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Monday, September 15, 2008

They didn't call him 'Wild Bill' for no reason

The man, the myth, the legend: "Wild Bill" Shrewsberry

Shrewsberry, second from left, drove more than wheelstanders. He's pictured with crewmember Dee Catton, left, and car owner Jack Chrisman after setting the A/FX national record in 1964 in Chrisman's unblown Comet.

The first L.A. Dart, born in 1965, had the engine in the backseat.

Whether it was yanking all four wheels off the ground or driving while standing up through the windshield, "Wild Bill" lived up to his nickname.

(Above) The last L.A. Dart was this Funny Car-style entry. Shrewsberry crashed it in Ontario, Calif. (below), one of three wrecks in his career. "It bent the spindles when it landed at the top end, and the car just flipped over. What a mess. I ran it the next week, though."

Shrewsberry piloted the famed Batmobile during a promotional tour for the TV show. Click here to watch a video of the car in action at Irwindale.

Shrewsberry's final hurrah was in the early 1980s with the Berry Wagon, in association with Knott's Berry Farm.

Drag racers don’t get nicknames with the word “wild” in them for driving conservatively on the dragstrip, and in three decades of quarter-mile madness, most of it on two wheels, “Wild Bill” Shrewsberry certainly lived up to his monkeyshines moniker.

Shrewsberry is well-known and fondly remembered by Southern California race fans as the driver of the candy-striped L.A. Dart wheelstander that wowed and wheelied its way into our hearts in the 1960s and ‘70s.

The red and white Dodge, nominated by readers of this column for our Favorite Race Car Ever poll, was a mainstay of SoCal tracks such as Irwindale and Orange County, and “Wild Bill’s” rodeo was no one-trick pony. Whether it was a wild starting-line spinout into a wheelie, a spark-trailing wheelstand much longer than the quarter-mile itself, flames spouting from the headers, or his most famous trick -- driving while standing up through the car’s windshield area – “Wild Bill” was certainly that.

I was a big Shrewsberry fan growing up, and, in fact, the L.A. Dart was the first model I ever built. The thing was so outrageous looking -- with a big ol’ supercharged Hemi sticking out of the trunk -- that it looked like something straight out of Saturday morning cartoons.

It took a little bit of searching and the help of another famed quarter-miler, female pioneer Paula Murphy, and her son, Dan, to track down the wild one, who’s now a spry 70 and living in Cathedral City, Calif., near Palm Springs, enjoying his retirement and flying radio-controlled helicopters for fun.

Shrewsberry didn’t begin as a quarter-mile entertainer but as a serious racer, piloting A/FX entries for the likes of Mickey Thompson and Jack Chrisman. He won class at the 1963 Winternationals in Thompson’s factory-issue Super Duty 421 Lemans and, after Pontiac halted its racing activities later that year, took over the wheel of Chrisman’s first Sachs & Sons Comet, the predecessor to his famous supercharged model, eventually setting the national speed record at 127.53 mph in Inyokern, Calif., and making his first – and only – appearance on a National DRAGSTER cover (May 29, 1964).

Shrewsberry had moved west from his native Mansfield, Ohio, to take the job wheeling Chrisman’s Mercury, and that car paved the path to wheelstander stardom.

“We were in Hawaii in 1964 with the Comet, and I was out on a boat with George Hurst and Ray Brock of Hot Rod magazine,” recalled Shrewsberry. “Hurst kept telling me he had this new car he wanted me to drive. It was a Barracuda with the motor in the back. I could picture it, but it didn’t make any sense to me. George was getting a little inebriated by this time and kept asking me and asking me, and Ray finally told me to just tell him I would just so he would stop asking.

“I really didn’t think much of it after that, but six weeks later, Hurst called me up and told me to come pick it up. I decided I would go back and check it out, so I went back to their headquarters, which were in Royal Oak, Mich., and the thing was a mess. I had to work on it six weeks to get it race ready. It had a Corvette independent rear suspension, and the wheels would toe in when you launched and kill the motor, so I put a straight axle under it.”

That car, of course, was the legendary Hemi Under Glass (so-called for the ’68 'Cuda huge rear glass), and although the car was intended to be a straight-up race vehicle, it didn’t take Shrewsberry long to discover the car’s true talent.

“I was screwing around with it in the parking lot, the front end kept coming up, so I put some bigger tires on it, and it came right up,” he remembered. “It was never Hurst’s intention for the car to do wheelies; it was more like an experimental car with an experimental shifter.

“We took it to Bristol for the Springnationals in 1965 for an exhibition, and I put some 10-inch tires on it. It not only lifted the front tires up but also the rear tires when I hit on the bumper. Everyone went crazy. There weren’t any wheelstander cars back then -- Bill Golden had his [Little Red Wagon] truck, of course, but there were no wheelie cars.

“Originally the car was carbureted, but it would only go 300 to 400 feet before it got starved for gas, so we put injectors on it, and that solved that problem.”

Hurst originally had planned to run the Hemi Under Glass for one season and had hoped that Shrewsberry would pilot their next experimental machine, the wild Hurst Hairy Olds, but by then, Shrewsberry had already put together a deal for 1966 with the L.A./Orange County Dodge Dealers to campaign a Dodge Dart wheelstander that became the famed L.A. Dart.

“I was in heaven,” he said. “I got a push truck and motor parts and everything. That paint scheme wasn’t really my idea; Dodge colors were red, and they had a [plastic] model of a Dart, which was white. I told them I didn’t care how they painted it."

The first version of the car had an injected engine in the backseat, but the later and better-known cars, including his best-remembered car, the 1970 machine, had a full-race supercharged engine in the trunk for better weight transfer.

“Keith Black told me I should run a blower because I wouldn’t have to work the engine so hard, but I told him I didn’t know anything but blowers, and he said he would teach me everything I needed to know. I had an aluminum KB hemi with magnesium parts, all the good stuff, and a Lenco two-speed with a Crower clutch; a lot of the other wheelstander guys ran automatics.”

Shrewsberry’s trademark move was to drive back toward the starting line after a full-track wheelie and throw the car into a 180-degree spin, then nail the gas as the car was climbing the ring gear right back into another wheelie. The crowd ate it up. He’d also richen the barrel valve to produce flames from the headers and whatever else he could think of. “I did whatever I could get away with,” he admitted.

“Wild Bill’s” wildest stunt was driving his car, in full wheelstand, while standing up through the car’s open windshield area at speeds approaching 120 mph.

“I knew I could do it, and the people went crazy,” recalled Shrewsberry, who braced his right hand on the windshield frame and used his left on the wheel to keep the front tires straight for landing, all the while steering with the brake pedals. “I only got to do it three or four times before [NHRA Event Director] Jack Hart called me into the NHRA offices and told me, very politely, that he knew what I’d been doing and that I couldn’t do it anymore, but to tell everyone I got my ass chewed out really good about it.”

A sleek, Funny Car-style Dart followed in the mid 1970s, and he began the 1980s with a panel wagon truck sponsored by the berry-loving Knott family, of Knott’s Berry Farm (Shrewsberry, obviously, was a perfect fit), but by the middle 1980s, Shrewsberry had had enough of his nomadic life as an exhibition wheelstander driver.

“I just got tired of doing it and had other offers,” he says. “The traveling just kills you. We’d run Great Meadows, N.J., Saturday night and Sunday in Union Grove, Wis., from Muncie, Ind., Saturday night to Tulsa, Okla., Sunday. It finally got to be too much. I had a lot of fun and got to go to a lot of places, like Australia many times in the winter, but in the end, it was just time.”

Shrewsberry left the wheelie business and took flight in other ways, as a commercial pilot of Gulfstream jets leased to Warner Bros., whose executives probably would have gotten queasy if they had known about their pilot’s previous antics.

Shrewsberry didn’t limit his driving to wheelstanders. He won class in Indy in 1968 in Sox & Martin’s SS/E and ran a factory ’68 Dart Stocker for engine maestro Black.

He also drove another very famous vehicle, the Batmobile from the famous Batman television series, in 1967.

“George Barris built it and talked to me about driving it, and I drove it for the studio,” he remembered. “It had a good motor – a blueprinted 427 with two fours – and transmission; it was a good car, very lightweight. It ran in the low 12s at 118.”

Still, it will be the famous Dart for which he is long remembered, and fans who saw it in its heyday and those who never did will be able to view it soon when it takes up residence in 2009 in the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum presented by Automobile Club of Southern California.

“Wally Parks always said he wanted it there,” said Shrewsberry. “Garlits wants it for his museum, Petersen wants it for theirs, but I decided to put it in the NHRA museum.”

Shrewsberry says he still gets recognized when he attends the NHRA Museum Twilight Cruises with longtime pal Dave McClelland and remembers his time in the spotlight fondly.

“I probably had more fun than the people who watched me,” he told me.

Doubtful, “Wild Bill,” very doubtful.

Blog addendum: I had confessed to "Wild Bill" during our interview about my early model-building efforts with his car and how hard I tried to replicate the stripes using Scotch tape. I guess I wasn't alone because people were selling stripe kits on eBay for a hefty price. "Wild Bill" said he would send me a new kit, a reissue of the original AMT kit produced by Model King, that includes the stripes as decals, as designed by Sean Svendsen and authenticated by Shrewsberry himself, and I said thanks but didn't give it a second thought, never even gave him the address here. Lo and behold, three days later, one arrived. Thanks, "Wild Bill," for everything.


Thursday, September 11, 2008

Concord, N.C., 1960 style

Tommy Ivo and Don Prudhomme, ready to hit the road, March 1960.

"This was the Concord supertrack, 1960 style.  One quarter-mile of flat track, and then an eighth-mile shutoff  going uphill. The telephone pole guardrails had chains linked between them that were badly sagging but mostly gone. Note the return road that went over hill to the right side of the track.  It was little more than a dirt path."

"This is the main entrance into the track. It ran around the tech-inspection area, which was a double carport attached on to an old farmhouse that was the main office."

"T.V. Tommy" Ivo has always been a great self-promoter – witness his television career, four-engine Showboat, glass-sided trailer ... heck, the guy even unabashedly signs his correspondence "your hero and mine, TV Tom" – and with this weekend's NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series event in Concord/Charlotte, I wasn't surprised to hear from him about his racing trips to the Carolinas in 1960.

Ivo actually carpet bombed a number of NHRA employees and others in the news-dissemination business last week with an e-mail and photos that he first sent to me back in early July to gauge my interest (which, as you could imagine, was high), so you'll probably see some of these photos on the ESPN show this weekend from Charlotte, but, because y'all were savvy enough to come here first, you'll know the (say it with me) story behind the story.

Of course, as anyone who has ever dealt with Ivo knows, you have to work with him on "Ivo time," which means no calls before 3 p.m. (or "first thing in the morning," as he calls it), which makes writing an article a bigger challenge. Once I got him on the horn (kinda weird to say "Good morning" to someone at 4 p.m.), he was a delightful interview, full of stories and enthusiasm belying his 72 years of age. Honestly, he sounded 18 again.

The 1960 tour was Ivo's first, and the story is even more interesting because he made the trek eastward from his Southern California base with his famed Kent Fuller-built twin-engine Buick dragster with his best buddy, an inexperienced 18-year-old car painter named Don Prudhomme.

Prudhomme, who had been painting cars with his dad, Newman (aka "Tex") at a San Fernando Valley body shop, Ray Brooks Auto Body, had joined the famed Road Kings car club to which Ivo already belonged, and before long, they were, in Ivo's words, "stony-eyed bosom buddies."

Ivo had some experience traveling from his already-burgeoning show-biz career (he appeared in dozens of films as a child and teenager; filmography), but Prudhomme was eager to hit the road despite it being his first trip anywhere without his parents.

"I was Ivo's gofer," Prudhomme told Tom Madigan in his book Fuel & Guts. "Cleaning the car, wiping tires, polishing chrome, and fixing broken parts. In reality, I was going to drag racing college, learning my trade. Ivo was a hard runner, and racing was serious business. We got paid to race, and he didn't want to miss any paychecks. Ivo was a great guy to learn from, and he taught me a lot."

The two left Southern California in the last week of March on what Ivo, then 24 ("going on 17," he admits), calls their "grand adventure" and came home the first week of September. After a number of stops and adventures – including running the twin down the straightaway of a dirt track -- they arrived in Concord the first part of August, but Concord Drag-O-Way was a far cry from zMax Dragway.

"After pulling through the overhang of a barn where they gave the cars a tech inspection, you pitted in the weed-patched dirt," recalled Ivo. "Only the narrow track itself was paved with about a 30-foot approach apron that you would drag bottom on and which they kept sweeping dirt off.

"The track was on flat ground to the finish line where it went abruptly up the side of a steep hill to a very short shutoff. The grandstands alongside the track were two-tier wood-bench-type setups, and you could walk right out into the staging lanes to watch me get in the car. Where's the race control, guys?

"If you didn't get it stopped by the time you hit the small plateau at the top, it was 'Geronimo!' off the edge of a cliff! They had put up short telephone poles with steel cables running between them as a catch net, 1960s style; they were big on telephone poles at that track. The guardrails were big chains linked between poles that were there in some places and not in others.

"The light poles were spaced far enough apart and dim enough. That made it look like an old-time flicker movie when driving up the track at night, as it was getting light, dark, light, dark, light, dark, but it was touted to be the best-lit track in the South.

"Their promotion budget was awesome as well. How do you like that hand-drawn pencil poster they made up and made copies of to put around town? And a buck to get in! To see a movie star!"

Ivo found out the hard way about the shutdown area, and though he didn't quite have to yell "Geronimo," he got close.

"I had made two short shutoff runs, but, of course, you had to make one hero run for them," he said. "The chute hesitated a bit coming out, and when I leveled out on the plateau, I was almost stopped and didn't want to tear up the front of the car on the catch net, so I veered to the right and hit a long mound of dirt that they had run across the edge of the cliff. It jumped the front end over it, slid down to the rear wheels, and just hung there by them.

"When I came to a halt, I wiggled around in the seat a couple of times to see if it was going any further and then released the seat belts and bailed out."

Prudhomme rolled up with the team's push car – a Cadillac, naturally – and while Prudhomme ran around trying to figure out how to get the car back on level ground, the first thing that Ivo did -- naturally -- was to grab his camera and run up the side of the adjacent side hill to take pictures. 

"With a lot of help we got off the hill, but it was one of the highlights of the trip and about as good of an example of yesterday's and today's drag racing as I can think of.," he said. "Absolutely black and white difference between this track and that four-lane, dual-track, all-concrete, behemoth that's there now. Then and now -- before and after -- the evolution of drag racing! From the pictures they showed on TV, it's got to be the one of the spiffiest, if not the spiffiest track I've ever seen."

My interview with Ivo only further piqued my curiousity about the tour, especially when the master prankster began regaling me with the tales of how he terrorized Prudhomme throughout their adventure. "He paid his dues going on tour with me," Ivo said with relish.

The good news for everyone here is that we'll be delving deeper into that story in the coming weeks; you'll get a firsthand look at life on the road in the 1960s, barnstorming across the country as Ivo and Prudhomme began to mold themselves into the drag racing heroes they would become.

Ivo has a great memory and some great photos to go with it; it's going to be fun, but I thought you'd enjoy this teaser, just ripe in timing for this weekend's event in Charlotte.

See ya Monday.


Monday, September 08, 2008

Stone, Woods & Cook: From the inside

When ND published a story in 1984 about the great 1964 Lions Drag Strip match race of Stone, Woods & Cook versus "Big John" Mazmanian, we also arranged a reunion of sorts. (Above) Leonard Woods Jr. and his dad, Tim, flanked their driver, Doug Cook. (Below) "Cookie" and Mazmanian wheelman "Bones" Balough.

Cook's son, Mike, who restored Swindler A, is working on a restoration of the team's Dark Horse 2 Mustang gasser, his dad's final ride.

Within 30 minutes of posting the final results of our Favorite Race Car Ever poll Friday, I got two phone calls: one from Mike Cook, son of Stone, Woods & Cook pilot Doug Cook, and the second from Steve Gibbs, who told me that Leonard Woods, son of team founder Tim Woods, was eager to talk to me about the outcome of our little project here. A few minutes later, Leonard and I were sharing memories, too.

Both were literally over the moon that you all displayed such love for a very important part of their lives and wanted to fill in some of the blanks in the story and share their memories of that magical era.

The second-generation Cook, who today is heavily involved in land-speed racing at Bonneville and El Mirage, had been following the progression of the polls but had been at Bonneville recently and was only just tipped off about the final round.

"I know the popularity of the car -- we sell T-shirts and hats to people all over the world -- but when you’re so close to it, you don’t realize how big it is until something like this happens," he said. "We've been watching the poll – I have a whole notebook page full of the tallying as it went on – and I couldn't wait for you to get back from Indy [to close the voting]. We were hoping we could win, but because they still run [the Winged Express in exhibitions] it’s still very popular. I figured we could beat them but wasn't 100 percent sure because some of the people who followed that era aren’t really computer literate. I just wanted to thank you for putting together the poll. My family, all of us, we really appreciate it."

Woods, 62, the son of team co-founder Fred Woods and for years also an important part of the team, was equally thrilled. "I'm really elated; I feel like I just won Indy," he said. "What a great, great tribute to drag racers. Looking at all those cars brings back great memories. I'm sure my dad and a lot of people are smiling down on it.

"We've had so much fun with the voting; I can't tell you all of the people who have called," said Woods, who has owned and operated Chino Hills Ford, just a few miles from NHRA HQ, since 1982. "I even called Fred Stone's widow and told her about it, and she was very excited."

While Woods took a bow for the win, he did it with acknowledgements to many.

"The Stone-Woods-Cook car and whatever accolades it won are really a testimony to that particular class and that era and the competition that went on," he told me. "I talked with [fellow former A/Gas Supercharged legend] Junior Thompson and told him we needed his vote because Stone, Woods & Cook would not be where it is if we hadn't been racing him and the other cars. That's what made the class and helped make the car famous.

"There were just so many wonderful cars in the poll, and the Freight Train was always one of my favorites, as was the Winged Express," added Woods, whose son, Tim III, races in NASCAR West with engines built by Freight Train owner John Peters and his son, Brad. "They were all marvelous competitors, and I feel blessed to have seen all of those cars run. This poll's really got a buzz going; thank you for including us in it."

The Woods family also remains good friends with the Cook family. The younger Cook, 53, who is restoring the Dark Horse 2 Mustang Funny Car and still has the '37 Chevy in which his dad began his racing career – in fact, his son, Mike Jr. got married in it – runs Cook Motorsports in Norco, Calif., and oversees the racing efforts of his son, who drives a "Cook-blue" highboy roadster built by his dad and grandfather that recently set class records and, like his dad, is a member of the Bonneville and El Mirage 200-mph clubs.

After Doug Cook was badly injured in a top-end flip in the Dark Horse 2, he and Mike actually worked on the Funny Car of onetime rival "Big John" Mazmanian, then went to Bonneville, where Mike ran 295 mph against a 255-mph record with a Pat Foster-built car and had the first stock-bodied car, an Avanti, to run 200 at El Mirage.

"My dad and I were very close, and when he passed, I went into a tailspin for about six or seven months," Cook recalled. "He was more than my dad; he was my best friend, and sometimes, it felt like he was my kid. My dad was a simple man; he was so humble that he'd be embarrassed over the results of all of this. When I'd have him sign autographs at the races, it was like a little kid getting his first kiss. My parents were divorced, so my dad would pick me up on the way to Fontana or Pomona. I never got to travel with them, but I got to go to all the big races here in California.

"When I retired [Swindler A] in 1982, Hot Rod magazine put it on its center spread and called it 'the most famous drag car of all time.' We knew it was still popular, but yours was a big poll. This is all very overwhelming to our whole family."

Woods was born Timothy Leonard Woods Jr., but he went by Leonard Woods Jr., and it was Leonard's name that was on the doors of the Willys, not his dad's.

"My dad liked it as a family sport, a team sport; it was something that he and I could do together," said Woods, who began working on the team car as a teenager while attending boarding school at St. John Bosco High in Bellflower, Calif. "I think he felt the need to put my name on it and as a hook to keep me interested in such a wholesome sport, plus he was a little concerned with the liability his construction company might face if something happened. He was very concerned with spectators and safety, and with some of the tracks we ran on and those cars running at the speed they were with high centers of gravity and the tires and engines of the times, they were a handful to drive."

His father's construction company was at the time the largest minority-owned construction company west of the Mississippi and second largest in the United States, with as many as 200 employees and 40-plus jobs going at any time, varying from new construction to building subdivisions and apartments all over Southern California and remodeling.

"I went to every race I could that didn't interfere with school, and when we raced locally in California, I was able to go to all of them," he remembered. When the team later based itself out of Gary, Ind., and Leonard was attending the University of Notre Dame, he was a constant fixture with the team during the Midwest gasser wars.

"In 1964, we had 53 race dates between April and October, as ran as many as three or four times a week," he said. "We'd run round-robin against George Montgomery, Junior Thompson, and K.S. Pittman, and later 'Big John' sometimes substituted for Junior. K.S. Pittman was a fierce, fierce, fierce competitor, and George Montgomery was a genius with race cars. Junior Thompson was very competitive, and 'Big John' Mazmanian came out and jumped right in the middle of it. It was a fun time; I can’t even begin to tell you how much fun we had."

I asked Woods to share with us his remembrances and thoughts about each member of the fabled team.

"My dad loved being a part of it, but he was more of a background kind of person. He wanted to see the team succeed. My dad was the coordinator and oversaw the financial end of it. He was great at getting the heads done and having spare parts and rods and pistons, all of that stuff that we needed to keep the car running; we didn't have a hauler with three spare engines.

Leonard Woods, center, with his dad, Tim, far right, and cousin Bobby Grimes, with then S-W-C driver  K.S. Pittman, far left, and his future partner John Edwards, and Swindler B, circa 1961.

Swindler A and B, the Oldsmobile engine in the B/Gas car plainly visible in this rare shot. The team switched to Chrysler Hemis in 1963.

"Fred Stone worked with my dad at the construction company, where he was a very successful manager. Stone was a promoter, a very friendly guy; no one was a stranger to him. He was just an outgoing, gregarious kind of guy. He loved those cars and loved for them to be polished and detailed a certain w ay. He loved the competition and liked to stir the pot a little bit, in a friendly kind of way. He was a visionary in some ways because he spent an awful lot of his money on the car but promoted the car in such a way that he could make his money back. He formulated a spirited kind of thing that got the cam grinders and other equipment manufacturers involved, and away we went. He went at it from a very professional standpoint. He promoted a deal with Revell to get the car made as a model, and it’s still their most popular model ever, with over three million sold.

"Doug Cook was a great human being; everyone loved him, and everyone was happy to see him driving for us because he had worked so hard for so long. When my dad and Fred first formed the team and we won the '61 Winternationals with K.S. Pittman driving, Doug Cook was driving a Willys for Howards Cams in C/Gas. We were running B/Gas, but Pittman also had his own car in C/Gas, and it got to be a bit of a conflict, so we teamed with Cook at the end of the Winternationals.

"My dad was particularly impressed with Doug when he drove for Howards Cams; he did a lot with a little. It was perfect fit. He was a great driver and just a marvelous crew chief; he loved to race and to work on the car.

"As a youngster, I studied all of the classes and was interested in the physics of it all, keeping track of things like cubic inches and compression ratios and overdrives. I kept good notes of what jet we ran, what the blower overdrive was, what gear ratio we ran. We were capable of making changes to the car on the fly to get the car running good no matter what the conditions.

"We had a pretty decent nucleus of parts, and vendors like Engle Cams, B&M Hydro, Hilborn injection, and Gene Adams were particularly helpful with technical information because we were running Oldsmobiles when most everyone else was running Chevys.

"The team was a marriage made in heaven. We never had a bitter moment, win, lose, or draw. If we got beat, we went home and worked harder to try to come up with a new combination."

Based on the number of e-mails I received, many people were not aware that Stone and the Woodses were black -- a fact that would barely raise an eyebrow today -- and back then, especially with Cook's addition to the team making it an interracial team, it was an item of some concern.

Dick Gazan, who occasionally crewed for the team in the early 1960s, remembered, "Tim couldn't get motel rooms in Indy due to his race and had to rent a house in the black neighborhood to have a place to stay. And if you were a racer stuck for a place to sleep, you were always welcome. I don't think there is a man in drag racing that deserves more respect than Tim. When most of the country was still segregated, Tim ran an integrated team and even hired me, a young Jewish kid from Boston, to help Doug Cook on tour with the A car. I never expected anything in return, but at 'the Beach' he came up to me and shook my hand, and in it was a hundred-dollar bill, and he thanked me 'for keeping Doug safe.' Most of us never had the opportunity to integrate or even meet someone from other minorities, but my experience with the Woods family has stayed with me all my life."

"Drag racers are a warm group, but there were places where we couldn’t go, but by and large we had a great experience," said Woods. "The fans and promoters welcomed us, and we never had much of a problem. They wanted to see the car run and what it could do and run as good as we said we could, and could we beat their local favorite. They key was, would they come and see you?"

Woods jokingly remembers that there was one place the team always felt a little less welcome: Ohio.

"In Ohio, where George Montgomery was based, there was a fierce desire to see him beat our butts," he recalled. "It hurts your feelings because we were such a popular team, but I guess it was like him coming here to California. Everyone wants to see the local team win."

Woods also was sure to set the record straight that although Montgomery beat them in the class finals at Indy in 1963 and 1964, as I mentioned last week, Stone, Woods & Cook grabbed the gold at Indy in 1962 and 1965.

The rivalry lives on, I guess.

And so do the memories. Woods, who earned his master's degree at Notre Dame and worked for Ford for 13 years before he bought his dealership, remains a big car guy in his own right with his successful dealership, and it doesn't take much to get him reminiscing about the 1960s.

"I was blessed to be a part of it," he says simply.

And so, by extension, are all of us.

One of the great things about the Internet is that, other than your monthly connection fee, it's basically free. In general, there are no subscription costs to read a vast amount of interesting material, which means that for writers like me of columns like this, it exposes our work to wide audiences who might not subscribe to our print publications.

It also means that guys like me can hear from people who might have lost touch with NHRA but not the racing world, people who wrote the history long before I dig it up, polish it, and share it with you all. In the year-plus that I've been writing this column, it has put me in touch with a lot of famous racers, some of whom had hung up their helmets before I started writing much more than my ABCs, people whom I thought I would never have the chance to meet or interview.

And, like Woods, I feel very blessed, for the community we have and for the opportunity to serve it through this column.


Friday, September 05, 2008

And the winner is ...

Final results for Favorite Race Car Ever
Stone, Woods & Cook Willys

Winged Express

“Jungle Jim” Liberman Vega

Sox & Martin Barracuda

Don Garlits Swamp Rat XXX

Don Prudhomme Army Monza

Chi-Town Hustler '69 Charger

Bill Jenkins '68 Camaro

“Jungle Jim” Liberman '66 Chevy II

Blue Max ‘69 Mustang

Blue Max '75 Mustang II

Little Red Wagon wheelstander

The Freight Train

Don Garlits Swamp Rat 22

Beebe & Mulligan Fighting Irish

Warren-Coburn-Miller/Rain For Rent


Total votes: 12,002

(Above) From left, Leonard Woods, Doug Cook, and Fred Stone. (Below) The short-lived black S-W-C Willys, dubbed Black Widow.

Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce to you the winner of the first-ever, super-special, as-voted-by-the-fans Favorite Race Car Ever poll: the Stone, Woods & Cook Willys.

The team -- Fred Stone, Leonard and Tim Woods, and driver Doug "Cookie" Cook – fielded many versions of this car, but they gained their most fame in the AA/Gas Supercharged wars against "Big John" Mazmanian and driver Robert "Bones" Balough and "Ohio George" Montgomery in the mid-1960s with their famed Swindler A '41 Willys.

Their battles were legendary, both on and off the track, and they are remembered for their trash-talking cam-wars ads in 1964 in which Mazmanian referred to Stone, Woods, and Cook as "Pebble, Pulp, and Chef" and the trio fired back with "Big June." (In truth, Stone had launched the verbal wars a year earlier, calling out Montgomery, who had used them up in class eliminations at Indy in 1963, in a Drag News ad, to come west; the canny Montgomery replied, also in a Drag News ad, that he'd come west once S-W-C and Mazmanian decided who really was the West Coast's top dog.)

Although three of the four are no longer living -- Stone passed away in 1982, Tim Woods in 1995, and Cook in 1999 --  Leonard, Tim's son, is still alive and owns Chino Hills Ford here in SoCal – their memory definitely lives on in the hearts of fans like yourselves, who overwhelmingly made the S-W-C their choice.

"Wild Willie" Borsch and the famed Winged Express fuel altered actually jumped out to a huge lead early in the voting -- which drew more than 12,000 votes – but Stone, Woods, and Cook roared back to take a convincing win by nearly 500 votes, 2,088 to 1,598. "Jungle Jim" Liberman's popular 1973 Vega Funny Car finished in third with 1,115 votes, and the Sox & Martin Barracuda was fourth with 1,079.

I actually was quite taken aback by the results, especially based on the well-known popularity of 1970s Funny Cars and the fuel burners in general, to see two door cars lock up spots in the top four. As I suspected, the legions of "Jungle" and Don Garlits fans split their loyalties between the two entries each had, but even with totals combined, they wouldn't have topped S-W-C.

In an era before A/FXers, Funny Cars and Pro Stockers, the A/Gas Supercharged cars were the fastest street-type cars out there, the equivalent of today's Pro Mods cars, which led to an huge popularity and immense followings.

The story of the Stone, Woods & Cook team is one of a surprisingly fast rise to stardom in a partnership that lasted just six years, from about September 1961 to September 1967, but they packed a lifetime of racing, winning, and fan memories into that time.

Cook (born Jesse Douglas Cook, by the way) was not a native Southern Californian, having been born in Little Rock, Ark., in 1932, but moved west to the Los Angeles area with his family as a teenager. He cut his teeth at the Santa Ana Drags, driving a '37 Chevy coupe with a supercharged Chevy 265, and later drove a Willys for Howard Johansen of Howard's Cams. When K.S. Pittman split with Stone and Woods' team in early 1961, Cook was signed to drive and tune their Swindler II '41 Willys (Swindler I was Tim Woods' blown Olds V-8-powered '41 Studebaker). The car met an untimely demise in a towing accident on the way home from Indy, and it's the next version, painted light blue, that powered its way into the hearts of many.

In 1964, a second car – reportedly up to 1,000 pounds lighter -- was built to take advantage of the new, lighter weight break in A/GS, and the cars were renamed Swindler A and Swindler B, with the old car running in B/GS, and both set national records. In 1964, the team opted for a black paint scheme on Swindler A (after sfinally witching from Olds power to a Chrysler Hemi the year before), though the car (a second version of which is enshrined at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum; the first one wrecked in 1966) finally ended up blue again, which the S-W-C machines remained even into their later Funny Car days, which lasted until 1974.

It's worth noting that the team also briefly campaigned a third car in the early 1960s, a '33 Willys driven by Chuck Finders and dubbed Dark Horse, and that in 1967, the team experimented with an A/Gas '67 Shelby and an ill-fated '66 Mustang dubbed Dark Horse 2, which featured the entire powertrain from Swindler A. A high-speed top-end accident in that car in Alton, Ill., in September 1967 almost claimed Cook's life and did claim his driving career. Cook's son, Mike, took the gutted Swindler A and raced it himself for several years before restoring it to its museum state.

I'd like to thank everyone for participating in this massive undertaking. Was it scientific? Mostly. Our poll software prevented vote stacking and kept an accurate track of the results, and I think we used a fair method to determine which of the runners-up in each of the polls qualified for the final.

Was it perfect? Hardly. People who missed the nomination period were upset that they weren't able to include their favorites, and several indisputably favorite cars were not nominated by those who did. Also, including more than one car for a certain driver in the preliminary polls may have limited their chances, but the vote was for car, not driver. Still, something worth rethinking.

Is it an accurate reflection of the masses? I'd say so. It would be hard to argue against the inclusion of any of the 16 cars that made the final, and even though I was surprised by the final outcome, the overwhelming victory by S-W-C speaks volumes.

Was it fun? Are you kidding me?

Thanks for playing!

Stone, Woods & Cook, far lane, versus "Big John" Mazmanian/Balough.

S-W-C took on "Ohio George" in A/GS class eliminations in 1963 in Indy.


Tuesday, September 02, 2008

And now for some parting thoughts …

Greetings from Room 113 of the Homewood Suites in beautiful Plainfield, Ind. It's Tuesday morning after the Big Go, my plane leaves in about three and a half hours, and it's good to be back on the "inside" here. I hope that you all followed our adventures in Indy through the staff's five blogs as part of our Indy coverage here. There was some cool "insider"-type stuff there posted by the gang, including yours truly.

Later this week, I'll recap what looks to be a pretty done deal in the final round of the Favorite Race Car Ever poll – there's still time to vote; scroll down – but for now I want to share some of the interesting comments of the race winners that you might not have read anywhere else.

In addition to talking about their specific victories, it's not hard for the giddy Indy champs to sometimes meander a little bit in their personal reflections, or share more personal info, and that seemed to be the case with all four Pro winners.

Tony Schumacher was in first, and I don't need to tell you all of the numbers and cite all of the records he broke as he won not only yet again this season but yet again at Indy. He and tuner Alan Johnson struggled pretty hard in qualifying – which everyone thought was pretty interesting after A.J.'s bombshell about leaving the team to tune next year for the sheik – but, come eliminations, winning seemed like a foregone conclusion, especially on what was essentially a one-lane track. Eleven of the 14 pre-final wins in Top Fuel were in the left lane -- interestingly, the three right-lane wins were all by runner-up Doug Kalitta – but I stumbled across this interesting factoid.

Schumacher's best qualifying pass prior to the final session was 3.879. When he improved by a mere two-thousandths of a second to a 3.877, people shrugged their shoulders – two-thou, big deal -- but, looking back now, had he stayed at 3.879, he would have been qualified No. 10 instead of No. 6 and not had lane choice for round one against Cory  McClenathan, who blistered the left lane with a 3.871. Schumacher could have been toast, along with all the records.

But, he did improve, kept lane choice throughout, and the rest is drag racing history. How much history he has left in him before A.J. leaves is yet to be seen, but it's definitely on "the Sarge's" mind, as he told us.

"I have six races left with A.J., and I definitely want to do well in those six," he joked. "I've gotta build every record I can right now because next year if we can't find a crew chief, I'm tuning that thing. I may never win another round or even qualify."

But, for right now, he acknowledged that the team is pretty much unbeatable, but it's hard work that they're willing to put in to leave their mark on history. No one has been able to beat them for the last 24 rounds, and he'd like to finish out the season with another 24 straight.

"Someday someone's going to be the first one to beat us, and I don’t want to have to say we left something on the table that let them do that," he said. "We want to keep this going and have people remember us as one of the greatest teams ever. At some point you’re going to make a mistake, but I got to thinking, 'Dixon never does' -- he's a great driver – and when you start telling yourself it’s okay to make a mistake, you’re going to make one.

"I woke up this morning, and as I was brushing my teeth and getting ready for this, I kept smiling. This is what it's about. It's about knowing that for six hours you have to pull yourself together, suck it up, and be unbreakable for a while. That's a great feeling for me, it really is. Then afterward you can celebrate knowing you pulled that off."

Asked if he thought he got the respect from his peers due him as the driver of such a great car, Schumacher responded, "Do I get the respect I deserve? I don't think they voice it, but I think we have it. I don’t think there's a guy out there who thinks he's going to pull one over on me. I don't think they're going to go deep or try to mess with me. When you do a survey of everyone, my name's never mentioned, and I'm okay with that."

Asked how proud he was about how his son's life has turned out, Papa "Shoe," who accompanied his son to the media center, offered an interesting perspective that raised a few eyebrows when we consider the all-business, buttoned-down Tony "Shoe" we all know today. "He came into the sport pretty young and pretty brash, a little wild, and said some things he probably wishes he wouldn't have said and done some things he wishes he wouldn't have done, but he's matured," said "the Don." "He has three wonderful children, a wonderful wife, all of those things count so much more than drag racing."

Robert Hight opened by admitting, "This wasn't one of our prettiest wins, but I'm not giving it back to anybody," then acknowledged how tough it was for him to win, and not just because he battled tire smoke and dropped cylinders. Team boss John Force didn't qualify, Ashley Force lost in round one, and Hight himself beat teammate Mike Neff's John Medlen-tuned Mustang in round two, leaving him to carry the flag.

"It was really hard because all of our Ford Mustangs were out," he said, "and to have Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly up there every run. Austin, I love him, but he comes up there every run while I'm strapped in there and says, 'No pressure,' and he thinks that helps me. He says, 'It motivates him.' No, what that does is scares me to death. I don't want to go up there and screw up because there are so many people behind us that it does put a lot of pressure on you.

"The second round was a tough race because this morning on my way to the racetrack I stopped over at the cemetery [where former teammate Eric Medlen was laid to rest last year], and as I was going in, John Medlen was coming out. He stopped and rolled the window down, and he couldn't even talk; his eyes were filled with tears. It's so tough to see what that guy has to live with every day. All I could say was, 'Hey, let's go get 'em today.'

"I'm going to go back to our shop tonight, we have a statue out front of Eric holding his trophy from the Sonoma race in 2006, and I'm going to take my trophy there and hopefully I'll be as proud holding it as he was holding his."

Hight also addressed John Force's second straight DNQ at Indy and why he hopes he doesn't DNQ anymore.

"John is not a good spectator, and I can't even imagine the day he decides he's going to retire. He gets up there and wants to be in one of those cars so bad. I feel bad when he's not out there. If you could have seen him last year, when he was all banged up, and how hard he was working to get back into that car. He kept saying he was going to make testing, and I kept thinking, 'No way this guy is going to be ready; there's not a chance,' because in December he could hardly walk. Come January and he got into the car in the shop to have a seat poured for him, he just wanted to sit there. He sat there for an hour and cried. You can see why he's a 14-time champ. He loves this more than anything else, and he lives it. This is all he really knows, so not seeing him out there today was really tough."

Steve Johnson was up next, and the now two-time Indy winner – at least this year he got to celebrate in Indy instead of Reading two weeks later – was spunky and off on John Force-like tangents. Good pal Larry Dixon – they grew up street racing together in SoCal's San Fernando Valley, along with Gary and Karen Stoffer – had encouraged him to climb the fence of the new sand-trap enclosure Heilo Castroneves-style, which he did ("That was cool as hell!), and he was still on cloud nine and very aware of what being an Indy winner means and is probably one of the prouder Indy champs in history, as he truly believes that it's harder to win in the bike class than in any other.

"Obviously the U.S. Nationals is the biggest race on the planet, and when we won it the first time, we didn’t get any love, but when I sent anything to anybody, [I signed it] 'Steve Johnson, U.S. Nationals champion.' It could have been a short little e-mail. I sent it to my mom the same way. 'Mom, how you doing? I'm coming home. I'm the U.S. Nationals champ in case you didn’t remember.' That's the pride we take.

"I think our class is the absolute hardest because of the Tree. I don't believe a fuel driver can see yellow and floor it and red-light. We can go .30 or .40 under, and the window is so difficult, so having a green light is obviously the most important thing on the planet. And then you have to shift this thing at 13-2 [13,200 rpm] every time – that's when it makes the most horsepower – if you don’t shift it at 13-2, you’re wasting your time. If you miss it by 100 rpm, you're in trouble. You got to hit all of those shifts, and then you have to tuck – tucking is so important – and then in high gear, I let go of the handlebars. Not completely, but I let the bike do what it's going to do. There's no sense fighting it to move it over an inch. Let the bike go; John Myers taught me that. It all matters."

Johnson, who's been on a serious diet and workout regimen to trim fat from his 160-pound frame to get closer to the 120-pound norm for the class, said he spent an inordinate amount of time in the winner's circle not just to bask in the glory but to make sure he had enough photographs to send to potential sponsors to keep his roll going next year.

Finally, Dave Connolly came in, another two-time Indy winner now, but his were back to back and amazing after how his season started on the sidelines without a sponsor. He wiped out the entire Johnson part of the roster – Warren in round one, Allen in round two, and Kurt in the semi's – before beating Larry Morgan in the final, and in all four he was merciless in the face of those opponents' hopes.

When "that punk kid" beat W.J. in round one, it ended "the Professor's" hopes of making the Countdown. When he took down A.J. in round two, he denied the polesitter a chance to win his first Indy. When he beat K.J. in the semi's, he denied him the points lead. When he beat Morgan in the final, he denied the already two-time Indy winner a great 29th anniversary present for his wife, Diane.

And he enjoyed every minute of it.

"Getting to race Warren Johnson again and kind of crush his dreams of staying in the top 10 in the first round, don't get me wrong, it's just a personal pleasure, but we did that for Greg Stanfield. Greg Anderson, I'm sure, was probably standing on our sidelines come the semifinal waiting for Kurt to make a big move and jump into the No. 1 position if he beat us, so that was huge.

"Words can't even explain the feeling of winning Indy back to back," said Connolly. "I'm just thankful to be here, and I'm taking it for what it is. All of us drag racers are very fortunate to get to drag race for a living. I found that out the first few months of the year when I was on the sidelines."

All four Indy winners shared a common thought, pointed out by Dave Connolly above. They're all so honored and happy to be driving drag race cars for a living that they can hardly stand it. And now, as Indy champs, they're quite a bit happier, I’d say.


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