Features

Posted by: Phil Burgess

We lost Funny Car great Gary Burgin last Sunday, another passing of a fine racer who forever etched his name and his cars into our memory banks.

Burgin liked to brag that he had never driven anything down the dragstrip that didn’t have a blower on it, from his earliest days in the A/Gas Supercharged class through his great Funny Car career (and even the occasional Top Fuel ride). He was a prolific match racer and steady national event competitor, even if his final record showed just two NHRA national event Wallys on the shelf, which, as we’ve learned over time, is just one measure of a racer.

Yet despite his uncanny success on the match race trail, the guy whom we came to know as the “Orange Baron” – he lived in Southern California’s Orange County, but, as you'll read later, that wasn't how he got the name -- forever carved his place in the history and trivia books when he defeated Don Prudhomme in the final round of the 1976 U.S. Nationals, the guy who stopped the sport’s first perfect season dead in its tracks at the most high-profile event on the tour.

When he arrived in Indy, Prudhomme hadn't been beaten since the previous year’s U.S. Nationals, where he fell to Raymond Beadle. Already in 1976, he had won the Winternationals, Gatornationals, Springnationals, Summernationals, and Le Grandnational and didn’t seem to have a performance rival on the stage. Looking through past issues of National Dragster, though, it’s clear that Burgin had a killer car that year and dominated the East Coast match racing scene – far from home and, for whatever reason, seldom on the same track as “the Snake” -- with wins and track records that came in bunches. The smart followers knew what he was capable of, and he showed it that Labor Day weekend.

Burgin made a mind-boggling 12 runs during the Nationals (remember, this was before scheduled qualifying sessions), which included consistent qualifying shots of 6.16, 6.14, and finally a best of 6.12. Prudhomme still looked unbeatable with a national record blast of 5.97 in qualifying and subsequent runs of 6.03, 6.05, and 6.13 before eliminations. Come race day, Prudhomme ran 6.05, 6.13, and 6.15 prior to the final; by comparison, Burgin had run 6.12 and a pair of 6.21s. Advantage, “Snake,” no? No.

Burgin had showed his chops in round two, where he set top speed of the meet at 238.09 mph – the second-fastest speed in class history behind the 241-mph blast by Prudhomme at the 1975 World Finals -- and, after beating 1975 Indy champ Beadle in the semifinals, Burgin took down “the Snake” in the final. Prudhomme’s Army Monza shook violently and smoked the tires to a losing 6.46, 226.70 while Burgin ran 6.25 at an impressive 237.46 mph.

Burgin began his racing career in 1963, helping Dave Braskett campaign an A/GS Willys. After Braskett crashed the car at Irwindale Raceway in 1966, Burgin took over the driver’s seat and later got his own A/GS roadster, also supercharged. “I wanted to go fast right away, so I never messed around with carburetors or fuel injection,” he said.
By the end of the 1960s, it was clear that Funny Cars were the next big thing, and he reunited with Braskett on first a Camaro and then a Vega that not only became a fixture on the Southern California scene, but also set the national record at 6.72 at Lions Drag Strip’s 1972 Grand Premiere (a race that ended with him upside down on the guardrail after a collision with fellow competitor Joe Winter).

After Braskett retired following the 1972 campaign, Burgin switched briefly to Top Fuel and drove Jim Thomas’ Genuine Suspension entry in 1973, then went back to the flops in 1974 behind the wheel of Jim Glenn’s Shady Glenn Dodge Charger, with which he won the Division 7 championship.
After finishing eighth in the 1974 points standings, Burgin went out on his own in 1975 with his new Jaime Sarte-built Mustang and finished a career-high second in the standings behind Prudhomme in 1975, but due to his extensive match race schedule in 1976 (65 dates prior to Indy), even his Indy win couldn’t carry him into the top 10 again. Burgin would, however, finish in the top 10 three more times (eighth in 1977, fifth in 1981, and seventh in 1982). The 1979 season marked the debut of a new Sarte-built Mustang that carried him to his second victory, at the Springnationals, where he stopped world champ Beadle in the final. He almost won the Big Go again, in 1982, but lost in the final round to Billy Meyer.

 

Even though he was still winning and doing well on the match race scene – and even landed a small sponsorship deal that 1979 season with Pete Rose’s new Supercharg’r Bar energy bar -- the bookings were beginning to dry up.

 

“When the match races were at their peak during the mid-1970s, a lot of tracks could book four to five nitro shows a year,” Burgin told National Dragster in 2013. “But as our expenses went up, so did the appearance fees, and eventually, the dragstrips backed down to two or three nitro match races a year. So I went from about 70 bookings a season down to 40 or less, which wasn’t enough to cover my expenses. And because I wasn’t like Billy Meyer when it came to obtaining corporate sponsors, I had no choice but to pull the plug with my own race car operations in 1983.”

Burgin was more than a great driver; he was a cerebral racer, too, capable of driving and tuning and knowing how the pieces interlocked. A few weeks ago, Prudhomme himself paid Burgin a huge compliment during an interview we were doing, saying, “He was very, very good and a very bright guy. He was one of those guys who could not only drive but really understood the engine.”

Gary and Gerry Burgin, in an image posted on her Facebook page.

I spoke to his wife, Gerry, earlier this week to express our condolences and to get her thoughts about the man to whom she was married for nearly 45 years. She was there for his glory days of Funny Car racing, and although her ability to travel was limited due to their young twin daughters, Sara and Reina, she did fly to a lot of races, and she was there for her husband’s grand moment in Indy.

“He loved the racing and loved working on the cars, but he wasn’t really a people person; that was my job,” she said, and I could almost detect over the phone a small grin at the happy memory. “He was all business at the racetrack.

“There was a reporter who once interviewed him after a run, asking Gary to tell him what happened on the run. Gary, being a very technical guy, told him the technical things that happened, and the guy just kinda looked at him like, ‘Uh, and what does that mean?’ and Gary just said, ‘I’m done with this interview.’ He was never one who liked to be in the spotlight.

“He was a quiet man, and he was very smart. He wasn’t much of a reader unless it was an instruction manual, and then he’d read it cover to cover, and then it was in his head, and he just knew it.”

Burgin’s mechanical brains didn’t come in college, where he actually majored in marketing, which returns us to my earlier tease about the origin of his “Orange Baron” nickname and the imaginative logo shown at right of a World War I-vintage triplane and pilot with a fluttering scarf. It’s another classic Dragster Insider moment that I live for, finding out those “stories behind the stories” that I live and breathe for.

“Gary tried and tried to get a big sponsor but never could,” Gerry told me, “and he actually created the ‘Orange Baron’ name when he was trying to get a sponsorship with an orange juice company. It didn’t have anything to do with where we lived. He came up with the logo and everything, and even though the deal never came through, he kept the logo on his letterhead ever since.”

Her memories of her husband’s big win in Indy are still fresh in her mind, and, again, the joy of them was clear in her voice as we spoke.

"Oh my gosh; that was the most exciting day,” she said. “I was so excited that I just climbed into the back of the truck to pick him up and was jumping up and down in the back of the truck. I got grease all over my feet from the [fifth-wheel hitch], but I didn’t mind.”

She was just happy that her husband had finally achieved one of his goals and was quick to remind me that he won again a few years later in Columbus.

After he stopped driving in 1983, Burgin went on to tune for the likes of Jody Smart, Al Segrini, and Tom McEwen during the next couple of years but found his real second calling when Swedish Top Fuel racer Pelle Lindelow asked him to build a couple of Hemi engines and fly overseas to help him compete in the FIA European Drag Racing Championship Series. The Europeans were impressed, and before long, Burgin was flying to Europe six or seven times a year to assist his growing list of clients.

Burgin eventually formed Gary Burgin Enterprises, which exported everything from complete engine packages to related car components to racers around the globe.

“We’re basically an international one-stop shop for anyone racing with supercharged drag racing engines,” he said in our 2013 interview. “We now have about 500 customers from all over the world.”

The expansion into the global market allowed others around the world to know what we already knew – that Gary Burgin was one helluva nitro racer. He’ll be missed. 

Posted by: Phil Burgess
Steve Reyes photos

I don’t know who illustrated the reading you did as a kid, whether it was Dr. Seuss or Charles Schulz or Sergio Aragones, but for me, my favorite reading was usually accompanied by the photographs of Jim Kelly, one of our sport’s most prolific and greatest photographers, whose work filled the pages of magazines such as Drag Racing USA and guided this nascent fan’s journey and infatuation with the sport.

Guys like him, Steve Reyes, our own Leslie Lovett, Jere Alhadeff, Alan Earman, Jon Asher, John Shanks, Paul Sadler, Tim Marshall, Barry Wiggins, and many others were my eyes and ears for a wonderful sport happening beyond the boundaries of my pre-car teenage days, whisking me off to Beeline, Tulsa, Spokane, Green Valley, Maple Grove, Capitol, or wherever they chased the racing and brought it to my bedroom. There's little doubt that their memorable work -- I can still repeat great passages from their reports and instantly recognize photos and their location, date, and significance -- inspired me to join their world years later.

We lost Kelly earlier this week to the cancer he had fought and fought hard, and a little bit of all of us who lived those years died with him. Just reading the comments posted on Facebook pages by his peers and even the racers he worked with back in the day brings home what he meant to so many.

I’ll be honest; other than by reputation and a casual “How’s it going?” I hardly knew Kelly at all, but I always wanted to. I remember seeing him a few years ago at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood for the premiere of the Snake & Mongoose movie. I asked if he’d like to sit down and talk about those golden days on the road, but he politely declined. “I’m pretty much over all of those old days,” he said plainly, and I understood. I know there’s more to that story and reasons that I won’t go into here, but because I never got the chance to tell his story, I reached out to those who did know him, intimately, and will let them tell us all about him.

Here’s what I do know about Kelly, as gleaned from an article that he wrote about himself in the April 1975 Issue of DRUSA.

He started out on the other side of the camera, racing his ‘56 Austin Healey at places like Lions, San Gabriel, Riverside, San Fernando, Colton, and Bakersfield, and was pretty successful. Like many racers, he would buy photos of his car from local track photographers, including a fellow named Al Johns, who was a contributor to Drag News. When the Healey was totaled in a street-car accident, he knew that he wanted to stay in the sport and, realizing all of the money he had spent buying photos of his car, decided that photography might be the way to do it. Easier said than done.

“Boy, were my pictures bad,” he wrote. He got some advice from Johns and continued shooting for his own personal collection. Then one fateful day in May 1962, Johns didn’t have a shot that Drag News needed, and he asked Kelly to look through his own shots. Kelly had the photo, it got published, and Drag News publisher Doris Herbert thanked Kelly by giving him his first press card. And the rest, as we say, is history. Before long, he and Phil Bellomy had their own magazine, Drag Sport Illustrated, that specialized, as the name might indicate, in high-quality and larger photos. The racers loved it, but it only lasted three years. In 1963, he went on tour with Tommy Ivo as a crewmember and, naturally, brought along his camera and sent back photos of everyone and everything he saw and became fast friends with the era’s top racers, who admired his work.

With a reputation now as his calling card, he got work from everyone. He traveled to England for the 1963 U.S. Drag Team meet and covered it for Super Stock & Drag Illustrated, where he went to work after DSI died. He had a short stint in his dream job at Petersen Publishing, home to Hot Rod and other great titles, and eventually became the official photographer for the AHRA and, eventually, editor of its magazine, Drag World.

In the article, Kelly credited Asher for their partnership in those AHRA days as being the guy who put the words with his photos, and, fittingly, it has been Asher who kept us all up to date these late few weeks on Kelly’s condition, and it is Asher who kicks off the memories here. (You can find the full text of his remembrances, as well as some great photos, here.)

“James E. Kelly,” Asher wrote, “was so much more than ‘just’ a photographer. He was a friend to so many people both in and out of our little world of drag racing. He was thoughtful in ways both big and small. If you were among his inner circle you’d long since lost the ability to be surprised at the little unexpected gifts he’d send, because those gifts would arrive sporadically and seemingly out of nowhere.
 
“We met on Aug. 13, 1966, at Capitol Raceway Park outside of Baltimore. The event was billed as the 1st Annual King of Kings Funny Car Invitational. I thought I was hot stuff because I was shooting for Dodge (covering the Gary Dyer-driven Mr. Norm’s Grand-Spaulding Dodge altered wheelbase ‘65 Coronet), but in actuality, I knew nothing. Kelly sensed that, and so did the guy he introduced me to, Jeff Tinsley (who would go on to become a photographer for the prestigious Smithsonian Institute). They and every other shooter on the scene made fun of me because I not only didn’t know what a strobe light was, I was shooting with flashbulbs, dropping the dead ones on the ground after each shot. I’m embarrassed even thinking about it, but Kelly was cool, even taking me aside to ask some pointed questions about what I was doing and what I knew about photography and drag racing. My lack of knowledge was more than obvious.


Wherever Jim Kelly went, he was surrounded by friends and fellow photographers, many of whom owed their careers to him. (Above) In Gainesville, circa mid-1980s, from left, are Tim Marshall, Jon Asher, Kelly, Leslie Lovett, Steve Reyes, and Bob McClurg. (Below) Kelly made it out to the starting line one last time at the recent Las Vegas event. From left are Kelly, Richard Brady, Asher, and Ron Lewis.

“Just by observing how Kelly dealt with the AHRA managers, and how he approached things when selling photos to the likes of Super Stock & Drag Illustrated, Drag Racing, Drag Strip, Popular Hot Rodding, Hot Rod Magazine, and too many others to list here taught me volumes. As much fun as Kelly was having, he always treated photojournalism as a business. He taught me that as much as I might love drag racing, there was no point in spending the time and effort it took to do it if it didn’t produce enough revenue to make a living. He was the first one I heard say something like, 'The bank isn’t going to accept a photo credit in place of the house payment. You have to get paid for what you do.' He was oh so right.

“He loved to laugh, and he loved practical jokes. Mike Brenner, who was then shooting for SS&DI (I think), shared a room with us at the Holiday Inn in Bristol in 1969. The mirror in the bathroom was surrounded by screw-in 100-watt bulbs, but when I left the room (a mistake I rarely made again), Kelly and Brenner replaced every bulb with giant screw-in flash bulbs. They then conned me into turning on the lights, but luckily for me, I was partially turned away when the lightning struck. Every bulb went off with a bang -- and every light in the hotel went out. The power surge literally melted a huge junction box that was located right behind the wall of our room. Within seconds the flash bulbs had been replaced with regular bulbs, and the three times the hotel staff knocked on our door asking if we’d done anything with the power, we played dumb. Power was restored some six hours later. Kelly spent most of those hours quietly chuckling.

“In some ways it’s unfortunate that so many of today’s younger drivers never got a chance to meet Kelly, or witness the artistic merits of his sensational photography. I’m sure that Jack Beckman, who is a true historian of the sport, knows who Kelly was and what he did, but sadly, few others of the current generation are likely to know his name. What Kelly did was to chronicle history with a series of Nikon cameras. None of us thought we were doing anything that meaningful, but in reality, Kelly really was. He was creating images that would help spread the word about drag racing. His photos of West Coast competitors found their way into East Coast publications and vice versa. His memorable images of the AHRA Grand American Series helped make drivers like Hall of Famers ‘Mad Dog’ Don Cook and ‘Kansas John’ Wiebe into nationally known racers. He did the same for his close friends ‘TV’ Tom Ivo and Tom ‘the Mongoose’ McEwen. Not intentionally, probably, but nevertheless, Kelly helped make those racers familiar to fans from coast to coast. And, when he went to Europe with a team of American racers, he produced the first really meaningful international media coverage the sport had ever received.

“Kelly made a surprise visit to the spring race in his hometown of Las Vegas in April, where he was warmly greeted by the older shooters and ignored by the younger group -- until they found out who he was. It was nice to see how many of them asked to be introduced. It just demonstrated how important to drag racing his work had been, and the younger guys knew it.

Even the broken leg that Asher mentions couldn't slow down Kelly. Steve Reyes took this great photo of Kelly shooting a car feature on Don Cook at Lions.

“We shared everything on our journeys -- until the fateful day 45 years ago when Kelly and his gorgeous companion were cruising down Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles on his motorcycle and a car turned in front of them. They hit the car and flew over it, Kelly ending up with a broken leg and his companion with painful scabs in the most uncomfortable of places. That ended the 'sharing.' For the next three months or more I not only had to carry all my gear, I had to carry his, too. That also meant loading and unloading everything from the Cadillac and carrying it into the hotels we stayed at. Kelly always did the check-in, and I swear he asked for upstairs rooms just to watch me struggling up to our room.

“When Pat Minick and the Chi-Town Hustler Dodge Charger began doing the monster burnouts that made them famous, I called Kelly from my place in Chicago and told him how they were going to knock ‘em dead when they came to the coast in October. I was there when they ran at Orange County for the first time, and after the first burnout the announcer told the crowd that I was the one who’d 'invented' the big burnouts. It wasn’t even remotely true, but it was just one of those things that Kelly did for people. He wanted everyone to be famous for something, even 'inventing' a burnout.

“When Kelly is mentioned to drag racing’s most well-known competitors and builders, his name brings a smile to their faces. That he built lifelong relationships and friendships with the likes of Tom Ivo, Shirley Muldowney (who he introduced me to in 1969), Tom McEwen, Drag Racer Magazine editor Pete Ward, parts manufacturer Sid Waterman, and so very many others should come as no surprise. His outgoing personality, professionalism, and obviously sincere love of drag racing was evident to everyone he came in contact with. And he never forgot those friendships despite the passing of years or career changes. He remained close with his old high school buddy Don Gregory – who took him to his first drag race (slightly after the invention of the wheel), just as he did with Don Prieto, who got him into the car hustling business, providing vehicles for media evaluations, about three decades ago. If you were Kelly’s friend, you were friends for life. And, when you really think about it, the best of all of those little gifts and goodies Kelly was always sending your way was that friendship. It’s something I’ll never forget."
 

Bret Kepner, right, with Kelly and his wife, Suzy, who for years also contributed to the sport as a social columnist.

Bret Kepner also wrote a wonderful piece on Kelly, which, again, I will only excerpt here -- you can read the full version here – but, as always, Kepner nailed it.

“Within the drag racing mainstream, Jim Kelly will forever be known for his amazing photographic work. For those deep within the sport, he will live forever in the careers of the many to whom he gave guidance, wisdom, and purpose. Kelly’s legacy was not defined by color center spreads or circulation numbers. Possibly more than any other person, Jim Kelly was responsible for the rest of the drag racing media.

“While he held the ear of most important individuals within the industry, Kelly also had an eye for new talent. When he found somebody whom he believed could better serve the sport, Kelly nurtured their skills and often even became a father figure to help them develop spiritually and intellectually. If their work deserved it, Kelly would either hire the newcomer for his own use or send them to other businesses where they could perform to the best of their abilities. These ‘students’ included other photographers, journalists, technical writers, salesmen, and even drivers and mechanics. Jim Kelly was the sport’s 'headhunter.'

“When Jim Kelly eventually retired to Las Vegas in the last decade of the 20th century, he bore witness to the sport’s evolution from its earliest days to its modern entertainment principles. Throughout the metamorphosis, however, the sport grew and improved because of people Jim Kelly found and brought into drag racing. Moreover, Kelly maintained a relationship with virtually everyone he ever knew. The loyalty of his friendship was renowned.

“In that same half-century, it would be nearly impossible to find a photographer, writer, or adman who didn’t owe Jim Kelly a debt. In many cases, it would be difficult to find people in those same lines who didn’t owe Jim Kelly their livelihood. In the end, there were a surprising number of folks who simply owed Jim Kelly their entire existence. Most of the biggest names in drag racing media were simply 'made' by Jim Kelly. His own contributions to the sport, as well as those he made through his mentoring of others, were finally recognized in 2003 when Kelly became one of only a handful of drag racing media members inducted into Don Garlits’ International Drag Racing Hall of Fame.

“Jim Kelly will be mourned throughout the sport of drag racing. Many will extoll the loss of a true artist. Even more will remember his relentless pursuit of excellence for the manner in which the sport is reported. Within the group enduring the loss, however, will be hundreds to whom Jim Kelly gave the greatest possible gift, a direction in life."


 

(Above) Kelly with wheelstander great "Wild Bill" Shrewsberry. (Below) Doing a little light reading in an unusual place.
 
Kelly, center, with longtime pals Don "the Wavemaker" Prieto and "TV Tommy" Ivo

Dave Wallace Jr., whose father himself was a drag racing photographer and who followed Dad into the reporting biz, remembered Kelly’s earliest days at the track.

“Kelly was already a celebrity the first time I saw him at San Fernando Drag Strip, circa 1962. It must've been wintertime, because famous photographers almost never came to The Pond unless one or more of the bigger L.A. strips got rained out. Kelly never big-timed anybody out there. He was always friendly and complimentary to my father, who might've been the only published track reporter-photographer shooting Polaroid film (enabling Monday delivery of 'instant' B&W photos to the drag weeklies in time for that week's editions). Kelly knew the rules and obeyed them, getting great shots without demanding special access. I never saw him big-time anyone, but you knew he was someone special by the way other photographers reverentially clustered around him between runs, sucking up the stories. That scene repeated itself wherever Kelly appeared for as long as he shot photos. ‘Diamond Jim’ owned every photographers' area.

"Kelly was in the center of one of those circles the Sunday I finally worked up the courage to introduce myself, soon after Dave Jr.'s byline succeeded Dave Sr.'s in Drag News and Drag Sport Illustrated. Big, big mistake; the experience was so painful that it seems like a year or so ago, not a half-century. The last thing a skinny, insecure 15-year-old writer needed or expected was needling inflicted by one of his journalistic heroes, let alone in the company of other, older photographers. My youth and inexperience were easy targets. Seeking only to blend into a club I desperately wanted to join, I became its punching bag. The joke was on me. Everyone laughed. It seemed like forever before the action resumed and I could slink away. I tried to hold a smile through the whole ordeal, but one of the other guys, a stranger, must've felt my pain. Whoever he was tracked me down in the trophy room to say something like, ‘You must be OK with Kelly; he doesn't break balls unless he likes a guy, you know.’ I learned a lasting lesson that Sunday about the man, and about life.

"Most of the memories we shared were made in the mid-'70s, in Jim Tice's employment. He was pulling double duty as AHRA photographer and Drag World editor. I was OCIR's PR guy, second in command, and backup announcer. Whenever Kelly returned to California to cover AHRA's back-to-back Grand American meets at OCIR and Fremont, he sought me out during and between events for more ball-breaking, along with an occasional meal away from the madness. One day in my ground-floor office in OCIR's tower, he pulled a fresh stack of Drag World issues out of his briefcase, handed me one, and asked my opinion of his work. When I turned to a spread showing jam-packed bleachers down both sides of some AHRA track, shot from behind the starting line, he stopped me and asked, 'Do you notice anything unusual about these two photos?' Hard as I tried, I did not. Finally, he reminded me that this strip had grandstands along one lane, only. By printing a second crowd shot backwards, Kelly created the impression that AHRA had put twice as many butts in the bleachers.

“He was the Ansel Adams of drag racing photographer, a gentle giant of our sport, and one of the best friends I ever had, on or off the track.”

Reyes was another of Kelly’s traveling buddies and shared a few memories with me.

“We drove together and shared motel rooms, food, cameras, film, and sometimes women,” he wrote. “Kelly and I drove together to Gainesville in 1974. We drove 54 hours straight in Kelly’s van from L.A. I would also tour with Asher, and we would hook up with Kelly at the racetrack. At West Marion, Ohio, we got rained out, so I showed Asher and Kelly how the game of eight ball is played. Neither Asher nor Kelly would ever play pool with me again. Kelly was a big-time NFL football fan, and when he found out I had been attending NFL games (49ers and the first seasons of Oakland Raiders) when I was 3 years old to 14 years old, he thought that was the greatest thing since sliced bread. He liked hearing about all the Hall of Fame players I saw play; his eyes would light up when I began one of my NFL stories.

“He and I did a few goofy things, including setting a motel room on fire while trying to cook on a mini barbecue in our room. When I wasn’t touring the match race circuit, we all at one time traveled together -- me, McClurg, Marshall, Asher, [Don] Gillespie, [Norman] Blake, [Richard] Brady and, of course, Kelly. None of us were making big money, so we kind of traveled as a unit from major race to major race. We all (except Asher) processed film and did prints in a motel bathtub. Kelly did it for Drag World, and I did it for Drag News and sometimes National Dragster.

"Kelly paid me the best compliment I ever had early in my career. He told some of the early California drag racing photographers (including Lovett) that he hoped I never discovered color film or they would all be in trouble.

“Yeah, I cried when I heard he had passed; he was a mentor to me and a friend.”

Wrote Alhadeff, "Kelly was a spark in the life of everyone who knew him. He made it look so easy and encouraged all of us to do our best. I learned that we were all in this together and that WE SHOULD HAVE FUN! This photo is Kelly at San Fernando showing off the latest Polaroid and teasing us that with it he would put us all out of business! I will always smile when I think of him."

"About 40 years ago, I was two months into my four-month hospital stay after an accident. I hadn't heard from Kelly in a while and was surprised one morning when he walked into my room eating from a bag of potato chips. He told me that he had to come see me because I was the only one who visited him at home when he was recuperating with a broken leg after a motorcycle accident in the late 1960s. We both laughed, and then he crumpled up the potato chip bag and lifted up the mattress on my hospital bed and placed the bag underneath it. I explained to him that the last thing I needed in my hospital bed was ants! We both laughed some more, and he removed the bag and took it with him.

"In the early 1970s, Kelly was working at AHRA as their press guy and was determined to increase their professionalism. He mailed me one of the first AHRA press cards and explained that all I had to do was show it at an event to get press/photo credentials. Fremont, in the San Francisco Bay area, was at that time AHRA and was holding an AHRA national event. Following Kelly's directions, I showed up at the event and flashed my AHRA press card at the press gate. The guy at the gate looked at both sides of the card and asked if I had an NHRA press card. I asked him why I would need an NHRA press card at an AHRA event? I knew at that moment that Kelly had his work cut out for him if these people didn't even have credibility with themselves. When I later told Kelly about this encounter, all he could do was shake his head.

“Kelly was a great soul. He was unique and deserves praise and thanks from every drag race photographer he preceded.”


“This was when Kelly was the track photographer at OCIR," Alhadeff remembers. Shrewsberry was doing wheelies and suddenly stopped next to where Kelly was shooting and motioned him to get into the L.A. Dart. Kelly quickly set down his camera and got in. He then smiled at me from the passenger window as they flew by. He was ever the showman.”

Jim McCraw, who has written for just about every car magazine out there as well as many high-profile magazines outside our universe, called Kelly “a legendary figure in the art of drag racing photography, a funny, stylish man with a heart as big as California, and a great friend.”

McCraw posted the funny photo of Kelly at right on his Facebook page and forwarded it and his comments to me for inclusion here.

“I wasn't going to show this photo, because I've always considered it private and personal,” he wrote, “but in Jim Kelly's honor, and to show just what kind of wonderful nut he was, here is Jim Kelly in a photo, obviously shot by someone else, standing on the passenger pegs of his Honda 750, riding down Ventura Boulevard in the Valley, with a grease pencil notation in his own handwriting saying, ‘World's Fastest Sissy Bar.’ He gave me this print, I hung it on my bulletin board at Hot Rod magazine, and the next time he came in, he grabbed a grease pencil and rewrote the notation, rather sloppily, to read 'World's Fattest Sissy Bar.'
 
"I loved him, and I'm going to miss him for a long, long time.”
 

Shute took this neat photo of Kelly with Don Schumacher, for whom he had once served as a public relations guy back during Schumacher’s driving days.

Richard Shute, owner of the prolific Auto Imagery empire that today services many racers in the way that Kelly did, remembers his first meeting with Kelly, at Orange County Int’l Raceway in the early 1970s.

“I had not been shooting very long at trackside,” he remembers. “I was sitting on that big white utility box in the little triangle area by the tower. I think it was a PDA or Grand American event, and I had really no experience shooting fuel cars. So I saw Kelly -- I knew who he was, as did anyone that followed our sport back then -- walking from the staging lanes along the guardrail, stopping, turning around looking back towards the bleach box, walking a little further downtrack, stopping , looking back, and continuing down to maybe 300 feet. Then he walked back along the same guardrail towards the tower. I jumped down to go introduce myself, and I asked him what he was doing. This was to be my first lesson in shooting drag racing correctly. He explained that he was picking out backgrounds that he wanted, and that he would come out with the lenses that created the scene he wanted, incorporating those backgrounds. He taught me the importance of what is seen behind the cars. Lovett summed it up later for me: long glass on Thursday and Friday, wide angles on Saturday and Sunday to show off the crowds. Kelly gave me his business card and told me if I had any other questions, to please just ask or call. At the bottom of his business card, it stated, ‘Over a decade of Drag Racing Photography.’ As I walked away and thought about what he just told me, I couldn't help but think to myself, 'How the hell do you do this for a decade?' Kelly and I spoke often back in the ‘70s, and he continued to teach me that this is a business, and to treat it as such.

“Much of what I do today and how I do it goes back to that dumb kid walking up to Kelly that day, decades ago. He was a mentor, a business advisor, a hero, and most of all, a friend. Wiggins and I had a nickname for him; we called him ‘National.’ I saw him as my ‘National Hero.’ My words cannot convey how much I owe Kelly and what a profound loss I feel. Thank you, Jim Kelly, and may you rest in peace.”

The loss of Kelly is just the latest of many I’ve seen in my years in the midst of some of the most fun and dedicated chroniclers of our sport. Of course, the losses of our own Leslie Lovett and Bill Crites are among the more painful, but the list is long and filled with great talents, including others with whom I worked at National Dragster or in their time after they left here, most notably my mentor, John Raffa, as well as guys like Dick Wells, Steve Evans, and Eric Brooks. In the last few decades, we’ve lost great drag journalists and photographers like Steve Collison, Woody Hatten, Eric Rickman, Gray Baskerville, Les Welch, and Pete Pesterre; electronic-reporting pioneers like Ed Dykes, Mike Hollander, and Darryl Jackman; and industry leaders like Robert E. Petersen, Tom McMullen, and Tom Senter, most of whom I knew to some degree and all of whom I greatly respected.

We’re still a tight bunch, those of us today who travel to and from events by air instead of in someone’s van, and at every race, it’s great to see the same faces along the guardwalls and in the media centers, all carrying on the tradition, and all doing our best to keep alive the torch passed to us by the guys I’ve mentioned. I’m proud to be in the club, that’s for sure.

The 1975 SpringnationalsFriday, May 15, 2015
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Even though NHRA’s Springnationals was born in Bristol and moved to Englishtown and then, as noted last week, to Dallas before ultimately ending up at its current home in Houston, in my brain, and I’m sure in the brains of many of you like-minded readers, the event is most closely associated with Columbus and National Trail Raceway.

Although the venue certainly had its quirks – a short shutdown area and a penchant for rainy weekends and sometimes flooded pits – it was host to so much history and drama throughout the years that I could fill several columns covering it all, but, in the spirit of the way this column kicked off this year with a 40th anniversary look back at the start of the 1975 season, I thought that the wild 1975 Springnationals was well worth another look.

The Springnationals had moved to National Trail Raceway – well east of the actual city of Columbus and almost equidistant between Kirkersville and Hebron (its city of mailing record) on U.S. Route 40 (once known as the National Road, hence part of the track name) – in 1972, when Chip Woodall scored his one and only Top Fuel win, Ed “the Ace” McCulloch set a Funny Car class record with his third straight victory, and Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins scored his second of what would be six wins in eight races in Pro Stock that season. The following year, John Wiebe (Top Fuel) and Dave Beebe (Funny Car) scored their only NHRA national event wins, and in 1974, Gene Snow captured his fourth and final NHRA Funny Car victory. Of course, at the time, no one knew those would be the lone/last wins for those racers, and with the benefit of 40 years of hindsight, it’s easy to point it out now, but the 1975 event had a couple of very important NHRA firsts that everyone knew would become important parts of NHRA history.

Perhaps the most obvious to longtime fans was that the event marked the first final-round appearance by a woman in an NHRA Pro class, that being Shirley Muldowney’s runner-up to Marvin Graham. As we’ve discussed here recently, three female Sportsman winners (Shirley Shahan, Judi Boertman, and Judy Lilly) reached the winner’s circle before Muldowney, but I’d guess that their wins were not nearly as celebrated – or, in some corners of the pits, fretted about -- as was Muldowney’s runner-up.

I have plans (and a tentative date for an interview) to recap Muldowney’s early Top Fuel days in a future column, but, in a nutshell, her NHRA fuel career had been a struggle. Thanks to stats provided to me by Bob Frey, I find that before Columbus 1975, she hadn’t won a round in her six previous Top Fuel starts (dating back to her Englishtown 1973 debut in Poncho Rendon’s car), accumulating DNQs at her first three races and first-round losses at her next three, including at the 1975 Winternationals. In Funny Car, she had one round-win in four starts, beating Jim Murphy at – ironically – National Trail in 1973. (It’s worth noting, and I’m sure she’ll appreciate me noting, that she had won the 1971 IHRA Springnationals Funny Car title in Rockingham, N.C., and was runner-up there in 1972.)

Still, all of that was a long way from reaching an NHRA Top Fuel final, though it might be easy to see that her qualifying efforts had improved – she qualified No. 8 in Pomona and No. 9 in Columbus after qualifying 14th and 27th in Columbus and Indy (32-car field) the previous year.

Muldowney did not have an easy road en route to her historic final-round berth, though two of her three pre-final-round opponents went onto two wheels trying to beat her.

Low qualifier Rick Ramsey, who had taken over the seat of the Kuhl & Olson dragster after Carl Olson’s retirement from the cockpit, qualified the Donovan-powered K&O “Fast Guys” machine No. 1 with a 6.01 – a few ticks ahead of Graham’s 6.03 – and Muldowney had qualified her pink English Leather dragster No. 9 with a 6.14, setting up their first-round match.

Everything was fine until about the 700-foot mark, when, as you can see above, Ramsey got way out of shape and almost rolled his machine. He landed it safely, but by then, Muldowney was long gone to an impressive 6.06 victory.

According to Olson, Ramsey told him that the rear slick made a skid mark about three feet wide for quite a distance. “He laughed about the fact that after it happened, dozens of people came by the trailer to congratulate him on his miraculous driving job in getting the car back onto four wheels,” said Olson. “He said what was so funny was that when it happened, he took his hands off the steering wheel and put them over his face because he was sure he was in the process of crashing. He said the car bounced a couple times real hard, and when he took his hands away from his face, he was back on four wheels and headed straight down the track though with absolutely no input on his part. He hit the brakes and brought the car to a safe stop with very minimal damage.”

Division 3 champ Paul Longenecker was the next to fall, succumbing to breakage in round two against Muldowney, who registered a shutoff 6.32 at just 192 mph for the win and set up a match that had the fans on the edges of their seats: Muldowney vs. Don Garlits.
Garlits, who suffered a stinging holeshot loss to Muldowney in a Memorial Day match race at Great Lakes Dragaway, appeared to launch first, but his Swamp Rat dragster climbed into a big wheelie. The National Dragster report described it as “skyscraping”; you can’t tell that from this photo, so we’ll take their word for it. Whatever the height, it was too high to drive out of, and he clicked it early to a 13.31 and watched Muldowney light the historic win lamp with a 6.26 at just 187.89, a broken blower belt aborting the pass early.

Despite the aborted run, Muldowney still had lane choice over Graham, who had beaten Clayton Harris with a 6.30, and Muldowney might have even been the favorite based on her 6.06, which was better than Graham’s best of the day, 6.13, also in round one. A lot was at stake for both: Muldowney hoped to make history and firmly assert her right to be there, and Graham a) didn't want to become an ignominious footnote in history as the guy she beat for her first win and b) wanted to show people that his surprising win in Indy the year before was no fluke, either.
Muldowney was first off the line but hazed the tires early while Graham was straight and true to a 6.19 to 6.36 victory. The drama didn’t end there as Muldowney’s car suffered a parachute failure, but she again proved her driving chops by getting the car hauled down to a safe speed before nosing into the net with only minimal damage. It would be another year – and after another final-round loss, to Garlits in Indy in 1975 – before Muldowney would reach the winner’s circle, but Columbus 1975 let people know she was for real.

The other historic first that weekend came off the track: The event marked the first official involvement by R.J. Reynolds and its Winston brand as they began a long title-rights sponsorship of the sport that would run through 2001. Signage and banners across the greater Columbus area directed fans to the event, contributing to a 13 percent increase in spectators from 1974.
The Graham-Muldowney final was not the only memorable final of the weekend. Who could forget Raymond Beadle’s body-shedding wheelstand against Don Prudhomme? The Blue Max Mustang shell flew through the air like its namesake while Prudhomme rocketed to his third straight win of the season – tying McCulloch’s remarkable 1972 accomplishment – and giving him career win No. 11, just one behind “Big Daddy,” two behind Jenkins, and four behind the man he would pass a year later, Ronnie Sox.
The Pro Stock final between winner Jenkins and runner-up Roy Hill also provided several historic footnotes. With Jenkins’ Chevy Vega and Hill’s Plymouth Duster contesting the round, it marked the first time since the 1973 Summernationals that the Pro Stock final did not include a Ford. It fact, the previous five events had been all-Ford finals between Bob Glidden and either Wayne Gapp or Don Nicholson.


Glidden, who had won the final two events of 1974 and, like Prudhomme, the first two of 1975, behind the wheel of his long-wheelbase '70 Mustang, had his streak ended in round two when he got out of shape against Hill. Gapp, who was driving his own long-wheelbase entry, a four-door Maverick, also bowed out in round two, to still-rising Warren Johnson, who was seven years from his first win.

Hill, who also had been runner-up at the Springnationals the year before (to Glidden) and never made it to another final round after, was no match for Jenkins, who stepped up from a series of 9.0s in the early rounds to an 8.98 to easily best Hill’s 9.16.

The event also marked Lee Shepherd’s final Modified win before jumping to Pro Stock the next season, when he won the inaugural (but non-points-counting) Cajun Nationals. Shepherd was driving an E/MP Corvette in just his second season with partners David Reher and Buddy Morrison and bested Bruce Sizemore’s I/Gas Pinto. As with Muldowney, even bigger days awaited Shepherd and company, and with the benefit of historic hindsight, we can see that both were destined for greater things.
 

Posted by: Phil Burgess

The NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series’ most recent stop was in Texas for the (deep breath) O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA SpringNationals presented by Super Start Batteries, and anyone who knows anything about drag racing knows that the Springnationals holds a respected place in NHRA lore. Many fans know it best for its long run near Columbus, but the event actually has some early Texas roots that tie it to today’s event.

The Springnationals was one of NHRA’s original four races, joining the U.S. Nationals and Winternationals on the schedule in 1965, the same year that NHRA also introduced the World Finals. The Springnationals debuted at Bristol Dragway in Tennessee and ran there three years until moving to Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown in 1968, then it was on to the fabulous new Dallas Int’l Motor Speedway for a three-year run (1969-71) before packing up for a long stay at National Trail Raceway in Ohio.

This history lesson comes after I stumbled across a thick photo folder of early shots of Dallas Int’l Motor Speedway (hereinafter referred to as DIMS) that reminded me how magnificent the place was and how short its lifespan. Built in early 1969 and in the wake of the West Coast jewel known as Orange County Int’l Raceway, the track’s signature starting-line tower stood tall above the Texas skyline just outside the town of Lewisville, on I-35E. Lewisville was still a small farm community of less than 10,000 people when the track opened in June 1969 and probably didn't have many more when the palace stunningly closed just four years later.

Ben Parks was the president of DIMS, and with his lieutenants – Vance Job (VP and treasurer), Jim Tibbitts (VP and general manager), and Jim McKamy (VP and in charge of construction) – they overcame Mother Nature and a tight deadline to have the track ready for the opening event, the 1969 Springnationals. Before construction even began, heavy rains soaked the region, and management was forced to plow the land to allow the soil to dry. According to legend, the pit area was still being paved even as the event began June 13.

The track’s four-story tower – reminiscent of but bigger and more luxurious than the Cragar tower at York U.S. 30 and the three-story Champion tower at OCIR --- was a project unto itself, with steel ties buried 45 feet into the ground to support the top-heavy design.

Even with the bad weather that seemed to plague the region – it rained heavily on Saturday of the Springnationals -- NHRA must have liked what it saw because by year’s end, NHRA announced that DIMS would also host the World Finals, making it the first NHRA venue to hold more than one national event per season. The Finals moved there after a four-year run in Tulsa, Okla., and it offered an opulent setting for the crowning of champions, much more so than gritty Southwest Raceway.

Although the drag races – the two national events and two divisional events – did well, other events proved a financial drain. The track tried to diversify, adding a deluxe 2.5-mile road course for SCCA events, but one event alone lost more than $200,000 (remember, these are 1970s dollars). Other forces also were at work. Mother Nature was not kind. Several events were rained out in 1970, and the track even endured a good-size flood – none of which was good for business, and even when there was racing, the neighbors were not happy about the noise and traffic and pressured the Lewisville City Council into setting a 10 p.m. curfew.

(The facility seemed cursed in other ways. At the first Springnationals, Funny Car driver Gerry Schwartz, driver of the Ratty Cat Cougar, was killed in a midtrack collision in round one with low qualifier Pat Foster, who was driving Mickey Thompson’s Mustang. Two years later, while the track was running under IHRA sanction, Dallas TV news reporter Gene Thomas, of WFAA Channel 8, was killed while riding along with Art Arfons in his two-seat Super Cyclops jet dragster in October 1971, an accident that also claimed the lives of two track workers. There’s a stirring account of this accident here, written by Chuck Richardson, a news camera operator for rival KTVT Channel 11 in Fort Worth who witnessed and filmed the fatal pass.)

Future NHRA television and announcing personality Dave McClelland was lured to Dallas by NHRA Division 4 Director Dale Ham from his position at Southland Dragway in Houma, La., to take over control of the facility in early 1971, and he served as vice president and general manager for the first six months of 1971. The Springnationals went successfully into the books – and was shown on live TV, according to McClelland -- but, according to some sources, the owners, hoping to take advantage of a more favorable offer on gate percentages, switched to IHRA sanction for the latter half of 1971, forcing NHRA to move the Finals to Amarillo, Texas. McClelland left the track and a few months later and began his long career with NHRA.

The move to IHRA did little to stave off bankruptcy, which followed in 1973, and the track was closed. Xerox bought the land for a new facility that was never built.

McClelland says he tried to convince NHRA President Wally Parks to have NHRA purchase the facility to keep it going but remembers that Parks was reluctant to go into business against NHRA’s own member tracks and declined.

“It’s a real shame because in my estimation – and I’ve seen an awful lot of racetracks -- it was the very first supertrack,” said McClelland. “They talk about Orange County and other places; this place was more impressive. It was magnificent, first-class all the way. Underground wiring, permanent restrooms, paved pits, and, of course, the tower. It was really something.”

Anyway, here’s a look back at the track that probably came too soon and burned too brightly to survive.


NHRA Division 4 Director Dale Ham jumped into the saddle of a bulldozer to kick off construction.

Steel ties rested on the future site of the landmark tower, and the lone tree gave way to another kind of Tree.

NHRA Publicity Director Bob Russo, right, sat high on the tower scaffolding with design architect Jim Furate.

The mighty tower under construction (above) and in completed form (below). On the first floor were offices and restrooms, and the second floor held the announcing deck. Security and monitor control were on the third floor, and the fourth floor was the exclusive International Room, a precursor to today's VIP suites. More on that later.

(Above) This photo shows the proximity to I-35E, and this one (below) shows the property as it stands today.

(Above) The dragstrip was 5,000 feet long, making for a massive paving job. In the foreground, you can see the standing pools of water from torrential rains that delayed construction. (Below) Paving begins.

The Dallas tower may have looked like the one at York U.S. 30, right, but it also included an elevator to reach the top floor and its exclusive International Room.

The tower's top-floor International Room was a membership-based private club, which allowed it to serve alcohol in an otherwise prohibited environment. Bartenders and waiters served the privileged patrons.

Floor-to-ceiling windows offered an impressive view, allowing guests to survey the entire facility and peer down right into the race car cockpits.

(Above) The view from the tower was wonderful. The pits were behind the left-lane grandstands. (Below) Spacious parking and permanent restrooms can be seen behind the right-lane grandstands. 

The track was even more impressive at night, with solid lighting all the way down.

Don Garlits was the last Top Fuel winner at the track, scoring at the 1971 Springnationals.

Two years after the last NHRA event, the track went into bankruptcy and closed soon after. McClelland remembers that "Diamond Jim" Annin, who ran a series of successful race cars, contemplated buying the facility a few years later, but by then, the place was in disrepair -- poles and wiring pulled up, fencing torn down, and other carnage; "It was the saddest sight I've ever seen," lamented McClelland -- and they also discovered that there was a covenant in the contract signed by the most recent owners with their farming neighbors that racing could never again be contested on the property. And that was that.


 

DIMS didn’t just hold some famous drag races; it was also host to a pretty spectacular rock festival. On Labor Day weekend 1969, just two weeks after the famous gathering at Woodstock -- and while the NHRA tour was in Indy for the Nationals, where Don Prudhomme, Danny Ongais, and D.A. Santucci claimed the top titles -- the Texas International Pop Festival was playing before an estimated crowd of 120,000 to 150,000 “bearded, beaded, and bedraggled flower children-types,” according to The Dallas Morning News. The main promoter was Angus Wynne, heir to the Six Flags amusement-park empire.

The 30-act musical roster that played in a 25-acre meadow on its grounds included Janis Joplin, Santana, Sly & the Family Stone, Grand Funk Railroad, Chicago Transit Authority (later to become simply Chicago), Canned Heat, Johnny Winter, B.B. King, Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, Sam & Dave, and a young band from Britain, Led Zeppelin.

Compared to Woodstock, it was almost a family outing. There was one death – from heat exhaustion – and although drugs and nudity (mostly skinny-dipping at adjacent Lake Lewisville) were certainly part of “the scene,” bad “trips” and arrests were at a minimum and peace and brotherhood at a maximum. Late Monday, Lewisville Police Chief Ralph Adams went on stage and told the assembled masses, "I can't say too much good about you people. You've shown the elders something they've been hated to be shown for a long time. Anytime you want to come back, the town is yours."

They never did, and before long, there wasn’t a track to come back to.

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