Former NHRA Pro Stock and blown gasser driver Ken Dondero died Jan. 17 after a brief illness. He was 74.
Dondero became involved in drag racing in Northern California in the early 1960s with a ’52 Chevy, and the skills he displayed there led to a number of offers from car owners. It wasn’t long before Dondero’s talents caught the eye of Bob Panella, who was campaigning an injected B/Gas Anglia. Panella first requested assistance with selecting parts, then asked him to take over as driver in late 1967.
Together they won Super eliminator at the Winternationals and Hot Rod magazine race in 1969 and came back for a Winternationals runner-up and Bakersfield March Meet win in 1970. Dondero’s four-speed skills soon produced offers from many teams in the newly created Pro Stock category, and after driving for Dick Landy in 1971, he was hired to drive Nicholson’s Ford Maverick in 1972. The fuel crunch at the end of 1973 made it difficult for Nicholson to match race from his shop in Orange, Calif., so Dondero relocated to Pennsylvania and began driving for Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins.
With Larry Lombardo designated to drive at NHRA national events, Dondero ran AHRA events and dominated by winning nine of 11 races in 1975 and 11 of 13 in 1976.
Dondero spent the last season of his first stint in Pro Stock with the Gapp & Roush team in 1977, then retired. After several years, he was called back into action by Panella, who wanted to put together a Pro Stock team for the 1984 season. Dondero informed him that Jenkins was selling a lot of his equipment, so Panella bought Jenkins’ Pro Stock Camaro and a few engines.
Pro Stock had switched from the weight-break engines to the larger and more powerful 500-cid powerplants, but Dondero adapted very quickly, and the Panella team quickly became competitive. By the time that Dondero decided to retire for good in mid-1986, the operation had performed well enough to earn much-coveted factory backing from Oldsmobile.
He is survived by his son, Rick; daughter Cheryl; brothers Wayne and Richard; sisters Audrey Hodges and Valarie Seymore; and his longtime companion, Rozetta Dawes.