The weather was beautiful, the scenery was majestic, and the racing topflight last weekend in New England, where I was working the Auto-Plus NHRA New England Nationals at New England Dragway, NHRA’s second visit to the nostalgic and historic track. It was a great time to be at the drags. Then – BAM! – Friday brought bad news and Saturday even more, with the passing of two more drag racers from the glory days of yesteryear, Norm Weekly and Mart Higginbotham.
Weekly was one fourth of the memorable Frantic Four Top Fuel team that terrorized Southern California in the early 1960s. Weekly – known as “Stormin’ Norman” for his aggressive driving style – partnered with Ron Rivero, Jim Fox, and Dennis Holding to create the foursome that actually sprang out of two pairs: Fox and Holding and Weekly and Rivero. But in January 1963, as they were preparing to challenge for the No. 3 spot on the Drag News Mr. Eliminator list, Weekly and Rivero blew both of their engines in their new Rod Peppmuller-built dragster. Fox and Holding, meanwhile, had a sweet 331 engine (punched out to 342 cid) they’d put together during a six-month hiatus from the sport. They pooled their resources, which was a common scenario in those days, and the Frantic Four was officially born. (Born, but not named until a few weeks later when announcer Stan Adams dubbed them such after witnessing their frantic run from Lions Drag Strip in Long Beach, Calif., to Pomona for gaskets for between-rounds repairs; Adams also gets credit for dubbing Weekly as “Stormin’ Norman.”)
The team’s success was immediate and plentiful despite its deployment of its high-revving, relatively small Chrysler against the more common 392-powered entries of its foes. In one of its first outings, at the 1963 Winternationals, it set top speed of the meet at 188.66 mph.
On Dec. 8, 1963, the Frantic Four, now using 353 power, defeated Chris Karamesines 2-1 in Pomona for the Drag News No. 1 Mr. Eliminator spot when “the Greek” crossed the centerline in the rubber match. Karamesines congratulated Weekly after the race by saying, “Take good care of the No. 1 spot, kid.” They did, holding the No. 1 spot on the prestigious Drag News Top 10 list multiple times during the 1964 and 1965 seasons, and the team also set top speed at the 1964 Nationals with a blast of 202.24 mph.
The Frantic Four also became one of the first teams to race two dragsters when Weekly also drove the Orange County Metal Processing entry with a Fox & Holding engine. It defeated the Waterman & Goodsell entry for the No. 8 position on the Drag News list, giving the team the distinction of having two of the nation’s top 10 cars.
After leaving the Frantic Four in 1965, Weekly drove a few more dragsters, wheeling the Purple Gang (Rapp-Rossi-Maldonado) entry, Don Johnson's Beachcomber, and Ted Gotelli's Gotelli Speed Shop dragster, and also briefly drove some Funny Cars, most notably Karamesines' Barracuda and Doug Thorley's AMX.
"Stormin' Norman," doing his thing
After Weekly left the team, Rivero, who had just returned after a stint in the Army, became the driver, and even though Holding also had departed in 1965 for a career in the hot rodding aftermarket industry, Rivero and Fox continued to enjoy success, including a runner-up finish at the 1966 Hot Rod Magazine Championships, back-to-back NASCAR Top Fuel championships in 1967 and 1968, and a huge victory at the 1968 Bakersfield March Meet. The team switched to Funny Car in 1969 with its Frantic Ford Mustang. Rivero left in 1970, leaving Fox as the only original member of the Frantic Four, and he continued to campaign the Funny Cars with a variety of drivers.
There’s too much to really be told here, but there’s a great repository of Frantic Four stuff here, with photos and more. Be sure to check out the parts that Weekly himself wrote, called "Stormin Stories."
I also reached out to Fox, Rivero, and Holding by emails supplied to me by Steve Gibbs and was pleasantly surprised to hear within 30 minutes from Holding, who was calling from, of all places, Brazil, where he has a home (and is watching World Cup games from air-conditioned comfort instead of fighting the masses).
“People forget that we were only together from January 1963 through November 1965,” said Holding, who also oversaw the business aspect of the team. “Norm always idolized Tommy Ivo and motivated us to go out on tour. For Norm, there was no greater motivation than the thought of beating the guy he respected so much. I come from the school of ‘Get ’er done,’ so I had a competitive streak, too. That’s what made it work for all of us. We liked to win and didn’t like to have to put it on the trailer until the end of the day.
“Norm really enjoyed driving the car; I’m sure it scared him a few times, but he never talked about it. We liked to win and needed to win because we didn’t have any money. We were all working multiple jobs to keep the dream alive, especially when we added the OCMP car.”
After the racing ended, the Frantic Four were only infrequently in touch. It took Holding’s dogged determination -- with the support of the old-school community, including original chassis builder Peppmuller and members of the Standard 1320 news group -- to re-create their famous car (the original had fallen victim years earlier to a metal shredder) to bring them all together again. Rivero had well-documented the car’s successes and had lot of photos, and the car was painstakingly and accurately re-created in 2001, along with a period-correct push truck and trailer.
The car made its debut at the California Hot Rod Reunion with Weekly smoking the tires through a tremendous burnout. The four were officially reunited as California Hot Rod Reunion honorees in 2004 and inducted into Don Garlits’ International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 2008.
I’ll conclude with this wonderful and funny note composed by Weekly’s daughters, Kelley and Kerrey, who asked that it be shared with the drag racing community:
“ ‘Stormin' Norman’ is no longer with us. He crossed the finish line last night, peacefully in his sleep with his daughter, Kerrey, at his bedside. Ornery until the end, he spent his last days checking out the various ladies who happened to walk by his room <grin> and comment about how much money everything was costing him. He arrived on the scene in September 1942. A California kid through and through, he enjoyed 71 years of smoking, drinking, racing, boating, gardening, reading Western novels, canning his Nitro Pickles, making money and telling stories about the good ol' days. He wanted everyone to know that he had ‘the best recipe for chocolate chip cookies’ and his daughters are sworn to secrecy about it, along with the Nitro Pickle recipe. <big grin>. Since 2001, the grumpy old man with a kind heart loved hanging out with friends and fans at the many events he attended with the Frantic Four. He always wanted to put on the best show for the fans. Norm is survived by his smart-ass children (Kelley and Kerrey), super-smart-ass grandchildren (there's a lot of them), two sisters (they've prayed for his soul since he was 5), three ex-wives, and probably many more children that we just can't mention <big evil grin>.”
Steve Reyes photos
Higginbotham may not be in a fancy Hall of Fame like Weekly, he never won a national event, and with his bookkeeper glasses, he certainly didn't look the part of a Funny Car racer, but I’d put him in the Insider Hall of Fame if such a thing existed. I never met Mart, but those of you who have been reading this column for years know that he has been a frequent and incredible contributor. I exchanged dozens of emails with him over the years, filled with engaging and insightful comments and notes, and we had planned to meet up in Dallas at the national event last year, but it never happened, and I’m very sad about that.
His tragic passing Saturday afternoon, in a freak highway accident in Dallas that’s still almost impossible to believe, left me not only stunned but also incredibly sad. I won’t go into the details of the accident – you can find them online if you Google his name – but I can think of it in no other terms than “Wrong place, wrong time,” which wasn’t often the case for Mart. He had his hands in a lot of drag racing history. You might be tempted to think it was one of those “When your number is up …” kind of deals, but I think that Mart still had a lot more living to do, even at age 70.
You can learn a lot about Mart’s career in the article that I wrote — with copious help from Mart — about his longtime former partner, “Big Mike” Burkhart (The Legend of "Big Mike" Burkhart). While Mart didn’t have the legacy or number of glory days of fellow Texans like Richard Tharp and Raymond Beadle, he was still one of them.
When I got the email about Mart’s death from one of his friends, Jimmy Garritson, I texted Tharp to share the news. Tharp, who lives not far from the North Dallas Tollway where the accident occurred and snarled traffic for miles, knew of the wreck from the news but not the identity of its lone victim. He quickly called Beadle to share the sad news. That’s how close a community it still is for these retired quarter-mile heroes.
Mart apparently had shared with Garritson some of our past correspondence, so he knew I’d want to know of his passing. Same story with Bob Wolcott, who was another friend of Mart’s and also emailed me.
“Mart talked a lot about his friendship with you, and I thought you needed to know,” said Garritson, which was incredibly touching to me. “He got me to reading your column and gave me your email address in case I ever wanted to write to you myself, but I never thought it would be for this.”
According to Garritson, the two were regular meal companions and talked just about every day, about everything and nothing, and he fondly remembers Mart regaling him with his racing stories.
I wish I had gotten the chance to ask Mart about the time he beat the snake ...
“He could be a crusty character, but it was fun listening to the stories,” said Garritson, who owns a shop in Garland and races in Top Dragster. “We’d go out and eat, or try; I’d call him ‘No-show Mart’; everything I’m telling to you I’ve said – and worse – to his face, but that was the kind of friendship we had. He was a nice guy and a great friend.
“He was just a great character. He told me the story one time about towing his ’63 Corvette from Texas to Georgia with Paul Adams to have it worked on. They were rolling along at 90 to 100 mph and got pulled over by a cop somewhere in Alabama. They pulled over, and the cop ordered them to show their hands. Once the cop found out they were hot rodders, he took a liking to them, and they schmoozed their way out of that deal. That was just Mart.”
Wolcott and Mart often traveled with Don Ross and Bobby and Ruthann Langley to the Hot Rod Reunion in Bowling Green, Ky., with Langley’s famous Scorpion dragster in tow. “The year after Bobby’s death, Mart, Paul Adams, and I took the car to Bowling Green as Don was unable to attend. Mart was a very friendly guy and helpful, too. He was a very astute businessman, with his own accounting firm. I met Mart back when he first started with Mike Burkhart. ‘Big Mike’ grew up in my same neighborhood in North Dallas. At the time, I was in the speed equipment business (speed shop), and any and every one that raced in the late ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s traded with us, so I knew all of them. The Dallas racing fraternity still holds a reunion every year.”
Reader Bill McLauchlan also wrote to remind me that Mart was nearly part of a world championship effort in 1972, when he loaned his Drag-On Vega to the late Butch Maas to run the World Finals in Amarillo, Texas. They qualified No. 1 and reached the semifinals before breaking the rear end. You can read more about that, and Mart’s thoughts on it, in this column I wrote in 2010 about Maas after his death.
Mart is survived by his wife, Linda; son, Ryan; daughter, Kaylee; grandson, Brayden; a granddaughter due in September; sisters Cindy and Peggy; brother Ralph; and numerous nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Services were held Tuesday.
There was a nice obituary about Mart in the Dallas Morning News citing his racing history, and I learned a few things. I didn’t know that a) his given name was Joseph Martin Higginbotham IV or that b) he was the grandson of one of Dallas' founding fathers, JM Higginbotham Jr., whose buildings are historically honored in downtown Dallas and the West End.
Funny the things you learn after you lose someone, but sad that you can’t talk with them about them. I’ll miss talking to Mart.
Thanks so much for all of the kind words on my Father’s Day article last Friday. It was an article that I’d long wanted to write but nonetheless found it difficult, both emotionally and in straying from our usual fare here, but your responses made it all worthwhile.
Several of you also wanted to share your stories about the father (and mother) figures in your life, so that’s what we’re going to celebrate today. Thanks to all for sharing.
(Above) Best Appearing Crew at the Mile-High Nationals; Dad is third from left. (Below) Dad was honored by Tony Schumacher’s team for his Vietnam service.
Kevin Montoya: “So many of the traits that you listed about fathers are true about my dad, and as you say in your column, the dads of the gearheads and pit rats that follow your column regularly have a lot of common traits. Many of the things you wrote are true with my dad.
“On top of being a dad that has taught me many things in life, my dad introduced me to cars and the sport of drag racing. We attended the Mile-High Nationals fairly regularly while I was a kid, and once my brother turned 16, we ventured into the sport with a ’64 Ford Falcon that my dad’s friend had parked years before. After the Falcon, we got into a dragster and worked our way up to Super Comp, where we shared some success at local Bandimere Speedway races and some Division 5 Lucas Oil Series races (one runner-up finish).
“As I look at my life and reflect upon my dad this Father’s Day, I realize that my dad has molded me in many ways (good and bad), and he has also brought into my life a sport and hobby that I love dearly. The memories I have with and of my dad at the racetrack will be some of the best memories of my life, and though we have stopped racing for the time being (due to my own kids being busy chasing their hobbies), I long for the days that my dad and I shared at various tracks. It is my dream to win a divisional or national event with my dad.
“One of the best racing memories I have is a divisional race at Douglas Motorsports Park in Douglas, Wyo. It was one of our first Super Comp races, and we could not get the car to run the index. We battled all weekend and could not come close. We stayed at a hotel that weekend, and driving to the track on Sunday morning for round one, we were laughing about how we would at least be on our way home early and would beat the summer Wyoming heat. We went many rounds that day, suffered through a faulty transbrake, and were battered by the heat (we bought sno-cones in the pits, and to this day, that was the best sno-cone I ever had), and we enjoyed an awesome day of racing. We also beat a young racer (Rod Fuller) in round one that day. When Rod was driving for David Powers, I had him sign a hero card at the Mile-High Nationals that I have on my office wall that says, ‘To Kevin: Thanks for beating me in Douglas, Wyoming. ... ’ There are racing stories and memories of laughs, arguments, beating racers that we still think very highly of (we were amazed we raced with and beat them at times), and just memories I hold in my mind of seeing my dad at the racetrack, being proud of the operation that he assembled along with his friends and racing buddies Bill and Harley.
"I have never said this, but I thank my dad for introducing me to one of the loves in my life: drag racing. I also thank my dad for allowing a young man (no longer am I young) to get into a race car, drive it, and experience what many boys want to experience in life but don’t get the chance to experience. I hope I can give my boys the same memories and experiences that my dad has given to me. Happy Father’s Day, Dad (Tony Montoya). Thanks for all you have given me, allowed me to experience, and for the memories and experiences that I cherish more than you will ever know.”
Fred Simmons, Milford, Maine: “One of my earliest memories, relative to racing, was when I was 6 or 8 years old and my father was working as a salesman for Bowes Seal Fast. They sponsored an Indy car in the early ‘60s, and he had this yellow metal model of an Indy roadster that I can still picture in my mind. I remember watching the Indy 500 with him, being intrigued by the racing and him telling me how dangerous racing was.
“I was introduced to drag racing by a friend in my early teens and immediately fell in love with the combination of racing and show-quality cars and wanted a car of my own to race. My father helped me locate a ‘65 Plymouth Fury with a blown engine and an old open stock car trailer. With the help of a friend, who owned a service station, we rebuilt the engine (my father made an engine stand for the project) and added four-wheel surge brakes to the trailer as they were required by law in New Hampshire. It was a good thing we added those brakes as the first time out, we were cut off by a passing car and then stopped by a New Hampshire state trooper (checking for brakes on the trailer) just before the gate going into New England Dragway. I was so nervous the first few times we raced the car that my father drove it to the track towed behind my ‘66 Plymouth Fury III. I don’t know who was more excited when I won my first trophy, my father or me. Like most people, I ended up selling my car and trailer when I got married, bought a house, and started a family.
"My father passed away from smoking-related cancer, like many of the greatest generation, when my son was very young. While he did get to see me introduce my son to cars, like he had done for me, he did not get to see him race and share in the excitement of his successes both on the track and in a racing-related business. My son and I often reflect on how happy and proud my father would be and how we wish he could have been here to share in my son’s accomplishments. I also know how happy my father would be that my son’s business and home are located in the town he grew up in.
"I’m writing to you sitting in a hotel room in China while my son is out on the Hot Rod Power Tour with a smile on my face thankful for what my father gave to me and what I’ve been fortunate to be able to pass on to my son. Thanks again for the great story and the impetus to reflect on many fond memories of my father.”
That was pretty cool, but what really surprised me was the email that showed up a few days later from Fred Simmons Jr.
“My name is Fred Simmons Jr., and I am writing to you after my dad forwarded me an email that he sent to you about HIS dad and how he got started in the car hobby, so I figured I would share part of my story, which might actually be a continuation of MY dad's story.
"After reading my dad's story that he sent to you, I realized I had never heard how he got started in the car/drag racing hobby, so it was kind of cool to read about it; however, not much has seemed to change. He STILL gets nervous on the way to the racetrack when we are racing, and he STILL doesn't even drive to the track when we're racing. ... I DO!!!
“I would say my dad and I are pretty damn close. I don't EVER remember a time where he wasn't there for me. He has always been supportive of everything I ever done or wanted to do and has always helped me achieve the goals and dreams I have set out to accomplish. Though sometimes I feel I am still struggling through building up our custom performance car business, my dad always seems to come in to the shop on Saturdays and lend a hand; it sometimes drives me nuts, but I figure that's all payback from me driving him nuts from when I was a kid!
“I'd like to share a story of one of my greatest memories I have had with my dad drag racing. I'd also like to tell you a cool story about that old engine stand that my grandfather made for my dad's first engine build. As long as I can remember, I have been passionate about cars and drag racing. I'm sure my dad could give you an exact age, but cars and racing have always been a part of my life. At about 3 years old, my dad started taking me to NHRA national events down at Englishtown. We have SO many memories down there from my early years. We used to make suicide day trips from our hometown of Milford, Mass., to E-town (about a 4.5-hour drive each way): Get up early, drive down, watch racing all day, and drive back. Crazy, you would think with a 3-year-old, right? But as I'm sure he would tell you, I NEVER EVER complained or wanted to go home; better yet, I would make car sounds with my mouth ALL DAY. I would even leave the earmuff ear protectors on my head because the car noises I was making sounded cooler to me that way!
“I got my start in drag racing with the Jr. Drag Racing League. I was able to get a ride driving Lebanon Valley Dragway's track-sponsored car. We had a good go at racing, won a few races, made a few special tools that I STILL use to this day in our shop, and had LOTS of fun. As I grew older and was ready to head off to college, the Jr. dragster got sold, along with our enclosed trailer, and into our home garage comes a 1989 Chevy Cavalier V-6 automatic and an open car trailer. Over a short period of time, we turned a worn-out street car into a, well, not-so-worn-out bracket machine. We quickly got a handle on the car and were able to win a track championship at New England Dragway with the car in 2003. That was awesome; we had so much fun doing it, and we have PLENTY of stories to tell about our road to the championship. But that's not the story I want to share.
“The following year after winning the championship, we decided to start traveling to go racing. Dad always said, ‘You will only get better if you race better competition.’ Well, traveling just so happened to bring us back to Englishtown. The NHRA Sport Compact Series was in full swing around this time. So having a front-driver Cavalier, we said, ‘Let’s do it.’ We made the trek with our Cavalier and open trailer down to E-town, just like old times. However, instead of him driving me down there, I was driving him, towing the car trailer and talking along the way. The racing in E-town is ALWAYS tough, and that day was no different. We battled through a tough bracket field, making it through to the finals. Dad was nervous as hell; even though he tried not to show it so that I wouldn't get nervous, I could tell he was. He always put on a good game face, but checking the tire pressures 100 times before we raced gave him away (sorry, Dad).
"As soon as I launched the car, I knew it was going to be one heck of a race. As I was looking over my shoulder waiting to see my competitor get closer as he was chasing me down, I never saw him; a quick pedal job at the top end gave us the win light!!! Taking home my first national event win and a Wally! As I was about to make the turnoff at the top end, it was like I had a flashback of all the memories we had at this track when I was young, how many hours we spent walking the pits looking at cars and how many hours we spent in the stands watching racing and watching the Christmas Tree run after run, pretending like it was a practice Tree and mashing my foot down like I was mashing the gas pedal on a race car. It all just sort of sunk in how special that one run could be. Once I grabbed the time slip and made the turn up towards the pits, I could see the smile on my dad’s face from about 200 feet away. My mom, my cousin (who was my crew chief), and my friend Jon (who helped dial the car in) were all there, but it was my dad's smile that I saw. After getting out of the car, he gave me a big excited hug, and it was then I knew that this win would always stick with me as one of the best. That Wally is currently sitting on my dad's desk in his new mantown (my old room now that I've moved out), where I'm sure he enjoys looking at it every time he's in there.
“That old engine stand that my grandfather made, well, it’s still around. I built my first engine on it, too! Several years after we won that national event, we started building a newer-body-style Cavalier with a turbo to further compete in the NHRA Sport Compact Series, and that same old engine stand was what I built my first motor on. That SAME engine stand is STILL in our shop with an engine on it for one of our customers, providing that person with the memory of his first engine build. Sort of cool I think, even though my grandfather might not have been in the flesh to see what I have become and what my father has been able to give to me, he is there every day in spirit watching it all from an engine-stand view.”
Joel Brunk, Centennial, Colo.: “When I was young, my dad was big into VWs. I have many memories of the huge Bug-Ins at OCIR, and later, him drag racing a pretty fast Bug at those events. However, the car that really brought us together was his 1965 Sunbeam Tiger. That car represents so much to me. He built it in ‘93-94, after I spent a year doing the body and paint work on it. I was in my early 20s at that time, and we were not getting along too well. However, this car brought us together. It gave us something to talk about other than what we were disagreeing on. I have very fond memories of finishing it (literally) the night before the ’94 Grand National Roadster Show. We came home with Best Sports Car of show! Carroll Shelby even stopped to talk to Dad for nearly 30 minutes about the car. He parked the car about 10 years ago after getting tired of it overheating. Other interests took over, and the car just sat.
“About two and a half years ago, he was diagnosed with internal melanoma. It is very rare and always terminal. In June of 2013, he was rushed to the hospital in San Francisco. I jumped on a plane and flew out that night. Most of the family was there, and we were crowding the hospital room. The second morning there, I was feeling pretty helpless. Dad and I started talking about the car and some of the memories it brought back. It was great medicine for him ... he perked up noticeably! I decided to drive to his house near Santa Cruz and see exactly what was needed to get it back on the road. He already had all the parts to address the cooling issue; I just needed to install them. Par for the course with this car, NOTHING went as planned! The new four-core aluminum radiator was just big enough that a stock water pump would not fit. The timing cover had two stripped holes. The thermostat housing was corroded ... you get the picture. After a few days, I was able to get everything together and running! The next trip out (two weeks later), he was back home. It was such a proud moment to take him for a ride in his car. After some more tweaking, we drove it to a small show-and-shine in late August. That was the last time he rode in the car. Sadly, he lost his gallant battle in October. The night he died, I just sat in the garage with the car and cried.
“I hope to instill the same passion and love for cars in my boy. He was not born into our family (we adopted him at 7 years old, 4 years ago), but he already loves cars. We went to Bandimere Speedway last month with tickets he earned from the Race to Read program. It reminded me of being at OCIR many years ago with my dad ... answering his questions, hearing him pick race winners, and asking drivers questions in the pits ... just like I did with my dad! Father’s Day will never be the same without my dad around.”
Mark Watkins: “One of my favorite memories of growing up in south Santa Ana (my high school cross-country team used to regularly run by the old Santa Ana dragstrip that was foolishly turned into a regional airport) is working with my dad on his cars and trucks.
“I stood with him at Chief's auto supply on Bristol Street as he BS'd with the counter guy and bought oil for his 1963 Chevy 10 pickup. Castrol GTX, even before that famous racing family was a family. I regularly was his tool chaser while he worked on our cars, and I grew pretty good at anticipating what tool he would need.
“He did two things that changed my life (other than whipping my ass when I screwed up). He introduced me to a man he worked with named Norm LaBell. Norm was a truck driver by day and fabricator by night. My dad took me over to his garage, and I saw the mechanical wonders (to me) Norm constructed with his own two hands. I left that garage believing I could learn to weld, grind, machine, and paint. If Norm could do it, so could I. Today, I have a small machine shop in my garage, and I happily build parts for my race car there.
“The other thing my dad did to change my life was in 1968. On a warm Saturday night, he took me to OCIR. We walked in on the spectator side at dusk, and I was instantly and permanently smitten with the smells, the colors, and the sounds of drag racing.”
Richard Pederson, Mesa, Ariz.: “I'll write a few lines about my dad, Perry Pederson. He couldn't put together an early-‘60s barbecue grill that I, a 7-year-old, came home from Sunday school and promptly pointed out how to put together correctly. He wasn't good at mechanical things, and he jokingly reasoned it must have skipped a generation because his father was a blacksmith and mechanic who could make or fix most anything. What I did get from my white-collar dad was an example of honesty, a good work ethic, the tenacity to do my best and finish what I started.
“Dad never said much about my cars and racing other than his disappointment how they consumed my time and drained my wallet. Having won several races locally with the car he'd seen me working on for a few years, it wasn't until that familiar Camaro appeared on TV (they did that back then) after winning the local national event, he then said he wanted to go to the races with me. The next year, I took him out on a Friday. In between our time passes, he and I toured the pits in a borrowed golf cart, but he needed to go home before seeing a fuel car run in person. He was impressed with the ‘friendly racers’ who knew me and how we raced ‘on the same track as John Force,’ one of a few names he had come to know of and liked. A man of few words, praise or criticism, on the way home, he told me how he now understood what I'd been doing all those years. That was the most meaningful thing he ever said to me. Dad never questioned anything I did after that, and neither did my more vocal mom.
“By 1991, a year after we won the Arizona Nationals (Kenney Vasseur won in my car), my dad was on dialysis three times a week, and it was quite a show of, dare I say, courage to come out to the races with me as he was weak and would be gone less than two years later. Most who knew of him were surprised to see him there and were quite gracious. Obviously one of my more endearing memories.”
Chris Williams: "My dad was a mechanical engineer and also could design about anything. He has loved cars and planes his whole life and used to race a 1929 Essex, just about like the one pictured here, in the late '40s. I can't imagine it was fast, but my friends' dads say my dad was the fastest guy in the Utica/Rome, N.Y., area. My dad says the car was not that fast, but he was a really good shifter. He built some timing equipment they used to use on quiet roads around Rome late at night. Before that, he built go-karts, and in the family closet up in Rome, there is a box of pictures of him in the Rome newspaper. He was quite famous for cruising around town on the go-kart at age 12 or so.
“Despite his love of cars, he really did not like noise. After begging for years, my dad took my brother and me to a Funny Car match race at the eighth-mile Utica Rome Dragway. It was 1972, and I recall two of the cars: the Hills Brothers 'Cuda with working headlights and the Shark Corvette. My boyhood idol, Phil Castronovo, was there to help with his '71 Mini Charger that he had sold to a fellow Utican, but I don't think the car was booked in, and it did not run. Anyway, my dad HATED the noise, burning Clorox, etc., and despite my brother and I having the time of our lives, he never would take us back. And that track booked in some great cars (Ivo, Muldowney, etc.). I think by the time I got my license, the strip had closed, so I never was able to go back.
“So my dad fostered my love of cars, but unlike your stepdad, my dad did not approve of any modifications, at least by the time I was around. He felt cars were designed the way they were designed and should not be altered in any way. It is a little odd how he became so conservative over time. He went to Watkins Glen when they still raced in the streets, drove to Indy for the 500, etc., but somehow he seriously mellowed.
“But if it was not for him, I would not be mechanical, would not know much about race cars, would not like sailing, would not have the education I have, etc. He is 88 and slipping but was, like your stepdad, an incredible influence on my life.”
Gary Watson, longtime driver of the Paddy Wagon wheelstander: “In 1956, at age 16, I won my first trophy in Dad’s Comet. You can take that 6-inch trophy and a dime and get a cup of coffee. He went on to support my racing from fuel dragsters to running a dragstrip for five years with a highlight of having Don Garlits there on Jan. 1, 1973 and a high temp of 39 degrees and 5,000 folks in the seats. 1973 was the start of the gas shortage and 55 mph, and I got his support when I quit a real job to go drag racing with a wheelstanding team of three cars (Paddy Wagon, Red Baron, Fugitive). He was not only a dad but a cheerleader.”
Mike Quigley: “Your article really touched me, but not for the reason you might think. I actually honor my mom. Sounds weird, but here's the story. When I was 5 and my brother 13, my dad up and moved to Florida. He left Mom with a ton of bills and a house that was one-third finished. He owed everyone in town. My aunt and uncle took my brother in, but I stayed with Mom. She finished the house mostly by herself (she hired for the heating and plumbing). Yes, she roofed it, did the hardwood floors and everything else. Even today at 93, she tells the story of working in the crawl space putting in insulation on Halloween when some neighborhood kids knocked on the door. She was directly under the door and yelled, ‘Come back later.’ She still laughs as she talks about the kids screaming and running home to their parents.
“As I grew up, she taught me to hunt, fish, and all things manly. She even tromped brush piles so I could shoot rabbits. When it came time to learn to drive, our old ‘58 Chevy Bel Air was the vehicle, and my uncle’s pasture was the location. Other than running over a few hay bales, I did pretty good. As my skills improved, Mom introduced me to the finer points of driving. That stopped when she was teaching me to turn donuts in the snow and ran the car into a ditch. A stern warning of ‘Don't you dare tell anyone’ was all it took. Later, when a local friend and male acquaintance loaned a then college freshman his son's 427/435-horse ‘Vette convertible to take his girlfriend out and he was too shy to really get on it, she took the keys and proceeded to smoke the tires through 1st and 2nd gears.
“She also taught me as much as possible about mechanics (she ran a wrecker on her own a few times), not to the degree that your dad did, but enough to get me by. She traded cars at 90 and continues to keep me on my toes with quips and barbs. She was a mother and a father when that wasn't the norm.
“She was as much, or more, of a father than many men. Every time I watch a team tear down and rebuild a motor, I smile knowing that, at the right age, she could jump in and hold her own.”
Steve Huss: “My dad took me to my first drag race when I was 10 at Pomona. Saw the flying Hawaiian and have been to quite a few more since. This picture (at right) is of the last time my dad, brother, and myself went before he passed. Good times, good memories.”
Thanks for all of the great submissions. I hope that you guys have shared these thoughts with your dad or, if he’s not around, with people who knew him. Although it almost goes without saying, I’ll say it anyway: Tell the people you love how much you love them.
I was able to call my stepdad on Father’s Day (he was with my sister and my mom in Northern California for my nephew Matt’s college graduation and without Internet access) and have my sister show the column to him on her iPad. Even though I’ve told him many times over the years what he has meant to me, it was nice for him to know that I am proud enough of our relationship to share it with the world.
I’m going to go not too far out on a limb here and work under the assumption that a large majority of the Insider Nation is comprised of guys a lot like me. Some older, some younger, some the same age, but all of us, somewhere along the line, developed a deep love for cars and, of course, for drag racing.
I’m also going to inch a little further out onto the bravado branch and suspect that a lot of you (even the gals) got that way thanks to your dad. NHRA history is packed with stories of the sons and daughters who have followed their fathers onto the quarter-mile — the Bernsteins, the Kalittas, the Forces, etc. — as the video at right can attest.
As you all know (or better know!), Father’s Day is this Sunday, and it’s a special day to most of us, especially those of us who are ourselves fathers. Whether your dad is still thankfully with you or if he’s passed away, the day can be a very emotional one. Mothers, everyone loves them forever (save for a few teenage girls, but it passes), and with good reason. They cuddle, they console, they nurture, they cry with you and for you. Dads have it a little tougher, of course, tasked with helping turn boys into men, to show them all of the "Guy Stuff" they'll need to know. Righty-tighty/lefty-loosey, hold the door for ladies, never let them see you cry, etc. I know plenty of guys who've spent a lot of time thinking that their old man was a rat bastard because he buckled down on them, taught them to be tough at all costs, at all times. Not every dad is like that; in fact, it’s probably a pretty safe bet that no two dads are alike, but I’m guessing that the dads of the gear heads and pit rats that follow this column regularly have a lot of common traits.
It’s at this point that I’ll offer an easy exit for those who come here each week looking for my nostalgic looks back at the sport because this one’s going to be a little less about cars and a lot more about emotions.
Father’s Day is always a tough time for me. I lost my dad 45 years ago this September, when I was just 9, and it seems like I miss having him more each year. It’s not so much the actual missing him — although there's plenty of that — but more of wishing he were here to share it all with me now, to see my kids and my grandkids, to see that his son made something of himself, that I grew up to be a good human being. He had certainly set me on the right path and loved me and my sister so deeply, but he couldn’t have known what would become of us that last evening when he kissed me goodnight, then headed out for a nightly jog, part of a training regimen he had begun for a return to his glory days as a semi-pro soccer player. He died later that night of a heart attack, the price paid for too many cigarettes. Now all I have are just a few grainy Polaroids of him to show my kids.
He and my mother had divorced some years earlier, and my sister and I lived with him in England (long story). My mom remained in the U.S. and remarried during those two years we were apart, and it’s that man, Lee Roy Earhart, who helped mold me into what I am and what I love, and it’s he to whom I now send my Father’s Day cards and my love.
A former Marine, former motorcycle racer, and already the father of six kids by the time our paths crossed following my father’s death, Lee could've been a total hardass on my sister and me. Most of his own kids, victims of his own broken marriage, already were in their teens and a few had been in trouble with the law or dealing with demons of addiction and living elsewhere. One could hardly fault him if he took a deep gulp realizing that he'd just inherited two more to his care.
But he didn’t.
The extended Burgess-Earhart family, some time in the 1980s. That's me, back row, left, in the 64 Funny Cars shirt. My mom is kneeling at far right, Lee proudly posing with all of "his kids" in the yellow shirt.
He never tried to replace our father but became our father anyway, which meant the world to a curious boy like me with a lot still to learn. While my natural father, who, as a tool and die maker, was pretty good with machines, had begun to share me with his secrets of the soccer ball — no cars yet — Lee took me under his wing and showed me what I could do with my hands instead of my feet.
He was a maintenance mechanic for Everest & Jennings, the world’s largest wheelchair manufacturer, at its main plant in Los Angeles, part of a team charged with keeping all of the plant’s many machines — punches, presses, lathes, mills, assembly lines, and the like — up and running. To say that he was good with tools would be like saying that Rembrandt was pretty good with a brush.
He taught me when you should use vise grips instead of a Crescent wrench, when a pair of channel locks were superior to a pipe wrench, how to bust loose a rusty bolt and nut, and how to cuss. I think I’ve told this anecdote before, but it’s worth repeating because it showed me that there is more than one way to approach every problem. As we were fixing my broken bicycle one day, we were lacking a necessary flat washer. We couldn’t find one and the hardware store was closed, so he did what came natural: He improvised. He fished a dime out of his pocket and drilled a hole perfectly through the middle. Voila, instant washer.
I watched him build, from scratch in our backyard, a 30-foot-tall, three-sided tower upon which to mount a large CB antenna (which was an Avanti, the same company that sponsored Roland Leong’s Hawaiian; don’t think I missed that!) using just some scrap tubing, a welder, and a vision in his head.
Sensing my growing passion for the sport, he and my mom started taking me to the drags when I was 11, and he took me as often as he could after that, making the long trek from Culver City to Irwindale Raceway or Orange County Int’l Raceway. I already knew all the players from my devoted magazine reading, but he explained the secrets therein. How an engine worked, why this car was like this but another was like that. He himself was no drag racing expert, but he knew cars like Mozart knew music.
As driving age loomed closer, he invited me under the hood, where he showed me how to change the spark plugs, the points, and the condenser (and how to use an Emery board to clean the points to get a few more miles out of them). When I started to hot rod my first car with the addition of a pair of Cyclone headers, he was right there with me under the car, grunting and sweating and cussing to work them into the only possible position they needed to be to fit. And when he watched me, in my growing frustration, trying to tighten the bolts where they attached to the cylinder head, bolts whose heads you just couldn’t grip onto with a Craftsman open-end wrench, he took my knuckle-bloodied wrench and ground down the bulging outer edges of its jaws so that it slipped on like magic. I still have that wrench somewhere.
When I developed a passion for photography, he built me a darkroom on the back porch; I mean a real, dedicated room, with four walls that he built and erected with his own hands and the skills he had learned from his father.
It was his good standing at Everest & Jennings that got me my first job there, working in a sister department, facility maintenance, where I took the skills he taught me and applied them to fixing leaky pipes, broken windows, worn-out light switches, and more, skills that still serve me well years after I left that job to do something softer and more permanent with my hands.
He was always — always — there for me, to rescue me from myself (and from a broken-down car), to point me in the right direction, to gently but firmly chastise me as a father should when I did wrong, but always with the velvety glove of a man trying to be my father without replacing my dad. When I married years later, the deal came with a kid as part of the package, and I used what he had taught me to grow that relationship into a nurturing and loving one with my stepdaughter, who today is simply my daughter and me her dad. I added two more kids to the collection, including a car-crazy son, with whom I’ve spent hours under the hood of his Mustang repeating the lessons I learned, and a daughter, who inherited her love for word play from me.
The folks moved north to Oregon not long after I graduated high school, but I was well prepared to be on my own. A few years after they left, I landed this dream job, and they follow me and the races religiously on TV and even sometimes here.
My hero, right, with my own son, Chris, left, and my nephew, Matt, a few years ago.
Lee turned 84 this past April, and while he’s the first to admit he’s no spring chicken and that he probably should quit the smokes, he’s still one tough old bird. I shared earlier this year how he was the passenger in a terrible auto accident, and he’s well on the mend. When I talked to him on the phone the other day, he had just finished pulling the engine out of his Camaro. He’s probably going to outlive me.
His own kids turned out swell, too, overcoming their early mistakes to lead productive and happy lives, and I’m proud to say that I have amazing relationships with all of them. They’re big NHRA fans, too, and we see each other every time the drags come to Pomona. Like Lee is not just my stepfather, they’re not my stepbrothers and stepsisters. They’re family.
I like to think that my dad is seeing all of this, seeing the family that I have in my life, seeing the family that I have in my job, and seeing the relationship I have with the man who reluctantly but bravely took his place at my side to guide me on my way. And I know he’s smiling.
That’s my story about my dads; I’d love to hear yours. Just click on my name at the top of this column and send me an email. Tell me what they taught you, what they mean to you, and I’ll share some of the best here next week. Don’t forget the photos!
Happy Father’s Day to all the dads.
When the email came Tuesday from Eileen Daniels, wife of the late NHRA Division 3 Director Bob Daniels, advising of the death of Jim Thornton, it was in the form of a simple link to an online obituary. She didn’t say any more and probably didn’t need to. Although I had never written a word about the man let alone spoken to him, my mind drew an immediate and pretty certain link to the Ramchargers. As proud as I was of myself for my brain’s ability to connect the synapses to form that thought, I was saddened by his passing.
I wrote a quick obituary for the NHRA.com Notebook to share the sad news, then quickly headed for the photo library and hefted from the drawers a thick folder of Ramchargers photos that I quickly decided I wanted to share with you all. I’m not about to delve into the full history of the Ramchargers, a diverse blend of Chrysler engineers who worked their magic on Dodge-bodied machines in the 1960s and ‘70s, because there is so much good and accurate information already out there, including Dr. Dave Rockwell’s impressive and authoritative book We Were The Ramchargers (Amazon link), the official Ramchargers website, and a detailed 25-part story by team driver Mike Buckel on the Wild About Cars website.
I’ll let Dr. Rockwell synopsize the Ramchargers story with this paragraph from a great article he wrote for the Muscle Mopar website:
“Who the Ramchargers were is most easily understood if two things are kept in mind. First, they were always a free-standing group; financially and operationally from Chrysler. Members' activities were always after hours and off the clock from Chrysler. However, several members' day jobs at Chrysler did eventually involve developing its race program. Second, there were four phases through which the group evolved during its life: Phase 1) spanned 1958 and 1959, when a confederation of individuals working on their cars banded together to form an NHRA-sanctioned Hot Rod Club, the Ramchargers. Phase 2) spanned 1959 through 1961, with the group evolving from a confederation of individuals with separate interests to a group with a common interest. This federation built the first team car in the form of a '49 Plymouth C/Altered; High and Mighty, followed in 1961 by the team's first Super Stock Dodge. Phase 3) spanned 1962 through 1967, where the team incorporated itself, raced Super Stocks, developed the Funny Car, and introduced the 426 Hemi to Top Fuel. After 1967, in Phase 4) a number of members retired to their day jobs at Chrysler, while four members opened Ramchargers Racing Engines, building engines. They opened five Detroit-area speed shops while competing in Top Fuel and Funny Car through the mid-1970s.”
Or, if you don't feel like a lot of reading, you can simply watch the video at right, which was a segment on Speed TV’s American Muscle show and includes a pretty thorough history unto itself. So, you can see why I wouldn’t want to bore you with a couple of thousand words rehashing all of that, but what I can share is a buncha photos that I found in the National Dragster archives.
You know me, I’m like a kid in a candy shop when it comes to this kind of thing, and, quite honestly, in my 30-plus years here, I can’t ever remember delving into the Ramchargers file, so I greedily dug into it, pulling photo after photo that I knew I’d want to share with you guys, and when I was done, I had about 50 photos. Oops.
So I painstakingly (and painfully) winnowed it to the manageable number you see below. It’s not meant to be a by-the-numbers history of the Ramchargers, just a bunch of cool photos that caught my eye and that honor the legacy of the group.
So, who were the Ramchargers and what did they look like? Fortunately, they were as adept at PR as they were racing and sent cool photos like the one above and the one below, spotlighting some of the key members. The photo above shows the team’s three drivers in the 1960s, from left on both top and bottom, Thornton, Herm Moser, and Hartford “Mike” Buckel, in their snazzy (if not too confidence-building) racing helmets and working on their cars. I’ll get into their individual heroics in a bit.
And here are the mechanical geniuses behind those great drivers. At far left is Tom Hoover (not the Funny Car driver of the same name), who had master's degrees in physics and automotive engineering and would become known as the “Father of the 426 Hemi”; at far right is Dan Mancini, a carburetion and dynamometer technician at Chrysler who helped develop the first tunnel-ram manifold and assisted Hoover in engine building; the top two are Dick Maxwell and Dan Knapp. Maxwell built the Ramchargers High and Mighty C/Altered car and was the team’s most business-savvy member, interacting with sanctioning bodies, negotiating rules, selecting and writing contracts, and disseminating and implementing technical information to racers. He also developed the Direct Connection Parts program, which would become Mopar Performance, and eventually became overall director of the race group in 1975, where he thrived until his retirement in 1998, but not before being inducted into the SEMA Hall of Fame. Knapp was a fabricator par excellence and eventually became one of the team’s Top Fuel drivers. The bottom three are Tom Coddington, a fuel-systems specialist and coordinator for development of the famed Chrysler/Hilborn fuel-injection system in 1965; Jerry Donley, who worked in “the cold room” at Chrysler, where engines were routinely cold-tested to start at -20 degrees Fahrenheit; and Gary Congdon, the team’s carburetor expert.
Here’s where it all started, the famed High and Mighty ‘49 Plymouth business coupe, the first Ramchargers machine, powered by a 354 Hemi with 392 Hemi heads for better breathing and shifted through a three-speed manual transmission. In two years (1959-60), the car set NHRA C/Altered records for speed (109.75 mph) and elapsed time (12.62).
(Above and below) Moser really put the Ramchargers on the map with his Stock victory at the 1963 Nationals with the Max Wedge Dart. The team’s car was so dominant that, according to Buckel, NHRA inspected the engine every night, then sealed it, then broke the seal and examined it again the next night.
I love this photo, taken at Maryland’s Aquasco Speedway, of a Ramchargers member sweeping in the traction-enhancing rosin on the starting line.
As drag racing evolved, so did the Ramchargers. With the famed 426 now in full production, it obviously found its way into Ramchargers cars, including its early AFXers. Thornton, a suspension expert, was key in the development of the altered-wheelbase concept, beginning with the '63 Ramchargers team cars, that led to a Coronet in 1965 that ran first on gas, then methanol, then light loads of nitro, and was followed by this Dart in 1966, which both Thornton and Buckel drove and is shown racing Bill Lawton in the Tasca Ford Mystery 8 Mustang at Connecticut Dragway.
Thornton suited up and ready with the ’66 Dart. The car had a real race car chassis and a tilt-forward hood. Soon, tilt-up hoods were superseded by tilt-up bodies that became the norm as the altered-wheelbase cars evolved into Funny Cars. This car ran 100 percent nitro, sometimes even laced with hydrazine.
This ’67 Dart was the Ramchargers’ first true Funny Car, the first to have a supercharger, and was driven again by Thornton and Buckel. I’m not sure who’s at the wheel here as they battled “Jungle Jim” Liberman at U.S. 131 Dragway in Martin, Mich. “Jungle” won this go-round, 8.45 to 8.73. Buckel was injured in the car one day in Gary, Ind., when a tremendous clutch explosion sent shrapnel into the cockpit, forcing him to bail out of the car at speed, resulting in a broken right foot.
The Ramchargers also began fielding a Top Fuel car in 1964 with a car built by Knapp, with Don Westerdale driving. Westerdale was not a Ramchargers member (and, in fact, worked at Ford) but had driven some of Knapp’s earlier cars and was someone Knapp trusted at the wheel. The dragster, powered by the new 426 Hemi, did not have the distinctive Ramchargers candy stripes, probably because it had just a short body, which was painted Chrysler Orange.
A Woody Gilmore dragster was commissioned for following seasons. The caption on the back of this publicity photo showing the Top Fuel team loading up in front of Hodges Dodge, a Ferndale, Mich., Dodge dealership, reads “going first class,” which, at that time, the enclosed trailer must have seemed so. The Ramchargers dragster set low e.t. and top speed at the 1965 and 1967 Nationals.
After Westerdale retired from driving, he was replaced in 1966 by 22-year-old Merek Chertkow, a California bachelor with Detroit roots. After a year with the Ramchargers, Chertkow moved back to California, where he built racing engines. He didn’t return to the cockpit until 1974, in a short stint with an SOHC-powered Pinto Funny Car with partner Rick Watson. When Phil Goulet joined the Ramchargers in 1967, he brought with him his driver, Chuck Kurzawa, who had driven their modified roadsters and took over the dragster.
The Ramchargers splintered after the 1967 season, many feeling they had proven what they had set out to prove. The assets were divided, and a group consisting of Knapp, Dick Skoglund, Goulet, and, to a lesser degree, Maxwell, Mancini, and Rockwell carried on with the nitro cars and even opened Ramchargers Racing Engines, selling fuel motors to all comers. Leroy Goldstein, who had wheeled Jim Nicoll's No. 2 car the previous year, started out as a Top Fuel driver for the Ramchargers, with the Division 3 title in 1969, but found himself very comfortable in its fast ’70 Challenger. “The Israeli Rocket” made the first six-second Funny Car pass, a 6.95, June 30, 1970, at New York National Speedway, then took Funny Car honors in Dallas at the 1970 Springnationals, was runner-up to Don Schumacher at the 1970 Nationals, and won the Gatornationals in 1971.
It wasn’t all wine and roses for Goldstein in 1971, as this Steve Reyes photo from Green Valley Race City in Texas shows. The Ramchargers machine lost the entire rear end out of the car!
After Goldstein left the Ramchargers to drive for Candies & Hughes, a succession of drivers filled the cockpit of the team’s new Demon in 1972, including Arnie Behling, Jim Paoli, Clare Sanders, and, finally, Dick Rosberg, who crashed the car, ending the team’s efforts.
So there you have it, a photographic but not complete by any means history of the Ramchargers team. Go back and read some of the information using the links I provided at the head of the article if you want more; there certainly is more than enough to satisfy any curiosity!