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‘Have helmet will travel’: The story of versatile wheelman Gary Southern

Gary Southern, who will be posthumously inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame next month, could drive anything. In a racing career that spanned nearly 30 years, he drove what he estimated was more than 70 cars in many of the sport's top classes.
09 Feb 2024
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
Gary Southern

Next month, Don Garlits’ International Drag Racing Hall of Fame will induct its newest members, and sadly, two of them who were alive when they were notified of their honors won’t be there to accept them. One is Walt Austin, who was to be inducted with his four-time Top Alcohol Funny Car championship-winning son Pat, whose success he helped orchestrate. The senior Austin passed away last September. The second is another alcohol-racing super driver, Gary Southern, who passed away in late November at age 85.

November and December were a devastating few weeks for drag race fans with the passing of legends like Roland Leong, Don Schumacher, and Paula Murphy, and recognizable names like Sherm Gunn, Steve Condit, Howard Haight, Terry Mullins, and Ed Sigmon, and I never got around to giving Southern his due at the time, but I’m about to correct that.

Southern was one of those great, likable guys who could drive anything. In a racing career that spanned nearly 30 years, he drove what he estimated was more than 70 cars, everything from gassers to front- and rear-engined Top Fuelers, Funny Cars, Alcohol Dragsters and Funny Cars, and Fuel Altereds, and he did them all well, back in the era when the “have helmet, will travel” drivers sometimes switched cars more often than they changed socks.

Even though his quarter-mile career essentially ended in the 1990s, he was a racer almost to the end, driving dirt go-karts with great success with his son Chris well into his 80s, as you’ll see later.

Although Southern is probably best remembered by newer fans as the driver of Dale Smart’s Top Alcohol Dragster that stunned the class and the sport at the 1988 NHRA U.S. Nationals with a dominating performance with the still-new PSI supercharger, Southern already had a quarter century of quarter-mile runs under his belt by then.

As a young fan and then a drag racing journalist, I remember Southern because of his vocation, which he listed as “tree surgeon” from Glendora, Calif. This was long before NHRA ever moved its headquarters to G-town, and for those of us who lived in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley and worked out of the NHRA HQ in North Hollywood, just a short walk from the famed Bob’s Big Boy drive-in that was home to Tommy Ivo, Don Prudhomme, and the Burbank Road Kings in the 1960s, Glendora seemed like it was at the edge of the known world, even though it was only 30 miles east, somewhere out near the Pomona dragstrip. Little did I know that I’d eventually move to Glendora in 1991 and live there (still) for more than 30 years.

Southern was born and raised in Glendora, and he took over the family business, Southern Tree Service, from his father and became interested in drag racing after taking a trip to the Pomona track in 1957, four years before it hosted the NHRA Winternationals.

As he told NHRA National Dragster in a 1989 interview, "That was it: A done deal. I wanted in.”

Before long he was racing his dad’s pickup truck in Pomona, until his uncle, Will Tice, who with brother Jack owned several Southern California racetracks, put him in a flathead-powered altered '34 Ford and then a blown gas flathead dragster in which he won Middle eliminator in Bakersfield, Calif., in 1962. Later that year, Southern got his first nitro ride in the slingshot of Les Hawkins and Pat Akins, and in 1966, he qualified Bil Adair's Brown's Muffler dragster fifth in the first 64-car show at the Bakersfield U.S. Fuel and Gas Championships.

For the balance of the 1960s, he hopped around a lot, wheeling the Top Fuel dragsters of Rob Roy, Wilton & Doss, Jack Geis, and Paul Gerber and a collection of A/Gas Supercharged and Fuel Altered entries.

During this time, he also did some television and film stunt driving. According to his son Chris, Southern was the driver who spun the dragster out at Pomona Raceway in the 1964 movie Bikini Beach, and that he also drove the Dragula coffin-shaped dragster that was featured in the “Hot Rod Herman” episode of the Munsters television show in 1965. I don't think he drove it for that episode (at least according to the episode credits), but the car did make exhibition runs elsewhere.

Southern also dabbled in the nascent Funny Car class, most famously wheeling Roger Hardcastle and Pat Akins’ wild blown-on-nitro 392-powered Stinger Aston-Martin bodied machine in a 1966 match race at Irwindale Raceway against "Dyno Don" Nicholson's famed factory-backed '66 Mercury Comet. Southern couldn’t find traction but nonetheless ran 191 mph, an astounding speed and one of the top three for the Funny Car class at that time.

He enjoyed more Top Fuel success in the early 1970s with front-engined cars like Nick Cirino’s Warlock, in which he scored a huge win at Irwindale Raceway in 1972 against the rear-engined Avengers dragster of Brissette and Noice in the last throes of slingshot success, and the rear-engined cars of Archibald & Cirino and Jim Thomas’ Genuine Suspension Special, and more. 

In the mid-1970s, he competed in Funny Car, most memorably in the "Impulse” entry of John Lindsay (whose Fuel Altered he also drove), but fame came calling in the late 1970s in the still-new Pro Comp class when he partnered with Dale Smart to run in what we would today call Top Alcohol Dragster but known then as AA/DA, with this sleek Dale’s Dyno car complete with the soon-to-be-outlawed front-wheel pants. The two raced together for a few successful years with numerous divisional wins and even won Irwindale’s Last Drag Race in 1977 before he transitioned into Alcohol Funny Cars with the irrepressible “Capt. Crazy,” car owner Bill Dunlap, on a Dodge Omni-bodied car.

In 1981, Southern and Dunlap won both the NHRA SPORTSnationals in Bowling Green, Ky., and the NHRA Mile-High Nationals in Denver and collected five divisional wins and three runner-ups, and he came a round away from winning the world championship. He needed to win the World Finals at Orange County International Raceway and also set low e.t. and top speed to pass points leader Frank Manzo. He got it all done except for the win, as he fell in the final round to Brad Anderson.

“We didn’t qualify until our final shot, but we made it, setting low e.t. and top speed,” he told ND in 1997. “When I beat Manzo in the second round, guys were coming up to us and saying, ‘Congratulations on the championship,’ but it wasn’t to be. I got out of the groove against Brad Anderson in the final and lost.”

In 1984, Southern and Dunlap went nitro Funny Car racing with a Ford Tempo-bodied entry that never did much on the NHRA tour but ran a reported 257.87 mph at the 1984 AHRA Chi-Town Nationals in Gary, Ind., that would have been a class best had it not been recorded at a track sometimes known for outlandish time slips.

Southern reunited with his old Alcohol Dragster pal Smart in 1987 and set the sport ablaze with one of Norm Drazy’s new PSI “screw-type” blowers mounted atop their Arias powerplant at the 1988 U.S. Nationals. Much like Don Garlits’ Top Fuel win in Indy in 1984, Smart’s chassis was old and abused, but the PSI and their savvy made up for it. They set low e.t. with a 6.12 at 227.96 mph and defeated John Speelman in Len Cottrell's Chicken Chokers entry in a come-from-behind final-round win memorialized in this crazy top-end photo by yours truly of Southern going old school with an upthrust “V-for-victory” hand salute as he powered through the traps for the win.

According to the PSI website, within two weeks of that victory, PSI received more than 70 orders for its revolutionary supercharger.

The team disbanded after the 1990 season, and Southern went back to plying his trade, driving occasional Funny Cars and Fuel Altereds before retiring from drag racing. 

(You may have seen him behind the wheel without knowing it as drove the dragster in the 1990 American Express Super Bowl commercial featuring Paul Newman.)

For a while after he left the cockpit, he sated his competitive thirst by taking part in fishing tournaments and still attended racing events, including the 2018 California Hot Rod Reunion, where he was presented with an NHRA Lifetime Achievement Award for his decades of wheelwork.

Through it all, he remained an amazing father to his four children, as his son, Chris, told me earlier this week.

“My mom and him were married 68 years. He was a father to four kids — Mitch, Jody, Lisa, and myself,” he said. “Pops was a family man first, an amazing fisherman, and hunter. He always made sure he took us all on the best vacation every summer. He coached all four of his kids in baseball at one point or another and coached one to be drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals. We were not a rich family, but we never went without anything. My dad was the type of guy that never missed a baseball game for his kids and grandkids, and when we started back in go-karts in 2016, he never missed a race for his kid, grandkid, or great-granddaughter.

“He was old-school back in the day; he could throw punches at a drop of a hat, and although he was never really a drinker and absolutely hated drugs, he was known to go to the bars with the racers from time to time, but he was a lot mellower in his later years."  

“Mellow” does not equal stationary, as at age 80-plus, he was still competitively driving with his son, grandson, and great-granddaughter in Speedway Go-Karts. In 2019, 2020, 2021, and 2022, he raced at the Wheel2Wheel Raceway in Victorville Calif., where he posted 10 wins and came in second in the championships in 2021 and 2022, finishing second to his grandson.

One memorable race night in 2022, he was on the podium in second place behind his grandson, and with his great-granddaughter, who was in first in her class, so they all three got trophies.

Chris and his brother Mitch will be in Gainesville in early March to accept their father’s induction into the Hall of Fame, and he let me see part of his speech:

“We all know the big-name heroes of the sport like ‘Big Daddy’, ‘the Snake,’ Tony Schumacher, Ron Capps, etc., but there are guys that might not be as well-known but were still the biggest heroes to their family and fans. I know my Pops was the biggest hero to me. There are many hard racers that went their whole career and never won a national event, so Pops was very grateful he had. He loved going to the races with all of us, even after he retired from driving. He wanted to be in the Hall of Fame so bad to complete his career, and he got his wish when we got the call. The emotion in his voice was very heartfelt. He was absolutely elated. Unfortunately, his illness took him from his family and fans before he could accept this amazing award and tribute. So, on behalf of my family and my Pops, my brother and I accept this in his honor.”

It's a shame that neither Southern nor Walt Austin will be there to receive their honors, but their place is richly deserved, and, as I’ve documented on these pages, they lived through amazing racing careers for which we are all grateful to have witnessed.

Phil Burgess can be reached at pburgess@nhra.com

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