After last week’s Fan Fotos from the East Coast, we rebound back to the West Coast this week for a series of photos from Insider reader Ed Eberlein that spans from Fremont to Sacramento to Orange County Int’l Raceway to Pomona in a three-year period, 1974-77.
Eberlein got to see a lot of this action close up as part of the crews for several teams and always had his Instamatic ready.
“One thing that is missing today is the chance opportunity that a fan could become part of the crew, if only to empty oil and other small tasks back when,” he noted. “I was one of the fortunate ones to experience that with Mike Miller, Gordie Bonin, and Roland Leong (or, as in the case with Ro, given the OK to ride along in the back of the crew cab). Given the total professionalism today, those possibilities have ended.”
This early-1970s photo shows the pit area at Sacramento Raceway, with Mickey Thompson’s Mustang front and center.
Another pit shot from Sacramento, possibly from the Thompson camp. Fans of all ages could gather close around the teams as they worked on the cars and sometimes even get the chance to pitch in.
“Big John” Mazmanian’s nephew and driver, Rich Siroonian, posed with his uncle’s Barracuda Funny Car. “He was a really nice person,” Eberlein recalled. “He posed for the picture for me and was really a good guy.”
Here’s a pretty rare photo of Don Prudhomme’s super-trick new Army Vega, with crew chief Bob Brandt racing ahead to the water box at the 1974 Winternationals. The swoopy new Vega ran just two events, the AHRA Winternationals at Arizona’s Beeline Dragway, where it set top speed and was runner-up (red-light), and the Winternationals. In Pomona, Prudhomme managed just a 6.59 best to qualify No. 14 (Twig Zeigler was low with a 6.30), then lost to eventual winner Dale Emery in round one with a shutoff 8.70. Something about the car, which rode so low that Prudhomme had a viewing slit cut into the roof hatch to see the lights on suspended Christmas Trees, didn’t suit Prudhomme and Brandt, and they subsequently sold it to Tom Hoover and returned to their Plain Jane Barracuda (decked out in the new Army colors) and promptly won the Gatornationals.
I’m not really sure what fate befell Prudhomme’s running buddy, Tom McEwen, that led to this right-side body damage, but “the Mongoose” didn’t qualify for the field.(Reader Michael Hedworth tells me that McEwen's "chute detached from the rear end housing and went into whatever catch device they had then at the top end.")
Herm Petersen made his return to competition after a nasty fire the year before with this Woody Gilmore-built, Can-Am-inspired entry. Like Prudhomme’s Vega, this car didn’t last long and made only 19 runs in its Top Fuel lifespan. (For more on this car and Petersen, read my three-part story on his inspirational career here: Part 1
| Part 2
| Part 3
The year before he came to national fame as the driver of the Blue Max, Raymond Beadle was driving Don Schumacher’s No. 2 entry, a ’74 Vega. Parked alongside him in the Pomona staging lanes is Mike Mitchell, “the world’s fastest hippie,” who qualified a fine 10th with his Barracuda before falling in round one to Dale Pulde in Mickey Thompson’s Grand Am.
A couple of more shots from the Pomona staging lanes, these from the 1975 Winternationals. (Above) Pulde by now had moved behind the wheel of the Chapman Automotive Chicago Patrol Mustang II and just missed making the field. Pulde had good company: Another hometown hero, John Lombardo (below), also wasn’t among the quick 16. Note that Lil' John’s Vega was shod with M&H rubber.
Orange County Int’l Raceway in 1976, and Eberlein is right in the middle of the preparations for the traditional start of Funny Cars parked on the OCIR surface. That’s Roland Leong’s Ron Colson-driven Hawaiian on the left.
Before Tripp Shumake became the driver of Johnny Loper’s Lil Hoss Funny Cars in 1977, flopper veteran Eddie Pauling preceded him in this car.
While working for Gordie Bonin’s Bubble Up team, Eberlein had a pretty good spot to watch the jet dragster show at OCIR, and on this memorable night, the jet’s thrust picked up the track’s iconic burnout-box booth and flung it against the back wall of the track.
Years later, at the track’s Last Drag Race in 1983, I remember starter Larry Sutton aligning Doug Brown’s jet dragster to try to burn the edifice down before upper management put the kibosh on that impromptu act of arson.
These final two photos are from Fremont in 1977, showing Gary Densham’s Teacher’s Pet Monza (above) and Bonin’s Bubble Up Firebird. The 1977 season was a good one for Bonin: He won the Gatornationals and the World Finals en route to a second-place finish behind Don Prudhomme in the standings.
As I wrote last week, it's such fun to see these types of photos, shot by fans of the sport rather than the professionals along the guardrails. Thanks to Don for sharing his pics.
If you’re like me (and you probably wouldn’t be here if you weren’t), one of the great joys of longtime drag racing fans is looking at old drag racing photos. There are websites and Facebook pages aplenty filled with some ol’ time goodness from the days when Top Fuelers had the engine in the front, Funny Cars still looked like cars, and gassers and even the stockers commanded huge followings.
Although plenty of the photos you see plastered all over the Web are well-known from decades past, what I love are the collections that seemingly come out of someone’s old shoebox, stored away and perhaps forgotten decades ago in a dusty attic until unearthed by some spring cleaning or perhaps a move.
Insider reader Tom Edwards (whose business card reads “Writer-Photographer-Comedian”) sent me such a collection, a CD full of his old photos from Connecticut Dragway, circa 1968. I know this column sometimes has a bit of a West Coast bias due to my own upbringing, so I’m always eager to be able to feature stuff from “back East.”
Edwards discovered our amazing sport in 1965 at Connecticut Dragway. “Having spent only a few minutes in the pit area, I knew drag racing was the type of motorsport I would enjoy the most, and that was before I saw my first pass,” he wrote. “From that race until I joined the military in 1968, I saw Don Garlits; Connie Kalitta; the Ramchargers; Stone, Woods & Cook; 'Big John' Mazmanian; K.S. Pittman; Bruce Larson; ‘Grumpy’ Jenkins; Sox & Martin; Don Gay; Malcolm Durham; Bill Lawton’s Tasca Ford; Bill Flynn’s Yankee Peddler; ‘Dyno Don’ Nicholson; and ‘Fast Eddie’ Schartman. Many of the sport’s biggest stars found time during the season for a stop at the track in the Nutmeg State.
“Connecticut Dragway was a fan-friendly track,” he added. “The bleachers, which were on the pit side only, were about 20 rows high, began near the starting line, and were perhaps 50 yards in length. From the end of the stands to the finish-line area, fans that arrived early enough could park their cars in the front row facing the track. I still remember how much fun it was to be, in effect, at a drive-in-style dragstrip. A small food stand near the entrance to the pits offered ‘hot dogs, hamburgs, and grinders’ for your dining pleasure. I always had an unobstructed view of the track from the flash of the green light on the Christmas Tree and, in the case of high-performance cars, the deployment of parachutes to bring the cars to a stop.”
Here’s a dozen photos from Edwards’ collection for you to enjoy.
Here’s the view from behind the starting line looking downtrack. The yellow two-story timing tower and starter’s booth are well visible as a tire-smoking fueler rockets down the track.
As Edwards mentioned, the stars all came to Connecticut Dragway, including “Big Daddy” himself, Don Garlits, who later autographed this candid photo (right) that Edwards took.
I’m especially stoked by Edwards' photo above of Garlits about to be push-started. You can see “Big Daddy” signaling “Come on” to the push-truck driver, who was probably Bob Taaffe. Because I’m pretty sure these photos are from 1968, it’s probably Swamp Rat 12-B, which replaced the very short (137-inch-wheelbase!) 12-A they had built for their early-season West Coast tour; they figured a shorter car would be lighter and work well on the good-hooking left coast, but the car did not perform well, so 12-B was built at 215 inches and won the Springnationals and U.S. Nationals.
Connie Kalitta, right, looked over the SOHC 427 Ford in his Bounty Hunter. Not sure who he’s talking to. I like how Kalitta thoughtfully signed this one down the side so as not to take away from the photo’s subjects.
Here’s Bub Reese’s Top Fueler. The back end kinda looks like the La Cosa Nosta car that he fielded with the team of Gaines-Marino-Webb that year, but this has his name on it where it used to say La Cosa Nosta. Reese, who hailed from Maryland, got his start in racing with his brother, Phil, before going on to drive for a number of other teams.
Long before Jaws terrorized the Eastern seaboard, Frank Federici’s The Shark! Corvette was a staple of East Coast match race action, from the late 1960s through the early 1970s. The photo below shows what’s under the Corvette body, a supercharged 392 Chrysler powerplant. The photo also gives a good look at how some Funny Car bodies were constructed (and supported) back then before the modern-style tree and tin were developed.
Gassers were a favorite at Connecticut Dragway, and what gasser show would be complete without the Stone, Woods, & Cook Willys? I think Chuck Finders was driving for the team at this time.
And what Stone, Woods, & Cook appearances would be complete without “Big John” Mazmanian there to keep them honest? This is the Jr. Thompson-driven ’50 Austin that followed Mazmanian’s own Willys. By the end of the next season, Mazmanian was solidly in the Funny Car business.
And if S-W-C and “Big John” were in the house, you knew that K.S. Pittman couldn’t be far behind with his ’33 Willys. Love this shot of the car on the open trailer entering the pits.
And, of course, the local favorites would be on hand to defend their turf. This is Jack Merkel’s New York-based ’33 Willys.
I don’t know and couldn’t find much info on John Lopiano and his ’33 Willys, other than that he was a local favorite, but I also chose this photo for the background, a cool old snack bar just like the one that Edwards described in his introduction.
Thanks for sharing, Tom. I know the readers here appreciate seeing photos they might never have. I know I do. Keep ‘em coming, people.
You may have seen the announcement on the NHRA.com home page last week that Don Prudhomme and Jim Nicoll will be at this year’s Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals to talk about their memorable 1970 Indy final round. It’s just one of six great nostalgia-themed special shows we’re putting together (we’ve already announced two others -- “Big Daddy” Don Garlits reliving [complete with a shave] his 1967 win and Kenny Bernstein talking about his amazing double at the 1983 event -- with three more still to be revealed), and I’m pretty sure you’ll find me front and center for all six.
Anyway, as we were preparing for that announcement, I was thumbing through the photo files from that 1970 Indy event and was struck by the sheer volume of just really cool old photos, many of which fit our current Things That Aren’t Here Anymore discussion, so I scanned up a double handful to share.
Two things that aren’t at Indy anymore: the 132-foot speed trap that spanned the finish line and the Marathon win light. (Of course, this particular Marathon billboard took a pretty good hit from Connie Kalitta in 1971; remember the article
Speaking of the finish line, here’s a great shot of Garlits bombing through the traps with Swamp Rat 13. People forget that he reached the semifinals of this event before red-lighting to Nicoll. The early 1970s was the last hurrah of the slingshot Top Fueler in Indy. Prudhomme won the 1970 event and Steve Carbone the 1971 event in the great burndown with Garlits (who by then was in his rear-engine car), but from 1972 on, every Top Fuel winner has had the engine in the back.
We’ve all seen the photo of Jimmy King about to flip his dragster overbackward while racing Bob Ivett in the first pair of the first round of Top Fuel (leading his team to humorously weld a caster wheel on top of the roll cage for the next event), but I had never seen the aftermath photo at right until I dug through the files. That’s King sliding down the rail on his head. He was not hurt (other than his feelings).
I couldn’t find the original of this photo, so this is a scan from the issue that I felt needed to be included. It's Shirley Muldowney, suiting up for her national event debut with her twin-engine gas dragster. The caption was very complimentary, calling her “a most capable handler” and going on to note that “super-straight runs impressed the male drivers and fans alike.”
(Above) Hurst created a lot of goodwill for its company with the introduction of the Shifter Hospital for broken parts. The Shifty Doc could help with more than just your shifter. (Below) Ron Rotter’s AA/FD team got an assist from the doc and friends for last-minute work on its car. Remember when Top Fuel guys would turn their cars over in the pits? You don’t see that anymore.
“Wild Willie” Borsch put his new Winged Express through tech, and the bearded wonder (standing in front of the car) responded by running the then-quickest AA/FA e.t. ever, a 7.11 during action in Comp.
Even Roger Miller knows that it really does rain in Indianapolis in the summertime. Carl Poston and his A/Altered (above) sat forlornly, waiting out rain that affected several days of the event. (Below) Yep, back in the day, there were no fancy trailers with lounges in which to seek refuge when it rained.
Former world champ Norm Reis turned a lot of heads with this creation: a radical Model T-styled BB/Gas Dragster, complete with a scaled-down grille and a “Woody panel” body.
I couldn’t find this photo in the coverage, but Pat Dakin seems pretty despondent as he sits in G.L. Rupp’s Top Fueler. Dakin, who is still competing in Top Fuel, didn’t qualify for the field, which may have been the source of the anguish in this photo, which, as I remember, was also made into one of those “I can’t believe I let my subscription expire” kind of ads.
The Prudhomme-Nicoll final wasn’t the only weird moment of the event; it probably only barely makes the top three. Here’s No. 2: Apparently, Pro Stock racer Bob Banning Jr. thought it would be a swell idea to do a burnout while waiting in the staging lanes, but then the throttle stuck, sending him crashing into the back of fellow racer Bo Laws’ machine, which then crashed into the car in front of him. That’s Banning holding his head in apparent disbelief.
And the event’s weirdest-moment honor goes to the starting-line photographers who decided to duke it out just as Dick Shroyer and Jim Elliott were pulling to the line for the Modified final. The crowning moment (pun intended) came when the fella on the right had the toupee knocked from his head. You can see it by his right elbow as it’s falling to the ground.
As much as I love words, I gotta say that the old line about “A photo is worth a thousand words” sometimes can be very true. Long after the last of our heroes have left us and can no longer share their stories, we’ll always have photos to remember them by.
You guys are sooooo predictable. Any time I gush about “the good ol’ days” with memories about how cool things used to be, I get a tsunami of emails echoing my declarations and patting me on the back for being a genius and a keeper of the flame ... which is why I love you guys.
(You guys also love Linda Vaughn; she was on so many lists that I decided to include her just once and followed form with other duplicated additions.) As John Blake wrote, “ 'The Show' just wouldn't have been complete without her decorating the grounds for so many years. A true legend of the sport that probably never took a competitive lap, turned a wrench, or put on a firesuit.” L.V. is still with us, just not the ever-present icon she once was.
Anyway, here are some of the great reader-suggested additions to my list:
“Driver nicknames like ‘Big Daddy’ … cars with names like Budweiser King instead of just the sponsor's name ... seating so close to the racing surface you can feel the sound rattle your bones ... the chance to see the top names at a local track via match racing or weekend events.” — Michael Ostrofsky
“Tennis balls tied together in the injectors ... pit crews in white pants and white T-shirts ... everyone smoking in the pits …wheelstanders.” – Gary Crumine
“ ‘Smokin US 30’ near Gary where you had a Funny Car show every Wednesday night. We used to have our buddy drop us off on the side of Route 30. We would run across, dodging traffic, and sneak in through a farm field loaded with briars and sticker bushes. Left a lot of blood and hide in that field as a teenager! … Union Grove, Wis., there was the motorcycle wheelie rider, ‘the Magnificent Maurice’; he did his antics between rounds ... and let’s not forget the kids in the trees on the farmer side of the track watching the fuel cars at the ‘Grove.' ” — Glenn Swiderski
“San Fernando Drag Strip every Sunday ... twin-engine dragsters ... going to Lions for a Saturday night Top Fuel race and seeing low e.t. of the world. ... the OCIR Funny Car shows ... Ontario Motor Speedway … the AHRA Winternats at the old Tucson Dragway ... Firebird and Speedworld in Phoenix.” — Cliff Morgan
“The beautiful, often under-dressed females who would back up the cars after the burnouts. What a show they provided; the ‘backup ladies’ and female crewmembers were a very colorful part of drag racing way back when!” — Craig Hughes
“Kodachrome and Tri-X film ... Hot Rod Magazine’s Gray Baskerville ... CJ Hart ... ‘Jungle Pam’ working the crowd ... Lions and Fremont dragstrips ... Silver firesuits ... Top Gas and AA/FA.” — Steve Reyes
“The outstanding drivers and teams lost to the dollars. They gave a lot of blood sweat and tears to the sport.” — Gary Watson
“In the days before computers, when fuel cars could run best ever times by a tenth or more on a single run ... manually pushing back Top Fuelers … the qualifying method where they would go through all classes from Stock to Top Fuel, then start all over again ... driving through hotel parking lots during national event weekends to see all the cars on ramp trucks and open trailers.” — Jim Prezlock
“Using a portable tape recorder to capture the radio-commercials for a race, then dissecting the names to see EXACTLY how many cars would be there ... anything on ABC had to have Keith Jackson (no offense to Bill Fleming or Chris Economacki, but 'Oooohh, Doctor!’ Keith just seemed like he actually dug being there) ... having to systematically find the perfect seat location, wanting to get the least amount of poles in your shot, and yet NEEDING the pole with a PA horn, to know what was going on … the 'Blue Goose' at Byron ... Being the first guy at school with the newest SS&DI, DRUSA, Hot Rod, etc. ... track food; it might have been the most mundane burger/Sloppy Joe/whatever in the world, but when you’re eating it while watching Garlits fire up, it tasted like heaven ... before ‘hero cards' became an actual industry where every team has them, only a select few teams did it, and it was referred to in less-compact jargon... (‘hey, Snake has free pictures of his CAR!!’) … seeing drag racing on The Munsters and Adam 12 and Walter Brennan racing Tommy Ivo on The Tycoon ... waiting for Funny Car Summer to come to ‘a theatre near YOU!’ " — “Chicago Jon” Hofmann
“Multiple teams helping in late-round thrashes … streakers … three-four events televised per year … Diamond P and TNN American Sports Cavalcade … starting-line burndowns … sleeping in slicks … nobody staging the cars (drivers actually did it on their own) … burnouts without throttle stops … shoe polish on front wheels to prevent red-lighting … Funny Car front tires on Top Fuelers … Garlits’ rear view mirrors … hand written e.t. slips … paint bubbled on bodies by the header flames … interviews that didn’t mention sponsors … five-yellow-bulbed Christmas Trees … burnout contests … cars changing lanes after being fired … the Popular Hot Rodding and Super Stock Nationals … Fire bottles on the steering column …canards on Funny Cars.” — Rich Hanna
"Your list reminds me why I loved drag racing in the early years, but you left one thing out: 'Jungle Pam!' " — Guy Wills
“Diamond P Sports ... Steve Evans’ pitch for NHRA membership on each event broadcast ... NHRA Today ... embroidered crew uniforms ... injector hats that sit JUST above the top of the rollcage ... Larry Minor vs. Paul Candies bidding wars at the DRAW auction …teams rolling their cars back from between the trailers for warm-ups ... the Car Craft All-Star Drag Racing Team ... single fuel pump/single magneto “cackle” … the starting-line banner at Pomona … rain-delay poker games.” — Mitch Cooper
“Powder Puff races … Coca Cola Cavalcade of Stars, ‘T.V. Tommy’ vs. ‘Big Daddy’… hot pants and halter tops … regional match racers … station wagon tow vehicles … straight-axle gassers ... slicks out past the rear wheel wells.” — Anthony Groff Sr.
“The Daily Dragster during Indy week ... Pro Comp (best class ever) ... Modified Eliminator ... print mags like Drag Racing USA and SS&DI ... injected nitro Funny Cars (Jack Ditmars and later Ken Veney) ... airplane front wheels on dragsters.” — Nunzio Valerie Jr.
“Gassers! Any and all, but especially Stone, Woods & Cook and either of ‘Big John’ Mazmanian's Willys or Austin ... cruisin' Whittier Blvd. on Friday and Saturday night outside of Bob's Big Boy … the original Guasti Homestyle Café in Ontario [Calif.], where so many of the race teams 'fueled up' on breakfast before heading to Pomona.” — Ken Hamer
"Jolly Jack Williams — former Top Fuel driver, ad man, promoter of races and pyramids — pacing around chewing on his unlit cigar … John 'Zookeeper' Mulligan quietly puffing on his stogie contemplating his next run … Dick Landy clutching one between his teeth looking dandy … CJ Hart would puff on an old stogie, too, gave him a look of distinction. Also on several occasion, CJ, riding his little Honda motorbike, would charge the starting line, lock up the brakes, and slide across it sideways to the roaring approval of a cheering crowd.” — Alan Earman
“K-rail guardrails; you could see much more as the rails were lower than today’s concrete walls … watering stations. Dragsters would gather at a multihosed spigot to drain and refill the blocks after a run. … pit passes. Only the true drag racing lover would step up for another $1.50 to $3 for the privilege of leisurely touring the pits to get close to the cars and drivers … stands very close to the starting line. Some stands were so close to the fire-up road the zoomie headers would blow your hair if you had a front-row seat … ‘Weed Sweeper’ headers … Jr. Fuel … dragster bodies that were show-car quality works of art with paint to match.” — Terry Spencer.
“Quarter-mile nitro drag racing … the smell of real rubber ... real rivalries …the smell of In-N-Out burgers cooking behind the concession stand at Irwindale Raceway ... Moroso parties in the middle of nowhere at Indy ... having a rag in your pocket meant you were part of the crew and you walked out to the starting line with the car ...class acts like Paul Candies ... watching drag racing and figure skating on the same TV show … 32-car Top Fuel fields … when Indy was really something special … when you went to a national event, the local racers showed up and made each event a little different … Mazzarella ‘Pig Outs’ at the Finals.” — Michael Anderson
“US 30 dragstrips in York, Pa., and Gary, Ind. … roller starters (starting line at Lions, pits in Englishtown) …Fuel Altereds in Comp Eliminator ... hydrazine ... the English Leather Calendar Girls ... ‘Broadway Bob’ Metzler.” — Mike Lewis
Zane Shubert's round-wheel-equipped Top Fueler (1965)
“A motel parking lot full of the guys you only read about working on their cars … Having your parents never find out that you skipped school and hitched a ride out to the track to see the guys from the motel parking lot race … Tech in a supermarket parking lot ... A trip to Indy in an old Ford van pulling an open trailer with your best effort and life savings sitting out in the open ... Very quietly and discreetly spending the night in the pits because all the money went to just getting there, never mind getting home ... Having a car that didn't need much between rounds so you could catch up on sleep with a shop rag over your eyes, laying on a jacket, on the open trailer, during fuel qualifying … a section of grandstand downtrack full of the guys like Prudhomme, McEwen, Roland ... old West Texas Dragstrips … Winston and Miss Winston … ping pong or rubber balls in injector stacks all somehow chained together ... all 32 of them little red balls in Ivo's injectors … 'You oil it down, you clean it up!' … Being able to get a junkyard engine, go fuel racing, and not having it blow up because you know how to run it … the things you used to do that you wouldn't dare do now … trophy girls ... cam grinder rivalries … car manufacturer rivalries ... round steering wheels on dragsters.” — Richard Pederson
“You left out Pontiac and Buick from your Chrysler vs. Ford vs. Chevy vs. Oldsmobile in Top Fuel listing. There certainly were a number of racers that used Pontiac and Buick engines back in the day (Eddie Hill’s dual Pontiac engine quad rear tire car and ‘T.V. Tommy’ Ivo’s dual- and later four-engine Nailhead Buick powered cars). ... The variety of engines and chassis being used. Everyone was always experimenting with someone different; unlike the cookie-cutter cars today, where they are all pretty much the same. ... race team and manufacturer rivalries like between Stone, Woods & Cook and ‘Big John’ Mazmanian and how the Engle/Iskenderian ‘Camshaft Wars’ played out each week in the Drag News and National Dragster advertisements." — Robert Nielsen
Nielsen, and quite a few others, didn’t know about some of the things that I wrote and thought that a little explanation might be in order.
The 10-10-10 tune-up: This one wasn’t as well-known as I thought it was, but I remember hearing about it. It was the 1960s tuner’s Hail Mary combination: 10 percent more nitro, 10 percent more blower, 10 degrees (or 10 percent in some people’s books) more magneto. Mix well. Close your eyes. Austin Coil tells me that this was something that teams were more likely to do when they went from running at sea level to altitude “and that was still a bit too much.”
As Jim Nicoll is shut off, Don Schumacher, middle, prepares to move in to face "the Snake" in the 1973 Tulsa, Okla., PDA event Funny Car final.
The break rule: If a winning driver were unable to return for the next round due to breakage or a crash, the losing driver was allowed back in his spot. There are some famous examples of final rounds where three cars towed to the starting line, with the third team (the one with low e.t. of the two eliminated semifinalists) hoping that one of the other two couldn’t fire or would run into trouble before staging. The most famous example of this is from the 1973 PDA event in Tulsa, Okla., when Don Schumacher was waiting in the wings when Don Prudhomme and Jim Nicoll staged for the Funny Car final. Nicoll developed an oil leak and a header fire and had to be shut off, and Schumacher, who already had his engine running just in case, moved in to face (but would ultimately lose to) “the Snake.”
Additionally, for the longest time, the Pro classes allowed for unqualified drivers to make the first-round call if one of the qualifiers couldn’t make it. That practice was discontinued about a decade ago because of allegations of lower-financed (but qualified) teams selling their spots to big, sponsored names who didn’t qualify (the qualified car would suddenly be “broken” overnight).
“Ragged” gloves: As in “gloves with rags attached,” and not as a state of worn-out gloves. Back in the old front-engine days, when top-end oil baths were not uncommon, some drivers would tape rags to the knuckle side of their gloves to be able to quickly wipe clear their goggles if they became covered with oil during a run.
Arnie Beswick has modified the round steering wheel in his Funny Car, cutting off part of it (visible just above the injector) in what might have been one of the first moves toward a butterfly wheel.
Round steering wheels on Funny Cars: Yes, believe it or not, the butterfly steering wheel didn’t always exist. It evolved because the ever-tightening cockpits, allowing drivers to give it a quarter turn to slide between their legs as they squeezed into the business seat. You can see the progression of this in some photos, where Funny Car drivers had three quarters of a round wheel for this purpose. I have no idea who invented the butterfly wheel.
“Leavers Lose”: Also known as "Losers Leave." A one-time popular alternative to the Christmas Tree, it featured a single-lit amber bulb followed by a randomly timed green-light start.
Real bleach in the “bleach box”: The use of actual bleach helped heat, clean, and soften the rubber of early tires, but as you know, it’s also very destructive and caustic stuff. After NHRA began using sprayed traction compound to prepare racetracks in the early 1970s, bleach was prohibited because it destroyed the traction compound.
Unlimited qualifying/working on cars in the lanes: Some of you hadn’t heard about this or had questions. Longtime Division 3 photog Tom Schiltz remembers it well. “Before NHRA instituted qualifying sessions, they used to pull a percentage of cars in each class out of the lanes to qualify, so you never knew when you would get a qualifying shot, so immediately after your run, you pulled back into the lanes and waited,” he wrote. “It might be an hour, or it might be never. You might get five qualifying runs, or you might get one. The true fans would sit in the stands from sunup to sundown (no lights at Indy) so we wouldn’t miss anything. NHRA had a rule that there were to be no race cars in the pits overnight, so the racers were forced to work on their cars at the hotels. It was a great part of the experience to go hotel hopping at night to watch the action. We always knew that during the Nationals, Tommy Ivo stayed at the Howard Johnson’s on West Washington Street. He’d park his rig right on the street, unload, and work on the car right there.”
I had a chance to talk about their very subject with Graham Light, when he and I were stuck in Dallas last weekend with a three-hour layover en route to Norwalk. Light, as some may recall, raced Top Fuel throughout the 1970s, most famously with the Bubble-Up team car to Gordie Bonin. He told me that racers would hop the fence early in the morning, before the pit gates opened, open their trailers, then stealthily push their cars to the lanes and begin working on them. Back then, of course, there were no pneumatic tools, so a small toolbox would do. When the gates opened, they could bring more stuff from the trailer with the tow vehicle. They’d run, get back in line, drop the pan to check the bearings, pull a cylinder head if needed, and wait. You could even test-fire the cars in the lanes. Then NHRA officials would come and take 50 or so cars from different lanes to run. Crazy!
Push starts: Nielsen also added some commentary about the fire-up process so popular in the 1960s (and in today’s staged Cacklefests). “I personally think this was one of the more exciting things that is missing from drag racing today. Sure, it may have slowed down the process of getting the cars to the starting line, but there was nothing like seeing them come down the fire-up road in front of the spectator stands (or, at times, even the opposite way on the track), hear the clutch engage the engine, build oil pressure, and then have the engine come to life when the magneto switch was hit! Of course, this was followed by a carefully (and sometimes not so carefully) choreographed turn around behind the starting line, followed by a burnout and, without the aid of a reverser, the crewmembers having to push the car back to the starting line. And if the driver was a little upset (pissed off) at his crew, he might even drag the clutch a little to make their job a little harder.”
Push starts were eliminated with the start of the 1976 season. Reversers were made mandatory in 1980.
"Grumpy" spreading the "gold dust" at Byron Dragway (Richard Brady photo)
Gold Dust rosin: Powdered rosin that was spread, sometimes in copious amounts, on the starting line to enhance traction; it’s still used on occasion at our national events. It literally looks like gold dust. Back in the match race days, especially in Pro Stock, the spreading of the gold dust was a big production, oftentimes with the driver and/or crews personally applying it and using a broom to smooth and spread it. It was quite a site to see someone like Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins doing the manual labor before he performed the final part of the ritual, “burning in” the rosin with a huge burnout.
Cheater Slicks: Nielsen also did a great job explaining this one for me: “There was a time when stock classified cars had a requirement that the rear tires need a minimum of at least two treads running the circumference of the tire at least 1/16-inch deep. There were a number of tire producers, like Inglewood Tire (Inglewood, Calif.), that took their regular slicks and added the two treads to them, making them 'cheater slicks.' I had these on my '56 Ford, and they resulted in a minor accident when, on a rainy, wet road, I hydroplaned into a street light. Fortunately, this was at moderately low speed, so no real damage was done, except to the light pole and my front bumper!”
The slang: “Dropping the laundry” (deploying the parachute); “nailing the anchors” (hitting the brakes); “driving it out the back door” (the finish-line speed trap used to span the finish line, 66 feet before to 66 feet after, so when drivers stayed on the gas past the finish line to get a better speed, they were “driving it out the back door”); “brain bucket” (helmet); “smoking the hoops” (losing traction and spinning the tires); “running the can” (running 100 percent nitro; sometimes also described as running "the can, lid, and label!"); “putting a leg out” (breaking a connecting rod so that it pokes out through the block).
That was fun! Thanks for all the contributions. I thought I had made a pretty thorough list, but you guys outdid yourself. Such great memories; thanks for helping me keep them alive. See ya next week.