| Jack McClure went from successful fishing-boat captain to the cover of Drag Racing USA thanks to his unique rocket-powered go-kart.
Of all the exhibition acts to grace the quarter-mile in the sport’s history, few can match the antics of “Capt. Jack” McClure, whose rocket-powered go-kart made five-second runs at 240 mph, matching the performances of contemporary Top Fuelers with their custom, space-age frames and long wheelbases.
When we left off Friday, our hero, a commercial and charter-fishing-boat captain by day, daring go-kart rider by night, had already established himself as the premier thrust-powered go-kart racer – hell, the ONLY thrust-powered go-kart racer – but those early karts, powered by the sometimes troublesome Turbonique engines, were just the beginning.
McClure’s road to glory had taken some turns, including a five-year stint as a stunt driver for Joie Chitwood, and his attention had turned briefly from the dragstrip back to more conventional karting endeavors. Little did he know that those efforts would soon propel him back to the dragstrip and to unheard-of performances.
While seeking help to manufacture an expansion-chamber muffler for a street-course go-kart race, McClure was introduced to local fabricator Glen Blakely, who knew of his dragstrip exploits and tried to encourage him to return to the quarter-mile. McClure had had enough of the Turbonique engine – the company had pretty much been sued out of business by its customers, according to McClure – but had become interested in the hydrogen-peroxide rocket engine. In a nutshell, hydrogen-peroxide engines made their incredible power very simply: Nearly pure hydrogen peroxide was fed through a nickel-silver catalyst screen that caused the fuel mix to expand approximately 600 times and was expelled through a 2-inch nozzle on the back of the kart, providing thrust much like air being let out of a balloon.
An early outing with the rocket kart
“Glen told me if I got the motor, he'd build the kart for me,” remembered McClure. “I thought about it a day and went back and decided to do it. I was standing out on the starting line at Tampa Dragway, and the announcer was telling everyone what I had planned with the rocket engine, and the next thing I know, this guy almost does a flying tackle on me, yelling, 'I got the motor; I got the motor,' and that was Arvil Porter. Arvil built the engine, Glen built the kart, and the rest is history.
“Glen asked me, ‘How do you want to lay in this thing?’ so I got up on the table, got in a position, and he blocked me up with blocks and started bending the chrome moly tubing right there. I was up on that table for 45 minutes to an hour, and when I got down, the pattern of the frame was already tacked together.”
The new kart had a wheelbase of just 52 inches, but it was a full-laydown design, a stark contrast to the near-upright position he’d driven in before. The new position made the kart more aerodynamic and stable, and side fairings that hid the nitrogen and fuel tanks also aided the aero package.
“The amazing thing about that go-kart was that Blakely hit it right on the head,” added a still-in-awe McClure. “It was stable as hell, inch and half off the ground."
Not that he didn’t have his moments.
“The first time we ran it at Sunshine Dragstrip in St. Pete [Fla.], we didn’t have the fairings on, and at 150, we thought it would take off and fly. I ran on some rough tracks; at Tulsa, there was a bump right in the lights, and the Top Fuel cars would bottom out there. They said I was a foot and a half in the air, but it came right back down.”
According to McClure, driving the kart was a pretty straightforward proposition – at least in his mind: “It was easy to drive if you had the nerve to hold it down.”
For a typical quarter-mile pass, McClure would load it up with four gallons of fuel and run it wide open; at about 1,000 feet, it would run out of fuel. Getting going was no problem; stopping was another story.
“Fred Sibley brought us a big ol’ ribbon chute to try -- 10 foot with short shroud lines – and the first time I used it was at Rockingham. I ran 178 mph, and it took the whole back end off. We went to a 5-foot ribbon chute that Jim Deist had made for 200-mph motorcycles at Bonneville.”
The open nature of the kart also had its other perils. “If your head got up an inch too high, it would try to suck your helmet right off,” he said. To help ensure that he himself wasn’t sucked off the kart, he had three Velcro strips on the suit and his seat.
Through John Paxton, who drove the Courage of Australia rocket dragster, McClure also worked with Deist on the driving suit with an attached parachute, a last-ditch safety measure should McClure ever became separated from the kart.
“They told me, ‘We need to test this thing.' They wanted to go on a grassy patch and slide me off the back of a truck at 100 mph and let the chute open so I could get the feel for what was going to happen.’ Lucky for me, it rained three or four days and was too wet to test; that was good news to me. I never did test it.”
With McClure almost flat on his back, he had to look through his legs to drive, making the whole thing a bit unnerving for some.
“We were running out in Tulsa at the [AHRA] Springnationals, and Don Prudhomme asked me if he could sit in it. He's all legs – he looks like a damn grasshopper -- so he sits down in it, and I get him to slide forward in the seat right up against what I called the jewel pad. Every time he'd slide down an inch, his legs would go up 3 inches. I had him lean back in the seat and told him, 'Look through your knees; now you’re ready to go.' He looked up at me and said, 'F--- you.' The racers were more amazed than anyone else that I’d drive that thing.”
Listening to McClure spin his tales, it sometimes seemed as if his greatest concern was the track operator.
“With my old kart, it got to where if I went 122 here, they wanted me to go 125,” he said. “Later, some of them got to boosting the time up. I told them, ‘If I run 190, that's what you announce; if I run 220, that's what you announce. Don't add nothing to it. They always wanted more and more.
“One time in New Hampshire, I almost hit this light pole,” he remembered. “It was eighth-mile, and they told me, ‘Last week, Don Garlits was here and ran 186 to 187 mph; you gotta beat that.’ I said, ‘This place doesn't have any shutdown area. They said, ‘Well, we have a sand trap.’ I said, ‘I'm not running this thing off into a sand trap.’ I went down and looked at it, got out the Sibley chute, which I still had, and said I’d do my best. I made the run and stood on it all the way. I held it all the way through the lights, and the chute picked the back end up. I only had brakes on the rear axle, which was a live axle, and just out of habit, I had my foot on the brake. When it came down, it slid sideways right by one of the poles. I went back and measured and missed it by about 10 inches. I wasn’t scared.
“I also ran 189 mph on the run,” he added proudly.
"Another time, in Muncie, Ind., it rained, and the race was called. I was talking to media, and [IHRA President] Larry Carrier says, ‘ "Capt. Jack," suit up. There's a lot of people out there; we have to give them a show.’ The track’s wet, and there are puddles everywhere. ‘We'll run some cars down there and splatter it around for you,’ he said. I ran down there, looked like a hydroplane running, and still ran 190-something.
“Anther time, I was running a brand-new smooth track. I could throttle the engine – it had a ball valve throttle – so I backed out just a little to have something at the end and still ran 215, but Carrier chewed me out for doing it because he wanted to go all year long building me up to 200. He said, 'Now you have to go 200 mph every time you run.'
“I ran once at Charlotte Motor Speedway using pit road. They asked me, ‘How you going to stop?’ I just said I’d go around the track, which I did three or four times. A motorsports writer for the Charlotte Observer told me I was so popular there I could run for mayor and win. I ran for IHRA and AHRA – NHRA never did approve it – but IHRA and AHRA were so happy they told me, ‘We hope NHRA don’t ever approve you.’ "
It didn’t take long for McClure to become a popular draw from coast to coast, and he was happy to take every booking; his per-run profit margin had him living high on the hog.
“I’d run two shows a week at $250 per run, but it only cost me $40 per run. Some guys would pay me $1,000 to run a show. We were checking into Holiday Inn with two king-size beds for $8 a day; Motel 6 was only $6 a day. Gasoline was 29 cents a gallon. Between my go-kart and fishing, I had a house down on the water on the Isles of Capri, beachfront Florida property."
McClure originally started with a 1,000-pound thrust motor but later upped it to 1,500, which pushed him from low-six-second passes into the fives. He recalled his first five-second pass coming at the Manufacturers Meet at Orange County Int’l Raceway in 1973.
“[Noted rocket-car racer] Ky Michaelson showed up and asked, ‘What kind of pressure you running?’ I said 350. He said, ‘Let’s crank this thing up.' He went up 50 pounds, and it ran in the fives. I think the best I ever ran was 5.90 at Union Grove [Wis., Great Lakes Dragaway].
“Everywhere I went, it was just unreal, but I didn’t think a whole lot about it at the time. Now, 35 years later, people are still amazed. I came up from 40-mph go-karts; I wasn't any stranger to running fast in a go-kart. It was something else, but even I didn’t realize what I was doing was as big as it is.”
Rocket-car racers Ramon Alvarez and Russell Mendez bought the kart from McClure and rebranded it Free Country but didn't run it much.
McClure made his last run in the car in November 1973 and sold the car to Russell Mendez and Ramon Alvarez.
“I had come to Florida to get into fishing and had done everything I could with the kart, set all of the records, and there wasn’t anything else to do. My wife at the time said, 'Every time you drive that car, you’re putting another nail in your coffin,' so I quit.
“[Mendez and Alvarez] wanted to buy it and offered me cash money, so I sold them the kart with the guarantee that I would get first option to get it back. They changed the color, the paint scheme – it had mountains and stuff on it; they were into this hippie stuff -- and called it Free Country. Ramon drove it, but he was big, and it was built for me. He was shorter in the legs than me and was uncomfortable. He told me it scared the hell out of him.”
The plans of the ambitious Mendez and Alvarez, who also at one time bought Don Garlits’ Jocko Johnson-built Wynn's-Liner with the intent to turn it into a rocket car, were derailed by Mendez’s death at the 1975 Gatornationals in the Blakely-built Free Spirit rocket dragster.
“I heard Ramon died a few years ago. Glen Blakely also has died, and Arvil died, too. I'm the lone survivor. I'm an old man, 85. I'm a young 85. I’ve been blessed with good health and a long life, still have my tonsils, my appendix, and my hair." [Update 2/9.2012: Contrary to McClure's belief, Glen Blakely has not passed away.]
And the location of the famed kart?
“I heard Ramon got into some legal trouble before he died, and it's stashed somewhere after the government took it away from him,” he said. “I had a friend in law enforcement look for it, but there's no record of it being confiscated. I also heard that [late jet-car driver] Lynn Redeman bought it. Steve Reyes told me that Ramon sold the kart to Lynn Redeman and had it tied to the back of his trailer, and it came loose, fell on the highway, and caused a six-car pileup, demolished the kart. I don't think that happened. If that had happened, someone would have known for sure. To be honest, I don’t know what ever became of it.”
There’s no doubt that McClure’s place in the annals of drag racing is well secure, thanks to his bravery and a tenacity of which he remains proud.
“I always had an inferiority complex,” he said. “I looked at people and thought, ‘That guy's above me,’ and when I was racing, I always tried to beat that guy. The design of the kart, the performance, it all just came together. I guess I had a little to do with it.”
And even though Drag Racing USA’s cover story on McClure asked the question “Crazy or courageous?” McClure also is most proud of the comments posted online by his peer Michaelson.
“Everyone said this guy was either crazy or he had a death wish,” he wrote. “Jack was neither of them. Jack was an entertainer; he also had the best halftime act in drag racing for a number of years.”
Amen to that.
There have been a lot of weird and wild cars go down the dragstrip throughout the years. A wheelstanding tank. A jet-powered Kenworth truck. Chain-driven sidewinder dragsters and Funny Cars. But no bid for wildest drag racing machine can ante up to a rocket-powered go-kart. I’m sorry; it’s that simple. You don’t even have to have ever seen one run to know there’s no topping it.
And, of course, when you’re talking rocket go-karts, you’re talking about one man: "Capt. Jack" McClure.
When I watched McClure do his thing in my youth at Orange County Int’l Raceway, I remember thinking that he, with a name like “Capt. Jack,” must be some hotshot Air Force pilot. And he certainly looked the part in his bright silver suit, like an astronaut ready to climb into the capsule. After all, who could possibly be more trained or brave enough for such a death-defying mission?
It wasn’t until decades later that I discovered he was no military man at all but had earned his nickname for his rather less sexy occupation: fishing-boat operator.
Still, it’s a long way from slowly trawling the shores for fish to rocketing an inch and a half off the ground at 200-plus mph with a little more than a shiny suit, a helmet, and an it’d-probably-kill-him-anyway braking parachute strapped to his body, and it’s certainly a tale worth telling.
The man who would capture the imagination of race fans and the calls from strip promoters looking for the next big thing to pack butts into the seats surely never set out to be a sideshow attraction.
McClure cut his racing teeth on the rough-and-tumble Carolinas NASCAR circuit
McClure was a natural in a go-kart, winning numerous events
McClure's twin-engine kart
Born and raised in the mountains of North Carolina during the Depression, McClure remembered vividly, “We didn’t have nothing. My great-grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian, and were we looked down on for that. We were lower than white trash. They'd laugh at me and my brothers in school. We'd take a biscuit and country ham for lunch while they were eating their store-bought bread and PBJ. We got bullied back then.”
McClure’s escape was his passion for cars, but of course he could barely afford one. When a local dealer of Henry Js wrecked one of his products, he offered it to McClure. “He said if I straightened it up, I could have it,” said McClure, who did just that and soon was racing the car at NASCAR events in the Carolinas in the late 1950s, running against guys who later would become NASCAR legends.
“I ran for four to five years, but there was no money in it,” he admitted. “You had to operate on what you won, so that fell to the wayside.”
In the mid-1960s, the go-kart craze started in California and moved east, and McClure just had to have one, which he quickly took to the nearest track and won the first race he entered.
“There was no money in it, but it was a lot of fun,” he recalled. “I wound up in the go-kart business, with a distributorship for Mickey Rupp's Dart kart company, selling in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. I had a team with myself and four drivers; we toured the whole Southeast, and I won just about everything you could win. We even won a hill climb up in Chimney Rock [N.C.]. We ended up with low time with our go-kart, faster than all of the cars.”
Pretty soon, one engine wasn’t enough, and McClure found new and innovative ways to mount two engines on his kart. Intrigued by the performance of his twice-motored mini mount, he took it to a local dragstrip, where it ran 100 mph. This was about 1961, as he remembers.
“I thought that was pretty good, but I forgot all about it,” he said. “About a month later, I was driving down the street in Columbia, S.C., and a car pulled up beside me. They were from the dragstrip and told me that the guy who ran the dragstrip would give me a trophy if I came back and ran at his track. I told them I had a house full of trophies. I told them that I had burned up a set of clutches the last time I ran, so if he'd give me some money, I'd run. They offered me $50. That was a pretty good hit.
“Super Stocks in the South were the cars at the time -- we didn’t have a lot of Top Fuel cars at the time – so I asked the guy at the track if I had a go-kart that would run Super Stock times and maybe even run against them, how much money would he give me. He said they'd probably give me 100, 125 bucks, so I put two more Westbends on my go-kart so that I had four motors on it. I turned 125 mph in the high 12s. I ran that thing for a year all around the Southeast at local dragstrips and got up to where they'd pay me a couple of hundred bucks to run. Gas was 29 cents a gallon, so that was good money.
McClure, center, with the first rocket-powered go-kart ever built.
McClure quickly discovered one engine was not enough and added a second to this kart -- which featured a semi-laydown design by Mickey Rupp -- and was fast enough for promoters to match him against dragsters of the day.
McClure's kart was featured at the 1964 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows, N.Y.
Among those McClure raced was "TV Tommy" Ivo, a match that spawned this infamous (though faked) photo of McClure out on Ivo. "I didn’t have anything to do with that," said McClure, whose broken kart was placed on the track for Ivo to race past. "The owner of Turbonique posted that picture, and it went worldwide that this go-kart was doing ol' Tommy in. I didn’t see Tommy again until I had the fast go-kart. He said 'If I had the chance to run ya again, I’d run ya over.' "
(Above) The Manta-bodied kart; (below) The Sizzler
“Eventually, I tried six motors, but it was too heavy and wouldn’t handle and would wheelstand, but I wanted to go faster. I saw an ad in a magazine for the Turbonique turbine engine that would make 200-something horsepower.”
Based in Orlando, Fla., and run by the enterprising Gene Middlebrooks, Turbonique made a trio of go-fast accessories: a supercharger, a supercharger-driven axle, and a thrust engine.
Unlike a conventional belt-driven supercharger, the Turbonique Auxiliary Power Supercharger was like a mini rocket engine. Liquid oxygen and a rocket fuel named Thermolene were fed to the supercharger, which housed a spark plug. With the flip of a cockpit switch, the supercharger roared to life. Then there was the Turbonique Drag Axle, which became a popular go-fast addition on a lot of exhibition-type cars. Basically, it attached a Thermolene-powered rocket nozzle to the differential to spin the rear axles at superhuman speed. And, finally, there was the thrust engine, which made 300 pounds of boost for less than $200.
“Middlebrooks told me that if I wanted to go fast, instead of driving the wheels, I should use this little rocket motor they had, and that sounded right up my alley,” said McClure. “I ran down there, and he put one on my go-kart. I was booked somewhere in Georgia and didn't run fast and scared the hell out of people. I told Middlebrooks it didn’t go any faster than my wheel-driven kart, so he said we should put a second one on there, but he wanted to test it.
“He had this little shack down by a railway yard. He hooked the engine up to some lines inside the shed, and we chained the kart down outside the building. He told me to go outside and stand in the bed of the pickup truck with a fire extinguisher, and I said, 'OK,' because back then, I’d do anything. He lit that thing, but it wouldn’t shut off when he tried to shut it off. It set the grass and a whole bunch of other stuff on fire; I put the fire out and went into the shack, but he was nowhere to be seen. He finally peeks out from around a railroad car and said, 'I have a wife and two kids at home.' I said, 'And you expect me to sit on this thing and run it?' He said, 'No, it's safe now.'
"Safe" is probably a bit of an understatement in McClure’s mind.
“Basically, you had liquid fuel, compressed oxygen, and nitrogen. Nitrogen forced the fuel into the chamber, with the oxygen as an igniter,” he remembered. “The trick was once you lit that thing, you run it until you shut it down or you run out of fuel. Some guys would get to going fast and then let off on it, then they would relight it. The fuel chamber was loaded up with fuel, and when that oxygen and spark hit it, it was a bomb.”
Rupp later built McClure a laydown kart, and he took all of the running gear off the first kart and put it on the new kart and ran it until his daredevil antics caught the eye of thrill-show king Joie Chitwood, who wanted to put a Manta Jr. body on the car because Chevrolet was trying to promote the little car.
“He said if I gave them the go-kart, they'd give me a Chevelle Z-16, one of 201,” said McClure, who promptly converted the Chevelle – dubbed The Sizzler -- to accept the Turbonique axle and began spinning off performances in the mid-eights at more than 160 mph, smoking the tires throughout the course. That car ended up in a ball in Atlanta when the turbine wheel that was attached to the planetary gears to spin the axles melted at speed, locking up the rear end and sending the car into a series of barrel rolls at 162 mph. Chitwood responded by hiring McClure as one of his team’s show stunt drivers.
“I worked with Chitwood for five or six years during the season, then I'd fish in the off-season,” he said. He moved to Florida, in the Tampa/St. Petersburg region, in late 1964, a move that not only was a boon to his charter fishing business but led to a vital contact that would propel his name back into the drag racing spotlight and etch it forever into our memories.
The tale continues next Tuesday.
Being a columnist ain’t easy. It wouldn’t even be easy if this was my only gig and there wasn’t some weekly content monster called National DRAGSTER. Don’t get me wrong; this column is still one of the most fun things I get to do each week, and bringing to light untold tales and trivia from our sport’s incredible lore is a huge charge.
The notes I get each week from fans and ex-racers thanking me for helping them remember those halcyon days are a weekly reminder of why I keep digging and keep writing, but, to be honest, it’s not always complimentary.
Sometimes when we get on one of those multiweek threads (ramp trucks, wedge dragsters, etc.), I get hate mail demanding a change of scenery. I get piqued pen pals who just don’t understand why I don’t cover their favorite topic. I get people upset when I have to occasionally skip a column or am late posting.
I have one guy – and I love him for this – who’s my grammar watchdog. (His pet peeve is when I use “of late” -- which, accurately, should be “lately” or “recently,” but I like to write conversationally, and, besides, of late, I’ve refrained from using it.) I have a wonderful copy editor (take a bow, Lorraine Vestal …) who understands what I’m trying to do and leaves that be – or maybe she just gets tired after correcting the other mistakes she finds in my sometimes hurried and excited prose.
I always try to learn from what’s being said and asked for – after all, I’m writing for a public, and I want to make them happy – and there’s nothing wrong with good-intentioned debating.
My most recent fencing foil is longtime reader and veteran SoCal race fan and photographer Robert Nielsen. You might remember him as the guy who shared great early doorslammer photos from Lions or that we crossed swords over who was driving the Beach City Corvette when it ran off the end of OCIR in flames.
(I finally convinced him that it was Ronnie Goodsell and not Gary Gabelich, though fellow reader Chris Clark certainly can understand Nielsen’s point. “Regarding the Beach City Corvette burndowns, both of you are right,” he said. “Don't forget, there were two Corvettes: the first, driven by Gabelich, had the offset cockpit. The other difference was the first one did not have the polished Halibrand wheels. Gabelich was the driver when it burned to the ground at Irwindale I think in the final round against Tom Sturm. The second one, driven mainly by Pat Foster, was the one that ended up on I-5 with Goodsell at the wheel.”)
Anyway, after finally conceding the Goodsell point, Nielsen wrote,” I hereby solemnly vow to not ever question you again – at least until the next time.”
The next time came quickly, under a subject line that read: "Well It Did Not Last Too Long."
Although he quickly corrected himself two days later (I was right again. ... LOL), I loved that he cared enough to write, and the information he shared was great stuff. Nielsen took issue with my including Junior Brogdon’s Phony Pony Mustang in the all-too-short multiengine Funny Car list, and his source was good: himself.
“As a Ford racer who grew up in the San Fernando Valley, I came to know Junior quite well and bought a fair number of small-block Ford parts from him,” he wrote. “When Junior built this car, he wanted to do something that was unique. The result was a Mustang that was very narrow, very long, and relatively lightweight. The driver’s seat was over the rear axle, as you can also see in this picture. A lot of people used to comment that this was just a Jr. Fuel Dragster with a Mustang body, which for some reason would make Junior bristle a little bit.
“The Phony Pony Funny Car that was pictured did indeed have an injected small-block Ford – but only one engine. It did not have twin engines! If you look closely at the hood near the windshield, you can see the opening for the injectors – one set, not two! When the performance Junior was expecting did not materialize, he later put a blower on the engine. After campaigning this car for a couple of seasons, he moved to a more conventional 1969 Mustang Funny Car with the 392 Chrysler Hemi.”
Looking through the cool collection of photos I have found on the car, you can see it in a couple of different configurations, and you can see that it was indeed at one point powered by a single engine. You also can see that it once had spoked dragster wheels, which is why a lot of people said it was just a bodied dragster.
Two days later, Nielsen good-naturedly recanted his assertion.
“It was indeed a twin-engine small-block Ford-powered car when it was initially built,” he said. “I know his thinking was that the long narrow car would be unique and set it off from most of the other Funny Cars of the period. This would make the car more attractive to race promoters and ensure him of getting more appearance money and not have to rely on winnings to finance his car.
“The twin-engine configuration lasted only a very short time, though, as he had a tremendous problems coupling the two engines. Added to this was the cost of having to maintain two engines versus the cost of one engine. Since Junior had a very limited budget, the cost issue is probably the significant factor that drove him to the single-engine configuration that I remember seeing.
“Let me add one additional fact here. While this car was billed as a 289 small-block Ford, it was a little bigger than that. Junior used a 3/8 stroker crank in the single-engine car that yielded an engine displacement of 348 cubic inches. Because he was matched against cars with much bigger engines, he generally pushed this engine configuration to the limit. And that resulted in moderately low reliability and a lot of broken parts. Junior finally threw in the towel with this car and built a more conventional 1969 Mustang with a 392 Hemi, but this too was not very successful, probably as a result of his limited budget once again.
“The bottom line once again – and I hate to admit it – is that you were right and I was wrong. Well, maybe not entirely wrong since the only configuration I ever saw was the single-engine car.”
At right is a photo of the later and more conventional Phony Pony flopper that, unlike the stretched Mustang, was legal for national event competition and ran in the sevens before Brogdon retired it at the end of 1970. He later raced a Pinto Pro Stocker in the mid-'70s with little success; according to Nielsen, this car had a 351 small-block Ford for power and was called Pee Wee because it was only about one-third the length of his first Phony Pony Funny Car. Brogdon later moved to Oklahoma and quit racing.
The back and forth that I have with my readers – the good and the bad – is what makes this column come alive and makes me dig deeper and ask more questions. I won’t ever say I’m right all of the time – I’m going to make Nielsen say it when I see him in Pomona – but even when I’m wrong, there’s always something to be learned from it, which makes this a pretty cool place to hang around.
It didn’t take much arm-twisting after I broke the sad news of the death of Tommy “T.C.” Lemons, Don Garlits’ most storied crew chief, first on Twitter and then on NHRA.com, to get the stories and plaudits pouring in for an individual who truly was one of a kind.
Garlits, obviously, was my first call and provided the confirmation of the sad news of the loss of his dear friend. We spoke at length, and he provided some great stuff, and I’m sure I only scratched the surface of the stories he could tell about the guy he also called “Top Cat.” I knew that as one of Garlits’ great rivals during the Lemons era, Shirley Muldowney, who first alerted me that Lemons had passed, also would have a story to tell.
I also remembered that Mickey Bryant and Todd Hutcheson, who coauthored Don Garlits R.E.D., the story of the design, construction, testing, and debut of Garlits’ revolutionary rear-engine Swamp Rat 14, had interviewed Lemons at length and that their two books on the subject were filled with hilarious quotes from the man. NHRA historian Greg Sharp, who had written the biography of Lemons when he was an honoree at the 2010 Holley NHRA National Hot Rod Reunion, also knew Lemons well and agreed to share his thoughts. Again, it wasn’t hard to get people talking about Lemons.
T.C. Lemons and Don Garlits, circa 1969
Still together, years later (Fred Johnson photo)
Garlits, who sadly had to be the one to find Lemons – he had gone looking for the normally punctual Lemons at the cabin on the grounds of the museum where Lemons had lived the last five years when it was time to head out for Stuart, Fla., to take part in a TV show the next day – clearly was very sad but brightened as he talked about their last few years together.
“I was closer to Tom than I was to my brother,” said Garlits. “I really enjoyed having him here because we’d go to town and talk about old times on the ride. It was just so enjoyable. He was always ready to go at the drop of a hat.”
Lemons and fellow “Okie” Connie Swingle, who also would become a regular part of Garlits’ Swamp Rat Pack through the years, originally worked with Garlits in 1968, when they came to Tampa, Fla., from Bixby, Okla., with the intention of helping Garlits build cars and trade labor for a chassis.
I asked “Big” what made him and Lemons click so well during a time when Garlits clearly was the most dominant fuel dragster driver on the planet.
“We were peas right out of the same pod,” he said. “We were both just a little right of Attila the Hun. We were so in tune about everything. There was hardly anything that he believed in that I also didn’t believe in. It was an unbelievable thing. He was never afraid to tell me what he thought. A lot of my crew guys were intimidated by me and were afraid to tell me what they thought. 'T.C.' wasn’t afraid to tell me.
“Back in those early days, it wasn’t really a lot of engine work as a crew chief. The engine made whatever power you made, but it was how you engaged the clutch that made all of the difference in the world. All of those big races that I lost in the old days was basically because of not enough clutch, and those were usually the races when 'T.C.' was there to say, ‘Old man, we need to put some clutch in this thing.’ "
In a subsequent email to friends, Garlits called Lemons “one of the sport’s greats as this man was there and did it all. The work that he performed on the development of the rear-engine dragster cannot be overstated.”
Lemons (black jacket) inspected SR 14 at Sunshine Dragstrip in December 1970. (Wade Nunnelly photo)
Earlier, Garlits shared with me a humorous Lemons tale – everyone seems to have at least one – regarding the testing of the rear-engine car, which, as history tells us, fought them throughout testing until they got the steering ratio right.
“This was always the story he loved to tell. The very first day we took it over to Tampa Dragway – not to make any runs, just to start it and see how everything looked – we unloaded it, and we stood there – me, Tommy, and Swingle -- and I gave this little speech. I said, ‘Boys, you are looking at the safest Top Fuel dragster that has ever been built … and Swingle, for this first test, you need to drive it.’ Tommy probably told that story hundreds of times.
“He came into my life in 1968, and despite a few hiatuses, for all practical purposes, he never left.”
Garlits also pointed out that Lemons was very instrumental in the start-up of the drag racing museum. “Many of the older restorations are 'T.C.’s work, and he spent years helping build the exhibits that we all enjoy today,” he said.
In addition to being his right-hand man when it came to tuning the race car, Lemons also certainly was Garlits' partner in mischief, helping set up many of "Big Daddy's" spectacular fire burnouts.
The first time I "met" Lemons was through the amazing Steve Reyes photo at right, showing Lemons making like an arsonist on the lam as Garlits lit up the Swamp Rat in this hellacious fire burnout at the IHRA Winternationals in Lakeland, Fla. Reyes' keen eyes and drag racing sense prepped him for the big moment.
"I just watched the container he was carrying; if it was dark orange inside [gasoline], then it was fire-burnout time," Reyes told me. "On that photo, I stepped around 'T.C.' and got my shot. 'T.C.' told me I was too big to run into, and I would hurt him. It was one of 'T.C.’s favorite pix. I will miss him; he was a great guy."
As hard on her as a lot of her male counterparts were, Muldowney never got that from Lemons.
“He always treated me like a lady,” she said, “and was full of opinions that made me laugh to my knees. I remember back in 1973 or '74, we went to lunch together while hanging out at Keith Black Racing in South Gate [Calif.]; he had me on the floor laughing.”
Especially funny, remembers Muldowney, was the 6-inch black rubber rat that sat on the dash of Garlits’ tow vehicle with the right foot cut off, a wink by Lemons to Garlits’ 1970 accident at Lions that cost him half of his right foot. “It was hilarious,” she said, “and of course, it was a 'T.C.'
“After that, he would make a point of seeking me out at events to console and confide in me when Don was on one of his ‘Shirley warpaths.’ Those were the years. 'T.C.' will definitely have his place in my upcoming book (when I can find a publisher). It's people like him that I met over the years who have made me determined to write the complete story.”
As I noted earlier, Bryant and Hutcheson are two guys who did get the chance to tell the whole story on that fabulous rear-engine machine. Hutcheson recalled his first meeting with Lemons for the interviews that helped make the book the most thorough accounting of that magical time that has ever been written.
Todd Hutcheson and Lemons, at the museum, 2009
Wrote Hutcheson, “Tommy told us many stories, some we made into cartoons in our book, as you see here; however, some stories were ‘off the record, ya see.’ 'T.C.' loved the ones in the book. Many phone calls over the next few years confirmed to me how proud he was that his story was told. He wanted this so much.
“I arrived at the hotel near the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing [and] wandered over to the museum grounds to see the famous names on the bricks of the Walk of Fame. Just a short walk from the museum and the Hall of Fame monument were two houses; the bigger one was the Garlits family compound, and a smaller house next to it. A pickup truck drove in, and 'T.C.' stepped out and entered the smaller house. That was the first time I saw Tom 'T.C.' Lemons in 40 years. The first time I saw him, or noticed him, was at Lions Drag Strip March 8, 1970. He stood behind the Swamp Rat 13 just before it took off into the greatest turning point in drag racing history. I was at the fence line in the Garlits lane staging area when it happened. The next morning, Mickey and I walked to the museum souvenir shop. There, sitting in a chair, was 'T.C.' He got up and introduced himself and shook my hand. We have been friends ever since.
“For the next four hours, 'T.C.' walked through the Museum of Drag Racing telling his stories. My digital recorder captured every word, joke, and story. 'T.C.' stopped at the urn with Connie Swingle’s ashes. He said he missed ‘that son-of-a-bitch Swingle’ and wished he was there. He got choked up, turned his face away, and went on with the tour. His tour was so good that we wanted him to do it again and again. Little did we know he talked right through his lunch until Don Garlits called us in for the first interview.
“Tom Lemons walked the firing line every weekend and fought many battles and many people, even with his best friend, Don Garlits. But now he is the most beloved figure by all that knew him and fought with him. He was lovable and tough, funny and sad, a walking historian of the drag racing life.
“When Mickey and I were done with the interviews, 'T.C.' put his hand on Mickey’s shoulder and said, ‘Thank you for writing this little story. I am glad someone is telling the story; I mean, it’s a neat little deal.’ After our interviews, 'T.C.' took me through the Museum of Classic Cars. He was totally informed as to each car and its history. He stopped and asked about me and my family. He said, ‘Todd, I just wanted to know who my new friend was; thanks.’
“One story that we thought should be out front was about Tom McEwen. 'T.C.' told us when he first had cancer, Tom McEwen called him every week and said, ‘So how ya doing buddy? What you doing? Tell me all about it.’ 'T.C.' said, ‘Ya see, Tom is my friend, he called me every week and cheered me up. Nobody else did that.’ A cartoon in our book told of the friendship between Tom and Tom. ‘There hasn't been any one person nicer to me in drag racing than Tom McEwen,’ he said. ‘When I was a little bit younger out there, 40 years ago, working hard and trying to do good, everyone was climbing over me to get to the old man. The sportswriters, big shots, big-name drivers would leave tracks on me to get to Garlits. But Tom would always stop to talk to me. I never forgot that. And when I got this cancer, he would call me every week asking me, 'How ya doing, what's going on, tell me all about it.' He's my friend."
One of his favorite stories was also about McEwen. He knew McEwen could take a joke. 'T.C.’s story went like this, “After Garlits' first big victory with the new rear-engine dragster at the 1971Winternationals, McEwen was the first to order the new rear-engine frame from Garlits Chassis. It was delivered with an odd spring and knob behind the seat. 'T.C.' had marked on it 'More or Less,' with a knob to tighten it. 'T.C.' was in the shop working when the phone rings; it’s McEwen. 'T.C.' answers, ‘Dragster shop.’ McEwen asks sharply, ‘What the hell does it do?’ 'T.C.' answers innocently, ‘Oh, it does nothing; just messing with ya.' "
(Bob Wenzelburger photo)
Hutcheson also noted that the the admiration that Garlits had for Lemons was definitely a two-way street.
“When 'T.C.' and I were alone and relaxing back in 2009 at the museum race shop, he said this to me, ‘Ya know, Todd, I'd be in bad shape if it wasn't for ‘the Old Man.’ He takes care of everything. I don't have to worry about nothing. He can be a tough son-of-a-bitch, but he's soft with me. Wasn't always that way, but he is my friend, and I don't have many friends like him.’
“Tom Lemons loved ‘the Old Man’ and the museum and always took time with the visitors answering all questions and giving tours. Tommy was well taken care of by Garlits. He lived in a very nice home, Don and Pat would take him to the hospital all the time. He even got a retirement check from Garlits. Don made sure that Tom had all that he wanted and needed. Don Garlits should get all the credit for making T.C.’s last years happy and comfortable ones. What more would a true friend do?”
Bryant also remembered their time with Lemons.
“In my four or five visits at the museum, 'T.C.' was the ultimate tour guide. As we sat or wandered around, the stories flowed. An effortless raconteur, 'T.C.' always praised other drag race people and never boasted about his own contributions. During meetings that included Garlits, there was a fascinating contrast of characters. The animated Garlits and the low-key 'T.C.' would volley back and forth about events and incidents with obvious deep mutual respect. You had to pay close attention to get 'T.C.’s one-liners sprinkled in with the facts and dates. Here’s a great example of his wit. It was customary for 'T.C.' to watch closely as Garlits would make a run and then discuss at the top end what he saw. These observations were crucial to Garlits and 'T.C.' in preparing the car for the next round. On one such occasion, the two of them were having a typical tiff as Garlits staged and made a run. When 'T.C.' arrived at the top end, the first thing Garlits asked was, ‘Well, how did that run look?’ 'T.C.' immediately answered, ‘I’m not sure. Which lane were you in?’
Sharp also had a ton of great Lemons memories to share. “He was absolutely the funniest person I’ve ever known. P.C. was unknown to 'T.C.' but as I remembered them, I want to share them with you anyway,” said Sharp.
One great story revolved around the T-shirt that repeated one of Lemons’ classic lines. “I didn’t want to tell my momma that I spent 20 years in drag racing, so I told her I was in prison.”
“[The first time I heard it] I, of course, roared with laughter. Joe Martiznez, who then worked in NHRA’s Corporate Art Department, said he knew someone who could make very short-run T-shirts, and we should make some. I think we made a half-dozen or so with his quote and presented 'T.C.' with a few outside the reunion reception in Bakersfield. He almost teared up, thanked us all profusely, and said, ‘Don’t let "the Old Man” see these; he’ll be sellin’ ‘em!’ And, of course, the following March, they were on sale in the Garlits Museum gift shop and for a long time to come were one of their best sellers.”
More classic Lemons one-liners …
“Don Garlits and Tommy Ivo match raced for years together sometimes four or five times a week accompanied only by John ‘Tarzan’ Austin for Ivo and 'T.C.' for Garlits. I was talking to Ivo outside the reception at Bakersfield. Across the walkway, 'T.C.' was holding court with several other people. After a while, he came over and started a conversation with me. At least two minutes went by, when he turned toward Ivo, stuck out his hand, and said, ‘And you are?’
“He bumped into a fan wearing a camouflage jacket in the crowd at Gainesville. He immediately turned back to the fan and said, ‘Oh sorry, I couldn’t see you.’
“Walking into the honorees reception at Bowling Green in 2008, he spotted me and said, ‘Well, you’ve reached the bottom of the barrel; you’re honoring Walther [indicating his close friend 1972 NHRA Top Fuel world champion Jim Walther]. Next year, you’ll be honoring spectators.” When I noted that he was wearing a Jim Walther T-shirt, he replied, ‘I was forced.’
“About 10 years ago, Garlits re-created his brother Ed’s 1958 Swamp Rat Too-A small-block Chevrolet dragster and brought it to Bowling Green to run in the Cacklefest. 'T.C.' remarked that he didn’t know why ‘Big’ brought it because you wouldn’t be able to hear it, and besides, ‘I used to use Chevrolets to start my Chryslers.’
“At last year’s Hall of Fame ceremony in Gainesville, he said, ‘I have to outlive Garlits.’ When asked why, he said, ‘Because I’m going to get rich selling vials of his ashes at the gift shop. And I’ll never run out ‘cause there’s a barbecue down on the corner.’
“He once called me and said, ‘Greg, you’re my favorite Na-Her-A official. I need a favor.’ ‘What’s that, Tommy?’ I asked. ‘I don’t know yet,’ he replied.
Lemons and Maas
“A couple of years ago, he and Butch Maas were both undergoing cancer treatment and had colostomy bags. At Bowling Green, he opened our conversation with, ‘I have a complaint’ When I said, ‘What’s new?’ he replied, ‘You have port-a-cans for men and port-a-cans for women but none for valves.’ So before Bakersfield, I had Rose Dickinson [museum marketing and advertising manager] make me some laminated signs that read, ‘This facility is valve accessible for 'T.C.' Lemons and Butch Maas.’ When I gave him one, you would have thought it was a thousand-dollar bill. He immediately took it and hung it up in Tom Hanna’s plush trailer.”
And finally from Sharp …
“In our last phone conversation before the holidays, he said, ‘I presume Donna (my girlfriend, Donna Crowther) still loves me.’ When I told him, ‘Of course she does,’ he replied, ‘Most women do.’ "
Vintage T.C. Lemons.
Thanks, everyone, for sharing. We’ve lost another original.
Services and a viewing for Lemons will be held Tuesday, Jan. 17, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Hiers-Baxley Funeral Services, 5946 SE Robinson Road, Belleview, FL 34421; 352-245-2424. Lemons will be cremated and his ashes placed in an urn in the Museum of Drag Racing.