It has been three days since I got the news, and I still can't believe that Gordie Bonin is dead. The death of the popular former Funny Car star last Friday took the community by surprise and by shock, the first reports coming from longtime partner Ron Hodgson that the man whom most of us just called "240" had been found dead in his hotel room in Las Vegas. His Facebook posts revealed that he had been to the ICU of a local hospital several times recently but had been released.
Black Friday indeed.
I received the news that night from NHRA's Graham Light, Bonin’s longtime friend, former teammate, and fellow Canadian, just a few hours after he was discovered. Graham knew that, primarily, on a personal level, I'd want to know -- although everyone was Gordie's friend, there were those of us who had known and worked with him who were closer -- and, secondarily, that I needed to know to start spreading the sad news to the community.
Before I could write the story for NHRA.com, I sat in stunned silence for a moment. I tweeted out my shock to my Twitter followers and was quickly met with an echo of disbelieving replies. It's not that Bonin, at age 65, should have been immune to the ravages of age like the rest of us or that he wasn't the same physical and perhaps even mental specimen that he had been in the 1970s, but in my mind, he’s still the fair-haired prince of flopperdom and forever young.
Three days later, those first thoughts still are a bit raw on my emotions, so I decided today to do what I always do for clarity in times like this, to seek understanding and comfort in writing about it, to explore not just my own feelings but those of friends and acquaintances who knew him better, so I started writing and interviewing and wanted to share it in this unplanned edition of the column where we bond over shared experiences and admiration.
Like many young Funny Car fans in the 1970s, Bonin was one of my favorites. I always thought that the green Bubble Up Monza was one of the sharpest-looking cars out there, and the subsequent Bubble Up Firebirds were truly fearsome speed machines that earned him his speedy nickname. I remember that I started drinking Bubble Up in high school just because of those cars.
Bonin seemed to have it all: a good-looking, blonde-haired driver of one of the era's best cars, respected by his peers and loved by the fans, especially the female ones. I'd see him on his treks south to OCIR and Irwindale, but mostly I knew of him from his histrionics on the national event tour, especially his odd streak of every-other-year victories at the Gatornationals (1977, 1979, and 1981). I was a fan and rooted for him.
So imagine my surprise in 1983, just a year after leaving the spectator ranks to join the National Dragster staff, to find myself working with Bonin at NHRA, where he had been hired in the Marketing Department. We were co-workers for six years, me and this Funny Car star, and became lifelong friends. Even after he left NHRA and returned to the cockpit where he belonged, and even in his roles after his driving career ended, we stayed in touch via email or Facebook. I saw him this year during the national event in Seattle. He was quite a bit heavier but still had that friendly smile. We chatted for a few minutes, I milked him for detailed information for the My Favorite Fuelers column I was writing for NationalDragster.net, and we said goodbye. I didn't know it would be the last time I would see him, or it would have ended differently.
After the story had been posted on NHRA.com, the first person I reached out to was Roland Leong. I sent him an email that night, expressing my sorrow at his loss -- Bonin was, after all, the only driver of 20 to get two stints in the Hawaiian -- and asking for an interview. I didn't want to call him that night and intrude on his grief, but I've known Roland long enough to know that he'd understand. He was my first call this morning.
Gordie Bonin, center, with Roland Leong, right, and the late, great Steve Evans, in the Irwindale Raceway winner's circle.
Leong hired Bonin late in the summer of 1973, after his operation had been stolen from the parking lot of a Holiday Inn in Gary, Ind. When Leong returned to Los Angeles to rebuild, his then driver, Leroy Chadderton, decided he had had enough of the road and quit. Bonin was available after the Pacemaker team of Hodgson and Gordon Jenner had parked their car for a short time, and Leong hired him. Bonin lived with Leong during this time, and they stayed together into the 1974 season before Bonin left to rejoin the Pacemaker team and was replaced by Mike Van Sant. They reunited nearly 20 years later when Leong signed a short-lived deal with the Hawaiian tourism board, but the sponsorship ended almost after just a half-season.
“He was a good driver, and we got along pretty good,” Leong said of his longtime friend. “When drivers left me, it was usually because of personality conflict. I have to admit that back then, I felt like I’d had enough success that I wasn’t going to let a driver tell me how to run my car. Right, wrong, or indifferent, it was my car, and a lot of times, the drivers had some strong opinions because of other cars they’d driven, but Gordie was really easygoing and upbeat, and we had real good communication. He didn’t do stupid things behind the wheel, which can be hard not to do at times when you’re driving a Funny Car. You just have a split second to make a decision, but he was pretty good at making the right decision.”
“Easygoing” was a common description that many shared. There’s no doubt that Bonin sometimes led a complex personal life – much to the amusement of his teammates at times -- but he was always upbeat and smiling through it, at least publicly.
I also spoke to Hodgson and to Light, who had both known Bonin for decades from their shared Canadian roots.
Bonin at Seattle in the first Pacemaker Funny Car
(Rich Carlson photo)
Hodgson began his long association with Bonin when Bonin bought a Hurst shifter from Hodgson’s Pacemaker Automotive speed equipment business. That eventually led to their teaming on a Funny Car and the great success that followed for more than a decade.
“Gordie just had a real feel for driving Funny Cars,” said Hodgson. “We didn’t have computers in the cars at the time, but Gordie was our computer. We had some great crew chiefs -- guys like the late Dan Ferguson, Gordon Jenner, and Jerry Verhuel – and Gordie was a big part of our success because of what he could share from a run.
“He was a drag racer from Day One. Racing was his life; even when he quit racing, he never quit racing. He’d do anything to get to the next race. We had a lot of fun together, at the track and on the road. He was off the wall sometimes but a lot of fun. I spent some time with him and Terry Capp about a month ago -- he and Terry were both incredibly popular in Edmonton – and Gordie was still talking about driving; he couldn’t get it out of his system.”
Light knew Bonin from as far back as the late 1960s, when they had competed against one another, Bonin in an injected nitro dragster and Light a blown gas dragster, in a Super eliminator-type class in Canada. Each took separate career paths, but their lives converged when Light worked for (and eventually took over control of) Hodgson’s Edmonton Int’l Speedway. In 1977, Light and car owner Bob Lawrence teamed with Hodgson, Jenner, and Bonin, adding their Top Fueler to the Bubble Up Funny Car. They enjoyed an amazing weekend at the 1977 World Finals in Ontario, where Bonin won Funny Car and Light was runner-up in Top Fuel to Dennis Baca.
“Gordie was always enjoyable to be around, always very positive, and, in my opinion, one of the best Funny Car drivers of that era,” said Light. “When I came to work at NHRA in 1984, Gordie was already here. I was new to California and spent a lot of time with him that first year and during his time with NHRA. Even after he left, we stayed in occasional contact, and the one thing about Gordie is that he wanted to be a Funny Car driver for life; even right to the end, he was talking about a comeback. He lived an amazing life to its fullest; a guy would have to live 150 years to enjoy what he packed into 65.”
Just as Bonin was Light’s tour guide when he came to Southern California, former National Dragster Editor Bill Holland took Bonin under his wing a year earlier.
“I met the two ‘Gordons’ (Bonin and Jenner) back in the early '70s and immediately took a liking to them —as did the rest of the Dragster staff,” he said. “I remember we all went to El Tepeyac in East Los Angeles and had fun watching the Canadians wrestle with those famous, monstrous ‘Hollenbeck’ burritos. When Gordie moved to California to work for NHRA, he stayed at my home until he got settled. He felt obligated to help out around the house, so it was kinda fun to watch ‘240’ mow the lawn.
“After I left NHRA to go into the advertising/PR business, I got a call from Gordie, as he and Ron Hodgson were putting a deal together with Canada Dry, who owned the Bubble Up brand, and needed help PR-wise. Back then ‘the Snake’ was at the apex of his career and dominated Funny Car racing. So we had to get creative to get noticed. I managed to convince the local Bubble Up bottler to set up a huge ‘wall’ of bright green soda pop cans, and we shot the car in front of it for what became a full-color center spread in Hot Rod magazine.
“I remember attending a function in Red Deer, Alta., where native son Gordie was honored. Noted author George Plimpton was also feted at the event, and it was fun listening to the two of them swap stories. Despite trying, Bonin couldn't convince Plimpton to try driving a Funny Car as one of his ‘Walter Mitty moments.’
“Gordie's enthusiasm and friendliness were appreciated by both the media and drag fans across North America. In the 40-plus years I knew him, he always had a ready smile. And that's the way I'll remember him. RIP, 240."
Larry Pfister, who covered the Northwest racing scene in-depth for more than 30 years, writing for local publications before founding his popular Horsepower Heaven site in 1995, has many vivid memories of Bonin.
“His Seattle fans were legion,” he wrote, “often louder than those of the Max, ‘Jungle’ or McCulloch. And they had reason to cheer as he was our wild man … our ‘Jungle Jim' of the Northwest and Canada. His 400-foot powerstands at Seattle, Mission, and Portland were insane, his burnouts as big as anybody’s, his mastery of control when there was so little, simply a sight to see. I was shooting a feature in ‘89 when he came to Seattle to test the new TF car. His first hit behind the wheel was a full pull and a great number. No warm-up, no test, just foot to the floor after many years away.
“He knew who he was, never forgot his roots, and had a well-deserved and enjoyable resurgence with the recent nostalgia craze. He told me many times he had no interest in getting behind the wheel of a nostalgia car. He would laugh and say he had his time and it could never be better today than yesterday.
"Many who knew him were aware of his demons but loved him just the same. His friendship to so many and his love for his mother were legendary. There will only ever be one drag racer known by two numbers. Two Forty. We will never forget. Thank you, my friend, for some truly unforgettable memories.”
I also heard from everyone’s favorite blogger, Bob Wilber, who first crossed paths with Bonin while Wilber was doing PR for the Worsham family and its Checker Schuck’s Kragen deal.
“He was a manufacturer's rep at the time and had a product he was hoping to get on the shelf at Checker, Schuck's, and Kragen stores, so he approached me to see if I could introduce him to the correct buyer,” Wilber remembered. “He treated me with such class and interest, I was almost taken aback (I was fully aware of his career and his illustrious history as a legend in the sport), but at the time, I just figured he was putting on the charm as a networking technique, hoping to generate some business. The only problem with that theory was the fact he treated me like a dear friend for the next 15 years, shouting my name when he'd spot me at a racetrack as if we were lifelong buddies.
“When I joined Team Wilkerson, he was among the first to reach out and congratulate me, letting me know that he now considered himself a loyal Wilk Warrior and that he'd be rooting for us from that point forward. He subscribed to my PR mailing list, and of all the many people who receive my daily email updates during races, he was the most prolific in terms of taking the time to reply to even the most mundane message. If my email blast on a Saturday night simply said ‘Wilk qualifies ninth,’ he'd shoot back a reply within minutes, wishing us luck and signing off as ‘240 - Loyal Wilk Warrior.’ I'm unable to count how many times I'd see his emails and think to myself, ‘I can't believe Gordie Bonin sends me these notes, week in and week out.’ On the day before I learned of his passing, I was actually telling my wife about all of this, to let her know about this special guy who treated me with such class, interest, and respect for so many years. For some reason, I was thinking of him that day, and I felt the need to share this story as if there was some urgency to tell it. Turns out, there was. Gordie will always remain one of my favorites in this sport, and the NHRA world is a little emptier now that he's gone and I know I won't be getting those email replies from 240.”
As Hodgson and Light alluded to, Bonin had his eye on a return to the sport even up until the time of his passing. He was working various angles, including nostalgia Funny Cars, international tours, and more. Even if it were just wishful thinking, none of it will have a chance to come to fruition now, and maybe it’s better that way, better that we can remember “240” from his glory days, for his carefree joy in life, and the way he touched ours.
Phil Burgess, liar. Yep, that’s me. I had really planned to offer a full report of last weekend’s Orange County Int’l Raceway Reunion held at the NHRA Motorsports Museum but forgot that this is a short workweek with Thanksgiving and all, meaning that I had to have all National Dragster and online business wrapped up Wednesday, which pretty much precluded me wading through more than two hours of notes and recordings in the given time.
Those of you who follow me on Twitter (@nhraphil) got a live stream of quotes as the distinguished panelists — Bill Doner, Carl Olson, Tom McEwen, Tommy Ivo, Roland Leong, OCIR VP Mike Jones, Ed Pink, Don Prudhomme, John Force, and Steve Gibbs — did their thing, and that should just be the teaser for the full report that will include mentions of Ed “the Ass” McCulloch (someone else’s words, not mine, Ed!), Linda Lovelace, the Taj Mahal, nude skydivers, digging through trash cans for used parts, and more.
Force, of course, had everyone rolling in the aisles, but with an all-star roster like “The Snake” and “The Mongoose” and “The Hawaiian” on hand, it was Doner who seemed to draw the most love from the audience of about 300 (and his fellow panelists) and certainly, with his gift of gab and quick wit, provided some of the evening’s most interesting banter. The audience was also studded with familiar faces like Chuck and Del Worsham,"Wild Bill" Shrewsberry, Bob Muravez (aka Floyd Lippencott Jr.), Bob Brandt, Jr. Thompson, Larry Bowers, Jeff Courtie, Cory Lee, and many others.
Beyond the sheer enjoyment of hearing legends of our sport reminisce about a place so near and dear to my heart, I also got to meet several loyal column readers and put some faces to the names I so often find in my Inbox. Your kind and sincere words meant even more to me in person. Thank you.
I also got to network a little to work on some future column ideas — I’ve got a funny one in the works with Ivo and Ron Pellegrini about the four-engine car — and catch up with some old friends. I promise that I’ll have the full Reunion report next Friday. Hey, have I ever lied to you before?
On a completely unrelated but nonetheless important-to-me note, we finally (and when I say “finally,” I mean it was way too long in the works) have a system on the NationalDragster.net site that allows visitors to access all of the great articles that we add there on a daily basis without being a full member. For just $5.99, you can get a full month's worth of access to all of the daily columns, Bits from the Pits, event coverage, and more. You can buy one month at a time or set up a recurring charge; check it out here.
Nostalgia freaks like you guys will definitely get your money’s worth from just two of the columns — John Jodauga’s Where Are They Now?, which publishes every Thursday, and My Favorite Fuelers, written by yours truly — which are heavily focused on the same era that we talk about here each week. Already there are 45 of each of the columns available, plus Monday Morning Crew Chief, Time Travel Tuesday, and the Sportsman-oriented The Sports Report.
Where are They Now?, which used to appear in a different form in National Dragster, takes a look back, through great old photos and current interviews, with some of the stars of the sport you know (and have read about here) and maybe some you don’t know. Here’s a look at the list so far:
||Larry Dixon Sr.
While Where Are They Now? examines the people, the My Favorite Fuelers column takes a look at the machines. I started out focusing on individual cars that were my favorites — Mickey Thompson’s Grand Am, Prudhomme’s Army Monza, Don Schumacher’s Wonder Wagon, etc. — but later, as I ran out of true favorites, I expanded it to first a regional basis based on that week’s current Mello Yello national event and then later to some career-retrospective pieces that I’m sure you’ll enjoy. They’re packed with great old photos from the National Dragster library and extensive research that I did. Here’s the list to date:
||Mickey Thompson's Grand Am
||Don Schumacher's Wonder Wagon
|Gary Beck's Export A Top Fueler
||Jim Dunn’s Rear-Engine Cuda
||Chicago Patrol Mustang II
|California Charger Top Fueler
||Budweiser King Tempo
||Hot Wheels Wedge
|Pioneer Stereo Datsun
||Pure Hell Fuel Altered
||Diamond Dave' Miller's Shorty
|Lew Arrington's Brutus
||Gary Ormsby's Streamliner
||Pisano & Matsubara Funny Cars
|War Eagle Pontiacs
||Gary Beck/Larry Minor Top Fueler
|The Blue Max Mustang II
||Barry Setzer Vega
||Candies & Hughes
||The L.A. Hooker
|Mustang II Funny Cars
||Monza Funny Cars
||Barracuda Funny Cars
|New England Fuelers
||East Coast Fuelers
|Great Indy Top Fuel Finals
||Indy's Funny Car Heroes
||Indy's Top Fuel Heroes
As you can see, there's a treasure trove of stuff just calling your name. I don't mean to get all commercial on you, but selfishly, I'd love for more people to read some of the great work we've been doing there all year. I'm hoping that the reasonable price will entice some more folks to plunk down a few bills [do it here!] to enjoy them all. All told, there are more than 200 of our daily columns, plus in-depth coverage and photos from every national event and more. The only things you don't get are the member-exclusive benefits like the audiocast, live timing, the rulebook, member discounts, and, of course, the cool online version of the never-quicker, never-better National Dragster. You certainly can (and I encourage you to do so) become a full member right there on the site, which will actually save you money over buying 12 months of site-only access and give you all of the cool member benefits.
OK guys, that's it for another week. I actually wrote this on Wednesday (you didn't expect me to get cranberry sauce all over my keyboard, did you?), and I'm getting ready to enjoy a few days off before plunging back into it next week. I hope you had a great Thanksgiving and took the time to be thankful for all of the bounties in your life. I know that I'll have been doing the same, which includes thoughts and appreciation to all of you who make what I do so very enjoyable.
It may only be Nov. 22, but it already feels like Christmas Eve for this Orange County Int’l Raceway pit rat looking forward to the OCIR Reunion tomorrow at the NHRA Motorsports Museum. Even though I never got a chance to visit Lions Drag Strip, I attended the Lions Reunion at the museum last year and got a real kick out of it, so I’m certain that hearing the legends of the sport talk about the dragstrip (home of my youth) will bring back lots of great memories. John Force, Don “the Snake” Prudhomme, Tom “the Mongoose” McEwen, “TV Tommy” Ivo, Roland Leong, Carl Olson, Ed Pink, Gary Densham, OCIR founding President and General Manager Mike Jones, and others will be on the panel sharing their memories and answering questions from what’s sure to be a packed house. I’ll have a full review of the affair next week. In the meantime, you may enjoy reliving this three-part column I did on OCIR five years ago on the 25th anniversary of its closing [Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3].
Apparently my giddiness didn’t allow me time to focus on a subject-oriented column (though I have a bunch in the works), and I noticed that the ol’ mailbox is starting to overflow again with comments about topics past and present, so I thought I’d spend this time sorting through the many contributions from the Insider Nation.
Last Friday’s column, which included mention of Don Garlits’ use of the Donovan engine in 1977, inspired Fred Gunton to send along the photo at right of “Big Daddy" and Donovan in mid-discussion in Seattle in late 1976. That’s Gunton on the right in the cap. “I was chatting with Don, and Donovan walked over and asked him if he could ask him a question. [Don] replied, ‘Go ahead,' and then the offer came!”
According to his book, Don Garlits and His Cars, Garlits writes that Donovan “offered me an engine deal I couldn’t refuse” and convinced Garlits to abandon the Dodge Hemi 426 he had run for the previous 13 years for the new Donovan 417. The deal appears to have been free parts, and, because Garlits was spending the then-whopping sum of $60,000 a year with Keith Black, he jumped all over it.
The Donovan first went into Swamp Rat 23 (the car with which he had won the IHRA championship while boycotting NHRA over disagreements about how some aspects of the 1975 title chase was handled), and the car set low e.t. and was runner-up to Jerry Ruth in its debut in his return to NHRA competition at the 1977 Winternationals. He also was runner-up (to James Warren) at the March Meet but was using up a ton of parts trying to figure out the necessary fuel volume, so with his hometown Gatornationals next up, he hauled Swamp Rat 22 (the 5.63, 250-mph car) out of mothballs and reverted back to the K-B and won the race, then returned to the Donovan project.
He and the recently departed Don “Mad Dog” Cook built Swamp Rat 24 (the blue and white God Is Love car) specifically for the Donovan. They again set low e.t. (5.771) at the Winternationals in 1978 but lost in round one to Richard Tharp, then in quick succession won the AHRA Winternationals at Beeline Dragway outside of Phoenix and the Gatornationals again in Gainesville. They ran the Donovan for all of 1978 but ultimately switched back to the K-B at the start of the 1979 season because the Donovan “was just not strong enough for the horsepower being produced in 1978.”
I got an interesting note and some photos from Dave Parsons about the “chopping down the Christmas Tree” thread from September. I had shown the first photo in the gallery at right and was only able to identify that it was an injected dragster that took out the bottom bulb of the Tree at Irwindale Raceway and had no idea what happened after that (though clearly things were not looking good for the wayward shoe).
“After a little detective work, I can name the culprit!” Parsons wrote. “What jogged something in my brain was the sinuous guardrail at Irwindale, and it summoned memories of some photos in a children’s book from 1971 titled On the Drag Strip. In it, the author describes what it is like for a driver to get ‘in big trouble’ (experience a crash) and provides a photo sequence — although the shot you have, which would be the first of the sequence, is not included. As I studied the book's images, my mind went into high gear, and my suspicions were confirmed. The first two images I’ve sent reveal the track to be Irwindale, and the push trucks in image two look to be the same and in the same position as in your photo.
Photo three shows the wavy guardrail, and we get a glimpse at the graphics behind the wheels, but in your photo, that area is obscured by the blackout panels on the Tree. Foiled! But in No. four, we get a glimpse of the graphics in front of the axle, and BINGO, it matches! Photo No. five gives us a clearer shot of the graphics with other telltale identification, like breather location on the early Hemi, headers, M&H Racemaster on the slicks, and one more thing — a picture of the driver. Well, I feel a little bad ratting him out, but the book’s author and self-confessed driver of the injected dragster is Ed Radlauer, children’s books author.”
Another mystery solved by the Insider Nation ... thanks Dave!
Speaking of Christmas Trees, I got the photos at left from Phil Rolsma, who opened Classic Gameroom Supply in Beaver Falls, Pa., after getting “downsized out of the corporate world” nearly three years ago. He now buys, sells, restores, and consigns 1940s and 1950s jukeboxes, slot machines, pinball machines, soda machines, and the like, including a like-new, five-amber Chrondek Tree with brain box, Chrondek Blue travel trunk, starting-line lights and reflectors, reaction timers, and starter-control box.
“This Tree was bought by a racer for use in his garage and purported to have been used outside at a track but once or twice, and I believe it,” Rolsma said. “The Gemini-era connectors in the thing are bad-ass on their own right, and you can eat out of the insides. It still has the Chrondek 'pass' ink stamps on the inside of the Tree. It is truly a special, once-in-a-lifetime, for-the-waiting-room-of-Hot Rod-magazine kind of piece. Or, Leno. I'm not, however, going to have it end up in an Applebee's somewhere. It just is another piece that gets that 'Where did you get that?' gasp when people walk in our appointment-only showroom.”
If you’re interested — and, for what it's worth, the Tree is one of those "If you have to ask the price, you probably can't afford it kind of things" — you can call him toll free at 888-9-PINBALL (746-2255) or check out 9PinBall.com. He's also got the cool Nitro Groundshaker pinball machine, which you can also see in the gallery.
A few years ago I ran several columns showing off some great, old dragstrip flyers [Part 1 | Part 2] and just got the image at right from my pal, memorabilia maven Mike Goyda, showing a promotional item from Augusta Int'l Speedway in Georgia. Although the flyer says it's located “south of Augusta” and “2,400 feet of Tobacco Road,” my research tells me that it was located in the bucolic town of Hephzibah, Ga., and was host not only to a dragstrip but also a three-mile-long road course, one-mile dirt oval, a two-mile-long tri-oval superspeedway, and a half-mile paved oval. NASCAR great “Fireball” Roberts won his last race there on the road course in November 1963, shortly before being killed in a fiery wreck in Charlotte.
Anyway, this flyer is advertising the appearing of “your hero and mine,” Tommy Ivo and his four-engine dragster, which makes it 1961. (The track opened in 1960 and closed in 1969.) But that’s not the real reason Goyda sent it to me. If you look closely at the image (or, better yet, click on the link below it to view a larger version), you’ll see that two weeks later, the track was holding its first Turkey Race: “25 turkeys will be turned loose for spectators to catch and carry home.”
“I thought you might do a column on the numerous whacked-out ways dragstrip promoters have found to promote attendance,” Goyda postulated. “I thought I had heard them all until this. At least they didn't insult Tommy by holding the Turkey Race in conjunction with his appearance, although being the showman that he was, he might have welcomed it.”
Great idea, Mike. So if anyone has any stories to share about crazy track promotions (like, say, if someone hypothetically had decided to drop turkeys out of a helicopter), I want to hear them. The weirder the better.
This just in: Shortly after this column was published, I got an email from Ron Pellegrini, who took over the controls of Ivo machine later that year (the movie studios didn't want their golden child driving such a wild machine). and drove the four-engined car at Augusta. "And if my memory is correct I went back on the 19th with the twin," he wrote. "I remember seeing live turkeys being thrown out of the bed of a pickup. After much pulling and tugging by the spectators some lucky (or unlucky) few went home with various parts of the same turkey."
Hint: I'm the good-looking one on the right.
Backtracking just a bit, I finally met up with Heather LeVay, daughter of the late fan-favorite Funny Car shoe Tripp Shumake, in Pomona for an update on the progress of the book she is writing about her father. You may remember a couple of stories [Part 1 | Part 2] that I wrote in this column about a year ago remembering “240 Shorty,” and to which Heather graciously shared her memories of her dad and also talked about her desire to do a book.
She’s been on the road ever since, collecting literally reams of remembrances from all kinds of folks to include in her book, which she hopes to self-publish next April. She’ll be including those two columns (including some of the great comments some of you contributed) and a treasure trove of photos she’s collected over the years. She’s been diligently trying to track down permissions from some of the photos she has, and I’ve been working with her to figure out some of that.
In the meantime, if you have any great photos of Tripp and/or his cars and you give Heather your permission to include them in the book, you can send them, plus any thoughts you want to share about him, to her at email@example.com.
She’s poured her heart and soul and a daughter’s love into this book, and I’m really looking forward to the finished product, and I’m sure it will bring back lots of great memories from those of you who also knew Shumake. I’ll let you know when it’s available.
OK, that's it for today. Have a great Friday. I know I'll have a great Saturday, and I hope to see some of you there.
Wow, what a surprise. There are a few Don Garlits and Don Prudhomme fans out there among the Insider Nation. Who knew?
Yeah, so response to last week’s partially off-the-wall comparison of the similarities between the two Dons was a pretty big hit (even “the Snake,” his own bad self, stopped me during pre-race Sunday in Pomona to tell me he’d enjoyed it) and elicited quite a few comments from the peanut gallery, but, other than Ron Bikacsan’s note that neither are related, even by six degrees of separation to Kevin Bacon, it appears that I pretty much exhausted all of the coincidental touchpoints in their lives and careers.
Terry Kickerbocker couldn’t help but note that despite my “constant protestations” that I am “stretched to the limit” and never have enough time to do all that I need to, he thinks I have “entirely toooooo much time” on my hands to research stuff like this. Maybe so, but the truly sick thing is that I pretty much came up with about 90 percent of them in my head instead of deriving them from hours of research.
Probably my largest investment was going through their voluminous photo files (each pretty much occupies a full file cabinet drawer) to look for photos of them together. I didn’t find as many as I expected, but reader Rich Perez passed along a few others, which you can see in the gallery at right.
The first image in the gallery is the cover of the February 1972 issue of Hot Rod for an article on Ed Donovan’s aluminum 417 nitro engine featuring, from left, John Wiebe, Prudhomme, Donovan, and Garlits. Wiebe, of course, got the first Donovan and made it fly, which opened the floodgates, but I was puzzled by the inclusion of Prudhomme and Garlits. Neither of them by that time had run the Donovan; Garlits, who switched to Milodon blocks in the mid-1970s, ran a Donovan briefly in 1977, but I don’t think “the Snake,” who was loyal to either Keith Black or Ed Pink, ever did.
Looking at the magazine cover my first thought was to call photo shenanigans, at least on the Prudhomme inclusion. Wiebe has his hand on a head stud, Garlits on the blower belt, but Prudhomme almost looks like he was added into the background behind the other three. So I dragged out my copy of Hot Rod Magazine: All The Covers and found the original photo as set up by HRM Photo Editor Mike Brenner, showing the foursome posed on seamless paper (second image). Hah! Shows what I know.
The third image in the gallery shows “the Snake” and “Big Daddy” posing together at what looks like Orange County Int’l Raceway for a Revell ad touting its new 1/16th-scale model. Very cool. Thanks, Rich!
I had mentioned last week that there were three times in their careers where they entered a year tied for most wins, and one of the requests that I got was to show a year-by-year accounting of each of the Don’s wins, so you can find that in the table below. I added a third column to show Pro Stock icon Bob Glidden’s meteoric rise to the top despite giving the Dons a huge head start of about a decade.
||Garlits season wins
|Prudhomme season wins
|Glidden season wins
|| Did not compete
|| Did not compete
|| Did not compete
|| Did not compete
|| Did not compete
|| Did not compete
|| Did not compete
|| Did not compete
|| Did not compete
|| Did not compete
|| Did not compete
|| Did not compete
|| Did not compete
|| Did not compete
|| Did not compete
|| Did not compete
The 1960s: Both were running in Top Fuel in the decade, and Garlits’ first win, at the 1963 Winternationals, was actually Prudhomme’s national event debut with the Greer-Black Prudhomme car. Garlits won the 1964 Nationals before Prudhomme became nationally famous by driving Roland Leong’s Hawaiian to wins at the Winternationals and Nationals in 1965.
Both went winless in 1966; it was Prudhomme’s first solo foray with the B&M Torkmaster car while Garlits was experimenting with his first 426 in the red-painted Swamp Rat 10; it’s also the year that Garlits’ father died.
Prudhomme won the Springnationals in Bristol in 1967 with sixes in the Brand Ford Special, and Garlits followed with his second Nationals win, the memorable shaving-on-the-starting-line after finally running his first six in the final with the back-in-black Swamp Rat 11. Garlits won the Springnationals and the Nationals (again!) in 1968 with Swamp Rat 12-B while “the Snake” went winless with the Shelby Super Snake.
Prudhomme won the Nationals for the second time in 1969, driving his Wynn’s Winder to victory; Garlits was driving the fateful Swamp Rat 13 and experimenting with two-speed transmissions, a combination that would maim him the following March at Lions.
The 1970s: Garlits sat out the 1970 season recuperating from his devastating injuries, and Prudhomme joined him as a three-time Indy champ that year, winning the explosively memorable final round over Jim Nicoll. Garlits was back in action in 1971 with the new rear-engine car and famously won the Winternationals in its debut as well as the Springnationals. Prudhomme was trying to run his new Hot Wheels Funny Car and the weird “slab-sided” dragster, and the split effort showed; he didn’t run but half of the events and, for the first time in his career, was first-round fodder when he did.
Prudhomme’s last full season in Top Fuel was 1972 with the Yellow Feather and the Hot Wheels wedge, and though he reached the quarterfinals on several occasions, he didn’t win. Garlits, by now heavy into AHRA and warring with Wally Parks, won the only NHRA race he entered, the Gatornationals. Garlits beat the year’s killer e.t. car, the Jack McKay New Dimension machine with Clayton Harris in the saddle, and Garlits went as far as pouring tablespoons of oil into his own headers before he fired to try to psyche Harris into thinking that his engine was wounded.
Prudhomme got back into the winner’s circle in 1973 with his first Funny Car win, at the Nationals, where he became the first to win the Big Go in both nitro classes. Garlits bookended his season with wins on Prudhomme’s California home turf at the Winternationals and Supernationals. Garlits won the combo Supernationals/World Finals again in 1974 in Ontario while “the Snake” conquered Indy again and also won Garlits’ hometown Gatornationals.
Garlits had a strong 1975 with three wins and his first championship, but Prudhomme, of course, went that far better with six wins in eight events and his first title with the vaunted Army Monza. Prudhomme’s 1976 encore was seven wins in eight races and, for the first time since the 1967 Springnationals, had more career wins than Garlits, who boycotted the NHRA tour that year. Prudhomme won three more times in 1977 (including his sixth Indy) en route to his third straight championship while Garlits only ran about two-thirds of the events and scored only (again) at the Gatornationals.
Despite three more wins in 1978 and his fourth championship, it was clear that pack was closing on Prudhomme; Garlits won the Gatornationals and Indy, the latter for the fifth time. Garlits won three times in 1979 to close the decade while Prudhomme won just once, over an eight-car field at le Grandnational in Canada, and relinquished his long-worn crown to Raymond Beadle.
The 1980s: Despite occasional forays into NHRA competition – most notably his 1982 runner-up to Shirley Muldowney at the Gatornationals (where she memorably ranked him as a “marginal” driver before a national TV audience) – Garlits wouldn’t win again on the NHRA trail until his Rocky-like comeback at the 1984 U.S. Nationals as he protested various NHRA rules he didn’t like and experimented with wild machines, like his sidewinder and turbine cars, and ran IHRA and AHRA events.
The early 1980s weren’t that kind to Prudhomme either. He still won his share but began to fall down the final standings chart: sixth in 1980, seventh in 1983, and a stunning 10th in 1984. Not that “the Snake” couldn’t still bring it – witness the first 250-mph Funny Car pass and unreal 5.63 in 1982 – but the killer instinct seemed to have been worn out as he went winless in 1983, 1984, and 1985, his first skunkings in a decade. “The Snake” sat out the 1986 season – his first sabbatical ever – looking for funding.
Garlits, meanwhile, had experienced a career renaissance and – in some people’s minds, including mine – almost single-handedly saved Top Fuel from extinction with his inspiring win at Indy and a follow-up at the Finals. While Prudhomme was struggling, Garlits put together back-to-back 1985-86 seasons of six and five wins and championships No. 2 and 3 while looking like the “Big Daddy” of old and opened 1987 with his 35th – and, ultimately, final – win. It was very cool for new fans of the 1980s to get a glimpse of how tough “the Old Man” used to be in his heyday.
Prudhomme returned in 1987 with backing from Skoal that would last through the end of his driving career and won the Gatornationals that year, defeating the car of his longtime pal Roland Leong (Johnny West driving) in the final. He and Garlits were tied then with 345 careers win. Prudhomme got some more of his mojo back and had a top-five car from 1987 to 1988 but looked like he was all the way back in 1989, especially a national-record-setting weekend in Indy when he swept the Big Bud Shootout and his seventh and final U.S. Nationals crown.
If 1987 was Prudhomme’s comeback win, it was also the beginning of the end for Garlits. He had walked away unhurt and unfazed from his 1986 Englishtown blowover but another just before Indy in 1987 broke two ribs and injured his back. Other than a guest shot in Shirley Muldowney’s car in the opening qualifying session at the NHRA event in Dallas in late 1989 in an attempt to add a 4-Second Club membership card to his already bulging billfold (he just missed with a 5.07), he wouldn’t race again until 1992.
The 1990s: With his Funny Car at the top of its game in 1989, it surprised a lot of people when he announced that he was returning to Top Fuel in 1989. He admitted he had been spooked by Don Gay Jr.’s nasty fire at the 1989 event in Denver – Prudhomme not only ran alongside him but helped pull him out of the smoldering chassis – and wanted the engine behind him, but there were other reasons.
"We had thought of doing this in 1987, but I didn't want to leave Funny Car running terrible,” he said. “I wanted to go out a winner. Now that we are running great, I can go out a winner. Top Fuel is the No. 1 class, and I want to be a part of it."
It wasn’t a warm welcome.
He backflipped his Skoal Bandit in December testing in Bakersfield and again at Le Grandnational in Canada and went winless in the season, but things got better. He opened 1991 with three runner-ups before reaching the winner’s circle in Columbus and won twice more that year (finishing third in points) and won three times again in 1992 (sixth place).
Garlits’ 1992 comeback lasted just a few runs. He competed at the Atlanta event, which Prudhomme won, but failed to qualify with his slick new monowinged Swamp Rat 32 but had unknowingly suffered detached retinas in both eyes during a two-parachute stop during pre-event testing in Gainesville. He retired (again) and turned the seat over to Bruce Larson. He’s run again this decade, just once, in a New Year’s Eve match race against Shirley Muldowney in Florida to celebrate the new millennium. He wouldn’t drive again until the 2001 U.S. Nationals, where he made his first four-second and 300-mph passes and then ran sporadically in 2002-03 before retiring (again).
Prudhomme finished out his final five seasons all in Top Fuel. After a winless 1993 campaign, his “Final Strike” retirement season was a great one with wins in Houston, Brainerd, and Dallas to take him to 49 career wins. Runner-up finishes in E-town and Topeka meant that milestone win No. 50 eluded him (although he did also win that year’s non-points Winston Invitational). He retired from driving after losing to Bob Vandergriff Jr. in round one at the Finals but went on to win Top Fuel season championships with Larry Dixon and race wins with drivers like Ron Capps, Tommy Johnson Jr., and Spencer Massey.
The Glidden factor: As you can see from the chart, it didn’t take long for Glidden to catch up thanks to his rampaging Ford Pro Stockers. After a runner-up in his first final at the 1972 Supernationals, he started piling up wins beginning in 1973 like they were going out of style. Within five seasons, he has surpassed Garlits' total and within seven had topped Prudhomme.
Prudhomme had been the first to reach the once unthinkable total of 25 wins (1978 Winternationals), but Glidden was the first to reach 50 wins (1986 Dallas) and 75 wins (1989 Reading). The fact that it took him just three seasons to go from 25 to 50 is testament to just how tough he was in that era.
Glidden’s only winless season came in 1994, but, despite a heart attack in December 1994, he came back to win his 85th and final event the next year in Englishtown.
Wow, that was a lot of fun and brought back a lot of good memories. It’s amazing sometimes to try to imagine the length of their careers and the thousands and thousands of runs they have made over their careers, all of the miles they’ve traveled, places they’ve raced, work they’ve done, and fans they have thrilled over the course of two amazing lifetimes. It's no wonder they're still regarded as gods.