There are no professional drag racing scouts who tour North America looking for the next Don Garlits in the way hockey’s headhunters in the puck-crazed western Canadian province of Alberta scour the area’s peewee leagues for future Wayne Gretzkys, but if there were, and had they ventured near the Calgary home of the Armstrong family in the early 1950s and found 10-year-old Dale sitting on the garage floor surrounded by his father’s tools, building intricately designed soapbox derby cars, could they have accurately predicted the mechanical zenith of this future drag racing superstar?
I’m still pretty proud of that opening paragraph I crafted eight years ago for a Readers Choice special issue feature on Armstrong, but then again, when it came to anything I wrote about AA/Dale – let alone his life story – I wanted it to be as thoughtful and precise and forward-thinking as the man himself. I’ll make no bones about it, Dale Armstrong may be the greatest human being I have met in my 30-plus years in the sport, and my world is a much sadder place since his passing last Friday.
The reference to hockey in that opening paragraph was my homage to our particular bonding over that sport – we were both big L.A. Kings fans and both had played the game – and any trip to his pits after a particular run could begin with a discussion of the power of his engine just as easily as it could have prompted a discussion of the Kings’ power play. Later, we reveled in the fact that we saw the Kings hoist the Stanley Cup, not once but twice.
There’s no debating that Armstrong was a mechanical genius and an innovator who not only theorized about but also tinkered with pretty much every moving part of his race cars, from clutches to blowers, fuel systems to ignitions, and aerodynamics to data logging, but he was such a regular guy, too. A former ND staffer would sometimes open his conversations with Armstrong talking about the 1950s TV show The Honeymooners, of which they were both big fans.
No question posed was too stupid or basic for Armstrong to answer, and for years, he was the go-to guy for those questions. I remember another Readers Choice request in the mid-1990s that asked for a blow-by-blow description of how nitro crew chiefs make decisions; Armstrong was my first and only choice, and he graciously allowed me to shadow him during the Southern Nationals. He shared his entire thought process, from the downloading of the data logger to the final grams of clutch or degrees of ignition he decided on for the next run. It was exhilarating and interesting and a real honor.
How Armstrong faced his job and his passion is best summed up in this quote from the 2006 story: “If something works on a race car, there’s a scientific or mechanical reason it works, and I always wanted to know why it worked, not just that it did.”
It’s that kind of dedication, in addition to his very capable work behind the wheel, that landed Armstrong in the No. 10 spot on our Top 50 Drivers list in 2001. When you consider his body of work – a world champion as a driver and tuner and architect to Kenny Bernstein’s historic 300-mph pass and the numerous innovations that led to it -- and the criteria for the vote, it’s not surprising that he finished in that lofty position, although he, typically, was surprised. I know he hoped to be in the top 50, and early on, I let him know he had made the cut, just not where, and as the weeks went by and the list unfolded in reverse order to its conclusion, he may have thought I had been kidding him, especially when No. 11 was announced.
“That was a helluva surprise,” he later told me. “As the countdown got into the 20s, I was flabbergasted, especially with the guys who had already been named who, to me, were heroes. To be in the top 10, though, I was very proud and honored to know that the judges felt that highly of me.”
Word that Armstrong was in the fight of his life surfaced earlier this year but was largely kept quiet among an inner circle of those who knew and loved dearly both him and his wife, former Bud King publicist Susie Arnold. He was in and out of hospitals with lung infections, struggling almost every day with his breathing, yet took the time in early September to share his thoughts with me about his longtime mechanical soul mate, Bob Brooks, who had just passed. I wish I had known it would be our last conversation because there was so much I should have said, but when it became clear on Thanksgiving Day that the end was near, I texted Susie to ask her to tell him something personal from me, and she did. Thanks, Susie.
As after the recent passing of another of the sport’s legends, Raymond Beadle, I won’t use the space here to recount his amazing career. You can read all of that in a number of places, including Dave Densmore’s eloquent obituary, in our Top 50 Drivers bio, in the previously mentioned Readers Choice story, and this week's Photographic Memories column on the National Dragster website. Instead, I thought you’d like to hear from those who knew, loved, and raced with him throughout the years, to read their thoughts about one of our sport’s best. All of them had great memories of him, and I really struggled on how to prioritize them before deciding to tell them in chronological order, which ended up telling his story through their words and memories.
The Canuck Chevy II was Dale Armstrong's first serious race car.
rmstrong moved south from his native Alberta to the hotbed of drag racing in Southern California in the early 1960s and put his mechanical expertise to good use in 1965 as a used-car mechanic at Lee White Chevrolet on Pacific Coast Highway in Redondo Beach. Just a few blocks north, at the corner of PCH and 190th Street, was TNT Auto Centre, a Goodyear store where he would sometimes take the cars for tires or mufflers.
The owner was Ken Veney, and the two hit it off famously. Both were relocated farm kids – Veney had moved at age 19 from Ohio in 1959 – both had begun driving and tinkering with cars in their early teens, and both would continue to do so through eerily parallel careers through the alcohol, nitro, and crew chief ranks.
Despite their successes, milestones, records, innovations, and championships, Veney has no qualms admitting that “Dale was a more serious racer than I was. I had a family [wife Rona and soon a newborn son, Todd, who later cried relentlessly throughout Armstrong’s wedding, according to his dad] while Dale was all about the racing when we first met. He raced from 1965 until  and never quit. I would race for a while and get tired of it and do something, then go back and race. I was serious from 1970 until 1982 to do the best with what I had, but Dale was that way his whole life. Dale was always a racer. That was his life, and he was really good at it.
“This should tell you something,” he added. “Dale bought a new 1965 Chevy just to get the 396/425-horse engine and transmission because you couldn’t get it by itself. He got the car, took it behind the dealership, spinning the tires down the street, then wheeled it into the dealership and took the engine and transmission out. He had rebuilt an old 283 Chevy to go in that car and put the 396 in his Chevy II, which was The Canuck. At the time, it was running in B/Modified Production, and I built the headers for that engine. If you look at the photos of the car, you’ll see TNT Auto Centre on the front fender.”
Ken Veney and Armstrong raced one another all across the West in the ultracompetitive California Injected Funny Car Association. This is one of Veney's earliest Funny Cars, the Dirty Bird Firebird, an ex-Gordon Mineo machine.
Armstrong later switched to a Chevy and nitro in the tank and began to make a real name for himself with The Canuck, but before long, both were fielding Funny Cars on the California Injected Funny Car Association trail, racing all across the West before appreciative crowds throughout California; from British Columbia to Boise, Idaho; from Las Vegas to El Paso, Texas; and all points between with a healthy dose of their home tracks of Lions Drag Strip, Orange County, and Irwindale Raceway. By then, Armstrong had his own service station, A&W Union 76.
“We all fell into it about the same time," Veney remembered. “It was a really good class, there were a lot of cars, we’d draw really big crowds, and it really paid good in comparison to what the Top Fuelers were getting paid at the time.”
Life on the road could be hard, but funny, too.
“We match raced in Sacramento Saturday night, and Rona and I were coming home Sunday morning in our one-ton International flatbed truck on which we hauled the race car,” recalled Veney. “We were going up [Highway] 99, and we picked up Armstrong, who was hitchhiking down the road carrying the rear end out of Tom Sturm’s truck, which he was using at the time. He was trying to get back home to Redondo Beach to fix the rear end, then drive back up. Our old truck didn’t have air conditioning, so we’re sitting three across – Rona in the middle and Dale at the right window – and it’s hotter than hell, and I look over at Armstrong, and his face is all black. That old International used to blow oil like a son of a gun, and it was blowing out between the hood and the fender and getting all over his right arm, which was hanging out the window, and he was wiping the sweat off his face with that arm. That was just a really goofy, funny thing.”
Longtime rivals Armstrong and Veney became partners in 1974 and raced for the Winternationals title. Armstrong, near lane, in their A/Fuel Dragster, prevailed over Veney's blown alcohol Funny Car.
The two battled for Pro Comp supremacy throughout the 1970s. Here, Armstrong and the Alcoholic Satellite took on Veney's Vega at Irwindale.
When NHRA started the heads-up dragsters vs. Funny Cars Pro Comp class in late 1973, Armstrong’s and Veney’s cars fit right in. Veney’s A/Fuel Funny Car was runner-up to Don Enriquez’s dragster in the first race, at the 1973 Supernationals, while Armstrong was driving a supercharged Funny Car-engine dragster that Veney had built to try to offset the dragsters’ performance advantage. Armstrong lost early at that race but won the 1974 Winternationals with the car – now sporting an injected fuel engine --beating Veney, of all people, in the final for his first national event win and also setting the first sub-seven-second national record. They raced together like that for several races, but the dragster never won again, and because it wasn’t paying for itself like the Funny Car could, they parked it.
They raced against each other throughout the 1970s – most memorably in the final of the 1977 U.S. Nationals, which Armstrong won – before Veney retired briefly and Armstrong moved into the fuel Funny Car ranks first as a driver and later as a crew chief and used Veney’s cylinder heads to win four Funny Car championships. Veney also drove nitro Funny Cars in a brief but impressive run in the early 1980s, then, like Armstrong, ended up tuning nitro cars into the early 2000s. It’s probably no surprise that when both were inducted (separately) into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 2008, they both lauded one another.
Someone once told me that Ken Veney is almost impossible to impress, but he clearly was impressed by Armstrong.
“In my mind, he’s the best tuner of them all, certainly of his time,” he said. “He was really good at taking something that was there and making it work better. He could get the most out of whatever you had. He was just such a good mechanic who knew the car from one end to the other and what everything did. He could weed through all the BS and figure out what happened to a car when it had a problem. Some guys will look at what a car did and say, ‘That’s what’s wrong,’ but Armstrong would say, ‘What caused that?’ and then, ‘What caused that to make that go wrong?’ He also had a lot of confidence in Dale Armstrong and that he would figure it out. Even when his car was running good, he wasn’t afraid to try something new. A lot of guys won’t do that.”
Service station owner Wilfred Boutilier ran hard against Armstrong and Veney with his Vega Alcohol Funny Cars.
Boutilier, center, with crewmember Ralph Gorr, left, on tour at Maple Grove Raceway in 1975. Note the Dale Armstrong Racing Engines lettering on the car.
f it wasn’t Armstrong or Veney in the winner’s circle – or their nemesis, Rick Greenwood and the Wild Bunch Camaro – in those early injected Funny Car days, it was their South Bay neighbor, Wilfred Boutilier, who also owned a service station (three of them at one point) in nearby Gardena, Calif.
Boutilier, who got his nickname, “Wild Wilfred,” while wheeling an ill-handling AMX Funny Car (the chassis of which was the old Durachrome Bug of Warren Gunter), eventually upgraded to a Ken Cox chassis with a Vega body and kept his race car along with the machines of Armstrong and rising star Billy Williams in the rented shops at Hot Rod City, Torrance, Calif.’s answer to Gasoline Alley. Tony Capanna, the region’s purveyor of nitromethane at the time, owned the 15,000-square-foot complex on Sepulveda Boulevard that was a beehive of racing activity and also home to the likes of Russ Collins’ RC Engineering (which had two young employees by the name of Terry Vance and Byron Hines) and Ron Hammel, whose 10,000 RPM company sponsored Armstrong’s Canuck.
Although they practically lived in the same neighborhood, Boutilier, who like Armstrong was a transplanted Canadian – from Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, in 1965 – first met Armstrong and Veney at one of the injected association meetings. He was three years their senior and had come west to California armed with an engineering degree but not a lot of automotive know-how.
Although Boutilier had been racing a ’57 Corvette with the help of Johnny O’Neil, brother of Funny Car racer Gervaise O’Neil (of King Rat fame), when he got into the service station business in the late 1960s, he admittedly wasn’t much of a mechanic, leaning on the capable hands of Carl Green, who ran a competing Mobil station next door, to learn how to even do a basic brake job, and was up to speed by the time he joined the injected circuit.
“That injected circuit was a lot of fun, and we were all buddies,” he remembered fondly. “We all hung around together and had a lot of fun. Hot Rod City was a great gathering place from 5 o’clock on, after we’d all finished our day jobs. Even Ed Donovan used to stop by almost every evening on his way home. There was a great sense of camaraderie and good-natured competitiveness.”
By the time all three had found their way into Pro Comp – prior to that, Veney and Boutilier had been running their injected fuel Funny Cars in Comp eliminator, with Boutilier’s engine running one of Armstrong’s nitrous oxide systems (legal at the time) – they were well-seasoned and butted heads throughout 1974. Prior to Armstrong’s win at the Winternationals, Boutilier was the talk of the town after recording the first six-second BB/FC run at Irwindale Raceway’s preseason Grand Premiere (“Boy, that still sticks in Veney’s craw,” he said with glee still not contained 40 years later) and followed with a runner-up behind Jimmy Scott in the Weiss & Scott dragster at the Gatornationals, where he suffered a broken cylinder head. Boutilier won his first national event, the Summernationals, where he turned the tables on Scott, who couldn’t fire in the final, and it was Boutilier who fell in the final round of the U.S. Nationals to Armstrong and the Menzies & Foust altered that year.
“He’s not around to defend himself of this, but Dale would have lost that Indy final to me, but I broke another cylinder head,” he explained. “I was out on him and winning the race when it broke. That was as close as I ever got to winning Indy.”
Boutilier raced through the 1982 season and retired from driving to live in Dawsonville, Ga., where he runs a one-man shop building shaft rocker-arm systems for racers and hot rodders.
Of the passing of his good friend, Boutilier added simply, “We lost a good one.”
(Above) "Family photo" from 1974 at Hot Rod City, with Armstrong in the cockpit; Simon Menzies, left, and Jim Foust standing; and Ralph Gorr, left, and Mike Guger kneeling. (Below) The Funny Car above also ran in altered trim and carried Armstrong to his first Indy win, in 1974.
At Donovan Engineering, circa 1976-77, from left, Top Fuel racer Bill Pryor (who used to winter in SoCal in Ed Donovan's "Molehole" guest residence), Armstrong, Menzies, Fred Seayd (who did cylinder-head work for Donovan), and Guger. Armstrong began experimenting with Donovan's block at the end of the 1974 season and became a great resource for "the Mole."
There was always time for fun and games. With an assist from Menzies, Armstrong launched a whipped-cream assault from the cockpit on Popular Hot Rodding magazine advertising director Bill Lloyd at the 1977 PHR Championships.
lthough Mike Guger is acknowledged as Armstrong’s longtime protégé, Simon Menzies can lay claim to being, as he describes it, “the first graduate of the Dale Armstrong School of Hard Knocks,” joining Armstrong on the road in 1970. As a 19-year-old from Toronto (yes, another transplanted Canadian), he was working part-time pumping gas at Armstrong’s service station and saw a progression of Armstrong rides, including his Dana Camaro, Sturm’s Swapper, and Gary Crane’s Traveling Javelin.
When Menzies hit the road with Armstrong, it was with a car that would serve them both well in their early careers, the Armstrong-Hoover-Larsen Barracuda, which was a workhorse, running in blown gas, injected alcohol, supercharged alcohol, and even supercharged nitro.
After campaigning the alcohol circuit, they eventually teamed with Washington state racer Bob Norwood and ran on nitro through 1973 before Armstrong had had enough. Menzies bought out Armstrong’s share and continued to run the car in Texas, where they had been befriended by Bill Wendt, and throughout the Midwest. When the Pro Comp rules were announced, the car was too heavy to run competitively as a Funny Car, but Menzies had blown up his iron 426.
“At the time, I was working for Dale on his and Ken Veney’s A/Fuel Dragster – I was with him when he won the Winternationals – and after they split up, Dale said I should buy the engine and put it in my car and run it as an alternate. It was a 445 with a 427 stock-stroke crank, but Dale said if I could buy the engine, we could put a 454 crank in it to turn it into 473 inches, and it would be the perfect weight break for the altered. I couldn’t afford it, but Jim Foust was there – Dale used to work on his Corvettes – and he said, 'I'd like to give that a shot; how much do you need?' "
Armstrong and Guger took the new car to the AHRA Springnationals in Tulsa, Okla., and won the race, then decided to go to the U.S. Nationals with the car and ended up winning that, too, his first of three triumphs as a driver at the Big Go.
“Foust was so stoked by the success that he wanted to put more money into it,” recalled Menzies, “but I wanted to drive, so I bought them out and moved to Texas to match race the car while they were waiting for the Alcoholic to be built.”
Armstrong and Foust dominated 1975 with their Donovan-powered Satellite-bodied Funny Car, winning the world championship and becoming the first to break the 6.7-, 6.6-, and 6.5-second barriers. Armstrong continued to dominate with the Donovan in an Alcohol Dragster (AA/DA was the class designation then, leading to his “AA/Dale” nickname) – while Menzies teamed with Jim Jackson, who wanted to field a Donovan-powered Funny Car.
“Armstrong had split up with Foust, and we ran our cars out of the same shop,” recalled Menzies. “We were both running the Donovan and won Bakersfield and Fremont together, and even when I was off racing somewhere different than him, I would call him and talk to him about stuff all the time. We used to trade parts back and forth; I couldn’t trade with anyone else because no other Funny Cars were running the Donovan.”
Their comradeship through similarity brought them together again at the 1979 Mile-High Nationals, where Armstrong wounded his engine in a semifinal victory.
“I had lost to Raymond Beadle in round one and had the car in the trailer,” he remembered. “Dale broke some valve springs and tagged some valves, and Guger comes running down to my trailer, said they needed my heads, so we grabbed some lights from Billy Meyer’s trailer [the Mile-Highs was a night race then] and put them on Dale’s car. We lost the final to Billy Williams, but it was a helluva thrash. That was the typical work ethic Dale inspired in me. He would work all day, all night, so that’s what I did. I didn’t know how to do it any other way.”
After retiring from racing in 1979, Menzies managed Simpson Safety Equipment through 1984, then moved to Hawaii, where he worked on the proposed Star Wars defense system, and lost touch with Armstrong for a time.
“We talked occasionally 10 years ago, then I found some of our old equipment, and we got together, and it became a regular thing. In the end, we lived six miles apart and got together as often as we could. Dale still worked hard [restoring and fixing old cars]; I was at his house a month ago, and he’s got this ‘62 409 convertible that he hadn’t driven in six to seven years, and he’s field-stripped the car down to nothing, taken the motor completely apart, and was putting it all back together, and he could hardly breathe. That’s just the way he was. He’d get tunnel vision on a project and work until it was done.”
A friend to both Armstrong and Veney, Menzies really stepped into it one evening during their 1970s rivalry. Menzies at that time also had his own service station, also on 190th, and, like Armstrong in the early days, he would take his exhaust work to Veney, but would spend his evenings at Hot Rod City.
“Ken had just won a race that Dale wasn’t at. Kenny hadn’t won a race in a while, and he came by, and I joked, 'The king returns, eh?' " Menzies recalled with a laugh. “After he left, Armstrong said, ‘You know you’d better pick a side. You’re either on my side or Veney’s side.’ I knew there was a rivalry, but I didn’t know how serious it was, and I told him that. He said, ‘Well, it’s serious. It’s [bleeping] serious.’
“When I think back to those old times, me and Wilfred and Billy, there isn’t one of us who doesn’t owe our success to Dale.”
(Above) Armstrong, right, with crewmembers Mike Guger, center, and Glen Larson formed a dynamic winning trio. (Below) The Armstrong-Hoover-Larsen Barracuda, shown running on nitro in 1973, was a real workhorse in Armstrong's early days.
Guger, left, with Armstrong, was a key member of the Bud King team for years.
ike Guger was just a curious 13-year-old on his bicycle, peering into the shop doors at Hot Rod City when Armstrong befriended him and began a lifelong mentorship and friendship. Guger worked on all of Armstrong's early Funny Cars and for Armstrong throughout most of the Budweiser King days with Kenny Bernstein. That bond continued long after Armstrong retired from the sport and Guger continued to rise in the ranks to his current position as a crew chief for Bob Vandergriff Racing.
“He took me under his wing and allowed me to go racing with him, and look where I’m at now,” Guger told me on the phone Monday, his voice catching and the emotion still evident days after Armstrong’s passing. “When he asked if I wanted to come to the races with him, it was like, ‘Geez. Are you kidding me?’ I just wanted to be a part of it, and through him, I got to meet these guys who were legends in my eyes. Because I [worked for] Dale, I could walk up to Garlits or Prudhomme or Tommy Lemons, and they recognized me.
“He taught me so much about how to run a car and work ethic,” Guger recalled fondly. “Even up until just recently, I could call him -- I probably talked to him more in the last couple of years than I had in a long time – and ask him questions about what I was doing now, and he could still give me a relevant answer. He still understood it very well."
Guger was with Armstrong on some of his earliest Funny Cars – including the Armstrong-Hoover-Larsen car and Veney’s A/Fuel Dragster. Despite his youth, Guger quickly gained Armstrong’s trust, so much to the point that when Guger was just 17, Armstrong turned him loose to drive his duallie and 39-foot fifth-wheel trailer solo from California to Atlanta.
When Armstrong stopped racing in 1980, Guger joined Billy Meyer’s Funny Car team, then ended up back with Armstrong in late 1981 in his driving hurrah with Mike Kase’s Speed Racer and followed him to the Bernstein camp.
“He was just over driving,” remembered Guger. “He accomplished what he wanted to accomplish. I think he liked the driving when he started, but then I think it became a chore, and he was more interested in the mechanical part of it. We were at a match race in Denver, just me and him, sitting in a hotel room when Kenny Bernstein called him and offered him the job. He hung the phone up, turned to me, and said, ‘What do you think?’ I said, 'Why not?' "
Guger came and went from the Bud King camp on a few occasions, oddly not there for any of the championship years, but he was there for the 300-mph run.
Like everyone else, beyond Armstrong's obvious skill in tuning a nitro car, Guger was impressed with Armstrong’s overall mechanical skills.
“He was such a good general mechanic,” he said. "I remember one year, we were coming home from Fremont, but the transmission in the truck was going out. We were going up the Grapevine, from the north to the south, and it’s pretty steep. There was a big rainstorm that brought a mudslide down on one side of the freeway, so both directions were sharing the same road. We had to stop until it was our turn to go; the transmission wouldn’t go. The Highway Patrol was ready to tow us, but Dale told them to wait. He fired up the air compressor, dove under the truck, pulls the pan off, chops a hole in the filter, which was clogged, blows it out, shoves the pan back up, refills it with oil, and got us going enough to get home. Who would know to do that? Anyone else would have been towed off the road.”
Armstrong and Kenny Bernstein were dominant in Funny Car in the late 1980s, winning four straight championships, 1985-88. The 1987 season, with the infamous "Batmobile," was their best, with seven wins (including Indy, pictured) in 14 races.
And there was always time for more whipped cream, as Armstrong let the boss have it with a pie attack after winning the 1983 Big Bud Shootout.
bviously, when people think of Armstrong, it’s his years with Bernstein that come quickly and easily to mind. Innovations like the lockup clutch, data recorder, wind-tunnel-tested bodies, and rare-earth magnets in the magneto helped him and Bernstein win five NHRA championships and 48 national events and, of course, shatter the 300-mph barrier. Although Bernstein had accomplished much before Armstrong, including securing the Budweiser sponsorship and a couple of national event wins, and did much after, with the equally cagey Tim Richards as his tuner, no one benefited more from Armstrong’s inquisitive nature than Bernstein, who has no doubts about the influence Armstrong had on his career.
“I owe Dale a tremendous debt for all we accomplished together because of his ability as an innovator and a forward thinker and for his knowledge and his dedication that allowed us to win all of the races and championships,” said Bernstein. “I look at the fortunate career I had and the fortunate life I have today, and I believe that Dale is 75 percent of the reason for that.”
Bernstein hired Armstrong for the 1982 season after his longtime friend and tuner Ray Alley tired of the touring life despite a pretty successful 1981 season with a third-place finish behind Raymond Beadle and Don Prudhomme. Armstrong at the time was driving Mike Kase’s good-running but lesser-funded Speed Racer Challenger.
“People forget, but we almost won the championship that year; we were leading the points going into Indy but lost in the first round to Beadle, and I didn’t qualify at Fremont and didn’t run good at the Finals,” Bernstein remembered. “Ray didn’t want to travel anymore, and he recommended Dale, who he thought really wanted to work on the cars more than he did drive. We knew he’d be a good crew chief because he tuned all of his own cars and was so far ahead of everyone in the alcohol classes that he almost went off and hid, and he had the Speed Racer running as good as anyone with a very limited amount of money. Ray talked to Dale first, and he was interested, so I talked to Dale and said, ‘This feels good, looks good, smells good – let’s do it.’
“I knew if we gave him the chance and good funding, he could do good things, but even I had no idea he was as good as he was.”
As much success as they had together – including four straight NHRA Funny Car championships (1985-88) – the going wasn’t always easy. In fact, Armstrong became so exasperated with his new driver in 1982 that he mounted a light on the back of the car to tell him when Bernstein shifted, which often was way too early.
“I wasn’t a very good driver when I first started out with him,” admitted Bernstein. “We were in the tire shake days then, and it beat me to death. It got to the point that I was short-shifting the car. The car just didn’t like what Dale was trying to do with it, but he didn’t know that, and all I knew was that I was going to short-shift the thing because it won’t shake if I do that, but it never ran good because it killed the clutch."
It also just about killed Bernstein, who ended up in traction at a local hospital with two ruptured vertebrae in his neck in April 1983, which ended up being a painful but very rewarding experience for Bernstein.
“We were booked in at Orange County [Int’l Raceway], and I told Dale to go drive it. He came in Monday morning, looked at me, and said, ‘We can’t run the car the way we’ve been trying to run it. I almost crashed it.’ That, in all honesty, is what turned us around. I don’t think he realized how bad it was until he crawled in the car and tried it himself. He went in a completely different direction, and the car just took off. That was the turning point.”
Everything wonderful and amazing that happened to the duo came from that point forward, sweeping Indy and the Big Bud Shootout in 1983, the first wind-tunnel Tempo in 1984, the first of four Funny Car championships in 1985, the lockup clutch, and on and on through the transition to Top Fuel, the first 300-mph pass, and a Top Fuel championship in 1996 before amicably parting company in 1997.
“It just came to a point that we needed to go our separate ways,” Bernstein said. “There never were any hard feelings. We just needed to go different ways, but we stayed pretty close. His friendship was very important to me. It’s a tremendous loss to the sport and to me personally.”
As much credit as he gives Armstrong, it was Bernstein’s willingness to give his crew chief the trust and – equally as important -- the funding to experiment and innovate.
The wind-tunnel-designed Ford Tempo body on the 1984 Budweiser King helped Bernstein and Armstrong crush the 260-mph barrier.
Armstrong built this dyno to test nitro engines and used it to test blowers and wear in clutches. The latter was a dirty job. “Wes [Cerny] and I would end up looking like a couple of coal miners by the time we were done,” he recalled.
“I never – not one time – ever told Dale there was something he couldn’t try,” he said. “He would come to me with an idea, we’d talk about, put a budget on it, and off he’d go. We spent a lot of money, and sometimes it didn’t work, but there were too many times where it did work, and when they did, we just jumped out ahead of everybody. I always thought we were a great package because I was fortunate to be able to raise the money and drive the car, and he was a great crew chief and innovator.
“He was at his height back in the days before we had a lot of rules; he just kept thinking up more and more things, and most of them worked. There have been a number of great thinkers like Tim Richards and Austin Coil and Alan Johnson, but Dale was the leader of the bunch because he was the first one who got a chance to do it and gave him the ability to function at a level that was not seen at that time.”
(Not every Armstrong project panned out. Some of them – like the “air clutch” and McGee engine – were mostly a matter of running out of time/patience before full fruition was reached, and others, mostly notably his two-speed supercharger and three-magneto system, were terminated early in their life cycle by a combination of racer backlash or NHRA rules makers. “Where Dale was so good was when the rules were more lax, but we just couldn’t continue down that path,” Bernstein conceded. “The expense was already going crazy, and if we didn’t have the rules we have today, there wouldn’t be but a few cars out there. We have to live within certain boundaries or this sport will not survive. It can’t. No way. As an innovator, it hurt him greatly because that’s what he was really good at.”)
Others quickly took notice of the Budweiser King’s success, and, according to Bernstein, not long after they began to rack up championships, high-roller team owner Larry Minor tried to woo Armstrong with a two-year contract at $500,000 per season.
“I wasn’t going to lose Dale over a few hundred thousand dollars, I’ll tell you that,” Bernstein said. “It wasn’t even a question. I went to Budweiser, and they were phenomenal; they redid our contract to give me the money to be able to keep him. I think I offered him something like $400,000 but for a longer time.”
Bernstein also said that Armstrong was eager to help spread his knowledge to other teams in need of his assistance and did so with Bernstein’s blessing.
“We helped so many people with their cars because Dale felt it was important to help people who were in trouble and to give back to the sport,” he said. “Tom McEwen and Darrell Gwynn are the first ones that come to mind. Dale took our complete engine package and put it into Darrell’s dragster when they were struggling after moving to Top Fuel.”
Interestingly, Armstrong's great impact on Bernstein was not confined to the dragstrip.
“Dale was an avid reader and knowledgeable about everything – everything, even things that weren’t about racing,” Bernstein remembered fondly. “When I had my NASCAR and IndyCar teams, sometimes I would go into Dale’s office with alligators coming out of my ass and ask his advice. I’d lay it out for him and ask him, ‘What would you do?’ and he always, always showed me a different side that I never thought of that would open my mind to his viewpoint even more. Not once, but every single time. That was a great asset to me and something about him that I really loved.
“He was a great man and a great person. I owe Dale so much; I’ve never forgotten that, and I never will.”
(Above) From right, old pals Don Prudhomme, Armstrong, Glen Sanders, and Simon Menzies took in a World of Outlaws race. (Below) From left, Bob Brooks, Larry Dixon, Prudhomme, and Armstrong shared the Pomona winner's circle after Armstrong tuned Dixon to victory at their first race, the 1998 Winternationals. Brooks, who passed away in September, and Armstrong were nearly inseparable throughout the 1990s and are undoubtedly now reunited.
fter splitting with Bernstein, Armstrong joined Don Prudhomme’s Miller Lite Top Fuel team and created more history, tuning Larry Dixon to the sport’s first 4.4-second run, a 4.486, in Houston in 1999.
As he had with Raymond Beadle in his waning days about a month earlier, Prudhomme called upon his good friend Armstrong before he passed.
“We battled him and Bernstein, man, we went nose to nose, but Dale was just a really nice guy; I really liked him. We became pretty tight; he was one of my best buddies. He was the kind of guy who you’d pick up the phone late at night just to shoot the breeze with or have a beer with and have some fun.
“Of course, I always had to check the hockey schedule before I called him; he didn’t want to talk to anyone when hockey was on; he’d be pissed off if you called him when hockey was on.
“We all really admired him. He was the guy who put the crew chief salary on the map for all of these guys, and it was deserved. In his day, he was the best crew chief -- he loved working on all that stuff -- but I enjoyed him more just as a friend. We’d talk about all kinds of fun stuff beyond racing.”
And, like Bernstein, Prudhomme found Armstrong a virtually encyclopedic sounding board.
“Anytime we’re at the shop and something is wrong or something we didn’t know, I’d say, ‘Call Dale; he’ll know.’ It used to irritate Willie [Wolter, Prudhomme’s own jack-of-all-trades] because he’d say, ‘I can figure it out,’ but it was easier to call Dale. He was my lifeline.
“We didn’t race that long together, but the time we had together I treasure.”
Dixon also was impressed with Armstrong in their two seasons together.
“It was pretty obvious to me that Dale wanted to be the first guy to run in the 4.40s,” remembered Dixon. “Winning races and championships still meant something to him, but he was confident that he knew how to do that, and he was after milestones, the next challenge. What he built for us for 1998 was what I consider the first version of what our modern engines are now. He created a setback blower manifold. He wanted to have air come in a different way, so he had Bob Brooks build us a special injector. And then we won in our first race together at the Winternationals. He was always trying to come up with a better way to skin a cat.
“Dale was easy for me to relate to because he was a car guy, and we both loved Chevys. I’d ride to the track with him and Brooks and go to breakfast, and we’d talk about everything but racing. He was a joy to be around and to listen to him and Brooks tell stories.
“The first thing I thought of when Dale passed was that Brooks has his breakfast partner back, and Bob probably knows where the Waffle House is.”
Armstrong and Austin Coil, nitro geniuses
rmstrong had few peers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but Austin Coil was certainly one who obtained that level of success, both on the track and on the drawing board, though Coil points out it’s hard to compare them apples to apples at the same points in history.
“When Dale was dominant, it was a time period where [John Force Racing] didn’t have the budget to innovate,” observed Coil. “I don’t think we reached that point until about 1990, when they had switched to Top Fuel, but at that time, they were running the playground we all dreamed about.”
Despite the budgetary difference, sometimes they thought along parallel lines.
Recalled Coil, “We were sitting around one day [BSing] when it was raining, and Dale was talking about if you could find some way to grab the clutch levers and pull back on them to add more plateload as you get down the track, that would be a great thing, but he hadn’t figured out how to do that. I said, ’What if you put some more levers in there and held them out of action and let them come in later?’ He said, “Aw, I don’t know if that would work,” then he went and built one, which was the first lockup clutch. I started trying to build one, but we weren’t able to progress as quickly as he was; he had his out by Indy [in 1986], and we had ours out at the race before the World Finals.
“I remember one story of when he was trying to build better magnetos. He was working with a guy we all called ‘Sparky,’ Bruce Edey, and they were wondering what difference having a stronger ignition would make. It was kind of an unknown, but they came up with an idea of how to test it. Bruce came to Bernstein’s shop with a capacitor like they use on light poles, about the size of a trash can, but they had to charge it somehow. Bruce scaled a light pole behind Bernstein’s shop and very carefully snapped some cables on a 12,500-volt line and charged it. Of course, then no one wanted to touch it, so they lassoed the capacitor and dragged it to the magneto test stand, where Dale had a cylinder head gasket side up, with a spark plug, and some nitro in the chamber. When you’d do that with a normal magneto, you’d see the plug spark, and bubbles would form in the nitro puddle. We’d made the same kind of tests ourselves.
“Anyway, they rigged up the capacitor using some wooden poles, and when they made contact with the wire, the nitro exploded out of the cylinder head in a ball of flame. It showed them that there was no doubt that more juice was better for lighting nitro. Even though that was more than 100 times the current that’s reasonable for a magneto to make, it showed them the path, and I said to myself, ‘Good one, Dale; I wouldn’t have thought of that.’ “
Darrell Gwynn's and Armstrong's birthdays were close (Gwynn was Sept. 10, Armstrong Aug. 30), and the duo celebrated together in Indy in 1986.
s Bernstein mentioned, Armstrong helped a lot of other teams, but perhaps none more Darrell Gwynn and his family's in its transition from Alcohol Dragster to Top Fuel in the mid-1980s.
“Dale knew Darrell from way back, but I didn’t really know Darrell all that well, but I knew [his dad] Jerry,” recalled Bernstein. “Jerry had helped me one time at a match race in Suffolk, Va., when we had a camshaft go bad, and I didn’t know how to change it or time it, and he came over and showed me how to do it, so I felt like I still owed him, so I said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.' "
Bernstein also had brought the Budweiser sponsorship to the Gwynn team, so there's a lot of history there, but before I could even call Gwynn, this note showed up in my Inbox from him.
“Dale was one of the greatest racers, drivers, crew chiefs, ball busters, and a dear friend of mine. I’ve known Dale since the early ‘70s. Dale actually bought me my first helmet, gloves, and boots before I went to get my NHRA license. I spent a lot of time in the early days with him and Mike Guger; as sad as I am over his passing, and as difficult as this is for me, it makes me reflect on how lucky I am to have had him in my life as a friend for many years. The great memories I have of Dale are countless. I wish I could share all the great and funny stories of how he affected my life on and off the racetrack, but there are just too many to list.
“On the racetrack, Dale was very instrumental in helping me achieve the success I had in a very short period of time. Off the racetrack, I will always cherish the fun times we shared as friends as we drove down the road together from race to race.
“Dale was always looking out for me, no matter who he was working for. I will never forget the grins on his face during the successes we had with his and Kenny Bernstein’s engine combinations in my car. He loved how it affected the rest of the competitors and how they reacted to the success of our car. These reactions motivated him even more to my benefit.
“Dale was literally a driving force in my life. I will forever cherish his memory and the impact he had on my life. Dale, I will miss you buddy.”
Dale and a very proud Susie at Armstrong's 2010 induction into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America. "He was my world," she said.
s much as we all will miss him, no one will miss him more than his wife, Susie. They met when she was Bernstein’s publicist, and she fell in love with the mechanical genius with the poet’s heart nearly three decades ago.
“He was a one in a million guy,” she told me. “He had a heart to match that talented brain, and he especially loved animals and rooted for the underdog in sports.”
As I mentioned, Armstrong was a longtime L.A. Kings fan and was a big fan of Kings coach Darryl Sutter, another good ol’ farm boy from the cold country of Alberta.
“He loved the L.A. Kings and moved his chair within three feet of the TV screen during the playoffs -- said he could watch the puck better sitting 'on top of the TV,' " she shared. “Dale owned Wayne Gretzky's 1999 Dodge Durango, which was awarded to Wayne in his final All-Star game as MVP. We went to Wayne's house and spent some time with him. Wayne was Dale's biggest hero, and he loved getting to spend time with ‘The Great One.’ Gretzky signed the glove box in the Durango and gave Dale a signed jersey. Wayne also called Dale when he was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America to congratulate him.
“Dale grew up on a farm, and when his parents moved to the city, he and his friends spent a lot of time working on hot rods in his parents' garage. He pretty much taught himself. I don't think there was anything he couldn't fix, and that included electrical problems in the house, plumbing problems, an extensive computerized sprinkler system, or anything that could plague a household.
“It’s hard to believe he is gone. But he is at peace, and I hope there's some serious racing up in heaven because I'm sure he has some innovations he hasn't thoroughly tested yet. I envision Dale and Paul Candies catching up on some fun.”
Godspeed, Dale. You’ll be greatly missed, and I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say thank you for all you gave us.
A celebration of Dale's life will be held Feb. 5 -- Thursday of the Winternationals -- at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum. I'll provide more details as we get closer to that. I know I wouldn't miss it for the world.
By the time this gets published, it’ll be the day after Thanksgiving, and some of you may be reading this on your phones or tablets in a line somewhere awaiting Black Friday stores to open. While I’m thankful I won’t be among you, I spent this week thinking about being thankful and started to write a list of all of the things for which I am thankful, which grew to include the fact that the list came effortlessly to me.
It was then that I realized that I’d done this same column four years ago. I was a little red-faced until I went back and read that column, and I realized that everything I wrote back then — just a few months after I’d turned 50 — still holds true today, so I thought I would re-gift you with those thoughts (and gift my copy editors with the fact that half of this column has already been through the editing cycle before).
I am thankful …
… that I not only got a chance to meet Wally Parks but also got to work with him and, ultimately and most importantly, gain his trust and respect.
… that, by a combination of dumb luck and good timing, I have been able to blend my two passions — drag racing and writing — for almost three decades.
… that my stepfather, a great man who for more than 40 years has been the dad I lost so young in my life, decided that I might like to see a drag race. He has no idea what he has created
… that I studied hard in class, both my textbooks and racing magazines, both of which continue to help today.
… that I have been — at NHRA in general and National Dragster in particular — surrounded by some of the finest, most talented, ambitious, hardworking, and dedicated people I will ever have the honor to know.
... that the printed word still has a place in this age.
… for the camaraderie and support of my pals in the racing world, who have been there to pick me up when I needed it and allowed me to do the same for them. They know who they are.
… that me, a humble fan like many of you, has had the thrill to rub shoulders, speak openly, befriend, joke, break bread, and work with many of my early racing heroes. I still am in awe that I can phone Don Prudhomme or Don Garlits or Shirley Muldowney, and that they will gladly take my call.
… for a job that took me to places I never dreamed of going — Tennessee's Smokey Mountains, Quebec, and Lake Placid, to name but a few — to meet people I never would have met.
… that I got the chance to visit hallowed places like Orange County Int’l Raceway and Irwindale before they closed.
… that my first car was one that required me to learn how to change the distributor points and to learn the agony of knuckles busted open trying to tighten header bolts.
... that I became involved in this sport in a point in its history where things were still wild and wooly and characters that even Hollywood couldn’t have invented walked our Main Street.
… that so many of the legends of our sport are still with us, with keen minds and sharp memories, and that they’re willing and eager to share with me.
… that I got to see drivers like Prudhomme and Glidden in their prime and that I get the chance to marvel at current dominators like Schumacher and Dixon.
… that for all of the miles I have traveled, they have been safe miles, filled with little peril, minor aggravations, and good times.
… for family and friends I cherish, for friends and loves I have had and lost, and for friends yet to encounter.
… that for all of the incomprehensible, unthinkable, and impossible things in life that I have had to face on occasion, I was never truly alone.
… that I've been blessed with good health; I can still play hockey twice a week, my fingers can still type, my hearing is intact (selectively, of course), and that my memory is still pretty decent (anyone seen my car keys?).
… that despite all of the stupid things I have done and said in my first 50 years, the damage has been minimal, nothing that a few stitches, a few weeks in a cast, or a sincere apology couldn’t help repair, and that the scars I carry, physically and emotionally, are mostly of my own doing and provide a roadmap for the future.
And, finally, I am thankful the support and admiration that the readers of this column shower upon me, which only drives me harder to make every column a special one, and I am thankful for the opportunity and the venue to increase our combined knowledge of the history of this sport we so love and to remember and salute those who have made it so.
One thing that I am not thankful for this year — or any year — is the ever-growing roll call of names of the departed who mean so much to so many of us, and death takes no holidays. It’s been a tough month or so for the NHRA family, with the losses sadly piling up seemingly without end.
Division 1 lost a couple of its great veterans, with Hank Endres passing away Oct. 4, Dale Thierer Nov. 13, and Scott Weney Nov. 19. My immediate NHRA family also was hit hard by the deaths of longtime former National Dragster Associate Editor Bruce Dillashaw Nov. 14 and last weekend by the passing of former NHRA Director of Communications Denny Darnell.
A U.S. Naval reserve veteran, Endres raced a series of dragsters out of Pennsylvania, most famously his own Nirvana and with partners Tom Steed and Bill Keenum on the Mr. Boston entry and, later, in the 1980s, as part of John Carey’s multidragster effort before retiring from driving in 1989.
Endres got his start in racing at old Woodbine Dragstrip in New Jersey with a flathead-powered ‘34 Ford roadster before teaming with Biddy Windward on a blown altered, and then with Junior Culler and Joe Cantrell in the Jr. Fuel ranks before striking out on his own with an ex-Lew Arrington dragster powered by a 392. He moved to Top Fuel in 1971 with Ed Pink’s now-famous Don Long-built Old Master slingshot then worked his way up the ranks and into the first Nirvana car, an ex-Dick LaHaie piece built by Wayne Farr with partners Chip Brown and Dave Oberhofer in 1976-77; the latter is the father of Kalitta crew chiefs Jim and Jon. “Hank was an awesome guy!” remembers Jim O. After finishing second twice, Endres won the 1978 NHRA Division 1 Top Fuel title.
Endres was inducted into the National Nostalgia Drag Racing Association Legion of Honor in 2012 for his contributions to the sport. In his later years, he was involved in restoring and showing classic cars. Endres, as nice a guy as you’d find in the pits, always welcoming and informative, died as the result of complications from Parkinson's disease. He was 76. In lieu of flowers, the family asked that donations be made to aid dementia research.
(Above) The Hemi Hunter could lay down the smoke. (Below) Thierer, right, with the Lewis brothers and Division 1 Director Darwin Doll in the winner's circle.
I wrote a bit about Thierer last year in my column about the Lewis brothers, for whom Thierer drove their Sparkling Burgundy entry for a number of years, but his career also spanned a number of other cars, most memorably the Chevy-powered Hemi Hunter in which he was the 1971 Division 1 Top Fuel title. I think it may have been the only Chevy-powered nitro car to win a divisional title.
The Korean War veteran was a mechanic for local auto dealerships in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley region before turning to racing, teaming with Karl Santer in the late 1960s on the provocatively named Clock Teaser dragster in Comp. He later teamed with Jim Johnson, Gary Peters, Dan Rauch, and Wayne McCullough on a S&W-built Hemi Hunter that won the division title and a few years later joined Mike and Kent Lewis and fell just shy of winning the 1973 division crown
“Dale had a unique talent of getting the most out of our low-budget car, and we won numerous divisional races at Epping, Maple Grove, Englishtown, Cecil County, Capital, Cayuga, and Sanair,” Mike Lewis told me via email. “He remained a great friend over the years.”
The Lewis team was parked in 1975, and Thierer went on to drive for a number of years for the veteran team of Jim and Alison Lee. In the last decade, though, Thierer had reunited with Peters and the Hemi Hunter team and the Lewis brothers to compete at nostalgia events.
Thierer passed away at the age of 68 after suffering a massive hemorrhagic stroke, according to his wife, Sally, who wrote on Facebook, “I don't think he had an enemy in the whole world. We have been inundated with good wishes and love, and he would be so happy to know this. He was a quiet unassuming man but had the heart of a giant. I've been blessed to have him for 35 years and be the mother of three of his beautiful children.”
The family asked that memorials in his name be made to Sarcoma Alliance (775 East Blithedale #334, Mill Valley, CA 94941), St. Jude Children's Research Hospital (501 St. Jude Place Memphis, TN 38105), or the Wounded Warrior Project (P.O. Box 758517 Topeka, KS 66675).
Weney was well-known to the sport in large part due to the family business, S&W Race Cars — founded by his father, Walt, in 1959, the same year Scott was born — that built chassis for Pro and Sportsman racers alike for decades. Scott started there from the ground floor as a kid sweeping the shop and rose to become its president. Along the way, Scott became acquainted with many of the East Coat’s top teams who patronized S&W, and he worked as a crewmember for many of them, including the likes of “Rapid Roy” Harris and Ted Wolf (an S&W employee), absorbing their knowledge before becoming a driver himself.
Walt Weney won the 1975 Gatornationals Alcohol Dragster title, and two years later Scott took over as driver of their Weekend Warrior digger and won the 1977 divisional championship. His greatest moments still lay ahead, as he won his home-state Keystone Nationals back to back in 1992 and 1993 in Ken Sheetz’s Olds Cutlass. He won the 2000 IHRA Funny Car championship but actually raced in the nitro classes in the mid-1980s in the Florida-based Gold Coast Challenger machine of Gary Richards (the ex-Custom Body Enterprises machine).
The last several years, Weney raced successfully in the Sportsman and bracket classes — he was the Super Comp runner-up at the 2007 reading event — and lately had turned promoter, forming S&S Race Promotions with Scotty Richardson and creating the “Fun in the Sun” race series.
Darnell’s passing also sent a shockwave through motorsports, especially in the NASCAR community, where he spent so many years and mentored so many. I worked with Denny here at NHRA from 1990 through 1998, and while we weren’t the best of friends — he was pretty tough on the Dragster staff back in those days, making sure that we didn’t monopolize the end-of-day pressroom interviews with our technical or inside questions that might alienate the more-important “straight” press on hand — you could see he knew what he was doing.
He passed away suddenly, surrounded by friends at a weekend barbecue, and it didn’t take long for social media to explode with tributes to the southern gentleman whom many called “The General.” Current NASCAR star Brad Keslowski tweeted that Darnell was “Such a great, classy pro,” and Kasey Khane added “Denny was always such a great person and friend to so many people” while NASCAR legend Darrell Waltrip called Darnell “one of the nicest guys that's ever been in racing, he'll be missed.”
In addition to NHRA, Darnell worked for the likes of Bristol Motor Speedway, Sports Marketing Enterprises, and Dodge; he retired from the business earlier this year. His obituary contained this humorous passage. “He was often asked, ‘How are you enjoying retirement?’ His answer was, ‘I didn't do anything today, and I didn't get finished, and I plan on doing the same thing tomorrow.’ “
And finally there’s our old buddy Bruce, who wrote for National Dragster from late 1992 through 2006 before he returned to his native Texas. And while his sudden passing did not create the ripple that Darnell’s did, he was remembered by several on Twitter, including recently crowned two-time NHRA champ Luke Bogacki, who remembered Dillashaw as the track reporter at Texas Raceway when he raced there, and by Cole Coonce, drag racing journalism's answer to Tom Wolfe, who opined, “His Top Fuel reports were always a must-read.”
Bruce was a racer first and a writer second, and I mean that figuratively and literally. Like a lot of us, he saved his money to buy drag racing magazines as a kid before he began attending racing events in 1968 in San Antonio. In 1984, he bought a used front-engine dragster chassis and began competing in Super Pro and qualified for the Division 4 E.T. Finals in 1985 and 1986. In the fall of 1987, he discovered his love of writing and combined his two passions and, while working at a number of jobs (including pest control and chauffeuring) to pay the bills, eventually began getting his stories published in numerous magazines, which led to our hiring him late in 1992. He covered the Top Fuel beat and loved tech stories.
At the time of his hiring, Bruce said, “Sometimes hard work and perseverance pays off. It’s finally OK to do nothing but think, talk, and write about drag racing.”
Amen, brother. You’ll be missed and not forgotten.
To my friends in the Insider Nation, thank you, and remember to thank those around you before they join our sad list.
Shortly after this column as posted, we lost a great friend to many of us, Dale Armstrong. Obviously, I will write about him next week here, but in the meantime you can find some information about him in Dave Densmore's wonderfully written obituary here, and in our Top 50 Racers profile here.
Last weekend’s 50th anniversary Auto Club NHRA Finals was steeped in nostalgia, with vintage-car displays, Cacklefests, and, the highlight for me, more Legends chats, this time involving “TV Tommy” Ivo, Ed “the Ace” McCulloch, Tom "the Mongoose” McEwen, Kenny Bernstein, Shirley Muldowney, Don "the Snake” Prudhomme, and “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, with the equally legendary Dave McClelland as the emcee.
Everyone who came got one of the cool "credentials" shown at right, which also served as an "admission ticket" to the autograph session later in the day ... no ticket, no autograph session.
Unlike the lengthy shows at this year’s Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, the presentations at the Finals were much shorter. Originally discussed as being themed toward the drivers recounting their great moments from World Finals events past, McClelland freelanced a little and also got them to talk about themselves and their careers as a whole.
As inevitably becomes the case, a lot of familiar ground is covered for the newbies in the audience, but I never grow tired of hearing it, never knowing when will be the last time I’ll hear them tell those old chestnuts and not willing to be absent for one chance I have. Folks like you and me have heard the stories time and again (or read them here), so I’ll skip repeating them, but there were still great little sound-bite nuggets to share that I’ve seldom or, in some cases, never heard.
Ivo kicked off the deal at 10 a.m., which is pretty funny to those of us who know that his day usually begins as the sun is going down and ends when it’s coming up (“Ivo time,” as he likes to call it. “I have a little vampire in me,” he admits.) The 78-year-old hero of yours, mine, and especially himself likes to joke that I-V-O stands for “I’m Very Old,” but his energy was still as young as ever.
Of his famous rollover top-end crash at the 1974 Winternationals, Ivo recalled, “When it first happened, it was absolutely sheer terror. I wasn’t even worried about getting hurt because I knew that was it. That was curtains. I read a book somewhere where someone falling out of a building [said] on the trip down, it was kind of pleasant [he obviously survived the fall to share his tale]. When this thing went over, it wasn’t exactly pleasant, but when you decide in your own mind that ‘That’s it,’ you get a euphoric feeling. It just killed the car. It blew it up on the inside, and when it rolled over, it ate up everything on the outside, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. It was worth the price of admission. The only thing that made me mad was that it scared me so bad that I closed my eyes and missed the whole show.
“Those old steel guardrails would grab you and eat your car alive. That’s one of the problems of being a pioneer: You get arrows in your ass.”
Ivo, on why he wanted to race: “The movies I’d done for 20 years; I wanted to go racing. Also, I was 115 pounds soaking wet, and those [firesuits] were Robocop outfits I could strap on and go racing against the varsity guys.”
McCulloch was up next, and “the Ace” looked and sounded good. I had the chance to spend some time with him the day before in the tower – where he was hanging with Bill Doner; talk about a great pair to listen to -- to talk about both the past and the present. He’s incredibly introspective about his career and up to speed on today’s group of drivers. I need to sit him down someday to get some of this on the record.
McClelland asked which he preferred, Top Fuel or Funny Car. (Interesting to note that six of the seven legends – Garlits was the exception – drove both in their careers.) “Funny Cars, you can’t see anything; a dragster you see everything. You manhandle a Funny Car; you finesse a dragster. Either way, if it burns nitro, I’m good to go,” he answered.
He noted that a lot of people associate him with the Northwest – with good reason, as I’ll explain – but he was actually born and raised in Visalia, Calif., 45 minutes north of Bakersfield, where his family farmed the San Joaquin Valley. They moved to Portland, Ore., right when he finished high school, and before long, he became a racer, teaming up with Jim Albrich on the Northwind Top Fueler that he claims neither wanted to drive, which was kind of shocking to me to know that such a driving hero might never have ended up behind the wheel.
“I never really wanted to drive,” he confessed. “I was always more interested in the mechanical end of the cars, building them, working on them.”
They had built the car for Bob Haines, who ended up driving instead of Larry Stellings. Dave Jeffers drove the car for them for a while, but he was based in Southern California, and flying him up to the Northwest for dates got to be too expensive, so it had to be either McCulloch or Albrich behind the wheel, and when Albrich’s wife vetoed him doing it, suddenly McCulloch was a driver. And a damned good one.
On June 13, 1965 – the date is etched in his brain – McCulloch beat Pete Robinson in Woodburn, Ore., for the Drag News No. 1 spot. “That’s when people heard of Ed McCulloch,” he said. It wasn’t long after that that Seattle-area sportswriter Jim Cooper wrote a headline after McCulloch beat Jerry “the King” Ruth that read “What beats a king but an ace?” And a nickname was born.
“When my driving career was over, it was pretty easy to make the transition to being a crew chief,” he added but noted that he wasn’t a big believer in the early data recorders that printed their results rather than displayed them on a monitor. “You used to roll this paper out -- it looked like a piece of toilet paper three feet long -- and we’d put two runs [on top of each other] and hold it up to the light to try to look at them. I remember thinking, ‘This computer deal will never fly.’ “
Of his career, he concluded, “We had a helluva time. It was tough competition. We didn’t have any money. We were just making enough money to get to the next race and keep the lights turned on, but we had a good time.”
Horse lover and would-be cowboy McEwen
The fabled “Mongoose” was next up and talked about his career with the successful Albertson Olds car and his less successful initial stint with the rear-engine Hemi 'Cuda that took flight at Lions Drag Strip on one of its first runs.
"All of a sudden, I’m seeing sky, and I’m not sure what’s going to happen next, but I know it’s probably not going to be good,” he said. “I shut the engine off and opened the chutes. It rolled over real smooth and came down on its side in the lights and slid down the track, then onto its roof -- it ground through the roof and caught the headliner on fire.”
Snake bite, Part 1: “Prudhomme got the nickname ‘Snake,’ and he’ll tell you it’s because of his lightning reflexes, but I think it was because of his attitude.”
Snake bite, Part 2: “When they first presented [the Snake & Mongoose script] to Hollywood, they didn’t think it was exciting enough because they’re not drag racing people. Prudhomme wanted to make it more X-rated, so I was going to be the drunk, dope-smoking, bad father, womanizer, [BSer] who raced on the weekends and got beat by him, and he was going to be the preacher with the wife and the daughter and was perfect.”
Asked by McClelland what he would have been had he not been a drag racer, McEwen answered obliquely, “Some kind of a cowboy,” which raised some eyes until he went on to explain, “I had horses from the time I was 16, and I always liked country-western music and that kind of stuff. I even went to veterinarian school before I went to college. My mother was so mad at me when I quit college: ‘You’re just going to be another drag race bum,’ she said. ‘You’re going to end up like your father [a Navy test pilot killed in the line of duty when McEwen was 2].' She’d never come to the races, but she’d watch me on TV and tell her friends all about me.”
Bernstein showed up California casual, in shorts, still in great shape (he still walks every day, a habit he started with longtime friend McClelland after “Big Mac” had heart problems a few decades ago), and covered a wide variety of topics, from his early years in Funny Car to his days running an IndyCar team.
“It was a tough game when I started,” he said of his first flopper years. “It took me a couple of years to get going. 1981 was a good year with Ray Alley as my crew chief, but Dale Armstrong came aboard in 1982, and after struggling a couple of years, he found the magic that he was so capable of tapping; it really put us on the map, and that continued into Top Fuel with the 300-mph run in 1992.”
“Another Dale Armstrong invention” was how Bernstein described the notorious Batmobile Buick LeSabre Funny Car body that Armstrong craftily designed within the letter (but not the spirit) of the existing rules in 1987.
“He told me what he wanted to do, and I told him, ’Well, the rules are pretty much open; you don’t have any reason not to,’ " recalled Bernstein. “We had to build the plug and the mold before the first body ever gets kicked out, so it was a big, expensive proposition. I told him to tell me when we got to that point so I could take a look at it.
“So [when the first body was done], I go over there and look at it and say, ‘What in the world is that?’ I couldn’t even recognize it as a body. It was supposed to be a Buick, but I have no idea where that Buick came from. I said, ‘Oh my god; we’re in serious trouble; this is going to be tough. We’ve got to get NHRA down here; this is not going to be easy.’ Dallas Gardner, Carl Olson, Steve Gibbs, and three or four other guys came to see it, and you could hear a pin drop; they were astonished. ‘This is going to be a Funny Car body?’ They said to me, ‘We’re going to have some lunch and think about this.’ I said, ‘I’ve got $300,000 in this; go have a big lunch.’ They came back and told me I could run it for a year.”
About Roberto Guerrero winning the pole at the 1992 Indy 500 in Bernstein's car then spinning out on the parade lap, Bernstein refused to throw him under the bus all these years later. “It wasn’t really his fault, even though it looks that way even today,” he noted, citing the unusually cold conditions that led to cold tires and the massive and quick turbocharged power boost that came from the Buck engines after even a light tap on the throttle.
Bernstein received a huge round of applause – I think even he was surprised – and the cheers kept on coming when Muldowney stepped to the stage after her introductory video. True to fashion, she pulled no punches. Here are just some of the highlights:
“In 1971, we won the first Funny Car meet we ever entered, with Jack Muldowney turning the screws and wrenches,” she remembered. “We went to Lebanon Valley, which was in full bloom, and there they were: the Ramchargers, Brutus, the Tasca team – anyone who was anyone was there – and they all went home losers. That was the beginning of a long war, but I liked what I was doing, and it started to pay.”
“I loved driving that Funny Car, I really did – except when it was on fire. I had some blazers. [My crew] would try all kinds of new innovations … and I was kind of like a sitting duck and not smart enough to realize that I was probably where I shouldn’t be. When it would push out the gaskets, immediately you’d have 14 quarts of nitrated oil on the exhaust, and guess where it went – this way [pointing to herself]. That got very old.”
“I acquired my [Top Fuel] license, which was no real effort because I’d already run well over 200 mph, and Tommy Ivo signed for my license – willingly – and Don Garlits signed for it because he figured, ‘I’m going to get in on this exposure; she’s not going anywhere.’ He knew everyone would want to book the girl who was beating the boys, and he would tell the promoters, ‘If you’re going to book her, you have to book me.’ There’s always been a method to his madness.”
On her AHRA Top Fuel championship: “It wasn’t softball as compared to hardball [with NHRA events]. They were all there: Garlits, Tharp, all the guys who were tough to beat were at those AHRA races because they thought it was easy money – until I drove through the gate. I was not popular.”
By the numbers: “They were fun years. They were rewarding years. They were not that profitable; everything that came in the right hand went out the left.”
Asked about what she’s doing now – she recently moved from Michigan to North Carolina to be near longtime friend and ally Doug Herbert – Muldowney got into the mode she probably once reserved for her toughest dragstrip enemies, on and off the track: “I’ve always had a love for animals. Right now, I fight very tough, dirty, mean – roll-in-the-dirt fight – over animal rights and animal abuse.” She loves her two Chihuahuas and answered the question on the minds of some as to why she was wearing two watches. The right watch was California time; the left watch was” Chihuahua time” back home, so she could monitor their well-being.
Don Prudhomme thinks John Force (above) is the man now but that "Big Daddy" (below) was the hero of their generation.
Prudhomme came to the stage after his introductory video – which showed his first-in-the-fives run at the 1975 World Finals – and, in typical mock-cocky “Snake” fashion, proclaimed, “Pretty good, wasn’t I?”
McClelland asked him about the 1974 Finals, where Shirl Greer won the world championship after a qualifying fire, and his role in getting Greer back on track, which he downplayed.
“All I knew was he was a really nice guy, and he needed a hand,” he said. “Shirl was a lot older than me; I was just a pup coming up [sorta true, I guess; Greer was 40, Prudhomme 33].
“Back then, the world championship didn’t really mean anything. It didn’t pay a whole lot,” he explained. “Winning a national event, yeah, but winning the championship wasn’t recognized that much at the time because we had to run some goofy deals [a mixed national and divisional schedule]. We were making our living out on the road touring. The following year, Winston came into the sport, and they brought in lots of money. They put up $25,000 for the winner of the world championship, and guess who won it? You’re looking at him. And for three years after that. I had my day in the sun. It was a good run. Great times. We came up in the entire best time for drag racing.”
Asked how he’s handling his post-racing retirement, Prudhomme said, “I had to start a whole new life. I drag raced for 50 years, and it took me about two or three years of nitro rehab to cut down, but I’m still a gearhead.”
Comparing the drivers of his era to those today, Prudhomme generously asserted, “I’d say that the guys and girls today are better drivers than we were doing it. They’re in better shape, they have better reaction times, they have a specific job to do. When Tony Schumacher drives that car, his most important job is leaving the starting line. They could go to the other end of the track with the front wheels way up in the air and make it through, but if they were late, you’d call them ‘a no-driving son of a bitch.’
“When we drove, yeah, you had to be on time, but you got out of the car at the other end and said, ‘We’ve got to put more weight on the clutch’ or ‘We have to do this or that,’ which is why I like to think that guys like Garlits and myself were quite successful because we knew how to tune the car. Today [because of data loggers], the [drivers] come back to the pits, and for the most part, they don’t say anything – they better not because the crew chief will slap them. You had to know what the car was doing, what the pistons looked like – if it was running lean or rich or if it needed more clutch.
“John Force has all the records today, and I love him, and let’s say he’s the best racer today, but for my generation, Don Garlits was amazing. He could weld the car, build the engine, tow it across the country, pull it out of the trailer, and set records and kick everybody’s ass. He was amazing.”
Garlits was up last, and he and McClelland spent a lot of time talking about his battery-powered effort to breach the 200-mph barrier, with “Big” championing them as the cars of the future for being neighbor friendly. “They’re quiet, but they’re exciting to watch; they do burnouts and everything but make the noise,” he said. He envisions a national event schedule where the teams would have to run their electric cars instead of their nitro cars so they don’t disturb the local communities at events like Pomona and Englishtown where the tracks are close to homes.
He’s clearly geeked up on the technology and its possibilities and for the chance to tinker once again.
“These [modern Top Fuelers] are all spec cars; I have no interest in anything like that,” he proclaimed. “If I can’t come back to the dragstrip every week with a change or some new idea, I ain’t interested. I’m like Dr. [Edward] Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, when they asked him about fusion, and he said [imagine Hungarian accent], ‘If it does not explode, I’m not interested.’ If I can’t make changes to my car and come back here next week with something different, I ain’t interested.”
His next shot at 200 on batteries – to match his first 200 on nitro -- will come in early December when he comes back from England, where he’s being inducted into the British Drag Racing Hall of Fame. Garlits added that he gets letters from all around the globe and invitations to take the car everywhere to display or run.
Speaking of “around the globe,” one of Garlits’ funniest stories involved his irrepressible crew chief, T.C. Lemons. “We used to barnstorm all over the country, running three or four times a week, and Tommy Lemons would tell me, ‘You’ve got to quit booking races [by] looking at the globe; you need to look at an actual map,’ ” said Garlits, with a laugh. “On the globe, it didn’t look that far from Florida to New York."
Like most of the others, Garlits was asked by McClelland what he would have been had he not been a drag racer. “My mother would have liked me to be an accountant,” he said, “but my stepfather stepped in and said, ’Don, you love cars, that’s what you should do,’ so I quit my job at the big department store making $39.50 a week and went to work in a body shop for $22.50. My mother had a fit, and my girlfriend never spoke to me again. It’s OK; I got a better girlfriend and a wife [Pat] out of it.” He went on to start his own garage, then a speed shop, then a Hall of Fame career.
Even though the shows were shorter than the Indy shows I reviewed here, I still enjoyed them. McClelland took a different tack than Indy emcee Bob Frey, and they’re both the best in the business, trusted and respected by those they interview, which allows them to ask the questions you and I couldn’t or wouldn’t.
On a side note, we had our new The History of the NHRA World Finals book for sale at the event (buy yours here!), and I decided that I’d try to get the legends to autograph four of the books as giveaways at the NHRA Membership Hospitality Center tent Sunday, which gave me the fun opportunity not only to welcome each of the legends, but also to spend a little time with each backstage while they signed the books. They each also received a free copy of the book as National Dragster’s gift to them.
They were all very gracious, even though they’d already signed their names a zillion times. I practically had to tow them backstage through the sea of admirers that stopped them every two feet for autographs – which they courteously signed even though there was a planned autograph session later in the day – to get their signatures. I’ve never been a big autograph seeker – trying to pretend I’m the cool, professional reporter instead of the supercharged fan I really am – but somehow, a fifth book was also there for them to sign, which they did.
I must have “accidentally” put my copy down there next to the others. Lucky me.
I have to admit, I was pretty stunned earlier this week when online voting concluded for the Most Memorable Moments in NHRA World Finals history and Shirl Greer’s amazing comeback from a nasty fire in qualifying to win the 1974 Funny Car championship was named to the top spot.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge Greer fan and am intimately familiar with the histrionics of that weekend at the 1974 World Finals at Ontario Motor Speedway, but it was up against a huge juggernaut in Tony Schumacher’s fabled “The Run” from the 2006 Finals and one of the most improbable performance-based scenarios in the sport’s history.
Also, 10 years ago, when we did a similar vote during the event’s 40th anniversary, Greer’s moment finished just ninth. This time, Greer’s rise from the ashes garnered a full third of the vote, easily outdistancing “The Run,” which earned 22 percent. John Force’s rollover at the 1992 event – winner of the vote 10 years ago – finished third with 11 percent, just ahead of Jeb Allen’s thrilling 1981 championship, which earned 10 percent (helped no doubt by the humbled-to-be-remembered Allen’s recent email exhorting friends to “vote for this guy,” showing a photo of the now fit and healthy champ on his mountain bike).
We lost Greer four years ago, but his sons, Brian and Van, continue to honor their father by annually presenting an award they call the Old Champs Choice award to racers they think their dad would have liked and through Brian’s creation with Anthony Dicero of a Nostalgia Funny Car reminiscent of his dad’s Mach I.
I heard from Brian earlier this week, and it was clear what the vote meant to him and his family. “I wanted to thank you and the entire staff at NHRA for listing Dad's championship as one of the top 10 moments,” he wrote. “It is a huge honor for my family and myself. Again, I cannot thank you guys enough and express how much it means to me and my family to be a part of the rich history of NHRA, and I thank you for all that you have done for us and for Dad.”
In honor of the win, I’d like to share some of the details of that great comeback, which I chronicled earlier this year in our National Dragster Readers Choice issue. I think a lot of people know the basics, but I was able to chat with many of those who helped to get about as complete a retelling as I think is possible. I think you’ll discover why the voters felt as they did.
From 1965 through 1973, NHRA’s championships were decided at the World Finals, where the top division finishers converged and the winner of the event’s final eliminations was crowned world champion. To some, it seemed an inequitable way to settle the season, with a year’s worth of hard work possibly disappearing in a millisecond of bad luck or breakage.
In 1974, NHRA returned to a points-based system (NHRA had crowned its first champions, from 1960 to 1964, on a points basis that relied heavily on divisional events), and few will forget that groundbreaking year, especially for the drama in one class, where it took a literal trial by fire for a champion to be forged.
Most people remember how Greer clinched the championship, but that was only the dramatic final act of a dream season that earned him the title he proudly wore until his passing in 2010.
A rough start
Greer’s championship was largely won on the divisional circuit, where he suffered through some rocky outings but often emerged victorious.
Greer’s championship season certainly didn’t start on a good foot. He skipped the first Winston Championship Series (WCS) divisional event of the season to run a well-paying match race, then bowed out in round one of the Gatornationals, where, despite holding lane choice, he picked the wrong lane and went up in smoke against Al Bergler.
In a late 1974 interview with National Dragster, Greer remembered, “When the year started and I had heard about that points deal, I thought it seemed like a pretty good idea, so we decided to give ’er a try. … I wasn’t aware at the time that you got bonus points for running all of the WCS races in your division, and that really hurt me later. [Losing early at the Gatornationals] really put us in a bad spot.”
With no incentive to race exclusively in his home division, Greer and crew traveled to the Division 4 event at La Place Dragway in Louisiana, where he not only won the race but qualified No. 1 and set low e.t. and top speed, all of which were worth points.
The momentum seemed ready to continue when Greer qualified No. 1 at his next event, the Division 2 WCS race at Virginia’s Suffolk Raceway, but when crewmembers dived into the trailer for a fresh batch of pistons to replace some they had burned, they discovered that their spare pistons had accidentally been left at home. He ran the engine on burned pistons in round one but could only run the car to 800 feet before throwing in the towel.
Paul Smith, Greer’s toughest competition not only in his division but, ultimately, in the battle for the season championship, won the event and assumed a commanding points lead.
Greer won the next Division 2 event in Blaney, S.C., but it also was not without adventure. He qualified No. 6 but again damaged the engine. As he was adjusting the valves, one of the springs worked loose and catapulted itself off the cylinder head and hit Greer, knocking him to the ground and out of action for a while. Ultimately, the team repaired the damage and Greer recovered and, showing remarkable composure, won the event on three straight holeshots, including in the final, where he beat Smith, 6.80 to 6.70.
Greer’s next event, the Springnationals in Columbus, was a humbling “die by the sword” experience because this time, he was the holeshot victim, losing to lower-qualified Tom McEwen on a 6.62 to 6.60 count. To make matters worse, Smith reached the semifinals, putting Greer further behind, and both trailed 1973 champ Frank Hall, who had won two of the three Division 4 events to date and had been runner-up at the season-opening Winternationals.
“When I look back at all of the dumb things we did early in the year, it really surprises me that we won [the championship],” Greer later admitted.
Things begin looking brighter
En route to the championship, Greer also scored his first (and only) Funny Car victory when he defeated Kosty Ivanoff in the final in Montreal.
What happened next changed the whole complexion of Greer’s season. Engine woes also knocked him out at his next race, the Summernationals, in round two, but Smith had bowed out in the opening stanza.
“If Smith hadn’t gone out in the first round, I would have quit the whole thing right there,” Greer said. “But he didn’t gain any more points on us, so I figured that we should give ’er one more try.”
That try took place at NHRA’s only non-U.S. event, Le Grandnational in Canada, where Greer and Smith qualified No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. Smith was upset on a semifinal holeshot by Kosty Ivanoff, and Greer defeated "Pee Wee" Wallace, Al Segrini, and, in the final, Ivanoff to claim his first national event win and pull within 21 points of Smith for the lead.
Hall bounced right back into the lead with a win at the Division 6 event in Seattle, but that was his final divisional event of the season, and when he surprisingly failed to qualify at his final points-earning national event, the U.S. Nationals, his total was sealed at 4,220, setting a goal for the two Southern rivals.
Greer, too, surprisingly failed to qualify in Indy, and Smith just barely scraped into the field in the No. 16 spot and lost in round one. Prudhomme won the race in what incredibly was his first Funny Car victory in more than two years in the class, and he suddenly became a factor for the championship battle.
Greer’s victory at the final Division 2 event of the year in Gainesville — which included a holeshot semifinal win over Smith, 6.91 to 6.77 — had momentarily given Greer the points lead over Smith, but Smith got bonus points for competing in all of the division’s races that year, which gave him the lead, 4,409 to 4,235, heading into the World Finals at Southern California’s Ontario Motor Speedway. Prudhomme was fourth, behind Hall (who could not earn points) and Greer (by 270 points).
A fiery finish
Incredibly, Smith failed to qualify after hurting his good rear end, and Greer was already solidly qualified and, with 200 points in the bank, in the points lead when he pulled to the starting line in Saturday’s final qualifying session hoping to better a 6.47.
At about the 800-foot mark, a crack in the crankshaft caused the main bearing to spin, and the No. 2 and No. 3 rods exited the side of the block. Oil poured onto the headers, igniting a ferocious blaze. Greer hit the fire bottles, but the engine kept running, pumping more oil into the blaze.
“The fire bottles would put out the flames some, but that oil would still keep coming out of the block as that engine just kept idlin’; it seemed like it would never shut off,” recalled Greer. “Before I knew it, the flames would just start coming up again.”
The entire rear section of the car had been burned away, and Greer was transported to a local hospital with second-degree burns on his hands and lesser burns on his face.
“As they took me away on the stretcher, I looked at the car and said to myself that that was the end of that one, and there was no way I was gonna get enough points to win,” said Greer.
No one wanted to see Greer’s season end that way, and in a wonderful display of sportsmanship and camaraderie, season-long rival Smith, fellow Funny Car racer Al Hanna, and a large group of others began thrashing on the wounded Mustang. From his hospital bed, Greer assured his crew that if they could fix it, he would find a way to drive it.
The remains of the car were hauled to engine builder Steve Montrelli’s nearby shop. Hanna took the lead role in the thrash, tearing apart the car’s driveline — clutch, two-speed, and rear end — while Montrelli built a new engine. Smith and his crew, meanwhile, took dimensions for the back half of the car and went to chassis builder Don Long’s shop to begin building a replacement rear end out of aluminum.
“We knew we didn’t have enough time to do it with fiberglass because there wasn’t enough time for it to set up, so we had to use aluminum,” recalled Smith.
Rising from the ashes
The newly formed rear end was attached to the remains of the body using rivets, screws, and duct tape, and everyone involved wrote messages on the aluminum and even drew on taillights and a license plate with a Magic Marker. It took 17 hours to resurrect Greer’s mount, and although the car certainly wouldn’t win any Best Appearing Car honors, it was deemed race-worthy.
“I got back to the track at 11 in the morning on Sunday, and when I saw the car all patched back together, I couldn’t believe it,” said Greer.
“It looked dastardly,” said Hanna, “and NHRA was really concerned about it, and it was Prudhomme — the guy with the most to lose and nothing to gain — who convinced them they needed to give Greer a chance.”
LeRoy “Doc” Hales was in his second year as medical director of the NHRA Safety Safari, and it was his duty to determine whether Greer could safely drive the car.
“Shirl’s hands received some nasty, painful, second-degree burns in the fire,” he remembered. “Fuel drivers were still wearing poor glove protection because they wanted flexibility with their fingers and hands.
“Jack Hart was the event director at that time and came to me and said he wanted to make sure that Shirl was safe to drive because of his burns. Jack and I called Shirl to the event office and told him to bring all the driving gloves he had. I examined his bare hands, which had the aforementioned nasty burns, and asked Shirl how he felt about driving.
“He said that his hands hurt, but he would be good to do what he had to. His hands were bandaged with ointment and gauze. I asked him to put on two pairs of gloves, which he did. I then put three of my fingers out and told Shirl to grab them with his hands, one at a time. I told him that if I could not pull my fingers from his grasp, he could drive; if I could get loose, then he couldn’t drive. I thought Shirl would break my fingers, he squeezed so hard, but I couldn’t pull my fingers out from his grip after two tries. Shirl wore his two pairs of driving gloves and WON! I am still grateful that Shirl held on during my ‘finger test!’ Imagine how I and everyone else would have felt if I and Jack Hart had disqualified him from driving that day.”
Greer’s safety equipment had been damaged in the fire, so Hanna loaned his buddy his firesuit and helmet, and Prudhomme came to the rescue by providing a set of garden gloves to cover Greer’s bandaged hands before he put on his fire gloves.
Down to the wire
Prudhomme had entered the race 270 points behind Greer, so he needed to go two rounds further than Greer to catch him.
Both Prudhomme and Greer won their first-round races; Prudhomme beat Gene Snow, but Greer’s victory over Leroy Chadderton was not without drama. In the hectic pit work, the blower bolts had only been put on hand-tightened, and although it survived until near the end of the run, it backfired in the lights, damaging the body again and the windshield.
There wasn’t a spare Mustang windshield to be found, so while the other mechanical work was being done, another pair of Funny Car racers, Gordie Bonin and Paul Radici, set about adapting a Vega windshield to the car. When the second round began, the team was still in the pits, working hard, but all work stopped for a second, and ears were tuned to the PA system when Prudhomme pulled up to race Dale Pulde. Pulde beat Prudhomme with a stunning 6.16 national record blast in Mickey Thompson’s Grand Am.
“We were still working on the car right up until the minute that Pulde beat Prudhomme and still probably could’ve got ’er done with just five or 10 minutes more time,” said Greer. “But when Prudhomme got beat and they started announcing that I had won the world championship, I told everybody to just forget it. Everyone had worked too hard already, and it would’ve been pretty shaky to make another run.”
Greer finished with 4,641 points, Smith with 4,409, and Prudhomme with 4,380.
“All the rest of the day, I just couldn’t believe that we actually won, and it took a while for it to hit me,” said Greer. “I just can’t thank all the people who helped me enough. All of the racers, especially Smith and Prudhomme, who lost out on a lot of money with me winning the title, were just tremendous. I can’t thank ’em enough.”
“It was a well-deserved championship, to come back from that fire and still run,” admitted Prudhomme years later. “They don’t make ’em like that anymore.”
Congratulations to Greer and his family, again. It was a moment well worth remembering and saluting.