“Finally, a full load of the Setzer/Foster/Buttera/Pink Vega straight into my veins!” enthused Insider reader Paul Nadeau after last week’s column in which we, the drag racing fandom, finally heard Barry Setzer share his memories of his two years as owner of the Pat Foster-driven Vega Funny Car that is indelibly engraved in the memories of many of us who saw it run.
As I said last week, it was a story too long in the coming, and I was happy and proud to play my part in bringing his story back into the limelight, and Cole Foster, Pat’s son, the final link in the effort to track him down, was more than happy to keep the conversation going, sharing a ton of personal images and memories.
Especially interesting to me were his insights into two of his dad’s more memorable national event losses.
Foster’s loss to Jim Dunn in the final round of the 1972 Supernationals -- the one that made Dunn’s Barracuda the first (and, as we know, only) rear-engine Funny Car to win a national event – has been a mystery to me for years. Why would Foster, usually rock-steady behind the wheel and with the better and more consistent car by a mile (6.29, 6.30, and 6.31 to Dunn’s patchy 6.60, 6.77, and 6.44) red-light to Dunn in the final?
According to Cole, “The idle accidentally got set really high in the final round; Dad said it was using clutch and getting hot. He bent the brake lever pulling on it trying to keep the car from creeping in the staging lights. He had the field covered that year and Dunn was tenths slower, but the car moved out of the beams and caught a red-light and gave Dunn the famous national event win. Ironically, Dad built Dunn’s car at Woody Gilmore’s.”
(Man, I live for this kind of minutiae to fill in the cracks between the details of the facts we already know.)
The team would win its first national event early the next year at the Gatornationals but probably would have won it in 1972 had the car not caught fire on the starting line in the semifinals against Winternationals champ Ed McCulloch. Foster, the No. 1 qualifier, was hot off a class-best 6.52 in a round-two drubbing of Don Schumacher and by all accounts had the car ready to run the class’ first 6.4-second pass against “the Ace.”
Depending on to whom you talk, either the crew had wrapped rags around the valve-cover-mounted breathers (not an uncommon tactic) or a rag was accidentally left in the body tin beside the blower hat, but a fire started, and flames began licking out through the injector hole. Foster refused to shut off the car until Chief Starter Buster Couch insisted (ahem) with a little Mr. Spock-like Vulcan nerve grip. (Oh, how I miss Buster.)
Chief Starter Buster Couch, right, moved in for the "kill" in this photo from the June 1972 issue of Car Craft.
“They lifted the body and grabbed a rag and put out a tiny fire,” said Cole. “The body went down, and Dad moves in to stage it, and the little fire lights back up. Dad knows what’s burning and knows it will go out in 20 feet. Buster tells him to shut it off; he won’t and moves in to stage. Dad said he was tunneled in and nothing mattered except running for the win. Buster reached into the window with the car running and grabbed Dad ‘Spock’-style between the neck and shoulder. Dad said it was unreal how strong Buster grabbed him, so he shut it off, and ‘Ace’ made a single for the win. Those were the type of small things that kept that car from winning more national events.”
Cole also shared photos of the Setzer 1973 press kit, with its cool three-car cover drawn by my good pal John Jodauga. Here are some snippets from the material inside:
There were just seven people on the Barr Race Cars payroll: Pro Stock driver Bruce Walker and his team -- Gordy Foust (crew chief), Eddie Sain (crewmember), and Frank Schmidt (mechanic) -- plus Foster, crew chief Larry Wagner, and crewmember Harold Crisp.
“Desires for racing program: To have each of the three Barr Race Cars recognized as the best appearing, best prepared, and best performing machines in drag racing.”
“Immediate goals in 1973 are to win everything.”
The material also cited that the Barr Group (the holding company for his many businesses) expected projected sales of $40 million in 1973 but went on to clarify, "In spite of appearances, my racing program has not been handled with an open checkbook. We are taking a very businesslike approach to drag racing and feel our programs are built on very sound financial advice.”
Setzer, who, according to his bio, had in his youth served as a deckhand on Ohio River barges for the Ashland Oil Co. (Pennzoil), described himself thusly: “I classify myself as an entrepreneur. My strong point is creating ideas and then turning them over to an experienced staff.”
Cole has also promised to share in the (very near, I hope) future what it was like growing up the son of a Funny Car hero -- summers spent on the road with his dad, sacking out in the sleeper between match race dates, hanging out with Don Prudhomme and Bob Brandt at the Ed Pink garages, and nightly guests such as Raymond Beadle, Jim Liberman, and Billy Meyer around the Foster family dinner table. I can’t wait.
Last weekend’s unveiling of the aforementioned Dunn & Reath rear-engine Barracuda as the No. 11 car in the Top 20 Funny Cars fan poll means we’re halfway done and ready for the top 10.
Here’s what has been revealed so far with a quick recap of the fan vs. Insider vote.
|Jim Dunn/Dunn & Reath Barracuda
|Ramchargers Dodge Challenger
|Pat Foster/Barry Setzer Vega
|Ed McCulloch Revellution Demon
|Danny Ongais/Mickey Thompson Mustang
|Kenny Bernstein Bud King Tempo
|Don Prudhomme Pepsi Challenger
|Jim White/Hawaiian Punch Dodge
|Gene Snow Rambunctious Challenger
|Jack Chrisman Comet
The biggest disparities between the fan and Insider votes are the six-spot difference of opinion on the Thompson Mustang and five-spot disparity on the Setzer car, both of which I “blame” on the lack of current mainstream knowledge about both.
So, what that all means is here's a look at who’s still in the hunt (no spoilers; presented in chronological order):
Don Nicholson Comet (1966)
Chi-Town Hustler (1969)
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)
Kenny Bernstein’s “Batmobile” Buick (1987)
John Force Castrol Firebird (1995)
Jack Beckman’s Infinite Hero (2015)
It’s an interesting mix with five decades represented (2000s! What happened to you?), which is perfect and probably represents a good cross section of Funny Car fans. As you can see, the Insider Nation and the fan poll agree on eight of the top 10 (I had only six of those in my personal top 10, the other four being the Setzer Vega, the Thompson Mustang, Prudhomme’s Pepsi Challenger Trans Am, and Bernstein’s Tempo).
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, like for many of us, are very 1970s-centric:
11. "TV Tommy" Ivo Nationwise Dodge (1976)
12. Bruce Larson USA-1 Camaro (1969)
13. Roland Leong/Ron Colson Hawaiian Monza (1977)
14. Joe Pisano/Tom Ridings Arrow (1978)
15. Dale Pulde War Eagle Trans Am (1977)
16. Jim Green/Richard Rogers Green Elephant Vega (1977)
17. Gordie Bonin's Bubble Up Trans Am (1977)
18. Al Segrini's Black Magic Vega (1974-75)
19. Dale Armstrong/Mike Kase Speed Racer Omni (1980-81)
20. Tom Prock’s Detroit Tiger Monza (1975-76)
So we plunge into the top 10 beginning this weekend. The reveal for No. 10 will take place during Saturday night’s FS1 program. 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.
The Top 20 Funny Cars list rolls on, headed soon for the top 10, and although there were no assurances of anyone’s position -- due in no small part to the strength of “the field,” each having earned a berth based on the sheer weight of evidence for inclusion – it’s fair to say that the last few unveilings have ruined many a “perfect bracket” some of you may have been harboring.
For me, one of the “ouch” moments was when the fabled Pat Foster-driven Barry Setzer Vega was announced in the No. 13 spot. Blame it on the rather nondescript name of the car or its short-lived (two seasons) history, but it was in my personal top 10. As a young fan devouring racing magazines and turning up at SoCal dragstrips as often as I could beg and bargain my parents for a ride in the early 1970s, the Ed Pink-powered Vega seemed nearly indestructible. “Patty Faster” might not always win the race, but he and Setzer almost always left with low e.t., top speed, or both.
For decades, Setzer has been a bit of an enigma for me. I can’t find a single magazine interview that he ever did, and all that most of us know is that he owned a pretty successful textile business in North Carolina and that for a few years he bankrolled a racing team. I’ve written about him several times but always from a third-person, historical perspective.
So, before it’s too late – you know what I mean – I thought it was time to try to unravel the mystery. He wasn’t easy to track down, but eventually, Cole Foster – Pat’s son – was able to get me a cellphone number. Setzer, now in his early 70s, was clearly surprised by my out-of-the-blue call and admitted right away that he had never been one for the limelight.
“The spotlight has always been the place where I’ve been least comfortable, and I always thought I should let the car speak for itself,” he explained of the absence of any previous interviews. “The owner of the great horse Secretariat always said the best spokesman for Secretariat was Secretariat.”
Barry Setzer's Pro Stock Camaro, with Bruce Walker at the wheel.
His modesty notwithstanding, Setzer spent an engaging half-hour with me and had very fond and wonderfully clear memories of his brief but highlight-filled time in the sport.
Dispelling any notion that he was just the wallet behind the magnificent machine, Setzer grew up in sport and can vividly remember as a teenager watching Don Garlits race on the old abandoned Air Force strip in Chester, S.C., before turning his trackside viewing into on-track doing, racing a ’55 Chevy and then a big-block Chevy II Super Stocker. He teamed with driver Bruce Walker on a “match race Super Stock” Camaro that became a Pro Stocker, which is how he met Ed Pink. Pink built an all-aluminum engine for the Camaro, which led to introductions to Funny Car drivers and chassis builder John Buttera.
“I decided that I’d like to have a Funny Car, so I had Buttera build me one, and we ran it out of Ed’s shop,” he recalled. “I was just an old country boy who had been in awe of all of the California guys, but once I got to meet them and spend some time with them, I figured out, ‘Why, hell … they’re just guys, too.’ We started sharing thoughts and ideas, and I really enjoyed that part of it.”
Kelly Brown earned Setzer a runner-up at the 1971 NHRA Springnationals.
The 28-year-old entrepreneur hired the highly regarded Kelly Brown as his driver, and together they scored a runner-up at the 1971 NHRA Springnationals in Dallas. At the time, Foster was driving Don Cook’s Damn Yankee Barracuda, which also had a Pink powerplant, and, as Foster told me in 2008, on a fraction of the budget, it consistently outperformed Setzer’s car, which was the Pink “house car," so to speak.
“That caught Pink’s attention,” Foster told me. “He asked me to help him with the Setzer car at a test session at Orange County Int'l Raceway. My answer to Ed was, ‘No deal. Put me in the car on a permanent basis, and we’ll talk.’ He did that, and from then till Barry quit drag racing in 1973, we did well.”
“I needed someone in the seat that had a little more clutch experience, and I think Pat was way ahead of his time in that area,” Setzer explained. “He understood how it worked better than anyone. As soon as we put him in the car, it started going quicker and faster. Also at that time, Ed was experimenting with bigger fuel pumps and more magneto voltage, and the notion of experimenting and being creative is also how I became successful in the textile business, so I was all for it. I always was interested in doing something a little different than how everyone else was doing it.”
Setzer was an innovative businessman who funded his racing efforts with a number of successful textile businesses, including Barr Craft Knitting, Barr Hosiery, and Barr Textile Dyeing.
Setzer’s textile business at the time – he’d sell and buy back the company several times in different iterations over 20-plus years – was Barr Craft Knitting, which specialized in covered elastic yarn and narrow elastic fabric, the kind that goes into underwear waistbands, bra straps, and lingerie.
“Back in that day, there was a product for the ladies called support pantyhose, and we were the biggest supplier of elastic to Hanes and L’eggs,” he said modestly. “We did all right for ourselves.”
(Although Setzer is no longer involved with his original company, fabric continues to weave its way into his life. He now owns Victory 8 Gardens
, which sells EZ-Gro Gardens, portable raised-bed gardens that use a proprietary, nonwoven propylene fabric called AeroFlow.)
Foster took over the wheel of the candy-red and gold Vega after Indy in 1971 and immediately drove the car to a win at the prestigious Manufacturers Meet at Orange County. How big was the Manufacturers Meet back then? Nearly 70 Funny Cars were on hand, and it took nine hours to complete qualifying to set the four eight-car fields for the Dodge, Plymouth, Ford, and General Motors teams. The Plymouth team, led by Don Prudhomme and Jim Dunn, won the team title, but Foster won the overall driver’s championship — a final run between the cars with the night’s two low e.t.s — when he beat Dunn, 6.72 to 6.77.
Don Schumacher (note 356 car number) got a guest shot in the Setzer Vega at Lions Drag Strip in September 1971. He lost the then-quickest Funny Car race of all time, 6.55 to 6.60 to Gene Snow. (Jere Alhadeff photo)
The promise shown in late 1971 revealed itself in full fury in 1972, especially during a five-week stretch in midsummer when they scored a home-state triumph for Setzer at the IHRA Pro-Am in Rockingham, N.C. (where they also set the IHRA national speed record), then won OCIR’s Big Four Manufacturers Championship (with a track record 6.52), triumphed at a smaller weekly show at Irwindale Raceway, and dominated the Hang Ten 500 at OCIR.
As testament to the team, between the Irwindale win and the last OCIR victory, they went to Lions Drag Strip and blew the body to smithereens (Foster even crunched the guardrail), but a week later, they killed ’em at OCIR, qualifying No. 1 and running low e.t. of all four rounds — including a track record 6.47 — and again beating Dunn in the final. They finished the season on a high note at the NHRA Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway, carding the sport’s first 6.2-second Funny Car run, a 6.29, in round one. Foster added passes of 6.30 and 6.31 before red-lighting in the final to (who else?) Dunn, who scored his historic first (and only) win with his rear-engine ‘Cuda.
The duo closed their first full season together by setting low e.t. and top speed of the meet at Lions’ Last Drag Race with a 6.36, 229.59-mph effort late in qualifying but were unable to return for eliminations because the chutes ripped off the car on the pass, which sent Foster into the sand trap, damaging the car.
“We went after it seriously on every run, like every run was for the national championship,” said Foster years ago. “We got chided by some of the smaller teams for running that way, but I told them I had a car owner who wanted to tip the world over every time we went to the starting line and that was my job.”
“Of course I always wanted to win,” Setzer confirmed, “but I always loved seeing the car go quick and fast, too.”
Setzer and Pat Foster in the winner's circle after winning the 1973 Gatornationals
The Setzer Vega kicked off 1973 by winning the All-Pro race at OCIR, beating Sush Matsubara in the final (Foster also set top speed at 223.32 mph), and followed with a convincing win at the IHRA Winternationals at Florida’s Lakeland Dragway, where he ran low e.t. in the final to beat Ron O’Donnell. The team then collected its first NHRA score at the Gatornationals, where it set a new national record of 6.36, backed up by a 6.37 in the final round to defeat Don Schumacher. The Setzer machine went on to record two more NHRA runner-up finishes, at that year's Springnationals and Summernationals, to Dave Beebe and Leroy Goldstein, respectively. At the Summernationals, Foster qualified third on a fiery 6.47 pass that left him with burns. He bravely soldiered on and reached the final, where he fell to Goldstein and the Candies & Hughes machine, 6.74 to 6.78.
"We did better in match race and IHRA competition," admitted Foster. "The car was good enough to win even more NHRA events, but something always seemed to happen to us in the final."
Foster qualified No. 1 at the IHRA Pro-Am at Rockingham Dragway and was runner-up to Mike Snively in the Mr. Ed Satellite and set low e.t. at the IHRA Springnationals in Bristol. Foster set top speed at the IHRA Northern Nationals and lost in the final to Jim Paoli. Later that year, Foster and Setzer won the IHRA U.S. Open, stopping Dale Emery in the final.
Foster and Setzer parted company at the end of the 1973 season. Setzer had met “a charming young lady” and got married, but before you start thinking it’s “Yoko broke up the Beatles,” Setzer is clear that the decision to quit was his.
“It wasn’t that she didn’t want me to go drag racing,” he explained. “I realized that I couldn’t be the world’s greatest husband, operate a successful business, and be the owner of the world’s fastest Funny Car. The time was right, and I decided to move on. Everyone’s interests follow different courses over time. Some people live their lives doing what they started out doing. I respect and admire those people, but I’m not that way. The creating and the building was always more exciting than the actual doing.”
Tommy Grove drove a Setzer-branded Vega for a number of seasons after Setzer retired from being an active car owner.
Setzer offered to sell the complete operation to Foster, who declined and later very much regretted it. “I didn't want the headaches of being an owner,” Foster admitted. “Don Prudhomme later told me that I had been a fool, and he was right. I had everything that I needed to turn the program into a major sponsorship deal.”
The Setzer name remained visible on a Setzer-branded Vega driven for several seasons by Tommy Grove. Setzer had no real involvement in the car – the arrangement began when Grove garaged his car at Setzer’s shop – but he did work more closely with Lamar Walden on a locally run Pro Stock Vega that carried Setzer’s name in the 1974 and 1975 seasons, a car that Setzer believes could have been a great car if they ever had the chance to sort it out.
Setzer loved innovative cars such as his "take-apart" Vega Pro Stocker (above) and the Buttera/Nye Frank monocoque Top Fueler (below).
Even while he owned the Funny Car, Setzer had his hands in both other Pro classes as well. After Bill Jenkins showed the way in Pro Stock with his small-block Vega, Setzer had Buttera build him another cutting-edge vehicle.
Recalled Buttera in a 2001 interview with NHRA National Dragster, "One of the problems that they had with the [Pro Stock] Camaro was that it was so difficult to work on. Barry wanted to make the car more accessible, and I said, 'If that's what you want, watch this.' "
The result, according to former NHRA National Dragster writer and Pro Stock historian John Jodauga, was the first "take-apart" Pro Stock car, on which each body panel, with the exception of the roof and rear quarterpanels, could be easily removed with a variety of quick-disconnect devices. The vehicle earned Best Engineered Car honors at the season-opening 1973 Winternationals. “Although it did not knock Jenkins off of the top of the Pro Stock totem pole, its engineering innovations are still very present in today's machines,” wrote Jodauga in a 2001 ND article.
Setzer’s trust in Buttera was so supreme that he even bought Buttera’s wild, monocoque-chassised Top Fueler – an extraordinary machine combining aircraft, aerospace, Indy 500, Can-Am, and Formula 1 technology that I wrote about in a 2010 column that I titled “The prettiest car to ever run only once
,” which goes a long way in summing up the wild ride – after Buttera could not find the financing himself to field the car after a six-month build. The car, as my title implies, only ran once (that we know of), wheelstood, and was retired.
“It was a fabulous car – maybe one of the most beautiful ever – but it never performed quite right,” Setzer told me. “Maybe with a little more effort, we could have done something very different.”
After an aborted attempt to turn it into a rocket-powered exhibition car, the machine was shelved and later donated to the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing.
Foster with son Cole, Linda Vaughn, and Setzer in the winner's circle, where they spent a lot of time in the 1972-73 seasons
As my time with Setzer ran down – he was headed to a business appointment – I made sure that he knew that his name was etched into the memories and record books of many of us and shared some of the platitudes I had gathered.
Not long before his passing in March 2008, Foster said of his longtime friend, “Barry was a quiet, soft-spoken, intelligent man, a man of his word, and always a gentleman. A better car owner would be hard to find. It was a shame that Barry couldn't have kept going in drag racing. There's no doubt in my mind that he would have been a major player for many years, and he certainly would have been in contention for one of the first major corporate sponsorships. Racing with Barry was certainly the highlight of my career. Barry gave me the opportunity to prove my abilities as a driver and engine and clutch tuner.”
In 2001, car builder Buttera called Setzer “one of my favorite, if not the favorite, customers I ever had. That was back in the days when you could try a lot of new things, and Barry encouraged that. Other people were very demanding, but Barry knew how to say please and thank you.”
I asked Setzer to reflect on his short but wonderful time in the sport, and he, typically understatedly, said, “We made a pretty good splash there, didn’t we?
"It was a great time in my life,” he continued. “I enjoyed traveling around the country and meeting people and being exposed to a lot of different ideas and concepts. I tried to make it to as many races as I could and enjoyed it a lot. I enjoyed the people, especially Pat. Pat was like a brother to me. He was a great guy, and the fact that I’ve kept alive a relationship with his son, Cole, I think speaks for itself on how I felt about Pat.
“It is amazing,” he agreed when I told him about the reverence fans like me still have for that car. “I don’t follow the sport much anymore, but I took my car in to get it inspected in a little shop the other day, and the guy told me, ‘I want you to know that you’re still relevant.’ That made me feel good.”
I couldn’t agree more.
The last week provided a double shock of loss, with the passing of Funny Car barrier breaker Chuck Etchells Wednesday, July 6, and the loss of drag racing icon Art Chrisman the following Tuesday. The loss of Etchells was unexpected, a sudden death at age 61, and although many of those close to Chrisman knew that his passing was imminent – he had battled cancer for quite some time – it was no less shocking that he was gone at age 86 when the news arrived.
Etchells engraved his name in the NHRA history books on that magical weekend in Topeka in 1993 when both the four-second and 300-mph Funny Car barriers were felled – the former by Etchells, the latter by Jim Epler – and although Chrisman's headlines were written in a time before mass media and televised drag racing, it’s impossible to overstate his place in the sport’s history, so I’ll talk about him first, borrowing generously from an article I wrote about him 15 years ago when he was voted No. 29 on the list of Top 50 Drivers of NHRA’s first 50 years, ahead of guys like Chris Karamesines, Dick LaHaie, and many others.
The criteria for that list was based not solely on behind-the-wheel accomplishments but on historical, mechanical, and promotional legacy, which is why Chrisman was the perfect fit. It’s hard for fans of today to truly understand how different things were in that time. I think we’re all aware that back then racers did it almost all themselves, but I think even I still have a hard time understanding what that means and reconciling it to today’s army of specialists.
Hot rodding's earliest heroes didn't get a new race car every year, nor did they rely on professional chassis builders to create their racing machinery or fabrications specialists to create the bodywork. These heroes never depended on air-gun artists to paint their machines or stood back and watched hired wrenches build and tune their engines before hopping into their chariots. More often than not, these ancestors of acceleration did it all themselves, wiping their dirty hands clean before climbing into the cockpit to try out their handiwork, and few better exemplified this standard than Chrisman.
Chrisman's family moved from Arkansas to Compton, Calif., during World War II and owned an automobile-repair shop, Chrisman & Sons Garage, where Chrisman quickly learned about cars and developed an interest in racing.
“I built my first hot rod, a ’32 Ford, right after World War II when I was 16,” Chrisman told NHRA National Dragster in an interview several years ago. “I then built a custom ’36 Ford sedan, which was the first car I raced at Santa Ana and El Mirage.”
Chrisman and his brother, Lloyd, began racing the Ford four-door sedan on the Southern California dry-lake beds. That was followed by a '34 Ford that hit a stout 140-mph clip and a tube-frame, chopped and channeled '30 Ford coupe. Chrisman became one of five charter members of the Bonneville 200-mph Club after driving Chet Herbert's Beast streamliner past the double-century mark (and eventually up to 235 mph) in 1952. The next year, the Chrismans' homebuilt coupe reached near-200-mph speeds.
Racing was clearly in the family's blood. Chrisman's uncle, the late Jack Chrisman, won Top Eliminator titles at the first Winternationals and at the 1962 U.S. Nationals. In 1964, Jack was the first driver to wheel a blown and injected nitro-burning Funny Car. Jack's son, Steve, was a competitive alcohol and nitro Funny Car racer in the 1980s.
Art Chrisman, in his famed #25 dragster, was the first drag racer to exceed 140 and 180 mph and the first winner at the Bakersfield U.S. Fuel & Gas Championships in 1959. Chrisman was partners with Leroy Neumeyer on the #25 car. When Neumeyer was drafted to fight in the Korean War, Chrisman began to race the machine, which would become one of the most celebrated cars in drag racing history.
"It was probably built in the early 1930s by some backyard mechanic," Chrisman reflected in 1991, "but I have no idea who that was. This was not a factory car, just some machine a guy put together. I had seen it around town, and because it was so unusual, it caught my eye. [Neumeyer] traded his motorcycle for the car. We ran it at the dry lakes in the early '50s, and in 1953, we took it to the drag races, the first time at Santa Ana. We just wanted to see if it would go straight.
"Some months earlier, I had stretched it from its original 90-inch wheelbase to 110 inches, set the driver back farther in the car, and threw a coat of black primer on it. We ended up taking it apart that day and didn't run it. But the next time out, same track, same year, we had the copper paint job on it, the big #25 on the driver's side of the body, and a Chrysler under the hood. That's when we went 140."
The familiar #25 cemented its place in the history books as the first car to make a pass at NHRA's first national event, the 1955 Nationals in Great Bend, Kan. Chrisman took part in the ribbon-cutting ceremony, then made the opening lap of the race.
“It was [NHRA founder] Wally Parks’ idea for us to make the first run,” said Chrisman. “When I made that pass, I had no idea of what we were starting with NHRA’s first national event, but I did see the handwriting on the wall when I got to look at the slingshot dragsters of [eventual event winner] Calvin Rice and Mickey Thompson. We had plenty of power with our Chrysler engine, but we couldn’t take advantage of it because our car would just smoke the tires.”
In 1958, as #25 was beginning to show its age and a new breed of dragster, the slingshot, was beginning to make its mark, the Chrismans, along with Frank Cannon, built their famed Hustler I dragster. Chrisman recalled that he first attempted to modify #25 into a slingshot design, “but it would’ve looked so weird that we just decided to build a new car from the ground up,” he said.
Built at the Chrisman garage, the new entry won the Best Engineered Car award at the 1958 Nationals in Oklahoma City and was featured on the January 1959 cover of Hot Rod magazine.
The car, powered by a blown 392-cid Chrysler engine stroked out to 454 inches, became the first drag racer to crack the 180-mph mark with a 181.81-mph run on the back straight of Southern California’s Riverside Raceway in February 1959, just a month before the historic first March Meet, known then as the U.S. Fuel & Gas Championships.
"We ran a 180 that day and two 179s, so we knew we had a runner," he said. "That run gave us a lot of confidence going into the first Bakersfield race, which was run in March. We knew that all the big guys from California would be there, as well as Don Garlits and some of the Eastern racers. We wanted to show them we were for real with that 180."
Chrisman won that historic first Smokers Meet, running as quick as 8.70 at 179.70 mph and trailering some of the best fuelers in the sport. He capped the event with a victory over Tony Waters in the Waters & Shugrue roadster in a near-pitch-black final.
Drag racing biographers Mickey Bryant and Todd Hutcheson sent me this wonderful Howard Hagen print that shows that famous 1959 March Meet final round.
Chrisman ran that car through the end of the 1962 season, scoring Top Fuel runner-ups at the 1960 and 1961 Bakersfield races, then went to work through 1972 for Ford Motor Co.'s Autolite Spark Plug Division, which put an end to his driving career but not his association with motorsports.
The restored #25 made the opening pass at the 25th annual U.S. Nationals in 1979.
“I not only got to work with Connie Kalitta, Don Prudhomme, and my uncle Jack when they received their new Ford SOHC 427s, but I also spent every February in Daytona [Fla.] and every May in Indianapolis,” he recalled. “I also worked with racers such as Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney, and A.J. Foyt. Some of our projects at the Indy 500 included working with the Ford pushrod small-block engine that was based on the 289-cid engine and the dual overhead cam engine, which won a lot of races there.”
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the U.S. Nationals, Chrisman worked with his son Mike and Steve Davis to restore #25 and duplicate his first pass at the inaugural event to begin the 1979 race. The ritual was repeated again at the 50th U.S. Nationals in 2004.
Former NHRA Vice President and Competition Director Steve Gibbs was incredibly close to Chrisman, especially in his final years.
“We all have our drag racing heroes,” said Gibbs, who also shared some of his thoughts in the video at right, during Chrisman’s installation into the SEMA Hall of Fame. “Some from their racing accomplishments and mechanical skills, others from their personal conduct, or character. When one person has all those traits and is later to become a close personal friend is a reward that few experience. Art became like the older brother I never had. He was a racer’s racer and a man’s man. He was married to his wife, Dorothy, for 62 years, which should also tell you a lot about him.
Chrisman, left, Steve Gibbs, right, and Ron Capps at the NHRA museum in 2014, in front of the exhibit that honors the start of our sport and #25.
“The strength he showed during his dying days was unbelievable. Never once did I hear him complain or feel sorry for himself. ‘I’m fine’ was his response to questions about his situation, when we all knew it wasn’t. I can only hope I have a tenth of his strength and dignity when my time comes. The reality is that I'm at an age when many of my friends are dying. It's a cruel reality, and each loss hurts. Losing Art Chrisman is different; it's life-changing. What started out as a young kid idolizing a big-name racer turned into a very close personal friendship. When we left Art's house on Monday night, I knew it was the last time I would be with him, and it left a huge hole in my heart. But it was his time to go, and there was honestly a sense of relief in knowing he would soon be free from a long and courageous fight.
"It's a shame that some of the younger folks do not have full knowledge of what Art contributed to the world of drag racing and hot rodding. Many of us do know, and he was simply the best. I'm thankful for his friendship and take comfort in knowing that he felt the same. Vaya con Dios mi amigo.”
Legendary race car builder Tom Hanna echoed Gibbs’ sentiment, calling Chrisman “the last of a breed of most extraordinary men. If there be a hereafter, Art Chrisman’s place was well earned.”
Fans like Insider regular William McLauchlan also expressed their appreciation of Chrisman
“Art Chrisman was before my time,” he wrote. “His racing career ended before I ever opened a Hot Rod magazine or attended a drag race. When I did start reading National Dragster’s event coverage I always wondered why they had a photo of the Autolite spark plug guy – who was this guy? He wasn’t racing. Well, I would find out. In old Hot Rod magazines I saw his cars were fast and first class in preparation. In the Rodder’s Journal the cars he built were incredible. Having breakfast with Steve Gibbs one morning he told me Art was his hero. And then I went to Bakersfield and thought the Hustler was the loudest car there (sorry Mike Kuhl and others). Walking through the pits I saw Art standing by himself next to his car. I decided to take a chance and go talk to him. I told him his car was loud, which he said it always was even when they raced, and told him I liked the street rods he built. He told I should come by some Wednesday night but to be sure to bring food. I was really taken back by his openness and character. This guy was the real deal. If someone wanted to know how to be in life, be like Art.”
A memorial and celebration of life for Chrisman will take place Saturday, Aug. 27, from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum presented by the Automobile Club of Southern California.
In a fine career that included 13 NHRA national event wins – from his first, a wild finish in Englishtown that ended with opponent Johnny West unconscious after a guardwall slam, to the last, a triumph at the 1998 World Finals – Etchells left his mark on the Funny Car class as a fierce competitor, superb marketer, and constant foil for John Force.
Four of Etchells’ wins came after vanquishing Force at the height of his mid-1990s power in final rounds, but nine of Etchells’ 13 runner-ups came at the hands of the sport’s most feared flopper pilot. Force respected Etchells as he respected and fought everyone who strove to take away his hard-earned crown, including Al Hofmann, Whit Bazemore, and more. In the 55 races that spanned the 1993-95 seasons, one or both of them were in 33 of those finals, and Etchells finished in the top five seven straight seasons, from 1992 through 1998, with a career-high finish of No. 2 behind Force in 1993.
And although Force beat Etchells way more often than Etchells ever beat Force, few – especially Force –will ever forget the biggest and grandest time that Etchells beat him, in the race to break into the four-second zone.
Funny Cars had begun knocking on the four-second door the previous season, when Cruz Pedregon steamed to a 5.07 in the McDonald’s Pontiac at the NHRA Keystone Nationals. The following spring, Force hammered out a 5.04 in Houston, followed by a 5.01 in Englishtown. There seemed to be little doubt in anyone’s mind – especially, apparently, Force’s – that he would be the one to do the barrier breaking.
Etchells had other ideas. Force had already locked up the season championship, so Etchells and crew chief Tim Richards set their sights on the first four. The stage was set for history at Heartland Park Topeka in early October.
“We had run a 5.06, 292.20 at Maple Grove and felt that coming into this race we could do it,” Etchells told National Dragster. “I ran a 5.04 blowing a blower at 1,200 feet [in Englishtown] in July, so we've had the power for some time. What we needed were the conditions. As soon as we arrived here, I got the feeling that we had a shot at it. As soon as we got out of the truck, we could tell that the air was good, and our first run told us that the track was smooth and in excellent shape. Inside, I felt that if Force didn't step up dramatically, we could get it."
Not long after Castrol's John Howell, second from right, and John Force announced a $25,000 bounty for the first four-second Funny Car run, Etchells, second from left, swooped in and stole Force's prize.
No one did well in the first qualifying session in Topeka, but with the cool evening session approaching, a special announcement was made on the starting line. Castrol GTX Motorsports Manager John Howell announced that his company would present $25,000 to the four-second barrier breaker. Force – sponsored then, of course, by Castrol – apparently got caught up in the excitement of the moment and announced to the crowd that he'd pay half of that $25,000, probably figuring he would be writing a check to himself.
Force's Olds was in the second pair (this was before qualifying was run as it is today, with the quickest drivers from the first session running last in the second session) and Etchells in the sixth. Force had run 5.08 to top the first session, so it was a better than good bet he was going to crash through the barrier. Then came an unexpected break for Etchells … or should I say “brake”? During the burnout, Force’s Castrol Olds broke the left front-brake caliper, and crew chief Austin Coil had to shut him off. "The caliper was locking up the wheel," said Coil. "John could feel the shudder when he used the brakes after the burnout. When he released the brakes, the car wouldn't roll."
Four pairs later, Etchells, who had run 5.16 in the first session, promptly put a 4.987 at 294.31 mph on the scoreboard.
"Well," Force said, "I picked a great time to shoot my big mouth off. Etchells and his crew are good guys, and they did it fair and square. Our team has had a lot of things go our way this year, so I guess it was someone else's turn to have their moment."
Etchells' moment was long in coming. He had begun attending drag races at Connecticut Dragway in 1970 at age 16 and soon began racing his own ’67 Dodge R/T, eventually getting it to run in the high 10s. Then he made the huge leap in 1978 by purchasing a Chevy Monza Funny Car from Bruce Larson. With brother Gary and pals Pete Hyslop and Bill Hatzell, he went nitro racing. He called the car Future Force, which he certainly hoped to be, though there were certainly few guarantees at the time.
“We knew nothing about nitro engines,” he admitted, “but Bruce spent hours on the phone with us, trying to get us dialed in. I don’t know how he managed to put up with all that, but he did.”
Etchells earned his license with a respectable 6.60 at 220 mph and a few years later traded the Monza shell for a Datsun body before upgrading to his first car, a Murf McKinney-built Pontiac Trans Am, in 1984.
“We were still blowing up a lot of stuff back then,” said Etchells, "and upon the suggestion of [Englishtown’s] Vinnie Napp, I called Paul Smith and his son Mike for some help, which turned out to be a good idea.”
In 1990, Etchells finally won his first NHRA national event at the Summernationals and also won the IHRA Funny Car championship. A year later, Etchells was forced to park the car until his agent, Bill Griffith, came up with sponsorship help from Nobody Beats The Wiz home entertainment centers, which allowed Etchells to hire crew chief Maynard Yingst, who helped tune Etchells to three victories and a fifth-place finish in the 1992 standings. Tragically, Yingst suffered a fatal brain aneurysm on the final day of qualifying at the Houston event in 1993.
While attending services for Yingst in Linglestown, Pa., Etchells ran into Tim and Kim Richards, who were between jobs. “We were snowed in at the local Holiday Inn,” said Etchells, “and we got together in one of the rooms and managed to put together a deal for the rest of the year.”
Etchells went on to record two wins and a career-best second-place finish that year, capping it of course with the four-second run. Etchells finished in the top five five more times through 1998 but decided at the end of that year to replace himself as the driver with Bazemore, who brought extra money to the team with backing from Turtle Wax for the next two seasons. In 2001, Etchells formed a two-car team, driving one of the cars himself and hiring Jim Epler to drive the other. Lack of sponsorship backing forced Etchells to retire for good near the end of the season.
Art Chrisman and Chuck Etchells. Two guys on almost opposite ends of the drag racing history timeline but joined by their love of competition and their place in all our hearts.
I hope you all had a safe and sane Fourth of July and are ready to dive into the teeth of summer. I'll be in Chicago this weekend for the K&N Filters Route 66 NHRA Nationals at fabulous Route 66 Raceway.
While I'm spectating and working on The Mother Road, here's the mother lode of Fan Fotos, part two of Insider reader Robert Nielsen’s Fan Fotos submission, a compilation of photos, facts, and opinions. Enjoy!
When you walk through the pits at the California Hot Rod Reunion, you will run across lots of early vintage race cars, like this Speed Sport roadster powered by a mid-1950s Chrysler Firepower hemi with eight two-barrel Stromberg carburetors. This car clearly demonstrates, as do many other cars from this period, that rear-engine (again I must say mid-engine) cars were not just a recent invention. (I must also confess I digitally altered the top photo. There were a number of greasy rags under the left rear wheel. I did not want to upset anyone by messing with this car in any way, so I left them there along with the one on the top of the right rear wheel.)
The Master & Richter Special Top Fuel dragster, circa 1963, powered by a 392-cubic-inch Chrysler hemi in the pits at the California Hot Rod Reunion. The Kent Fuller chassis has a wheelbase of only 112 inches. That is certainly small when compared with today’s 300-inch-wheelbase Top Fuel cars. In this configuration, it was capable of running high-seven-second e.t.s at close to 200 mph in 1963.
In the foreground is the BankAmeriCar car of Don Ewald. The story is that Don financed this car using his Bank of America credit card to build it. When Kenny Youngblood was doing the original lettering on the car, Don told him this. Youngblood thought BankAmeriCar would be a good name for it and painted that on the cowl in front of the driver.
The car next to it is Don Ewald’s MasterCar. I assume once Don maxed out the BankAmericard, he applied for a MasterCard and built this dragster. Both have been restored to perfection! Not sure about who the third car in this picture belongs to.
The pits at the California Hot Rod Reunion are always loaded with a huge number of Cacklefest cars. I think it is the BankAmeriCar car that was the emphasis for the advent of the Cacklefest car. Most of these Cacklefest cars are 1950s and 1960s front-engine nitro cars restored to their splendid former greatest. Each year, more and more restored Cackle cars show up in the CHRR pits.
OK, while I said the 1972 front-engine dragster of Danny Ongais is my all-time favorite dragster, your hero and mine, "TV Tommy" Ivo’s first supercharged Barnstormer dragster is an extremely close second. I remember very vividly seeing this car run on the SoCal dragstrips in the early 1960s and how beautiful it looked, in addition to running great numbers.
You have to love the “weed burner” headers. These headers came by their name honestly since the exhaust from them would occasionally set dry brush near the edge of the track on fire. This was a moderately frequent occurrence at San Fernando Raceway.
Part of the thing making this deal so great is Ivo himself. He was an extraordinary showman and self-promoter. He loved the spotlight and still does, every part of it. The story has been told a thousand times about when he match raced a jet-powered dragster and stuck a hot dog on top of his helmet to be roasted when the jet flew by. Showmanship at its best! But do not dare mention his match race against a Turbonique-powered go-kart driven by “Captain Jack” McClure.
I shot this photo early Sunday morning in the 2015 California Hot Rod Reunion pits before virtually anyone was up and about. The car has been immaculately re-created by Ron Johnson in great detail. I must have shot about 50 photos of this car, drooling all the time – but being careful not to drool on the car itself. I was tempted to climb in the driver’s seat but resisted doing so purely out of respect for this car. I suspect the reason for shooting as many pictures as I did was that subconsciously I was waiting for Ron Johnson or someone else to show up so I could ask them if I could try it on for size. No luck, though, as no one ever appeared while I was there.
The re-creation of the Beebe & Mulligan Top Fuel dragster. Yet another of the Cackle cars that is consistently at every one of the California Hot Rod Reunions. Once again, the re-creation of this car is immensely accurate.
The “Outer Limits” A/Factory Experimental altered-wheelbase Dodge owned and driven by Joel Miner. Here he is just starting to launch off the starting line at the 2015 California Hot Rod Reunion. I really needed to be a little farther downtrack as his normal starting-line wheelstands are 3 to 4 feet high, but I did not want to get in the way of the professional photographers!
Glenn Gibbons' altered-wheelbase A/Factory Experimental Pouncing Poncho Pontiac leaving the 2015 California Hot Rod Reunion starting line with a big wheelstand!
While walking around the California Hot Rod Reunion pits, you can encounter a large variety of different types of vehicles. Here is someone’s personal transportation to get around in the pits. Hot rod ingenuity at its finest. It is parked next to the Voodoo Child A/Fuel Altered. Although I might question its stability during cornering. But then drag racers generally are not concerned with turning right or left. As the saying goes, “If you can turn right or left, you are not going fast enough!”
The 1958 B/Gas Dragster of Warren, Coburn & Crowe. This car was on display in the California Hot Rod Reunion Nitro Alumni Hospitality area. The display plaque on the front of the car says it is powered by a 459-cubic-inch hemi. Again, yet another example of an early short-wheelbase rear-engine dragster. While I never saw this car actually run, I was a huge fan of the Warren, Coburn & Miller Ridge Route Terrors cars that followed this one.
OK, readers, that's a wrap on the Nielsen Files. Some great stuff and a real testament to the great and individual things that catch our eyes and make them water, even without nitro. If you have some images and stories to share, let's have them. You can have your own memories, but it doesn't mean you shouldn't share them with the rest of us diehards!