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Historic photos of (P)interest

Most of us can’t get enough of drag racing photos in general and historic photos in specific. Here's a look at some interesting images from our sport's past and the stories behind them.
24 May 2024
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
Dragster Insider

If you’re like me — and I’m betting a lot of you are — you can’t get enough of drag racing photos in general and historic photos in specific. Heaven knows I've been through NHRA's immense digital library hundreds of times, obsessing over the images from our photographers from over the decades. But many sites on the internet make it easy to view thousands of historic photos to enjoy at your convenience.

My good buddy, former NHRA National Dragster colleague, national event-winning Top Alcohol Funny Car driver, drag racing history buff, and current pit producer for NHRA on FOX’s television coverage, Todd Veney possesses a treasure trove of more than 40,000 downloaded images that he’s not only collected but curated by painstakingly sleuthing out the year, driver, location, and more — information that he attaches to the photos for no other reason than the satisfaction of doing it.

I’m not that zealous, but every now and then a photo will catch my eye that I want to be able to enjoy later. Maybe it was from a race that I attended as a teenager or is of one of my favorite racers or cars or maybe I just like the way the photo was composed and captured. Even though I’m primarily on the writing end of the photojournalism spectrum, my respect for the artistry and skill it takes to capture these images knows no bounds.

That’s probably an overly long introduction to today’s column, which I admit is a bit of a punt from the story I had planned that fell through when I couldn’t connect with the subject. So it was a quick pivot to what you see today, a show and tell of images that come from the treasure trove that is the share-all world of Pinterest. Somehow, I got signed up onto a Pinterest mailing list that bombarded my inbox with links to drag racing photos "that might interest” me. Longtime readers of this column may recall two similar “Photo Hoarder” columns (located here and here) that I wrote 10 years ago. Interestingly (to me, at least), only one of the photos I collected this time was also in one of those original columns, which shows how roving my eye can be.

(Allow me to preface this by saying that I am a stickler for attaching photo credit when I know who took the image, and generally seek approval before I reuse them. I think that’s the honorable thing to do; I certainly hate it when my words are reused without my consent (it’s happened many times, much to my dismay). And while the internet has been both a boon and a curse to photographers whose work can benefit from being widely circulated, they can be used for less-than-just reasons. The photos below do not have photo credits I could find, but if I do include your photo I will be happy to add a credit or remove it entirely, if that’s your wish.)

That disclaimer said, let’s get into it.

In honor of the recent celebration of life for Don Schumacher, here’s a great pic of him with the revolutionary Wonder Wagon. I want to say I saw this on a magazine cover but couldn’t find it in my collection. Looks like it was shot at Irwindale Raceway, but I could be wrong. One of the many cool things about the Wonder Wagon was the grille, which was an actual open grille to allow air to flow through (thus reducing drag). Ten years ago, I baked up a detailed column about the car and the story behind the Wonder Bread sponsorship that you might find interesting.

Two great photos here centered around Raymond Beadle and the Blue Max. At left is Beadle, second from left, and crew chief “Waterbed Fred” Miller, along with a grinning “Jungle Jim” Liberman and “Jungle Pam” Hardy. And what 1970s Blue Max photo would be complete without girls in Blue Max halter tops that sold like hotcakes at match races across the country?

The second photo is Beadle and Miller again, warming up the Max at some match race somewhere. I just love the casualness of the image, the car pulled onto some open patch of grass, no fans or ropes surrounding them. Just two guys and their hot rod. Although we lost Beadle almost 10 years ago, I still see Fred almost every time there’s a party at Don Prudhomme’s house.

This stark photo of the Hawaiian Funny Car parked outside of Keith Black Racing Engines in South Gate, Calif., doesn’t look overly set up, but it still resonates with me. Obviously, you can’t understate Black’s role in Roland Leong’s career, first as a mentor, then the guy who put him and Don Prudhomme together, and then as the tuning maestro behind so many of the duo’s Top Fuel wins. 

The second thing that struck me is that this photo was probably taken just before the car’s ill-fated flight during round one at the 1969 Winternationals with Larry Reyes as the unlucky passenger. This was Leong’s first Funny Car, and he actually had met Reyes at this very shop the year before. Reyes was getting parts for his own Funny Car, and Leong was there and offered him the job. You can read all about this in this column I wrote back in 2016.

Some more Hawaiian love for our dearly departed pal. Nothing special here, just a cool vintage match race shot between the Hawaiian, with Gordie Bonin in the saddle, squaring off against Pat Foster in Barry Setzer’s Vega. This scene probably played out all across the United States in the early 1970s. Sadly, all four of these principles are gone: “Patty Faster” in March 2008, “240 Gordie” in December 2013; Setzer in February 2022; and Roland just this past December.

Speaking of Prudhomme, if I know the Insider Nation, it’s never a bad idea to show a photo of the stealth-black Snake III 'Cuda at Lions Drag Strip. The fact that this image was captured at Lions Last Drag Race certainly doesn’t hurt the value. Check out the suspended Christmas Tree placed achingly high above the track.

This car, of course, went on to be repainted yellow and carried “the Snake” to his first Indy Funny Car win in 1973, then returned to battle in U.S. Army colors in 1974, where he won Indy again before retiring it in favor of the vaunted Monza that, despite its hallowed record (13 wins in 16 events 1975-76), just couldn’t win Indy, finishing as runner-up both seasons. As soon as he replaced the Monza with a new Plymouth Arrow, he was back in the Indy winner’s circle in 1977. How odd is it that the sport's most dominating Funny Car never won the sport's biggest race? Weird, right?

Speaking of Lions and 'Cudas in 1972, I really dig this photo of Jim Dunn’s rear-engined car. Other than the packed grandstands and the aura of the place that pervades this photo, I love how the cackling pipes are practically scorching the rear tires from the engine’s rearward position. I’m not certain if this is another Last Drag Race photo or not; if it is, that would mean it was shot just two weeks after “Big Jim’s" historic win at the Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway, still the only rear-engined NHRA national event Funny Car win.

And speaking of Lions (I’m on a roll here), here’s a seldom-seen downtrack photo taken seconds after Don Garlits’ world-changing accident on March 8, 1970, during the track’s Grand American event. We’ve all seen the famous photo of the front-engined Swamp Rat 13 breaking in two when the Garlitsglide transmission failed, cutting the car in two, severing part of his right foot, and fortuitously for all (a group in which I think “Big” would include himself despite the injury), leading to the perfection of the rear-engined dragster.

Still more Lions: The photo on the left is from the “Hot Rod Herman” episode of The Munsters television show (originally airing: May 27, 1965) and shows the “Dragula” coffin-themed dragster and the iconic Munster Koach on the starting line at Lions during filming. The photo at right gives you another angle of the dragster. I did a deep dive into the episode and the construction of both cars in this column back in 2008.

There’s just something magical about this photo of “the Mongoose,” Tom McEwen, launching in the first Hot Wheels Duster Funny Car. I say “first” with relative certainty based on the roof-mounted rear spoiler that Prudhomme once told me they added to both cars because they thought they should and because they looked cool, but which disappeared from future versions. Another “tell” would be the “weed burner” headers instead of zoomies.

Ah, my love of this car — Mickey Thompson’s Pontiac Grand Am — also knows no bounds. I devoted three columns to the creation and history of this car (here, here, and here) back in 2016. It’s not my favorite paint job of the car (that would be the pearl red, Dale Pulde-driven car in which he set the national record at the 1974 World Finals), but this U.S. Marines-sponsored version also has a history.

Although this is Bob Pickett at the wheel, original driver Larry Arnold was driving when the car caught fire during a 1975 pre-season photo shoot at Orange County International Raceway. That incident sent Arnold to the burn ward, and Charlie Therwanger drove for Mickey at the Winternationals, where he lost an all-armed forces semifinal clash with Don Prudhomme’s new Army Monza. Arnold was back in the car in Gainesville, but the operation was notoriously run on a shoestring budget and, just as Pulde had done, Arnold told me he quit for that reason, which opened the seat to Pickett, who took the car to the semi’s in Indy before losing to, yep, Prudhomme’s Army car again. (As mentioned a few pics earlier, Prudhomme didn’t win that war either, losing in the final to Raymond Beadle.)

Here's a drag racing Mount Rushmore for you: Tom McEwen, Don Prudhomme, Don Garlits, and Ed McCulloch. I’m going to peg this to around 1977-78, but that’s just a guess. Wonder what they were talking about?

Love this pic, too, of two of our sport’s all-time greats, Shirley Muldowney and Don Prudhomme. Based on the available evidence (particularly the helmet), this looks like 1977, and would show her on the way to her historic first Top Fuel championship, where she would be joined on the champion’s podium by Prudhomme.

Team Gene Snow, 1972. In addition to the Revell Snowman Dodge Charger Funny Cars driven by Snow, left, and Jake Johnston, right, the team also fielded a Top Fueler driven by Chip Woodall (and a seldom-remembered injected Funny Car driven by Terry Pringle).

1972 was a pretty good year for the team, with Johnston just missing the Funny Car championship for the second straight year and Woodall winning the Springnationals Top Fuel crown. On the match-race trail, Woodall reportedly set 21 track records at 27 stops, but the car was heavily damaged in a post-Springnationals highway crash and never was seen again. (“Snow never really wanted the dragster — he hated them — and he only built it because Revell wanted one,” Woodall told me a few years ago.) Despite that, Snow, of course, would eventually become a Top Fuel driver himself and record NHRA's first four-second pass in October 1988 in Houston.

And finally, with accompanying fireworks to mark the end of this show, is this great pre-race photo from Orange County International Raceway. I’m going to say this is 1974, but could also be late 1973, based on the three visible cars: Mike Halloran’s Dodge Charger, Cecil Lankford’s Brand X Mustang, and the West Coast Gambler of Vern Hines. 

Two things draw me to this photo: The memory of dozens of Funny Cars being pulled out onto the track for a simultaneous startup, and Halloran himself. I was just a teenage fan back in those days and never met the man, but I liked how his car looked, his long burnouts, and his always-there presence. I always kind of envisioned him to be a working-man’s Funny Car racer — maybe a construction worker saving his pennies — until the late, great Funny Car historian Danny White told me that Halloran was a rocket scientist by trade. His biggest score by far was winning Irwindale Raceway’s Grand Prix of Drag Racing in 1973. 

OK, thanks for following along and sharing my passion for this kind of stuff. If you’ve got images to share, I’d love to see them.

Phil Burgess can be reached at pburgess@nhra.com

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