Features

Farewell, "Friendly Fran"Friday, January 10, 2014
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Social media is the buzz phrase of the new millennium, allowing instant commentary by and about practically anyone. Thanks to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, it isn’t terribly hard to find out what today’s drag racing stars are doing both personally and professionally: Who has a new car coming? Who’s found a new love interest? Who’s on the mend from a freak accident?

But back in the sport’s earlier days, social media in the drag racing world meant a little different thing and was the domain of two high-energy, highly inquisitive, and well plugged-in ladies named Suzy and Fran who gave the drag racing fans a little higher peek under the societal curtain than the harder news found in National Dragster’s Bits from the Pits or Drag News’ similar Shuck n’ Jive column.

You don’t have to have been a National Dragster reader very long to know the name Suzy Beebe (nee Kelly), who had written a social-style column for me as recently as 2011. The red-headed dynamo actually had two stints under my watch, the first being in 2006, and also had written a series of The Women of Drag Racing columns for ND in the 1970s. Before that, Suzy had made a name for herself in the drag racing print world as the sport’s first “society page” reporter with a 1960s Drag News column called The Social Side, which ran for years and ultimately was succeeded in 1976 by a beautiful and vivacious young former Texan who soon became known far and wide to the racing community as “Friendly Fran.”

For as fast as the news of the week’s Friendly's Facts column traveled, it’s ironic that we’re just now learning of her passing more than two months ago, Nov. 22, in Liberty, Texas,

Frances Louise Rooks was born in Houston in 1946 but moved west with her family to California and the heart of the sport and graduated from La Jolla High School near San Diego in 1964.

A typical Friendly's Facts. Ace lensman Barry Wiggins shot the memorable pic.

It didn’t take long before her stunning looks led to a career in modeling and also won her titles, such as Miss Pacific Beach, Miss Corvette, Fairest of the Fair (San Diego County Fair 1966), and Miss Congeniality of the Miss California Pageant. The fashion runway may have been her ticket to fame, but she much preferred a different straight line and became enamored first with street racing and then the legit side of things as a regular on the NHRA tour, and the object of desire of many of the single guys in the pits. The full-length side shot of her in a bikini that topped her weekly column also did nothing to hurt her popularity, and some of those single guys didn’t remain single long. She first married Top Fuel racer Bob Williams, then later another fuel dragster pilot in Flip Schofield (she was listed as Fran Schofield during the time of her column). She had a relationship (but not a marriage) with Pro Comp ace and future hall of fame crew chief Dale Armstrong and later married another tuning great, Lee Beard.

Friendly’s Facts launched in the Jan. 17, 1976, issue of Drag News, just after the ever-creative and well-connected Don Rackemann took ownership from Doris Herbert, who had run Drag News since the late 1950s. My good pal and uber historian Dave Wallace Jr. was her editor then. He sent me some of her past columns to enjoy and remembered her and her work fondly.

“As did Suzy before her, Fran traveled some with San Diego-based Cyr & Schofield, later extensively with Double-A/Dale during his Pro Comp and fuel coupe years," he wrote. "Thus, she was right in the midst of the pro-type action. She was actually a decent writer with pretty-good judgment about what should and shouldn't be published. In latter cases, she'd drop clever hints to make readers wonder about the identities of guilty parties.”

Young Fran Rooks, third from left, with Jack Jones' team in 1967.
(Above) Fran pouring the "glue" for husband Bob Williams in 1969 and performing the same chore for hubby Flip Schofield (below) in 1973.

Whether she was regaling fans with the highlights and lowlights of racer parties (Frank Bradley in a yellow crochet bikini?), talking about the latest driver swap or the hottest new parts combo, or almost dropping the dime on a wayward wedlocker, she was entertaining, engaging, and, most importantly, seldom inaccurate. The 1970s were the heydays of some of the sport’s real characters, and “Friendly” let you get to know them even better and, at least in Beard’s mind, helped its personality grow.

Beard, who first dated Fran in the 1980s and then was married to her for two years until their breakup in 1984 – after which she pretty much left the NHRA tour to pursue a career in real estate – was effusive in his praise for her place in the sports history.

“There are a lot of people who have played a big role in helping our sport grow that never drove or owned or worked on a car — people like National Dragster’s John Jodauga and his art, for example — and Fran was definitely one of those,” Beard told me Wednesday. “She was very passionate about racing — she loved the sport as much as any competitor, be it driver, crew chief, or owner — and I think she really had a very big impact on the sport in the way she was able to talk about and get people to know the stars of the sport at the time.”

Another pretty blonde, Linda Vaughn, played matchmaker for Fran and Armstrong, introducing them one year at Ontario Motor Speedway while he was killing 'em in Pro Comp in the late 1970s.

“She was a real drag racing enthusiast and had a bold personality about her, which is what it takes to do a job like that,” said Armstrong. “She was always talking to people and was pretty good with her research. She’d travel with me to NHRA and IHRA races or sometimes fly in to a race. She was always in the middle of whatever was going on; she obviously had no problem making friends.”

Carl Olson, another Top Fuel star of the 1970s, also fondly remembered “Friendly Fran” in an email he sent me.

"I don't think I ever knew anybody that didn't like Fran,” he wrote. “She was bright, extremely attractive, totally uninhibited, and loved to have a good time. She enjoyed the friendship and support of nearly everyone in the sport with whom she came in contact.

“She was anything but shy,” he remembers, probably understating the obvious. “I'm sure she'd be delighted to know that her old friends and acquaintances were telling all of the best stories of her many shenanigans. I certainly have a few of my own, not to mention the couple years that I served as her unofficial ‘shoulder to cry on’ as the unending dramas unfolded in her life. While we all remember the good times, Fran lived through some very bad times as well, including a devastating towing accident in which her first husband, Bob Williams, was grievously injured, and I believe that one of their crewmembers [Fran's brother, Fred] was killed. Fran was very lucky to have survived with minimal injuries.

“The more I think about ‘Friendly,’ the more I appreciate what she brought to the sport. She was a huge part of the fabric that brought the drag racing community together socially in a different, and less PC time.”

I also asked Olson how her tidbits were received in the pits, whether people feared or loved being included in her columns for their good or bad deeds.

Fran's past modeling skills came in handy when she served as the occasional model for car features shot by the great Steve Reyes, who I thank deeply for all of the Fran photos on this page. That's her with the Stephens & Venables entry.

“Those most likely to get people in hot water were the early ones published in Drag News,” he remembered. “By the time she started writing for other publications, she'd been instructed to tone down her "revelations" enough to keep as many marriages together as possible.

“Most everyone I knew, myself included, tended to be disappointed if they didn't make her columns from time to time.”

And that, my friends, is about as glowing a comment as a column writer could ever receive. You probably weren’t really someone until you were on Fran’s radar.

I didn’t know her all that well myself — she was on her way out almost as soon as I was coming in — but looking back over her body of work from old issues of Drag News, I definitely respect her hard work and entertaining style.

Fran is survived by her husband, Dante Johnson; son Christopher Williams and his wife, Lisa; granddaughter Grace Williams; and brother Jim Partin and wife Marye. In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting that donations be made to the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA).

I got a lot of kind words and some harsh admonishments after I announced a few weeks ago that I had broken my leg playing hockey, with the latter mostly along the what-the-hell-were-you-thinking? theme, apparently for playing such a rough sport at my age. Dang, folks, even though I can write about the 1950s doesn’t mean I came from there. Although surely no longer in prime condition, I’m still a hearty 53-year-old, blood-pumping, competitive sort of fellow. Sure, the bumps and the bruises and sore muscles take longer to get over, but the love of the game makes it all worthwhile.

It was an innocent enough play; two big fellas barreling along the rink in single minded pursuit of the puck, each knowing that the collision was imminent but neither refusing to blink. We collided like two steam locomotives, and both staggered backwards from the blow. The only problem was that my backstep also gave my right ankle a half twist inward, and I fell backwards over it, landing flat on my back with my ankle below me in a way they’re just not supposed to bend. I heard and felt the crack and knew my season was probably done. Against better judgment, I had my team take me back to our bench and then demanded that they not only let me walk out of there on my own power (macho overload, methinks) but also drive myself home (this is my gas foot, remember?).

I iced the hell out of it overnight but decided I’d better have it checked out the next morning. The first doctor thought maybe just a bad sprain, but the X-ray said otherwise: broken distal tibia. For those lacking a medical dictionary, it’s the main leg bone, broken just above the ankle. Fortunately, my walking (and driving) on it had not displaced the fracture, or it would have meant surgery. Yeah, I was pretty stupid but damned lucky.

The timing, just a few days before Christmas, was bad for the planned family vacation but good for my recovery as NHRA was shut down from Dec. 20 through Jan. 2, so I spent a lot of time lying on the couch, playing Xbox, and watching college football bowls until I went just about stir crazy. The first two glorious days of being waited on by my patient and caring family soon turned into a living hell with a half-leg cast that itched almost as badly as my desire to cut it off and a terrible case of cabin fever.

I thought many times of using the down period to write, but the pain, the necessity to keep my leg elevated, and the medication pretty much made that impossible. Jan. 2 finally arrived, and I was happy to get back to work, which remains torturous in that I still have to keep it elevated, making it really hard to work. My wonderful staff has been very helpful — special kudos to Robyn Wagner and Teresa Long for going on a building-wide scavenger hunt to cobble together a new tray/footrest combination — and I hope to be well and fully mobile by Pomona. Thanks to everyone for their well wishes.

 

A couple of other quick notes:

We have hired a new associate editor to replace John Jodauga at National Dragster. His name is John Hoven, and Insider regulars will remember him for the column he wrote here two years ago about his dad, who raced Funny Cars in the early 1970s. He's been on the job since Jan. 2 but already is making lots of new friends and acquaintances and will continue to do so as the year goes on. If you see him at the digs, stop him and say hey. He's a great guy.

A couple of sad notes from over the winter were the losses of Funny Car driver Chris Lane, who was a great and friendly interview during the time he was driving the late Ron Sutherland's Desert Rat; former Top Gas standout Rico Paris; Steve Kalb, crew chief of his brother's Top Fueler, an original member of the Cragar 5-Second Club; and longtime Virginia-based nitro and Top Alcohol Funny Car racer Butch Kernodle, best known for his string of All-American entries.

We've got some new daily columns over at NationalDragster.net for NHRA members or site subscribers, showcasing some of the great photos from the ND archives, plus the return of an old favorite column, Backtrackin'. Check 'em out.

And one fun note to end on. In my coverage of the recent Orange County Int'l Raceway Reunion at the NHRA Museum, I mentioned that legendary track owner/promoter Bill Doner had been coerced into revoicing one of his famous race ads. I taped the entire program and excerpted that segment here. Doner commercial

I'll see you all next week.

 
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