Top Fuel blowovers, Part 3Friday, May 18, 2012

 1 of 3 
Steve Reyes photos
Like a Top Fueler flipping overbackward and returning to earth pointed in the wrong direction, I’m back for part three of the blowover chronicles, beginning with a little historical tidying up before we continue the chronological account of all things topsy-turvy. Thanks to the keen memories, quick shutter fingers, and sheer giddiness of wanting to make me look bad, the Insider Nation has been piling on the “you-forgots” when it comes to dragsters behaving badly.

As a result, I'm going to pick up today's planned chronology continuation in Tuesday's column -- beginning with Pat Dakin's 1998 blowover in Topeka -- and concentrate on taking care of the oversights here.

First up, and way back in the chronology, is the photo sequence at right, sent by the perpetually perfectly placed Steve Reyes, who captured 1970 NHRA Top Fuel champ Ronnie Martin’s plight in Robert Anderson's Louisiana-based dragster while racing Carl Olson in round one at the Popular Hot Rodding Championships in Martin, Mich., in 1972.

Just based on the photos, this one seems weird in that the car reaches full vertical, then appears to fall onto its side, unlike most dragsters that ended up facing backward on the track. As you can see in the final photo, the car was heavily damaged, and, according to Olson, Martin did suffer broken bones in the spill.

“I saw his front end starting up out of the corner of my eye, but he disappeared as soon as he got off the throttle,” Olson told me via email this week. “I didn't know he'd had a ‘big-time’ crash until [partner Mike] Kuhl came down to get me in the shutoff area. I don't remember the extent of his injuries. As I recall, he may have had a broken arm or leg, but I couldn't be sure about that.”

In that same vein of doubt, I’ve also decided to change a bit my stance of trying to draw a distinction between what was an overbackward powerstand and what was an air-influenced blowover, so when you see my final box score, it will include both flavors, which will significantly jack up the carnage count. It’s near impossible to determine what was occurring in those milliseconds, so far be it from me to assign blame.

Reyes also reported that he witnessed an overbackward wheelie by Mickey Naylor’s Medicine Man slingshot  at England’s Santa Pod Raceway in 1978. Pete Aughton, my "correspondent" from across the pond, also remembered that incident, and though he didn't have any photos of the wreck, he did have this pic of the car, which had been campaigned on nitro by Dennis Priddle but was running on alcohol in the Pro Comp ranks at the time.

Added Reyes, "The first blowover I ever saw was at Lions, John Collins driving for Dave McKenzie. It was the final round of Top Fuel, and Collins got a single when the other AA/FD lost fire. Collins left the starting line with his right arm and hand waving a 'V' for victory. About 200 feet out, the car went into this huge wheelstand, then kinda turned in the air and came down on the guardrail. The car was history, but Collins was OK. They rebuilt and then crashed at Irwindale, and McKenzie quit."

Reyes also cited Jim Davis, who also flipped a slingshot in Bakersfield in the early 1970s, but, again, no photos are available, though I have read that Auto Imagery's Dave Kommel got his first big photo break with a shot of the Davis accident that ended up running in one of Mike Doherty's wonderful Photo Greats collections in the 1970s. I’m guessing there were more flipped front-motor cars than we’ve reported already.

Insider regular Cliff Morgan remembered, “I went to Pomona in 1963 for a two-out-of-three match race for the No. 1 spot [on the Drag News list], between [Chris Karamesines] and Weekly-Rivero-Fox-Holding. In round two, ‘the Greek’ did a big wheelie at half-track. This was not uncommon, and it was called a powerstand. Remember that AA/FD used to smoke the tires at the start, until around half-track, when the tires finally hooked up. Anyhoo, from what I understand, there were times when the tires hooked too well, and the car did a half-track wheelie. I remember seeing photos of this wheelie that ‘the Greek’ did in one of the drag papers or magazines of the time, so maybe you guys might have a photo of it in the archives. This photo would be a perfect example of a powerstand. I don't think that any powerstands resulted in a blowover, but the driver had to shut off.”  I couldn’t find that photo, but here’s a semi-related pic of the famed Frantic Four doing a tire-smoking powerstand at good ol' Pomona Raceway.

The Insider grapevine also began to bear fruit with reports that “the Captain,” Jeg Coughlin Sr., had backflipped his Top Fueler at Great Lakes Dragaway, and I was thrilled to hear from his son Mike – a regular reader of this column as it turns out – who was more than happy to give me the details of the accident, which happened in 1980.

Folks these days know of “Senior” as the guiding force behind his sons' racing efforts and the founder of the mail-order giant that bears his name, but people forget that he was a real good racer for three decades, including in Top Fuel, where he won the Division 3 Top Fuel championship three times and finished a career-high seventh in 1978’s championship race. Anyway, the year before the blowover, Coughlin’s dragster was destroyed at the 1979 NHRA Springnationals at National Trail Raceway when his parachutes ripped off and he ended up in the catch net. Coughlin returned at the Springnationals the next year with a new Al Swindahl-built car and a crew consisting of, from left, his wife, Monica, and sons, Mike, John, Jeg Jr., and Troy -- a true family-run team. (There’s a pretty cool professionally prepared YouTube video here showing the Coughlins in 1979-80.)

(Above) Jeg Coughlin Sr. successfully landed this big wheelie in Martin, Mich., but wasn't so lucky a few weeks later (below) in Union Grove, Wis.
Photos by Tom Schiltz and Ray-Mar

It wasn’t but a month after his Columbus return that Coughlin skied their dragster in round one at the Division 3 points meet at U.S. 131 while racing Gary Beck. He landed that one safely, but the car got bent up, yet the family towed west anyway to Denver for the Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway, stopping at Mark Williams’ shop for a repair job. They lost early and headed back east to Union Grove, Wis., for the next Division 3 meet.

“We got rained out Friday and didn’t run the first qualifying session until Saturday evening,” remembered Mike, the family historian. “It was mineshaft air, and the track was good. We were making so much power that it went into a serious wheelstand, and by the time my dad caught it, it was too late and did a blowover. It landed and slid down the track to about three-quarter-track. It demolished the car – it pretty much went straight into the Dumpster -- and broke his arm. He said it was on one of the best passes he’d ever made, and he just didn’t catch it in time. I think we just didn’t have enough weight on the front end, and because the cars were so much shorter then, when it started to come up, it was pretty hard to save them. Also, it was pretty dark, and he said it was hard to figure out [how high the car had gotten] because of that.”

Coughlin was laid up the rest of the year and made only a few runs in 1981 before retiring from driving.

Somehow I also forgot about the late Gary Ormsby’s blowover during preseason testing at Firebird Int’l Raceway in 1991, even though a) I was there, and b) Russ Collins referenced Ormsby's crash in the quote I printed here last week about his own blowover two weeks later. Also in attendance was an 11-year-old (!) second-generation photographer who got his first national notice when we ran photos of the blowover in National DRAGSTER; the shots also appeared in Super Stock & Drag Illustrated and, most famously, Car and Driver. You might know him today for his stupendously popular photo blog and amazing shots: Mark Rebilas, surely this generation’s Steve Reyes when it comes to being in the right spot at the right time and keeping his cool when the action heats up.

I went back through the ND files and found that issue and an interview I did with Ormsby after the accident, which occurred on just the third full pass on his new Castrol GTX dragster. He noted that they had run the previous car nearly 150 runs with the same wing configuration and added that some were blaming a dip in the track for getting the car airborne.

“That’s about all we can figure,” he said. “People have said that, but I couldn’t say. The car started coming up, and I immediately got out of it when I couldn’t see the horizon. It hung there for a long time after I shut it off. I saw a videotape; after the motor shuts off, it coasted a good 300 feet and just hung in the air. When I saw the body panels fly off, I knew it was over.”

Like so many blowovers before and after, the car landed upright, and although it backed into the guardwall, Ormsby’s injuries were limited to a cut inside his mouth and bruises to his knees and shoulders. Sadly, we’d lose him later that year to cancer.

Rebilas also pointed me to video of Richard Holcomb's 1988 Bradenton, Fla., blowover. The video is a little rough -- looks like someone's video of their TV screen -- but it gives you a look at the accident.

Also, I did hear back from Bobby Rex concerning Doug Foxworth’s IHRA blowever in Bristol in 1993. Rex, who was partners on the car with the Foxworth family from 1989 to 2002, confirmed my initial suspicions, that contact the previous day with John Carey’s car led to their blowover.

“John blew a rear tire, came across into Doug's lane, and ran over the car,” Rex said. “When we went back to the trailer, we talked about the fact that we were in a points chase with Doug Herbert, Frank Faifer [driver: Jim Bailey], and Don Garlits. The accident took off the panels and front wings. We straightened it and made body panels and put on another set of front wings, but they did not have enough angle. On Sunday, in the first round, the car left the starting line, and the front end was carried about 400 feet, which was normal for that car, but that started the blowover.”

Bret Kepner, who worked on ESPN's IHRA telecasts then, pointed me to this link, which is a good chunk of the race coverage; the Foxworth blowover, including an interesting segment on the safety crew talking to a still-stunned Foxworth in the cockpit and an interview with Rex, runs from 11:37 to 15:40.

OK, I think that catches us up with the blowover list though 1996, but I'm sure I'll be proven wrong. Coming Tuesday: The final chapter.

Top Fuel blowovers, Part 2Tuesday, May 15, 2012

At first blush, the twin blowovers in June 1986 and August 1987 by Don Garlits’ similarly enclosed front-end Swamp Rat XXX and 31 dragsters may have seemed to be a plague upon his streamliner design, but within a few years, it became clear that although its design no doubt contributed somewhat to the spectacular backflips, the conventional car was not immune to the rotational forces of a rapidly accelerating, fully engaged, fuel missile just itching for takeoff under the perfect storm.

Reader Dan Bogurske, of Orlando, Fla., was the first to ask about a chronology of the phenomenon and even gave me his quick from-memory list that, while impressive, missed at least a half-dozen, but here’s the shout-out to him for the idea, which dovetailed nicely with the recently completed streamliner history.
I’ve been able to compile a list of 18 modern-day (1986-present) blowovers, including the mini epidemic of six from late 1988 through early 1991, so here goes.

The first to follow Garlits head over heels was Richard Holcomb, at the post-1988-season Snowbird Nationals in Florida. During Saturday qualifying, Holcomb, at the wheel of his new and still-unpainted Woody Mays-built car, flipped ’er overbackward. Although the car initially landed right-side up on the nose, it tumbled down the track after complete touchdown. Holcomb, whose car was tuned by fuel-racing veteran Clayton Harris, suffered only slight burns on his legs and a dislocated left index finger, but the car was pretty much a write-off. I’ve never seen any footage of it, and Insider pal Wade Nunnelly is the only one (to my knowledge) who captured it on still film in the photo at right, part of a six-frame sequence he shot.

Realizing that the blowovers seemed to happen before a driver could react to stop them, Harris designed an adjustable air sensor that could detect an air-pressure change beneath the body panels, indicating that the car was in a wheelstand. When triggered, the sensor activated an air cylinder under the throttle pedal to push it to full-off faster than a driver could lift, and he had plans to add a second sensor that would automatically apply the rear brakes. I’m not sure that was ever implemented, and both are no longer with us to ask, but it was interesting to see the outside-the-box thinking by the former Top Fuel driving great.

Blowover footage of Don Garlits, Eddie Hill, Don Prudhomme, and Russ Collins from the Decade of Thrills franchise.

The Holcomb sensor debuted at the 1989 Supernationals in Houston in March, just a few weeks after Eddie Hill joined the Unfortunate Flyer Club at that year’s Winternationals. During Friday qualifying, Hill’s first-in-the-fours Super Shops dragster took flight at high speed at the finish line after a front-wing failure at about 1,000 feet. The car was vertical at the finish line – tripping the timers on a 5.210, 236.15 pass -- then sailed several hundred feet through the shutdown area before touching down on the side of its right-rear wheel – which cushioned the blow – then landed upright. The fact that Hill had gotten the chutes deployed didn’t hurt either.

"It happened so suddenly, it was out of my hands,” said Hill, a veteran of seven previous crashes in fuel boats and dragsters. “Once I started crashing, I covered up my pretty parts [face] with my hands and closed my eyes.”

Another of the sport’s greats, Don Prudhomme, was next to feel the sting of the blowover. Preparing for his return to Top Fuel in the 1990 season, “the Snake” was testing his Skoal Bandit dragster in Bakersfield Dec. 17, 1989. After two days of test launches, “Snake” made a full pass, and, as with Hill’s crash, a front-wing support gave way at three-quarter-track.

"Everything was fine," Prudhomme recalled, "but when that flap drops, it's like you're in an airplane – you're already going fast enough to take off. It's like throwing a paper cup out of a car going 100 mph. I tried to grab the parachute, but it happened too fast. There was no warning; it just went up and over."

Prudhomme's brand-new Dave Uyehara-built dragster suffered surprisingly little damage; save for a bruise on his knee, "the Snake’s" feelings were hurt worse than anything. "I was bouncing around down there thinking what a shame it was, about what had happened to my brand-new car. I'm still upset about it," he said two weeks later. "I'll be thinking about this one for the rest of my life."

Incredibly, Prudhomme didn’t have long to obsess over that crash because just eight months later, during qualifying at Le Grandnational in Quebec, he joined “Big Daddy” in the Frequent Flyer Club. Prudhomme’s car picked up the front tires early, set them down, then yanked them up again, all before half-track. The car quickly flipped and, unlike in the previous blowovers, landed upside down, cushioned, fortunately, by the rear wing. The car slid on its side for a long time, then backed into and over the guardwall in the shutdown area.

“I grabbed the brake and tried to stop it, but it was just too late. It went overcenter. It was over,” he said sadly.

Between Prudhomme’s two flights, yet another veteran fuel pilot, Jimmy Nix – who also would rack up more air miles quickly enough -- went up and over at the Supernationals in Houston in March 1990. Nix’s car, like so many, landed on its nose first before flopping onto its side. Like Garlits before him, Nix kept the throttle planted to try to slow his backward motion, but the engine exploded under pressure, causing a fire. “The Smiling Okie” escaped serious injury.

Interestingly, the next two blowovers occurred – like Hill’s – at the Winternationals: Russ Collins in 1991 and Nix in 1992.

Collins, at the wheel of Bill Miller’s Don Long-built car, started getting up at 300 feet and was straight up at 800 feet. It flew through the air, touched down briefly on its nose, then went through three dizzying barrel rolls before it landed on its wheels right on the finish line.

Collins, a former fuel motorcycle racer and no stranger to wild rides, said, “I always thought – watching [Gary] Ormsby and Hill and the rest of them – ‘I’ll stop it,’ but trust me, there is no way to stop this guy. As fast as I think I am, boy, there’s no way. It is instant.”

Nix’s second blowover, at the 1992 season opener, was another high-speed flight with a hard landing. The car smacked down in the shutdown area, then slid all the way to the sand trap at the end of the track; Nix received burns in the fire that engulfed the car as it slid downtrack.

(In the midst of all of this Top Fuel craziness, Jay Payne flipped his Top Alcohol Dragster upside down at the Chief Nationals in Dallas in late 1990. As you can see from my amazing photo at right – I love how the car seems to be suspended solely on the rear wing – there weren’t a whole lot of folks in the Texas Motorplex grandstands at the time for a mid-Friday alky session, but I just happened to have my camera up – which I wouldn’t normally do – between bites of a Drag Dog. There’s no footage of this one, but going from memory, it seems that it was more of a powerstand than a blowover. It happened so quickly off the line that I’m not sure how much effect the air had on it..)

Interestingly (to me, anyway), Dallas was the scene of the next Top Fuel blowover, which occurred in round one at the 1992 event. Doug Herbert had the front wheels up high on the launch, and they just never came down. The car landed upside down and backward before half-track and slid on its side almost all the way to the finish line. I emailed Doug for his remembrances, and he obliged in detail.

Ted Kuburich won third prize in National DRAGSTER's 1992 Photo Contest with this wild shot of an upside-down Herbert at Dallas.
As I saw through my camera's viewfinder, Doug Herbert set a new world record for race car evacuation after his 1992 Dallas blowover.

“That car ran good, and the front end always danced pretty good,” he remembered. “The day before the blowover [crew chief Jim] Brissette and I tried a few things on [Joe] Amato’s car, and he made one of the first 4.7-second runs. So we gave our car a little bit of a tune-up with what we learned on Joe’s car, trying to run a 4.7 in that first round. We were racing Rance McDaniel and did our normal deal, but I think Rance’s crew had some issues that held them up a little, and that burned some extra fuel and weight off the front of our car.

“When I hit the gas, the front end came up like it always did … and then it came up a little bit more! I should have shut it off (you learn these things with experience), but instead, I just grabbed the brake, and the front end seemed like it was not going to come up any more, until I let off the brake! When I let off the brake, it came up and over pretty quick.

“As I was sliding along on my head, I pulled the fuel shutoffs to get the engine shut down; I also put my hand on the seat-belt lever. I was in the lane next to Jimmy Nix at Pomona when he had a blowover and got burned pretty bad, so that was going through my head. When the car stopped, I pulled off the steering wheel and pulled the belt lever to get out as fast as I could because the fuel line had broken, and nitro was dumping all over the ground, so I wanted to get away from the car and possible fire as fast as I could. We turned that nice Al Swindahl car into a swing set. I hate when that happens. I had bad luck in Texas in '92. At the Houston race, we blew a tire in the lights and bent up that car, and then in Dallas, we had the blowover.”

If you’re keeping score at home, of the 10 blowovers to date, four (Hill, Prudhomme No. 1, Collins, Nix No. 2) happened in California and two in Texas (three if you count Payne). On a personal note, I witnessed (and photographed) more than half of them, including the first Garlits flip, the three Pomona blowovers, Nix’s Houston aerobatics, and Herbert’s wild ride in Dallas, and each truly was a breathtaking moment, that horrifying instance when you realize that something has gone terribly wrong and that the driver is now a mere passenger with his fate in the hands of the strict safety rules and chassis builder’s skill.

Also, all but Garlits’ Spokane, Wash., flip were at NHRA tracks, but that would soon change as it became an equal-opportunity occurrence.

The first blowover at an IHRA event came next as Texan Doug Foxworth flipped his dragster during the first round at the 1993 Spring Nationals at Bristol Dragway, levering his appropriately named Havoc entry up past half-track before flipping it and landing hard in the shutdown area. The actual blowover footage is at about the 1:45 mark in the video at right, but you’ll want to watch what precedes it because it might have set the stage for the blowover. On a qualifying pass, it looks as if qualifying mate John Carey loses an engine and then (perhaps) a rear tire and is seen sliding into Foxworth’s lane in the shutdown area and clipping his front end, which makes me wonder if the front wing somehow was compromised and led to the blowover, a la Hill and Prudhomme. I have an email out to Bobby Rex, Foxworth’s longtime crew chief, to confirm this.

For whatever reason, there was a three-year respite of blowovers, but the one that broke the dry spell was a doozy. It occurred in, of all settings, the final round at the 1996 Gatornationals between Scott Kalitta and Blaine Johnson. I was there for this one, too, stationed by the finish line, and it was the last thing you’d think of happening in a final round.

As you can see in the video at right, Kalitta, in the near lane, gets the front tires up early – they flew over the 60-foot clocks – as evidenced by his 1.002-second clocking – and because it’s night, you can see exactly when he lifts because the fire disappears from the headers, yet as early as he lifted, there was just no saving it. It goes straight up, then lazily falls down on all fours and onto its side, turning lazy circles and eventually backing over the finish line. Johnson, who had smoked the tires early and lifted, moved as far over to his wall as he could to stay clear of the car and got the surprising win with a 10.80-second run. Kalitta, disqualified for banging the wall, stopped the timers with a 14.72.

“As the front end came up, I remember thinking, ‘Aw man, here we go,’ ” Kalitta told National DRAGSTER. He said he stayed with it as long as he could, but before he knew it, “I was looking at the sky. It was that fast. I remember thinking ‘Oh [shoot],’ then it pirouetted and slammed down hard. When it came back around, I was thinking to myself, ‘Did it hit the wall?’ because I was hoping I could still skid there ahead of him. I never saw him.”

The victory was Johnson’s second of the year and third in four races dating back to his breakthrough win at the 1995 Finals. The race had seemed Kalitta’s to win, especially after he made the fastest run in history, 314.90 mph, in round two, and Johnson even allowed that they “turned some screws we probably shouldn't have … when we race Scott, sometimes we do things we wouldn’t normally do because we know what they’re capable of.”

Just a few months later, in Brainerd, Shelly Anderson became the first woman to take flight when her Parts America dragster soared skyward at half-track during Friday qualifying. As in so many other blowovers, the torque rotated the car so that it landed right-side up, nose first, then slid on its side for a long way. Anderson admitted to pedaling the throttle to get through tire shake but that the car hooked up hard and took off, a chronic problem with the lockup clutches of the day. She, too, emerged unhurt, save for a sore back.

OK, we're two-thirds through the master list. I'll be back Friday with the final five, as well as some of the email generated by the first two parts. Thanks for reading.

Top Fuel blowovers, Part 1Friday, May 11, 2012

Thanks for hanging in there while I pinballed back and forth between California and Texas and Georgia the last two weeks. We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming …

The streamliner series was, predictably, well-received, as I think we all have a soft spot in our hearts for experimentation and oddball efforts. As you may recall, very few of the streamliners or other aero-influenced Top Fuelers were very successful, the lone exception, of course, being Don Garlits’ Swamp Rat XXX that carried him through the 270-mph barrier to the world championship in 1986. It also carried him further into drag racing lore with “The Blowover,” his Did-that-just-happen? backward flip at the 1986 Summernationals. “Big Daddy” walked away unscathed from that memorable moment but, incredibly, suffered another a year later with Swamp Rat 31 in Spokane, Wash., that put a real hurting on “the Old Man” and convinced him to retire (for, like, the 100th time) until his brief comeback in 1992.

Although Garlits immediately deduced that his blowovers were the result of air getting trapped under the big nose of his cars, turning what might have been a pulse-pounding wheelie into a heart-stopping backflip, that doesn’t explain the epidemic of blowovers of conventional cars that followed in the 1990s.

The anatomy of the modern-day blowover was pretty simple. For varying reasons, the car would get the front tires into the air well after leaving the starting line, and air pressure at that speed would work to hold the car aloft and lever it backward. Fortunately, in a large number of cases, the gyroscopic effect of the rear wheels turning would give the car a half-twist so that it landed backward – but upright – on the track, thus limiting injury mostly to hurt feelings and a very bent race car.

If you look back on the history of the sport (as I will in a few paragraphs), there weren’t a whole lot of overbackward wheelies – as they were called before the term “blowover” was borrowed from Unlimited Hydroplane boat racing – before the 1990s, so I have to point my nonexpert finger of blame toward five factors: more power, better clutches, better track prep, more effective rear wings, and the abandonment of the wheelie bar.

Obviously, it takes power to yank the front wheels off the ground, and yanking ‘em up at the starting line has never been a problem for most, and it usually never developed into a problem for the driver unless he kept his boot to the firewall. A simple lift from the throttle would bring the front end crashing to the ground, with the worst result being maybe a bent axle or A-arm. However, even the most powerful Top Fuelers didn’t have the zots to lift the front end farther downtrack, but as power grew and the nitro engineers learned how to harness that power with multistage clutches that didn’t lock up until the car was well under way and NHRA crews did a better and better job of expanding the good traction downcourse and more downforce was added to the rear of the car through the laid-back and double- and triple-element rear wings, you suddenly had the recipe for a midtrack wheelstand. At that speed, air was now pushing hard on the underside of the car, and sometimes – most times, it seemed – there was just no stopping the upward movement. And because the Top Fuel crowd had largely stopped running wheelie bars – Garlits ditched his in 1985 – there was no mechanical apparatus to control the rotation. Again, that’s just the hypothesis of this armchair crew chief, but I think it’s pretty accurate.

 1 of 5 
Jimmy King turned 'er overbackward at the 1970 Nationals.
I racked my memory for early examples of overbackward wheelies in Top Fuel history, and a few quickly leaped to mind that can be found in the gallery at right. There was Jimmy King’s wild ride in the King & Marshall slingshot at the 1970 Nationals in Indy, when he turned it upside down just off the line in the very first pair of the first round of eliminations against Bob Ivett and the Corr Electric AA/FD. King got a lot of ribbing for that flip, and one of his wise-guy crewmembers famously welded a caster wheel atop the roll cage before the next outing. (When Sy Sidebotham found and restored the car in 2001, the caster was faithfully put back on.)

I remember seeing in Drag Racing USA Steve Reyes’ great shot of Jack Martin’s moon shot in his rear-engine car at the Grand Premiere at Lions Drag Strip in early 1972, and Steve was kind enough again to send it to me for use here. As Steve remembers, “Upon landing, the car slid upside down, and the engine was running at about 10,000 rpm. Everyone, of course, started to run to the car, and then the blower went boom -- not a big boom, just a good bang. That scared the heck out of the folks who were rushing to the car.” You can see this incident in the amazing clip (fast forward to the 45-second mark) posted on YouTube here that shows what a crashtacular event that was: Stan Shiroma losing the roof on the Midnight Skulker; big fires for Omar Carruthers and Bob McFarland; and, most spectacularly, Gary Burgin launching the Braskett & Burgin Vega into a midtrack wheelstand and crossing into Joe Winter’s lane, then being nerfed out of the way and the car going onto its roof.

Although it’s a Funny Car, few can forget Dennis Geisler’s backflip of Bert Berkiner’s Hindsight rear-engine flopper at the 1975 Winternationals, and, finally, there was Dick Allard’s wild ride in the Sundowners Top Fueler at the 1980 Grandnational outside of Montreal. Based on their early flippage -- wel before halftrack - I believe all of these were created by power and not aero forces; the blowovers of the '80s and '90s usually occurred around halftrack, sometimes later.

The video clip at right shows one of the wildest wheelies I’ve ever seen. Shot at the 1973 Popular Hot Rodding Championships in Martin, Mich., it shows Division 3 regular Paul Longenecker launching into a wheelie that grows bigger as he stays on the gas trying to beat Jim Bucher. Finally, the car goes vertical, then pirouettes down the track on the rear rubber alone like a ballerina, spinning on its axis what looks like four times before crashing back to the track. It’s an amazing piece of footage.

I’m sure there are others – and I’m equally certain that the Insider Nation will alert me to such – but I really can’t remember any at this point until “Big Daddy’s” Englishtown acrobatics, Saturday, July 12, 1986.

The day before, Garlits had run the quickest elapsed time in Top Fuel history, a 5.343, and was intent on backing it up for the national record the next day. Garlits and crew chief Herb Parks came loaded for bear with a stout load of nitro. They were running Darrell Gwynn, Garlits’ hungry young nemesis at the time, and “Big” wanted to strap it to the kid he called “the Wolf.”

A contributing factor to Garlits’ blowover may well have been a leaking fuel nozzle that Parks worked frantically to fix as Garlits prepared to stage. The extra wait – Garlits said it felt like five or 10 minutes but in reality was probably less than one – no doubt burned a lot more fuel than expected, lightening the fuel load in the front-mounted fuel tank and disrupting the car’s balance.

Almost from the launch, the front tires were up and just kept going as Garlits rode it for all it was worth before lifting, which wasn’t soon enough. The car stood straight up, twirled a half-turn, and miraculously landed back on all fours in a cloud of smoke as its momentum carried the car almost to the finish line with the rear tires still churning forward. When the car hooked, it headed back uptrack a few hundred feet before Garlits cut the power.

“I saw the car up about 3 feet, and I backpedaled it, but it was coming up too hard,” Garlits told National DRAGSTER. “As it was straight up in the air, I couldn't believe how it raises you off the ground; you get real high. Then I remember that first hard impact -- that was real tough -- then it was smooth; I couldn't believe it. I braced myself, and I floorboarded the engine [throttle], and it was very fortunate, because then, as the car was going backwards, probably, oh, a couple of hundred miles an hour, the wheels were spinning to make it go forward. It was even better than brakes. The car stopped in about 150, 200 feet.

“Then the car shot forward out of the smoke; y'see, I was still holding the throttle down because I was still disoriented, and so I'm holding the throttle down, and the car shoots out of the smoke, and I'm looking, and I'm looking at the starting line! I said, ‘My God, what's going on here?!’ So I still hadn't pulled off of the throttle, but I did then push the fuel-shutoff valve immediately, and then backed off the throttle. I couldn't steer it anymore because the steering was all jimmied up from the impact. It was just going where it wanted to; it was kinda making a slow left-hand turn, and I ended up right on the edge of the track where I went straight up. It came back to the point of origin.”

Other than a bruise on the inside of his right thigh where it hit the shift tower when the car landed on its side, Garlits was uninjured, and the car, surprisingly, suffered little damage, though he did withdraw it from competition (“Even I’m not that crazy,” he self-mocked when Steve Evans asked him if the car could continue at the event).

Asked about the effects of air on the spoon-shaped nose, Garlits admitted that it had been on his mind. “I was always worried about that and just what the outcome would be and how much time I would have to do something about it,” he said. “I found out: zero. I was helpless in there.”

And to the lack of wheelie bars, he confessed, “I should have put them on here already; it was stupidity on my part. The front end has been up several times, but not like this.”

Garlits repaired the car and ran it through mid-1987 before it ended up in the Smithsonian, then brought out a similar car, Swamp Rat 31 – still with no wheelie bars -- at the NHRA event in Brainerd in early August. Two weeks later, on Aug. 21 at an AHRA event in Spokane, it was déjà vu all over again for “Big Daddy” as SR31 also took flight at the top end, leaving him with two broken ribs, an injured back, and a totally destroyed race car. Garlits was making a test run with a new dual-element rear wing, a configuration that had found its way onto several top cars and that creates greater downforce.

"At about the 1,000-foot mark," related Garlits, "the front end came up suddenly, and I reached for the brake real fast -- because I'm programmed for that now -- but by the time I got the brake and pulled it back, the car was straight up in the air and turning overbackwards. The car went 215 mph through the lights upside down and backwards; 5.51 was the e.t., with the rear wheels tripping the e.t. lights after I had skidded the brakes as hard as I could, so [the car] was on a good pass."

Asked if he had any theories about what had been causing the wheelstands, Garlits answered, "The cars are light in the front, and they're going very fast. Once they lift the front end up a little bit, they ride on a cushion of air -- like an airfoil -- and it's hard to control. And my car with that big front end was even worse.

"Mandatory wheelie bars would help," he added. "That would have stopped it; it never would have gotten out of control like that."

Garlits’ blowovers were the only ones of the 1980s to that point, but the next decade would provide a rash of highlight-reel blowovers that caught the best of the sport unawares. We’ll look into a chronology of those next week.

Harry Schmidt, right, with Raymond Beadle
(RayMar photo; Marc Bruederle collection)

Surprise. Bet you didn’t expect to see me this week, let alone on Thursday. Then again, I didn’t expect us to lose another great name from our sport earlier this week, and even though I told you I’d be incommunicado during this time -- traveling to both the Houston (last weekend) and Atlanta (starting today) events -- I couldn’t let another day go by without writing about the passing of Harry Schmidt, the original owner of the famed Blue Max Funny Car.

We had just landed in Dallas Monday on the way home from Houston, and, checking my email on my phone, I saw the sad message from Fred Miller, a key member of the mid-1970s Blue Max posse, that the 67-year-old Schmidt had died earlier that morning after a battle with cancer. Within a few minutes, former Blue Max pilot Richard Tharp was lighting up my cellphone to also make sure I knew.

Raymond Beadle, of course, made the Blue Max a household name with his legendary battles with Don Prudhomme in the mid-1970s and the three consecutive world championships that followed, but it was Schmidt who gave the sport the Blue Max Funny Car.

Two years ago in National DRAGSTER, I wrote a history of the Blue Max that I was going to repurpose here, but I also received an exhaustive history from Dave Densmore, a longtime friend and adviser to and confidant of Texas fuel racers in the last five decades and a good pal of Beadle's, who asked for Densmore's help in memorializing Schmidt, so below is the combined effort of our toils. I also talked to Beadle and Tharp yesterday and had further email correspondence with Miller.

The Blue Max was not Schmidt’s first car, and he had been crew chief for fellow Texan ”Big Mike” Burkhart’s Funny Cars in 1966 and 1967, first on an injected, nitro-burning ‘66 Chevy II, then a ‘67 Camaro.

The first Blue Max Mustang, with Jake Johnston at the wheel at the 1970 NHRA Springnationals at Dallas Int'l Motor Speedway

After sitting out 1968, Schmidt commissioned Don Hardy to build him a Ford Mustang for 1969 and added a potent powerplant prepared by the famed Ramchargers. The car carried only his name on its flanks, and both Paul Gordon and Mart Higgenbotham drove the car on an interim basis until Schmidt lured the talented Jake Johnston, then crew chief for Gene Snow, to drive the car.

It wasn’t until later that year that Schmidt gave the car, which already was painted blue, its famous Blue Max appellation after seeing the film of the same name.

“I guess it was that fall that I saw [the movie], and I thought that the name had a nice ring to it,” recalled Schmidt in a previous interview. “I loved that emblem, and since I had a German last name and my Mustang was blue, I decided that’s what we’d call the car when we started the ’70 season.”

The car was emblazoned with an image on its flanks of the pour le mérite (“for merit”) emblem (a blue-enameled Maltese cross with eagles between the arms of the cross that was known informally during World War I as “the Blue Max” and was the Kingdom of Prussia’s highest military order until the end of the war), and the Blue Max became arguably one of the most famous Funny Car names in the sport’s history, rivaled perhaps only by the Chi-Town Hustler.

The Blue Max made its debut at the 1970 Winternationals and set top speed at 203.61 mph. The team scored its biggest win at the end of the season, capturing top honors at the famed Manufacturers Meet at Orange County Int’l Raceway, where Johnston ran the lowest elapsed time in class history, 6.72, and, in the final, beat Rich Siroonian in “Big John” Mazmanian’s Barracuda on a holeshot, 6.89 to 6.88.

After Johnston and Schmidt had a falling-out and Snow wooed Johnston back to drive his second car, Tharp jumped at the chance to drive the car and made his Funny Car debut at the wheel of the Blue Max at that year’s inaugural Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway – where he also was piloting his regular ride, the Creitz & Donovan Top Fueler -- and drove the car until mid-1973. The team won the 1971 IHRA Winternationals and a number of other IHRA crowns but only ran a limited NHRA schedule.

Richard Tharp took over the butterfly of the Blue Max at the end of the 1971 season and drove it through the end of 1973.

“Harry was a very special individual,” remembered Tharp fondly. “He was very smart and way ahead of his time. He was the first one to put a quick-change [rear end] in a Funny Car and the first to run a big fuel pump and hang a lot of weight on the clutch. We didn’t really know why we were doing it at the time, but it worked. At the time, we had one of the cars to beat. There was us, the Ramchargers, ‘Snake’ [Don Prudhomme], and ‘Goose’ [Tom McEwen], and ‘Jungle’ [Jim Liberman] and [the] Chi-Town [Hustler].”

The team ran close to 100 dates in 1972 -- including seven in one crazy six-day stretch — but the touring finally got to Schmidt, who parked the car but didn’t disappear entirely from the scene. An ambitious young Texan from Lubbock named Raymond Beadle, a former Top Fuel racer, was beginning to make a name for himself as the driver of Don Schumacher’s second Funny Car, and Schmidt joined him on the road in the summer of 1974 working on the car.

“I had known Harry for a long time and hired him to help me work on Schumacher’s car,” Beadle reminisced with me yesterday. “I was paying Schumacher a percentage to run the car – 20 percent off the top – but he was making more than I was, so I asked Harry if he might want to partner with me and bring back the Blue Max.”

The Blue Max was one of the hardest-charging Funny Cars of the mid-1970s and the second to record a five-second pass.
One of the greatest moments of the Schmidt/Beadle partnership was their victory over Don Prudhomme in the final round of the 1975 U.S. Nationals, where they also set the national record. It was Beadle's first NHRA win.
Schmidt, far left, Beadle, "Waterbed Fred" Miller, and crew basked in the glory of their U.S. Nationals triumph.

The duo started together in 1975, and Beadle drove the Blue Max Mustang II to their first NHRA victory at the prestigious U.S. Nationals, handing Prudhomme and his vaunted Army Monza one of only two losses that season. In late 1976, Beadle bought out Schmidt’s interest in the car, though Schmidt continued to work on the car before leaving the team in 1978. Though he did win the IHRA championship in 1975 and 1976, other than the non-points-earning inaugural Cajun Nationals, where he beat his future crew chief, Dale Emery, in the final, Beadle didn’t win again on the NHRA tour until the World Finals in Ontario, Calif., in 1978, two months after Beadle became the second member of the famed Cragar Five-Second Club. When Schmidt left, Beadle hired Emery.

“He was a real good guy, very detail-oriented,” Beadle remembered of Schmidt. “And he was very smart. The air jacks that all the teams use today, he and Pat Foster and Jim Hume built one just like them, but it was hand-operated. And the big tool trays that all the teams use? Harry was the first one to ever build one of those, and one of the first guys to want to run the big magnetos and bigger fuel pumps and dual plugs. Partnering with him back in 1975 was a turning point for me. We were successful from the start, and that led to a lot of other things, even after he got out.”

"He taught me a lot,” remembered Miller, who was hired by Schmidt and even lived with him for a couple of years. “He was bright and wanted things to be first-class. The first day I went to work for him, he told me that if I ever had a problem and could not figure it out, that I should ask Austin Coil. Harry said that Austin would not blow smoke up your ass. If he liked you, no problem. I will always remember that. Also, Dale Emery always admired Harry. Enough said!”

After he left drag racing, Schmidt became a jewelry wholesaler in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. He retired three years ago and played golf and traveled extensively and remained close friends with Beadle. He was diagnosed with cancer about a year ago and thought he had beaten it, but it returned and this time claimed his life.

“I had called him a few times in the last few days, and he never answered, so I drove out to his house,” said Beadle. “He was already in hospice care. He opened his eyes when I walked in, and I talked to him for a little while. He tried to talk to me, but I couldn’t understand what he said, but he held my hand, and that was it. I knew he was going to be gone.”

Tharp had already been to try to see Schmidt, but when he heard of his deteriorating condition, he couldn’t bring himself to see his old friend in such a grave state. He and Beadle, joined by other luminaries of the 1970s, including Prudhomme and Ed Pink, who are flying in from California, will be at Schmidt’s services later this week to pay their respects.

“He was just a great guy,” said Tharp. “Ask anyone. Everybody loved Harry Schmidt. He didn’t have any enemies or cross words with anyone. Just a great, great guy.”

Schmidt may have left us, but the legacy he left and the name of the famed Blue Max will ride high in the skies of drag racing history forever.


Previous Entries
Next Entries