Features

Posted by: Phil Burgess

The news of the passing of "Smokey Joe" Lee earlier this week and the loss this morning of 1974 NHRA Funny Car world champ Shirl Greer was a double tough blow to longtime fans like me and many of you who remember these guys in the nostalgic heyday of Funny Car racing.

I never saw Greer run outside of national events much because he was from back East but remember "Smokey Joe" living up to his nickname many a time at Orange County Int’l Raceway or Irwindale Raceway match races. As big of a Don Prudhomme fan as I was, I also loved the independents of the 1970s and even early 1980s, guys like Lee, Jeff Courtie, Bob Pickett, Roger Garten, Neil Leffler, Jim Terry, Clarence Bailey, Willie and the Poor Boys, Ray Romund, Al Arriaga, and Mike Halloran. I remember Halloran winning Irwindale's famous Grand Prix of Drag Racing in 1973 over a strong field. He beat Ed McCulloch in the semi's and even set top speed, then got a bye in the final when Jim Dunn's Satellite was broken. What a "little guy" win that was!

Looking at the list of guys we've lost recently, it's very stunning. As Courtie told me in an e-mail yesterday, "It's been a rough couple of years for guys from the 1970s." Going through the NHRA.com archives, I see that in the last two years alone, we've lost racers Jim Paoli, Leroy Chadderton, Ron Correnti, Bobby Hightower, Dick Loehr, Al Eckstrand, Jocko Johnson, Red Gobel, Chuck Finders, K.S. Pittman, Joe Allread, and Lou Sattelmaier as well as iconic manufacturers Chet Herbert, Jim Deist, Sig Erson, Marv Rifchin, Ralph Truppi, Ed Justice Sr., Pete Jackson, Greg Weld, Rocky Childs, and Bob Tasca Sr., not to mention more contemporary figures such as Don Woosley, Gene Fasching, Jim Harrington, Ronnie Marcum, and Tom Baum.

Even my own journalism world has been rocked with the losses of guys such as online pioneer Mike Hollander, DRAGSTER's own Dick Wells, Bill Crites, and Eric Brooks, Charlotte Observer motorsports veteran David Poole, former Safety Safari member/Hot Rod photographer Eric "Rick" Rickman, Fast News' Darryl Jackman, and photo ace Bob Hesser. Going back three to four years, we also lost nitro stalwarts Chuck Kurzawa, Dick Custy, Billy Holt, Romund, Jim McClennan, and Tom McCourry. It's very tough to see your heroes dropping one by one.

While working up background info on Greer, I thought it would be a good time to retell the story of his heroic efforts in winning the 1974 world championship, so it's the focus of this week's Pure Nostalgia column in National DRAGSTER. I interviewed Paul Smith, who was leading the points coming into that final race but didn’t qualify and ultimately led the group of guys who put Greer's fire-ravaged Mustang back together, as well as Prudhomme, who battled Greer down to the wire yet still had the class and sportsmanship to offer Greer a pair of gloves to cover his badly burned hands. I also got some info from Gordie Bonin, who was in on the thrash.

Greer's championship ended the best bid that Smith ever mustered for the title – he finished second – and denied Prudhomme what would have been his first championship.

"He was real strong and had a good-running car," remembered "the Snake," who finished third. "He had my respect. He was an independent guy, but he was a real threat. It was a well-deserved championship, to come back from that fire and still run. They don’t make 'em like that anymore."

Through 1973, the world championship had been decided by whoever won that year's World Finals; 1974 was the first year of a true points-based championship, though it relied heavily on points meets as much as national event competition. Prudhomme didn't run as many divisional races as Greer, and that probably cost him the chance to win his first title.

"That was the year before Winston came into the sport, and I have to say it was Greer who made me well aware of winning the championship, so we really went after it the next year," said Prudhomme. "Drag racing was really beginning to take off."

Smith, who battled with Greer throughout the season in Division 2, was actually inspired by Greer to compete in the class.

"The first I saw Shirl was down at Miami Dragway, and here came this Funny Car – a car called Tension. (I had never had a Funny Car – just an old bracket car)," he remembered. "It was injected at the time, but the next time I saw it, it was blown. That's when I said, 'I've got to get me one of those.' I kind of followed him and watched and learned from what he did."

Smith, known more today as the journeyman crew chief for aspiring racers and a guy who could get a car down a dirt road, had a great car that year, the Fireball Vega, owned by Gary Phillips, whose family was in the jukebox business, and Jim Shores of Shores & Hess Anglia gasser fame.

"We ran good," remembered Smith. "We had Ed Pink engines and all the good stuff. We had a good record with that car and almost never oiled the track. I'm not the kind of guy who's going to throw down a $100 bill to jump over it to get a $20 bill. You have to run them like a business to stay out here. Greer was the same way. We liked racing together. If I needed something, he'd give it to me, and I’d do the same. We were good friends, and I tried to help him as much as I could."
 

Bonin appended his recollection of that 1974 race with a funny story about Greer that actually will help segue into my next topic. Last weekend at the March Meet, John "Tarzan" Austin regaled Bonin and friends with a story about how he and Greer dealt with a pushy policeman one year at the Summernationals.

Bonin paraphrased "Tarzan's" story thusly: "There we were, me and Shirl Greer in our firesuits, watching the rounds in front of us when this little bastard comes up to us and tells us we have to leave. We ignore him, so he pushes Greer, who doesn't even budge. Now, I'm a big boy, but Shirl topped me by about 5 inches. We look at each other, put one arm each under Barney Fife's arms, pick him up, and walk to the side of the burnout box and deposit him head first into a trash can."

Man, the stuff you could get away with in the '70s!

Bonin bringing Austin into the tale is a perfect transition for a follow-up to a query from the aforementioned Courtie about my statement in Tuesday's Fan Fotos that Austin had never won a national event. Courtie was sure that he had but that the car owner had kept the trophy and that years later "T.V. Tommy" Ivo had bought a replacement Wally trophy for Austin, his longtime friend and former crewmember.

I knew that Austin had never driven to a win, so I asked Ivo for clarification.

"Right church -- wrong pew!" he responded. " 'Tarzan' did win Englishtown in 1971, but not as the driver. He was the mechanic, and Arnie Behling was the driver."

(At right is a photo of Behling accepting that Wally -- with Wally! I couldn't find a group winner's circle with Austin in it. Bonus points if you can tell me, without looking it up, whom Behling beat to win the 1971 Summernationals. Answer at the end of the column, or click here to jump there now if you just can't wait).

"I had a Wally made up for him a couple of years back and gave it to him in the front of the DoubleTree Hotel on Friday night during the [California Hot Rod Reunion]. He had complained to me some time before that that even the [team] truck drivers nowadays get a Wally as a team member (if the boss buys them one, of course).

"So I walked up to him with it in a box in my hands and said, 'You always said I never gave you anything,' to which he replied, 'What's that, box of hundred-dollar bills?' When I said it was better than that and whipped out the Wally and explained to him what it was all about, it was the first time I saw him without anything to say, and he rushed off to put it in his truck. He actually had a tear in his eye. That's a first! It's times like that that really make my day. As I've said before, 'Tarzan' was all but my real brother!"

(Gregory Safchuk photo)

Ivo also attached this photo of him and Austin celebrating in the winner's circle in Epping, N.H., after winning the track's big meet of the year.

" 'Tarzan' went for the bottle of champagne (and is drinking it … with a cigarette in his other hand … with a team 'Tommy Ivo' T-shirt on … NOT. Sigh.) instead of handling the trophy like he did with Arnie. That's my ex-wife Inez in the middle. Nice boots, but I should talk with my bell-bottom pants."

Courtie was happy to get the straight story, right from one of his favorite drivers. "Ivo was a childhood hero of mine when I used to ride my bike up to San Fernando starting when I was 12 years old," he said. "Now it's great to know him and talk to him about the old days; a really great guy!"
 

Another item from Tuesday's Fan Fotos – this one concerning Jeg Coughlin Sr. -- elicited the same question from readers Jack Adamson and Chris Van Unen, who not only were sure that "the Captain" had skippered a nitro Funny Car – contrary to my story – but also cited the same car and race as "evidence."

"I remember a picture of a JEGS flopper way back when that experienced an engine explosion," wrote Adamson. "The only way I remembered that picture was in the pic you can see the cap from the fuel tank had been blown off of the tank at the same time the picture was taken. Was this a nitro car or an alcohol car? I think the Funny Car body was a Camaro, but I can’t give you the year. I seem to also remember that because of this there was a rule change on the attachment of the fuel-tank caps."

"If I am not mistaken, the infamous photo of why we went to screw-on fuel-tank caps is Jeg in a nitro Funny Car," wrote Van Unen. "The body was exploding off the car on the line due to the tank igniting, and the old-style hinge cap had seen its last days."

Both are spot-on with everything but the driver, who was Dale Emery and not Jeg Sr. The race was the 1973 Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway, and the great photo was taken by a guy I regard as one of the all-time great clutch photographers, Don Gillespie, who has frozen some of the wildest blowups in history (see Mike Dunn, OCIR 1983).

Emery, of course, was the fearless driver of Rich Guasco's original Pure Hell fuel altered from 1966 to 1969 and then the shoe of Guasco's similarly named Duster Funny Car (and others) after that before a two-year stint with Coughlin. After Coughlin parked the Funny Car following the 1974 season, Emery drove other cars, including fellow Texan Mike Burkhart's Camaro, in which he made his ill-fated pass that ended up in another infamous photo – of the car on its nose, perpendicular to the ground, after hitting the guardrail in Indy in 1977. Emery broke his arm in that accident and retired from driving but, of course, went on to greater things as a key member of the crew in Raymond Beadle's three consecutive Funny Car championships.
 

Behling follow-up: The runner-up to Behling at the 1971 Summernationals, in what also was his only final-round appearance, was Jim Harnsberger. Harnsberger's story was pretty amazing: He beat Don Garlits on a holeshot in round two, 6.76 to 6.69, then narrowly beat Herm Petersen in the semifinals in a bout in which both drivers ran 7.09. The win was costly to Harnsberger; though; he blew a rod and had no spares. It was a typical hot, humid, and nasty Summernationals day, and Harnsberger almost passed out due to heat prostration. He was whisked to the hospital — against his wishes — in an ambulance but talked the ambulance crew into bringing him back to the track, and he watched Behling solo to the win.

Interestingly, Behling's Spirit dragster was one of just a few rear-engine dragsters in the field – Garlits' iconic Swamp Rat 14 was in it, of course, as was Prudhomme's Hot Wheels Wedge – and, going through photos of the event, it looks as if, of the few back-motor cars, only Garlits' and Behling's had wings. Garlits' was mounted conventionally, but Behling's was mounted atop the engine (shades of Garlits' Swamp Rat V!).

Behling's Spirit dragster probably should hold some sort of historical footnote. It was only the second rear-engine Top Fueler to win a national event, after Garlits, who famously won the Winternationals (in the car's debut) and the Springnationals. Jimmy King won the season's other early event, the Gatornationals, in a front-engine car.

I could probably make some kind of argument here about how the win by the previously unheralded Behling spurred along the acceptance of rear-engine Top Fuelers as much as Garlits' histrionics, as Behling not only proved the worth of the design and that you don’t have to be "Big Daddy" to win in a rear-engine car, but I'll leave that one to supposition.

Thanks for reading. See ya next week.
 

Posted by: Phil Burgess

Welcome to another installment of Fan Fotos, galleries of great memories hauled from shoeboxes and dusty photo albums to share with your pals here at the Insider. This is always a real treat for me as well, sorting through the various submissions for cool stuff that I've not seen or cars I haven’t seen in a while.

Tom Nagy is today's gallery guest, and he made it real tough on me by submitting 30 photos to choose from, almost all of them great memory stokers. I tried to whittle it down to the usual 10 but fell short by one, so I hope you'll accept my apology for presenting 11 <g>.

"All these photos were taken by me in the 1970s; all of the on-track shots were taken from the grandstands," he wrote. "I know I sent more than 10, but I thought you could decide which ones to use. I had a 35mm Canon that was purchased new in 1973 and was used for all my photos. I used a Vivitar 85-210mm zoom for the action shots and sometimes attached a 2x teleconverter when there was enough light. I shot 400 ASA print film almost exclusively, and the resulting negatives were stored in plastic sleeves. I bought a good Nikon negative/slide scanner a couple of years ago and have been scanning my 1970s images on and off since then; one of these days I'll finish.

"I'm from South Bend, Ind., and went to many Midwestern dragstrips throughout the '70s. Many times, I went to U.S. 131 Dragway on Saturday and U.S. 30 Drag Strip Sunday. It was sometimes possible to see nitro Funny Cars four times a week: Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday at U.S. 30 and Saturday night at U.S. 131. Boy, those were the days. I attended my first NHRA national event in 1970 when I talked my dad into taking me to Indy. I've been going to the Nationals (I have a hard time saying U.S. Nationals) ever since. I started going to the Popular Hot Rodding Championships at U.S. 131 in 1971 and attended my first NHRA Gatornationals and Springnationals in 1973, so, basically, I saw four national events a year throughout the decade. I'm so grateful to have seen so much drag racing history firsthand."

Because the Gatornationals kicks off in a few days, let's start with this shot of Nagy's showing Shirley Muldowney running against defending event champ Dave Settles and the vaunted Candies & Hughes dragster during qualifying at the 1975 event. This was Shirley's second year in the class, and a season in which she would reach her first final rounds, in Columbus (where she lost to Marvin Graham) and Indy (where she lost to Don Garlits). Shirley didn't qualify at this event, and Settles, surprisingly, only qualified on the bump (obviously not on this run!) and lost in round two to Graham.

 

Nagy sent me a lot of pit-area stuff, which I always think is really good. I was especially struck by this photo of then-world champ Dale Armstrong working on his world-championship AA/DA (that's a Top Alcohol Dragster for today's fans) in the pits at the 1976 Pop Hot Rod race. What I really like about it is seeing the transmission out on the ground, with "Double A Dale" hard at work and his longtime (and very young!) sidekick and protégé, Mike "Shadow" Guger assisting. Guger was with Armstrong pretty much everywhere he went, including the Bud King team. After a stint with the David Powers team, Guger is back with the Bernstein camp after following Rob Flynn there. Also note those Funny Car-style zoomies on the car. Interesting!

From that same event comes this interesting shot of Bill Jenkins' famed Grumpy's Toy Monza being unloaded from the trailer. What immediately grabbed my eye was "the Grump" chatting with "the Snake," Don Prudhomme (inset). Wonder what they were talking about?

Here's soon-to-be world champ Gary Beck and his scary-tough Export A Top Fueler at the 1974 Springnationals in Columbus, Ohio. I always get a kick out of seeing that big ol' Canadian flag on the cowl because many people still think he was from north of the border when he actually was born in Seattle. In fact, I'm looking at a copy of a 1974 Drag Racing USA on my desk with Beck on the cover and the blurb: "Canadian superhero Gary Beck: Invincible?" Invincible? Yes. Canadian? No. Export A was a Canadian cigarette and partner Ray Peets was Canadian, but Beck was not. Beck moved to Canada in 1969 when he married his first wife, Penny, who was Canadian.

Speaking of Columbus, here's a great old shot of one of Columbus' most famous drag racers, Jeg Coughlin Sr., at the wheel of his JEGS AA/DA at National Trail Raceway in 1975. "The Captain" not only sponsored cars for years – including Top Fuelers and Funny Cars before his son began racing Pro Stock – but also drove them. I don't think he ever drove a nitro flopper, but he did compete in Top Fuel as well as in Top Alcohol Funny Car. He's one of the sport's truly good guys and obviously did a great job raising his successful sons.

There was a time when green cars – like peanuts in the pits – were considered bad mojo, but someone forgot to tell Gordie Bonin that. I always loved this car – and it made me drink an awful lot of Bubble Up soda during my high school days – and "240," with whom I worked at NHRA for many years, remains a good friend. The scene is Indy 1976; note the lack of guardwall in front of the photographers in the famous triangle. Man, that unobstructed view made for some nice shots in the day.

Here's another shot from Indy, this time in the pits in 1973, showing a couple of the lesser-known lights of the day, Ronnie Martin, foreground, and Chuck Kurzawa. Martin drove Robert Anderson's Metarie, La.-based dragster for three seasons but also had driven great cars for guys like Leonard Abbott, Sid Waterman, Gene Mooneyham, Prentiss Cunningham, and Chuck Tanko. The win the world championship in 1970 by winning the World Finals. Detroit-based Kurzawa's career spanned three decades of on-again, off-again competition in Top Fuel, including a stint with the famed Ramchargers team in the late 1960s. According to Bill Holland, that's car owner Bob Farmer (of Bob's Drag Chutes fame) tending to the Kurzawa car in the background.

I never got a chance to meet him, but John Austin is one of the true legendary characters of the 1970s. Nicknamed "Tarzan" for reasons that would be obvious to anyone who spent an evening with him, the former Tommy Ivo crewmember also made good behind the wheel, especially in this car, the Greg Scheigert-owned Hot Tuna dragster, shown in the pits at U.S. 131 during the 1973 Pop Hot Rod meet. It was Austin, in this car, who was in other lane when "T.V. Tommy" went upside down in Pomona in 1974. Love not just those wheel pants but the psychedelic 1970s paint scheme.

Before he became a Top Fuel hero and even before he became a national-event-winning Top Alcohol Dragster racer, Joe Amato wheeled this car, the Gabriel Hijacker Monza. Gabriel Hijackers were popular shock absorbers back in the day that could be aired up to raise a car's rake for either performance or looks. This is Indy 1976. I'm sure glad that Amato got out of Top Alcohol Funny Car because, for a while, there was another Joe Amato in the same class, "Wiskey Joe" Amato out of Chicago, and it got to be kinda confusing during our race reporting. "Wiskey Joe" (not sure why he spelled it that way) died in the early 1980s, in a traffic accident as I recall.

We just lost Lou Sattelmaier earlier this year. A lot of modern-day fans knew him from his line of Sonic Thunder jet Funny Cars, but before that, folks knew him for this great car, a 1932 3-window Model B that he ran in the gas classes throughout the 1970s. The scene is the 1974 U.S. Nationals.

After he gave up driving in Top Fuel, White Bear Lake, Minn.'s Bill Schifsky gave a lot of drivers a chance to drive his Funny Cars throughout the years, including this entry, the Beartown Shaker, which was wheeled by future luminaries such as Mike Dunn and Rick Johnson, pictured, in 1979, as well as Topper Kramer and Glenn Mikres. Doc Halladay once also was Schifksy's partner (on the Cox Pinto, which was made into a great nitro-powered scale dragster toy); Schifksy's son, Chuck, also went on to great things. He was part of a power trio of young wrenches — along with future tuning star Mike Green – working under Lee Beard on Gary Orsmby's championship-winning Castrol GTX Top Fueler and later went into the journalism field (in which he rose to the lofty position of executive editor at highly regarded Motor Trend) and today is a regional director of public relations for American Honda.

OK, that's it for this edition of Fan Fotos. I'll be back later this week after we finish the current issue and its very special subject matter. I hinted at it last week but couldn’t reveal it until all of the pieces were in place, but it's another special themed issue, like our recent Top 10 Lists installment, called Most Intriguing People. The staff looked around the NHRA landscape, and we picked eight subjects whose interests both in and out of drag racing make them very intriguing candidates. I'll reveal them later this week and a little insight into each. How many can you guess?
 

A salute to the March MeetFriday, March 05, 2010
Posted by: Phil Burgess

This weekend, the eyes of the drag racing world once again fall on Bakersfield, Calif., for the continuation of the rebirth of the fabled March Meet. This year, the event celebrates its 52nd birthday, and while we all realize it will never be the March Meet of old – almost no event could be – still the legend lives on. And what a legend.

Conceived in 1959 by the Smokers Car Club of Bakersfield as sort of an East vs. West challenge, the March Meet became much more than that, and, to many, having a March Meet win (aka U.S. Fuel and Gas Championships) on the ol' driving résumé meant as much as winning any race shy of perhaps the U.S. Nationals. The race was that tough to win its heyday.

Here's a quick year-by-year recap of the event in its original incarnation, from 1959 until 1988. In 1994, it became a nostalgia racing event and continues to enjoy success to this day, but in the beginning, it was one of the ultimate tests of its day.

1959: Art Chrisman won the inaugural March Meet.

1959: Everyone remembers that inaugural event, if for no other reason than it prompted Don Garlits (who was not yet "Big Daddy") to make his first trip west, thanks to a generous payment by the Smokers. Garlits wouldn’t win that first time – heck, he wouldn’t win in his first six trips west – and the West Coast fans got to see two of their own battle it out. Art Chrisman drove around a holeshot by Bakersfield’s Tony Waters to claim the win in Top Eliminator. "T.V. Tommy" Ivo scored the gas dragster honors.

1960: Ted Cyr, just a year and a half removed from winning the Nationals, scored another big win when he defeated Neil Leffler. A couple of Florida heroes, Art Malone and Garlits, set the performance marks, with Malone grabbing low e.t. at 8.60 and Garlits top speed at 185.56. Ivo and his young protégé, Don Prudhomme, swept the gas dragster honors, winning the Open and B Open titles, respectively.

1961: Lefty Mudersbach drove Chet Herbert 's dragsterto a pretty big surprise win by driving his unblown twin Chevy dragster to Top Eliminator honors against the equally surprising B/Fuel Dragster of Jack Ewell.

1962: Prudhomme dominated the event, setting low e.t. and top speed (8.21, 185.36) en route to victory and claiming the win on Glen Leasher's final-round red-light.


Gordon Collett won Top Gas back to back ('63-64).

1963: Malone made good on the promise he'd shown at earlier March Meets by nabbing his first win there. Like Prudhomme the year before, this one was decided on the starting line, but this time on a holeshot as Malone capped Tom McEwen, 8.33 to 8.31. Gordon "Collecting" Collett won the Top Gas title.

1964: Garlits came close to grabbing his first Bakersfield win but was turned away by wily Connie Kalitta in the final, 7.95 to 8.23. Top Gas again was "collected" by Collett.

1965: "Big Daddy" finally struck California gold, beating good friend "Starvin' Marvin" Schwartz in the final with a blast of 8.10 at 205 mph.

1966: The surf was up as Mike Sorokin scored the biggest win of his career, beating hometown favorite James Warren in the final. Sorokin and the Surfers team set low e.t. at 7.34 en route to waxing an all-star field. Phil Hobbs won Top Gas, and the newly initiated Funny Car class was won by Gas Ronda.

1967: Mike Snively, hot off of 1966 wins at the Winternationals and U.S. Nationals, kept Roland Leong's Hawaiian in the spotlight by beating Dave Beebe for the March Meet crown. Jack Chrisman won Funny Car, and the popular Freight Train, with Goob Tuller driving, won Top Gas.

1968: The Frantic Four became the celebrated ones as Ron Rivero, hot off a semifinal win against Winternationals champ Warren, made a solo in the final after the late Leroy Goldstein couldn't get his mount to fire. Fred Goeske won Funny Car .

1969: A whopping 125 Top Fuelers were at the decade's final event, an upset-filled race that Jim Dunn won by defeating Dave Babler. Danny Ongais wheeled Mickey Thompson’s Funny Car to victory against “Big John” Mazmanian.

1970: "The Loner," Tony Nancy, went his Winternationals runner-up one better with his first major win, but the bigger news may have been former event Top Fuel winner Snively, who reached the Funny Car final and nearly became the first driver to win the event in both classes but smoked the tires against Hank Clark's AMC Rebel. Pro Stock was added to the event, and the inaugural title went to cigar-chomping "Dandy Dick" Landy, who beat the "Red-Light Bandit," Bill Bagshaw, in the final.

1971: Don Garlits, driving his new rear-engine car, won his second March Meet.

1971: As he did at the Winternationals, Garlits reached the winner's circle with his new rear-engine dragster, defeating the conventional California Charger slingshot of Rick Ramsey. Garlits got it done on a holeshot, 6.71 to 6.64. Dunn accomplished what Snively could not the year before, becoming the first to win in both fuel classes when he beat Dave Condit to win the Funny Car title.

1972: McEwen scored his first major victory when he beat Winternationals champ Carl Olson in the final with a track record 6.35. In what was a remarkable run, Dunn again reached a March Meet final (his third in four years) but conceded the Funny Car title to Ed McCulloch after his mount lost fire. "The California Flash," Butch Leal, beat Bob Lambeck for the Pro Stock title.

1973: Dwight Salisbury joined the list of long-deserving Top Fuel winners to finally strike paydirt. After beating Garlits on a holeshot earlier in eliminations, "Sals" beat Randy Allison for the win. Tom Hoover ended McCulloch's bid for a double in the Funny Car final, and Lambeck was relegated to runner-up in Pro Stock for the second straight year, this time at the hands of Larry Huff.

1974: Olson made good on his second trip to the final. After qualifying No. 1 with a 6.04, the driver of the Kuhl & Olson digger made the track's first five-second pass, a 5.94 in round two, then denied Nancy a second Bakersfield win in the final. McCulloch reached his third Funny Car final and again collected the win, this time on a solo when Twig Zeigler could not back up his Pizza Haven machine after his burnout.

1975: As hard as it is to believe, it took until 1975 for Warren and Roger Coburn to win their hometown's biggest event, but the Ridge Route Terrors did it in terrorizing fashion with a blitz of five-second passes, including a 5.92 to qualify No. 1 and low e.t. of 5.87 in the semi's. Warren capped the win with a 5.91 defeat of Jeb Allen. Dale Pulde defeated Prudhomme in the Funny Car final.

1976: More Top Fuel terror as Warren-Coburn and the Rain for Rent team again rained on the parade of the other Top Fuelers, and Warren became the first Top Fuel driver to win back-to-back Bakersfield titles. Hard-luck Nancy again was the runner-up, this time shut off on the line with a fuel leak. Funny Car also was decided on a bye run after Gordie Bonin lost fire, allowing popular “Jungle Jim” Liberman an easy pass to victory.

1977: After qualifying No. 1 with a track record 5.79 and bettering it with a 5.75 in round two, Warren won for the third straight year, beating Garlits in the final. Eddie Pauling won Funny Car.

1978: Dennis Baca, near lane, defeated Graham Light.

1978: Future NHRA Senior Vice President Graham Light reached the Top Fuel final (run in April after rain postponed the event) but lost to Dennis Baca. Baca lost the blower belt on his pass, but Light had already smoked the tires. Denny Savage won Funny Car.

1979: In what to many marked the beginning of the traditional great race's demise, the Top Fuel field was reduced to just 16 cars. Furthering the anxiety of the Bakersfield faithful, Warren couldn’t even qualify for that field. Garlits, coming off his own shocking DNQ at the Winternationals, qualified No. 1 and won only his second Bakersfield Top Fuel title and, ironically, did it by beating the same guy, Ramsey, as he did eight years earlier. Simon Menzies won Funny Car.

1980: Kalitta finally added his name to the list of double March Meet winners and did it by beating archrival Shirley Muldowney in the semifinals and tire-smoking (again) Light in the final. Dunn scored again in Funny Car when Prudhomme smoked the tires in the final.

1981: Muldowney added her name to the Who's Who to win the race when she defeated hometown favorite Doug Kerhulas in the final. Pulde scored his second Funny Car win, beating Dale Armstrong's Speed Racer in the final.

1982: Muldowney reached the final the following year as well only to be upset by upstart Lucille Lee in what was the first all-female Top Fuel final. Lee also won the Southern Nationals that month, but Muldowney got her revenge by defeating Lee in the final of the Springnationals. Tom Ridings beat the late Tripp Shumake in the Funny Car final.

1983: Another shocking winner was crowned in former sand drag racer Danny Dannell, who denied Muldowney in her third straight final-round appearance at the event. Mike Dunn joined father Jim as a March Meet Funny Car champ after taking out Henry Harrison in the final.

1984: Gary Beck and crew chief Bernie Fedderly won their first of two straight.

1984: Reigning world champ Gary Beck won Top Fuel, capping a dominating performance by beating team boss Larry Minor and his matching Miller Lite car in the final, 5.49 to 5.67. Three years before he'd win his first NHRA national event title, John Force upset McEwen in the Funny Car final.

1985: Beck returned to the winner's circle the following year, this time by besting long shot Shannon Stuart in the Stuart & Harmon dragster. Rick Johnson, who had powered Leong's Hawaiian Punch Dodge to a stunning 5.58 at the Winternationals, kept the magic alive by winning Funny Car against Gary Densham. Pro Stock returned to the event, and Ken Dondero beat Jerry Eckman in the final.

1986: With the Top fuel field pared to just eight cars, Garlits won again but did it in dramatic fashion with a 5.37 – then the quickest run in history – with his famous Swamp Rat XXX streamliner. Although his final-round opponent, former NFL quarterback Dan Pastorini, was a surprise, Pastrorini, like Lee, also would win the Southern Nationals that year. Force scored his second March meet win, defeating "Jam-Air John" Martin.

1987: With the world rapidly losing interest in the event, Garlits scored his fifth March Meet win on former starter Larry Sutton's red-light, and Force defeated McCulloch in the Funny Car final.

1988: The final March Meet of the original era went into the books with yet another former sand drag racer, Butch Blair, winning in his Blair's Fugowie dragster against journeyman Robert Reehl. Martin made good in his second straight Funny Car final and took a bye run to the winner's circle after Pulde was unable to return after hurting his car in the semifinals.

That's it, a capsule look back at what was, for decades, a great race. The race continues to this day under its nostalgia format, which for many is wonderful and a bit of a throwback to the old days, and with the NHRA Hot Rod Heritage Racing Series as its main booster, the event should continue to thrive.
 

Posted by: Phil Burgess

Seeing Team USA take the four-man bobsled gold has to be my favorite post-Miracle on Ice Olympics moment.

... Potbellied USA-1 driver Steve Holcomb, far right, may be the best everyman driver since John Force.

... They even kinda dance alike.

... OK, 'fess up. When you read that Holcomb's USA-1 sled was nicknamed Night Train, how many of you instantly thought about the Freight Train? Or Bruce Larson?

... After covering the Geoff Bodine Bobsled Challenge in Lake Placid in January, I somehow feel like I'm a tiny part of this gold medal. Hey, how many bobsled rides have you taken?

... Did you see Geoff Bodine getting giant and well-deserved hugs from the USA-1 team? Go motorsports!

... Great headline Sunday in the L.A. Times: "Giant Sleighers."

... That 62-year gold-medal drought makes Force's recent woes look like chopped liver.

... Does anyone really eat chopped liver?

... Jeg Coughlin Jr., fiancée Samantha Kenny, and a few friends were in Vancouver as guests of the USA bobsled team to cheer on the sledders and filed this story about the combined joy of all of the drag racers who have taken part in the Challenge during the years.

... Jeg and Samantha took in the ice-dancing event (she made him go; she's a lifelong ice skater) plus the men's giant slalom, the women's two-man bobsled, and the women's bronze-medal ice-hockey game.

... The bobsled win almost made up for the USA men's hockey team's tough gold-medal loss to Canada. My guess is that KBR's Canadian crew chief, Rob Flynn, is still doing cartwheels.

... Ditto for one of my all-time favorite racing people, transplanted Canuck Dale Armstrong. Congrats to "Double A" for his upcoming induction into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America.

... The double elimination of the weekend's Phoenix activities sure threw a monkey wrench into the plans for this week's issue of National DRAGSTER.

... Does anyone still use monkey wrenches?

... Can you believe that planning is about to get under way for NHRA's 60th anniversary celebration?

... The fabled March Meet turns 52 this weekend.

... By show of hands, who's going? Wow, that's a lot.

... Blake Bowser, vice president and general manager of the Kern County Racing Association, operator of Auto Club Famoso Raceway and producer of the fabled March Meet: “Bakersfield is Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and the March Meet.”

... Not necessarily in that order.

... How is it possible that I turn 50 in two and a half months? Cripes.

... Texas Motorplex is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Cool logo. Congrats to NHRA alum Gabrielle Stevenson for being named the new GM there.

... That first national event at Texas Motorplex (1986) was named to ND's Top 10 list of greatest national events ever.

... It was No. 3, behind the amazing 1975 World Finals and 1982 U.S. Nationals. That's some good company.

... I'm going to miss going to Gainesville this year, especially seeing Kalitta Racing's Darrell Gwynn tribute car.

... I remember that 1990 event as if it were yesterday. Remember that whole star-crossed year for that matter. It's the subject of my Pure Nostalgia column this week in ND.

... Connie Kalitta raced Gwynn six times; Gwynn won five times, including his first Top Fuel victory at the 1986 Winternationals.

... I had to choose between Gainesville and the Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte, and no way was I gonna miss that spectacle. I'm still a little 50-50 on the whole concept, but at least I can say I was there.

... Not having Gainesville on my travel schedule this year caused me to miss out on the honor of inducting the late Dickie Harrell, Leroy Goldstein, Jack Engle, and John Buttera into Don Garlits' International Drag Racing Hall of Fame. By the time "Big" honored me by asking for my help, it was too late.

... Congrats to NHRA historian Greg Sharp for his induction this year with the special Founder's Award.

... Making his National DRAGSTER debut this week is new columnist Alan Reinhart. He starts out by picking a fight with the ND staff for not including Phoenix 1992 in our greatest races list. What a "homer."

... We also have the return of "the Brash One," former ND writer Todd Veney, right, with the first entry in a new column that will chronicle his season behind the wheel of Jay Blake's Follow A Dream Top Alcohol Funny Car.

... Who is Tim Wiley, and why does he want me to join the "Balding heads of Facebook" group? ("A place where we all can show those sliding hairlines, bald spots, or where it all used to be.")

... Mafia Wars has to be the most popular Facebook mini game. Among those trading Untraceable Cellphones, Tommy Guns, and Bangkok baht are current and past nitro drivers, crew chiefs, publicists, NHRA staffers, and tons of others,

... Don’t knock it 'til you've tried it.

... It's amazing the amount of people – including racers -- who use Facebook to contact me instead of regular ol' e-mail.

... ND's own Brad Littlefield very well may be the funniest guy on Facebook. Friend him and see for yourself.

... Did you see the news item this weekend about B.R.A.K.E.S. teen-driving classes in Pomona this year? I need to send both of my crashtacular daughters. The boy would go just to play on the skid pad.

...  Yeah, OK -- me, too.

OK, enough playing around here for the day. Time to finish this week's issue and get started on an exciting project for next week's issue, details of which I will reveal later this week.
 

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