Remembering five fallen friendsFriday, April 25, 2014

I love email and text messages — can’t even begin to think where any of us would be without either in this day and age — but I’m almost to the point where I cringe every time a new email pops into my Inbox or my phone sounds off the arrival of a new text. It’s been a very rough two weeks for fans of drag racing, especially those with long memories or appreciation for those who helped hew this sport from its rough and tumble early image into today’s sleek professional series.

First came word via email April 12 that famed chassis builder Bill Stebbins, who had built cars for the likes of Franks & Funk, Jim & Alison Lee, Jim Bucher, Don Woosley, and others had passed away. Then three days later, we learned of the passing of Gordon Browning, a Los Angeles Police Department officer and early member of the NHRA board of directors. Last weekend, I got a text from Richard Tharp that “Bones” Carroll, of the famed Texas Whips Top Fuel team, had died. Wednesday word came of the passing of nitro legend Kenny Safford, of “Sour Sisters” and Mr. Norm fame, and with it, the news that just a few days before him, one of Safford’s earliest partners, influential Southern California chassis builder Rod Peppmuller, had also died after an infection following surgery to work on his pacemaker.

I didn’t know Stebbins, but I certainly knew of his work, especially as it related to Woosley and partners Bill Sharp and Bill Reynolds and their incredible Ale-8-One dragster that won the 1982 NHRA Top Alcohol Dragster world championship, 10 national event Wallys, and seven Division 3 championships. Woosley was one of the great characters I’ve encountered in my years in the sport, and as good as he was behind the wheel, he was always ready to credit those who helped get him there, which included Stebbins, who had built pipe for the team since Woosley’s first car, the Magic Show A/Fuel dragster, in the early 1970s. (Woosley died a few years ago; here’s a column I wrote about him back then.)

Stebbins, a member of the Kentucky Motorsports Hall of Fame who also was honored by NHRA just two years ago at the National Hot Rod Reunion, claimed more than 25 NHRA and IHRA national event wins for his cars as well as many national record holders in both associations.

Stebbins got his start humbly, selling National Speed Sport News in the stands at circle-track races and had his first dragster by age 20. He partnered early with Tom Severt and founded S&S Engineering, building, among its most memorable cars, the twin-engine Franks & Funk dragster and was at the forefront of rear-engine Top Fuel technology with Jack Hart and Billy Campbell and their Golddigger entry. His chassis also held the Chevy engine that Jim Bucher tuned to his stunning Top Fuel win at the 1975 Summernationals. He later opened a business, Stebbins Aviation, that repaired damaged airplanes.

Browning’s passing may not have reached the radar screens of many, but it was personal to me because I had met him in 2001, when NHRA was celebrating its 50th anniversary. I had just completed a months-long project to create the 50th anniversary website, which includes a painstaking account of NHRA’s earliest days. I had read about Browning in early issues of Hot Rod and had heard of him from Wally Parks, so it was an honor to meet him at a special get-together NHRA hosted at the Tam O’Shanter Inn March 13, 2001, exactly 50 years after NHRA’s official incorporation papers had been signed there.

Browning, an officer of the Los Angeles Police Traffic Education and Youth Safety Division, became a board member in 1952, not long after a chance meeting with Parks, who was on his way to work one day in the early 1950s, cruising crosstown in a fenderless, low-riding '32 Ford coupe, when he ran into a traffic snarl caused by construction.
"Before too long, there was a plume of steam coming from my radiator, and I was looking for any escape route," recalled Parks at that affair. "When I looked in my rear-view mirror, there was a black and white cruiser back there. Just about then, my radiator let go like Mount Vesuvius, so I pulled over onto the shoulder. The officer began walking up to my car, and I thought I was in a lot of trouble. Instead, he took me in his cruiser to the police station to get some water for my car. That started a long and wonderful friendship."

Parks, never one to forget an ardent supporter of his cause, also made sure that Browning was on hand Jan. 29 in downtown L.A. when Mayor Richard Riordan proclaimed it National Hot Rod Association Day in the city of Los Angeles.

Browning also was instrumental in working with Pomona police chief Ralph Parker and Pomona officer Bud Coons to help establish racing at Pomona Raceway and did much of the legal legwork that resulted in the creation of Lions Drag Strip a few years later.

"Bones" Carroll, left, and brother Curt, right, with early partner Murray Oxman.
No one remembers how "Bones" got the nickname, but here's Curt Carroll in the brothers' early A/Gas Ford entry, the Bonesmobile Special, in 1960.
The "Texas Troublemakers," from left, Richard Tharp, Jim Bucher, and Curt and "Bones" Carroll in 1969.
The wild Carroll Bros. & Oxman twin-engine Top Fueler driven by Buddy Cortines.
When the Carrolls switched to Pro Comp in the mid/late-1970s, Ben Griffin was the driver of this injected fuel car and scored a runner-up at the 1978 World Finals.
David Pace drove to two Top Fuel runner-ups, including the 1981 U.S. Nationals. This is the same Tony Casarez-built chassis used by Griffin in Pro Comp.

“Bones” Carroll, 86, whose seldom-used first name was William, and brother Curt fielded cars from their Texas base for years, beginning with an A/FD before moving to Top Fuel. (The origination of the "Bones" nickname is unclear — especially considering that he was a big man — but only his brother, Curt; his wife; and their mother regularly called him "Bill." Curt died of cancer quite a few years ago.)

The brothers, who operated the Irving, Texas-based Carroll Bros. Erection Company, which specialized in structural steel buildings, had an all-star roster of drivers over the years, including Bob Gibson (with whom they won the 1970 NHRA Springnationals), Dave Settles, Buddy Cortines, Richard Tharp, Marshall Love, Kenny Bernstein, Murray Oxman, Ben Griffin, James Ludden, and Gary Bailey, winning a slew of Division 4 championships along the way, but had some of their greatest success in their early 1980s outings with driver David Pace.

Tharp drove for the Carroll brothers in both the 1960s, with their front-engine car, and in 1975, with their rear-engine car. Tharp’s first ride with them was in 1965, a stint that was cut short after he was drafted to serve in Vietnam (leaving the seat open for Kenny Bernstein and leading to the infamous and hilarious Jimmy Nix story I shared in my 2012 column about Tharp) and, after driving for Childs & Albert upon his return, he drove for the Carrolls again in 1969 in a car with which they were partnered with Jim Bucher (not the same Bucher of Chevy Top Fuel fame).

In fact, it was Tharp’s performance in the Carroll car at the 1975 Summernationals, where the car ran 5.97 (the first sub-six-second pass at Raceway Park) to qualify No. 1, that caught the eye of Paul Candies, who was looking for a driver to replace Dave Settles. Candies sought and received permission from Curt Carroll to hire their talented shoe.

Having spent that much time around the brothers — including working for their construction company during the off-season — Tharp had a lot of good memories of their time together.

“When I drove for them in the 1960s, we were just about unbeatable,” he said. “ ‘Bones’ was just a great big funny guy and fun to be around. ‘Bones’ lived in an apartment right across from Love Field, in apartment 123. He called it the 123 Club because a lot of the airline stewardesses on layovers stayed in the building and a lot of times in his apartment. He had a party every night.

“Everybody loved him; he was kind of like Paul Candies. No one ever had anything bad to say about him. Curt, too. They were just good ol’, straight-up, honest-to-goodness country guys. They worked hard and made a lot of money but knew how to have fun.”

Pace was runner-up to Johnny Abbott on a red-light in the final round of the 1981 U.S. Nationals at Indy — where they also became the 11th member of the NHRA 250-mph club — and also runner-up to Jeb Allen at that year’s NHRA Mile-High Nationals in Denver en route to a ninth-place finish in the Top Fuel standings, despite running less than half of that year’s events.

Pace had many fond memories of their time together. “ ‘Bones’ was one of the most unique individuals I’ve ever known, dead serious about his racing and meticulous in race car preparation,” he said. “He hated to hurt his precious engine parts, and I’ve seen him sit for hours, gently massaging wrist pins with oil (he claimed they would absorb the oil) before assembling an engine. I got the ride with the Carrolls when they decided to return to Top Fuel after a four-year hiatus running Pro Comp, and when our first engine was assembled, both Larry Meyer and Ed Cluff tried to tell him why he needed to use a dial indicator and go by the numbers on the card to time the cam. Bones wouldn’t hear of it. He said, ‘Now lookee here, I’ve got me this perfectly flat hunk o’ iron (pronounced ‘arn’) that I lay across the lifters on No. 1. That’s how I’ve always done it, and that’s how I’ll continue to do it.’ I dutifully followed instructions and used his “hunk o’ iron” (a broken keyway broach) without fail when I timed the cam. Right or wrong, it worked, and the car hauled ass.

“ ‘Bones’ was equally well-known for the head games he’d play with the competition and for his storytelling. Many a Dallas-Fort Worth-area racer has accused him of never letting the truth stand in the way of a good story, although there was usually a fair amount of truth, maybe embellished a little, in his performances. Any time he’d roll that cigar from one side of his mouth to the other and say, ‘Now, lookee here … ’ you wanted to grab a chair and hear whatever tale was about to be told. One of my favorites is about a mid-'60s AHRA race where the Carroll Bros., with Richard Tharp driving, ended up in the final against up-and-coming John Wiebe and his Agent car. As the story goes, Bones walked over to Wiebe and said, ‘We’ve got us a problem.’ Wiebe said, ‘What’s that, Bones?’ Bones said, ‘[AHRA President Jim] Tice is in the tower, and I heard that he’s going to red-light us. Don’t know which one of us it’ll be, but just to be sure, what we need to do is both of us just pull in and wait until we see a full green light on before we move. That way he can’t red-light either one of us.’ Well, Tharp left like a rocket on the last amber while Wiebe sat waiting for the green light, and at the other end, he was pretty upset. When he said, ‘Bones, I thought we were gonna wait for the green,’ Bones said, ‘Well … we were, but I guess I must have forgotten to tell Tharp I wasn’t there and can’t vouch for the accuracy of that one, but I’ve heard it directly from ‘Bones’ and from enough other racers over the years that it’s become legend, true or not. [Tharp confirmed the story and said that it happened at Green Valley Race City.]

“ ‘Bones’ loved to hold court during down time or at a restaurant or hotel, and invariably, one of his audience would ask who was the best driver they’d ever had. He’d hem-haw around and never really give a direct answer, always looking to see who was around and listening. Then, someone would ask who was their worst driver. He’d get really uncomfortable with that subject and usually countered with, ‘Well, I won’t say, but lookee here, I’ll tell you this, that there Tharp is your PREEEEEMIER fuel driver.’ If you stayed around long enough and kept him on topic, occasionally you’d get the answer to that second question.”

The team stopped running after the 1982 season, and in 1984, the Carrolls were inducted into the Division 4 NHRA Hall of Fame.

Peppmuller, left, tunes up Ivo's tie before his wedding.

Peppmuller, a member of the famed Burbank Road Kings car club that also included the likes of "TV Tommy" Ivo, Don Prudhomme, Bob Muravez, was partners for a time in a chassis-building business with “Tubular Tommy,” and a number of memorable cars, including Tony Nancy's 22 Jr. gas dragster, the Weekly-Rivero-Fox-Holding Frantic Four (and the subsequent Orange County Metal Processing Special driven by Norm Weekly), Jack Chrisman's 1964 Winternationals-winning Howard Cams Twin Bear, the Dead End Kids car, and the record-setting Croshier-Baltes-Lovato Top Fueler.

It also was Pepmuller’s chassis in which Don “the Snake” Prudhomme made his first Top Fuel passes in 1959, using Prudhomme’s Buick engine and Pepmuller’s car. They took turns driving the car; Prudhomme claims he could always make it run faster.

Peppmuller and Ivo were pretty much inseparable. They went to Burroughs High School together, where Peppmuller was a football star, and the two stayed close afterwards. Peppmuller, 78 at his passing, was the best man at Ivo’s wedding in 1972 and died last Thursday, the day before Ivo’s 78th birthday.

“He was my strong right arm and a little bit of the left one as well,” Ivo told me by email Wednesday. “He kind of was to me what I'm told Fritz Voigt was to Mickey Thompson. He also ran my chassis shop, was partners in the auto-repair business, built the welding part of my trailers. He was my best man and replacement brother, when my real brother passed away.  He was the salt of the earth — especially to put up with I-V-O for so many years!”

(Above) The Sour Sisters car at Lions in 1963. (Below) Safford-Gaide vs. Danny Ongais at Carlsbad Raceway in 1964.
Safford in Ted Gotelli's dragster.
(Above) Safford in the Mr. Norm's Charger in 1969. (Below) Safford drove the car through numerous versions into the late 1970s.

Peppmuller also built the first dragster that Safford drove after he transitioned from street cars and Super Stockers to dragsters after becoming a member of the Road Kings.

“[The Road Kings] raced a lot at the old San Fernando dragstrip, and after watching them a few times, I began racing with my mom’s ’56 Ford coupe that had a 312-cid engine,” he told National Dragster in 2007.” I then got my own ’57 Chevy with a 301-cid engine and became a member of the Road Runners, and I was runner-up to Shirley Shahan in the Super Stock final at the first Bakersfield March Meet in 1959.”

Safford teamed with Peppmuller and fellow club member Don Gaide; Peppmuller built the car and Safford the engine. Safford traded his prized ’57 Chevy for a ‘59 El Camino tow vehicle. When the engine expired after a half-dozen races, Safford and Gaide joined forces with Don Ratican of the Ratican-Jackson-Stearns team, which was breaking up, and the powerful Olds engine from the R-J-S Fiat went into a dragster for 1962.

The Safford-Ratican-Gaide won 17 out of the first 22 Top Fuel races it attended but also was hard on parts. “We were winning enough races for the car to support itself, but we were constantly breaking engines because the Olds block wasn’t strong enough,” remembered Safford. “We went through 22 blocks in one year.”

Enter the always cunning prankster Mr. Ivo, who shared shop space with the team.

“Ivo would see us pouting a lot every time we broke an engine, so he started calling us the ‘Sour Sisters,’ and the nickname stuck,” said Safford.

The team switched to Chrysler power in early 1963 before Safford moved to the seat of the B&M Torkmaster car in 1964, which preceded a long and successful stint driving for “Terrible Ted” Gotelli that lasted until early 1969.

Safford made the switch to Funny Cars in 1969, driving first for the Stone-Woods-Cooke team on the new Coca-Cola Cavalcade of Stars program, which allowed to make contacts with many more racers, track promoters, and manufacturers. Among those he met was Gary Dyer, driver of the Mr. Norm’s Dodge Funny Car, who was looking to step out of the car for the 1970 season after suffering burns in a fire and offered Safford his ride.

Recalled Safford, “I lived downstairs at Gary’s house that year and did all of the work and maintenance on the car. Gary would attend the races with me to do the tuning, and we won more than 75 percent of the nearly 80 races we ran that year.”

When Dyer returned to the cockpit in 1970, Safford returned to Top Fuel, and it was in Larry Bowers’ car that he became a footnote to history because it was Safford who should have been in the other lane at the 1971 Winternationals when Don Garlits scored the first win for a rear-engine car, but a balky clutch kept them from challenging for the title and ruining Garlits’ storybook ending.

Safford returned to driving for Dyer and the Mr. Norm’s team in 1972 but had a less-than-memorable return.

“It was a new Dodge Challenger, and it had a weird type of steering box,” he recalled. “I went over the guardrail on my first run in Lakeland, Fla. We repaired the car, and I ran it for the rest of the season. Prior to the 1973 season, I purchased the car in a transaction that included Mr. Norm’s sponsorship for parts.”

Safford continued running the Mr. Norm’s Dodges through the late 1970s before moving from California to become part owner with Jim Urso of Performance Auto Parts in 1979. Dave Settles drove for him in 1979 and John Potts in 1980, and a combination of the growing business and a severe hand injury in a shop accident that required more than two and a half years of therapy ended his drag racing career.

Safford and his wife, Carolyn, operated Performance Auto Parts through 1996, and he had kept busy building street rods for customers and was involved in the 1999 re-creation of the Sour Sisters car, which took part in the first NHRA Cacklefest and many more in the years that followed. The car is a staple of the NHRA Motorsports Museum.

Safford was recognized by NHRA in 1996 as an honoree at the California Hot Rod Reunion and was inducted into Don Garlits' International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 2002.

All in all, a pretty tough two weeks for the sport, and as the years go on and our heroes continue to age, unfortunately, it’s going to continue to provide some sad times. The best we all can do is to honor and treasure those that are still with us and to salute and remember them after they no longer are. That’s my plan.