In 1974, I made my first trip to Irwindale Raceway for a Funny Car show. I don’t remember much of the specifics of the event, but I remember leaving with a crooked little grin on my 14-year-old face after seeing Pete Everett’s Pete’s Lil Demon Funny Car.
Even in my early teen years, I had a fascination with word play, enough to see beyond the connotation of racing possibly being his personal demon and the pitchfork-wielding cartoon devil as the reason for the car’s name. It also was a Dodge Demon. Get it? I probably couldn’t spell double entendre, but I got it. Man, I thought that was great.
I became a fan of his driver, Bob Pickett, right then and there, an admiration that only grew when he later drove one of my all-time favorite floppers, Mickey Thompson’s Grand Am, a feature about which I (still, I promise) am working on. Pickett, the car’s final driver, obviously was on my interview list, and I finally tracked him down last year in Florida, where he is a competition water skier. Though long retired from driving, I thought his long racing career and his current daredevil act at age 70-plus would make interesting reading. I also spoke about Pickett with veteran nitro wrench Pat Galvin, who got his introduction to the sport through his Arleta, Calif., neighbor Mr. Pickett.
Long before he was a Funny Car driver, Pickett was a doorslammer terror at San Fernando Raceway in the late 1950s, first with a Chevy-powered '49 Ford and then, beginning in 1959, a Corvette that ran in E/Stock Sports and won him approximately 75 trophies at San Fernando and other SoCal tracks. Interestingly, this car provided his introduction to Thompson, who was managing Lions Drag Strip at that time when Pickett was giving big head starts to the day’s top runners and chasing them down by midtrack.
Bob Pickett's blown Corvette was one of the baddest doorslammers in SoCal in the late 1950s and early 1960s. (Mike Ditty photo)
“Some of the other racers protested my car,” recalled Pickett. “Mickey himself came down from the tower to tear it down, and he declared the car legal."
In 1961, Pickett and new partner Dick Harriman added a blower to the Corvette’s 327 Chevy and ran it in A/Modified Sports under the name Mr. Pickett's 'Vette.
"We had to run mostly exhibition races at the time since the Funny Cars hadn't started coming on the scene yet, and there was really little competition,” said Pickett, whose mount was capable of 140-mph speeds. “I was in on the ground floor of Funny Car.”
Recalled Galvin, “I first met Bob when I was 9 years old -- he was in his 20s and already had the Corvette – and I worked on his cars up through 1975. In my mind, that Corvette was one of the first Funny Cars. It was a handful; it didn’t like to go straight.”
A 354 Chrysler supplanted the Chevy, boosting speeds to nearly 160 mph, and when the first Funny Cars began showing up in the mid-1960s, he finally had some competition despite his car’s mostly stock-bodied, stock-wheelbase configuration. A fuel-burning, supercharged 392 Chrysler eventually pushed the Corvette to low-eight-second passes at 185 mph.
As the Funny Car class became more sophisticated, Pickett knew that his Corvette wouldn’t keep pace, so in 1969, he built a Funny Car chassis in his garage, copying the frame designed by Pat Foster for Thompson's famous Mustangs right out of a magazine article.
“We knew how long the chassis was, so we copied the design right out of the magazine,” he admitted. “We chalk-lined it on the garage floor, tacked it together, then had someone else weld it up. I did all the tinwork myself. I’d never built a car before that. I was just driven.”
All this time, Pickett was still holding down a full-time job as a carpenter, building roofs on large commercial buildings.
“I'd work all day, then come home and work all night [on the race car] and get four hours of sleep, then go back to work. I'd lived it so much it didn’t matter.”
Pickett cloaked his new creation with an AMC Javelin body, and the car flew … literally. After racking up an eye-opening best of 7.25 at 201 mph, the car took flight in the lights May 2, 1970, at Orange County Int’l Raceway’s Big 4 race.
“They said I was dangling the front tires off the ground at 800 feet, and then right in the lights, it went straight up,” recalled Pickett, who was knocked unconscious and suffered a broken back in the wreck. “It went as high as a telephone pole and went a long way and went into the guardrail. I was just telling myself, 'It's not my time.' "
Seven months later, Pickett was back in business with a 1970 Barracuda that ran a best of 6.83 at 216 mph before he sold the car. Pickett began work on a new Mustang but was given the chance to drive Nelson Carter's Super Chief in 1971. That ride also met a calamitous end in a fire, so Pickett jumped behind the wheel of the Mustang but didn’t stay there long because a week later, Everett offered Pickett the seat in his Dodge Demon flopper.
Everett, who owned a service station, had fielded a variety of Funny Cars since the late 1960s with Leroy Hales, an enterprising USC medical-school student who worked at his gas station, at the controls. Hales was badly burned in a fire and retired from driving (and eventually became part of the NHRA Safety Safari presented by AAA), and Pickett took his spot. That began a successful three-year partnership that didn’t end until 1974 and produced a best pass of 6.49 at 225 mph.
“I had a great career with Pete; he was a great guy,” said Pickett. “He let me run the whole deal. We had a lot of fun. We even went to Indy and back east to some match races.”
“That car was always competitive,” remembered Galvin. “Pete didn’t have a big budget; all of our stuff was clean and nice, but we didn’t have spares, so we always ran it pretty conservatively.”
In 1975, Pickett, on the recommendation of longtime Thompson employees Steve Montrelli and Dale Pulde, took over the reins of M.T.'s U.S. Marines-sponsored Grand Am after Larry Arnold quit after the Gatornationals. Newly graduated from high school, Galvin went on the road with Pickett and the car.
“Bob could pretty much do anything on a car,” recalled Galvin. “There wasn’t much he couldn’t do, but it wasn’t really a highly financed deal like it looked. Mickey would get half of the money off the top, and it was hard to run a car that way.”
The Grand Am body also was heavy, and Pickett struggled with it through two versions and two seasons before switching to an Old Starfire body in 1977, which proved to be a watershed year for him. He scored his first NHRA national event victory at the NHRA Springnationals, defeating Don Prudhomme in the final, 6.22 to 6.26, and won the Manufacturers Funny Car Meet at OCIR.
Like many who had driven for him, Pickett found that he couldn’t work under the financial arrangements required by Thompson and struck out on his own in 1978 and won the Cajun Nationals over Tom Anderson. The Marines sponsorship dried up in mid-1979, so Pickett sold the car and switched to an Arrow sponsored by Spartan Financial Corp., a construction financing company owned by his good friend Ed Secard.
He moved to Michigan in 1981 to be closer to the match race scene and shared a shop with Tim Grose and others. He ran the Arrow for a couple of seasons, followed by a Corvette (one of those hideous Bruce Iversen-built bodies derisively dubbed “the shoe” by drag photographers) with sponsorships from companies like Pro-tec and Hosemate.
Pickett’s last race was the 1986 Keystone Nationals, where his 5.997 pass fell just short of Scott Kalitta’s bump-riding 5.984.
“I finished 17th and blew up the truck engine on the way home and said, ‘That's it,' and quit,” he said. “I left the car in the garage for a few years before I got up the nerve to sell it.”
Competitive by nature, Pickett soon found himself lost without an outlet.
“Like any sports person, you lose your friends, you lose yourself,” he said. “I went through several years of depression until I started water skiing, and it brought me back to life.”
Pickett moved to Florida and began his second career at the unlikely age of 58, in water-ski racing, whipping his body around buoys at 50 mph with an ever-shortening rope length until the inevitable wipeout. Success did not come quickly. Or painlessly.
“Driving a car was instinct to me; water skiing was not,” he admitted. “It took me 10 years to get it. It’s cheaper than racing but almost as dangerous. Guys hang themselves on the ropes or get their arms caught. I’ve broken a couple of ankles, torn my rotator cuff, and use a knee brace, but you pick yourself up, get a few stitches, and go on, just like with a Funny Car. You get burned, a broken back, detached retinas, and you fix it and go on. Right now, I’m the only one in my [70 and older] class, so I’m the champion. Outlive everyone; that's how you win.”
Regardless of age, all these years later, Bob Pickett is still definitely a winner in my book.
Dean Court photo
By basic appearance, today’s Top Fuelers haven’t changed much since “Big Daddy” Don Garlits debuted his successful rear-engine dragster at the 1971 Winternationals. The small tires are still in the front, the big ones in the back, the driver still sits in front of the engine, and a rear wing in the back still glues the rubber to the road (Yes, I know that Garlits didn’t have a wing on the car when it debuted in Pomona, but work with me, OK?).
Sure, there has been some experimentation with the configuration: streamliners, ground-effects tunnels, long wheelbases, short wheelbases, different engines, even Garlits’ own sidewinder, but one car still stands out uniquely for its bizarre shape: the Lisa-Rossi wedge. As you can see in the accompanying photos, it doesn’t fit the traditional definition of the wedge dragsters that we explored here for three months in 2010 (see March-May 2010 in the archives at right), that being a V-shaped, hinged body that cloaked the rear of an otherwise standard Top Fueler.
Nope, this car, derisively nicknamed “the flying doorstop” by some, featured a hexagon-shaped body with a wide, flat top and, at least in its earliest incarnation, no rear wing.
The car has a history as intriguing as its shape, and, like all good tales, it’s a story cloaked in controversy, which I’ll get to in a bit.
Roy Fjastad, an alumnus of Scotty Fenn's famed Chassis Research dragster factory, built the car at his Speed Products Engineering (SPE) chassis shop in Santa Ana, Calif., ostensibly for his own efforts. Master sheet-metalsmith Tom Hanna built the body, which, it was hoped, would provide enough downforce to forgo the rear wing. The story takes a twist there because, before it could be completed, veteran Top Fuel racer Fred Farndon came into the shop looking for a new car and fell in love with the concept as it sat on the jig and bought the car. Farndon, however, was in the midst of a sticky divorce and had to abandon the car he also thought would be too heavy to e.t. anyway and sold it to Vince Rossi and Tommy Lisa.
The original Baney-Rapp-Lisa-Rossi dragster, aka the original Yeakel Plymouth Special, with Jim Ward at the wheel, circa 1962.
Rossi and Lisa had been a part of the Top Fuel scene in the mid-1960s. Rossi, in fact, along with John Garrison, had tuned Lou Baney’s famed Tom McEwen-driven Yeakel Plymouth Center dragster, and before that, he and Lisa had been partners on the Baney-Rapp-Lisa-Rossi dragster and numerous others. Rossi was the tuning genius, and his longtime best friend Lisa, a successful West Coast-based women's clothing manufacturer, was the wallet.
According to Rossi’s son, Jim, “My father and Tommy wanted to go back racing in 1970, so they called [Jack] Ewell and asked him to be the wrench and to go find a car to buy. Somehow, Ewell knew this car was available and brought a Youngblood sketch over to our house to show Vince what he felt was going to turn the racing world on its ear. They bought her, and the rest is history.”
Billy Tidwell and Linda Vaughn posed with the wedge at OCIR.
The wedge in Hang Ten livery in front of Keith Black's shop in South Gate, Calif., "our home away from home from 1970 to 1974," recalled Jim Rossi.
In that history were a number of drivers – including Billy Tidwell and Danny Ongais – two national speed records, and, according to the team, the sport’s first five-second pass.
According to his son, Rossi had taken the car to Lions Drag Strip one Wednesday in 1972 during one of the track's doorslammer nights to do test runs, trying to dial in the clutch.
"The car launches and makes a picture-perfect blast," he remembered. "The time light flashes a 5.99 e.t., and the announcer goes crazy. It was the first five-second run ever in a Top Fueler. As fast as the announcer blurted that out, the mike went dead for what seemed like an eternity. All of a sudden, the announcer comes back on with a ‘We're sorry, folks, but obviously that was an incorrect read, and we apologize for the error.’ Well, my father and Tommy ran up to the tower and saw for their own eyes the 5.99 e.t. still lit up on the clock and started to ask [track manager] Steve Evans what was up. Steve came up with some story that it had to be wrong -- the sun must have been setting on the beams, triggering the error in reading -- and he was not going to allow the reading to be logged in as official. You could imagine the disappointment Vince and Tommy felt when Steve disallowed the run. One thing is for certain: This car was the unofficial first car in the fives, make no mistake about it."
The car did make it twice into the official record books. Tidwell set the national record in the car in July 1972 at Lions with a speed of 239.64, and Ongais bettered it to 243.24 at that year's Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway for the first 240-plus-mph national record. Jack Martin also drove the car, which was sponsored by popular surf-wear manufacturer Hang Ten in 1974.
The Hang Ten sponsorship came via Lisa’s clothing connections, and some may also remember the car being briefly sponsored by Vel's Parnelli Jones Ford in Torrance, Calif. Rossi was the manager of the facility at the time and had gotten co-owners Vel Miletich and Jones to sponsor the effort. According to Jim, Miletich’s sister was the business manager of the dealership and was “very, very upset that they were involving themselves in this drag racing adventure financially, so it only lasted a few short months. Vince removed their name from the car and ran on his and Tommy's own dime until Hang Ten climbed onboard the last year that we raced (1974).”
The Rossi & Lisa team also fielded a more conventional car. Recalled Jim Rossi of this dramatic Don Gillespie shot: "Brand-new car, 'the Loner' in the seat, brand-new KB complete, eating itself alive in the bleach box at Irwindale. You talk about some tight jaws that day."
Lisa and Rossi also fielded a conventional Top Fueler, which was driven by a number of shoes, including the famed “Loner," Tony Nancy.
“I lost my dad in April of ’99 and miss him terribly," continued Jim. "Ongais was a good friend of ours and very close to my dad. He came to Vel's every day, and my father would buy him lunch and shoot the bull. When my dad and Tommy quit racing in ‘74, he asked my father to hook him up with Vel and Parnelli, and they started that short-lived digger/Funny Car team, but Ongais' real passion was Indy, and that's how he got his Indy start, through that introduction to Vel and Parnelli. That digger Danny had with Vel and P.J. was the exact replica of our last digger we had in tandem with the wedge that Tony Nancy drove now and then.
“I loved every car that my father owned over the years, but the wedge is one that I can never truly get over,” he added. “This car was just a blast to roll out to the track and watch the people’s eyes pop out of their heads. My brother and I begged my father to keep the car, but he wasn't the kind of guy to hold on to things once he was done. Good ol’ Gene Beaver came in and sold both the wedge and the red car and the trailer to different people, and that was the end. I have been trying to locate this wedge for years, and according to Garlits, it’s hanging in some garage in Texas. If ya ever catch wind of where she be today, let your ol’ pal Rossi here know.”
Anyone seen it?
The Courage of Australia, fouling up the Irwindale starting line
OK, I said that we were done with rocket cars, but that was before good pal and photo ace Steve Reyes weighed in with the handful of shots in the gallery at right, the first of which shows the Courage of Australia dumping peroxide all over the starting line as outlined in Glenn Menard’s story here Friday.
Recalled Reyes, “There was rocket fuel all over everything. I was lucky and had my camera case closed, but I still got burns on my hands, and that fuel melted my tennis shoes off of my feet. Everyone on the starting line smelled like rocket fuel, and the track surface was boiling where it had received the biggest dumping of fuel. Just another fun evening at Irwindale.” (And you wonder why they were outlawed …)
“I didn’t see my ol’ buddy ‘Slammin’ Sammy’ Miller and his Rocket Vega. I believe Sam ran most of the time in Europe. I saw him in 1978 at Santa Pod. He ran over 300 mph in the four-second range that weekend. I believe he did run that car at Englishtown to check it out before shipping it to Europe.”
You can find several Miller photos in the gallery featuring his mind-blowing Vanishing Point Vega rocket Funny Car that Reyes shot in England. That’s where the car made its legendary 3.58-second pass for the ages in July 1984 that was never – and won’t ever – be bettered on the quarter-mile. That was some wild piece and some fearless pilot.
The final buzzer had sounded on my weekly hockey game. It had been a hard-fought and heated battle with our longtime nemesis, each jockeying for the top spot in our division, that ended unsatisfyingly for both in a tie. Cross words (and crossed sticks) had been exchanged, and as I skated back to my bench, the biggest, meanest, and nastiest player from the other team skated toward me, supposedly the biggest, meanest, and nastiest player on our team. We had battled throughout the game, exchanging elbows and shoves, so my guard went up. He skated right up to my face, helmet to helmet.
“Hey, that rocket-car stuff you wrote was really cool,” he said and skated off.
And so it is in the often-bizarre world of the DRAGSTER Insider, and so it is in the world of rocket-car lovers.
My friendly adversary is not the only one still expressing appreciation for our hydrogen-peroxide-powered pals based on the series of columns I wrote last month, so here’s a final wrap-up of thoughts and notes.
One of the first things I need to address is the bit of misinformation concerning Glen Blakely that I had printed in the form of a quote from “Capt. Jack” McClure, who had said that Blakely had passed away.
Glen and Steve Blakely, in 2002
I heard pretty quickly from two good sources — Blakely’s son, Steve, and noted Florida drag historian Jim Hill — that Blakely is still alive, though not necessarily well.
“My dad has not passed away but is unfortunately in a nursing home in South Florida with dementia and Parkinson's [disease],” wrote Steve. “About one year ago, I made contact with Ky [Michaelson] and let him know of my dad’s whereabouts and condition. The only person that I have not made contact with is Mr. Jack McClure.”
Hill had heard from his old high school mate and fellow former Cabriolets Road Club member and Crane Cams employee Chase Knight that Blakely was indeed still alive, although in a very diminished state.
“Chase noted that Don Garlits -- also a former Tampa native -- checks on Blakely often,” said Hill. “It's a sad situation for an early drag racer who was so successful in a variety of NHRA classes. A highly talented designer, fabricator, and weldor, Blakely spent several years working for Dan Gurney on a variety of projects, including a ‘clean sheet’ project to design and build an entire new line of modern motorcycles. Glen and his dad were every-meet competitors at East Coast NHRA events in the early and middle 1960s. I believe Glen Blakely was an inductee into the NHRA Division 2 Hall of Fame a few years ago. Deservedly so for such a highly regarded early Florida NHRA racer.”
My apologies to the Blakely family; I’ve gone back and postedited the original quote to reflect the new information.
Nick Poloson has seen his fair share of rocket cars run, including most of those shown here in previous columns. “I was at the Gatornationals when Russell Mendez crashed. He did a TV interview the day before, and he said the car handled great under power and great with the chutes out, but there was that brief transition at the finish line where the car was loose, and you know the rest. But the thing that I remember best was 'Slammin' Sammy' Miller's Vanishing Point car. We used to run at Miami-Hollywood every now and then (I lived in Sarasota, Fla., at the time), and they booked in Sammy a few times. First time, they had him match racing Al Hanna in the Eastern Raider Funny Car. They were giving Al a second and a half head start, and Sammy was driving around him before 1,000 feet. But from my visual standpoint high in the stands, and with a fuel car in the other lane, Sammy's rocket just looked smooth and gentle. A few months later, we were back there. I was going to be the next car out when they stopped us to let Sammy make a pass. I was right next to the car as they got him ready. He did his little ‘rocket pops,’ and then they staged him, and away he went. That was the most violent car on the starting line I've ever seen! When he did his ‘pops,’ the car just jumped a few feet forward ... and a few inches up in the air! When he left, it was a few inches off the ground and rocking back and forth between all four tires for the few hundred feet I could see. And it was fast! The rocket cars and karts. Had to love them!
Mike Galewski’s rocket-car memories from Minnesota Dragways include seeing Michaelson's son – aka “Captain Rollerball” with his rocket backpack on roller skates. “I saw him try to make it down the quarter-mile for the first time on roller skates. As I remember, his first attempt did not go too well, and he did not make it the full quarter-mile. I have long lost the pictures of that event but do have a couple of pictures of someone else at KCIR on a skateboard. Do not remember who the person was, but here’s a picture.”
Joe Mihms also saw his share of sideshow acts in his younger days at the old Detroit Dragway.”I remember seeing rocket cars make their passes, hitting four seconds, which was mind-boggling in the mid- to late 1970s,” he wrote. “But the most vivid memory I have was from a night at the dragway that featured all sorts of 'entertainment:' wheelie cars, the guy that blows himself up in a box, Funny Cars racing bracket racers, etc. It was sometime around 1976-77, and the feature of the night was a guy with a jet pack on his back with roller skates on. When he appeared at the starting line, the crowd went completely berserk and poured onto the track. It was complete mayhem! When they finally cleared the place and he came out again, the same thing happened. We never got to see him make his run that night, but I will never forget the spectacle. I don't know if it was Ky Michaelson's son or not, but if you have any old video of 'Captain Rollerball,' it would be great if you could post it on your website and I can finally get to see what happens!”
The footage that I know of is in this clip, on Michaelson’s YouTube page, from his appearance on the 1970s game show To Tell the Truth. It’s at about the 3:20 mark and shows his son on a short, low-speed test run down a sidewalk on 42nd Street in New York.
The first dozen photos here are from the Bruederle collection. This is Tony Fox, Dave Anderson, and the Pollution Packer.
I received a slew of rocket-car photos of all sorts, which are in the gallery at right, from my friends Mark and Laura Bruederle and Gary Newgord. There’s a wide range of stuff from a number of rocket cars, including some handout photos. Good stuff!
Tim Smalko’s first day at the drags was in Englishtown in the early 1970s, when he was an early teenager. “My cousin lived across the street from me, and I used to beg him to take me,” he remembered. “It was a Sunday early in the season, and there was an eight-car Pro Stock field – ‘Grumpy’s’ Vega ,’Fast Eddie,’ and ‘Dyno Don’ were the ones I remember – and the Pollution Packer. I remember the track announcer said, ‘Hold your ears; this thing is loud.’ Me being a kid, I said it can't be that loud and did not plug my ears during the run. The car was quiet during the run till it got past you. The noise was so loud it almost knocked me over. The car went into the fours at 311 mph.”
Michael Guziak remembers seeing McClure run his rocket kart at Orange County Int’l Raceway, although he certainly didn’t know him by that name. “At the time, our home track was ‘the Beach’ (Lions), but we weren't at the track this particular night to work on someone’s car, which was weird because there was a huge race that night. We were going to OCIR to see Some Crazy Idiot Kill Himself in a Rocket Kart. I also owned an Inglewood Enduro Kart that we raced at Willow Springs, Phoenix Int'l, and Ontario Motor Speedway. We weren't going to miss this screwball in a kart. I seem to remember he only made one pass – at night, of course! We were in the top-end stands. I wanted to see him fly away at the end of the track. We and everybody else were just jacked up as far as possible on the anticipation of the event. I mean, hey, we had seen everybody there was to see. We knew this guy was NUTS. When the time finally arrived, it was over pretty quick, just like other rocket cars we had seen, but this was special. When he pulled the chute, the front of the kart was off the ground at least what looked like 2 feet. We were blown away. He made it. The only other guy that we knew who was more daring was Pat Foster. We loved Pat (who didn't?).”
Ivan Sansom provided some updated and corrected info about the rocket scene in Europe, noting that contrary to a previous note, “Eric Teboul's bike is not the ex-Henk Vink bike, although the chassis was also built by legendary frame builder Nico Bakker. Eric has run as quick as 5.196 and produced a speed of 281 mph over the quarter and is aiming to be the first man (mad or otherwise?) into the fours on two wheels. Fellow Frenchman David Pertué now owns the ex-Sammy Miller Vanishing Point Trans Am; David is very much in the learning phase with the tweaked and renamed Hydrogen but has carded some mid-fives to date.”
And finally, Glenn Menard, a longtime track manager/operator from the Division 4 region, also had a turn behind the wheel at SoCal’s Irwindale Raceway and relates this unforgettable rocket-car story.
“The Courage of Australia rocket was purchased by Steve Evans and Bill Doner and driven by John Paxson and renamed the Armor All rocket. I believe it was early 1973. A mishap with the engine impacted the opening race in 1973, the Grand Premiere, which marked the beginning of ownership by International Raceway Parks, which bought the lease on the track from Harry Snyder of In-N-Out.
“We had a match race between Garlits and Cerny-Lins-Moody, and after one round of Top Fuel, the rocket car came up. The engine malfunctioned, spraying hydrogen peroxide all over the line, the photographers’ cases, and the grass (rocks) along trackside. This caused the accumulated rubber to bubble and burn, so the fire rig had to hose down the starting line to put out the flames. Unfortunately, this left only one lane usable for Top Fuel, and the cars could only make single runs the rest of the match. This caused Steve and I to go out that week to purchase a weed burner tank and torch on wheels so that we could dry up any water in the future. The same equipment is still used on the starting line today.
“Bernie Partridge then refused to let the rocket car run until it was repaired and we had a midweek test. On that test, the parachute malfunctioned, and the car left the property, flew into the [adjacent] Santa Fe Dam property, and had to be ‘ransomed’ from the caretaker there, a 'Whitebear.'
"I could not make this stuff up.”
So there you have it, rocket-car fans. More of what you love. Sound the final horn. This game is over, too (I think).
Photos by Jerry Foss
Celebrity roasts are always good fun, where friends and acquaintances take turns skewering the object of their affection, regaling the assembled multitudes with sordid stories, amusing anecdotes, and tall tales meant to simultaneously embarrass and fete the guest of honor.
NHRA hosted a spectacular roast Saturday night after qualifying at the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals presented by Super Start Batteries, saluting legendary “Big Daddy” Don Garlits on the occasion of his 80th birthday. The cause a great one, benefiting the Quarter Mile Foundation, a group dedicated to preserving the history of our sport through interviews with the principals involved before we lose them. Obviously, as regular readers here would guess, that’s a cause near and dear to my heart, and there was no way I was going to miss it.
The list of those doing the roasting was long and deep. Don “the Snake” Prudhomme. “TV Tommy" Ivo. Jerry “the King” Ruth. Ed Pink. Sid Waterman. Dave McClelland. Ed Iskenderian. All got their shots in at “Large Father,” but ask anyone who’s ever raced him or seen him race, he’s famous for turning the tables and should never be underestimated, and that proved true once again Saturday night. Some of the stories that were told I’d heard before or read about, and some were uniquely fresh, but the only thing that mattered was that we were getting to hear them straight from the people who lived them, which is a million times better than reading about them (which, unfortunately, is what you’re stuck with here today, but I’ll do my best to bring them to life).
Garlits may not have been much of a ho-ho kind of fun guy to be around during this racing heyday, but in his golden years, he’s become an engaging and entertaining storyteller, gifted with an extraordinary memory for details of the whats, whens, and wheres of his amazing career, and that was well on display as he used his rebuttal time after each roaster to verify or clarify their funny stories about “the Old Man” and once again come out the clear winner.
Linda Vaughn, as Marilyn Monroe, sang "Happy Birthday" to Don Garlits
I had the opportunity to sit at the roasters’ table prior to the show – don’t think I wasn’t soaking in and loving every minute of looking around the table at a walking, talking history of our sport – and they all acknowledged that nailing Garlits would be tough because, as I mentioned, he wasn’t much into humor (T.C. Lemons excepted) while he was kicking everyone’s asses, and even easy targets such as his fondness for UFOs and his alleged cache of buried silver weren’t going to help much.
I got a chance to speak one on one with several of them, and they knew what I was looking for. Pink had largely left drag racing by the time I had joined the sport’s inner sanctum, but I certainly knew who he was. I was glad to see he also knew who I am, and when he asked for my number so we could talk in depth, I couldn’t give it to him fast enough, so look for something about “the Old Master” in a future Insider column. He has a fascinating tale that extends beyond building engines for drag racing stars in the 1970s that I know is a story unto itself. I first met Waterman in Gainesville, on my first trip to the Gatornationals, where he led me through the basics of nitro fuel systems for an article for DRAGSTER, explaining to me where the check valves were and what they did, which line went where, and more, and we’ve been friends ever since. I hadn’t seen him in a while, but it didn’t take us long to get reacquainted and for him to say, “We have to get together; I have some great stories to share with you.” Sign here, Mr. Waterman.
But on with the festivities. After Linda Vaughn, in full Marilyn Monroe regalia, serenaded Garlits with a breathless “Happy birthday to you,” the song was reprised by the entire room, a cake was cut, and the roasting began.
The ever-humble “King,” Ruth, went first. Working off notes scrawled onto a legal pad in the three days since he had been asked to take part, the self-acknowledged “word guy” drew on a series of adjectives to describe Garlits: “Dedicated: Yeah, he’s done this for more than 50 years and did some great things while he was doing it. Focused: Yeah, he did nothing but that; he lived, breathed, and ate it. Persistent: Yep, some things were hard to beat, and he beat ‘em. Innovative: The rear-engine car, he wasn’t the first one to have one, but he made it work. Cagey: If you raced Don Garlits and didn’t get him early in the race, he was very hard to beat because he got better as we went along, Social: Yep, lots of fans and friends. Emphatic: He talks with conviction, affection, and speaks loud. Controversial: Yep, his decisions are what he thinks they should be, and sometimes they’re different. Opinionated: Much like myself, if you ask Don about anything, he has an opinion on it. It’s not always what you agree on, but he does have an opinion. He likes to know what he’s talking about.”
That launched Ruth into a story he’d heard about Garlits and his late crew chief Herb Parks, in Bradenton, Fla., that ended up with Garlits climbing out of his still-rolling car on the return road in mid-argument and getting run over by the rear tire. “Herb was a big guy -- 6-four, 230, much larger than ‘Large Father' -- I think Don pretended to get hurt so Herb wouldn’t really hurt him, and an ambulance came and took him off to safety,” he chortled.
When Garlits took the mike, he put it all into context. It was 1981, the season after an unsuccessful year with the experimental thick-bodied Godzilla car. “Herb’s salary was [largely] based upon how many wins we got, and we won nothing in 1980, so Herb was really down on his money,” Garlits explained. “We built this new car, and I was very proud of it. Herb was pulling the car way too fast [down the return road] and sand was going on my face, so I pulled the brakes, and the tow strap broke and put a big dent in the cowl. I was fuming and cussing. I got into the front seat of the truck and kicked out the window on my side. Herb took his fist and knocked off the mirror of the tow truck on the driver’s side.
“I mean, this is a really serious situation. First, you have to understand how tough Herb was. In Kansas City, a guy came up to me and told me I had to move my rig. I was unpackaging a rear end and didn’t pay much attention. He said, ‘Listen to me Garlits, you have to move this rig right now or I’m going to beat the s—t out of you.’ I didn’t even look up, but out of the corner of my eye, I saw these two hands, and it was Herb. He grabbed this guy by the throat and picked him up off the ground. His feet were dangling, and Herb just choked him until he went unconscious.
“Anyway, [in Bradenton] Herb walked off to the center of a field, and as we drove by him, he waved something at me, and I flipped him the bird, and here the son of a bitch comes. I mean, this is a mad man. He came right up to the car, and I jumped out of the cockpit and fell right in front of the wheel. Of course, the guy who was towing me couldn’t see it because Herb had broken off the mirror, and it ran right over me. It broke vertebrae in my back; I could hear it pop when it ran over me. The entire situation changed there. Herb picked me up and took me to the hospital. I spent the night in the hospital.”
Pink, who recently celebrated his own 80th birthday, was up next and reminded Garlits that despite his ability to run quicker than everyone, it took him 80 years to get to 80, just like everyone else.
He then proceeded to tell a funny story about sharing a ride with Garlits in the early 1960s from Southern California to Half Moon Bay in Northern California, where both of their cars were running. “T.C. had taken the car up there, and Don had no way to get there, and they asked if I would take him with me. On the way up, I worked him over trying to get speed secrets, and all he’d tell me was what a nice drive it was and how bad my truck was running. When we got to Half Moon Bay, I yelled over to T.C., ‘He didn’t tell me a damned thing; don’t worry about it.’ From that point on, T.C. and I were good pals until the time he passed on.”
Pink also reminisced about racing at the 1967 NHRA Springnationals in Bristol, where he had four engine customers qualified in the field: Prudhomme in Lou Baney’s Ford-powered dragster, Tom McEwen in Don “the Beachcomber” Johnson’s car, Bub Reese in Jim and Alison Lee’s Great Expectations, and Al Friedman in the Wheeler Dealer. Late in qualifying, Garlits was not in the show and went over and told Pink, “ ‘Old Master,’ I need you to come rub on my engine. I need to get qualified.’ I told him, ‘I wish it was that easy.’ "
Garlits remembered it, too; it planted the seed for building the car in which he famously won that year’s Nationals and famously shaved his beard after finally running in the sixes. “All of Ed’s cars were in the sixes, and I think it only took a 7.50 to make the show. But our car was a couple of years old and was heavy, so I told my guys, ‘We gotta get out of here and build a new car.’ We started out the gate, and McEwen and [Connie] Kalitta asked where we were going. I told them we were going to build a new car, and McEwen just started laughing. Kalitta said, ‘Don’t do that, McEwen … you never know what he might do.’ We went home and in 72 hours built the car that won Indianapolis. It was 1,150 pounds, won a two-out-of-three with the Hawaiian in Muncie Ind., and went on to Indy and went 6.77. It was that race and those cars that inspired us to do that.”
Garlits, of course, always built his own engines but did admit there was a time that he thought about getting “a California engine.”
“I called Ed and asked him to build me a real nice short block for a 426, so he put one together, but what he didn’t realize was that I was only running a 15-gallon [per-minute] pump; this thing probably should have had a 20-gallon pump. I dropped it in the car and made one pass – during a tire test in Indianapolis for Goodyear – and burned it to the ground. It was horrible. It even ruined my heads. I put it back on the skid it had come on and sent it back to Ed Pink, collect.”
He then turned to Pink and said, “Ed, I apologize for that.”
Garlits also thanked Pink for sending him a lot of old 392 pieces for the “live” engines that are in his cars at his museum, “stuff you just can’t find anymore, like rockers and rocker shafts,” he acknowledged.
Ivo, eyes gleaming in anticipation, was ready next. Now, anyone who knows Ivo knows that he was a master practical joker in his prime and that he’s still as mischievous as ever – he often signs his emails “Your hero and mine, Tommy Ivo” -- and he couldn’t wait to share his list of Garlits pranks.
“Garlits,” he smirked to the audience. “How’d you like to make your living racing this guy 50 times a year? He used to drive me crazy with his flying-saucer stories. He’d say, ‘Look over there; there’s two of them!’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah! Yeah!’ even though a week before that I’d have thought they were airplanes. He told me, ‘I’m not the practical joker kind of guy’ ... well, he didn’t know who he was dealing with.”
Ivo shared a great story about their trip to England in 1964 as part of a special NHRA exhibition event. Ivo noticed that young, inexperienced drivers on the street were required to place a giant decal with the letter L on their cars to let everyone know they were still learning how to drive. Ivo somehow acquired a couple of the stickers and snuck over and plastered them on Garlits’ dragster.
“The next morning, I didn’t hear a thing and wondered if he’d seen them yet,” he remembered. “Just about this time, this giant mushroom cloud appeared on the other side of the pits, and I knew he’d seen it. Yesssss! I got him again!
“Another time, when we first had zoomie headers, I tippy-toed over to his pit when no one was around and filled his headers with confetti. We were still push [-starting] the cars at the time, so when he came flying down the return road and let out the clutch, the whole world turned to confetti. It scared the heck out of him. Yesssss! I got him again!
“It wasn’t all just practical jokes. I liked to get into his head. One time we were racing at Pomona. He was running a little better than I was, so I figured I needed an edge. I went over and told him that I’d caught a piston on that run, so keep an eye on me in case I start drifting towards him. We used to tape up our [valve cover] breathers with rags to keep the oil in, and he looked over at my engine, and, sure enough, I had it all taped up. Just to put the icing on the cake, I took a can of STP and poured it into one of my headers. When we went into stage, he looked over, and white smoke was just barreling out of the engine. He bought it hook, line, and sinker. No one ever accused Garlits of being the sharpest knife in the drawer. He did a nice easy leave because he didn’t want to red-light away a sure win; I was off like a jackrabbit and put him on the trailer with a slower e.t. Yesssss! I got him again!”
Ivo claims his biggest and greatest shot at Garlits was the famous incident at the Hot Rod Reunion at National Trail Raceway when he rear-ended Garlits during the pre-Cacklefest fire-up down the track. The story, as it’s been told by others, was that unknown to Garlits, who was used to having the last car fired, Ivo's was the last car down. Garlits slowed to acknowledge the fans, and Ivo couldn’t see him because of the big supercharger blocking his view, and the two collided. Ivo’s version was a bit different.
“That was my cover story,” said Ivo. “How often do you get the Swamp Rat dead in the water right in front of you, right in your crosshairs? I took full advantage of it and made roadkill out of Garlits. Yesssss!”
Taking the mike, Garlits merely pointed out the difference in damage between his mildly dented car and Ivo’s mangled front end and left it to the howling audience to determine who had won that one.
Of the thousands of times the two raced, one match with Ivo stands out for Garlits. They were running in Muncie, and as he approached the starting line, rain began to dot Garlits’ goggles and got progressively worse as he moved to the line. Ivo, on the other hand, seemed to have no qualms and staged his car. With rain pouring down, Garlits finally shut off his engine on the line and watched Ivo make a great run and thought Ivo must be crazy to run in that rain. He climbed out of his car and realized that, somehow, it had only been raining on his lane. “I’ve never seen anything like that happen in my life,” said a still-perplexed Garlits.
With his years of public speaking, McClelland needed no notes to work from as he lauded Garlits, acknowledging that it was Garlits who was key to his introduction to drag race announcing. In 1959, the golden-throated McClelland was working in radio and television, and it was at a race in Carlisle, Ark., that he saw Art Malone driving Garlits’ car (Garlits was still recovering from burns from his fire in Chester, S.C.) in a match race against Eddie Hill. McClelland was stunned that there was no one on the PA system talking about this great racer and his story. He mentioned to the track manager how weird that seemed and offered his services.
“He intimidated the racers, guys like Tommy Ivo and Jerry Ruth and Don Prudhomme and anyone who was in competition with him, and I’d sit back in amazement of how he could manipulate their thinking. Then I realized that he was even doing it to announcers, but that day led to my 53-year involvement with the sport of drag racing. I have explored my options and figured I could either attempt to kick his ass, I could send him the bill for my next set of hearing aids, or I could do this …” And with that, he leaned over and planted a big ol’ kiss on Garlits' forehead. “This has been the greatest 53 years of my life, so thank you, ‘Big,’ from the bottom of my heart.”
McClelland also admitted that he’d sent funds to support Garlits' run for the House of Representatives in the 1990s, if only for the opportunity to someday watch Garlits on C-SPAN talking to the House about aliens.
Garlits, used to good-natured ribbing about his extraterrestrial passion, relayed the quote he’d given to his local paper a number of years ago when asked about his belief in UFOs: “I don’t believe in aliens. I know about them. I’ve seen the sons of bitches.” Again, Garlits got the bigger laugh.
Iskenderian, the legendary 90-year-old “Camfather,” spoke at length about his long relationship with Garlits in the 1960s, a partnership and successes that were the staple of tons of full-page advertisements in all of the drag racing publications. “He became very valuable to us, and I think [our ads] also helped get him some bookings,” he said before beginning the long and twisting story of Garlits’ famous short-term defection to the Florida-based Giovannoni cams camp in 1959 with Swamp Rat 1-B, for which Garlits was offered the unheard-of sum of $10,000 when Isky was paying him $1,000.
“Don told me, ‘I’ve been trying to get the nerve to call you for five days. There’s a $5,000 cashier’s check sitting on my desk and I get $5,000 more six months from now.’ "
Isky decided to do some investigating of his own and dropped by Giovannoni’s shop in Daytona Beach, but the shop was locked up tight. “There was a sign on the door that said, ‘If you want to buy a camshaft, come down to the Old Timers beer bar, and we’ll open up for you.' I said, ‘Boy, I don’t have to worry about Giovannoni.’ He went to the top so fast that he lost interest in it. Garlits never got the second $5,000.”
Garlits got up to fill in the blanks.
“I have to tell you that back then, there were no sponsorships like we have today. You might get a free camshaft or pushrods or you got some free spark plugs or a set of M&H tires, and this was good because it didn’t cost much to run these cars. When I got the call from Giovannoni and he said he’d give me $10,000 to change cams -- now, in 1959, $10,000 was a lot of money. You could buy two homes. It’d be like a quarter of a million dollars today. I called up Ed and told him what was going on, and he told me he couldn’t pay me $10,000 and that I should take Giovannoni’s money. Now the good thing about this is that the California cam grinders had just been sitting on their keisters, and Giovannoni did something to his cam, and the car ran real good. We came out to Bakersfield and ran 185.56 for a new world record and went to Fremont and went 187.10 for another world record, and the California cam grinders realized that this idiot from Florida must know something, so they all got on their camshaft programs and put together some pretty good camshafts, Then Giovannoni decided he didn’t like the business anymore, went back to Washington and opened some restaurants, and that was the last anyone ever heard of him. It’s the funniest thing I ever heard. Ed and I were on the outs for a number of years after that, and I was sorry for that because, philosophically speaking, all the money in the world isn’t worth your friendship. I would like to publicly apologize to Mr. Ed Iskenderian for changing camshafts.”
Waterman was next and opened by admitting that in 1960, while working as the finish-line judge at Fremont Raceway, he had intentionally robbed Garlits of a victory against Chris Karamesines. This was in the days before electronic beams chose a race winner and a human being at the finish line would wave a flag one way or the other to signal which lane he thought had won.
“But it was a really close race; you’d hold the flag a certain way and it was a tie, and they’d have to run again,” he explained. “Well, ‘the Old Man’ came across the finish line first, but it was a really good race, but I decided I wanted to see them race again, so I held the flag straight up. I was the guy, Don."
He also shared the tale from his youth about working for Mickey Thompson, who asked him to make a piston delivery to Garlits in Fontana, Calif. “I said, ‘Wow! A chance to meet Don Garlits! It was not an easy drive in those days because there were no freeways, but I finally got there and walked up to him all excited about meeting Don Garlits. He was at this old gas station, so I walk up to him, and he says to me, ‘About goddamn time you got here!’ That was my first meeting with Don.
Waterman then proceeded to talk about the 1973 AHRA Top Fuel championship battle, which came down to Garlits and John Wiebe. As Wiebe was leading the points, he suffered a broken leg in his infamous two-car tangle with Jeb Allen at Tulsa, and it looked as if his title hopes were over. Top Fuel aces James Warren and Roger Coburn were good customers of Waterman’s at the time, and, in what has to be the first (and likely only) time this had happened, Warren was allowed to run for and earn points for Wiebe.
“Kenny Youngblood lettered their car to say John Wiebe went to Orange County and we kicked their butts; it wasn’t even a contest,” recalled Waterman, “and Garlits went absolutely berserk. Garlits complained to [AHRA President] Jim Tice, and he agreed that they’d make [the season finale] in Fremont a double points race. We went up there, and Warren & Coburn – I mean, Wiebe – set low e.t. and won the first two rounds to get to the final against Garlits, and whoever won the race would win the championship. Warren had smoked the main bearing the round before and hadn’t changed motors; Garlits won the race and the championship, and as I was walking to the phone to call John Wiebe and tell him that Garlits had won the championship, Garlits looks at me and says, ‘Waterman … all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Wiebe together again!’ "
Garlits had a funny comeback about Waterman’s time building pistons for Thompson.
“Mickey said to me, ‘These Pontiac engines are just as good as the Hemi engines; I’ll tell you what: I’ll have my guys put together a Pontiac engine that you could put your blower and injector on, and we’ll put it in Swamp Rat III, and we’ll go out to Long Beach [Lions Drag Strip], and we’ll make test runs,' so we did that. It ran just a goofy time, nowhere near what the Hemi was running. So Mickey would call back to Sid, ‘Make some new pistons, different compression ratio,’ and they’d have to make them from scratch in just a few hours and bring them out to us. We did that for a whole week, and it never even got close to what the Hemi could run.”
And then it was “the Snake’s” turn, and just as he was on the starting line throughout his career, Prudhomme was not intimidated. He'd himself been roasted at his surprise 70th birthday party last year and was not thrown by having to go last and follow the previous acts, though he did admit to being intimidated about running Garlits in 1966.
“When I first met Garlits, I was a little intimidated by him because he was about 10 years older than me. I’m 20, and he’s 30. We were racing at Union Grove, Wis., and coming down to the final round. I was driving the B&M Torkmaster car, and this was it, for all the money, and we didn’t care about lights or anything like that at night. You could see OK. So we’re going down there, and, apparently, I got over into his lane and ran him off the track. I dunno; all I know is that the win light came on in my lane. Garlits was ranting and raving and just screaming at me at the other end. I was just this young kid, and I was so embarrassed; 'Oh my God, what am I going to do?' So all the way back to the pits, I could hear him screaming, ‘He tried to kill me; he tried to kill me,’ and the spectators were booing me. I ran up to ‘the Greek,’ who was taking care of me back then and letting me run out of his shop, and said, ‘Greek, what do I do?’
“He said, ‘Aw, eff him,’ so I always had that attitude towards him.”
The room erupted into laughter. And then he continued.
“But I tell you, he was a weird dude. He used to have these bones or something hanging from the rearview mirror in his truck. So I was sitting in the truck with him one day, and I said, ‘What the s--- is this?’ He said, ‘Let me tell you something, 'Snake.' When I rub those things, I can make a guy lose a race.’ He said, ‘But you gotta be careful; if you rub them too much, you could hurt somebody.”
More peals of laughter. “The Snake” was slaying ‘em.
“He never had a sense of humor. He’s OK now, but in the old days, no; nor did I,” he admitted. “Yeah, I’ve heard that before …
“But he’s pretty amazing. He set the example for me. I followed him. What Garlits did, I would do. He showed me how to be a champion, how to work hard. He could take a piece of pipe, weld it together, build the engine, drive the car, take it to the track, all by himself. To me, he’s the greatest drag racer of all time.”
Even as Prudhomme was reveling in the good job he’d done, Garlits stepped to the microphone and said, ‘Boy, I’ve got some ‘Snake’ stories. … He’s ferocious. We had some match races that were unbelievable.”
Key among those memories was the event at Half Moon Bay for the No. 1 spot on the Drag Racing magazine list. Garlits won the event and the big winner’s trophy, to which, much to his chagrin, had already been affixed a plaque bearing Prudhomme’s name.
“They had to take the plate off the big trophy and put it on the small trophy,” he remembered, “but I was so excited about winning the race I drove out and was halfway to Los Angeles before I realized I had forgotten to get my $2,000. Two or three hours later, I drive back into the track, and there was [track operator] Jim McLennen and everyone just laughing at me.
“The funniest thing was the trophy girl, who was the cutest thing you’d ever laid your eyes on, had to kiss the winner, and you can see in the picture that she ain’t that happy about it. You could tell she’d have rather kissed ‘the Snake.’ "
He went on to report that three years ago, an elderly woman walked into his museum and asked about the trophy and the photo, and it was the trophy girl. “It was mind-boggling,” he said. “She didn’t look as good then.”
The same certainly can’t be said for Garlits, who looks, acts, and speaks as good as ever. For all of the tumultuous years that he had battling NHRA and its founder and president, Wally Parks, Garlits is thankful for his current relationship with the sanctioning body and thanked them for hosting the roast.
“I can’t say enough about the new NHRA management,” he said in his closing comments. ”I was telling my friend in the stands today how much I enjoy coming out, and 10 years ago, I just didn’t enjoy it. I just felt an animosity, and that’s completely gone. I take my hat off to [President] Tom Compton. He’s a really great guy. In all of the years that I’ve done business with the National Hot Rod Association, I never had a call from Wally Parks, but Tom Compton has called me several times. That says a lot. Wally and I had a lot of differences and fights because we had our own ideas about things, but that’s all gone now. I need this because I’m part of drag racing, and NHRA is drag racing. I really feel comfortable about it.”
It was a great evening of fun and camaraderie, enjoyed by one and all. I hope I get invited to his 90th birthday.
For more information about the Quarter Mile Foundation and Project 1320, log on to www.project1320.com/.