Most of us hard-core drag racing fans built plastic models in our youth – and a lot of you apparently still do – but I have to admit that I was never very good at it. Sure, the pieces would all end up in the right places and the decals mostly straight, but other than gluing three or four blowers atop one another or chopping the roof off of a car, I was never much into experimentation or customization, let alone the intricate hand-fabrication that some of the avid model builders take on as if they were whipping up microwave popcorn.
There are guys like me, whose greatest attention to detail was making sure that most of the excess glue got wiped away, and there are guys who made their own fuel lines or custom paint jobs or adapted generic models into accurate reproductions of nonavailable cars, and then there are guys like Mark "Gredzo" Gredzinski.
You've seen his name and work in this column as a talented British artist with an infatuation with 1970s Funny Cars (join the crowd), but his newest projects are beyond belief.
He's creating what he hopes will be "the world's most accurate circa 1972 model nitro engine," a 16th-scale powerplant that he plans to place between the framerails of an equally-period-correct, from-scratch early Funny Car chassis.
"It's been a few years in the making, but the next one after that will be even better as I have learned more," he admitted. "It depicts a typical circa 1972 motor based on a Hemi in Barry Setzer's first-generation Vega flopper. It started out as discarded components from a Revell Funny Car kit buildup donated from my photographer pal Roger Gorringe. I utilized 20 of the kit parts and added over 270 of my own manufacture from styrene, wire, and solder."
Gredzinski pored over tons of old photographs and other research to make sure that the fuel system was accurate.
"I have done so much research that I can now draw an entire fuel system for a '70s Funny Car because it's now imprinted on my brain," he said. "I'm doing the fuel lines now into the two fuel-distribution blocks, and it's very tricky.
"The idea was to make as accurate a replica as possible, correcting most of the flaws in the kit components while adding complete fuel, oil, and ignition systems. Many hours of research went [into] working out things like fuel-shutoff levers and fuel-line routing. The 16 individual steel port and injector hat lines were predictably difficult to do, as were the fuel-distribution blocks, of which two were needed, each only 5mm across utilizing 15 parts.
"I made more than 300 parts to add to the 1/16th-scale-kit items. The most difficult thing was the fuel lines, which lead into fuel-distribution blocks at the back of the blower and Enderle hat. Hexagonal section nozzles made from Plastruct styrene were shaped and drilled. The lines were made from nickel-plated copper wire rescued from a discarded telephone cable loom. They have to be bent and plumbed in exactly the right order to make them sit right. This and things like the fuel shutoff and throttle linkage took much research. I had to learn to make my own simulated hose ends and used solder to make fuel lines. The paint is airbrushed automotive lacquer. Nothing aftermarket is ever used, and I always make all my own masters."
Gredzinski also wanted a realistic blower belt and came up with a solution for that, too. He shaped a strip of thin brass around the pulleys and soldered the ends together, then glued 72 half-round styrene teeth into the inside and painted it matte black to simulate rubber.
But what good is a super-detailed engine without a proper place to put it, right? So Gredzinski took the next logical step.
"I'm fascinated by the design of '70s Funny Car chassis and always have been," he admitted. "I only recently got to appreciate how different John Buttera's design and fabrication were to everyone else's, and I'm always on the lookout for as many pics as I can get of his cars.
"As I'm making a prototype model of a typical Buttera chassis in 1/16th-scale, I had to prepare scale drawings as no one else has any, and this is my first attempt in progress. There will be quite a few more as I want to make very accurate renditions of Buttera classics, and I have to learn how to do his tube bending in miniature. I'm starting to cast my own parts in resin, too.
"I love the intricacy of Funny Car chassis, and in order to create an authentic Buttera version, I had to make my own scale drawings. The first one is just to see how it looks and to mount a scratch-built Ford 9-inch axle with nodular iron center section with anti-rotation bracing. This will then be cast in resin using my own silicone rubber moulds as I do not want to make one from scratch every time! I will then do the first of many authentic cars. These will be detailed down to the last item. If I can see it, then it will be on the car. It all depends on reference, and I'm always looking for good closeups and pit shots. I'd love to be able to get copies of some of the photo shoots by the masters, such as Steve Reyes, Bob McClurg, and Jon Asher, who did many magazine articles. My friend Andy Barrack kindly scanned his magazine collection for me, and I came across a great two-page spread by Jeff Tinsley on the '73 Hawaiian Charger. Great pics, but never enough! If anyone can help with pit shots of period cars or would be interested in a resin barrel valve in the future, then by all means contact me. [Email Mark]
"Being of limited means, I have learned how to make things myself. The chassis started as a pile of broken bits donated by Roger Gorringe, who regularly shoots the drags in the States. Though I own a few kits myself, I wanted to see if I could make a typical Logghe chassis of 1972 (on which all the Revell kits are based) with all the control systems in place from the plastic scrap. This would then be a prototype so I could mount any bodies to check for fit on future projects."
Gredzinski, who usually has about 50 modeling projects under way at a time and whose work has been featured in a few articles and cover shots on modeling magazines, has spent hundreds of hours in an eight- to 10-year period on the model, a lot of it in his ongoing research. The car is nearing completion ... sort of.
"The body will be a modified Dodge Demon with full bracing in a fictitious scheme to represent a racer who may have used it," he revealed. "The whole thing is very much a prototype. Many of the master parts will be cast in polyurethane resin using silicone molds after they have been revamped. I've done some prototypes already in preparation for future models, and only when I'm happy that the components are accurate will I possibly sell them in the future to discerning modelers. The next one will be better as there are still flaws in the accuracy and execution of this model."
So what drives this type of maniacal devotion to accuracy in small scale?
"Like many modelers, my first efforts were glue-encrusted aircraft," he remembered. "My first Revell Funny Car kit was the 1/25th-scale Revellaser Pinto of Mickey Thompson. I literally saved every penny I had as a schoolboy and tried to make it in a day. I knew then that the chassis was fiction, but despite the finger marks in the paint, the model gave me great joy. In 1974, I had the best birthday ever. My mom bought me a hamburger (a rarity in England back then) and kits of the Eastern Raider Pinto and Willie Borsch's Wildman Charger. I started the Charger, but every time I looked at the photo of the actual car on the model box, I realized that my plastic kit body shell didn't look quite right. I vowed then not to make it until I had suitable reference pics to do it justice. Fast-forward a few decades, and the Charger is still not completed. My modeling skills have improved immensely to the point where I'm now making highly detailed replicas to a standard I could not have imagined back then.
"At 16, I trained as a silversmith, which taught me about fine detail, and later, as a self-taught artist, my eye for detail has increased over the years. Luckily, I grew up in the golden age of nitroburners and Pro Stocks, and the sheer beauty of those '70s cars has never left me. I try to do justice to them in both my art and three-dimensional model-making. I've also worked on actual cars, albeit in England, and I'm now a drag racing photojournalist among other things."
And what's next?
"I have an even more detailed Charger in smaller 1/25th-scale to finish," he said. "This will have burndown breathers for a 1973 car. Then there is my 1971 Topolino fuel altered with more than 400 parts added and a 1/16th-scale slingshot, which has had many bodywork mods. These are all models to learn from. I intend to do all the Revell cars justice, and the Mickey Thompson Revelleader Grand Am will probably be the most detailed so far, only since I have the best reference on it. The body will be extensively modified and then molds made as I won't accept near enough. I'm making my own Keith Black, Milodon, and Donovan Hemis, a big-block Chevy in 1/16th-scale, and even a 421 Pontiac. I'll be making around 10 different superchargers and authentic Crower and Hilborn injectors also. My Hombre Vega of Charlie Therwhanger will have an authentic Pete Bagnard chassis frame, as an example."
Gredzinski's love of detail is even evident in his paintings, right down to the rivets in the rear-window louvers and side windows of the Wonder Wagon.
Gredzinski is not limiting himself to his beloved '70 Funny Cars, either.
"I'm also doing period Top Fuel, and I'm doing the 1973 Jeb Allen rail, which will have a correctly mounted steering box in the Woody Gilmore fashion," he said. "I'm scratch-building a 215-inch Garlits chassis to make Tom McEwen's '72 to '74 dragsters with the characteristic bent engine uprights. I could do with a picture of the fuel tank. Anyone got one?!
"I'll be doing the same with Don Hardy and Woody Gilmore frames, amongst others. I'm also teaching myself Pro Stock and Top Fuel, too. Getting pics of Don Long cars with their clothes off, as it were, is tricky! I want to make an accurate California Charger rear-engined dragster as it differed from a Gilmore in triangulation. It all takes too much time, alas. As an example of my obsession, I made a barrel valve for a fuel altered with about 30 parts in it (without fuel lines yet) and only 5mm across. There are 400 parts in it of my own manufacture, and it's due some paint soon.
"I know I'm rather obsessed, but I'd rather have one authentic model on my shelf than a cabinet full of approximations. I want to get to the point where the model looks like it could fire up and go. That's a long way off, but I'm getting there.
"My 1/25th Charger is almost ready for primer. I just need to drill out the 32 port and hat fuel-distribution blocks (which is tricky since each block is 3/16-of-an-inch wide and made of 12 parts) and make a reverser lever. I finished the first prototype barrel valve on Monday, which was psychologically a relief as I kept putting it off. It was bastard-hard, which is why no one makes one! It is entirely made from scratch with 30 pieces before any plumbing is added. I'm making another, which will be better, and that one will be molded in resin. I can't keep making them from scratch or I'll go mad, blind, or will run out of time on the planet, and I have many, many cars to make."
In his five-decade racing career, not many people got one over on Don Prudhomme. Save for Tommy Ivo's notorious practical jokes on the young "Snake's" first road trip with him in the early 1960s, you couldn’t pull a fast one on Prudhomme, whether in the pits, on the track, or even in the boardroom.
Yet somehow, wife Lynn, daughter Donna, and coconspirator Lynn Rose pulled off an amazing coup by keeping secret a months-in-the-planning surprise 70th birthday party for "the Snake" at the NHRA Motorsports Museum last Saturday. When Prudhomme strolled in the door on Lynn's arm, he was expecting to speak at a tribute to longtime pal Roland Leong but instead was met by 200 of his closest friends, family, and racing acquaintances yelling "Surprise!" and blinding him with enough camera flashes to light up Las Vegas.
Prudhomme, who surely in the more than two weeks since his April 6 birthday and an intimate dinner with family and friends must have thought that he had dodged the public-party bullet, was truly stunned and taken aback at the turnout, which not only included a veritable racing Who's Who, but also his sisters -- Jeanette Graves, Joyce Burris, and Judy Maxwell – who flew in from as far away as the East Coast to celebrate with their famous brother.
I sidled up to him as he received handshakes and hugs, and with his free left hand, he reached out and squeezed my right hand and said simply, "Wow …"
How else do you explain seeing an all-star cast that included old rivals Raymond Beadle and Richard Tharp, who had flown in from Dallas for the occasion, or old friends such as Herb Fishel of General Motors? It felt as if it were my birthday, too, being surrounded by legends of the sport such as Leong; Tom McEwen (of course "the Mongoose" was there!); Ivo; Kenny Safford; Dale Armstrong; Ed Pink (whose 80th birthday recently was feted); Bob Muravez; Tom Prock; Mike Kuhl; Larry Bowers; Danny Broussard; Harry Hibler; Frankie Pisano; and Jim Adolph and familiar famous faces such as all-star nitro crewmembers Bob Brandt, Prudhomme's longtime right-hand man; "Waterbed Fred" Miller; Donnie Couch; and Pat Galvin; Hall of Fame drag racing carny barker Bill Doner; Fred Wagenhals of Action Performance diecast fame; longtime "Snake"/"Mongoose" pal Billy Bones; superstar artist Kenny Youngblood; the families of the late Keith Black and Dick Landy; and so many others. NHRA was well-represented with Tom Compton, Graham Light, Gary Darcy, Glen Cromwell, John Siragusa, Jim Trace, Steve Gibbs, yours truly, and ND Photo Editor Teresa Long, who shot most of the great photos here.
More amazing to all of us – and noted several times throughout the evening by legendary emcee Dave McClelland and the featured speakers (Beadle, Miller, Couch, Leong, McEwen, and Doner) – was how one and all had kept the party secret. Drag racing is well-known for its grapevine – the most hush-hush sponsorship deals somehow are always revealed ahead of time – yet somehow, these 200 guests kept their lips zipped, which in many cases wasn't easy. Beadle, who still chats with "the Snake" often on the phone, admitted to dodging Prudhomme's phone calls in the days leading up to the event, and Leong, the supposed guest of honor, was asked by Prudhomme just days before the event if he needed a ticket to get into the "Leong tribute."
The Roland ruse was played up to the hilt, right up to the doors of the museum.
A fake flyer promoting the Leong event had even been created and sent to all of us just in case we were asked what was going on, and a sign and photo at the door to the museum kept the ruse alive.
We had all been instructed to arrive before 6 p.m., and "the Snake" was to arrive 15 to 30 minutes after the hour, but by the time I walked in at 5:30, the place was packed. I got my name tag from Lynn Rose – well-remembered by us journalist types as the gatekeeper to treasured media passes at Orange County Int’l Raceway – and cruised. Prudhomme didn't arrive until 6:30ish, so it was an hour in heaven for me walking around and chatting up the legends. Finger food and adult beverages were in abundance to keep everyone happy waiting on the guest of honor.
Teresa and I were seated with the Black family, which was a real joy. Ken Black, the legendary engine builder's son, was there with his wife, Cheri, daughter Sarah, and, of course, his mother, Jane Black. Jane and Ken have known "the Snake" since he was a teenager, sweeping out the Black shop and maybe dreaming of what was to come, and Jane shared great stories about her husband, including of the day that they met and how he literally swept her off her teenage feet ("He was so handsome," she gushed, almost 70 years later) and how she left the dance with him instead of her date. She and Ken also regaled us with the story of KB dropping off his newborn son and recovering wife at the house after leaving the hospital so that he could head to the Salton Sea to try to set a world record on water (he did). It will be 20 years May 13 since we lost that old "Black Magic," but he's still fondly remembered by all, especially his family.
After a great dinner and an introduction from "Big Mac," the fun began with Beadle, who actually took it pretty easy on his old rival ("Most of the stories I could tell … I've been sworn to secrecy," he said, which turned out to be a common theme; the '70s were wild!) but thanked everyone for coming from parts of the nation. Beadle's longtime crew chief, Miller, who followed his former boss to the podium, definitely tipped the 10-gallon metaphorical hat to their fiercest rival.
Three-time Funny Car world champ Raymond Beadle
"If you didn't race against the Army car, you had no idea what we went through," he said. "I'm standing here, and I see him, and I see 'Weasel' [Brandt] staring at me, and I have nightmares just thinking about these two. That was as bad as it gets. If you beat those guys, believe me, you earned it. It wasn't easy, and it sure as hell wasn't cheap, was it Beadle? We nailed him a couple of years in a row, but I promise you, whether you raced him in Top Fuel or Funny Car, you might have beaten him once in a while, but you can bet he has the scoreboard on you. Nobody beat him forever. It just didn’t happen. They were the best of the best."
In one of the many funny moments of the evening, Miller recounted how on a recent visit to Florida to see him, Prudhomme – notoriously focused and a bit unfriendly during his heyday -- asked, "Was I as big a prick as everyone says I was?"
"He looked over at me, and I said, 'Duh! You were an even bigger prick than they say.' When people race against a guy like John Force, if he beats you, he still wants to be your pal. With [Prudhomme], if he beat ya, he still didn’t like ya. And if he lost and your mother was sitting in your pit, he'd kick her in the stomach!"
McEwen – according to him, voted by Lynn Prudhomme as most likely to spill the beans on the surprise party -- was up next, and after recounting the now-familiar Linda-Lovelace-as-Seattle-trophy-queen/winner's-prize story ("We're just going to go around the outskirts of that one," he said, then added the sworn-to-secrecy disclaimer. "No one that I know won that race; I don't even think Prudhomme qualified."), softened as he went.
"All of us guys were like a big family, traveling together and running around the country, and everyone helped one another; it's not like that today," he said and told of pulling Tharp from the burning Blue Max in Gary, Ind. "We go back a long way, and it's been a good ride for everybody with the Hot Wheels and all of that. I think I probably got beat more than anyone by all of the people in this room, but I was always off talking to the press and trying to make them believe I was something I wasn't. It's great to see all of our good friends tonight because we don’t always get a chance to see each other very much."
Leong, still one of Prudhomme's closest friends more than 45 years after they won together for the first time in Top Fuel, came next and drew chuckles by saying, "I know he's glad I couldn’t drive," referring to how Prudhomme had taken over the controls of his dragster after Leong crashed it on its maiden voyage at Lions. After thanking everyone for coming out and marveling at how well the secret was kept, Leong closed with, "To be here, celebrating his birthday with one of the coolest guys out there, I think is great. We love you, 'Snake.' Happy birthday."
Donnie Couch brought the house down
Couch, who has crewed for just about every name racer in the sport, especially in Southern California, then left a lasting mark. At times, it seemed as if he were channeling a bit of Charlie Sheen as he raced through a series of off-color one-liners, stories, and funny impressions of Prudhomme, Connie Kalitta, and Kenny Bernstein, most of which can’t be repeated here without changing the website's rating.
"I've been around the guy since I was a little kid, and I'm still scared of him," he admitted. "He makes coffee nervous. But seriously, I grew up with 'the Snake' and 'the Mongoose ' – best years of my life. 'Snake,' it's an honor to be up here." He then presented Prudhomme with a "Snake"-logo sculpture that he and Galvin had commissioned.
Doner, as only the sport's greatest living promoter could, closed the speaker portion of the show. Cocktail in hand, he shared the tale of how after leaving the newspaper business ("under a little cloudy situation, I might add," he offered mysteriously), he was employed by Carroll Shelby in 1967 when Prudhomme and Lou Baney walked in looking for a sponsorship for their Top Fueler.
Recalled Doner, "Right in the middle of the negotiations, Shelby looked at his watch, got up, and left. Baney looked at me and said, 'What does that mean?' and I told him, 'Well, it’s not the best news I ever saw.' They walked out shaking their heads, and I was shaking my head ... what the hell was that about?" Two days later, Shelby surprisingly green-lighted the $10,000 deal that would lead to the Shelby Super Snake dragster. Prudhomme and Baney had just four days to paint the car and have it ready for the Winternationals.
A few years later, it was Prudhomme whom Doner called on to save the Seattle track he had just taken over against massive debt; he booked "the Snake" into his Northwest National Open (for $1,000!) before the bank called in the note on the place. Of course, it being March, it rained the day before, but – miraculously – race day dawned to blue skies and a miles-long line of traffic waiting to get into the place. "All day long, I was grabbing money and stuffing it in bags," said Doner, who admits to getting emotional about the day that salvaged his fledgling racetrack-ownership career (seven at one time).
A few years later, when his fold included OCIR, he spent the summer advertising Lil' John Lombardo while the touring racers were back East trying to find a way to pay the extremely high monthly rent ($12,500) he was being charged by the Irvine Co. "I started pumping him and building him up – 'the black car from Sherman Oaks!' – and I'm doing ads left and right, and Lombardo is running faster and faster, and every week, he slices this guy and that guy, and I'm getting bigger crowds, and everything's going great. Then in September, I've got a huge race, and Lombardo wants more money because he's the star, and guess who’s coming home? And I've got the crowd whipped up – and believe me, ladies and gentlemen, I could whip those [expletive] up – and I had them out of their seats and screaming, and we get down to the final, and it’s Lil' John Lombardo, undefeated all summer, and the winningest Funny Car in the history of the sport, Don 'the Snake' Prudhomme. The crowd is going berserk, I'm going berserk, everyone is going berserk, and all I could think of was, 'Welcome home, 'Snake.' "
At Doner's urging – and at the expense of McClelland's itinerary – Prudhomme came to the podium to a standing ovation.
"I'm just so blown away that everyone's here," he said and admitted again that he was clueless about the surprise (he did joke that he thought as he was walking up to the doors that the whole affair was a little overdone for Leong). He lauded his wife, Lynn ("Everyone knows that she's got the brains, and I've got the balls, so we made a good couple," he said. "She had all of the great ideas and handled the finances, and I went out and did what I knew how to do.") and daughter, Donna, for pulling off the surprise (Earlier, Donna had expressed disbelief to me that they'd gotten away with it. "I've never gotten away with anything with my dad. First time I ditched school, he happened to drive by. First beer. He knew.").
"The Snake" and friends, from left, Raymond Beadle, Bill Doner, Billy Bones, Prudhomme, Donnie Couch, Pat Galvin, and Bob Brandt
(Gary Nastase photo)
"I'm just lucky that I got to do something I like doing," he reflected. "People like Ed Pink and Keith Black were responsible for it [the Blacks were positively beaming as he remembered Keith], and thanks to all of you for coming. It's such a great group here. Raymond Beadle, he talked about me and Brandt, but when the Blue Max came to the starting line, that thing was thundering. They were bad-ass. It sounded good and was one of the most impressive cars we ever went up against. Thanks Doner, Fred, and Roland, and Bob Brandt, for being a part of all this. I don’t think I've ever had a better time, and that's what it is about this sport, it's something you never forget. Kenny and Carolyn Safford, thanks for being here. Ed Pink, the Procks … I can’t even think. Look at all of you guys. You did it. I love everyone. Thank you very much."
NHRA President Compton spoke, thanking Prudhomme for all he has done for the sport and his continued advice and support about the sport's future. McClelland read a birthday card from Dan Gurney and cued up a couple of birthday-wish videos from two of Prudhomme's other circle-track buddies – Mario Andretti and Rusty Wallace – and even as the scheduled part of the evening ended, it was just beginning.
Happy birthday, "Snake." Like Roland said, we love you.
"The Snake's" Saturday birthday party was my second straight day at the museum; I had spent the evening before within its hallowed walls as well, along with about 400 family, friends, and racing pals of the late Lou Gasparrelli for a celebration of life to salute the SoCal Top Alcohol Funny Car pioneer and a family that one speaker lauded as "one of the great families in racing." Wife Vickie, brother Michael, and son Steve and their families soaked up the love and support of the community.
Officiated by the Rev. Jim Jack of Racers For Christ, who wrote original poetry for the service, it was a time of togetherness and remembrances of a gentle but strong man. Lou's granddaughter Jillian (Steve's daughter) read touching letters that they each had written to Lou, and her thoughts graced the inside cover of the handsome memorial brochure.
A dozen or so of Lou's old racing jackets were hung by the stage, some saluting his national event wins, others his division championships, and one commemorating his time as a member of the San Gabriel Valley Four Barrels car club, and photos of his many race cars also were on display. Outside, the John Lombardo family had hung a poster for friends to autograph.
Many of the same poeple were there whom I would see the next night – NHRA's Light, Gibbs, Couch, Galvin, Don Irvin, and others – as well as a lot of Gasparrelli's contemporaries. Of course, the Andersons – Brad, Carol, Randy, and Shelly – were there, along with Jay Payne, the Littlefields – Lee, Brad, and Kasey -- Don and Bret Williamson, Doug and Mike Gordon, Mike Andreotti, Mark Woznichak, Chris Demke, Duane Shields, Clint Thompson, Sean Bellemeur, Steve Chrisman, Bob and Larry Miner, Bob DeVour, and so many others from Division 7, including a former alcohol racer by the name of Gary Scelzi, who, like Couch the next night, brought down the house, sharing his sometimes irreverent stories of life on the Division 7 alcohol trail and touching tales of Gasparrelli's generous nature and friendly demeanor.
A great slide show highlighted many of those winning cars, and I was particularly struck by one of Gasparrelli racing Littlefield, who now assuredly are doing dry hops in heaven together. It had been all too recently (September) that many of this same group had gathered for Mert's memorial service, and Gasparrelli had been among them. We all knew at the time that Lou was seriously (and perhaps terminally) ill, and I can’t help thinking now if he was wondering if a similar function might be held for him in the future. I sat with Lou for a while that night, just to soak in the feeling of being with him. After the service, I asked Brad about the photo, and, of course, he knew everything about it: Las Vegas, 1994; Division 7 race; Mert won on a holeshot..
As I drove to the museum that night and past Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, I took the same route that Gasparrelli no doubt had taken from his Monrovia, Calif., base to get to the track and wondered how many trips he had made down Arrow Highway before pulling into those famous pit gates for the Winternationals or the Finals.
I had been there for his first win, on a Monday morning at the 1986 Winternationals, and remember the Gasparrelli family beaming in the winner's circle and their dog – the wonderfully named Weak Dog – perched on the car's injector.
As many said that night, Lou Gasparrelli was a king among men, a perpetually happy yet serious racer who would loan you anything out of his trailer but put it to you on the racetrack. I'm going to miss him and it was great to be surrounded by so many others who felt the same way.
After commiserating with me about the recent spate of losses our sport has suffered in the past couple of weeks, reader Randy Wallingford suggested that it might be time to update a column I first published in June 2008 called "Dry Hops in Heaven." Spurred by the death of Scott Kalitta, I wrote "Dry Hops" a week or so after his passing as a tribute not just to him, but to many of the famous from our sport's history who had passed away. People always seemed to muse about how new arrivals in heaven would be reunited with their old pals and begin to carry on together again, so I wove a tale about what one might see if he or she had earned a pit pass through the pearly gates.
This is the second time that I've been asked to rewrite the original to accommodate racers who since have gone on to race at the "High-Altitude Nationals," so to speak – and hearing The Righteous Brothers song "Rock and Roll Heaven" at lunch yesterday almost swayed me -- but I'm again going to pass on Version 2.0 because it just doesn’t feel right. It's not like someone's asking Leonardo da Vinci to repaint "The Last Supper" to include Elvis or that JFK's likeness be added to Mount Rushmore, and even though I'm pretty sure that Lou Gasparrelli, Neil Mahr, and Ed Lenarth already have finished prepping their heavenly hot rods, I'd rather keep the original intact.
I'm generally not one to rate my own work – that's your job – but I do think that it's one of the finest pieces I've ever written. I reprinted it here about two years ago and didn't plan to do so again, but the pretty cool column planned for today had to be delayed because its subject asked me for a little extra time to get me additional photos, so I decided to reprint the original "Dry Hops in Heaven" below for the column's newcomers.
Before we get to that, I want to reiterate the comments I made recently about the legends of our sport. I want you to be thankful for every day that the survivors still grace our planet and to never forget those who have left us. Steve Gibbs recently reminded me that a good way – perhaps the best way – for you to do this is to attend NHRA's Hot Rod Reunions. The 9th annual Holley NHRA National Hot Rod Reunion presented by AAA is June 16-18 at Beech Bend Raceway Park in Bowling Green, Ky., and always features a major lineup of Midwest and East Coast heroes, and the fabled California Hot Rod Reunion presented by the Automobile Club of Southern California will mark its 20th anniversary later this year at the fabled Bakersfield-area track and always draws the cream of the legends crop. We all owe it to our heroes and legends to thank them for what they've contributed, and the reunions are the perfect way to do that.
OK, without further ado …
DRY HOPS IN HEAVEN
(Originally published July 7, 2008)
Buster Couch looks over as the Funny Car approaches the staging beams and winks at the new arrival, a tousled-haired kid with a lead foot whom he has known since the lad was in diapers. Scott Kalitta moves forward as longtime Kalitta crewmember Doug Dragoo peeks in to check the oil pressure. It's rock-solid, as it always is in drag racing heaven.
In the stands, Doug Kalitta Sr. grins as his nephew readies to squeeze the loud pedal, pulling Scott's mom, Marianne, tight as they watch his first pass unbound from the rules of Mother Earth.
In the other lane, Eric Medlen does the same; "Uncle Beavs," Gene Beaver, is guiding him in for nephew John Force, who's not ready yet to race here. In the stands, Betty Ruth Force, mother of the 14-time world champ, smiles proudly at her adopted grandson.
On the other side of the guardwall, Leslie Lovett angles his Hasselblad for a perfectly composed, perfectly lit image for the next cover of Heavenly DRAGSTER. There's a mini Hot Rod magazine reunion on the starting line as Ray Brock and Robert Petersen shoot the breeze, with fellow early NHRA stalwart Ak Miller chiming in to share his memories of the good old days. They're all wondering the same thing: Where's Wally?
In the tower, Buster's wife, Ann, enters Kalitta's info into the race computer under the watchful eye of Competition Director Jack Hart. In the media center, Ed Dykes does the same for his online reports. In heaven, everyone has a high-speed connection. John Raffa and Ed Sarkisian are covering the day's action for DRAGSTER, rubbing shoulders with Stevie Collison and Shav Glick. Pete Millar has his own spot in the pressroom, his pencil sketching the scene at 300 mph.
Kalitta and Medlen dry hop their mounts the last few feet – yes, there are dry hops in heaven – and the crowd, made up of every drag race fan who has "shuffled off this mortal coil" – your relations, mine, and everyone else who ever dug the digs – rises as the Tree goes green.
Roof-high header flames erupt from the pipes, the Goodyears grab hard, and the front tires dance just off the ground. Less than five seconds later, the chutes are out, and the win light appropriately shines in both lanes as Bernie Mather calls out the e.t.s to the crowd.
As they clamber from their cars and grin goofily at one another, Kalitta and Medlen are greeted by Steve Evans and camera operator Joe Rooks for a post-run interview. As Kalitta steps away from the camera, he's greeted warmly by Wally and Barbara Parks. "Hi, champ," Wally meets him with a hug. "Thanks for all you've done for drag racing and the NHRA."
"I think it's time for some ice cream," interjects Medlen, sending everyone into hysterics.
Back on the starting line, as John Zendejas steps onto the track to spray down a little more traction compound, action in the staging lanes and the pits is picking up.
There's a pretty good lineup of Top Fuel cars piling into the lanes, and because some of these guys wouldn't be caught with that big ol' beautiful thumping mill anywhere but in their face promising them an oil bath at the finish line, Top Fuel is divided into two classes, the slingshots and the back-motor boys.
John Mulligan: The Fighting Irish fight on.
Suiting up and ragging his gloves in Lane 1, John "the Zookeeper" Mulligan is ready for the push-start, heading a line that includes Tony Nancy, Steve Carbone, "Lefty" Mudersbach, Mike Sorokin, Gary Cagle, Jim Davis, Bob Sullivan, Connie Swingle, "Terrible Ted" Gotelli and Denny Milani, "Red" Case, Mickey Brown, Gene Goleman, Ron Correnti, Bobby Hightower, Julius Hughes, Gary Gabelich, Jim Hundley, Boyd Pennington, Jim Paoli, Jack Williams, John Wenderski, "Q Ball" Wale, Glen Ward, and, still smiling after all these years, Jimmy Nix.
"Young punks," says Calvin Rice with a laugh. He and the real old-timers, guys such as Leonard Harris, John Mulkey, Art Arfons, Jack and Lloyd Chrisman, Jim "Jazzy" Nelson, Lloyd Scott, Setto Postoian, Emory Cook, Dave Gendian, and Jim McClennan, are watching an amazing progression of the history of their sport tow past them.
Dickie Harrell, Malcolm Durham, Don and Roy Gay, Dick Loehr, Gerry Schwartz, Harry Hudson, Marv Eldridge, Jim Lutz, Dick Jesse, Art Ward, "the Flying Dutchman" himself, Al Vander Woude, and "the Israeli Rocket," Leroy Goldstein, are ready to go at it '60s-style in their early floppers while mega owners such as Mickey Thompson, "Diamond Jim" Annin, Curt "Bones" Carroll, John Keeling, "Pa and Ma" Hoover, Sid Masters, Jim Marsh, and Dick Mortiz are all eyeing the talent, trying to figure out who they'd like to have shoe their machines ... of course, Mickey is just itchin' to be in charge of the whole day's program. "Big John" Mazmanian has his hands doubly full; he also has Fred Stone, Tim Woods, and Doug "Cookie" Cook waiting on him in the pits, and there's some serious trash-talking to be done.
A few lanes over, the rear-engine cars are lining up for as far as the eye can see, with veterans such as Mike Snively, Marvin Schwartz, Chuck Kurzawa, Leland Kolb, Gaines Markley, Mike Tarter, Dan Rightsell, Bruce Hagestad, Ernie Hall, Clayton Harris, Pete Kalb, "Poncho" Rendon, Gene Domagalski, Fred Forkner, Jim Plummer, and Satch Nottle in one lane and the likes of Darrell Russell, Blaine Johnson, Gary Ormsby, Keith Craig, Bob Edwards, Bobby Baldwin, Wayne Bailey, and Richard Holcomb in the other; Lucille Lee has been reunited with the man who tuned her to her only win, Marc Danekas. Guy Allen has son Les suited up and ready to go, and Jim Bucher's Chevy is primed and ready to upset the Hemis.
Keith Black, Ed Donovan, and Don "Milodon" Alderson are having their own "block party," and there's a pretty good exchange of ideas going on in the fuel pits, where Al Swindahl is still trying to convince Scotty Fenn that a 300-inch wheelbase is better than a short one, and Tony Casarez, Frank Huszar, Rod Stuckey, and Don Tuttle are laughing their butts off. John Buttera and Nye Frank are sitting in the corner doodling designs for "the next big thing," and every few seconds, one of them says something like, "Wait, I've got an even better idea!" Meanwhile, "Cheating Chico" Breschini is huddled in a corner with "Sneaky Pete" Robinson discussing who knows what, and Lou Baney is out trying to cut deals with the racers, trying to match sponsors and drivers and owners.
(Above) Pisano and Matsubara, reunited. (Below) Sush and "Wild Willie."
"Jungle" is prowling the fiberglass forest trying to coax his fellow flopper foes into a high-dollar burnout contest, and the only takers seem to be "Mr. Sit Low," Patty Foster, who has the Barry Setzer Vega with him, and Al Hofmann. Down the row are the groovy 'Stangs of Lew Arrington and Dodger Glenn, Larry Fullerton, and Dick Custy, and down past Sam Harris and a line of his Chaparral trailers, Texans "Big Mike" Burkhart and "Flash Gordon" Mineo, Kosty Ivanof, Bruce Sarver, Ray Higley, Gary Hazen, Tony McCallum, Larry Ladue, "Nitro Nick" Harmon, Ray Romund, Steve Bovan, Carl Swanson, Joe Winters, Joe Clement, Billy Grooms, Les Cassidy, Billy Holt, and "the world's fastest hippie," Mike Mitchell, are in flip-top heaven. Joe Pisano is reunited with Sush Matsubara, tuning the prettiest car on the grounds with the help of his brother, Carmen, and longtime team wrench Gary Slusser. (Tom Stratton and Ted Miller are judging the prettiest paint job competition.)
Meanwhile, Johnny Loper and Tripp Shumake are conferring by their car, R.C. Sherman and D.A.Santucci are playing rock-paper-scissors to see who gets to drive the Black Magic car, and Dave Wise finally has Paul Radici pointed the right way.
Wrenches Don Maynard, "Fat Jack" Bynum, John Hogan, Chester Garris, Jerry Verheul, Herb Parks, Jack Muldowney, Ray Attebury, and Dan Geare are standing nearby, comparing tune-ups throughout the decades, but all seem to agree with the old adage "If some is good, more is better, and too much is just right." At least that's what "the Greek" always told Maynard. "Fuzzy" Carter is still looking at his altimeter and trying to figure out how, despite their lofty perch, no matter what day it is or how the weather feels, the corrected altitude always reads "sea level."
Down by the tower, John Bandimere Sr., Vinnie and Richard Napp, Bob Daniels, Terrell Poage, Kenny Green, Dave Danish, Gus and Bert Leighton, Bill and Mary Hielscher, Glenn Angel, and Marvin Miller stand listening with big grins on their faces as C.J. "Pappy" Hart, wife Peggy, and partner Creighton Hunter talk about the early days at Santa Ana, then share their own tales of woe and wonder from the management side of the quarter-mile.
The alky burners are just finishing their tune-ups in the pits, with Al DaPozzo giving a ration of crap to everyone while "the Munchkin," Billy Williams, watches with great amusement. The Bell Boys, brothers Dick and Charlie, and "the Idaho Kid," Jett Field, are also there when up walks Doug Moody on two strong legs. Off in the corner of the pits, Creedence is blasting "Bad Moon Rising" as Mickey Winters and Chuck Phelps put the screws to their howling-fast machine. Down the line, you look and see the dragster trailers of Mike Troxel, Bill Barney, John Shoemaker, Dave Hage, Dale Smart, Carrie Neal, and Shelly Howard, all readying their rides.
Over along the Manufacturers Midway, Phil Weiand and Vic Edelbrock Sr. are again having the dual-plane vs. single-plane manifold discussion while Hurst PR honcho Jack Duffy is working with Lenco founder Leonard Abbot on a new way to shift gears. Dick Moroso, Robert Goodwin, Gene Mooneyham, Paul Schiefer, Dean Moon, Chuck Potvin, Roy Richter, and the Johansens -- Howard, Elizabeth, and Jerry – tend to eager customers with stuffed wallets and hot rod dreams.
Frank LeSueur is dispensing nitro like water, and Ernie Hashim is checking out everyone's tires, which never seem to wear, let alone blemish their sidewall lettering.
Dave Schultz and John Myers: the rivalry continues.
There's an all-out manufacturers battle raging in the Pro Stock pits, where Dick Landy is chomping on his cigar while trying to convince NHRA tech guru Bill "Farmer" Dismuke that the Mopars need a better weight break while "Dyno Don" Nicholson stumps for the Ford contingent. Chevy front-runner Lee Shepherd is standing coolly by, taking it all in from behind his Ray-Bans, chatting with partner Buddy Morrison and Bowtie brother Paul Blevins. Ronnie Sox is leaning on the fender of his red, white, and blue machine giving pointers to "the kid," Scott Geoffrion, while Lee Hunter, Bill Staley, and Mickey Tadlock toil on their carbs. John Hagen pauses for a few seconds between jet changes to check out NHRA.com to see who his protégé, Greg Anderson, is stomping this week.
In the two-wheeled Pro Stock pits, father and son, Dave and Brian Schultz, are prepping their bikes to continue their amazing rivalry with John Myers, who's certainly no less popular up there than he was on Earth. All three of them are trying to get up the nerve to ask Elmer Trett if they can ride his nitro Harley.
With their noses buried under their hoods, doorslammer legends John Lingenfelter, Larry Kopp, Al Eckstrand, Bill Lawton, Les Ritchey, Dave Kempton, and "Old Reliable," Dave Strickler, are checking the jets and the timing.
There's also a full slate of exhibition passes in the offing later in the day, with "Wild Willie" Borsch ready to one-hand it in the appropriately named Winged Express against Leroy Chadderton and the Magnificent 7 fuel altered, and Richard Schroeder and Bob Perry will go wheels-up in their 'standers. Just down the pit lane, Dave Anderson is readying the Pollution Packer rocket car for another four-second hydrogen-peroxide-fueled blast; "Slammin' Sammy" Miller just looks up from his Oxygen machine and smiles; heck, he has a three-second ride beneath him. Chuck Suba and the X-1, Romeo Palamides, Russell Mendez, and Ancel Horton also are prepping their machines, ready to wow the fans again and again. And waiting in the wings to set the world on fire is "Flaming Frank" Pedregon.
Yes, it's a glorious day … as they all are. Every run is low e.t., the oil stays in the pan, the lanes are equal, and our heroes race on forever. It's truly heaven.
About this article: Obviously, it's impossible to include the name of every person we've lost, nor was it my intention. This is a salute to those who raced a little ahead of the rest of us to the finish line and left us too soon, by the hands of time, nature, or fate. I cribbed a lot of the names for this list from Don Ewald's amazing memorial page on We Did It For Love, which covers up to 1979, and through stories from NHRA.com. Any omissions or oversights are not intended as slights to the amazing people who have populated our sport since its inception, and I know that before long I'll be slapping my forehead remembering someone I forgot, but I tried to also include mostly the names that will mean something to a larger number of readers of this column.
I didn't go this year to the four-wide extravaganza in Charlotte, but I caught the TV show from home and thought that ESPN did a great job in covering it. Every lane had a dedicated camera operator on the starting line to assure that sponsors got the exposure that was lacking in last year's coverage, and ESPN employed a host of jib and fixed cameras to cover the racing from all angles. The improvement over last year's show – a sore point for the teams – is the result of brainstorming from within NHRA and ESPN – NHRA employees were given copies of the show late last year and asked to critique it and offer solutions – and it showed.
I spent the weekend at home, instead, combing through recent submissions to catch up on some of the follow-ups you guys have been sending. (Yes, this is how I spend my weekends ...)
The Super Flopper, with every aero trick known to man!
Frequent artistic contributor John Bell wrote to say that he enjoyed "The Legend of Benito Magneto," Kenny Youngblood's telling of the story behind his famous drawing, and to share the creation of his own wild imagination. "I read the Youngblood story on Benito Magneto," he wrote. "I too was enamored with it when I first saw it in the magazine. It inspired me to do a similar 'study' of Funny Car aero experimentations. The enclosed sketch was published in Super Stock & Drag Illustrated
back in the spring of 1976. In the left corner, I notated who tried what and when."
"Along the aero thread is a 'Budweiser' sketch of where I thought aero was going back in 1984. Finally, for fun, a Brad Anderson caricature I did back in 1979. Force saw this and had me do 10 of them for his sponsors with the yellow Wendy's Corvette."
I've included all three drawings in the gallery at right. You can’t really read his notes for the Super Flopper, even in the click-for-full-size version, so I've added them here. I trust that they are accurate; I can’t vouch for several. Hood louvers (Don Schumacher '73); louvers in wheel bubbles ("Snake" '74 Vega); wheel bubble (JEGS 1974); hood wing (M/T '69 Mustang); hood bubble (Swensen & Lani Vega); wheel discs (Schumacher 1973-74); hood louvers (Alabamian 1974); hole in side for header clearance (Schumacher 1973); canard wing (Mart Higgenbotham Vega); side wing (Castronovo Bros. 1973); side roof wing (Hill Bros. '73 'Cuda); roof hatch (Schumacher 1973); roof louvers (Alabamian 1974); roll-bar bubble (Ed McCulloch '70 1/2 'Cuda); roof wing (M/T '69 Mustang); rear-window louvers (Schumacher); deck louvers (Alabamian 1974); rear-deck wing (Barry Setzer 1975); wing additions (everyone); full-size windows (Schumacher 1973); holes in rear, high (Schumacher 1973); holes in rear, low (Swensen & Lani 1974).
Cool stuff; thanks John!
I heard from Youngblood as well, happy with the story's outcome, who corrected me by noting that the Flop-O-Aerodynamico wasn't the end of the Magneto saga. "He went on to build an equally unique Top Fuel dragster (my drawing of it was also featured in Hot Rod)," he said. "Unfortunately, I have misplaced the pic but will keep looking; perhaps a reader might have the image from Hot Rod?" Little did Youngblood know, but reader Tim Froment had already sent me a scan of the Magneto Top Fueler. The quality wasn't that great, but it was enough to send on to Youngblood, who plans to redraw it and share with us. There's a great Youngblood-imagined story behind the continuation of the legacy, but that will have to wait until we get the drawing.
More reader-submitted Don Garlits photos, you say? No problem. I received this great snapshot of "Big Daddy" from Joe Raulerson, son of Gainesville Raceway founder Jim Raulerson. It shows his brothers Sam, left, and Kelly with Garlits on one of the return roads at Gainesville Raceway. "We kept [the photo] because 'Big Daddy' was then and still is a great guy, and my father had many good stories about 'Big' coming to the track and racing," he wrote. This looks like the ill-fated Swamp Rat 13, which means that this photo was taken shortly after the track was opened in 1969 (SR 13 was built in mid-1969 and only lived until March 1970).
How great a guy is Don Garlits? Consider this email from Ed Dovidas, who saw Garlits make his historic 200-mph run at Island Dragway in 1964. "Mr. Garlits, I would like to thank you for countless years of enjoyment," he began. "The BIGGEST kicker of all came on Friday, April 8, 2011. I was in a hospital bed having had brain surgery two days prior. My wife, Harriet, told me I had a phone call. It was from 'Big Daddy' himself, wishing me well. Words can’t express the way I felt. For someone as busy and famous to be taking time to call me; that man gave me, a 60-year-old drag racing fan, something I will treasure for the rest of my life."
Jon Clark had a different kind of Garlits questions:
"1) What is the status of Don's two daughters? I have not heard about them in many years. They both must be in their early 50s by now. Are they close to their dad? Evidently, they did not want to drag race, but what about their kids (Don's grandchildren)? It seems kind of odd that no younger-generation Garlits kids have ever wanted to go drag racing.
"2) What is the status of Don's brother Ed? Is he still alive? Are Don and his brother close? Ed was involved in some of Don's early drag racing days but seemed to fade from the scene by the 1970s."
I contacted "Big Daddy," who was more than happy to answer Jon's questions.
"My oldest daughter, Gay Lyn Capitano, lives in Ocala [Fla.], has a piano school, and teaches at the university here in Ocala. Her children are not interested in drag racing. The oldest is just graduating from music college, the next is into TV production, and youngest has not yet decided. My youngest daughter, Donna Garlits, teaches school in Virginia but is moving back to Ocala to take over the duties of the Drag Racing Museum in the very near future as I’m retiring soon. Her two children, Rodney and Sarah, are not into drag racing at this point. Someday Rodney might be, but Sarah is into singing and won the Virginia state contest for alto voice last year. She starts college next year.
"My brother Ed is alive but suffering from Parkinson’s disease. He lives in Floral City, Fla., not too far away. Ed was the clutch person during the 1992-95 campaign with Swamp Rat 32 and 34. Ed was always a big help with my drag racing career."
I heard from Gary Watson, whose Fugitive wheelstander I featured a few columns ago, who shared some photos and a brief history, which I'll present in a column soon. His other cars were the Paddy Wagon and the Red Baron.
Tanks a lot, Ted!
Speaking of wheelstanders, Ted Pappacena, whose DragRacingImagery.com website houses scores of photos from five decades spent shooting our sport, followed up those wheelstanders with a couple of memorable ones as well as a photo of the Scott Kalitta 1986 Englishtown boomer I also later mentioned, all of which can be found in the gallery at right. "Attached is a photo of Bob Perry's Hell On Wheels tank," he wrote. "A Corvair was mentioned also, but Draglist.com has it as a Corvair 'wagon,' so that reminded me of a Corvair wagon wheelstander driven by Connie Swingle called the Trash Truck. Attached is a photo from a 1969 wheelstander match race at New York National Speedway. And last but not least, you mentioned Scott Kalitta's body-shredding explosion at the 1986 Summernationals, so I've included a photo of that, too. I was fortunate to get the photo signed by Scott a few years prior to his unfortunate accident. When I showed the photo to him, he said, 'I remember THAT!' "
Swingle sure got around. You read his name throughout my three-part Swamp Rat Spotter's Guide, and he also drove for Ed Pink and Crossley & Williams, and he briefly piloted the AMT Piranha (profiled in this column) for a failed attempt at the 200-mph mark. I only met Swingle once, briefly, in Gainesville in the mid-1980s, and it's obvious that I never got to meet the real deal. He was one of drag racing's true characters.
Garlits' other longtime sidekick, Tommy "T.C." Lemons, is another larger-than-life character the likes of which you'd never find today. Tom Nagy sent this Garlits pit photo, taken at the 1973 Popular Hot Rodding
Championships in Martin, Mich. Nothing special, right? I mean, sure, the blower is off the car and Lemons and Garlits seemed to be concerned with the fuel line, but it's what's not immediately visible that cracks me up.
"Nothing special about this photo in particular," agreed Nagy, "except for the impromptu duct-tape message on T.C.'s shirt that reads, 'Don't Ask Me For Pictures.' I was 15 years old in 1973 and remember getting a Garlits handout photo at Martin that August, but I sure as hell didn't ask T.C."
Mike Goyda, who runs the goyda.com memorabilia site, had a great Garlits pic that I had never seen. "Hi Phil. I know that once you start these columns, they don't seem to end, but this is such a great photo that I had to send it along," he wrote. "Garlits and Mickey Thompson among a group of onlookers. This was shot at Aquasco in the '60s. I'm sure you will be able to date it correctly. It appears that Gar is asking a question and Mickey is in deep contemplation." What a find. Although you can’t see Garlits well, you can definitely see M.T. deep in thought. The car, according to NHRA historian Greg Sharp, is Swamp Rat IV, which puts the date as 1962. Sharp also has questions about whether or not that's Garlits talkjing to Thompson ("seems too tall and thin") , but I like the way that the "onlookers" are truly looking on, not realizing that they were in the presence of two guys destined to become motorsports icons.
A few columns ago, I mused about the introduction of white pants to a sport in which everyone ends up covered in black, whether it's from oil or "Akron fallout" from burnouts. Robert Nielsen thinks he has the answer.
"If we go back and look at photos from the very early days of drag racing, we see young men wearing T-shirts and jeans," he noted. "I think somewhere in the mid-1960s, there was a definite shift to wearing white pants. This probably came about for two significant reasons. I know in my specific case, I started wearing white pants to the races about this time because I was influenced by a lot of the circle-track racers in the area. They typically ran at SoCal tracks like Saugus Speedway that mandated all racers and crewmembers had to wear white pants. The reason for this was because they ran on Saturday night, and the lighting in the infield pit areas was not very good, and the white pants made it a lot easier to see people when driving through these areas. The second reason was to have a more professional appearance. While none of the SoCal dragstrips had similar rules, I thought this was a great safety idea for the exact same reasons. The return roads at Lions, Irwindale, and OCIR were never well-lit, and most race cars at that time did not have functional headlights, or if they did, they were not used in order to maintain the battery better.
"The change to white pants also brought along a change away from the T-shirts. In fact, I think OCIR was the first SoCal dragstrip to have an employee uniform. This was white pants and a dark blue Hang Ten (a popular SoCal clothing manufacturer back in the day whose corporate logo was two bare feet on the chest of their shirts) polo-type shirt. This was augmented by a light nylon windbreaker that was light blue in color with a red and white stripe running vertically on the left side and the OCIR patch on the right side."
I mentioned Friday that former Top Fuel owner and driver Neil Mahr was not doing well, but I didn't really let on about how close the end was, but it did come later that day. Jon Asher, who had been in touch with Mahr's son, Scott, gave me the bad news and then found out that Mahr had requested that Asher write a eulogy. I didn't know Mahr all that well other than to say hello passing in the pits, but I loved the racing calendars he produced. I was going to print Asher's eulogy here but then realized that might be spoiling what will be such a fine memory for those who will be attending his services Friday. Asher also wrote a piece about Mahr for CompetitionPlus that outlined what a tough racer Mahr was, on and off the track! I learned things I never knew, that's for sure. "As a racer Mahr was one tough son of a gun," Asher wrote. "As a businessman he was just as tough. His often bruised and swollen knuckles were proof enough of that. But when it came to his extended family, he was a pussycat, a 'victim' waiting to happen at the sight of any of his 30 descendants. Behind the bluster he was the same way with his friends. Ask and ye shall receive – if you had the guts to ask!"
On the same day that Mahr's East Coast friends will be saying goodbye in Pennsylvania, a lot of us will be gathered in California doing the same for Lou Gasparrelli. As I mentioned last week, my love and respect for Gasparrelli know no ends, so I wouldn't miss being there with what promises to be a legion of his friends, former competitors, and family.
It has been another rough week for heroes; we learned late yesterday that Ed Lenarth, of Secret Weapon and Holy Toledo jeep Funny Car fame, also passed away. The NHRA.com Notebook is quickly becoming an obituaries page, and I hate it.