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Tales from the Finish Line

From flaming Funnies to flipping Pro Stockers, tumbling Top Fuelers, and acrobatic Alcohol Funny Cars, a fond look back at a career spent watching the drags from the finish line.
21 May 2021
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider
Dragster Insider

As I mentioned in my last column, Tales From The Starting Line, I spent a lot of time shooting photos on the starting line at NHRA national events, backing up Leslie Lovett or Bill Crites before transitioning to the other end of the track and becoming National Dragster’s dedicated top-end shooter.

Anyone who’s ever been down on the starting line knows that it’s like being enveloped in a cacophony of sounds and senses and photo opportunities of burnouts and crewmembers performing pre-run rituals. Being at the other end of the 1320 is a whole other story. Lots of time between each shot and a lot of solitude.

Anyone who’s ever shot from the top end or even the grandstands knows what I’m talking about. You pull the camera to your eye as the stage lights are lit and then keep your trigger finger hovering above the button, watching for telltale signs that an engine is going sour or that a car is starting to lose grip. Sure, there were cars — we derisively called them “leakers” — that were more likely than others to have an unfortunate experience so you were doubly ready whenever they stage. (Looking back, I regret mentally labeling them “leakers" and maybe even looking down on them a bit; they were just racers trying as hard as they could with the parts and experience they had, but they loved the sport like we all do.)

Sometimes I shot from the grandstands and sometimes from down in the shutdown area, but the best spot was a pretty unique one that gave me an unobstructed front-row seat to a lot of carnage.

Being an NHRA employee allowed me to shoot from a unique spot, on the television scaffold that straddled the finish line. Back then it was the Diamond P days and their guy was Wayne Womack. Wayne and I spent a lot of time chatting between runs and all he asked was that I stay out of the way of his pan, so I usually just sat on the edge of the platform below his lens.

Getting there meant a money-bar climb up the side, which was way easier than coming down, but I survived without incident.

I thought I’d share some of the wild moments I was lucky to catch. I had by this time graduated to better equipment and a fast motor drive, but because running color photos in ND was still cost-prohibitive, all of my stuff is in black and white. I wish a lot of this stuff was in color.

Though I traveled far and wide, Pomona was a real hotbed for disaster.

This was the 1993 Winternationals Top Fuel final. Kenny Bernstein was actually leading Joe Amato at half-track before the No. 2 connecting rod broke. That snapped leg broke a handful of others, and debris punctured his left rear tire and sent him into a 221-mph slide across the finish line. The car swung 180 degrees, backed into the guardwall, flew in the air, spun around again, landed on the other side of the rail, turned sideways, pitched the engine out of the car, and rolled once before stopping right-side-up facing uptrack. Bernstein got his bell seriously rung — he groggily compared the hit to smacking into the wall in his "Nastin Cup" (NASCAR Winston) car — but was otherwise uninjured.

Tim Morgan’s Flying Machine Top Fueler didn’t take flight, but I got a wild sequence of one of the slowest-unfolding but weirdest crashes in round one of the 1987 Winternationals. My photos don’t do it justice, so take a gander at the video below.

Round one of the 1992 Finals and the late “Flash Gordon” Mineo was dueling with Tom Hoover when both rear tires exploded simultaneously just past half-track. I’m guessing engine failure led to the blowouts that ended up ripping off the back of the body and the roof.

I also enjoyed shooting from the left-lane grandstands in Pomona during qualifying, mostly for the camaraderie of fellow “crash shooters.” Most times there’d be at least a half-dozen of us jockeying for a shot.

Luckily, I was in the right spot to catch Eddie Hill at the 1989 Winternationals when a broken front wing caused his “Nuclear Banana” to take flight. It was the first in a rash of blowovers (many also at Pomona). My photos made it onto the front page of the Los Angeles Times sports section the next day. Hill was unhurt in the accident and borrowed a car from Darrell Gwynn to continue.

Here’s John Force during the manic end to the 1992 season at the Finals. Cruz Pedregon was about to steal the championship Force had won in 1990 and ’91. Two weeks before this, he banked his car off both guardwalls in Dallas trying to keep up with “the Cruzer,” but this time, I think his throttle just stuck after smoking the tires. Wyatt Radke had already shut off in the other lane and almost was rear-ended by Force's upside-down ride; Radke later told me that it was only a quick glance at the big screen as he idled downtrack that alerted him to Force's plight behind him and allowed him to step on the gas to stay out of harm's way.

Pro Stock racer Ed Heck took flight at the 1994 Finals, losing control of his Pontiac and kiting it big time in an incident we described on the cover of National Dragster as a "Heck of a wreck." He wasn't hurt, but his car was no longer pretty.

This photo, which I snapped in Houston in 1991, did two things: 1) It let the teams know that their chassis were being severely flexed to the breaking point by massive rear- and front-wing downforce and 2) It made Jim Head look like a genius for refusing to run without a wheelie bar as so many of the fuel-dragster teams were doing at the time. Today they're a given, but it took Head nearly breaking his car in two to get everyone's attention.

Two years after Mr. Head’s wild ride, "Pontiac Jack" Ostrander had a similar experience in Gainesville in 1993. Ostrander was very fortunate that he safely landed his car because, unlike Head, he was not running a wheelie bar. Note the shower of sparks as the nose dug into the Gainesville quarter-mile.

Gainesville was also the site of this mind-blowing (and cylinder-head-throwing) blast by Gene Snow in 1989. It was Thursday qualifying, I believe, when "the Snowman" launched. I remember seeing the car beginning to labor, and from my perch in the finish-line grandstands, I watched this incredible explosion unfold. What's great about this pic is the cool arc of flame that follows the airflow off the car's rear wing. Truly a special shot and one of my faves.

As much as I’d like to say this was planned to show how the fans love Don Garlits, it was a happy accident at the 1984 Gatornationals. This was the race I worked as a crewmember for Jim DePasse’s Funny Car. We didn’t qualify, so I headed to the grandstands for eliminations where “Big” was racing Shirley Muldowney in round one. She smoked the tires, and he breezed to an easy victory, much to the delight of this fan who gave me a memorable but quite accidental photo.

Fortunately, I also was in the stands for this one, during qualifying at the 1986 U.S. Nationals. Billy Meyer shredded the body of his Chief Auto Parts Mustang and ended up borrowing a body from Kenny Bernstein and made it to the final round.

Someone who didn’t know that story might look at the photo below and think it’s Kenny Bernstein running (and somehow losing to) tire-smoking Mike Dunn in the final, but that’s actually Meyer. Note that the body doen't quite fit the chassis, most notably at the front wheels.

Before I got scaffold access, Indy used to be a great place to shoot top-end stuff from the old tower that was several hundred feet past the finish line. You were nicely elevated three stories up and had a good view of all the action from a unique vantage point. I'm not sure that a side shot of Brad Tuttle's disintegrating Nitro Bandit at the 1988 event would have shown the severe distortion of the hood.

It's also where we got this bird’s-eye view of Oklahoman Henry Phillips riding out a scary fire in his Corvette (named, simply, Henry) at the ’87 Nationals. I think this may have been one of his last rides as he got some pretty bad burns.

Bad things happen to even the best of teams, too. Here’s Mark Oswald vaporizing the Candies & Hughes Funny Car at the Motorplex in 1990 after a broken camshaft. I remember sitting on my TV perch and watching a fine shower of carbon-fiber confetti falling like snow on us. A couple of things worth noticing here: the chunk of blower keeping up with the car and how the airborne front bumper and rear clip in the top right are all that's left of the body. I also remember Oswald telling us that he wasn’t sure what happened and how, while temporarily blinded by the explosion, he kept reaching for the parachute levers that back then were located on the roof and not being able to find them because, well, the roof was no longer there.

This was also in Dallas, early in qualifying, this time a session of Top Alcohol Dragster at Texas Motorplex in 1990. I usually don’t have the camera up and ready for the alky cars, but for some reason, I did this time and was shocked when Jay Payne launched into a monster wheelstand that ultimately had the car resting only on the rear wing. It landed hard, destroying the car, but he was unhurt and put his engine into Bruce McDowell's car to continue competing at the event. That’s current Top Fuel driver Troy Buff in the near lane.

Bandimere Speedway's unique layout — with the track below the level of the pits — allows you to shoot from the rise down onto the track, which is how I captured Don Gay Jr.'s scary final pass in a nitro Funny Car. The second-generation racer smoked the tires hard in qualifying alongside Don Prudhomme, then lost the handle and drove it headlong into the wall, knocking him out. The car caught fire and idled downtrack ablaze. Prudhomme jumped in to help the Safety Safari extricate Gay from the burning car and get him loaded onto an air ambulance. After a short stay at a local hospital, he was released, but he never drove a Funny Car again.

This was the first round of Funny Car at the 1988 Brainerd event. I was stationed a couple of hundred feet downtrack on a ladder on the return road to try to get some side-by-side races in front of the BIR grandstands. Bernstein's car rolled to a stop after the burnout, and he was having problems getting it into reverse. The crew and clutch wiz Lanny Miglizzi sprinted downtrack to help and lifted the body. I hefted my camera to my eye for no reason other than to see through the telephoto lens what they were doing. The next thing I know, the car lurches forward, the crew scatters like quail, and I have my finger buried in the motor drive. Jim Mahle, at the front right tire, took the biggest spill as he was hit by the tire while crew chief Dale Armstrong, who was under the body talking to Bernstein, had to dive for cover. The crew, which included current NHRA Contingency Program honcho Charlie Nielson, took it all in stride and showed up at the next race, Indy, with tire tracks printed on their team T-shirts.

I also sometimes ventured down to the shutoff area to grab parachute shots, but Pro Stock racer Nick Nikolis never got that far at the 1986 Gatornationals. The car got loose in the traps, crossed the centerline, and clouted the opposite guardrail.

Houston seemed to be a hotbed — literally — for Funny Cars in the early 1990s. Here’s Kenki Okazaki in “Big Jim” Dunn’s Mooneyes machine at the 1993 event as shot from a smaller ladder on the return road. As Kenji told me in this recent column, it started with a broken rod that actually punctured the firewall and caused a flamethrower effect, breathing fire on his hands.

Two years earlier, I grabbed an earlier similar shot of Wyatt Radke (who earned the unfortunate nickname of “Fry-it” Radke) in the Chicago Trapper Beretta.

Then there's this shot of Aussie Gary Phillips at National Trail Raceway in Columbus, Ohio, for the 1986 Springnationals. The car was blazing big time, and Phillips wasn't able to get the laundry out for some reason. He pitched the car sideways to try to scrub off speed, which also pulled loose the body, resulting in this rather thrilling photo, which ran on the front page of The Columbus Dispatch sports page the next morning, much to my delight. Back then, my old pal Steve Earwood was running the media relations department and would routinely visit the grandstands after an on-track accident asking if any fans caught it so he could get it to the newspaper to maybe drive ticket sales for the next day. He knew I was at the top end for this one, rode down there, and asked, "Did you get that, son?” I did, he got his free publicity, and I got a big attaboy.

As cool as this photo is, the video is even wilder.

The fact that (as documented by Steve Evans above) Herb White’s farm was right across Refugee Road at the end of one of our shortest tracks meant there was always a lot of action at the top end, so I routinely hung out by the sand trap and watched drivers with chute failure try to get their cars whoa-ed down in time.

At the 1989 event, two Alcohol Funny Car drivers couldn’t get stopped, and their frantic braking led to bouncing rear tires that led to noses that dug into the sand trap.

First, Herb Rodgers and the unfortunately named Flying Glass Mustang dug the nose in and ended up on his roof.

Grady Bryant did him one better, not only digging in but then launching into this impressive forward flip. Neither driver was injured.

And finally, here's probably one of my most popular (and semi-famous) photos. This is John Force in the midst of what was a pretty fiery 1991 season. It’s Montreal, four years after Force scored his breakthrough first win there. I’m standing on a tall ladder behind the Safety Safari truck to get some height (and using the truck as a shield, quite honestly) when Force comes blazing (literally) past us, and I grabbed this photo. What’s really interesting is what happened milliseconds before that.

Much like the photo of the fan fist in front of Garlits at the 1984 Gators, the first photo I took in this sequence had the helmet of Jere "Lefty” Grice, NHRA’s designed “fire diver” at the time, right smack in the middle.

Well, it turned out to be the perfect photo for a book of John Force quotes we were creating called I Saw Elvis at 1,000 Feet, his famous quote after crashing in Memphis, Tenn.

Teresa Long, ND’s long-running Photo Editor, hand-colored it for the cover of the book, which you can now buy online for about $175 (it’s become quite the collector piece apparently), but I always loved it after the fact as one of those photos that show the Safety Safari ready, as always, for action.

OK, this was big fun and hope you enjoyed it. Some of the photos are not that great compared to the other “masters of disaster” like Steve Reyes back in the day and Mark Rebilas today, but they’re mine, and they bring back amazing memories.

Thanks, as always, for following along. And be sure to wish Roland Leong (and me) a happy birthday tomorrow.

Phil Burgess can reached at [email protected]

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