It was a year of incredible losses
Reprinted from the Dec. 13, 1991 issue of National DRAGSTER
Joe Amato's voice caught in his throat. "Earlier this year, God got himself two great engine builders and two great crewmen; now I guess he's got himself a Championship driver. If there's a drag-racing heaven, they're building a heck of a racing team."
The date was Aug. 29, the place Indianapolis Raceway Park. All of drag racing was reeling from the death of former Winston Top Fuel Champion Gary Ormsby a day earlier. Ormsby, Amato's arch rival in two of drag racing's most intense Championship battles in 1989 and 1990, died the day before the U.S. Nationals of complications from stomach cancer, and the drag-racing world resumed the mourning that had begun three months earlier.
On May 13, Keith Black, drag racing's most famous aftermarket engine manufacturer and a man instrumental in launching the quarter-mile career of drag-racing legend Don Prudhomme, died at Long Beach (Calif.) Memorial Hospital of complications from a brain tumor. His illness, a malignant inoperable tumor, was made public in fall 1990. Black's death was not unexpected, but the loss was great.
Black's many friends and customers knew him as an honest and straightforward man who placed loyalty high on his list. In a 1985 DRAGSTER interview, Black said, "I will provide you with a nut that goes on the block, or the whole (engine), or anywhere in between and be equally happy." In his 64 years, he gained enormous respect and innumerable friends who will miss him greatly.
While the racing world was still feeling Black's death, tragedy struck again. Just four days after Black had died, Gary Clark and Nick Floch, two well-liked and respected members of Darrell Gwynn's Coors Light Top Fuel team, were killed in a boating accident May 17 in the Florida Keys.
Clark, 35, a former Alcohol Funny Car and Dragster driver with an infectious laugh, was the crew's clutch man, having joined the close-knit team in 1987. Floch, 26, son of Alcohol Funny Car racers Bob and Cathie Floch, had joined the team in 1989, fulfilling a lifelong dream of crewing on a top-notch Professional race car. Both were instrumental in the Coors team's return to prominence following Gwynn's career-ending accident in April 1990.
Just two days later, Ormsby ran what would prove to be his final race, fittingly, a race he won. Although battling what at the time was described as an intestinal infection, Ormsby defeated Lori Johns in three straight rounds in a match race at Heartland Park Topeka. A flare-up of the condition forced Ormsby to miss the next three races on the NHRA National event tour.
On July 16, just two weeks before the National event trail visited his Northern California neighborhood for the California Nationals, Ormsby checked into the University of California-Davis Medical Center and was diagnosed as having a malignant cancerous tumor in his lower abdomen.
What many didn't know at the time was that the announcement was no surprise to Ormsby. He originally had been diagnosed with the deadly disease during the 1989 season; he won his Winston Championship that season carrying that mental burden.
Three days after Ormsby's shocking announcement, Joe Pisano was stricken with a fatal heart attack at the Mile-High Nationals. Pisano, 63, who had a history of heart problems, died in the arms of his crew in his tow vehicle on the return road at Bandimere Speedway, reportedly with a smile on his face minutes after watching his new driver, longtime protege Dale Pulde, make a checkout run in the Pisano Olds Cutlass.
Many found it ironic that big-hearted Pisano, known affectionately as "Papa Joe" and "Joe P." to his legion of friends and customers, would die of a heart ailment. He was eulogized as a man whose tough exterior hid a heart of gold, a generous man who lived his last years passionately and compassionately, often extending credit to customers beyond normal business practices. His JP-1 engine blocks and Venolia pistons were in many cars whose owners owed their continued existence to the generosity of Pisano.
Though Pisano's National Record-holding entry was withdrawn from competition until it made an emotional return at the Winston Finals, Ormsby's Castrol GTX dragster returned to the strip at the Northwest Nationals, with former Funny Car great "240 Gordie" Bonin at the wheel. In an inspired performance, crew chief Lee Beard tuned the car to two four-second passes and a semifinal finish.
Attempts to save or prolong Ormsby's life with radiation treatments failed, and, shortly after selling his racing operation to Castrol GTX teammate Walt Austin, Ormsby died at noon, Aug. 28, at Roseville Community Hospital. He never got to see Pat Austin's incredible drive into the history books: a runner-up finish in his Top Fuel debut at the U.S. Nationals and later a win at the Heartland Nationals.
Ormsby's friends in Top Fuel remembered him as a private man who never liked to call attention to himself, a composed champion with a heart of fire, a class act. "He was one of the best spokesmen and statesmen for Top Fuel that there ever will be," said Gene Snow.
Sadly, these great losses in the drag racing world were not the only ones, merely the most visible.
Top Fuel veteran Richard Holcomb, 55, a member of the exclusive Cragar 4-Second Club, died of a heart attack April 8 while preparing for the Southern Nationals, after which he had planned to retire. Gene Beaver, 58, former owner of the popular L.A. Hooker Funny Cars; Division 4 pioneer and longtime Top Fuel racer Dan Rightsell, 57; performance-industry pioneer Ted Halibrand, 74; famed Southern California race-car painter George Cerny Jr., 59, Pro Modified racers Gordy Hmiel, 38, and Tony Cox, 40; and fuel-altered veteran Willie Borsch, 61, also died during the 1991 season, leaving voids in their places and sorrow in the hearts of friends, fans, and fellow competitors.