Fandom is such a unique thing. What attracts one person to a specific celebrity or athlete varies differently from what others may think. Some people become fans based on accomplishments, others on intangibles like work ethics, personality, and sportsmanship. In drag racing, maybe it’s based on brand loyalty or class preference, a specific car or sponsor, or maybe that autograph that Don Garlits gave you when you were a kid.
So when, in separate Twitter posts by NHRA and Cruz Pedregon six weeks apart, followers were asked to offer up the name of a random NHRA drag racer, I was interested to see where the allegiances lay. I figured that people would reveal not only their favorite racers but, by doing so, the eras they treasure and the people who have had impacts on their drag racing life.
Naturally, the big stars of today all got mentioned by multiple people, a list that included Antron Brown, Clay Millican, Brittany, Courtney and John Force, Erica Enders, Leah Pruett (mostly by guys), Matt Hagan (mostly by girls), Ron Capps, Stevie “Fast” Jackson, Tony Schumacher, Tommy Johnson Jr., Doug Herbert, and Jeg Coughlin Jr.
Terry McMillen, Terry Haddock, Rickie Smith, J.R. Todd, Alexis Deloria, Alex Laughlin, Angelle Sampey, Angie Smith, Cruz Pedregon, Tim Wilkerson, Scott Palmer, and Mike Salinas also all got predictable nods from their fanbases, but it was also refreshing to see shoutouts for people like Smax Smith, Audrey Worm, Jon Capps, Luigi Novelli, Melanie Troxel, Jeff Arend, Elvira Karlsson, and Larry Morgan, plus some real unexpected love for former Top Fuel racer Jenna Haddock, once-year Northwest Top Fuel pilot Ron Smith, and a very interesting call out for former driver turned record-breaking crew chief David Grubnic (“Racer, tuner, and chief. Also could play Richie in a Happy Days remake”).
But, because you’re here, and you probably figured that the newer folks would be on the mind of the younger-skewed Twitter crowd, like me you probably were interested to see which drivers from previous generations still resonate with the 280-character, hashtagging crowd.
With about 500 responses between the two tweets, there a lot of our favorites who got multiple homages, led, not unexpectedly by the likes of Garlits, Don Prudhomme and Tom McEwen (both separately and together) and Shirley Muldowney. The single biggest “vote-getter” clearly were Eddie Hill and Bob Glidden, a testament to their continuing legacy years after they disappeared from public view.
“TV Tommy” Ivo also got a surprising amount of love. As did the late Top Fuel champ Gary Ormsby. “Jungle Jim” Liberman was another expected favorite, but he got the same amount of nods as wheelstanding legend Bill "Maverick" Golden.
Multiple votes also went to people like Al Hoffman, Darrell Gwynn, Dean Skuza, Eric Medlen, “Flamin’ Frank” Pedregon, “Flash Gordon” Mineo, Gary Beck, Gary Scelzi, Gene Snow, Gordie Bonin, Joe Amato, Kenny Bernstein, Lori Johns, Raymond Beadle, Roland Leong, Scotty Cannon, Steve Carbone, Tim Grose, and Cory McClenathan.
Arnie "The Farmer" Beswick, Bennie Osborn, Billy Meyer, Bruce Allen, Bruce Larson, Butch Leal, Chris Karamesines, Chuck Etchells, Dale Armstrong, Dale Pulde, Danny Ongais, Della Woods, Dickie Harrell, Dick Kraft ( of “The Bug” dragster fame), Don Schumacher., Ed McCulloch, Eric Medlen, Jack Chrisman, Jake King (famed Sox & Martin crew chief), Jeb Allen, Jerry Ruth, Jerry Toliver, Jim Adolph, Jim Bucher, Jim Oddy, Jim White, Joe Hartley, John Kimble, K.C. Spurlock., Kenji Okazaki, Kenny Sanford, Larry Dixon., Mickey Thompson, Mike Sorokin, Shelly Anderson, “Slammin’ Sammy” Miller, Tom Hoover, Tony Nancy, Whit Bazemore, and “Wild Willie” Borsch. It’s a virtual Who’s Who of the sport.
Pro Stock was surprisingly well represented with love for Ronnie Sox, Bill Jenkins, Lee Shepherd, Warren and Kurt Johnson, “Dyno Don” Nicholson, Darrell Alderman, and even Arizona crowd favorite Gordie Rivera, who also got a couple of mentions. Historically people remembered guys like Dick Landy, Don Carlton, Frank Iaconio, Jerry Haas, Tom Martino, Mike Edwards, Max Naylor, and former basketball players turned drivers Tom Hammonds and Larry Nance.
Sportsman racers also got some shout outs, which was cool to see, even if it was the top echelon of the group with people like David Rampy, Dan Fletcher, Sam, Peter, and Sal Biondo, Anthony Bertozzi, Jackie Fricke, Bucky Hess, Todd Patterson, and both Pat and Bucky Austin.
At some point in the game, it became the goal to not just come up with a random name, but one that would make people go, “Oh yeah, I remember them.”
Cristen Powell, the teenage female Top Fuel sensation of the early 1990s, certainly falls into that category. Floyd Lippencott Jr. (aka Bob Muravez), too. Seeing someone remember Dave Edstrom, the blind and inspirational tuner of the Blind Faith nitro cars, brought a smile to my face, as did multiple mentions of one of Pro Stock Motorcycle racing’s (maybe even drag racing’s) greatest human beings, the late John Myers.
The names of not-well-known Top Fuel racers like the pride of Dardanelle, Ark., Rudy Toepke (crew chief: John Melden), Maurice Dupont (famously sponsored by M.C. Hammer), and Tony Ceraolo (pictured at right and best remembered for having his young daughters as crewmembers on his “Traveler” dragster) were thrown around. IndyCar driver turned Top Fuel pilot John Andretti got a nod, as did NASCAR’s Kurt Busch, who had a very short Pro Stock career, and Richard Petty, who competed in drag racing in 1965 while in a dispute with NASCAR.
NHRA tee-vee star Brian Lohnes chipped in with Texas Top Fueler Mark Kinsella, whose nine-year career in the class comprised just 12 events, eight of which were DNQs (but did score a memorable first-round win over Doug Herbert at the 2002 Topeka race). ND’s own Kevin McKenna made a completion with ex-NFL quarterback and 1987 Southern Nationals Top Fuel winner Dan Pastorini. Don Schumacher Racing’s marketing Swiss Army Knife, Ted Yerzyk, came in hot with Southern California firefighter/Top Fuel racer Ray Stutz. Former drag racing publicist and best-selling author Bob Wilber flew the Union Jack for British Funny Car diehard Norm Wilding, whom Wilber once represented.
So you’re probably wondering (or not) what your ol’ pal Phil came up with, right? Well, to me (and several online dictionaries I consulted), the definition of “random” is “chosen without method or conscious decision” which is definitely not what I did.
I went for obscure -- but not quite Ginger Watson (blown fuel dragster driver from the mid-1960s; thanks Bret Kepner)-level obscure -- yet memorable and with historic footnotes. My pick?
My tweet was immediately met by two responses, the first from Billy Anderson (@DragRacingBilly) who wrote, “Or as I call him, ‘The bastard that bumped "Big Daddy" out of the Indy 2002 field by .003-seconds!’ Can you tell I'm bitter? It was my only trip to Indy and I purposely went to see @dgarlitsand @RealMuldowney. Thankfully, Shirley won a round!).” The second was from my good pal, drag racing encyclopedia, and budding “big show” nitro crew chief Brad Littlefield who correctly added, “Yuichi also ended the Forever Red tour at the Finals.”
Both correct! And two reasons why I picked him (there are others).
I had originally planned to transition toward the end of this column with a few paragraphs about Oyama’s 2002 season, citing, as Anderson mentioned, how Oyama bumped Garlits from the 2002 Indy field (the only time that Garlits ever DNQ’d at Indy) and how also he ended Kenny Bernstein’s swan-song retirement tour in round one of the Finals, but after talking on the phone yesterday to my old pal Robert Reehl, who was Oyama’s crew chief that season, and getting way too much and way too entertaining material to jam into a few lines here, I’ll devote the next column to that topic (and if you have contact with Yuichi, please point him my way!).
I’ll end this column instead with my own challenge to you. Who’s your “random” drag racer and why. Click the link below to email me your shout out and a sentence or two of why. Photos appreciated!
OK, gang, I’ll see Yuichi later. Stay safe.
Phil Burgess can be reached at [email protected]
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