Whether you love your dragsters with nitro in the tank, alcohol flowing through the fuel lines, or gasoline combusting in the cylinder, Walt Rhoades was probably your kind of guy. Rhoades, who had a successful NHRA career in nitro-, alcohol-, and gas-burning dragsters, passed away March 1 at age 79 of brain cancer, bringing to a close an amazingly diverse career.
It's cruelly ironic that Rhoades would pass on the eve of the NHRA Gatornationals, where he won his only two national events, in Top Gas in 1971 and in Top Alcohol Dragster in 1987, and where his son, Adam, also tasted victory in 2011 as the tuner on Chris Demke’s Alcohol Dragster, a win that Adam dedicated to his dad.
In addition to the two national event scores, Rhoades, an honoree at the 2008 California Hot Rod Reunion, won four Division 7 championships and the prestigious March Meet and Hot Rod Championships. His quick rise to fame was inspirational.
Just two years after a 14-year-old Rhoades was introduced to the sport by a neighbor at the 1959 March Meet, Rhoades was behind the wheel himself, driving a 241-cid Dodge-powered ’34 Ford five-window at Fernando Raceway and racking up trophies left and right. The 16-year-old had even built the car’s scattershield in Metal Shop at Southern California’s Westchester High School.
By the time he was 18, Rhoades had even driven Ted Worobieff’s Bonneville Competition Coupe to a speed of 175 and also piloted Worobieff’s blown fuel dragster.
In 1965, Rhoades partnered with John Travis and Bob Eldrige on the Gas House Gang dragster that eventually won the 1967 Hot Rod event in Top Gas at Riverside Raceway, and in 1969, just 10 years after his introduction to the sport, he also was the 1969 Top Gas champ at the March Meet, where they set low e.t., top speed, and won Outstanding Performance of the Meet honors. The team also scored a runner-up in Indy in 1968, falling short in the final against Jack Jones.
The road was not always smooth as in 1967, at the wheel of John Carpenter’s “Boat Anchor,” Rhoades suffered a nasty fire and was hospitalized for three months in a burn unit.
Rhoades took over sole ownership of the Gas House Gang dragster in 1970 and won the first of two straight Division 7 Top Gas championships, the second at the wheel of John Peters’ remarkable twin-engined Freight Train dragster. The 1970 season was also highlighted by partner Roger Rowe’s Top Gas runner-up in Indy in the Gas House Gang car while Rhoades was competing there in Top Fuel.`
1971 was the final year of Top Gas, and Rhoades and Peters went out with a bang by also winning the NHRA Gatornationals and notching a runner-up behind Bill Mullins at the Dallas-based NHRA Springnationals. That year the Train – now powered by a pair of Rhoades’ blown Chryslers instead of Chevys – also set top speed at the NHRA Winternationals (204.54 mph) and low e.t. at the Nationals with a 7.05.
Rhoades moved from Top Gas to Top Fuel in 1972 at the wheel of the Safeway Sandblasting dragster of Steve Levy and Chuck Jones and won the California Pro Circuit Championship.
In the mid-1970s, he split time between the Safeway car and the Buehl-Cirino-Rhoades Top Fueler he campaigned with partners Darrell Buehl and Nick Cirino, and he also found time and opportunity to drive Jim Thomas’ Genuine Suspension Top Fueler.
Rhoades’ time behind the wheel between the late 1970s and mid-1980s was limited, but he jumped in feet first back into Top Alcohol Dragster in 1984 with an Arias-powered Safeway Sandblasting entry that won the Division 7 championship.
In 1986, Rhoades partnered with Rudy Toepke, taking over the wheel of the Arkansas native’s blown alcohol dragster that was wrenched by a budding crew chief named John Medlen, who, of course, went on to great fame with the John Force Racing camp and won the last two Funny Car championships as co-crew chief with Dean Antonelli on Ron Capps’ entry. The following year, they won the Gatornationals, defeating Bill Barney in the final, and also scored a runner-up behind Barney at the NHRA Springnationals in Columbus, Ohio.
In mid-1987, Toepke decided he wanted to switch to Top Fuel in 1988, and Rhoades was initially tapped as his driver, but Toepke later decided he wanted to drive the car himself, effectively ending Rhoades’ driving career.
I talked to Rhoades' son, Adam, yesterday about his dad’s career. Adam had followed his dad into the sport, crewing first for Dean Skuza’s Funny Car in 2000 and, after dabbling in driving and floating around the nitro pits on various teams, joined Demke’s team in 2009 and was there tuning him to 18 of his 20 career wins, including the two Gatornationals wins and U.S. Nationals score in 2014, the same year that they won the world championship.
“My dad really had a great career,” he told me, the pride evident in his voice. “He just loved racing and would have done anything for it. He didn't want to quit, but the prices of everything and trying to find a ride because he was a paid driver. It really bummed him out because he was super excited to go back into Top Fuel.
“Indy was the one thing that eluded him, and he wanted to win that race so badly. He had a runner-up as a driver and a runner-up as a team owner, but I was fortunate enough to bring it home in 2014, and that really made it all come full circle and everything for him.
“Gainesville was his second favorite national event, and I was fortunate enough to be there for the '87 Alcohol Dragster win, so that was really cool, and it really made him happy when I was able to win Gainesville two years in a row with Demke, so that was really awesome. The win in 2011 was 40 years away from his 1971 win, so that was pretty spectacular, too. He was so ecstatic about our championship. He was proud of me because he raced for so long and so hard. He won a lot of races, and for him to see me so successful, I know he was really proud of me.
“We traveled around to a lot of races, and he saw a lot of the new tracks, like Charlotte, so that was cool. When he was able to travel, we took them to a race and kind of [would] make the most of every weekend that we had. I was hoping to get a summer with him so we could try to go do a bunch more fun stuff. But unfortunately, that wasn't in the cards.
“He definitely loved drag racing. That man lived and breathed that every day. That's all he wanted to talk about. We watched NHRA.tv all the time, and he was really into it. He'd watch it all for days; he'd watch every class. He would wish he could have been out there until his dying day. The fire never died for him.”
What a fitting coda to the career of Walt Rhoades, a driver’s driver and a fan favorite who won in everything he drove.
Phil Burgess can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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