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Welcome back, and welcome to my great drag racing debates

After a six-week hiatus, the Dragster Insider column returns with a couple of burning debates from NHRA history.
20 Nov 2020
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

Annnnnnd … we’re back.

Back when I was doing this column two to three times a week, Jr. Fuel hero Jimmy Ige once kindly admonished me to not worry about apologizing if I missed a column here or there, but, criminy, it’s been six weeks between columns, the longest gap in the 13-plus years I’ve been rattling my keyboard at you guys.

Insider faithful like Cliff Morgan, Al Kean, Dennis Friend, and many others kindly checked in with me to see what the heck was going on, and there was even a Nitromater thread of the missing Insider. 

My good pal, former co-worker, and Top Fuel legend Carl Olson put it to me succinctly: “A Friday without Dragster Insider is like a DNQ. A month without Dragster Insider is like being upside down on fire at 200-plus mph.”

It’s nice to be missed, and thank you all for inquiring, but, no, I didn’t get COVID. No, as wonderful as Brian Lohnes’ Nitro Time Machine videos are, they’re not replacing this column. No, I didn’t quit my job to drive for John Force. The excuse is much more mundane. The frantic three straight weekends of national event racing to finish the season were tough. Me and my #LaganaStrong mask traveled to two of them and then had to crank out those issues of National Dragster and keep the NHRA.com content pipeline flowing, and it’s probably no secret to most of you that the ol’ ND masthead had shrunk considerably this year. Once I did all of the things I had to do, there wasn’t much or any time to do the other things I love to do, most namely this column.

I feel a tremendous amount of responsibility to create the column not only to salute the heroes who helped build this sport — and, especially and more frequently lately, those who we've lost — but to continue to share the deep and rich history of the sport we all love. I feel like we’ve built an amazing community here and no way I’m going to abandon it.

The good news for me (and, but association, you) is that 2021 will be a yearlong celebration of NHRA’s 70 anniversary, which means that some of my Dragster and.com work is going provide perfect crossovers here. Anyway, that’s the long story behind the absence. With the season overall (but still two more issues of ND to produce, plus the beginning of work on the 2021 souvenir program and fan guide), I should have a bit more time to hang out here. That's the plan anyway.


OK, so it’s not like I’ve been doing nothing Insider related the whole time I’ve been gone. I did engage in a couple of fun debates, one between Insider readers and one with uber historian Bob Frey that I’ll share with you. It’s the weird kind of stuff that really causes me to pause and gives me something to debate that doesn’t involve politics (and, believe me, living in a house with split politics and ideologies has worn me out on the topic).

Drag racing is big on descriptive names. Funny Cars reportedly got theirs based on their wild offset wheelbases. Pro Stock was Stock eliminator for professional racing. Dragsters were dry-lake “lakesters” built for drag racing. The “slingshot” term was coined because the driver looked like he was in the pocket of a slingshot ready to be fired. Doorslammers is an obvious delineation for stock-bodied cars from cars without doors (dragsters, altereds, etc.).

Within the Insider Nation, Robert Nielsen has led a one-man crusade for me to stop calling cars like today’s modern Top Fueler “rear-engined.” He says “mid-engine” is more correct so, to humor him, in a recent column, I called Don Garlits’ famed Swamp Rat 14 “mid-engined.” The inclusion – which will not be unilateral -- did not go unnoticed or unappreciated in an email with the subject line: FLASH: Stop the presses.

I wrote back, “I knew you would enjoy that, but even as I wrote it, I was thinking, ‘Hey, wait, even slingshots are mid-engine,d or maybe even close to rear engine depending on how far out the engine was placed. What say you?”

Floodgates opened.

“There are two factors that come into play when making the front-engine/mid-engine/rear-engine determination,” he pronounced. “The two factors are engine location with respect to the driver, and engine location with respect to the rear axle. If the engine is in front of the driver, then in each and every case it is a front-engine car. The location of the engine with respect to its proximity to the front or rear axle is not a determining factor!

“If the engine is behind the driver and in front of the rear axle it is a mid-engine car. If the engine is behind the driver and behind the rear axle it is a rear-engine car. Since the engine in a slingshot dragster is in front of the driver —– which, in this case, is the determining factor — it is definitely a front-engine dragster.

Jon Clark begs to differ. “As frequently happens with the English language (and frequently in the USA), the vernacular has a way of determining what things are called, rather than logic or common sense,” he wrote.

OK, you have my full attention.

“The terms ‘rear engine’ or ‘mid-engine’ never made any sense for the so-called ‘rear engine’ dragsters,” he argues. “Connie Swingle was right all along. SR 14 was a "front driver" car. The location of the engine never really changed in relation to the rear wheels. It was the driver that was moved from behind the engine (and more or less between the rear wheels) to "in front" of the engine, hence a ‘front-driver’ car. Yeah, it sounds a bit awkward now, but who's to say it might have caught on if started way back in 1971 with Connie Swingle leading the way.

I love the passion and the arguments made by both, but I feel like I’m so far down the rear-engine/front-engine road that I’d have a hard time making a right- or left turn let alone a u-turn, so I’m sticking to my guns. I imagine that the majority of you agree. But thanks, Robert and Jon, for caring enough to stoke the fires of debate.

The second Great Debate, between myself and the esteemed Mr. Frey, was of much greater historical importance and, I’m happy to report, after much back and forth, we eventually resulted in a consensus.

Every good historian of the sport keeps reams of statistical information to back-check themselves on facts, trends, and interesting bits of history, and Frey and I are no different. I have so many Excel spreadsheets, Word documents, and magazine articles (and, needless to say, the entire National Dragster library) at my disposal.

But I know that my stats are the Clark Kent to Frey’s Superman’s stats. The man has literally crisscrossed the country and pored over old newspapers in dusty libraries just to find out who the No. 27 qualifier was at some long-forgotten event. He’s created and maintains the single greatest database of information in the history of the sport.

The topic for debate and discussion was very important to me as we enter the 70th anniversary season. My “Scorecard” document, which tracks every winner and runner-up at every national event in history, also includes a column citing race number. By my account, we were on track to contest NHRA’s milestone 1,000th event in 2021. It’s certainly an impressive milestone that I’m sure that no one ever. thought about at the first National Championship Drags. in Great Bend, Kan., in 1955

Frey, too, has an event counter and our numbers were different. Not too far apart, but enough to make a big deal about whether the milestone would occur in 2021 or 2022. We both had agreed to include all SPORTSnationals events and exclude national-event-like specialty events such as the Winston Showdowns and Winston Allstars events but still, we were far apart.

I shared my Scorecard document with him, a document that has been updated by a number of ND staffers over the years as a “living” document, each a human being capable of mistake, whereas Frey is the lone curator (but still fallible) of his. It didn’t take Frey long to discover the source of much of the discrepancy: On several occasions, two events in my Scorecard were given the same event number.

We then went back and forth until the sticky situation of the 1976 Cajun Nationals arose. The event was what would eventually be known as a “showcase” event. To me, even though no points were awarded — a line in the sand for Frey — it was still every bit a national event as any other. Try telling the NHRA Competition Department that they didn’t stage an event worthy of being called a national event. Try telling Richard Tharp that he didn’t score his first Top Fuel win there or the family of the late Lee Shepherd that wasn’t where he got his first Pro Stock victory.

Well, I said, tossing open Pandora’s Box like a box of chocolates, if your criteria is points, are we also dismissing the 1970-’73 Supernationals events at Ontario Motor Speedway? They were all held after the champions had been crowned at the World Finals and, thus, points also were not part of the equation. Why are they national events and the Cajun Nationals is not?

Paraphrasing Frey’s response: “Do you really want to be the one to erase Jim Dunn’s 1972 Funny Car win, the only national event win by a rear-engined Funny Car? Do you really want to change history? Or take away Tom McEwen’s first career Funny Car win at the 1973 event?”

Gulp. No.

It would also mean discounting the only wins ever by Rick Ramsey (Top Fuel, 1970), Don Moody (Top Fuel, 1972), and Larry Arnold (Funny Car, 1971) and “Gentleman Hank” Johnson’s only Top Fuel win (1971). To take away Mike Snively’s legacy of recording the first five-second run at an NHRA national event (1972)?

But what about Tharp and Shepherd? What about Ken Veney, who won Pro Comp at the Cajuns?

Then Frey countered with this end-of-fight blow from the Jan 30, 1976 edition of National Dragster: “…the Cajun Nationals will not enjoy the full NHRA national event status.” 

Hoisted by my own petard!

My longtime pal, former National Dragster staffer, and Top Alcohol Car event winner Todd Veney ended up getting me over the hump when I called him to commiserate. Even though his dad had won Pro Comp and he’d love to be able to say his dad was a 14-time national event winner (and to be able to bolster his tongue-in-cheek claim that “my dad and I combined to win 15 nationals events”), but, in his opinion, the Cajun Nationals was definitely out as a true national event, I'd better not dare take away Jim Dunn’s win, and that the ghost of “the ‘Goose” will haunt me if you take away his first win.

Stop the torture! I give.

So, Frey and I came to a consensus that the recently completed, season-ending event in Las Vegas was event No. 980 in NHRA history, setting us up for the milestone 1,000th event sometime next fall. Although the 2021 schedule is largely in place, we all know that with the uncertainty that 2021 holds you just can’t count on anything, so I can’t tell you an exact event, but, rest assured, as we get into the meat of the season, we’ll know and celebrate it.

One thing that apparently needs no debate in the response from fans who have bought and read Don “The Snake” Prudhomme: My Life Beyond the 1320, which I reviewed here and excerpted here.

A large number of you have written to me to tell me that you’d ordered books and ”the Snake” tells me that they’re largely caught up on all current orders, and many of you have them in your hands.

Here are a couple of their reviews:

Ricky Farrow:  "I just recently completed reading Don The Snake Prudhomme My Life Beyond the 1320 and came away impressed in the areas that the book covered.[of] him growing up in what appears to be dysfunctional home life as a child and how he overcame that and a learning disability to become a legendary drag racer and car owner. Being Black myself I hope he can understand as to why family members who were told by their parents to refrain from saying hi to him when he was match racing in Louisiana. Back then if it was found out that he was Black, he might have suffered the same fate as Wendell Scott. If you get a chance, check out the movie Greased Lightning (1977) with Richard Pryor staring as Wendell Scott. It was an eye-opening experience to see what he went through to race back then. He wanted to race that bad.

"I'm just amazed at the trials and tribulations Prudhomme had to go through to field a multi-car team. One Funny Car crew chief didn't like the other Funny Car crew chief, the Top Fuel crew chief didn't like any Funny Cars, period. All the while he's in the hospital with his wife who was having a serious medical procedure performed and he has to play ringmaster between his crew chiefs. This probably explains why his three-car team never lived up to it's potential.

"Overall, I really like the book, though the timeline, particularly the 1970s was skewed somewhat concerning the cars. But that was not what I was really looking for in the book anyway. I wanted to read about his relationship with his parents, his sisters, his brother Monette and his sudden death, him almost dying during a heart catheterization test which I had read about in an archived 1976 Sports Illustrated interview where it said Prudhomme had an allergic reaction to the dye that they used."

Michael Ostrofsky “The only disappointing thing about it is that there wasn’t enough — especially once he stopped driving. Ms. Scherr did a great job on the pace and tone. Boiled everything down into a well-paced read. Enjoyed the insets written by Bernstein and others. I’m sure a lot of people are going to Google the two addresses where he lived in [Granada] Hills. I did. Also looked up the John Mulligan fire at Indy. How awful. Would’ve loved to hear more about Dick LaHaie. Smiled when his approach to tuning was described. He ran the Lite car the exact same way he ran his own. Was shocked at the breakup between him and Dixon. Never knew anything about that — or the interest in IndyCar or F1. Too bad his time as a multi-car team owner was so chaotic. Having a professional manager with the title of president would’ve helped. Prudhomme lays out his vision (we’re all one team dedicated to helping each other win for the sake of our sponsors) then the president makes it happen."

OK, that’s it for a comeback start. A few of you have written to say they’re looking forward to a piece on Chris Karamesines after “the Greek” announced his retirement from driving. Rest assured, it’s coming. I’m working on a piece for National Dragster, but there’s so much history to sort through, it’s going to take me some time.

Thanks for the patience and the continued interest in my ramblings. Have a happy Thanksgiving and stay safe.

Phil Burgess can be reached at pburgess@nhra.com

Hundreds of more articles like this can be found in the DRAGSTER INSIDER COLUMN ARCHIVE