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Monday, July 07, 2008

Dry hops in heaven

Buster Couch looks over as the Funny Car approaches the staging beams and winks at the new arrival, a tousle-haired kid with a lead foot whom he has known since the lad was in diapers. Scott Kalitta moves forward as longtime Kalitta crewmember Doug Dragoo peeks in to check the oil pressure. It’s rock-solid, as it always is in drag racing heaven.

In the stands, Doug Kalitta Sr. grins as his nephew readies to squeeze the loud pedal, pulling Scott’s mom, Marianne, tight as they watch his first pass unbound from the rules of Mother Earth.

In the other lane, Eric Medlen does the same; “Uncle Beavs,” Gene Beaver, is guiding him in for nephew John Force, who’s not ready yet to race here. In the stands, Betty Ruth Force, mother of the 14-time world champ, smiles proudly at her adopted grandson.

On the other side of the guardwall, Leslie Lovett angles his Hasselblad for a perfectly composed, perfectly lit image for the next cover of Heavenly DRAGSTER. There’s a mini Hot Rod Magazine reunion on the starting line as Ray Brock and Robert Petersen shoot the breeze, with fellow early NHRA stalwart Ak Miller chiming in to share his memories of the good old days. They’re all wondering the same thing: Where’s Wally?

In the tower, Buster’s wife, Ann, enters Kalitta’s info into the race computer under the watchful eye of competition director Jack Hart. In the media center, Ed Dykes does the same for his online reports. In heaven, everyone has a high-speed connection. John Raffa and Ed Sarkisian are covering the day’s action for DRAGSTER, rubbing shoulders with Stevie Collison and Shav Glick. Pete Millar has his own spot in the pressroom, his pencil sketching the scene at 300 mph.

Kalitta and Medlen dry hop their mounts the last few feet – yes, there are dry hops in heaven – and the crowd, made up of every drag race fan who has "shuffled off this mortal coil" – your relations, mine, and everyone else who ever dug the digs – rises as the Tree goes green.

Roof-high header flames erupt from the pipes, the Goodyears grab hard, and the front tires dance just off the ground. Less than five seconds later, the chutes are out, and the win light appropriately shines in both lanes as Bernie Mather calls out the e.t.s to the crowd.

As they clamber from their cars and grin goofily at one another, Kalitta and Medlen are greeted by Steve Evans and camera operator Joe Rooks for a post-run interview. As Kalitta steps away from the camera, he’s greeted warmly by Wally and Barbara Parks. “Hi, champ,” Wally meets him with a hug. “Thanks for all you’ve done for drag racing and the NHRA.”

“I think it’s time for some ice cream,” interjects Medlen, sending everyone into hysterics.

Back on the starting line, as John Zendejas steps onto the track to spray down a little more traction compound, action in the staging lanes and the pits is picking up.

There’s a pretty good lineup of Top Fuel cars piling into the lanes, and because some of these guys wouldn’t be caught with that big ol’ beautiful thumping mill anywhere but in their face promising them an oil bath at the finish line, Top Fuel is divided into two classes, the slingshots and the back-motored boys.

John Mulligan: The Fighting Irish fight on.

Suiting up and ragging his gloves in lane 1, John "the Zookeeper" Mulligan is ready for the push start, heading a line that includes Tony Nancy, Steve Carbone, "Lefty" Mudersbach, Mike Sorokin, Gary Cagle, Jim Davis, Bob Sullivan, Connie Swingle, “Terrible Ted” Gotelli and Denny Milani, "Red" Case, Mickey Brown, Gene Goleman, Ron Correnti, Bobby Hightower, Julius Hughes, Gary Gabelich, Jim Hundley, Boyd Pennington, Jim Paoli, Jack Williams, John Wenderski, “Q Ball" Wale, Glen Ward, and, still smiling after all these years, Jimmy Nix.

“Young punks,” says Calvin Rice with a laugh. He and the real old-timers, guys such as Leonard Harris, John Mulkey, Art Arfons, Jack and Lloyd Chrisman, Jim "Jazzy" Nelson, Lloyd Scott, Setto Postoian, Emory Cook, Dave Gendian, and Jim McClennan, are watching an amazing progression of the history of their sport tow past them.

Dickie Harrell, Malcolm Durham, Don and Roy Gay, Dick Loehr, Gerry Schwartz, Harry Hudson, Marv Eldridge, Jim Lutz, Dick Jesse, Art Ward, "the Flying Dutchman" himself, Al Vander Woude, and "the Israeli Rocket,” Leroy Goldstein, are ready to go at it ‘60s-style in their early floppers while mega owners such as Mickey Thompson, “Diamond Jim” Annin, Curt “Bones” Carroll, John Keeling, "Pa and Ma" Hoover, Sid Masters, Jim Marsh, and Dick Mortiz are all eyeing the talent, trying to figure out who they’d like to have shoe their machines ... of course, Mickey is just itchin’ to be in charge of the whole day’s program. Mazmanian has his hands doubly full; he also has Fred Stone, Tim Woods, and Doug "Cookie" Cook waiting on him in the pits, and there’s some serious trash-talking to be done.

A few lanes over, the rear-engine cars are lining up for as far as the eye can see, with veterans such as Mike Snively, Marvin Schwartz, Chuck Kurzawa, Leland Kolb, Gaines Markley, Mike Tarter, Dan Rightsell, Bruce Hagestad, Ernie Hall, Clayton Harris, Pete Kalb, “Poncho" Rendon, Gene Domagalski, Fred Forkner, Jim Plummer, and Satch Nottle in one lane and the likes of Darrell Russell, Blaine Johnson, Gary Ormsby, Keith Craig, Bob Edwards, Bobby Baldwin, Wayne Bailey, and Richard Holcomb in the other; Lucille Lee has been reunited with the man who tuned her to her only win, Marc Danekas. Guy Allen has son Les suited up and ready to go, and Jim Bucher’s Chevy is primed and ready to upset the Hemis.

Keith Black, Ed Donovan, and Don "Milodon" Alderson are having their own “block party,” and there’s a pretty good exchange of ideas going on in the fuel pits, where Al Swindahl is still trying to convince Scotty Fenn that a 300-inch wheelbase is better than a short one, and Tony Casarez, Frank Huszar, Rod Stuckey, and Don Tuttle are laughing their butts off. John Buttera and Nye Frank are sitting in the corner doodling designs for “the next big thing,” and every few seconds, one of them says something like, "Wait, I’ve got an even better idea!” Meanwhile, “Cheating Chico” Breschini is huddled in a corner with “Sneaky Pete” Robinson discussing who knows what, and Lou Baney is out trying to cut deals with the racers, trying to match sponsors and drivers and owners.

(Above) Pisano and Matsubara, reunited. (Below) Sush and "Wild Willie."

“Jungle” is prowling the fiberglass forest trying to coax his fellow flopper foes into a high-dollar burnout contest, and the only takers seem to be "Mr. Sit Low," Patty Foster, who has the Barry Setzer Vega with him, and Al Hofmann. Down the row are the groovy ‘Stangs of Lew Arrington and Dodger Glenn, Larry Fullerton, and Dick Custy, and down past Sam Harris and a line of his Chaparral trailers, Texans ”Big Mike” Burkhart and "Flash Gordon” Mineo, Kosty Ivanof, Bruce Sarver, Ray Higley, Gary Hazen, Tony McCallum, Larry Ladue, “Nitro Nick” Harmon, Ray Romund, Steve Bovan, Carl Swanson, Joe Winters, Joe Clement, Billy Grooms, Les Cassidy, Billy Holt, and “the world's fastest hippie,” Mike Mitchell, are in flip-top heaven. Joe Pisano is reunited with Sush Matsubara, tuning the prettiest car on the grounds with the help of his brother, Carmen, and longtime team wrench Gary Slusser. (Tom Stratton and Ted Miller are judging the prettiest paint job competition.)

Meanwhile, Johnny Loper and Tripp Shumake are conferring by their car, R.C. Sherman and D.A.Santucci are playing rock-paper-scissors to see who gets to drive the Black Magic car, and Dave Wise finally has Paul Radici pointed the right way.

Wrenches Don Maynard, “Fat Jack” Bynum, John Hogan, Chester Garris, Jerry Verheul, Herb Parks, Jack Muldowney, Ray Attebury, and Dan Geare are standing nearby, comparing tune-ups throughout the decades, but all seem to agree with the old adage “If some is good, more is better, and too much is just right.” At least that’s what “the Greek” always told Maynard. "Fuzzy" Carter is still looking at his altimeter and trying to figure out how, despite their lofty perch, no matter what day it is or how the weather feels, the corrected altitude always reads “sea level.”

Down by the tower, John Bandimere Sr., Vinnie and Richard Napp, Bob Daniels, Terrell Poage, Kenny Green, Dave Danish, Gus and Bert Leighton, Bill and Mary Hielscher, Glenn Angel, and Marvin Miller stand listening with big grins on their faces as C.J. "Pappy" Hart, wife Peggy, and partner Creighton Hunter talk about the early days at Santa Ana, then share their own tales of woe and wonder from the management side of the quarter-mile.

The alky burners are just finishing their tune-ups in the pits, with Al DaPozzo giving a ration of crap to everyone while "the Munchkin," Billy Williams, watches with great amusement. The Bell Boys, brothers Dick and Charlie, and “the Idaho Kid,” Jett Field, are also there when up walks Doug Moody on two strong legs. Off in the corner of the pits, Creedence is blasting “Bad Moon Rising” as Mickey Winters and Chuck Phelps put the screws to their howling-fast machine. Down the line, you look and see the dragster trailers of Mike Troxel, Bill Barney, John Shoemaker, Dave Hage, Dale Smart, Carrie Neal, and Shelly Howard, all readying their rides.

Over along the Manufacturers Midway, Phil Weiand and Vic Edelbrock Sr. are again having the dual-plane versus single-plane manifold discussion while Hurst PR honcho Jack Duffy is working with Lenco founder Leonard Abbot on a new way to shift gears. Dick Moroso, Robert Goodwin, Gene Mooneyham, Paul Schiefer, Dean Moon, Chuck Potvin, Roy Richter, and the Johansens -- Howard, Elizabeth, and Jerry – tend to eager customers with stuffed wallets and hot rod dreams.

Frank LeSueur is dispensing nitro like water, and Ernie Hashim is checking out everyone’s tires, which never seem to wear, let alone blemish their sidewall lettering.

Dave Schultz and John Myers: the rivalry continues.

There’s an all-out manufacturers battle raging in the Pro Stock pits, where Dick Landy is chomping on his cigar while trying to convince NHRA tech guru Bill “Farmer” Dismuke that the Mopars need a better weight break while “Dyno Don” Nicholson stumps for the Ford contingent. Chevy front-runner Lee Shepherd is standing coolly by, taking it all in from behind his Ray-Bans, chatting with partner Buddy Morrison Bowtie brother Paul Blevins. Ronnie Sox is leaning on the fender of his red, white, and blue machine giving pointers to “the kid,” Scott Geoffrion, while Lee Hunter, Bill Staley, and Mickey Tadlock toil on their carbs. John Hagen pauses for a few seconds between jet changes to check out NHRA.com to see who his protégé, Greg Anderson, is stomping this week.

In the two-wheeled Pro Stock pits, father and son, Dave and Brian Schultz, are prepping their bikes to continue their amazing rivalry with John Myers, who’s certainly no less popular up there than he was on Earth. All three of them are trying to get up the nerve to ask Elmer Trett if they can ride his nitro Harley.

With their noses buried under their hoods, doorslammer legends John Lingenfelter, Larry Kopp, Al Eckstrand, Bill Lawton, Les Richey, Dave Kempton, and “Old Reliable,” Dave Strickler, are checking the jets and the timing.

There’s also a full slate of exhibition passes in the offing later in the day, with “Wild Willie” Borsch ready to one-hand it in the appropriately named Winged Express against Leroy Chadderton and the Magnificent 7 fuel altered, and Richard Schroeder and Bob Perry will go wheels-up in their ‘standers. Just down the pit lane, Dave Anderson is readying the Pollution Packer rocket car for another four-second hydrogen-peroxide-fueled blast; “Slammin’ Sammy” Miller just looks up from his Oxygen machine and smiles; heck, he has a three-second ride beneath him. Chuck Suba and the X-1, Romeo Palamides, Russell Mendez, and Ancel Horton also are prepping their machines, ready to wow the fans again and again. And waiting in the wings to set the world on fire is “Flaming Frank” Pedregon.

Yes, it’s a glorious day … as they all are. Every run is low e.t., the oil stays in the pan, the lanes are equal, and our heroes race on forever. It's truly heaven.

About this article: Obviously, it’s impossible to include the name of every person we’ve lost, nor was it my intention. This is a salute to those who raced a little ahead of the rest of us to the finish line and left us too soon, by the hands of time, nature, or fate. I cribbed a lot of the names for this list from Don Ewald’s amazing memorial page on We Did It For Love, which covers up to 1979, and through stories from NHRA.com. Any omissions or oversights are not intended as slights to the amazing people who have populated our sport since its inception, and I know that before long I’ll be slapping my forehead remembering someone I forgot, but I tried to also include mostly the names that will mean something to a larger number of readers of this column.


Friday, July 04, 2008

Look, up in the sky, it's the Kite Cycle!

That daring young man on his flying machine.

Doug Malewicki, who brought us the Kite Cycle, the Sky Cycle, and Robosaurus. Truly one for the Guy Hall of Fame!

Yours to own, just $575,000. Where's the checkbook?

View larger

Here’s a little something different on this star-spangled weekend, prompted by a letter from regular reader/e-mailer Mark Watkins, who first wanted to make sure that Capt. Jack McClure’s rocket-powered go-kart was on the short list of exhibition vehicles in our upcoming Favorite Cars competition (it is) but also couldn’t quite come up with the name of another Orange County entertainment favorite: “the guy who flew the hang glider mounted on a motorcycle and the guy who used to skate behind the motorcycle at OCIR.”

I had little trouble summoning the name “Bob Correll” from my memory banks after watching him and his Kite Cycle soaring through the Southern California night on so many occasions, sparklers sparkling from the wing tips as he glided over 18-wheelers and, my favorite, the 64 Funny Car lineups. I remember one time when he didn’t quite clear them all, landing on the back window of some innocent gas-powered Mustang Funny Car, leaving a tire mark down its back, but most of the time, he easily cleared his obstacle.

On the surface, it didn't look like too tricky of a stunt once he got airborne. Surely the landing would be softer than some of the back-breaking touchdowns the regular bike jumpers made. My 16-year-old brain even thought at one time, "Heck, I'm a pretty fair motorcycle rider; dude, I bet I could jump with that damn thing." (I did, after all, successfully land a neighborhood-record jump over six trash cans and a second, more breathtaking mark of clearing seven small neighborhood kids. Shhh. Don't tell my mom. Or theirs.)

Of course, from what I could see, just getting airborne was the easy part. Crosswinds, downdrafts, and Mustangs also apparently were all part of what made it tricky. I think I only saw him eat it the one time, but it was always a great sight to watch him soaring through the evening sky still heavy with nitro fumes.

A lot of guys did the whole sliding-behind-the-bike thing, from Lee “Iron Man” Irons all the way up through the fairly recent “Krazy Keith” Kardell, who performed at NHRA national events well into the 1990s – and there have been hang-glider-equipped motorcycle jumpers since, but Correll was the original.

So, while waiting for David Rampy to return my call to interview him following his Comp win in Norwalk – victory number 69, tying him with Kenny Bernstein for sixth on NHRA’s all-time win list – I put on my researcher cap and went fishing. What I found blew me away.

It turns out that the famed Kite Cycle -- - a 450cc Yamaha attached to a 12-foot hang glider, was brought to us by the same genius who invented the car-munching metallic monster known as Robosaurus AND, for you Evel Knievel fans out there (talking to you, Drummond!), the infamous steam-powered X-1 Sky Cycle for Knievel’s not-so-successful Snake River Canyon jump.

This amazing man is Doug Malewicki, president and “chief scientist” for AeroVisions Inc., a company he founded in 1974 and incorporated in 1980 “for the purpose of developing, promoting and commercializing his numerous inventions.”

According to his Web site, in the early 1980s, Malewicki set two Guinness world records by getting more than 150 mpg at freeway speeds on cross-country runs in a car he called the California Commuter and now is focused on SkyTran, “a super-aerodynamic, lightweight, high-speed, low-cost, on-demand” personalized rail-bound transit system (which might have also set a Guinness record for most adjectives) that will get 200 mpg at 100 mph.

He has also been working on a micro-turbine-powered jet pack that will provide an eight-minute flight capability on $30 worth of fuel. Sign me up, Doug!

Malewicki, 68, a senior structural loads analyst on the Apollo/Saturn V rocket project that carried man to the moon in 1969, earned a master's of science degree in aeronautics and astronautics from Stanford University and a bachelor's of science degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from the University of Illinois, so he obviously knows a little bit about flight, which might explain how Correll set a 423-foot world distance record with the Kite Cycle.

Malewicki also brought the world a two-man Delta submarine rated to depths of 1,200 feet (unlike those great comic-book subs we all tried to buy), a 152.2-mph world-record pedal bicycle, a turbine thrust-powered motorcycle, and White Lightning, a world-record Bonneville Salt Flats electric car that ran 245.524 mph.

Malewicki also holds a dozen patents in aviation, robot, medical, toy, and transportation fields, two of which are for Robosaurus, a “58,000-pound, fire-breathing, car crushing electrohydromechanical beast” (still more adjectives!). In addition to delighting race fans across the country, Robosaurus has been featured on the big and small screen, in the 2002 movie Waking Up in Reno and in a 2006 Toyota Tacoma pickup TV commercial.

I guess I missed my chance to own the beast when it went on the block at the Barrett-Jackson car collector auction back in January and was sold for $575,000 (not including auction fees). The lucky winner not only got the Robosaurus but a host of accessories to operate and maintain the robot, including transmitters and receivers, special-effects controls, a tool kit for loading and unloading, operation manuals, touch-up paint, and spare parts.

I had spoken to Correll some years ago after receiving in the mail this wild design, drawn by Dave Peters, of a proposed new jet car modeled after the famed SR-71 Blackbird. This wild-looking machine had the driver in the faux left-jet-engine tub at the rear of the machine. Unfortunately, it never made it past this point in the process.

I’ve since lost touch with him -- DragList.com showed that he’d moved from California to Florida, where he had campaigned a jet-powered motorcycle -- and there's an appalling lack of stories on him on the Web, but I'll keep hanging in there (pun intended) and digging for info. He left an indelible impression on me and a lot of other car-crazed teenagers.


Wednesday, July 02, 2008

A little bit of this, a little bit of that ...

Former U.S. President Calvin Coolidge once said, "Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan 'Press On' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race."

That’s the message we all got in Norwalk last weekend. The Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals was a testament to the human spirit, incorporating all of the things that are good and noble about NHRA Drag Racing. It was a testimony to the resilience of those involved, both in the short and long term.

The Bader family likes to call a visit to their wonderful track "the Norwalk Experience," and for me it truly was an unforgettable one. Certainly anyone who has known and watched Hector Arana toil on two wheels the last 18 seasons or ever spoken to the likable Pro Stock Motorcycle rider had to be happy to see him finally cash in after nearly 150 starts.

And to see Doug Herbert standing on the winner’s podium, beaming through his tears, fulfilling the promise he made earlier this year to do well “for my boys,” sons Jon and James whom he lost earlier this year, warmed the hearts of all in attendance, fans and vanquished foes alike.

I’ve known and liked Doug since he was running an Alcohol Dragster, and through his NHRA.com blog (one of the original group with whom we started) and through the time I’ve spent with him since that sad day in January, we’ve become closer, so I just had to hunt the big lug down for a congratulatory hug in the winner’s circle, and omnipresent photog Marc Gewertz stealthily caught the exact moment that Herbert crushed my ribs.

The inspiring victories of Arana and Herbert were just part of a huge get-better weekend for the NHRA community that also included an ongoing salute to fallen world champ Scott Kalitta, who remained heavy on the minds of those in Norwalk. His father, Connie, was greeted by the fans with a standing ovation when the nitro cars hit the track for the first time in qualifying.

Yellow and red ribbons were tacked to shirts alongside photo buttons of Kalitta, waving from the POWERade stage, and the memorial logo was in evidence everywhere, on decals and especially on T-shirts worn by most of his fellow nitro drivers throughout the event. The various Kalitta teammembers wore the white T-shirts in place of their regular uniform shirts during the first qualifying run for each car, and many of the drivers wore their firesuits undone to the waist to display their shirts during driver introductions Sunday morning, forgoing sponsor photo ops to honor their friend. Even John Force, seldom seen without his Castrol shirt, was on the starting line in the second round to watch Robert Hight, proudly still wearing his Kalitta T-shirt.

After all of the tears and solemn moments, one of the funniest came as Hector Arana was conducting his media-center interview after defeating Craig Treble in the final round, when from the back of the pressroom came a final question.

“So, how scared were you of that bad [mother] in the other lane?”

The question came from Treble, who had been alerted to Arana’s interview by ND's Candida Benson, and the fun-loving rider just had to drop in for his final needle of the weekend.

For all the hassles with the water seeping up through the track Friday and dodging rainstorms Saturday and Sunday – including a brief but very intense storm Sunday that, had there been gullies in Norwalk, would have been called a “gully washer” – it was a race that I’ll never forget.

Reader Al Goulder enjoyed Monday’s Jim Murray column on Don Prudhomme and dropped me a line to share his own “Snake” tale.

“Like you, I grew up in the ‘70s, and ‘the Snake’ was my hero and still is! In the third grade, my teacher made us write a letter to our hero.

"I didn't have Prudhomme’s address, but that’s who I was writing to even after she told me not to because I didn't have the proper address and I wouldn't get a response.

“I sent the letter [addressed] to ‘Don Prudhomme, Granada Hills Ca’; that was it. A month later in the mail, I get a mysterious letter from California with no return address with not one but TWO autographed handouts of ‘the Snake’s’ Carefree Funny Car and dragster! I respected my teacher and I was a shy kid, but I made sure the next day at school she knew that ‘the Snake’ sent me not one but TWO autographed pics, because he's the man! Those are the most prized handouts in my collection.”

Yes, fans, Prudhomme was THAT big in the 1970s. Send a letter to him addressed just to his city, and they knew where to find him. You gotta love that.

Mark Collins also enjoyed the article and my personal photos from the 1976 Winternationals and trumped my ticket stub with not just an actual participant’s tag from the event, but one autographed by “the Snake” hiss-self.

At the time, Collins and partners Joe Monden and Ralph Lewis were running a AA/DA in Pro Comp. Nearly 30 years later, Collins brought it with him to the 2005 event in Dallas to have “the Snake" autograph it. “The ticket put a wide smile on his face,” recalls Collins. “He told me it brought back a lot of great memories of a very successful Funny Car.”

Believe it or not, the letters keep coming in for the Corvette Curse.

Reader Craig Sanburn said he remembered that Jim Epler’s Eckler-sponsored new-gen C5 Corvette also had a nasty reputation. I reached out to Jim’s wife, Susan, who confirmed that the car seemed a bit cursed.

“Jim’s first Eckler’s Corvette debuted at Indy in 1998,” she recalled. “It was a big deal with a Friday night unveiling on the starting line right before the run. If my memory serves me right, there were 1,034 entries at that event, and the Corvette won the Best Appearing Car award. I think I remember it as being very evil handling. Jim could probably fill in the details, but I know they made a bunch of changes after a few initial near misses. His final race was Sonoma 1999 where he lost most of the body in an explosion. Jim left that team because of safety reasons. Craig Sanburn has it right – that car blew up a lot, and Jim had a family to consider. I only worried when Jim was worried, and when he was concerned, I knew it was time to go another direction.” The photo at right is from the ND files and shows what was left of the car.

I heard from a member of Paul Smith’s team that the Curse also bit the veteran Funny Car pilot at the 1984 Gatornationals. I dug through some old NDs and discovered that the Smith & Bradford team opened the event with a Camaro body and made a solid 6.17 qualifying run Friday, then worked all night to mount a new and beautiful red and yellow Corvette body. The first pass was a sizzler, a 6.11 at 252.10 mph, but the second pass was a REAL sizzler, with Smith on fire at the end of a 6.22 pass. The fire burned off both rear tires, causing Smith to spin a couple of times and slide off the end of the track and into the woods. The body was destroyed and the chassis heavily damaged, but Smith was not injured.

Another reader recalls seeing Tom Hoover's 1979 Showtime Corvette, which featured a beautiful Kenny Youngblood-designed white-over-black paint scheme that had the name done in an airbrushed neon letter effect, have a bad fire at the Springnationals in Columbus and end up in the catch net at the end of National Trail, which destroyed that body.

I searched through the Columbus results from 1979 and 1980 and found no mention of the incident – in surprising Tim Wilkerson-like fashion, Hoover was the points leader at the time of the 1979 event and was runner-up to Raymond Beadle at the 1980 event – but I’m not saying it never happened at a different time or place.

Our old Insider pal Simon Menzies sent along a bunch of clippings from his unforgettable ”Corvette moment,” which came during qualifying for the 1977 edition of the fabled Manufacturers Meet at Orange County Int’l Raceway and is captured here in a great motor-drive sequence by OCIR regular John Shanks and published in Car Craft magazine. Other images of the inciednt also made it into the Los Angeles Times.

The car is the Jim Jackson BB/FC Corvette, which completed, in Menzies’ words, an “unintentional but spectacular 180-degree turn.”  The car got loose and then slid sideways near the big end, and when it spun around, it shed the body, and the chassis lightly tapped the guardrail. Damage was minimal, but the fans loved it.

Menzies’ explanation was simple and to the point. “I removed the rear spoiler extensions to see if she would mile an hour better,” he said. “Big mistake.”

And finally, I’m really closing in on the Favorite Car poll. I spent a good portion of the rainy downtime in Norwalk compiling all of the favorites – and you guys sure have a lot! -- then dividing them into multiple categories based on era and type of car.

The categories will be as follows: early dragsters; early Funny Cars; early door cars/roadsters; ‘70s Funny Cars; ‘70s Top Fuelers; the 1980s; and exhibition cars. There are about 16 cars in each grouping, so we’ll vote on them separately, then come up with subsequent polls that feature the best of the best. Hopefully I can get this together by next week.

See ya Friday.


Monday, June 30, 2008

Mondays with Murray: Don Prudhomme

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it 100 times, and I bet that I’m not alone, but growing up in the 1970s, Don Prudhomme was my drag racing hero. There was no one cooler on the face of the planet, and it wasn’t just because he had the baddest hot rod out there. His confident, ambling gait, the look on his face, his mannerisms … they all said “winner.”

I’m not ashamed to admit that I kept a Prudhomme scrapbook – which I still have – that was filled with my own pictures of the man as well as articles clipped from local newspapers about “the Snake” and the racers he ran and won, ticket stubs, stickers, and more.

It also included the column reprinted below, written by the late legendary Los Angeles Times sportswriter Jim Murray. Two weeks ago in this column, I announced that, through the generosity of Murray’s widow, Linda McCoy-Murray, and the Jim Murray Memorial Foundation that promotes his legacy and awards annual scholarships to aspiring journalists, I would be allowed to reprint some of his columns, especially those written about our drag racing heroes.

So, today, as I wind my way home from Norwalk, I proudly continue this semi-regular week-opening feature, Mondays with Murray, with the article below, published in the Times Jan. 29, 1976, as that year’s Winternationals was getting ready to fire up and on the heels of Prudhomme’s barrier-breaking five-second pass the previous October in Ontario. In keeping with the scrapbook theme, the photos that accompany it are my own from that race.

Fastest ‘Snake’ by Jim Murray

I always thought they called it “drag” racing because that’s what it was.

But, racing is hardly a drag when you make $300,000 a year out of it.

I always thought a “top fuel eliminator” was the 8-cylinder gas-guzzling bucket of bolts I drive around. I never thought of fuel eliminating as a sport.

But Donald Ray Prudhomme makes more money doing less in a car than any automotive genius who ever lived. Not A.J. Foyt, not Henry Ford, Gustav Daimler or the inventor of the self-starter or chairman of the board of General Motors gets as much money out of the internal combustion engine as he does - $6,000 a second.

By comparison, A.J. Foyt works the black gang in the hold of a ship for his money, Franco Harris is a steeplejack walking steel beams in 100 m.p.h. winds by comparison.

[ ]

Foyt drive 500 miles at a crack for his millions. Don Prudhomme drives 1,300 feet. Foyt’s drives laid end to end would probably stretch around the world several times. Prudhomme’s wouldn’t take you to the drugstore. Some people take longer to back out of the driveway than he does to win 30 grand.

And, talk about fuel eliminating! Some Indianapolis 500 cars get 2.8 miles to the gallon. Stocks get four. Dragsters get 188 feet to the gallon. They use up seven gallons every six seconds, every quarter-mile run. This is undoubtedly the most expensive 1,320 feet in the world. Because drag fuel costs $7 a gallon. Since the car starts with 11 gallons on the start line, and proceeds to use it all up at the rate of nearly two gallons per second, a run is really a drag for the party paying the fuel bills. I mean, how would you like to have to say “Fill it up” every six seconds?

They call Don Prudhomme “The Snake,” because of the speed with which he strikes at the start line. Also, because he is so cool, he seems to have no body temperature.

He is the best there is at his sport. He is the only man in history to break the 6-second standard in his specialty. His run of 5.98 seconds last year set the world record of 241.43 m.p.h.

[ ]

Drag racing is a sport in which a guy comes out with a machine that looks like a cross between a praying mantis with baby carriage wheels, and/or a giraffe who has just been beat over the head and sprawled forward, and they refer to these Martian vehicles simply as “dragsters: or “fuel eliminators.” They look more suitable for a moonwalk than a race.

Then, they come out with only slightly modified sedans which don’t look too dissimilar to street jalopies and these they call “funny cars.” The Snake” drives funny cars.

Drag racing is a sport which began on a strip along Sepulveda Blvd. at 2 o’clock in the morning back before the war where first prize was a night in jail and the clockers were cops. It has grown into a $3 million run for the money each year, and more than 5.3 million people paid to see it last year, an astonishing turnout for a sport in which the hero is a sparkplug and the action goes by so fast it makes the one-round knockout seem like a marathon.

The U.S. Army is The Snake’s principal sponsor and his car is a 240-m.p.h. recruiting poster, a far cry from the old “Uncle Same Wants You” cardboard cutouts in the post offices. But, the Army gets in a lot more winning circles with Prudhomme than it does with the State Department.

The Snake won six of eight “nationals,” or major tournaments last year, and the world championship points in his sport. You might say he’s the Jack Nicklaus of drag racing – except that Jack walks five miles a day for four days for his money. The distance Snake goes would probably be just a full drive or a spoon and an eight iron for Jack.

The Snake will defend his championship at the Pomona Winternationals this weekend. He has a full year ahead of him. Upgrading his appearances as defending champ, he may have to work as much as a full 80 seconds this year.

Reprinted with permission by the Los Angeles Times.

Courtesy of:
Jim Murray Memorial Foundation
P.O. Box 995
La Quinta, CA 92247-0995
Ph/Fx: 760-771-8972
E: Murrayscholars@aol.com


Friday, June 27, 2008

Norwalk, and The Big Dig

NHRA's Graham Light and Frank Manzo work on the situation.

Tuners Johnny West and Chuck Worsham assess The Big Dig.

Track owner Bill Bader Sr., right, took matters into his own hands.

We’ve all heard the fable of the little Dutch boy who used his finger to plug a leaking dike in Holland and remained there all night to save the land.

Well, the NHRA Safety Safari and Summit Motorsports Park team could have used an army of him and probably still lost the battle with Mother Nature that they waged for more than five hours late Friday afternoon.

Action was halted just before 4 p.m., early in the event’s first Pro Stock session, as rainwater, heated by a steamy day, percolated up through cracks and expansion joints in the asphalt shutdown area and puddled in numerous areas.

After a torrential week and a half of rain – 13 inches in the last 10 days according to track owner Bill Bader Sr. – the saturated soil beneath the track finally said “Enough” and up it came in more than dozen spots.

NHRA and Norwalk workers initially mopped, dried, vacuumed, blew, and toiled over the water, but every time that they cleared a crack, the water quickly seeped topside.

It was like a nightmarish game of Whack-A-Mole as water kept reappearing or popping up in other places every time backs were turned.

To make matters worse, a huge rainstorm was bearing down on the facility that only promised to add to our woes.

The great thing about the people in the sport is their vast expertise. Jim Head, an engineer by trade, weighed in with his opinion on how to improve the drainage. After a Caterpillar unit on display on the Manufacturers Midway was brought to the scene, Top Alcohol Funny Car champ Frank Manzo, who runs a construction business, hopped aboard and commenced the digging before being replaced later by a local Cat dealer. A large trench a couple of hundred feet long – and several perpendicular to the track -- was dug alongside the right guardwall to give the water somewhere to run to from under the track. Grooves also were recut horizontally in the track to aid the blowing of water to the trench.

Every manner of sweeping and track drying, flame-throwing equipment was put into action to repeatedly go over the areas, and when the anticipated storm fizzled and drifted south, things looked promising.

So typical of his nature, Bader himself was not only supervising but was hands on as well, helping vacuum water out of holes drilled through the surface.

“In my entire history I’ve never seen the volume of water come up through the racetrack that I have seen today,” he said later. Bader has owned the track since 1974.

Just as it looked like the situation was under control and NHRA Senior Vice President-Racing Operations Graham Light had issued a 10-minute alert, water also was coming up at places on the actual quarter-mile, which also were quickly attended to, but, again, at this point it seemed like a losing battle was being waged.

As night set in and no complete resolution was in sight, NHRA officials made the decision at about 9:15 that, in consideration for the safety of the competitors, racing was done for the day.

A heartsick Bader got onto the PA and made and long and passionate apology to the fans who have helped the track grow over the years and guaranteed fans a complete voucher for the day and then turned loose an impressive fireworks display as a final "thank you" to the fans who sat patiently for hours waiting for the action to resume.

Tomorrow's going to be a busy day as we play catch up, but it won't be from the lack of effort after an heroic day of trying to plug the unpluggable.


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