Gosh, I hate to miss a deadline. In the 27-plus years of working for National DRAGSTER and a few years before that freelancing for various magazines, I can probably count on my fingers (though I may need all of them) the number of times I've missed a deadline.
Sorry, but there's not going to be an Insider today. I've tried really hard to have two columns a week (when I first launched the column, I tried to do three, but that was just insane), and this week just became one of those time crunches. Long meetings, doctor appointments, and other stuff sucked away the time I needed to create today's planned column, and it just didn't get done the way I wanted it to, so instead of just putting up some hallf-baked deal, I'm going to keep 'er parked today but will be back early next week with a new piece.
So stop httting that Refresh button. :)
A few minutes later ...
Okay, so I felt a little guilty leaving you with nothing. Just couldn’t do it. I tried. So here's another great story from Fred von Sholly and a classic photo of "Jungle Jim" Liberman burning out at Cecil County Drag-o-Way to illustrate his point.
"Your comment about the 'multicolored flags' reminded me of a funny story from the late '60s when Connie Kalitta was scheduled for a match race at Cecil County. I was the track photographer at the time. Connie's race car arrived at the track for the race, but Connie was not with the team. We were told that he was flying in.
"What we didn't know was that Connie was literally flying himself in directly to the track and wanted us to stop the races so he could land his plane on the dragstrip. He called the timing tower to ask if there were any wires crossing over the track. We told him that there weren't. He said that the would 'buzz' the track before landing. We were ready for Connie when he flew over. We stopped the races as promised, and Connie started his approach to land on the track. He was almost on the ground when he made an abrupt move up to clear a string of those 'multicolored flags' that was strung across the track. We forgot about them, and Connie had no idea what they were. He thought they might be a power line. Needless to say, Connie wasn't real pleased when he finally landed, and he let everyone know it. Ooops!
"It ended up raining, and the race had to be postponed. Late in the day after almost everyone had left the track, Don Prudhomme asked if he could use a telephone. Unfortunately, the tower was closed and locked, and the only phone was inside the tower. No one remaining at the track had a key to get in. Cecil County was really out in the sticks, and there were no phones nearby. All of a sudden, Connie produced a briefcase and threw it up on the hood of a truck and opened it. Lo and behold, it contained a wireless telephone. Connie raised the antenna and got a dial tone, and Prudhomme was able to make his call. This was in the late '60s when only Connie and James Bond had a telephone in a briefcase. We were all very impressed."
Al Kean has been a loyal reader of this column from the start and also of National DRAGSTER. The Canadian race fan might best be remembered by his fellow fans for grabbing this amazing photo of Don Prudhomme's Hot Wheels Barracuda soaring through the lights at Seattle Int'l Raceway's Hot Wheels Northwest National Open in 1971. Kean shared his memories of that magnificent memory with me in a past Insider column (scroll down to the middle of it).
Anyway, after seeing the recent columns here showcasing some of former Division 1 photographer Fred von Sholly's great East Coast pics, Kean thought he would like to share some of his stuff, too! As a teen living just across the border in Victoria, B.C., Kean had frequented the Northwest tracks such as Seattle and Puyallup beginning in 1968 at the suggestion of his older brother. Even after moving some 500 miles north to Prince George, once he got some wheels, he began making the long trek south for the drags.
This last Christmas, while digging decorations out of the closet in his basement, Kean came across a box of slides from back in the day and had them scanned and placed on a CD, which he proudly sent to me with an index document seven pages long detailing the whos and wheres of the more than 300 images.
What's really cool to me about these images is that they are true fan photos, shot from the fences and grandstands and wherever Kean could get a decent line of sight on the cars (although it's clear in some of them that security may have been a bit lax in letting him get closer than most fans on occasion!). They remind me a lot of the photos I grabbed at OCIR and Irwindale – lots of shooting around heads and poles, some unfortunate misses (focus, frame), but some real gems, too. I've taken the liberty of cropping some of them for your viewing pleasure and left others as is. So, before we put the 2009 Seattle event in the rearview, here are a dozen images and a look back at Seattle from more than 30 years ago.
Kean got down as far as the guardrail for this great shot of Kenny Achs in his Black Sheep Challenger and Jerry Ruth in his famed Pay 'n' Pak Mustang laying down side-by-side smoky burnouts. The guardrails at Seattle in the early 1970s were set back from the track, allowing shots like this. "Looking at this picture makes me miss the smoke coming out of the side windows," Kean wrote. "That was cool." Indeed.
While Ed McCulloch had the Revell-sponsored Revellution, Mike Mitchell had the unsponsored Revolution BB/A Corvette. I've left this one cropped kind of wide and tall to show you the stands that are still there at what is now Pacific Raceways and the fir trees behind them and with the foreground to show you Kean's spot along the fence behind the guardrail. Mitchell went on to race nitro Funny Cars and was best known for the appellation that adorned his car: World's Fastest Hippie. Far out, man.
Speaking of McCulloch, here's one of "the Ace's" earliest floppers, the Whipple & McCulloch Duster. Art Whipple, who years later made a name for himself again with his Whipplecharger screw-type blower, campaigned this car with McCulloch in 1970 until it was lost in a trailer fire. They finished the season with a Barracuda. The Revell deal would come at the end of the 1971 season.
Here's Prudhomme, preflight, at that infamous 1971 Seattle event with a pretty burnout from the white Hot Wheels 'Cuda. According to Kean's story about that wild day, Prudhomme had run a 6.62 the weekend before at OCIR (funny … that's not even a great Pro Stock run today) and was gunning for the first 6.5-second pass in the final round against Dave Condit when all hell broke loose.
Kenney Goodell was one of the Northwest's early Funny Car stars and went by the nickname "the Action Man," and this photo is proof. At the 1972 Northwest National Open, Goodell's Duster launched into this wheelstand, and, according to Kean, he then lost control of the car and slid it into the grass alongside the track but missed the guardrail. "He cleaned up the car and came back the next day and won the event," noted Kean. According to my records, he set the national record the following month in Spokane at 6.58.
From the 1972 Northwest National Open, here's Larry Hendrickson burning out in John Blanchard's front-engined, wing-sporting Gladiator Top Fueler. The car was known for its big top speeds and in July 1970 set the national speed record at 232.55 that stood for a year and a half until Tony Nancy ran 233.16 at Lions in January 1972.
If you squint and look at this car, you'd swear from its distinctive silhouette and front wing that it was "Big Daddy" Don Garlits' Top Fueler, and you’d be half right. Garlits actually built this Hot Wheels dragster for "the Mongoose," Tom McEwen, for the 1972 season. As you can see from the car in the background, this still was the transitional period when front- and rear-engined Top Fuelers co-existed. And, hey, dig those cool Coca-Cola pants on McEwen's crewmember.
This photo was taken April 27, 1975, at the Northwest National Open at SIR and offers a little piece of drag racing history. That's Northwest veteran "Gentleman Hank" Johnson and his Mr. Auto Supply Top Fueler putting a holeshot on Jeb Allen to win the first all-five-second Top Fuel pairing, 5.99 to 5.95. Johnson is also the subject of this week's NHRA.com/Auto Imagery Photo of the Week
This great photo was taken the same day as the one above and shows the wild Funny Car final between Bob Pickett in Mickey Thompson's unique U.S. Marines Grand Am and McCulloch's Revellution Dodge. Pickett launched M/T's Pontiac into a wheelstand, and the hard landing (note sparks under the car) unlatched the body, which came flying off.
This is "230 Gordie" (he wouldn’t run 240 for a couple of years) Bonin at SIR at that same 1975 event. I drank Bubble Up in high school in the mid-1970s, so Gordie Bonin's Funny Cars were always a favorite. Imagine my delight when, less than a year into my service here, Bonin became a co-worker when he accepted the job as marketing services manager right around the 1983 Winternationals. We worked together for six years before he moved on, but we stay in touch. Lately, we've been working together again – along with several others – to get his former boss, Roland Leong, inducted into the Hawaii Sports Hall of Fame. As another former Leong driver, Ron Capps, commented when I told him of our plans, "That's a no-brainer." Agree!
Here's another Northwest favorite, Twig Ziegler in the Pizza Haven Satellite. Ziegler's cars were always good-looking, and he recently re-popped one of his earlier cars, the all-orange Pizza Haven entry. Pizza Haven was one of the first pizzerias in the Northwest. The original outlet was a favorite of University of Washington students beginning in the late 1950s, and the chain eventually grew to 42 stores before competition and bankruptcies reduced it to one location by the late 1990s. It relaunched business in 2001 as a franchise operation.
And finally, there's this. Our Wild Rides Photo Greats book
had the starting-line view of Jerry Ruth's skyscraping wheelie in his Competition Specialties Top Fueler during qualifying at the 1977 Fallnationals, and here's Kean's view from the finish line. I've inset the wheelie into the bigger photo, which shows Ruth, sans both front wheels, crossing the finish line, accompanied by one of the wheels bouncing merrily along next to him. Recalled Kean, "I watched him get out of the car very calmly. It didn't seem to bother him at all. Man, that guy could drive a race car." Ruth repaired the damage and was back in competition the following day.
Okay, those were some pretty keen Kean photos, eh? Thanks for sending them in, Al!
Several of you just about wet yourself when you read about the Fred Files, former NHRA Division 1 photographer Fred von Sholly's collection of late-1960s and early-1970s images that he sent to me recently, covering his travels to legendary East Coast facilities such as Cecil County Drag-o-Way, Aquasco, York, Capitol Raceway, and Raceway Park. I gave you a little sample of five photos to whet your appetite, and I guess I did a good job. Y'all are starving for this kind of stuff.
I forwarded Fred a bunch of messages from readers eager to chat about the good old days or looking for photos of their cars and reconnected him with a couple of old pals. Makes a fella feel kinda good, y'know?
Anyway, so below is the first full course of your memory-invoking meal, 10 more great images. Enjoy.
Short of stature but big in ideas, Bill "Grumpy" Jenkins tested the wheels off his Chevy Pro Stockers at Eastern tracks in the early 1970s. You don't get to be No. 1 by standing still. This is his '70 ½ Camaro – the first of the so-called second-generation Camaros – and dubbed Grumpy's Toy VIII. It was unveiled in July 1970 and fitted with a 430-cid Rat motor -- no small feat considering that the production car was a small-block-only piece. This car never ran well at national event weight (though it was a killer mountain-motor car) and was the immediate predecessor to Jenkins' groundbreaking Grumpy's Toy IX small-block Vega. Bruce Larson bought this car and ran it in Pro Stock for a season and a half as his entree into the class.
Tom Sneden in his and Dave Reitz's Bob Banning Dodge-sponsored Challenger. There were three images of this car, but I love this one, not only for the old ramp truck in the background, a Dodge similar to but less fancy than Don Prudhomme's recently restored Hot Wheels unit, but for the crewpeople in the shot: the guy jumping onto the bumper to stay out of the way of Bruce Larson in the far lane, the guy on top of the truck holding a rag to his face to ward off the nitro fumes, and the woman in the backseat of the truck covering her ears. Priceless!
This is a great look at an early-1970s Funny Car. That's Gene Altizer in his Logghe-chassised Big Ed's Speed Shop-sponsored Pak Rat Nova at Cecil County in 1971; this ex-"Jungle Jim" entry was one of the bad-ass injected cars of the era. Check out the square roll cage that was typical of these cars -- a far cry from today's formfitting cages – and the not-quite-zoomie headers.
This is the one that started it all, the original Blue Max Mustang of Harry Schmidt. The car name, of course, came to greater fame in the late 1970s and early 1980s when owned by Raymond Beadle, who drove it to three straight world championships (1979-81). This particular Max, wheeled by Texas hot shoe Richard Tharp, was a prolific match racer; one year, it was reported to have run 96 dates.
Before his notorious line of Rolling Stoned cars, Joe Jacono campaigned Top Fuelers and a pair of Brief Encounter floppers with tuner Biddy Winward. This ex-John Mazmanian Barracuda was the follow-up to his short-lived effort in an ex-Bob Tasca SOHC Mustang, which was lost to fire, but not on the racetrack. Shortly after Jacono earned his Funny Car ticket (Don Prudhomme and Connie Kalitta signed off on his license forms in Atco, N.J.), it's reported that, for unknown but imaginable reasons, a friend's girlfriend doused it with gasoline as it sat on the truck and set it ablaze. They bought this superfast car, formerly driven to a number of 220-mph speeds by Mazmanian shoe Rich Siroonian, right after the 1971 Winternationals.
Great shot in the eyes in E-town of Leonard Hughes and the Candies & Hughes 'Cuda leading what looks like the Phil Castronovo-driven Custom Body Enterprises mini Charger to the lights. For years, the Englishtown track was a great place to shoot midtrack and top-end photos such as this because the guardrail was not up against the racing surface but separated from the track by 20 or 30 feet of grass. Woe be it to any flopper driver who got bold enough to put a wheel out, though, as the grass could be as treacherous as any guardwall.
Wait … Don Garlits in a Funny Car? Well, no, not quite, though "Big Daddy" did lend his name to car owner Bud Richter and driver Gary Bolger for booking power (and a percentage of said bookings) in 1971. This deal, brokered with the Chicagoland Dodge Dealers network by super agent Ira Litchey, didn’t last long.
Just because you lived in Southern California certainly didn’t mean you confined your racing activities to the West. Evidence the Maryland appearance of the Downey, Calif.-based Beaver Bros. L.A. Hooker Maverick and driver Dave Condit at Aquasco in 1971. I'd hazard a guess that this was one of the first cars built by Steve Plueger.
"Jungle Jim" Liberman was a one-man wrecking crew when he needed to be. No fancy-uniform-attired crewmembers around back in those days to move the car into position for a photo shoot at Cecil County.
Here's a special one for Insider reader Valerie Harrell: her dad, Dickie Harrell, times two. The Chevy racing legend, near lane, paired off against his hired gun and crew chief, Larry Christopherson, in this 1971 shot; "Mr. Chevrolet" is at the wheel of his Camaro and Christopherson a Vega. Harrell died in September 1971 in a racing accident in Toronto after his right front tire blew, sending him off the course. Christopherson, who made a name for himself with the Arizona Wildcat Funny Car, was the final driver hired by Harrell; previous shoes included Charlie Therwanger and Clyde Morgan.
Okay, there's another heapin' serving of the Fred Files for your weekend enjoyment. I'll be back next Tuesday with more fun and games. I have a couple of cool columns in the works that may or may not be ready for prime time by then; if not, I'll roll out the next edition of the always popular Misc. Files, letter J.
Tim Ditt is circled in this famous Jon Asher photo of Don Garlits' trans explosion.
Although he is part of the legend of one of drag racing's great forks in the road, even the most hard-core fan would be hard-pressed to finger Timothy Daniel Ditt's place in the sport's history. For nearly 40 years, he has been largely anonymous, known only to many as the unknown and blurry figure in the grandstands, ominously circled in a crude hand-drawn oval on a famous photograph.
On March 8, 1970, Tim Ditt was just a 16-year-old fan like any other teenager, drawn to famed Lions Drag Strip that cool day to see the stars of the sport at the season-opening AHRA Grand American. He left the famed facility not the way he expected, in an ambulance and in peril, clinging to life at the end of a well-placed thumb in his armpit that stemmed the flow of lifeblood from his unconscious body.
Ditt was not at ground zero for the explosion heard 'round the drag racing world – the disintegration of the two-speed transmission in Don Garlits' Swamp Rat 13 front-engined Top Fueler that led "Big Daddy" to design the sport's first successful rear-engined dragster from his Long Beach, Calif., hospital bed – but he was at the cruel end of it when a random piece of debris nearly severed his left arm. Only the quick action of Lions starter Larry Sutton likely saved his life as the cowboy-hatted SoCal legend jammed his thumb onto the pressure point in Ditt's underarm and, like Peter and the dike, kept it there for the long ride to the hospital, where doctors completed the job of saving his life.
Top Fuel racing then was at a pivotal and, some might say, very experimental point in its history, and this near-tragic incident also paved the way for rules for better containment and other safety devices that have given our sport the tremendous safety record it enjoys today. Ditt is glad to be here to see it.
Larry Sutton (minus his trademark black cowboy hat!), left, was reunited with Tim Ditt, right, whose life he saved nearly 40 years ago at Lions Drag Strip.
More than 39 years after that fateful day, Ditt and Sutton were reunited at Sutton's Wrightwood, Calif., home, where they posed for this photo -- with a cardboard stand-up of "Big Daddy" – and where Ditt, now 56, learned firsthand of the day that changed his life, a day that until just recently was nothing but a jumbled memory.
Sutton dropped by the office yesterday to give me this photo, thanking me for my small part in the reunion. It had been my article about Sutton and his heroic actions and the help of Todd Hutcheson, nephew of former Top Fuel racer George "the Stone Man" Hutcheson, who is writing a book about that period in the sport's history, that got the two together.
It was an emotional moment for both, Sutton told me. "He's got a wife and two kids and some grandkids, and he told me he's had a wonderful life he wouldn’t have had if it weren't for me," he said. "I'm just glad for him to finally have some closure. He knew he was part of drag racing history but wasn't sure of much else that happened that day. He told me all he remembered was looking down at his injured arm and then falling backwards, then he remembered a real hard pain in his armpit. That was my thumb."
Hutcheson, who with co-writer Mickey Bryant hopes to release their book, Don Garlits, RED, early next year on the 40th anniversary of the incident, went to great pains to track down Ditt. He had a personal attachment to the incident because he, too, had been there, standing close enough to Garlits' side of the track to be bathed in the oil of Garlits' parts.
Hutcheson, a photojournalist for United Press International who has traveled the world covering royalty and rock stars, the Olympics , and more, used his reporter's nose to track down Ditt, beginning with nothing more than a name, then scoured phonebooks and the Internet before finally finding him in May.
"When I finally got ahold of him, he was overjoyed that someone else knew something about the incident," recalled Hutcheson.
Ditt, who underwent six hours of surgery on the day of the accident and 10 more surgeries in the next four years, finally met Sutton Saturday. Before driving off to meet his savior, he dropped Hutcheson an e-mail that read, in part, "I've prayed that I would live to have a chance to say thank you to the person (or persons) who saved my life. I'm really hoping I'll do more than cry and hug him. 39 years of feelings put on my mental back shelf, with no answers or closure may be over."
What a great moment and a great ending to an amazing story.