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Wednesday, June 04, 2008


It’s a busy Wednesday here at National DRAGSTER as we put the wraps on the Pro results issue from Topeka and the gang prepares to hustle out the door to head for this weekend’s big shindig in Chicago – the annual Torco Racing Fuels Route 66 NHRA Nationals and the companion Jegs Allstars competition – and I have to try to track down David Rampy somewhere along the way to interview him about his Comp win. It’s fair to say that of "Rambo’s" 68 wins – 56 of which have been in Comp – I’ve probably interviewed him for and written more than 50 of the accompanying victory stories. I love talking to him, and, after his near retirement earlier this season, I'm sure it will be an interesting tale.

I’ve been working on a couple of cool historic columns off and on the last few days, neither of which is ready, so it’s going to be a little lightweight show-and-tell today.

The love keeps rolling in for the Freight Train, and it’s clear that a ton of fans remember it well. I received in the mail the other day from Train owner John Peters a handsome poster that he sells on his Web site of the marvelous machine, and it’s well worth having. Measuring 3 feet by 2 feet, it’s a year-by-year pictorial history of the Freight Train and its many drivers. There are some real cool photos here.

The poster also includes current-day images of the Train at events where it made exhibition appearances (1993 Winternationals, where it actually made a pass, and 2004 U.S. Nationals) as well as copies of some of its famous time slips, including 200-mph passes at Lions and at the Gatornationals and from its historic 6.97 barrier-breaker at the Inyokern Drags and a list of Freight Train pilots.

You can find the poster as well as Peters’ history of the Train and more great photos on his Web site here.

In the continuing series of interesting Freight Train-related tales, I received an e-mail last week from David Leighton of the famous SoCal racing/track-managing family about those ungainly twin triangular trophies that Peters was holding in the 1970 winner’s circle at the March Meet in Bakersfield while driver Sam Davis ogled Linda Vaughn.

“They're Baaaack!” wrote Leighton, who was working pit control last weekend at The Patch. “It's really interesting (funny) that you should mention the humungous triangle trophies that were given to the U.S. Fuel & Gas Championships winners back in the ‘70s, and yes they were huge!

"Well, the triangle trophies are being resurrected for the upcoming Bakersfield Fuel & Gas Championships this weekend at the Auto Club Famoso Raceway. These new trophies resemble the originals complete with a nostalgic look, albeit a much more manageable size that will not require a room addition to be able to fit it into the house.”

Here’s a crazy photo from my old sport compact buddy Scott Kelley that’s worth a double take. Kelley, a hard-charging SoCal racer who for years fielded a very quick ’69 VW Fastback in NHRA’s All Motor (no power adders) class, brought out this Toyota a few years ago but never expected to almost endo it.

Apparently, the transmission on the front-wheel-drive entry failed and locked up at about 80 mph at a recent race in Epping, N.H. Nice trick!

With NHRA’s involvement in the sport compact class reduced considerably this season, Kelley has been working to compete with the Toyota in Comp on the POWERade Lucas Oil tour. He ran the car at the Winternationals in L/Altered, but it wasn’t really a good fit, so he’s been working with the NHRA Competition Department to create more sport-compact-friendly classes. He joins Bruno Massel, John Mihovetz, and Tom Shambaugh – all of whom have turbocharged machines -- as sport compact refugees now competing in Comp and former NHRA sport compact champs Justin Humphreys, Matt Hartford, and Matt Scranton (Pro Stock) and Brad Personnett (Pro Mod) at POWERade national events.

No one, other than Hillary Will her bad self, was more excited about her breakthrough win in Topeka than Kalitta Racing PR guy Todd Myers, who, if you read this column after Bristol, was in the midst of a shaggy streak after vowing not to cut his hair until one of Kalitta’s charges won.

Ms. Will accompanied "the Toddster" to the barber for the official post-win trim and played photographer to capture the most anticipated haircut since … well … um … okay, you get the idea.

Myers sent a batch of HillWill’s photos to his family and friends in the media, including his PR peers, who, naturally, were quick to comment.

“You should have just done the U.S. Army buzz thing,” wrote Chris Dirato, who handles publicity for U.S. Army pilot Tony Schumacher. “We certainly could have supplied the barber!!” Jon Kanpp, who handles PR for Warren and Kurt Johnson, was understandably intrigued. “Since some of us were unaware of your putting part of yourself on the line for your teams, we were just wondering if you could post a list of the other parts you have committed, as well as the necessary on-track achievements necessary to redeem them,” he inquired. “Obviously you have established that one win results in your ears being lowered; what are the other benchmarks we can watch for?”

They’re a funny bunch, these flacks.

Myers’ stepmother, Linda Johnsonius, apparently tired of his hirsute appearance, added, “I gotta say, from the family’s perspective, we are soooo grateful to Hillary!! So, so, soooo grateful!”

As I knew it would, Monday’s collection of video clips inspired a round of e-mails from the DI faithful. Some good stuff and some not-so-great stuff, so I cherry-picked a couple and added one of my own.

The first clip was sent in by regular column reader Pat Welsh of Welsh Media Productions, who not only posted this clip on YouTube but shot it as well.

The race was Autofest 2000, held Dec. 31, 1999, at Moroso Motorsports Park at the turn of the millennium. The big deal of the day, as Monty Hall would have said, was Shirley Muldowney and her pink and blue goracing.com Top Fuel dragster facing archrival “Big Daddy” Don Garlits for the first time in more than a decade. The pair of legends welcomed the new century in fashion, launching just past the stroke of midnight. Muldowney won, 4.98 at 287 mph to Garlits’ pedaling 5.23 at 285 mph. The video at right is of a less-great moment from the event, showing a replica of “Jungle Jim” Liberman’s Vega having some, well, difficulties on the launch. This particular version of the tape was aired on the blooper show Whacked Out Sports.

“I shot this footage, and it's been making its way around the broadcast networks,” said Welsh. “A friend of mine was with me and he wanted to grab a hamburger, and I said, ‘Wait till after this run.’ Glad I caught it on tape! Never did get the hamburger.” Thanks for giving us a video to relish, Pat.

After watching that misfortune befall the memory of J.J., I stumbled across a video of the car that was the inspiration for that Vega and this clip from the 1973 Popular Hot Rodding Championships at U.S. 131 Dragway in Martin, Mich., that should make fans of the pride of Westchester, Pa., plenty proud.

It shows the Jungle man and “Jungle Pam” in all of their glory, with a tire-melting burnout (love the smoke coming out of the unenclosed side windows) followed by the world’s longest dry hop (complete with wheel wobble) and, of course, “Jungle Pam” in her trademark halter top giving chase, followed by a nice launch and full pass.

Reader Gary Osborn, whose dad fielded a AA/Gas Dragster back in the day, sent a link to a couple of his videos. Although the footage is a bit grainy in the one embedded at the bottom here -- shot at Pel State Drag Strip in Opelousas, La. – it shows the ballet that was the routine of the Top Fuel push start, with drivers being pushed up the strip and then executing the infamous inside-outside U-turn at the starting line to pull into their respective lanes. I'm sure that the drivers had agreed beforehand who went long and who went short because I'm not sure I ever heard of a head-on collision in these situations.

One of Osborn’s other videos, which you can find here, is an interesting piece as well. It shows the family dragster being practice push-started on a deserted side road in Bastrop, Texas, prior to going to the Austin dragstrip as viewed from the sidelines as well as from the front seat of their Ford push vehicle.

Kids, don’t try this at home!

Well that's it for now. I'm not quite sure what's up next for Friday's column, so it will be a surprise for all of us.  I’ve been asked to write about Southern California’s San Fernando Raceway -- which I never visited before it closed -- so if you have stories about the track, its look and layout, please pass them along. Keep the cards and letters coming. Your support and contributions have helped make this column what it has become, and I appreciate it.


Monday, June 02, 2008

Monday at the movies

So I stumbled across More American Graffiti on HBO the other night and got to watch “Big John” Milner in some faux 1964 footage as he raced at Fremont and kept hoping for that big “factory” ride. Although the film was shot in 1979, they did a fair job of replicating the cars (blooper: Moroso decal on Milner’s valve covers; company not founded until 1968), and it gave me a hankering for some more nostalgic footage that led to a multi-hour odyssey through the good and the bad posted on YouTube.

There’s an awful lot of drag racing stuff out there, not all of it great and not all of it historic, so I’ll save you a bit of legwork (fingerwork?). These aren’t the only good ones out there, just the quick 16 that I came across, in no particular order. For the multipart videos, you should see links come up in the player to the next part.

This oughta pretty much blow your day and bring the IT police knocking at your cubicle to ask why you’re sucking up all of the company’s bandwidth. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Bust out the popcorn and enjoy.

Title: Traditional Hot Rods and Drag Racing

Duration: 2:12

Background: Apparently a trailer for one of the several vintage drag racing films sold on the Car Films Web site

Footage quality: Excellent

Sound: Yes; interviews and the Rip Chords doing "Three Window Coupe"

Why it’s worth watching: Opens with a pair of great circa 1974 interviews -- Shirley Muldowney talks in-depth about racing in a man's sport (plus we get a quick look at her first Cha-Cha Top Fueler), and “Big Daddy” Don Garlits talks about always being a target for his opponents – then transitions into vintage racing footage from Pomona and Great Bend and lots of quick-cut pit action. Cool footage of Mickey Thompson's sleek Panorama City Special streamliner towing down the return road.

Title: Drag Cars Havin' Fun #2

Duration: 4:45

Background: Professionally shot, based on the variety and position of camera angles; unknown program

Footage quality: Good

Sound: Moody Blues "Knights in White Satin"

Why it’s worth watching: Race footage of Calvin Rice and the J.E. Riley & Son dragster and early Pomona footage, transitioning into footage from the 1971 NHRA Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway, including the Blue Max, Don Prudhomme's Carefree Barracuda, the beautiful California Charger Top Fueler, and tons of front-engine Top Fuelers and Mopar Pro Stockers. Nice in-car footage from front-engine Top Fueler (begins at 1:25). Interesting fish-eye lens use. You'll easily spot many heroes of yesteryear. (This clip is the better follow-up to Drag Cars Havin' Fun, which is heavy on some Dick Landy pit action and in-car shots -- dig those deck shoes he was driving in -- and includes lots of repeat footage from the first clip.)

Title: Auto Racing 1969, Part 2 - Drag Racing

Duration: 5:44

Background: Part of Speedvision's The Wild, Wonderful World of Auto Racing (as evident partway through when the footage is minimized at the five-minute mark for the Speedvision sports "ticker"), with the emphasis as a primer of the sport; filmed at the 1969 Springnationals at Dallas Int'l Motor Speedway

Footage quality: Excellent

Sound: Professional narration

Why it’s worth watching: Good mix of Pro and Sportsman cars and a good look at the fabulous Dallas facility, including the trademark tower. Plenty of good pit stuff of some vintage (and famous) cars and good on-track action of 6.7-second Top Fuelers. Good look at early Funny Car cockpits ("These are vehicles of the space age," the narrator intones) but includes the unfortunate, fatal Funny Car accident between Pat Foster and Gerry Schwartz.

Title: Psychedelic '70s @ York US 30 Dragway

Duration: 3:54 (part 1); 6:12 (part 2)

Background: Promo for Bee on Video's 88-minute full-length video

Footage quality: Average, vignetted at corners

Sound: Ambient sounds (announcer, engine noise)

Why it’s worth watching: Shot mostly from a spectator's viewpoint, nonetheless features some cool scenes, including "Dyno Don" Nicholson's Pro Stock Maverick arriving on a ramp truck, rare footage of the Don Garlits Dodge Charger Funny Car that was driven by Gary Bolger for only a few months (reportedly "Big" had no real involvement in the car; the name was used to book the car and Garlits received a percentage of the booking fee), the wild Durachrome Bug VW Funny Car, "Wild Bill" Shrewsberry's L.A. Dart wheelstander, high-winding small-block Pro Stockers, and Miss Hurst Golden Shifter Linda Vaughn and the famous 10-foot-tall Hurst stick-shift. Part 2, which checks in at more than six minutes, includes more of the same, plus Bill Jenkins' revolutionary Pro Stock Vega, more L.V., two jet cars, and Bob Perry's wild Hell on Wheels tank wheelstander.

Title: Don Garlits Wins the 1967 U.S. Nationals

Duration: 3:18

Background: Flashback video from last year's ESPN2 coverage of the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, introduced by Paul Page, of Keith Jackson's call of this famous moment for ABC's Wide World of Sports program

Footage quality: Very good

Sound: The golden voice of Keith Jackson

Why it’s worth watching: For years, you've heard the legendary story of how "Big Daddy" refused to shave until he ran in the sixes, which he did – and then some – with a 6.77 final-round victory over James Warren, then whipped out the ol' Barbasol on the starting line … now you can see it for yourself, from suit-up to push-start to the no-burnout/tire-wipe to a slow-mo tight shot of the finish-line margin of victory. "So now he'll have to cut off his whiskers," says an excited Jackson as the crowd flocks to the starting line to back-pat their hero and watch him climb on the hood of his truck and lather up. Also includes post-race interview of a humble Garlits.

Title: Drag Racing - Pacific Raceways 1963

Duration: 2:49

Background: Video from the Mother's Day drag races, May 12, 1963, at Pacific Raceways in Kent, Wash.; home movies shot by Tex Steere and converted by his son

Footage quality: Good

Sound: None

Why it’s worth watching: If you like early dragsters in all shapes, sizes, and flavors, you'll like this one. Injected diggers, early Top Fuelers, boiling smoke off the back tires on their runs; I don't know any of these cars, but there's a good mix of them: blown, injected, and otherwise, spewing smoke off the rear tires. Some nice overall shots of the track, which has been around for more than 40 years. Also worth noting: the total lack of guardrails at the track that now hosts an NHRA POWERade event.

Title: Return To Lions

Duration: 5:21

Background: Posted by Jerry Miles as part of the Cougartown.com effort to remember 1960s Hawthorne, a close neighbor to Long Beach., Calif., home of Lions Drag Strip, this is a slideshow of still photos covering the track from its 1955 opening until the Last Drag Race in December 1972

Footage quality: n/a

Sound: Instrumental track

Why it’s worth watching: A mix of familiar photos and new ones, including a lot of early color images, that gives you a pretty good overall look at the fabled track that made the intersection of 223rd and Alameda Avenue known around the drag racing world. For unfortunates like me who never got a chance to visit, or those who want to remember when they did, it's a nice piece of work with nice transitions between images. Includes some of the famous old cars that ran at "the Beach," including the Super Cuda, Stone-Woods-Cook, Lenarth's Secret Weapon Jeep, Shores & Hess, etc. Pretty cool image of Tom McEwen's Mongoose-bedecked firesuit, too, as well as the ticket booth. Curiously though, it's not all Lions. I saw images from Bristol, Pomona, and Famoso mixed in.

Title: T.V. Tommy Ivo Crash

Duration: 1:21

Background: One of the most spectacular crashes in Winternationals history, Tommy Ivo's fiery Saturday afternoon rollover in the lights while racing former wrench John "Tarzan" Austin was unforgettable. Paul Sadler's dramatic sequence made every drag mag, including several covers

Footage quality: Average

Sound: Instrumental track

Why it’s worth watching: I didn’t even know any footage existed of this famous crash, but here it is, shot from the grandstands at about 1,000 feet. It shows "T.V. Tom's" mount light up and go over at real speed and in slow motion, parts and pieces flying everywhere in the aftermath, followed not only by some of the still images snapped by Sadler, who was at the finish line, but additional photos taken from farther downtrack on both sides of the track. Ivo, whose only injury was a scratch to his chin while unbuckling his helmet, was his ever-quotable self. "All of a sudden the car took a sharp turn --a drastic, instant move. We were at the lights anyway, so I backed out of it and turned the wheels to recover. But she didn't recover. She kept right on coming around. I figured at that time, 'Well, I'm gonna go over.' I've got a deathly fear of rolling a race car, especially at those speeds. When she got to about a 45-degree angle, I figured that was it, I had bought the farm, the big casino. I didn't wanna see it happen, so I closed my eyes flat out of stark, dead fear. And missed the whole show. The car took this one tumble, and there was this terrible crack like someone hit me in the back with a 2x4, ya know what I mean? At one time, down around 120, I thought I was upside-down, so I opened my eyes and could see that starting-line tower going away from 'em 'cause I was going backwards, and sure enough, I was upside down so I closed my eyes again."

Title: Vintage Dragsters

Duration: 2:24

Background: Vintage footage of the 1963 Smokers Fuel & Gas Championships in Bakersfield, professionally produced; source unknown

Footage quality: Average

Sound: Voice-over, engine sounds

Why it’s worth watching: The footage isn't great, a little grainy and dark at times, but they're all here -- Don Garlits, Tommy Ivo, the Freight Train, Don Prudhomme (in the then-red Greer-Black Prudhomme dragster), Tom McEwen, eventual winner Art Malone – at one of the era's premier events. The footage is largely shot from the finish line looking back with a fair zoom, but you get to see several of the famous battles wire to wire: McEwen-Adams frustrating "Big Daddy," a squirrelly Prudhomme against Malone, Gordon Collett winning Top Gas, and, of course, the Top Fuel final, won by Malone over McEwen on a holeshot, 8.33 to 8.31.

Title: Indianapolis Nationals 1960-1969 PT1

Duration: 9:25

Background: Home movies shot throughout nearly a decade of Indy racing. The original 8mm films were first converted to VHS and then DVD, which hurts the quality

Footage quality: Poor to average

Sound: None

Why it’s worth watching: Lots of staging-lane and pit-area shots of cars throughout the years, including the dual-engine cars of Eddie Hill – the infamous car that dug up the starting line with its dual rear slicks – and the Dragmaster Two Thing. The initial race footage, shot from the stands near the starting line, is limited to poor views of launches, but the action gets cracking around the 2:40 mark when the camera is moved downtrack to film entire runs. You get to see a nice panoramic view of the Indy facility back in the day – a pretty spartan affair except for the DA starting-line tower – and some full-speed runs. The footage suffers from its third-generation nature – inconsistent lighting, sprocket-jump, vignetting at the corners, and dust artifacts (one monster Texas-shaped piece appears at the top left of the image at the 2:40 mark and is there for the duration) – but it's still cool to see the A/Gas Supercharged cars like Stone-Woods-Cook and Jack Chrisman in the infamous Sachs & Son Comet – the forerunner of the Funny Car class -- run down the vaunted IRP quarter-mile. Part 2, which clocks in just shy of 10 minutes, features more Top Fuelers and better camera work (i.e., cars can be seen more clearly). Watching both parts, you can watch IRP grow – more stands, the Hurst crossover bridge, the addition of guardrails, etc. – which is pretty cool. Not a lot creativity – hey, they're home movies -- and would have been awesome with sound, but still a priceless slice of Indy history.

Title: Early Drag Racing

Duration: 2:47 (part 1); 2:54 (part 2); 2:51 (part 3)

Background: Professionally produced piece from the second annual Winternationals (1962), though some have argued it looks more like 1963. Unknown origin. First of three parts

Footage quality: Very good

Sound: Voice-over narration, engine sounds

Why it’s worth watching: Great early footage of Pomona Raceway shows a much different look than today's mega arena. Panning down toward the top end from a nice grandstand shot, there's no Brackett Field Airport or golf course and only hay bales and logs for "guardrails." Good footage of the Dode & Martin DragMaster Dart making a pass, Connie Kalitta's Bounty Hunter (complete with crossed-out names below the cockpit) being push-started down the track then making a run, Jack Chrisman in Mickey Thompson's dual-engine dragster getting pushed down, making the traditional U-turn at the starting line, then getting waved away by the flag starter, and a nice shot of two departed heroes – Thompson and "Sneaky Pete" Robinson – chatting on the starting line. A second part, Early Drag Racing 2, shows the dual-engine Howard Cams Special, Robinson's machine, the McEwen & Adams Shark car, and a nice pan shot of the pits and staging lanes, and Early Drag Racing 3 shows more of the same, plus door cars (Don Nicholson versus Dave Strickler in a classic West versus East Chevy Stocker battle), Gary Cagle in the Mooneyes dragster, and more. 

Title: Early Drag Racing 1

Duration: 2:46

Background: I'm pretty sure this is part of the short film Vroom that was professionally shot – at Pomona, I believe – in the mid-1970s. Kind of confusing naming because it was posted by the guy who posted the above three clips, but this one is not related to them

Footage quality: Excellent

Sound: Instrumental

Why it’s worth watching: Artfully shot with beautiful close-ups of cards and equipment and the people of the early 1970s NHRA scene -- the Pollution Packer, the California Flash, the War Horse, and "Jungle Jim" (including a quick memorable scene of "Jungle Pam") all preparing for battle. A fun montage kicks off the clip that's all about drivers getting ready to run – from entering the gates to suiting up – but symbolic to the preparatory material, it's over almost before it starts. The user did not post the rest of the film, which ends in mid-sentence as Carl Olson – in his National DRAGSTER decal-wearing Top Fueler – begins to speak from the cockpit.

Click to watch; user has disabled embedding

Title: Mike Dunn Crashes

Duration: 4:00

Background: This is taken from one of Diamond P's Decade of Thrills tapes, a two-incident look at Mike Dunn's misfortunes in the 1983 season in Roland Leong's Hawaiian Punch Dodge Funny Car

Footage quality: Excellent

Sound: The golden voice of drag racing, announcing legend Steve Evans, and the expert commentary and analysis of Don "the Snake" Prudhomme

Why it’s worth watching: The two incidents – shown out of chronological order -- first show the obliteration of the HP Dodge at the 1983 World Finals at OCIR, the engine blown almost out of the chassis, attached still only by the fuel lines, that then levers the chassis into a pair of barrel rolls. Shown from three angles in a three-minute segment. Fans of today's ESPN2 shows will enjoy the post-crash interview with the baby-faced Dunn. After that, it's back to Columbus, Ohio, for his stuck-throttle, tire-exploding, fiery, off-the-end-of-the-track run at the 1983 Springnationals.

Title: Early Drag Racing 1950-1960

Duration: 2:42

Background: Unknown professionally produced clip

Footage quality: Very good

Sound: Voice-over narration

Why it’s worth watching: Some really fine looks at early drag racing iron that made history, including Mickey Thompson's Panorama City Special streamliner, Calvin Rice's J.E. Riley and Sons Nationals winner, the Bean Bandits, the twin-engine Bustle Bomb, and Ray Godman's Tennessee Bo-Weevil. The narration involves good technical information about engine types and car construction and those involved with building the cars. There is no actual racing footage here, but it's still well worth the watch to ogle some of these great cars for drag racing history that you’ve no doubt read about.

Title: Hot Rod Magazine 1958 Presents - Ingenuity In Action Pt 1

Duration: 7:32 (part 1); 9:03 (part 2); 10:23 (part 3)

Background: Although the credits show that it was written by Hollywood director/screenwriter Haile Chace and produced by him and Sam Davis, you'd have to guess that NHRA founder Wally Parks, then still the editor of Hot Rod, also had a hand in this wonderful 27-minute-long video diary of a trip to the 1959 Nationals in Detroit, dedicated "to hot rodders everywhere, and their great zeal for experimentation"

Footage quality: Excellent

Sound: Voice-over narration

Why it’s worth watching: The film follows the efforts of the Jim Nelson and Dode Martin DragMaster team, long an NHRA favorite. I'm guessing that the narration is done by Martin. Part 1 shows the team preparing the car at home (near San Diego), then setting out on the road and meeting up with their teammates from the Dragliner team (some great vintage southwestern America highway footage) and a quick stopover at a regional event in Oklahoma (which they won). Part 2 finishes their trip and shows them going through tech and pre-run tuning; a visit from NHRA secretary Barbara Livingston, who would later become Barbara Parks; and early time trials with a variety of cars and classes, including a low e.t. run by the team highlighted by in-car footage of a wild and wooly launch. "Expensive noises" ("a twisted cam lifter") led to a bottom-end teardown (the old "mushroom head" lifters had to be pulled out of the bottom of the engine) and lots of on-track action from modified roadsters (including that of future NHRA VP Bernie Partridge), the famous dragsters of Kenny Lindley (Miss Fire III), Jack Moss, the Arfons brothers, and eventual Top Eliminator champ Rodney Singer, plus all the final rounds, winner's circles, and special awards. In addition to low e.t. honors, the DragMaster team won the Safest Constructed award. Filled with humorous scenes and commentary, it’s a much-watch.

Title: Asphalt Digout Part 1 of 5

Duration: 9:42 (part 1); 6:23 (part 2); 9:36 (part 3); 7:36 (part 4); 4:43 (part 5)

Background: Professionally produced video purportedly was distributed to a select few racers in tribute to the great "Broadway Bob" Metzler, owner and super-promoter of Great Lakes Dragaway in Union Grove Wis.

Footage quality: Good to very good; a little jumpy in parts

Sound: Voice-over narration, engine sounds

Why it’s worth watching: Part 1 is from the late 1950s with great early footage of the legendary Great Lakes Dragaway, including a match between Chris Karamesines, Don Garlits, and Art Malone’s Little Rebel, plus lots of door cars of varying speeds, including four-abreast racing. Part 2 takes place in 1968 and features jets versus Top Fuelers (Tommy Ivo, Jim Nicoll, Don Cook, Dick LaHaie, and “the Greek”) and Funny Cars (Paula Murphy’s Miss STP Dodge, the Chi-Town Hustler, “Fearless Fred” Goeske, and Arnie Beswick). Wheelstanders include Bill Golden’s famed Little Red Wagon versus Richard Hutchins’ Chevy Rebellion. Part 3 looks to be late 1971, at the track’s famed Olympics of Drag Racing, featuring a mix of front- and rear-engine Top Fuelers (some of the latter of which have no rear wings yet). All the big names are here: Garlits, “Snake” and “Mongoose”(in their high-back Hot Wheels FE dragsters), Ivo, LaHaie, Steve Carbone, and John Wiebe, plus wheelstanders including "Wild Bill" Shrewsberry's L.A. Dart wheelstander, the Flying Red Baron Mustang, Bob Riggle’s Hemi Under Glass, and Connie Swingle in The Trash Truck, which makes contact with Bob Perry’s Fugitive II Corvette, then crashes (4:50) into the billboards lining the track, breaking Swingle’s foot. At 5:50, Garlits chucks the blower, which, pre-blower restraints, tumbles down the track. Part 4 looks like 1972 and is heavier on Funny Cars (including rare footage of Fred Mandoline’s machine). Part 5 is outtakes with no narration.

So there you have it. Sixteen great "home movies" and a trip down Memory Lane.


Friday, May 30, 2008

Jeff Courtie: A pair of pretty sound careers

As a kid gawking at the pit ropes at Southern California dragstrips, all we ever wanted was to be acknowledged by our quarter-mile heroes. A “Hey kid, how ya doing?” or even a “Stop staring at me, will ya?” would have been high-octane stuff for pit rats and track tramps like us. We worshipped these guys who weekend after weekend strapped into colorful, loud, and bitchin’ Funny Cars to burn rubber and haul ass for our enjoyment. (At that young age, I don’t think we yet realized that the drivers were doing it for themselves as much as for us, but we learned.)

Although there were gods among the mere mortal men – giants like Prudhomme and McEwen and Foster with national reps – all of the drivers were heroes in our eyes. It didn’t matter that most of their names were never called out by Steve Evans in his “Be There” radio spots promising a “fiberglass forest” of cars in the pits, guys like Jeff Courtie, Mike Halloran, Jim Terry, Clarence Bailey, Steve Leach, Leon Cain, Bryan Raines, Roger Garten, and dozens more who were there week in and week out to keep “the Snake” honest and to show any out-of-town visitors just how tough SoCal Funny Cars were, and the fans loved them for that.

All of this is a roundabout way of introducing – and in some cases, reintroducing – you to Courtie, who dropped me a line and a CD full of images the other day. Even though he wasn’t particularly well-known outside of the West Coast, it was still a great thrill to hear from a guy I’d grown up watching race at places like OCIR and Irwindale and had now (finally!) acknowledged my existence.

Jeff Courtie's first race car was this Olds Woody, which eventually ran 150 mph with a blown fuel 392 under the hood.

Courtie built his first Funny Car, a '70 Mustang, in his garage.

A '72 Barracuda followed; like all of Courtie's cars, it was a clean machine.

(Above) A lower 'Cuda followed; note the front fenderwell blisters that allowed the body to ride lower, a common trick in that era. This is Irwindale 1973. (Below) The 'Cuda's explosive farewell, Ontario 1974.

Perhaps Courtie's best-known machine was this '75 Mustang II, which he campaigned until he retired from driving in July 1978.

While most fans probably remember Courtie for a string of Mustang and Barracuda Funny Cars that ran on tracks up and down the West Coast from 1971 through 1978, thumping out solid numbers that belied his apparent low-buck stature at places like Lions, OCIR, the Dale, Ontario, Fremont, Seattle, Portland, Pomona, Bakersfield, and Beeline in Arizona, Courtie actually began his quarter-mile career behind the wheel of this cool-looking wood-sided ’48 Oldsmobile station wagon in 1967 at San Fernando Raceway.

"I grew up in North Hollywood, within bicycle distance of [engine builder Dave] Zeuschel’s shop, C&T Strokers, Ed Pink’s, B&M, and Exhibition Engineering ... and those cool places. I was hanging around with Tom Larkin, and Lil' John Lombardo’s dad’s flooring business was not far from where I lived. We’d bicycle up to San Fernando and sometimes sneak in, and all of this was a big influence on me.”

His dad loaned him $200 to buy the Woody, which he had spied parked at a local gas station. A member of the famed Checkers motorcycle club, Courtie initially bought the Woody to transport his motorcycle to the desert, but after seeing Mike Sorokin and the Surfers win the 1966 March Meet, he got the hot rodding bug.

He bought some slicks from Ronnie Winkle and replaced the car’s original straight-eight engine with a 394-cid Olds V-8. Courtie initially ran the car on alcohol but soon added a blower – one that had been backfired on the Top Fuel car of Larry Dixon Sr. – and ultimately the car was powered by a blown and injected nitro-burning 392 Chrysler backed by a B&M Hydro Stick tranny and ran low 10s at 150 mph.

Unfortunately, Courtie’s “Super Woody” was as heavy as it was cool, and, due to its girth and high horsepower, was prone to driveline breakage, so when Funny Cars became the new showstoppers in the early 1970s, Courtie went plastic.

His first Funny Car was a ’70 Mustang with a Logghe-style chassis that he built in his garage and first campaigned in 1971. It, too, was 392-powered and was replaced by a new narrower chassis (in the vein of the radical Mickey Thompson chassis designed by Pat Foster) and fitted with his first Barracuda body, which exited in mid-wheelstand one day at OCIR. Courtie was a tool-and-die apprentice and bounced from machine shop to machine shop, picking up valuable experience and skills.

A newer, lower ‘Cuda body was mounted for the following year, but it, too, met a tragic end. At the 1974 World Finals at Ontario Motor Speedway, both rear axles – which, as it turned out, had been defectively heat-treated -- broke just as Courtie shifted into high gear, launching the blower and the body “into orbit,” as Courtie likes to say.

The now-426-powered hot rod went back to its Mustang roots in 1975 with one of the swoopy new Mustang II bodies, which stayed on the car until Courtie hung up his driving gloves in July 1978 and the car was sold to an Australian team. It was a wondrous time, with plentiful racetracks and race dates for gypsy-like processions on the match-race trail up and down the coast, and for many, it was brotherhood of kindred souls.

“Those were good times,” he remembers. “Everyone was kind of equal in that we all only had one of everything – one block, one crank – and it was really satisfying when we did good. There were highs and lows, but it was a lot of fun. We’d run Portland and Seattle back to back and stay at the Thunderbird Hotel right on the Columbia River, and the parking lot would look like the Orange County pits. You’d have ‘Jungle’ and ‘Brutus’ and Gene Snow and Raymond Beadle and Harry Schmidt, 30 or 40 rigs all jammed into the parking lot."

On the match-race circuit, Courtie estimates that he qualified at 90 percent of the races he attended and made it to the semifinals many times. He reached two big final rounds, at Irwindale’s first Oly Grand Premiere in 1973, where he was runner-up to Jim Dunn, and at OCIR’s Nitro Championship in July 1976 for his biggest score, the race win.

“Winning that race was huge,” he recalled. “Beadle was there, Billy Meyer, Lombardo, Snow, all the big guys were there. I don’t know if I ever got the recognition back then that I thought I should have gotten, but I was more into just racing the car and having a nice-looking car. I had a pretty good following; we’d get a lot of people who came by the trailer to wish us well against the big guys.”

Success on the national event trail, however, was much harder to come by.

“I entered almost all of the NHRA West Coast national events, but with the amount of cars back then, sometimes 60 or 70 cars at each event trying for 16 spots, I was unable to qualify at any of those events,” recalled Courtie, who also ventured back East and ran the Springnationals in Ohio in 1973. “I just missed the show at some, and the weather and mechanical gremlin problems [caused me to not qualify] at the others.”

“By the late ‘70s, Beadle and Billy Meyer and guys like that were pulling in with 18-wheelers and had two magnetos and dual fuel pumps and were really mega-dollaring it with spare parts and bigger budgets. I was running it out of my pocket and really struggling. I was getting some product help with oil and gaskets and spark plugs and stuff like that, but you still had to buy the rest of the stuff.”

As expenses increased and his all-volunteer crew grew up and began to get married, start families, and hold “real” jobs, it became harder and harder for Courtie to staff his team, and his own new career – one that took advantage of his race-car-building savvy -- began also to steal time and energy from the race car.

“In 1976, I was offered a job as a fabricator, weldor, and machinist at a company in Burbank [Calif.] that had a fleet of videotape camera trucks,” he said. “At the time, they were the leader in the field of remote videotaping on location for television. My job responsibilities escalated to the point where I became a special projects engineer involved in the design and construction of specialty vehicles. Around this time, the company began building remote trucks for outside customers. We built the first two 40-foot eight-camera trucks for ESPN when they went on the air and helped set up their studios in Bristol, Conn. We built a lot of those 40-foot trucks for different sports-related customers. Demands from that job and the escalating costs of running a Funny Car out of my own pocket forced me to make the painful decision to stop racing.”

In 1982, Courtie branched out yet again and became a recording engineer in the company’s television post-production studios. During the next six years, he worked on a lot of successful feature films and episodic television shows. In 1988, he was promoted to ADR/Foley mixer, learning the meticulous dual crafts necessary for today’s productions. (ADR is the process of re-recording dialogue for a film or TV show in the studio – which can amount to as much as 90 percent of the final soundtrack – and Foley is the process of using various implements to create specialized sounds to match the on-screen action, sounds that could not be recorded when the footage was shot, such as footsteps, hand pats, cooking, etc. that usually cannot be found in a sound-effects library.)

In the 20 years since, Courtie has worked on a number of major films and with great actors and actresses, including Paul Newman, Kim Bassinger, Sandra Bullock, Angelina Jolie, Kirk Douglas, Mel Gibson, Raquel Welch, Drew Barrymore, Anthony Hopkins, Dennis Hopper, Morgan Freeman, Richard Dreyfuss, Jack Palance, James Coburn, and many others, and worked, either as an ADR or Foley mixer, on memorable films such as Dead Presidents, Billy Madison, Pulp Fiction, The Cowboy Way, Ed Wood, Bull Durham, and two dozen more (which should make watching the end credits more fun for all of you).

He was nominated for a Emmy for his sound-mixing work on 1989’s The Magic of David Copperfield XI: The Explosive Encounter and has earned four coveted MPSE Golden Reel awards and 13 more Golden Reel nominations for outstanding achievement in sound in the motion-picture and television industries.

Today, he mostly works as a Foley mixer in Burbank, currently working on popular series such as Heroes, Ghost Whisperer, Lipstick Jungle, New Amsterdam, Misguided, and My Boys, as well as a host of upcoming movies.

Courtie, now 61, lives in Shadow Hills, Calif., not far from Burbank, with his wife, two teenage daughters, and his beloved ’37 Ford Tudor. When he’s not working or cruising the town in his new hot rod, he’s kept busy renovating his house or camping in the family motorhome. He attends all of the NHRA California Hot Rod Reunions, the March Meet, and both Pomona national events.

And, yes, even almost 30 years after he stopped driving, he still misses racing.

“That was a special time for many of us who were lucky enough to follow our dreams and race against and become friends with some of the greats of the sport,” he says.


Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Train stories keeps rollin' all week long

One great thing about great stories is that they beget others. The story of the fabled Freight Train, as told here last Friday, inspired, as I suspected it might with a topic that memorable, a flood of love for the Train and the memories coupled to it like so many old cabooses.

One of the fun parts about writing this column is digging through ND’s vast photo archives for interesting pics to illustrate the columns. I came across this photo of owner John Peters and driver Sam Davis in the winner’s circle in Bakersfield after they won the 1970 March Meet. I love the humongous twin-triangle trophies – one for winning the event and one for outstanding performance of the meet, regardless of class – and the way that Davis seems to be flirting with the trophy queen, the lovely and famous Linda Vaughn, while Peters looks on with a wry little smile on his face, perhaps wishing he were holding L.V. instead of the trophies. The original of this pic was kind of washed out, so I had to do a little restoration work in Photoshop to bring out the details, but you get the idea. This victory was especially sweet for Davis because it came two weeks after he crashed the car at Lions (see photo in entry below) on his first run. The trophies were so tall that they wouldn’t even fit into the trailer and had to be dismantled for the ride home.

More Train stories: My old buddy Dave Wallace dropped me a line to make sure I asked Peters about the Freight Train’s penchant for breaking the roller starters at Lions Drag Strip.

“When they first put in those roller starts at Long Beach, they had a little electric motor on it,” remembers Peters, “and it just didn’t have enough power. The rollers would spin as long as we weren’t trying to light the motors, but as soon as we let the clutch out, it bogged down and burned the motor out of it; had flames coming out and everything. Trying to fire two motors at once just put too much of a strain on it. We had to start them one at a time like we do now -- the front one first – so we don’t put too much strain on everything."

As much as reader Don Burt of Ojai, Calif., enjoyed seeing the photos of the Train, he also got a kick out of seeing the Ken’s Engineering twin. “Ken's was in Oxnard, Calif.," he remembers, “and I would browse through the store and dream. I would get goosebumps looking at all the speed equipment. I usually bought a decal, even though I didn't have a car worthy of drag racing decals. We would attend the Smokers Fuel and Gas Championships each year and Lions Drag Strip weekly if we could. I was probably between 16 and 19 years of age when I was really into it. I am now 61 years old, so I think I remember probably the second or third annual Fuel and Gas Championships. Your stories and photos really bring back the memories.”

Clifford Short of Riverside, Calif., who first saw the Freight Train as a 9-year-old at Lions in '69 and followed the team in the pages of Drag News and National DRAGSTER, had his own brush with greatness at an L.A. Dodgers game in 1972. “I was standing in line to get a dog and a Coke,” he remembers. “I had worn an OCIR T-shirt, and I heard a guy behind me say, ‘You like drag racing?’ I turned around and said, ‘Yes, sir, I do; I go as often as I can.’ Then this guy asks me if I ever heard of the Freight Train. I said, ‘You bet; it's one of my favorite cars.’ He then introduced himself as John Peters! Talk about making a kid’s day! I couldn't talk about anything else at the game to my dad other than I got to meet and talk with John Peters! That is one day I will never forget!”

Regarding the story behind the Freight Train’s naming, Herb Iske says he has heard a different version that “had more to do with the track's up and down undulations through the trap/shutdown area, which apparently caused the Train's engines to ‘unload’ and puff very noticeable exhaust to the extent that it resembled a steam engine on a freight train. Even if incorrect, it makes for a believable story!”

Although the Freight Train may have been the most famous twin, it’s obviously not the only one. Dennis Friend dropped me a link to his site, Twins To Go!, which so far has compiled a list of 192 twin-engine cars that have stalked the dragstrip. They have a special section devoted to the first 10 twins with some cool and rare old photos.

And finally, speaking of great photos, initially I thought the image below was just a cool photo of Train owners John Peters and driver Bob Muravez posed with their car in front of one of their homes. It kind of had a down-home feel about it that I liked.

But something about the street sign in the background caught my attention. The shape, the color (even though it’s a black and white pic). I know, a street sign’s a street sign, right? But this one was different. Upon closer inspection, I could read the lettering: Maxella Ave. Hey, I remember a Maxella Avenue near where I grew up. How many Maxella Avenues can there be in California? And those hills in the background? They look pretty familiar, too.

Turns out that Peters lived in West Los Angeles, just a few miles from where I grew up, in Culver City, Calif., and went to the same high school that I did: Venice High School (known to movie buffs everywhere as Rydell High in the movie Grease). Venice High School (home of the Gondoliers … “rowing not drifting”) isn't actually in Venice (“where the debris meets the sea,” as we used to joke) but a few miles inland, in West L.A.

(Other famous VHS alums: actress Myrna Loy, whose statue for years graced the senior lawn and was targeted by pranksters who would put different outfits on it; Les Clark, the first of Walt Disney's legendary Nine Old Men band of animators; Apollo 7 astronaut Walter Cunningham; former NFL Pro Bowler Leon Clarke; actor Gary Collins; singer Teena Marie. I graduated with actor Sam Whipple, best remembered for his role as Dr. John Ballard on the TV series Seven Days; he died six years ago of cancer.)

Peters attended VHS from 1955 through 1957, about 21 years before me, and was classmates with land-speed baron Craig Breedlove (Peters and Frank helped Breedlove build his first jet car) and actor Beau Bridges, who, as we all know, later played Connie Kalitta in the Shirley Muldowney biopic Heart Like a Wheel.

Small world, eh?


Monday, May 26, 2008

Don't mess with Connie

I hadn’t really planned on writing a column today since the NHRA offices are closed, but somehow I just couldn’t resist.

The drag racing message boards are all a twitter – and my e-mail box overflowing – with word that one of Connie Kalitta’s massive jets had a catastrophic airframe failure at a Belgium airport. It made all of the news programs, both local and national, because the Boeing 747 split just behind the front wings. Fortunately, it was during takeoff and before the plane got into the air, and injuries were “slight” to the crew. Here’s a little movie that shows the aircraft after it came to a stop. The plane was headed to Bahrain and makes regular flights out of the Brussels airport.

But for me, of course, that doesn’t make a great story, not as great as one of the other times that Kalitta Air (then known as Kalitta Flying Services) was in the news.

There are fewer great mistakes a man in life can make than to mess with Connie Kalitta, especially 20 years ago, so, as Mr. T would say, “Pity the fool” who tries to hijack one of Conrad’s airplanes … with him at the controls!

It was the first thing I thought of when I first saw the reports from Belgium, and I knew I had some old copies of newspapers from that incident filed away somewhere at work. Of course, finding them in that “somewhere” took a while, but find them I did. Here are the two articles, one from The Detroit News and the other from the Detroit Free Press, both of which put the story on the front page of their metro sections.

It was late on the morning of Oct. 4, 1989, when 41-year-old Allen Stahl walked into Kalitta headquarters at Willow Run Airport in Ypislanti, Mich., and inquired about renting a Lear jet so that he could fly to Washington, D.C., to "visit" the White House.

Stahl suddenly brandished a six-inch butcher knife and forced a female clerk to the floor. Kalitta was in a meeting and was quickly called to the dispatch office.

To defuse the situation, Kalitta, then 51, bravely agreed to fly the man to Washington, but he already had a plan in mind to depressurize the plane at altitude to render the man unconscious.

With the butcher’s knife pressed sharp to his ribs, Kalitta and the hijacker got into a nearby Lear, and while Kalitta was warming the engines, a state trooper, alerted by Kalitta employees, pulled up and blocked the airplane’s route with his cruiser.

“[Stahl] really went crazy” at the sight of Trooper Jerry Cooley, recalled Kalitta, “swinging the knife around” the cockpit and grabbed the engine’s throttle control and began revving the engine up and down.

Well, ol’ Conrad had finally had enough of the whole scene and attacked Stahl. While “the Bounty Hunter” was struggling with the armed man, Trooper Cooley got a mechanic to open the jet’s door and ordered Stahl to drop the knife, then took him into custody.

Kalitta, as seen in the photos that accompany both stories, was cut on his right thumb and left ring finger but not severely injured.

"When you are under pressure, you have to think well on your feet," said Kalitta, who then calmly returned to his meeting. "If you don't, you're in trouble."

Moral of the story: Don’t mess with Connie!


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