Features

Rats, snakes, hustlers, and kingsFriday, May 27, 2011
Posted by: Phil Burgess

At this time next week, I'll be at one of my favorite places in the drag racing world, Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown for the annual Summernationals SuperNationals. (Still struggle with that one, and don't even get me started on SuperNationals.) As usual on my race weekends, due to travel, I'll have only one column next week for you (and because Monday is Memorial Day, it might not be until Wednesday), then head off for the world where "the other side sucks" (no matter which side you’re on), where magically crazy things happen. Jim Liberman won his only NHRA Funny Car title there in 1975, the same year Jim Bucher won Top Fuel with his Chevy Rat motor. Speaking of rats, how about what happened to the swampy one there in 1986? Maybe this year I'll even see the magic rat drive his sleek machine over the Jersey state line. Could happen.

Today's column actually begins officially (now) not with rats but with a snake and a story I forgot to share from Don Prudhomme’s surprise birthday party at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum. It came courtesy of master illustrator/artist Kenny Youngblood, one of those who offered his thoughts to the group after the main roast.

Youngblood, whose paint and airbrush work adorned many a Funny Car in the 1970s, had the honor of creating the now-iconic paint scheme for Prudhomme’s vaunted Army Monza, but he had a dilemma when it came to the famous logo that “the Snake” had been using. The graphic was going on the hood and flanks, and the old snake just didn’t sit right with Youngblood.

“We were working on the car with Bob Kachler; there was only one bone of contention, which was the snake graphic,” he remembered. “On the Hot Wheels car, the snake was powder blue with polka dots. So I came up with this bad-ass Army theme and thinking that I couldn’t put that [polka-dotted] snake on there. So I came up with the stars-and-stripes snake.

“Kachler sent it to Prudhomme, but I never heard back from him. I finally called him and asked if he’d seen it. He said, ‘Yeah, man, but people really like that polka-dotted snake.’ He didn’t want to go for it. I ended up painting the car and lettering it at my house. The last thing was the snake, and I told him, ‘Don, we are going to put this stars-and-stripes snake on the car or I’m done.’ He told me OK, but if nobody liked it, it was my fault. I put it on, and it was a big hit. A couple of years later, we did the Pepsi Challenger car and wanted to update the snake to the flat graphic. I designed it and sent it to him, and he starts off with, ‘I dunno, man,’ then paused and said, ‘Y’know, we had this same conversation a couple of years ago. Just do what you want to do.’ ” So he did.

Kenny Youngblood sent this photo of his injected fueler at Irwindale. Nice piece!

Youngblood is well-known and highly respected for his work in bringing the dragstrip to canvas, but he also drove for a short time and even lined up against Prudhomme one time in 1967 at Fremont Dragstrip.

“In my very short driving career, I actually raced ‘the Snake’ once with my injected dragster,” he told the audience at the Prudhomme party. “It was at Fremont at a PDA race. We were in line, and Lou Baney comes over and says, ‘Hey, Kenny, can we cut in front of you?’ I said sure, so they put the Shelby Super Snake in front of me, and I ended up racing him on a qualifying pass. I’m at Fremont racing ‘the Snake,’ and I’m all pumped up. The light comes on, and I leave on him. ‘God, I just left on “the Snake!” ’ but he didn’t care because it was just a qualifying run. At about 60 feet, it was like the fricking motor fell out of my car as he smokes by me to set low e.t.”

While I was looking for photos to accompany the note on the Prudhomme logos, I came across these pretty funny images on the Web of a fan who took his love of Prudhomme and the Army cars to the nth degree by painting his street car in the very distinctive colors.

It’s a Camaro, of course, which none of “the Snake’s” Army cars were (they were, in order, Vega, Barracuda, Monza, Arrow, and Horizon), but it’s still pretty cool. I couldn’t find the owner’s name (I’m sure he will find me), but he did a great job of mimicking the distinctive paint scheme, a design that I would have no problem arguing is the most distinct and famous in drag racing history.
 


 1 of 4 
 
From left, John Farkonas, Austin Coil, and Pat Minick
 
I've also been holding on to these pics for a couple of weeks, waiting for place to show them off. They landed in my email box the Friday I was headed to Atlanta, and even a quick view on the magical iPhone was enough to get my juices flowing.

They are from Dennis Mothershed, who sent them at the request of Austin and Lisa Coil. Funny Car's all-time winningest crew chief has kept a pretty low profile since leaving John Force Racing at the end of last season, but he hasn’t been idle.

What you see at right is the reunification of the fabled trio of John Farkonas, Coil, and Pat Minick, the original Chi-Town Hustler team, who gathered May 4 at a private museum in the Midwest to view their restored P&G-built '69 Dodge Charger. When it was introduced, the offset chassis was one of the most groundbreaking designs of its time. The track-long burnouts and high-win ratio instantly made the team a crowd favorite. The three had not been together since their joint induction into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame at the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing in 1989.

Very cool stuff indeed.


 

The Beebe brothers fielded the Dodge Fever Funny Car in 1970. Dave is behind the wheel; that's Tim at left.

After reporting on the death of Dick Rosberg, I was pleased to hear from David Beebe. No, not Funny Car-driving Dave Beebe, but his nephew David Beebe. Yeah, I know. The younger Beebe had written to ask for more information on Rosberg, who had driven for his other uncle, Tim, in the Fighting Irish Funny Car.

And it turns out that the Beebe Bros. we all know from their wondrous quarter-mile exploits throughout the years aren’t the only Beebe brothers.

Merrill and Francis Beebe begat nine children: sons Tim, Dave, Jerry, Roy, Richard, and James and daughters Ruth, Margaret, and Jeannie. Jerry is the father of the second David.

"Yes, a family of nine children," he said. "As you might imagine, Thanksgiving gatherings were … eventful. We lost my grandparents a few years ago. I’m sure it’s been longer than I think; time flies. Other than that, the whole family is alive and healthy. All of them are natural engineers. They are all very humble, and if you saw them on the street, you would have no clue of the contribution they made to the sport of drag racing in its early days."

He also spoke of the sad feeling we all have about the mounting losses our sport has suffered. "I know more losses are coming," he acknowledged. "They always have the same impact. I rewind all the way back to Lions or Carlsbad or Irwindale or OCIR or Riverside or Pomona or Fremont or Phoenix or Woodburn, where did I see (fill in the name of lost hero) last? I was just a kid, and they almost never remember me, but I sure do remember them."

Earlier this week, we had delved into the origin of the nicknames bestowed upon Rosberg ("Whale Belly") and Tim Beebe ("Chops") and even Tim's then-wife, Suzy ("Zerk"), but I never knew that the senior Dave had a nickname: "King." Now, I know that every single one of you out there is spitting out your coffee or otherwise rolling your eyes and invoking Jerry Ruth's name.

"Dave’s nickname is from pure ego," reported younger Dave. "Dave was 'The King' of everybody! He was well-known for walking through the staging lanes and trying to get into his opponents' head. It wasn’t just racing the track for him. Dave still fields an e.t. car that his son Daniel drives. He has mellowed quite a bit."

Speaking of nicknames, I need to direct you (once again) to the Ewald brothers' We Did It For Love website to view the impressive list of historic driver nicknames that they've assembled. It's definitely very cool: www.wdifl.com/driver-nicknames.html.

OK, that's it. Enjoy your weekend, and take time Monday to remember the heroic and the fallen, even if they never made a pass down the track.
 

At a loss, again ...Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Another Tuesday, another sad duty to report another substantial loss to our sport. Yesterday, about 5 p.m., just a week after the death of James Warren, we lost 1970s veteran fuel Funny Car campaigner Dick Rosberg, adding to the already staggering toll this year has taken on our sport. Last Friday, we also learned of the death of popular Division 4 announcer Lynn Nickerson who, while not as well-known a name as Rosberg or Warren, was widely loved and respected by those whose names he called out over the PA.

A lot of people have a fascination with "deaths in threes," but, honestly, I've lost track of it all. If you toss in the great Bill Summers – admittedly more known for his land-speed efforts with the Goldenrod than for drag racing but nonetheless another national treasure among speed freaks like us -- and Ed Mabry it gets really sad.

"Berserko Bob " Doerrer, one of the Rosberg's closest friends, had told me that Rosberg's days probably were numbered as he battled stage IV melanoma, but that didn't make the news any easier. Double-B was the first to break the news to us, followed shortly thereafter by Bill Novak, who sent me a nice note about his former partner on the mid-1970s Fighting Irish fuel flopper.

I also heard from Suzy Beebe, who was married to Tim Beebe in the time that he campaigned the Fighting Irish car with Rosberg at the wheel. It was Beebe's return to nationwide racing after the tragic 1969 death of John Mulligan in Indy after racing locally with brother Dave in 1970. Suzy, who writes a social column for us in National DRAGSTER, fondly recalled the guy that he and Tim called "Whale Belly."

"A great talent that Dick had was mimicking almost any sound imaginable," she remembered. "He was our own personal sound effect. Rosberg was known to fall asleep under the old Fighting Irish Funny Car while we were living in Brooklyn, Mich. Once, the truck fell on top of him; thankfully, we were on a dirt driveway and the rear jack held. He drove that night in Martin, Mich., with a bruised ego and ribs. You'd have liked Dick a lot, great personality. In all the years I knew him, I never saw him without a smile on his face and never saw him lose his temper. Ever."

I asked her about the nickname and about those given to others on the team.

"Back in those crazy days, everyone had a nickname," she said. "We named Dick 'Whale Belly' because he had a big belly. Tim, aka 'Chops,' got his nickname because he loved pork chops as a child, not because he was chubby as so many think. Mine was 'Zerk' (as in zerk fitting, to keep my jaw lubricated). 'Chops' ' brother, Richard, was known as 'Lurch' after the Addams Family TV show. God, where did we find them?"



 1 of 5 
 
Services for James Warren were held May 21 at Hillcrest Memorial Park in Bakersfield.
 
James Warren was laid to rest Saturday in front of a legion of friends and family, among them Tom Jobe, of Surfers Top Fuel fame, who shared this great report with his friends via email. The accompanying photos at right are from Don Ewald, of the We Did It For Love website.

"The service for James got under way, and the preacher went right into a serious sermon. We were all listening and looking for some shade as it was obviously going to be a while before he finished up. There was an older lady standing in front of me where I found some shade, and when the preacher finished his sermon, the signal was given to fire up a nicely restored front-engine Warren, Coburn, and Miller car on a nice load of nitro. This car was maybe 50 yards down the hill from us.

"The lady in front of me seemed to have no idea any of this was going to happen, and from her reaction, I doubt she had ever heard a fuel dragster in her life. When the car first lit, she about jumped out of her skin, but then she got into the deal and listened to it. When they switched it over to nitro and it started to hit harder, she didn't quite know what to think of it. Once she had gotten used to the nice cackle sound, they whacked the throttle, and she almost did a backflip! When the cackle was over, she turned around and looked me right in the eye and said something like, 'That is the most beautiful music I have ever heard; it's better than any song!'

Remembrances and photos of Warren kept pouring in after I published Friday's column, including a note from Noel Reese, who was part of the W-C-M crew in its 1960s and 1970s heyday.


Noel Reese included a clipping from his favorite race, the 1973 PDA event at OCIR, where James Warren beat Don Garlits in the final. In this Steve Reyes photo, from left, are Sid Waterman, Reese, Doug Kruse, C.J. Hart, the race queen, Warren, Bob Bradley, and Doug Kerhulas. "Oh, what a night!" remembered Reese.

"It’s been a few days since Roger’s daughter emailed me to let me know her Uncle James had died. (James was married to Roger’s sister Juanita)," he wrote. "All I’ve been able to think about was my last trip to Bakersfield to attend Roger’s funeral. His daughter, LeeAnn, had asked me to speak at his funeral. Being a pastor now, I am always hopeful to be able to share the love of God with someone. I saw many old friends at the graveside, and from there, we went to the fairgrounds for the reception. James’ wife, Juanita, shared with me that James was suffering from memory loss. He didn’t recognize me at first, then 10 minutes later was joking it up with me. Inside the auditorium, where lunch was to be served, the Miller boys asked if I would pray a blessing over the food and the gathering. As I was finishing, I heard the unmistakable thunder of a lit fueler outside. I went out to find they had fired up the restored front-engine car (the one I started with), with James behind the wheel, smiling, fingers over the ears, like he did hundreds of times in the past. It’s hard to believe it’s been 30 years since the last time I saw James behind the wheel. It was too much for me; I couldn’t take it and had to leave. I really loved these guys, their wives, kids, brothers, and sisters; it was one big family. Touring with them allowed me to mingle with the extended family (all the other racers). Oh man, was it a group of crazys! James and Roger, as so many have said, the gentle giants, and the traveling circus of wild performers during the '70s. I felt like I was standing between Abe Lincoln and Gary Cooper surrounded by the Little Rascals. I pray for the comfort of God for the families and friends of these guys. Yes they will leave a void, but there are a bunch of great young men and women stepping up to fill it. So, boys and girls, there are some big shoes to fill, do your best, be kind to everyone, give of yourselves, be humble, and be thankful that God has let us have so much fun!"

As a great segue from the Reyes winner's circle image above, I also heard from said Reyes, one of drag racing's all-time greatest photographers, who shared a couple of his favorite Warren photos. I really, really dig the photo above, showing the team's new midi at OCIR, flames streaming from the pipes, streaks of light portraying the speed and power. As dynamic as the shot is with all that, what really got my juices flowing was the shadow cast by the car from OCIR's lighting. You can clearly see not just the silhouette of the car but also of the flames. Magic stuff. The car at right, of course, is probably the car that brought them their first major fame, the front-engine Ridge Route Terrors machine with which Warren was runner-up to soon-to-shave Don Garlits in Indy in 1967 and carried the Terrors to victory at the 1968 Winternationals. Reyes' attachment to the team goes beyond the dragstrip. As many of you know, when Reyes – temporarily, thank goodness – hung up his drag racing/car-feature lenses, he began to shoot NHL hockey, especially the Los Angeles Kings. At Kings games, he often would see Marvin Miller and his grandkids, and they'd spend time before games chatting about the sport's golden days.

Yet another great longtime lensman, Don Gillespie, shared the photo above, showing Warren in the lights in Bakersfield in what he believes was 1983. "Moments before the shot, the announcer said this was to be Warren & Coburn's last-ever pass in competition ... ironically at Bakersfield," he said. "I can't vouch for the accuracy of that, but still, it's James at the wheel, flat-out across the stripe, all pipes still lit, at his and Roger's home track. The Ridge Route Terrors were the best of people at the perfect time in drag racing. RIP to another true hero!"

Bob Casper joined the photo fun with this wonderful shot of Warren at the wheel of that first rear-engine car, in what he thinks was December 1972. "I believe I took this shot at the Lions Last Drag Race, just a little before metafile data, but it is right around that time," he said. "The look in James' eyes, way cool, ready for another awesome ride into the darkness. Wayne King always tells me to do something with my shots, so here is James; he was one of my faves back then and a favorite shot to this day."

Right after I received Casper's email referencing former Top Fuel driver King, I got a note from "the Peregrine" himself (nicknamed by the master nicknamer himself, Ed Donovan) expressing his thoughts about Warren. "I had started writing to you many times before today, but the tears got in the way. Damn, I miss him and Roger; I cannot imagine what it's going to be like in October [at the California Hot Rod Reunion]. All of us Bakersfield boys have always had lunch together on Monday after the Reunion."

I also heard back from Cliff Morgan in reaction to the photo of Warren in the rear-engine car with just goggles protecting his face. "Ya know, that was not uncommon in the very first days of the back-motor cars," he remembered. "Lots of people thought, 'OK, the motor is behind me; if it blows up, no big deal.' They didn't realize that fire could come into the cockpit even in a rear-engine car, so just wearing goggles and no face mask didn't last long. I think maybe the drag racing associations of the time put a stop to that real quick. That really was an exciting time, to see the transition from front-engine to rear-engined Top Fuelers. It was like by mid-1971, back-motor cars were everywhere. I saw Jeb Allen get his license at Lions in a Woody back-motor car. I remember John Rodeck making his rear-engined debut (with a Chrysler) at OCIR. Also 'Snake' with that wedge car I loved so much. James Warren at Lions with the car you showed with the shorty body and a Sid Waterman 'elephant motor' (big change from the 392 they always ran) … all that in 1971. That was a wild year, topped by Garlits' unreal 6.21 at Indy. Sheesh, slow Pro Mods run 6.21 now, but back then, that was the run of the century. Well, it is fun to remember those things. I think I'm like a lot of guys out there -- what I wouldn't give to go back to Saturday night at Lions just one more time."

Steve Delgadillo dropped this photo by the office yesterday, which shows Warren at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum in February 2007 sitting in front of the iconic Garage Photo of him and Roger Coburn and their garage "shop."

And, finally, is this lament from East Coast racer Bob Lukas, which I really enjoyed. "Once again, the changing of the guard strikes; it is hitting my family (I am now the eldest), friends, and my beloved drag racing. Having been an East Coast drag racer, I pored over every racing newspaper and mag I could get with good tech articles: how to rebuild four-speeds, head work, blowers, etc., and National DRAGSTER could not come soon enough in the mail. I yearn for the grassroots racer, flat towing or simple trailers, no corporate money or multimember teams. No matter where you raced, there was always someone who might run better than you but was willing to help you run better. Being an 18-year-old kid with a Hilborn-injected gasser, there was always someone coming over with more experience, putting his hands on my engine and teaching me how to tweak it. I always wanted to get to the promised land (California) for a couple of summers to see and be with the gods. Never happened. Uncle Sam and starting a family took care of that, and now another great one passes on. At least I got to be with the ones who came east for match races and NHRA points meets. My condolences to the families that have lost."

OK, I am really, really ready to move on from all of this sadness and get back to great stories.

Memories of JamesFriday, May 20, 2011
Posted by: Phil Burgess

As expected, the news earlier this week of the passing of Top Fuel hero James Warren brought forth a sea of sorrow and a wave of nostalgia as fans and friends remembered the West Coast giant and mourned his passing.

A few times over the last couple of months, my sorrow and frustration at these losses and the ones that are sure to come keeps bubbling over and expressing itself in weird ways, as in the ending to Tuesday's column: "This sucks," I less than eloquently wrote.

Thank goodness then for readers like Charles Arford, who more beautifully stated what I think is on the minds and in the hearts of many of us and why it's so hard to see these legends leave us.

"I haven’t written to you in a while, but with the news I read today, I feel compelled because this has been on the back of my mind for quite some time now," he wrote. "We’re seeing a changing of the guard happening right before our eyes. I think we all knew these days would come, but I think we all just don’t want to admit it to ourselves that these days are here. Yes it is sad, but what a treat it was to have been at places like OCIR, Irwindale, Bakersfield, and Lions, to just name a few tracks, and watch these guys not only run but change the face of drag racing forever and set the standard for which all racers to come would have to live up to.

"It was a great time in our sport. No big corporate sponsors. No huge budgets. No multicar teams with crew chiefs and tons of guys to do the work for the drivers. We just knew the cars by their drivers or names on the side of the cars like Rain for Rent, Blue Max, Jungle Jim, Rambunctious, Brute Force, Stardust, and so on. All of these guys were their own crew chiefs, mechanics, and drivers, but more importantly, they were innovators, trying new and different things, and that’s why not every car looked the same. It was a great time to be here in SoCal, and sometimes I daydream and wish I could turn back the clock to watch these guys make one more run. Yeah, it sucks!"

Can I get an amen? Thanks, Charles.

Insider regular Mark Watkins offered a simpler take and posed an interesting question: "You have to wonder if a fuel team that had WCM's charisma and racer-to-the-core mentality could be successful today. I am dying to be a fan of a team of bare-knuckle racers again."

As hard as it may be to believe, I never even met James Warren. He was out of the cockpit before I became an insider, and I never caught up with him at the reunion or the March Meet to thank him for the memories, but a lot of you definitely knew or had met the man, and the impression he left upon you is about what I'd imagine.

Cindy Gibbs, who grew up around the heroes of our sport, was among the first to write. "I know these losses are never easy, but this one truly breaks my heart. I loved James so much; he was so sweet and kind and such a dear, dear friend. Watching him deteriorate this past year was so hard; I spoke with him a few months ago, and at first, he didn't even know me. After a few seconds, he 'woke up,' and I knew he was present. He and I used to sit and talk for hours; I loved his mild manner and was always struck by the fact that this was by far one of the most bad-ass Top Fuel drivers EVER, and yet his demeanor would never, ever tell you that. When Roger [Coburn] died, I was afraid James would be not far behind. At least they are back together now."

Cindy's dad, Steve, known far and wide to everyone who reads this column, also weighed in. "At a time when the passing of old friends has become frequent, I have become more and more accepting -- and hardened to the reality - that this is simply the way it is. When I heard of James’ death, however, it floored me. It has been my good fortune to have been involved with the greatest names in drag racing for over 50 years, and I can honestly say that James Warren was as good as there ever was … both personally and professionally. I will miss him immensely … as I do Roger and Marvin. The Ridge Route Terrors have left us with a legacy and a treasury of memories, for which I will be forever grateful."

Pat "Ma" Green, SoCal drag racing's well-loved "den mother," knew Warren well from her time helping run some of SoCal's great strips. "When I think of James, I think of a classy, humble man who never changed over the years," she said. "When I was doing credentials at Irwindale in the '70s, he and Roger would come up and let me know their wives would be coming later, and could they BUY some extra tickets -- they NEVER asked for freebies; I always GAVE them the extra tickets. They were the ONLY racers who ever did that! They are both sorely missed."

Vic Morse, who became better known later in his career as the driver of the Mister T Corvette Funny Car, was one of many Top Fuel drivers who feared the orange machine and shared this humorous tale. "In 1968 at the Fremont PDA meet, I was driving for Specialty Automotive out of Eugene, Ore.," he recalled. "We made it through the first round due to Bill Dunlap crashing and drew Warren and Coburn in the second round. As I was making the turnaround after push-start, the main steering tie rod end snapped. We had to shut off. Thank goodness, I avoided the humiliation of getting my ass whipped by the iconic James Warren. There is no replacement for these supermen of drag racing."

I wasn't at all surprised to hear from Cliff Morgan, one of SoCal's veteran racegoers and a regular column contributor. "I was saddened by the death of James Warren," he wrote. "I have a lot of memories of that team. One that sticks out was at Irwindale in the early '70s, at one of the Division 7 points races (when they used to run Top Fuel and Funny Car). They had qualified well as usual, and James was lying on top of the trailer and watching qualifying from the pits. It was like 'Who is gonna be runner-up to these guys?' They won the race, and James ran a 5.99 to win, which was a big deal at the time, especially at Irwindale. I also remember that James drove a real short small-block Chevy rear-engine car in the late '50s that didn't go too straight. Sigh. RIP, James."

Larry Solger sent this great pic that he snapped at Sacramento Raceway when the RRT unveiled its first rear-engine car. This look, with the partial body panels, was sometimes referred to as a "midi," originations unknown. Maybe it came from the engines being middle-mounted in the chassis (because, let's face it, they’re not really rear-engined in as much as the engine's not sitting over the rear end, no more than a front-engine car has the powerplant over the front. Truth be told, I'd guess that the engine-to-rear-end measurement might have been fairly close between the two designs, no?). Anyway, it was popular because it allowed fans to still see that this was a "rail job," and the lack of full bodywork had to be lighter and easier/faster to build and maintain.

Alan Davidson grew up in Bakersfield, so he saw a lot of the town's most famous drag racers. He sent two photos, one of the car above, that he shot at the 1972 Winternationals, and the one below of the more famous car, the full-bodied car with the wheel pants that ran beginning in 1973. (Could be the same car for all I know.) Anyway, since you've already seen the midi, I cropped really closely into that pic to show Warren behind the wheel. What I find very interesting is that he's wearing an open-face helmet with goggles and no other facial protection. It certainly looks as if he's about to run the car, but I can’t imagine he made too may runs like this. Later photos of the same car show him wearing a full-face helmet. The photo below was taken at the 1973 March Meet and shows Coburn tuning on the car and the team's iconic station wagon in the background.

 
Talk about a brush with greatness. Few stories could top this one from reader Marc Holmes: "When I was a youngster, I used to hitchhike from Pomona with my friends Mickey and Tim to Irwindale to see the races. One time in the pits, and this was back when you literally could reach out and touch your heroes, Mr. Warren was doing something on the car and turned around quickly and accidentally hit me in the head with his elbow. I stumbled back, knowing I was at fault for being in his way. He looked down at me for a second (both he and Roger Coburn seemed like they were 8 feet tall), saw the terror in my eyes, and then asked me if I wanted to sit in the Rain for Rent dragster. Few events in my life have matched that moment."

"I am 49 and can relate well to what you write about when referring to the past, whether it is about Batman or James Warren," wrote Mark F. Brown, referencing in part a recent column I wrote about childhood heroes in National DRAGSTER. "My memories of [Warren and Coburn] are vivid, but only from the rear-engine days. Wasn’t there a picture of him in the lights, on fire, with some of the wheels off the ground? I think it had front wheel skirts also." The shot he's referring to is above, a splendid image captured by Hall of Fame photog Barry Wiggins in Tulsa, Okla., during the 1973 PRO meet. For some reason, I only have the black and white version of this; I'm pretty sure I remember a dazzling color version occupying the center spread of every racing magazine that year. And while the tire is not off the ground, it is severely distorted. I remember seeing this way back then, and it was the first time I'd seen the tire distortion that today is so well-known and regularly photographed.

Another great photo veteran, Jere Alhadeff, sent me two of his favorite Warren photos and reminisced about the team. "Both James and Roger were good people," he wrote. "I remember being at Lions one Saturday afternoon, and they announced over the PA that Warren and Coburn had been stuck for several hours while the old Grapevine was closed due to snow. However, they had just called, and the road was now open, and they should be there in a couple of hours, which was after qualifying should be over. C.J. [Hart, track operator] told them that they could unload the car as soon as they got there and make one late qualifying run. Naturally, everyone in the stands cheered, and they did qualify when they got there. Attached are a couple of my favorite Warren and Coburn photos. The front-engined car I believe was the one that originally had a Chevrolet engine and was taken at Stardust in Las Vegas. The rear-engined Woody car is from our beloved OCIR." I really dig the OCIR photo, with the pipes cackling white-hot, the starburst effect on the night lighting ... lots of memories there.

Mike Harris remembered, "My dad took my brother and me to our first drag race at the 1968 Winternationals. I can still hear Bernie Partridge talking about the Ridge Route Terrors' first NHRA national event win and how happy the rest of the racers were for them. My brother and I were hooked and began going to the many SoCal tracks for Top Fuel shows. We saw them win many times at Lions, Irwindale, and Orange County. We would always gravitate toward that orange trailer in the pits. You could not have found a more low-key, nicer group of guys. James and Roger were gentle giants and always willing to talk to a kid filled with awe.

"I witnessed their three-in-a-row wins at the March Meet in '75-77, and each time, it seemed like all of Bakersfield was there to cheer the orange car home. The huge roar that accompanied them each time they pushed down from the top end got louder by each of the five rounds. The poster you showed when Roger died of the two of them in their garage is a true classic; it said it all. Please run it again. Ironic but sad that the two died within six months of each other, but  James Warren driving the Rain for Rent Special and the Ridge Route Terrors will live forever in the annals of drag racing. Rest in peace, James." At right is that famous Jon Asher photo, and here’s a link to the tale of that photo that Asher shared here earlier this year.

J. D. Culbertson wrote, "My dad and I used to follow WCM in the 1960s. I was just a kid, 10 to 15 years of age. My dad talked and got along with both James and Roger and once appeared in Drag News sitting with Roger on the tailgate of their station wagon at the Hot Rod magazine meet in Riverside. I was a shy kid and was afraid to talk to my idol James. That ended a few years ago at Pomona when I mustered up the courage to talk to him; it was a very special moment for me. My fondest memory was at the U.S. Fuel and Gas Championships in Bakersfield (where else?) on Sunday. Before the final round, they had to borrow an engine (I think from Warren and Crowe), and then went out and won the 32-car field. After that final round, they once again had to borrow an engine to face the Surfers for the overall championship. They lost the overall championship, but the chaos between rounds and help they received from fellow racers was a tribute to the family atmosphere that is so much a part of drag racing. I will miss them both. The memories will always be near as that great photo, from their garage, sits framed above the desk in my office."

Bill Gathings sent this great photo of Warren, center, at last year's Winternationals, flanked by Frank Hinmon, left, owner of the restored Warren-Coburn-Miller rear-engine dragster, and Top Fuel racer/engine builder John Rodeck, and added, "I was so sorry to read about James; he remains my favorite all-time. I saw him occasionally at Famoso but didn't get much of a chance to talk to him. Oddly, the last time we saw him was at the Dragfest last year; he seemed really eager to talk and get to know us a bit. My best memory of W&C was at the 1976 division meet at OCIR; they were in the final against the Battleborn car. At the time, they were locked in a tight race for the Winston championship that year and really needed the points from the win to stay in the lead. It was a packed house, with everyone on their feet for the final. After the burnouts, his opponent [Gary Cornwell] couldn't get their car to back up. Despite badly needing the win, Warren chose to only pre-stage and waited and waited as long as possible for his opponent's crew, who were trying everything to get it fixed. Only when they finally gave up and waved him on, he then took a thundering single down the track. It was a great display of sportsmanship, the kind that made him a favorite of so many people."

Barrie Windell shared this great story of the early James Warren. "It was in a little motel in Tacoma, Wash., summer 1965. Clark Marshall had a booked-in Top Fuel north/south show at Puyallup; me and 'the 'Goose,' maybe two of the only guys left out of that trip. I was there with [John] Mulligan, in the Adams & Wayre car. James won the program. It was way after dark on Sunday night, sitting around the motel room, dry county, and James was actually pissed that he had won $1,500 and couldn't even buy a beer. No worries; promoter came up with a few cases of beer. Fun guys, James and Roger."

The loss of Warren certainly transcends California and even this nation. British reader Neil Marks commented, "Although I never saw him in action, he is at least partly responsible for my 32 -year addiction to drag racing. As a teenager, I had a huge poster of an early-'70s version of the Rain for Rent special on my bedroom wall. It was a terrific burnout shot, all smoke and red-orange hues, and that image burned itself so deeply into my 15-year-old brain that I knew one day I would have to make my first visit to a dragstrip. It took another two or three years before I managed that but haven't missed a year since 1979. I hope Mr. Warren's family can take some solace from the fact that he must have inspired many people, both inside and outside of his own country, to get involved in the sport he loved."

As I mentioned earlier this week, we've had some W-C-M stuff in this column previously. After Coburn's passing, I put together this column, with scenes from Coburn's memorial and other great W-C-M stuff; in April 2008, former Top Fuel driver and W-C-M crewmember "Nitro Noel" Reese gave us this behind-the-scenes look at the team; and the second half of this column includes some of your personal memories and photos of the team.
 
Thanks for sharing. Farewell, James. Thanks from all of us.

A monumental lossTuesday, May 17, 2011
Posted by: Phil Burgess
Searching through the James Warren photo archive, I was struck by this photo, showing Warren, center, in the Irwindale Raceway winner's circle with Roger Coburn, left, and Steve Evans. Hard to believe we've lost all three of them.

I had a whole other column ready to go this morning, copy edited, photos prepared, and was ready to hit the publish button when the phone rang. With a few other obvious exceptions, there couldn’t have been tougher news coming from the other end of the line.

James Warren, an early boyhood idol of mine and of many of you, a legendary Top Fuel racer beyond the bounds of his normal West Coast haunts, passed away last night.

The caller was Loren Wood, who had called about six months ago to tell me of the dire condition of Warren's tuning partner, Roger Coburn, who passed away a short time later.

This morning, the Ridge Route Terrors are together again, no doubt doing Dry Hops in Heaven.

Those of us in the community had known that Warren had not been well lately, suffering from Alzheimer's disease, but he apparently also recently had contracted pneumonia. I spoke to his second cousin Kenny Warren this morning, and although that's the most likely suspect, a cause of death obviously has not been determined.

As I was growing up at SoCal dragstrips in the 1970s, Warren and the Rain for Rent team were huge favorites of mine. Their distinctive orange dragsters stood out not only in their overpowering performance but visually, too. They ruled the West Coast with an iron fist and definitely earned their "Terrors" moniker.

I know I wasn't alone in my idol worship. Already, tributes are pouring in on message boards and newsgroups, saluting one of drag racing's all-time greatest Top Fuel pilots.

I'll have more Warren stuff later this week. Throughout the years, I've run quite a bit of Warren-Coburn-Miller material here, so I'll work on digging that up. In the meantime, I'd love to hear your Warren stories, see your photos, and listen to your words about the man.

Part of the column I originally planned for today included more sad news that I received while I was in Atlanta. I was stunned and saddened to learn of the passing of Texas fuel-racing veteran Ed Mabry last Friday. Mabry, whose racing career spanned the late-1940s drag racing to present-day Bonneville Salt Flats, had contributed a memorable piece for this column a few years ago recounting the great Texas shootout where Don Garlits came to Wichita Falls to take on the best of the Lone Star State.

Mabry, a member of the Texas Drag Racing Hall of Fame, half of the famed Hunt & Mabry team that terrorized Texas in the late 1950s and early 1960s with blown and unblown fuel dragsters, a chassis builder, and most recently a Bonneville motorcycle racer, also was inducted into the Dry Lakes Racing Hall of Fame in September 2004.

You can learn more about Ed on the Team Texas Triumph website, which has photos of his Salt Flats bikes and a ton of links to Mabry history.

You can also revisit the Insider entry, 50 Years Ago in Texas, to which Mabry contributed comments and photos in March 2008.

It has been another tough week in what has been an incredibly tough year.

This sucks.
 

Previous Entries
Next Entries
 
..
TwitterFacebook