If my computer’s hard drive were a house, I would have already starred in several of those reality TV shows about hoarders. They’d hire a crew of 10 to sort through all of the digital detritus on the computer, picking up files that to the average person might look like junk and trying to put them in the Recycle Bin while I was fighting them tooth and nail about why that file – heck, all of the files – could not be thrown away. I’d yell and cry and beg, and eventually, I’d wear them out and they’d leave, muttering to themselves. It would make a lousy TV show, but hey, this stuff is valuable, to me at least.
So what’s all the fuss about? Well, here’s a little peek behind the wizard’s curtain.
I’ve already confessed to photo hoarding, but an even more insidious addiction is collecting tidbits of notes, thinking that maybe someday I’ll use one as a bitchin’ side note in a column, amazing y’all with the depth and breadth of my arcane knowledge. I have folders full of notes, each note containing maybe just a sentence, some longer, or a quote. As I’m reading this or reading that, whether it’s online or in a printed publication, or maybe as I see something on TV, I jot it down with the hopes I’ll someday use it.
Problem is, I have so many of them stored up, just waiting for the right moment, and I’ve grown too impatient to wait, eager to unleash them on you. So I finally gave up waiting and decided to share this hodgepodge of collected factoids.
How Shirley Muldowney became “Cha-Cha”: She remembers, “I got it in the late '50s when nicknames were synonymous with the sport of drag racing. I went to a race out in Sanford, Maine, back in 1959. That’s when they wrote your class number on your window in shoe polish. I was driving a red ’58 Corvette with a white top, a convertible all lowered, pretty jazzy looking. The tech guy wrote ['Cha-Cha'] on the car in shoe polish along with the permanent number for that day. It was very small, but it looked cute, and we decided that we would stay with a nickname ‘cause it was shorter than ‘Shirley Muldowney.’ Tommy Ivo told me I was making the biggest mistake of my racing career if I didn’t keep the name ‘Cha-Cha’ on the car and paint it pink, so I took his advice.”
It took forever for me to get the relations right for the legendary Chrisman family, so here’s your quick cheat sheet: Everett Chrisman was the patriarch. Jack Chrisman was Everett’s younger brother, Art Chrisman was Everett’s son and Jack’s nephew. Lloyd Chrisman is Everett’s son and Art’s brother. Steve Chrisman is Jack’s son. Mike Chrisman is Art’s son. Jerry Toliver is the son of Juanita Toliver, who is Art Chrisman’s sister.
Famed fuel genius “Sneaky Pete” Robinson’s real name was Lew Russell Robinson.
According to Bob Brandt, Pat Foster was “the guy who first started the multiple dry hops.”
A Top Fuel dragster fuel pump delivers about 700 cans of Mello Yello worth of nitro per minute.
The Compulink timing system internally calculates each elapsed time to a nanosecond (nine digits) -- that is one-billionth (1/1,000,000,000th) of a second.
During his brief run as Fontana Drag Strip's operator in 1965, Mickey Thompson renamed the facility Drag City, inspired by the hit song by Jan & Dean.
Pat “Ma” Green, who handled credentials at Irwindale Raceway (managed by her husband, Ken), remembers her first encounter with John Force, who was affiliated with the L.A. Hooker, which was run by his uncle, Gene Beaver. “He came in in his street Corvette and told the gate guy he had parts for the L.A. Hooker. The guy told him to wait and came over to my credentials booth to get me. In the meantime, John went through the gate. He didn't get very far because the place was jammed with race cars. I caught up to him and had Kenny throw him out. Six months later, he showed up at Irwindale with his first Funny Car. Kenny told him to go inside the trailer and sign in and pay. Force said there was a lady there who didn't like him very much. Kenny said, ‘Yeah, I know. You'd better go in on your hands and knees.’ "
Notable rules changes: The first mandatory use of self-starters for nitro cars was 1976. … Funny Car roof hatches were required for 1977. … Arm restraints in Top Fuel were “strongly encouraged” in 1977, mandatory for 1978. ... Front-wheel fairings (“wheel pants”) were outlawed for 1977. … The 330- and 660-foot incremental timers were added in 1988. … NHRA shortened the speed traps from 132 feet to 66 feet in 1989. (The speed traps had been 132 feet straddling the finish line.).
In his last season with the Greer-Black-Prudhomme dragster, Don Prudhomme tried his hand at drag boat racing. It did not go well. This is Long Beach, Calif., October 1964. Prudhomme: "All I remember is this thing making a little left turn. Next thing I know, I'm coming up out of the water, watching my helmet float by. The day before, I'd set the class record at 136 mph, so Zeuschel tuned 'er up. The rescue boat got me over to the shore and stretched me out. Mickey Thompson rushed over, handed [wife] Lynn his billfold with money in it, and said, 'If you need anything, you've got it here.' ... The ambulance took me to the hospital. I've crashed plenty of cars, but my body never got beat up so bad. That cured my ass! I didn't even go fishin' after that, not even from the shore. Keith Black was really pissed at me."
GPS coordinates for the late, great dragstrip at Ontario Motor Speedway, one of the quickest quarter-miles ever, supplied by Bret Kepner -- starting line: 34.070612, -117.572396; finish line: 34.0704482, -117.568061; end of asphalt: 34.070614, -117.560290 (actually the pit-road entrance to Turn 1). Just stick those coordinates into Google Maps. Of course, there’s nothing to really see anymore, but hey, I never promised these notes were going to be useful.
The first commercial fuel pumps designed and built by Sid Waterman were delivered in September 1982, one to Billy Meyer and one to Gary Beck. Both cars set new elapsed time records at Baylands Raceway Park that same weekend.
If you look at Phil Castronovo’s car from 1972, the year after he won the Funny Car world championship, you’ll see that his Custom Body Enterprises entry carried the No. 2. What’s up with that? Simple. Back then, the Top Fuel champion got to wear the No. 1, Funny Car champ No. 2, and Pro Stock No. 3. Simple, yes. Confusing, also yes. Glad we changed that rule? Absolutely.
Next week: Some gems from my quotebook.
Before I close, I can’t go without a shout-out to my good pal Todd Veney, who won his first NHRA national event title last weekend at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals in Norwalk. As many of you may know, Todd worked at National Dragster for nearly 20 years – the last several as a contract writer while he pursued his driving dreams -- before committing to a full-time career as a driver. I wrote about Todd’s departure from the staff some seven and a half years ago in a column I titled “See you in the glue, friend” and watched and rooted for him ever since, through some heartbreaking final-round losses, some great divisional success and all the trials and tribulations that went with it – many of which T.V. has chronicled for us in his "Following the Dream” column in ND.
I wasn’t in Norwalk to share his moment of glory, but Dragster staffer John Hoven texted me this photo, showing T.V. being congratulated by his Dragster pals past and present, Brad Littlefield, Kelly Topolinski, and Kevin McKenna.
Throughout his racing career, Todd – son of 13-time NHRA national event winner Ken Veney -- had always self-deprecatingly joked, “Between my dad and me, we’ve won 13 national events,” and I’m thrilled that he can now finally update it. Congrats, buddy.
Roger Garten (photo: Gary Himes)
When I started going to the drags in the early 1970s, the Mustang was the clear body of choice in the Funny Car ranks. Jerry Ruth. The Blue Max. The L.A. Hooker. Tommy Grove. Connie Kalitta. Shirley Muldowney. Bill Leavitt. Larry Fullerton. Billy Meyer. Keeling & Clayton. Mickey Thompson. I liked the way they looked – big and bad. They weren’t sleek-looking like those Vegas. They were muscular and a bit frightening. As a Southern California race fan, I saw a lot of Mustangs, and few were prettier than Roger Garten’s War Horse. It didn't take long for it to become one of my early favorites, its purple-blue paint artfully accented by a cool silver metalflake flank and hood.
The rise of the Nostalgia Funny Car class has meant that newer fans who missed those flopper heydays got to see what it was like back then, and when Garten decided to rejoin the fray after a 30-plus-year retirement, he did it with a car that was faithful to those roots, allowing guys like me who watched these cars before we even had a driver’s license the chance to enjoy them again with older, wiser, and more appreciative eyes.
We lost Garten last week, the victim of a racing crash, at age 69. I’ve read a lot of online tributes to him, lauding him for spending his retirement the way we might all hope to and noting that he died doing what he loved, but none of that helps fill the void in our hearts, or at least in mine, for another quarter-mile warrior lost.
The dictionary defines war horse as "a soldier, politician, or sports player who has fought many campaigns or contests," and that certainly fits Roger Garten. And in a year when the sport of horse racing celebrated the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, we must mourn the loss of our own thoroughbred, our War Horse.
Garten jumped right into fast cars, taking his first ride in the nine-second A/GS ’33 Willys of Chuck Finders and Bill Altizer, whom he had befriended and for whom he had served as a crewmember. He quickly graduated to a fuel altered with longtime partner Bob Tocco and Harry Harper. The car first ran an injected nitro big-block Chevy and later added a blower. They eventually moved up to an early-model Chrysler that they purchased from the team of Dave Braskett and Gary Burgin, who were transitioning to the late-model style.
Bob Tocco left the team, and Garten and Harper joined forces with the famed engine-building powerhouse of Bishop & Buehl. Tocco’s cousin, Mike, stayed with the team.
As the Funny Cars gained popularity, Garten switched to the flip tops with Mike Tocco as his crew chief. The duo campaigned their unforgettable Mustang for three seasons, 1972-74.
In 1975, Garten got one of the sleek new Mustang IIs and a new crew chief in former fuel altered pilot Glenn Way, who was coming off of the disappointment surrounding the Wonder Wagon fiasco. The two made a great team and won the 1975 Division 7 championship, outlasting tough competition such as Jake Johnston, John Lombardo, Meyer, Dennis Geisler, and Jim Dunn. The War Horse ran hard and often, sometimes three times a week, and although the car paid for itself, not much was left at the end of the season to continue to climb the ladder of success. He retired from driving early in the 1976 season.
Garten worked as a heavy-equipment operator for Sully Miller Construction for 39 years, and after his retirement, he returned to racing. He and Tocco had already been part of the nostalgia scene, cackling the restored Tocco-Harper-Garten AA/FA before jumping in with both feet by returning to the Funny Car class as part of NHRA’s Hot Rod Heritage Racing Series in 2010. It didn’t take him long to find the winner’s circle; he won the Nitro Nite of Fire event at Sacramento Raceway June 11-12.
We were all blessed to see Roger Garten ride back into battle for another five years, and we would have loved to have seen him go on for another five or 10 years, riding the War Horse into battle and helping us all recall those great early days. Sadly, we won't get that, but I'm pretty sure he's doing dry hops in heaven.
It’s been a crazy couple of weeks here at Insider Central as I actually snuck in a mini vacation — I went all the way to Spokane, Wash., to see an Eagles concert — between the Topeka and Englishtown events, and by the time you read this, I’ll be in Bristol for the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals, so there’s a few things that I’ve wanted to share with you to catch up.
As I was traveling to E-town, Don Prudhomme texted me this great photo of the work in progress on the Shelby Super Snake Top Fueler on which his team has been relentlessly working the last few months.
“Thought you might like this picture of Bill Carter painting the Shelby car; now if we only had Von Dutch for the pinstriping,” he wrote. That “Snake” would put Carter in the same sentence as the legendary brushmaster Von Dutch shows his admiration of Carter’s talents.
It was great to see Carter still in action. He was a prolific race car painter back in the 1980s — Shirley Muldowney’s choice for years — and worked with the National Dragster staff on some cover shots from his base in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley. According to Prudhomme, Carter heard about the Shelby project and offered his services to Prudhomme. “He still knows his [stuff]!” Prudhomme enthused.
Heather LeVay, daughter of the late and well-loved Funny Car racer Tripp Shumake, has finally finished her published tribute to her father, titled 240 Shorty, which was her short-on-stature, large-on-heart father's nickname. The book is available for sale on Lulu.com, which is a fine outlet for self-publishers; we’ve used it here at NHRA in the past.
I’ve been in on this project from the ground floor, assisting and advising where I could, and couldn’t be more happy or proud of how it turned out. The book is a true labor of love, which is well evident in the lengths that Heather went to as she gathered memories from many of Shumake’s peers as well as many, many others, all of whom were eager to help keep alive his memory long after he was taken from us in a hit-and-run accident on his motorcycle in November 1999.
She acknowledges this in the book’s foreword: “Writing this book has been a most amazing journey. Being able to learn more about my father through the memories of his friends and family has been such an unexpected gift. Over the last two years, I’ve travelled across the country interviewing many of his friends, some of whom I’ve never met, and hearing wonderful and funny stories from all of them. I would like to thank everyone for taking the time to speak with me and for sharing their thoughts about Tripp. … This book is for all of you. It is a celebration of Tripp. He was only with us for a short time, but he has left a lasting impression on us all. He had a great ride. He lived, he loved, he made us laugh, and most importantly he loved the Lord. Thank you all for allowing me to do this.”
The book intertwines a thorough history of Shumake's life with great photos, memories, and stories shared by dozens of folks, including such famous names as Prudhomme, John Force, Kenny Bernstein, Raymond Beadle, Dale Pulde, Joe Amato, Bob Glidden, Tom Hoover, Billy Meyer, Cruz Pedregon, Whit Bazemore, Donnie Couch, Pat Galvin, "Honda Doug" Woiwod, and many more, plus a whole section from his family and friends, and excerpts from some columns written about Shumake, including several from the Insider column. I read it on the long flight to Bristol, and can say it's the definitive piece on one of the great ambassadors of our sport and, as a bonus, you'll find out a lot more about the personalities of some of the racers whose paths he crossed.
One of the Insider column’s great friends and sources, Henry Walther, also grabbed a copy right away, and sent a note to Heather, parts of which I will share here:
“I have just finished reading your book, and I must tell you that you have ruined my last 36 hours. Although I had a schedule of things that I needed to do, all of that went into the dumpster once I started reading the book. I wasn’t able to put the book down. … Your book was compelling, but it was not an easy read. It was compelling because it transported me back into a time that I very much enjoyed. I was once again surrounded by so many people that I called my friends and took me to places and events that were my history, too. It gave me the opportunity to spend more time with my racing family, with Tripp and Susie, and others that contributed to the memories of my time on the road. Because I knew so many of the people mentioned in your book, it was a joyous reunion for me.”
“To those who may read this book who didn’t know Tripp, they'll spend the first 224 pages falling in love with the irascible prankster, only to end with a sense of loss. But you put everyone’s mind at ease. Your last time and days with your dad made it OK for us to say goodbye to Tripp.”
You can order 240 Shorty here: http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/240shorty
A lot of folks were shocked to read about Gary Burgin’s passing a few weeks ago — fans who remembered that great Indy final and some fellow racers — but I was most pleased to hear from European fuel racer Pelle Lindelöw, for whom Burgin consulted for about a dozen years after he retired from driving. Lindelöw’s thoughts, shared below, give you a real idea about some of the challenges faced by our European brethren and also show what a great and expert resource Burgin was for those racers.
“In 1986, we had a terrible season,” Lindelöw remembered. “Almost every run cost us a motor, and both the wallet and temper were running dry. For the Midnight Sun Internationals in Piteå (just south of the Polar Circle), we hired Jerry Gwynn to help us sort things out. He did a great job, but sorting a Top Fuel operation out over one weekend is an impossible task, even for a guy like Jerry.
“We had to buy another block and crank at the track because we simply ran out of blocks. At the same time, we noticed that our main competitor, Monica Öberg, had hired another ex-racer from the U.S., namely Mr. Burgin. They had a good meeting and a very successful season. At last, we finally made a five-second run and had promised to shave our mustaches off, so we did. At the track, we cut all facial hair, put it in a dirty envelope, and put it on the mailbox without any comments. I've never heard if it reached the Gwynns in Miami. Probably they thought it was a very sick kinda joke from someone they didn't know. Or didn’t want to know.
Still in the Miller colors of Dick LaHaie, Lindelow burns out at Mantorp in his "new" car, the first on which Gary Burgin worked.
“Over the winter, we decided that we reached the point where we had to make up our minds — put the helmet on the shelf or start from square one again. Our friend and part supplier in the U.S., Swedish Finn Jarmo Pulkkinen, knew that Dick LaHaie's spare Miller beer car was for sale. Everything was organized, and we gave Jarmo instruction to purchase the car for us. After a few months, Jarmo called me and said Gary had offered his services and could put a brand-new motor together and ship it here. After consulting the bank and sponsors and investigating the alternatives, we gave it a go. Gary assembled the motor and shipped it to Sweden. Together with the motor we received page after page with handwritten instructions. After a while, we agreed that he should also come here and make sure everything was done correct.
“Gary arrived to my house, and we went immediately to the shop to overlook everything. The car was loaded into the trailer, and the day after we went to Mantorp for some practice and later that same week the first race. From that day, Gary was coming to all our races in the U.K., Germany, Norway, and Finland.
“One year, the week before Easter, I was called up by the promoter at Santa Pod asking if we could come to a race there. As Easter is a couple of months early for our planned season, I called Gary asking if he could come over and bring the spares we needed for the race. ‘When do you want me there?’ he asked, and I said ‘Next week Thursday,’ and Gary just replied ‘I'll be there.’ That's the way things worked those days, he never let us down.
“We had a great time with Gary working as our crew chief and part supplier. Gary was the first American who understood the situation we were living in. Everything we bought had to be shipped airfreight and add to that taxes and duties, so what is expensive in the U.S. is even more expensive over here. Gary understood this and was always looking for good deals and as crew chief always going small steps not to take any risks with the material. I'm extremely thankful for that because it kept us in the business with our limited economic resources.
“Being a racer himself, he never shipped anything he wasn't sure would fit. If I ordered the ‘wrong’ part, he immediately called and asked if I was sure and proposed another solution. Our experience earlier was that we (in best cases) got what we ordered, even if it wasn't the correct part. Also, he used his big network to find good used stuff. Gary was our crew chief between 1987-1998 and parts supplier until 2002 when we sold the entire operation to Andy Carter. I was talking to several racers, and we all have the same experience: quick deliveries, correct parts, and invoice the week after. With the very short season over here, these criteria are vital. There are many racers here that saved their racing efforts thanks to Gary.
The 1993 championship team with Lindelow, far left, and Burgin, second from right.
(Karl Anders Alfeld photo)
“In '93, when we finally won the European Top Fuel series — six-races long series — we ran all races in the 5.3-second zone. Never the quickest car at the meeting but constant performance. Actually, we never removed the block from the frame that season. A fantastic year! Six races, five wins, and one semi when the race was cancelled due to rain. In '94 and '95, we were representing Europe in racing in Japan, organized by NHRA.
“As my mentor, Gary shared a lot of his experiences from his own long racing career. “Gary was one of a kind, and what you mentioned Gerry said in the interview is exactly my perception of Gary´s personality. He once told me: ‘I’d rather repair KBs all night than do a five-minute interview.’ And that’s the way things worked with Gary; he didn’t like the spotlight. He was never a man of big words. When I won a final at Mantorp against a quicker competitor, he said, ‘You gave her a driving lesson.’ It made me so proud, and coming from Gary, I know he was as happy I was.
“We used to go to the U.S. once a year and every time staying by Gary and Gerry in San Clemente [Calif.], and it was like coming home. One week, with a lot of travelling and sourcing parts, Gary also was coordinating when we bought the ex-Bernstein Kase car (the Budweiser banana) and the ex-Cory McClenathan McDonald’s cars. In both cases, we had the cars adjusted/rebuilt to fit me. Gary knew people all over the place, and they were fixed before being shipped to Sweden.
“Over the years, Gary’s business grew, and his list of customers showed customers all over Europe and Australia. The people I've talked to are all very thankful customers. A couple of years ago, a customer at my day job at Hansen Racing needed new shirts for an upcoming exhibition. The producer refused to send them direct to Sweden, so I called Gary and asked if he could buy the shirts and send ASAP to Hansen Racing. Gary just replied, ‘I'll take care of it,’ and so he did. The shirts arrived via FedEx three to four days later and in time for the exhibition. Shipper: Gary Burgin Enterprises. That's how things worked; he knew when we asked for speedy action, we got that, no hassle.
“Gary Burgin will be deeply missed both as a personal friend to all of us at P&G racing and supplier to many, many racers all over the world! In my mind, Gary should be awarded a place in the drag racing hall of fame for everything he did for drag racing in Europe and Australia.”
Speaking of Burgin, there's a nice tribute page on him, created on Facebook by Pat Welsh. Check it out here and share your own memories.
If you’re like me, you love cool T-shirts, and I’m definitely going to put in an order for one of these new offerings by the Quarter Mile Foundation, the group that for the last few years has been doing in video what I’ve been doing here: trying to get all of the stories on record before it’s too late.
The shirts, with the We Are Legend tagline, are covered with the names of some of our sport’s greatest racers, and apparently there will be a couple of versions.
“We have listed as many legend names that we could based on the print area allowed,” the foundation said in an email. “While we were doing this, we discovered that this is going to have to be a series of tees in order to get as many of our legend's names as possible for fans and racers alike to be able to proudly wear all your favorite ‘Legends’ names that you have watched and grown up with."
Bob Glidden. Don Prudhomme. Connie Kalitta. Raymond Beadle. James Warren. Dale Armstrong. Ed Pink. Eddie Schartman. Joe Schubeck. Pat Foster. Kenny Youngblood. Carl Olson. Dale Pulde. Eddie Hill. Steve Evans. Bruce Larson. Steve Reyes. Mickey Thompson. All of your faves and many more are listed. Click the "View larger" link at right to see them all. Very cool!
The Series 1 are now available and will not be re-printed. You can order them here, from the foundation’s eBay page.
All proceeds of the shirt sales will go to the Quarter Mile Foundation to further its mission of preserving and sharing our legend's stories through a documentary film made for television. The Quarter Mile Foundation is an approved 501(c)3 charitable organization by the IRS.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about the 50th anniversary of Bristol Dragway, and this year also is the 50th anniversary of racing at Englishtown’s Raceway Park, but one that I missed that has a special SoCal connection to all of the longtime racers and fans from this area was the 50th anniversary being celebrated by Valley Head Service, which has done work over the years for many of the giants in automotive racing like Mickey Thompson, Don Prudhomme, Ford Motor Co., Holmann/Moody, Carroll Shelby, General Motors, Warren Johnson, Smokey Yunick, American Motors Co., Jim Hall, George Follmer, Justice Brothers, and "Fast" Jack Beckman.
Born in the family chicken coop in the San Fernando Valley to the famed alleyway shared with Race Car Specialties and Jim Hume to its current location in Northridge, sole owner Larry Ofria still is working to make more horsepower. Today, when it comes to drag racing, Valley Head Service mostly caters to Nostalgia Sportsman racers here on the West Coast and Cacklefest cars seen at the California Hot Rod Reunion but still has customers worldwide and still is called upon on occasion by General Motors for their cylinder head R&D programs. They also race their own A/GS '57 Chevy Bel Air in the NHRA Hot Rod Heritage Racing Series and the American Nostalgia Racing Association, where they were 2005 and 2006 champs with Larry doing the driving and 2010 champions with driver Andy Hiemstra. Congrats, VHS!
OK, that’s it for this week. I’ll also be traveling late next week, so between that and all of my Bristol responsibilities, I’m not certain that I’ll have a new column for you next Friday. That’s the bad news. The good news is that I have an ever-growing list of really cool and interesting column projects lined up and, in some cases, partially under way. I’d also like to thank the many great Insider readers who stopped me in E-town to express their love of the column. I get a great welcome almost everywhere I go, and I can’t tell you how much it means that I have found such a devoted and kindred audience for who these stories resonate. Thanks so much.
It’s no great secret that we’ve lost a lot of our drag racing heroes in the last decade, and if you’ve been following this column for any length of time, you know that I agonize over the losses and sometimes struggle to put a finger on even my own pulse of the situation to try to put the losses into some sort of perspective that makes sense in my head and in yours, too.
Last Sunday, as part of National Dragster’s popular Backstage Pass program, wherein we take select NHRA Members into the driver-introduction area during the pre-race ceremony for private meet and greets with the racers, I was standing with one of our guests, Daniel Curtis, whose drag racing fan pedigree goes back to the early 1970s. We were talking about these losses and how tough they are, and he said, “You know, when I hear about one of these guys dying, it feels like I’ve lost a member of my family.”
Wow. That is exactly what I’ve been always trying to say and never found those exact words. It fits. After all, in many cases, these are the people who have been around your whole life, who have provided you with untold great memories, and whose joys and heartaches you have loyally enjoyed and endured. They are like family.
I didn’t know it at the time, but just a day earlier, we had lost another valuable and important part of NHRA’s family with the passing of Bud Coons, the leader of NHRA’s original Safety Safari in 1954, at age 90. Taking Curtis’ analogy to heart, if Wally Parks was the father of our sport, Coons would certainly have been one of my favorite uncles. I always enjoyed seeing him and talking to him when he came out to the drags in Pomona and to a track, as you will read, for which he was partly responsible.
And now he’s gone, just like fellow Safari members Bud Evans (2014) and Eric Rickman (2009) before him. Only Chic Cannon survives the group, the last cowboy from the original roundup.
You just can’t underestimate the value and importance of the work of Coons, Cannon, Evans, Rickman, and the other assorted members of that mid-1950s troupe of drag racing Johnny Appleseeds as they drove around the country and helped plant the roots of our sport, setting up some of its first organized drag races. They brought with them not just all of the equipment necessary -- timing equipment, a PA system, and miles of wire to bring it all to life – but the expertise on how to use it and how to organize and run an event, from safety inspection through trophy presentations.
Pomona Police Department Sgt. Bud Coons befriended Pomona-area hot rodders, opening a dialogue that led to organized drag racing in Pomona.
(Above) Early drag racing in Pomona was all about safety. (Below) In April 1953, Pomona hosted the first sanctioned NHRA event, which played to a large crowd.
The Safari crew and Coons' dirty and well-traveled wagon gassed up, as always, at a Mobil station and met a lot of local hot rodders along the way.
Coons, seated, right, met with members of the Cincinnati Cam Lifters and Covington (Ky.) Valve Jumpers during the 1954 tour.
Before he became nationally famous – by being constantly featured in the pages of Hot Rod magazine – Coons came to Parks’ attention for his work in helping the Pomona Choppers car club win the right to use a corner of the LA County Fairgrounds for its rodding. Eldo J. "Bud" Coons himself had been a hot rodder, and it was the result of a fateful traffic stop by a Pomona police officer that Coons’ future was cast. The officer was Ralph Parker, who would become chief of police. He liked Coons and thought they could use a man like him on the force. As chief, Parker called upon Coons’ hot rodding background to have him meet with the Choppers, which had lost some of its members to street racing, to see if they could combine efforts to do something about the increasing death toll in Pomona due to illegal street racing, which had reached 16 in 1949.
“If you can’t control them, join ‘em,” Parker is said to have told Coons. “Then we’ll see what happens.”
Coons attended a club meeting, and his first appearance in full uniform was reportedly met with wariness. He went to the next meeting in jeans and a T-shirt to ease any tension.
“Listen, I’m a cop,” he told them, according to an article in Hot Rod. “But I’m a hot rodder, too. We’re not trying to throw the book at you guys. I want to join you. Together we can save lives, run fast on Sunday, have some fun in get-togethers.”
Trust was established, and wonderful things happened. He was voted into the club as an honorary member – club members anonymously dropped colored marbles into a cigar box to vote; three black marbles, and you’re out – and helped design a racing program at Pomona for the Choppers, complete with insurance. The city agreed to pave a dragstrip -- eight-tenths of a mile long and 70 feet wide – on the Fairgrounds at a cost $5,378, to be paid for over time by the Choppers via entry and admissions fees. Drag racing in Southern California suddenly became legit.
Did it work? Street racing deaths decreased to two in 1951. So impressed was he that Chief Parker even authored an article about the success in the December 1951 issue of the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, which is distributed to law-enforcement groups throughout the United States.
The Choppers eventually changed its name to the Pomona Valley Timing Association and went on to stage NHRA’s first sanctioned event, the Southern California Championships, April 11-12, 1953. Between 2,500 and 3,000 people showed up to watch the first day's time trials, and an estimated 15,000 were on hand for the final day. The entry list included 375 vehicles.
All of this great work did not escape the attention of Parks, and by 1954, Coons had been hired as NHRA’s new executive manager, charged with taking his Pomona template and spreading it nationally to promote and develop organized drag racing. They created the NHRA Drag Strip Crew and mapped out a 10-stop tour for 1954.
It was in a two-door ’54 Dodge station wagon that the Safari – which later became known as the Drag Safari – traveled the country, towing the little Viking trailer behind them, but what few know is that it was Coons’ personal vehicle; he had traded in his own Studebaker for something with a little more room. Coons, Cannon, and Rickman were joined along the way by either Don Cox or Bob Huff and spent three months on the road, leaving California June 10, 1954, headed east to Caddo Mills, Texas, for the first meet, June 19-20, then on to Mansfield, La.; Edna, Kan.; Scribner, Neb.; Linden, N.J.; Pennellville, N.Y.; Akron, Ohio; Detroit; Pocatello, Idaho; Ogden, Utah; and Salt Lake City before concluding at the Bonneville speed trials event, tying the sport’s past with its future.
With all of the technical and electrical equipment packed into the trailer, it has been said that their most important weapon -- optimism and hope – rode up front with the boys.
Typically, the team would roll into a town, usually on a Wednesday or Thursday, and stop at the local Socony Mobil gas station – Mobil was the Safari’s only sponsor, providing free fuel for the long drives – and once word filtered around that they had arrived, hot rodders from all over swarmed the station. The Safari members would meet with local law-enforcement and civic officials -- Coons' status as a former police officer helped lend credibility – and Coons would powerfully and eloquently explain how organized drag racing and regulated dragstrips could help stop the scourge of illegal street racing. Coons, who also was charged with public relations and publicity, would sometimes do radio or television interviews to promote the upcoming weekend’s event. With the help of the car clubs, they would set up the racetrack, sometimes even erecting a temporary timing and announcing tower.
In 1955, the Drag Safari – which now included its fourth full-time member in Evans -- embarked on its second nationwide crusade, an 18-week, 20,000-mile tour, helping sanctioned strips present 18 official Regional Championships in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Colorado, Iowa, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, Tennessee, and Texas. Gone was Coons' personal two-door wagon, replaced by a four-door '55 Plymouth wagon. It was during this tour that many newspapers began to refer to the Drag Safari as the NHRA "Safety Safari." The Safari's final stop was Great Bend, Kan., where NHRA staged its first National Championship Drags, Sept. 29-Oct. 2, on the 8,000-foot runway of the Great Bend Municipal Airport.
The Safari foursome -- from left, Bud Coons, Chic Cannon, Bud Evans, and Eric Rickman -- on the 1955 tour. (Below) Nearly a half-century later, they reunited at the 1994 U.S. Nationals, which was celebrating its 50th running.
In what was probably one of their last public appearances together, the four -- from left, Cannon, Evans, Coons, and Rickman -- took part in a salute to NHRA founder Wally Parks at the 2007 World Finals, a month after Parks' passing.
Nearly everywhere the Safari conducted its Regionals, names now familiar to race fans began popping up among the list of class winners: Wayne Mahaffey and Dick Maris in Scappose, Wash.; John Bandimere and Kenz & Leslie in Denver; George Montgomery in Indianapolis; Ken Hirata and Otis Smith in Columbus; Jake King in North Carolina; Lloyd Bray and Raymond Godman in Memphis, Tenn.; and John Mulkey and Carl Stone in San Antonio. The Top Eliminator title in Lake City, Fla., went to a kid from Tampa, Fla., Don Garlits. In San Antonio, an aspiring race car driver named A.J. Foyt set top speed at 121.73 mph.
The NHRA Drag Safari kicked off its third and final tour of the country in 1956. Plymouth supplied two new cars for the Safari, a '56 Fury and a '56 Suburban wagon, both painted red, white, and blue, and the team staged 18 Regional Championships events in California, Colorado, Texas, New Jersey, Illinois, Iowa, Utah, and Oregon, with many more of today's well-recognized names taking part, including Bernie Partridge, who won the "C" Stock class at the West Coast Regional Championships at San Gabriel Valley Dragstrip and later would join NHRA and play a major role in its continued development.
The Safari’s plans to hit the road again in 1957 hit a snag when the International Association of Chiefs of Police and later the National Safety Council's Traffic & Transportation Committee inexplicably launched ill-informed attacks on hot rodding, leading several of the Safari's sponsors to drop their backing "like a hot potato," according to the May issue of Hot Rod. Without the funding for the prolonged road trip, NHRA canceled the 1957 Safari tour, and Coons and his crew began concentrating their efforts on that year's National Championship Drags.
Even though the Safari was parked, its three-year effort had done the job. By early 1957, NHRA's sanctioned-track listing included more than 100 venues in 38 of the 48 states, and the Safari team, its work done, was disbanded, though NHRA continued to send as many as 500 How to Form a Club kits each month, and its growing cadre of regional advisors helped keep everyone in line and informed. Contrary to the attacks that led to the Safari’s tour cancellation, an early 1957 survey by a leading safety organization to the nation's police departments asking for each department's evaluation of organized hot rod activities told a different story. Of the approximately 300 replies, 73 percent were favorable, 23 percent were noncommittal, and just 4 percent were against hot rodding.
Although his work with the Safari was done, Coons stayed with the NHRA for years before leaving to form Coons Manufacturing, building recreational vehicles and truck campers in Pomona. He eventually retired to Arizona and then to New Mexico, where he lived with his wife, Beverly, until his passing.
As I mentioned, Coons’ passing leaves only Cannon as the remaining member of the famous foursome. Cannon, who is in the process of finishing his autobiography, Gone Racin’ … From Horseback to Horsepower, has fond memories of his times with Coons, with whom he shared living quarters off the road as well, including for a short time a penthouse apartment they shared with custom-car king George Barris (until their wild parties got them tossed out).
“I could tell you some stories,” Cannon said with a laugh when we spoke earlier this week. “We just had a great time together those years, and we couldn’t have asked for a better or more confident leader than Bud. And with his background as a police officer, it really gave us carte blanche at a lot of places. We almost always got a good reception, but it wasn’t always an easy job – a lot of people didn’t like either Bud or me from time to time because of the rules we were helping put into place – but it’s just unreal what the sport became from those first days, and Bud and I remained great friends all these years after.”
Bud Coons, Bud Evans, and Eric Rickman may be gone, but their legacy will remain as long as NHRA Drag Racing storms down the strip.
(Above) Looking every bit like the California surfer he was, Hank Westmoreland received congratulations after his 1969 Springnationals Top Fuel win. (Below) Westmoreland in one of his famous rides, the twin-engine Busby & Banard Top Fueler.
On the subject of passings, I also learned this week that former Top Fuel driver Hank Westmoreland passed away in late April. He was 72.
“Surfer Hank,” whose real first name was Wade and who drove a number of top-quality cars in his years behind the wheel, was really a surfer, and he, car owner Jim Busby, Bob Ekelberger, and Bill Karges were known as the Beach Boys Racing team in the late 1960s.
“We would actually go surfing and then tow the race car to the track with our surfboards still in the van,” said Busby in Tom Madigan’s book, Fuel & Guts. “We were sometimes confused with the Surfers racing team of Tom Jobe, Bob Skinner, and Mike Sorokin. There was also Don ‘the Beachcomber’ Johnson, who ran a Top Fuel car around the same time. It was all part of the California image, and it helped promote drag racing around the country.”
It was in Johnson’s car that Westmoreland won his only NHRA national event, at the 1969 Springnationals in Dallas, and in the wild Busby & Banard twin-engine Top Fueler that Westmoreland had one of his most memorable rides. The car, which featured twin 255-cid dual overhead cam Ford Indy-car-style engines, was voted Best Appearing Car at the 1971 Winternationals but didn’t stick around long -- but not because of its performance. Reportedly, Busby got offers from USAC racers to buy the engines, and when the offers got too good to pass up, Busby sold them.
Westmoreland also drove for Jim and Alison Lee in Top Fuel early in his career, and he had brief stints with the Allen family and Ed Wills and even piloted Fling Traylor’s wild Turbonique-powered U.S. Turbine I before leaving the cockpit and later going to work with Busby, by that time a successful sports-car racer, working on Busby’s IMSA Porsches.
Two more losses to our sport’s history. Two more losses to our family. We’ll miss them, but we won’t forget them.
Thanks for reading. I’ll see you next week. I’ll be in Bristol but, as always, right here for your Friday enjoyment.