Fifty years ago at the Winternationals, Jack Williams scored a wild Top Fuel victory that ultimately would lead to the world championship. Race queen Bobbie Hefley presented him with a "flash edition" of National Dragster proclaiming his win.
The 2014 season-opening Circle K NHRA Winternationals went successfully and speedily into the record books last weekend, with John Force running the fastest Funny Car speed and the second quickest Funny Car e.t. en route to setting both ends of the national record. Nitromethane fuel, of course, is the key ingredient in propelling Funny Cars from a standing start to more than 320 mph in less than four seconds and 1,000 feet, an exotic and wondrous fuel, a byproduct of furnace fuel that contained nitrobenzene for improved heating efficiency. It was adapted in small doses in the Formula 1 cars in the 1930s and eventually found its way to the salt flats and dragstrip in the mid-1950s.
The potent fuel boosted performances in dragsters to a level that many Southern California track owners were not comfortable with, perhaps highlighted by the stunning 166.97-mph pass at Lions Drag Strip in early 1957 — a 7-mph increase over the best gas dragster time.
On April 1, 1957, a consortium of SoCal tracks, including Santa Ana, Lions, Pomona, San Gabriel, Kingdon, and others voted to ban the use of exotic fuels and called for NHRA to support it, which NHRA President Wally Parks did. The so-called “fuel ban” officially lasted until the end of the 1963 season, although NHRA experimented with its return at the 1963 Winternationals but ran that year’s Nationals in Indy on gas only. The 1964 Winternationals marked the official end of the ban, which brings me to today’s subject.
Fifty years ago last weekend, the late Jack Williams scored a very memorable Winternationals win at those 1964 Winternationals, winning the event under some pretty abnormal conditions.
At that time, Top Fuel racing was conducted very differently than it is today. On Saturday, all of the AA/FDs would race against one another for class honors, with the winner earning the right to race against the winner of a qualified eight-car field that competed Sunday. Runs made in class eliminations also would count toward qualifying for Sunday’s field.
Williams, driver of the Crossley-Williams-Swan entry, and fellow Smoker’s Car Club members Bill Crossley and Don Swan worked their way methodically through Saturday’s field, defeating Mickey Thompson’s blower-belt-losing Hemi Ford with an 8.19, Denny Milani in Ted Gotelli’s machine with an 8.07, red-lighting Chris Karamesines with an 8.10 to reach the final, where he took on Gary Casady in the Baber & Casady entry. Williams collected the win with an 8.33 to Casady’s 8.88, but the win was costly for Williams when the slingshot’s engine blew in the lights.
This being 1964 and not 2014, there was no arsenal of spare engines waiting in the trailer, so the team loaded up their mount and trailered home to Bakersfield, about 140 miles to the north but over the Tehachapi Mountains and the Tejon Pass on the old Highway 99 Ridge Route that predated the modern Interstate 5.
The group made it home and spent all night building a new engine and then hopped back in the truck for what they hoped would be a speedy return to the track. Mother Nature, however, had other ideas.
A raging snowstorm had descended on the pass, and law enforcement officials closed the route, already one of California’s most treacherous, to traffic. Somehow, the trio was able to convince the lawmen — race fans perhaps? — to not only allow them to pass the roadblock but to provide a police escort down the slippery road, albeit at an “inches-per-minute” pace.
Against all odds, they made it back to Pomona in time to take part in Sunday’s pre-race parade with the eight qualified cars. Williams had actually run quick enough Saturday — an 8.03 — to qualify fifth, but because of Williams’ Saturday win, No. 9 qualifier Kenny Safford was inserted into the field in his place.
Eliminations were conducted under conditions that included “gale-force winds” and began with Safford taking full advantage of his reprieve and shutting down low qualifier Jeep Hampshire on a massive first-round holeshot, 8.02 to 7.85. Don Garlits, the defending Winternationals champ, surprisingly had failed to qualify in the top eight and had lost in Saturday’s class eliminations when he pulled off the track too soon after James Warren’s red-light also got a reprieve when the Weekly-Rivero-Fox-Holding “Frantic Four” team allowed him to take the seat of their third-qualified machine (again, different era, different rules) to face off with Bobby Vodnik and the Masters & Richter machine in a rematch of their final round at the previous year’s Nationals. Garlits got easy revenge with an 8.17 when Vodnik lost fire on the line. “TV Tommy” Ivo put away James Warren, 8.00 to 8.06, and Karamesines joined them in the semifinals with a stout 7.86 after Milani’s engine blew.
Williams, near lane, defeated Tommy Ivo in Sunday's final Top Fuel runoff.
Garlits then red-lighted to the Safford-Ratican-Gade machine in the semifinals, and Karamesines did the same against Ivo. The final round went to Ivo, 7.98 to 8.03, to set up the run against Williams for the overall win.
The Crossley-Williams-Swan team had been given the opportunity during the day to make a checkout pass with the new engine, and all went well, heightening expectations for the final. Ivo got the jump at the Tree — being used for just the second time in national event competition — and both cars rooster-tailed smoke down the quarter-mile before Williams eked ahead to take the win with an 8.16, 193.12 to Ivo’s close 8.24, 191.48, bringing to conclusion an amazing weekend for the boys from Bakersfield. Their haul for the weekend included not just the event purse but also a new Ford Falcon Sprint.
The Winternationals was just the beginning of a tremendous year for the team; they also won Hot Rod Magazine Championships at Riverside in June, beating Don Prudhomme and the vaunted Greer-Black-Prudhomme machine in Saturday’s class finals then besting fellow Bakersfield resident Tony Waters, in Ernie Hashim’s dragster, in Sunday’s runoff, netting them $2,000 plus another new car, this time a Mustang.
The trio went on to win the world championship, though their storybook year came one round short of an ultimate dream season when Williams reached the final round of the U.S. Nationals, too, by winning Sunday’s eight-car race off under even more bizarre circumstances than he encountered in Pomona.
With Garlits, Saturday's class winner, standing by to race the Sunday winner, Williams won his first-round match with defending event champ Vodnik, who was driving Dick Belfatti's blown Chrysler-powered Shadow entry. Norm Weekly beat George Van, and Tom Hoover took out Connie Kalitta, but both lost engines in the process. Joe Schubeck then beat Maynard Rupp and Logghe Stamping Co.'s entry but broke the rear end.
Neither Weekly nor Hoover could repair their engines in time for the semifinals, and Schubeck’s return was waylaid when a sticky-fingered fan made off with the specially made short U-joint and shaft for Schubeck's car. After repeated pleas by Schubeck over the PA, the unit was returned, but time had run out on all three of the crews, and Williams, with no semifinal opponent and no final-round opponent from the other half of the bracket, soloed to the Sunday win with a strong 7.83 at 199.54 mph but a run that left a half-dollar-size hole in one of the pistons.
Again, large crowds descended on the pits to watch the drama, but the team made the call, with Crossley putting in the final spark plug in the staging lanes.
Williams got nearly a car-length drop on Garlits at the green, but “”Big Daddy” came roaring by at the finish line to finally collect his first U.S. Nationals win, with a stout 7.67 at 198.22 mph to Williams' dual-piston-burning 7.93 at 188.66 mph.
Sadly, Williams’ driving career was cut short the following year when he was badly burned in the fire in the Warren & Crowe dragster at Southern California’s Irwindale Raceway. He remained an active part of the racing community as a track manager at places like famed Famoso Raceway and Fremont Raceway and as owner of Sears Point Int’l Raceway. He is best remembered in his later years for a 13-year career with the Goodguys Vintage Racing Association but returned to Famoso in 1995, when he took over the lease and management of the track and helped restore some of its glory.
Williams died Feb. 7, 2006, at age 69 but left behind a racing legacy and a Winternationals win that won’t soon be forgotten.