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Friday, October 31, 2008

The rise and fall of Orange County Int'l Raceway

(Above) From left, Mike Jones, Larry Vaughn, Mike McKenna, NHRA President Wally Parks, and Bill White unveiled the vision for Orange County Int'l Raceway at a November 1966 press conference. (Below) The final version varied from this concept (view larger); the tower was moved from the right lane to the left and the covered grandstands eliminated.


Jones, center, led the official groundbreaking ceremony Feb. 15, 1967.

(Above) The distinctive timing tower under construction. The final version (below right) differed significantly from the concept (below left). The scoreboard also ended up quite different from its original design.


(Above) Stores behind the main grandstand never fully materialized, but (below) permanent restrooms and a snack bar, far right, did.

Orange County Int'l Raceway has been gone 25 years, eight years longer than it was in business from 1967 through 1983, but it's still fondly remembered by those who worked, raced, and played there.

When it was built, it billed it as "the Super Track," and when it opened its doors to the public Aug. 5, 1967, it was crystal clear that it was not simply marketing hype. Much as today's racers and fans are wowed by the opulence of Bruton Smith's new zMax Dragway, such was the case 41 years earlier when OCIR was born. It was that good and that far ahead of its time.

The seed is planted
OCIR actually grew out of a partnership brokered by longtime NHRA Vice President Bernie Partridge, uniting the efforts of two dynamic duos: Larry Vaughn and Bill White, who had grown up on the 80,000-acre Irvine Ranch and knew that the vast area would be a great open spot for a new facility, and Mike Jones, a former designer and draftsman (but then employed as a racing engine designer) and a former competitor in drag racing, dry lakes, and road racing, and his financial backer, newspaper publisher and auto dealer Mike McKenna.

Jones actually had initially been trying to put together a drag racing program for Anaheim and its new ballpark for the Major League Baseball Angels. The city had lost its bid for an NFL team and was looking for another way to generate revenue for the new stadium, but it quickly became apparent that the ballpark would not be compatible with drag racing.

The Irvine Co., meanwhile, held the lease on the land and had long-term plans to build housing and entertainment for Orange County's expected housing boom. Looking for a way to entertain the masses, representatives were open to the idea of a racetrack but had already turned down a similar bid from Carroll Shelby and Jim Hall and one from White.

White (who was to be the track's president), Vaughn (secretary/treasurer), and Jones (vice president and general manager), however, promised to build a facility not just with a quarter-mile track and pits but one of unprecedented style and grace, complete with all the creature comforts a fan could expect, surrounded by lush landscaping and a striking architectural design.

They enticed five Orange County residents -- Carroll Cone, owner of Cone Chevrolet; investment banker David Brant; Raymond Martin, owner of amusement facilities at O'Neill Park and Irvine Park and a former midget auto racing track owner in Orange County; and Irvine Co. stockholders Mrs. Myford Irvine and Mrs. David Brant – as investors to supply the capital for a project that initially was budgeted at $80,000 and resubmitted the plan to the board of directors.

The Irvine Co. granted them a 55-year lease to build the track in east Irvine, in the middle of a giant Y formed where the great Golden State and San Diego freeways meet.

Designing the future
Jones did the actual design work and plot plan of the facility, mixing his ideas with guidance from NHRA officials and the best ideas from other tracks around the country. In what amounted to an OCIR mission statement, Jones wrote in the opening-season program, "If there were one basic premise on which Orange County International Raceway was founded, it is that, if the sport of auto racing is to enjoy continued growth and success, facilities must be provided that are commensurate with the professional status of the men and cars competing there. We set out to create an atmosphere, an atmosphere of professionalism, of excitement, yet one of comfort."

Permanent restrooms and concession stands, now all but taken for granted; underground utilities; a restaurant; a speed shop; a children's playground; a distinctive 40-foot high, three-story tower that housed the administration offices, timing and announcing deck, and a top-floor suite; and a starting-line-based scoreboard were but a few of the features that made "the County" a major step up from previous facilities.

Jones was especially dedicated to creating a safe facility. The track was 75 feet wide and, at 4,200 feet, plenty long. A 300-foot sand trap capped by water-filled plastic barriers was beyond that. He hired Marines from the adjacent airbase at El Toro who were experienced in crash and fire rescue procedures and were familiar with protective clothing necessary to extricate drivers from flaming Funny Cars. The safety trucks were equipped with state-of-the-art gear, and emergency plans involving ambulances, hospitals, doctors, and insurance companies were established in advance "to allow the fastest possible reaction to an emergency."

Jones and his team spent months analyzing patterns of other facilities and running mock races on various track layouts to determine the most functional configuration. Indeed, at one time, the design of the track was configured to run in the opposite direction.

"Spectator comfort has been the most often overlooked aspect of auto racing facilities," Jones wrote in his manifesto. "The Orange County spectator, by contrast, will enjoy the permanency and consequent cleanliness of spacious restrooms and concessions. Drinking fountains are located throughout the track. An abundance of refuse containers should keep litter to a minimum. Spectators enter the track through turnstiles which eliminates traffic delays and congestion. Arcades afford the concession customer or window shopper protection from pit traffic. Reserved seats with backs are offered in select areas to insure seat retention during those times when the spectators wishes to leave his seat to visit other areas of the track. Row spacing has been extended to give ample leg room."

The Orange County Planning Commission granted its approval Nov. 9, 1966, and a joint press conference with NHRA and the Irvine Co. was held the following day at the Irvine Information Center. Ground was broken Feb. 15, 1967, grading began March 13, and the first racing surface was poured Monday, July 10. The total cost to build the quarter-mile Taj Mahal was nearly $750,000.

Opening day

The Guedel & Holland Top Fueler, with Tom McEwen at the controls, set the first OCIR track record at 7.02 on opening day, Aug. 5, 1967.

Opening day was less than a month later, Aug. 5, 1967, and future National DRAGSTER Editor Bill Holland, who at the time fielded a Top Fueler with John Guedel, remembers it well.

"As one of many local Top Fuel racers in SoCal, we had heard about the plans for OCIR and were anxiously awaiting to see if they were 'for real,' " he recalled. "When we arrived at the grand opening, we were duly impressed by the facility and its management. The rumor was that they'd taken some cues from that noted Orange County icon, Disneyland, and sure enough, they did. There were 'usherettes' there to help spectators to their seats, and the crowd control was excellent. There were rollers in the pits so cars could warm up prior to competition. Needless to say, the tower was an impressive sight to behold. The track had scoreboards and reaction timers -- which were new to the sport. Needless to say, the track itself was superb, and many racers (ourselves included) were clocking personal bests."

No less a hero than Tom "the Mongoose" McEwen was at the wheel of the Guedel & Holland/National Automotive Specialties dragster for the opener. He set low e.t at 7.02 and reached the final but red-lighted to Bobby Tapia in Larry Stellings' entry. (Guedel set the track speed record at 223.88 mph at the Division 7 points meet held later that year.)

Getting going

The trademark lineup of Funny Cars illuminated by a roving spotlight, conceived by Jones, was one of OCIR's signature photo ops.

Competition in the early years was stiff from fabled Lions Dragstrip, which was just less than a half hour up the 405 Freeway in Wilmington and Irwindale, just about the same distance to the northwest, but Jones worked hard to develop a Funny Car-heavy formula that worked, and when Lions closed at the end of the 1972 season, business at the gate definitely improved, but the track still struggled. It was Jones who developed the idea to bring together all of the nation's touring Funny Cars for the first Manufacturers Meet and dreamed up the idea of Funny Cars lining the track prior to eliminations, seeing it as a great photo op to help sell the sport and the events.

Early on, Jones understood the challenges of selling drag racing to a public whose images of the sport were not in tune with its growing professionalism, and he saw the media as the key to unlocking that door. He built a then state-of-art air-conditioned pressroom complete with "duplicating machines," telephones, telex equipment, and a snack bar.

"Sports editors, although they are not familiar with drag racing, do know about competition. They know what is and what isn't. They cannot be sold circus acts or 'booked in' races to the extent of having them regarded as major events," he told Drag News in 1969. "We are going to have to pay quite a bit of attention to the public. I think that beyond this it is just a matter of hard work on the part of strip operators. Those racers who become prominent in the sport, to present a good appearance, to be well-spoken when they are around these people, and, most of all, to be honest with them. They aren't familiar with the sport. They are very hesitant to cover it. They would rather not cover it at all, as to make a mistake in coverage. If they are led astray unintentionally or intentionally by racers or strip management, they can set drag racing promotion back a long ways."

Growing pains

It was always easy to tell when a big Funny Car show was coming to OCIR in the 1970s because the local motels, such as the Marco Polo (above) or the Pitcarin (below), were jammed with floppers on ramp trucks.
(courtesy Bob Doerrer)

Little did Jones know that there would be other, harder hurdles to clear. In the first two and a half years of operation, property taxes climbed by 400 percent, insurance premiums by 15 percent in 1968 and 21 percent in 1969, and even trash-collection fees doubled in the same period. Racers also sought higher purses to offset their rising costs. The worst was still to come.

Although the track opened under NHRA sanction, following Jones' July 1973 departure, the track signed a five-year pact with AHRA. AHRA President Jim Tice brought in Lions and Santa Ana mainstay C.J. "Pappy" Hart as general manager for what amounted to a very short stay that was highlighted by OCIR's first national event and clashes between Hart and Tice's team that led to Hart's resignation. Tice walked away during the 1974 season – new track manager Blaine Laux remained – and millionaire businessman, Pro Stock driver, and Funny Car owner Larry Huff took over June 1, 1974, yet kept the track under AHRA sanction.

Huff, who also had assumed ownership of the Tice-owned Fremont Raceway, lasted even less time than Tice, dropping first Fremont and, in March 1975, OCIR.

Motocross and speedway tracks and a defensive-driving school had been built, and plans were drawn up to use some of the excess racetrack land for commercial use to increase revenue in the face of rising property taxes and other costs, but the Irvine Co. balked at this idea. The long-term lease that could have kept the track open through 2022 eventually returned to the Irvine Co., which was eager to use the now-expensive land for its intended commercial and residential purposes. Vaughn, the last remaining holdout of the original four founders, however, struck a five-year deal to continue leasing the land.

The famed West Coast duo of Bill Doner and Steve Evans brought their International Raceway Parks savvy to the game, and with Doner's never-shy way of promoting events and Evans' steady hand on the tiller and a return to the NHRA fold, things began to look good at "the County" for a short while, but before long, things got out of hand. Drunkenness and rowdy fans – in the most notorious incident, a 24-year-old man died after being hit in the head with a beer bottle -- were no doubt spurred on by events such as rock concerts staged in tandem with the races and events such as the annual Fox Hunt, which allowed women in bathing-suit attire free entry. As Evans growled on the radio, "Foxes, bring your bikinis!"

Longtme OCIR starter Larry Sutton remembered, "The Doner and Evans regime always had a spectacle, and there were always way too many people and not enough security. There was one race that I ran, and I saw legs all the way down the racetrack with people sitting on the guardrail."

A return to glory

OCIR's final four seasons were run under the guidance of former Funny Car driver Charlie Allen (above), who had raced his floppers (below) at OCIR for years beginning at the track's grand opener.
(below photo: Angel Nieves)

By 1980, Doner, who was in a constant battle with city and county officials about a number of items, had had enough and was eager to get out of the business and retire to Mexico to go sport fishing. Again, NHRA's Partridge helped keep the California dream alive, enticing former Funny Car racer Charlie Allen, whose All-American Boy floppers had prowled the OCIR quarter-mile in days gone by – he was part of the opening-day program -- to take over the struggling ship. Allen had been trying to build a track in Fontana but was running into stiff opposition; Partridge put the two together.

Recalled Allen, "I knew Bill and had raced for him over the years, and we were able to strike a deal to buy all of his assets and the rights to the property. Although I was a pretty good businessman, there definitely were things I didn't know about running a racetrack and mistakes I made, but I wanted to return the track to more of a family atmosphere. We spent $300,000 to $400,000 on a quasifacelift and applied what I thought was good business policy to it, and off we went."

The next three seasons were some of "the County's" best. Families and fans returned in droves, and Allen, general manager Lynn Rose, and veteran track manager Kenny Green annually staged eight to 10 major events a year, including the Manufacturers Meet, 64 Funny Cars, and Summer Showdown, but Allen knew that he'had inherited a lame duck, set to be roasted at the end of the 1982 season.

A last-second reprieve, then goodbye
"I knew the track only had a little over two years left on its lease, so in early 1982, I started trying to negotiate with the Irvine Co. for extra time," Allen told me last week. "I found out that the company president responded to any letter ever written to him, so I got all of the TV and radio stations and the Orange County Register to do stories about how terrible it would be if the track went away and that the fans and racers should all write letters to the company. At one point, he was getting 300 to 500 letters a day. I went from not being able to talk to him to having him call me for a meeting, and one of the first things he said was, 'Can you stop this thing?' and I did and made them the good guys for letting us stay another year."

OCIR announcer Mike McClelland remembered, "As 1982 ended, the specter of OCIR closing was always on everybody’s mind. You had one group that figured 'They’ll never close it' and another group that just kind of laughed at that thought. Early in 1983, construction was started on the first road other than Moulton Parkway (Irvine Center Drive) across the strawberry fields that lay across I-5 from the track. The Alton Parkway bridge over I-5 started rising up from the fields. That’s when I knew it was over. They weren’t building roads across the area without any plans to build on it."

Shortly after the Last Drag Race, dismantling of the track began.

Don Gillespie's heartbreaking shot of the OCIR tower, taken more than a year after the track's closing, shows broken windows and a sad epitaph on the plywood doors.

That final year, as documented here Monday, was a rousing success that included the popular back-to-back staging of two 64 Funny Cars races, which Allen, showing a bit of Doner-like savvy, played to the hilt, making it seem as if it were a spur-of-the-moment decision to "do it all over again next weekend." In fact, he had already bought the airtime and made the radio commercials.

"We even shut the gates early," he recalled. "We probably would have put a few hundred cars in, but we wanted to be able to say we couldn’t get everyone in and turned away people so we were going to do it again. Doner loved it when I told him that."

Even as the clock was ticking in those final years, Allen considered rebuilding the track elsewhere close.

"We looked for property, but most of it was so hilly that I would have had to spend 4 or 5 million dollars in grading alone, and I didn’t have enough experience to realize that ultimately it might pay for itself," he said. "They finally started developing their industrial park, which had been in the works even prior to me buying the track. They were even putting in huge water lines in the parking lot those last few years, and we had to barricade those areas off during events. My agreement was that I wouldn’t do anything to slow down their development of the property."

In return for his cooperation, the Irvine Co. allowed Allen, who had begun construction on Firebird Int'l Raceway outside of Phoenix in 1983, to take with him anything he could salvage from the track, and Allen briefly even considered moving the trademark tower to Phoenix. "I got bids on moving the tower, but it was way ridiculous," he said, "but it would have been cool from a nostalgic point of view.

"I think I was very lucky to have the success we had there in the track's final couple of years," he said. "That success made me realize that I wanted to keep doing this, which is why I built Firebird Int'l Raceway." In a weird coincidence, the size of Firebird Lake at the new track, 113 acres, is exactly the size of the former OCIR parcel.

Kenny Bernstein, who won the Last Drag Race and whose shop was nearby, mourned the loss of OCIR for a number of reasons.

"With it being so close to our shop, we did a lot of testing there," he recalled. "It was such a nice facility and convenient for us. OCIR had such a history of great Funny Car races there, and it was one of the great places to race and, really, the last one standing. Seeing them all go reminds me of the pro football program here. They all left town, and they're still gone. But, to this day, every single time I drive by the Sand Canyon exit on the 5 [freeway], I look over there to where it used to be."

The iconic tower stood for more than a year as work went on around it before it, too, finally was felled. Don Gillespie and fellow drag racing photographer Mickey McIver shot a couple of memorable photos of the forlorn tower, its windows broken by vandals and a sad plywood sign replacing the tower's front doors that read: "Yes, we are closed. It's all over."

OCIR, the ghost track
I've assembled below some photos that I think show the different sides of OCIR, some from our files and some from external sources that will give those of you who never saw it a better look and those of you who were there a nostalgic flashback.

Here's what it looked like to watch from the stands at OCIR ...

... and to view one of the Funny Car lineups from the finish-line stands.

The view from the return road, looking back to the starting line from about 1,000 feet.

The pits emptied right into the staging lanes, which curled around the tower and emptied into the top of the left lane.

The pits were lined with eucalyptus trees; the track is to the right and the freeway to the left, just behind the trees. (Inset photo: Angel Nieves)

You probably never got into the tower, so here's your chance. This is the second-floor announcing/timing deck that was pretty much little more than a walkway around the open center circle.

This is the third floor, which began life as a pressroom but ended up as a hospitality suite (aka "the party deck"). The all-glass sides provided a great 180-degree view of the action on the quarter-mile.

Not much of a trace is left of OCIR unless you know where to look. Using the lessons learned in my Google Earth tutorial ("Ghost-track hunting goes high tech," Oct. 17), we can plug in the coordinates provided by my friends at the ghost-track-hunting TerraTracks Global Authority and sketch the outline, as I've done below.


(Left) This fine aerial photo of Orange County Int'l Raceway gives you the before, and my demarked Google Earth image (above) shows the after. Note how part of the Laguna Freeway now cuts through the top end of the track.

To locate the track using Google Earth, enter these coordinates into your Google Earth FlyTo box:

Starting line: 33.661981, -117.74661

Finish line: 33.664994, -117.749031

End of asphalt: 33.671602, -117.75408

Insider reader Karl White, who works at JAE Electronics on Technology Drive, the road to the right (east) of the track in my Google Earth image, sent the photos below of the area today as well as a collection of vintage OCIR programs (bottom) for me to peruse. Thanks, Karl!

This parking lot is where the staging lanes curved around the tower. Where quarter-mile gods once steeled for battle, Camrys now park.

This is Barranca Way, which runs east-west and roughly would have been the entry road behind the track.

Looking north up I-5; the pits were just behind the trees at right. You can see the interchange of the Laguna and 5 freeways in the distance.

Perhaps the most easily distinguished OCIR landmark still standing is the Sand Canyon entrance to the track, near track's end.


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

OCIR's Last Drag Race: The day the music died

(Poster courtesy of Steve McDermott)

Oct. 29, 1983. It was a day, 25 years ago today, on which many Southern California racers and race fans mourned, and mourned heavily.

Twenty-five years ago, Oct. 29 was a Saturday, not a Wednesday, and it was the end of an era for race-spoiled SoCal fans who watched their last full-time metropolitan dragstrip, Orange County Int’l Raceway, join the roll call of the dead and the ghost tracks of our memories. Santa Ana, San Fernando, Goleta, Colton, Riverside, Ramona, Paradise Mesa, San Gabriel, Fontana, Lions, Irwindale, OCIR … gone, gone, gone.

Where once dragstrips were nearly as abundant as drive-in theaters, the passing of OCIR left a veritable drag racing desert, and, for the first time in more than 30 years, Southern California, to many the birthplace of hot rodding, had no full-time dragstrips in operation.

It's not really fair to report that "the County" closed up shop Oct. 29 because racing continued well into Oct. 30 with racers praying not to get eliminated to earn another last shot at the fabled quarter-mile and fans hanging on into the wee hours of the morning like jilted lovers, their arms draped hopefully around the neck for one last sweet embrace.

The records show that Gary Beck in Top Fuel and Kenny Bernstein in Funny Car were the last Professional winners at "the County," but no one really felt much like a winner that night.

More than 20 nitro Funny Car teams showed up to say goodbye and to shoot for spots in the eight-car field. John Collins led the field with a 5.91 in his JVC Audio Express Camaro, a car that was tuned at the event by Lee Beard. Bernstein (5.98). Also in the show were John Force (5.99), Billy Meyer (6.02), Mark Oswald in the Candies & Hughes/Trans Am (6.03), Mike Dunn (6.05, with an EXP body borrowed from Meyer atop the chassis that he'd rolled at the World Finals two weeks earlier), Raymond Beadle (6.09), and Don Prudhomme (6.11) in the bump spot. The track had run a big bracket meet the weekend before and its usual Wednesday night grudge matches, so traction wasn't up to the numbers dished out two weeks earlier at the World Finals.

As strong and deserving a field as that was for the fans, there still seemed little justice that longtime OCIR racers such as Joe Pisano (who with driver Tripp Shumake had won OCIR's 64 Funny Cars race earlier that year and missed this field by two-thousandths of a second), Tom McEwen, Jim Dunn, Gary Densham, Dale Pulde, Mert Littlefield, Rodney Flournoy, and Henry Harrison didn't make the last show, but they and others were given the chance to run singles later in the evening.

All of the stars came out for the Last Drag Race, including three-time NHRA Top Fuel champ Shirley Muldowney, who had won the NHRA World Finals two weeks earlier at "the County."

In round one, Oswald red-lighted to Collins, and Bernstein blasted a 5.92 to beat Mike Dunn and Force a 5.94 to beat Beadle, but Meyer topped 'em all with low e.t. of the meet for the floppers, 5.89, in dismissing "the Snake." Collins then died by the same sword, fouling to Force, and Bernstein ousted fellow Texan Meyer with a 5.97 to set up the final.

Top Fuel likewise was chock-full of marquee names among the 19 trying to qualify. Larry Minor led the eight-car field with a 5.59, low e.t. of the meet but a far cry from the 5.39 that teammate Beck had run just two weeks earlier. Doug Kerhulas (5.82), Shirley Muldowney (5.83), and national speed record holder Rocky Epperly (5.88) made up the quick four. Ray Stutz (5.89), Marc Cornelius (5.99), and Dwight Salisbury (6.01) grabbed the next three spots, and Beck, of all people, was on the bubble with an engine-wounding 6.01. Minor, however, had winged the crankshaft on his 5.58, which allowed first alternate Don Durbin (6.06) into the show.

Epperly beat Salisbury with a 247.93-mph speed, top speed of the meet; Cornelius red-lighted to Kerhulas; and Stutz smoked 'em against Durbin. The race's marquee matchup, between 1983 NHRA season champ Beck and 1982 champ Muldowney, had the fans on their feet, but it was Beck all the way, 5.73 to 6.06.

Beck improved to a 5.69 in round two to send Durbin home, and Kerhulas joined him in the final with a 5.73 at just 227.84 mph, death smoke pouring from the pipes.

The crews of Gary Beck and Kenny Bernstein, the final winners in Top Fuel and Funny Car, respectively, at OCIR, posed in the Last Drag Race winner's circle with owner Charlie Allen and starter Larry Sutton.

Kerhulas was unable to repair his damage, and at 1:25 a.m., Beck laid down a half-track burnout that was followed by a great 5.59, 245.23 solo for the final Top Fuel title.

Twenty minutes later, the Funny Car final rolled to the line at 1:45 a.m. Force smoked the hoops, but, in typical Force fashion, he never lifted and was right with KB when he, too, had traction woes. Bernstein got to the finish line first, 6.13 to 6.22.

The final set of supercharged cars down the OCIR quarter-mile featured those driven by Mike Andreotti, who had upset OCIR king Brad Anderson in round one, and the "Boogie Man," Wayne Stoeckel. The nod went to the Andreotti Bros. Monza, 6.61 to 6.75.

Unlike at Lions' Last Drag Race, where the Top Fuel final between Carl Olson and Jeb Allen was the last competition down the track and fans ran wild in its aftermath, E.T. racing, which began with more than 300 cars, continued for more than an hour after the headliner finals. Tom Wilkinson won Bracket 4, Randy Gillis took Bracket 3, and Guss Barks Jr. banked Bracket 2 honors. OCIR Pro Gas veteran Gary Cooke and Terry White split Bracket 1 honors after everyone just grew too tired to complete a race that began with 168 cars in the class.

I caught up yesterday with Charlie Allen, who owned OCIR then and today continues to serve up match race madness at Firebird Int'l Raceway in Arizona, and he confirmed that the anticlimactic finish was part the plan.

"I had heard all kinds of rumors that people were going to tear the place apart for souvenirs like they did at Lions, so our plan was to outlast them," he admitted. "We didn’t think it would run that late, but there were a lot of cars because everyone wanted to be at the Last Drag Race. By the time we did finish, the 200 people who were still there were too tired to do anything. The stands were virtually empty."

This isn't the infamous Larry Sutton arson incident mentioned in the text, but it gives you an idea of what was to come.

The exhibition acts were the jet dragsters of Scott Hammack, Bill Holevas, Bill Carter, and Doug Brown and Ed "the Outlaw" Jones' Jolly Rancher stage coach wheelstander; at one point, chief starter Larry Sutton backed two of them up to the burnout shack between the lanes and tried to set it alight, which was just about the only real damage done to the old gal that night.

"I guess they lined up a little crooked," Sutton deadpanned to me when I asked him about it last week. "No, it was totally planned, and the drivers were in on it, and the flames were just blasting off the tower until Charlie came down and said, 'What are you doing?' "

Sutton actually was the chief starter at all three of SoCal's best-remembered tracks – Lions, Irwindale, and OCIR – when they closed, and losing "the County" hurt.

"Losing Lions was totally an emotional deal for me because that's where I grew up. I liked Irwindale a lot, but losing Orange County had a lot of meaning for me, too, because I thought it was the end of the line for me as a starter. It also was my hometown track, so it was tough to see it go."

Mike McClelland, son of legendary drag racing announcer Dave McClelland, who began announcing bracket races at the track the previous August ("I was okay," he admits of his microphone skills, "but wasn’t about to make anybody forget 'Big Mac,' but it was a great college job.") remembers the sad day well.

"We knew pretty early that it was going to be a long night," he said. "There were more cars than I had ever seen at the place, and every fuel car within any reasonable towing distance was there, and I don’t remember how we got all the bracket cars parked. I know there were plenty of cars down in the grass area toward the end of the track

Mike McClelland, right, who announced at OCIR during its final two seasons, is one of many who remembers well the Last Drag Race. He's pictured here with his famous father, veteran NHRA announcer Dave, who was preparing to run his Tuna Tank Fiat at the 1997 Winternationals.

"I didn’t have much to do during the day and into the evening, but I think anybody who had ever spent any time on the mic in Southern California was there at one point or another – my dad, Steve Evans, Richard Schroeder, Bernie Partridge. I just got to sit and watch and listen. Steve was there until the end of the nitro cars and called Gary Beck’s Top Fuel win.

"The 11 p.m. curfew came and went. I remember yelling downstairs to [track manager] Kenny Green, 'What are we going to do?' and he pretty much started laughing and said something to the effect of, 'What are THEY going to do, shut us down?'

"We ran something like five rounds of Super Pro after the fuel cars were done. The last pair went down the track sometime around 3 a.m. Strangely, when it all finally ended, it just kind of ended. I think the fact that most of us had been there for about 18 hours had something to do with it, but to the best of my recollection, we just kind of sat there in the tower. It was just the regular tower staff -- Mary Chase, Pam Sutton, Joanne Talley, and my announcing partner Kirk Peters -- and nobody said much. We closed things up and went home.

"Frankly, the last Wednesday night [grudge night] was much more emotional. The Wednesday night crew was pretty close-knit, with Jeannie Weichmann, Bob Vrbancic, and some of the regular racers stopping every week at that culinary hot spot the Westminster Café (still there 25 years later) after we were done. That last Wednesday at the Westminster, nobody wanted to leave.

"Except for a brief Friday morning hour at the 1984 Winternationals, I never announced another drag race. Less than two weeks after the track closed, I started my first 'real' job after college, covering Pennzoil’s field operations for the Racing Department.  Interestingly enough, less than four years after the track closed, I was working for Mazda in their corporate-headquarters building that sits smack in the middle of where the one-lane road went through the strawberry fields. So I pretty much had a front-row seat of the land being developed. And I didn’t like it one bit."

I remember it all very clearly, even 25 years later. I remember standing in the photographer's area with the late, great Leslie Lovett, ubiquitous drag racing guru Dave Wallace, and veteran lensman Tim Marshall soaking up the very last minutes of it. They were tearing down our clubhouse, the regular gathering place of SoCal motorsports journalists for years. Les and I got in the car and started cruising the pits, looking for any excuse to talk to someone, compare old memories, and somehow delay the inevitable. All day, rumors had spread through the pits that Allen had wrangled another year (or two or three, depending on who was telling it) from the Irvine Co. or that Allen was going to pull a Son of Last Drag Race card from his sleeve as he had done for the final 64 Funny Cars race, but that sadly wasn't the case.

I remember us driving out the exit road and stopping atop the one-lane bridge that crossed the freeway, getting out of the car, and taking one last look at "the County."

Twenty-five years ago, I wrote these words for our coverage of the race: "The entire area around the track was pitch black, but the track's high-intensity light shone brightly, silhouetting the empty main grandstands and the distinctive tower. It was a breathtaking sight. Then we turned and drove away. And then there were none."

Friday: OCIR Week concludes with "The rise and fall of Orange County Int'l Raceway"


Monday, October 27, 2008

Welcome to OCIR Week! Today: The '83 season

Welcome to OCIR Week at The DRAGSTER Insider, a triple-play week of nothing but stories of good ol' Orange County Int'l Raceway, beginning today with a look back at the fabled SoCal supertrack's final season. It will be followed Wednesday by memories from The Last Drag Race – 25 years to the day that the track closed -- and Friday by "OCIR, the ghost track." Let's get on with it.

Although the 1983 season was OCIR's last, the track almost met its end the year before. Track owner Charlie Allen got a last-minute reprieve, much to the joy of hard-core fans like me, who vowed to attend as many races on the '83 calendar as we could. After all, it was the region's major match race track, and we knew that we'd be spending 1984 and beyond craving nitro match racing goodness.

I was glad that OCIR was NHRA-sanctioned in its final years (it had been AHRA at one point) because it meant that, gosh darn it, part of my job was to cover the events there. I know, it’s a tough job, but someone has to do it. Although I had been a regular visitor as a fan, having front-row seats and interviewing the drivers brought me closer to many of them in what was a very large family of regulars. OCIR spent very little money on advertising in DRAGSTER that year but didn't need it because we were eager to promote and cover the events, most of which ended up on the front page or a scant few pages in. It was a symbiotic relationship, and, looking back now, we definitely gave OCIR well more than its fair share of prime coverage – there was still plenty of other match race action going on around the country -- but, hey, it was our home track, too.

Although OCIR also held numerous E.T. and Pro Gas events, it boasted nine Pro match races and the World Finals that year – a fitting sendoff.

The track kicked off the season with a harbinger of the gloom ahead as conditions at the Coors Grand Premiere were so cold and foggy that racing at the nearby Los Alamitos horse track had to be stopped at 8 p.m. and traction at OCIR was limited.

After Kenny Bernstein moved from Texas to Southern California in 1980, OCIR became his home track. He opened the final OCIR season with a win at the Grand Premiere with his Bud King Mercury LN-7.

Kenny Bernstein won that first race of 1983 – as he would its last at OCIR – in his Dale Armstrong-tuned Bud King Mercury LN-7, extending a run of success that concluded in 1982 with a win at the Golden Gate Nationals and runner-up at the World Finals. He beat Jim Dunn's Fireman's Quickie Camaro in the final in what was the only real side-by-side Funny Car race of the night, 6.21 to 6.32. It was a pretty good field that also included Don Prudhomme and his Pepsi Challenger Firebird (which twice blew engines and caught fire at half-track), Tom McEwen's Coors Corvette, Mike Dunn in Roland Leong's new Hawaiian Punch Charger, Tripp Shumake in his debut in Joe Pisano's Omni, Gary Burgin's Orange Baron Mustang, and Billy McCahill's Dr Pepper Citation. Bernstein earned a berth in the final of the Chicago-style race with respective runs of 6.41 and 6.42 in the first two rounds.

Howard Haight drove the Cochrum & Haight entry to a win in the four-car Top Fuel field, for which 12 cars attempted to qualify. Star-crossed Rocky Epperly, in Shirley Muldowney's 1978 dragster, qualified No. 1 at 5.94, ahead of Scott Kalitta (5.99), Haight (6.00), and Steve Hodkinson in Marc Danekas' ground effects dragster (6.13). Those not making the field were Connie Kalitta, ex-Pisano Funny Car shoe Tom Ridings in the old Fisher's Fever dragster, former world champ Kelly Brown in Jim Brissette's new dragster, Gary Cochran in the Genuine Suspension machine, Mark Prudhomme ("the Snake's" cousin) in the Coors/Warren-Coburn-Miller car, Dave Braskett in R.J. Trotter's car, and former sand racers Danny Danell and Ralph Pearson. Danell, of course, would shock everyone two months later by winning the March Meet with his Dan Olson-tuned entry. Also notable was Pomona Raceway worker Bobby Baldwin, who fulfilled a longtime dream by making a pass in the Danekas car; Baldwin, of course, later got his own car. In eliminations, Haight beat Epperly and ended up taking a single pass when Scott Kalitta was unable to return after beating Hodkinson. The exhibition acts were the jets of Bill Carter and Roger Gustin and the Jumping Bean wheelstanding VW truck.

Brad Anderson's maroon Firebird Alcohol Funny Car was all but unbeatable at Orange County in the 1983 season.

The track's next event, the Mountain Dew East vs. West Challenge March 5, was rained out shortly after qualifying began. I remember the pits being a little bare early as a lot of guys were still coming down from Bakersfield, where the March Meet had been delayed by weather. Prudhomme had the best run of the abbreviated nitro action with a 6.04. Only six alky Funny Cars got to make qualifying passes, and "Bad Brad" Anderson led the way with a 6.56. Because the Gatornationals was the following weekend and OCIR's annual Division 7 WCS the weekend after, the race was not rescheduled.

Anderson continued to rule OCIR when the WCS rolled around March 19-20, defeating Winternationals champ Chuck Beal on a holeshot in the Alcohol Funny Car final, 6.69 to 6.60. Anderson set low e.t. at 6.57 and reset the national speed record at 214.70 in round one alongside Ed Grukul, whom we watched ram his EXP into the guardrail and turn it turtle; he was not hurt. Mark Niver took Alcohol Dragster honors over Al DeBoer's Oregonian, 6.73 to 6.78.

Golden-throated announcer Steve Evans promised that "every Funny Car driver with a firesuit will be at the County" April 2 for what looked like the final edition of the track's fabled 64 Funny Cars race, and he wasn't far off.

(Above) Tripp Shumake wowed the fans at OCIR's 64 Funny Cars event with a stunning 5.74 in Joe Pisano's Camaro and ended up winning the event. (Below) Bill Hoge, near lane, and Ray Romund were typical of the local competition who battled it out against the big boys each weekend.

Shumake, one of the sport's true good guys, walked away the evening's first big winner when he posted a stunning 5.74 in qualifying in Pisano's ride (by now a beautiful burgundy Camaro), the quickest Funny Car pass ever at the County and the quickest outside of Indy (behind Prudhomme's jaw-dropping 5.63 and the 5.73s of "the Snake" and Ken Veney at Indy the year before). Shumake turned out to be a winner at evening's end, too, as he beat Billy Meyer in the final; Meyer's 7-Eleven/Chief Auto Parts Pontiac was being tuned at the event by Bernie Fedderly and Larry Minor's Top Fuel crew. It was a memorable day, too, for the dad of ND's own Brad Littlefield as his pops, Mert, recorded his first five, a 5.96, in round one.

Some names from among the 64? Thought you'd never ask. In addition to OCIR regulars like Prudhomme, McEwen, Bernstein, both Dunns, Burgin, Dale Pulde, and Gary Densham, there was current Jack Beckman crew chief Johnny West in his Plan A Omni, "Mighty Mike" Van Sant's Invader, Bill Hoge (Willie and the Poor Boys), Joe Clement (in Nelson Lengle's Sno-Town Shaker Arrow), Ray Romund (Romund's Chariot Corvette), Brian Raynes (in John Lindsay's Impuse!), Rodney Flournoy, Sherm Gunn, Henry Harrison, and some guy named John Force, who was lucky to be there after burning down his Mountain Dew Camaro at the Gatornationals.

Anderson again had low e.t. and top speed for the alcohol cars at 6.54, 216.45 but crossed the centerline in round one against Hans Kuesel; a tight curfew prevented any more TAFC action; Kusel, Beal, Jack Holsey, and Steve Chrisman split the purse.

Rod Phelps' rocket Funny Car wowed the fans with runs of 4.97 and 5.01, and four jet cars (driven by Scott Hammack, Doug Brown, Bill Carter, and Doug Rose) and four Pro Stocks (driven by Jerry Eckman, Sonny Bryant, Harry Scribner, and Jack Ragan) also kept the fans entertained between nitro rounds.

The biggest news, however, was track operator Allen's mind-blowing announcement during the evening that the track would hold another 64 Funny Car race the following weekend. I remember being in the photographers area when the announcement was made and can't think of many bigger roars from a crowd than the one I heard that night. Me? I was thrilled beyond belief.

(Above) Billy Meyer, far lane, won the bonus Son of 64 Funny Cars race when John Force's Mountain Dew Camaro went up in smoke. (Below) Dale Armstrong made a cameo appearance in Bernstein's car after K.B. hurt his back between the two events and acquitted himself well.


So it was joyously back to the County the next weekend for the event dubbed Son of 64 Funny Cars, where the fields were no smaller and the crowd no less excited. This time, Meyer came out on top, beating an up-in-smoke Force in the final. Force had earlier set low e.t. at 5.91.

We also got a real treat when Dale Armstrong filled in for Bernstein at the event because the Bud King had wrenched his back during the week. Armstrong, who hadn't driven a nitro car since the 1981 Finals, ripped off a 6.12 checkout lap on his first pass. I talked to Dale last Friday about his guest appearance, and he told me that he learned a lot about the car -- which was struggling at the national event level -- just by driving it and that it helped turn their season around, leading to huge outings such as their U.S. Nationals/Big Bud Shootout double a few months later.

Anderson again proved unbeatable on his home track with a 6.63 Alcohol Funny Car victory over perennial rival Beal and set low e.t. at 6.49. Phelps' rocket flopper went quicker this time, 4.94, to highlight the exhibition cars (remember, at the time, the quickest Top Fuel car was only running 5.4s). "Smokey Joe" Douthit and Chuck Swift had their wheelstanders on hand and joined the jets of Hammack, Rose, and Carter.

The OCIR community suffered a tragic loss a few weeks later when track announcer and jack-of-all-trades Steve Crosby, 27, who helped stage Thursday night events on the track's motocross course, died when his tractor overturned.

On May 21, the track held what it had planned to be its annual  jets versus Funny Cars event, but that turned into a series of match races. Anderson beat Beal in a two-of-three Alcohol Funny Car grudge match that track operator Kenny Green called "the best match race he'd ever seen at the track," and aspiring nitro pilot Dennis Taylor drove Dave Braskett's Top Fueler to a two-straight win over Pearson. Carter's jet was the top weenie roaster with a 6.33 best, and Phelps added to his collection of four-second time slips with a 4.95.

About this time, Allen broke ground on his next venture, Firebird Int'l Raceway in the Arizona desert outside of Phoenix, but the hits kept on coming at OCIR.

(Above) March Meet champ Danny Danell won the Nitro Championships, one of OCIR's longest-running events. (Below) Veteran Henry Harrison was a regular at all OCIR Pro shows in Dwayne Lidtke's Camaro.

After the June 4-5 PHR Super Gas and Bracket Championships, OCIR played host to the 17th Nitro Championships June 25, where Shumake again ruled the roost in Funny Car and Danell scored a weird win in Top Fuel. Beal had the car but not the luck against Anderson in yet another classic battle between the SoCal rivals, running low e.t of 6.52 in the final … after a red-light.

Nine Top Fuelers  -- driven by Danell, Pearson, Taylor, Haight, Shannon Stuart (in the ex-Danekas car), and Epperly (in Frank Taylor's new Dago Red), Don Durbin's Favorite Thing, Arley Langlo's Zip Code, and Ray Stutz, who qualified his California Rattler (sporting a Larry Minor tune-up) No. 1 with a 5.78 – tried out for the four-car fuel dragster field. Epperly red-lighted to Pearson, and Danell beat a broken Stutz to set up a final of ex-sand draggers that went to Danell in the oddest of fashions. Pearson was unable to make the call, and Danell broke the throttle linkage on the burnout and had to be pushed into the staging beams to take the green light, though he moved nary an inch when the Tree turned.

Nine flopper competitors also were on hand for a four-car ladder: Shumake, Jim Dunn, recent nitro convert Chrisman in Steve Plueger's car, Densham, Flournoy, Gunn, Harrison, Raines, and John Martin. After Shumake beat Chrisman and Dunn shot down Gunn, "Tripper" defeated "Big Jim" for the title, 6.06 to 6.16. In jet action, Brown's Wildfire beat Rose's Green Mamba.

Firebird Int'l Raceway opened Aug. 20 with a Funny Car show won by (who else?) Shumake in nitro and Rick Henkelman in alcohol, and a week later, OCIR hosted its Summer Showdown. Race car painter Bill Carter returned from a five-year hiatus and debuted his gorgeous Jim Brissette-tuned Grizzly Top Fueler with a victory from a four-car field. A strict curfew – - a sure sign of the Irvine Co.'s stranglehold on track management – forced the final rounds to be decided by previous e.t,  and Carter's car, which was co-owned by Grizzly Adams TV star Dan Haggerty, banked the bucks after two 6.00s. Stuart, in the Harmon & Stuart car, was deemed runner-up. Others on hand were Haight, Taylor, Braskett, Butch Blair, and Mark Cornelius (Team C).

(Above) Romund's low-buck Corvette met its fiery end at the Summer Showdown event. (Below) At the same event, Lena Williams made history when she ran the first six-second pass by an unblown gas dragster.

Force got Funny Car honors thanks to his low e.t. of 5.89, and McEwen was named runner-up after a 6.01. The other flopper entires were Jim Dunn (who had put his car on its roof at Firebird the previous weekend), Harrison, Flournoy, Martin, Raines, Chrisman, and Romund. Romund's night ended horribly as his low-buck 'Vette – one of the underdogs for whom I always rooted – got up on the headers on a wild burnout and unknowingly tweaked a head gasket. After a strong launch, the car lit up like, well, a Roman candle, at half-track and burned to the ground in the OCIR shutdown area.

Ray Higley netted Alcohol Funny Car honors with his Lil Tapper Omni over Kuesel, also based on e.t.s., and Bill Holevas' Alien and Brown's Wildfire jets lit up the night and Douthit performed his two-wheeled antics.

Perhaps the night's most impressive performance, though, came from an unblown car as Top Gas West ace Lena Williams steered her and husband Frank's Lancaster Service Center injected gas dragster to a 6.98, the first sub-seven-second run for that type of car. OCIR starter Larry Sutton commented, "The 6.98 by Lena is just as much of a milestone in drag racing as the 5.30 time that Gary Beck will run in the future ... an incredible performance."

Sutton was a pretty good predicator because two weeks later, Beck would run that first 5.30, a 5.39 at the Golden Gate Nationals, and duplicate it two weeks after that at the World Finals at OCIR, but before either of those events, OCIR hosted its third-to-last drag race, the 16th annual U.S. Manufacturers Meet Sept. 24.

With the race serving as a crucial tune-up meet for both of the upcoming West Coast national events, 18 nitro Funny Cars were on hand, but the Chicago-style win went not to one of the hometown boys but appropriately to reigning world champ Frank Hawley and the Austin Coil-tuned Team Strange Chi-Town Hustler, which ran a string of five-second passes and won on a 6.08 single when Tim Grose lost oil pressure in the final with his Spirit Corvette. The usual suspects were all there -- Prudhomme, McEwen, the Dunns, Shumake, Harrison, Force, Burgin, Littlefield, Densham, Chrisman, Martin, Flournoy, Hoge – plus Meyer, who as a 17-year-old rookie had won this race in his Funny Car debut in 1972.

(Above) If you were at OCIR in 1983, you saw this a lot: Brad Anderson racing (and usually beating) Chuck Beal in the final. (Below) Things didn't always go well for "Bad Brad"; he crashed heavily at the late-season Manufacturers Meet but returned to racing within two weeks. That's fellow racer Hans Kuesel in the white shirt inspecting the damage.

Gary Southern drove Bill "Capt. Crazy" Dunlap's EXP to victory in Alcohol Funny Car on a night that was marred by a nasty-looking crash by perennial winner Anderson, whose Trans Am got loose in the semi's against Southern and climbed over the guardrail and rolled before landing on all fours. "Bad Brad" walked away without a scratch. Bret Williamson was the Alcohol Funny Car runner-up.

Also notable were the debuts of 28-year-old Aussie pilot Sue Ransom and the McGee Quad Cam engine in R.J. Trotter's Top Fueler as the team shook down its car for its Fremont debut the following weekend with runs of 6.25 and 6.77.

The jet dragsters of Carter, Brown, Hammack, and Holevas, Ed "the Outlaw" Jones and his Candyland Express stagecoach wheelstander, and "Rocket Rod " (5.14) made up the between-rounds entertainment.

The 1983 World Finals, Oct. 14-16, was an amazing race. Beck ran his second 5.39, Epperly unexpectedly reset the Top Fuel national speed mark at 257.14, Prudhomme ran a 5.74, "Bad Brad" a 6.34, and Al DaPozzo a 6.38 in Alcohol Dragster. Shirley Muldowney nabbed Top Fuel, and Warren Johnson took Pro Stock honors, but the biggest cheers were reserved for hometown hero Lil' John Lombardo, who scored the first win of his long SoCal Funny Car career in his Pat Galvin-tuned Omni and, in the process, handed Force his fourth of what would be nine straight runner-ups. Mike Dunn blew the Hawaiian Punch Charger into itty-bitty pieces, Reid Whisnant ran a mystery 7.63 to end Frank Iaconio's Pro Stock title hopes, Darrell Gwynn won the Alcohol Dragster season championship, and Veney took his last ride in a nitro Funny Car … it was some kinda race.

All of this set the stage for the curtain closer two weeks later, The Last Drag Race, Oct. 25, 1983. We'll relive that sad night Wednesday.


Friday, October 24, 2008

The column with a little of everything

It's been a busy week here at The Big Show, what with all of the various series working their way down to championship scenarios – the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, Summit Racing Series, Hot Rod Heritage Racing Series, etc. – and putting together all of those coverages, plus our new NHRA Photo Greats and NHRA Pro Stock history books, preparing for the 2009 Fan Guide, finishing two rulebooks, and so on -- plus my 78-year-old stepdad had a heart attack (doing fine now, thanks) – but, like the USPS, neither rain nor snow nor sleet nor dark of night will stop The DRAGSTER Insider from his weekly rounds. (Okay, we don’t see much of the first three 'round these parts, but we do get a pretty regular dose of dark here, every single day.)

Nevertheless, here's another batch of boredom-bashing, headline-flashing, rumor-trashing, trivia-stashing, ink-splashing, Friday-check-cashing stuff. Enjoy.

We'll begin with a question from a bonafide, certified, positively identified piece of reader mail.

Actual reader mail: "With Cruz Pedregon's win in Richmond, I believe he becomes the first Funny Car pilot to win a national event with a foreign body style (Toyota).  I can't think of anyone else who has won without a Big Three body; not Tim Grose nor in recent times anyone like Jim Head. Maybe nobody cares, but when you've been a fan as long as I have, you tend to think of these things." -- Joe Faraci

Nope. "The Cruzer" was not the first, but close. Jerry Toliver won the Winternationals in 2004 with his Schick Razors-sponsored Toyota. Toliver, who had just returned to the sport after a several-year layoff, qualified just 15th in the field on his last shot, then beat Eric Medlen (in his Pro debut), Cory Lee (who red-lighted), and Del Worsham to reach the final. Toliver surrendered a .073 to .132 holeshot to Gary Densham in the final, and as great as it would be to say that he shaved the finish kinda close, Densham had to do a quick pedal job, and Toliver won easily, 4.82 to 4.95, to collect his fifth – and most recent – win. Oh, what a feeling.

Casting couch: My request to readers that they suggest who they think should play "Jungle Jim" Liberman and "Jungle Pam" Hardy in an upcoming film on the life of the iconic Funny Car star drew a lot of input and some seriously good picks.

NHRA member Craig Stock of Westfield, N.J., suggested Academy Award winner (Charlie Wilson's War) Philip Seymour Hoffman ("He looks similar to Jim and has the energy to play him," said Stock) and Catherine Bell of the TV show JAG ("not the same look, but as sexy as Pam").

Both Scott Jurges and Roxanne Lindholm think that John C. Reilly (from the movie Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby) could pass for "Jungle Jim" but differ on Pam. Scott's solidly in the Heather Graham camp, and Roxanne went appropriately '70s on us by suggesting that Marcia Strassman (Mrs. Kotter from the TV show Welcome Back, Kotter) should play Pam. Me, I'd vote for Valerie Bertinelli. Okay, other than the dark hair they don't look all that alike, but I'm just saying. Plus, she, like Pam, was with a rock star of her own, Eddie Van Halen. I'm just saying.

Rick in Jewell, Iowa, thought we should keep it all in the drag racing family and have Dean Skuza play "Jungle" -- certainly would eliminate the need for a separate stunt driver. Drew Shryock voted for Johnny Depp, and drag racing artist John Bell put in his nod for Seth Rogen (Ken Miller from the TV show Freaks and Geeks and Cal in the film The 40-Year-Old Virgin). Best call, though, in my opinion went to Ben Potts, who suggested Tim Robbins ... "Jungle Tim" ... can you dig it? Farrrrrrrrrrrr out!

"Jungle Jim"

"Jungle Tim"

"Jungle John"

"Jungle Seth"

"Jungle Dean"

"Jungle Pam"

"Jungle Marcia"

"Jungle Heather"

"Jungle Cath"

"Jungle Val"

News item: Okay, Hot Wheels fans, here's your big chance. Bonhams & Butterfields’ eagerly anticipated Classic California auction of vintage motorcycles, custom cars, and racing collectibles takes place tomorrow at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles and will feature this one-of-a-kind diamond-encrusted Hot Wheels car.

This custom jeweled 1:64-scale Hot Wheels car was created to celebrate the 40-year heritage of the popular diecast vehicle brand and the production of its 4 billionth diecast vehicle. The car is adorned with diamonds, colored diamonds, and rubies set as taillights. The car’s body is composed of 18 karat gold, white gold, and enamel. Covering the vehicle are nearly 3,000 round brilliant and baguette cut diamonds, with a total weight of 22.94 carats, according to designer Jason Arasheben, president and CEO of Jason of Beverly Hills. The car is offered with a custom-built presentation case embellished with 40 bezel-set diamonds and designed with a rotating base on which the car rests. Additionally, an LED display in the case projects images of the car. Proceeds from the sale of the one-of-a-kind Hot Wheels car will benefit Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Los Angeles and the Inland Empire.

Also, actor Bruce Willis will be auctioning off five cars from his pretty cool personal collection: a '57 Corvette convertible (a gift from Demi!), a '67 Corvette (427!), a '68 Firebird 400 convertible, a '68 Shelby Mustang GT 500 convertible (570-horsepower 468-cid engine), and a '69 Charger (700-horsepower 502-cid engine with Edelbrock heads and manifold, Holley carbs, and Flowmaster exhaust). I wonder if they all have DieHard batteries.

Detailed descriptions of these cars and the other items up for sale (including never-before-offered personal belongings of Steve McQueen, offered by his first wife, Neile Adams) can be found in the online sale catalog at http://www.Bonhams.com/us.


Actual reader mail: "I really enjoyed your article about going to the Hot Rod Reunion. I've attended a couple of meets in the last couple of years. Do you know if about 40 years ago the bleachers were on the opposite side of the pits and the parking lot was huge, behind the bleachers? I remember it as being that way. I was told that the dragstrip was part of an old military airfield. Every time you write an article, it leaves me with really good memories of my youth, but also it brings up some dumb questions that only matter to me." -- Don Burt, Ojai, Calif.

Right you are, Burt. I have in my possession this wonderful shot, sent to me by Tom Jobe of Surfers Top Fuel fame, that shows the Surfermobile being pushed down the return road in 1966 by their '55 Chevy after Mike Sorokin had wheeled their car past hometown hero James Warren in the final to win the March Meet, undoubtedly the biggest victory of their career. According to Jobe, "The stands went all the way to the finish line, and they were packed full of screaming drag race fans. Look how many fans are still in the stands on Sunday afternoon after the event is over!"

Position wanted: Energetic young drag racing enthusiast seeks crew position on Funny Car. Relevant skills include block stacking, hammering, pounding, and running really fast into couches and coffee tables. Can supply own diaper bag. Almost weaned.

Okay, so maybe you don't want to hire my year-old grandson, Trevor, to wrench on your flopper, but the little guy and his big cousin, my oldest grandson, 4-year-old Jaden, had a blast at last weekend's Thunderfest in downtown Covina (one city west of good ol' G-Town). Trevor obviously is a guy after his grandpa's heart as he naturally gravitated toward the supercharged machines such as the Arias-powered Castro Motorsports alky flopper shown here.

Each year, the city cordons off a couple of blocks of its main street for a car show that includes not only a wide variety of hot rods, but also a healthy dose of race cars from the POWERade, Lucas Oil, Summit, O'Reilly Jr. Drag Racing League, and Hot Rod Heritage Racing Series, including Robert Hight's Automobile Club of Southern California Mustang and Grant Downing's Firebird nitro Funny Cars, nostalgia dragsters, Super Compers, E.T. bracket rides, Jr. Dragsters, and more.

NHRA again had a booth operated by members of the Field Marketing Department, who dispensed literature on NHRA's many series and promoted the upcoming Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals in Pomona and answered questions from the throngs of interested visitors.

Three live bands, lots of good food, and a ton of cool California wheels glistening in the Golden State sun made for a swell afternoon. The Thunderfest happens each October, so if you live in the area, plan to "Be There" next year!


Art alert: My good buddy Todd Myers, the Elvis of team publicists and dispenser of all things Team Kalitta -- last seen here getting his locks shorn after Hillary Will's Topeka win -- is a pretty talented guy.

In addition to his numerous press releases and stories (such as the Hillary article that was our top story Wednesday), Myers — sometimes known to his teammates as "BW," for "Big Words" — is a pretty damned good artist.

Myers did, after all, do a lot of the graphic design work for NHRA.com as well as the special-edition Web sites for the 50th Mac Tools U.S. Nationals and 40th Auto Club NHRA Finals and did the original designs for the Jr. Drag Racing League, NHRA Sport Compact, and Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum Web sites. He also taught me most of what I know about Photoshop; it's a gift that keeps on giving.

Myers' talents stretch far beyond the dragstrip as evidenced by his newest artistic expression – titled "Pop Stars" -- in which he uses a transfer process to bring flattened bottle caps and cans back to life. Witness this Budweiser can – which Myers probably personally took the artistic license to empty himself, in the sake of purity of project – pretty cool stuff, huh? I bet the Bernsteins would like one for their trailer.

"I started doing something similar in college, but these are much more colorful and adventurous," Myers told me. "I have 21 in the first series, planning on doing at least five series." (I think he's talking about paintings, not beer cans.)

Myers' artwork will be displayed at the Corner Brewery in downtown Ypsilanti, Mich., beginning Nov. 6 and remain on the walls until the end of the month.

Still more mail: "Hey, this week's Photo of the Week says it is of Alan Johnson, but it's Blaine not Alan. It says Blaine right on the cockpit." -- Garth Redifer, Tacoma, Wash.

Not so fast, my Northwest friend. Yes, indeed, the cockpit is emblazoned with the name of AJ's younger brother and future season champ Blaine, but it was Alan behind the wheel at the 1987 season opener in Pomona. The giveaway is the permanent number on the rear wing: 768. Blaine's number, at least initially, was 7050. AJ qualified No. 14 with a 6.412 (my, how times have changed in TAD) and beat Bob Gage in round one, 6.411 (his career-best e.t.) to 6.45, before losing to eventual winner (and that season's eventual champ) Denny Lucas in round two, 6.34 to 6.50. The qualifying sheets show that AJ's car was powered by a Rodeck engine.

Blaine, who had raced this car on the sand against the likes of fellow TAD racers Gary Scelzi and Steve Faria (hence the name on the cockpit), didn't debut behind the wheel until early 1988, at the Division 7 meet at Firebird Int'l Raceway, but won in just his third outing, in Gainesville, with the team's revolutionary Oldsmobile engine, beating fellow rookie Rob Moore in the Lenco car. The 465-cid engine was an all-aluminum version of the DRCE Pro Stock engine, with the block produced by Keith Black and the billet 6061 T-6 aluminum cylinder heads by Johnson. With a smaller combustion chamber than its Pro Stock counterpart, AJ could also run a lighter piston for less reciprocating weight. It proved its worth right out of the gate, running 6.18 in Gainesville (against Bruce McDowell's 6.16 national record), and the week after the Gatornationals, Blaine won the Division 7 race in Bakersfield and never looked back en route to winning four season championships, 1990-93.

There you have it. Party on, Garth.

And there you have it, Insider fans, the end to another week of look backs, flashbacks, and answer backs. Kick back and enjoy the weekend.

Next week is OCIR Week at the DRAGSTER Insider. I can hardly wait.


Top Fuel domination, 1983 style

The 1983 Larry Minor-owned, Gary Beck-driven, Bernie Fedderly-tuned world championship entry was one of the baddest Top Fuelers ever, recording 16 of the season's 17 quickest runs, including  a national record 5.44 in Gainesville (above) and a 5.47 in Columbus (below).

(Above) In the final of the 1983 Golden Gate Nationals, Beck recorded the first 5.3-second pass, a 5.39, to beat Gary Ormsby, then duplicated that number two weeks later at the World Finals at OCIR (below).

Concluding an amazing three-race run, Beck and the Minor team were the last Top Fuel winners at the County, winning The Last Drag Race on a single run at 1:25 a.m. after an emotional day of goodbyes.

Beck got a champagne dousing by, from left, Larry Minor, Dick Veenstra, and Henry Walther after clinching the 1983 championship at Fremont.

The only hitch in the Minor team's late-season run was a broken transmission in the second round of the World Finals.

The restored 1983 championship car at the Justice Bros. Museum.

This season, there has been no stopping the U.S. Army team, thanks in large part to the uncanny tuning skills of crew chief Alan Johnson, the immaculate car preparation by the Jason McCulloch-led crew, and the steady driving of Tony Schumacher. Although they've shown the ability to knock it out of the park e.t.-wise on occasion, their key to success is in their flawless execution rather than their brutalization of the scoreboards.

Twenty-five years ago this month, before Schumacher even had his Illinois driver's license, Gary Beck won the 1983 NHRA Top Fuel championship in dominating fashion, and although his, too, was just about a wire-to-wire affair, the Larry Minor-owned, Bernie Fedderly-tuned blue rocket rampaged its way through the record books with a stunning series of clockings en route to four wins and a runner-up in 12 events.

I joined the National DRAGSTER staff in May 1982, so 1983 was my first full season behind the keyboard, and I'll never forget watching the Beck-Minor team come into its own. In 1981, I was a fan in the grandstands at Orange County Int'l Raceway when Beck – who had been the first in the 5.60s at the 1975 Finals – ran the first 5.5-second clocking, a 5.57 in the final round to win the World Finals (but lose the championship to Jeb Allen by two mph for not setting top speed), and watched in amazement the next year when Beck rode out a foot-high wheelie in Indy to the first 5.4 pass, a 5.48, dropping the record by a tenth of a second. Little did we know that was just the beginning and that in 1983 they would not only lower it by another tenth but record 16 of the season's 17 quickest passes topped by a stunning pair of 5.39s at the season's final two events, the Golden Gate Nationals in Fremont and the World Finals at OCIR.

By March 1983, Beck had already bettered the 5.48 with a national record 5.44 (and a 5.47 and two 5.49s) in Gainesville en route to winning the Gatornationals, his first of four conquests in the season, and then ran 5.42 at the next race, in Atlanta, to claim that title. They also ran in the 5.40s in Columbus and Brainerd, places not normally known for dishing up record numbers.

Beck clinched the championship, at the season's penultimate race, the Golden Gates, in stunning fashion. After rain washed out Friday qualifying, the Bay Area made amends by providing cool, moist air for the race's final two days, and the Minor team took full advantage.

Beck led qualifying for the eight-car field at "just" 5.55 – still a half-tenth ahead of Joe Amato's second-quick 5.60 -- and ran back-to-back 5.47s in the first two rounds, so few could have expected what was to come in the final against Northern California favorite Gary Ormsby.

Just ahead of the Top Fuel final, Frank Iaconio won Pro Stock with 7.69, 179.64 to defeat Lee Shepherd's 7.68, 175.78 in the quickest Pro Stock final in history. Then Billy Meyer set low e.t. with a 5.75 at 245.90 mph to edge Raymond Beadle's 5.78, 246.57 in the quickest Funny Car race of all time.

With the Top Fuel title in the balance and fans practically salivating in the stands, Beck powered to a 5.391-second clocking at  252.10 mph to beat Ormsby's event-best 5.54, 230.76 in what then was the quickest and fastest Top Fuel pairing in history.

The only thing that the Minor team left on the table was the national record, and, incredibly, they took care of that two weeks later at the next race when they duplicated the 5.39 to the thousandth during qualifying at the World Finals, backed up by a 5.43 in the first round. Beck didn't win the race, but he left his mark all over the season and walked on stage to claim the champion's trophy the next night.

But they weren’t done.

Two weeks later, Beck and team returned to OCIR for the Last Drag Race, where they captured Top Fuel honors in what was their only match-race date of the season. All in all, it was an incredible six-week finale to an incredible season. The 5.39 stood as the best run in history for more than two years, until Don Garlits ran 5.37 at the 1986 March Meet, and remained the national record until the 1986 U.S. Nationals, where Darrell Gwynn ran 5.34.

Longtime pal and DRAGSTER Insider reader Henry Walther was on the Minor team back then and got together at the recent California Hot Rod Reunion with Beck and fellow Minor crewmember Willie Wolter – all three of whom work on the Paso Posse nostalgia Top Fueler driven by Beck's son, Randy -- to remember those magical weeks for us.

"The 1983 Golden Gate Nationals was a great race for me personally," said Walther. "Fremont was somewhat of a home track for me. Although I was then living in Southern California, I had grown up in Northern California and spent many weekends racing at Fremont. Terry Kniss, then manager of Fremont, asked me early in the event if we had thoughts of setting the track record as we had done at numerous tracks across the country that year. I told him, somewhat tongue in cheek, we would see what we could do for him. In the final, we met up with Ormsby and crew chief Lee Beard. We had a friendly rivalry going with them that season, plus Ormsby and I were old friends from our days in Sacramento together. Gary and Lee stepped up in the final and ran the best numbers they had ever run, only to watch GB run away from them with the sport’s first sub-5.4. It ripped their hearts out, but Kniss got his wish.

"The 5.39 at Fremont set the stage for the World Finals at Orange County. This was truly the home track for Gary and me, even though we didn’t run there any more often than the rest of the cars on the tour. Both of us lived close enough to the track to hear the cars run from our homes. I can recall standing in my driveway on many Saturday evenings listening to fuel cars making passes, and then deciding whether the track was good enough to go watch the show based on the sound of the engines. If I heard the cars getting loose and the rpm going up, I stayed home that evening. However, I spent a lot of Saturday evenings at the County.

"Based on the performance at Fremont two weeks earlier, we were anxious to finish in style. OCIR hadn’t been all that kind to GB in the past. Remember the World Finals where he needed to win the race, plus set low e.t. and top speed to beat Jeb Allen for the championship, and he did it all except for the top speed? This time, we backed up the Fremont record with another 5.39 at the County to qualify, but in eliminations, we broke a transmission and lost. Fortunately, we had covered the points spread, and the championship was ours.

"A couple of weeks later, we were back for the Last Drag Race at OCIR. This race was for the bragging rights, and it lasted well into the early-morning hours. My fondest memory of that race happened as we were preparing the car for the final round. Doug Kerhulas pulled up alongside of our pit in his Corvette and laughingly wished us luck in the final. This came as somewhat of a surprise as it was Doug that we were supposed to run for the title. He explained that he had broken his racer and couldn’t make the repairs, so he was headed home. Since it was the last run of the season, and the last pass for us at OCIR, even though it was a single, we gave the fans that stayed to the end a full-pull run (5.59). Unlike the Last Drag Race at Long Beach where runner-up Jeb Allen made the last pass down the track (trailing winners Kuhl & Olson), we had the distinction of winning and making the final Top Fuel last run down the fabled Orange County Int'l Raceway. It has been 25 years since that track closed, and as the time goes by, the loss becomes greater.

"I can also remember Gary and his wife, Ed McCulloch and his wife, Gordie Bonin and me and our dates greeting the following sunrise by hoisting some victory champagne while we were all still in GB’s hot tub. With some wins, you just want the moment to last forever."

Walther later found and restored the Al Swindahl-built 1983 car with the help of chassis builder Dave Uyehara, Tim’s Hot Rods, Tom Kelly, Dan Olson Racing Products, Barry Little of SAE, Kurt Walther, RCD Engineering, and former teammates Minor, Beck, Wolter, John Cox, and Terry Caldwell. Today it sits in the Duarte, Calif., museum of longtime Minor backer Justice Bros. alongside the McCulloch-driven Minor/Miller High Life Olds, which won the U.S. Nationals in 1990.

That was then ... From left, Larry Minor teammates John Cox, Henry Walther, kneeling, Willie Wolter, Gary Beck, and Bernie Fedderly in 1984.

... This is now. The group re-created its pose with the restored 1983 car (the 1984 car was actually the 1983 chassis with Miller Lite colors).


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