Features

Two of a kind: 'Snake's' new findFriday, July 09, 2010
Posted by: Phil Burgess

For a guy who created and lived a lot of it, Don Prudhomme sure digs drag racing history, especially the equipment that helped make him a megastar in the sport. He began by tracking down and restoring a lot of his old Funny Cars – six of them reside in his Vista, Calif., shop – before focusing on his old Dodge ramp truck, which he and Willie Wolter spent a year restoring to its early-1970s glory.

Then "the Snake" went on the hunt for the truck's brother, the '67 Dodge D-700 that hauled on its back the Plymouth Duster Funny Cars of Wildlife Racing partner Tom McEwen. You may have seen a note here a few weeks ago asking for clues to the whereabouts of "the Mongoose's" old hauler as I knew that Prudhomme wanted desperately to have the matched set (he already owns an ex-McEwen Duster).

Well, good news, race fans and preservationists everywhere: He found it!

I received an e-mail this week from team manager Skip Allum, and the accompanying first-look photos as proof of the rare find with the assurances from Prudhomme that this one, too, will look as it did when it wowed fans across the country decades ago.

Prudhomme's truck had been used by "King Richard" Petty, and McEwen's rig was originally ordered by Plymouth for drag racing's Sox & Martin team. After he bought it, McEwen had the truck modified, copying the features on Prudhomme’s. The era of the ramp truck lasted only until enclosed trailers became popular in the mid-1970s, and the prospect of having their precious cargo not only secure but also out of the harsh elements during their cross-country treks soon led Prudhomme, McEwen, and every other ramp-truck-owning team (save for the Chi-Town Hustler gang, which used a ramp truck well into the 1980s) to sell their trucks and place orders with companies such as Chaparral Trailers. The convenience of being able to leave their car and trailer at the track and head to the hotel or to eat in a duallie opened up a whole new world.

Many of the ramp trucks were quickly lost to history, gobbled up by circle-track racers and others, and no one really looked back until Prudhomme got the itch to find his. Remarkably, wife Lynn still had the original bill of sale with the VIN on it, and before long, they had tracked it down – it had remained in California – purchased it, and restored it. (Read my account of the restoration here.)

Prudhomme's truck has been a huge hit wherever it has been displayed, including at last year's California Hot Rod Reunion presented by the Automobile Club of Southern California and as part of this year's Golden Corral at the 50th Anniversary Kragen O'Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals presented by Valvoline, not to mention at prestigious events such as the Barrett-Jackson Auction, the SEMA Show, and the Dana Point Concours d’Elegance.

Once his truck restoration was completed, Prudhomme began the search for McEwen's rig but was not making a lot of progress until a chance encounter at the recent L.A. Roadster Show in Pomona, where he was approached by former Winston West stock-car racer Don Lowery, who said he had purchased the truck from McEwen in the 1970s. Lowery not only had the records and photos -- including the one at right -- to prove his ownership claim, but he also showed Prudhomme something even more valuable: the name of the guy in Arizona to whom he had sold it.


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Found: "the Mongoose's" truck!
 
With Lowery's help, Prudhomme tracked down the owner, who had moved to Riverside, Calif., 15 years ago, somewhat simplifying the process. Still, Prudhomme probably had reservations on the trip. When he found the truck, it was in far from pristine condition, and the owner, knowing its history, had asked for a princely sum. It took some negotiating before Prudhomme got his prize, and I'm sure he was wary, but he had brought along a flatbed truck … y'know, just in case.

Like his own, the former McEwen truck was "not in the greatest condition," according to Allum, but what convinced Prudhomme to buy it was a small, credit-card-sized piece of tinwork in the glove box, the original vehicle-identification Certicard from Chrysler Corp. as issued to “Sox-Martin, Burlington, N.C., April 17, 1967.”

Prudhomme's guys loaded up the truck and took it to "the Snake's" shop, where the restoration is already under way and, like that of Prudhomme's truck, is expected to take 18 to 24 months. Once completed, Prudhomme will paint the truck and car in matching colors, as on  this Hot Rod magazine cover, and display the two together, which is sure to bring tears of joy to the eyes of many people my age, who remember as teenagers seeing the two-car operation rolling into the pit gates, immediately swarmed by fans.

I can hardly wait.
 

Power to the peopleTuesday, July 06, 2010
Posted by: Phil Burgess

It's not as if I didn't know this would happen, but I was besieged with e-mails following Friday's Patriotic Power column, in which I foolishly made what I knew was only a partial list of cars with a patriotic theme. My original list was twice as long and a bit repetitive, so I trimmed it to a manageable size.

My "all America" list was hardly that, especially when it came to cars named All American. Though disappointed but understanding that I had not included his short-lived Art Linkletter's All-American Top Fueler pictured here, Bill Holland said that I needed Carl Casper's Gary Cochran-driven Young American dragster on the list. Note the mini Old Glory attached to the roll cage next to driver John Guedel's helmet.

Gene Adams volunteered the Rod Shop All-American drag teams as worthy of the list, Dennis Sacks pointed out that I had left Val LaPorte's All American Top Fueler from the mid-1960s -- which was the former Norm Weekly-driven Orange County Metal Processors entry -- off my list, and Jerry Farniok and Mike Burg said that I had forgotten Walt Arfons' Truly American Mustang jet Funny Car, driven by Jim Taylor. Burg pointed me to the photo at right, which he found on the American Jet Cars website.

I also heard from Marc Denner, co-crew chief on Bob Tasca III's romp-stomping Quick Lane Funny Car, who was – for a short and ill-fated time -- part of J.R. Wade's American Dream team mentioned in my article. Denner's dad, of course, is longtime racer Don Denner, and Marc noted that they hooked up with Wade and Ray Motes (Motes drove the senior Denner's dragsters in the late 1970s early 1980s). "They came to us in '90 I think and asked us if we would put the car together," he wrote. "We had been out of racing for a little bit, but I was old enough to get the spark going again. The first American Dream car was purchased from Larry Camenzind (Bionic Bitch); we took it home to Wichita, took it all apart, and cleaned it up. I learned a lot from that time. We got the car all painted and took it to Kansas City for a big unveil, then we headed for Noble, Okla., for the maiden outing. On the first burnout, a blower restraint strap got sucked in the injector blade, hung the throttle open, and Ray crashed into the wall, and the American Dream was over. We rebuilt everything and went to Topeka, missed the show, and that was it for the Denner family and the American Dream."

RIch Venza, another frequent Insider contributor, wanted to make sure that I knew that though he's sure that Mike Kosky is a proud American, his American Flyer entries probably had more to with his huge interest in model trains than patriotism. I did know about Kosky's penchant for trains – we had this photo at right in our files that shows just a portion of Kosky's collection – but couldn’t resist adding him especially in light of Kosky's recent successes. The guy continues to win races and reach finals in what has to be his fourth decade of racing.

Clayton Taylor, the former Connecticut Dragway track photographer who shot the photo of "Mad Man Marko" Hildonen's Young American wheelstander that I used in the column, noted that I had also forgotten about Nick Boninfante's Pat Walsh-driven U.S. Male Alcohol Funny Car. "We always thought the name was amusing, ‘cause Nicky was a short, round Italian, and Pat was about 5-foot-7 and 125 pounds on a good day – certainly not recruiting-poster images for the armed services," he wrote. "That was OK, though, as they were both really great guys. Heck, that group might make a good column sometime – the way you could race your alky flopper three to four times a week and actually not LOSE money!"

Taylor also added Bob Beaulieu’s Little America Vega-bodied Alcohol Funny Car (which ran on Boninfante’s BB/FC circuit), the red, white, and blue O.J. McKinney-driven Freedom Machine Top Fueler from the late 1960s, A.J. “Smiley” Smullen’s Little Patriot Ford cammer-motored A/Comp car, and Bill Flynn’s Yankee Peddler A/FXers, Funny Cars, and Pro Stockers.

Greg Gorian reminded me that his old neighbor and my ol' pal, former Alcohol Funny Car racer Jim DePasse, used to have a nitro-burning Jeep named Fuelish American in the 1970s when he was still sand racing, and Russ Ganz, who owns the Grand Illusion Super Comp dragster that competes in Division 1, reported that the first rocket-powered Funny Car of his former neighbor Slam'n Sammy Miller was the Spirit of '76 Mustang II. Tom Lachance suggested the Segrini brothers' (Al and Lou) American Express injected Funny Car, which he said got its name because the car was financed by their personal credit cards.

OK, enough forgotten fireworks for the day. I’ll see ya later this week.
 

Patriotic powerFriday, July 02, 2010
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Well, here we are, on the cusp of a Fourth of July weekend, a time that's known as much for backyard barbecues and fireworks displays as it is an expression of pride in the United States. Though I'm sure that there are many nations whose residents are proud of their country, they don't seem to celebrate as much as Americans. It permeates all that we do and recognizes who we are, and that distinction certainly applies to that most American of motorsports, drag racing.

For decades, drag racers have carried their love of country into quarter-mile battle, whether it be with a simple American flag adorning a cockpit window or a full-blown patriotic paint scheme. I did a quick search of the term "America" in DragList's car-name field and was rewarded with more than 20 pages of results.

Clayton Taylor photo

Former Funny Car world champ Bruce Larson has to be the standard-bearer of all things patriotic with his long-running series of cars with the USA-1 name, which adorned Funny Cars and door cars alike along with a patriotic stars-and-stripes motif.

Are there other proud Americans? You bet. In fact, Vern Anderson's rocket dragster was named Proud American, and Earl Carter's late-1960s Corvette Funny Car also bore the same name, as did Jack Weller's Corvette Pro Mod car.

Craig Breedlove had the Spirit of America Top Fueler, and Carl Casper's Gary Cochran-driven Top Fueler from the early 1970s was dubbed Young American, as was Mark Hildonen's later wheelstander.

Harry Lehman, whose streamlined American Way Top Fueler was featured here a few weeks ago, just wrote to say that he's still going to give us the backstory on that wondrous machine.

Alcohol Dragster veteran Mike Kosky has long been known for his successful string of American Flyer entries, but did you know that chassis builder Art Morrison once fielded a Volkswagen wheelstander by the same name? Me either! Likewise, the late John Shoemaker was well-known for calling his Alcohol Dragsters American Eagle, a name also later used by Steve Plueger on his Funny Car.

Norman Blake photo

Dave Arnold had the All American Rat Pro Stock Camaro in the early 1970s, Grady Bryant the All American Boys Corvette Alcohol Funny Car, and Butch Claunch (Charger Funny Car), Jimmy King (Top Fuel), and Butch Kernodle (Alcohol Funny Car) simply went with All-American.

J.R. Wade, meanwhile, was living the American Dream with a thusly named Funny Car wheeled by numerous drivers, including Bret and Vicky Fanning and Larry Gould, and Lew Arrington called his Mustang-bodied rocket flopper Captain America.

And finally, due credit to Pat Bennett for calling his Pro Mod Nova the American Bad Ass and to Vann Ivy for paying his rent with an Alcohol Dragster called American Taxpayer, and, of course, Fred Spiezio's jet Funny Car, sponsored by Fireworks USA.

OK, folks, have a safe and sane weekend. I'll see you next week.
 

'Home movies' from OCIRTuesday, June 29, 2010
Posted by: Phil Burgess

With the exception maybe of Lions Drag Strip, no drag racing facility seems to be more canonized than one of my faves, good ol' Orange County Int’l Raceway. It seems that the love, admiration, and good memories of the SoCal raceplant just never fade. It has its own Facebook group and websites devoted to its history and the remembrances of those who raced and watched there.

Now comes an interesting find, forwarded to me by good pal Dale Smith of Coyote Composites (himself big in the nostalgia business as a builder of retro Funny Car bodies, most notably the iconic 1972 Plymouth Satellite), of a trove of videos from OCIR posted on YouTube by Dwight Guild that captures action there in the early 1980s, with everything from Funny Cars to Top Fuelers to wheelstanders to jet cars. Most of the newest batch of videos are from early 1981 and include a lot of my old favorites like Rodney Flournoy, Bob Pickett, Chuck Beal, Dale Van Gundy, and many, many more.

"I shot many, many hours of 'home movie'-style drag race video, primarily from OCIR, 1979 thru 1983," Guild wrote on his profile. "I decided to break down the videos into individual runs and load them up for racers, their families, fans, and friends to enjoy. Aside from shooting tons of video over the years, I also served as a crewmember or crew chief on various cars, including several of Hayden Proffitt's."

You get to see races or runs involving Jim Dunn, Billy Meyer, Craig Epperly, Bruce Iversen, Gary Burgin, Lou Gasparrelli, Gary Densham, Kenny Bernstein, John Force, Raymond Beadle, Don Prudhomme, Steve McCracken, Mike Andreotti, Jack Holsey, Jim Adolph, Fuzz Miller, Wayne Stoeckel, Bill Carter, Nick Harmon, Les Shockley, Tommy Ivo, Proffitt, Tom Ridings, and other denizens of the County.

Guild did a pretty good job of moving around the vaunted facility; most of the footage is shot from the stands showing the famous Champion tower (and some from the top of said tower), and some is of scenes from the top end. The sound is awesome. Who doesn’t love a cackling nitro car? There are several videos from a Funny Cars vs. jets match race as well as the late Jim "Bullet" Bailey being pulled along behind Junior Thompson's Alcohol Funny Car. Some of the footage is a tad dark, having been shot at the night races, but there's a lot of daylight footage, too, including the clip at right, which shows Denny Savage at the wheel of the Powers Steel Corvette.

One thing that is really obvious from looking at these nitro-car clips is the famed dry-hop pre-run procedure. Some of these guys do four to six dry hops, and it's a great bit of nostalgia for those of us who remember seeing the cars snort at each other before the run, the drivers "talking" to one another with their blasts, like we used to do revving our engines alongside the guy in the next car at the stoplights of our youth.

Sadly, we don't see dry hops anymore because of the heat they put into the delicate clutch, but I e-mailed Savage to ask him about the dry hops -- how and why they were done, and to what extent. His reply was way more than I expected. I had assumed that the dry hop was used to gauge traction and maybe give the driver an idea of what to expect on the launch, but it went far beyond that and became a primitive driver-applied clutch-tuning tool.

"Because we could only readjust (reset the pack clearance, and add or subtract counterweight, and add or reduce stall), the clutches back then were kind of hit and miss," he noted. "When you went up for the next run, after the burnout, we drivers would do a dry hop to try and judge the 'aggressiveness' of the clutch. If it was about right (judgment of the driver or crew chief), stage it up. If it was too aggressive, another dry hop to put more heat in the clutch, and soften it up, so to speak. Without the data acquisition that they have nowadays, it was strictly hit and miss. Today's clutches kinda work the opposite: The more heat they get, the more aggressive they are. More discs, more floaters, and tighter pack clearance cause that.

"Some guys also just got carried away with it all and just liked to 'bark' at the other car."

Thanks, Denny! Anyway, you can check out all of Guild's videos here. If you’re an OCIR junkie like me, be prepared to invest an hour or so and make sure the boss isn't around.
 

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