In the early 1970s, I was a newly minted teenager in junior high, trying to impress the girls by styling in bell-bottom pants. Meanwhile, miles away geographically but never far from my brain, Top Fuel was going through its own fashion-statement experiment with the addition of front-wheel enclosures – alternately known as fairings or, more colorfully, wheel pants – to numerous cars. Although anyone who saw them won’t soon forget them and might tend to think that they were a widespread phenomenon, their actual number was limited to just about 25 cars in about a three- or four-year span before they were outlawed by NHRA.

They certainly looked sexy, and despite some proclamations that they were nothing more than “eyeball aero” or a fashion statement, one could easily understand the logic behind adding a knifepoint covering to the tires to complement any other swoopy nosework on a dragster. The fact that the rapidly rotating tires create a significant air disturbance – the top of the tires reportedly are traveling at more than twice the speed of the car – was vividly borne out more than a decade later when at the 1985 U.S. Nationals “Big Daddy” Don Garlits observed Top Fuel cars disturbing the rice-hull-ash residue from an oildown cleanup 20 to 30 feet in front of the car, which led to his covering his front tires the next year with a full nosepiece on Swamp Rat XXX, leading to his breaking of the 270-mph barrier just two years after 260 had been topped (whereas it had taken nine years to go from 250 to 260).

Although widely associated with the rear-engine-dragster design, wheel pants were actually on land-speed king Craig Breedlove’s enclosed-cockpit Spirit of America slingshot in 1964 shown at right.

I can’t pin down who first ran them on a rear-engine car, but certainly there was no bigger advocate than “TV Tommy" Ivo, who made hundreds of runs with them on a number of his cars yet, ironically, suffered perhaps the most famous top-end tumble of a car running wheel pants when he flipped his beautiful car during qualifying at the 1974 Winternationals. To this day, he says that the wheel pants had nothing to do with the accident, but after crashes involving the pants-wearing Top Fuelers of Dick LaHaie and Don Roberts and the fatal accident involving Russell Mendez’s similarly equipped Free Spirit rocket dragster at the 1975 Gatornationals, NHRA outlawed the devices at the end of the 1976 season.

The knock against the wheel pants seemed an obvious one, that they would act as rudders in a crosswind and point the car in the direction of the wind, but – and I’m no aerodynamicist – that would only seem to be true if there were more area in front of the axle than behind it, which did not seem to be the case in photos I have studied. With more side area behind the center point, theoretically they would steer into the wind and be self-centering (as described in the Drag Racing USA story on the wheel-pants-equipped Barry Setzer monocoque dragster).

Steve Reyes photo

I have heard several tales of drivers turning their front tires in mid-wheelstand to direct their cars, so I can see that side of the coin as well, that once a car was off a straight line, the wheel pants might exacerbate the situation, with air pressure on the side of the pants making it hard for a driver to fight the tires straight.

It only took the experimentive-by-nature Garlits one pass, during qualifying at the 1973 Winternationals, with wheel pants to decide that he didn’t need any more experimentation.

“I had Nye Frank make me up a nice set, and I put them on for my first run in Pomona,” Garlits said. “I knew everything about that car, everything it would do, but on that first pass, I went to make a little correction at the finish line, and the car just darted over toward the guardrail because those things were like rudders. I took them off right away. I still have them – they’re sitting right next to the car in the museum – but I never ran them again.”

Tommy Ivo ran wheel pants on his Top Fuelers for three seasons, including 1973 (above) and 1975 (below; Reyes photos), for hundreds of runs and only crashed once, at the 1974 Winternationals (bottom; Paul Sadler photo).

Ivo’s crash, a year later in Pomona, got much play thanks to a brilliant color-photo sequence by Paul Sadler. Ivo had run the wheel pants without issue in 1973, but the sight of the car up on two wheels with those fairings seemingly pointing the way to the guardrail looked like Exhibit A in their guilt, but that was far from the case, according to Ivo.

“I ran [wheel pants] on three different rear-engine dragsters for three seasons,” said Ivo. “I ran about 250 to 300 runs a season, depending on how many rainouts we had. I ran my first Woody [Gilmore-built] car with no wheel pants for a full season. I then took that same car and painted it blue and just put the wheel pants on, with a flared-out nosepiece, and ran it another 250-plus runs. I ran both of them in all kinds of conditions. Short, narrow, rough, crosswinds, rain, and just about anything else you can think of and never could tell one iota of difference between them.

“The wheel pants absolutely had nothing to do with [the Pomona crash],” said Ivo adamantly. “I have step-by-step pictures of the pants in perfect line during the entire crash. We had mounted the wing lower on the car to give it a more paper-dart look. My chassis builder [Larry Sikora] had come up with the idea, and it seemed like a good one to me. When the engine blew up, I started to slightly slip to the side from running over the oil [and the fact that the huge fire behind the car sucked up the air, holding the rear wing down].

“As I lifted my foot off the gas pedal, it was as though it had a string tied to the right rear wheel, and the reverse torque of the motor barrel-rolled it over to the left. We kept the cockpit and front- and rear-ended it, just exactly as it was before the crash. We ran it for about another four or five races before I put the pants back on again. Nope -- no difference whatsoever. Another season with no difference with them on or off of the car. The next year, we ran them on the Rod Shop dragster for yet another 250-plus-run season: nothing.”

Others weren’t so lucky.

LaHaie’s Top Fueler and Mendez’s rocket car, both equipped with the wheel fairings, crashed at the 1975 Gatornationals, and LaHaie crashed another wheel-pants car later that year in Indy, but LaHaie, like Ivo, is firm in his belief that the wheel pants had nothing to do with either.

LaHaie’s Gainesville crash came on the first pass in a new car – he had run the NHRA and AHRA Winternationals with a heavy car (also with wheel pants) but had a new one built for the Gatornationals – when the throttle stuck. Thinking quickly, LaHaie depressed the clutch, blowing the engine on purpose, then grabbed for the chute. An already tricky situation got even worse when the face shield blew off of his helmet. The car veered out of control and crashed heavily, tearing off his left hand (fortunately for him, a group of medically trained Vietnam veterans were in Gainesville teaching limb replacement and surgically reattached it) and breaking his right arm.

Car builder Glen Blakely, left, driver Russell Mendez, and the wheel-pants-equipped Free Spirit rocket dragster.

Mendez was not near as fortunate; his dragster made a hard right turn in the lights and plowed into the guardrail, killing him instantly (ironically, 37 years ago to this day, March 16, 1975). I’ve read reports, and there’s quite a debate among “experts” about what caused the usually stable car to veer out of control. Some blame the newly added wheel pants, others blame the effects of reconfiguring its fuel-bottle layout during the winter in a way that changed its center of gravity. Garlits has no doubts: “There’s no way a car could make a 90-degree turn like it made with those wheel pants,” he told me in Gainesville last weekend.

A month later, on a windy April 20, East Coast veteran Roberts got his first and last pass in the wheel-pants-equipped Jade Grenade Top Fueler at New England Dragway, where he lost control and crashed, fracturing his leg so severely that doctors were forced to amputate it below the knee. (After which Roberts was famously quoted, “It wasn’t a bad run, but after the third flip, I lost control.”)

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Dick LaHaie lost a tire coming into the lights at the 1975 U.S. Nationals and crashed heavily.
LaHaie had a new car built – still equipped with wheel pants – and debuted it a week before the U.S. Nationals at U.S. 30 Dragstrip and won the event, but on his third qualifying run in Indy, the left rear tire started to go away on a 6.16, 236-mph pass.

“I remember the feeling like it was yesterday,” LaHaie told me, well, yesterday. "I felt it shudder as it was coming up to the lights, like it was wadding up on itself. It blew the inner liner, and the tire got all crazy, and over it went. There wasn’t anything I could do about it."

LaHaie lost three toes (two of which were successfully reattached) and broke his right arm again in the accident but came back to race again the next season. He even credited the wheel pants with making the car more steerable when it carried the front end due to a problem with the front spoiler and said that he asked NHRA for permission to test them on Scott Kalitta’s championship-winning dragsters in the mid-1990s. “NHRA didn’t want any part of that,” he said.

I asked longtime friend Carl Olson why he and Mike Kuhl, both of whom were recently inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame, never experimented with wheel pants on their Kuhl & Olson Top Fuel entries.

“We didn't put front wheel pants on the K&O car for any number of reasons,” he explained. “Checking and servicing the front tires and wheels was a major issue. We liked to check the tire pressures on a regular basis, and getting to the valve stem was a big hassle with the pants installed. The complexity of installing and maintaining the pants was another issue. Weight was also a consideration, as we didn't run any ballast on the front end when we first went to the mid-engine car and always wanted to keep things as light as possible. We really didn't think the streamlining of the front wheels was much of an advantage, and we believed that the pants increased the frontal area enough to offset any advantage the streamlining may have provided. Finally, we were essentially budget racers and felt that the expense of the pants was difficult to justify with so many other areas in which to invest that had greater potential for improved results.
“As time went on, I observed that the pants were creating handling problems. Those were my personal observations. While I never had direct conversations with any of the drivers using the pants, I did hear some of their concerns through the grapevine. The incident that convinced me that the pants were downright dangerous was LaHaie's terrible crash at the U.S. Nationals. I observed that crash from a vantage point near the finish line and was convinced that Dick had struggled to keep the car pointed in the direction he wanted it to go. At that point in time, I did approach my contacts at the NHRA to voice my concerns and learned that they were already on the same page. Shortly thereafter, the pants were outlawed, much to my relief.”

(Interestingly, Olson helped LaHaie when the Division 3 driver's commission sought to revoke LaHaie’s license after two crashes in one season. “They felt his Indy crash was the result of his poor driving and judgment and that his injuries were so severe that he'd never be able to safely control a dragster,” remembered Olson. “I interceded on his behalf, provided my observations of his crash and subsequent study of the photos and felt that he would never get into a race car if he wasn't convinced that he was physically capable of driving it. They allowed him to keep his license, and he went on to be a champion and one of drag racing's greatest drivers. I've always been glad that I was able to help him continue on in the sport he loved so much.”)

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Steve Reyes photo
Mike Snively in Jim Annin's five-second barrier breaker
I’d already heard so many times that 1975’s incidents provided the ammunition for NHRA to outlaw the wheel pants beginning with 1976 that it had become a de facto truth in my head (and in many of yours), so I figured that a quick tour through the final few 1975 issues of National DRAGSTER would yield the official announcement, but that wasn’t so.

A “We’ve Come A Long Way!” 25-year NHRA anniversary ad that appeared in the third issue of 1976 showcased the Pat Dakin-driven G.L. Rupp dragster wearing wheel pants, and Dakin’s car and that of Steve Stephens both competed at that year’s inaugural Cajun Nationals (April 23-25) with the wheel pants in place. Once I got halfway through the year, I decided to jump straight to the end and, sure enough, in the Nov. 19, 1976, issue was the proclamation “wheel fairings will not be allowed in 1977.” More revisionist history, eh? There was no explanation for the rule change and, to my knowledge, no other wheel-pants-equipped-dragster crashes in 1976, so it may have been that NHRA gave the teams a one-year grace period through 1976.

Concluded Olson, “I really think that some racers purchased and installed them because they just looked cool, while others (like Warren & Coburn) were convinced that they provided a performance advantage. All in all, it was an interesting chapter in dragster evolution and proved the point that not every idea that came down the road in those days was a good one. In my opinion, that was what was so great about that era of drag racing in that there was always serious experimenting going on, and you never knew what was going to work and what wasn't until you tried it.”

 Top Fuel cars with wheel pants: A list compiled by Mark Gredzinski
 Lisa & Rossi  Warren & Coburn  Mike Snively/Jim Annin  Jade Grenade
 Tommy Ivo  John Austin/Hot Tuna  California Charger  Barry Setzer
 Don Garlits  Pat Dakin/G.L. Rupp  Terry Capp/Wheeler Dealer  Bob Williams
 Dick LaHaie  Danny Ongais/Vels Parnelli Jones  Craig Breedlove (slingshot)  Johnny Abbott
 Poncho Rendon  Stephens & Venables/Quicksilver  Bob Holley/American Express  Gary Dye
 Vern/Bruce Hagestad  Tony Froome/Sundowner (England)  Bob Beaulieu/Eastern Raider  Mark Howick


The first 300Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Two weeks from today will mark the 20th anniversary of the breaking of one of drag racing’s great barriers, Kenny Bernstein’s shattering of the 300-mph plateau at the 1992 Gatornationals. While it took 15 years – 1960 to 1975 -- to go from 200 to 250, it took just 17 to go the next 50 to 300, a pretty amazing feat given that it’s accepted that it becomes exponentially more difficult to overcome the forces of nature – most acutely, aerodynamic drag -- the faster you go.

I remember that although it was a much-anticipated barrier breaking, it wasn’t expected, at least not that early in the decade. The handwriting was surely on the wall but had only been penciled in by hopefuls like me. And with good reason.

After Don Garlits recorded the first 250-mph pass at the 1975 season finale in Ontario, Calif., there was a period of speed stagnation in Top Fuel. No one – not even “Big Daddy” – topped 250 mph in 1976 (Shirley Muldowney’s 249.30 was the year’s fastest speed), and there were fewer than a dozen 250-mph passes through the end of the decade. In fact, it took a whopping seven years for all 16 places in NHRA’s 250-mph club to be filled. By the end of the next year, 1983, the best speed was just 257.87 mph (run by both Muldowney, in Gainesville, and Jody Smart, at the IHRA event in Bristol).

Using a design suggested by IndyCar engineer Eldon Rasmussen, Joe Amato crew chief Tim Richards (above left) mounted a wing higher than and further behind the rear wheels than ever seen, taking advantage of the simple principle of leverage to get downforce without drag. (Below) Amato and Richards made history as the first to exceed 260 and, later, the first over 280 mph.

Then came 1984 and the introduction by Joe Amato and crew chief Tim Richards of the now-mandatory laid-back tall rear wing that took advantage of leverage to provide ample downforce with less drag and quickly pushed Amato past the 260-mph mark at that year’s Gatornationals (are you sensing a trend here surrounding Gainesville?).

As Top Fuel racers experimented with small front tires, bigger rear wings, cockpit canopies, ground effects, and full and partial streamliner bodies, the speed record shot up. Garlits broke the 270-mph mark just two years later -- again in Gainesville – with his spoon-nosed, enclosed-cockpit Swamp Rat XXX, and just a year and a half later, Amato became the first to exceed 280 during qualifying at the 1987 U.S. Nationals. A year and a half after that, at the 1989 Winternationals, Connie Kalitta became the first to crack 290 mph. By year’s end, the late Gary Ormsby had pushed his Lee Beard-tuned Castrol GTX dragster to 294.88 mph in Dallas. By the end of 1990, Ormsby had run 296.05 mph, in Topeka that September.

Although the numbers continued to creep upward, the pace slowed. Logic almost demanded it. What people forget is that with Ormsby’s passing the next year, so seemed to die the hopes for a swift overtaking of the 300-mph mark. The best run of 1991 was just 293.15 by Don Prudhomme; “the Snake” also had the next two best runs, 292.11 and 291.45.

At the end of 1991, Bernstein and crew chief Dale Armstrong made a canny move, hiring Wes Cerny, who had tuned Roland Leong’s Jim White-driven Hawaiian Punch Funny Car to that class’ first 290-mph run earlier that season. Cerny’s cylinder-head knowledge and extensive work in the magneto department immediately paid dividends.

In Houston, at the event just prior to the Gatornationals, Bernstein ran 296.93 mph despite dropping a couple of cylinders. At the same event, Mike Dunn ran 297.12, the fastest pass in drag racing history, and Pat Austin reset the national record to 295.27. Suddenly it was game on for Target: 300 as NHRA’s media blitz went into overdrive.

At first, all was relatively quiet in Gainesville. Austin reset the track record to 292.39 during Thursday's qualifying, breaking Bernstein’s 289.57 from 1991. Bernstein's best pass was just 291.26. Not much happened in Friday’s first qualifying session, either, but Bernstein was in the first pair of cars down the racetrack in the second of two qualifying sessions that day.

As Wes Cerny, left, and Dale Armstrong looked on, Kenny Bernstein made drag racig history March 20, 1992, with the first 300-mph pass.
Bernstein and crew accepted a $50,000 award for the feat.

At 4:44 p.m. March 20, Bernstein and qualifying mate Al Segrini left the line together. Segrini’s mount was quickly up in smoke, giving Bernstein the stage all to himself. Just 4.823 seconds after leaving the starting line, he not only had recorded the quickest e.t. in class history, but also its first 300-mph pass.

"The car left good and was running hard in the middle of the track, but the engine got a little sour right in the lights," said Bernstein. "Normally, I would have lifted, but I told myself to drive it all the way out the back door because it might be the run. I didn't care if it dropped cylinders or not. I knew I was going pretty fast because I had to drive farther than I normally do to make the turnoff."

(Bernstein was dead-on -- a cylinder stopped firing four-tenths of a second, or about 200 feet, before the finish line.
"I didn't really want to tell anyone that it had dropped a cylinder and still ran 300 because everyone will say, 'Yeah, right,' but it did," Armstrong confided.)

Bernstein (as you will read later) initially didn’t know he had made history but made it official when he backed up the 301.70 for the national record with a 299.30-mph blast in the quarterfinals of Sunday's eliminations after running 298.30 in the first round. Bernstein ran 300 mph twice more that season, in Englishtown (300.40) and Indy (301.20), and it was almost 11 months later, in February 1993, before someone else – Doug Herbert at the Winternationals – also recorded a 300-mph pass.

Since then, 300 has become a common occurrence in both nitro classes – the first 300-mph Funny Car pass was at the end of 1993, in Topeka – but the first one is the one that people will always remember.

"Being the crew chief on the first car to run 300 means more to me than any national event win or any Winston championship," Armstrong said at the time. "There isn't any question at all. People will forget what years we won the Winston championship, but they'll never forget when 300 was run and who did it."

He’s right.

All these years and championships later, Bernstein still hangs his hat on the pass as the highlight of a highlight-filled career. He took part last week in a national NHRA teleconference and talked at length about the accomplishment and where it rates in his career.

“I think it would be at the top. It is certainly the top of the pole. Fortunately for us, we got to accomplish a whole lot with great crew chiefs and teammates through the years. That's the one thing that everyone seems to remember across the board, whether it be drag racers or just the normal person that follows the sport in general that knows a little bit about racing. It was a great accomplishment on the day, came totally unexpected, which was better, because it caught everybody, including ourselves, off guard.

“It was a beautiful day, No. 1. It was pretty much ideal conditions. In Gainesville, we get the luxury when the conditions are good there, a lot of trees, oxygen. Oxygen makes power in these cars. The coolness of the day was good. We had not even talked about this being a 300-mph run. We hadn't talked about getting to 300 other than we wanted to. It wasn't like it was preplanned that this run was going to be the one. The car left the starting line, ran really good, got to the finish line. I coasted to the turnoff area.

"I've told this story many times, but it's true. When I turned on the turnoff, the guy that helps you, one of them was holding up three fingers. The first thing I thought was that he meant we qualified No. 3. I was pretty disappointed because I thought it was a No. 1 qualifying run because it ran pretty well. He held up those three fingers. Like I said, I was a little disappointed. He reached in and pounded me on the chest and said, ‘You just ran 300.’ It didn't dawn on me at first. I said, ‘Do what?’ That's what the three fingers were. From that point on, it was just ecstatic, as you can imagine, it was craziness. Again, it was so unexpected that we were going to do it, anybody was going to do it, that day. We had all been running 296, 297, but to jump to 301, that's a big step to make that jump; it's really hard. Dale Armstrong, my crew chief, he tells the story, he looked up and saw the lights, saw the 4.82 seconds. Turned around and started walking to the pits. The team members had to grab him and tell him it ran 301 mph. That's what I mean by it being unexpected."

Unexpected, but well-remembered.

Thanks for reliving that great moment with me. I'm hoping that in just a few days we might see more history in Gainesville, perhaps the sport's first 200-mph Pro Stock Motorcycle pass. I'll be heading to G-town Thursday and be there all weekend, so there won't be a column Friday. Travel to and from the East Coast is always a day-killer, so I'm not yet even going to promise a column for next Tuesday, either. We'll see how it goes. Thanks again for reading.

Readers Choice 2012Friday, March 02, 2012

In the last two weeks, in addition to the normal writing that the National DRAGSTER editorial staff has been doing – Sportsman stories from Phoenix, previews for the Tire Kingdom NHRA Gatornationals presented by, points meets, etc. – we’ve been concurrently working on stories for this year’s Readers Choice issue, which ships Wednesday.

Readers Choice is always one of the most popular and highly anticipated issues of the season – both for our readers and the staff – because we devote almost the entire issue to fulfilling those dream stories that our subscribers have always wanted to read. We usually choose just six to seven stories because the research and legwork is pretty intensive since they almost always are of a nostalgic theme.

This year marks our 20th anniversary of this annual feature, and we’ll be presenting 10 – count 'em, 10! – articles this year, with each staff writer tackling two. The subjects again are largely of a nostalgic nature – great news to those who follow (and write) this column – and cover a wide range of topics. We’ll have the history of Top Fuel Bikes and station wagons in drag racing, features on gasser hero Chuck Finders, drag racing painter/illustrator Kenny Youngblood, and women of the 1960s, and a detailed map of Southern California in the 1960s, pinpointing the locations of the various shops, manufacturers, and racetracks of that era. On a more contemporary level, we’ll take a look at the hotbed of Top Alcohol Funny Car racing that has always been New England and chronicle the efforts of the Top Fool Alcohol Crew, which each year in Indy creates a themed float that is enjoyed and admired by fans and racers alike.

I jumped on a pair of other nostalgia-themed stories, the first being a detailed look at life on the road for the touring match racers of the 1970s and the second focused on Lions Drag Strip’s Last Drag Race.

Those of you who have followed this column for years know that I covered the Last Drag Race a few years ago as part of a  follow-up to a feature I wrote on Top Fuel racer Don Moody, so I drew from those notes, which also included an interview with Top Fuel winner Carl Olson, but decided to go it much further with interviews with Funny Car winner (and hometown hero) Tom McEwen, Lions starter Larry Sutton, and Don Gillespie, who not long ago produced an epic three-DVD history of the track.

My story not only covers the raucous Last Drag Race, but also the circumstances that led to that fateful December 1972 evening. The night itself is well-chronicled (including Sutton’s infamous “last pass” down the track in a wooden outhouse). Gillespie and Steve Reyes also were kind enough to supply a ton of photos from that evening. I ended up with a well-rounded story that I hope goes a long way toward explaining why Lions was so special in the eyes of so many.

While I had McEwen on the line, I interviewed him for the road story, getting his recollections of not just his Hot Wheels tours with Don “the Snake” Prudhomme but of his years before that with his dragster. Most people know that when you get “the ‘Goose” going, he can go on for a long time, and our chat at times meandered from the main topics as he went through his amazing history, tidbits that didn’t make it to the stories but deserve to be told.

“One thing I remember about [Lions manager] Mickey Thompson was that every night, he’d get into an argument with a racer about the rules, and they’d want to fight,” recalled McEwen, who began racing at the track when it opened in 1955. “He would tell them, ‘I’m working right now, but see that field over there? I’ll meet you over there at 10 o’clock.’ Hell, there’d be six or seven guys over there waiting."

"And how’d he do?" I asked.

“He did very well,” said McEwen.

McEwen also talked a lot about how those early days were about experimentation and how safety was learned on the fly, at great expense.

“We learned the hard way on everything -- fires, parachutes, clutches – from people getting hurt,” he said sadly. “In the beginning, we wore leather because we didn’t know any better and because that was what the motorcycle guys all used, but leather is probably the worst thing you could have; it would just melt to your skin. I saw it happen. Then Simpson and Deist started making the Nomex suits.”

McEwen also shared the story of how he developed the now-iconic breather masks with the screw-in filters that were worn for years with open-face helmets as fire protectant and, just as important, a protection against fumes, the latter a need that arose when zoomie headers replaced the down-and-out-pointing “weedburner” headers.

“Frank Cannon had a guy from Rocketdyne come out to Lions one time who was a thrust engineer,” he recalled. “He looked at our weedburners and thought we were wasting thrust because he figured we had about 50 pounds of thrust out of each pipe. He said, ‘You ought to make some headers that go up for down pressure and back for forward thrust.’ But once we bolted them on the cars, you couldn’t breathe because of the fumes. I went down to a paint shop and bought a painter’s mask and took it right over to [Bill] Simpson's garage. He was a one-man show then with one sewing machine in his garage in Torrance [Calif.], and I had him sew that paint mask into something that you could put on under your helmet. It got real popular.”

I also interviewed Prudhomme, Roland Leong, and Ed “the Ace” McCulloch for the touring feature and gained a new admiration for the hard work that went into making their appointed rounds. They all shared great and funny stories of trips gone wrong, stingy (and pistol-packing) promoters who haggled over their appearance money, rowdy fans who wagered in the stands and demanded explanations for their losses, and so much more.

Half of the fun of these stories is interviewing the drivers, and half the challenge is getting them to say what you’re hoping they’ll say, and every time one of them said, "Well, here’s a story about that," or "Let me tell you about this one time," man, my ears were open as wide as my grin. Even though I know they’ve probably told these stories many, many times, they all enthusiastically answered my questions and shared as if it were the first time, and I appreciate that.

I had grand visions of also interviewing Tommy Ivo and Don Schumacher for the touring story, but because both are tough to reach sometimes – Schumacher obviously has a full plate with his race teams, and Ivo doesn’t get up until 4 p.m. each day – I ran out of time and space after hours of transcribing the interviews I did complete, but there’s always another column and another story coming down the road, and I’d love to be the guy to tell it.

McEwen joked with me about a recent gathering at Prudhomme’s house, where he, Prudhomme, legendary promoter/track operator Bill Doner, Billy Bones, Tom Prock, and others sat around swapping war stories about life on the road and about “the dark side” of those adventures – stories not fit for a family column such as this – and how someone (me?) ought to write a book on that, but all agreed that, to protect the not-so innocent (which, of course, included none of those present), they'd have to “wait for a few more wives to die first.”

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While I was researching the Lions story and looking for images I might not have previously seen, I came across a message board with an incredible diorama of Don Garlits’ famous 1970 transmission explosion at “the Beach.” Built by avid Southern California modeler John Teresi, it shows the moment of disaster for Garlits as featured in several famous photos of the incident that paved the way for Garlits’ successful rear-engine dragster.

According to Teresi, he made the 1/16-scale diorama in 2008 to share his love of Lions. He started with a Revell Garlits rear-engine kit as a donor and added Garlits in the driver’s seat. Then, using the famous black and white photos for reference, he scratch-built the body panels using aluminum sheets, then wired and plumbed the engine. He added the famous Lions wall-of-people background, and, as you can see in the sequence in the gallery at right, he also added a small smoke pot under the explosion point for increased realism. Amazing work.

And finally, I want to engage the assistance of the Insider Nation to help Gillespie with his new DVD project. On the heels of his sweeping and definitive history of Lions, Gillespie is beginning a similar project to chronicle the rise and fall of Orange County Int’l Raceway. Though there is quite a bit of good footage around from the 1980s, he’s having difficulty locating quality material from 1967 to 1979 and will gladly accept any film or movies you might have. You can write to him directly at or contact him through me. I know the stuff’s out there, so get to digging and help with this great project. I never got a chance to visit Lions, but after watching Gillespie’s Lions triology, I know I feel as if I did, and I know there are plenty of you who bemoan that you never got a chance to visit OCIR and will be able to do so through his new work. I can’t wait.

Welcome to No. 500Tuesday, February 28, 2012

In May 2010, I reached the big 5-0, a milestone age for most males who begin to realize that maybe the ride they’ve been on has well passed its halfway mark. I’m more a glass-half-full guy and never thought much of it and continued doing what I loved doing – writing about drag racing – but I have to stop today to marvel at another milestone I’ve reached: This is the 500th DRAGSTER Insider column.

For those of you who have been here with me since the beginning (July 2007), you remember that I used to do this THREE times a week (what was I thinking?) but had to scale it down to two to keep my sanity and, I hope, the quality of the material.

I keep a searchable file of all of the column’s contents back to the beginning, so I can find things quickly, and even I’m amazed sometimes at the ground we’ve covered. What really brings that home to me is the collection of thumbnail images that have accumulated for the home-page teaser for the column in just the time since we went to the new-look in February 2009. With each new column, I’ve posted a small photo on the home page to alert readers of the content they can expect, and I think that combined they make for an interesting tapestry of the ground we’ve covered.

(The idea to include an ever-changing thumbnail actually came from my longtime pal Dave Wallace Jr., who really liked the content of the column but was afraid I was underselling it on the home page. He even convinced me to put my name on the column with the hopes of further legitimizing its content. It all worked, and the number of viewers skyrocketed. Thanks, Dave!)

As I laboriously coded these pics (260 in all!), it was a cool walk back through time. If you scroll down, it’s kind of like being an archaeologist sifting down through levels of ground to discover lost eras. “Oooh, look: 'The Age of Wedge Dragsters' or 'I see we just hit The Ramp Truck Era.' " Pretty cool.

Anyway, to bring this introduction full circle, let me tell you that, with any luck, 500 is not anywhere near the halfway point of this ride. On to 1,000! And thanks, as always, for your support.



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