A 'fiberglass forest' in IndyFriday, September 09, 2016


It was only appropriate during this yearlong celebration of 50 Years of Funny Car that the world’s biggest and greatest drag race host the best display of vintage Funny Cars this season, and so it was that at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, we assembled a “fiberglass forest” of eye candy for flopper fans.

Just take a look at some of the photographs I’ve gathered below from a monster display in the pits, a collection that spanned three decades of Funny Cars, from some of the earliest altered-wheelbase pieces to some iconic cars from the 1970s and 1980s. We’ve all seen photos of these in black and white, so it’s a treat to see them in living color. I’m not sure which are restorations and which are re-creations, but it’s sure cool to see them.

Here’s an early branch of the Funny Car family tree from 1965. Doug Thorley’s altered-wheelbase Chevy 2 Much machine, as the name suggests, was a Chevy II. Power came from an injected nitro Chevy engine tuned by Gary Slusser, who decades later would make a name for himself tuning the Joe Pisano/Mike Dunn Olds flopper. Thorley, of course, would win the first U.S. Nationals Funny Car title in his Corvair in 1967. Owner: Paul Brown 
The famed Jake’s Speed Equipment Belvedere was ground zero for the famed Candies & Hughes team as Leonard Hughes fielded this Woody Gilmore-built injected-nitro 426 Hemi-powered Plymouth with partner Jerry Dover in 1966. The car ran nines at 150 mph. Owner: Jet Townsend  
There weren’t many Ford Torino Funny Cars, but the Larry Coleman/Billy Taylor Super Ford was one of them. The ‘68 Torino, built by the Logghe brothers, was powered by a 427 SOHC powerplant and driven by Sidney Foster. The car ultimately ran low sevens at just more than 200 mph. Owner: Larry Coleman 
Bruce Larson’s famed USA-1 Camaro, the follow-up to his groundbreaking Chevelle, was pure Chevy at a time when the engine still had a foothold in the class in the late 1960s, and Larson’s was among the best of the breed.
Here’s Jeg Coughlin Sr.’s injected-nitro Barracuda from 1969, and the body, I’m told, is the original one under which “the Captain” once crawled before he moved on to Top Fuel. The chassis was a Stage II Logghe model.
Before Warren Johnson, Kelly Chadwick was “the Professor,” and he taught a lot of lessons to his Funny Car peers with a string of quick-running Chevys such as this Camaro, which was a staple of the Coca-Cola Cavalcade of Stars circuit. In the background is Gas Ronda’s long-nose, blown 427 SOHC Ford-powered Mustang, the follow-up to his similar injected Holman & Moody Mustang built in 1966. Without a flip-top body (but, as obvious here, a flip front end), it’s a bit hard for me to call this a Funny Car because by this time the tilt-up body was the norm, but Ronda quickly joined the flip-top brigade with another Mustang a short time later. Brent Hajek now owns both. 
In the foreground is the 1972-73 Ramchargers Dodge Demon, which was driven by Clare Sanders, who took over for Leroy Goldstein for the candy-striped killers. Owners: Jim & Julie Matuszak. Behind that car is “TV Tommy” Ivo’s ‘76 Dodge Dart, which Tony Pedregon put together a few years ago. Owner: Jason Ailstock 
The Tom Prock-driven Custom Body Enterprises Challenger, circa 1973. Gotta love those canard wings. Owner: Ross Howard 
After melting his Mustang to the ground to win the 1974 NHRA Funny Car world championship, Shirl Greer had this follow-up entry, a Mustang II emblazoned with “the Old Champ’” likeness on the hood, which is owned by his son, Brian. Behind that is the Mustang of “Nitro Nellie” Goins, a pioneering African-American Funny Car racer whose career I traced in this column. Owner: Rick Lucas 
The only car of the bunch that made a pass was the re-creation of Tom Prock's Detroit Tiger Monza Funny Car with Steve Timoszyk behind the wheel for exhibition runs. The mid-1970s car even posted a period-correct 5.9-second pass after a smoky burnout and dry hops. Sweet!
 
 Those of you who know me can imagine my excitement when I saw this car, one of the Mickey Thompson's Grand Ams, now owned by James Hardman.

The body style has always been one of my favorites (though this was my least favorite incarnation of it; this one was driven by Bob Pickett. I preferred the red version driven by Dale Pulde), and it was the first time I was able to actually caress its lines, from the unusual nose to the swoopy tail section.

Every other time I had seen the car was from the stands or in photos. I talked to one of the guys on the “crew” who said they had actually found this body in a field somewhere.

(Below) Pickett, whom I interviewed a few years ago for this column, was interviewed by Bob Frey in Indy.

 

 

Don Prudhomme’s Skoal Bandit Trans Am left its mark on Indy in 1989, when “the Snake” won the Big Bud Shootout and the U.S. Nationals and set the national record at 5.19. Owner: Dave Harrington

On Saturday afternoon, Bob Frey emceed a panel discussion of Funny Car legends. From left are Tom McEwen, Ed McCulloch, Bruce Larson, Tom Hoover, Roland Leong, Al Bergler, and Bob Pickett, with Larry Reyes out front.


Last weekend’s unveiling of "Dyno Don" Nicholson's revolutionary flip-top '66 Comet as the No. 7 car in the top 20 Funny Cars fan poll means we’re well into the top 10.
 
Here’s what has been revealed so far, with a quick recap of the fan vs. Insider vote.
 
Car Fan vote Insider vote
Don Nicholson Eliminator '66 Comet 7 4
Chi-Town Hustler '69 Dodge Charger 8 2
Kenny Bernstein "Batmobile" Budweiser King '87 Buick 9 11
Jack Beckman Infinite Hero '15 Dodge Charger 10 20
Jim Dunn/Dunn & Reath '72 Barracuda 11 13
Ramchargers '70 Dodge Challenger 12 12
Pat Foster/Barry Setzer '72 Vega 13 8
Ed McCulloch Revellution '72 Demon 14 16
Danny Ongais/Mickey Thompson '69 Mustang 15 9
Kenny Bernstein Bud King '84 Tempo 16 14
Don Prudhomme Pepsi Challenger '82 Trans Am 17 19
Jim White/Hawaiian Punch '91 Dodge 18 18
Gene Snow Rambunctious '70 Challenger 19 15
Jack Chrisman '67 Comet 20 17
 
As you can see, there are some HUGE disparities between the fan vote and the vote from the Insider Nation, perhaps none more polarizing than Beckman's car scoring 10 places higher in the fan vote (no doubt due to differences between a general audience and the hard-core, old-school folks who read this column). Beckman will probably hate seeing that No. 20 score from the faithful here, but I know he was thrilled to be on the list anywhere, and there's no denying that the Jimmy Prock-tuned car gave Funny Car its most significant performance lift in years. We'll have to see how history treats it in the future.

The other eye-opener for me was how high the Insider legion rated the Chi-Town Hustler, the undisputed early king of the burnouts and through which many of us first became aware of Austin Coil. It was in my top 10, but not my top five. That's why I love polls.
 
So, what that all means is here's a look at who’s still in the hunt (no spoilers; presented in chronological order):
 
Don Prudhomme Hot Wheels 'Cuda (1970)
“Jungle Jim” Liberman Vega (1973)
Don Prudhomme Army Monza (1975)
Raymond Beadle Blue Max Mustang II (1975)
Dale Pulde War Eagle Trans Am (1977)
John Force Castrol Firebird (1995) 
 
It's a good mix of cars, and I think that Dale Pulde ought to be as proud as any that the War Eagle is as well-regarded as it is among the general populace, if not the Insider voters, who had the car in the top 10 but not the top six.
 
Tony Pedregon, in his role as NHRA FOX analyst, also has been offering his personal top-20 list, though his criteria seem to be more personal than analytical, which makes for a cool juxtaposition with the other voting. Here are his picks so far, which, as for many of us, are very 1970s-centric:
 
 7. "Big John" Mazmanian Barracuda ('68)
 8. Tony Pedregon/Castrol/KISS Ford Mustang ('03)
 9. Cruz Pedregon McDonald's Olds Cutlass ('92)
10. "Lil' John" Lombardo Mustang II ('76)
11. "TV Tommy" Ivo Nationwise Dodge ('76)
12. Bruce Larson USA-1 Camaro ('69)
13. Roland Leong/Ron Colson Hawaiian Monza ('77)
14. Joe Pisano/Tom Ridings Arrow ('78)
15. Dale Pulde War Eagle Trans Am ('77)
16. Jim Green/Richard Rogers Green Elephant Vega ('77)
17. Gordie Bonin Bubble Up Trans Am ('77)
18. Al Segrini Black Magic Vega ('74-'75)
19. Dale Armstrong/Mike Kase Speed Racer Omni ('80-'81)
20. Tom Prock Detroit Tiger Monza ('75-'76)
 
So we plunge into the top six next weekend, during Saturday night’s FS1 program from Charlotte. If you miss it or don’t have FS1, I’ll post it on NHRA.com Sunday morning.
 
Thanks for reading and contributing. I’ll see you next Friday.
Indy's Funny Car heroesFriday, September 02, 2016

The Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals is such a huge and historic event that winning the prestigious race even once can make a driver’s career, but throughout the years, a number of nitro-fueled drivers have tasted the fruits of Indy victory on multiple occasions. As we continue to celebrate the history of Funny Car this year, let's take a look at some of Indy’s Funny Car heroes, those with more than one win at the "Big Go."

Ed McCulloch (five Funny Car wins, plus one in Top Fuel): Even though the retired nitro legend hasn’t driven a Funny Car in more than two decades, “the Ace” still owns the record for most Funny Car wins at the Big Go, having compiled five there. His first, in the Whipple & McCulloch entry in 1971, also was his first NHRA victory. He repeated his Indy triumph as part of a spectacular 1972 season in his new Revellution Dodge Demon that began with three straight wins (Pomona, Gainesville, and Columbus, plus the March Meet). He would runner-up there the following year, but it would be eight long years before he scored again, at the wheel of the Super Shops Arrow in 1980. Eight years after that, he posted another victory, this time at the wheel of Larry Minor’s Miller High Life Oldsmobile, then triumphed again in the same car two years later, in 1990. Just for good measure, he added a Top Fuel win in Minor’s McDonald’s Top Fueler in 1992, becoming just the third driver to win in both nitro classes in Indy.

Don Prudhomme (four wins, plus three in Top Fuel): “The Snake” already had three Indy Top Fuel titles (1965, 1969, and 1970) by the time he scored his first U.S. Nationals Funny Car crown in 1973, at the wheel of his Carefree Gum Barracuda, beating McCulloch in the final (pictured) to end "the Ace's" two-year reign at the event. Prudhomme made it to the final round of the year’s biggest race the next five seasons but only won twice, in 1974 (Army Barracuda) and 1977 (Army Arrow). It’s ironic that he never won Indy at the wheel of his vaunted Army Monza, one of the more dominant cars in NHRA history (13 wins in 16 events, 1975-76); the car was runner-up in 1975 to Raymond Beadle’s Blue Max and in 1976 – his only round-loss in national event competition that year – to Gary Burgin’s Orange Baron Mustang. After his 1977 win, he was runner-up to longtime friend and rival Tom McEwen in the emotional 1978 final, shortly after the death of McEwen’s son, Jamie. Prudhomme wouldn’t make it back to the Indy final for more than a decade, but he finished his Funny Car career in 1989 by winning Indy in a big way, setting the national record and winning the specialty race Sunday and the event Monday.

John Force (four wins): With 135 wins, you’d think that Force would have accumulated more than just the four Funny Car victories that he shares with his idol, Don Prudhomme, but that’s just testament to how hard it is to win the event. Force won Indy for the first time in grand fashion in 1993 by scoring in Sunday’s specialty event and winning Monday’s event on a single run when upset-minded Kenji Okazaki had to shut off on the starting line. Force won Indy again in 1996 with another weekend sweep and triumphed in 1998 and 2002. Incredibly, it has been 11 years since he last won the Big Go. That’s not to say that his team has not enjoyed success there: John Force Racing drivers Robert Hight, Mike Neff, and Ashley Force Hood have won the last five Indy Funny Car crowns and six of the last seven; if you count 2004 winner Gary Densham during his tenure with JFR, it’s seven of the last nine. Force, who was runner-up in 2010 to Ashley in his most recent final there, also was runner-up in Indy in 1991 and 1995.

Cruz Pedregon (three wins): In the mid-1990s, the Cruzer had a Don Prudhomme-like stranglehold on Indy, winning in three of four years (1992, 1994-95) in the McDonald’s sponsored entries of first Larry Minor then Joe Gibbs, but, as it has for John Force, Indy has been an elusive mistress. Also like Force, it has been a long time since he has won it, and he has only been back to the final once since his last win there 18 years ago, when he was runner-up to Gary Densham in 2004. His most recent victory in Indy came in 2008, when he won Sunday’s specialty race, his lone score in 10 appearances in the bonus event.

Robert Hight (three wins): For a four-year span (2006-09), Hight’s name was all over the Funny Car landscape in Indy. He won the Big Go for the first time in 2006, was runner-up in 2007, won again in 2008, and was runner-up in 2009. His runner-up in 2009 was especially memorable because he needed to reach the final round just to make the Countdown, and he did it in controversial style by beating his boss, John Force, in the semifinals, after Force smoked the tires. The incident led to a now-famous altercation between Force and Tony Pedregon (who lost the other semifinal to Force’s daughter Ashley) at the top end that made national TV highlights everywhere. And, of course, Hight went on to win the season championship that year. Hight added a third Indy win in 2013.

Raymond Beadle (two wins): The driver of the famed Blue Max only appeared in two Indy finals, and he won them both, upsetting Don Prudhomme, who had won four of the season’s first five races in 1975, with his Mustang II, and besting Jim Dunn in 1981 with his Plymouth Horizon to put a capper on what would be his third straight season championship.

Kenny Bernstein (two wins, plus one in Top Fuel): The "King of Speed's" first Indy win in 1983 was an unforgettable one as the driver of the Budweiser King Mercury LN-7 won his sponsor’s big event, the Big Bud Shootout, Sunday, then returned Monday and romped through the field to become the first to double up. His accomplishments at that event were especially notable because for the first time in history, all 16 cars had qualified in the fives, led by Bernstein at a stunning 5.81 at 256.41, which was backed up for a new NHRA speed mark. He returned to win again in 1987 in his "Batmobile" Buick, and after moving to Top Fuel in 1990, he added a third Indy win in 1991, becoming just the second driver (behind Don Prudhomme) to win in both nitro classes in Indy. He also was runner-up there in 1984 (to Jim Head) and 1988 (to Ed McCulloch) and added a second specialty-event score in 1985.

Whit Bazemore (two wins): Bazemore is another two-time Indy winner, scoring for the first time in 1997 with his own team, behind the wheel of a Winston-sponsored Mustang, and titling again in 2001 as a member of the Don Schumacher Racing organization with the Matco-sponsored Dodge. He also was runner-up in 2000 (to Jim Epler) and 2006 (to Robert Hight).

Ashley Force Hood (two wins): The oldest racing daughter of 16-time champ John Force first got on the Indy scoreboard in 2004 with a win in Top Alcohol Dragster when she defeated the late Shelly Howard in the first all-female U.S. Nationals final round. Force Hood came back to add not just one Funny Car score, in 2009, but another in 2010 with her Castrol GTX entry. She beat a teammate in both finals, taking down Robert Hight in 2009 and her dad in 2010.

Mike Neff: (Two wins): Tuner turned driver turned tuner won the Big Go back to back in 2011-12, becoming just the fifth Funny Car driver in history to double, but "Zippy" didn't get a chance for a unprecedented driving three-peat but got to the winner's circle for a third straight year after tuning Robert Hight to victory in 2013.
 

My Favorite Fuelers: Ed McCullochFriday, August 26, 2016

Due to some unforeseen circumstances and the rapidly approaching Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, the ol’ Insider is going to take a brief hiatus on original material. I don’t want to leave you high and dry, so I’m going to share here some columns I’d written for the National Dragster website some time ago that I still think are relative and entertaining.

The first, from the My Favorite Fuelers column I wrote, takes a look at a guy whose history is certainly entwined with Indy, as he’s one of just a handful of drivers to have won the Big Go in Top Fuel and Funny Car, Ed “the Ace” McCulloch. Enjoy!

It could easily be said that all Funny Car drivers are tough — it takes a certain amount of moxie and derring-do to drive a short-wheelbased, high-horsepower car at more than 300 mph — but when I think of tough Funny Car drivers, the list kind of begins and ends with Ed McCulloch. Tough with his fists when need be and tougher still behind the wheel, he amassed a Hall of Fame career, both in the cockpit and in the crew chief’s chair that won’t soon be forgotten.

Other than a Fuel Altered, McCulloch did it all in nitro cars, from driving front-engine Top Fuelers to Funny Cars, then back to Top Fuel with rear-engine cars, to Top Fuel crew chief and Funny Car crew chief for legends of the sport like Connie Kalitta and Don Prudhomme.

McCulloch won 22 NHRA national events — 18 in Funny Car and four in Top Fuel — and is one of a short list of drivers to have won NHRA national events in both nitro classes. He scored six victories at the U.S. Nationals, making him part of an even shorter list of those who have won the Big Go in both nitro classes; his five Indy wins in Funny Car are more than any other driver, including Prudhomme and John Force.

Although he’s best known as a Funny Car driver, like a lot of the sport’s great flopper stars, he got his start in Top Fuel in the early 1960s. Here’s a pictorial look at his great career.

After an early partnership with fellow Oregonian Ernie Hall, McCulloch and his brother, Dan, built a Chevy-powered dragster in 1964 that he crashed on its second pass — he struck the then-common centerline concrete blocks that housed the finish-line timing lights and rolled — and vowed never to drive again. He partnered with Jim Albrich on this Chrysler-powered, Kent Fuller-chassised dragster with Dave Jeffers driving, but McCulloch eventually returned to the cockpit of the car, which was dubbed Northwind. They enjoyed a lot of success, capped by their June 1965 defeat of Pete Robinson for the No. 1 spot on the Drag News Mr. Eliminator list.

In 1969, McCulloch partnered with Art Whipple, who had this new big-block Chevy-powered Camaro. McCulloch agreed to shake it down for Whipple, who intended to drive, at a local event, but when McCulloch booted the car to the No. 1 qualifying spot and won the event, he became the driver. “I loved Funny Cars right away,” McCulloch said.

The duo built a new car, a Duster, for 1970, and it was a trick piece for the time, with full side windows, a roof hatch, and a solid-mount rear end with a Crowerglide clutch and Lenco transmission. The car set the national record at 7.19, 211 mph at Orange County Int’l Raceway but unfortunately was lost in a trailer fire on the way to compete at the U.S. Nationals. “We lost everything,” said McCulloch. The team rebuilt in time for that year’s World Finals in Dallas, where McCulloch drove the team’s new Barracuda to the final round, but transmission problems cost him the title against Gene Snow, and he just missed winning the world championship, a prize that would elude him his entire career. McCulloch and Whipple did win the Division 6 championship.

Whipple and McCulloch hit the match-race trail hard in 1971 and, with lessons learned on the road, blitzed their way into the U.S. Nationals, where they qualified No. 2 and defeated Sammy Miller, Jim Dunn, Kalitta, and, in the final, Dale Pulde, for his first NHRA win.

The team landed sponsorship from model maker Revell for the 1972 and unveiled one of his iconic cars, the Revellution Duster, and promptly began kicking ass, winning the first three events — Pomona, Gainesville, and Columbus (plus the prestigious March Meet) — before losing the Englishtown final to Don Schumacher. After winning the U.S. Nationals for the second straight year, McCulloch — again — should have been the world champ, but the title then was still based not on points but on who won the World Finals, and that wasn’t McCulloch — who lost in the semifinals. McCulloch did the season pretty much solo after Whipple left the team following their Pomona win and still finished with a stunning 24-3 round record at national events.

McCulloch’s 1972 Indy win would be his last win anywhere for eight years, though he continued to reach final rounds, including his third straight at the 1973 U.S. Nationals, where he was runner-up to Prudhomme. “The toughest loss I ever had,” McCulloch admits. “I still think about that one a lot; it will probably bother me forever.” He also reached the final round at the 1974 World Finals (runner-up to Dave Condit) and reached three finals in 1976 with the pretty car pictured here, at the Winternationals, FallNationals, and World Finals, all of which resulted in losses to Prudhomme, and was runner-up at the 1978 Summernationals to Denny Savage. With the points system now decided by championships, he finished seventh in 1975, third in 1976, and ninth in 1978.

The combination of a victory drought and exhausting match-race tour caught up with McCulloch in 1979, and he sold his operation. He didn’t stay idle for ling when Ed Pink asked him to drive the Super Shops Arrow in 1980. Being a fly-in driver appealed to him, and it showed, when he won his third U.S. Nationals title that year, capping it with a holeshot over Tom Ridings in the final, 6.27 to 6.24, and finished fifth in points. The Super Shops deal ended at the end of the year, and McCulloch spent 1981, 1982, and 1983 on the sidelines.

McCulloch began a long employ with Southern California farming magnate Larry Minor, who expanded his successful two-car Top Fuel operation (with he and Gary Beck driving) to include this Olds Firenza Funny Car. All of the cars were sponsored by Miller Lite. The team got off to a rough start at that year’s Cajun Nationals, where McCulloch collided at midtrack with John Collins. Both cars were destroyed, but neither driver was injured. McCulloch went winless that year and reached just one final, at Le Grandnational in Montreal, where he lost to Billy Meyer, and also lost the only final he reached in 1985, to Kenny Bernstein in Atlanta. After missing the top 10 in 1984, he finished seventh in 1985.

McCulloch won his first national event in six years when he beat Tom McEwen in the final round at the 1986 Gatornationals with the Miller American Olds and then defeated Jim head in a Monday-morning final at the next event, in Atlanta, but he wouldn’t win again that year and finished sixth in points. Wins were still hard to come by and, other than a dominating national-record-setting win in Dallas, 1987 was more frustration — including being in the other lane in Montreal when Force collected his first career win — despite a third-place finish.

McCulloch scored his fourth U.S. Nationals title in 1988, beating Bernstein on a final-round holeshot and also won in Atlanta but still finished just fifth, as he would in 1989. McCulloch won five times in nine finals in 1990 and finished a career-high second behind Force, who won his first championship that season. McCulloch’s 1990 season was highlighted by his category-high fifth Indy win, breaking his tie with then four-time winner Prudhomme.

The Miller deal ended in 1990, and McCulloch carried on with Minor in this Olds, sponsored by frozen-confection manufacturer Otter Pops and appeared in four finals en route to his seventh straight top-10 finish (fourth) and his last driving a Funny Car.

When Cruz Pedregon joined the Minor team full time in 1992, he took over the Funny Car, and McCulloch returned to his Top Fuel roots with Minor’s Lee Beard-tuned McDonald’s dragster and scored again at Indy, joining Prudhomme as the only drivers to win the U.S. Nationals in both Top Fuel and Funny Car. “After the first Indy win, that was probably the most gratifying victory of my career. I guess it’s fitting that my first Top Fuel win came at Indy, the same place where I got my first Funny Car win,” said McCulloch, who added wins in Topeka and Dallas en route to a fifth-place finish. McCulloch scored his 22nd and final national event win at the 1993 event in Houston and finished eighth that year, highlighted by a 301.70-mph run in Dallas that made him the 12th member of the Slick 50 300-MPH Club.

McCulloch briefly drove for former Major League Baseball player Jack Clark in his Taco Bell Express but retired after just a few races. He returned to the cockpit briefly in 1995 as a test driver for Kalitta’s two Top Fuelers, which led to his first crew chief role, initially with Connie and then Doug Kalitta. In 1990, he was hired by Prudhomme to mentor and crew chief for Ron Capps and tuned Capps to six wins in 11 finals and a second-place finish in 2000. McCulloch went on to tune for Doug Herbert and later reunited with Capps in 2005 under the Don Schumacher Racing umbrella, where they won three times in seven finals en route to a second-place finish. McCulloch and Capps formed a potent duo for years, winning 16 races before McCulloch’s dismissal in 2010.

McCulloch was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 2000 and into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2011.

Last Thursday, on the eve of the national event at his old home track, former NHRA Chief Starter Mark Lyle was remembered by family, friends, and the racing community at a celebration of life at Pacific Raceways. As he was eulogized by many, the recurring theme was that while Mark had a firm hand on the starting line, he was willing to debate his decisions with anyone who asked.

And, of course, parallels were drawn between Lyle and the man who for so many years personified the position, the late great Eddie Hiram “Buster” Couch. We lost Buster a long time ago – Jan. 12, 2002, to be exact – but I think it’s safe to say that everyone who followed him – Rick Stewart, Lyle, and now Mike Gittings – probably feels that he still was watching their every move.

Lyle was the chief starter evolved, someone mentally prepared to deal with the complexities of the sport today, where sponsorships, egos, pressure, scheduling, and everything else seems to be magnified tenfold. Couch was the self-professed Georgia redneck, the “Not in my house” kind of guy necessary back in the early days of the sport when Couch himself once professed that “fighting was as much a part of the sport as racing.”

Couch was a big fella – 6-foot-2, 255 pounds – a Golden Gloves boxer in his youth and a part-time bar bouncer as an adult, so he cast an imposing figure on the starting line. The story I shared a few weeks ago about Couch reaching into Pat Foster’s car on the starting line to “force” him to shut it off brought to mind many great stories from his years on the starting line.

Buster stories have been handed down like cherished family memories, especially among members of the Dragster staff, who if we didn’t witness them were certainly told about them by people who did. He was tough but loved, and back in an era of less political correctness and a more relaxed atmosphere, you never knew what was going to happen on the starting line.

For as big and fearless of a guy as Couch portrayed, he was deathly afraid of spiders and snakes, and of flying. Former Top Fuel driver Frank Bradley thought it would be fun to terrorize him, so as “the Beard” was smoking out past Couch on a burnout, he tossed a rubber snake out at Couch’s feet; I believe this was at either the 1982 or 1983 World Finals at Orange County Int’l Raceway. Retribution came swiftly. When Bradley came back for his next pass, Couch was ready. As Bradley eased his digger into the staging beams, Couch calmly poured two buckets of ice into his lap. That’s a scene you’d never see today, but as I said, things were a little more “relaxed” back then.

There are countless tales of drivers trying to tell Couch how to run “his” starting line, all of them met with Couch’s special brand of response.

The name of the driver and even the class escape me, but one Super-class driver came to “visit” with Couch before a run, telling him in no uncertain terms of his own preferred deep-staging procedure and how Couch should handle it. Pretty much the gist of it was that when the racer was staged how he preferred, he would give Couch a nod, and then he could start the race. Of course, as soon as that driver’s front tire tickled the beam, Couch threw the switch, then later calmly explained to him, “I couldn’t remember if you said you were gonna wave or nod.” Message received.

In an interview Couch did with LA Times reporter Shav Glick on the eve of his retirement from the starting line in late 1995, Couch recollected, "One guy had a reputation as a quick starter, and I heard he was bragging about how he knew when I was going to press the button because my thumb moved first. Well, one day he was on the line, and I twitched my thumb, and he was halfway down the track before the green light came on. I doubt if he ever checked my thumb after that.”

I remember the 1983 Summernationals, where Connie Kalitta got into a protracted staging battle with Jody Smart in the semifinals. The story goes that Kalitta came to the line with suspect oil pressure; maybe Smart knew that, maybe he didn't. When the Tree finally turned green, Kalitta fireballed an engine. He pulled off the track into the grass (there were no guardwalls then), slammed his helmet to the ground, and charged back to the starting line to complain to Couch about the length of time it took to get the Tree. Kalitta was hot, and Couch reportedly just grinned and told him, "I’ll roll around in the grass and wrassle with you if you want.”


This is one of my favorite photos of Buster, and it speaks volumes. That's NASCAR king Richard Petty seeming a bit overwhelmed by the power of side-by-side burnouts by Connie Kalitta and Doug Herbert at the 1992 U.S. Nationals. The look of joy on Buster's face is priceless.

Former NHRA Vice President Steve Gibbs, NHRA’s longtime competition director, was Couch’s boss, tasked with oversight. For all of his bluster, Couch was so deeply loved and respected and even watched over lest his “redneck tendencies” get the better of him. Gibbs remembers visiting Couch’s dear wife, Anne, in the hospital as she lay dying from cancer. “Her sole concern while she was dying was Buster,” he recalled. “She had a little yellow notepad, and she’d write, ‘Make sure Buster does this’ and “Make sure Buster does that’ and ‘Buster will need this.’ We all looked after him.

“He was a challenge,” Gibbs remembered fondly. “He liked to fight; he told me once he should have been a hockey player so he could get paid to fight. He was a unique individual, and I just had to deal with it because there’s no doubt that he was the man we needed for that time in the sport’s history. It was a different time, a different era.


Couch emphatically gave the universal shutoff sign to Top Fuel racer Steve Hodkinson at the 1982 Winternationals after Hodkinson's engine sprung a severe fuel leak.

“He was as good a starter as there’s ever been. He didn’t let the racers start him, and some of those guys are pretty crafty. He probably wouldn’t like the job today with as much automation as we have now – Auto Start and all of that, which I think is necessary – because Buster started every race, deciding with his thumb when it was time for the cars to go.”

And Couch was not above a little showmanship to let people know he was the boss.

“I remember one year at Atlanta, [Larry] Morgan and [Bob] Glidden got into a burndown. Buster was out there waving his arms, putting on a show, and finally backed them both off,” said Gibbs. “He walked over to each of the cars, acting like he was really mad. He opened Glidden’s door, and Bob’s waiting to get yelled out, and Buster just says. ‘Hey Bob, how ya doing? How’s Etta? How’s the kids?’ Then he slams the door and storms over to Morgan’s car. ‘Hey Larry, you having a nice day? How’s it going?’ Then slams his door. They fired up and raced and were laughing so hard at the other end of the track about how Buster took the edge off the whole thing by doing that.”


Drivers like John Force loved Buster, and he loved 'em right back.

As much as drivers liked to prank him – beyond the snake-tossing episodes (there was more than one) – there was love and respect, too. Top Fuel driver Dale Funk was seen handing Couch a cold beer one time, and Chris Karamesines once reached out and handed him a bottle of booze as he was staging.

Couch was good with giving a practical joke, too. Gibbs remembered at the first Gatornationals how the division directors (“a pretty rowdy bunch back then”) were seeking adult beverages in the dry county, and Couch, with his local knowledge after years as the Division 2 director, pointed them down the road to sleepy Waldo, Fla., with tales of an underground speakeasy below a gas station. Of course, it didn’t exist, but the DDs spent the night roaming around looking for it.

I remember an early-1980s story being told of how Scott Kalitta, then driving an A/Fuel Dragster, was having some relationship problems with his girlfriend and reportedly had been dodging her phone calls. So, of course, when he pulls to the starting line for a qualifying pass, Couch handed him a telephone as he was preparing to stage.


Wally and Barbara Parks with Buster; I miss all three of them.

My personal favorite memories of Buster are of a Foghorn Leghorn-like uncle, always ready to give you a little crap (“Son! I say, son! Don’t walk across my starting line like that.”) but a genuine good guy. Back in the 1980s, we would finish proofing the magazine Wednesday, hop on a red-eye while the issue was being printed Thursday, and have a dozen or so FedEx’d to the event to give to that week’s cover or feature subjects, and I always saved one for Buster. He would see me coming his way with one in my hand, and his face would light up with a big ol’ grin. “Thank you, Mr. Burgess. I surely do appreciate it.”

There have been a lot of larger-than-life characters in our sport – guys like Richard Tharp, Funk, Chip Woodall, “the Greek,” Raymond Beadle; gosh, I could go on and on – but Buster Couch will always be among the larger, both for his presence on the starting line and impression he left on everyone who knew him.

Previous Entries
Next Entries
 
..