Inside National DRAGSTER

by: Phil Burgess

Friday, January 30, 2009

The one-day wonder

The 1965 Winternationals was an amazing race. All class and eliminator racing was completed in one day before a standing-room-only crowd.

This was Saturday's story at the 1965 opener, a nearly complete washout.

Other than this brief moment for the national anthem, Sunday at the 1965 Winternationals was 10 straight hours of racing.

Fans began entering the facility at midnight Saturday and filled the grandstands by dawn. It was a packed house for a packed day.

The Winternationals is always ripe with drama, whether it's because of new teams, new technology, or new plotlines, and few people walk away from the annual season opener disappointed. The race is that good.

Sometimes, though, fans can walk away shaking their heads in disbelief for more than just the accomplishment of the racers, and never was that more true than at the 1965 event. I mentioned in my column last week that the win by Roland Leong and driver Don Prudhomme at the 1965 race was especially memorable for more than just the fact that it marked "the Snake's" first win and kicked off an amazing two years for the Hawaiian dragster. Anyone who attended that race surely also will remember it as one of the most Herculean efforts ever expended by NHRA to complete an event.

Originally scheduled for three days, the event was reduced to just a single day by heavy fog and persistent rain Friday and Saturday. Some runs had been made between raindrops Friday, with Prudhomme's 7.80, 204.54 leading the way, just ahead of "Big Daddy" Don Garlits' 1964 Nationals-winning Wynn's Jammer, which chalked up a 7.81 at a blistering event-record 206.88 mph. But, save for a few Street-class runs, Saturday was a complete washout.

As NHRA officials glowered at the cloudy skies Saturday afternoon, they wondered if somehow they not only could allow all 612 participants to get their fair shot at Pomona glory in the seven traditional eliminators Sunday but also complete the hotly contested class runoffs – 70 classes in all – on the same day. Early estimates of the total number of runs needed to finish the race were in excess of 3,000. Can you imagine? It seemed to be a ludicrous proposition.

They ultimately envisioned – then flawlessly executed – a bold plan that will long be remembered and probably never repeated.

To alleviate expected traffic jams for an anticipated crowd of more than 60,000 fans eager to witness what would probably be the most action-packed single day of racing in history, ticket sales began at 10 p.m. Saturday, and the spectator gates were opened at midnight. Fans who had parked on the side streets adjacent to the L.A. County Fairgrounds streamed in, and by 4 a.m., most of the prime spots in the bleachers had been grabbed. Yet eager fans, primed by the Friday headlines, continued to roll in as the sun rose to reveal a standing-room-only crowd.

Event director Jack Hart lit the first engines at 7 a.m., and Chief Starter Buster Couch got 'em busy on Parker Avenue. Save for a one-minute, 45-second break as Couch and Pomona Valley Timing Association honcho John Moxley ran the Stars and Stripes up the flagpole and the national anthem played and a short downtime when an errant fueler took out the top-end lights, the Pomona quarter-mile was in use for the next 10 hours.

Among the class winners were names that would resound for years in the sport, with the likes of Cecil Yother, Dave Kempton, Bill Hoefer, Dave Strickler, Judy Lilly, Fred Crow, K.S. Pittman, "Bones" Balough, Charlie Smith, Willis Ragsdale, Kay Sissell, and Chico Breschini earning coveted class crowns.

Writer Al Caldwell noted that pairs of Top Gas dragsters were leaving the line every 67 seconds and the fuelers at a rate of two every 72 seconds. The Top Gas field was set by 11 a.m. and the fuel field by noon, and eliminations began in earnest.

By the count of National DRAGSTER Associate Editor Dan Roulston, an average of 5.2 cars went down the track each minute of the 10 hours, and the combined mileage traveled by the entries down the track was about 790 miles under full power (DRAGSTER reporters jokingly called the event the "Pomona 800"). Adding in shutdown area and travel up the return road, Roulston estimated that the combined distance traveled would have carried someone east from Pomona and well into the Atlantic Ocean.

The Jr. Stock Eliminator final, which Kempton won, was the final pair down the track at just after 5 p.m. and 3,167 previous pairings. The racers and NHRA crew were so efficient that a half-hour of daylight still remained.

The Winternationals didn’t finish until well after that as NHRA's Farmer Dismuke and his tech crew worked well into Sunday night in teardown for the 28 cars that had their innards inspected, detected, and, in two cases, rejected.

"Drag racing is a highly emotional sport, and the heat of competition builds to a fever pitch," wrote Roulston, "but the cooperation extended to officials of the National Hot Rod Association by the racers at the 1965 Winternationals will probably never again be duplicated." Amen.

Speaking of Leong, Steve Justice was there when the Hawaiian made his first (and only) fuel-dragster pass behind the wheel, which led to Prudhomme taking over the reins. He remembers it well.

"Roland first showed off his new Fuller car Oct. 4, 1964," he wrote. "I worked the [eighth-mile] concession stand and witnessed Roland's initial pass in the car. C.J. [Hart, strip operator] had told him to make a half pass in the car and/or keep it under 150 mph. I just think things happened faster than he was used to, and by the time he passed me, the car was still hauling ass. He was in the left lane, and at about 1,000 feet, the car got into the dirt, kissed the fence, and went airborne.

"One could not really see anything after that, but word got back that Roland had come down right side up near the railroad tracks (quite a distance to the east of the strip). Roland was okay, but C.J. was livid and told Roland he would never drive a car at Lions while he was in charge. I also recollect that this incident was the reason C.J. initiated his driver's licensing program. Leong-Black was rebuilt and returned to the strip in January 1965 as the Hawaiian with Don Prudhomme at the wheel. It just took them a week or so to set a new speed record at Lions of 204 mph (hard to do on a Saturday night when the track was cold and dewy)."

I also got a lot of other comments from people who had never seen any color photos of the Hawaiian dragster and were surprised at what a pretty car it was. That's the downside to doing all of these historical articles; there aren’t always a lot of color photos. Most of the guys who were shooting for the weeklies shot black and white film for two reasons: 1) It was cheaper because they could process the film themselves, and 2) The publications themselves had not really advanced to color photography due to its cost.

Today, although we have to manage the use of color in National DRAGSTER to create an effecient press run, its use is much more widespread, and, of course, on the Internet, color is free. Can you imagine how cool it would have been to have had the Internet in 1965? Where would drag racing be today?

Okay, that's it for the week. In a few days, it's going to be Winternationals Week and the launch of a shiny new season. I can hardly wait.


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Lessons learned in Phoenix

Lucky guy that I am, I got to bask in the glory of Arizona sunshine and shower in the nitro mists of testing fuel cars last weekend at the NAPA Auto Parts National Time Trials in Phoenix, where I filled my notebook and tape recorder with way more information than I could fit into the limited space of my National DRAGSTER coverage.

As you can probably imagine, a lot was going on there with all of the new driver/tuner/car combos, and with the shoes and wrenches not always wearing their national event best on a casual weekend, I had to stop more than once to remind myself who was working for whom before I dragged out the interview notepad. I heard that at least one crew chief pulled into the wrong pit after a run this weekend out of force of habit.

In all my years here, I cannot remember a time when virtually all of the top powers in one class would be entering the year with at least one major new cog in the machine. Four of last year's top-five Top Fuel drivers – Tony Schumacher, Larry Dixon, Cory McClenathan, and Antron Brown – are working with new crew chiefs, and, of course, the fourth member of the that top five, Hillary Will, is on the sidelines (I did exchange e-mails with Hillary this weekend, and she tells me she will be in Pomona to network or whatever it is drivers do to try to find a ride; both Tommy Johnson Jr. and Melanie Troxel were in Phoenix last weekend, probably doing the same).

It was definitely a shock to see Rob Flynn consulting with Brandon Bernstein (and equally shocking not to see Tim and Kim Richards) or to see Larry Dixon huddled with Jason McCulloch instead of Donnie Bender or Antron Brown talking things over with Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald instead of Lee Beard.

For some reason, our staff likes to take pictures of me talking to the drivers, and Marc Gewertz, who did an amazing job for us in Phoenix, was no exception. I think John Force and I were talking about grandbabies.

The event is always kind of a weird deal for a reporter to cover because, unlike at a national event, where you know that the teams are trying to make full passes and run the best e.t., you never know in testing unless you ask whether a team planned to only run it to 330 or 660 or if there was a problem. And sometimes the team that had the most successful outing isn’t the one with low e.t. but the one that tested the wheels off a new part and only needed to run a few hundred feet to get it right.

This year's Phoenix event made that doubly tough because the track surface was, to put it kindly, tricky. Or to put it as John Force said, "Coyote Ugly."

Although the Firebird staff toiled hard Sunday to bring the track around and have it yield the nice numbers that it did, the track was a real crapshoot Friday and Saturday. In fairness, it wasn't all about the track prep; the problem was exacerbated – or perhaps even caused by – a number of factors, not the least of which was the lack of rubber. In addition to a scarcity of Sportsman cars that normally would lay down traction-enhancing rubber, the nitro cars weren't much able to help themselves because the new, stiffer 2550 Goodyears don't leave behind as much rubber on the burnout or the run as their predecessors. I wasn't camped on the starting line, but I never saw the track scraped once during the three days, which you would never see at a national event. (After the workout it got during weekend and in the days following, the track should be at "just right" for the national event there in a few weeks.)

As a consequence, drivers never made it past 100 feet let alone 60 feet on plenty of runs, and those that made it past there often didn’t make it through the "shake zone." If you could get that far and your crew chief gave you the green light, good runs were possible, as evidenced by Del Worsham's stout 4.04 Saturday and Schumacher's and Dixon's nearly matching 3.83s.

"The Sarge" and Dixon were definitely two people whose brains I wanted to pick as they enter a new season with some interesting future matchups. You just have to know that any win that Schumacher gets against former tuner Alan Johnson will be just that much sweeter and every loss just a bit tougher than any other whether those guys admit it or not. Which they wouldn't, by the way.

Schumacher was the most candid of the two, but only because Dixon is way more modest. He always has been, and you gotta like that in a guy. Schumacher just exudes confidence, and rightly so with his accomplishments.

Tony Schumacher is always an interesting interview and great with a sound bite. We both play hockey, so we have that common interest, and it's always fun to talk to him. All eyes will be on him this year after 2008.

"It's going to be the ultimate battle between us and Alan," he told me. "The fans are in for a real treat. They’re going to see a battle. I think we’re both going to have extremely strong cars, and we're both going to have a lot of fun going at each other. Alan and I have talked about this before, when he was here; we don’t race for the trophy, we race for the battle itself. And now we've got a kick-ass adversary.

"A.J. did a helluva job of picking Dixon, and he's got a fantastic car and a fantastic crew, but so do we. As long as we stay focused, we'll be okay; but you know us, we're a machine over here."

I asked him specifically about racing Dixon, who with Doug Kalitta and him are generally regarded as the three best pilots in the class.

"It's going to make us both dig so deep," he predicted. "Dixon and I will both be so jacked up we'll probably both red-light. Dixon and I don't mess around. We both respect each other. We'll just pull up there and do battle and win or lose shake the other guy's hand at the other end."

Although nearly every member of the crew followed Johnson to his new deal, Schumacher says he harbors no animosity, and I believe him.

"Those guys are like family," he said. "Those guys are my brothers, and they had an awesome opportunity with Alan. I don't hold anything against them."

Dixon, as is his wont, refused to be pulled into any such comparisons – though he did bristle a bit when I told him Schumacher said they both always shallow stage against one another, and Dixon quickly cited several examples where "Shoe" didn't last year – and refused to give the other guys any inspirational "bulletin-board material."

"I don't get up more for any one driver than another," he said. "I'm pretty much an up guy already for everyone, so it's not really like I can possibly get up any more than I usually am. If you can get up for any particular driver, you can get up for everyone, and that's what we're supposed to do as drivers."

I asked how the fit has been for him, learning A.J.'s driver routine and working with all-new teammates.

No pressure, Mike.

"It's going great; it's different, but I don't think it's any different than what I've been accustomed to in the past with crew-chief changes. I've had quite a few crew chiefs over at Prudhomme's over the years, and I'm just trying to fit in with the team. The guys here are pretty loose; you'd think they'd be all 100 percent serious, but they're loose."

It will be interesting to see how Mike Green fills A.J.'s boots over in the Army camp; no pressure or anything, Mike. You just inherited the most successful Top Fuel team in history. I always liked Mike, and I've known him since his days working on Kirk Lawrence's Top Alcohol Dragster in the early 1980s and then with Gary Ormsby, where he worked under Beard. Green and his then cohort, Chuck Schifsky, always went out of their way to help me with info on their car, and Schifsky, son of former Funny Car racer Bill Schifsky, obviously understood the journalism world well enough to become executive editor at Motor Trend, the world's most prestigious car magazine. He worked there with my best friend, C. Van Tune, but both have moved on. Chuck's now handling PR work for Honda, overseeing all of the PR offices and activities outside of the Torrance, Calif., headquarters for the Honda and Acura brands, along with Honda Power Equipment and Honda Marine, including offices in New York City, Atlanta, and Detroit. He has obviously taken a different career path than Green, and it's cool to see them both succeed.

Donnie Bender, center, and Todd Smith, right, both told me that they couldn't be happier with their new pilot, Spencer Massey.

Just how real the Bud car's 323-mph run was will be seen in Pomona, but needless to say, expectant papa BB and Flynn got 'em all talking.

There were lots of smiles in Camp Snake, where new driver Spencer Massey has made a fine impression, and no one is more pleased with him than crew chiefs Donnie Bender and Todd Smith.

" 'Snake' couldn’t have picked a better guy," said Bender, whose U.S. Smokeless car was impressive with seven strong 60-foot times between .847 and .832. "I'd take him over any of the unemployed drivers out there. We knew the kid was good, but we didn’t know how he would adapt to us. We'll tell him how to do something, and the first time he might not be perfect, but by the second time, he's right where we want him to be. He picks things up real good.

"He's pumping up the team, and he's about the same age as the crew, so they really have a lot more in common with him than they did with Larry. We're very happy; I'd say we accomplished 90 percent of what we set out to do. Our main goal was to get the driver comfortable with us and us with him."

Massey, who will be packing his truck Thursday and moving from Fort Worth, Texas, to Brownsburg, Ind., put it succinctly: "I wish Pomona was tomorrow," he said.

Bernstein also was learning some new tricks for crew chief Flynn, whose driver starting-line routine relies a lot more on the driver than did the Richardses, who had tuned "Double-B" in all of his six previous seasons.

"B-Squared" – who told me that he and wife Tracey are expecting the newest heir to the Bud King throne in early August – had a bit of a rough go as Flynn tried to meld his combination with some existing parts on the Bud combination. Flynn's famed "Canadian horsepower" wasn't getting much of a display as the clutch wasn't functioning correctly and the car kept dropping cylinders.

Flynn didn't seem much worried about it – "You can't just take your combination from one car to another because the cars themselves are different anyway. You have to figure it out; this whole job is about solving problems." – and planned to stay early into this week to get things sorted out, but I was surprised to receive a text message from Brad Littlefield when I got off the plane Monday afternoon in Ontario telling me that Bernstein had run 323 mph.

I was very skeptical of that speed because the best 1,000-foot speed ever is just 318, set last year by Schumacher. The Bud car ran 280 mph to the eighth-mile, and it seemed a bit implausible to me that it could pick up 43 mph in the final 340 feet. I asked Brad to run the numbers, and the best final 340-foot increase he could find in Top Fuel was just 38 mph. "Little Brad" tracked down "Little B" this morning, and he swears that the numbers all line up and that the run was legit. We'll only have to wait about a week to see what they can do in Pomona.

Morgan Lucas showed "rookie" Shawn Langdon the ropes.

I spent a good bit of time with Top Fuel license hopefuls Steve Faria and Shawn Langdon, whose success stories you can see on in a little feature I wrote on Faria and the presser from the Lucas camp.

It was interesting to watch Langdon interact with Morgan Lucas and see Morgan give his new teammate advice. Seems it wasn't all that long ago that Lucas was the one getting the advice.

Although Langdon only made it down the track once when I was there through Sunday, he was pleased for other reasons, which seems to be the case for a lot of guys who are glass-half-full when the fans and others are looking at it as half empty. There's a lot of optimism early in the season.

"I have no frustration because the car hasn't gone down," he said. "At this point, anything that happens is good because it gets me familiar with those situations. I'm learning a lot with tire smoke and tire shake; I want to get as much info in me as I can before we get to Pomona so they’re not held back by a rookie driver."

Ron Capps was another guy whose glass was half full, especially after good runs the weekend before in Florida. Although they banged the blower pretty hard on one run Saturday – Christine Robertson got this great shot of it, tracked me down in the pits, and asked about submitting it for use in our ND coverage — and Capps and crew chief Ed McCulloch could only run a best of 4.85, making me a little uneasy after going on record in the last issue of ND picking them to win the championship this year (!), the team was another of those "there's more than meets the eyes" deals. Capps is one of those acutely aware guys who knows that the stars of Phoenix testing end up on the cover of the ND that's handed out in Pomona – he even publicly admitted that a few years ago – so it probably killed him that he wasn't making full runs.

"We were in the same boat with a lot of other teams where the numbers you see are not indicative of true performance," he said reassuringly. "For us, it was just going to 330 feet, maybe 400 feet and trying different things to make ourselves better. So, we're happy." Me too. Don’t let me down, Ron!

That's it for now; have another meeting about the new – coming your way shortly! – to get to. I've always said that part of the success of this column lies in the contributions of its readers, and I'd like to thank those of you in Phoenix who were kind enough to share your love of this column with me in person and those who have e-mailed me their similar thoughts. As you can imagine, with ND and there's a lot to clear off my plate to make the time to work on this column, but your kind words provide the inspiration and the encouragement to get 'er done.

See ya later this week.


Friday, January 23, 2009

The Hawaiian's Winters wonderland

It didn't take long for the new partnership of 23-year-old driver Don Prudhomme and 20-year-old car owner Roland Leong to bear fruit as they won the 1965 Winternationals in their national event debut together. Leong's mother, Teddy, third from left, was among those celebrating.

Forty-four years ago this Winternationals, a 20-year-old car owner brought his beautiful new Top Fuel dragster and his new driver to the fabled Pomona racetrack and with a stunning victory launched them both into the limelight of the NHRA landscape, where they have remained for five decades.

"Consistency, power and performance were the key words for the Top Fuel eliminator contestants at the fifth annual Winternationals Championship Drag Races," read the opening lines of National DRAGSTER's coverage of the 1965 Winternationals, "and the entry that was on 200 plus percent in all three brackets was Don Prudhomme and the crew of the ultra-beautiful Hawaiian, owned by Roland Leong, from Honolulu."

The Pomona win began an incredible two-year spree for Leong as after he and Prudhomme won the season opener, they also won the other big national event on the NHRA calendar – a little race we call the U.S. Nationals – and then, unbelievably, Leong accomplished the same two-race bonanza the following year with a different driver, Mike Snively. Winning both Pomona and Indy back-to-back helped make Leong's Hawaiian a household name to drag race fans from coast to coast and certainly didn't hurt the careers of Prudhomme and Snively.

In 1965, Prudhomme certainly was no stranger to West Coast fans. He had carved a gunslinger's reputation with a surprising win at the 1962 March Meet with chassis builder Kent Fuller and engine maestro Dave Zeuschel, and in 1963-64 at the wheel of the Greer-Black-Prudhomme dragster with money man Tommy Greer and engine wizard Keith Black, he had run up an impressive streak of match race wins, but he hadn't won a national event to establish a nationwide rep.

Prudhomme and Leong met when the Greer-Black-Prudhomme team traveled to Hawaii for an exhibition event in 1964; when the G-B-P team disbanded later that year, Leong hired Prudhomme.

In Pomona, the Hawaiian made a dazzling series of runs between 7.75 and 7.87 to earn Prudhomme his first of 49 wins.

Seven months later at the Nationals, NHRA President Wally Parks was congratulating Prudhomme and Leong in the Indy winner's circle as Teddy beamed on approvingly.

Leong can't remember the name of the actor's son posing with him and Prudhomme in Bakersfield, in 1965, but he did point out how dirty his pants were. "You can tell who did all the work on this car," he smirked. (Update: The Insider reader experts come through again: It's Timothy Rooney, son of Mickey; thanks Paul Cuff and Cliff Morgan!)

Leong also was not truly fresh off the boat -- he had owned and driven a gas dragster both on the islands and at some SoCal tracks, and he was the owner of the winning Top Gas car driven by fellow Hawaiian Danny Ongais at the 1964 Winternationals – but it was his first foray into the nitro ranks. Leong had met Black and Prudhomme in Hawaii – where his parents ran a successful insurance business and a speed shop – when the G-B-P made exhibition runs for a track opening, though Leong (contrary to previous reports) says he already had commissioned Fuller to build him a car similar to the G-B-P entry before its arrival.

Leong's initial lap in his beautiful new blue fueler, tuned by Black himself, did not go well – much in the kind of way that the Titanic's voyage was fine other than the part about running into that iceberg. Leong, who had cut his teeth driving Dragmaster-chassised gas dragsters, got loose twice but still ran 191 mph; however, unfamiliar with the cockpit layout of a Fuller car, he couldn't find the parachute release, accidentally bumped the steering wheel with his elbow, hit a sign, and ended up off the end of the Lions track.

All these years later, Prudhomme, who buckled in Leong for his maiden voyage, still finds the incident humorous, as he told me last week. "Roland didn't have a clue as to where he was going. It was the funniest damn thing ever, and we still laugh about it; he ended up down there on the railroad tracks, and asked me, ' "Vipe," what happened?' He didn’t even know."

That incident – and a stern admonishment from Black – was all it took for Leong to acknowledge that he didn’t belong in the saddle of a car that fast.

Recalled Leong, "On Monday morning, I went to Black's, and he called me into his office. 'I can’t go to the races with you anymore,' he told me. 'You scared the [crap] outta me. If you got hurt or killed, what would I tell your parents?' But he told me he was going to give up running the Greer-Black-Prudhomme car and that I should get Prudhomme to drive my car for me and he would still tune it."

The G-B-P team was in its death throes anyway as Greer's industrial machine business had taken a downturn, and he sold the car to Black for what he owed him in winnings and wages. But Black's own engine-building business had begun to take off, and he had no time to be a team owner and a tuner, so all of the pieces fit conveniently for Leong.

"The Greer-Black-Prudhomme car was a great car, but NHRA was really starting to take off then, and the Winternationals was definitely a race that everyone wanted to win," recalled Prudhomme. "I never dreamed that things would turn out like they did, but winning those two races was probably the biggest thing that ever happened to me and to Roland and even to Keith Black."

The team first formed in late 1964 and was ready for the Winternationals, where Prudhomme had the quick time of the opening day, 7.80 at a slowing 204.54 mph, just ahead of Don Garlits' marginally slower yet much faster 7.81, 206.88. Fog and rain conspired to force a one-day, all-day finish Sunday (which I will recount in an upcoming column).

Before a packed house and the Wide World of Sports cameras, the Hawaiian dished up a series of seven-second blasts to collect the green, getting past Willie Redford and the broken Carroll Bros. & Oxman machine with a 7.87, then burying James Warren with a 7.77 in round two. (Interestingly, Warren was driving the Chrysler-powered Warren & Crowe entry that he had qualified after the Chevy-motivated Warren & Coburn entry had been bumped from the field.)

Black continued to work his magic for the Hawaiian in the semifinals, where a quicker-still 7.75 at 204.08 dispatched current NHRA Chief Starter Rick Stewart. The Hawaiian remained rock steady in the final round against "Wild Bill" Alexander with a 7.76, 201.34 to Alexander's 7.92, 198.22.

Leong convinced Prudhomme, who still was painting cars at the time, that they could take advantage of this newfound fame on the match race trail, and after agreeing to drive for a percentage of the winnings, they the road, hard and often.

"We just wanted to race; we'd race on a dirt road if you told us how to get there," recalled Leong. "I remember one night, we got rained out at Long Beach, and I was living in an apartment in the [San Fernando] Valley because that was where Prudhomme lived. When we woke up Sunday, it was sunny, so we decided to run San Fernando [Raceway] because they didn't open until noon. It was the only time I ever raced there, and I think we even won the race. Like I said, if there was dragstrip, we'd race it.

"The only thing was that if we had a race Saturday, Black would tune for us, but he couldn’t ever go on Sundays, so Prudhomme and I would be on our own, but we didn’t care. Prudhomme wasn't really an engine man, and all of my experience was with gas engines, and we were both really young. I can remember me and Prudhomme pulling out of Black's shop one time and him saying, 'There goes the blind leading the blind.' He just shook his head and said, 'I'm only a phone call away.'

"We went back East and won a lot of match races, and, of course, we won Indy, too [beating former Prudhomme mentor Tommy Ivo on the final run], but Black flew back there to help us. We won the race on Monday, and there was a race in Detroit the next night, but Black had to fly home. So Prudhomme and I ran down there – we didn’t even have time to check the bearings – and ran quicker and faster than we did at Indy and won that race, too!"

The successful partnership ended at year's end after B&M and Milodon, which were partners in the new Torkmaster transmission, built a car, had Zeuschel build the engines, and gave it to Prudhomme to run.

"It was hard to leave and quite a setback from not driving the Hawaiian because it was such a great car, but the B&M Torkmaster car ended up running pretty good," said Prudhomme, "and I was able from there to go into business and own my own team. Of course, Roland went on and did good, too. He's made a helluva lot better owner and tuner than he did a driver."

"I was a bit surprised, but life goes on," admitted Leong of Prudhomme's departure, "but it wasn't that a big a deal; we were young and wanted to race, and obviously back then, there were no driver contracts. [No one would know that better than Leong, who has had more drivers than any other team owner -- 22, by most counts.]

"I had just turned 21, and all we wanted to do was race, and to be able to go around the country and be paid to run, that was unheard of to us, so we didn’t really focus on all that other stuff. "

After Prudhomme left the team at the end of the successful 1965 season, Leong tapped Mike Snively to drive the beautiful blue car.

Snively repeated Prudhomme's 1965 performance by winning the 1966 Winternationals, then went on to also win the U.S. Nationals.

Leong won the Winternationals two more times as a car owner, including back to back in Funny Car in 1970 and 1971 with Larry Reyes and Butch Maas (pictured) at the wheel of his Dodge Charger.

Leong hired Snively, whom he knew through his contact at Dragmaster (and who six years later would run the sport's first five-second pass in Jim Annin's dragster in Ontario, Calif.), and the two partnered for the 1966 campaign. Before they headed to Pomona, Leong was on the phone to tracks back East, sure that they were eager to book the famed Hawaiian, but got a rude surprise.

"I told them that I owned the Hawaiian, and they told me, 'Oh, we've already got Prudhomme booked,' " recalled Leong. "Prudhomme had booked the car the year before because he and [Tom] McEwen were always kidding me about my accent and my pidgin English and that they should do the talking. But once we won Pomona again, the track operators started calling me again, and off we went."

Like Prudhomme the year before, Snively put the Hawaiian at the head of the pack in qualifying at Pomona with a strong run, a 7.66 at 205 mph, then had to defeat 31 other cars after Mother Nature stepped in. Heavy fog Saturday had forced the cancellation of AA/FD class racing, so NHRA decided that instead of the usual format – in which Saturday's winner would race the winner of Sunday's 16-car field – that it would simply expand the field to 32 cars and run the first round Saturday and the remaining four Sunday.

Snively got past Saturday's challenge with a 7.57 at 208.80 against Roy Thode, then opened Sunday with a better-yet 7.55 to defeat Paul "the Kid" Sutherland. A semifinal 7.63 defeated "Sneaky Pete" Robinson's SOHC-powered fueler to push Snively into the semi's against Warren, who a round earlier had set low e.t. with a 7.51. Showcasing his skills, Snively slapped a gatejob on the "Bakersfield Flash" and the Ridge Route Terrors and emerged with a 7.59 to 7.58 holeshot ticket to the final round.

Leong, Snively, and Black saved the best for last, powering to a 7.54 at 209.78 mph to defeat "Big Jim" Dunn's gallant 7.59, 207.84 to again claim the Winternationals trophy. They, too, hit the match race trail, and again come Labor Day weekend, the young Hawaiian kid was standing in the winner's circle in Indy with his feared blue dragster. To add to the duality of the accomplishment, as Prudhomme had defeated Ivo, who gave him his start in racing in 1960, Snively and Leong beat Leong's old island pal, Ongais, for the 1966 Indy win.

Those must have been some pretty heady times for a 21-year-old, but when pressed to brag about himself, Leong, now 64 and still spry and active, will only admit, "When we'd pull into the track, guys back East were pretty much saying, 'Man, we might as well just go home,' because everyone expected us to win, and, well, we always did well."

Leong and Snively didn't win any national events in 1967, but they did win in Bakersfield and at the Hot Rod Championships in Riverside, Calif., and a lot of other big match races.

"After Bakersfield, I got a new Don Long car; Snively and I spent three days and two nights working and sleeping at Don Long's shop to get it done before the Riverside race, then went out there and won the race and set low e.t. and top speed," recalled Leong.

Beyond the then-unprecedented Top Fuel back-to-back wins, the Winternationals has been kind to Leong. His Pomona successes continued into his Funny Car career, which, like his Top Fuel career, got off to a rough start when Larry Reyes kited the Hawaiian Charger in the lights at the 1969 race. Reyes came back to win the race the next year for Leong, who also was in the Pomona winner's circle the following year with new driver Butch Maas.

At the 1985 Winternationals, Leong and driver Rick Johnson set the Funny Car world on its ear in the second round with a barrier-breaking 5.58 – breaking Prudhomme's longstanding 5.63 mark – at 262.62 mph, also the fastest pass in history, supplanting Mark Oswald's 261.62 from the previous year's World Finals. Credit went largely to a Hawaiian Punch Daytona body that had spent eight hours in the Lockheed wind tunnel in Georgia and the addition of a 14-71 blower in place of the 12-71 that Leong traditionally had run.

Leong returned to the Pomona winner's circle in 1998 as a crew chief with car owner Prudhomme and driver Ron Capps; Prudhomme, too, has not done too shabby since that 1965 win, banking four straight victories behind the wheel at the season opener (1975-'78). Capps' 1998 win was accompanied by a victory by Prudhomme Top Fuel pilot Larry Dixon, making it a doubly sweet moment. Dixon also won the race in 2002 and 2003 for Prudhomme en route to their world championships.

Both will be in action again this year in Pomona, with Prudhomme unveiling new driver Spencer Massey and Leong tuning on Mike McCain's Bomb Squad Plymouth Duster nostalgia Funny Car, which will make exhibition runs with driver Mendy Fry. If their past history on Parker Avenue is any indication, it should be another memorable weekend for both the fabled "Hawaiian" and the legendary "Snake."


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The return of Five Fabulous Favorite Fotos: Norman Blake

(Charles Denson photo)

One of last summer's popular Insider features was Five Fabulous Favorite Fotos, wherein I contacted some of the sport's greatest lensmen and asked for their best shots. I'm proud to bring it back and equally proud to reintroduce it with Norman Blake as its subject.

"Stormin' Norman" has long been considered one of the East Coast's finest racing photographers (this despite the fact that he only got his driver's license seven years ago and to this day has never even owned a car) and a longtime friend of mine, so I was proud to have him accept my offer to showcase his skills. Here's his story, in his own words, followed by his faves, which, as you will see, he found impossible to limit to five.

"I always had an interest in cars and cameras from an early age. I started making photos when I was about 8 years old with a Kodak Brownie Super 27 (which I still own). I would go to car shows and read the magazines that were out at the time: Hot Rod, Car Craft, Drag Racing USA, and any others I could get my hands on. I always liked seeing what cool and spectacular pics that were being made by people like Steve Reyes, Jim Kelly, Bob McClurg, Leslie Lovett, and others that were helping produce the images (which were plastered all over my walls) for these publications. Especially Reyes. I was always amazed at the moments he would catch on film! This would kinda stick with me down the road.

"In 1971, some older friends asked me if I would like to go to an eight-car Funny Car match race with them, and I jumped at the chance. This was at New York National Speedway out on Long Island. I was hooked at this point. So when they asked if I wanted to go to Raceway Park a few weeks later to another Funny Car show, I did not hesitate at saying yes. Once I found out I could get to Raceway Park by bus, I went as often as I could afford to. Along the way, I got a better camera and a longer lens and started to notice I could make photos like the ones I saw in the magazines and the track newspaper, Raceway News.

"I learned in school how to develop and print my own black and white film and prints and then struck up a bit of a through-the-mail Q&A friendship with Larry 'Max' Maxwell of L&M Photos fame. He was very helpful steering me in the right direction on what I was trying to do. I also started to sell some B&W prints to the gentleman who ran the souvenir stand on the spectator side of the track. Long story short, this got my foot in the door at Raceway Park. I was given a photo pass by Richard Napp, and from that moment on, I’ve been a contributor to their newspaper.

"When I finished high school, I hit the ground running. I shot the ’73 Summernationals with credentials and got to meet 'Max' and my other photo heroes. I had my first photo published in National DRAGSTER from that event. For the next 30 or so years, I basically ate, slept, and drank drag racing. I was Division 1 photographer for a year in 1980. I freelanced for all the publications that ran drag racing. I worked mostly for Super Stock & Drag Illustrated as one of their main contributors. I also contributed to Home Mechanics and Popular Mechanics. I was associate editor for a short-lived newspaper, Dragstar Racing News, and for Drag Racing Illustrated (which only lasted for one issue; the second never got to the newsstand). I also photo-edited publications for Fass/Harris and Engledrum Publishing Cos. early on. In the latter part of the '80s, I started doing freelance assisting for other photographers, doing lighting and whatever else it took to make a photo -- mostly on-location work. I also worked as a photographer (with 'Stat Guy,' Lewis Bloom, an accomplished photographer in his own right) for the N.Y. Roadrunners Club (the people who put on the New York Marathon in the late ‘80s early ‘90s) for their in-house magazine, New York Running News and also shot rock 'n' roll shows for fun. Some of that work has been published in books and magazines. Today I only go to a race on occasion as mostly I have been following and photographing the neo-burlesque and sideshow entertainment that is going on here in New York and around the country.

"I would like to thank Vinnie, Richard, and Uncle Lou Napp and their families, along with Vince Mele, for allowing me the freedom to do some of the crazy things I have done at Raceway Park to make some really cool pics. I would also like to thank Mike Civelli, Art Leong, Ray Cook, Dave Bergfeldt, Bill D'Ottavio, and the many others that allowed me to tag along for a ride on this roller coaster of a career. And thanks to my friends and colleagues for keeping me on my toes, too! Thanks everybody that has helped and supported my career to this day. Godspeed to those above that are no longer with us. You are sorely missed."

"Dale Barlet brought out his Funny Car to make a couple of test runs during a match race at Englishtown on this Sunday. Well, they fire up the car, and he pulls up into the water and proceeds to do one of the most horrendous burnouts you ever heard out of a Funny Car. He then proceeds to back up with engine sounding really horrible. I figured they would just back it up and shut it off because it sounded so bad. But lo and behold, he does a bit of a dry hop and proceeds to move toward the starting line to stage!

"Well the bell goes off in my head, and my brain says there is no way you are going to watch this thing run from the starting line. So I say 'See ya’ to my fellow lensmen that were standing there and ran as fast as I could toward the finish line. Now they all think I’m crazy. 'Stat Guy' Lewis Bloom (then announcer at the track) mentions 'There he goes' over the PA, and I haul buns! I keep looking over my shoulder to see if he is actually going to stage. He's still running, and so am I. He stages, and I stop dead in my tracks, focus my camera, and aim at the line as the car actually leaves when the green comes on!

"The car actually makes it under power to where I landed up, which was about three-quarter-track, and right about at the spot where I’m standing, the car erupts into a ball of fire. The car burns to the ground, but Barlet got out with a few serious burns. But sorry to say this just about ended his career as a FC driver. As I’m walking back to the line, Lewis asks over the PA how many frames I got, and when I got back to the line, everybody is shaking their head like 'How the heck did you know?' " (Nikon FE, motor drive, 80-200 2.8, 1/1000sec F8 ½ Tri-X film)

"It’s another Pro Stock final at the last Division 1 WCS for the ’78 season at Raceway Park: Larry Lombardo (in Bill Jenkins' Monza) against Frank Iaconio in his Monza (co-owned with Ray Allen). This had been a longstanding but friendly rivalry for years. They do their burnouts, pull up to the line, and both cars get into the pre-stage beams, and they wait, and they wait, and they wait. One revs the engine, and the other follows suit. Well, this went on for a good two minutes, and then, in an instant, they both stage at exactly at the same time.

"The Tree goes green, and both cars leave the line. Lombardo fouls, but Frank shears the studs on the right rear slick and proceeds to cross the centerline and just miss the Christmas Tree, coming to a halt in the grass on the opposite side of the track, handing the win to 'the Grump' and Lombardo. I don’t remember, but I think division was decided on that pass, too. It was cool to witness. One of my all-time favorite runs." (Nikon FTN, motor drive, Vivitar 80-200 zoom, 1/1000sec F8 ½ Tri-X film)

"I’m on the line at Indy in 1984 when this Top Fuel dragster comes up to the line with no wing way up there in the wind like the rest. Instead, it has a wedge-shaped ‘ground effects’ tunnel hanging out from behind the slicks. He does his burnout and backs up, and I look at this thing and think of all the weird things that have been tried in the past that never really worked.

"So that little voice in my head says to go downtrack as far as I’m allowed to, which is about 300 feet out. The car is in the right lane, and I’m shooting from the left. The car stages and leaves on the green and starts shaking and smoking the tires. Under power, it hooks a quick right, getting the car sliding on its left side with the throttle hung wide open headed toward (thank God) the right-side guardrail with tires still blazing. Just as it gets to the guardrail, the car plops back on all four wheels just in time to go vaulting full throttle over the guardrail, turning itself into an expensive lawnmower. The car went the rest of the way in the grass, tearing up the front end and the grass pretty good.

"The driver, Phil Hobbs, got out okay, but his ego and the idea were a little worse for wear. It never ran again (that I know of) in that configuration." (Nikon FE, motor drive, 80-200 2.8 zoom 1/1000sec F11 Tri-X film)

"Let’s get this out of the way right now: Kids, don’t try this at all, and the management here does not condone street racing. Now, back to our regularly scheduled story. Well, it’s another summer day in 1974 at the Coney Island amusement area here in Brooklyn. A display has been put together by the PRO organization (run by 'Big Daddy' Don Garlits) to show some of the cars that will be running that weekend’s National Challenge at New York National Speedway.

“ ‘The Grump’ has his Pro Stock Vega, Flip Schofield has his Top Fueler, and Freddy DeName has his Camaro Funny Car. It’s the usual grip-and-grin sessions for the drivers and fans. Things were getting kinda boring, so Freddy decides 'I’m going to make a little noise.' He puts some fuel in ‘er and rolls the car away from the rest of the vehicles, then puts on his fire jacket and mask. They hook up the batteries and fire it up.

"So he’s sitting there with the body up and the engine cackling away. All of a sudden, he signals his crew to put the body down. They do so, and he backs the car up as they clear the crowd a bit. And then proceeds to do a burnout right there on the street!! This is all going on right up the street from the original Nathan’s.

"None of this was cleared with the local constabulary, but no one got in any trouble, either. (For those that don’t know -- I didn’t at the time, thank God -- Freddy was linked to some, as I will put it here, shady characters; you do the math). This pic is a bit historic for what is in the background, too, because it’s now all long gone. And what replaced it is gone now too, sad to say. As we speak, land developers are trying to get zoning to build condos and businesses that don’t belong there. It’s now just an empty lot.

"This is where I spend my free time shooting these days. Help Save Coney Island!" (Canon FTb, 50mm lens 1/1000sec F8 ½ Tri-X film)


"This was shot during qualifying for the 1976 WCS race at Englishtown. I was having an eventful day there in the lights. On this one roll of film, I shot Al Segrini collapsing a roof on the Highland Bandit AA/FC, then the Trojan Horse of Larry Fullerton lost a slick in the lights (but saved the car), then along comes Grant Stoms in the new unpainted Rampage Top Fuel car. I watched him coming down the track and all of a sudden noticed the supercharger leave the top of the motor. No bang or boom, so I thought. The car gets closer, and I see he is dragging the whole motor next to the car, held on by just the main fuel lines! All that was left in the frame was the crank still in the clutch with a rod or two on it. It was determined the cast-iron block just cracked around the main bearings, throwing it out of the car." (Nikon FTN, motor drive, 200mm Nikkor lens, 1/1000sec F8 Tri-X film)

"I learned a bit of a lesson this day: Don’t be lazy!!! I had a big old Nikon FTN with a motor drive, which was a heavy sucker. I decided I did not feel like carrying the weight around my shoulder this day, so I loaded up my Nikon EL2, which just had a winder on it and was lighter. (Note: A motor drive shoots a continuous burst of frames when the button is held down; a winder shoots a frame at a time when the button is pressed.)

"The order of the day was a match race between jet dragsters and fuel Funny Cars. Up comes Frank Mancuso in the Travel Agent Funny Car against Mike ‘Mr. Green Jeans’ Evegens in the Earthquake jet dragster. I moved out a ways to get a pic of the cars running side by side off the line after the handicap the Funny Cars got. The cars leave the line, and all of a sudden, the Travel Agent darts from the left into the right lane, where the Earthquake promptly T-bones the errant FC. I shot this picture and froze still looking through the camera. That voice in my head asks, 'Do you believe that just happened?' Meanwhile, the connected cars spun toward the grass as I watched through the camera lens. Then finally, the voice says again, 'Shoot it, stupid!' So I started rapidly pushing the shutter button. Remember … too lazy to use motor drive!! Well, I learned a lesson, and the rest is history, but at least I got the pic; the rest of the photogs there missed it!! Both drivers were injured but are around to reflect on this incident as they have in this column in the past.” (Nikon EL2, winder, Vivitar 80-200 zoom, 1/500sec F8 Tri-X film)

"Where were you when 'Big Daddy' blew over? I was at the other end of the track making pictures of the whole thing as best I could. It was a dingy day (lightwise) of qualifying at the 1986 Summernationals, so I figured I would head to the finish line and make a few high-speed-run pics, save a bit of film, and maybe even get something crazy if I could. That was the vulture in me thinking.

"Well, I guess I sort of got what I was wishing for, because here came Don Garlits with his Swamp Rat XXX up to make a qualifying run alongside Darrell Gwynn. Both cars left the line, and all of a sudden, I can see almost the whole bottom side of Garlits' car, so I start shooting a frame or so as the car comes down the track going up and up and up and over!

"I buried the motor drive as the car did a pirouette on the wing strut and was bouncing with the throttle wide open, smoking the tires, and bouncing to a stop while backwards. The car stopped for a second, then started to drive back toward the starting line through the cloud of smoke he just created. This is when my heart started to race a bit for Garlits himself. I thought he might be out cold and the car would get back to the starting line under power, but the smoke cleared in time to see Garlits pull the car in the grass next to the lane he was in, cut off the motor, and get out and wave his hands to the crowd that he was all right. Whew. Then I turned to one of the other photographers standing next to me and said, 'There is a spectator sitting on a gold mine right now and does not know what to do with it.' I ran and did a few photos of Garlits being interviewed by Steve Evans and Diamond P.

"I was lucky enough to have this series published in just about every magazine that covered drag racing plus Car and Driver. It also appeared with the car on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History (where my sequence is in their archive), but as I said, I’ve seen some spectator photos of this that I would have killed to have been in their shooting position. My hat is off to you all that recorded this moment in drag racing history." (Nikon FE, motor drive, 200mm Nikkor lens, 1/500sec F4 Tri-X film)


"This is one of my favorite photos of the late, great Leslie Lovett. It shows three of the things he loved in life: drag racing, his photography, and his love for scavenging parts for his office decoration. If you ever saw his space in the old North Hollywood HQ, you probably could have built a car with the parts he had stashed there. Thanks for the inspiration and the friendship along the way. We love you and miss you, my friend!" (Canon FTb, 50mm lens, 1/1000sec F5.6 ½ Tri-X film)

Thanks for sharing your stuff, Norman. I know the readers here will eat this stuff up.

You can see more of Blake's great and diverse set of photographs online here.

Heads-up, shutterbugs! I'll have more Favorite Fotos in the months ahead, so be sure to keep your eyes peeled, but in the meantime, I'm going to open the floodgates and accept submissions of your Favorite Foto -- note the singular use of the word as well as the use of "your." Send me your single best shot -- it must be one that you actually took -- along with the hows and whys, and I'll feature the best of them in an upcoming column. Start digging!


Thursday, January 15, 2009

Getting going again

Today's a big day as we'll be getting our first official look at the new that has been under construction this winter by our new pals at I wish I could give y'all a sneak peek, but it's being kept under pretty tight wraps. Needless to say, it's going to have quite a different look and incorporate many new cool features.

It has been an interesting process working with an outside company because, other than the initial design that was done by our good pals at way back in 1995, I've been heavily involved with the design and coding of every version since then (you can get an interesting look back at older versions of and read some history of the site here).

Though we did present AmericanEagle with our ideas – what features should be on the home page, how we would like to see them function – after that, we pretty much turned things over to them to employ the expertise they've gained in helping major pro sports teams construct their Web sites. There has been a constant dialogue between us since, approving page designs or asking for changes, and it's now getting close to the payoff point.

I feel kind of like a race team that has spent the winter waiting for someone to build our hot rod and now we're ready to jump in and take the first test laps. Stand by!

Speaking of the Kragen O'Reilly NHRA Winternationals, it was kind of interesting to see the reaction to Monday's column about the event and why it shouldn't be missed, which was well-received by many of the Pomona faithful (and those jealous they can’t attend) and dismissed by some as shameless propaganda -- I was chastised by one faithful reader who pointedly admonished me to "never do that again!" – but perhaps that's the nature of this column.

I don’t mind taking the lumps that come with the territory of being a columnist -- certainly the old adage "you can't please all of the people all of the time" comes to mind – and though I am given great leeway to explore all manner of NHRA stories for this column, no one should forget that the purpose of is to promote NHRA, its racers, sponsors, events, tracks, and programs. Sometimes I accomplish that by talking about current events, and sometimes it's done by writing historical pieces that I hope bridge the gap between the veteran fans of the old days and the ways of the current sport.

I had the opportunity to share some of my thoughts about this column with Greg Zyla, who published an embarrassingly long interview with me in the current issue of Performance Racing Industry magazine. You may remember Zyla's name as the creator of the Vallco drag racing board game, which I wrote about here, and those of you who know me are aware that I do my best work (and am most comfortable) outside of the spotlight, but his kind reciprocation of that interview allowed me to share my thoughts about this column and why I think it succeeds in bringing closer the sport's differing eras. Pick up a copy and check it out.

I sure hope that the year's remaining 47 issues won't be like this …

Issue 1 of National DRAGSTER's 50th anniversary publishing season left the building last night with slightly less fanfare than Elvis but just as much screaming. Yesterday's Antron Brown-based bombshell – covered on the home page today – caused a lot of frantic rewriting on several features already in the can and almost on their way to the printer, not the least of which was our marquee What's New feature.

As veteran readers of the publication know, the first issue of each year is dedicated to catching up with what last year's top 10 finishers are planning for this year, and we had editorialized that with all of the other crew-chief and driver changes in the Tony Schumacher, Alan Johnson, Brandon Bernstein, and Cory McClenathan pits, the change of ownership for Brown's relatively stable team from David Powers to Tim Buckley would do little to hurt his chances of a title bid. Erase, erase, erase.

We also had weighed in similarly in the annual Fan Guide preseason analysis, the shipping of which to the printer, fortunately for us, had been moved from last Friday to today, allowing us to make the necessary changes before it, too, hit the presses. Members should get their free copy of the annual Fan Guide with the third issue of the season. Nonmembers will be able to buy the Fan Guide at national events and by mail.

The analysis sections of the Fan Guide have been tuned on so many times since they were written late last year that they barely are recognizable. We've rewritten and deleted entire sections as teams' plans have changed and are just thankful that we were able to catch everything we did before it went to press. Working in print is a lot like working without a net: One slip, and your mistake gets splattered for everyone to see for all time. Working on the Web means never having errors that last in perpetuity.

I spent a wonderful half-hour on the phone yesterday afternoon with the fabled "Snake," Don Prudhomme, for the feature I'm working on about him and new driver Spencer Massey for the year's second issue. In what I think was his first public interview on the subject, Prudhomme was candidly forthcoming about what had transpired between him and Larry Dixon in the off-season and is very high on Massey, both as a driver and as a spokesperson for his team. "He's a cool kid," he said, as only he can. "I really like him."

On the flip side of that coin, the first issue includes interviews with Dixon as well as his new team owner, Alan Johnson. The bulk of the feature is an interview with Johnson, conducted by Associate Editor Brad Littlefield, that talks about his approach to the season ahead. Good reading. The issue also features on its cover (pictured above) the first printed looks at the new paint schemes for Tim Wilkerson and Erica Enders; thanks to those teams for giving us the exclusive. I have to say that both cars give the pits quite a colorful look.

I mentioned preseason testing earlier, which is exciting to me because I'll be heading out to Phoenix a week from tomorrow to the National Time Trials at Firebird Int'l Raceway. A lot of teams will forgo testing this weekend in Las Vegas and are testing at Palm Beach Int'l Raceway in Florida. That's where Alan Johnson's two new cars will get their first laps, along with Wilkerson, the Schumacher Racing cars, and more in what is a closed test session. Those who don’t meet their goals there will come to Arizona and run alongside those who felt that less testing was in order. Whoever shows up, we'll be ready to bring you the results as the countdown to Pomona continues.

As you can tell, we've been devoting a lot of time to promoting the Winternationals on, and I'll also be theming some of the column's content that way, looking back at great moments in Pomona history so that you guys get your regular dose of history lessons. I have some other cool stuff planned beyond that, including the return of the ever-popular Five Fabulous Favorite Fotos with veteran lensmen like "Stormin' Norman" Blake and Tom West, and I even managed to track down one of the most prolific shooters of the 1970s, Barry Wiggins, who promises to send me his greatest works when he gets a chance.


And finally, a last word on Bill Crites --probably the only way I'd ever get in a last word on him. His memorial service last Saturday was amazing, both in turnout and content. It was truly a standing-room-only affair; the pews of the chapel were packed, as were both side hallways, and a large group of people also was left outside. I showed up 45 minutes early thinking I'd be the first one there only to be met by a couple of dozen earlier birds.

Dave McClelland, Steve and Cindy Gibbs, ND alums Neil Britt and Joe Martinez, and Tom "the Mongoose" McEwen all spoke knowingly and jokingly about Crites.

I doubt that the minister – at least based on the several shades of red he was turning – had ever officiated over a service as free-rolling as this one. Bill would have been proud. I'd love to repeat the stories, but there are impressionable eyes here.

People from all periods of his life were there, from his earliest DRAGSTER buddies (including NHRA Board Chairman Dallas Gardner, board member Dick Wells, NHRA Publishing VP Adriane Riddder, and former NHRA VPs Carl Olson, Cary Menard, and Britt) to his current softball team to friends he made when National DRAGSTER was printed locally at News-Type service in Glendale, and, of course, friends, family, and others he touched in his 68 years.

It was a great send-off to a great guy.


Monday, January 12, 2009

Ten reasons you don't want to miss the Winternationals

The 49th annual Kragen O'Reilly NHRA Winternationals is just 24 days away, almost close enough to start an official countdown, though I'm sure that if you're like me, your countdown began the day the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals ended in November.

There's always something magical about the Winternationals, and even though I am a lifelong Southern California resident who has been blessed to have the season opener in my backyard, I'd have plenty of compelling reasons to travel here if I lived elsewhere.

We all know that times are tough and people are watching their spending right now, but here are 10 reasons I wouldn’t want to miss this year's Winternationals.

Bang for the buck: This pretty much applies to any NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series national event, but if you compare the dollar value of what your admission ticket gives you to other sporting entertainment options, there's no beating a day at the drags. Take what you would pay for a seat at any of the days and compare it to what you'd get at a football or hockey game.

Obviously, the drags are an all-day affair. You can get there at 8 a.m., before the racing actually begins, and after a action-packed day of high-horsepower thrills, you can stay until well after the racing has been completed. The sheer number and variety of competition machines makes it one of the world's great car shows, too.

Of course, what makes NHRA Drag Racing so special and unique is the all-access pit area that allows fans to not only watch the teams prepare for battle but offers unprecedented access to the stars themselves. (Try to go to an L.A. Kings game and ask to watch the trainer sharpening skates or to talk to Dustin Brown and see how far that gets you.)

There's so much to do at the race, even beyond all that, with interactive displays in Nitro Alley, the Manufacturers Midway, and so much more.

Fuelers aplenty: In conversations we've had with the many Top Fuel teams the last couple of days, there will be more than enough cars to fill the field and, in fact, more Top Fuel cars in attendance than at last year's event.

Pomona has always been a Top Fuel stronghold, and now with the return of fan favorite David Baca, the first full-season schedule for the Hartley family, and news of other sponsorships coming for teams that might not normally have ventured west, there's little doubt that there will be plenty of nitro thunder come the first weekend of February.

Although the current entry list on does not reflect all entries received as of today, NHRA is expecting full fields in all three Professional categories.

History: The Winternationals is NHRA's second-oldest event, dating back to the inaugural event in Pomona Feb. 18-19, 1961. The sheer amount of history that has been made on the Fairplex grounds in the nearly 50 years since then makes the Pomona racetrack hallowed ground for racers and race fans.

Like Indy, it's a place where from the minute you walk into the pits, you can feel the vibe of history and hear the heartbeats of past hopefuls who came out to what used to be called the Big Go West.

Don Prudhomme's first win, the debut of Don Garlits' rear-engine Top Fueler, the flying Hawaiian, Raymond Beadle's "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," and many more incidents are engraved in the NHRA history books as unforgettable moments, and there are sure to be more in store this year. You can read more about the Winternationals mystique by revisiting the column I wrote last year at this time here.

Unique venue: If you're a regular at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, you know that the facility itself is remarkable beyond what actually happens on the racetrack. Its location, surrounded so closely by small communities, certainly makes it unique in those aspects and a far cry from any of today's stadiums that are built in more rural areas. Local race fans can literally walk to the gates or step outside and have lunch at El Merendero, a small Mexican restaurant favored by race teams for a quick meal, or go to the adjacent convenience store for ice or drinks, or even walk to nearby downtown La Verne, with its shops and restaurants.

Add to that the impressive backdrop of the San Bernardino Mountains, traditionally capped with a picture-postcard covering of snow, which give the Winternationals a wintry feel. For you cold-cursed Easterners, the weather is almost always good, and hey, would you rather be home shoveling snow or cruising down palm-tree-lined streets for days of basking in the sun and watching the drags?

New paint/cars/teams: Back in the 1970s, the Winternationals was always the event where fans eagerly looked forward to getting their first looks at new teams, new cars, new sponsors, and new paint schemes, a scenario that changed once teams began running preseason testing in Arizona and Nevada, within fairly easy driving distance for SoCal fans. But this year, a lot of teams won’t be testing locally, if at all, before the season begins. Some teams, concerned about iffy weather out West in the winter, are testing in Florida, and some are watching their budgets and, content with their 2008 tune-ups, coming to Pomona with minimal or no testing time, making for a lot of new-car debuts and first looks in Pomona.

Catching the first act: No one likes to walk into a movie late or begin reading a book at Chapter 4, which is why attending the Winternationals is so cool. It's the beginning of the season that all of us will follow, and many times the die is cast when the first blows are thrown in Pomona. It's not hard to get an idea of who's going to be tough or who's going to struggle, and for those who will return in November for the Finals, the track presents the rare opportunity to see both the opening and closing acts of one of the greatest shows on Earth.

Transfer of power: Along that same line, the Winternationals traditionally has been an event where you can see the storylines develop, and I can’t remember the anticipation for a year being as strong as this season. Many eyes will be on Top Fuel to see how Tony Schumacher will fare without championship-winning crew chief Alan Johnson. No one expects him to have a 15-win season as he did last year, but just how will he do? He won the Winternationals last year ... can he do it again? How long will it take A.J. and new driver Larry Dixon to get up to speed? How will Dixon's replacement, Spencer Massey, do in his debut in Don Prudhomme's car?

Erica's back!: Another fan favorite, former Jr. Dragster star Erica Enders, Pro Stock's most successful female racer, will be back in action after sitting out the majority of the last two seasons, and she'll be doing it in the rare Ford-powered machine of Jim Cunningham. Enders, who made history as the first female Pro Stock finalist, will be looking to become that class' first female winner; it’s the only NHRA Pro class in which a woman has never won.

European flavor: The event will have a distinct European flavor to it, so fans can cheer on more than the local heroes. Briton Andy Carter (pictured), the 2008 FIA European Top Fuel dragster champion, will drive Terry Haddock's Top Fuel dragster with backing from primary sponsor Lucas Oil and will be joined in sunny SoCal by Switzerland's Urs Erbacher (also Top Fuel) and Sweden's Leif Andreasson (Top Alcohol Funny Car). It's a rare chance for fans to see cars and drivers they probably won’t see anywhere else.

Sportsman competition: Say what you will about the other regions of the country, but I think that the West Coast has some of the finest Sportsman competitors in the nation and surely the most consistently tough field of alcohol cars. Plus, a lot of the touring heroes from other parts of the country regularly make the trip west, as they do for the Finals – many leaving their equipment here during the winter rather than having to tow cross-country and/or winterize their rides – so the competition is always topflight as everyone wants to draw first blood in the points battles.

What are you waiting for? Order your tickets today here, and I'll see you out on Parker Avenue.


Friday, January 09, 2009

Jesus, Crites! Tales of our pal

Tomorrow, in nearby Azusa (motto: "Everything from A to Z in the USA"), we'll say a loving farewell to our old pal Bill Crites, the former ND photographer and art director who died suddenly about a week ago. I know that to many of you who are "just" fans, the loss of Crites doesn’t resound as strongly as it does to those who have been on the tour for the last 20 or more years – media types who were friends with him, racers who worked with him, and so on – but Bill was known and loved by so many and was such a character that he deserves a nice send-off here beyond what I wrote about him last week, so please indulge us. This is a long, long column, filled with funny stories and remembrances that might not mean as much to some of you as it does to us, but I’ll be back with something a little more conventional Monday.

From the e-mails I've received with those sharing their Crites stories, it's going to be a pretty solid turnout tomorrow at 11 a.m. at White's Funeral Home (404 E. Foothill Boulevard; drop by and find out what he was all about -- and come Crites Casual: wear a Hawaiian shirt!), and below are some of the stories and comments we're sure to hear repeated there that you might find amusing.

Bill's brother, Ken, told me that Bill will be cremated and his ashes spread at two places he loved: Maui and Wrigley Field. Crites was probably one of the most hard-core Cubs fans I knew, so the latter seems very appropriate.

Through our sadness the last couple of days, we've been smiling and laughing. ND Senior Editor Kevin McKenna reminded me of the time that Crites, so despondent about his Cubs, drew up a résumé based on his personal sports experience (a lot of softball!) and offered to take on the task of managing the Cubbies. Believe it or not, he actually got a response; unfortunately for him, they declined his generous offer.


Crites in his Irwindale days; that's him, front row center (go figure!)

I heard stories I never had (like DRO's Jeff Burk talking about the time that Crites locked himself inside the ND darkroom and wouldn’t let Photo Editor Leslie Lovett in and would only respond to Lovett's demands in cartoon voices) and ones I'd forgotten (former ND reporter Todd Veney reminded me of the time that Crites had laid heavy and continuously on the rental-car horn from the track at Maple Grove all the way to the hotel, a good 20-minute drive, and Dana Servaes reminded me how Crites used to sign his name to artworks in our hotel rooms, sometimes on the back but often right on the painting itself), but an awful lot of people insisted that I talk to former NHRA VP and Competition Director Steve Gibbs, who knew Crites for decades, to get "the iceplant story."

So that's where we'll start. Take it away, "Big Hook."

"While I was managing Irwindale Raceway, sometime between '66 and '68, I got a call from Irwindale city officials who wanted to see some modest landscaping done at the track in the space between the grandstands and the guardrail," Gibbs remembered. "About the only thing that would grow at that rock pile was iceplant - the stuff you see along freeway embankments, so I go and buy a couple hundred flats of the stuff. Bill was looking for a way to make some money, so I hired him to do the job.

"You know the speed Bill operated at, and it was no different then. After a couple of days, I went over to check on how he was doing, and it wasn't good. The stack of iceplant flats barely had a dent in it, and there sure wasn't much ground cover to be seen along the track. I got on his case about the way things were going and told him the city honchos wanted something completed, and soon. A couple of more days go by with the same amount of progress (or lack of), so I laid into him pretty good. I wanted the whole load of iceplant in the ground by the weekend, or I wouldn't pay him a penny. Well, in another couple of days, I drive over to the track to see how he's doing, and I'll be damned: The stack of flats is completely gone.

"Something wasn't right, however, as the landscaping was plenty sparse. 'Jeezus, Bill,' I said. 'Is that all the further the stuff went?' 'That's it,' he said. My gut instincts told me that something didn't add up, and I also recalled seeing Bill driving the old track pickup down past the end of the racetrack, so I decided to take a ride down there. Just off the right side of the shutdown area, there was a huge gravel pit that was a couple hundred feet deep; I hopped the guardrail and walked over to edge of the pit and took a look. Sure enough, there at the bottom of the pit was about three-fourths of the iceplants I had bought. I gave him his walking papers.

"I laid awake last night, just thinking about the 55 years we hung out together. I'm already missing him."

Steve's daughter, Cindy, who spent a lot of time with Crites and had seen him the day before he passed, wrote poignantly, "OMG, what are we going to do without him? He was family to us. I'm so thankful to have had yesterday with him. He was pissing us off, annoying us, and making us laugh all in one evening; in other words, the usual.

"We had a routine. Crites would call me, I would answer, 'Hey, whaddya doin?' and he would respond, 'Talkin' to you,' and then the word 'EAT!' would come out of his mouth. Within an hour, he'd shuffle up my driveway, get to my door, and without fail, ring it at least eight times or yell 'LET'S GO!' at the top of his lungs, announcing his arrival in the most annoying of ways. He was pleased. In fact, I believe that was his goal in life, to annoy as many people as possible each day. He loved to push strangers to the point of giving him the finger, something he cherished daily.

"We had our favorite little hole-in-the-wall Mexican-food place in Whittier. Pelo, our favorite waiter, always greeted Bill with an enthusiastic "Señor William!" Crites loved that. He and I would argue about everything; it was fun for me to play along. Rarely would he ever agree with me about anything I said, even when I KNEW he did! It was part of his schtick; again, God forbid he be anything but contrary. I'm sure people thought we were an old married couple. He would bark at me, and I would bark right back. I think I spent most of my time with him shaking my head, taking a deep breath. Or laughing. I was an easy audience; it's probably why he loved to hang here. My dad always told me, 'Order the most expensive thing on the menu, it's payment for the abuse.' I always tried to do just that; of course, the little joints we went to were hardly big-buck menus. I wouldn't have it any other way.

"We loved Bill; he was family. I've known him for 46 years; in other words, my whole life. We loved it when he showed up but were rolling our eyes at him within minutes of his arrival. He made us laugh hard, and he frustrated us beyond words. He's the most lovable misfit I've ever known; his crazy hair fit his personality perfectly. I've always imagined that he was BORN looking the way he did. He was a very talented artist, I think more talented than most gave him credit for. His bratty ways probably outweighed the ability for some to see just how artistic he was.

Crites and Lovett; wonder if Bill's already driving him crazy.

"Good God, the stories he has told us over the years. I think that's what I regret most, is that I don't have his stories recorded somewhere to replay them. Mischief was his mantra; I wonder if anyone has more firecracker stories than Crites. I'm sure that Leslie Lovett, my dad, and many of the original North Hollywood NHRA staff all had years taken off their life by some of Bill's antics.

"Bill spent Monday with my boyfriend, Greg, my boys, and me. I keep wondering if we had known he'd be gone by Tuesday if I would have done anything different. I don't think so. We had a lot of laughs; we went down to Belmont Shores and had what was an unusually so-so meal at our favorite cafe. Bill loved to harass the servers and insisted on paying. As we were leaving, he started yelling at me, 'Go down there; I want to see the sunset!' I was tired and wanted to go home, but I made the turn down PCH, and we ended up at Seal Beach pier. Crites hobbled his way out of my car and took a dozen or so pictures of what would be his last sunset. I'm so glad we did that now. We came back to my house, ate a yummy dessert, and laughed at two episodes of Two and a Half Men, a show I just turned him on to. He said, 'This show's nuts ... I like it!'

"At 8 p.m., he stood up and demanded I drive him down my driveway to his car, which was parked on the street. Once there, as always, he reached over and kissed me on the cheek. He grumbled, 'Thank you,' and I replied, 'No, thank you!'

"Little did I know how prophetic those last moments were. Thank you, Bill, for the laughter and love you brought to our lives. I imagine you are having a blast with some of your long-lost buddies, Buster Couch and Jim Annin to name a few, and that Lovett was one of the first to greet you. Let the mischief continue!"

I also heard from a lot of former NHRA employees who worked here when Bill did. Former National DRAGSTER Editor Bill Holland, who worked here with Crites in the 1960s and '70s, had his own great Crites story. "There were a bunch of us NHRA types on a waterskiing weekend at Lake Isabella," he remembered. "Crites feigned that he did not know how to water-ski but was anxious to learn. I took the bait. I showed him on land how to do everything, and we proceeded to the water. I gave him two skis -- as you would for a beginner -- but Crites said, "No, I want to use one ski like you guys." I argued with him, but he was insistent. So off we go and give it a try. On the first pull he shimmied, was mostly submerged, and flopped mightily. We encouraged him to try it again. Same basic results. More encouragement. Off we go again ... and Crites, wobbly, rises out of the water. We cheer. And in the next minute, the bastard is off cutting wakes, jumping, etc., just like a pro. We'd been had. Again."

John Mazzarella, who was ND's advertising manager at ND when I first got here in May 1982, was a road warrior back then and spent a lot of time with Crites and Lovett. He remembered one Summernationals trip where the team got lost on the way to the airport and found themselves near the Statue of Liberty. "Crites kept telling Les he was lost, and Les was yelling at him to shut up, telling Bill that we were witnessing a historic monument so 'Relax and be quiet.' I started singing 'The Star Spangled Banner,' and Bill started to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Les went nuts, stopped the car on the freeway, and tried to throw Crites out. What a riot."

On either side of that crazy moment was the story of a box of NDs that Mazzarella had grabbed as they left the track that he had planned to lay out around the airport as a way to expose people to the publication, but "Mazz" got tired of the box sitting on his lap during the car ride. "As we approached a toll booth, Les was fumbling for money to pay. I saw an opportunity to take the 15-20 NDs out of this big box on my lap and opened the back door and let them out at the toll booth. Les went berserk as we drove off. About five miles down the freeway, and after Les had tried to get rid of Bill, he finally turned around to go back to where he missed the turn for the airport. As we approached the opposite-direction toll booth, Crites was screaming out the window that it was us who threw the box out in the lane. Lovett was swinging into the back seat trying to slug Bill and screaming at me while the rest of us were laughing our asses off. What a great memory. I'm laughing as I write it."

Karen Raffa, who worked with us in the 1990s selling ads for Jr. DRAGSTER and was the wife of another late, great ND alum, former Editor in Chief "Mean John" Raffa, was one of the many who got sucked into the vortex of Crites' office, called in to chitchat with him, surrounded by his impressive collection of knickknacks and toys. She remembered fondly "the days of walking by his office and getting 'summoned in' and an hour later 'breaking out' to get my work done. He loved an audience to do his work and show you his stuff."

Felicia Lawrence, who also worked here in the 1990s, wrote of Crites, "He was one of the greatest, funniest, craziest people I ever met. I loved him. Bill was the one that helped me get a job at NHRA. After that, just working together and getting to know each other more, I just came to just love having him around … most of the time." Are you guys sensing a trend here?

Former NHRA Marketing and Broadcasting veep Brian Tracy also weighed in. "One thing that might get lost in all the tales of zaniness about Crites is how really caring he was about kids," BT wrote. "When our daughter, Megan, was going to turn 16, Bill knew that we were going to get her a little car for her birthday, so he took it upon himself to make a really big red bow for us to attach to the hood of the car to really highlight the surprise."

David Woodruff, who worked in the NHRA Marketing Department a few years ago, wrote, "I too have many wonderful memories while working with Bill on the Jr. Drag stuff. He always made me laugh, but he had the ability to get your blood boiling as well. My favorite memories are from my time on the softball field with him. I especially liked the time I convinced [fellow marketing guy] Jim Teller, who was supposed to be some stud in his early days, to race Crites around the bases. Crites crushed him; it wasn’t even a race."

Another former NHRA employee, Dana Servaes, who worked in the Marketing Department in the late 1990s and early 2000s and somehow even survived as Crites' roommate for a time, naturally had some interesting memories.

"The best was probably the battle between Bill and the gopher. We once had a gopher living in our tiny, 10- by 20-foot backyard, and you would have thought Bill was hunting a wild beast in the jungle. He had a pellet gun and was in the backyard every day for probably four months, waiting for any sign of that gopher. Rodent poison would have been way too easy – he wanted to actually shoot it and talked about his 'game' that he was going to get ALL the time. He never did get that darn thing. Watching him fume over this poor gopher was great entertainment, though.

"One of the funniest things that I ever heard, though, was when he was on the road with DRAGSTER how he would remove paintings from the walls of all his hotel rooms across the country and sign his best 'Bill Crites' at the bottom with a black Sharpie and then put the picture back on the wall. I keep hoping that I am going to find a painting someday at some random hotel that has Bill’s name on it.

"Another time I took Bill to an Angels game. He took his glove and was soooo sad when we had to leave the ballpark. He actually turned to me and said, 'Dana, I sat in my seat the whole game and not one ball came my direction!' It was the sweetest thing ever – spoken like a true child. So I decided to take him to Krispy Kreme in Anaheim to make up for it. We watched them make donuts for about an hour and then ended up getting kicked out because Bill NEEDED to know where the donut holes were. They didn’t have donut holes at that time, and Bill insisted that if there were donuts, then there must be donut holes. It was quite the scene, but hilarious."

Henry Walther, known to many for his contributing role in Team Minor's dominance in Top Fuel in the early 1980s, also knew him well, and while many of those who knew Bill well called him "Crites," Henry had another interesting name for him. "I always called him 'Jesus,' which was shortened from 'Jesus Crites.' I am sure that Crites is laughing at the fact that he checked out still owing me a dinner. Such was his sense of humor. We are going to miss him, for both his humor and his mischievousness."

Like a fortunate few of us, Alan Miller got the chance to enjoy some quality "car time" with Crites. "I had the pleasure of making a road trip with Crites, maybe his last for NHRA, to [the NHRA National Hot Rod Reunion] in Bowling Green, Ky., in June 2007," he wrote. "We left late, and Bill could drive anyone nuts, even doing nothing. He took pictures of 18-wheeler lights with no strobe while trying to drive at midnight. He was the ultimate little kid that refused to grow up. I won't ever forget my trip with him."

Crites loved the guys on the NHRA Safety Safari, and one of its members, Fred Brown, remembered him fondly. "Jim Frizzell and I spent many hours with Bill during national events. He was, as you said a 'contrarian.' Once when I told him his moustache needed trimming, he reached up and snatched several hairs out with his fingers! He always seemed to speak in his sardonic manner as if no one but he knew just what was going on in the world. The last time I spoke with him was at Bowling Green at the first or second Holley Hot Rod Reunion. While not a 'big name' to many, Crites' passing will nevertheless leave a very big hole in our hearts."

His former photography peers also had their special memories of Crites, who, as I said earlier, was a diehard Cubbie fan. Remembered Tim Marshall, "Crites and I used to go to all the Frank and Sons baseball card shows, and he would ONLY buy Chicago Cub players while I wanted to find the hot, young, up-and-coming players, for profit, of course. Bill had the largest Ryne Sandberg collection in history. That was Bill. I'll miss him so."

Richard Brady, whose long career as an NHRA division photographer and National DRAGSTER photographer included lots of times with Crites, wrote, "I'm sending along to you a photo I found and scanned, and boy, does this date us, but in this photo taken back in 1977 at the Summernationals are Leslie Lovett, Eric Brooks, Bill Crites, and, of course, me, of which the hairstyles alone are enough to cause world panic, and how about that rental car? Working with Bill was always a treat, for we never knew exactly what he would do at any given moment, which as I look back on all of it now was what made it such a treat to be with Bill. In later years before he left DRAGSTER, I remember on more than one occasion being with him, and he wanted to stop somewhere to buy something, which eventually led us to spend three hours while he looked at several choices and read and reread every word written on the box just to be sure the one he was going to buy was the same as the other! I can recall to this day the time he drove me to the Thieves Market so he could look at cowboy boots! About four hours later, he walked out with a pair he had bought, but that was only after handling each and every single pair of boots that was his size!"

Jon Asher sent out a very eloquent piece on Crites (portions of which are below) to the drag racing photography community, remembering Crites' dominance of the annual SoCal softball game that he and Carol Johnson hosted for 20 years: "The annual Kagel Canyon Fallnationals, an erstwhile softball game and who-can-consume-the-most-margaritas-and-still-drive party in Southern California, a bash with a life all its own. Winning the softball game – in which cheating was not only encouraged, but was mandatory for survival – could result in bragging rights lasting only as long as one could convince others that you were telling the truth about your exploits. Crites was always an invitee, for numerous reasons, but in all honesty he didn’t always appear. As a softball player, however, he was in high demand. While the rest of us slumped over the plate like the buffoons we were, Crites stood straight, bat upraised and ready to send the ball deep into the outfield. Since everyone who appeared at the game played, that often meant there’d be 25 or 30 defensive players standing idly around the outfield, discussing world events or merely scanning skies for aliens. Crites’ blasts would usually leave them convinced that they had, indeed, spotted a UFO ascending overhead.

"Seeing Crites at races other than the Pomona events was a treat. For me, personally, spotting him along the guardrail resulted in mixed emotions, for as happy as I was to see him, he insisted upon greeting me with a wet, sloppy kiss on the cheek, a greeting impossible to avoid or ignore.

"Crites loved nothing more than setting the late Leslie Lovett off, and I admit that the few times I did it myself it was because I’d seen how successful Bill was in doing the same. Whenever Crites would say to me, 'Watch this,' and head towards Lovett, I always followed closely behind, knowing that in mere seconds the sport’s leading photographer would be heading into emotional orbit.

"For me, and the others who knew him, Bill Crites isn’t gone. He’s standing tall over the plate up above, waiting to hit the next pitch out of the park."

Dawn Mazi-Hovsepian, whose racing family (like all of us) Crites was quite fond of, wrote, "There are a lot of funny stories that come naturally with Crites. I have been searching though my archives (stuff in my basement) for a doodling on yellow legal paper that I believe Crites did during one of the ND staff meetings back in the day. It had typical notes about what needed to be turned in for upcoming issues, but there were stick-people figures with staff names on them and goofy captions, purely reminiscent of high school doodlings on a folder or book cover. Beyond Crites' high jinks and often aloof and grumpy demeanor was a sincere and generous man. I don't think it's a secret that Crites took great pleasure in keeping people on their toes when they were around him, or at the very least confusing the hell out of them. We had the pleasure of seeing Bill at many recent CHHR and March Meet events. The first time we ran into him, we were pleasantly surprised to see him and asked what he was doing out at the event. He quickly gave us the 'Shhhhhh' signal and said, 'I'm not supposed to be out here.' That was so Crites.

"Rich Enos also told us the story about how Crites would be shooting on the opposite side of the track and then out of nowhere frantically wave him over to see him. He would hustle over to see what the problem was, and Crites just turned and yelled [an obscenity at him] and would go back to shooting. I've attached a couple of pics of Crites, one with Rich. I know Mark [Hovsepian] and Rich always busted Crites' chops about using a 30-year-old lens on a new digital camera."

Wrote Lou Hart, "Bill was always nice to me and always had a story or two to tell. He was a special person and a class act. I'm glad to have known him. I had the opportunity to gather some photographers at the 2008 March Meet for a reunion photo." Pictured, from left, with Crites are some of his starting-line pals: Rich Enos, Tom West, and Rick Shute.

Tom West, who's also been covering our sport for decades, remembered, "Bill Crites was one of those guys who were out there on that starting line in summer 1966, when I first got out there. Bill, Les Welch, Tim Marshall, Ron Lahr, Mike Mitchell, and Mert Miller all were a part of that early experience, and I felt at home with them very quickly. I spoke with Bill as he was making his Christmas phone calls on Christmas Eve, spoke to him for a long time, even though both of us said that we had to get going a couple of different times. I would have hung on to it longer if I had realized that it would be my last chance to talk to him. Hope you're getting the shot out there, Bill."

Division 1 photographer Phil Hutchison added, "I have only known Bill Crites for about five years, but even with my limited history with Bill, your story on him was so right on. I make it to Pomona for the Winters each year to get away from the East Coast doldrums, and during one of my trips, I met Crites in the media parking lot, and immediately he was giving me tips on how to shoot my pictures! The past few years, my routine is to shoot photos during the first few days from the starting line, but come Sunday, I take my long lens and sit on the top end and shoot. Bill was usually down there with his buddies, and I loved sitting there and shooting the breeze. Two years ago, he needed a longer lens, and luckily I had one to lend him for the day (one of the new 80-200 vibration-free lenses). In trade, he gave me a super wide-angle lens that I used in the pits for some great stuff. The NHRA had arranged to have In-N-Out Burger bring in a remote unit for the media, and once Crites and I found out it was there, we made a beeline to get our Double-Doubles! I will never forget sitting on the Pomona tarmac outside the staging lanes eating our burgers and shooting the breeze. Damn; Pomona will never be the same. I will miss the man."

Even former Funny Car racer Tim Grose, whose racing career about mirrored Crites' tenure here, wrote in. "This one hurts!" he said. "Immediately after reading your account, I was starting to recount the many, many times he'd make me laugh and put everything back in perspective. At first, I was starting to feel our loss that would lead to tearing up, and then my dark side conjured up the image of Crites and Lovett meeting for all eternity."

This is a good place to point out that although I (and many others) have made a big deal out of how Bill used to love to get Lovett worked up, I know there was no end to the admiration he felt for Les and his work and that the two, deep down, were good friends.

Bruce Wheeler, who lives in Hawaii and will probably help Ken in the scattering of some of Bill's ashes, wrote, "Although he and I had been acquainted with one another for quite some time, it wasn't until the 50th Nationals at Indy in '04 that we really, er, bonded. He and I (and my wife, Kolleen) spent quite a bit of time at that race chewing the fat. We were both shooting 'newish' Nikon D70s at the time, so we talked, in depth, about how to maximize our use of that camera's many features. From that point on, we would talk on the phone on a fairly regular basis. Anyway, Bill (he was always 'Bill' to me) and I spoke on the phone at length just three days before he died. While we were talking, some clients of mine showed up to pick up their wedding photos, so I told Bill I'd get back to him ASAP to resume our chat. I guess 'ASAP' wasn't quite soon enough. Damn."

Crites' friendship knew no geographic bounds, as European lensman Melvyn Eke can attest. "I first met Bill at the 1978 Indy Nationals when I was a 22-year-old freelance photog and mad drag fan working for three British magazines," he wrote. "Having arrived at the strip and gotten all my press passes from Dave Densmore of NHRA, I headed to the start-line area, which was swarming with photographers, most carrying small stepladders, which seemed very strange compared to Santa Pod in England. Once I had settled in and run off a few films, I plucked up courage to ask, 'Why the ladders?' to the guy who appeared to be the most lively, humorous, and well-liked photographer. A voice replied from under a baseball cap covering a mass of curly hair and moustache, 'Please be my guest; step up and take some shots, and you will see the difference, and, hey, are you from England?' This was Bill Crites.

Crites, left, with current ND Photo Editor Teresa Long, Assistant Photo Editor Jerry Foss, far right, and former ND shooter Steve Bianchi.

"He and Les Lovett made me and my wife most welcome over the entire race weekend, introduced me to all the drag stars in the pit area, and provided great entertainment with his good sense of humor all day.

"We arranged to call into the National DRAGSTER offices when we reached L.A. and had a guided tour by Bill, followed by an office lunch at a Mexican diner nearby. I cant remember how much salt, but some sort of jalapeño-eating test took place with much laughter at people's faces as they felt the heat. We returned in 1979 to Indy for more photos and stories and had the same great experience and fun and hoped again to return for a California event but it was not to be, but a regular read of National DRAGSTER and looking at Bill's photos kept the drag racing interest for all these years. As you rightly say about Bill, once met, never ever forgotten."

Some of the best stuff comes, too, from people who still work here and knew Crites longer than me and bowled and golfed with him.

Joni, second from left, Crites, and their bowling team.

Noting my racquetball story, Joni Elmslie (Joni's Race Shop) wrote, "I too cherish sporting memories with him. Possibly it was the shoulder-hugging ride on the freeway or the tailgating trip to the golf course or the temper-tantrum-thrown cell phone to the roof of Chaparral Lanes in San Dimas; Crites was always a piece of work and a head-scratching ride.

"One Monday night following a four-game loss for our bowling team, with Crites in the leadoff position, he proceeded to take his bowling bag -- with both bowling balls still inside -- and hurl it into the Dumpster and storm off. Knowing that he didn't have the money to replace them, Timmy Pearl (team member and avid fan of NHRA) jumped in to retrieve them. Much to Bill's surprise, he brought them to him the following Monday night so he could lead us to yet another four-game spanking."

She also fondly remembered Crites throwing a 5-iron "helicopter style" at a fairway-guarding oak tree after an out-of-bounds shot. Crites went to retrieve the club, but only after throwing his driver up there, too. "He never ceased to amaze me with what he'd do next to get a rise or chuckle out of me," she said. "Crites will be missed but, rest assured, not forgotten."

Former ND Editor George Phillips, who now works in the Broadcasting Department, had no problem hitting "rewind" for his Crites memories.

"Bill Crites was the number-two photog and art director at ND when I went to work there in 1977. Crites had a penchant for taking the new guy under his wing and showing him the ropes. As a writer, that meant helping with my photo shooting. It also meant showing me where all of the best pinball machines were in North Hollywood and how to 'professionally irritate' other NHRA staffers. But once there was a new new guy, he cut you loose. Now you were on the target list.

"It was a less structured time, and getting the job done and done right was the main goal. After that, all hell could, and usually did, break loose. And Bill was often in the middle of it. It was a couple of years after my arrival that Bill technically worked for me. Let me tell you, Bill Crites didn’t work FOR anyone, with the possible exception of Wally.

"We had the local 7-Eleven store on speed dial so we could find Crites at the pinball machines if one of the ND pages wasn’t going together right or if an ad needed to be built. Supervising Bill Crites was like herding cats or trying to capture smoke in a butterfly net. He could be hard to find all day, but then he’d work all night, putting out great product. The only better photog in those days was Lovett.

"To many, he appeared to be a gentle soul with a giving heart – all true. He would befriend a girl working at the desk of the little hotels we stayed at and for months afterwards send her little cards and gifts. For some guys that would be creepy, but Bill had a way of doing it that was okay. But Bill also was the first grown man I’d ever met who could really pout. If he got upset with something or someone, he could retreat into his own head, and God only knows what was going on in there.

"There was a time when we took free copies of National DRAGSTER to all the hotels in Indianapolis to have in their lobbies for guests. There were a couple of times that Bill and I ended up delivering the papers together – until about 4 a.m. In Bill’s mind, a rental car was something with no soul. No feeling of any kind. Something that could be tortured without consequence. The first time I realized this was upon our return to our hotel after one of those early a.m. treks. Without so much as saying 'Watch this,' he goosed it up to about 60 mph in the hotel parking lot and then grabbed the hand brake and sent us into a full powerskid right through the guest check-in area. If you were in the lobby, you would have watched us slide by with the tires blazing. Life with Crites was often like in a Warner Bros. cartoon – which he loved, by the way.

"Crites was unflappable in any situation. Once a group of us flew together into Jacksonville and then drove to Gainesville. Crites drove. I had never been to the event before and didn’t much pay attention to where we were going, but Lovett seemed a bit unsettled. We came around a bend and looked at the familiar skyline of Daytona Beach. When Lovett asked what the hell we were doing in Daytona, Crites just said, 'This is the way I wanted to come.'

"I’m sure, right now, Bill is going the way he wanted to go."

After getting a preview yesterday of this column, George's comments about Bill pouting brought to Steve Gibbs' mind a gag he played on him that set him to pout for days. "Bill had one of those tiny Hondas that was painted a nice pumpkin orange color, and I decided to decorate it a bit," he remembered. "I found some heavy black paper, cut out three big triangles, and a big smiley-mouth-shaped piece with buck teeth and taped them to the passenger-side door. A perfect jack-o'-lantern! He drove around for a few days before he realized what was going on and was crestfallen. He pouted like a little kid ... for days. In later years, when we were laughing over old 'war stories,' if I said anything about the jack-o'-lantern deal, he would clam up or change the subject. Another Crites deal that would leave you shaking your head."

Gibbs also couldn’t resist adding another tale from those wacky early years at the North Hollywood office, where, as George said (and I well remember), things were a little more loose. Remembered Steve, "In the small lunchroom, we had one of those soft-drink machines where the bottles were in slots or channels. You would slide the drink of choice down its slot to the dispenser mechanism, deposit your money, and pull the bottle straight up. They were common at that time. If Bill didn't have enough change, he would just pop the top off a bottle and help himself with a long straw. He would replace the cap, leaving an empty behind for the next customer. 'Big Mac,' Dave McClelland, had a habit of hitting the soft-drink machine every morning for a Coke caffeine fix, so Crites decided to mix him up a cocktail. He took the top off the bottle and sucked out about half the Coke and refilled the bottle with Bacardi rum. 'Mac' was still drinking in those days, so it should have provided a good laugh. The problem came when a gal from the Accounting Department came in early and ... you guessed it ... got the doctored Coke from the machine. After taking a big swallow, she went nuts! Thought she had been poisoned and raised a huge commotion. Jack Hart was the big boss at the time, and he got in the middle of the uproar. He threatened to fire Bill but was laughing under his breath the whole time."

If ever there was someone on the staff who simultaneously got Bill's humor and paid for it, it's Associate Editor John Jodauga, who worked with Crites here back in the 1970s before leaving us to open his own ad agency (which meant he still had to deal with Bill) and later returned. Here are his thoughts and remembrances.

"Over the years, I had often compared the antics of Bill Crites to those of Stan Laurel of the famed Laurel & Hardy comedy team. No matter where you were, Crites always seemed to manage to create a scenario in which anyone who was with him would eventually be forced to say in typical Oliver Hardy fashion, 'Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.'

"One such example took place in the early 1970s when we were returning from the World Finals, which then was held in Dallas. Shortly after reaching cruising altitude, Crites began lobbing ice cubes from his soft drink at me, and in self-defense, I of course had to strike back. An irate flight attendant ordered us both out of our seats into the aisle and then reprimanded the both of us in a tone for the rest of the coach passengers to hear, 'If I see another ice cube fly through the air, I’m kicking both of you off the plane -- at 30,000 feet -- and with no parachutes.'

"Sometimes I have to admit that I shared in the enjoyment of Crites’ pranks, such as the one that took place in 1969, the year that both of us joined the ND staff, when we had to drive a rent-a-truck with the souvenir issues of National DRAGSTER to that year’s NHRA Nationals in Indianapolis. We were told to take turns driving without stopping off at a motel, and initially that didn’t bother us because there were lots of wide-open spaces on the old Route 66 in which we could make up for lost time. But to our disappointment, we discovered that the truck was equipped with an engine governor that restricted the speeds to 55 mph, which meant that the trip would take about 40 hours. Crites came up with the idea of attempting to dismantle the governor by intentionally backfiring the engine, and although the ploy failed at its original goal, we both got pretty good at producing a big bang.

"As dusk was approaching at the end of the second day, we spotted a band of genuine Woodstock-era hippies thumbing for a ride while standing beneath the overpass. I shut off the engine to prepare for the backfire, and as we slowly pulled over, the hippies, who were thinking we were stopping to provide them a ride, smiled and flashed us the peace sign as they eagerly approached the truck. But when the ignition was turned back on, a huge ball of fire, enhanced by the growing darkness and the reverberating roar from being beneath the overpass, emerged from beneath the truck, and the kindly expressions on their faces were quickly replaced by eye-bulging, mouth-gaping sheer terror as they truly felt that they were facing Armageddon.

"But Crites wasn’t satisfied. Early the next morning, when we began driving through the quiet suburban areas of Indianapolis at about 7, the only other moving object on the street was a 9-year-old boy riding his bicycle on a newspaper route. I pleaded with Crites not to backfire the engine, but he replied, 'Don’t ever tell me don’t!' After the ensuing explosion caused the startled boy to fall off his bike with newspapers flying everywhere, I admonished Crites in a Hardy-like manner by saying that this well-behaved youth who was just beginning to appreciate the virtues of a strong work ethic would now most likely turn to a life of crime. But Crites was laughing so hard I don’t think he heard a word I said.

Crites sometimes found himself on the receiving end of pranks, such as when he was assigned to shoot out-of-state license plates in the parking lot at a national event for a "demographic study." Jodauga memorialized the succesful prank with this holiday gift to Crites.

"Crites was a master at spontaneous humor, but he also excelled well with carefully planned hoaxes, especially when he collaborated with his longtime former classmate, NHRA’s Steve Gibbs. I came to work one day in the 1970s and saw a memo from NHRA founder and then-President Wally Parks on my desk. The memo, which was not sealed in an envelope, essentially stated that a number of major representatives from Detroit were going to be visiting NHRA the next week for future sponsorship discussions, and since I was the office’s worst offender in having an untidy desk, long hair, and all-too-casual wearing apparel, Wally essentially wanted me to clean up my act.

"The message itself did not bother me because at the time I took pride in being National DRAGSTER’s resident rebel. But I was upset that the memo was not presented confidentially, and in a brief lapse of good judgment, I planned to express my displeasure over what I perceived to be a grievous breach of office etiquette. When Wally came in later that morning, I happened to see him as he walked up the stairs to the office lobby. After he asked me how I was doing in his typical father-like manner, I told him, 'Not so good because of these memos I’ve been getting. A quizzical look appeared on Wally’s face as he asked me, 'Memos? You’ve been getting ... memos?'

"It became instantly clear to me that Wally didn’t have a clue what I was talking about, and a vision quickly appeared in my mind of Crites, the master forger on the NHRA staff, whose specialty was duplicating Wally’s signature, signing off on a memo that was written by Gibbs on Wally’s personal typewriter after hours. Too embarrassed to admit that I had been had, all I could do was blurt out an Emily Litella-like 'Never mind,' and Wally walked off shaking his head in bemused wonderment.

"I hadn’t seen much of Crites recently, but I did manage to have lunch with him behind the VIP tower at last November’s Finals, where we had the occasion to reminisce over these and many other adventures in the past, along with our traditional exchange of well-intentioned insults. When I was informed of Bill’s passing by Phil Burgess on Dec. 30, one of the first things that went through my mind was how grateful I was to have spent some good quality time with him before he left us. Working at ND in the early days with a much smaller staff and longer hours was much more strenuous than it is today, and we needed all the levity we could get just to keep our sanity.

"Thank you, Mr. Crites, for providing all of that and so much more."


As a wonderful final honor to Crites, he's been enshrined alongside some of drag racing's greats on the "In Memoriam" page on Don Ewald's We Did It For Love Web site.


Tuesday, January 06, 2009

A little bench racing anyone?

I had a whole 'nother column scheduled for today but had to move it back for a variety of reasons, but I didn't want to go too long without a new entry lest y'all forget about me. Each column generally takes two to three days to put together, though some take considerably longer depending on the length and depth I choose, the amount of research I have to do, images I have to chase down, people I can't track down to interview, etc.

Fortunately for all of us -- but mostly for me -- I keep files just for this occasion, and in this case, it's a file full of random tales that I've accumulated, either in interviews or as part of certain newsgroups, for which I'd not yet found a home. There are some great storytellers out there, and although each of these probably could have starred in its own column if fleshed out, they are nonetheless emblematic of the great bench racing stories that are told throughout the pits during the years.

And away we go …


Getting 'the Greek': Tom Jobe, a third of the legendary Surfers Top Fuel team with driver Mike Sorokin and Robert Skinner, recently regaled the Standard 1320 e-mail newsgroup with the tale of how the Surfers took a big 7.97 to 7.81 holeshot win – and the cool $500 prize money – in the final round against the legendary "Greek," Chris Karamesines, at Riverside Raceway on Dec. 6, 1964.

"The rounds go on, and it comes down to 'the Greek' and the Surfers for the money," he wrote. "We have a small problem in that we do not have enough 98 percent [nitro] to make a full pass in the final round. In those days, there was no one to borrow 98 percent from, as no one else ran anything close to 'the can' in their dragster. We talked about our dilemma amongst ourselves and decided that our only chance was to make 'the Greek' think we were so nervous that he had the race won and hope Mike could leave on him and coast to the finish line ahead of 'the Greek.' At this time, 'the Greek' was 'the Mole's' [engine builder Ed Donovan] main man, and they had all of the best stuff on that car. It was a Fuller chassis, Donovan parts everywhere, just the very best stuff you could possibly have no matter how much money you had.

"We made sure we were near 'the Greek' and 'the Mole' as we lined up for the last round and went into this whole act of being very nervous. They went for the act and must have figured they had the race won if they just did not do something stupid. Mike Sorokin put a big holeshot on 'the Greek' and coasted to the victory (just barely!). We were very lucky the blower did not come off when it ran out of fuel. We were racing for $500, and a blower explosion at that time would cost us $1,000 or more. We realized the risk, but hey, we were racing the legendary 'Greek' and figured why get worried about going broke now?"

In great bench-racing one-upmanship style, Jobe's tale inspired Roy Steffey, of the equally famous Loghhe-Steffey-Rupp team, to share an encounter with the fabled "Greek."

"It was the 1965 Springnationals at Bristol and the final round on Saturday," he wrote. "The round before that, we had burned a piston, and with the tight timeframe, we knew we didn't have time to change it. This was before having air compressors and impact guns in the pits.

"So we kept it a secret and pulled the two pushrods from that cylinder, grounded the plug out, and wrapped the breathers with rags. (The reason for the rags was with the burned hole in the piston, it created a lot of blowby in the pan, and Maynard [Rupp, the driver] really didn't care for an oil bath, but even with the rags, he still got one. If I remember correctly, he taped a piece of rag to his glove so he could wipe his face shield.)

"Maynard got a big holeshot on [Karamesines], and as 'the Greek' came out of the smoke and saw how far out Maynard was, he jammed his foot down and relit the tires. He only went 100 feet or so and his motor broke. Maynard shut it off before the 1,000-foot mark and coasted through."



The Terrible Towel': Everyone remember the big brouhaha over "the Terrible Towel" on Kenny Bernstein's Budweiser King in the mid-1980s? The rest of the Funny Car crowd was so convinced that Dale Armstrong had some gee-whiz top-secret device on the car because the crew would go to such great lengths to cover it with a towel whenever the body was raised that they even had the Tech Department investigate. Turns out that there wasn't anything really sexy about it and that it actually had its roots in Bernstein's habit of short-shifting that car that almost drove "Double A Dale" crazy.

"When I first went to work with him, I pulled my hair out for the first three-quarters of that year," he told me once. "I’d stand on the starting line and the car would be on all eight cylinders, but the car wouldn’t e.t. I kept asking him where he was shifting, and he’d tell me '400 feet.' Well, turns out he had crashed a couple of cars trying to drive through tire shake, so he learned if he shifted early, it wouldn’t shake. He even had a foot shifter installed so he didn’t even have to take a hand off the wheel to pull the shifter – this was before air shifters – but sometimes, he’d shift almost right after he left the line.

"I went to a junkyard and got a kickdown switch off an old GTO and hooked it to the foot shifter and put a light on the back of the car so I could see where he shifted. The first time he ran it, the light was on at 100 feet. Once we knew that was the problem, Kenny would force himself to drive the car farther without shifting, but sometimes he just couldn’t, which is when we put the shifter on an air timer. Then it started to haul ass.

"So I began looking for a way to put an automatic shifter in the car, but before we made it into a shifter, I tried it out as a high-speed [leanout] that would kick in at 3.6 or 3.8 seconds that would open up a jet. It was unique, so we covered it up, but it wasn’t that big a deal, really. But when everyone made such a big deal about the towel, we made an even bigger production out of it to mess with everyone’s head."

I remember Lee Beard pulling a similar trick a few years later, placing a towel over the throttle pedal in the Castrol GTX Top Fueler after driver Gary Ormsby connected on a series of telepathic lights. Again, nothing to it but shenanigans and getting in the other guy's head.


Practical joker: World-famous "T.V. Tommy" Ivo originally planned to share with me the sordid details of his first season on tour in 1960 with young novice crewmember Don Prudhomme in tow, but we never quite got around to it. Ivo, a renowned practical joker, did regale me with some tales of how he tortured the not-yet "Snake" during their journeys.

Ivo was 24 ("going on 17," he joked) and Prudhomme just 18. "He was just a good kid," recalled Ivo. " He used to have the damndest laugh – kind of a horse laugh – and if something struck him funny, the whole room would be laughing before he was done. But what a grand adventure!

"I had been back East before when we would do barnstorming appearances for my films, so I somewhat was used to the travel, but here it was, just the two of us, off barnstorming the country in my old Cadillac. We had lots of good times, but he paid his dues going with me on tour. I was a practical joker to a fault.

"One time, Ron Pellegrini took us out rat hunting in the city dump in Cicero [Ill.]. He knew the police department and told them we were going out there. They had machine guns and sawed-off shotguns with lights mounted on them. You'd catch a rat in the lights and let 'im have it. The rats all went and hid, so Prudhomme – 'the Great Hunter' – goes walking out onto the pile, so I threw a can by his foot, and he wheeled around and almost shot his foot off with a shotgun.

"Another time, we went waterskiing up in Minnesota, and I put Prudhomme out on the hook, and try as I might, I couldn't shake him. So I just shut the boat off, and he hand-over-handed it up the rope and made it to the back of the boat without sinking. He was pretty coordinated.

"The best laugh probably was at some hotel one day when I dumped out his shampoo and put 10-weight oil in there. He got in the shower, and the more he put on his head with the water, the more it turned to axle grease. He had to use bar soap and washed it about nine times because you didn't want anyone to know you’d been got. He came out, and I asked him if he noticed anything strange -- 'Nope, didn't notice anything' -- but his hair looked like he'd stuck his finger in a light socket."


Flying high, crashing low: After reading my homage to the famed Kite Cycle of Bob Correll, Glenn Menard, who just recently returned to Texas Motorplex to serve as its new president, shared a tale from his first stint with the Texas supertrack.

"In the early '90s, a photo of a 'kite cycle' in full flight came across my desk at the Texas Motorplex with a solicitation for booking the attraction. We had always programmed our July 4 event -- the Budweiser Night of Fire [not original but a great title nonetheless] -- with exotic features, and a great fireworks show. So the 'kite cycle' was booked. The pilot was one Jimmy Lynn Davis, a stuntman from L.A.

"Steve Earwood, our esteemed PR impresario, was very skeptical. He knew of Correll, and 'Jimmy Lynn was no Bob Correll.' Well, as the date approached and Earwood did more investigating, it seemed that our 'kite cycle' had recently crashed at a track in the Northeast, and although Jimmy had spent some time in a hospital, he assured us he would appear.

"On July 3, we got the whole story; he had, indeed, crashed but claimed he suffered no injuries. He said that the promoter demanded he get into the ambulance to make the show better, but when he went to the hospital and was X-rayed, the doctors were shocked at the amount of broken bones that appeared on the film. Jimmy Lynn assured the docs that, as a stuntman, the breaks were old and had to ship his old X-rays to the hospital so he could show that they were all old and he could be released. This meant that he had the X-rays with him, which came in handy later, as you will see.

"Well, on July 4, you guessed it. Earwood insisted that he would not jump, and a wager between him and I (never collected) was made. During his warm-ups for the crowd, the wind was gusting, and the wagers (and the Buds) were flowing that he would use the weather as an excuse not to perform. I went to half-track to interview Jimmy Lynn (and to be there should he decide not to jump). I knew that the crowd, who had waited all day until 10 p.m., would not take too kindly to such an announcement, so I wanted to be the one to deliver the bad news. However, as he sat on his bike/kite and the wind gusts continued, he looked up and said he thought he could time his jump in between the wind gusts.

Glenn Menard

"He made his run up to the ramp at full throttle, hit the ramp, lit the flares on the wing tips, and was airborne. It was the crosswind that did him in. He drifted over the guardwall, the return road, and was headed into the grandstands when he turned back toward the track and stalled the kite. He impacted right on the centerline, split the fuel tank, and the flares lit the spreading gasoline. There I was, watching a flaming kite cycle, at fully stuck throttle, in the center of the Motorplex all-concrete quarter-mile.

"Well, Jimmy Lynn picked up some new lines on his X-ray that night and even promised me from his hospital bed that he wanted to return the following year to complete the task.

"All together a most memorable night and one that was not duplicated, as I never heard from him again."


Simon Menzies

Supercharged sharks: Racers aren’t all business, and they like to get away for a little R&R, and, as all well know, drag racers love to fish. This fish tale got a little out of hand, however.

Former Funny Car racer Simon Menzies, no stranger to Insider readers, remembers a fateful sea trip he took out of King Harbor in Redondo Beach, Calif., with former U.S. Nationals Top Fuel champ Johnny Abbott and a few friends.

"After a few cocktails at the Sea Bucket [restaurant], we agreed that the intelligent think to do was cross the channel to Catalina for dinner. We were visiting after the World Finals in ’79 or ’80. It was October, and on a good day, you might see a whale migrating south, so we borrowed Bill Simpson's 38-foot Uniflite Coastal Cruiser and headed out to sea. Capt. Simon, girlfriend Jan (the first mate), Abbott (the engineer), and (I think) Chris Karamesines' daughter and a few others went along that fateful day.

"We were under way, about five miles out, when I heard the uproar. John came up to the bridge with a wild look in his eye, demanding I stop the boat and see a whale. Well, as I came down the steps, my whole contingent was leaning over the port side goo-gooing and petting the biggest shark I had ever seen! 'That ain’t no whale, it’s a [expletive] shark, a BIG [expletive] shark! Get your hands back in the boat!'

"The shark submerged and came back up and brushed against the boat. We were just drifting at the time, but the shark physically moved the boat as if he was playing with his new little toy. Oh yeah, the shark was longer than the boat ... a lot longer.

Johnny Abbott

"We got back under way, and the shark started to mirror our moves and was playing in the bow wash, sort of surfing over it like a kid on a boogie board. It was kind of cool watching him until I realized that we were at 15 knots and he was right with us, not showing any signs of tiring. Soon after that, we were joined by two other sharks, one about the same size and the other less than half the size. For a few moments, we were flanked by these behemoths at speed and still close enough to reach out and touch them from the boat. The smaller of the three had a nasty habit of falling back into the prop wash and opening his mouth -- a really big mouth -- and ingesting water from the wash until he slowed down, only to rejoin the party a few minutes later. Sort of an open invitation to dinner, if you get my drift.

"We opted to return to King Harbor for dinner instead of finishing the trip to Catalina. The next day, I went to work at Simpson, and John went to the library. John’s whales turned out to be basking sharks, the largest sharks on the planet, growing to 60 feet in length and quite harmless. As it turns out, they feed by opening their mouths at speed, ingesting small fish and plankton and the occasional coastal cruiser. We were in a sense, as true drag racers, supercharging their evening meal with the bow and prop wash. One more episode for the book."


Mom's hot rod: After reading last year's story about San Fernando Raceway, "Hemi Dan" Sallia regaled me with a great story to which I think every would-be drag racer who ever borrowed the family car can relate.

"In 1966, when I was 14 years old, my mom wanted to go to the track to see a co-worker race," he wrote. "She asked me and my little brother if we wanted to go because we had been going to the track for a couple of years with friends. We agreed, and then put a plan in place for me to finally get to race down the track. Brother Bill's job was to keep Mom away from the stands when I was racing because I would be racing her car. My job was to try and pass myself off as older than I was so that I could test my driving skills on the track.

"Luckily for me and Bill, we had taken the time to ask Dad to bring home some plugs, points, and condenser for the wagon. He was running Auto Parts Emporium on Van Nuys Boulevard at the time. The Lark was running good, low 15s at just under 90. Dad had a feeling about our flimsy excuse for tuning up the Lark but figured if I was willing to take the chance, it was my butt on the line. He had driven enough with me to know I was fully capable of handling the car. But handling Mom's wrath? Well, I was on my own there.

"Things went well until the final in N/Stock Auto class. The co-worker had lost his race, so Mom decided she would leave him to sulk and watch the rest of the races. Bill tried every stall tactic he could think of, but they sat down just as I was staging Mom's '59 Studebaker Lark wagon. Mom took one look and told Bill, 'Look, there is a wagon just like mine.' As I went by, she realized that it was her car, and she wasn't happy about it.

"I took the win light, and when I got to the time-slip booth, a guy handed me a trophy and a check for $25 and muttered something about 'Congratulations, you won your class.' As I approached the pits, I spotted Mom coming at me with fire in her eyes. Thinking on my feet, I jumped out of the car waving the trophy and check and told Mom, 'Look what your car won!' She paused for a moment and then grabbed the trophy and check and rushed off to brag it up to her co-workers. Saved by the bell." 


Great stories, great times. I'll be back later this week with some other great tales, these about another wild card, our ol' pal Bill Crites. A bunch of us will be getting together Saturday to say goodbye to "our" kid, and I'm sure the stories will be flowing there, too.


Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Bill Crites: Gone but never forgotten

This photo, of me and Bill at Griffith Park's Travel Town, tells you all you need to know about the big kid we all loved.

Me and Crites, Montreal 1986. As I recall, he handed his camera to some stranger standing nearby and asked him to snap this shot.

You could say that Bill Crites left a lasting impression on me.

Bill Crites was the only 68-year-old teenager I knew, and now he's gone. We lost National DRAGSTER's original court jester today of a suspected heart attack, and somehow the world won’t be the same place without him.

Most of you didn't know him and probably don’t have much reason to even blink about his passing, but those whose lives William A. Crites touched won’t soon forget him.

Bill Crites never met a person he couldn't make laugh or at least grimace. His inventiveness in getting a rise out of people knew no bounds, and his legendary antics while a member of the ND staff have been resounding through the hallways as long as I have worked here.

Tales abound of the road trips he used to make with Associate Editor John Jodauga and others, driving the souvenir issues of ND cross-country to the national events from our printer here in California. It didn't take more than five miles down any road with Crites to leave you with a tale worth telling the following day – if you survived.

Crites – I can't remember many people who just called him Bill – was here when I got here, in 1982, and worked alongside another of my late, great departed friends, Leslie Lovett, to skillfully chronicle, through the lenses of their cameras, the cars and stars of the NHRA. Crites also served as art director and production manager at various times in those early days, and you could always count on Crites to keep the pressure from getting to us on those long nights working on the paper.

In my formative years on the staff, traveling to a national event with Leslie and with Crites were two completely different experiences. Leslie would mentor me, teaching me his photographic tricks and introducing me to the thousands of racers who admired and respected him so that I might be able to do my job better. Crites mostly was interested in how good a time he could show you or how much he could make you laugh.

Crites and Lovett were like oil and water, or more like gasoline and fire sometimes. Crites had a special knack of getting under Lovett's skin like no one else could. I well remember sitting around a table at a local restaurant – the entire editorial and photo staff routinely would lunch together back in those days – and Crites was salting up his food. Lovett made the mistake of telling him that he ought to use salt in moderation, whereupon Crites immediately twisted off the top of the salt shaker and poured its entire contents into his mouth. I've seen him do the same thing with ketchup and hot sauce. The man had a stomach of cast iron.

Lovett, an avid fisherman, also made the fateful mistake on one trip to point out the large number of bass-fishing boats in driveways on a trip to Gainesville. For the next 30 miles, Crites pointed out every single boat they passed. "Bass boat ... bass boat ... bass boat" for miles and miles. I couldn't hear that story enough times.

And who could forget the red-eye flight to Indy out of LAX one Wednesday night in the mid-1980s? As the flight attendants dimmed the cabin lights so that some of us might catch some much-needed shut-eye, Crites let out a blood-curdling scream. Lights on, red faces for the ND staff, and a perma-grin plastered on Crites' face.

As I'm overcome with the loss of my good friend, I can’t even begin to think of all the stories about him that have been told and retold to new DRAGSTER staffers who joined the team after Bill left here in 1998. He was a semi-frequent visitor over the years; I saw him just a few weeks ago. We shared some laughs, talking about the good old days at the 7-Eleven by the North Hollywood headquarters where we poured endless quarters into the Burgertime video game (here's irony for you; I played Burgertime for the first time in decades just two days ago after finding an online version of it and thought about Crites the whole time and how he loved to mimic the game's soundtrack). He told me that he still was playing softball – the guy could hit the ball a mile and still get around the base paths and the field despite being Social Security-eligible – and that was the last time I'll see him. The guy photographed my wedding for next to nothing, and now all I have left are memories and photos.

Cindy Gibbs-Arias, whose famous father, Steve, knew Crites from way back in eighth grade and probably could tell better Crites stories than I can, wrote me to say that they had spent the day with him yesterday. "He left here at 8, grouchy as ever, but lovable as always," she wrote.

I spoke to Bill's younger brother, Ken, with whom Bill had lived the last six years, to share my private thoughts with him about what Bill had meant to me.

"He was a pain in the ass," he managed to say through tears. "It's like [Steve] Gibbs said, 'Sometimes you wanted to slap him, and other times you wanted to hug him.' He was unique. He was Bill. God, I'm gonna miss him."

After Teresa Long called to tell me the sad news this afternoon, I made some calls and dropped some e-mails to people I knew would want to know – his good pal Tom McEwen, former ND Editor Bill Holland, Dawn Mazi-Hovsepian, fellow photogs Dave Kommel and Tom Schiltz (who earlier this year had sent me the great pic of Crites and the "Mickeymatic" camera on the starting line at Indy in 1986).

"I used to joke that Bill was my fourth child," Kommel said via e-mail. "When my kids were much younger, Bill would come over and sit on the couch and watch cartoons with them for hours, every bit as engrossed as they were."

Crites found the humor in everyday life. I remember well his penchant for honking at strangers just to wave to them. He and I always buddied up to cover the Montreal race back in the 1980s, and, in the long drive through countryside from the hotel to the racetrack, he'd honk at farmers, at cows, at vacant houses. And heaven forbid you accidentally said the word "wheel" because Crites delighted in the game he called "Get a Wheel," which was to put two tires into the median or side of the road. My knuckles are still white.

It was also on one of those Canadian trips that Crites, an avid player of sports, accidentally crowned me on the left eyebrow with a racquetball racket to the tune of three stitches. I still have the scar, and I know that every time I look at it in the mirror from here on, I'll think of him. Like the impression he left on me in so many other ways, it's part of me.

Godspeed, pal.


Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Re-gifter and the Ghost of Columns Past

It's Christmas day and I just unwrapped all my presents, and even though you guys didn’t get me anything (again), I'm still in the giving mood. Okay, so maybe this is more like the ultimate regifting – giving you a present I've already given you -- but at least I made it by hand for you.

Below is a list of some or my favorite or otherwise noteworthy DRAGSTER Insider columns among the more than 200 I've written since July 2007. Passages in italics are from the original column; the rest are my current eggnog-induced comments.

The idea to rewrap these babies is two-fold: First, well. It's the holiday season and even the Insider needs a break now and then (besides, I'm pulling this together Christmas Eve and I guess it's time to start my shopping, wouldn’t you say?) Second, the column has gained A LOT of new readers over the last six months or so, and I realize that, at five entries per page, people would have to do a lot of "Next Page"-clicking to find some of the buried treasure that goes back more than a year.

Think of it as part Greatest Hits, part timesaver. And don't say I never gave you anything.

(Special holiday gift if you act now!!!! Here's my stocking stuffer to you, a little Windows trick I picked up. If you are using an Internet Explorer 7, Firefox, or Google Chrome browsers instead of opening each link below, reading the story, then hitting your Back button, didja know that you can open multiple stories from the same Web page by clicking on the link with your middle mouse button (as opposed to the left button)? Try it out. That way you can first scroll through all of the offerings below, middle-clicking on the ones that interest you as you go along, then go back and read them on the newly-opened tabs. Cool, eh?)

Welcome to the National DRAGSTER blog, er, I mean column (July 23, 2007)

What, another blog? No, not exactly. Even though all of the cool kids are doing it and it’s the trend that’s sweeping the nation, I’m going to resist calling this new column a blog.

The words and the column that started it all launched, with this swell group photo of the ND staff -- with yours truly front and center flanked on my left (your right) by the BossLady, Adriane Ridder, and Director of Advertising Jeff Morton and on my right by Photo Editor Teresa Long and Production Manager Matt Hurd – and my manifesto of where I would be driving this column, which originally (and rather unimaginatively) was called Inside National DRAGSTER.

Although the outline for this column is still a little sketchy in my mind, I hope to deliver here, on a fairly regular basis, a lot of different things. You might read about the stories the staff is working on for the next and future issues or background on how the whole issue comes together, and you might become privy to cool insider information or “listen in” on some of the phone calls we make and receive each day as we hunt down the news.

Considering what this column has become, oh, man, that's a riot, ain't it?

It's not like I got into the editorial driver's seat without a destination in mind but more like I decided I would take a drive to work and came across a signpost to the beach and went there instead.

Anyway, this column gives you a bit of background info on the schedule for how National DRAGSTER is produced each week, which I think is pretty cool.

Tools of the trade (August 08, 2007)

They say that a mechanic is only as good as his tools -- and by “they” I probably mean the tool companies, because I reckon Alan Johnson could get a fuel dragster to run 4.50s with a Swiss Army knife and some baling wire -- and by the same line of reasoning, the right tools in the right hands mean everything when you’re a drag racing reporter.

Another "Insider National DRAGSTER"-themed article but one that was really well  received. In it I detailed some of the research tools we use and some of the reference sources the reporters at ND use to write our stories every week.

There's also a cool – and I believe the first – photo of the ND "morgue," as we call it in the newspaper biz (which most of the rest of you would call a library), showing Marc Gewertz and the wall to wall shelves the house pretty much every issue of ND ever printed.

It's the little things I miss ... (Sept. 3, 2007 )

Over the years, this job has caused me to miss a lot of dinners, some birthdays, a few family gatherings, and a couple of vacations, but this one really hurt. I love the U.S. Nationals; what serious drag racing fan doesn't? But yesterday, when my phone rang at 1 o'clock in the afternoon, in the midst of the Pro session, for an instant I hated that I was here.

A quick little blog, written at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals while we were waiting for final eliminations to begin on Monday morning. The previous day – and three weeks ahead of schedule – my grandson, Trevor (T-Rev to his pals) was born to my daughter, Amanda. And I missed it. I remember it like it was yesterday, the call from home and the frustration of not being there to help coach her through it and tell her how proud I was of her. I think I cried more than Trevor that night.

This issue is not the bomb (Thursday, Sept. 6, 2007)

There we were, minding our business on a quiet Thursday afternoon after the U.S. Nationals when the cops came busting through the door. Well, actually mi compadre, current Managing Editor Juan Torres, walked them in. I was sure they were there to ask me to bail my speed-crazed son out of jail or something, but, no, apparently someone had called in a bomb threat to the building that we share with several other tenants, among them an insurance company and a dentist, so one could surely understand the thought process at work there.

Anyway, it was an interesting diversion and emblematic of the kind of stuff you just can't make up to put in a column.

The 5 Ws: The where, what, when, and why of Who (Sept.13, 2007)

"Hi, my name is Marvin Graham. You might not remember me, but I used to race in Top Fuel."

It took every ounce of willpower I could muster not to respond with "Who?"

Of course, he would have said "Exactly," and we would have launched into the drag racing version of Abbott & Costello's famed "Who's on first?" routine.

This is the veritable "signpost in the road" that carried this column in a new direction. Response to this column, about former U.S. Nationals Top Fuel champ Marvin Graham, was immediate and plentiful. I told the tale of his U.S. Nationals win in detail and offered up some historic photos, and kind of got into the mood to tell some of the sport's great stories and introduce some of its great characters in a fashion that I hadn’t seen before, which is kind of where the "stories behind the stories" motto came from.

Readers enjoyed the history lesson told in a conversational tone, and I wasn't about to be the kind of writer who strikes gold then goes off looking for more in a different location. I had tapped into a rich vein of nostalgia among the readers, a longing, if you will, from those who remember those days and those people now resigned to the history pages, and it was my desire to mine it, to unearth the golden nuggets, shine them up, and show them off to everyone, from the grizzled racers and fans who witnessed it firsthand to those newcomers eager to know how it used to be.

It also set the course for what has become another column trademark, the follow-up articles that feature remembrances and additional information and comments from the readers that have become as crucial to this column's success as my own meanderings.

Hurry back, Superman (Sept. 23, 2007)

If the Marvin Graham article was the launch in a new direction, then this article surely was when the first stage of the clutch hit hard. I wrote this article on my home computer late in the night after John Force was injured in Dallas. It just kind of poured out of, everything I thought and admired about the man, and it hit the right note with the readers. More than 30,000 people read it the next day and the hits just kept growing as it was cross-linked from other sites.

It's one of the articles in this column of which I am most proud, and also the one that received the most attention, from other media and from Force. Suddenly, everyone was calling Force "Superman," and eventually it kind of got to him, because he was feeling very, very human at the time. I heard they read it to Force in the hospital and he was very pleased, but I think he actually began to wish I'd never written it. Being Superman means filling some big shoes … but, it my opinion, he did and forever will have a giant S on his chest.

Feedback and an outpouring of love from his fans filled many, many columns over the next couple of months, and I was more than happy to give them the place to do it. See also, The Force is strong with this one ... (Oct. 11, 2007)

'Now he belongs to the ages' (Oct. 3, 2007)

Not to overstate the drama, but Wally's passing is going to be one of the memories where I say, "I remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news." Not to equate it one way or the other with 9/11 or Elvis dying, but I will remember it with those kind of things.

I know I will never forget the day that Wally Parks died. The man meant a lot to a lot of people, and I was certainly among them. This is the story of that day, and of the work we poured into a special tribute issue for Wally.

Hail to the champs! (Nov. 16, 2007)

The big news on this wasn't so much that the National DRAGSTER staff again won the team championship at the twice-yearly NHRA Staff Drags as much as it was about the special guest we had.

"Phil, it's Force."

"Hey John, what's up?"

"I'm driving, man!"

"Next year?"

"No, right now. I'm on the freeway in my truck."

Force, out of his mind with rehab boredom, had snuck out of the shop, hopped into his Ford truck, and took off, and, well, since he was out and about, I invited him to stop by a place he loves, Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, to come watch us race. I also knew that we could make a little history if we could convince him to make the first pass of his comeback with us, which is exactly what happened.

He turned his ever-present Castrol cap backward and yelled out the window, "Tell Pedregon I'm coming for him," and off he went. It was a very, very special moment. "That was bitchin', really cool," he said.

More than he could ever know …

See you in the glue, friend (Nov. 30, 2007)

My heartfelt farewell to arms to my little buddy and longtime ND writer Todd Veney, who resigned his position at ND to pursue his nitro-racing dreams.

If you've been around ND for any time, you've thrilled to his eloquent phrasing and knowledgeable writing, and after more than 20 years of expertly slinging adjectives and adverbs, he deserved this kind of send-off.

He'd never write a farewell himself (as you can read, he'd rather jump off the Empire State Building), so I had to do it for him. he probably died of embarrassment first, but later told me that he was grateful that his boss thought to much of him.

I spoke to Todd just yesterday, right after he'd found out that he'd lost his job when Roger Burgess suddenly folded R2B2 Racing. So Todd, who recently was promoted to car chief and not works on the car but also was going to do its PR this year, is looking for a job, so if you're looking for a guy who can spin your wrenches and get you some media attention, drop me a line and I'll pass it on to Todd.

Simon Says (Dec. 12, 2007)

One of the really great things about writing this column is the connections it's bridged to the past. I didn’t intend it to be a nostalgic look back at the olds days, but that's where it's going to go every now and then when something tickles my editorial funny bone or opens a window to something I think might be of widespread interest, both to old timers and newcomers. You just never know who's reading the column or who you're going to hear from.

The inspiration for this was Simon Menzies, a former nitro and Alcohol Funny Car driver who had dropped me a line to tell me how much he was enjoying the column, That led to a life story on him and more great follow-ups and feedback. Although the previously mentioned Marvin Graham article gave me the inkling about the nostalgic interests of a large majority of readers, response to this article drove the point home.

A Christmas (Tree) Story (Dec. 19, 2007)

Just in time for Christmas, the story of how drag racing's Christmas Tree came into being and the changes made to it over the years.

Phil's Photo Follies (Dec. 31, 2007)

A dozen of so of my photos – and the stories behind them – from the 1970s and '80s that I found in an old cardboard box. This was part of a late December series of columns that I called Stuff In My Office.

Five Fabulous Favorite Fotos (Jan. 11, 2008)

After showing off some of my photos, I got the bright idea to let some of drag racing's best photographers – guys who do it for a living instead of to complement their writing – show off their finest work. I challenged them to give me their five greatest photos and the stories behind how they composed and shot them. ND's Assistant Photo Editor, Jerry Foss, went first, and since then I've featured a half-dozen others with more on the way. Here are the others: Marc Gewertz; Steve Reyes; former photog Mike Fischbeck, Joel Gelfand; ND artist John Jodauga, meanwhile shared his five favorite drawings.

By the way, this was the last column with the Inside National DRAGSTER title; on Jan. 14, it became the DRAGSTER Insider.

Them are some pretty hot wheels you got there (Jan. 16, 2008)

The first of two columns that became known among the readers as "Growing up boy," this was my remembrances of what it was like to grow up as a mischievous member of the male sex. The first column started out talking about my Hot Wheels collection but also covered such topics as Cox dragsters and model building and, ahem, model "disassembly."

While Barbie was teaching our sisters which shoes went with which purse, we had a higher calling. It was our civic duty and testosterone calling to also explore the limits on the other end of the vehicle life cycle, conducting secretive experiments on "rapid vehicle disassembly," courtesy of our new friend, the firecracker. We toiled relentlessly to discover the thermodynamic properties of various accelerants such as lighter fluid and, yes, even the glue that first welded the pieces together.

The second column, Growing up boy, the sequel … (Jan. 21, 2008), shared your stories of teenage model mayhem. These are two of my favorite columns, for obvious reasons.

Obsolete skills (March 03, 2008)

The first of a couple of columns on the topic of things that today's drivers don’t need to know how to master that the pilots of old did – dry hops, push starts, etc. --  the column really began to pick up pace with comments and expert opinions offered by past heroes such as Roland Leong, Gordie Bonin, and Rob Bruins, the latter of whom became a fairly regular contributor to these pages.

Welcome back, 'Mr. Everything' (March 7, 2008)

Pat Foster – Funny Car driver, racecar builder and restorer, and all-around swell guy – had been ill for a while when I wrote this column, beginning it thusly:

It was the great American author Mark Twain who wrote, after reading his own obituary in the newspaper, "The reports of my demise are greatly exaggerated."

I'm happy to say that the same can be said for Pat Foster.

Foster was still in the hospital and, as his time behind the wheel came and went before I began to work at National DRAGSTER, I never had a chance to meet him in person, but we aspent a good long time on the phone for a story I wrote for ND, and I talked about it here.

I remember thinking when I wrote it how glad I was for this column as it has given me an excuse to interview those greats from another era whom I never met, and I was glad to have talked to Foster. Little did any of us know after just a few weeks after I wrote this glowing story, "the PF Flyer" would be gone.

History lessons relearned (March 19, 2008)

I wrote this one on the plane home from Gainesville after enjoying (for the zillionth time) another re-read of Bob Post's book, High Performance. Another "story behind the stories" kind of deal, the column talked about the problems the Top Fuel cars were experiencing with their clutches in the time leading up to Don Garlits' career-changing 1970 trans explosion at Lions and, as painful as it was, I publicly joined the growing list of post-modernistic historians watering down the claim heaped upon Garlits in history books of being the father of the rear-engined dragster.

50 years ago in Texas .... (March 28, 2008)

Not long after that Garlits piece, Ed Mabry, half of the famed Hunt & Mabry team that terrorized Texas in the late 1950s and early 1960s with blown and unblown fuel dragsters, sent me a note wanting to know if I'd like to see his photos of Garlits' first trip out west (Texas, in this case) to show his stuff, way back in 1958. The photos were every bit as wondrous as he promised.

Ridge Route Terror tales (April 11, 2008)

Former Top Fuel racer “Nitro Noel” Reese was a crewmember of the famed Warren-Coburn-Miller "Ridge Route Terrors" Top Fuel team and shared some great road stories and behind-the-scenes info on one of my all-time favorite teams.

Racing on the cardboard quarter-mile (April 18, 2008)

As a teenager, I couldn't always get to the track when I wanted to, so I did the next best thing: I staged my own drag races using the infamous Vallco Drag Racing board game. Greg Zyla, who invented the game, sat down for a long interview about the hows and whys of this game, and later sent me a virgin copy to replace the battle-scarred version I had owned since my teens. I recently reciprocated with Zyla, who interviewed me for an article that will appear in the January issue of PRI Magazine that covers, among other topics, the DRAGSTER Insider column.

'The Big Bang' (April 23, 2008)

The incredible shot of the exploding engine leaping from the chassis of Larry Brown's Top Fueler on the top end at Tulsa has captivated fans for years  and after it appeared in this column in Steve Reyes' Five Favorite Fotos, a follow up was definitely in order. I was able to get in touch with Brown, who offered his remembrances of the incident.

The loss of Gaines ... and Beck's 'secret' (April 25, 2008)

More stories behind the stories. After Gaines Markley, who was the car owner for Rob Bruins in his 1979 championship season, died, I did a career-recap kind of story that included a lot of comments from another world champ, Gary Beck, who during the course of the interview debunked the all-but-chiseled-in-stone drag racing history that he was Canadian.

"My professional racing career started in Canada with a Canadian racing team, so I can see why people assumed I was Canadian, but I only lived in Edmonton for three years before we moved to California," he said. "But the part about me being a Canadian was all a hoax. I've had that label for many years and still do. I can keep telling people the truth, but it never ends."

Hopefully it has now.

The Drag-on Lady: Racer, pioneer, mom (April 30, 2008)

The hunt for the "Drag-on Lady," Shirley Shahan took a while but I finally was able to make contact with the gender-busting heroine of the early 1960s Stock wars for an article filled with rich memories and great old photos.

An irrepressible Force (May 05, 2008)

Sometimes John Force just needs to talk, as he did Tuesday after daughter Ashley had won in Atlanta. He picked up the phone in the middle of the night wherever he was, and though he had every right and opportunity to talk about how he had turned another raw rookie into a national event winner, he left me very long, personal, and emotional voice mail. He couldn’t sleep, he said, so he got up, put on his robe and his ever-present Castrol hat, and prefaced his message with the caveat that “this probably won’t make any sense, because it doesn’t make any sense to me … maybe I ate too many pickles for dinner” and continued to talk until the voice-mail-message limit cut him off. Then he called back and talked some more.

Another homage to Force, and, right or wrong, my impressions of a man I've grown close with over the years.

The Bristol rainy-day blog (May 18, 2008)

I've never sat through a longer of more frustrating day of racing than I did at this year's event in Bristol, where on-again, off-again rain delayed the conclusion until well after 10 p.m. We'd fire a pair of cars and it would rain. We'd dry the track and just when it was dry it would rain again. (I, of course, am using the editorial "we"; I personally was not involved with the track drying. As I recall, I was nursing a bout of stomach flu, which made the need to distract myself even more important.)

Sitting in the Bristol tower, I became cruelly amused by what was going on so I started scribbling notes to myself, thinking maybe this could be a Staging Light column for National DRAGSTER. I was, meanwhile, continually updating the home page with the latest weather outlook and, finally, that became too tedious, so I made the best of both situations by writing a continually-updated entry in this column, posting new information as it happened, offering my observations about the milling-around going on, and other silly thoughts. Apparently, you guys really liked it.|

Engineering the Train (May 23, 2008)

Over the decades, the dual-engined Freight Train Top gas dragster has been one of the most revered and loved machines to ever traverse the quarter-mile, and Train "engineer" John Peters sat with me for a very extensive review of the car's history.

Monday at the movies (June 02, 2008)

If you've spent any time at all on YouTube, you know how you can go there with the best intentions to just watch a video, then you start going from "related video" to "related video" and the next thing you look up and the dog is begging to be fed, the kids have gone to sleep, and you need a shave. It's that addicting.

In this column, I saved you the hassle of going to YouTube by pre-loading 16 videos on the page, the best of drag racing stuff that I could find. I put together the details of each video, rated them, and noted why each was worth watching.

Friday the 13th special: the Corvette Curse and other superstitions (June 13, 2008)

Another column that sired many follow-up columns as I traced the drag racing curse of Chevy's famous sports car, from the Beach City Corvette on and looked at other stuff like the color green, peanuts in the pits, and others. It was a natural topic to write about on this day.

They left their hearts in San Fernando (June 20, 2008 )

I never got a chance to go to San Fernando Raceway, but after writing this column about the fabled "Pond," I felt like I had, Dave Wallace was absolutely instrumental in pointing me in the right direction, which led to a great interview with former track manager Harry Hibler. The photos, again, are priceless.

Dry hops in heaven (July 7, 2008)

Written in the wake of the tragic loss of Scott Kalitta, this column, hands-down, generated the deepest and most voluminous response from the readers of this column. I had always heard that when so-and-so had died, how they're probably "up there" right now racing (name any other previously deceased racer), so I took that thought to extreme lengths.

I tried to include every major driving, owning, tuning, announcing, and photographing person I could think of who has left us, and wrapped it into one ginormous piece.

The outpouring of thanks was truly touching to me, especially from the families and friends who were thrilled to see not that their loved one, no matter how long gone or relatively obscure, had been remembered.

In the Mood (July 31, 2008)

Another fine example of how I was very excited to chat with another of my 1970s heroes, Don Moody. The interview was done completely by email as he now lives in Thailand and even his daughter, Darrielle, was amazed that he responded because he had never been one to brag about his accomplishments or even shown any recent desire to relive those memories.

This is a two-fer article as it also includes a recap of the riotous Last Drag Race at Lions Dragstrip, as remembered by Moody, who had low e.t. of the meet but withdrew from competition after the crowd became too, ahem, boisterous.

Superman lives! (August 20, 2008)

Long before I ever dubbed John Force "Superman" in that Sept. 2007 column, drag racing fans were rooting for "Superman" Jim Nicoll, an almost mythic driver from the 1970s who showed a knack for walking away from incredible accidents like the nationally-television clutch explosion in the Top Fuel final at the 1970 U.S. Nationals that cut his car in two on Wide World of Sports.

I was able to track down Nicoll, who these days runs a Mexican resort in Puerto Penasco, and we spoke at length on the phone about his career and, in another great "story behind the stories" moment, he told me that he hadn’t gained his famous nickname as the result of surviving accidents as every major drag racing magazine has reported for decades, but for first single-handedly whupping on an a couple of drunks who interrupted a game of billiards.

I'm also quite proud of the photo illustration at right, which I took from Jim Kelly's memorable black and white photo of Nicoll. Using PhotoShop, I colorized Nicoll, then stuck him in front of another Superman logo and some fancy color effects.

And the winner is ... (Sept. 05, 2008)

All summer long, readers of this column helped decide the favorite racecar of all time. We worked our way through seven categories of cars over varying decades before the tone-Woods-Cook Willys was declared the winner. A few days later, I had a nice interview with Leonard Woods, son of team co-founder Tim Woods, for this column: Stone, Woods & Cook: From the inside (Sept. 08, 2008)

They didn't call him 'Wild Bill' for no reason (Sept. 15, 2008)

Another excuse to interview a '70s hero of mine and many SoCal fans, "Wild Bill" Shrewsberry. He was even harder to find than Shahan, but we eventually tracked down the famed driver of the L.A. Dart wheelstander and gave me plenty of great stuff for this column.

My Bakersfield of Dreams (Oct. 14, 2008)

Recounts my first trip to the California Hot Rod Reunion in Bakersfield, and the incredible nostalgic feelings I experienced. I had put off going to the thing for 16 years, thinking there was no way it could possibly live up to the hype. I was wrong.

Welcome to OCIR Week! Today: The '83 season (Oct.27, 2008)

I declared the week of Oct. 27 "OCIR Week" as it marked the 25th anniversary of the closing of Orange County Int'l Raceway, where I had spent a lot of my teenage and early-20 years. This first installment covers the entire Pro racing season of the track's final year, in 1983, with results from every major match race the track held that year.

After that, on the actual 25th anniversary of the track's closing, Oct. 29, I published OCIR's Last Drag Race: The day the music died, combining my personal observations and other first-hand accounts of that sad night when Southern California lost its final fulltime dragstrip.

Two days later, and after weeks of research, I posted what I consider to be the definitive history of OCIR, The rise and fall of Orange County Int'l Raceway from its earliest planning stages through various owners all the way up to the bitter end. Calling upon historical documents and first-hand interviews with some of the principals, it's as close to an A to Z story as I can create.

The article ended up with a look at the grounds now, Ghost Track style, tracing the outlines of the old facility and trying to find any little piece of what might be left (which ain't much).

The good guy in the black cowboy hat (Nov.24, 2008)

To any fan who attended SoCal drags, Larry Sutton was our Buster Couch, the no-nonsense starter with a heart of gold. I ran into Sutton at the Hot Rod Reunion where we enjoyed a long chat about all kinds of things and I thought that in the wake of OCIR Week, an in-depth story on the man who ran the Tree there in its final years (as well as at Lions and Irwindale through their respective closings) was long overdue. Sutton did not disappoint, giving me enough material to have filled several columns if I had chosen.


Well, that's it to date. There are some more recent things I'm proud of, such as the Leonard Harris story below and all of the Ghost Track hunting we've been doing, but they’re recent enough for you to browse back to.

And besides, I really have to start my Christmas shopping. There's only six shopping hours to go!


Monday, December 22, 2008

A Munstrously Good Time

Here's a fun little extended follow up to the Fun with Fotos article that revolves around the '60s TV show The Munsters. Brendan Tobin was among those who chastised me for not remembering that it wasn’t Herman that Grandpa raced at Lions Dragstrip (er, I mean, Mockingbird Heights Drag Strip) in that famous episode, "Hot Rod Herman," that originally aired May 27, 1965.

According to Tobin, Grandpa had to build the coffin-based "Dragula" dragster to win back the infamous Munster Koach that Herman had lost racing "Leadfoot" Baylor, the father of Sandy, one of Eddie's classmates and a local drag racing legend on the show (played by character actor Henry Beckman).

Eddie had bragged that Herman could beat "Leadfoot," and Herman Herman's wife, Lily, begged him not to race, but Herman, dressed for  all the world like Marlon Brando and affecting a New York accent, famously replied,  "I just can't, uh, fight it chick. I, uh, gotta get out there and drag it with the gassers. Otherwise, I might blow my cool."

Grandpa, driving the Dragula, beats Leadfooot, in the Koach, to win the race, but the fun doesn’t end there.

"Leadfoot stole Grandpa's chute and Dragula went up and down the track repeatedly until Herman grabbed the rear bumper and skidded the car to a halt using his giant shoes," recalls Tobin. "It's one of the funniest racing shows ever filmed."

I spent some time to try to find out more about the episode and the cars and, naturally, there are entire Web pages dissociated to these well-remembered vehicles – both built by custom-rodding maven George Barris -- including one that offers specs.

The Munster Koach (two of which were made) was first built in 1964 and cost $18,000 to produce; the second was built in 1985, led by Dick Dean of Barris' original build team. The high cost of the first Koach was probably attributable to the fact that a) the studio only gave Barris 21 days to build it and b) much of the work was very custom and done by hand. The brass radiator and fenders were hand formed and it took 500 hours alone to make the ornate rolled-steel scrollwork.

The Koach, designed by Tom Daniel, was built by Barris' gang from three '27 Model T bodies and was 18 feet long. The 133-inch frame was made by hand and the front end had a dropped axle, split radius rods, and T springs. The paint was Black Spyder Pearl with gold leaf trim (40 hand-rubbed coats!) and the interior was, naturally, "blood red" velvet "coffin liner." Interior goodies included a Muntz stereo tape deck, an electric shoe polisher, a Sony TV, and two antique French telephones. A special Autolite electrical system was needed to make these extras operative.

Power came from a 289 Cobra engine bored to 425 cid and fitted with Jahns high-compression pistons, an Isky cam. Ten -- count 'em, 10! – chrome-plated Stromberg carburetors sat atop a Mickey Thompson "ram thrust log" manifold (though Dean later revealed that "the carbs were phony. There was a 4 barrel carb under the box.") Bobby Barr Racing headers exited the spent gasses. Power was channeled through a four-speed manual transmission. TV Guide actually did some performance tests on the Koach in Jan. 1964 andreported a 0-60 time of 10-flat. Not too scary; no wonder Herman lost.

According to an April 1965 article in Model Car Science magazine, Barris used "an Ansen posi-shift 30-inch stick with four on the floor coupled to a 4:11 rear end for the sporty drive train. A front dago dropped axle and split radius bars held by T springs, and the Z'd frame with Model A springs and Traction Master stabilizers competently take care of any road condition. The wild new M. T. 11-inch racing slicks, mounted on wide-dumped Astro chrome spoke wheels give the Koach plenty of bite off the line."

Dragula also was designed by Daniel and built by Barris, featuring a antique gold fiberglass coffin (from Owens-Corning) trimmed inside with royal purple velvet silk atop a tube frame chassis.  According to an old interview with Dean, who died this past July, four Dragulas were built and the original car hangs from the ceiling in the Planet Hollywood in Atlantic City, N.J. "The first coffin was obtained from the prop shop and was first used in the movie Some Like It Hot," he said. "The next three I got from Mexico as you can't buy them in the States without a dead body."

The Dragula was powered by a 289-cid 350-horse V-8 Mustang with twin 4-barrel carbs feeding a 4-speed stick. Eleven-inch inch Firestone slicks on Reynolds aluminum Rader drag wheels hooked the Dragula, which was steered up front by Speedsport English buggy wire wheels on four-inch Italian tires. (Herman also raced the Dragula in the 1966 film, Munster Go Home, in which the family went to England after inheriting a mansion there.)

Sadly, no big-name dragster drivers were employed for the runs at The Beach; stunt driving was credited to Jerry Summers and Carey Loftin.

You can find a short clip from the episode – just the racing footage – on YouTube here.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Thanks for filling in the blanks

I could have entitled this entry "DRAGSTER Insider readers to the rescue … again" because y'all came through with flying colors following my Fun with Fotos article here a week ago. I had info on some of the pics presented and asked for the DI faithful to fill in the blanks, and you responded with the avalanche below. From the e-mail I get and the all-star list of names I'm told who read my humble bit of biweekly drivel, I bet we cover a vast majority of the history of the sport, which is what makes it so much fun to read (and write).

Okay, your turn, guys …

Fred Fischbach had no problem ID-ing the owner of the blown Austin-Healey as his old friend Norm Cowdrey. "This is from the mid- to late '60s," he wrote. "Norm had the chassis built in San Fernando by a sprint car chassis builder by the name of Rip Erickson. It was powered by a blown small-block, but I don't remember the cubes. The car was an instant NHRA record setter, and as you can see by the picture, a real crowd-pleaser. It was painted at a body shop in the southwest corner of Tony Nancy's complex where Tony lived and had his upholstery shop. The car was a beautiful lime green with large gold metalflake that had been shot up in the air and allowed to settle on it, then clear coated. The whole package was totally awesome.

"Sometimes when there was no race for Norm to go to, he would unbolt the blower and put it on his Corvette – underdriven, of course -- and we'd go tooling around the Valley; no big deal today, but then -- big deal.  Too much fun."

Bill Holland added of the car, "Cowdrey normally did well in one of the eliminator categories at San Fernando Dragway, where the photo was taken. Norm went on to campaign the Blue Fox Camaro Funny Car. He later was involved in a few TAFC deals, one of which was driven to a Wally win at Las Vegas by Rod Alexander ("Wild Bill's" son). Today, Norm plays with vintage road race cars. I chatted with him a few months ago at the races on Coronado Island, where he ran well with an ex-Paul Newman McKee Can-Am car."

Being able to ID a car is one thing, but being able to figure out at which track a photo was taken always requires some skill. Bill Carrell was "99.9 percent sure" that the Shower Power photo was taken at Thompson Drag Raceway in Thompson, Ohio, because of "the trees and their proximity to the track; the signage with roads identified in that area, specifically Ridge Road and Mayfield; I worked there and can tell a shot of that track from almost any angle; and where else but Ohio?"

Dawn Mazi-Hovsepian, Ohio's secondmost famous female Ohioan (behind The Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde and probably just ahead of Rona Veney) not only confirmed for me that it was taken at Thompson but also provided the year (1970) and the photographer (Charles Gilchrist). Said Dawn, "Gilchrist notes: 'The engine, a stout fuel-injected small-block Chevy, was turned around in the chassis and ran through a transfer case to the differential. The driver (Randy Davis) sat in the fiberglass tub (no water). This bathtub was quick, made full passes on the rear wheels at ease, and people loved it.' "

I got a lot of feedback on the three-wheel dragsters along with solid IDs on both. Cliff Morgan and John Pecora wrote to say that the front-engine car belonged to Kenny Ellis, and Steve Gibbs wrote that the rear-engine car was the Cook Bros., Jahns, and Hedges entry driven by Jeff Jahns.

Morgan noted that "Ellis was the most famous with an almost conventional front-motor car, which had a tendency to wheelie down the track, especially in the lights." Added Pecora, "Ken is still at it doing fabrication but is stricken with cancer and is fighting with all he has. This photo, I think, is of the third three-wheeler. I built a complete replica of this car for him and gave it to him and son. His son wants to show it off at various events."

Of the other car, Gibbs reminisced, "One of the things that made the sport so appealing in the '50s and '60s was that you never knew what would show up next. The rules were wide open. [This is ] one of the cars that was nonconforming in just about every aspect. It was a rear-engine sidewinder, three-wheeler, using air jacks (à la Pete Robinson) to launch the car ... all with a fuel-burning small Dodge Hemi. It had a body but was not used much. The car had a short life and crashed at 'the Beach.' Driver Jahns got out of it, but it rearranged his nose. I can't imagine how today's tech guys would react if this car were to show up again."



Bob Post, author of High Performance, the unofficial bible of drag racing historians everywhere, said he believes this is Bill Martin of Palatka, Fla., shown running on the beach in Jacksonville, Fla.,  in 1953. "One of three slingshots I know of that pre-dated [Mickey Thompson's]," he noted. "Martin later became quite a well-known boat designer."

In looking at this picture, Morgan added that the body was probably one of the many that came from a fuel tank from an airplane. "Lots of guys used those tanks to create cars for the dry lakes after World War II, both front- and rear-engined versions, and some found their way to the drags. This car used the front section, and I can see the bottom of the car under the engine. Interesting design, and the car looked 'high tech' for its time, probably 1953-54."

Gibbs also was handy for the ID on this great old photo. "This is the gasser of Dale (he) and Al (her) Kersh, of Modjeska Canyon, Calif. Both are now gone. They were fixtures at SoCal tracks for many years, competing in various brackets, and were truly great people. The interesting thing is that Al was never -- EVER -- dressed any differently. She always looked like she just came from an upscale social event -- classy and in heels."

Byron Stack of Gasser Madness confirmed that this is the Kersh Family A/Gasser. "Memory tells me it was powered by a Mopar wedge motor with homebuilt injection," he wrote. "It was a very cool piece and fun to watch."


Neal Larson of Walla Walla, Wash., worked with early drag racing hero Jack Moss from Amarillo, Texas, so he knew all about this car, the famed Two Much entry.

"The picture was taken around 1961 or 1962," he wrote. "The car's last race was in Hobbs, N.M. We lost one of the engines, so we pulled one out and made a run with it, but the throttle stuck and rolled over; all was well with Jack, but the dragster was a total mess. The roll cage did its job.

"Jack was a member of the Barons Racing team from Amarillo. Find a Hot Rod magazine from September 1957 and look and see the first Two Much and the rest of the team."

The great photo of "Big John" Mazmanian's 'Cuda with four-wheel liftoff in Indy was shot by Larry "Max" Maxwell of L&M Photos according to Norman Blake, a pretty fine lensman in his own right (who promises to send me his Five Favorite Fotos soon; remember that early DI feature?). Also, Bill Burns, in responding to my observation that the car was battle-scarred, wrote, "I’m not positive, but I believe the battle scars are from the famous 'net' at the end of Green Valley Raceway in Texas. There was a big race there the week before Indy one year, and several of the California cars stopped by on their way east. It was the most beautiful Funny Car I had ever seen before its trip over the hill and into the 'net' there." I wrote Bill back and asked why he used quote marks around the word "net" …

Dan Tuttle dropped me a line to say that Noel Black's twin-engine car actually wasn't a Top Fuel car but that it was a Bonneville Streamliner nicknamed the Rhinoceros, in which he was later killed. "Reportedly, the car was well above 400 when it lost its belly pan," he said. "Apparently [this photo] was another test."

Fabed quarter-mile photog Steve Reyes, who shot the pic below right, tells me the unique-looking car was photographed at Sacramento Raceway.

I was able to find mention of the car in "Landspeed Louise" Noeth's book, Bonneville: The Fastest Place on Earth. Here is a picture of the car with bodywork taken by George Callaway. Noeth says the Rhinoceros name came from the body bumps to accommodate the engines.

Drag racing historian Bret Kepner tells me that the car was created by Black and partner Bert Peterson at their B&N Automotive shop and was never designed to be a dragster at all. "It was purely a land-speed record vehicle that because of its bizarre chassis and drivetrain configuration needed extensive testing, and the dragstrip was pretty much the only place to do it," he wrote. "Officially known as Motion 1 but dubbed the Rhinoceros when carrying its full body panels, the car crashed at 382 mph during the SCTA SpeedWeek event at Bonneville in 1970. Black died as a result of the crash."



Bob Nielsen was one of several who wrote to say that the great shot of the exploding Fiat features the Magic Muffler Fiat driven by Jim Miles. "This occurred in 1966," he wrote. "This photo was actually taken by Ron Lahr. What was moderately unique about this photo is the superb timing – parts still coming out the bottom of the engine and the car about to run over the oil pan.

"Jere Alhadeff was positioned a little farther downtrack and caught the same engine explosion milliseconds prior to Ron Lahr’s photo. Alhadeff’s photo shows the car engulfed in the engine explosion flames and the oil pan just starting to depart (it is still immediately under the engine)." I also found that photo on the HAMB forum, as shown here at right.

The original photo also hit home with a reader named Marty, who used to have the pic plastered on his bedroom wall. "I can't believe you have that photo of the guy runnin' over his own crankshaft in the Fiat," he wrote. "I had that hanging in my room as a kid. It's so cool I just laugh like an idiot at it. Do you know if that photo can be bought in a poster form or where it might be found?"

I don’t, but I'm guessing someone out there does. UPDATE! You can buy the pictures over at Dave Wallace's super-swell site: Direct link (Thanks, Doug Hayes and Mitzi Vines!)

I had forgotten that Al Kean, a DRAGSTER Insider regular, had taken the famous shot of Don Prudhomme's Hot Wheels 'Cuda on fire and flying through the lights in Seattle and had actually written the details for me that we ran in ND some years ago, so he had that document handy when I asked him for details.

"The event was the second annual Hot Wheels Northwest National Open at Seattle in 1971. Back then, with only five national events (actually eight – PB), these big National Opens were huge. This event had full fields in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock, and Top Gas eliminators, with lots of big names entered. I was attending the event with my brother and sister-in-law as I was two years away from getting my driver's license in B.C.

"Prudhomme had won the previous year’s event (which I had also attended) in Top Fuel, but this year, he was competing in Funny Car. The previous weekend at OCIR, Prudhomme had run the then-quickest Funny Car elapsed time ever at 6.62 seconds. This year, the real drama began in the semifinals when he faced Butch Maas, driving the Hawaiian, owned, of course, by Prudhomme’s old boss, Roland Leong.

"Both cars were loaded up with heavy doses of nitro, and when they launched, they burst several light bulbs on the Christmas Tree! It was the quickest side-by-side Funny Car race in history. The Hawaiian ran a then-great 6.78 only to lose to 'the Snake’s' 6.67 (the second-quickest run in history). The run resulted in a damaged clutch, and the Hawaiian and Whipple & McCulloch teams helped in changing it. The late, great Steve Evans was the announcer that day, and he said on the PA that Prudhomme claimed to be trying to run the first-ever 6.5 in Funny Car history in the final.

"We left our grandstand seats beside the starting line to get closer to the parking lot. We snuck into a very small (but surprisingly empty) VIP grandstand right at the finish line to watch the final rounds. As the event wound down, it was getting very close to the track’s strict 5:30 p.m. curfew. They ran the final round of Top Fuel first because Prudhomme was just pulling into the lanes after his clutch replacement.

"I was taking pictures all day with my dad’s Practica camera with a telephoto lens. This was the first time all weekend that I had an unobstructed shot of the track, and right at the finish line!

Prudhomme was racing Dave Condit in the L.A. Hooker Maverick in the final race of the day. Evans, as always, did a great job pumping up the crowd. After a long, smoky burnout, Prudhomme did a few dry hops over the starting line, and Evans said that they were seconds away from the curfew. I was watching everything through my camera’s viewfinder. The cars staged and launched. I was following the cars, and I thought I saw flames coming out of 'the Snake’s' windows as he neared the finish line. I remember thinking that it must just be glare off something – he couldn’t really be on fire, could he? I kept following the cars and clicked the shutter when they crossed the finish line.

"I then took the camera away from my face and looked downtrack to see Prudhomme’s car, with NO body on it, still in a wheelstand. It was at least 300 feet after the finish line before the car’s front wheels returned to earth. Emergency crews converged on the car. I looked back uptrack to see pieces of the body spread all over the track with fans jumping the fences to get a souvenir. I must admit the body pieces would have been great souvenirs. I saw one guy walking away with almost an entire side of the car that had the intact blue panel with the logos of Hot Wheels, Snake, and so on. My brother said that his eyes actually followed the body as it flew off and up 150 feet into the air before disintegrating as it fell back to earth.

"Prudhomme had won the race at 6.96 to Condit’s 6.98. The race was not that close, though, because Prudhomme broke the finish-line photo cells with the wheelie bars (as you can see in my photo, the rear wheels are also off the ground at the finish line), and Condit did it with the front wheels as normal. In my photo, you can see the front of the L.A. Hooker just entering the picture, a good car length behind.

"I had no idea what I had gotten in the photo. I had to wait several days for the color slides to get developed after we got home. It was pretty exciting to finally see the photo that I had taken. It was also exciting getting all the attention afterwards. The photo was published in Hot Rod magazine, Funny Car Pictorial, SIR programs, etc. Then track manager Bill Donor gave me a photo pass the next year, etc. The photo has also been mentioned in TV shows, over SIR’s PA, etc.

"Prudhomme has been great with me over the years. When I got him to sign a big copy for me, he brought me into his pit, in front of my friends. That certainly made a big impression! When I first brought my son, I got Don to autograph a copy for him. He again brought us both into his pit, showed all of his crew the photo, and treated us like VIPs. All in all, taking that photo was an experience I’ll never forget."


And speaking of Lions starting-line explosions, a whole host of people surmised – as I did privately – that the circled fan in this scan of Jon Asher's Garlits explosion photo may have been the fan injured by the shrapnel, some of which keen-eyed readers point out can be seen in the photo. Larry Sutton, who was the starter and who waded into the stands to save the fan's life, confirmed to me that that is the general area where he found the injured spectator, whom Lions historian Don Gillespie indentifies at Tom Ditt.

Greg Liskey, who is a two-time Sportsman Motorcycle champ in Division 7, was there and recalled, "I was 18 and on the pit crew of Dennis Thompson's stocker that day. All decked out in our newly acquired white uniforms, we were lookin' good but unfortunately were eliminated in competition. I headed to the stands to watch the big boys run. I have told lots of people that Lions is the reason I flunked high school.

"As the event headed to a conclusion, I remember Garlits and Richard Tharp pulling to the starting line. It was one of those moments that anyone lucky enough to have ever been there could only describe as 'Lions!' There was electricity in the air. As Tharp and Garlits left the starting line, instantly there was a huge explosion! I watched Garlits' car separate and the cockpit tumble forward just off the starting line. The motor and front of the car swung out and came to a stop just past the Tree. Tharp streaked towards the big end. Everything was in slow motion to the senses."

Terry White also was there with his older brother, in the same stands, just out of the frame downtrack. "We were understandably awestruck by the action on track and paid no attention to what was going on in the stands a short distance from us," he said. "When spectators started yelling at people on the track from the stands to our lower right, we noticed the commotion.  On-track personnel, Sutton included, found their way to the stands, and soon another ambulance (one was on the track for 'Big') showed up behind us on the return road. When I see those photos, it takes me back as though it was yesterday."


Other quick takes: Steve Justice says that the great in-car camera shot of Jess Sturgeon was done at Riverside Raceway and that the jet versus Top Fueler photo features J.D. Zink in Romeo Palamides' Untouchable going off against Don "Mad Dog" Cook at Fremont.

A few people pointed out that the oil-filler cap on the valve cover of Kalitta's SOHC mill was missing in the shot. 

Tom Posthuma didn’t have the ID on this car at right but thought it might be from "quite early English drag racing" based on the Ford Cortina in the background, which he thinks might be a '63, and the guy with the coat might be early British drags pioneer Sydney Allard. I've reached out to my buddy across the pond, noted British drag racing reporter Roger Gorringe, and asked him to investigate. I'll let you know what we find out.

Paul Schwan of Cincinnati dropped me a line about Ed Donovan's side-mounted blower, noting, "The 6-71 blower that was originally used was indeed mounted on the side of a 6-71 Detroit Diesel, or before it was Detroit, it was a GM diesel, or affectionately known as a 'Jimmy Diesel.' In either a right- or left-hand 6-71, the side of the engine on which the blower was mounted determined either rotation or direction of the engine; therefore, that mount on the Offy was closer to 'stock' than most people realized."

And finally, Cliff Morgan and Bill Mays remember that the go-kart in this picture was powered by a small rocket engine on hydrogen peroxide; Bret Kepner swears that the notorious Capt. Jack McClure was at the wheel. Morgan also said that it was Tommy Ivo in the other lane, so I caught up with T.V. (after he woke up to begin his day, as always, on Ivo time, at about 3 p.m.), who, as always, had plenty to say when it came to talking about himself and passed along two bonus photos.

"It sure is me," he confirmed, "but I'm still trying to get the hook out of my mouth on this one. They reeled me in on this -- I guess they noticed the sign I had hanging around my neck that said 'FISH' on it." The "they" in this case were the go-kart makers.

"We were at Tampa (Int'l -- NOT) Dragway," he remembered. "The track was slightly better than running on the alley down behind your house. I was making single runs on a paid-in race and so was the rocket-powered go-kart, which had a Turbonique rocket engine, or something like that as I remember it. Of course, it was inevitable that someone would say, 'Let's run the dragster against the kart!' I was all for it, as I running much better than him and also because I used to do all kinds of things like that all the time. (When they didn't hire in two dragsters for a match race at the smaller, lesser affluent tracks for the sake of expense,  I would give stockers big head starts and run them down on the big end – or even bicycles, anything to take the ho-hum out of single runs -- but I would always make sure we put a good enough spread on the handicap to make sure I didn't get beat by mistake! How bad would that be, getting beat by a bicycle? Although this incident ended up to be even worse than that. 

"The rocket engine had a heart attack before we could have the race, so the guy with the kart still really wanted to get a picture with me racing him. Soooooooo, he suggested to just set him on the starting line next to me and get the picture when I took off. It wasn't a movie, so who would know if he were running or not? 'Okay, that will work,' I said! But then once again, old Cecil B. De Ivo had to not leave well enough alone. Attempting to make a good idea better (as I always do), I suggested that they put the kart out about 25 feet or so; therefore, I could get up a good plume of smoke behind me to make the picture more dramatic. Wrong!! Here's the shot they were 'supposed' to get!

"BTW, he said the header exhaust about blew him off the go kart when I went past him. I would imagine it was pretty intense with the 'weed sprayers' pointed right at him. They were not your father's zoomies, you understand! 

"I was a victim of my own stupidity, it would seem (again), BUT -- and here comes that 'but' again -- I was right; it did make a great shot, didn't it? Here you are, sending a copy of it to me 44 years later!!! I think that falls under the category of it being a 'damned-if you-do-and-damned-if-you-don't' deal."

Ivo also reported that when Tom McCourry was touring Ivo's four-engine car -- running it under Ivo's name for a while for the value of the name recognition in advertising – he got sucked into a similar deal with a rocket-powered VW but that the VW crashed before it got to the other end of the quarter-mile, which Ivo also believed happened at Tampa.

But Ivo, ever the zany and resourceful prankster, says he got back at track operator and good pal Billy Herndon, at whose house he would stay during his bookings there. "The next time I was staying at his house, he got his comeuppance. He had a large pantry with many, many canned goods in it since he had a good-sized family. He wasn't at home when I left, so I took all the labels off of literally hundreds of cans in the pantry. He said it was an adventure every night for dinner. They would shake a can and say, 'What does that sound like?' So they'd open what sounded like a can of peas for the dinner vegetable and end up with dog food or the like. Perfect!"

And with that tale, my DRAGSTER Insider friends, we come to the end of another feast of drag racing stories behind the stories; thanks as always for the dishes you brought to this particular potluck.


Monday, December 15, 2008

Leonard Harris, drag racing's shooting star

During a six-month span in 1960, there was no hotter drag racing pilot than Leonard Harris, whose career ended with his tragic death in October, just six weeks after his Nationals triumph.

Gene Adams took to drag racing naturally, and he could make an Oldsmobile engine sing. He set the B/Gas national speed record at the 1957 Nationals in this fastback '50 Olds.

A shooting star blazes its way across the sky in a spectacular but short-lived burst of glory, and that's an apt metaphor for the all-too-short drag racing career of Leonard Harris. He may well be the best driver you've never really heard of.

In a short six-month span, Harris, a filling-station owner from Playa del Rey, on the shores of the Pacific west of Los Angeles, went from a relatively unknown racer to being an NHRA Nationals champ and earning a still-standing regard as one of the best race car drivers in the sport's history.

In researching this article and interviewing the many principals, I was amazed at their genuine admiration for a man whose time on the NHRA stage was so brief but, like that shooting star, so intense.

From the time he partnered with engine wiz Gene Adams and chassis builder Ronnie Scrima in April 1960 until his tragic death at Lions Drag Strip, just six months had been stripped from the calendar, but they'd all fallen directly into the history books.

At the wheel of the team's famed Albertson Olds dragster, the group was all but unbeatable, a testament in part to the power that Adams brewed but also to Harris' skillful application of that power.

There was never any question that the old master Adams, initially an aircraft mechanic by trade who started out by hot rodding his dad's '50 Olds 88 at the Santa Ana Drags in 1952, could make power. His trademark Oldsmobile engines were widely acknowledged as the best in the business, and after just a handful of years in the sport, he'd enjoyed success with Olds entries that dominated the coupe and sedan classes at SoCal tracks such as Santa Ana and Saugus – and even set a B/Gas national record of 111.24 at the 1957 Nationals in Oklahoma City -- in the years before meeting Harris and certainly in the years after Harris' passing, but there's also little doubt that Harris brought his own magic to the combination.

The partnership that developed between Harris, Adams, and Scrima was a combination of coincidence and a harmonic convergence of hot rodding forces in Culver City, home to the burgeoning hot rod industry with shops such as Isky and Edelbrock and a dedicated and savvy group of hot rodders that included the likes of future Freight Train engineers John Peters and Nye Frank, Mike Sorokin, "Jazzy Jim" Nelson, Craig Breedlove, Hank Bender, Ron Hier, Bill Adair, Walt Stevens, Frank "Root Beer" Hedges, Mickey Brown, Ed Weddle, and more.

While Adams was serving a two-year stint in the Army in the late 1950s, Scrima partnered with Mort Smith – with whom he worked at Engle Cams --- and Adams' brother, Gary, using one of Adams' Olds engines in a dragster, initially one that Scrima had built but more notably in one of Scotty Fenn's iconic TE-440 chassis. Scrima had worked with Adams before, most notably on a trip to the 1957 Nationals, and although Adams was a door-car guy, he'd visit with the gang at the drags while he was on leave and eventually also became interested in the "rail jobs."

"Ronnie was a dragster guy, and he was interested in the Olds engine, so when I got drafted, I told him he could use my engine Olds in his dragster," recalled Adams. "I’d come home on leave and go out with them, and that thing was so much faster and easy to work on that I got converted."

As was sometimes the case in those early years, the going wasn't always easy and the cost not always cheap. Brown substituted for Smith on a fateful Sept. 12 night in 1959 at Lions and was killed in the car when it overturned.

Harris, Adams, and Ronnie Scrima formed a team in April and got parts sponsorship from Culver City-based Albertson Olds. (Above) Harris stood between Lou Albertson and sales manager Phil McNab. Adams and Scrima are kneeling. (Below) While Scrima was preparing the team's new dragster, Adams and Harris got acquainted when Adams dropped his powerful blown Olds engine into Harris' new Fiat.

When Adams got out of the Army in January 1960, he returned to his old haunts, which in Culver City meant the famed Albertson Olds dealership, just down Sepulveda Boulevard from Adams' West L.A. home.

"Everybody had Oldsmobiles, and Albertson was the place everyone went to get their parts; that's where I met Leonard one day while getting parts for my engines," said Adams. "A lot of people hung out there. Don Farr was the parts manager and really a neat guy and interested in racing. He helped us all out and knew exactly what to give everyone. He knew everything."

And he also knew Harris, who owned a Seaside service station in Playa del Rey and was a well-known street racer with his yellow '56 Olds. After one too many tickets, Harris and buddy "Stump" Davis decided that maybe the drags could better serve as their outlet. Harris bought a Fiat-bodied competition coupe and planned to build a blown Olds engine to slide between the framerails.

Adams and Scrima had purchased a K-88 chassis from Fenn, and while Scrima was modifying its design – much to the displeasure of Fenn – Adams, at Farr's suggestion, agreed to drop his 407-cid Olds engine into Harris' Fiat. The car, dubbed Lil Red Rocket, ran well, in the high-nine-second range, and Harris' skills behind the wheel impressed Adams.

"Leonard did such a good job of driving the Fiat that we decided to go with Leonard for our dragster," recalled Adams. "Poor Mort got left out."

As a student of the Venice High School class of 1950, Harris, a slight 5 feet, 6 inches, had been a two-time national champion gymnast on the rings. Classmate Hank Bender, who was a few years behind Harris and had his own Chevy-powered car with driver Ron Hier, initially was surprised by Harris' aptitude behind the wheel, something he hadn’t shown 10 years earlier in high school.

"At school, Leonard wasn't really known as a drag racer or a car guy," he recalled. "He was an all-city gymnast, and everyone in the school knew who he was because of that. My first recollection of him driving was at Long Beach one time when they brought out the Albertson Olds car and they announced that Leonard Harris was going to drive this car. I didn’t think it was the same guy. He just kind of exploded on the scene."

The skill, strength, and concentration it took to reach that elite level of gymnastics obviously paid off behind the wheel.

"He had tremendous concentration and a lot of muscle coordination," recalled Adams. "He had both of those things working for him, which is really great for a driver. He was something else; he was one of a kind."

It didn't take the Albertson Olds team long to begin making waves. After a pair of Top Eliminator wins at Lions, the team set the NHRA record May 15 at Inyokern Dragstrip in Southern California's high desert.

The 28-year-old Harris made his unofficial debut in the team's dragster – now sponsored by Albertson Olds, which gave the teams parts, including heads, blocks, and cranks -- at Lions April 23, 1960, with a few test passes (the team arrived too late to qualify for the day's racing), and the next day at San Fernando Raceway, the Albertson Olds broke Tommy Ivo's track record with a 9.30, set top speed of the meet at 163.33 mph, and won the event, then did the same thing a week later at Lions.

Two weeks later, after anoither Lions win, Harris set the national record on May 15 at the NHRA Record Meet at Inyokern in California's high desert but wounded Adams' engine in the process. Adams, who that year had begun working at Hilborn, immediately built a bigger and more powerful engine, using a '59 block with an early four-port Hilborn injector and a 6-71 blower, and the next weekend returned to Lions (May 21), where the team began an incredible string of 12 straight Top Eliminator wins that ran through Aug. 20.

Recalled Adams, "At that point in time, Long Beach was pretty slick when the dew would come in, and if you had a lot of power, you really had to ease into it before you could get after it, kind of like needing a clutch-management system, except the driver had to do it. Later when they learned how to keep it real clean, it ended up as one of the best tracks in the world, but from '59 to about '62 or '63, it was pretty slick. We had a pretty light car for the time and a big-cubic-inch Olds; I had been running Oldsmobile for years, so I knew my way around them pretty good, and Engle was a tremendous amount of help."

Former Top Fuel driver Carl Olson, who counts Harris among his first hot rodding heroes, said, “I've watched a lot of drivers pass down the quarter-mile in my life, but none that ever impressed me more than Leonard Harris. Even before the advent of such technology as reaction timers or, for that matter, even the Christmas Tree starting system, Harris was always the first to leave. I never saw him make a mistake on a run."

Tom Jobe, who in a few years would become part of the successful triumvirate that formed the popular Surfers Top Fuel team, recalled, "I was younger than the Leonard Harris/Gene Adams group, so I was hanging on the fence at Long Beach watching when the Albertson Olds car was winning every week. In hindsight, I think Leonard Harris' exceptional strength and physical coordination made him the earliest successful 'clutch-management system.' They did not smoke the tires very hard, and that beautiful car would really accelerate! Long Beach would get very slippery when the evening dew would mix with the refinery emissions, and the Albertson Olds car handled that better than any competitor out there, week after week."

"You could see the way he walked and carried himself that he was a great athlete," recalled Ron Miller, race coordinator for the nostalgia-themed Standard 1320 group. "He was one of those universally well-liked and respected drivers who could drive anything."

(Above) Harris' distinct driving style is evident here, steering wheel held at 12 o'clock and head dipped to his left to see around the blower. The tuning savvy of Adams (below inset) made the Albertson Olds nearly unbeatable in the early 1960s (shown here with Tom McEwen driving).

Harris' cousin, Lou Senter, who founded Ansen Automotive in 1948 in Los Angeles and produced an extensive line of speed equipment that included pop-up pistons, competition shifters, and the first NHRA-accepted bellhousings, also was high on Harris' adaptability and even had planned to build a dragster, powered by a Packard engine, for his cousin. Senter, who also owned sprint cars and once fielded three entries in the Indy 500, thought that Harris also would have made a fine champ-car driver.

"His coordination was so perfect, you couldn’t ask for more," opined Senter. "He would have made a good oval-track driver. He probably was one of the best drivers out there. He had a very good name; everyone told me he was the best there was. He used to come down to Ansen and tell me that he would never watch the flagman; he would watch the lights only. He was always first off the line. He was a very sharp mechanic, too, a very athletic guy, and well-liked. I don’t think there was a mean streak in him. He had a personality that you had to like."

Remembered Greg Sharp, drag racing historian and the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum presented by Auto Club of Southern California curator, "A straightforward driver, Harris would enter the staging area with the engine just above idle; he never winged the throttle or abused the motor. He would stage, bring up the motor, then leave. He seemed to have a sixth sense about who he had to leave on, who he could drive around, and he did only what was necessary to win."

In addition to its Lions skein — during which the team also ran its first eight, an 8.98 July 9 — the team scored Top Eliminator wins at Pomona and Riverside and lost just three times away from Lions. As summer began to wane and all eyes turned toward Detroit and that year's Nationals, there seemed little question that the team should venture east to try to continue its hot hand.

"Everyone wanted us to go back there," said Adams. "Engle was our cam guy, and because we were doing so well, Albertson wanted us to go, too. They gave us some tow money, so we went."

Although the fields at Lions were incredibly tough, all of the sport's top names from across the country were in Detroit, but fate dealt the Albertson Olds team an inside straight. The track had recently been repaved and was as slick as any track anyone could remember.

"Detroit was worse than Long Beach," said Adams. "I don't know what they did, but it was not good at all. No one ran good. We ran 9.25, and we were running 9.0s at Long Beach. A lotta guys just smoked the tires."

The Albertson Olds team won the A/Dragster class, topping 35 other entries with a 9.65 best, and later ran 9.49 and was selected to run for Top Eliminator against Dode Martin and his and Jim Nelson's twin-Chevy-powered Two-Thing AA/D, which had run 9.49, and James "Red" Dyer, whose '56 Chrysler-powered '27-T Tennessee Bo-Weevil A/Modified Roadster had run 9.89.

The Albertson Olds team in the limelight of the Top Eliminator winner's circle at the 1960 Nationals in Detroit. Flanked by a champion Spark Plug rep, left, and starter Joe Gutierrez are, from left, Scrima, Harris, Adams, and two of Harris' lifelong pals, Vern Tomlinson and "Stump" Davis.

Harris beat Martin in a close battle, then took on Dyer for national bragging rights and a new '60 Ford station wagon that was part of the winner's bounty and finished it off with a sterling 9.25, which also was low e.t. of the meet.

"We figured we had as good a chance as anyone, but there were a lot of twin-engine cars that were hard to beat," said Adams. "We were able to beat them most of the time because Leonard was a great driver. It was big, big deal to win it. Everybody was there; there was an unbelievable number of cars there. Anybody who had a blown gas dragster – dual engine or single – was there: Connie Kalitta, the Dragmaster Two-Thing, Jack Chrisman with the Howard Cams Twin Bear, Big Wheel from Minnesota…"

Before heading home, the team -- which also included Harris' good friends, Davis and Vern Tomlinson -- headed to Minnesota Dragways for a match race with the Bruce "Stormin'" Norman-driven Big Wheel dragster, caravanning with fellow Olds racer Don Ratican and the Ratican-Jackson-Stearns team, towing the Ford station wagon at the Nationals with the eight trophies won between the two cars laid out in the back of the wagon.

Ratican remembers the odd sight he encountered exiting his motel room one day. There was Harris, hanging onto the roof overhang, legs sticking out horizontal to the ground in a show of his former gymnastic skills.

"Leonard was a tremendous driver," recalled Ratican. "He jumped in my Fiat one time and drove it as quick and fast as Ronnie [Stearns] ever did. He could drive anything."

Before heading home to Lions to continue its winning streak, the Albertson Olds team beat the Big Wheel on its home Minnesota turf. From left are Davis, Adams, Tomlinson, Scrima, and Harris.

Harris and Adams again took advantage of tricky traction and defeated the previously unbeaten Big Wheel on its home turf. The team returned from its trek to the Midwest and promptly ran up another six wins at Lions, beginning Sept. 24, to extend its streak to 18 straight wins at "the Beach" and began looking forward to a big match race Oct. 22 at Lions against Chrisman and the twin-engine Howard Cams dragster. Hyped as The Match Race of the Century, the match also was for a spot on the prestigious Drag News Mr. Eliminator list and was so important to the team that Adams planned to forgo the traditional eliminations altogether to concentrate on the match.

The match race, however, never happened and set into motion the tragic chain of events that would lead to Harris' death.

"By the time we got there, the Howard's car was already on the trailer," recalled Adams. "They had broke one of the engines. So we went ahead and made a pass to run eliminations. We were cooling it off and water came out of one of the plug holes, so we decided we were done, too. When you broke something is those days, you didn't try to fix it because you raced every week. We put it on the trailer and later found out it had a cracked cylinder wall.

"We went up in the stands and started watching, and Leonard got an offer to help these guys out who were having a handling problem. He made a pass and then came over and told us it was pulling to the left in the lights but decided to give it another try."

There seems to be some confusion about the name of the entry as time has blurred many memories, but the car into which Harris hopped was either the Firestone Realty or Firestone Auto Wrecking entry, and its regular driver may have been former Adams-Scrima shoe Smith, and a solid handler named Norm Taylor may have also tried unsuccessfully to tame the beast earlier in the day. Again, memories are fuzzy.

Dan "Buzz" Broussard, a longtime pal of Davis, wasn't at Lions the night that Harris was killed, and although he did have an inkling that the car itself was ill-fated, he had no idea it would claim Harris' life.

"There was a muffler shop down the street from Keith Black's shop in South Gate," he recalled. "I happened to be at Keith's and stopped by [the muffler shop] as they were just assembling the chassis to go to Lions  It was a menagerie of people trying to put this car together, and I didn't want to be part of it. It really was a disaster. I think the car absolutely was rushed together. I don’t specifically know what went wrong, but it was a disaster waiting to happen. They were fumbling with the front end and other things, and I just didn’t want to be around it. I didn't go down there [to Lions]."

Broussard, whose own car was runner-up at the 1963 March Meet with McEwen at the wheel, remembers Harris as "a terrific guy, calm, not hyper, mild-mannered; he could adapt to anything." That may have been Harris' undoing; he lost his life on the next pass in the car, in the first round of eliminations.

Some say that the front axle broke, others that a steering arm came off; though the cause of the crash will never be known, it was clear that somehow the car got away from Harris, and as a stunned Lions crowd watched in disbelief, it made a left turn into the catch fence alongside the track and got upside down. Harris succumbed to injuries suffered in the accident.

"Everything was all crunched up, and you couldn't tell what happened," recalled Adams. "It was just the perfect storm for the accident."

"I guess I could say, in all honesty, that the only mistake I ever saw Leonard Harris make at a dragstrip was getting into that car that night to do a fellow racer a favor," said a reflective Olson. “I'll never forget that fateful night. I was at the finish line sitting on top of a small concession stand located there, which was not in use at the time. On this run, Harris was matched up against the Quincy Automotive twin Chevy, which was well ahead at the finish line. As a result, I was concentrating on the Quincy car when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of sparks. What followed was one of the most violent crashes I've ever observed. I just knew that it had been an unsurvivable incident and that my hero was gone. I drove home that night with a very heavy heart. His passing wasn't confirmed until the next day, but it certainly came as no surprise.”

The stunning accident cut the heart and a bit of the spirit right out of the team.

"It shook up Scrima so bad he didn’t want to race anymore," said Adams. "Albertson didn't want anything to do with it either. They figured that if something like that would happen to our car, they might be in a position to be sued. We raced Tom McEwen every week, so he said he would buy Ronnie out."

Tom McEwen succeeded Harris in Adams' dragster, and they continued together for a few years with successful entries such as the Shark car.

Adams and McEwen continued with the now-Albertson-less Olds car for about four months before trading it in for their high-back car and later the Kent Fuller-built Shark car.

"We did real well, but nothing like we did with Leonard," recalled Adams. "Things were changing rapidly, technically getting better all the time; people were building lighter cars and making more power, so you couldn’t stay with the same thing for very long, We could see that our car was heavy and wasn't going to work.

"The '60s were an amazing time," he added wistfully. "Every week at Long Beach, you never knew what you were going to see. Guys would have three engines, aircraft engines, engines sitting sideways, a Chevy in front of a Chrysler, two F85s. It was funny. I was pretty conventional, pretty much stayed with a single-engine car."

Adams, of course, went on to have a successful run with a number of drivers, including Don Enriquez, Jimmy Scott, John Mulligan, Steve Carbone (briefly, after Mulligan broke his jaw in an auto accident), Mike Snively, Billy Scott, Ed Vickroy, and Chess Bushey, and, today, Kin Bates' A/Fuel car in NHRA's Hot Rod Heritage Racing Series.

Still, it's Harris and that amazing summer and early fall of 1960 for which many people most remember Adams, for his amazing yet short partnership with one of drag racing history's best drivers whose life and career were cut tragically short. In 30 races together, they won 22 times at six dragstrips.

Recalled McEwen, "That Albertson Olds car was a stout piece -- one of the only single-engined cars that could beat the duals -- and Leonard was like a computer when he drove it. I remember that Gene would get mad at me because I couldn’t drive it as good as Leonard. He was unbelievably talented. He would have been one of the all-time greats, no doubt about it."


Thursday, December 11, 2008

Fun with fotos!

In a year, a lot of stuff moves in and out of my e-mail box: photos, stories, Web site links, and I collect it all and store it like an animal preparing for hibernation, my own little collection of nuts and berries to get me through the winter. There's an amazing thread of photos on the H.A.M.B. forum that's nearly 400 pages and filled with great old shots like these; I only made it about a fourth of the way through before my finger (and my brain) went numb.

Below is a series of images that I found cool, interesting, or just weird (author estimate only; your taste may differ), along with my notes and thoughts.

Back in the day, anything was possible. How about an Offy with a side-mounted blower on Ed Donovan's dragster?

Nothing says drag racing like way too big of an engine stuffed into too little car; reminds me of the models I used to imagineer as a kid.

Rear slicks churning, front tires grabbing air, and, an acrobatic flagman.

Uhhh, dude? I don't think you asked for a big enough head start.

A wheelstander with everything but the kitchen sink.

Who said snakes can't fly? Prudhomme gets air in the lights in Seattle.

Hard to believe that today's Top Fuelers evolved from this; from its whitewall tires to its Rat Fink-like shifter placement, I really dig this car.

(Above) So you still think that Don Garlits invented the rear-engine dragster, do ya? (Below) Donnie and Gene Bowman's flathead-powered Vineland Villain wasn't pretty, but it sure looked crude. Back then, functionality trumped almost everything.


I love this shot, taken in the pits at Lions. No, not the neat old flip-top panel wagon -- the lady, dressed in skirt and heels. Priceless.

Again, it's the people who make this shot. The clown, second from left, doing his "Take the picture already" pose and the other guy still slipping on (or off?) his coat, who's clearly not ready for the shot. And that dragster? Not much traction in those rear meats.

Kinda funny, too, but for a different reason is Surfers pilot Mike Sorokin almost having his helmet sucked off at speed (center).

And speaking of in-car cameras, I just love this shot from Jess Sturgeon's car.

This is a great shot, too, taken from the cockpit of one of Scotty Fenn's legendary Chassis Research chassis that revolutionized the sport. I took some Photoshop liberties with the original to blur the background as the El Camino tow vehicle was a distraction. Love that steering wheel and big ol' brake handle. (Below) This is Fenn's workshop. That's Fenn at far left overseeing work on some of his K-88 and TE-448 chassis.


Another vintage chassis on this cool twin. Always amazing to me to see how primitive the early driver-protection devices were.

Okay, if you don't like this photo, you can hardly consider yourself a drag fan. Classic Lions stuff.

Here's how those early dragsters got their nickname; the driver sat behind the rear tires like a rock in a slingshot.

A couple of engines, four tires, a little extra tubing, a welder, and there's little that early drag racers couldn't -- and didn't -- try.

I looooooooove this shot. The photographer did such a great job of exposing it and allowing you to see every detail, nut, and bolt on the blower. Arthur Trim tells me that this is Connie Kalitta's Logghe-chassised Ford-powered digger, photographed on a chassis dyno in one of Ford's labs/

Indy is a place where magical things happen. Look closely, and you can see that "Big John's" battle-scarred 'Cuda has all four tires off the ground.

Not all new ideas were good ones; Exhibit A is Noel Black's two-engine, four-wheel-drive Top Fueler from 1967.

Call me an astute observer, but I reckon that "Big Jim" Dunn was pretty much done for this run at Lions in the rainbow-hued Dunn & Reath digger.

Who says you need four wheels?

"I'll take Scary Fast Tricycles for $500, Alex."


In the same vein, who says you even need four wheels or three wheels? The famed Leffler-Coburn Iron Mistress coupe had six! In a true example of the sum of the parts not being equal to the whole, Neil Leffler and Bill Coburn each took the fuel-burning Hemis from their competition coupes and paired them for this interesting experiment. It wasn't real fast, but it was spectacular.


We've seen lead weights and tubes filled with lead shot as front-end ballast, but a rock? I kid you not. Clearly, the Red Mountain Boys knew how to rock.


I think we've all seen the classic photo above of Don Garlits' career-changing transmission explosion at Lions, but at left is Jon Asher's less-seldom-seen but equally-breathtaking downtrack angle. I'm not sure who circled the fan in the stands or why, but that's how this image was posted.


 I've never seen this car before, but it can't be any mistake that the names on its side are Capp and Fedderly, as in future Top Fuel partners (and Indy winners) Terry Capp and Bernie Fedderly. Both are still at it years later, Capp in nostalgia racing and Fedderly as Auston Coil's alter ego on the John Force team.


The first rule of running against a jet dragster: Always leave first.


Herman Munster, far lane, and Grandpa dueled at Lions in a ghoulish go that was featured on the popular television show.


The driver's reaction in this photo is classic after his blown Fiat puked all over the Lions starting line.

Okay, race fans, hope you enjoyed this little diversion. If you know any details about any of the photos, be sure to drop me a line, and I'll follow up in a future column.


Monday, December 08, 2008

More historic horsepower haunts

By popular demand – and to begin to wade my way through the scores of requests – we're back again for another round of ghost-track hunting. As always, the vast majority of the coordinates I'll be giving you are supplied by our friends at the TerraTracks Global Authority, which has been hunting ghost tracks for years, traveling to and carefully cataloging them from starting line to the end of the race surface. We'll be using the Google Earth program to see them, so if you need a refresher course or it's your first time here, visit this previous column to get up to speed.

All right – and away we go … 

Ken McKenzie, who left his native New England area to move to California's Silicon Valley ("to work for a then very new Intel") and made Fremont his new home, still can’t forget about his old stomping grounds. He lived in New Hampshire, and the closest track was the old Sanford drags, which the New England Hot Rod Council helped open in July 1955 and which closed about a decade later, according to what I could dig up (which ain't much).

"It was a Air Force base with huge, long runways," he wrote. "All the top guys ran there (Garlits, Malone, Connie, etc.), and very few of the guys ever used their chutes because the runoff area was so long. Several weekends we had half-mile drags; that was fun. New England Dragway (Epping, N.H.) opened, and Sanford vanished. Wonder what it's like today?"

Well, Ken, racing still goes on at the Sanford airport, but it's far from half-mile and far from asphalt. The North East Off Road Vehicle Competition Association recently began to run there again, holding its first race Oct. 19, and the sanctioning body name should tell you what you need to know. Racing now takes place on a 300-foot-long sand track with quads and 4x4s.

Below you can see the current airport. The old drags ran on the main runway, with the starting point delineated below (43.387832, -70.717131), but I'm not sure where they're holding the sand drags. The Tommy Ivo picture above and other pics you can find here were taken by Roy Wells and are from the collection of Bruce Wheeler.

Sticking with East Coast requests, Rob Keister asked about Vineland Speedway in the Garden State of New Jersey. Vineland Speedway was off Delsea Drive (Route 47) in Vineland, N.J. The 55-acre facility opened April 3, 1955, with just a half-mile dirt oval that operated only through October 1957 but became a multiuse facility that included a quarter-mile dragstrip and a 1 ½-mile road course for sports cars and motorcycles that were added in 1958. Drag racing began May 10, 1958, for a four-week trial with an eighth-mile strip on the home stretch and was so financially successful that a full quarter-mile dragstrip was constructed a few months later and was visited by memorable racers including Malcolm Durham and the Tasca Thunderbolts. You can find some good historic photos here.

Everything went swell for several years, but attendance for the oval course began to flag, and the facility closed in 1966. Eventually, as seems to be the case with most ghost tracks, the track was done in by a lease. Depending on who is telling the story, either a) an unnamed Millville, N.J., company on whose land the road course and dragstrip were built refused to renew the lease or b) when the ground was sold for the building of Cumberland County College, it was on the agreement that the adjoining speedway property could not continue as a racing facility. To the right is a current-day shot of the starting line, and as you can see in this Google Earth image below, Cumberland County College sits on the western edge of Vineland Speedway’s old dragstrip/road course. To get there, FlyTo: 39 26.2312, -75 3.00582.


"Montgomery Dragstrip was my first encounter with drag racing. I was about 13 years old, and it was '59 I think, maybe '58," wrote Guy Wills. "I think it was an old airport with a traffic light for the lights and a flag starter. I have tried to get info on this track but can get none. It was in or near Montgomery, N.Y. How about finding that ghost, Phil?"

There's not much info about this one either, Guy, but it does appear that Montgomery Dragstrip opened in 1959 on what is now the site of Orange County Airport, with the action taking place on what is now Runway 26, running is a general southwest direction. The starting line is noted by the coordinates 41.510061, -74.256538, the finish line by my red stripe at 41.508599, -74.260957.


"A long time ago, longer now than it seems, I spent my formative years weekending at Connecticut Dragway near Colchester, Conn.," wrote Dave Burnett. "I only have the one picture below of the old track, plus the one at right of 'Jungle Jim' that I found somewhere online back when, but I still have my Super 8 movies. Thanks to them, I graduated high school. Having sloughed off a half-credit course in practical writing (due to straight A’s in English my entire school history), I’d mistakenly surmised that merely showing up to ace the tests would get me the last half-credit I needed to graduate. I hadn’t taken into account the philosophy of the teacher who required actual attendance on a daily basis. She flunked me, leaving me out of my graduation ceremony and still minus that half-credit. The only answer was summer school and a course in film editing and production. The Super 8 movies I’d taken at the dragstrip my entire high school life sprung to my aid, quickly becoming the three-minute-long final project entitled Sunday Drivers. I aced the course and acquired my high school diploma.

"The old dragstrip hasn’t roared to life in quite a few years; as I understand it, it’s the Consumer Reports auto test track now."

Dave also turned me on to this interactive page that shows Connecticut Dragway in its new form as the Consumer Reports multiuse test track, which includes on its 327-acre lot not only a dragstrip but a handling course, avoidance-maneuver course, a skid pad, a hydroplane test area, a "ride evaluator" section, an area for brake testing, and even an off-road course for testing 4x4s. They'll test about 55 cars each year there and put each through a battery of more than 45 tests.

Dave, a quick Google images search will bring you more Connecticut photos than you ever dreamed possible, as on this page. The track closed to the public at the end of the 1985 season, but you can find it here: 41.521443, -72.359540.


Suffolk Raceway was an NHRA mainstay for years and host to the popular Little Guy Nationals; the track closed in 1991 after more than 20 years of having events on an unused runway at Suffolk Municipal Airport. The track operator was denied a lease extension and forced to shut down despite protests by racing fans to city council. According to city officials, the appeals were denied because if the extension had been granted, the Federal Aviation Administration and Virginia Department of Aviation would have withheld the airport's grants and funds needed for improvements. The FAA also could have tried to reclaim ownership of the land.

This past May 24, a Suffolk Raceway Reunion was held and well-attended, including by special guest Don Garlits, who ran at Suffolk many times. You can find vintage shots from Suffolk here and photos from the reunion here.

Below you can get an old-time look at the track and the current airport. The starting line was in the lower left at 36.675846, -76.602696, the finish line at 36.678953, -76.600480 (about where the two runways intersect), and the end of the asphalt at 36.686622, -76.594975.


Internationally famous television personality and drag racing announcer Dave McClelland has a lot of ghost tracks on his résumé and dropped me an e-mail about two of them in the Shreveport, La., area.

"The photos of the public street are pictures of the original Old Gator Drag Strip, named Stage Coach Road. This was a street that was blocked off, and the spectators just lined the curbs to watch street-type cars make runs for close to a quarter-mile. The starting line was not far off Highway 171 (Mansfield Road), and the track ran toward the railroad tracks intersecting the street, just out of the picture frame to the right. The goal was to get slowed enough to turn before crossing the tracks ... an event that provided some interesting moments for drivers and spectators alike. While the road continued on, the track was elevated higher than the street, so it was a thrill ride cresting the tracks.

"Needless to say, there was no development close to the roadway when this activity was going on in the very late '50s and early '60s. It was quickly realized that something better needed to be built.

"That became the constructed track that has been renamed Drag Strip Lane (32.364653, -93.822355). The racing surface ran from the southwest to the northeast. The property was closed when I was there, so the photos, taken at the intersection of Stage Coach and Drag Strip Lane, are looking back toward the starting line, which was just about a quarter-mile away. Currently, several commercial firms are utilizing the property.

"The track suffered construction problems caused by an underground stream that ran across the track a few hundred feet off the line. When the rollers hit it to pack the asphalt, the surface would sink, creating a launching ramp! They went back in, dug out all of the affected area, filled with dirt from outside, and repaved. Same problem occurred, but not quite as severe.

"Couple that problem with another major one, and the second Old Gator has the distinction of having the only divisional race decided by single runs, at least that I know of. It was one of the earliest events at the track, in either '63 or '64. In an effort to save money during construction, the pits were not paved but were constructed of oiled dirt.

"Wonderful idea for wintertime, but hot weather and oiled dirt don't go together. The cars would track it onto the track, making it slick as glass. Couple that with the major dip in the track, and Division 4 Director Dale Ham and the track staff, including yours truly, decided that the Top Fuel cars would make single runs, using both lanes if necessary without disqualification ... just don't hit anything! That's the way it went -- all single-run qualifying, no side-by-side action. Jerry Baltes had low e.t. and was the winner. He and I get a big laugh out of the story every time we run into each other.

"Attempts were made to repair the problems but never worked out well, and the track closed within a couple of years. It was a shame because the track was laid out well and had a good bit of room."


Venturing west, John Waters dropped me a line to report that on the state fairgrounds in Oklahoma City, you can see what's left of the site of the 1957 and 1958 U.S. Nationals, and sure enough, there it is, on what is now named Black Gold Drive.

As drag racing history buffs well know, the Nationals was pretty transient in its early years, beginning in 1955 in Great Bend, Kan., then moving to Kansas City, Mo., in 1956, Oklahoma City in 1957-58 and Detroit in 1959-60 before finding a permanent home in Indy in 1961.

NHRA initially hadn't planned to move the event from Kansas City, where NHRA thought it had found a nice central home with a bigger facility than what Great Bend could offer, but the move to Missouri came in part because of hard feelings after NHRA was stuck with an unexpected $10,000 cost to repave the strip, an expense that actually contributed to keeping the Safety Safari on the sidelines in 1957.

Sponsored by NHRA in conjunction with the Oklahoma City Jaycees and the Oklahoma City Timing Association, the 1957 Nationals was a gas-only affair (during the so-called "nitro ban"), but it treated racers well. The venue boasted ample paved pits, separate participant and spectator parking, a cafeteria, dormitories ($25 for four days!), seating accommodations for thousands, and a wide and smooth dragstrip with a paved return road. Also, it was just 260 miles south of the exact geographical center of the United States. The event also tied in nicely with Oklahoma's celebration of 50 years of statehood.

According to Waters, "The starting line (35.467818, -97.566537) was moved to the east end (right side of screen) because a dragster ran into the very busy street (May Avenue) and into the business parking lot across the street." Again, my added red stripe marks the finish line (35.469077, -97.570702), and the end of the asphalt can be found at 35.470934, -97.577344.

In the previous ghost-track installment, we covered Arizona's Beeline Dragway and now its southeasterly cousin, Tucson Dragway, which holds a little spot in my heart because it's the only ghost track outside of California that I've been to. In the early 1980s, I shared an apartment with my first live-in girlfriend, whose parents lived in Tucson. When I visited there in late 1983, the place was a shambles yet apparently still open, according to what I've been able to dig up.

According to a couple of Web sites, the track was officially closed after the AHRA Winternationals in February 1985 because it reportedly was surreptitiously being used an airstrip for the delivery of illegal drugs. "The authorities found out the week before the Winternationals were scheduled. They attempted to cancel the race, but the local businesses were able to convince the authorities that the loss of revenue would be too great so the races went on. Once the Winternationals were over, Tucson Dragway was closed for good," reports one site.

The photo at above right shows the track in its heyday (that's Bob Perry's Fugitive Corvette wheelstander), and below that is a photo of how the track looked on its final day, Feb. 17, 1985, looking north toward the Catalina Mountains. You can see more pics from the track here:

Below left is the Google Earth image of the track, which is off South Houghton road between East Poorman Road and East Valencia Road. The starting line is closest to Poorman Road at 32.132561, -110.765211, the finish line at 32.128946, -110.765209, and the end of the asphalt at  32.122369, -110.765174. Below right is a current-day shot of the track, supplied by TDI reader Kent Ewer. Below those two shots are a trio of pics that I took during Christmas 1983 that show the neglect that ultimately led to its closing. We had to hop a fence to get in, but because the Christmas Tree is still hanging above the starting line, I can’t help but think the place was still open, though that right-lane guardrail was in serious need of repair.

And finally, completing our westward trek, we arrive in the Golden State, where Bob Huber and Mark Hayman wanted to talk about the famed old Goleta, Calif., track where many historians, beginning with Bob Post in his authoritative book High Performance, have said that organized drag racing actually was born in April 1949 in a high-stakes match on a half-mile of road leading into the local airport between West Coast heroes Tom Cobbs and Fran Hernandez (won by Hernandez's Merc-powered '32 Ford three-window by a car length).

What made this race at Goleta especially noteworthy is that the Santa Barbara Acceleration Association sought and received approval for the race from the California Highway Patrol. It would be a year before C.J. Hart would open his Santa Ana Drags, considered to be the first commercial dragstrip, but the Goleta track hosted "The Day Drag Racing Began," as it has been called.

Researching this, I stumbled across an interesting claim by Greg Cunningham, owner of Cunningham Rods, who says that not only was he there that day, but he also had the first tube-chassis "dragster" to make an appearance at an organized drag race. Powered by a four-cylinder Ford with a four-port Riley head, it was driven by Jim Kavenaugh, who described it as a set of tube "rails" with "an engine, a piece of aluminum for a firewall, a seat, a roll bar, and four wheels." At right is a drawing of the car.

According to a story on Cunningham's Web site, "It also had the dubious distinction of being the first dragster that crashed at the dragstrip. After arguing with the organizers of the race for hours, who did not want to let the car run and blocked it from running by saying 'there was no place to put the number,' it was resolved that they would paint the number on the tire, which they did. Cunningham got the car lit off, and Kavenaugh brought it to the line and made his pass. But when he was toward the other end, the throttle stuck wide open. There was a kill switch on the firewall, but he couldn't reach it because he was wearing an improvised seat belt. There was another problem. The kill switch was a war-surplus item that was 'off' in the center position but was 'on' in both the up and down positions. When Kavenaugh lunged forward to flip the switch off, he knocked it right through the center off position to the bottom on position, so the car never shut off, and in the motion of lunging, he lost control of the car, which got sideways, flipped three times in the air, and landed on its wheels in the drainage ditch beside the raised-bed two-lane road which was the dragstrip."

Below is a shot of the old location at the Goleta airport, with the starting line (34.432312, -119.833055) marked with those coordinates and the finish line (34.430348, -119.836742) marked by the white stripe on my red rectangle. The end of the asphalt is way off my pic, but it's at 34.425665, -119.844668. According to TTGA reps, our image of Goleta "won't appear to be correct because the original runways, running NE-SW, were dug up and replaced with the E-W runways. The coordinates we've supplied, however, mark the location of the original runway on which they raced."


Okay, that's all the ghost-track hunting we have time for today. Thanks again for taking the ride.


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