match race at Lions. That same year, he won 50 out of 52 Middle Eliminator races at Lions. He made Lions’ “Standard 1320" list of record holders three times in 1958. He raced dragsters, including Top Fuelers until 1961 when he was drafted into the U.S. Army.
After being honorably discharged from the Army in 1963, Tapia came back to Southern California and raced Top Fuel dragsters exclusively. He drove for car owners Tarrant & Woodruff, Don Prieto, Don Madden, John Harbert, Ed Donovan, Larry Stellings, and Chris Karamesines. During this period, he continued his rivalry with Tom McEwen and was one of the few drivers who could claim to have bested the rarely beat Greer, Black and Prudhomme Top Fueler driven by Don “the Snake” Prudhomme.
In August 1967, Tapia won the Top Fuel eliminator competition driving the Stellings and Tapia Top Fueler at the opening meet at Orange County International Raceway. On Feb. 11, 1968, Tapia drove that Top Fueler to what was then the lowest elapsed time ever recorded (6.54), more than three-tenths of a second faster than the then-existing record of 6.88 held by Hank Westmoreland.
In 1969, Tapia retired from racing and instead pursued his career as a computer programmer and executive for IBM and then a series of software companies that he owned or co-owned.
Blomgren is best remembered by NHRA fans of the mid-1990s as the owner of the Geronimo lines of cars driven by the likes of David Grubnic, Frank Pedregon Jr. pictured with Blomgren at right), Richard Hartman, Dale Pulde, Phil Burkart Jr., Glenn Mikres, and Bob Weickgenannt.
Blomgren had been involved in drag racing since 1964 but his stay was short after his driver was injured in a crash at Southern California’s San Fernando Raceway. Blomgren fulfilled his need for speed racing motorcycles in the desert but suffered a broken back in a 1966 accident that left him a paraplegic. He didn’t let a wheelchair get in the way and opened a retail motorcycle parts and accessory store in Tujunga, Calif., but lost the business in a fire, but soon found a new passion in creating with his father Sven a demolition/grading/excavation business that did major work on flood-control dams in the San Fernando Valley that led to the formation of Channel & Basin Reclamation, Inc., and several subsidiary companies.
An auto accident in March 1994 led to a two-year recovery from spinal surgery, and, with the encouragement of friends, got back into drag racing in 1996 with the Geronimo Funny Car. Blomgren bought Larry Minor’s Funny Car operation in 1995 and even had Minor’s driver, future two-time world champ Tony Pedregon slated to drive the car. Then, on Thanksgiving 1995, Pedregon got the call that would change his life -- the offer to drive world champ John Force’s second Funny Car -- and he had to bow out of the Blomgren ride, which went instead to young Richard Hartman. The crew chief was another future great driver and national-record tuner: David Grubnic.
A chagrined Pedregon told me Thursday that, ironically, his first race in the Force car at the 1996 Winternationals was against Hartman and Blomgren, who proceeded to defeat him, 5.04 to 5.11. When the tour returned to Pomona at the end of the year for the World Finals, Grubnic tuned the car to a stunning 4.93 that not only qualified them No. 1 and made the unheralded team just the sixth member of the Castrol GTX Four-Second Club behind only Chuck Etchells, Force, Al Hofmann, and Cruz and Tony Pedregon.
“Bill helped a lot of people early in their careers,” said Grubnic, who briefly drove Blomgren’s Top Fueler the following year before moving on to wheel John Mitchell’s Montana Express. “Bill’s car was the first car I ever tuned. He picked me up to help him get the car running and we had Johnny West with us to start the year, but he left after Seattle and I took over.
“Even though Bill was in a wheelchair, he never let it stop him. He and his daughter Elana ran the team and it was a great time for me personally. He was fabulous and very good to me and gave me the opportunity to do what I loved and gave us all of the resources he had available to him. To get to places where we end up, we have to have the privilege of people who helped us get there and he was one of them for me. He could have easily gone out and done anything with his money, but he decided to put it into NHRA Drag Racing.”
After retiring from racing, Blomgren opened recreational vehicle resorts, Edgewater RV Resort and Motel on Flathead Lake in Lakeside, Mont., and Arizona Legends RV Resort in Benson, Ariz.
Solano, the owner of the Invader Corvette Funny Car, passed away May 6 in Springdale, Ark. He was 79. It was Solano’s partnership with "Mighty Mike” Van Sant that put both on them on the map. The wild Chrysler 392-powered Corvette was a screamer and the two stayed partnered from 1969 through 1971, after which Van Sant went on to become one of Mickey Thompson’s stable of drivers.
Before the Funny Car, Van Sant and Solano had been partners on an aluminum-front-ended Max Wedge ‘64 Plymouth that they ran together at Lions Drag Strip before Van Sant was drafted in 1966. As he left for his tour of duty, Solano promised him he’d have a new racecar ready when Van Sant returned.
“I didn’t really think anything would come of it,” Van Sant told National Dragster in 203, “but when I came back after my tour in Germany, he had the first Invader Funny Car built and ready to go.”
The duo teamed on a second car, partnering with fiberglass shop owner Dick Olsen on a ’71 Barracuda, but went separate ways after Van Sant landed the Thompson gig and Bobby Smith replaced him in the Invader car.
Here's a photo from their second go-round with the Mustang-bodied car in the early 1980s. That's Solano at far left and Van Sant standing up in the hatch. Kenny Youngblood is second from right.
When Van Sant returned to field his own cars, he used the Invader named for years, and the two partnered again a little later with the American Eagle car driven by Gary Ritter. Solano moved from Southern California to Arkansas in 1992 and worked a sheet-metal worker and in 2002 returned to the fray with an Invader-named Nostalgia Funny Car (the ex-American Eagle car) driven by guys like James Day and Rick Krafft. They ran the car through last year, but Solano has not been active on the car for the last few years due to illness.
Pictured above: Terry Robinson, Ritter, Solano, and a young crewguy named Brandon, who worked on the car for credit in a high-school class.
Below is a cool video of the car being warmed up. (Clicking on the link will take you off NHRA.com; hit the back button when you're done. I'll be here waiting.)
I chatted briefly with longtime Solano friend Tom Sanders Thursday. Sanders is the guy in the video above admonishing the driver to keep his damn foot off the throttle while he fires it up (Sanders, who's been in the racing business for more than 30 years and raced with the likes of Jack Beckman in SCEDA competition, always allowed people to warm up the car in Kraftt's absence.)
"I got along real well with Glenn because we were sheetmetal workers together in California, both in the Local 108, I owned the company and never knew him back then, but we both loved cars and got together when we both moved back here," he said.
OK, friends, that's it for the day. A sad column for sure, but, as always, I'm proud to be able to tell these stories for those who never knew the people and to let folks who don't know the stories gain an appreciation for them.
Thanks for reading. Stay safe out there.
Phil Burgess can reached at [email protected]
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