Friday, January 30, 2009
The one-day wonder
Sometimes, though, fans can walk away shaking their heads in disbelief for more than just the accomplishment of the racers, and never was that more true than at the 1965 event. I mentioned in my column last week that the win by Roland Leong and driver Don Prudhomme at the 1965 race was especially memorable for more than just the fact that it marked "the Snake's" first win and kicked off an amazing two years for the Hawaiian dragster. Anyone who attended that race surely also will remember it as one of the most Herculean efforts ever expended by NHRA to complete an event.
Originally scheduled for three days, the event was reduced to just a single day by heavy fog and persistent rain Friday and Saturday. Some runs had been made between raindrops Friday, with Prudhomme's 7.80, 204.54 leading the way, just ahead of "Big Daddy" Don Garlits' 1964 Nationals-winning Wynn's Jammer, which chalked up a 7.81 at a blistering event-record 206.88 mph. But, save for a few Street-class runs, Saturday was a complete washout.
As NHRA officials glowered at the cloudy skies Saturday afternoon, they wondered if somehow they not only could allow all 612 participants to get their fair shot at Pomona glory in the seven traditional eliminators Sunday but also complete the hotly contested class runoffs – 70 classes in all – on the same day. Early estimates of the total number of runs needed to finish the race were in excess of 3,000. Can you imagine? It seemed to be a ludicrous proposition.
They ultimately envisioned – then flawlessly executed – a bold plan that will long be remembered and probably never repeated.
To alleviate expected traffic jams for an anticipated crowd of more than 60,000 fans eager to witness what would probably be the most action-packed single day of racing in history, ticket sales began at 10 p.m. Saturday, and the spectator gates were opened at midnight. Fans who had parked on the side streets adjacent to the L.A. County Fairgrounds streamed in, and by 4 a.m., most of the prime spots in the bleachers had been grabbed. Yet eager fans, primed by the Friday headlines, continued to roll in as the sun rose to reveal a standing-room-only crowd.
Event director Jack Hart lit the first engines at 7 a.m., and Chief Starter Buster Couch got 'em busy on
Among the class winners were names that would resound for years in the sport, with the likes of Cecil Yother, Dave Kempton, Bill Hoefer, Dave St
Writer Al Caldwell noted that pairs of Top Gas dragsters were leaving the line every 67 seconds and the fuelers at a rate of two every 72 seconds. The Top Gas field was set by 11 a.m. and the fuel field by noon, and eliminations began in earnest.
By the count of National DRAGSTER Associate Editor Dan Roulston, an average of 5.2 cars went down the track each minute of the 10 hours, and the combined mileage traveled by the entries down the track was about 790 miles under full power (DRAGSTER reporters jokingly called the event the "Pomona 800"). Adding in shutdown area and travel up the return road, Roulston estimated that the combined distance traveled would have carried someone east from
The Jr. Stock Eliminator final, which Kempton won, was the final pair down the track at just after 5 p.m. and 3,167 previous pairings. The racers and NHRA crew were so efficient that a half-hour of daylight still remained.
The Winternationals didn’t finish until well after that as NHRA's Farmer Dismuke and his tech crew worked well into Sunday night in teardown for the 28 cars that had their innards inspected, detected, and, in two cases, rejected.
"Drag racing is a highly emotional sport, and the heat of competition builds to a fever pitch," wrote Roulston, "but the cooperation extended to officials of the National Hot Rod Association by the racers at the 1965 Winternationals will probably never again be duplicated." Amen.
Speaking of Leong, Steve Justice was there when the Hawaiian made his first (and only) fuel-dragster pass behind the wheel, which led to Prudhomme taking over the reins. He remembers it well.
"Roland first showed off his new Fuller car Oct. 4, 1964," he wrote. "I worked the [eighth-mile] concession stand and witnessed Roland's initial pass in the car. C.J. [Hart, strip operator] had told him to make a half pass in the car and/or keep it under 150 mph. I just think things happened faster than he was used to, and by the time he passed me, the car was still hauling ass. He was in the left lane, and at about 1,000 feet, the car got into the dirt, kissed the fence, and went airborne.
"One could not really see anything after that, but word got back that Roland had come down right side up near the railroad tracks (quite a distance to the east of the strip). Roland was okay, but C.J. was livid and told Roland he would never drive a car at Lions while he was in charge. I also recollect that this incident was the reason C.J. initiated his driver's licensing program. Leong-Black was rebuilt and returned to the strip in January 1965 as the Hawaiian with Don Prudhomme at the wheel. It just took them a week or so to set a new speed record at Lions of 204 mph (hard to do on a Saturday night when the track was cold and dewy)."
I also got a lot of other comments from people who had never seen any color photos of the Hawaiian dragster and were surprised at what a pretty car it was. That's the downside to doing all of these historical articles; there aren’t always a lot of color photos. Most of the guys who were shooting for the weeklies shot black and white film for two reasons: 1) It was cheaper because they could process the film themselves, and 2) The publications themselves had not really advanced to color photography due to its cost.
Today, although we have to manage the use of color in National DRAGSTER to create an effecient press run, its use is much more widespread, and, of course, on the Internet, color is free. Can you imagine how cool it would have been to have had the Internet in 1965? Where would drag racing be today?
Okay, that's it for the week. In a few days, it's going to be Winternationals Week and the launch of a shiny new season. I can hardly wait.
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Lessons learned in Phoenix
Lucky guy that I am, I got to bask in the glory of Arizona sunshine and shower in the nitro mists of testing fuel cars last weekend at the NAPA Auto Parts National Time Trials in Phoenix, where I filled my notebook and tape recorder with way more information than I could fit into the limited space of my National DRAGSTER coverage.
As you can probably imagine, a lot was going on there with all of the new driver/tuner/car combos, and with the shoes and wrenches not always wearing their national event best on a casual weekend, I had to stop more than once to remind myself who was working for whom before I dragged out the interview notepad. I heard that at least one crew chief pulled into the wrong pit after a run this weekend out of force of habit.
In all my years here, I cannot remember a time when virtually all of the top powers in one class would be entering the year with at least one major new cog in the machine. Four of last year's top-five Top Fuel drivers – Tony Schumacher, Larry Dixon, Cory McClenathan, and Antron Brown – are working with new crew chiefs, and, of course, the fourth member of the that top five, Hillary Will, is on the sidelines (I did exchange e-mails with Hillary this weekend, and she tells me she will be in Pomona to network or whatever it is drivers do to try to find a ride; both Tommy Johnson Jr. and Melanie Troxel were in Phoenix last weekend, probably doing the same).
It was definitely a shock to see Rob Flynn consulting with Brandon Bernstein (and equally shocking not to see Tim and Kim Richards) or to see Larry Dixon huddled with Jason McCulloch instead of Donnie Bender or Antron Brown talking things over with Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald instead of Lee Beard.
Although the Firebird staff toiled hard Sunday to bring the track around and have it yield the nice numbers that it did, the track was a real crapshoot Friday and Saturday. In fairness, it wasn't all about the track prep; the problem was exacerbated – or perhaps even caused by – a number of factors, not the least of which was the lack of rubber. In addition to a scarcity of Sportsman cars that normally would lay down traction-enhancing rubber, the nitro cars weren't much able to help themselves because the new, stiffer 2550 Goodyears don't leave behind as much rubber on the burnout or the run as their predecessors. I wasn't camped on the starting line, but I never saw the track scraped once during the three days, which you would never see at a national event. (After the workout it got during weekend and in the days following, the track should be at "just right" for the national event there in a few weeks.)
As a consequence, drivers never made it past 100 feet let alone 60 feet on plenty of runs, and those that made it past there often didn’t make it through the "shake zone." If you could get that far and your crew chief gave you the green light, good runs were possible, as evidenced by Del Worsham's stout 4.04 Saturday and Schumacher's and
"The Sarge" and Dixon were definitely two people whose brains I wanted to pick as they enter a new season with some interesting future matchups. You just have to know that any win that Schumacher gets against former tuner Alan Johnson will be just that much sweeter and every loss just a bit tougher than any other whether those guys admit it or not. Which they wouldn't, by the way.
Schumacher was the most candid of the two, but only because
"A.J. did a helluva job of picking
I asked him specifically about racing
"It's going to make us both dig so deep," he predicted. "
Although nearly every member of the crew followed Johnson to his new deal, Schumacher says he harbors no animosity, and I believe him.
"Those guys are like family," he said. "Those guys are my brothers, and they had an awesome opportunity with Alan. I don't hold anything against them."
Dixon, as is his wont, refused to be pulled into any such comparisons – though he did bristle a bit when I told him Schumacher said they both always shallow stage against one another, and Dixon quickly cited several examples where "Shoe" didn't last year – and refused to give the other guys any inspirational "bulletin-board material."
"I don't get up more for any one driver than another," he said. "I'm pretty much an up guy already for everyone, so it's not really like I can possibly get up any more than I usually am. If you can get up for any particular driver, you can get up for everyone, and that's what we're supposed to do as drivers."
I asked how the fit has been for him, learning A.J.'s driver routine and working with all-new teammates.
It will be interesting to see how Mike Green fills A.J.'s boots over in the Army camp; no pressure or anything, Mike. You just inherited the most successful Top Fuel team in history. I always liked Mike, and I've known him since his days working on Kirk Lawrence's Top Alcohol Dragster in the early 1980s and then with Gary Ormsby, where he worked under Beard. Green and his then cohort, Chuck Schifsky, always went out of their way to help me with info on their car, and Schifsky, son of former Funny Car racer Bill Schifsky, obviously understood the journalism world well enough to become executive editor at Motor Trend, the world's most prestigious car magazine. He worked there with my best friend, C. Van Tune, but both have moved on. Chuck's now handling PR work for Honda, overseeing all of the PR offices and activities outside of the Torrance, Calif., headquarters for the Honda and Acura brands, along with Honda Power Equipment and Honda Marine, including offices in New York City, Atlanta, and Detroit. He has obviously taken a different career path than Green, and it's cool to see them both succeed.
" 'Snake' couldn’t have picked a better guy," said Bender, whose U.S. Smokeless car was impressive with seven strong 60-foot times between .847 and .832. "I'd take him over any of the unemployed drivers out there. We knew the kid was good, but we didn’t know how he would adapt to us. We'll tell him how to do something, and the first time he might not be perfect, but by the second time, he's right where we want him to be. He picks things up real good.
"He's pumping up the team, and he's about the same age as the crew, so they really have a lot more in common with him than they did with Larry. We're very happy; I'd say we accomplished 90 percent of what we set out to do. Our main goal was to get the driver comfortable with us and us with him."
Massey, who will be packing his truck Thursday and moving from
Bernstein also was learning some new t
"B-Squared" – who told me that he and wife Tracey are expecting the newest heir to the Bud King throne in early August – had a bit of a rough go as Flynn tried to meld his combination with some existing parts on the Bud combination. Flynn's famed "Canadian horsepower" wasn't getting much of a display as the clutch wasn't functioning correctly and the car kept dropping cylinders.
Flynn didn't seem much worried about it – "You can't just take your combination from one car to another because the cars themselves are different anyway. You have to figure it out; this whole job is about solving problems." – and planned to stay early into this week to get things sorted out, but I was surprised to receive a text message from
I was very skeptical of that speed because the best 1,000-foot speed ever is just 318, set last year by Schumacher. The Bud car ran 280 mph to the eighth-mile, and it seemed a bit implausible to me that it could pick up 43 mph in the final 340 feet. I asked Brad to run the numbers, and the best final 340-foot increase he could find in Top Fuel was just 38 mph. "Little Brad" tracked down "Little B" this morning, and he swears that the numbers all line up and that the run was legit. We'll only have to wait about a week to see what they can do in
It was interesting to watch Langdon interact with Morgan Lucas and see Morgan give his new teammate advice. Seems it wasn't all that long ago that Lucas was the one getting the advice.
Although Langdon only made it down the track once when I was there through Sunday, he was pleased for other reasons, which seems to be the case for a lot of guys who are glass-half-full when the fans and others are looking at it as half empty. There's a lot of optimism early in the season.
"I have no frustration because the car hasn't gone down," he said. "At this point, anything that happens is good because it gets me familiar with those situations. I'm learning a lot with tire smoke and tire shake; I want to get as much info in me as I can before we get to
"We were in the same boat with a lot of other teams where the numbers you see are not indicative of true performance," he said reassuringly. "For us, it was just going to 330 feet, maybe 400 feet and trying different things to make ourselves better. So, we're happy." Me too. Don’t let me down, Ron!
That's it for now; have another meeting about the new NHRA.com – coming your way shortly! – to get to. I've always said that part of the success of this column lies in the contributions of its readers, and I'd like to thank those of you in Phoenix who were kind enough to share your love of this column with me in person and those who have e-mailed me their similar thoughts. As you can imagine, with ND and NHRA.com there's a lot to clear off my plate to make the time to work on this column, but your kind words provide the inspiration and the encouragement to get 'er done.
See ya later this week.
Friday, January 23, 2009
The Hawaiian's Winters wonderland
"Consistency, power and performance were the key words for the Top Fuel eliminator contestants at the fifth annual Winternationals Championship Drag Races," read the opening lines of National DRAGSTER's coverage of the 1965 Winternationals, "and the entry that was on 200 plus percent in all three brackets was Don Prudhomme and the crew of the ultra-beautiful Hawaiian, owned by Roland Leong, from Honolulu."
The Pomona win began an incredible two-year spree for Leong as after he and Prudhomme won the season opener, they also won the other big national event on the NHRA calendar – a little race we call the U.S. Nationals – and then, unbelievably, Leong accomplished the same two-race bonanza the following year with a different driver, Mike Snively. Winning both Pomona and Indy back-to-back helped make Leong's Hawaiian a household name to drag race fans from coast to coast and certainly didn't hurt the careers of Prudhomme and Snively.
In 1965, Prudhomme certainly was no stranger to West Coast fans. He had carved a gunslinger's reputation with a surprising win at the 1962 March Meet with chassis builder Kent Fuller and engine maestro Dave Zeuschel, and in 1963-64 at the wheel of the Greer-Black-Prudhomme dragster with money man Tommy Greer and engine wizard Keith Black, he had run up an impressive streak of match race wins, but he hadn't won a national event to establish a nationwide rep.
Leong also was not truly fresh off the boat -- he had owned and driven a gas dragster both on the islands and at some SoCal tracks, and he was the owner of the winning Top Gas car driven by fellow Hawaiian Danny Ongais at the 1964 Winternationals – but it was his first foray into the nitro ranks. Leong had met Black and Prudhomme in Hawaii – where his parents ran a successful insurance business and a speed shop – when the G-B-P made exhibition runs for a track opening, though Leong (contrary to previous reports) says he already had commissioned Fuller to build him a car similar to the G-B-P entry before its arrival.
Leong's initial lap in his beautiful new blue fueler, tuned by Black himself, did not go well – much in the kind of way that the Titanic's voyage was fine other than the part about running into that iceberg. Leong, who had cut his teeth driving Dragmaster-chassised gas dragsters, got loose twice but still ran 191 mph; however, unfamiliar with the cockpit layout of a Fuller car, he couldn't find the parachute release, accidentally bumped the steering wheel with his elbow, hit a sign, and ended up off the end of the Lions track.
All these years later, Prudhomme, who buckled in Leong for his maiden voyage, still finds the incident humorous, as he told me last week. "Roland didn't have a clue as to where he was going. It was the funniest damn thing ever, and we still laugh about it; he ended up down there on the railroad tracks, and asked me, ' "Vipe," what happened?' He didn’t even know."
That incident – and a stern admonishment from Black – was all it took for Leong to acknowledge that he didn’t belong in the saddle of a car that fast.
Recalled Leong, "On Monday morning, I went to Black's, and he called me into his office. 'I can’t go to the races with you anymore,' he told me. 'You scared the [crap] outta me. If you got hurt or killed, what would I tell your parents?' But he told me he was going to give up running the Greer-Black-Prudhomme car and that I should get Prudhomme to drive my car for me and he would still tune it."
The G-B-P team was in its death throes anyway as Greer's industrial machine business had taken a downturn, and he sold the car to Black for what he owed him in winnings and wages. But Black's own engine-building business had begun to take off, and he had no time to be a team owner and a tuner, so all of the pieces fit conveniently for Leong.
"The Greer-Black-Prudhomme car was a great car, but NHRA was really starting to take off then, and the Winternationals was definitely a race that everyone wanted to win," recalled Prudhomme. "I never dreamed that things would turn out like they did, but winning those two races was probably the biggest thing that ever happened to me and to Roland and even to Keith Black."
The team first formed in late 1964 and was ready for the Winternationals, where Prudhomme had the quick time of the opening day, 7.80 at a slowing 204.54 mph, just ahead of Don Garlits' marginally slower yet much faster 7.81, 206.88. Fog and rain conspired to force a one-day, all-day finish Sunday (which I will recount in an upcoming column).
Before a packed house and the Wide World of Sports cameras, the Hawaiian dished up a series of seven-second blasts to collect the green, getting past Willie Redford and the broken Carroll Bros. & Oxman machine with a 7.87, then burying James Warren with a 7.77 in round two. (Interestingly,
Black continued to work his magic for the Hawaiian in the semifinals, where a quicker-still 7.75 at 204.08 dispatched current NHRA Chief Starter Rick Stewart. The Hawaiian remained rock steady in the final round against "Wild Bill" Alexander with a 7.76, 201.34 to Alexander's 7.92, 198.22.
Leong convinced Prudhomme, who still was painting cars at the time, that they could take advantage of this newfound fame on the match race trail, and after agreeing to drive for a percentage of the winnings, they the road, hard and often.
"We just wanted to race; we'd race on a dirt road if you told us how to get there," recalled Leong. "I remember one night, we got rained out at
"The only thing was that if we had a race Saturday, Black would tune for us, but he couldn’t ever go on Sundays, so Prudhomme and I would be on our own, but we didn’t care. Prudhomme wasn't really an engine man, and all of my experience was with gas engines, and we were both really young. I can remember me and Prudhomme pulling out of Black's shop one time and him saying, 'There goes the blind leading the blind.' He just shook his head and said, 'I'm only a phone call away.'
"We went back East and won a lot of match races, and, of course, we won Indy, too [beating former Prudhomme mentor Tommy Ivo on the final run], but Black flew back there to help us. We won the race on Monday, and there was a race in
The successful partnership ended at year's end after B&M and Milodon, which were partners in the new Torkmaster transmission, built a car, had Zeuschel build the engines, and gave it to Prudhomme to run.
"It was hard to leave and quite a setback from not driving the Hawaiian because it was such a great car, but the B&M Torkmaster car ended up running pretty good," said Prudhomme, "and I was able from there to go into business and own my own team. Of course, Roland went on and did good, too. He's made a helluva lot better owner and tuner than he did a driver."
"I was a bit surprised, but life goes on," admitted Leong of Prudhomme's departure, "but it wasn't that a big a deal; we were young and wanted to race, and obviously back then, there were no driver contracts. [No one would know that better than Leong, who has had more drivers than any other team owner -- 22, by most counts.]
"I had just turned 21, and all we wanted to do was race, and to be able to go around the country and be paid to run, that was unheard of to us, so we didn’t really focus on all that other stuff. "
Leong hired Snively, whom he knew through his contact at Dragmaster (and who six years later would run the sport's first five-second pass in Jim Annin's dragster in Ontario, Calif.), and the two partnered for the 1966 campaign. Before they headed to
"I told them that I owned the Hawaiian, and they told me, 'Oh, we've already got Prudhomme booked,' " recalled Leong. "Prudhomme had booked the car the year before because he and [Tom] McEwen were always kidding me about my accent and my pidgin English and that they should do the talking. But once we won
Like Prudhomme the year before, Snively put the Hawaiian at the head of the pack in qualifying at Pomona with a strong run, a 7.66 at 205 mph, then had to defeat 31 other cars after Mother Nature stepped in. Heavy fog Saturday had forced the cancellation of AA/FD class racing, so NHRA decided that instead of the usual format – in which Saturday's winner would race the winner of Sunday's 16-car field – that it would simply expand the field to 32 cars and run the first round Saturday and the remaining four Sunday.
Snively got past Saturday's challenge with a 7.57 at 208.80 against Roy Thode, then opened Sunday with a better-yet 7.55 to defeat Paul "the Kid" Sutherland. A semifinal 7.63 defeated "Sneaky Pete" Robinson's SOHC-powered fueler to push Snively into the semi's against
Leong, Snively, and Black saved the best for last, powering to a 7.54 at 209.78 mph to defeat "Big Jim" Dunn's gallant 7.59, 207.84 to again claim the Winternationals trophy. They, too, hit the match race trail, and again come Labor Day weekend, the young Hawaiian kid was standing in the winner's circle in Indy with his feared blue dragster. To add to the duality of the accomplishment, as Prudhomme had defeated Ivo, who gave him his start in racing in 1960, Snively and Leong beat Leong's old island pal, Ongais, for the 1966 Indy win.
Those must have been some pretty heady times for a 21-year-old, but when pressed to brag about himself, Leong, now 64 and still spry and active, will only admit, "When we'd pull into the track, guys back East were pretty much saying, 'Man, we might as well just go home,' because everyone expected us to win, and, well, we always did well."
Leong and Snively didn't win any national events in 1967, but they did win in
"After Bakersfield, I got a new Don Long car; Snively and I spent three days and two nights working and sleeping at Don Long's shop to get it done before the Riverside race, then went out there and won the race and set low e.t. and top speed," recalled Leong.
Beyond the then-unprecedented Top Fuel back-to-back wins, the Winternationals has been kind to Leong. His
At the 1985 Winternationals, Leong and driver Rick Johnson set the Funny Car world on its ear in the second round with a barrier-breaking 5.58 – breaking Prudhomme's longstanding 5.63 mark – at 262.62 mph, also the fastest pass in history, supplanting Mark Oswald's 261.62 from the previous year's World Finals. Credit went largely to a Hawaiian Punch Daytona body that had spent eight hours in the Lockheed wind tunnel in
Leong returned to the Pomona winner's circle in 1998 as a crew chief with car owner Prudhomme and driver Ron Capps; Prudhomme, too, has not done too shabby since that 1965 win, banking four straight victories behind the wheel at the season opener (1975-'78). Capps' 1998 win was accompanied by a victory by Prudhomme Top Fuel pilot Larry Dixon, making it a doubly sweet moment.
Both will be in action again this year in
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
The return of Five Fabulous Favorite Fotos: Norman Blake
"I always had an interest in cars and cameras from an early age. I started making photos when I was about 8 years old with a Kodak Brownie Super 27 (which I still own). I would go to car shows and read the magazines that were out at the time: Hot Rod, Car Craft, Drag Racing USA, and any others I could get my hands on. I always liked seeing what cool and spectacular pics that were being made by people like Steve Reyes, Jim Kelly, Bob McClurg, Leslie Lovett, and others that were helping produce the images (which were plastered all over my walls) for these publications. Especially Reyes. I was always amazed at the moments he would catch on film! This would kinda stick with me down the road.
"In 1971, some older friends asked me if I would like to go to an eight-car Funny Car match race with them, and I jumped at the chance. This was at New York National Speedway out on
"I learned in school how to develop and print my own black and white film and prints and then struck up a bit of a through-the-mail Q&A friendship with Larry 'Max' Maxwell of L&M Photos fame. He was very helpful steering me in the right direction on what I was trying to do. I also started to sell some B&W prints to the gentleman who ran the souvenir stand on the spectator side of the track. Long story short, this got my foot in the door at
"When I finished high school, I hit the ground running. I shot the ’73 Summernationals with credentials and got to meet 'Max' and my other photo heroes. I had my first photo published in National DRAGSTER from that event. For the next 30 or so years, I basically ate, slept, and drank drag racing. I was Division 1 photographer for a year in 1980. I freelanced for all the publications that ran drag racing. I worked mostly for Super Stock & Drag Illustrated as one of their main contributors. I also contributed to Home Mechanics and Popular Mechanics. I was associate editor for a short-lived newspaper, Dragstar Racing News, and for Drag Racing Illustrated (which only lasted for one issue; the second never got to the newsstand). I also photo-edited publications for Fass/Harris and Engledrum Publishing Cos. early on. In the latter part of the '80s, I started doing freelance assisting for other photographers, doing lighting and whatever else it took to make a photo -- mostly on-location work. I also worked as a photographer (with 'Stat Guy,' Lewis Bloom, an accomplished photographer in his own right) for the N.Y. Roadrunners Club (the people who put on the New York Marathon in the late ‘80s early ‘90s) for their in-house magazine, New York Running News and also shot rock 'n' roll shows for fun. Some of that work has been published in books and magazines. Today I only go to a race on occasion as mostly I have been following and photographing the neo-burlesque and sideshow entertainment that is going on here in
"I would like to thank Vinnie, Richard, and Uncle Lou Napp and their families, along with Vince Mele, for allowing me the freedom to do some of the crazy things I have done at
Dale Barlet brought out his Funny Car to make a couple of test runs during a match race at Englishtown on this Sunday. Well, they fire up the car, and he pulls up into the water and proceeds to do one of the most horrendous burnouts you ever heard out of a Funny Car. He then proceeds to back up with engine sounding really horrible. I figured they would just back it up and shut it off because it sounded so bad. But lo and behold, he does a bit of a dry hop and proceeds to move toward the starting line to stage!
"Well the bell goes off in my head, and my brain says there is no way you are going to watch this thing run from the starting line. So I say 'See ya’ to my fellow lensmen that were standing there and ran as fast as I could toward the finish line. Now they all think I’m crazy. 'Stat Guy' Lewis Bloom (then announcer at the track) mentions 'There he goes' over the PA, and I haul buns! I keep looking over my shoulder to see if he is actually going to stage. He's still running, and so am I. He stages, and I stop dead in my tracks, focus my camera, and aim at the line as the car actually leaves when the green comes on!
"The car actually makes it under power to where I landed up, which was about three-quarter-track, and right about at the spot where I’m standing, the car erupts into a ball of fire. The car burns to the ground, but Barlet got out with a few serious burns. But sorry to say this just about ended his career as a FC driver. As I’m walking back to the line, Lewis asks over the PA how many frames I got, and when I got back to the line, everybody is shaking their head like 'How the heck did you know?' " (Nikon FE, motor drive, 80-200 2.8, 1/1000sec F8 ½ Tri-X film)
It’s another Pro Stock final at the last Division 1 WCS for the ’78 season at Raceway Park: Larry Lombardo (in Bill Jenkins' Monza) against Frank Iaconio in his Monza (co-owned with Ray Allen). This had been a longstanding but friendly rivalry for years. They do their burnouts, pull up to the line, and both cars get into the pre-stage beams, and they wait, and they wait, and they wait. One revs the engine, and the other follows suit. Well, this went on for a good two minutes, and then, in an instant, they both stage at exactly at the same time.
"The Tree goes green, and both cars leave the line. Lombardo fouls, but Frank shears the studs on the right rear slick and proceeds to cross the centerline and just miss the Christmas Tree, coming to a halt in the grass on the opposite side of the track, handing the win to 'the Grump' and Lombardo. I don’t remember, but I think division was decided on that pass, too. It was cool to witness. One of my all-time favorite runs." (Nikon FTN, motor drive, Vivitar 80-200 zoom, 1/1000sec F8 ½ Tri-X film)
I’m on the line at Indy in 1984 when this Top Fuel dragster comes up to the line with no wing way up there in the wind like the rest. Instead, it has a wedge-shaped ‘ground effects’ tunnel hanging out from behind the slicks. He does his burnout and backs up, and I look at this thing and think of all the weird things that have been tried in the past that never really worked.
"So that little voice in my head says to go downtrack as far as I’m allowed to, which is about 300 feet out. The car is in the right lane, and I’m shooting from the left. The car stages and leaves on the green and starts shaking and smoking the tires. Under power, it hooks a quick right, getting the car sliding on its left side with the throttle hung wide open headed toward (thank God) the right-side guardrail with tires still blazing. Just as it gets to the guardrail, the car plops back on all four wheels just in time to go vaulting full throttle over the guardrail, turning itself into an expensive lawnmower. The car went the rest of the way in the grass, tearing up the front end and the grass pretty good.
"The driver, Phil Hobbs, got out okay, but his ego and the idea were a little worse for wear. It never ran again (that I know of) in that configuration." (Nikon FE, motor drive, 80-200 2.8 zoom 1/1000sec F11 Tri-X film)
Let’s get this out of the way right now: Kids, don’t try this at all, and the management here does not condone street racing. Now, back to our regularly scheduled story. Well, it’s another summer day in 1974 at the Coney Island amusement area here in Brooklyn. A display has been put together by the PRO organization (run by 'Big Daddy' Don Garlits) to show some of the cars that will be running that weekend’s National Challenge at New York National Speedway.
“ ‘The Grump’ has his Pro Stock Vega, Flip Schofield has his Top Fueler, and Freddy DeName has his Camaro Funny Car. It’s the usual grip-and-grin sessions for the drivers and fans. Things were getting kinda boring, so Freddy decides 'I’m going to make a little noise.' He puts some fuel in ‘er and rolls the car away from the rest of the vehicles, then puts on his fire jacket and mask. They hook up the batteries and fire it up.
"So he’s sitting there with the body up and the engine cackling away. All of a sudden, he signals his crew to put the body down. They do so, and he backs the car up as they clear the crowd a bit. And then proceeds to do a burnout right there on the street!! This is all going on right up the street from the original Nathan’s.
"None of this was cleared with the local constabulary, but no one got in any trouble, either. (For those that don’t know -- I didn’t at the time, thank God -- Freddy was linked to some, as I will put it here, shady characters; you do the math). This pic is a bit historic for what is in the background, too, because it’s now all long gone. And what replaced it is gone now too, sad to say. As we speak, land developers are trying to get zoning to build condos and businesses that don’t belong there. It’s now just an empty lot.
"This is where I spend my free time shooting these days. Help Save Coney Island!" (Canon FTb, 50mm lens 1/1000sec F8 ½ Tri-X film)
"The order of the day was a match race between jet dragsters and fuel Funny Cars. Up comes Frank Mancuso in the Travel Agent Funny Car against Mike ‘Mr. Green Jeans’ Evegens in the Earthquake jet dragster. I moved out a ways to get a pic of the cars running side by side off the line after the handicap the Funny Cars got. The cars leave the line, and all of a sudden, the Travel Agent darts from the left into the right lane, where the Earthquake promptly T-bones the errant FC. I shot this picture and froze still looking through the camera. That voice in my head asks, 'Do you believe that just happened?' Meanwhile, the connected cars spun toward the grass as I watched through the camera lens. Then finally, the voice says again, 'Shoot it, stupid!' So I started rapidly pushing the shutter button. Remember … too lazy to use motor drive!! Well, I learned a lesson, and the rest is history, but at least I got the pic; the rest of the photogs there missed it!! Both drivers were injured but are around to reflect on this incident as they have in this column in the past.” (Nikon EL2, winder, Vivitar 80-200 zoom, 1/500sec F8 Tri-X film)
Where were you when 'Big Daddy' blew over? I was at the other end of the track making pictures of the whole thing as best I could. It was a dingy day (lightwise) of qualifying at the 1986 Summernationals, so I figured I would head to the finish line and make a few high-speed-run pics, save a bit of film, and maybe even get something crazy if I could. That was the vulture in me thinking.
"Well, I guess I sort of got what I was wishing for, because here came Don Garlits with his Swamp Rat XXX up to make a qualifying run alongside Darrell Gwynn. Both cars left the line, and all of a sudden, I can see almost the whole bottom side of Garlits' car, so I start shooting a frame or so as the car comes down the track going up and up and up and over!
"I buried the motor drive as the car did a pirouette on the wing strut and was bouncing with the throttle wide open, smoking the tires, and bouncing to a stop while backwards. The car stopped for a second, then started to drive back toward the starting line through the cloud of smoke he just created. This is when my heart started to race a bit for Garlits himself. I thought he might be out cold and the car would get back to the starting line under power, but the smoke cleared in time to see Garlits pull the car in the grass next to the lane he was in, cut off the motor, and get out and wave his hands to the crowd that he was all right. Whew. Then I turned to one of the other photographers standing next to me and said, 'There is a spectator sitting on a gold mine right now and does not know what to do with it.' I ran and did a few photos of Garlits being interviewed by Steve Evans and Diamond P.
"I was lucky enough to have this series published in just about every magazine that covered drag racing plus Car and Driver. It also appeared with the car on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History (where my sequence is in their archive), but as I said, I’ve seen some spectator photos of this that I would have killed to have been in their shooting position. My hat is off to you all that recorded this moment in drag racing history." (Nikon FE, motor drive, 200mm Nikkor lens, 1/500sec F4 Tri-X film)
"This is one of my favorite photos of the late, great Leslie Lovett. It shows three of the things he loved in life: drag racing, his photography, and his love for scavenging parts for his office decoration. If you ever saw his space in the old North Hollywood HQ, you probably could have built a car with the parts he had stashed there. Thanks for the inspiration and the friendship along the way. We love you and miss you, my friend!" (Canon FTb, 50mm lens, 1/1000sec F5.6 ½ Tri-X film)
Thanks for sharing your stuff, Norman. I know the readers here will eat this stuff up.
You can see more of Blake's great and diverse set of photographs online here.
Heads-up, shutterbugs! I'll have more Favorite Fotos in the months ahead, so be sure to keep your eyes peeled, but in the meantime, I'm going to open the floodgates and accept submissions of your Favorite Foto -- note the singular use of the word as well as the use of "your." Send me your single best shot -- it must be one that you actually took -- along with the hows and whys, and I'll feature the best of them in an upcoming column. Start digging!
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Getting going again
Today's a big day as we'll be getting our first official look at the new NHRA.com that has been under construction this winter by our new pals at AmericanEagle.com. I wish I could give y'all a sneak peek, but it's being kept under pretty tight wraps. Needless to say, it's going to have quite a different look and incorporate many new cool features.
It has been an interesting process working with an outside company because, other than the initial design that was done by our good pals at goracing.com way back in 1995, I've been heavily involved with the design and coding of every version since then (you can get an interesting look back at older versions of NHRA.com and read some history of the site here).
Though we did present AmericanEagle with our ideas – what features should be on the home page, how we would like to see them function – after that, we pretty much turned things over to them to employ the expertise they've gained in helping major pro sports teams construct their Web sites. There has been a constant dialogue between us since, approving page designs or asking for changes, and it's now getting close to the payoff point.
I feel kind of like a race team that has spent the winter waiting for someone to build our hot rod and now we're ready to jump in and take the first test laps. Stand by!
I don’t mind taking the lumps that come with the territory of being a columnist -- certainly the old adage "you can't please all of the people all of the time" comes to mind – and though I am given great leeway to explore all manner of NHRA stories for this column, no one should forget that the purpose of NHRA.com is to promote NHRA, its racers, sponsors, events, tracks, and programs. Sometimes I accomplish that by talking about current events, and sometimes it's done by writing historical pieces that I hope bridge the gap between the veteran fans of the old days and the ways of the current sport.
I had the opportunity to share some of my thoughts about this column with Greg Zyla, who published an embarrassingly long interview with me in the current issue of Performance Racing Industry magazine. You may remember Zyla's name as the creator of the Vallco drag racing board game, which I wrote about here, and those of you who know me are aware that I do my best work (and am most comfortable) outside of the spotlight, but his kind reciprocation of that interview allowed me to share my thoughts about this column and why I think it succeeds in bringing closer the sport's differing eras. Pick up a copy and check it out.
Issue 1 of National DRAGSTER's 50th anniversary publishing season left the building last night with slightly less fanfare than Elvis but just as much screaming. Yesterday's Antron Brown-based bombshell – covered on the NHRA.com home page today – caused a lot of frantic rewriting on several features already in the can and almost on their way to the printer, not the least of which was our marquee What's New feature.
As veteran readers of the publication know, the first issue of each year is dedicated to catching up with what last year's top 10 finishers are planning for this year, and we had editorialized that with all of the other crew-chief and driver changes in the Tony Schumacher, Alan Johnson, Brandon Bernstein, and Cory McClenathan pits, the change of ownership for Brown's relatively stable team from David Powers to Tim Buckley would do little to hurt his chances of a title bid. Erase, erase, erase.
We also had weighed in similarly in the annual Fan Guide preseason analysis, the shipping of which to the printer, fortunately for us, had been moved from last Friday to today, allowing us to make the necessary changes before it, too, hit the presses. Members should get their free copy of the annual Fan Guide with the third issue of the season. Nonmembers will be able to buy the Fan Guide at national events and by mail.
The analysis sections of the Fan Guide have been tuned on so many times since they were written late last year that they barely are recognizable. We've rewritten and deleted entire sections as teams' plans have changed and are just thankful that we were able to catch everything we did before it went to press. Working in print is a lot like working without a net: One slip, and your mistake gets splattered for everyone to see for all time. Working on the Web means never having errors that last in perpetuity.
I spent a wonderful half-hour on the phone yesterday afternoon with the fabled "Snake," Don Prudhomme, for the feature I'm working on about him and new driver Spencer Massey for the year's second issue. In what I think was his first public interview on the subject, Prudhomme was candidly forthcoming about what had transpired between him and Larry Dixon in the off-season and is very high on Massey, both as a driver and as a spokesperson for his team. "He's a cool kid," he said, as only he can. "I really like him."
On the flip side of that coin, the first issue includes interviews with
I mentioned preseason testing earlier, which is exciting to me because I'll be heading out to
As you can tell, we've been devoting a lot of time to promoting the Winternationals on NHRA.com, and I'll also be theming some of the column's content that way, looking back at great moments in
Dave McClelland, Steve and Cindy Gibbs, ND alums Neil Britt and Joe Martinez, and Tom "the Mongoose" McEwen all spoke knowingly and jokingly about Crites.
I doubt that the minister – at least based on the several shades of red he was turning – had ever officiated over a service as free-rolling as this one. Bill would have been proud. I'd love to repeat the stories, but there are impressionable eyes here.
People from all periods of his life were there, from his earliest DRAGSTER buddies (including NHRA Board Chairman Dallas Gardner, board member Dick Wells, NHRA Publishing VP Adriane Riddder, and former NHRA VPs Carl Olson, Cary Menard, and Britt) to his current softball team to friends he made when National DRAGSTER was printed locally at News-Type service in Glendale, and, of course, friends, family, and others he touched in his 68 years.
It was a great send-off to a great guy.
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