Crossing hands at the finish line
Based on feedback from last week’s column, it looks like a lot of you are on board for another ride down the in-car highway as photos and suggestions have come flowing in since the column was published.
Those of you who read the column early Friday may not have revisited it to see the note that I added to the Herm Petersen item. I had mentioned that I remembered one of the frames from the motordrive sequence shot at the 1972 U.S. Nationals appeared to show Petersen with his arms practically crossed on what I assumed was the butterfly steering wheel, perhaps attributable to the car becoming a handful at the stripe, but Herm dropped me a quick note to explain that was merely him using his right hand to reach across the cockpit to pull the parachute, whose lever was on the left side of the cockpit. That, of course, begged the obvious question on why the cockpit was set up that way.
“I always kept my left hand on the wheel,” he explained in response. “I would trip the chute with a sweeping motion and then go directly to the brake handle on the right and never had to let go of the steering wheel!” I guess that makes sense.
I asked Herm about the mount that our own Leslie Lovett had used to get the great pics, and he said that he was pretty sure that Don Long had built the tripod-style mount for Lovett out of 4130 chrome-moly tubing. All they had to do to mount the tripod was to take off the front portion of the body; two legs went on the left upper frame rail and one on the right and stood at about 3-4 feet tall. “It was a very safe mount; I was very comfortable with it,” he added.
Marc Gewertz did me a huge favor of poring through the thick book of contact sheets of photos shot at that event and came across numerous photos that were taken either by Lovett or his fellow ND staffers, showing the actual tripod, Lovett discussing the procedure with Petersen, and photos of the car on the track with the mount. He scanned them up for us, and they’re all included in the gallery at right. Make sure you use the "Larger Image" tool to get a better look.
The Lovett sequence of Bennie Osborn blasting down the track at Tulsa Int’l Raceway brought back good memories from Bill McLauchlan, as the 1968 Finals was his first NHRA national event. “I remember that Lovett attached a tripod-like mechanism on the framerails (the nose piece was removed from the car for the photo shoot during qualifying),” he wrote. “I have attached a picture showing Osborn suiting up prior to the run, and you will notice the absence of the nose piece as well as one of the tripod legs; however, the camera is out of the shot. I’ve seen another picture of the car launching off the starting line, which shows a better view of the camera setup.”
Bennie Osborn suiting up; Lovett tripod visible at far left
It’s hard to say whether the same rig was used for both the Osborn (1968) and Petersen (1972) images, but my guess would be they’re the same. McLauchlan was also one of many who sent me other in-car shots that, as he pointed out, have become “Internet staples” that I’ll be rolling out as we go.
You’ve always read a lot of admiration from me for Lovett, who was National Dragster’s longtime photo editor from the late 1960s until his passing in 1996, so I got to work with and learn from him for 14 years, but I’m not sure that I’ve shown many photos of him. The Insider’s good pal, Steve Reyes, was happy to rectify that for us while staying on topic with this photo he took at a divisional event at Southern California’s Carlsbad Raceway in 1969, setting up the rig to shoot John Peters’ famous twin-engine Freight Train Top Gas dragster. I’ve never seen the result of these photos published anywhere, but I’ll keep my eyes open.
Reyes also passed along another photo, showing Don “the Snake” Prudhomme, at the wheel of the Shelby's Super Snake Top Fueler, carrying along a Hot Rod magazine camera at the 1968 PDA race at Orange County Int’l Raceway. The resultant image can be found in Tom Madigan’s book, Fuel & Guts: The Birth of Top Fuel Drag Racing, as well as in the gallery to the right.
Henry Timmerman, a frequent photographic contributor to National Dragster in the past, correctly pointed out that the in-car photo of Bruce Allen at Indy appeared to be still in the bleach box and not a little downtrack as I had surmised from the location of the shifter levers. “I believe back then Pro Stocks typically started their burnouts in 3rd gear,” he noted. “When I looked above the hood scoop and saw what seems to be people and the lane divider wall, it confirmed what I thought.” Good call!
Kevin Rowe sent in the photo above that shows the Des Moines, Iowa-based Rowe and Jones Top Fueler owned by his dad, Ralph, and Bobby Jones with Dave Anderson at the wheel in a photo that was taken at a Division 5 meet in Brainerd in 1971 by the staff of the Des Moines Register and Tribune. “A writer and cameraman came with us and did a big story about the team as, at that time, my dad and Earl Binns, also one of dads’ future drivers, were the only people in the state with Top Fuel cars,” he remembers. “In that photo, the motor was just letting go at the top end of first round, and we won but did not have another motor. Earl Binns, at the time, had his own car, came over, took the motor out of his car, and put it in dad’s car! How cool is that? From there, I am not sure how that race turned out.” Anderson left the team to drive the famed Pollution Packer rocket car, in which he later lost his life March 1974.
||These two photos of Tom McEwen in the Yeakel Plymouth slingshot reportedly were the handiwork of Bob D’Olivo, with the camera switching sides between passes. The left-hand photo for sure was shot at Lions Dragstrip, and while I can’t be 100 percent certain, I’d reckon the other one was, too.
||Photographer and date unknown, but what I do know is that Jess Sturgeon gave fans a great look at Top Fuel racing down the Riverside quarter-mile from his perspective with this photo.
||This is Mike Sorokin at the wheel of the fabled surfers Top Fueler. I’m not sure of the who, the where, or when in the did-it category, but the primary thing everyone picks up on with this three-shot sequence is the helmet almost being pulled off of Sorokin’s head at speed.
OK, that’s it for today. Next week, a look at some early attempts at in-car video.
Not many of us are ever going to know what it feels like to be inside a Top Fueler blasting down the track or fight the wheel of a Funny Car as it bucks its way down the track. The proliferation of onboard video cameras in all forms of motorsports has given all of us a bit of a glimpse into how that world looks, but long before that ever happened, drag racing photographers were finding ways to do the same with their still cameras.
These types of photos have always intrigued me, and I had the chance to work with the late, great Leslie Lovett on many of his later experiments with techniques and to understand how some of the earlier ones were taken, and I’ve gathered a collection of them below to share.
(The ol’ broken leg — getting better every day, thanks for asking — has kept me mostly deskbound and out of the actual photo library that houses what surely must be millions of photographs taken by National Dragster staff members or submitted for publication in our fair magazine over the last 53-plus years. Although I’ve learned to balance and/or hop on one foot with a skill level that would surely embarrass any six-year-old playground hopscotch hotshot, it’s just not a comfortable way to go through file drawer after file drawer looking for what I need — especially when I’m sometimes just on a fishing episode and not really sure what I’m looking for. Fortunately for all of us, we have, over the last dozen or so years, scanned and filed a lot of images — looks like about three terabytes of stuff dating back to the 1950s — that are available for browsing on a file server, so I’ve been spending a lot of time combing through all of the folders and subfolders that hold a good portion of our sport’s history.)
Today, it seems like everyone and their brother has a Go-Pro camera mounted to their snowboard helmet or motorcycle, so that type of “first-person” photography has become expected, but it definitely was new and fresh in the 1960s when the dragstrip photogs started laying around.
Early on in the game, you had two choices after you mounted the camera: set it on a timer to open the shutter after a pre-set delay or give the driver a way to do it remotely. The advent of auto winders and/or motordrives made the process a whole lot easier because once the button was pushed to take the first image, it would continue firing until the roll of film was exhausted.
The trick then became one of math: If you motordrive fired at three frames per second and you have a typical 36-shot roll of film, you had enough for 12 seconds, plenty enough for a nitro car or Pro Stocker. Leslie would have the camera set up, flip the switch as the driver was staging, and that was it. By the time the car had the chute out, the roll was filled.
When the drives began reaching five frames per second, the window obviously became a lot narrower, and I remember him using various remote controlled sensors to begin the sequence once the Tree turned green, for example. Today, motordrives are capable of 12-14 frames a second, but with digital cameras, putting the images onto a disc, you’re not facing the same issue of limited number of frames.
Let’s take a look at some great examples of this type of early work.
In my mind, this is one of the most famous of the bunch because it was the front page image after Bennie “the Wizard” Osborn won his second straight NHRA Top Fuel championship with his second consecutive win at the World Finals at Tulsa International Raceway.
Lovett captured the whole run, from tire-smoking leave to parachute out, using 34 frames. The front cover image was chosen because you can see the distinctive Tulsa tower behind the cockpit. As you can see in the proof sheet of negatives at right (you’ll have to enlarge it by clicking on the link), he fired off three or four test images (you can see the push truck behind the car) and then set it loose just as the car was leaving the line. (The images begin at the bottom of each strip of film)
It looks like the actual photo used was about the third pic; other images have some blur, perhaps from tire or chassis vibration or wind — obviously, he had to mount the camera on the framerail well in front of the engine. You’ll notice that by the end of the run, the frame has shifted slightly because you can see more of the blower pulleys at the end of the run than you can in the beginning. You can see the exact instant he took his foot off the loud pedal as the injectors closed, followed two frames later by the first hint of the parachute deploying, then blossoming. I picked one of the car chutes out to accompany the launch photo.
What really strikes me about these images is that Osborn — and every racer who let Lovett put a camera on their car — trusted him implicitly that the thing wasn’t going to fall off mid-run and clock them in the head or fall beneath the tires. Leslie had that way about him; everyone loved him, and everyone trusted him.
|A few years later, Lovett duplicated the Osborn experiment with recent Insider feature subject Herm Petersen, doing an end-of-end sequence at the U.S. Nationals in, what I think is, 1972. It’s also quite a dramatic series of pics that show him blasting through the traps. I don’t have immediate access to the whole sequence, but I remember in one of the last ones, it almost looks like his hands are crossed on the wheel as he fights to keep the car straight. This image is still plenty nice, showing the old Hurst crossover bridge and tower; unmistakably Indy.
Update: Just heard from Herm, who explains that his hands appeared crossed because he used to use his right hand to pull the chute-release level, which was on the left side of the cockpit. This car, by the way, was the first rear-engined car in the Northwest and the car in which he won the big PDA event at Orange County Int'l Raceway in 1972, beating hitters like Don Garlits and Tom McEwen en route.
||I’m not sure who gets credit for the next trio of images, but I love them, too. Above is obviously “Big Daddy” Don Garlits melting the hides on a pass in what is either 1964 or 1965 (his 1964 U.S. Drag Team decal is visible on the cowl). The camera must have been mounted on the cowl, just behind the blower.
The image at left reminds me of the Osborn pics, though it’s a little more in-your-face to the injector. I’m not sure who this is — some people think it's also Garlits — but it kinda looks like Carlsbad Raceway.
I’m not really sure who is responsible for the image below, but it was taken from the vantage point of the cockpit of Darrell Gwynn’s Alcohol Dragster during Florida’s winter series event. The Tree is kind of blurred on the right, but you can see Gwynn’s hand still on the handbrake, which must mean he just launched.
There’s a lot going on in this photo of Bruce Allen at the wheel of the Reher-Morrison Pro Stocker at Indy in 1986. I’m pretty sure that this was taken during the Mr. Gasket Pro Stock Challenge bonus race. Lovett mounted a camera in the “passenger seat” and began firing as soon as Allen took the green. You can see by his hand on the Lenco shift lever that he’s already a bit down track, either just having pulled third or preparing to do so.
Lovett mounted a camera on the “dashboard” of Ed McCulloch’s Miller American Olds Funny Car at the 1988 U.S. Nationals to get this great shot of “the Ace” during his burnout, You can see him correcting the wheel to the left and smoke filling the cockpit, highlighted by the sun streaming through the side window.
Here’s another image that ran on the cover of National Dragster, taken in mid-burnout from the vantage point high on the wing of Gary Ormsby’s Castrol GTX Top Fueler. Obviously, wings are tricky business, and the camera didn’t make the full pass — we certainly didn’t want to cause a wing-strut failure or something crazy — but it is a neat birds-eye lens. The race was rain-delayed a week, so we were able to use this on the cover of the rainout edition; unless Ormsby had won the race, we certainly wouldn’t have thought of putting it on the cover otherwise.
I know there are a lot more pics like these out there, so send them my way; I’d love to show them off.
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.
Ask any 500 Tommy Ivo fans which of his many, many race cars is his most famous, and it’s a pretty safe bet that 495 of them will say it’s his wild four-engine Showboat. And who could blame them? With four Buick engines snorting at once and driving all four wheels, it was an unforgettable sight.
But, in the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction department, “TV Tommy” actually only got to drive his signature car about a dozen times two decades apart.
The legions of fans who tell their grandchildren about seeing Ivo drive the car more than likely saw either Ron Pellegrini (1960s) or Rick Johnson (1980s) behind the wheel of the smoke-churning beast when it did its thing at dragstrips far and wide across the country.
It’s a curious lament that Ivo must sing whenever he talks about the car, but it's one that he has accepted over time and one about which both he and Pellegrini were happy to share the details with me. Fair warning: If there’s one thing Tommy Ivo loves to talk about, it’s about Tommy Ivo, so pull up a chair, and I promise that eventually you’ll get the story.
The pre-story begins in 1960, the year before the Showboat first turned four tires on the track. As I shared here in a previous column, that was the year that Ivo took his first tour of the country with his side-by-side twin-Buick-engine dragster and an eager young crewman named Don Prudhomme in tow.
Knowing that Ivo would be far from his Southern California base, Pellegrini offered his Chicago-area speed shop (Speed Craft, located in Maywood, Ill.) as a base and a haven, and Ivo gratefully accepted. Ivo had never met Pellegrini or seen him before and was in for a surprise when he did.
“We walked through the door of his shop and there stood Herman Munster!” Ivo recalled. “Pellegrini is the only guy in the world with a ‘longer’ face than Fred Gwynne. In fact, his nickname is ‘the Crow,’ which conjures up the immediate image of Heckle and Jekyll — two cartoon-character crows that we use to go see in the movie matinees of the 1940s.
Ivo and Prudhomme ready to head out with the twin for the 1960 tour.
“His shop consisted of a small front counter sales room and a decent-sized shop in the rear where they outfitted getaway cars for the Cicero thugs of the era. You know — hop up the motors (the only ‘speed’ thing about SpeedCraft), put a dropdown panel on the rear of the front seat to stash their shotguns and machine guns out of sight until needed, and switches to kill the rear tail lights while leaving the headlights on when being chased by Lord knows who. That was pretty high tech for the day. Yee Gods, I expected to see Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and the FBI walk in the front door and carry us all off to the slumber at any moment … but, as luck would have it, ‘working on the car’ at Pellegrini's was one of the highlights of the tour, and he ended up being one of my dearest friends over the years to come. Yes, I'm a glutton for punishment!!!"
Ivo air-quoted “working on the car” because, other than cleaning up the car between weekends, they didn’t have to actually do a lot of work on the car, as it seldom broke.
“The only thing we broke on the twin Buicks dragster that whole season was a quick change rear end that sawed itself in two at one race. That could've been disastrous if the rear end wasn't offset to one side to line up with the clutch on the left-side engine," recalled Ivo, who walked away with just a bruise on his hip.
“Well, we also did ‘break’ the 180-mph barrier on gasoline at two different tracks as well,” he said, enjoying the pun. “We had already been the first to run 170 mph on the West Coast, but that was in the sandlot days, and if we had to do any heavy engine work, it was not a between-rounds fix in 45 minutes like nowadays. It took six men and a small boy to get the motors out of the car as a package of two and then split them, and I didn't even see a chain hoist in Pellegrini's place strong enough to do that.”
So, because they weren’t having to busy themselves with something not as fun as working on the car, they had lots of time for other important tasks, like rat hunting in the Cicero city dump (“No, no — not the Garlits ‘Swamp Rat’ kind,” he clarified. “Real rats, with long tails … although they both have beady little eyes, especially when I did something ‘Swampie’ didn't like — which was most of the time.” < Ivo-type grin>).
According to Ivo, Pellegrini had an in with the Cicero cops, so they’d feel pretty sure they’d stay on the right side of the law when they headed out to the dump with sawed-off shot guns and Tommy guns, with spotlights duct-taped to the guns, to blast the rodents, who were drawn by the waste dumped by the Campbell Soup company (“That was better to the rats than the hot dog stand to a starving drag racer,” Ivo noted).
Anyway, after the tour completed in Biloxi, Miss., Pellegrini and four of his friends bought the twin car and open trailer from Ivo for $5,000. Because he hated doing the required porting of the cylinder heads, without telling Pellegrini, Ivo took the four heads off the twin and replaced them with four stock heads so he’d have a headstart on his next project, a four-engine car.
Prudhomme, Ivo, and the Showboat
“I had already figured out that there was money to be made in drag race touring, and if the fans liked two motors, they'd love four,” Ivo reasoned.
Ivo had the four-engine car built in his two-car garage in Burbank, Calif., for about $4,000. Master chassis builder Kent Fuller did the framework for $15 an hour, Buick supplied the four engines, each with a displacement of 464 cubic inches (1,856 total), and a host of suppliers (led by Iskenderian and Weiand) gave him free parts. Ivo estimates that the car would cost about $250,000 to build today. Industrial chain couplers were used to tie each pair of engines together. The engines on the left side of the car faced backwards and powered the front differentia — which featured a reverse ring gear, originally engineered for the four-wheel-drive Novi Indycars, to make it run 'backwards” — and the right-side engines powered the rear differential. It weighed more than a ton and a half.
Before he even got a chance to drive the car, Ivo was hired for the male lead role as “the 10-thumbed bumbling” Haywood Botts in the television series Margie for 1961 and 1962, and the studio bosses were not keen on their star climbing into such a contraption, nor even had they given their blessing did his schedule allow him to be both television star and a “dashing, handsome touring race car driver,” as he called it. “I somehow always knew I should stay away from that 3,500-pound four-engine Sherman tank,” he says. “It was an omen I think.”
So he hired his crewman, Prudhomme, giving him his first starring role (or, possibly, as Ivo sometimes tells it, a chance to be his “test pilot” in the wild, new machine).
Prudhomme drove the car locally but only pocketed $25 (plus expenses) of the car’s $500 booking fee. Ivo promised a steady income if Prudhomme took the car on tour, but, according to Ivo, Prudhomme’s then-girlfriend (and soon-to-be wife) Lynn “put the kibosh” on him heading east for another summer tour. Mutual friend Tom McCourry, who had been helping on the car, was then offered the seat. “I had the distinction to be the first one to fire Prudhomme!” Ivo noted, with a “happy Ivo-type grin” thrown in.
Ivo got his first — and for 20 years, his only — ride in the car at the old San Gabriel track because of an oversight: They forgot to put the seatbelts into the car.
“We sent a faithful dog on a run back to the shop to get them, but we had to make the first run without them,” he said. “McCourry's back grew a big yellow streak down it, and he didn't want to hear any of it. So that became my first ride in the car. They tied me in the car with ropes to make the run. Nice! And that was really my one and only ride until I got it back again in 1982 to run it for my 30th anniversary and last match race tour.”
Pellegrini, second from right next to Ivo — you can see the height difference that Pellegrini mentions — as he took possession of the Showboat.
You could say that Pellegrini stayed in a lot of motels along the way.
Pellegrini made exhibition runs at the 1961 Nationals in Indy.
After McCourry, Pellegrini was offered the ride and says he flew out to California to pick up the car. (Ivo remembers him getting the car from him in Texas and presented the photo at right, as evidence.)
Pellegrini is sticking by his version: “I remember talking to Don when I came to get the car and how disappointed he was that he was not going on tour,” he maintains, “but that turned out to be the best thing for him as he ended up with the Greer-Black-Prudhomme ride and his accession to his fame.
“I took the car directly to Minnesota Dragway, never having driven the car, for a booked-in appearance. Because I was taller than Tom, my head stuck out above the rollbar, and I had to drive the car with no shoes as I could not get my size 12s on the pedals. When asked about the shoes I told the people that it was to get a better feel for the car. The 1961 tour was an eye opener for me as there was no format to follow. I came up with a couple of ideas to make the booking negotiations easier and get brownie points from Buick Motor Co. I would put the car on display at a local Buick dealer, and, in exchange, they would advertise that the car was on display at their show room and appearing at the race track that weekend.
“The car was great to tour with as it was almost maintenance free. All that was necessary was to change the oil and plugs and adjust the valves. Even though it was powered by four fire-breathing Buicks, it was not competitive due to its weight and drivetrain configuration. The car was a dream to drive, but due to weight transfer, it would not smoke the rear tires. Tom talked about connecting all four motors together but never followed up on it as he started fuel racing. Who knows what would have happened if all four motors were connected together?”
(Pellegrini got a chance to get even with Ivo — as Ivo sees it — for the cylinder-head swap on the twin. Pellegrini had Ivo’s gasoline credit card to fill the tow rig. “And he'd fill the tow car gas tank up, as well as all his buddy's tanks, with a cash kickback from them, every weekend,” Ivo reports. “I had so much going on at the time, I really wasn't scrutinizing my credit cards all that well, and Ron figured this out right away when I didn't ask how he put 60 gallons for gas in the tow car. Oh, I'm sure he'd have told me it was for both the dragster and the tow car. Yeah, right!!! The four-engine car used one gallon of gas a run — and the other 37 gallons went where? Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm!!!”)
Pellegrini ran the car for the 1961, '62, and '63 seasons, running at least once a week. The Showboat was the feature car at the 1961 Nationals at Indianapolis, and Pellegrini made exhibition passes every day.
“The car was booked solid, and all I had to do was make three tire-smoking runs to fulfill the contracts,” said Pellegrini. “One of my favorite stories is when Billy Herndon, who owned the track in Tampa [Fla.], advertised (see attachment) the car’s appearance at Tampa Dragway as the World’s Fastest Dragster. You can guess who resides in the Tampa area and took offense at the proclaimed title of World's Fastest. Garlits appeared that night at the track with his trusty black steed to lay down the challenge. Try as he might, we were never able to line up at the same time, but that's another story open for interpretation. Still, in its various incarnations, it was undoubtedly one of the drag racing world's most popular and enduring cars.”
Promoters were forever asking Pellegrini to match race the car against other competition, but he knew that the car just wasn’t built for speed and perhaps was losing some of its popularity; Ivo agreed and sold the car after the 1963 season to McCourry, who ran the car (and later had Tom Hanna make a Buick station wagon body for the car, renamed the Wagon Master) for the next five years before selling it to Norm Day.
Ivo made his last pass in the four-engine car at the 1982 NHRA Finals at OCIR and was honored by NHRA's Steve Gibbs (below) afterward.
Ivo and Pellegrini (and RP's ponytail) today; still pals.
Ivo did get the car back — complete with the station wagon body — for what he hoped would be an around-the-country farewell tour, complete with his famous glass-sided trailer, in 1982. He didn’t get very far. At his third stop, and after just a dozen passes, he crushed three vertebrae in his back after running over a frost heave under the track in Saskatoon, Sask. Funny Car driver Rick Johnson drove the car the rest of the year.
Not content to go out with a whimper, Ivo climbed back into the car at the 1982 World Finals at Orange County Int’l Raceway, stuffed about a dozen pillows into the cockpit to cushion him, and made his final pass. He drove the car back to the starting line, jumped on top of the car, took a pair of BBQ tongs and set alight his driving gloves with one of the portable propane track driers. “They all say they ‘burned their gloves.' I wanted to go out with some dramatic flair,” he explained. “Problem is I took a brand-new pair of driving gloves and burned them up. No one ever called me the sharpest knife in the drawer.”
Although he seldom drove it and his driving career ended with a huge bump in the road, he’s still glad he built the iconic machine.
“Had I have never built that four-engine car, I may not have ever stood the test of time to be remembered today,” he reasons. “I was dumbfounded when my book came out in 2012, and it sold like hot cakes. We went into a second printing in the second month out. I thought we'd sell 10 of them and get eight of them back. And I am completely convinced that the dreaded four-engine car had a heavy hand in making that happen.
“Both Ron Pellegrini and Tom McCourry were excellent representatives for me, and many people think to this day it was me that they saw driving it in all the early years. Only when Pellegrini told me the car was done in popularity after his two years of touring it back east did I sell it to McCourry, who it ran two more years as a dragster and several years after that. (Don't take any tips from Ron on the stock market!!!)
“And the half-full glass for me in this whole thing is that with the gypsy in my soul that made the bottom of my feet itch every six months, and I had to go somewhere, and [not continuing to drive the car] gave me the time to barnstorm the world, from one corner of the globe to the other, for all these years after my forced retirement from drag racing.
“Only people that have the good fortune to find an Aladdin's Lamp get three wishes. The movies, racing, and traveling the world. There's sure more than one way to skin a cat, but when it comes to what you get to do with your life, I found one of them!”
Major thanks to both Tommy and Ron for sharing their great memories of one of the sport's most spectacular cars; I hope you enjoyed their tales.
This will be the final regular Dragster Insider column of 2013. The NHRA offices are closed beginning today (Dec. 20) through Jan. 2. I had planned to write a season column recap column that would auto-post Dec. 27 but that was before I broke my leg playing hockey earlier this week that put me out of action. It's also highly unlikely that I'll be able to put together a column quickly for Jan. 3, but who knows? The muse may strike me. You'll just have to check back. If not, well, it's going to be a longer wait for you guys; sorry 'bout that.
In the meantime, you also can check out my columns today and next Friday on the NationalDragster.net site, My Favorite Fuelers, featuring, respectively, Jerry Ruth and Shirley Muldowney.