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In Memoriam

30 Sep 2022
NHRA National Dragster staff
News
In Memoriam

Recent passings of notable figures from within the NHRA world. The NHRA extends its sincere condolences to the family and friends of those we have lost. Notices of passing can be sent to [email protected].

Former NHRA Top Fuel driver Jody Smart passed away Sept. 22.

Smart's nitro career extended from May 1980 to July 1986. Though six years isn't a long time, Smart crammed a lot of accomplishments into it. He finished in the NHRA Top 10 standings in 1981, ’82, and 83, the latter being an impressive third-place finish behind Gary Beck and Joe Amato. He was in four final rounds that year and won the Mile-High Nationals.

In 1984 and 1985, he ran a Funny Car on an irregular basis, then ran a partial season in Top Fuel in 1986.

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1970s Funny Car racer Russell Long passed away recently. Long's racing career was short — just six years — but filled with highlights. When he earned his license in 1972 in the ex-Tom McEwen Arkansas Razorback Duster of Pat Brinegar, he was the youngest licensed nitro pilot at age 19. (Billy Meyer later licensed at age 17.)

He made a name for himself in Charlie Proite’s Pabst Blue Ribbon-sponsored cars and also went on to drive one of Don Schumacher's two Wonder Wagon 'Cudas, Tom McEwen's second English Leather Navy Duster, a couple of “Jungle Jim” Liberman's Vegas, the Chi-Town Hustler, and Dennis Fowler's Sundance. He also made odd laps every now and then in Top Fuelers, including the Frito Bandito of the late Pancho Rendon and the Pegasus of John Durkee.

Long had plans for a jet-car future with an ex-Tommy Ivo jet and even was in consideration for a sponsorship from Skoal that ended up going to Don Prudhomme. He retired from racing and ran his backhoe business and also served as a missionary for his Southern California church, memorably visiting Haiti during the big earthquake there in 2010.

"My career only lasted about an hour and a half, but it was a good one," he said.

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Hayden Proffitt, who began his drag racing career in 1952 at the famed Santa Ana Drags and went on to a successful career in doorslammers, early Funny Cars, and even jet dragsters died Aug. 19. He was 94.

Proffitt was one of the most successful racers in national-event and match-race competition in the 1960s and 1970s. Skilled as an engine builder and driver, Proffitt also built up a strong following of fans with his easy-going, gracious personality.

Proffitt's first drag car was a six-cylinder '53 Plymouth, which was followed by a '54 Buick and new Chevrolets in 1955 and 1956. He began running a '57 Corvette out of Bill Thomas' shop, and was doing well enough to earn a parts deal from Chevrolet.

Proffitt drove his '62 Bel Air 409 to a Stock eliminator victory at the 1962 U.S. Nationals for his only NHRA national-event title. When Chevy pulled the plug on factory support at year’s end, Proffitt was recruited to run Chryslers in 1963. In 1965, at the behest of Mercury officials, he built a pre-Funny Car Comet for the A/FX class and then built a Corvair Funny Car for 1966. In 1967, he joined the AMC team and fielded one of his most famous cars, the Grant Piston AMC Rambler Rebel SST Funny Car.

Proffitt ran the AMC Funny Car until 1970, then closed his engine building shop. He built boat engines until 1976, when he purchased a rocket car that he toured with for four seasons. After posting a best time of 4.35, 349.77 mph, he bought Les Shockley's jet dragster, which he ran through 1982. Son Brad and grandson Hayden II followed in his footsteps driving jet-powered cars. Hayden II also recently licensed in Comp in Division 4.

Proffitt is survived by his sons, Lee and Brad, and daughter Cheri, and grandchildren Hayden II, Brandon, Karen, Rachel, and Anna.

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Respected automotive journalist Pat Ganahl died Aug. 19 of injuries suffered in a racing accident after his vintage dragster went off the end of the strip at a racetrack in Washington state.

Ganahl served as the editor and contributor to many magazines, including Hot Rod, Street Rodder, Sunset, Rod & Custom, and Rodders Journal, and authored a number of books, sharing his love and extreme knowledge of the sport of hot rodding.

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Chris Darnell, driver of the Shockwave jet-powered dragster, was killed during an exhibition run July 2 at a non-NHRA-affiliated airshow in Battle Creek, Mich.

Darnell had been involved in motorsports his entire life, competing in many different types of racing over the years from drag racing to circle track and beyond, and had many years of experience in the motorsports promotion business as well.

Darnell is survived by his wife and children, Brooke, Reese and Taylor;  parents Neal and Marilyn Darnell; mother and Father-in-law, Paula and John Adams, Bob and Marylou Grana. His siblings and spouses, Julie and Rusty Crow, John and RueDonna Darnell, Andrea and Kevin Hall, brother and sister-in-law, Tony and Liz Grana, Kyle and Dakota Grana, and Tara and Nikki Adams. He was very fond of his nieces and nephews: Kyndl, Braeden, Carter, Peyton, Ryder, Caden, Lani, Lexi, Hannah, Tate, Julie and Ari.  

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Funny Car racer Denny Savage, whose career was born in the class' earliest years in the mid-1960s, and enjoyed a career that lasted well into the 1980s while driving famed cars such as the Hawaiian, the Chi-Town Hustler, and more than a dozen others, died June 24, He was 76.

By his own count, Savage drove 18 different Funny Cars throughout the years and had his greatest moment in 1978, when he won the Summernationals in John Powers' powers Steel car.

To read more about Savage's career, click here.

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Jim Rockstad, a legendary NHRA track operator in the Northwest, passed away June 13 after a long illness. He was 79.

Long before he was involved in managing some of the region’s great racetracks in the heyday of Funny Car match races, Rockstad was actually a racer, but rolled his Anglia in 1971 at Balboa Drag Strip in Eugene, Ore., when a ladder bar broke. 

“I fortunately walked away from the wreck without getting hurt, other than my pride and wallet,’ he recalled. “Although I didn’t know Him at the time, I remember saying, ‘Maybe the Good Lord is telling me to do something else besides drive race cars.’ “

Rockstad became a manager at Portland International Raceway in 1973 and worked his way up to General Manager of International Raceway Parks, which included the group’s flagship track, Seattle International Raceway, until his retirement in 2001. 

In 2013, he was inducted into the NHRA Division 6 Hall of Fame.

Rockstad is survived by his wife, Mo; daughter Maren Kreun and her husband, Jesse; and son Zach Rockstad.

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National event-winning Pro Stock and Sportsman driver Tony Christian passed away June 9 following complications related to a heart attack. He was 74.

Christian had a decorated NHRA resume with two Pro Stock wins in 1988, which led to a third-place finish in the championship point standings. Before moving into the factory hot rod ranks, he was a decorated Modified and Competition eliminator racer with four wins in Modified in the mid-1970s. After Pro Stock, he found a new home in the fastest street competition with NMCA and NSCA series and ended his career racing Pro Modified. 

Christian is survived by daughters, Heather Kircher and Tori Beckham, son Tony Christian III, and grandson Asher James. 

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Ryck Campbell, a longtime Division 1 D-1 Tech Specialist and former Division 1 Tech Director passed away May 23 following a lengthy illness.  Campbell started working with NHRA in 1982.  He leaves behind wife Joelle, daughter Pam, and son Larry.  

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John DiBartolomeo, a seven-time NHRA national event winner in Super Stock, Super Comp, and Super Gas, passed away. He was 68. DiBartolomeo scored his first career win in Super Gas in 1984 at the SPORTSnantionals in Indy and won as recently as 2019 when he won Super Stock in Norwalk. In addition to his racing activities, DiBartolomeo also sold racing equipment through his DRC Race Products and was a respected journalist, working and editing at both Drag Racing Action and Drag Racing Edge magazines.

He is survived by his wife, Dottie, and their children, Franklin, and Christina, Franklin followed in his father's footsteps and is a two-time NHRA national event winner in Super Comp.

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Virgil Hartman, racecar builder, driver, and father of two successful nitro drivers, passed away April 11. He was 75.

Hartman started building race cars -- from front-engine dragsters to back engine Funny Cars -- on the West Coast in the 1970s. He also drove a little and helped found the California Injected Funny Car Association in 1984, and built complete turn-key operations for untold numbers of new teams.

Hartman’s children, Richard and Rhonda, helped their dad service cars, and eventually, both wanted to drive. As soon as Richard was of age, he got in the seat of an Alcohol Funny Car that Virgil built parts for and tuned and won two CIFCA championships. When Richard moved to nitro racing and began driving as a hired driver, Rhonda took her brother's spot in the Alcohol Funny Car. Both children had successful CIFCA careers, Rhonda also was soon on her way to nitro as she transitioned to Top Fuel dragster at the age of 19. 

When the Hartmans relocated to South Carolina, they formed Hartman Motorsports, which eventually became a two-car team with Rhonda and husband John Smith driving Fram-sponsored Top Fuelers and both finished in the Top 10 of points in both 2002 and 2003. Richard drove for a number of top Funny Car teams and today serves as the right-hand man to Funny Car hero Tim Wilkerson.

Survivors include his wife, Karen; son Richard; daughter Rhonda; six grandchildren and one great-grandchild; and three sisters.

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Northwest Pro Stock and Comp racer Mark Wolfe passed way April 6. He was 54. The Washington state driver was a diehard Ford campaigner, running Thunderbirds, Probes, and Mustangs during his career.

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Jim Anderson, a longtime member of the NHRA Division 4 team, passed away recently. Anderson joined the NHRA Certification Crew in the mid-1990s and did everything from tech inspections to fuel check, and later was promoted to assistant division director and division tech director.

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Longtime NHRA Division 4 photographer A.J. “Pete” Peters passed away on March 1. He was 88. Peters was Division 4 photographer from the mid-1960s to 2001. Pete and his late wife, Joann, produced the Texas Tales articles for Drag News, National Dragster, Drag World and several other motorsports publications. Peters was preceded in death by his wife Joann. He is survived by daughters Carolyn Price and Terry Peters, granddaughters Mel and Kim, and son-in-law Aaron Cox.

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1970s West Coast Funny Car racer Tom Zedaker passed away in Las Vegas, Jan. 27. He was 86. According to DragList.com, Zedeker was among a handful of low-buck Funny Car racers that raced in the Southwest during the early 1970s. Zedaker’s Funny Car career was short, lasting two to three years at best. Zedaker worked as a peace officer in Nevada to support his racing team. The “Family Affair” Mustang was the second flopper raced by the Zedaker team. The first car, the “Trouble Maker II” Camaro, was raced in 1971. Zedaker’s best finish was making it to the finals at a Sacramento Raceway Division 7 race. Zedaker left Funny Car racing by 1973. 

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Longtime Divsion4 racer John Claridge Sr. passed away Jan. 22. He was 82. Claridge spent 55 years as an aluminum window and door installer, and drag raced for even longer. He won the 9th Annual World Drag Racing Championship in his class in 1963 at the Green Valley Raceway in Texas. In 1983, Car Craft magazine nominated his team for its All-Star Drag Racing Team of the Year and was inducted into the NHRA Division 4  Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1987, the same year that he was named Sportsman Wrench of the Year by his peers and the same year that the Texas Senate presented a Senate Resolution to the Claridge Racing Team for their contribution to the sport of drag racing. Claridge is survived by his wife, Linda; son, John Jr. and his wife, Linda; grandson, Brandon; and close friends, Robert Turner, Roy Thieme, and his family.

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William "Bill" Myers, father of former Top Alcohol Dragster world champ and national record holder Mitch Myers, passed away Jan. 15. “My dad was not only a great person who was a friend and kind to all he met but was so much more,” said Mitch Myers. “He was a brilliant innovator, fabricator, and mentor who in a small custom shop in the early 1960s started me on a path which led to the 2004 NHRA t and 5.10 national record. He was a valuable team leader and my partner and team owner. In life as well as drag racing he was a teacher, mentor, friend, and businessman who was instrumental in the development and success of our family of businesses.”