No. 49: Richard Tharp
In the 1960s and '70s, an era which produced some of drag racing's most colorful characters, none was more colorful than Richard Tharp, the talented Texan who would go on to win the 1976 NHRA Winston Top Fuel Championship for Paul Candies and Leonard Hughes.
So outrageous and memorable were Tharp's off-track antics that people tend to forget that he was one of the finest pure drivers in the sport's history.
Tharp, who both preceded and followed three-time Winston Champ Raymond Beadle at the controls of the legendary Blue Max Funny Car, spent the early '70s crisscrossing the country on the match race circuit. Driving the original Blue Max Mustang for car owner Harry Schmidt, he one year booked 96 dates.
"We ran Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, sometimes even Monday and Tuesday," Tharp said. "We'd jump in the truck at 11 or 12 at night and drive 500 miles so we'd be ready to race the next night."
Although he went on to win five Funny Car races on the IHRA circuit for the late "Big Mike" Burkhart, Tharp really didn't begin to attract a lot of NHRA attention until the summer of 1975 when he became the first driver to break the six-second barrier at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park.
Driving a Top Fuel dragster campaigned by Texas brothers Curt and Bones Carroll, Tharp cleared the finish line timers, on fire, in 5.97 seconds, thereby claiming the No. 1 qualifying position for the 1975 NHRA Summernationals.
He didn't win his first NHRA national event, though, until he hooked up with Candies and Hughes. In six seasons and 46 starts with the Louisiana-based team, Tharp reached the final round nine times and won five races, including the 1976 U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis Raceway Park.
Out of the sport in 1982, a season in which he drove USAC midgets, Tharp came storming back in '83 at the controls of the Texas-based dragster owned by Mike Kilpatrick and Mark Connell and tuned by Bill Schultz. With the slogan "A Saint I Ain't; A Star I Are" emblazoned on the rear wing, he reached the finals twice in nine starts and beat Shirley Muldowney to win the 1983 Springnationals in Columbus, Ohio.
He took his last driving turn in 1988 when he briefly drove the Blue Max Funny Car in a failed comeback attempt.
Although he competed in an era in which eight races was a full season, nine at the most, Tharp posted an 82-46 record in head-to-head competition with the likes to Muldowney, Gary Beck and Don Garlits.
The 57-year-old Texan, now a Dallas auto broker, came out of Las Cruces, N.M., where initially he became involved in sprint car racing. After moving to Texas, though, he quickly found his niche in the large professional drag racing community that grew up around a shop complex off Reeder Road.
He developed a reputation early on for driving anything on the track and trying anything off it.
Once, when another Dallas driver was having difficulty getting his dragster down the racetrack because of a perceived chassis problem, Tharp was asked to make a checkout run. After posting a time only a tenth off the track record, Tharp unbuckled, climbed out of the car and in his drawl said, "Nothing wrong with the car. I think it's the driver."
Tharp drove dragsters on the '60s-era Texas Pro Fuel Circuit for Tulsa legend Bob Crietz and later for Californians Rocky Childs and Jimmy Albert. Nevertheless, for all of his on-track success, Tharp was best known for what are best described as his extracurricular activities.
Traveling with Jimmy Albert, Tharp was late arriving in Oklahoma City for one Texas Pro Fuel Circuit race. It had rained the previous three days and track officials had employed a helicopter to assist with the dry out process. All the helicopter really had done, though, was dry out a quarter inch of topsoil -- which is why all the early arrivals were parked on asphalt, on the track's road course.
All of this was unknown to Tharp who, late as usual, came flying into the track at the wheel of the team's crew cab truck, Albert in the passenger's seat. Seeing all the open area, Tharp drove the rig into a clearing -- and promptly sank it up to the axles in a couple feet of mud.
Undaunted, Tharp enlisted help in building a plywood "bridge" to get the race car from the trailer to the nearest asphalt and then to the staging lanes. He qualified on one shot and ultimately went to the final round, but it was another in a long list of experiences that left Albert shellshocked.
Tharp ran with a fast crowd that included country-and-western legend Willie Nelson, rodeo champion Larry Mahan and Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson, the former Dallas Cowboys linebacker who, like Tharp, was as well know for what he did off the field as for what he did on it.
Once when Nelson was booked as the featured performer at one SEMA Show function in the 1970s, Tharp attended the gala in his version of "black tie optional" -- tux jacket, tux shirt, tie and jeans, as usual, tucked inside his trademark cowboy boots.
As one might suspect, Tharp's free-wheeling style is one that wasn't particularly well suited to the armed services, into which he was drafted in the '60s. As a result, when he tired of the discipline and routine, he simply left camp and went back to Texas where he showed up with helmet in hand looking for a ride.
"It wasn't a big deal," Tharp said at the time, "I just wanted to race and (the army) wouldn't let me."
Regardless, federal agents ultimately tracked him down to the home of the late Jimmy Nix, a close friend and fellow Top Fuel eccentric. Nix, informed that he could be charged with harboring a fugitive, pointed to a closed door and blurted out: "He's in that closet."
"Not only that," Tharp said, "I was wearing one of his old jackets and he made the FBI take the cuffs off so he could get it back."
Like everything else, that was just a brief detour for "King Richard," one the sport's Top 50 all-time drivers. -- Dave Densmore