NHRA - National Hot Rod Association


Of missing jackets, missing friends, missing columns, and moving on down the road

The return of the Dragster Insider includes the tale of the missing firesuit, memories of John "Tarzan" Austin and Dal Denton, and moving on from one NHRA home to another.
22 Oct 2021
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
Dragster Insider

Hello, Insider nation! Long time no see. Between running six national events in eight weeks, a bunch of travel, my “streamlined” staff, producing the biggest issue in NHRA National Dragster history (244 pages!), and the process of the big headquarters move, it’s been a frantic two months.

1970s SoCal Jr. Fuel star Jimmy Ige once kindly admonished me that I shouldn’t have to explain if I didn’t have a column each week, but I feel like I’ve built up such an appreciative and engaged audience that I feel guilty when I can’t churn one out every Friday. As soon as the racing season is over, I should get back to a more regular schedule.

So much has gone on over the last few months that there’s not room for all of it, but there are a couple of things that I wanted to include, chief among them the passing of John “Tarzan” Austin, another of the legendary colorful characters that made the 1970s interesting and entertaining.

Right after his passing, I assembled a brief bio of Austin, who died Oct. 8, after complications from a stroke at age 80, and my pal Steve Reyes was kind enough to send me the images that accompany this section. (The ND photos were in the process of being boxed up for the move; more on that later.)

Austin grew up in Southern California’s car-crazed San Fernando Valley and was a member of the Throttle Merchants car club. His first trip down the dragstrip was in club member Ted Worby’s supercharged Chrysler Hemi-powered AA/Gas dragster. 

Austin acquired his tree-swinging nickname as the result of his long-haired and physical appearance and strength — his 9-to-5 was a bouncer at a local Valley bar — and his unique voice.

Austin tuned Arnie Behling to the Top Fuel victory at the 1971 NHRA Summernationals and also toured regularly with “T.V.” Tommy Ivo.

In 1972, Austin drove Greg Scheigert’s Hot Tuna Top Fueler until he crashed the dragster at the 1974 Gatornationals and Scheigert retired from racing.

In 1975, Austin drove the Bluegrass Shaker Funny Car and finished second in the NHRA Division 3 championship points that year, but a massive engine explosion and fire near the end of the season left him with burned hands and no ride, which helped him decide to retire as a driver and stay involved as a crewmember for various teams.

Austin went to work at Raymond Beadle’s Chaparral Trailers in Dallas, where he learned to build trailers for a lot of his racer friends. 

Naturally, I couldn’t resist reaching out to Ivo for his comments. Because he’s just waking up when most of us are laying down to sleep (“Ivo time”), I asked him to share his memories of “Tarzan” via email, which he graciously did, as always (Thanks, TV!).

“Tarzan … Where do I start? Or better yet, what can we print!!! <Ivo type grin> There’s the fact that he picked up my ex-wife Inez, at Indy one year and introduced her to me. That eventually ended our traveling together, so he shot himself in the foot in that way. But then again, he shot a big hole in my piggy bank at the same time. <last Ivo type grin> No, it all good. There would've been a couple of big holes in my life if I hadn't met both of them.

“Then there's the time at Indy, where he, Don ‘The Beachcomber’ Johnson, and Mike Kinne when out of the town, sprinkling M80s about the downtown area and ended up in the slammer. They called back to the hotel for help, and after my going down there and finding out I couldn't get them out, I went back to the room thinking I was glad I didn't go with them. I thanked my guardian angel and started to snore.

“Probably the most memorable incident that ever happened to me on a personal level with ‘Tarzan’ was the time we were racing in Seattle and all the racers up there took the two of us out for a little water skiing and a barbecue on a wooded edge of the Puget Sound on the Monday after the race. 

“But with me being breath and britches at the time (before I grew my Buddha belly), that cold Sound water was the next thing to frozen ice to me, having no blubber isolation on my poor bones to keep me warm. So I borrowed a rubber diving suit, and I put it on. But, as Murphy's Law would have it, I ran off into the woods to put the suit on and stood smack dab in the middle of a big patch of poison oak to accomplish the task. That's right — no one ever accused me of being the sharpest knife in the drawer.

“This, of course, ended badly, with a horrendous rash from nose to toes. I really did a good job of dousing myself with it. And just to add insult to injury, we had to go all the way to Alton, Ill., to race the next Saturday night, but the show must go on, and ‘Tarzan’ had to handle the helm for the entire trip all by himself. I had to just sit with the bottom of my feet propped up on the dashboard and rest my fingertips on my kneecaps to stop the risk of starting a scratching frenzy by brushing anything up against my itchy skin. Poor, poor ‘Tarzan.’ It was a long trip for him under the circumstances. So when we would stop for gas, he'd just throw a sheet over the top of me, and I looked like a covered chair sitting there but — and here comes that 'but' again — when we had to pull off the interstate into a one-horse town in Montana to fill it up,

"I think half the town came over to the gas station to look through the glass sides of my trailer at the neat race car in there, that they'd never see the likes of in their lives.

“ ‘Tarzan,’ being the nice buddy type, easy-going, and just plain all-round good guy that he was, had taken every stitch of anything out of the inside of the truck or glove compartment. I mean, there wasn't even a used postage stamp laying behind the seat on the floor somewhere. And when he had a nice big crowd going, he reached in and relieved me of my precious sheet and stood 10 feet back from the truck laughing at me while holding it in his hand. You talk about cockroaches running around on the kitchen floor when you turn the lights on. I was a blur. Boogieing it around the inside of that truck, trying to find something that wasn't nailed or glued down. I never forgave him for that!!!

“But probably the best way I can express the rest of my feelings for him is to send this copy of a message I had them read at this last year’s International Drag Racing Hall of Fame ceremony, when they inducted him. I was so glad he got to know about this before he left us. He was so excited when I talked to him on the phone before the event had come about, with him then living up near Stockton, Calif. But neither he nor I got to go to the event. He really wasn't up to it, and I wasn't that excited about going there when he couldn't make it. Being more than a little leery about traveling there at the age of 85, before I got my vaccine and booster shots. But it read:

“I just want to offer my hardiest congratulations to my brother that I adopted over the years — Tarzan. To even just casually meet him, a person would instantly figure out what a likable and talented guy he was. And I had the good fortune to have the privilege of traveling down the road with him for six years. Just at the time when drag racing was getting its wings and we were all doing it for the sheer love of it. And that, to me, was better than finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But you know how it is with brothers. They don't exactly see eye to eye all the time, and he kept me constipated for half the season, trying to keep him out of trouble.”

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the passing of longtime Division 4 Top Alcohol Funny Car racer Dal Denton, who passed away Oct. 7 after a long battle with cancer. My history with him went back to the 1986 SPORTSnationals, held at Beech Bend Raceway Park. Me and my fellow staffer members did some mini bios on some of the racers there, including Denton and his crew, which consisted of, from left, his wife, Deborah, engine builder Dennis Piranio, and crew chief Paul Berry.

That led to a friendship and an invitation to work on his car at a few match races and at the 1986 Cajun Nationals. They immediately began calling me “Hollywood,” perhaps for no other reason than that I was from California and they from Texas, but it was all in good fun. Among the places we visited was Temple Academy Dragway (located near the towns of Temple and Academy, hence the name) in his native Texas, a track that more than fit Bret Kepner’s “big four” list for sketchy tracks: short, dark, slippery, and narrow. “Big Daddy” Don Garlits reportedly couldn’t make the turn at the end of the short track and ended up out on the highway with his dragster. It was so narrow that the guardrail was molded around a tree that partially intruded upon the left lane and a very low spectator crossover ridge near the finish line didn’t look safe enough for a dog let alone a human to cross. But I loved it.

I shot this photo at Temple, and it’s still one of my favorites. The tree very visible on the left, the “Professional Drag Racing” brag on the Christmas Tree support, the “Not Responsible For Accidents” sign, the lady appearing to peek cautiously around the starting-line official’s booth, and, of course, the car in the right lane making a move to the left. I think that is the Simpson family’s Daytona (Bill Wendt probably driving), but I can’t be sure. Years later, Dal would teach young Todd Simpson how to drive Alcohol Funny Cars.

I worked with Dal and Paul on the Sudden Pleasure Trans Am at the 1986 Cajun Nationals. If you ever went to State Capitol Dragway in Baton Rouge, you remember it was always swelteringly humid there, and I remember sweat dripping off my nose and sizzling on the still-hot Donovan engine as we worked on it between rounds, Deborah hanging wet towels around our necks. Our claim to fame from that race was a runner-up, which gave young Pat Austin his first of 75 career wins. You’re welcome, Pat. I also worked on their car at the 1986 Chief Nationals at Texas Motorplex and wrote a big feature about it for National Dragster.

The Dentons’ son, Daniel, was just starting to get involved in the sport when his dad got sick a few years ago, sidelining their plans for him to follow further in Dad’s footsteps. I would have liked to have seen that. I didn’t talk to Dal a lot in the last decade, but I’ll forever fondly remember the experience he shared with me.

One of the other cool things that happened early this year was an email I got from a fan named Curtis Harter, whose ex-brother-in-law had somehow come into possession of a vintage Don Prudhomme firesuit jacket. After his sister gave it to him after the divorce, Harter, who’s a big Prudhomme fan — and even shares the April 6 birthday with “the Snake" — nonetheless thought it only right that he return it to Prudhomme. It was in rough shape for sure after 50 years of kicking around, but it seemed legit.

I can’t say enough about what a magnanimous gesture that it was — he could have easily put it on eBay and gotten some big bucks because it’s an authentic “game worn" firesuit.

Harter grew up around stock car racing but quickly found a love for drag racing (“I thought smashing your cars to pieces was insane, you know?”) and went on to become an engine builder for Caterpillar and dreamed of working on a race team.

From the photos he sent and a little sleuthing through old photos, I found out that it was the jacket from the 1973 Carefree 'Cuda. I found these photos of Prudhomme wearing the jacket at a preseason test at Irwindale Raceway.

I reached out to Prudhomme, who had no idea how he could have lost it, and it had me scratching my head, too. I mean, if it had been lost or “misappropriated” by a fan, wouldn’t he have realized that at the next event?

I got the two together on the phone, where they talked about their shared histories and the jacket.

“I really don't know,” Prudhomme said. “I had a lot of firesuits, and it was very easy back in those days because the pits are wide open, and people could walk around or do whatever they wanted to do while we're working on the cars. It's not a jacket that I would have given to someone or that I would have sold, so, who knows, a bunch of kids could have taken it. I thought I had the pants for the jacket — you know, it's a two-piece firesuit — but it is my jacket or it is the jacket that I wore.”

“If you want the jacket, it’s your jacket,” Harter told him. “If it was mine, I’d want it back, too.”

True to his word, Harter put the jacket in the mail to Prudhomme, who was thrilled to get the piece back. Thanks, Curtis.

OK, moving on … and literally.

As I mentioned at the head of the column, we’re moving to a new headquarters building Nov. 1, so we’ve spent the last two months packing up our stuff. NHRA has been in this Glendora office since late 1986, so there was A LOT of stuff, not the least of which was about 70 file cabinets worth of black and white print photography spanning the early 1950s through the early 2000s (when we switched to digital).

There are tens of thousands of images — or it could be a million, I don’t know — all filed away either by driver name or event, and it was a place I visited a lot for this column. Anyway, that all had to be boxed up along with 60 years’ worth of National Dragster copies that make up our in-house library, more than 2,700 issues (I've been part of almost 1,700 of them!).

Jeff Mellem, one of our awesome graphic designers, boxed them all up with the help of our jack-of-all-trades, Robyn Morton, and Jeff, Rey Oruga, David Kennedy, and I spent most of Wednesday putting them in their new home.

Boxing up my office was a chore if for no other reason that I kept unearthing little treasures of long-forgotten stuff. Longtime readers of this column may remember the last time we moved — from a satellite office in Glendora back to HQ — and I wrote a series of “Stuff In My Office” columns on my collection that you can re-read here.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Dutifully boxing it all up and watching it be carted away, to be followed by the office furniture, wall decorations, and more, was a little traumatic. As I write this on Thursday, there’s no furniture in my office, and I’m typing on a shelf that’s built into the wall (they couldn’t take it!) There’s barely room to work — room for my laptop, a cool beverage, my backpack, my treasured Vallco Drag Racing Game (movers don't get to touch my Vallco Drag Racing Game), and one small box full of some valuable drag racing trading cards (original, unopened pack of Fleer Race USA drag racing cards anyone? Bubble gum included), but enough to make it happen.

But I’m not making any excuses, Jimmy.

I’ll be off to Las Vegas next week, so no column, but maybe one in the week between Las Vegas and the Auto Club NHRA Finals in Pomona (we’ll be in the new office then), then I can get back to a more regular schedule. Thanks for hanging in there and reading my stuff.

Phil Burgess can be reached at pburgess@nhra.com

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

Or try the Random Dragster Insider story generator