Getting my move on ...Friday, December 10, 2010
Posted by: Phil Burgess
Boxes o' stuff in my office
Issues? Yeah, I've got some issues ...

I hate moving.

I've had to move my residence seven times in my adult life, but the last time was way back in 1990. I'm moving again next week, but I'm actually looking forward to it this time because the move is a short one: from upstairs in the NHRA Publications building to downstairs. No, it's not a demotion (other than in altitude, office size, and window acreage), but rather a long-overdue consolidation of all Publications departments – editorial, photo, production, advertising, and administrative – to the floor that previously only housed the latter three.

With the final issue of National DRAGSTER safely out the door yesterday and the majority (but not all) of the writing done for the annual Fan Guide, my office is now filled with boxes being crammed with the detritus of more than a dozen years in the same room. As the Publications and headquarters staff grew in the 1990s, the Publications Department moved out of the Financial Way HQ building in July 1993 to about a block down Route 66 to give everyone a little more elbow room.

So, for the last 17 years, I've been accumulating stuff, cramming it into drawers and onto bookshelves and countertops. Apparently, I did very little throwing away. I have my own personal collection of National DRAGSTERs from 2000 through present in a variety of magazine racks and stands. That's more than 500 issues, and I don’t know why I have them in my office when the full library of NDs is just about 25 steps away.

Seeing as how my new crib is going to be slightly smaller, it's a good time to off-load all of the issues to free up some space, but I've been enjoying going through some of the older ones as I stack them like cordwood in the library room to fill in any gaps in the archive before they are unceremoniously ejected from the building.

Back to my original point, the reason I'm really looking forward to the move – which begins today and carries over into next week (not counting Tuesday, which is the day of NHRA's annual holiday party at the NHRA Museum, where I and four fellow DRAGSTER staffers will be performing a karaoke version of a famous rock song as part of a talent contest; it's sure to be a YouTube sensation) – is because the Indiana Jones in me expects to unearth cool old stuff I've had buried away and forgotten about for almost two decades. All I need is a fedora and a bullwhip …

Hey, lookee here. It's an AOL 3.5 diskette, version 2.5. No idea why I still have this. Instructions: "Insert disk in your floppy disk drive (A or B); click on the File menu on your Windows Program Manager; select Run; then type A:\SETUP (or B:\SETUP) and press OK."

Ha! Remember floppy disks? Yeah, most computers don’t even come with floppy drives anymore. And you young'uns who were weaned on Windows 95 and up never had the joy of learning DOS prompts that required you to type in the letter of the drive, then the appropriate command to launch the setup program (which wasn't always "setup"). There were no auto-play CDs (or DVDs) that began the install process once you slipped them into the tray. Being a video gamer back then required even more DOS skills to install and configure your sound card and controllers. But I digress …

Oooh, and here are some 1995 issues of Net Guide magazine ("The Guide of the Internet and Online services") and Computer Life ("Internet Revealed!") that I began studying while trying to figure out this Internet thing back when we prepared to launch NHRA.com (then NHRA Online) in 1995. Oh, boy, this is rich. It's an article about how video is coming to the World Wide Web (back when everyone still called it that). "Longer clips can reach sizes of 11 or 12 megabytes and take several hours to download." Today I can download a 12MB clip faster than I can type this sentence. And how many of you remember when even getting hooked up to the Net required you to know about SLIP and PPP connections? Man, those were the days … not.

So, I know it's going take twice as long to pack as it would normally because I'll have to look everything over and reread those musty old back issues cover to cover before I pack them away again. I really have no idea what I'm going to find.

I did a series of columns here way back in 2007 that I called SIMO – Stuff In My Office -- that showed off the various cool racing keepsakes I've accumulated over the years (revisit them here, here, here, here, and here), like a champagne flute from Don Prudhomme's retirement party at the Playboy Mansion, my old OCIR mug, a piece of concrete from the original Pomona timing tower, etc. --  but that was just the surface stuff that sits out on display. This time, I'm going in deeper, into the drawers and long-ago taped-closed cardboard boxes. I know I have 1970s vintage Drag Racing USA magazines and newspaper articles and collector cards and who-knows-what-else in there. Oooh, I'm getting all tingly just thinking about it.

I'll be back next week, somewhere between making a move and bustin' a move, to report on what I found.

Final farewell to a legendTuesday, December 07, 2010
Posted by: Phil Burgess

 1 of 5 
James Warren and Mike Aaby
The California drag racing community came together last Saturday to lay to rest Roger Coburn, the tuning genius behind James Warren's romp through the SoCal fuel dragster classes in the late 1960s and 1970s, and, as befitting the legend, the turnout was strong and star-quality.

Warren, of course, was in attendance, with his wife, Juanita (Coburn's sister), and they were joined by a familiar group of racers past and present, including Don Prudhomme, Jack Beckman, Larry Bowers, Marvin Graham, Danny Broussard, Tom Jobe, Wayne King, Doug Kerhulas, Tony Waters, John Edmunds, Bob Crowe, Gary Guinn, Noel Reese, Mike and Jeff Miller (sons of "Ridge Route Terrors" partner Marvin Miller), Kennard Warren, Joel Gruzen, Mark Prudhomme, plus original Smoker’s starter Kenny Lowen, founding Smoker’s member Hut Watkins, and Steve Gibbs, who can be found in the photos at right that he sent from the camera of still-a-fan Beckman (which explains why he's in most of them).

Mike Aaby, who owns the restoration of the Warren-Coburn-Miller slingshot, had the car there, and it was cackled, with Warren fittingly in the cockpit.

The rest of the column contains farewells to Coburn, in the form of remembrances and photos sent by the readers of this column. I also wrotea nice sendoff article for this week's National DRAGSTER, with the story of the Rodge Route Terrors. RIP, Roger.

This photo, taken by Bill Schneider at the 2009 California Hot Rod Reunion presented by the Automobile Club of Southern California, shows the boys, Coburn and Warren, in their usual spots, in Aaby's re-creation of "The Ridge Route Terrors" car. The two remained close through their senior years.

Kirk Peters, a journeyman crew chief who has tuned a host of nitro cars, tipped his hat to Coburn. "There were three guys in my racing career that influenced me. First was my uncle, Barry Lewis, who showed me how to build engines; Don Prudhomme, who told me nitro racing was about fuel and clutch management; and Roger, who showed me how to run a nitro car. Without those three, there wouldn't have been the list of drivers such as Doug Kerhulas, Ray Stutz, Brad Tuttle, Richard Holcomb, and Al Hofmann, who I was able to send down racetracks with some success. Roger's easygoing smile has been missed around racetracks for some time, but we will now be missing it in life. And just as Jon Asher stated, I am guilty about saying every year that I was going to the Bakersfield event and stop by and say hi to Roger. RIP, Roger … miss you, big guy!

Veteran SoCal race-watcher Cliff Morgan shared two quick memories about the WCM team. "When they built their first back-motor car, the team switched from the 392 Chrysler to a Sid Waterman 426 engine," he recalled. "I remember seeing the car at Lions, and Sid was there. I asked Sid if he was gonna put the car in the (6).20s, which was quick back then. Another time at OCIR, Warren went off against Don Garlits for the Top Fuel final. It was at night, the track was dewy, and both drivers had to pedal, and Warren won. Garlits was always my favorite, but I cheered Warren that night. He was one of the few drivers that could outfox 'the Old Man.' Sigh. RIP, Roger."

Regular Insider reader and contributor Mark Watkins, an OCIR pit rat, remembers seeing Warren and Coburn at an OCIR PDA race. "It was around 7 p.m. in the hot pits, and WCM had their awesome slingshot on jack stands with a tray of barbecue coals under the oil pan. My 10-year-old brain couldn’t comprehend why these racing deities would do such a thing. I remember tall, happy men going about their business working on their car."

Watkins also sent this tribute, penned by his dad: "Other than hanging around their pit, I never really met either one of these men, but I can honestly say I know of no other two guys that I admired more. They were a genuine throwback to the days when it all started. One particular incident comes to mind. It was at a race at OCIR, and it was between rounds, and Roger was pulling one of the heads off when he twisted one of the head bolts off. Warren was sitting in his chair observing, and when Roger held up the twisted-off head bolt, and showed James, he just grinned and shrugged his shoulders. I think if it was anyone else, they would have gone berserk, but that just wasn't their style. If there were ever two more cool guys, I would like to meet them. There are a lot of people that knew Roger and a lot that didn't that are saddened by his passing, me included. Fair winds and smooth seas to you. One of your old fans."

Jon Asher's tale behind the fabled "Garage Photo" was well-appreciated by many, including former Blue Max crewmember and drag racing bon vivant "Waterbed Fred" Miller, who wrote, "In my 40 years in the sport, it is still the best poster I own. That was a great story on Warren and Coburn. They were a great bunch of guys. Guys like them are the reason I go to the Reunion in Bakersfield."

Reader Chuck F. added, "I never knew these two guys, but, man, that photo just jumps right out and says DON'T MESS WITH US. It will now be my new desktop wallpaper. It is just way too cool."

Frankie LoCascio sent this photo ("a not-so-good one from my phone," he admitted) of the WCM front-engine dragster that he took in July. "Apparently, the current owner of the car either lives here in the Phoenix area [he does – PB] or it's an easy drive from SoCal because I've seen the car twice lately," he wrote. "On this particular night, the car was at the celebration of life of Mark Niver. At the wheel of the car is Bob Langston, Mark's brother-in-law. In all the years Mark and Bobby raced together, he never sat in any of the Billet Bullet entries during warm-ups. He was always the one who started the car. Well, on this night, Bobby was at the wheel of the famed car when they fired it up. There wasn't a dry eye in the house, and it wasn't from the nitro. I know it's part of life, but drag racing and Division 7 in particular have lost at least two great names this year. RIP, Roger Coburn."

Stephen Justice sent these two great images. At left is a magazine ad for Rain for Rent, the agricultural-water-services company that sponsored the team for so long. At right is an Isky ad celebrating the team's domination of the Bakersfield March Meet, featuring an awesome drawing by the legendary Pete Millar of "The RRT." That's Coburn on the left, Warren on the right, and "the Camfather" himself, Ed Iskenderian, in the cockpit.

"Nitro Noel" Reese passed along this photo, his favorite of the 1970s back-motor car (my personal favorite of all of them) in action, which was featured in a Petersen Publishing calendar. "This one is my absolute favorite," he said. "The intensity of James staging, full flames, and I’m standing to the right in the white Danekas T-shirt with Roger towering behind me."

That pretty much sums up the way that people thought of Roger Coburn … towering over the landscape. And his presence wasn't just measured in feet and inches (though he had 6 of each!) but in his skills, stature, reputation, kindness, and generosity. He'll be missed.

Our drag sport, illustratedFriday, December 03, 2010
Posted by: Phil Burgess

National DRAGSTER may have the longevity record for drag racing weeklies, and Drag News will always be considered by some to have been the sport's authoritative tome, but there still was room for others to try their hand at the sometimes-tricky business of publishing racing news and photos.

In early 1963, Phil Bellomy, a kid from Southern California's San Gabriel Valley, did just that, launching an ambitious publication called Drag Sport Illustrated. Bellomy partnered with well-known photographer Jim Kelly to launch the new publication, whose first issue was cover-dated March 3, 1963. As implied by the name and enhanced by Kelly's photographic expertise, DSI was heavy on photos while DRAGSTER, which was launched in 1960, and Drag News, which debuted in 1955, had more in-depth stories and perhaps fewer photos. In many ways, the reportage, which was sometimes more folksy than factual (especially the headlines) but nonetheless featured an all-star lineup such as Ralph Guldahl, Dave Wallace, Forrest Bond, Mike Kotowski, and Steve Gibbs, was less important than the photos, which was just fine with a lot of folks who, like today, were getting their news from a variety of sources anyway.

With the support and encouragement and expertise of local printer Carl Bennitt, DSI was printed on high-grade Electrabrite newsprint – much better than what was offered by Drag News or ND – to enhance the appearance of the photography submitted by greats such as Kelly, Dave Shipman, Tim Marshall, Bill Turney, Charles Strutt, and others.

Issues ranged from as few as eight pages in the first year to 30 pages and covered everything from dragsters to stockers to gassers, motorcycles, and altereds. Although prime coverage was given to SoCal venues such as Lions, Fontana, and San Fernando, DSI also covered action across the country, including from the few NHRA national events at the time. Despite gaining popular favor, the dream died in July 1966 when DSI was abruptly shut down.

A lot of folks have never heard of DSI let alone seen its contents, but thanks to the dedicated efforts of Ron Johnson and Don Ewald, fans can now view 103 issues in PDF format on a new two-CD set recently released and available for just $25 here and in the gift shops at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Musuem presented by the Automobile Club of Southern California and at the Petersen Automotive Museum. The collection spans from that March 1963 issue through March 1965.

Johnson borrowed from Bob Thompson his complete collection and enlisted Ewald, webmaster for both Cacklefest.com and his We Did It For Love (wdifl.com) sites, to do the heavy lifting of scanning the issues. The project probably started in June, and Ewald finished the first two years of issues in September so that they could get a CD set produced for the California Hot Rod Reunion presented by the Automobile Club of Southern California. Ewald estimated that he spent about 230 hours scanning and touching up in Photoshop each page for maximum presentation.

Ewald also had to contact Bellomy, who still held the original copyright, to work out that issue. Johnson paid the fees for the right to reproduce and sell the scanned collection for a limited time.

I had a chance to review the set and peruse some of the great articles. We've scanned dozens of issues of National DRAGSTER ourselves with the ambition of someday making a compete set (which, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, already is nearing 2,400 issues), and it's no easy feat to scan them and make them look good. There are a few bleed-through issues with some of the DSI files (print from one side of the page ghosting onto the other in the scanning process), but it's minimal and not really invasive.

You can find great coverage from an incredible period in our sport's history when Top Fuelers ruled the roost at local tracks far and wide and enjoy photos of some of that era's great cars.

The second CD also features DSI's 1965 calendar, a wonderful full-color keepsake. As you know, the newsweeklies back then didn't have any color photography, and we don’t get many chances to see cars such as the Greer-Black-Prudhomme entry, Connie Kalitta's Bounty Hunter, the Yeakel Plymouth dragster, the Chizler, "Big John" Mazmanian's Willys, and others in full-glory color.

You can also still order the Drag News collection from wdifl.com here. With these two collections, you'll be able to hold your own when it comes to those weekend bench racing sessions and to call me out on my work, too! I know I'll be adding it to my arsenal of tools for deciphering our sport's history.

Someday, we'll have a collection of National DRAGSTER issues you can buy – we've been toying with the idea of single-issue downloads of our coverage from historic events like the 1967 Nationals, 1972 Supernationals, 1975 World Finals, et al – but until then, you’re going to have to just trust me on some of this stuff.

The 'Garage Photo'Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Posted by: Phil Burgess

If there's a single photo that resonates deeply with all of us old-time race fans and racers, it’s this famous shot of "the Ridge Route Terrors," Roger Coburn and James Warren, photographed by Jon Asher in Coburn's garage.

Everything in this powerful image just screams at me. It’s the West Coast's most dynamic Top Fuel duo, at home in what's surely the most humble of race headquarters. Warren rocked back perched atop a milk crate, his hand resting comfortably atop a supercharger, while the lanky Coburn kicked back in a cheap folding chair, feet atop another milk crate. Around them were spread parts of their dragster. A cylinder head on a shelf. Head gaskets on the wall. Fans of the team always knew that they were old-school to the bone; for years, they used one of the smaller tagalong Ed Wills-built trailers instead of the fifth-wheel Chaparral. Yet out of this humble garage roared an orange beast that few on the West Coast could tame. If I had to put a single word on this image, it would be "genuine," which, I guess, for a photographer is always the goal.

With the passing last week of Coburn, I thought it was time to get to the story behind the photo. Asher was happy to oblige.

The 'Garage Photo'
How it came to be and what it has meant

Thirty-six years ago, I was a relative newcomer at Car Craft magazine, carrying the masthead title of competition editor. It was almost a joke among the staff of highly motivated car nuts. These were guys who not only knew everything about cars, but they would ultimately prove incredibly influential in the formation of such categories as Econo Dragster and Altered and the Super Modified classes. We had guys on the staff capable of winning both divisional races and national events -- and did so. And then there was me, who (sometimes) knew where the engine was located in a car and could usually tell the difference between a carburetor and a supercharger.

I’m outlining this because I think it’s relevant. Our staff planning meetings were filled with story ideas covering the gamut from how-to stories for beginners to complete car buildups. Candidly, I was unable to contribute any ideas along those lines because, well, I didn’t know anything. My feeble story concepts were all about drag racing and the people who made the sport happen, and in 1974, few made it “happen” more than "the Ridge Route Terrors," James Warren and Roger Coburn, in their gorgeous Rain for Rent machine.

Reluctantly, the staff and editor agreed to let me do a feature story on this often taciturn duo from Bakersfield, Calif., so I made a few phone calls and connected with them. We agreed on a date that I’d drive up from L.A. to do the story, but when I reached the Grapevine, it was already heavily overcast, and by the time I’d reached Bakersfield, a steady, soft rain was falling.

We met at Roger Coburn’s place and sat down to talk about their racing exploits. To be honest, I don’t remember a word of that conversation because I already knew their car wasn’t assembled, it was raining, and I was pressing a deadline. I had plenty of action shots of the car but nothing of a personal nature. I had some shots of the guys at the track, but we needed more. When they showed me their “shop,” an overcrowded garage complete with washing machine and the assorted detritus of any suburban garage, I started to panic, but then I figured, what the heck, I’m not going back to Los Angeles with a story and no photos.

Roger and James were reluctant but agreed to sit in the garage for a time exposure, and I set up a tripod in the driveway in the rain with a coat over my Nikon between photos. We shot maybe a half dozen time exposures on Tri-X black and white film at various shutter speeds and f-stops. Even with a light meter, I was pretty much guessing, something that the onset of digital photography has all but eliminated. In today’s world, you fire off a few exposures, look at them in the back of the camera, and then instantly adjust your shooting accordingly. In 1974, you shot the photo, dropped off the film at the Petersen Publishing photo lab, and hoped you hadn’t made a fool of yourself.

Because I was unable to show them the finished photo, I’m pretty sure James and Roger figured they were dealing with an idiot. They’d been featured in other magazines, always in a photo shoot in bright sunlight with a pleasing background. This was in the rain in a crowded, overfilled suburban garage. A photo studio it wasn’t! And, since I’d never really met them before that afternoon and evening (other than the usual “How ya’ doin’?” at the track), I left there with the distinct impression that they thought they’d just wasted four or five hours.

The shot worked, and we used it as the opening for the story, and that was pretty much it. Then we started to get reaction from our readers, who seemed to like what they saw. Sometime later, Joe Martinez became CC’s art director, and our offices moved from one side of the building at 8490 Sunset Blvd. to the other. That’s also relative because Joe decorated our offices with various photos from the magazine, including my shot of Warren and Coburn in the garage, which by then had been blown up to poster size and board-mounted.

When Joe left to become corporate art director for the NHRA, he took some photos with him (with permission), including an 8x10 of the Warren and Coburn shot. As I recall, a couple of months later, he called and asked if I’d mind if they made a big blowup of the shot for the Museum. I was honored to have one of my photos selected, but there was a problem. Joe wanted the original negative to make the blowup, and it couldn’t be found. In fact, to my knowledge, it's never been located. I’ve always assumed that when the original blowup was made for our office at Car Craft, the negative was used by the outside company that made it, and it was either never returned or somehow lost in shipment. Joe ultimately used his 8x10 print from which a copy negative was made and the blowup printed for the Museum.

About five or six years ago, then-NHRA Vice President Steve Gibbs called and asked if I’d be willing to autograph 100 posters of the shot, although I couldn’t imagine why anyone would care if I signed them or not. The posters were then shipped to Bakersfield, where they were signed by James and Roger before they went back to the Museum for sale. I’ve been told on more than one occasion that the shot is the largest-selling item in the Museum. Years ago, Gibbs had asked me what I wanted in payment, but I declined, saying the Museum should keep whatever revenue was generated to help keep it going.

I never heard a direct word from either Roger or James about the photo, but I did hear from a few people who were friends with them that they loved it. Gibbs also told me that, so in the long run, it all worked out.

Please don’t misunderstand what I mean by this, but every photographer has at least one shot that will be forever linked to him. For Hall of Famer Steve Reyes, I think that shot is his clutch explosion from Larry Bowers' car at Orange County. For Bob McClurg, it’s his coming-off-the-line-sideways-smoking-the-tires shot of "Wild Willie" Borsch. For Hall of Famer Jim Kelly, there are too many to remember just one. For me, there are two shots in 45 years that are memorable, at least to me if no one else. The Warren and Coburn shot is one of them.

Through the passage of time, I found out that this once-invincible duo of Warren and Coburn had had a falling-out and were no longer talking to one another. It was, in some respects, like a long-term marriage that just doesn’t work any longer. For those of us on the outside, that “divorce” seemed surprising because there was no Warren without Coburn and no Coburn without Warren.

With Roger’s passing, drag racing has lost an iconic figure, a tall man who stood much taller than that in our little world of drag racing. I know there will be those who learn of his passing with regret, regret that they didn’t make that phone call to him last year or last month. We lose too many people every year, people we know in our hearts we should have spent more time with. Don’t let the next friend’s passing leave you with a feeling of remorse for having unintentionally ignored him or her. Pick up the phone and make that call. Today. Tell that friend how much you care. He’ll feel better for it, and so will you.

Thanks, Jon. What a great story.

I never really did anything in this column with James or Roger, but we did have some interesting stuff on them from other people in April 2008. In this column, former Top Fuel driver and W-C-M crewmember "Nitro Noel" Reese gave us a 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.

RIP Roger Coburn.

Previous Entries
Next Entries
  • 2015
  • 2014
  • 2013
  • 2012
  • 2011
  • 2010
  • 2009
  • 2008
  • 2007