First Top Fuel five: Missed it
First Funny Car five: Ditto
First 300: Not present
First Funny Car four: Nope
In 40-plus years of attending the drags, I’ve seen some incredible things. I’ve watched dramatic championship chases come down to thrilling winner-take-all final rounds, seen the greats of the sport in their heyday, and was even there for the end of the front-engine Top Fuel era.
If there's a glaring hole in my race-going résumé, it certainly falls under the category marked “barriers.” John Force could probably drive his whole fleet of semitrucks through it side by side.
First six-second Top Fuel run? Before my time. First five? Didn’t make it to Ontario that year. First four? Happened at the Motorplex during its brief IHRA reign. First six-second Funny Car run? East Coast. First five? Another missed Ontario opportunity. First Funny Car four and 300-mph pass? Wasn’t my turn to work the Topeka event that year. First Top Fuel 300? Not my turn for Gainesville that year. First Funny Car three? Yeah, just missed that one, too (I went to events on either side of the Charlotte event). First Pro Stock 200-mph pass? Nope.
About the only major barrier breaker I did see was Kurt Johnson felling the six-second mark in Pro Stock in Englishtown. Still, I don’t feel cheated (much).
This thought comes to mind after my trip last weekend to Dallas for the AAA Texas NHRA Fall Nationals, where forecasted hot weather made it clear that the fabled Texas Motorplex would have a tough time dishing out the records for which it’s become known. Short straw? Hardly.
As thrilled as my Charlotte-scheduled staffers no doubt were to witness Matt Hagan’s three-second flopper pass, I felt that I ended up with the more memorable weekend after watching long-suffering Bob Vandergriff Jr. win his first national event. Thirteen previous times (14 if you count the no-points Top Fuel vs. Funny Car Winston No Bull Showdown in 1999), he had been to the final and was turned away every time. Few can forget his first final-round loss when the parachute inexplicably deployed at midtrack against Larry Dixon at the 1995 U.S. Nationals, and since then, he has lost in every way you can imagine, including one final where the supercharger rotors had been put into the case backward. They don’t work too well that way.
After Indy, it was disappointments in Houston and Brainerd in 1997, Columbus in 1998 and 1999, Phoenix in 2000, and Reading in 2004. In 2007, he was runner-up five (five!) times: in Las Vegas, Bristol, Sonoma, Dallas, and Pomona at the Finals (think he was hating 2007?). Earlier this year, unlucky 13 was lost in Topeka to Spencer Massey. He has lost to the best of them. Four times to Tony Schumacher. Twice to Dixon and Brandon Bernstein, and to Kenny Bernstein and Joe Amato. To Cory McClenathan and Doug Herbert.
As I wrote in this week’s Launch Pad in National DRAGSTER, I don’t think that prior to the final in Dallas, too many people were rooting against Vandergriff. Had he not just taken over the points lead the round before, even final-round foe Massey might have rooted for him.
Both went up in smoke – Massey early and Vandergriff later – but Bobby V got ‘er through there almost sideways to light the win lamp, setting off an unforgettable final-round celebration that will always be my “Garlits shaves at Indy” (yeah, I was too young to see that one, too).
After a boisterous starting-line celebration, the crew started walking down the track. I didn’t understand what was going on, but I started to follow. Had their car lost something going down the track? Was there a question about Vandergriff crossing the centerline (with his luck, that was certainly possible). Then I heard that Vandergriff was running back to meet them.
I looked over, and the crowd was spilling over the chain-link fences and running to the guardwalls. The Sportsman winners were high-fiving him as he passed them in the shutdown area. It was still about 100 degrees, and here comes Vandergriff – in full firesuit and helmet – hoofing it our way. I started firing off photos of this stunning scene; the fans jumping the wall and milling on the track reminded me of fans spilling onto the track at Lions and OCIR after their Last Drag Races.
Vandergriff was engulfed in a wave of humanity when the two sides finally met. Fans were shooting photos and videos and chanting “Finally!” Everyone was a Bob Vandergriff Jr. fan. It was definitely the feel-good moment of the year and one for my personal memory bank.
“It’s been something that’s been in the works for like five years and probably 10 finals,” he admitted later. “I always said that when I finally did win, I didn’t want to be down there by myself listening to the crickets and have my guys jumping around on the starting line. I’ve had Brandon Bernstein and J.R. Todd on standby with a scooter for every final round I’ve been in to get me back to the starting line so that I could celebrate with my crew. Unfortunately, before the final, Brandon texted me and said, ‘Hey, my baby’s hot and I’ve got to get back to my mom’s house,’ and J.R.’s not racing with us right now, so I was on my own. I told my guys that after we win this round, I’m coming back to you, so meet me halfway. I crossed the finish line and pulled the brake as hard as could, stopped the car, and off I went to the starting line. It was something I’d been waiting to do for a long time, and it’s something that I’ll never forget.
“It’s been really difficult. In other sports, I’ve always won and done really well. I was all-state in football and basketball in high school, and I’m a scratch golfer and play in a lot of tournaments, so I’m very competitive, and to come out here and have so many variables that are out of my control while trying to build that same kind of program has been really hard. You see guys win that you don’t think are as good as you are, and you think, ‘Man, I should be able to do that,’ and it eats at you.”
It wasn’t as emotionally shaking as seeing Doug Herbert win in Norwalk in 2008 just months after losing sons Jon and James in a car accident, but it was close. Herbert’s win was different because it was both joyful and sad because we all had to reflect on why it was such an amazing moment (I’m a softy, but I cried mostly because the big lug just about broke my ribs with this hug at right in the winner’s circle), while the Vandergriff celebration was just pure joy that he’d finally done it.
Vandergriff’s win led me to dig through the record books for others who had suffered repeated final-round losses before they scored their first, and until Vandergriff lost for the 10th time (Sonoma 2007), John Force – of all people – was the poster child for frustration after nine straight final-round losses before his first win, in Montreal in 1987. (Hey, I was there, too. Maybe I should rent myself out to the next luckless soul.) And we all know how that ended up for late bloomer Force. Ditto for Schumacher, who went 0 for 8 but now has 67 wins. Below are other legendary winless skeins, reported with first final, number of runner-ups before a win, first win, and current number of Full Throttle wins.
||Baton Rouge, La. 1979
||Memphis, Tenn. 1993
||Richmond, Va. 1995
||Madison, Ill. 2004
Obviously, that's some good company there. Enders is the highlight here, well-overdue for her first Pro win (let’s not forget that she won in Super Gas way back in 2004), and Krawiec the historic footnote for winning the Pro Stock Motorcycle championship in 2008 without winning an event, matching the feat accomplished by Rob Bruins nearly 30 years earlier. My guess is that Enders breaks her winless streak in Las Vegas this year ... because I'll be there. Remember, you read it here first.
Speaking of Bruins, I received this scan of a 1977 hero card from Vic Miller after my column about Bruins’ rough go in Funny Car and his much happier times in Top Fuel. Bruins had signed it in the tire smoke for Miller, who grew up just down the road from then Seattle Int'l Raceway and spent the best part of his childhood and teenage years there collecting handouts.
I passed it on to Bruins, who replied that although it’s the car he drove that year in his first season for car owner Gaines Markley, that’s actually Markley in the car.
“As you can see, the car is lettered Markley & Lane. Norm Lane had actually secured the Pepsi sponsorship for his own car, and when his driver, Tom Christenson, rolled his car at the first race out, he had no car to complete his contract with, so he partnered up with Gaines so Pepsi was represented on a race car. Lane had spent most all of the sponsorship money buying an engine from Herm Petersen, so Gaines really only got a paint job for the car and truck and trailer and Pepsi product for the rest of the year with hope of a renewed sponsorship deal for the next year (which didn't happen).
“Lane never attended a single race and had nothing to do with running the car. We finished the year with that car and then had Al Swindahl build the new car we went on to win the championship in. Having Al build that car was an entire story in itself. We really wanted another Woody car, but Woody had quit building cars; we were hesitant to have Al build one because up until then, everything he built was a Don Long clone (we respected Don Long's design and craftsmanship but really liked some of Woody's features and concepts). We each had chassis ideas we would not compromise on and had to pick and choose our battles in order to create what turned out to be a somewhat unique car when it came out of Al's shop.”
And furthermore …
Speaking of Bruins, I got an email from Washingtonian Rick Gilchrist, who wanted to let me know that the Green Elephant Funny Car that Bruins drove lives on, albeit as a sand drag car chassis fielded by Carey Mahoney of Battle Ground, Wash. Gilchrist has worked on the car, hence the insider tip.
I visited Mahoney’swebsite, where I discovered that the car, now named Big Time, is classified as a Top Alcohol Funny Car and sports a ’23-T body over the old chassis and an all-aluminum 500-cubic-inch Chevrolet engine, blown and injected on methanol. On his website, Mahoney, who has been involved in sand drag racing since 1974 and has been president of the NSCA (National Sand Competition Association) and the NWSCA (Northwest Sand Competition Association), reports that he got the car from Jim Griner in 1998, who purchased it from the late Lynn Redeman, who bought it from the Greens.
Like they say, old race cars never die …
Even when you truly enjoy the subject matter, the reader response, and the thrill of telling a new story, writing a biweekly column can be tough. (I can’t imagine what I was thinking when I began this column more than four years ago as a thrice-weekly endeavor.) If this were my only job at NHRA, I could bust off two columns a week without breaking a sweat, but there’s this little weekly publication that we also produce – maybe you’ve heard of it -- that eats up time like a nitro engine gobbles fuel.
Most weeks, I have a good idea of what my topics will be for the next two columns, but other times, I veer off course like a flopper with a cylinder out when something else more urgent or interesting crops up, and off we go like an out-of-control simile express.
Sometimes I just never know where a column is going to come from, and today’s entry is a great example. While rummaging through the folder of black and white prints from the 1977 Springnationals searching for a photo of Bob Pickett racing Eddie Pauling to illustrate Friday’s column, I came across the peculiar photo at right. I had never seen it, and it definitely stopped me.
I’ve seen plenty of photos of race cars getting up close and personal with Mr. Guardrail, but never one of a car heading back to the starting line, an orientation that was made evident by the Valvoline scoreboard in the background and, oh, the fact that the car IN THE SAME LANE was going the other way.
My first thought was that this was one of those cases where the driver had no reverse and whop-whop-whopped the throttle to spin the car 180 degrees to get back to the starting line to make the run and somehow overcooked the last whop. I’ve seen that maneuver successfully executed a few times but never flubbed like this.
The car looked familiar – there weren’t a lot of those slant-nose ’77 Vegas around; most teams were using Monza, Arrow, or Horizon/Omni bodies – and I believed with some certainty that it was the Green Elephant. I trawled through the photo coverage of the event before spying the photo, which did in fact reveal the car to be the Green Elephant and the driver as future NHRA Top Fuel world champ Rob Bruins, but the caption didn’t explain the car’s unusual circumstances.
Fortunately for you (and me), I have a great relationship with Bruins, who has been the subject of quite a few items in my columns. I attached the photo to an email and asked the obvious question: “What the heck?”
I’m relatively certain that most of you only know of Bruins from his Top Fuel heroics – two wins, four runner-ups (including Indy 1978) and the 1979 world championship in Gaines Markley’s dragster – and didn’t realize that the pride of Bremerton, Wash., has a background in Funny Car, but it’s true.
When Bruins began driving Top Fuel in 1976, it was for Herm Petersen and Sam Fitz in their Olympia Beer-sponsored dragster. Petersen, horribly injured in a 1973 crash and fire at Orange County Int’l Raceway, hung up his helmet for good after a second crash, in 1976 in Calgary, Alta., and turned the reins over to young Bruins, who had been campaigning a BB/FC with partner Jim Wright after a couple of seasons in the saddle of a front-motored injected fuel car.
When Olympia ended its sponsorship with Petersen and Fitz at the end of the 1976 season, the dragster was parked, and at the same time, fellow Washingtonians Jim and Betty Green, who had won the Funny Car world championship in 1973 with Frank Hall and collected a Winternationals runner-up with Mike Miller in 1975, were back after sitting out the 1976 season and, more important, back with sponsorship from Bardahl. (You can read more about the Greens and their history in this 2008 column I wrote.)
The Green Elephant team accepted a Best Appearing Crew award. That's Rob Bruins, third from right, next to the Greens and crewmember Dennis Taylor.
Just prior to the 1977 Winternationals, the Greens asked Bruins to drive their new car, so he quit his job at the shipyard and went full-time racing (“just like my heroes,” he noted), but success was not quick in coming.
“We won a Division 6 points meet (thanks to a ‘240 Gordie’ [Bonin] red-light) but other than that had very little success at major races but put on a good show at match-race-type stuff,” Bruins remembered. “Anyway, we were actually sneaking up on a raceable combination when we went to Columbus; prior to that, we were mostly just contenders for Best Appearing Car or Crew.
“At Columbus, the car came to life, and on our first qualifying run, I was side by side at half-track with the Hawaiian when the transmission blew up, spitting the reverser off the back. I remember thinking everything was feeling good when ‘Boom,’ I remember something was whacking me on my legs, and everything was red inside the car. It turns out the reverser lever was beating up my legs as it had detached itself from the two-speed case, and the red all over my goggles was the transmission oil. Of course, it also popped the blower off, broke the windshield, etc.
“The clutch and engine combo that was finally starting to work was using a 38 percent transmission. During the repair process, we put in a 30 percent transmission (because that's what we had), and that really screwed up our combination. The next two runs resulted in wheelstands where I shut the car off when I lost the horizon. Jim told me I had to learn to drive through those wheelstands, and there was some tension building. The next qualifying run (remember that back in 1977, you could make as many qualifying runs as you wanted) was side by side with Tom Hoover.
“Luckily, Tom made a long burnout because during my burnout, it felt like something locked up, and the rear tires just started skidding out past the Tree, and the car made this long lazy U-turn, putting me up against the guardrail in the opposite lane facing the starting line. As I sat there against the guardrail with the engine still running, Tom backed up by me, and when he got past me, he stopped and looked at me as if to ask ‘What are you doing?’ or something to that effect.
“We took the Elephant back to the pits and tore it completely apart looking for something that had broken. We couldn't find anything wrong other than the fiberglass damage on the front of the body. We put it all back together and got back in line for another qualifying attempt when it started to rain and washed out the rest of qualifying. The next day (race day), we set up our pit site to fulfill our sponsor commitments, and Jim asked me to take a walk with him. We walked out to the fence next to the track, and I expressed my lack of confidence and uneasiness in the car, and he said if I wasn't comfortable in the car, it was time for a change.”
Bruins agreed to stay with the team long enough to get the car repainted and engine and transmission race-ready again back in Washington and even offered to drive the car until the Greens could find a new shoe, but the Greens politely declined. (Richard Rogers became that new driver and promptly scored a runner-up finish behind Don Prudhomme at that year’s U.S. Nationals.)
1979 NHRA Top Fuel champ Bruins, left, with team owner Gaines Markley.
“When I got home to Bremerton, my sister had a list of people that had called to offer me various positions on other race teams,” Bruins continued. “Gaines Markley, who had always been helpful to me with my own stuff, had just had a machine-shop accident in which he had cut his hand severely and needed help with the maintenance on his car, so I immediately went to help him. A couple of days later, the Bubble-Up guys called and asked me to drive their new dragster to sort it out for Gordie. So I was wrenching Gaines' car and driving the Bubble-Up car for a couple of races until Gaines put me in his seat -- the rest, as they say, is history. [Read my column about their partnership here.] I was just glad I could keep racing and not have to go back to work at the shipyard in Bremerton.
“Driving the Funny Cars was fun from the burnout and dry-hop aspects, but back in those days, the fires were all too frequent. Just a couple of weeks ago, ‘Gentleman Hank’ Johnson and I were talking about that and how we enjoyed the showmanship involved with driving the Funny Cars but were never that excited about actually racing them. Every run in a Funny Car was like a single because you couldn't see your opponent; if you could see him, you were losing. In dragsters of that day, you had a full field of vision and could see your competition right next to you all the way down the track. There is nothing cooler than going 240 and seeing another pair of wire wheels right there next to you, hopefully just a little behind yours.”
Despite their unplanned parting 34 years ago, Bruins and the Greens remain friendly, sitting together at autograph-signing sessions in the Northwest (some of the Greens’ handout cards still include Bruins) and wheeling the Assassin Cacklefest dragster at a number of the push-start events in the Northwest and in Bakersfield.
So that’s the story of how the Elephant crushed the guardrail in Columbus. Thanks to Rob for sharing one of the probably less than memorable events of his career I’m off to Dallas on Thursday for the AAA Texas NHRA Fall Nationals at Texas Motorplex, so there won’t be a column Friday and perhaps not next Tuesday, depending on how everything goes with the week’s issue. Enjoy your weekend, and I’ll see you sometime next week.
As I knew it would, Tuesday’s column about early shutoffs elicited a few more head-slapping incidents of drivers lifting too soon or woofing the chute prematurely. So let’s take a look at a few more prime examples, then we’ll expose a little sleight-of-camera trickery foisted upon us and other good stuff.
Before we get into all of that though, I wanted to alert you to the upcoming open house at Don Prudhomme's Vista, Calif., shop, Saturday, Nov. 5. It's the first time in 10 years that "the Snake" has opened his doors to the public, so it's a can't-miss affair. The open house is in tribute to Prudhomme's 50th anniversary in the sport in 2012 and precedes by a week the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals in Pomona.
In addition to finally getting your chance to see the restored yellow and red Hot Wheels ramp trucks together, “the Snake" will have his entire collection of cars on display as well as the Shelby Super Snake from the NHRA Museum. They also are working to secure other notable nostalgia/cackle cars.
There will be an autograph session with “the Vipe” his own bad self and, knowing his extensive collection of chums, probably quite a few other big names on hand. There will be some very cool door prizes from Prudhomme’s personal collection (word is they might even include an original embroidered, race-team-worn uniform shirt) and all kinds of other great stuff. The fun goes from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Point your GPS units to 1232 Distribution Way in Vista, and I’ll see you there!
Now on with the column ...
Christopher Clough, who writes the Out in the Marbles motorsports blog for the Green Bay Press Gazette, cited the 1977 Springnationals, where Eddie Pauling threw the chute too soon in round two against Bob Pickett, and passed along the photographic proof, courtesy of the Pop Hot Rod Drag Racing Yearbook. You can actually see Pauling's hand reaching up for the chute lever and the chute just exiting the pack. My records show that Pickett won the race, on a holeshot, 6.217 to 6.213, and the speeds -- 228.42 for Pickett’s Mickey Thompson/U.S. Marines Starfire to Pauling’s tailing-off 198.67-- also seem to bear out the drastic effect that the blossomed chute had on his performance. Pickett went on to beat Billy Meyer in the semifinals and Prudhomme in the final, 6.22 to 6.26, to claim his first of two national event wins.
“Chicago Jon” Hoffman also had an example and his own photo to illustrate Tim Grose’s first-round loss to Frank Hawley and the Chi-Town Hustler at the 1984 U.S. Nationals. “Of course, me being a Division 3 guy, you know the cast of characters I'm gonna be rooting for, and going into round one, there was the matchup of Tim Grose, who was already in a tough weekend, having torn up his main body on Thursday, up against Frank Hawley,” he wrote. “Now, you, me, and the fly on the wall all expected the Chi-Town boys to dispense with Tim, but as they were coming downtrack, there was a ‘Do my eyes deceive me?’ feeling, and as you can see from the way I was focused, I was anticipating Frank to bag this one, but with Grose pulling away, I dropped the hammer. Ours is a sport of thousandths of a second, and as I snapped, the ol' brain bucket went, "WAIT!?!?.” Pulling my rig from my face, sure enough, with the win in the bag, poor Tim was like that skier dude on the Wide World of Sports opening montage: The agony of defeat.”
Hoffman also said he has some 8mm film of Prudhomme “almost blowing the second round” at the 1974 U.S. Nationals to Al Bergler, which National DRAGSTER’s coverage verifies. Prudhomme got out to a good lead against “the Tin Man,” then shut off early and won, 6.437 to 6.439. That doesn’t take into account reaction times (not given then), but it was probably closer than “the Snake” wanted.
Hmm, no camera on the cage, different throttle linkage, different injectors, different breathers. Yeah, not the same car.
The Hurst Performance-produced video clip that I shared drew an interesting note from Bruce Dyda, who said that the filmmakers played it quite fast and loose with the Top Fuel final-round footage that seemed to feature on-car footage from Prudhomme’s winning entry. It was, in fact, according to Dyda, footage shot earlier in the event on Don Garlits’ car.
“Love those old videos, especially when the camera shot ‘Snake’ leaving and how the car magically turns into Garlits,” he chortled. “ ‘Snake’ has an Enderle injector, and the run shows a Crower hat. Garlits was the only one I know of that used a Crower injector. Well, they are both named Don, so I guess it’s all good. Other points (as if it really matters): ‘Snake’ had a spoiler plate on the front axle, round breathers, and a Don Long throttle linkage. Gar had a front wing, cast aluminum breathers, and direct link from pedal to injector. Some say I need glasses.”
If you review the video (go ahead; I’ll wait), you can clearly see what he’s talking about and, in hindsight, also note that in the full shots of Prudhomme’s car, you also can clearly see that there’s no camera mounted on the cage. Another myth debunked by the Insider Nation.
While he had my rapt attention, Dyda also asked, “Wasn’t there an issue with Larry Minor and Gary Beck at Bakersfield where Gary broke something and slowed down, and when Minor, in the other lane, realized it, it was too late and won, and Gary lost some championship points?”
Mostly right, except that it happened at the 1983 Cajun Nationals. Team owner Minor wasn’t really running for points but nonetheless had showed himself to be a capable pilot and not just some rich-guy owner living out his fantasy (Minor, of course, had been very successful in sand drag racing before switching to asphalt).
Beck and Minor qualified on opposite sides of the eight-car ladder, Beck with his usual No. 1 at 5.582 (low e.t.) and Minor No. 6 with a 5.73. Minor, in just his fourth event in Top Fuel, beat Jody Smart in round one and Gene Snow in round two; Beck had it considerably tougher in getting past Richard Tharp and Shirley Muldowney.
Larry Minor, near lane, was a reluctant winner against teammate Gary Beck in the 1983 Cajun Nationals Top Fuel final.
It made no points sense for Minor to beat Beck – even though Beck had beaten him in their two previous matchups that season – but when the light turned green, everything went out the window. Beck’s mount tossed the blower belt and Minor shut off, then did everything but yank the brake handle out of its mounting trying to let powerless Beck around him. He failed and took the win with an 8.73 at 63.42 mph to Beck’s 8.95 at a slightly faster 85.46. Insider pal Henry Walther was on the Beck/Minor team then, so I asked for his memories, which he was happy to share.
“As I recall, there was no 'prearranged' winner deal going into the run,” he said, “but there may have been an 'unspoken understanding.’ Not far into that run, Gary shucked the blower belt off of the engine, and it knocked the body panel alongside the engine off of the car. It went under the tire, and that pretty well sealed the outcome. Out of power, out of traction, out of collecting the winner's points. Minor was behind at the time all of this happened, and as he shot past Beck, it took him a moment to realize that he was about to rob his own championship-contending car of some valuable points. Larry, you will remember, was only running sporadic events and not chasing the points as Beck was. When Minor woke up to that realization, he started grabbing a handful of brake, but it was too late; he couldn't get it whoa'ed down enough to let Gary coast back around him. As it turned out, our team car, which was the second-quickest car on the circuit in 1983, proved to be one of the toughest competitors we had to beat to win the championship.”
Beck went on to win the championship anyway, by a comfortable 2,000-plus points (10 rounds) over Joe Amato, and Minor finished eighth despite a short schedule. Beck ran 15 of the year’s 16 quickest e.t.s, with only Tharp’s fifth-quickest 5.44 between Beck’s 5.391 and 5.513 string; Minor also ran 5.513.
Hinged at the front ... there weren't many like this.
And finally, for your viewing pleasure, Ed Eberlein sent this double fistful of photos that he shot in Pomona and Ontario in the early 1970s that includes great old cars and haulers. Because I know y’all love those ’70s Funny Cars so much – and ramp trucks – I know you’ll enjoy the look back. Here’s “Big Jim” Dunn’s fun rear-engine 'Cuda, and inside, you’ll find Lou Azar’s Funny Gremlin, Muldowney’s Mustang, Nelson Carter’s Super Chief Charger, Twig Zeigler’s pre-Pizza Haven Duster, Kenney Goodell’s purple Duster (on a purple ramp truck, no less!), the Ramchargers flopper in its cool glass-sided trailer, the Dale Pulde-driven Mickey Thompson Pinto, Willie Borsch’s Winged Express fuel altered, and Cecil Lankford’s Brand-X Mustang.
OK, that’s it for today. All eyes now focus on Charlotte and the opening of the Countdown playoffs, the first of three straight weekends of pressure-packed Full Throttle action. I’ll be heading next Thursday to Dallas for stop two, so Tuesday’s column will be the only one next week. I’ll see ya then.
I coached youth hockey for my son’s teams for a number of years, and one of the things I always worked hard to remind the kids of was to keep playing until they heard the referee’s whistle; until then, the puck is live, and play is ongoing. You may think that the puck has been covered by your goalie or that the other team was offside, but assuming that the play is over is one sure way for the puck to end up in your net.
The memory comes to mind after writing the Comp eliminator coverage from the recent Mac Tools U.S. Nationals presented by Lucas Oil. In case you don’t follow the Sportsman classes, Jirka Kaplan won the event with his neat supercharged altered, but only after Brian Browell clicked off his D/Dragster before he reached the finish line. Browell had been informed that Kaplan’s car was seriously mechanically wounded – that part was true – but he didn’t know to what extent. Out on his handicap start, Browell heard behind him the roar of Kaplan’s throaty blown Hemi go silent and clicked his machine off early and grabbed a handful of brake to avoid running too far under his class' index and risking a permanent index reduction.
Unfortunately for Browell, Kaplan’s mechanical problem was in the torque converter, and after an initial bog that dropped the rpm from 6,500 to 2,500, he began picking up speed and gaining ground on the unsuspecting Browell and nipped him by 3 feet at the finish line, blasting past Browell’s 125-mph coasting speed at 211 mph.
I watched the race unfold from the media suite behind the starting line and started celebrating in my mind for Browell, a super-nice guy who holds the unusual distinction of winning just three national events, all at the same event, in three straight years (Atlanta, 1999-2001). When Kaplan’s win light winked on, I think we were all floored.
Interestingly, Kaplan’s decision to run his car to the finish line despite Browell rapidly vanishing into the horizon and despite a giant move to the centerline was born out of his own Browell moment earlier this year in the final round at the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals, where, thinking he had a comfortable lead, he chopped the power against Clint Neff, who snuck by him at the stripe. He vowed there and then never to give up a final while the outcome was still in question.
To his credit, Browell, who probably wanted to just keep on driving past the last turnoff road, was honest when asked what happened. He certainly could have fabricated a story about the engine going away or any number of maladies no one could confirm, but he fessed up immediately. When I reached him a few days later, he was a good sport and did an interview with me that concluded simply with, “It was my race to lose, and I did.”
Browell’s type of miscue certainly has been played out many times in many sports. I’ve seen football players streaking for the end zone, ball held aloft in celebration, only to be chased down by a speedy cornerback who strips him of the ball. We’ve seen basketball players not attempt a shot block as time expires, only to watch the winning bucket swish in before their stunned eyes. Like they say, it ain't over 'til it's over.
And, certainly, Browell is not alone in drag racing. For years, the ultimate what-was-he-thinking mantle in drag racing belonged to California Jr. Stock hero Tom Neja, who gave away the 1969 Indy Stock final to Bill Morgan by hitting the brakes on his R/S ’57 Chevy wagon in the lights while holding a substantial lead. Back then, the Stockers didn’t get to pick a dial-under as today but instead ran off of their class’ current national record. Although then a no-breakout rule was in effect in the final that would have allowed him to win the Nationals, running under the national record lowered the record to whatever you ran, making it tougher for you (and everyone else in your class) to run on the record at future events. There was no interview with him after the fact, so we’re only guessing, but it’s a pretty good guess. You can relive that moment of infamy in the video at right by fast-forwarding to the 1:22 mark. (Of course, I know you’re going to watch the whole five-minute video; go ahead. I’ll wait here.) Ironically, Neja was in the same lane as Browell this year.
Probably the most infamous incident since then was at the 1987 Summernationals in Englishtown, where Mark Oswald pulled the parachute lever a tad too soon in the Funny Car final against No. 1 qualifier Kenny Bernstein and wound up losing by inches while towing the laundry through the lights. Oswald, at the wheel of the Candies & Hughes Thunderbird, had set low e.t. at 5.52 en route to the final, making him at least a half-tenth favorite against the Bud King, but it all went wrong in the lights. Not only did Oswald lose the race by hitting the silk too soon, but he lost it on a holeshot, 5.56 to 5.53. Double ouch!
“I made a mistake,” Oswald confessed. “I shut it off a little too soon. I saw Kenny in low gear on the first part of the track, and then I lost him. I just lost him, and I felt like I had the race won. It’s just one of those things.”
“I had a crew guy down at the first light, and he said that Oswald was about 3 feet ahead at that point,” said Bernstein. “I saw him most of the way down the track, but about a split second after we hit that light, I remember him disappearing from my view. I knew that I had caught him, but I felt it was too late. I was afraid he had beaten me. [NHRA Safety Safari member] Ronnie Davis came runnin’ up to me and said that I had won. I sort of waved him off, thinking, ‘Come on, don’t kid around with a thing like that.’ But he pointed up at the win lights, and mine was on.”
Oswald pretty much had to live with that infamy alone until this year’s Bristol event, where Antron Brown committed the same error in the Top Fuel final against Larry Dixon. Brown got the better light, but Dixon surged ahead early, though it’s clear from looking at the incremental timers that Brown was gobbling up ground. He was 18-hundredths behind him at 330 feet but only two-thousandths back at 660 feet. He pulled the chutes just before the lights and lost by .009-second.
Although losing the final had to be tough, Brown had a very forgiving and consoling crew chief: Oswald. I caught up with the two of them a few weeks later in Norwalk and thought I was going to be Joe Nostalgia Expert by telling Antron about Oswald’s miscue because, surely, not many people could have remembered what happened 24 years earlier, right? Turns out that both of them had been well-reminded about it from fellow racers, fans, and others.
The mention of Dixon’s name conveniently brings me full circle back to Indy, where he won his first of four Indy Top Fuel crowns in his rookie season in 1995. He won it due to another premature parachute when Bob Vandergriff Jr.’s chute came out of the pack while he was arguably ahead of Dixon or certainly giving him all he could handle. The bad news for Vandy is that it cost him Indy – his first of 13-and-counting straight final rounds without a win, including in Topeka earlier this year – the good news is that he didn’t pull the chute. Nothing has ever definitively been pinpointed, but Vandergriff once told me that they had been thrashing on the car before the final and that a crewmember had ridden to the staging lanes on the back of the car still working on it and may have partially dislodged the cables. He was pretty far downtrack for tire shake to have been a factor, so it’s anyone’s guess.
And all of this brings to mind something I remember about drivers and parachutes from Hal Higdon's great book on Don Prudhomme, Six Seconds to Glory, which I read when it was exceprted in Super Stock & Drag Illutsrated decades ago. The book included Prudhomme's Funny Car win at the 1973 U.S. Nationals (where he became the first driver to win Indy in both fuel classes) and, as I remember it, focused on Prudhomme's 6.52 to 6.52 semifinal squeaker over Leroy Goldstein (who was driving for Candies & Hughes, making this whole thread kind of a freaky Six Degrees of Oswald Parachute Separation). Prudhomme apparently won the race by inches despite having his chute in full blossom at the finish line. I'm guessing that Higdon asked him about it and got this (paraphrased to the best of my memory) response, "Y'know, it's not the first time I've driven one of the things," and went on to talk about how he knew exactly at what point on the strip he could pull the chute and not have it affect the run, thank you very much, which makes total sense.
Quick Indy quiz: What do drag racing greats Bob Glidden, Ed McCulloch, Gary Beck, Don Schumacher, Raymond Beadle, Dave Schultz, and John Myers have in common? You’ll probably be surprised to realize that – and we’re talking about some pretty special names – all won their first Professional Wally of any kind at the U.S. Nationals.
Rookie Hector Arana Jr. joined the club that actually had 15 members, and, interestingly, opposing him in the final this year was fellow first-year rider Jerry Savoie, meaning that not only for the second straight year were we going to have a first-year bike rider win the Nationals, but that it would be a very special first win (LE Tonglet won it last year en route to the championship, but he had won previously that year).
Here’s the chronological roll call: Schumacher (1970, Funny Car), McCulloch (1971, Funny Car), Beck (1972, Top Fuel), Glidden (1973, Pro Stock), Marvin Graham (1974, Top Fuel), Beadle (1975, Funny Car), Gary Burgin (1976, Funny Car), Dennis Baca (1977, Top Fuel), Terry Capp (1980, Top Fuel), Johnny Abbott (1981, Top Fuel), Jim Head (1984, Funny Car), Schultz (1986, Pro Stock Motorcycle), Myers (1989, Pro Stock Motorcycle), Rick Ward (1995, Pro Stock Motorcycle), and Reggie Showers (2003, Pro Stock Motorcycle). Interesting that the last five are bike riders.
ND staff stats stud Little Bradfield came up with an equally cool stat, uncovering that the Arana-Savoie tilt, guaranteed to produce not only a first-time Indy winner but also a first-time winner period, was the first time that that had happened in Indy since Abbott beat David Pace in the 1981 Top Fuel final. That’s Abbott in the near lane in the Jolly Rancher candies machine and Pace driving for the famed “Texas Whips,” the Carroll brothers.
I didn’t know him and, honestly, had never heard of him (what, you expect me to know everything?), but I received three emails this weekend alerting me to the passing of Michigan gasser and street rod legend Al Maynard, who died Friday at age 67, so I find it necessary to share his story with you, thanks to Insider information goldmine Jim Hill, who knew him well.
“I met and became long-term friends with Maynard during my six years working for Holley Carburetor Division, Colt Industries, in Warren, Mich., 1970-76. From day one, Al treated me as a fellow racer and hot rodder. Maynard was an officer in the Michigan Hot Rod Association, the club that presents the annual Detroit Autorama and the Riddler Award. He also served as a judge and was heavily involved in organizing and presenting the event as well as many other MHRA functions. Al was also possessed with an amazingly encyclopedic memory for high-performance-parts options and their factory part numbers, especially those rare 'race-only' options.
“Al's Standard Auto Supply '57 Chevy E/Gasser was well known to NHRA Division 3 Street eliminator and Modified eliminator racers. He held the NHRA class records several times, won class at the Nationals, and was a regular Nationals and Division 3 points-meet participant. He later parked the '57 and built an equally competitive '67 Camaro, also an E/Gas racer.
“Al's black '32 Ford five-window was classic in every sense, homebuilt, a healthy small-block Chevy and four-speed trans. Al lived for many years in Warren and was well-known to hot rodders in the Midwest for his friendly, helpful way. How sad that we've lost yet another of the real good guys in our sport and industry.”
OK, there’s the final whistle on this column. See you later this week.