My greatest Gatornats hitsTuesday, March 08, 2011
Posted by: Phil Burgess

With the Tire Kingdom NHRA Gatornationals just two weeks after the season opener for the first time in ages, I'm already again finding myself gearing up for a trip to the drags. Unlike the Pomona lid-lifter, this one will require more than a 10-minute dash in the ol' Mustang from home to Parker Avenue. Heck, it will take twice that long just to drive to the airport.

We have new stuff planned for race coverage at the Gatornats that will keep me hopping while I'm there, and – stop me if you've heard this before — it's a frantic week here at National DRAGSTER before I head out. You know, this is a glorious job and all and I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but 29 straight years of weekly deadlines will drive a guy to drink. You should see my Diet Coke bill.

Anyway, as I did before the Winternationals, and knowing that the rest of the week will preclude my usual Friday entry, I thought I'd look in the archives at some of my past Gatornationals-themed columns to give you more than enough stuff to tide you over into next week.

In 2008, I penned a column all about gators – and I don’t mean just the race name. I took a look at the famed reptile that for years graced the event logo and got the story behind the illustration from National DRAGSTER's own John Jodauga. [Read column]

That entry – as is tradition around here – spawned a bunch of responses about other gator-themed things, from race cars to parts advertisements to a reminder of the Gainesville Raceway pet gator Clyde to Chase Knight's very cool Golden Gator turbocharged Top Alcohol Dragster. [Read column]

In 2009, the 25th anniversary of my first trip to the Gatornationals, I shared the tale of that trip east to the race, which was made in far more time than it will take this year. I rode in the tractor-trailer of Top Alcohol Funny Car racer Jim DePasse on a story assignment to see what it was like to be a member of a travel team and crewmember for an event. It was a wild time, and one I'll never forget. At the time, DePasse was a quasi teammate to the Larry Minor crew, so our road mates for the cross-country journey were Gary Beck, Bernie Fedderly, Willie Wolter, and the rest of the Hemet gang. Talk about some fine company.

The trip was fraught with misadventure, from highway breakdowns to corny jokes to a bout with gout to broken engine parts and other assorted nuisances, but I still had a great time. [Read column]

When I finally did get back to Gainesville, I marveled over how much the place had changed and talked about the still-running staff joke we call "the Gators curse." Who will be this year's victim? [Read column]

That year was the event's 40th, so I sat down and – in one of the many learn-how lessons that helped me pull together this year's NHRA 60 Greatest Moments -- powered through my 40 greatest Gatornationals moments. In Part 1, which spanned the first race in 1970 through 1981, I covered such fine occurrences as the first all-team Funny Car final (1970), Don Garlits' first Gatornats win (1972), Jim Bucher's rare Chevy-powered Top Fuel national record (1973), AMC's first Pro Stock win (1974), Don Prudhomme's back-to-back Funny Car wins (1974-75), James Warren's Top Fuel win (1976), Len Imbrogno's wild Funny Car crash (1980), Jeb Allen finally breaking Garlits' six-year-old class mark of 5.63 with a 5.62 (1981), and many others. [Read column]

In Part 2, I hit such highlights as the Chi-Town Hustler's surprising Funny Car win and Raymond Beadle's midtrack barrel roll (1982), the dual 260-mph passes of Joe Amato and Kenny Bernstein (1984), the loss of Lee Shepherd prior to the 1985 race, the huge forest fire that year caused by Bob Gottschalk's flaming flopper, Garlits' debut of Swamp Rat XXX and breaking the 270-mph barrier (1987), Darrell Gwynn's back-to-back Top Fuel wins (1989-90), Bernstein's shattering of the 300-mph barrier (1992), Scott Kalitta's blowover in the 1996 Top Fuel final, Al Hofmann's fiery Funny Car win (1997), the all-Harley Pro Stock Motorcycle final (2004), and much more. In fact, my original plan for 40 great moments had to be expanded to 50. That's how great a race the Gatornationals is. [Read column]

Anyway, that's it for me for the week. Thursday I'll be eastbound and down and come to you guys live from Gainesville Raceway with another round of NHRA Interactive chatting, so hop on there, and let's talk racing. I'll be back the following week (day to be determined by what happens in G-ville), so keep those cards and letters coming in the meantime.

Your stuffFriday, March 04, 2011
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Even though I can’t sing and can’t play a single musical note, I like to think of myself as the creative sort. I've shown a fair amount of ability to put words to paper to construct semi-meaningful sentences (and sometimes even paragraphs on occasion!) about your passion and mine: drag racing. I'm a self-taught Photoshop hack with moderate technical skills that far outweigh any kind of artistic vision I might need to exploit them. I'm a semi-decent photographer. I can see the big picture even if I can’t draw a straight line to create one.

You guys, on the other hand, never cease to amaze me with your creative nature. In the past, I've showcased a bit of your artistry here and there as pieces and parts of various columns, and today I'm devoting this column to showing off more of that.

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One of my all-time faves, the Mickey Thompson Grand Am!
Because this column has become almost purely devoted to the history of our sport (a far cry from its original vision), let's start there, with artwork from the prodigious palette of British artist Mark Gredzinski. I've exchanged e-mails in the past several years with Mark and shown some of his paintings of historic drag cars here before but didn’t really realize the scope of his talent until I viewed an online gallery of his work, which also includes paint schemes, photos, posters, and much more.

"I'm known as the Kenny Youngblood equivalent in this country, with which I'm flattered," he told me modestly, "but there's much to do before I'm up with the master!" He has been a race fan since the late 1960s and attending events since 1976 before combining his passion for the sport with his artistic ability.

He sent several of his works, including the lead photo in the gallery at right, his gouache on illustration board painting of Mickey Thompson's Butch Maas-driven Revelleader from 1973 (I had to look up "gouache"; it's "a method of painting with opaque watercolors mixed with a preparation of gum), and a great photo of the Sundance Monza flopper. Though some of these could have drawn their inspiration from photographs, that's not always the case. "Note that [the Maas painting] is a head-on wide-angle shot that would be impossible to get as a photograph," he pointed out. "I do much research to get these details correct, such as it's Russell Long in the Sundance Funny Car and not Tripp Shumake driving as someone thought."

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"The Snake's" 'Cuda takes flight
From this side of the pond comes a half-dozen fully dazzling works of art from the airbrush of Ricky Farrow of Katy, Texas. "I had to send you this e-mail saying how much I enjoy reading your column on NHRA.com," he wrote. "The photos and your interviews remind me how interesting the '60s, '70s, and '80s were. If you view the attached images, you can tell I'm a big Don Prudhomme fan like you. I airbrushed some of his most memorable cars. The only non-'Snake' cars I airbrushed were the Pat Foster-driven Barry Setzer Vega and Ed McCulloch's Revellution. I planned this year on having Prudhomme autograph the Skoal Bandit Pontiac painting when the NHRA tour came to Houston, but unfortunately, Prudhomme was unable to secure the sponsorship he needed to field a topflight team and disbanded his team."

These are really cool images, in a completely different medium than that used by Gredzinski. I've arranged them in the gallery at right in chronological order beginning with "the Snake's" '70 Cuda, replete with the short-lived top wing that Chrysler engineers thought was the ticket to creating a stable machine but in fact did the opposite. Of the six, it's the most outlandish-looking painting, but I dig it for its sense of speed. The others depicted therein – the Carefree 'Cuda racing McCulloch in Indy, the '78 Arrow, the '82 Pepsi Challenger, the '89 Skoal Bandit, and the previously mentioned art of "Patty Faster" at OCIR -- all are more realistic-looking portrayals. Most of them are autographed, too. Very cool!

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The Kosty Ivanoff car started out life as the Don Schumacher Super Shoe pictured at top left. "The Snake" wedge was made from an AMT kit that later was released in Steve McGee's colors (after he bought it from Kenney Goodell).
On to yet another form of art: the plastic model. Me, I built a ton of Revell and Monogram kits when I was a kid, but, of course, there's no way a model company could ever make a 1/24th replica of every fan's particular favorite, so many fans have gotten very creative in adapting existing model kits to create their own favorites. Decal manufacturers such as Slixx have done boffo box-office biz in creating new decal sheets for tons of current or nostalgia cars, but some people, like Insider regular "Chicago Jon" Hoffman, like to do it more old-school, with paint and cement and spare pieces from this and that.

"We all built whatever the companies churned out," he wrote, "whether they were good (the '71 Mickey Thompson Mustang by Johan), bad (Shirley's '73 Satellite; shame on you, MPC), or the ridiculous (Revell's interpretation of 'Jungle's' Camaro from '71; what were they smoking?). For every actual car made, I probably had five of what I attempted to fabricate myself."

Through craftsmanship, a steady paint hand, some ingenuity, and plenty of patience, he's been able to create his own small-scale versions of Kosty Ivanoff's Boston Shaker, Prudhomme's Hot Wheels wedge, Johnny White's Houston Hustler Mustang, the Gapp & Roush Pinto, the R.C. Sherman-piloted Black Magic Vega, and a trio of Prudhomme's early Barracudas. You can see the front-fender bubbles on some of the cars that were not part of the original kits but painstakingly created, carefully whittled pieces of a particular grade of Styrofoam that could only be attached with a dab of paint as he quickly found out that model glue melts Styrofoam!

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The Pack Attack
If you're a photographer whose stalking grounds include Great Lakes Dragaway in Union Grove, Wis., it's a pretty good bet that when it comes to passes on the football field rather than on the dragstrip, your leanings are toward the Pack, the legendary Green Bay Packers, and that's obviously the case with Mark Bruederle, who sent his collection of Packer-themed NHRA race cars for me to ogle, all sporting the green and gold and the name of number of former Packers quarterback Brett Favre.

"Please excuse the #4 and Favre name on them; these were painted when he was still a 'hero' in cheeseheads' eyes," wrote Mark's wife, Laura, without even the slightest hint of venom dripping from her letters. "Good news, though, those are vinyl letters and numbers, and these cars have never been displayed, so a sharp knife would be perfect!"

These are really great-looking pieces, and, hey, if the New York Yankees can sponsor a Top Fueler, why not the world champion Green Bay Packers? Hike!

And finally, earning first place in the diorama division is this photo from Rick Rzepka of Clinton Township, Mich., with cotton-ball burnout smoke boiling off the tires of the Black Magic Funny Car at his homemade version of good old Detroit Dragway.
OK, that was kinda fun, and I'm sure that now I will be besieged with photos of everyone else's great art projects and nifty models. I certainly admire the hard work, forethought, and artistry. Again, I'm no artist, but it's easy for me to draw a conclusion about your passion for our great sport. Thanks for sharing.

In the Snake PitTuesday, March 01, 2011
Posted by: Phil Burgess

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Welcome to the Snake Pit!
Though we didn't completely dodge the rain bullet at the Winternationals, we got away with pretty much just a grazing wound from losing Friday, which only gave folks like me time to better explore the Snake Pit, the collection of Don Prudhomme's race cars that was on display to honor "the Snake," who not only served as the event's grand marshal but also took part in a fun Track Walk with fans Sunday morning and had a section of the Pomona grandstands named in his honor.

While the Snake Pit included many of the cars that we all know are in Prudhomme's collection – the white and yellow Barracudas (the latter still strapped to the back of the Dodge ramp truck), the '74 Army Vega, the '78 Army Arrow, the '82 Pepsi Challenger Trans Am, the '89 Skoal Bandit Trans Am – the display was rounded out by other famous cars with which Prudhomme is associated, including the reproduction of the 1965 Winternationals-winning Hawaiian dragster and the Shelby Super Snake dragster, both of which Prudhomme drove, plus two of former partner Tom McEwen's cars, longtime pal Tommy Ivo's Barnstormer, and many more. The Howard Cam Rattler, Art Chrisman's Hustler VI, the Warren-Coburn-Miller front-engine car, Twin Bear, and Yeakel Plymouth dragsters were among the others out to wow the fans as NHRA kicked off its 60th Anniversary season.

Prudhomme and Roland Leong signed autographs for a flock of fans, and former "Snake" crew chief Bob Brandt was also a very visible part of the scene.

Prudhomme owns the blue McEwen/Hot Wheels Duster, but "the 'Goose's" '78 Corvette was also there, and I got to meet its current owner, Don Trasin, who told me that he was inspired to bring it for the display after reading some of my columns here. I'm honored. What was really cool about having that car there was that it was displayed alongside the Army Arrow in a "rematch" of that memorable 1978 U.S. Nationals Funny Car final that McEwen won shortly after the death of his young son, Jamie. (Sure, they were in "the wrong lanes" as far as positioning went, with the Corvette displayed to the right of the Arrow, but only a nitpicker like me would point that out.)

As you can imagine, it took quite a bit of logistics to get all of "Snake's" hot rods up from his Vista, Calif., shop. Other than the yellow 'Cuda, which had its own built-in transportation, everything else had to be trailered to Pomona, no small feat in itself.

The beautifully restored vintage machines usually fill the cavernous inside of the Prudhomme Racing shop, but after they left for the weekend, the place was looking kinda empty, as evidenced by this photo that Prudhomme's right-hand man Skip Allum sent me Thursday. Compare that to the photo below that we shot two years ago when ND Photo Editor Teresa Long and I spent a day with "the Snake" and his cars for a memorable column that I wrote back then [read All 'The Snake's' Horses].

That was one of the great days of my life as we not only got to spend the day with "the Snake" but also to actually lay hands on those pristine machines and take a ride with him in the fabled ramp truck.

The Snake Pit in Pomona was a worthy tribute to the man who gave us so many memories there throughout the years, and, in an unprecedented honor at an NHRA-owned track, NHRA President Tom Compton announced during Sunday's pre-race activity that a section of the Pomona grandstands would be named in his honor. We've named towers (the Parks Tower in Indy) and media centers in honor of individuals but never a grandstand, and Prudhomme clearly was taken aback by the gesture. "This is really cool," said the king of cool.

Just like the entire weekend.

The weather forecast all weekend was pretty lousy, and we had all heard that the Arctic Express weather front was barreling our way with the promise of super-cold weather and even a vague threat of snow at pretty low elevations.

I had joked with Teresa that if we actually got snow, I wanted to re-create the famous 1978 Winternationals snow-on-the-starting-line photo. Of course, no one thought that we would until Teresa was talking to a racer in the pits -- who will go unnamed other than to say he is the tuner/driver of an independent Funny Car – who got it in his head that Mother Nature would engineer a snowstorm for us, guaranteeing us 2 inches of snow at neighboring Brackett Field Saturday.

Teresa got the amazing idea to contact our mutual good friend Al Kirschenbaum, subject of that famous Jon Asher photo, to see if "K-bomb" wanted to come down from his desert hideaway to pose for a sequel. "If not," she wrote, "Phil will be honored to follow in your legendary footsteps. And I will be honored to follow in Jon's."

"When I heard about the predicted low snow levels, I actually had the same thought," he wrote her back. "Unfortunately, I didn't make plans to attend this year's event and will thereby blow what surely amounts to this second opportunity of my lifetime. Therefore, I hereby authorize Phil to stand in for [me], but for the sake of authenticity, please ask [Phil] not to shave for the occasion, to wear a hat, and to assume the same awkward stance required back then to help preserve [my] way-inappropriate footwear."

Well, it never snowed, but we did get a 10-minute hailstorm that morning, which was good enough reason for me to traipse out to the starting line (with hail pelting my ears) to get some shots, and our own Marc Gewertz wasn't far behind to document me being there. The pose is kinda close, but obviously there's not near enough white stuff on the ground; you have to look hard to see the hail [here's a better photo I took]. I did have a hat and inappropriate footwear, but I did shave that morning. Close enough for now, but my photo will never replace the original classic.

OK, that's it for today. See you later this week. Thanks to everyone who stopped me in the Snake Pit and elsewhere on the grounds to express their love for the column. It means a lot to me and, just as importantly, impresses the hell out of anyone walking with me.
The Pomona archivesTuesday, February 22, 2011
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Welcome to Winternationals week and the countdown to the beginning of the 2011 NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series season. The race begins in just two days, and with this year's delayed start to the season, I'm sure I'm not alone in being itchy-throttle-foot-ready for my biannual trip to Pomona.

It's a "home game" for us at NHRA headquarters as Auto Club Raceway at Pomona is less than 5 miles from the office (and less than 10 miles from my home), which means the joy of sleeping in your own bed, no airline or rental-car worries, and a built-in hedge against all weather-related travel issues.

The good weather news is that we've had some precipitation here the last few days that has left the foothills behind the old girl blanketed in snow for that picture-postcard look that we all love, as in the 1979 photo that tops this column. The bad news is that we may not be completely through with the wet stuff (note that I never use the "R word" here), but it's certainly not event threatening, and the cool weather may make for a record-setting season opener.

While we're gearing up for the lid-lifter, it's also a busy time here at National DRAGSTER: This week's issue is our popular Readers Choice special, and it's chock-full of great articles suggested by our readers. We have a great Joe Pisano story being written by Brad Littlefield, who has talked to a horde of folks for their memories of "Papa Joe," plus stories on "Big John" Mazmanian, Phil Bonner, Tom Prock, the 1967 Springnationals, Top Sportsman racing, and Pintos in drag racing. I worked on the last one and dug up great old color photos of Pinto Pro Stockers, Funny Cars, and Sportsman machines from throughout the years.

Anyway, with all of that going on and Pomona beginning Thursday, I won’t have a new column Friday (and we’ll have to see about next Tuesday as well). I thought I’d dig into the Insider vault and share some older Pomona columns I wrote. Some of you Insider veterans may remember and enjoy them again, newcomers will get a chance to catch up, and me, I get a chance to catch my breath. Columnist fail? Perhaps, but I see it as win-win-win.

In 2008, I wrote about the Winternationals Top 10 lists that we published in National DRAGSTER in 1989 (and the close call that we had with Wally Parks about same), which allowed me to segue into the great tale of Don Ewald's crazy first-round loss to Don Garlits in the first round of Top Fuel at the 1975 event. Ewald, who runs the popular We Did It For Love website, was gracious enough to again recount the story behind his five minutes of infamy that helped Garlits win the world championship that year (according to Garlits). Ewald also discusses the creation of the WDIFL site. Good reading. [Read column]

Later that year, I wrote a piece about the 1980 Winternationals (the second one I attended; the first was in 1976) and, in particular, the debut there of John Collins' Pioneer Audio Express Datsun 280ZX Funny Car. The 1980 season was the first in which NHRA allowed the use of foreign car makes in the class (so common now with Toyotas), and Collins talked about the unique way that he acquired Pioneer Stereo as his primary backer. A good chance to see two 30-year-old Phil Burgess-snapped photos! [Read column]

I also wrote about what I called the Winternationals Mystique in the first half of an early-February column that year with a list called "The Winternationals is …"  [Read column]

Two years ago, I wrote "Ten reasons you don't want to miss the Winternationals," and, although it's semi-specific to some of the goings-on that year, it also speaks about other reasons to love going to the digs in Pomona. [Read column]

One of my favorite Winternationals-themed columns took a look at the nearly unprecedented success enjoyed by Roland Leong's Hawaiian entries at the Winternationals from 1964 through 1971. We all know that Don Prudhomme won his first of 49 events in Leong's car at the 1965 Pomona event, then Leong won it the next year as well with new shoe Mike Snively. What a lot of people don’t remember is that Leong also won the race in 1964, in Top Gas, with Danny Ongais at the helm. After Leong's new Hawaiian Dodge Funny Car took flight at the 1969 event, Leong and drivers Larry Reyes and Butch Maas won back-to-back titles in 1970 and 1971. There were some lean Pomona years after that, and Leong didn’t get back to the Parker Avenue winner's circle until 1998, when he tuned Ron Capps to victory in Prudhomme's flopper. Lots of great old photos and cool quotes from Leong here.  [Read column]

And because weather is kind of on our minds this week, here are entries about two of the most weather-affected events in Winternationals history, the 1965 event (aka "the one-day wonder") and the 1978 event, where it actually snowed at the track.

OK, time to wrap up this week's stuff and get ready for the Big Go West. We'll be doing the NHRA Interactive blogging again at this event and select other events this season, so drop by and say hey. Remember, no new column Friday, so look for me sometime next week, same Bat blog, same Bat blogger.

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