Crowning champions, then and nowFriday, October 21, 2011

 I had planned today to share – as promised Tuesday -- some stories behind the stories of former NHRA Funny Car world champ Phil Castronovo, who passed away Saturday, but, without boring you with details, one thing led to another, and I’m now instead going to present it Tuesday. I’ve spoken briefly to his brother Fred to offer my condolences and to request an interview, which I hope to do later today, and have heard from Phil and Fred’s nephew (also named Fred and the son of their brother Victor) and reached out to Tom Prock, who took over the wheel of the Custom Body Enterprises car from Phil in 1972. When all of the pieces do come together, it should be an entertaining tale, so instead, today I’ll talk about the somewhat controversial way in which champions, including Castronovo, were crowned in the 1960s and 1970s.

Today, the Countdown to the Championship has its fans and its detractors. The fans rave about the close battles and high drama it creates at the end of each season, and its detractors complain that it penalizes racers who kicked butt for three-fourths of the year only to have to relinquish their points leads, but it's all part of a long history of changes to the process for crowning our Professional champions (and even our Sportsman titlists) that has evolved numerous times throughout the years.

Although national events as we know them today began in 1955 and each of the Top Eliminator winners at the first Nationals was, in some way, a de facto national champion for beating all comers at the year’s biggest race, it wasn’t until 1960 that NHRA crowned its first official world champion, Buddy Garner. A lot of people think that NHRA didn’t crown its first points-based champion until 1974 because, for a period from 1965 through 1973, the winners of the annual World Finals were crowned the season champs. And though that’s true, as you will see, it was a points-based system that earned them the right to race at the Finals, and it was a points-based championship that crowned Garner as NHRA’s first world champ.

NHRA implemented its new championship points program in 1960 aimed at determining a national points champion "in an effort to add more interest for those active in drag racing, regardless of their competition class or geographical location." In many ways, it’s similar to how today’s Sportsman champs are crowned in that it allowed racers to accumulate points locally instead of traveling across the country.

Buddy Garner, NHRA's first world champion (1960)

To ensure that no region was able to benefit from favorable climatic conditions that would allow its racers to run more events, the points-earning season ran 26 weeks, from April 3 until Sept. 25. Points were awarded at all NHRA-sanctioned dragstrips, with 10 points awarded to the winner in each class at weekly events and 10 additional points going to the winners of the overall Top, Middle, Little and Stock eliminators for each meet. Winners of NHRA regional and divisional meets received 20 points for a class win and 20 points for Top, Middle Little and Stock eliminator wins. Winners at the NHRA Nationals, held again that year in Detroit, received 50 points for a class win and 50 points for Top, Middle, and Little eliminator wins.

Garner, of Hobbs, N.M., drove his Chevy-powered C/Altered Plymouth to 24 of a possible 26 class wins during the 26-week season and accumulated 500 points, 10 more than Earl Rowe and his Richmond, Va.-based S/SA Pontiac. Jack Chrisman won the championship in 1961, scoring 550 points with his nearly unbeatable AA/D, and Jess Van Deventer with his small-block Chevy B/MR was crowned the 1962 champ. In 1963, NHRA decided it was time to expand the championship program to two divisions – Hot Car and Stock Car – which were won, respectively, by Charlie Smith and Ronnie Broadhead.

Jack Williams, NHRA's first Top Fuel world champ (1964)

In 1964, NHRA planted the seed for today's individual-class points-based championships with the introduction of the Jackpot Circuit. Built around a 50-event season, racers in six categories (Top Fuel, Top Gas, Competition, Street, Stock, and Little Stock) could count nine events toward their totals. The late Jack Williams became NHRA's first Top Fuel season champion after a dominating year. Texan Roy Davis, a relative unknown, captured the Top Gas championship, and California-based Ford Thunderbolt pilot Gas Ronda outlasted huge fields of Dodges and Plymouths to earn the Top Stock Eliminator title. Smith, the 1963 world points champion, was crowned the king of Comp after wheeling his Plain Vanilla A/Altered past all challengers, including his toughest foe, brother Frank. Street Eliminator and Junior Stock championships went to Californians Bill Hoefer and Mike Schmitt, respectively.

The Jackpot system lasted just one year. In 1965, when NHRA added the World Finals in Tulsa, Okla. (and the Bristol-based Springnationals) to the schedule, it became the championship decider. Racers qualified to compete at the event based on points accrued at six events in each of NHRA's divisions, with each division's top two finishers allowed to attend the event. Maynard Rupp, who had beaten Danny Ongais in the semifinals, won the Top Fuel crown on a solo pass when "Rapid Red" Lang broke on his semifinal single and was unable to answer the final-round bell. Other 1965 world champions were Jim Minnick (Top Gas), Joe Smith (Top Stock), Virgil Cates (Comp), Gene Moody (Street), and Doug Kahl (Jr. Stock).

Benny Osborn, NHRA's first two-time Top Fuel world champ (1967-68)

The setup remained intact, though it was modified somewhat throughout the years. In 1967, for example, the 16-car fields for the Finals were composed of the seven division champs, who were seeded into the field, and the nine remaining spots were open for qualifying among the 28 drivers who became eligible to compete at the event by finishing in the top five in their division. Benny “the Wizard” Osborn won the Top Fuel title that year and would win it again in 1968, becoming NHRA’s first two-time Top Fuel champ.

Ronnie Martin, Top Fuel champ of NHRA’s 1970 “Super Season,” created a bit of a rogue wave as he won the season crown in Robert Anderson's Louisiana-based entry with the only Top Fuel win of his career, a feat duplicated by “one-hit wonders” Gerry Glenn in 1971 and Jim Walther in 1972. It was the same story in Funny Car, when Castronovo (1971), Larry Fullerton (1972), and Frank Hall (1973) won the Funny Car crowns in the only NHRA national event winner’s circle appearances of their careers, though all, obviously, enjoyed a degree of success on the divisional level. (I’ve addressed the whole “one-hit wonder” thing in previous columns here and here and mean no disrespect by the use of the term because national event success alone should never be the summation of anyone’s career.)

Joining Hall as Pro champs in 1973 were Jerry Ruth in Top Fuel and Wayne Gapp in Pro Stock, who would go on to win more national events -- two and five, respectively -- but nonetheless (and interestingly) claimed the championships with their first national event victories.

Although Sportsman champions through 1980 were still crowned on the basis of victories at the World Finals, the 1974 season was the first in which Pro champions were crowned based solely on points accumulated throughout the season, but for the next decade, the totals still were not decided solely at the national level as divisional-race attendance also was required (in 1975, for example, a minimum of two, a maximum of five). From there, it got a little wacky.

Shirley Muldowney, NHRA's second two-time Top Fuel champ (1977 and 1980) and its first three-time fuel dragster titlist (1982)

By 1978, racers could only earn points at seven of the nine national events on the calendar (plus five divisional races), and drivers were allowed to waive their points for an event at any time prior to the start of final eliminations. In 1979-81, racers could choose to either earn points at all 10 national events, at nine national events and two divisional meets (which offered easier competition but only half the points), or at eight national events and four divisional races. This probably had as much to do with continuing to support the divisional series as it did taking a bit of a financial traveling burden off of some teams.

In 1982-84, racers could choose only between counting points at any 10 of 12 national events on the schedule or at nine events (one of which had to be the World Finals) and the two half-points “pro bonus” events, the Popular Hot Rodding Championships at U.S. 131 Dragway in Martin, Mich., and the Super Stock Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway. The 1985 season was the first to produce Pro world champs based solely on their national event scores at all events on the schedule.

(NHRA’s method for crowning Sportsman champs has continued to evolve to the point where today a familiarity with mathematics is almost as essential as wheelwork. In 2011, Top Alcohol Dragster and Top Alcohol Funny Car championships are based on points totals from 10 races -- five national and five divisional -- earned at a maximum of eight national and eight divisional events. The other NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series titles are based on points earned at eight races -- three national and five divisional -- earned at eight divisional and six national events. (Basically, it’s still a waiver-like situation, but one in which worst races are automatically tossed out once they are bettered within the allotted totals.)

Some would argue that the Professional champions between 1965 and 1973 didn’t do as much to earn their titles as those who followed, that their titles were not decided in frequent head-to-head competition with their toughest peers from other parts of the country as is common today, and I think that’s why people sometimes forget that guys like Martin, Glenn, Walther, Castronovo, Fullerton, and Hall were crowned NHRA world champs.

Which is where we come in. We won’t forget. Ever.

Welcome to drag racing heavenTuesday, October 18, 2011

We interrupt your regularly scheduled nostalgic trip back in time for this public service announcement from your hosts at DRAGSTER Insider.

Other than when the Earth trembles, it’s pretty clear that the West Coast is the place to be. The Beach Boys have been telling you that for five decades, The Mamas & the Papas had you California dreaming since you first listened to records (Daddy, what are records?), and there’s an In-N-Out in almost every neighborhood now. The sun shines most of the time, blocked only by swaying palm trees towering over the tops of our convertibles in December. Oh, and then there’s the drag racing.

The next month is going to be drag racing heaven out here, and you don’t want to miss out. It’s still only Tuesday, so no matter where you are, cash out that vacation time, load up the kids in the car, and head west. Take Interstate 10, Interstate 40, or even good ol’ Route 66. Just get here.

Oct. 21-23: The mother of all drag racing months begins this weekend, with the 20th anniversary California Hot Rod Reunion presented by the Automobile Club of Southern California at Auto Club Famoso Raceway outside of Bakersfield. You’ve heard people (including me) rave about it before, but I promise you, even the most glowing report doesn’t hold a candle (see what I did there?) to the event. The longtime home to one of the sport’s most fabled events, the March Meet, gives the event an instant aura of authenticity and awesomeness, and the place is packed wall to wall with more honest-to-Wally famous drag racers than you’ll ever get to sign your shirt.

I‘m pretty sure that the list of attendees throughout the years encompasses just about every known straight-line celebrity and some you may never have heard of. Acres of original, restored, and repopped famous race cars sit gleaming in that famous California sun, just waiting for you to ogle.

If you get there early enough, the DoubleTree Hotel in Bakersfield is the site of a whale of a pre-race party and a mini Cacklefest that serve as tribute to the reunion grand marshal (this year, Steve Gibbs); honorees (former Top Fuel racer and strip manager Harry Hibler; former Top Fuel racer Wayne “the Peregrine” King; John Peters, the owner and designer of the legendary Freight Train Top Gas dragster; former Top Fuel driver and March Meet champ Dwight Salisbury; and the late George Santos); and the recipient of the Justice Bros. Car Care Products Reunion Spotlight award (the Chrisman family).

You like Cacklefests? (Who doesn’t?) The reunion holds the Cacklefest of all Cacklefests Saturday night, which also includes the solemn reading of the list of drag racers who have passed away since the last gathering. There’s not a dry eye in the house, and it ain’t from the nitro. Sadly, Santos was named as an honoree but died before he could be saluted, so his name also will go onto that roll call, as will that of Phil Castronovo, who passed way Saturday (more on that later this week).

Sure, there’s actual drag racing going on at “the Patch” with Nostalgia Top Fuelers and Funny Cars competing in the season finale of NHRA’s Hot Rod Heritage Racing Series, and you’ll even find some NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series stars like Ron Capps behind the wheel and plenty of other current-day heroes rubbing elbows with their forefathers. More info: http://museum.nhra.com.

Oct. 27-30: The very next weekend, about 300 miles east (take CA 58 – the Blue Star Memorial Highway – to I-15 north, then follow the glow), you can catch the second-to-last round of the 2011 NHRA Full Throttle season at the Big O Tires NHRA Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Every Full Throttle championship is still technically up for grabs (though Pro Stock seems to be a bit of a foregone conclusion), and The Strip has proven a great home for the high-powered drama that surrounds this event each year. Fabled drag racers Don “the Snake” Prudhomme and Tom “the Mongoose” McEwen are the grand marshals and will participate in numerous fan-friendly activities.

Kids 12 and younger will be admitted free on Friday (Nevada Day, a state holiday), but you won’t want to miss the rest of the weekend. The event also is the season finale for those wild and wacky racers in the NHRA Get Screened America Pro Mod Drag Racing Series, so we’ll see at least one championship decided Sunday, and perhaps more in the Full Throttle classes.  More info

Nov. 5: After basking poolside at a hotel on the other Strip for a few days to catch your breath (or give you a chance to recoup the weekend’s other losses), head back down I-15 south. When you reach the 210 freeway, you’re going to have to make a pretty big decision.

If you head west, you’ll arrive shortly in beautiful downtown La Verne, Calif., which will host an NHRA Fanfest at the corner of D Street and Bonita Avenue from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. as a kickoff to the following weekend’s Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals at nearby Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.

There’ll be driver autographs, a display of hot rods and Cackle cars, ticket giveaways, vendors, a live band, drag racing footage on the giant NHRA Mobile Vision screen, games, face painting for kids, food vendors, and more. More info

If you stay on the 15 for another hour or two, before you know it, you can be at Prudhomme’s shop in Vista, Calif., where he’s hosting a mammoth open house from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., allowing fans a rare look inside at his amazing collection of restored race cars and the fabulous pairing of his and McEwen’s ramp trucks. There’s also always a great collection of “the Snake’s” old pals hanging around, so bring your autograph book. More info

It’s quite possible for you to attend both; they’re less than two hours apart, and if you take Interstate 5 to get to Prudhomme’s, you’ll also get a beautiful ride alongside the Pacific Ocean.

You might even see The Beach Boys. Or some California Girls. And besides, why should you have to choose between the two?

Nov. 10-13: The finale to this month in bliss is the season finale, period, the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals in Pomona, where we’ll crown the remainder of champs, and if the past few years are any indicator, it’s going to be another one you won’t want to miss.

Qualifying starts Thursday, and Veterans Day is Friday, when NHRA will present a special Salute to the Troops/50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War tribute. Just yesterday, we announced one of the event’s major attractions – other than all of that championship drama, fast cars, and nitro flames –the Ultimate John Force Car Show. The 15-time world champ is trucking practically his whole fleet of special-edition cars from throughout the years to Pomona for a special once-in-a lifetime display. If you’ve been to Pomona recently, you undoubtedly remember the Golden 50 and Snake Pit displays, and this will be more of the same, with the focus on one of drag racing’s biggest stars. There will be autograph sessions, a Sunday Track Walk, and more.

Won't you be my neighbor ...

Friday night also will feature the annual free-to-the-public Night of Champions at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum presented by the Automobile Club of Southern California, which includes Q&As with former and current drivers, live bands, and more. Though all of that activity is certainly a draw, it’s the museum itself that’s the star with dozens and dozens of famed drag racing machinery, special displays, and so much more. More info

Sunday’s Track Walk with Force allows you to plant your Keds right on famed Parker Avenue to walk in the tire tracks of history with the sport’s winningest driver, and anyone with a Sunday ticket gets to join in. We’ll then launch into the year’s final final eliminations and crown some champs. A fireworks display will signal the end of racing, then it’s time for you to head back to the track and join in on the winner’s circle celebration to cheer for the winners.

You’ll have been wearing a grin for the better part of a month, and, as you head back home, whether it’s a long drive/flight to freeze your lugnuts off in another dreary East Coast winter or a short drive, that grin will last a lot longer.

OK, you’ve already wasted much too much time reading this. There are flights to reserve, hotels to book, oil that needs changing, and spouses that need cajoling. Get with it.

We now return you to your originally scheduled program (well, on Friday anyway).

Back on the 'Dyno'Friday, October 14, 2011

Tuesday’s column about Don Nicholson bought out the love for the dyno man and a slew of those whose lives he touched. I’ll share some of those stories below as well as offer great additions to the Psycho Mustang tale I also wrote about earlier this week, then catch up on some topics from last Friday. Lots of ground to cover, so off we go …

First things first. I heard from Frank Oglesby, who took mild exception to John Jodauga’s seemingly innocuous comment about Oglesby's time behind the wheel of Nicholson’s Eliminator Cougar not resulting in “the same level of success” that “Dyno” enjoyed.

Oglesby was the crew chief for Nicholson when he won the S/XS class in Indy in 1967 -- their reward for a class win? A Craftsman tackle box, fender covers, and a $100 government bond – and took runner-up honors behind Paul Stage for the overall Super Eliminator victory. According to Oglesby, he ended up working for Nicholson after he and Jay Howell had built a supercharged machine for Bill Taylor that beat Nicholson’s injected Comet “like a redheaded stepchild” three or four times in a row. Deciding that he’d rather switch than fight, Nicholson hired Oglesby, who already had experience driving nitro cars and took the job with the proviso that he would get to drive in the future. 

Recalled Oglesby, “He told me, ‘I don’t know how long I can do this, but I’ve got plenty of dates, so if you come and make this happen and not kill me, you can drive,' but it kept getting put off and put off. When Don finally decided he didn’t want to drive the Funny Car anymore halfway through 1968 – he wanted to drive a carbureted or injected car again – he still had a bunch of race dates for that year and the next to fulfill. We ran on the Mercury money for the rest of the year, but for 1969, he said, ‘How about we just put you on a percentage?' I ran the car on 50 percent of what the tracks were paying. All of the other money that came in was his -- as rightfully it should have been – but the money I had to run that car was not nearly enough. Obviously, we’re not going to win Indy anymore. Nothing against ‘Dyno’; that’s just the way it was. I hate to be complaining about this 40 years later, but my friends were bugging me to tell my side, so there you have it.”

So, once again, your prototypical DRAGSTER Insider story behind the story --  isn’t there always one? -- and I really love Nicholson's "and not kill me" disclaimer.

Bill Ross also can claim early bragging rights; he first met Nicholson in 1958 when Nicholson was the engine man and tuner for the Gireth Bros./Horsepower Specialties B/Fuel Dragster. “Don, Bud, and Chuck Gireth opened a shop in Monrovia [Calif.] called Horsepower Specialties," remembered Ross. "This is where Don had a dyno and tuned my '55 Chevy. I would go on road trips with them as a gofer. Don was always great, never talked down to me. I was 17 at the time. One of our road trips was to Bakersfield, Aug 3, 1958. This was when Bill Crossley was the first on the West Coast to go over 170 mph at this meet. Don had that small-block Chevy running great that day. We beat the Top Banana to take B/Fuel, then went on to beat Emory Cook for Top Eliminator. Chuck was quicker off the line than anybody there that day. One of the best quotes I ever heard was when we got to the end of the strip after beating the Top Banana, and Chuck said, ‘Anybody want a banana? I just peeled one.’ Don had done a lot of racing long before he went to work at Service Chevy in Pasadena. I went to his memorial service at the NHRA Museum, but nobody talked about what he did prior to 1962.”

Mike Howell was a close second. “After my discharge from the Navy in 1961, I bought a ’61 Corvette with the 283 fuel motor, close-ratio four-speed, and 4:56 positraction axle from Service Chevrolet,” he remembered. “Don Nicholson dyno-tuned it for me, and I raced it as a hobby at several strips, including Fontana, San Fernando, and Lions. It ran in the 12s, and I had some success. I’m 72 now and remember those days often.”

Regarding Nicholson’s Atlanta connection, I heard from Gary Johnson, son of the late longtime official NHRA Division 2 photographer Marty Johnson. “My father had a long relationship with ‘Dyno,’ who actually had a house in the North Druid Hills area of Atlanta for several years," he wrote. "I understood from my father that [Nicholson] lived on the East Coast during match race season and went back to the West Coast in the winter.”

Marty was still the Division 2 photographer when I joined NHRA early in the 1980s but passed away a few years ago. Gary sent this great photo of his dad photographing Nicholson and crew, though the subject of the photo is clearly the photographer and his young son. “I sure miss talking racing -- or ‘bench racing’ as he would call it – with him,” he lamented. “I went to the Dallas race a few weeks ago and had the pleasure of meeting Raymond Beadle; unfortunately, all of the people that would have gotten a kick out of that have passed also.”

Canadian reader Jim Millard had a Nicholson question for which I couldn’t find an answer, but maybe one of the sharp minds out there in the Insider Nation can. “Wasn't it ‘Dyno Don's’ Pro Stock Maverick body that was acid-dipped a little longer than what was deemed necessary? The story, as I recall it, had whoever was dipping the body pulling it out of the vat and basically lifting out the roof and partial A and C pillars. That's all that was left of the body! Can you or any of the readership verify this?”

For the uninitiated, acid-dipping was a popular practice in the late 1960s and early 1970s before the influx of fiberglass and carbon-fiber parts. It’s a simple as it sounds: Lower your metal body parts into large vats of acid and let it eat away at the metal until they are substantially lightened. The trick, of course, is to not overdo it.

I found an article in the May 1972 issue of Car Craft about Nicholson’s Pinto that followed his two-year stint in Mavericks. The article reported that Nicholson sent his Pinto body-in-white and three doors (sides plus hatchback) to Aerochem in Orange, Calif., where the acid bath removed about 80 pounds of weight. The lightened-but-flimsy metal then was strengthened from the inside by the addition of lightweight polyurethane panels.

I asked around to several early Pro Stock experts I know but came up empty. My best bet was class historian Rick Voegelin, who replied, “Sorry, can't confirm that. Back in the day, urban legend was that one of the Mopars had spent too much time in the tank and came out missing significant parts. Acid Dipping Urban Legend No. 2 is that Roger Penske's '69 Sunoco Camaro was left in too long, roof became a trifle thin, and hence the black vinyl top on Mark Donohue's championship-winning Trans-Am Camaro."

Voegelin, also the genius behind the creation of NHRA’s original Super Modified class in which he fielded a very fast Camaro (which he still has) with Norm Mayerson, added cheekily, “I also can neither confirm or deny that any Super Modified Camaro body panels and subframe went for chemical cleaning at Aerochem -- twice.”

So, back to the original question … anyone out there know if the Maverick tale is true?

On Tuesday, I shared my story about a neighborhood encounter with the Psycho Mustang fuel altered/Funny Car hybrid, hoping to find out how it ended up living next door to me in Culver City, Calif. That part of the mystery remains intact, but I was able to get a lot of other info about the car.

Bill Duke, a sergeant with our own LAPD, had lots of firsthand info about the car because original pilot Pat Mahnken lived in his neighborhood.

“Mahnken lived a block away from me at the time,” he recalled. “Initially, the car was a tangerine-hued, Topolino-shelled creation. Initially, a blown gas 427 Ford wedge was used, and the car earned the title of either UDRA or AHRA gas altered point champion for 1965. I can’t recall the sanctioning body, but I know the award was bestowed upon them at Lions. Though gas-powered, the team qualified for the newly formed four- and eight-car AA/FA shows that were beginning to surface. The Fiat even won a AA/FA event, edging out ‘Wild Willie’ [Borsch]. I recall Mahnken's jubilation that Sunday. The car's last venture as a classic altered was very early 1966; shortly before, during, and maybe after a week or two of the AHRA Winternationals that were held that year at Irwindale. I recall seeing the car parked in front of the Mahnken residence with its new Kellison Mustang shell sans lettering.
“From there on, it was a regular staple of the weekly eight- and 16-car shows that proliferated the SoCal area. The car was even chosen to serve as part of the Ford Team at the ‘68 U.S. Manufacturers Championships. However, the car's biggest win was that which was earned by it clinching the 1967 Hot Rod Magazine meet in Super Eliminator. For years, I had the HR article that was done on the car because of its very performance that afternoon.
“While I can’t offer a historical accounting of the car's adoption of SOHC heads, I can safely make claim that it was the original altered hybrid that left these shores and went way south to Australia sans the SOHC motor. I have seen a few pics on the HAMB of the altered version, then replete with 392, being displayed at an Aussie car show. The maiden voyage found the chute to fail, resulting in it crashing in the shutoff area.
“The Gas Ronda version was dubbed Psycho II. However, it ceased running as a AA/FC by the end of 1969. Too long in the tooth. Mahnken then ran a SS/Stock Mustang for a while in 1970. I can’t recall if it was his old employer, Tim Sherlock (or Fougler, maybe Galpin) that served as a sponsor. Anyway, in 1971, the ex-Ronda Funny Car returned with 427 Ford wedge and twin carbs. Now here is where things have a human-interest story.

“Mahnken found the ideal combo that allowed that Mustang to run easy mid-10s with atomic-clock consistency. I think he was winning three weeks out of four. This was when the Bracket I payout was maybe 80 or 90 bucks, a fortunate state of affairs for Mahnken as he had been the victim of a then major recession, and his position with the former car dealership had been eliminated, and he was literally able to support his family off the winnings earned week in and week out at Irwindale.

“The car remained in that guise for years. The last I saw it was maybe 1976 or so when his (don't quote me here) ex-wife got it and was racing the short-lived Econo Funny Car circuit. Nothing had changed except that the car was no longer dubbed Psycho but had been coined as the Lady Bug."

Dennis Doubleday confirmed the final part of Duke’s narrative, supplying photographic proof of the car’s life after Psycho, listing Betty Ryan as the driver. I remember seeing this car run many times at Irwindale and OCIR and never could have dreamed that this may have been the same car that lived across the alley from me as a teenager.

Kim Fuller recognized the photo of the Psycho Mustang on the trailer as having been taken on Motor Avenue, just west of the Irwindale racetrack. “As a kid, I used to ride my Schwinn down there almost daily," he reminisced. "I can’t remember exactly who it was, but they used to let me in the shop to look around. It was one of my almost-daily stops, along with riding to the turnoff roads at Irwindale and stopping by M&S Welding to see what Sherm [Gunn] was doing."

I’ve asked Fuller (and he’s agreed) to expand his little tale here to talk in detail about his introduction to the sport via proximity to cool cars as part of a collection I asked for earlier this week. I’ve already received about a half-dozen great stories of how so many young kids were introduced to the sport by nosily sticking their noses in garage doors where cool things were happening, and I want yours, too!

Lastly, here’s more feedback from the Fan Fotos collection I showed off, which included a photo of the Burkholder Bros. altered and led to Henry Walther’s humorous story about hitting a rabbit (well, humorous except to the bunny, I guess. And PETA. And the ASPCA.) at the top end while racing Harry Burkholder.

Walther shared a link to the story with Burkholder (upon whom Walther had hung the nickname “Hairy” while authoring the Nor-Cal Scene column for Drag News back in the day), and I was pleased to hear from “Hairy” himself.

“Henry takes great delight when the picture of him ‘out on me’ at Sacramento Raceway shows up online,” he wrote. “I try to explain that it was taken during a burnout, and he just didn't light them up; truth is he won that one. Don't know if many people knew that Henry was a fantastic lettering artist. He did the beautiful work on the '23-T tub roadster and later the Fiat coupe. My younger cousin, Robert Reel, and I have the restored Fiat back. The car was restored by Jack Bielinski from Kent, Wash. Jack and friends up north did an incredible job on the restoration. "The King" Jerry Ruth, helped Jack find all of the 392 Chrysler parts. The car was restored in the memory of Pete Burkholder, who passed away in 1999. Cousin Robert was about 10 years old when we were running "down South," and we would pick him up and take him to all of the fuel altered shows. When the CHRR started, Robert called me, saying, ‘You need to get down here; all of your old racing buddies are here.' He then started taking me to reunion events. We have been having a blast cackling the Fiat, and I am amazed at the folks that stop by and say how much they enjoyed the altereds back in the ‘70s. We have met so many great nostalgia people, and it feels just like it was back in the day. Here are two shots of the restored Fiat, a frontal shot with Robert left and me right. My son, Jeff, took the night shot at the Kingdon Drag Strip’s 50th reunion. Kingdon was the first strip the Burkholders ran on in 1959, when I was 18 years old.”

I thanked Henry for the forward and admitted my disappointment over not hearing a slew of stories about wayward animals on the track. He replied with one: “Over the years, I have heard of others who had unexpected run-ins with critters on the dragstrip, but it wasn't until Chase Knight of Crane Cams saw your story and called me that I heard the one that takes the cake. Chase told me of a fellow Floridian who had a similar experience in Orlando with his Logghe front-engine dragster. This guy hit a skunk. God, can you imagine the consequences of that? Knowing how thorough the remains of the rabbit made its way into my car and onto me, my only question was how deep did he have to bury the car?”

Got wild animals at the drags stories? Share!

The pre-Super Chief Imperial Kustoms Charger (L&M Photo)

Ralph Jackson had an interesting story to share about Nelson Carter’s Super Chief Funny Car that also was part of the Fan Fotos segment. Jackson worked for Steve Bovan from 1966 to late 1969 on his red, white, and blue Camaro. “Keith Black called Steve one day asking him to test-drive the Imperial Kustoms Funny Car [as it was then known]; the driver they had owned Imperial Kustoms paint and body shop in Oklahoma and just was not a driver but was personal friends with Carter. We met Keith, Holly Hedrick,and Carter at Irwindale, and Steve made two passes. After the second pass, Keith, Steve, and Nelson had a closed meeting, and on our return to Blair's that afternoon, Steve told me they wanted him to drive the Charger. The change to Super Chief came about as a contest at OCIR for fans to pick a name for the Charger, and being as Carter was an Osage Indian from Enid Okla., two people (as I remember) came up with Super Chief.”


And finally, from prolific Insider contributor "Chicago Jon” Hoffman comes this reference to another image from the Fan Fotos segment.

The battle-scarred floppers of Don Schumacher, far lane, and Ed McCulloch got it on in the "ugly" final at the 1972 Summernationals; Schumacher won.

“The one in particular that shouted out to me is the primered shot of the Chi-Town Hustler,” he wrote, “but not from the obvious hometown-hero aspect that one might expect from this lad born in the second city, but from a Phil Burgess/Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups angle (this is where Phil goes, 'Jon, jou got some 'splainin to do ...'); well …
“We all remember the commercial; the one guy’s walkin’ down the street, eating a chocolate bar (makes sense), another guy is walking down the street grazing on a jar of Skippy (which, when you think about it, is kinda creepy); they collide, two good ideas become one GREAT idea. Which brings us back to the Insider. I always loved how back in the day, the racers would have to slap their cars back together and get back out there for those lucrative dates, be they national events or a Wednesday-night match race, and -- no offense to the great paint jobs of the day -- I would always migrate over to someone whose car was in primer or whatever. In 1972, in what was billed as the 'ugliest final EVER,' Don ‘the Shoe’ [Schumacher] and Ed ‘the Ace’ [McCulloch] squared off in Englishtown, and a few weeks later repeated the feat at Ron Leek’s Byron Dragway, so, how about a – drum roll, please -- Fan-Fotos-of-primered-cars theme?

“We already touched on the subject, via the iconic-enough-to-be-made-a-Hot-Wheels Prudhomme car, but I know that there’s a jillion ‘stories in the naked city’ of cars rushed back out into action, so I bet that, much like Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, if you build it, they will come. I've enclosed, from a 1979 NHRA points race at Great Lakes Dragaway, the late great ‘Flash Gordon’ Mineo in an apparently short-lived collaboration with Mike Burkhart. You gotta LOVE a car with the name written on it with shoe polish. Hey, go down to the local something-mart and ask the kid in the smock for shoe polish; watch the ‘Huh?’ expression on his face. Last month, I asked for carbon paper -- same thing … priceless.” (Hoffman’s references to old technology reminded me of the “obsolete skills" columns I wrote here a few years ago: Part 1; Part 2).

OK, so there’s the grist for another future column. I’ll keep my eyes peeled for more primered hot rods and expect a torrent from readers. Could be interesting, if not pretty. In fact, this could get downright ugly, which is pretty much how we roll here at the Insider anyway. Keep on writing.

Brush with garage greatnessTuesday, October 11, 2011

I got an email from reader Derek Staples that, based on years of correspondence with the readers of this column, may well ring true with many of you. For many race fans of – ahem – advanced seniority, introduction to the sport sometimes came from a neighbor who housed his race car in the garage, its front end provocatively peeking out at you as you rode your Schwinn up and down the street until your curiosity overcame the intimidation factor and you stuck your nose in the doors and uttered a hopeful, “Hey guys …” Or maybe you lived close to a cluster of shops, where you and your buddies would buzz by, hoping for a “Hey kid!” invitation. Or maybe you were blessed to have a rich uncle with a hot rod. However it happened, you fell in love.

For some, that hesitant introduction led to offers to polish the wheels or sweep the shop or – gasp – maybe an invitation to wipe tires at the drags. Before long, maybe you were on the road, working your way up the food chain. You went from fetching hot dogs to bolting on the wheels and maybe even getting to work the bottom end. For some, it was a summer in heaven, for others, the beginning of a lifetime commitment when you first -- as our late, great Photo Editor Leslie Lovett used to say -- “ran away with the circus.”

Even if you weren’t lucky enough to breach the inner sanctum of the shop, you still were overwhelmed by the beauty of the racing machine. Maybe you’d seen some in magazines, but once you saw its gleaming naughty bits up close, you were hooked. Sound familiar?

Anyway, back to Staples (hey, that was easy!) and his letter.

“When I was a kid, back in '70, I remember ‘Dyno Don's’ [Nicholson] Eliminator Cougar Funny Car sitting in my cousin’s garage in Lilburn, Ga. Needless to say, that helped start a lifelong love affair with drag racing. What I'm wondering is how this particular car wound up where it did. I know ‘Dyno Don’ had an Atlanta connection, but that's about all I know. Any help at all would be appreciated.”

I turned to National DRAGSTER’s Nicholson expert, John Jodauga, who actually toured a bit with Nicholson (J.J. wrote about his experiences with Nicholson and with Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins in his Speaking of Speed column in this week’s issue), to get the answer to the question.

“Nicholson grew up in Southern California and had worked a chassis dyno at Service Chevrolet in Pasadena, which was the source of his ‘Dyno Don’ nickname,” said Jodauga. “After he won Top Stock at the 1961 Winternationals with his Chevy 409, he received so many requests for match race appearances on the East Coast that he purchased a home in Atlanta. The Cougar was Nicholson’s third Logghe Chassis flip-top Funny Car, with the first two being the Eliminator I and Eliminator II Comets. The Cougar was simply known as Eliminator with no Roman numeral.”

I wondered why the newest Eliminator didn’t bear the III designation (after all, Don Garlits was making a lot of headlines with his sequentially numbered Swamp Rats) until I stumbled across some background information about Mercury Cougars that revealed that Mercury adopted the Eliminator name as a performance package for the Cougars, consisting of a standard 351 or the optional 390, 428CJ, or Boss 302. You also got a racer-like blacked-out grille, side stripes, front and rear spoilers, an optional Ram Air induction system, and a performance-tuned suspension package. I couldn’t find any documentation tying the two together, but because Nicholson (along with Eddie Schartman) was Mercury’s showcase racer, it makes sense that they may have asked him to call the car simply Eliminator. (You can find out more than you ever wanted to know about the Eliminator package here.)

Don Nicholson's short-lived Super Stock match race Cougar.

Nicholson didn’t remain in the Funny Cars long, though, according to Jodauga. “Near the end of 1968, Nicholson turned the driving duties of the Cougar over to Frank Oglesby, who did not enjoy the same level of success that Nicholson had in the three previous seasons. Nicholson began racing the former Jerry Harvey ’66 A/FX Mustang in A/MP and won the Street Eliminator title with it at the 1969 Springnationals. He also briefly drove a ’69 Cougar heads-up Super Stock match race car in 1969, but it proved to be too heavy. When Pro Stock was introduced in 1970, he put together a ’70 Maverick with a SOHC 427-cid engine at Sherm Gunn’s M&S shop in Irwindale, Calif., and drove a similar ’71 Maverick to Ford’s first Pro Stock victory at the 1971 Summernationals.”

And we know the rest of the story: consistent national event winner; NHRA Pro Stock world champ in 1977; named to the No. 18 spot on NHRA’s Top 50 Drivers list in 2001; inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame and the Motorsports Hall of Fame; and passed away in January 2006 at age 78, still a legend among legends.

I had my own brush with race car greatness at a young age but didn’t really realize it at the time. In fact, it wasn’t until even a few years ago that I learned some background on the car, and I still don’t know everything I should about it. As I’ve shared here before, I grew up in Culver City, Calif., which was quite a hotbed for hot rodding in the early 1960s. I wasn’t old enough to be “in the scene” yet or even knowledgeable about it, but I knew what drag racing was and had just a faint idea of what drag racing cars looked like.

I lived in the first house on our block, separated from the corner-lot house by a dirt alley where I and my buddies played Evel Knievel on our bicycles. The corner house fronted a big street (Culver Boulevard), so the garage was in the rear of the house, accessible via the alley. That’s my childhood house on the right in the Google Street View image above (partially obscured by a tree that I used to climb as a kid; why didn’t my parents think of bricking over the front grass?; would have saved me a lot of lost Saturday afternoons with the mower!). The garage in question (big white door) is just across the now-paved alley, so you can see I had a pretty good view of it.

The second Psycho, an ex-Gas Ronda Mustang

One day in 1969, the garage door opened, and inside was a Mustang with a big ol’ blower sticking out of the hood and a Screaming Yellow Zonker of a paint job. I knew it was a race car of some flavor but wasn’t sure what to make of it. Funny Cars were still kind of crude, but it didn’t look like a Funny Car. I never saw it leave on a trailer or heard it fire, and, honestly, I don’t remember it even residing there very long. As the years went on and the Mustang faded from memory, all that I could recall about it was the crazy drawing on the rear flank of a guy clearly in the process of losing his mind.

A few years ago, I came across a photo in our files while working through the alphabet on my Misc. Files series (that actually started online but migrated into print in DRAGSTER) that looked vaguely familiar and turned out to be that Mustang of my youth, which turned out to be a hybrid fuel altered/Funny Car named Psycho. DragList, of course, had the full scoop on the car, which was owned by Ralph Snodgrass and Pat Mahnken from Azusa, Calif. – ironically, the next town over from where I now live in Glendora – and driven by Larry Barker from similarly nearby Covina, Calif.

Researcher Danny White had a lot of good information about the car. Snodgrass and Mahnken had raced the chassis (reportedly built by Barker) as an A/Fuel Altered (injected on gas) with 427 SOHC power, a Fiat Topolino shell, and Mahnken in the cockpit but switched to the ’67 Mustang bodywork when they got sponsor dollars from Tom Sherlock Ford in Pasadena, Calif. The car switched to 427 wedge power, and Barker took over the controls and drove the car to victory in Comp at the 1967 Hot Rod Magazine Championships as an AA/FA. A second Mustang – an ex-Gas Ronda piece – replaced the first but was soon retired and later sold to an Australian racer, and Mahnken ended up bracket racing the initial car.

The rub is that I can’t find any reference to Culver City, which is a good 45-minute drive west of both Azusa and Covina. Was the mysterious Aussie my neighbor? I’m not even sure now which of the Mustangs it was. Anyone know?

And, while we’re channeling this whole theme, I’d like to hear from you guys about your earliest hanging out at the local stud racer’s garage and how it led to you getting hooked on the sport. Photos a plus!!

I’ll see you later this week.

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