Before Christmas and NHRA’s weeklong holiday shutdown, I promised you a column before the year was out, and here I am, back on a Wednesday (those of you who were with this column from the beginning back in mid-2007 remember that this was a thrice-weekly column: Monday-Wednesday-Friday) to close out the year and reset for 2015 and the first column of the new year, which will be posted Jan. 9.
As is the case at the end of each year, people like to make lists and, hey, who am I to go against the tide? I thought it would be fun to take a look back at the previous 50 columns I posted this year and create some short “greatest hits” types of lists from the publishing year. Turns out that I wrote about 100,000 words in those 50 columns, and I scoured them all (as well as the roughly 7,500 words that you all contributed) to create my lists, which I hope will bring back some fun memories and spark a little re-reading, and I finish the column with some housekeeping notes, all of which should send us off into 2015 with a fresh slate.
My Favorite 2014 Columns
I’d long been a fan of Funny Car racer Jake Johnston (right), but it took me years — and a random tweet by his son, Beau — to track him down for my column, Jake Johnston: Funny Car's "what if?" guy. The guy came within two hard-luck final rounds of being drag racing’s first two-time Funny Car champ four years before Don Prudhomme made it happen, drove some great and interesting cars — the Blue Max, Gene Snow’s Dodges, the Keeling & Clayton California Charger (dragster and Funny Car), the Pisano & Matsubara Vega, the Wonder Wagon Vega panel — and was on the ground floor of some potentially great breakthroughs that never quite panned out. He had a great memory and a great attitude and provided material for a follow-up column, How much Jake can you take?
The column on Johnston also led me into a great and long-running thread on the tricky Vega panel wagon Funny Cars of the early 1970s, beginning with the most famous of them all, the ill-fated Wonder Wagon machines of Don Schumacher (No more wonderin' about the Wonder Wagon). I had heard and read so much about how the deal went down — most of it is contradictory — so I went all 60 Minutes on the case and interviewed as many of the primary parties as I could — Schumacher, dealmakers Don Rackemann and Bob Kachler, drivers Kelly Brown and Glenn Way, and, of course, Johnston — for a 4,000-plus-word tell-all.
There's a show that airs on our PBS stations out here called Things That Aren't Here Anymore, which shows archival photos and videos of attractions and landmarks long gone from the landscape, and this photo got me thinking about how much things have changed — sometimes for the better, sometimes not — and things that just aren't there anymore in drag racing. It was just a list off the top of my head, without much more thought than it took to tap out the letters on my keyboard. That column was quite popular and continued into your contributions with More Things That Aren't Here Anymore.
Although I wouldn’t call them my favorites because of the subject matter and the fact that I was compelled to write them, I’m very proud of the final product, the reaction and comfort they gave, and all of the work that went into the tributes I wrote about Raymond Beadle and Dale Armstrong.
Best Stories Behind the Stories
This column has long born the motto “the stories behind the stories” because my goal has always been to uncover new tidbits about previously documented events and people and to shed new light and nuance upon both. I think I have a pretty good recall on most of the major events in the sport’s history, but through the course of researching and interviewing for the columns, I always stumble upon things that I didn’t know. Here’s a few that really tickled me this year:
It’s easy to imagine that the super-competitive Don Prudhomme would have had lots of snake venom for Raymond Beadle, who ended “the Snake's” four-year Funny Car championship run and began a three-year tear of his own in 1979, but that’s far from the case. The two were great pals back then, as Prudhomme shared with me during my long tribute to Beadle back in October. “Raymond was always a guy that I really, really liked. We used to battle each other on the track, but we used to have fun when we hung out. He was always a pleasure to be around. We used to pal around with a bunch of guys … to hang out in Dallas, go to Campisi’s; we were tight. Outside of ‘Mongoose,’ I don’t know there was anyone inside of racing that I was tighter with than Raymond.”
There was a lot of Blue Max treasure to be mined. In that same column, I found out that it was Dale Emery who bestowed upon Fred Miller his indelible "Waterbed" nickname, not for any '70s-style debauchery Miller had committed but for his repeated failed attempts to repair a leak in his water mattress. "It started out as a pinhole, and by the time I was done 'fixing' it, there was hole big enough to stick my head in," recalled Miller. "Emery would see me and say, 'There goes 'Waterbed Fred,' and it just stuck."
Billy Meyer, who was still in high school during his first two years in Funny Car, would often ride to the races with Beadle (who then was driving for Mike Burkhart) while both raced on the Coca-Cola Cavalcade of Stars circuit, and Beadle’s wife at the time, Holly, would tutor him in English.
A lot of folks remember that the Blue Max made its NHRA national event debut with Jake Johnston at the wheel at the 1970 Winternationals, but that was quickly lost in a highway accident. Car owner Harry Schmidt was at the wheel of their ramp truck when a driver going the other direction on the interstate lost control of his vehicle and swerved across the grass divider and into their lane. Schmidt swerved to avoid the oncoming car, which chucked the new Mustang off the back of the ramp, demolishing it. “We both cried,” remembered Johnston.
The bald truth finally came out about the famous starting-line fight between two guys just prior to the Modified final round at the 1970 Nationals that resulted in the toupee of one being knocked off his scalp (you can see it by his right elbow as it’s falling to the ground). According to Jon Asher, the rug-wearing rascal was a fan who had been handed off a starting-line pass by departing members of the ABC Wide World of Sports camera crew. The interloper got into the way of several photographers before starting-line regular Ted Robinson finally had enough and fists flew.
The credit usually goes to the Budweiser King Funny Car team, but the Reher-Morrison Pro Stock team of David Reher, Buddy Morrison, and driver Lee Shepherd were actually the first to run the Racepak data recorder on the dragstrip in early 1985, and that showed them some inconsistencies in Shepherd’s driving and became instant converts.
The great “Ace,” six-time U.S. Nationals champ Ed McCulloch, never really wanted to be a race car driver. After moving to Portland, Ore., and partnering with Jim Albrich on the Northwind Top Fueler, SoCal-based Dave Jeffers drove the car for them for a while, but flying him to the Northwest for dates got to be too expensive, so it had to be either McCulloch or Albrich behind the wheel, and when Albrich’s wife vetoed him doing it, suddenly McCulloch was a driver. “I never really wanted to drive,” he confessed during the legends show at the Finals. “I was always more interested in the mechanical end of the cars, building them, working on them.”
Indy hosted the Nationals for the first time in 1961, but it was “Red” Dyer, in Raymond Godman’s Tennessee B-Weevil, who officially opened the Indy dragstrip with a pass not long after the 1960 Nationals, which had been held in Detroit. Godman and Dyer had been Top Eliminator runner-ups to Leonard Harris and the vaunted Albertson Olds, but Harris and car owner Gene Adams returned to the West Coast to match race, so NHRA founder Wally Parks called upon Godman and Dyer to have the honor of making the first pass down the newly built dragstrip.
It’s no secret that Kenny Bernstein and Dale Armstrong struggled in their first season together in 1982 before winning Indy in 1983. What changed? Bernstein explained to me that their car always shook like crazy, and it wasn’t until Armstrong, who had retired from driving at the end of the 1981 season, made a guest appearance in the cockpit of the Bud King LN-7 in April 1983 while Bernstein was in traction at a local hospital with two ruptured vertebrae in his neck that things changed. “We were booked in at Orange County [Int’l Raceway], and I told Dale to go drive it. He came in Monday morning, looked at me, and said, ‘We can’t run the car the way we’ve been trying to run it. I almost crashed it.’ That, in all honesty, is what turned us around. I don’t think he realized how bad it was until he crawled in the car and tried it himself. He went in a completely different direction, and the car just took off. That was the turning point.” Everything wonderful and amazing that happened to the duo came from that point forward. I found a video of that run online and shared it with Bernstein, who had only heard Armstrong's description, and got a good laugh out of it.
Armstrong was a huge hockey fan and was pals with “the Great One,” Wayne Gretzky. He even owned the '99 Dodge Durango that was awarded to Gretzky in his final All-Star game as MVP. Gretzky even signed the glove box and called Armstrong to congratulate him when AA/Dale was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2010.
“I don’t think he hated me as much as he hated himself.” — Bobby Vodnik, on Don Garlits after “Big Daddy” red-lighted to the kid in the final of the 1963 U.S. Nationals
“It all turned to crap right in front of me, and there was nothing I could do.” — Glenn Way, on feeling sliced out of the Wonder Bread deal he helped develop
“Over a long period of time, a lot of the memories change, and the person thinks his memory is fact when they are not. I have had a lot of experience with this because I have all the records here to draw on and see hundreds of people telling me stories that are just not true. However, I do not contradict the storyteller; it just upsets them!” — Don Garlits
“There were no starter motors or any of that jazz. The way you started them was push-start. A car or truck would be behind you, you’d get going, let the clutch out, feed a little fuel, shut it off, and hit the starter switch, and it would go bahhhh-bup-bup-bup and pull away and then start idling. It was a real turn-me-on-er. The girls fell out of the stands. It was pretty cool, I gotta tell you.” — Don Prudhomme, on front-engine Top Fuel push-starts
"She never tuned an engine for Don Garlits nor did she officially belong to the pit crew, but all who knew the two of them agreed on one thing: She was his secret weapon. Now, if T.C. Lemons was still around, he would tell you in no uncertain terms, 'There would be no Don Garlits without Pat.' " — Garlits biographer Mickey Bryant, on the passing of Garlits' wife, Pat, in February
”I was 115 pounds soaking wet, and those [firesuits] were Robocop outfits I could strap on and go racing against the varsity guys.” — Tommy Ivo, on why racing appealed to him
“He was a money driver; he never got rattled. If we made it to a final, we knew we never had to worry about him being late.” — Dale Emery, on Raymond Beadle
“I loved driving that Funny Car, I really did, except when it was on fire. I had some blazers. [My crew] would try all kinds of new innovations, and I was kind of like a sitting duck and not smart enough to realize that I was probably where I shouldn’t be.” — Shirley Muldowney
“I look at the fortunate career I had and the fortunate life I have today, and I believe that Dale is 75 percent of the reason for that.” — Kenny Bernstein, on Dale Armstrong’s contributions to his career
“I always had to check the hockey schedule before I called him; he didn’t want to talk to anyone when hockey was on. He’d be pissed off if you called him when hockey was on.” — Prudhomme, on Armstrong
Here’s an incredible photo of Gary Gabelich’s outrageous four-wheel-drive, rear-engine Vega panel, caught in mid-turmoil by another legendary ace shooter, Jere Alhadeff, shortly before its demise at Orange County Int’l Raceway.
They say a photo is worth 1,000 words, and sometimes that's especially true to nostalgia nuts like us because a simple image can transport us back in time, back to the grandstands at some long-closed dragstrip, or maybe to the living room table where we sat poring over the pages of the latest drag racing monthlies.
For a writer like me, trying so hard to connect all of us to a previous time, there’s nothing sweeter to me than being able to find the perfect photo to either illustrate a story or set a mood.
While I did a standalone two-part column on the favorite photos I’ve collected from the Internet (The Photo Hoarder: Part 1 | Part 2), there were a lot of photos that I used in columns throughout the year — some from the National Dragster files and some submitted by others — that I really liked, too. At right is a little photo gallery of some of them.
It’s a Small World
When Insider regular “Chicago Jon” Hoffman shot the above photo at the 1978 U.S. Nationals and shared it as part of our “Things That Aren’t Here Anymore” thread (i.e., the Hurst Bridge), I’m sure he had no idea that more than 35 years later someone would step forth and identify the random fans in his moody photo, but after it was published, I heard from Christine Friederich, who wrote to say that’s her husband-to-be, Carl Friederich, in the yellow shirt leaning on Gary Ormsby’s car in the staging lanes. That’s his brother, Steve, standing with him. “My husband said that he was in the sixth grade when his older brother stopped on his way to Indianapolis and took him to the track,” she wrote. “He doesn't remember the picture being taken but was excited to see it and share it with our children as well as the memories of the trip.”
My Best Moments
This job has provided me opportunities to do things that I never imagined I would, to meet folks and create long-lasting and treasured friendships, and the chance write up about and interact with legends of our sport whom I grew idolizing or reading about in the pages of magazines and continues to provide pinch-me moments (I got a kick out the jealousy notes some of you sent me regarding the “Garden Party”) and 2014 was no exception. Here's a few personal highlights,
Meeting Raymond Godman and Preston Davis at Indy after interviewing both for a column on the Tennessee Bo-Weevil was a true honor. You couldn’t ask for a couple of nicer, down-home Southern gentlemen.
Being on hand for the legends tributes in Indy and Pomona this year was great because I never get tired of hearing the stories retold, and seeing “Big Daddy” recreate his starting-line shave at Indy was pretty magical, too. Kudos to “Big” and NHRA’s Glen Cromwell for being able to pull that off.
It was 30 years ago this year that I experienced a magical summer in Ohio driving the Mazi family’s supercharged Competition Eliminator Opel for a two-part story for National Dragster (relive it here: Part 1 | Part 2). The idea was not mine but borne from the fertile mind of patriarch Frank, who thought that I needed to drive the short-wheelbase, high-power car to round out my understanding of why he drove such a wild beast. I spent part of the summer of ’84 — and many more days in months surrounding it — hanging out at the Mazi home in Eastlake, Ohio, where we became like family. I eventually drove the car well enough to earn an NHRA competition license and wrote an article that is still warmly remembered three decades later. People still stop me and ask about it.
Although I’ve remained close to eldest daughter Dawn, a talented photographer and videographer who I see from time to time on my travels, it had been decades since I’d seen Frank. We missed connecting earlier this year in Norwalk, but when I found out he was coming west to the Hot Rod Reunion in Bakersfield, where he was driving a nostalgia dragster in his comeback season behind the wheel, I made sure I was there to greet him in the staging lanes. I was no longer that still-wet-behind-the-ears 24-year-old writer he’d first met, but we immediately reconnected and started blabbing on about old times. The man means the world to me for what he taught me (which was more than about how to drive his race car), and I’m glad I was finally able to tell him that.
I almost got to meet my other hero this year, but travel changes put a kink in those plans. You probably don’t know him, but Dan Greenburg is the writer I grew up idolizing as a young teenager and for years after. I read voraciously his books, which chronicled his humorous experiences with everything from the dating to the occult to fatherhood, while in high school. He went on to become a truly successful author of children’s books (The Zack Files, named after his own son) but also still wrote adult fiction. When I came across his website last year, I sent him a note thanking him for the inspiration he’d given me in my writing career. He kindly wrote back, and we exchanged a few more emails before he offered me the chance to not only preview his almost-completed new book, Fear Itself, but asked if I would share my opinions when I was through. Are you kidding me? I was on a plane a lot this summer, so I hammered through it easily and shared my thoughts and ideas, which he gratefully accepted and in some cases even implemented. When the book finally went to press, he noted my contributions in the forward. You can only imagine what they felt like. If you can’t, imagine being a Chevy fan who was inspired by magazine articles about Bill Jenkins to begin experimenting with building engines. You send a fan letter, and the next thing you know he’s not asking if you want to get a sneak peak at his new engine project but for your opinions, and then he uses one or two of your ideas and gives you public credit. Yeah. I know. We’ll try to meet up again after this year’s Englishtown event (he lives in New York City).
One of the “breaking” stories last holiday season was my leg, broken in a hockey game a week before Christmas. There was no repeat this year, but the fact that I was even back on skates as soon as June is in part due to Greg Ozubko. You know him as one of the sport’s most talented graphic artist, whose paint schemes have adorned scores of cars over the years, but I know him as well as a fellow hockey player. After I broke my leg and had a bit of a rough recovery, I really began to question whether it was time to hang up my skates, and even though I still dearly loved the game, I couldn’t imagine getting hurt again and having to go through it all over again. Ozubko, who has battled through more than his fair share of hockey injuries, understood better than even my family what I was going through. We sat together during the long rainout in Atlanta this year, and the things he shared about his own struggles and the things he reminded me about why we loved the game got me over the hump. Today, I’m playing some of the best hockey of my career. Thanks, Zubes. (Check out this story that CNN did recently on Ozubko.)
Giving Thanks Where Due
As you can imagine, it takes a lot of effort to write a weekly column like this in addition to a full-time gig as editor of National Dragster, but it’s truly a labor of love and has given me back so much more than I’ve put into it. Although mine’s the name at the top of each column, it’s a truly collaborative work with its readers and its subjects.
I’ve been befriended and accepted by so many racers — guys like Don Prudhomme, Tom McEwen, Ed McCulloch, Shirley Muldowney, Roland Leong, Richard Tharp, Tommy Ivo, Simon Menzies, Jeff Courtie, Rob Bruins, Johnny Abbott, Ron Pellegrini, Don Roberts, Jeff Foulk, Bill Pryor, Rich Hanna, and many more — who are quick to respond to my silly inquisitions about what can be some really inconsequential parts of their careers or just to serve as a sounding board or a fact check.
I’ve developed a strong core of other Insider types, guys like Steve Gibbs, Dave Wallace Jr., Jim Hill, Mike Lewis, Henry Walther, Dennis Friend, Franklin Amiano, Steve Justice, Mickey Bryant, and Todd Hutcheson, who tip me off to stories or who can point me in the right direction or provide the contact info I’ve been searching for.
I’m extremely blessed to be entrusted with the images of some great photographers, who always seem to be thinking about what I might need next or are quick and generous to respond to my requests for photos not in our files; folks like Steve Reyes, Jere Alhadeff, Bob Snyder, Tom Schiltz, Alan Earman, and Mark and Laura Bruederle.
Thanks to my similarly minded pals, Todd Veney and Bret Kepner, for their insight and continual support and respect of what I do. Thanks to the copy editors — Lorraine Vestal, Juan Torres, Miesha Zumazuma, and Jeff “See You At The Races” Sumida — for slogging through my 10,000-word columns and making them readable.
And, of course, thanks to my loyal readers of the Insider Nation. Not a column goes by where someone doesn’t drop me a kind word or two, and I try to respond to as many as I can, and I thank you all for all the contributions you add. Special thanks to some of my most active and engaging readers: Robert Nielsen, Cliff Morgan, Gary Crumrine, “Chicago Jon” Hofmann, Howard Hull, Mark Watkins, Mark “Hogwild” Elms, Richard Pederson, Terry Spencer, Bob Lukas, Tom “Fasthair” Scott, Michael Ostrofsky, and my “grammar Nazi,” Robert Doss.
Charlie Proite watches from the background as Dave Miller launches their nostlagia dragster. (All photos by Steve Reyes)
I was hoping to get through the end of the year without another notable passing from our sport’s history, but that wasn’t to be. On Sunday, Dec. 28, we lost longtime nitro car owner Charlie Proite after a massive stroke. He was 73. Proite is well-known to both longtime and new nostalgia fans for his Wisconsin-based Telstar entries that dated back to the early 1960s.
He began his nitro career in 1963 when he bought Chris Karamesines’ Chizler and put Fred Welchman behind the wheel. Together they won Cordova Dragway’s prestigious World Series of Drag Racing event in 1965 and 1967. When you learn that Don Prudhomme beat Don Garlits in the 1966 final, that tells you all you need to know about the caliber of cars that attended the event.
Proite switched to Funny Cars in the early 1970s, and in 1973, he landed a major sponsorship with Pabst Brewing Co. and experienced some great years with Russell Long as his driver of the Pabst Blue Ribbon Charger. Vic Cecelia and Doc Halladay both also drove for Proite before he got out of the Funny Car business in the late 1970s (Halladay bought out Proite and kept the Telstar name alive with his own car). Proite remained on the sidelines until teaming with former Top Fuel pilot "Diamond" Dave Miller in 1997 on a nostalgia Top Fueler that resurrected both of their careers. That car was built by the late, great Dennis Rollain, who also built Miller’s famous “shorty” Top Fueler of the mid-1980s.
A number of folks called to tell me of Proite’s passing, including “Diamond Dave” himself, who said he has lost a very dear friend.
“We got pretty close over the last 17 years,” he said. “We had a lot of good years racing together. Racing was Charlie’s life. This was a real heartbreaker. We’re still going to race the car as Telstar and see if we can get it done somehow without Charlie.”
Finally, here’s to wrapping up some late-2014 threads.
My column on the birth of data recording, at least on the Racepak side, in drag racing met with some interesting feedback.
My good pal Henry Walther, who shared in that column his experienced with data gathering on the Larry Minor dragster and has a strong understanding of the field during his own time at Racepak, added, “Your mention of racers who either accepted or resisted data recorders brought to mind my own list of those I encountered during my years with Racepak. As an early proponent of data recorders and a firm believer in their value, I sometimes felt a responsibility to awaken those who didn’t quite ‘see the light.' Without naming names, there were many well-known and respected racers who needed to be led to the water before they would drink. This group consisted mainly of older racers who had gained their knowledge the old-school way and were reluctant to stray from their hard-earned methods of success. One that I will name is the driver with which I had the longest association, Gary Beck. When Bernie Fedderly and I were pursuing onboard data acquisition, Gary wasn’t quite sure he was in favor of having this newfangled device looking over his shoulder so-to-speak. He had his concerns about its viability. However, he should have been an advocate of it as it ultimately proved to us just how talented of a driver he was. Gary would give us his feedback after a run and tell us of what he had done or was going to do on the following run. Admittedly, sometimes we questioned whether he truly had that good of a feel for the car. Once we equipped the car to monitor some of the driver functions, we stopped questioning his keen awareness or abilities in the car. If he told us that he was going to run the car out another tenth of a second before he shifted it or that the car felt soft around the 330, the data recorder would always validate his claims. Beck was amazingly computer-like in his driving.
“Finally, your explanation of the struggles of comparing one run against another in the days of the thermal paper printers again aroused old memories. I wondered if racers today who use Racepak’s interactive data-analysis software, which can overlay multiple runs at one time on their computer screens, have an appreciation of how far things have come. Just the sheer size of the roll of thermal paper from one run was a challenge to handle, let alone trying to overlay the same graph from two of these strips of paper. As the attached photo of me attempting to dissect the data off of one of these printouts will attest, you needed some room to spread these out. A good set of young eyes and a magnifying glass were helpful, too. (Note: This photo of my makeshift office in the rear of the McGee Brothers Quad-Cam trailer was shot in Sonoma. There is another of the ‘that was then, this is now’ differences. No fancy crew chief lounges back then.)”
While Ron and Dale Armstrong certainly perfected the data recorder and worked on a traction-control device, Bill Warburton insists there were many before them who tried other methods, including an East Coast racer, John Burk, of Beverly N.J., a “tinkerer” whom Warburton said had an advanced system on his car back in 1971. “In 1968, John was the A/FD national record holder who I raced with on the East Coast Jr. Fuel circuit,” he wrote. “In 1971, John installed a computer in his A/FD that would control engine rpm in relationship to rear-wheel speed. If he started to spin the tires, the computer would slow the rpm down. I would kid him and call the computer "the Univac" because at the time Univac was one of the leading computer companies in the world. I don't think that he was ever able to work the bugs out of it, but you got to admire him for being willing to think outside of the box.”
My perpetual foil, Robert Nielsen, who always smartly argues his counterpoints, believes that while data recorders “certainly were responsible for some of the big performance gains shortly after their introduction, I think many of these performance gains you pointed out would have come about, [albeit] over a longer period of time, as one of the racers’ creeds is to always look for performance improvements. All that the data-acquisition systems did was speed up the process.”
Last column’s noting of the passing of ‘70s Funny Car chassis wiz Jaime Sarté led to a funny story from Brent Cannon, who partnered with veteran driver Phil “Punky Kid” Soares on a Top Fuel car back in the 1970s, memorable for its red and yellow barber-pole paint scheme and a big victory at the 1973 Irwindale Grand Prix. Soares, like Sarté, was from Hawaii (which has a surprisingly good track record on producing talented drag racers, right Mr. Nielsen?).
Writes Cannon, “Jaime and Phil Soares had a friendship from Hawaii where they both had been racing before coming to the mainland. One night at the County, we broke a top framerail behind the clutch (tire shake). Phil asked me to find Jaime. I got him and brought him back to the car. Jamie took a look at it and saw my church key oil can opener laying in the tool tray on the bug catcher. He asked for a hammer, then beat it completely straight and welded it to the chassis. He wrapped it all the way around the break and welded it. Phil took no reserve in making another lap after the quick surgery. Phil had total confidence in Jamie. We went on to the next round. I’m sure that there were many other stories, too, but I experienced this one first-hand.”
And finally, from one Phil to another to another, I want to give a shout out to longtime pal “Flyin’ Phil” Eliott, who’s currently battling throat cancer. Because of our shared first name and love for the sport, people sometimes have gotten us confused; I’ve been greeted as “Flyin’ Phil” a few times; I hope he has been mistaken as me, too, though I’m far better looking.
Elliott has been around the drag race journalism business for a long time and for a while published his own magazine, Drag Racing News & Views, which focused on the drag racing scene in the Northwest, where he’s still deeply loved and respected by racers in all classes. He even had his own dream of building and running a Funny Car, which he has documented on his website, NitroNova.com. It’s a fun read; check it out.
Anyway, as you can imagine, the cost of fighting cancer is not cheap, and while he has insurance, it’s also probably no surprise that it won’t cover the whole bill. He was finally convinced by friends to set up a crowd-sourcing donation page, which I hope you will visit and add to the impressive total already accumulated. You can find it here: http://www.gofundme.com/is8log
My best wishes to Phil. Get well soon, friend.
OK, gang, that’s it for 2014. Thanks again for everything you do, from visiting to contributing to passing the word. That helps make this a great place for folks like us. See ya next year!
I went to a garden party
to reminisce with my old friends
A chance to share old memories
and play our songs again.
My Christmas present came early this year, in the form of an invitation to a party Dec. 5. For more than five hours, a large group of longtime friends hung out and shared great memories, food, and drinks on a glorious Southern California afternoon and early evening. Stories were shared, lies were told, and exploits were undoubtedly exaggerated. The host was gracious and generous, making sure to spend time with all of us as he worked his way around a backyard made just for this type of gathering. A combination DJ/singer kept the oldies-heavy tunes spinning, playing and singing everything from Al Green to Jim Croce to Bruce Springsteen (and, yes, Rick Nelson's "Garden Party").
This could have been a family reunion or a work-related holiday party, filled with relatives or co-workers, but it wasn’t.
It was an informal get-together hosted by the Prudhomme family — Don “the Snake,” wife Lynn, and daughter Donna — at their home with a drag racing hall of fame guest list of “the Vipe’s” longtime pals. The invitation said that the purpose of the party was the opening of their new “zaguan” entryway (go ahead and look it up; we all did), but, as proud as they were of the new addition to their home, it’s pretty clear that was probably an excuse to once again pull close a family of friends, to enjoy one more time in their company.
Our host, "the Snake," center, with Bill Simpson and Donnie Couch
Here's a great lineup of pals, from left, Jim "Dudley" Rickart, Tom Prock, Frankie Pisano, Couch, Bill Doner, Pat Galvin, and Mike Kuhl.
Couch, Doner, and "the Old Master" Ed Pink, gather 'round "the 'Goose"
Couch with the Bernsteins, "Waterbed Fred" Miller, and photog Gary Nastase
The party was planned long before we lost Dale Armstrong — one of Prudhomme’s closest friends the last few years — and AA/Dale was certainly on the minds of everyone present because the man was that widely loved and respected. The turnout was incredible; then again, when “the Snake” invites you to his house to hang out, who’s gonna say no? Not this guy.
I’ve written before that there’s a good-sized group of these guys who get together on a semi-regular basis to have lunch but nothing like this gathering.
I walked in alongside ‘70s super promoter Bill Doner and his carpooling pal, wheelstander great “Wild Bill” Shrewsberry, and we were warmly greeted by superstar crewguy “Waterbed Fred” Miller. I turned around and there was drag racing pioneer Art Chrisman. And over there was fuel-engine legend Ed Pink, chatting with his new partner, longtime Prudhomme crew chief Bob Brandt. “The Mongoose,” Tom McEwen, was seated poolside, hanging with his buddy, former Funny Car racer Tom Prock. Pat Galvin, who crewed for both Prudhomme and McEwen in the 1970s, was soon joined by his brother-from-another-mother, Donnie Couch. Kenny and Sheryl Bernstein walked in. Frank Pisano was there. So was safety equipment guru Bill Simpson, legendary chassis builder Don Long, Mike Kuhl, of Kuhl & Olson fame (but no Carl!), and notorious dealmaker and bon vivant Billy Bones. Spider Razon. Dan Broussard. Larry Bowers. Mike Thermos. Steve Gibbs. Jim "Dudley" Rickart. The list goes on.
What really struck as I watched these heroes of our sport interact was their genuine friendships, forged after years of traveling the nation’s highways together or racing with and against one another. Their welcomes to one another more often than not were warm embraces rather than handshakes, and “good to see you again” was a common refrain, and, in this year when we’ve lost so many from our sport, you don’t have to look for hidden meaning there.
In many ways, it feels like a high-school reunion, only they don’t wait every 5, 10, or 25 years to get together, and well they shouldn’t. I wonder if this kind of thing goes on in other sports, where old rivals, teammates, and associates stay connected decades later. It’s hard to imagine it happening on a grander scale than this, and it takes someone of Prudhomme’s magnitude to bring them all together.
I’ll be honest, I came to the event armed with a notebook, camera, and tape recorder, salivating at the chance to “report” on the affair, but once I got there, it didn’t feel right. I took one photo (the first one on this page) then put it all away to soak up and enjoy the tremendous vibe of the event and relied on Couch’s Facebook photos to help tell the story (which explains why he’s in every photo).
I flitted from gathering to gathering, groups of a half-dozen or so who stopped circulating to form impromptu bull sessions, but finally landed at a table with two guys who, for unknown reasons, have befriended me above and beyond the call: the legendary “Mongoose” and the almost mythical Doner. I sat with them as they tried to one-up one another in telling me tales of bygone days, of barroom fights and other extra circular activity that made the 1970s memorable for more than just those great old Funny Cars. Doner and I keep talking about getting together one night to get it all down for posterity for a book, but unless I published it under a pen name and changed the names to protect the not-so-innocent, I think that’s just a fantasy we both share, at least until some statutes of limitation run out.
What I thought was especially cool was that Prudhomme also invited some of the upper echelon of NHRA management to the soirée. NHRA President Tom Compton, along with Vice Presidents Graham Light, Gary Darcy, and Glen Cromwell all came and enjoyed the evening. It does my heart good to see the respect that they get from the old-timers who helped create the business they now manage, and I would have loved to hear what ideas and input that Doner was sharing with Compton late in the evening.
Even as the guests began to trickle out late in the evening, “Snake” pulled some of the last diehards together by a patio fireplace just to shoot the breeze and hang a little longer.
I made the two-hour drive home — Prudhomme lives in really southern Southern California — with a big smile on my face, replaying the evening and the thrill and joy of seeing this great extended family of drag racing legends and movers and shakers together once again and to reminisce with my old friends and share old memories.
As joyous as the Prudhomme party was, there was also talk about those we’ve lost, most notably and close to many of those on hand Armstrong’s passing, but before I go for the year, I wanted to mention some other recent losses that have crossed my desk.
Fred “Fritz” Voigt, who was the runner-up to Calvin Rice at the first NHRA Nationals in Great Bend, Kan., in 1955, died recently. When Voigt’s name came up at “Snake’s” party, there were more than a few people who asserted that Voigt helped make Mickey Thompson’s great racing career when he worked for him beginning in the late 1950s, building engines and other projects for M/T, including the powerplants for Thompson’s famed Challenger 1 entry.
Voigt, like his contemporaries, raced first on the dry lakes and at Bonneville and soon partnered with Leland Kolb on a variety of cars, and drag racing became his thing. As I mentioned earlier, he was runner-up in that first Nationals (you can read an account of that race here, where Voigt's name is misspelled, as it regularly was, as "Voight"). I found online a very funny and candid interview that Voigt did earlier this year; you can read that here.
Funny Car pioneer Phil Bonner died Nov. 10 following a sudden illness. He was 81. Bonner was one of a handful of factory-backed Ford racers who got the opportunity to compete with Ford’s lightweight Galaxies in the early 1960s and then transitioned into the nascent Funny Car class. Bonner was best known for his line of entries named Daddy Warbucks Fords, beginning with an altered-wheelbase Falcon, which had a stack-injected 427-cid engine, that he match raced across the country and the factory-built extended A/FX Mustang with a 427 SOHC that he added later. He ultimately retired from racing with the loss of factory sponsorship around the time he built a flip-top Gran Torino Funny Car in 1969. He was inducted into the Georgia Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2007.
Jaime Sarté, who built scores of Funny Cars for the 1970s legends, died Dec. 1, just a day shy of his 73rd birthday, in Panama City Beach, Fla., where he had lived the past 21 years. My good pal Jeff Courtie, who worked for Sarté off and on over the years, sometimes welding up chassis at night in exchange for Sarté allowing him to update his Funny Car in his shop, shared the sad news with me (and shared the great then-and-now photos at right), and also provided a laundry list of Sarté cars over the years, which includes McEwen’s 1978 Indy-winning Corvette and Shirl Greer’s Mustang II (the car built for his title defense after melting down his older Mustang at the previous year’s Supernationals), plus cars for Tommy Ivo, Jeg Coughlin/Dale Emery, Tom Hoover, Dick Rosberg, and Roland Leong, who told me separately that he got the last chassis from his fellow Hawaiian.
Boris Murray, who passed away Nov. 22, is widely acknowledged as the first king of nitro-fueled motorcycle drag racing, with a heyday that spanned from the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s. Murray’s Triumph-powered bikes held the NHRA and AMDRA speed and e.t. records for most of that 10-year span. Although his eight-second, 170-mph performances don’t seem like much compared to the low-six-second, 225-mph times being recorded by current-day stars Tommy Grimes and Damien Cownden, that was really hauling back then. His most famous bike was a twice-motored 750 cc Triumph with T.T. carbs, running 92 percent nitro, high-gear only on 4-inch M&H 4 slick on which he raced and beat the likes of Joe Smith, Ray Price, Sonny Routt, Bonny Truitt, Leo Payne, Dave Campos, and Russ Collins.
DeLoy "Dutch" Naeb, the 1966 NHRA Street Eliminator World Champion and Division 5 Hall of Famer, died Nov. 28 at age 80. Naeb raced stock cars as a teenager, racing with his father in Denver before he began drag racing and won the championship with his victory at the 1966 World Finals at Southwest Raceway in Tulsa, Okla., with his Corvette, named Pooch. After his racing career ended, Naeb drove trucks for years and took up flying but returned to circle-track racing in the early 2000s in his early 70s. In January of this year, he was inducted into the Division 5 Hall of Fame at honored at Bandimere Speedway during the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals for being the division’s first world champion and was inducted into the track’s Taylor-Vertex High & Mighty Hall of Fame and his name placed on a granite memorial at the track.
Note: NHRA headquarters will be closed all next week as we enjoy a brief holiday break, so there won’t be a new Insider next Friday, but I expect to be back in early the next week and have a year-end wrap-up column ready by mid-week before we close again for New Year’s. I'll see you then.
Ron Armstrong, standing, and Dale Armstrong pore over data printouts from an early RacePak data logger.
“People ask me what was the single thing that made the biggest progression in drag racing from the 1970s, when no gains were being made, and I tell them it was the computer. It changed the sport in a way nothing else did. There’s nothing else that even comes close. Front-engine dragster to rear-engine dragster was nothing compared to what the computer did. That was one step, and it was over. The computer went on and on, and to this day it’s still doing it.”
The speaker is the late Dale Armstrong, and the voice is coming off a digital file sent to me by Tim Anderson, president of Racepak, from a near-two-hour interview he did with Armstrong in the fall of 2013. It was a melancholy feeling to hear Armstrong’s voice again, knowing that I’ll never hear it again any other way, but I was thrilled that Anderson generously offered it up to me because I had already planned to try to relate the story of how on-board data recorders — required equipment ever since — first came into use on the dragstrip in the early 1980s, and without Armstrong’s own comments, it would be sorely lacking.
Armstrong’s wife, Susie, had already sent me the phone number for Ron Armstrong (no relation), who, along with Spencer Eisenbarth, created Competition Systems Inc., which developed the recorder. I don’t remember seeing anything that really explained the trials and errors of what has become such a crucial component on any top-class car, and after an hour-long phone call with Armstrong, I’ve tried to distill the basics of that experience below that, when combined with the Dale interview, paint an interesting picture.
[Note: From this point on, to keep the story straight, I’m going to refer to the two Armstrongs as Dale and Ron. I ask that my journalism professors and copy editors forgive me.]
In the recorded interview, Dale explained that even early in his career, during his alcohol-racing heyday, he was looking for some sort of data capture or electronic advice, relying on everything from telltale tachometers that would show the highest rpm experienced on a run to a supercharger boost gauge with a check valve that would hold the highest pressure and even the simplest things like a dash-mounted red light that would signal loss of oil pressure.
He related a humor trial-and-error story about trying to develop a positive engine shutoff after snapping the shaft in the quick-change rear ends he ran in his AA/DA dragster and got an assist from “a guy that did electronics work on IndyCars. We put it on the car, and Mike [Guger] and I went to Fremont. We were in the pits warming it up on jack stands, Mike was in the dragster and I was out there by the engine, and, man, it blew the blower off. The next thing I remember was being 15 feet away and on my back, and blower nuts and studs were still coming down from the sky.”
Scratch that idea.
Yet after dominating in the alcohol ranks in the late 1970s, Dale switched to nitro in 1980, and he admits to having “all of these unanswered questions” still rattling around his inquisitive brain.
He was especially befuddled on how there had been so little progress in performance form the mid-1970s to the early 1980s — Don Garlits’ famous 5.63 Top Fuel pass was the quickest ever from late 1975 until early 1981 — and he surmised that there were many secrets to be unlocked.
He was not alone in those thoughts. Henry Walther, for years a key member of the Larry Minor/Gary Beck team and a follower of electronics-savvy Formula 1 racing, was intrigued by the idea of being able to find out exactly what was going on during a pass beyond and more accurately than what a driver’s feedback could relate (sometimes incorrectly).
The fifth wheel on the Minor machine was connected to the rear-axle housing of the car and incorporated an inclinometer for measuring the angle of the suspended trailing arm that supported the wheel. Back in the pits, with the data in hand, the team could jack up the rear of the car to replicate the same angle, then measure how far the tires were off the ground and determine the diameter of the rear tires at various points on the track. Low tech, but effective.
Remembers Walther, “In 1983, when we won Top Fuel at Indy, John Norcia of Ram Clutches brought an engineer into our trailer and asked Gary if he would be interested in a device that would monitor the engine rpm, driveline rpm, exhaust-gas temperatures, and a couple of pressures. Over that winter, we installed their recorder on our car and started working with them in developing this system. There were still problems to be worked out, but this was the system that gave us the first on-track, full-throttle data starting in 1984. It was also the system with which we incorporated a fifth wheel at the rear of the car to try to determine tire growth. At that time, Goodyear wasn’t able to provide us with tire-growth information at speeds above 250 mph, and that in turn prevented us from accurately determining whether or not we were locking up the clutch or simply spinning the tires.
“As the season progressed, there were successes and failures with the system. We would run it at a race, and then we might be without it for a few races as it went back to the builder for upgrades. It was during one of these hiatus that a friend of mine, Greg Long, mentioned to me that he knew a fellow who was working on a system similar to what we were using and would I be interested in meeting him. He arranged a meeting between this fellow and me at a local Mexican restaurant. Greg left after the first hour of conversation, but the other fellow and I talked until they threw us out at closing time. This guy turned out to be Ron Armstrong. I could see that Ron and Spencer had developed just what I had been trying to accomplish with my feeble attempts. Unfortunately at that moment, I wasn’t able to bring it onboard on our car, but knowing that what Ron had was something we all needed, I told him I was going to introduce him to another friend who had also been beating his head against the wall in trying to obtain on-track data. I then called Dale and put him in touch with Ron Armstrong.”
Dale knew that the Beck team had been getting data and in late 1983 had gone to his old friend, Jim Foust, who had been a partner on some of his most successful alcohol cars. “Jim was a computer guy who worked at TRW and told me he could build me a computer to capture the data,” he recalled, “but it took up the whole front of the car. We ran that thing for about three months and never got anything out of it. The RF [from the magnetos] would just kill everything.
“Henry Walther told me about Ron, so I went to where worked and introduced myself. He starting talking and after about two sentences, I didn’t know what he was talking about; he was using words I’d never heard. As I got to know him, I told him that whenever I got lost, I was just going to say, ‘Stop. Start over. What the hell are you talking about?’ “
Timex Sinclair computer with thermal printer
Ron, whose primary early forte was engine building, was employed at Dresser Industries, where he had been working intently on capturing data on the dyno and later focusing on engine rpm over time that would enable road racers to better select gear ratios. He had set up a dyno to try to monitor power bands and soon hired Eisenbarth, a bright and inquisitive young mechanical engineer to assist, and ultimately became his partner in the company. It was Eisenbarth who suggested the use of a histogram. They experimented with recording rpm as a tone and unraveling it from there, but it was too cumbersome. Even after he left Dresser, they continued to collaborate, and it was Eisenbarth’s discovery of the Timex Sinclair, a small DOS-based computer that came with a thermal printer, that provided the great breakthrough. By the early 1980s, they had learned how to graph this data with a series of dots printed on thermal paper.
Through some savvy investing during the time he was driving the Miss Budweiser Hydroplane in the early 1980s, Ron was able to pour some seed money into the project to have some specialized circuit boards made. The company’s name was Competition Systems Inc., and the product itself was named Racepak (which later became the company name). The first Racepak went into competition vehicles in 1984, on hydroplane boats and stock cars, and the primitive data was eye-opening and, to some, not believable.
“Some of the rpm dots on the boat went as high as 5,800 rpm, and I remember the owner telling me there was no way it was that high because the crankshaft would have broken,” he recalled. “I took it out because I thought something was wrong, and not long after that they did break a crankshaft. When I put it in one of Harry Hyde’s NASCAR car, we were still only capturing rpm, but we were seeing some spikes, like the tires were coming off the ground. Before long, the shock guy realized that it was an issue, and we worked on that until the lines flattened out. I remember Harry saying, 'I can’t believe this guy hooked a wire on my spark-plug wires and can tell me that my rear shocks are bad.’ "
(The first units had only rpm and on/off throttle measuring — not position — and additional analog channels were added along the way. They sampled data just 10 times per second because memory was incredibly expensive back then; today’s units can record more than 50 channels and many, many more sub-channels and sample more than 50 times a second.)
The Reher-Morrison-Shepherd Pro Stock team was the first to use the new RacePak data logger (below) on the dragstrip.
The Reher-Morrison Pro Stock team of David Reher, Buddy Morrison, and driver Lee Shepherd were the first to run the Racepak on the dragstrip in early 1985, and that showed them some inconsistencies in Shepherd’s driving and became instant converts. Not long after, the two Armstrongs got together and forever changed the face of nitro racing.
It took a lot of experimenting, frustration, and trial and error with various forms of shielding and the installation of carbon plug wires before the rpm data became reliable, and the next thing they got was driveshaft speed, which was another eye-opener.
“Everyone thought we were revving 9,000 rpm, but we were only going 7,000, nowhere near what we thought we were,” recalled Dale, “but getting rpm and driveshaft was the most important thing we did because we saw it was still slipping 700 rpm going across the finish line.”
(It’s important to remember that, unlike today’s PC-based readouts, which allow crew chiefs to overlap multiple color-coded, line-graph channels of data for cause and effect, in those early days each channel of data was printed out in a series of dots on a roll of thermal paper. It was only by placing data sheets atop one another and shining a light through both that you could see the overlapping data points. Interpreting all of this, and being able to create the scale for each readout, was time-consuming and often frustrating. “We didn’t know everything,” Ron admitted. “Sometimes it was like the blind leading the blind.”)
The discovery that the clutch was not fully locked up at the finish line led to the creation of the lockup clutch that applied additional fingers downtrack, but that, too, involved some trial and error.
“In about a month, we built a lockup clutch,” said Dale. “The first iteration of it was just wound-up springs holding the arms out, and we had a knob on the end, and pneumatically we were just going to drive a piston into the bellhousing and knock these three levers loose. We went to Milan, Mich., on a Saturday night. It was just getting dark. It got to about half-track, and sparks started flying out of it. We went back to the pits and pulled the bellhousing off, and these springs, which were pretty substantial, about an eighth-inch in diameter, were all straightened out and wound around everything. Well, that didn’t work.
“I was always trying to control those arms, and at the time I didn’t think that the throwout bearing would survive. Finally, we did it that way, and the throwout bearing was the least of the problems.”
The design, with the help of an engineer who worked with Ron who designed the clutch arms to Dale’s specs, was perfected in mid-1986 and led to a huge performance leap for the Budweiser King, highlighted by a stunning 5.50 at 271 mph at that year’s U.S. Nationals. That run famously (and, for them, unfortunately) was recorded on a bye run that allowed their competitors to hear the engine pitch change downtrack. The cat was soon out of the bag.
More and more data-recording channels were added to measure just about every mechanical aspect of the car. Key among them was an accelerometer, or G meter. “It was one thing after another, but what I realized right from the start was the G meter,” said Dale. “Most people didn’t pay a lot of attention to it, but, man, that thing told you everything.”
Interestingly, initially Dale was not interested in capturing exhaust-gas temperature (EGT), another of the great and useful tools to determining the efficiency of a cylinder (and in detecting dropped cylinders); it wasn’t until they measured EGTs on Darrell Gwynn’s quasi team car and saw dropped cylinders being recorded that Dale saw the light. “It was one of the few times that something Dale said turned out not to be technically correct,” said Ron with a laugh.
While the Bud King and R-M-S teams and Jim Head were early adopters, there were famous racers who were more reluctant.
For five years in the late 1980s, the Bud King camp was the public face of the RacePak. Here, Dale Armstrong, second from left, and Ray Alley, second from right, explain its benefits to a number of interested racers.
“[Don] Prudhomme was one of the holdouts,” recalled Dale. “I told him I’d give him a unit and help him read it; after the weekend is over, come pay for it or give it back. I told him you can’t race without it if you want to be competitive. I told him you can pay me now or you can pay me later, but you have to have it; there’s no way around it.”
“Some of the old-school guys, like Austin Coil and Dick LaHaie, welcomed it with open arms, but I do remember Don Garlits was resistant,” added Ron. “Then I remember him calling me one day and saying, ‘I should have embraced this system the first time I saw it. I was the biggest bonehead ever. I want whatever you’ve got. Whatever you’re thinking you might have, I want to get back on the leading edge.’ “
Although Ron and Eisenbarth continued to upgrade and improve the Racepak over the next 20-plus years before Ron sold the company, the two Armstrongs collaborated on other projects, including the use of stronger, rare-earth magnets in the magnetos and, most intriguingly, a traction-control system they tested on the Budweiser King Funny Car prior to the 1989 season.
Dale had previously experimented with a semi-automated braking system that would control how long the brakes were applied during the launch. Based on his observation of the car’s dry hop, Dale could adjust this feature using toggle switches on the car’s rear bumper. That led to his asking Ron to develop something that would react to excessive driveshaft speed.
Recalls Ron, “The original rule stated that no micro-processor control of the brakes could be used, so we built the system using all discreet components, which turned out was much harder than if we could have used a processor. The system used an electronic reference ramp and compared it to the current driveshaft speed. If the current speed was greater than the set ramp, it would apply the rear brakes in proportion to the amount of deviation. Everything was done using fiber-optic cables and hidden in the bottom of the puke tank, not to hide it from NHRA but from our competitors.”
Some of their competitors obviously got wind of the system — probably by noticing that the car would hook up after a smoky dry hop or that Armstrong was no longer manually fiddling with something at the back of the car — and complained to NHRA, who changed the rule to read only that the driver could control the brakes.
Even though he no longer owns Racepak, Ron’s advice is still sought by many, most recently John Force Racing, who engaged him a couple of seasons ago to look at various facets and work on special projects with Jimmy Prock.
There’s little doubt in my mind that the data recorder has led us to where we are in terms of ever-increasing performance in the nitro ranks — this year fans saw the quickest and four fastest Funny Car runs in history — and, along with other continuing developments in hard parts, will continue to lead us into the future.
There are no professional drag racing scouts who tour North America looking for the next Don Garlits in the way hockey’s headhunters in the puck-crazed western Canadian province of Alberta scour the area’s peewee leagues for future Wayne Gretzkys, but if there were, and had they ventured near the Calgary home of the Armstrong family in the early 1950s and found 10-year-old Dale sitting on the garage floor surrounded by his father’s tools, building intricately designed soapbox derby cars, could they have accurately predicted the mechanical zenith of this future drag racing superstar?
I’m still pretty proud of that opening paragraph I crafted eight years ago for a Readers Choice special issue feature on Armstrong, but then again, when it came to anything I wrote about AA/Dale – let alone his life story – I wanted it to be as thoughtful and precise and forward-thinking as the man himself. I’ll make no bones about it, Dale Armstrong may be the greatest human being I have met in my 30-plus years in the sport, and my world is a much sadder place since his passing last Friday.
The reference to hockey in that opening paragraph was my homage to our particular bonding over that sport – we were both big L.A. Kings fans and both had played the game – and any trip to his pits after a particular run could begin with a discussion of the power of his engine just as easily as it could have prompted a discussion of the Kings’ power play. Later, we reveled in the fact that we saw the Kings hoist the Stanley Cup, not once but twice.
There’s no debating that Armstrong was a mechanical genius and an innovator who not only theorized about but also tinkered with pretty much every moving part of his race cars, from clutches to blowers, fuel systems to ignitions, and aerodynamics to data logging, but he was such a regular guy, too. A former ND staffer would sometimes open his conversations with Armstrong talking about the 1950s TV show The Honeymooners, of which they were both big fans.
No question posed was too stupid or basic for Armstrong to answer, and for years, he was the go-to guy for those questions. I remember another Readers Choice request in the mid-1990s that asked for a blow-by-blow description of how nitro crew chiefs make decisions; Armstrong was my first and only choice, and he graciously allowed me to shadow him during the Southern Nationals. He shared his entire thought process, from the downloading of the data logger to the final grams of clutch or degrees of ignition he decided on for the next run. It was exhilarating and interesting and a real honor.
How Armstrong faced his job and his passion is best summed up in this quote from the 2006 story: “If something works on a race car, there’s a scientific or mechanical reason it works, and I always wanted to know why it worked, not just that it did.”
It’s that kind of dedication, in addition to his very capable work behind the wheel, that landed Armstrong in the No. 10 spot on our Top 50 Drivers list in 2001. When you consider his body of work – a world champion as a driver and tuner and architect to Kenny Bernstein’s historic 300-mph pass and the numerous innovations that led to it -- and the criteria for the vote, it’s not surprising that he finished in that lofty position, although he, typically, was surprised. I know he hoped to be in the top 50, and early on, I let him know he had made the cut, just not where, and as the weeks went by and the list unfolded in reverse order to its conclusion, he may have thought I had been kidding him, especially when No. 11 was announced.
“That was a helluva surprise,” he later told me. “As the countdown got into the 20s, I was flabbergasted, especially with the guys who had already been named who, to me, were heroes. To be in the top 10, though, I was very proud and honored to know that the judges felt that highly of me.”
Word that Armstrong was in the fight of his life surfaced earlier this year but was largely kept quiet among an inner circle of those who knew and loved dearly both him and his wife, former Bud King publicist Susie Arnold. He was in and out of hospitals with lung infections, struggling almost every day with his breathing, yet took the time in early September to share his thoughts with me about his longtime mechanical soul mate, Bob Brooks, who had just passed. I wish I had known it would be our last conversation because there was so much I should have said, but when it became clear on Thanksgiving Day that the end was near, I texted Susie to ask her to tell him something personal from me, and she did. Thanks, Susie.
As after the recent passing of another of the sport’s legends, Raymond Beadle, I won’t use the space here to recount his amazing career. You can read all of that in a number of places, including Dave Densmore’s eloquent obituary, in our Top 50 Drivers bio, in the previously mentioned Readers Choice story, and this week's Photographic Memories column on the National Dragster website. Instead, I thought you’d like to hear from those who knew, loved, and raced with him throughout the years, to read their thoughts about one of our sport’s best. All of them had great memories of him, and I really struggled on how to prioritize them before deciding to tell them in chronological order, which ended up telling his story through their words and memories.
The Canuck Chevy II was Dale Armstrong's first serious race car.
rmstrong moved south from his native Alberta to the hotbed of drag racing in Southern California in the early 1960s and put his mechanical expertise to good use in 1965 as a used-car mechanic at Lee White Chevrolet on Pacific Coast Highway in Redondo Beach. Just a few blocks north, at the corner of PCH and 190th Street, was TNT Auto Centre, a Goodyear store where he would sometimes take the cars for tires or mufflers.
The owner was Ken Veney, and the two hit it off famously. Both were relocated farm kids – Veney had moved at age 19 from Ohio in 1959 – both had begun driving and tinkering with cars in their early teens, and both would continue to do so through eerily parallel careers through the alcohol, nitro, and crew chief ranks.
Despite their successes, milestones, records, innovations, and championships, Veney has no qualms admitting that “Dale was a more serious racer than I was. I had a family [wife Rona and soon a newborn son, Todd, who later cried relentlessly throughout Armstrong’s wedding, according to his dad] while Dale was all about the racing when we first met. He raced from 1965 until  and never quit. I would race for a while and get tired of it and do something, then go back and race. I was serious from 1970 until 1982 to do the best with what I had, but Dale was that way his whole life. Dale was always a racer. That was his life, and he was really good at it.
“This should tell you something,” he added. “Dale bought a new 1965 Chevy just to get the 396/425-horse engine and transmission because you couldn’t get it by itself. He got the car, took it behind the dealership, spinning the tires down the street, then wheeled it into the dealership and took the engine and transmission out. He had rebuilt an old 283 Chevy to go in that car and put the 396 in his Chevy II, which was The Canuck. At the time, it was running in B/Modified Production, and I built the headers for that engine. If you look at the photos of the car, you’ll see TNT Auto Centre on the front fender.”
Ken Veney and Armstrong raced one another all across the West in the ultracompetitive California Injected Funny Car Association. This is one of Veney's earliest Funny Cars, the Dirty Bird Firebird, an ex-Gordon Mineo machine.
Armstrong later switched to a Chevy and nitro in the tank and began to make a real name for himself with The Canuck, but before long, both were fielding Funny Cars on the California Injected Funny Car Association trail, racing all across the West before appreciative crowds throughout California; from British Columbia to Boise, Idaho; from Las Vegas to El Paso, Texas; and all points between with a healthy dose of their home tracks of Lions Drag Strip, Orange County, and Irwindale Raceway. By then, Armstrong had his own service station, A&W Union 76.
“We all fell into it about the same time," Veney remembered. “It was a really good class, there were a lot of cars, we’d draw really big crowds, and it really paid good in comparison to what the Top Fuelers were getting paid at the time.”
Life on the road could be hard, but funny, too.
“We match raced in Sacramento Saturday night, and Rona and I were coming home Sunday morning in our one-ton International flatbed truck on which we hauled the race car,” recalled Veney. “We were going up [Highway] 99, and we picked up Armstrong, who was hitchhiking down the road carrying the rear end out of Tom Sturm’s truck, which he was using at the time. He was trying to get back home to Redondo Beach to fix the rear end, then drive back up. Our old truck didn’t have air conditioning, so we’re sitting three across – Rona in the middle and Dale at the right window – and it’s hotter than hell, and I look over at Armstrong, and his face is all black. That old International used to blow oil like a son of a gun, and it was blowing out between the hood and the fender and getting all over his right arm, which was hanging out the window, and he was wiping the sweat off his face with that arm. That was just a really goofy, funny thing.”
Longtime rivals Armstrong and Veney became partners in 1974 and raced for the Winternationals title. Armstrong, near lane, in their A/Fuel Dragster, prevailed over Veney's blown alcohol Funny Car.
The two battled for Pro Comp supremacy throughout the 1970s. Here, Armstrong and the Alcoholic Satellite took on Veney's Vega at Irwindale.
When NHRA started the heads-up dragsters vs. Funny Cars Pro Comp class in late 1973, Armstrong’s and Veney’s cars fit right in. Veney’s A/Fuel Funny Car was runner-up to Don Enriquez’s dragster in the first race, at the 1973 Supernationals, while Armstrong was driving a supercharged Funny Car-engine dragster that Veney had built to try to offset the dragsters’ performance advantage. Armstrong lost early at that race but won the 1974 Winternationals with the car – now sporting an injected fuel engine --beating Veney, of all people, in the final for his first national event win and also setting the first sub-seven-second national record. They raced together like that for several races, but the dragster never won again, and because it wasn’t paying for itself like the Funny Car could, they parked it.
They raced against each other throughout the 1970s – most memorably in the final of the 1977 U.S. Nationals, which Armstrong won – before Veney retired briefly and Armstrong moved into the fuel Funny Car ranks first as a driver and later as a crew chief and used Veney’s cylinder heads to win four Funny Car championships. Veney also drove nitro Funny Cars in a brief but impressive run in the early 1980s, then, like Armstrong, ended up tuning nitro cars into the early 2000s. It’s probably no surprise that when both were inducted (separately) into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 2008, they both lauded one another.
Someone once told me that Ken Veney is almost impossible to impress, but he clearly was impressed by Armstrong.
“In my mind, he’s the best tuner of them all, certainly of his time,” he said. “He was really good at taking something that was there and making it work better. He could get the most out of whatever you had. He was just such a good mechanic who knew the car from one end to the other and what everything did. He could weed through all the BS and figure out what happened to a car when it had a problem. Some guys will look at what a car did and say, ‘That’s what’s wrong,’ but Armstrong would say, ‘What caused that?’ and then, ‘What caused that to make that go wrong?’ He also had a lot of confidence in Dale Armstrong and that he would figure it out. Even when his car was running good, he wasn’t afraid to try something new. A lot of guys won’t do that.”
Service station owner Wilfred Boutilier ran hard against Armstrong and Veney with his Vega Alcohol Funny Cars.
Boutilier, center, with crewmember Ralph Gorr, left, on tour at Maple Grove Raceway in 1975. Note the Dale Armstrong Racing Engines lettering on the car.
f it wasn’t Armstrong or Veney in the winner’s circle – or their nemesis, Rick Greenwood and the Wild Bunch Camaro – in those early injected Funny Car days, it was their South Bay neighbor, Wilfred Boutilier, who also owned a service station (three of them at one point) in nearby Gardena, Calif.
Boutilier, who got his nickname, “Wild Wilfred,” while wheeling an ill-handling AMX Funny Car (the chassis of which was the old Durachrome Bug of Warren Gunter), eventually upgraded to a Ken Cox chassis with a Vega body and kept his race car along with the machines of Armstrong and rising star Billy Williams in the rented shops at Hot Rod City, Torrance, Calif.’s answer to Gasoline Alley. Tony Capanna, the region’s purveyor of nitromethane at the time, owned the 15,000-square-foot complex on Sepulveda Boulevard that was a beehive of racing activity and also home to the likes of Russ Collins’ RC Engineering (which had two young employees by the name of Terry Vance and Byron Hines) and Ron Hammel, whose 10,000 RPM company sponsored Armstrong’s Canuck.
Although they practically lived in the same neighborhood, Boutilier, who like Armstrong was a transplanted Canadian – from Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, in 1965 – first met Armstrong and Veney at one of the injected association meetings. He was three years their senior and had come west to California armed with an engineering degree but not a lot of automotive know-how.
Although Boutilier had been racing a ’57 Corvette with the help of Johnny O’Neil, brother of Funny Car racer Gervaise O’Neil (of King Rat fame), when he got into the service station business in the late 1960s, he admittedly wasn’t much of a mechanic, leaning on the capable hands of Carl Green, who ran a competing Mobil station next door, to learn how to even do a basic brake job, and was up to speed by the time he joined the injected circuit.
“That injected circuit was a lot of fun, and we were all buddies,” he remembered fondly. “We all hung around together and had a lot of fun. Hot Rod City was a great gathering place from 5 o’clock on, after we’d all finished our day jobs. Even Ed Donovan used to stop by almost every evening on his way home. There was a great sense of camaraderie and good-natured competitiveness.”
By the time all three had found their way into Pro Comp – prior to that, Veney and Boutilier had been running their injected fuel Funny Cars in Comp eliminator, with Boutilier’s engine running one of Armstrong’s nitrous oxide systems (legal at the time) – they were well-seasoned and butted heads throughout 1974. Prior to Armstrong’s win at the Winternationals, Boutilier was the talk of the town after recording the first six-second BB/FC run at Irwindale Raceway’s preseason Grand Premiere (“Boy, that still sticks in Veney’s craw,” he said with glee still not contained 40 years later) and followed with a runner-up behind Jimmy Scott in the Weiss & Scott dragster at the Gatornationals, where he suffered a broken cylinder head. Boutilier won his first national event, the Summernationals, where he turned the tables on Scott, who couldn’t fire in the final, and it was Boutilier who fell in the final round of the U.S. Nationals to Armstrong and the Menzies & Foust altered that year.
“He’s not around to defend himself of this, but Dale would have lost that Indy final to me, but I broke another cylinder head,” he explained. “I was out on him and winning the race when it broke. That was as close as I ever got to winning Indy.”
Boutilier raced through the 1982 season and retired from driving to live in Dawsonville, Ga., where he runs a one-man shop building shaft rocker-arm systems for racers and hot rodders.
Of the passing of his good friend, Boutilier added simply, “We lost a good one.”
(Above) "Family photo" from 1974 at Hot Rod City, with Armstrong in the cockpit; Simon Menzies, left, and Jim Foust standing; and Ralph Gorr, left, and Mike Guger kneeling. (Below) The Funny Car above also ran in altered trim and carried Armstrong to his first Indy win, in 1974.
At Donovan Engineering, circa 1976-77, from left, Top Fuel racer Bill Pryor (who used to winter in SoCal in Ed Donovan's "Molehole" guest residence), Armstrong, Menzies, Fred Seayd (who did cylinder-head work for Donovan), and Guger. Armstrong began experimenting with Donovan's block at the end of the 1974 season and became a great resource for "the Mole."
There was always time for fun and games. With an assist from Menzies, Armstrong launched a whipped-cream assault from the cockpit on Popular Hot Rodding magazine advertising director Bill Lloyd at the 1977 PHR Championships.
lthough Mike Guger is acknowledged as Armstrong’s longtime protégé, Simon Menzies can lay claim to being, as he describes it, “the first graduate of the Dale Armstrong School of Hard Knocks,” joining Armstrong on the road in 1970. As a 19-year-old from Toronto (yes, another transplanted Canadian), he was working part-time pumping gas at Armstrong’s service station and saw a progression of Armstrong rides, including his Dana Camaro, Sturm’s Swapper, and Gary Crane’s Traveling Javelin.
When Menzies hit the road with Armstrong, it was with a car that would serve them both well in their early careers, the Armstrong-Hoover-Larsen Barracuda, which was a workhorse, running in blown gas, injected alcohol, supercharged alcohol, and even supercharged nitro.
After campaigning the alcohol circuit, they eventually teamed with Washington state racer Bob Norwood and ran on nitro through 1973 before Armstrong had had enough. Menzies bought out Armstrong’s share and continued to run the car in Texas, where they had been befriended by Bill Wendt, and throughout the Midwest. When the Pro Comp rules were announced, the car was too heavy to run competitively as a Funny Car, but Menzies had blown up his iron 426.
“At the time, I was working for Dale on his and Ken Veney’s A/Fuel Dragster – I was with him when he won the Winternationals – and after they split up, Dale said I should buy the engine and put it in my car and run it as an alternate. It was a 445 with a 427 stock-stroke crank, but Dale said if I could buy the engine, we could put a 454 crank in it to turn it into 473 inches, and it would be the perfect weight break for the altered. I couldn’t afford it, but Jim Foust was there – Dale used to work on his Corvettes – and he said, 'I'd like to give that a shot; how much do you need?' "
Armstrong and Guger took the new car to the AHRA Springnationals in Tulsa, Okla., and won the race, then decided to go to the U.S. Nationals with the car and ended up winning that, too, his first of three triumphs as a driver at the Big Go.
“Foust was so stoked by the success that he wanted to put more money into it,” recalled Menzies, “but I wanted to drive, so I bought them out and moved to Texas to match race the car while they were waiting for the Alcoholic to be built.”
Armstrong and Foust dominated 1975 with their Donovan-powered Satellite-bodied Funny Car, winning the world championship and becoming the first to break the 6.7-, 6.6-, and 6.5-second barriers. Armstrong continued to dominate with the Donovan in an Alcohol Dragster (AA/DA was the class designation then, leading to his “AA/Dale” nickname) – while Menzies teamed with Jim Jackson, who wanted to field a Donovan-powered Funny Car.
“Armstrong had split up with Foust, and we ran our cars out of the same shop,” recalled Menzies. “We were both running the Donovan and won Bakersfield and Fremont together, and even when I was off racing somewhere different than him, I would call him and talk to him about stuff all the time. We used to trade parts back and forth; I couldn’t trade with anyone else because no other Funny Cars were running the Donovan.”
Their comradeship through similarity brought them together again at the 1979 Mile-High Nationals, where Armstrong wounded his engine in a semifinal victory.
“I had lost to Raymond Beadle in round one and had the car in the trailer,” he remembered. “Dale broke some valve springs and tagged some valves, and Guger comes running down to my trailer, said they needed my heads, so we grabbed some lights from Billy Meyer’s trailer [the Mile-Highs was a night race then] and put them on Dale’s car. We lost the final to Billy Williams, but it was a helluva thrash. That was the typical work ethic Dale inspired in me. He would work all day, all night, so that’s what I did. I didn’t know how to do it any other way.”
After retiring from racing in 1979, Menzies managed Simpson Safety Equipment through 1984, then moved to Hawaii, where he worked on the proposed Star Wars defense system, and lost touch with Armstrong for a time.
“We talked occasionally 10 years ago, then I found some of our old equipment, and we got together, and it became a regular thing. In the end, we lived six miles apart and got together as often as we could. Dale still worked hard [restoring and fixing old cars]; I was at his house a month ago, and he’s got this ‘62 409 convertible that he hadn’t driven in six to seven years, and he’s field-stripped the car down to nothing, taken the motor completely apart, and was putting it all back together, and he could hardly breathe. That’s just the way he was. He’d get tunnel vision on a project and work until it was done.”
A friend to both Armstrong and Veney, Menzies really stepped into it one evening during their 1970s rivalry. Menzies at that time also had his own service station, also on 190th, and, like Armstrong in the early days, he would take his exhaust work to Veney, but would spend his evenings at Hot Rod City.
“Ken had just won a race that Dale wasn’t at. Kenny hadn’t won a race in a while, and he came by, and I joked, 'The king returns, eh?' " Menzies recalled with a laugh. “After he left, Armstrong said, ‘You know you’d better pick a side. You’re either on my side or Veney’s side.’ I knew there was a rivalry, but I didn’t know how serious it was, and I told him that. He said, ‘Well, it’s serious. It’s [bleeping] serious.’
“When I think back to those old times, me and Wilfred and Billy, there isn’t one of us who doesn’t owe our success to Dale.”
(Above) Armstrong, right, with crewmembers Mike Guger, center, and Glen Larson formed a dynamic winning trio. (Below) The Armstrong-Hoover-Larsen Barracuda, shown running on nitro in 1973, was a real workhorse in Armstrong's early days.
Guger, left, with Armstrong, was a key member of the Bud King team for years.
ike Guger was just a curious 13-year-old on his bicycle, peering into the shop doors at Hot Rod City when Armstrong befriended him and began a lifelong mentorship and friendship. Guger worked on all of Armstrong's early Funny Cars and for Armstrong throughout most of the Budweiser King days with Kenny Bernstein. That bond continued long after Armstrong retired from the sport and Guger continued to rise in the ranks to his current position as a crew chief for Bob Vandergriff Racing.
“He took me under his wing and allowed me to go racing with him, and look where I’m at now,” Guger told me on the phone Monday, his voice catching and the emotion still evident days after Armstrong’s passing. “When he asked if I wanted to come to the races with him, it was like, ‘Geez. Are you kidding me?’ I just wanted to be a part of it, and through him, I got to meet these guys who were legends in my eyes. Because I [worked for] Dale, I could walk up to Garlits or Prudhomme or Tommy Lemons, and they recognized me.
“He taught me so much about how to run a car and work ethic,” Guger recalled fondly. “Even up until just recently, I could call him -- I probably talked to him more in the last couple of years than I had in a long time – and ask him questions about what I was doing now, and he could still give me a relevant answer. He still understood it very well."
Guger was with Armstrong on some of his earliest Funny Cars – including the Armstrong-Hoover-Larsen car and Veney’s A/Fuel Dragster. Despite his youth, Guger quickly gained Armstrong’s trust, so much to the point that when Guger was just 17, Armstrong turned him loose to drive his duallie and 39-foot fifth-wheel trailer solo from California to Atlanta.
When Armstrong stopped racing in 1980, Guger joined Billy Meyer’s Funny Car team, then ended up back with Armstrong in late 1981 in his driving hurrah with Mike Kase’s Speed Racer and followed him to the Bernstein camp.
“He was just over driving,” remembered Guger. “He accomplished what he wanted to accomplish. I think he liked the driving when he started, but then I think it became a chore, and he was more interested in the mechanical part of it. We were at a match race in Denver, just me and him, sitting in a hotel room when Kenny Bernstein called him and offered him the job. He hung the phone up, turned to me, and said, ‘What do you think?’ I said, 'Why not?' "
Guger came and went from the Bud King camp on a few occasions, oddly not there for any of the championship years, but he was there for the 300-mph run.
Like everyone else, beyond Armstrong's obvious skill in tuning a nitro car, Guger was impressed with Armstrong’s overall mechanical skills.
“He was such a good general mechanic,” he said. "I remember one year, we were coming home from Fremont, but the transmission in the truck was going out. We were going up the Grapevine, from the north to the south, and it’s pretty steep. There was a big rainstorm that brought a mudslide down on one side of the freeway, so both directions were sharing the same road. We had to stop until it was our turn to go; the transmission wouldn’t go. The Highway Patrol was ready to tow us, but Dale told them to wait. He fired up the air compressor, dove under the truck, pulls the pan off, chops a hole in the filter, which was clogged, blows it out, shoves the pan back up, refills it with oil, and got us going enough to get home. Who would know to do that? Anyone else would have been towed off the road.”
Armstrong and Kenny Bernstein were dominant in Funny Car in the late 1980s, winning four straight championships, 1985-88. The 1987 season, with the infamous "Batmobile," was their best, with seven wins (including Indy, pictured) in 14 races.
And there was always time for more whipped cream, as Armstrong let the boss have it with a pie attack after winning the 1983 Big Bud Shootout.
bviously, when people think of Armstrong, it’s his years with Bernstein that come quickly and easily to mind. Innovations like the lockup clutch, data recorder, wind-tunnel-tested bodies, and rare-earth magnets in the magneto helped him and Bernstein win five NHRA championships and 48 national events and, of course, shatter the 300-mph barrier. Although Bernstein had accomplished much before Armstrong, including securing the Budweiser sponsorship and a couple of national event wins, and did much after, with the equally cagey Tim Richards as his tuner, no one benefited more from Armstrong’s inquisitive nature than Bernstein, who has no doubts about the influence Armstrong had on his career.
“I owe Dale a tremendous debt for all we accomplished together because of his ability as an innovator and a forward thinker and for his knowledge and his dedication that allowed us to win all of the races and championships,” said Bernstein. “I look at the fortunate career I had and the fortunate life I have today, and I believe that Dale is 75 percent of the reason for that.”
Bernstein hired Armstrong for the 1982 season after his longtime friend and tuner Ray Alley tired of the touring life despite a pretty successful 1981 season with a third-place finish behind Raymond Beadle and Don Prudhomme. Armstrong at the time was driving Mike Kase’s good-running but lesser-funded Speed Racer Challenger.
“People forget, but we almost won the championship that year; we were leading the points going into Indy but lost in the first round to Beadle, and I didn’t qualify at Fremont and didn’t run good at the Finals,” Bernstein remembered. “Ray didn’t want to travel anymore, and he recommended Dale, who he thought really wanted to work on the cars more than he did drive. We knew he’d be a good crew chief because he tuned all of his own cars and was so far ahead of everyone in the alcohol classes that he almost went off and hid, and he had the Speed Racer running as good as anyone with a very limited amount of money. Ray talked to Dale first, and he was interested, so I talked to Dale and said, ‘This feels good, looks good, smells good – let’s do it.’
“I knew if we gave him the chance and good funding, he could do good things, but even I had no idea he was as good as he was.”
As much success as they had together – including four straight NHRA Funny Car championships (1985-88) – the going wasn’t always easy. In fact, Armstrong became so exasperated with his new driver in 1982 that he mounted a light on the back of the car to tell him when Bernstein shifted, which often was way too early.
“I wasn’t a very good driver when I first started out with him,” admitted Bernstein. “We were in the tire shake days then, and it beat me to death. It got to the point that I was short-shifting the car. The car just didn’t like what Dale was trying to do with it, but he didn’t know that, and all I knew was that I was going to short-shift the thing because it won’t shake if I do that, but it never ran good because it killed the clutch."
It also just about killed Bernstein, who ended up in traction at a local hospital with two ruptured vertebrae in his neck in April 1983, which ended up being a painful but very rewarding experience for Bernstein.
“We were booked in at Orange County [Int’l Raceway], and I told Dale to go drive it. He came in Monday morning, looked at me, and said, ‘We can’t run the car the way we’ve been trying to run it. I almost crashed it.’ That, in all honesty, is what turned us around. I don’t think he realized how bad it was until he crawled in the car and tried it himself. He went in a completely different direction, and the car just took off. That was the turning point.”
Everything wonderful and amazing that happened to the duo came from that point forward, sweeping Indy and the Big Bud Shootout in 1983, the first wind-tunnel Tempo in 1984, the first of four Funny Car championships in 1985, the lockup clutch, and on and on through the transition to Top Fuel, the first 300-mph pass, and a Top Fuel championship in 1996 before amicably parting company in 1997.
“It just came to a point that we needed to go our separate ways,” Bernstein said. “There never were any hard feelings. We just needed to go different ways, but we stayed pretty close. His friendship was very important to me. It’s a tremendous loss to the sport and to me personally.”
As much credit as he gives Armstrong, it was Bernstein’s willingness to give his crew chief the trust and – equally as important -- the funding to experiment and innovate.
The wind-tunnel-designed Ford Tempo body on the 1984 Budweiser King helped Bernstein and Armstrong crush the 260-mph barrier.
Armstrong built this dyno to test nitro engines and used it to test blowers and wear in clutches. The latter was a dirty job. “Wes [Cerny] and I would end up looking like a couple of coal miners by the time we were done,” he recalled.
“I never – not one time – ever told Dale there was something he couldn’t try,” he said. “He would come to me with an idea, we’d talk about, put a budget on it, and off he’d go. We spent a lot of money, and sometimes it didn’t work, but there were too many times where it did work, and when they did, we just jumped out ahead of everybody. I always thought we were a great package because I was fortunate to be able to raise the money and drive the car, and he was a great crew chief and innovator.
“He was at his height back in the days before we had a lot of rules; he just kept thinking up more and more things, and most of them worked. There have been a number of great thinkers like Tim Richards and Austin Coil and Alan Johnson, but Dale was the leader of the bunch because he was the first one who got a chance to do it and gave him the ability to function at a level that was not seen at that time.”
(Not every Armstrong project panned out. Some of them – like the “air clutch” and McGee engine – were mostly a matter of running out of time/patience before full fruition was reached, and others, mostly notably his two-speed supercharger and three-magneto system, were terminated early in their life cycle by a combination of racer backlash or NHRA rules makers. “Where Dale was so good was when the rules were more lax, but we just couldn’t continue down that path,” Bernstein conceded. “The expense was already going crazy, and if we didn’t have the rules we have today, there wouldn’t be but a few cars out there. We have to live within certain boundaries or this sport will not survive. It can’t. No way. As an innovator, it hurt him greatly because that’s what he was really good at.”)
Others quickly took notice of the Budweiser King’s success, and, according to Bernstein, not long after they began to rack up championships, high-roller team owner Larry Minor tried to woo Armstrong with a two-year contract at $500,000 per season.
“I wasn’t going to lose Dale over a few hundred thousand dollars, I’ll tell you that,” Bernstein said. “It wasn’t even a question. I went to Budweiser, and they were phenomenal; they redid our contract to give me the money to be able to keep him. I think I offered him something like $400,000 but for a longer time.”
Bernstein also said that Armstrong was eager to help spread his knowledge to other teams in need of his assistance and did so with Bernstein’s blessing.
“We helped so many people with their cars because Dale felt it was important to help people who were in trouble and to give back to the sport,” he said. “Tom McEwen and Darrell Gwynn are the first ones that come to mind. Dale took our complete engine package and put it into Darrell’s dragster when they were struggling after moving to Top Fuel.”
Interestingly, Armstrong's great impact on Bernstein was not confined to the dragstrip.
“Dale was an avid reader and knowledgeable about everything – everything, even things that weren’t about racing,” Bernstein remembered fondly. “When I had my NASCAR and IndyCar teams, sometimes I would go into Dale’s office with alligators coming out of my ass and ask his advice. I’d lay it out for him and ask him, ‘What would you do?’ and he always, always showed me a different side that I never thought of that would open my mind to his viewpoint even more. Not once, but every single time. That was a great asset to me and something about him that I really loved.
“He was a great man and a great person. I owe Dale so much; I’ve never forgotten that, and I never will.”
(Above) From right, old pals Don Prudhomme, Armstrong, Glen Sanders, and Simon Menzies took in a World of Outlaws race. (Below) From left, Bob Brooks, Larry Dixon, Prudhomme, and Armstrong shared the Pomona winner's circle after Armstrong tuned Dixon to victory at their first race, the 1998 Winternationals. Brooks, who passed away in September, and Armstrong were nearly inseparable throughout the 1990s and are undoubtedly now reunited.
fter splitting with Bernstein, Armstrong joined Don Prudhomme’s Miller Lite Top Fuel team and created more history, tuning Larry Dixon to the sport’s first 4.4-second run, a 4.486, in Houston in 1999.
As he had with Raymond Beadle in his waning days about a month earlier, Prudhomme called upon his good friend Armstrong before he passed.
“We battled him and Bernstein, man, we went nose to nose, but Dale was just a really nice guy; I really liked him. We became pretty tight; he was one of my best buddies. He was the kind of guy who you’d pick up the phone late at night just to shoot the breeze with or have a beer with and have some fun.
“Of course, I always had to check the hockey schedule before I called him; he didn’t want to talk to anyone when hockey was on; he’d be pissed off if you called him when hockey was on.
“We all really admired him. He was the guy who put the crew chief salary on the map for all of these guys, and it was deserved. In his day, he was the best crew chief -- he loved working on all that stuff -- but I enjoyed him more just as a friend. We’d talk about all kinds of fun stuff beyond racing.”
And, like Bernstein, Prudhomme found Armstrong a virtually encyclopedic sounding board.
“Anytime we’re at the shop and something is wrong or something we didn’t know, I’d say, ‘Call Dale; he’ll know.’ It used to irritate Willie [Wolter, Prudhomme’s own jack-of-all-trades] because he’d say, ‘I can figure it out,’ but it was easier to call Dale. He was my lifeline.
“We didn’t race that long together, but the time we had together I treasure.”
Dixon also was impressed with Armstrong in their two seasons together.
“It was pretty obvious to me that Dale wanted to be the first guy to run in the 4.40s,” remembered Dixon. “Winning races and championships still meant something to him, but he was confident that he knew how to do that, and he was after milestones, the next challenge. What he built for us for 1998 was what I consider the first version of what our modern engines are now. He created a setback blower manifold. He wanted to have air come in a different way, so he had Bob Brooks build us a special injector. And then we won in our first race together at the Winternationals. He was always trying to come up with a better way to skin a cat.
“Dale was easy for me to relate to because he was a car guy, and we both loved Chevys. I’d ride to the track with him and Brooks and go to breakfast, and we’d talk about everything but racing. He was a joy to be around and to listen to him and Brooks tell stories.
“The first thing I thought of when Dale passed was that Brooks has his breakfast partner back, and Bob probably knows where the Waffle House is.”
Armstrong and Austin Coil, nitro geniuses
rmstrong had few peers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but Austin Coil was certainly one who obtained that level of success, both on the track and on the drawing board, though Coil points out it’s hard to compare them apples to apples at the same points in history.
“When Dale was dominant, it was a time period where [John Force Racing] didn’t have the budget to innovate,” observed Coil. “I don’t think we reached that point until about 1990, when they had switched to Top Fuel, but at that time, they were running the playground we all dreamed about.”
Despite the budgetary difference, sometimes they thought along parallel lines.
Recalled Coil, “We were sitting around one day [BSing] when it was raining, and Dale was talking about if you could find some way to grab the clutch levers and pull back on them to add more plateload as you get down the track, that would be a great thing, but he hadn’t figured out how to do that. I said, ’What if you put some more levers in there and held them out of action and let them come in later?’ He said, “Aw, I don’t know if that would work,” then he went and built one, which was the first lockup clutch. I started trying to build one, but we weren’t able to progress as quickly as he was; he had his out by Indy [in 1986], and we had ours out at the race before the World Finals.
“I remember one story of when he was trying to build better magnetos. He was working with a guy we all called ‘Sparky,’ Bruce Edey, and they were wondering what difference having a stronger ignition would make. It was kind of an unknown, but they came up with an idea of how to test it. Bruce came to Bernstein’s shop with a capacitor like they use on light poles, about the size of a trash can, but they had to charge it somehow. Bruce scaled a light pole behind Bernstein’s shop and very carefully snapped some cables on a 12,500-volt line and charged it. Of course, then no one wanted to touch it, so they lassoed the capacitor and dragged it to the magneto test stand, where Dale had a cylinder head gasket side up, with a spark plug, and some nitro in the chamber. When you’d do that with a normal magneto, you’d see the plug spark, and bubbles would form in the nitro puddle. We’d made the same kind of tests ourselves.
“Anyway, they rigged up the capacitor using some wooden poles, and when they made contact with the wire, the nitro exploded out of the cylinder head in a ball of flame. It showed them that there was no doubt that more juice was better for lighting nitro. Even though that was more than 100 times the current that’s reasonable for a magneto to make, it showed them the path, and I said to myself, ‘Good one, Dale; I wouldn’t have thought of that.’ “
Darrell Gwynn's and Armstrong's birthdays were close (Gwynn was Sept. 10, Armstrong Aug. 30), and the duo celebrated together in Indy in 1986.
s Bernstein mentioned, Armstrong helped a lot of other teams, but perhaps none more Darrell Gwynn and his family's in its transition from Alcohol Dragster to Top Fuel in the mid-1980s.
“Dale knew Darrell from way back, but I didn’t really know Darrell all that well, but I knew [his dad] Jerry,” recalled Bernstein. “Jerry had helped me one time at a match race in Suffolk, Va., when we had a camshaft go bad, and I didn’t know how to change it or time it, and he came over and showed me how to do it, so I felt like I still owed him, so I said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.' "
Bernstein also had brought the Budweiser sponsorship to the Gwynn team, so there's a lot of history there, but before I could even call Gwynn, this note showed up in my Inbox from him.
“Dale was one of the greatest racers, drivers, crew chiefs, ball busters, and a dear friend of mine. I’ve known Dale since the early ‘70s. Dale actually bought me my first helmet, gloves, and boots before I went to get my NHRA license. I spent a lot of time in the early days with him and Mike Guger; as sad as I am over his passing, and as difficult as this is for me, it makes me reflect on how lucky I am to have had him in my life as a friend for many years. The great memories I have of Dale are countless. I wish I could share all the great and funny stories of how he affected my life on and off the racetrack, but there are just too many to list.
“On the racetrack, Dale was very instrumental in helping me achieve the success I had in a very short period of time. Off the racetrack, I will always cherish the fun times we shared as friends as we drove down the road together from race to race.
“Dale was always looking out for me, no matter who he was working for. I will never forget the grins on his face during the successes we had with his and Kenny Bernstein’s engine combinations in my car. He loved how it affected the rest of the competitors and how they reacted to the success of our car. These reactions motivated him even more to my benefit.
“Dale was literally a driving force in my life. I will forever cherish his memory and the impact he had on my life. Dale, I will miss you buddy.”
Dale and a very proud Susie at Armstrong's 2010 induction into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America. "He was my world," she said.
s much as we all will miss him, no one will miss him more than his wife, Susie. They met when she was Bernstein’s publicist, and she fell in love with the mechanical genius with the poet’s heart nearly three decades ago.
“He was a one in a million guy,” she told me. “He had a heart to match that talented brain, and he especially loved animals and rooted for the underdog in sports.”
As I mentioned, Armstrong was a longtime L.A. Kings fan and was a big fan of Kings coach Darryl Sutter, another good ol’ farm boy from the cold country of Alberta.
“He loved the L.A. Kings and moved his chair within three feet of the TV screen during the playoffs -- said he could watch the puck better sitting 'on top of the TV,' " she shared. “Dale owned Wayne Gretzky's 1999 Dodge Durango, which was awarded to Wayne in his final All-Star game as MVP. We went to Wayne's house and spent some time with him. Wayne was Dale's biggest hero, and he loved getting to spend time with ‘The Great One.’ Gretzky signed the glove box in the Durango and gave Dale a signed jersey. Wayne also called Dale when he was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America to congratulate him.
“Dale grew up on a farm, and when his parents moved to the city, he and his friends spent a lot of time working on hot rods in his parents' garage. He pretty much taught himself. I don't think there was anything he couldn't fix, and that included electrical problems in the house, plumbing problems, an extensive computerized sprinkler system, or anything that could plague a household.
“It’s hard to believe he is gone. But he is at peace, and I hope there's some serious racing up in heaven because I'm sure he has some innovations he hasn't thoroughly tested yet. I envision Dale and Paul Candies catching up on some fun.”
Godspeed, Dale. You’ll be greatly missed, and I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say thank you for all you gave us.
A celebration of Dale's life will be held Feb. 5 -- Thursday of the Winternationals -- at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum. I'll provide more details as we get closer to that. I know I wouldn't miss it for the world.