Features

Hot stories and cool tripsWednesday, January 06, 2010
Posted by: Phil Burgess

The National DRAGSTER staff engine is at full song today as we finally have everyone back in the office from numerous holiday vacations and illnesses (seems like a good percentage of the staff has a New Year's cough), and they're all vigorously working the phones interviewing last year's top 10 finishers in Top Fuel, Funny Car, and Pro Stock for our annual What's New extravaganza in the first issue, which ships outta here a week from today. We're collecting photos of new iron, predictions for the year ahead, and much more.

The new-look National DRAGSTER is shaping up nicely, although, as one could expect, there are a hundred last-minute changes and decisions to be made as it gets closer to reality. I'm really pleased with the way it's looking; all of the pieces seem to be coming together wonderfully.

The first nostalgia column of the year – the print spinoff of this column – is a wonderful retelling of Tommy Ivo's terrifying top-end tumble at the 1974 Winternationals, told by "your hero and mine" himself, who did a bang-up (pun intended) job of respinning the yarn and got permission for us to use the great sequence of the accident. As I note in the column, even though Wide World of Sports was at the event, it’s rather ironic that Ivo, who embraces the public spotlight and made an early career in television, doesn’t have any footage of his accident. The Wide World of Sports team had decided it was getting too dark and turned off its cameras just as Ivo pushed out to make the run. I've seen some grainy video of the accident on YouTube, but the photos really give you a better idea of what happened.

I resurrected a National DRAGSTER feature name from the past – Pure Nostalgia – as the title for the new column, and the Ivo piece gives it a great launch. The story is full of cool observations, including this one, in reference to squeezing his eyes shut (mostly) when the car rolled over: "During one small peek, I saw that the ground was over the car instead of under it, the tower was upside down and in front of me instead of behind me, and fire was blowing past my ears. So I slammed 'em back closed again, thinking, 'I don’t want to see this happen.' (I guess ostriches aren’t all stupid for sticking their head in the ground to get away from the inevitable; they’re right -- it works.)"

Speaking of Ivo, Car and Driver magazine has a nice featurette on him in its February 2010 issue, in its "What I’d Do Differently" column by the prolific Steven Cole Smith. It includes the great portrait sketch here at right.

The Q&A format touches on Ivo's acting and racing careers, and I was surprised by Ivo's answer to a question about his famous four-engine Showboat machine. "That thing has been nothing but bad luck for me, but it’s my signature car," he said. "Of the 36 cars I built and raced, I hated that one the most. It was like driving a 200-mph Sherman tank." Ivo certainly has a way with words. You can read the column online here

Today is my last day in the office until next week as I'll be whipping outta here early tomorrow morning bound for frigid Lake Placid, N.Y., for the fifth annual Lucas Oil Geoff Bodine Bobsled Challenge. NHRA stars Morgan Lucas and Jeg Coughlin Jr., both veteran bobsledders, will show the ropes to new teammates Shawn Langdon and Melanie Troxel as they prepare to take on NASCAR stars on the 20-turn Olympic bobsled course on historic Mount Van Hoevenberg. 

The plan tomorrow is to fly through Dallas and then on to Columbus, Ohio, where I'll bunk with the Coughlin clan overnight before we hop a small jet to Lake Placid.

Friday is orientation day where we get issued some cold-weather gear, the drivers get Bobsled 101 for the n00bs and a walk of the course (pictured). Saturday is and endless day of sledding fun for the drivers and Sunday is the big show. There are actually two races, one for everyone against the clock and another that pits the best NHRA sledders against the best NASCAR sledders on a drag-racing-style ladder. We'll have full coverage on NHRA.com.

Though I'm super excited about going (and the possibility of being able to take a ride in one of the sleds!), the timing of the event probably couldn’t have been worse as it's the week of the first issue, and I'd normally over-obsess about babysitting the debut from start to finish. If all goes right, I'll be back in the office Monday afternoon and be here for the final two days of production. If it doesn't go right …

Well, I'm already a little concerned about the overall travel itinerary because my outbound flight lands in Dallas at about noon, where it's predicted to be 31 degrees and windy (18 degrees with the wind chill) and drop to 29 degrees (16 with wind chill) by takeoff time to Columbus, making delays a possibility. It's also supposed to be snowing when I land in Columbus. The return is probably more of the same. Fun! Well, I'll have my laptop and AirCard at the ready.

Weather in Lake Placid will be in the low teens when we arrive Friday morning and will hit a high of just 10 degrees Saturday with lows down to 0 degrees. It's supposed to snow on and off all weekend there, too. You Easterners (and residents of Woodbury, Minn.) probably wear T-shirts in this type of weather, but us soft Californians have been basking in mid-70-degree temps this week, so it's going to be a brisk adventure. Scott "Woody" Woodruff of Team JEGS, who's responsible for my trip out East, advised me thusly: "Warm socks, long johns, and boots."

(Oh crap. Just got this 'warming note from NHRA member Paul Cuff: "As a resident of Rochester, N.Y., I'd just like to warn you that you had better bundle up when you get to Lake Placid. The weather here has been a real bitch. The entire state has been getting a good blast lately. Being up in the mountains as Lake Placid is, it should be a real sweetheart for weather there. It's been snowing CONSTANTLY since about New Years Day, with daily totals running anywhere from two to 15 inches, depending what area you're in. The cold has been numbing, haven't seen anything above 30 degrees since mid-December." Great, if even the locals think it's cold, what a poor warmbody like me to do?")

Though I'm not a nervous flier by any means, this one should be interesting, given the weather and other factors. This will be my first plane trip since the underwear bomber set himself on fire, so security no doubt will be heightened. As if hurtling through the sky at 500-plus mph in a thin-skinned aluminum tube 6 miles above the ground wasn't of enough concern, initial reports were that you wouldn’t be allowed to get out of your seat in the final hour of the flight (better plan that potty break!), and some airlines were even preventing you from using portable devices such as laptops and iPods, but I hear that's been relaxed. I'm packing the new "Snake" and "Mongoose" book for reading enjoyment on the way, just in case.

If time and conditions permit, I'll try to drop you guys a postcard from Lake P.

A couple of other notes from my previous columns.

1. Though I have received a lot of supportive e-mails concerning the new deal here, I've also received some less than enthusiastic responses from those disappointed that the column will no longer share great old photos from the past and memories of those who took them. In case you didn't read my mission statement, I plan on continuing the Fan Fotos segment here, so you'll still get a healthy dose of great old photos. What's going into print are some of the more detailed and longer types of stories and photo features.

2. Readers Dave Kanofsky and Charley Powell pointed out that I'd omitted perhaps the best palindrome ever, at least as far as race fans are concerned: race car. Good one!

3. Responses have been brisk to my request for Your Heroes. I have some great lists going, but what I'm additionally looking for are more details about why these people are your heroes. A typical submission might be "Don Garlits, for creating a workable rear-engine dragster and everybody followed suit," but I'm hoping that you'll take the time to flesh out these types of thoughts, especially in light of how the person impacted you and how you felt about him or her. (I'm looking for a paragraph or so, not just a few words.) If you already submitted one with little explanation, please send me a follow up, and keep 'em coming. Email me

OK, it’s time to start double-checking my to-do list before I go. I'll be in touch, if my frozen fingers allow it.

 

Your heroesTuesday, January 05, 2010
Posted by: Phil Burgess
Shirley, Glidden, Garlits. Force, Jenkins, Prudhomme .... heroes and legends.

If you thought the Insider's Favorite Race Car Ever poll of 2008 was something else, well, here's something else that may top it.

There's an interesting discussion thread going on in the Motorsports - networking world, asking for members of the group to name their all-time motorsports heroes.

Already, names like Donald Campbell, Juan Manuel Fangio, Jim Clark, Gilles Villeneuve, Michael Schumacher, Dan Gurney, Ayrton Senna, Freddie Spencer, Colin McRae, AJ Foyt, Al Teague, Chip Hanauer, Niki Lauda, Nigel Mansell, Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Jack Brabham, Roger Penske, Parnelli Jones, Zora Arkus-Duntov, Jackie Stewart – covering everything from land speed to Formula One, stock cars, motorcycles, and rally racing -- have been bandied about along with a healthy mix of drag racers such as Don Garlits, Jack Chrisman, Shirley Muldowney, Bob Glidden, Elmer Trett, Art Arfons, Dave Zeuschel, and Dick Landy. It's been interesting to see many kudos thrown at the drag racers from some folks whose profiles don't seem connected with the NHRA world.

So, Insider Nation, who are your motorsports heroes? You don’t have to confine yourself to our sport, but I'd assume most of you will anyway. I want to know not only names, but reasons. I also expect to see more than just a mailed-in vote for the famous icons of our sport -- also consider racers, engine builders, mentors, etc. who were your heroes for whatever reason, be it idolization, inspiration, or whatever. I'll publish the best lists and the best tributes in a future posting.

Hit me up here: pburgess@nhra.com.

It has been a sad ending to the year with a number of painful losses, including of Don Woosley, Gene Fasching, Jim Harrington, Lou Sattelmaier, Ron Miller, and Rufus "Brooklyn Heavy" Boyd, but I totally missed the Christmas Eve passing of a guy who I think had a pretty big impact on NHRA from outside the cockpit: George Michael.

In the 1980s, no sports show gave more love to NHRA Drag Racing than The George Michael Sports Machine, a sports-highlight show that was unique in that Michael capitalized on the growing pervasiveness of satellite technology to pick up highlights rarely seen elsewhere on broadcast TV let alone cable. I'd dare say that even the awesome ESPN SportsCenter owes him a tip of the hat for paving the way. Michael, who was among other things a well-known top 40 deejay, weekend sports anchor, color commentator for the NHL New York Islanders, and a nationally known collector of baseball cards and early baseball photographs, died at age 70 after a two-year battle with cancer. Although he shut down The Sports Machine in March 2007, he's still fondly remembered by friends at NHRA for his appreciation of our sport.

Stupid fact department: Drag racing fans are, by definition, numbers freaks, but in case you weren't paying attention, Saturday was Jan. 2, 2010, which when written in U.S. notation is 01-02-2010, which is a numeric palindrome. (Palindrome being a word or phrase that reads the same forward and backward such as "radar" and "a Toyota.")

We're apparently living in rare times. Between A.D. 1000 and 2000, there were only 43 palindrome dates -- the most recent on Aug. 31, 1380 (08-31-1380) – but there will be 12 this century. The last such numeric date palindrome was Oct. 21, 2001 (10-02-2001), but you won’t have to wait eight-plus years (let alone 629) for the next one, which will occur on the second day of November next year (11-02-2011). After that, you’re going to have to wait a long time -- until roughly the 2020 Winternationals Feb. 2, 2020 (02-02-2020) – for the next one. The last one for the century will be Sept. 2, 2090 (or 09-02-2090), though I doubt many of us will be around to celebrate it.

Well, maybe "the Greek" will be.

 

Memorable MomentsMonday, January 04, 2010
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Welcome to the first Insider entry of the new format. I thank you all for your understanding and encouragement following my New Year's Day announcement of a shift in format. I think the best way for me to look at this is that this space will now be more blog than column, which is the exact opposite of what I intended, but I think that by being able to post shorter multiple (on occasion) items a day covering a wide range of topics, there will always be something interesting to read here. You'll also notice that under my column heading on the home page there now is a "last update" date, too, which should alert you to new content.

Although there definitely was some general unhappiness, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of you who said that putting the original Insider format into National DRAGSTER was enough to convince you to subscribe to the magazine, and I think that once you get it in your hands, you'll be pleased with more than just that content. Again, thanks for your understanding and suggestions – one of which was to post the printed ND columns in the members-only area so that you could have the convenience of also following the column on the Web, which just might happen – and keep the ideas and good vibes coming.

Couple of quick items for you. Voting for the Most Memorable Winternationals Moment concluded when 2009 did, and the results are now final. We will begin unveiling them, in reverse order, on NHRA.com next Monday, five at a time leading up to the announcement of the top five during race week and the unveiling of the top moment during Sunday's pre-race ceremony.

Watching the voting throughout December, it was interesting to see a couple of surprise entries reach the top five, only to fall out. There were so many amazing moments to vote for that it's a shame that some of what I consider iconic moments from back in the day didn't even make the top 10 while some newer highlights did.

I think that some of you may be surprised. OK, I've probably already said too much. You'll have to wait for the first of the unveilings a week from today.

Speaking of memorable moments, Mopar released its top 10 moments of the 2000s, and I was thrilled to see drag racing not only included but dominant, with five of the top moments coming from the NHRA world. Gary Scelzi's 2005 NHRA Funny Car world championship – the first for a Dodge-bodied flopper since Frank Hawley's 1983 crown in the vaunted Chi-Town Hustler, was the top moment. Scelzi's win in the Don Schumacher Racing/Mopar Stratus ended John Force Racing's 12-year grip on the Funny Car throne.

Pro Stock racer Allen Johnson winning the 2007 Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals from the No. 1 qualifying spot was voted the No. 6 moment, and Super Stock ace Bucky Hess' victory at the inaugural Mopar Hemi Challenge in 2001 was ranked seventh. The unveiling of the new Dodge Challenger Drag Pak cars by Mopar legends Don Garlits and Judy Lilly at the 2008 Mile-Highs was ranked eighth, and Scelzi's breaking of the 330-mph barrier in his Dodge Stratus Funny Car at the 2004 event in Chicago was listed as ninth.

You can review the entire list, with more detail, here.

One more Winternationals note. I mentioned last week that the famous Howard Cams Twin Bear dual-engine wonder would be among the restored entries of the Golden 50 on display at the 50th Anniversary Kragen O'Reilly NHRA Winternationals and was rewarded by this great photo of the car, with the legendary Jack Chrisman in the cockpit, taken by devout Insider follower Rich Venza.

"I thought you might enjoy a photo I took at Island Dragway of Jack Chrisman getting ready to make a pass in the Howard Cams Twin Bear," he noted. "It must have been '62 or '63 as the plywood had been replaced with a more professional nosepiece."

Venza's plywood reference relates to the photo in my Dec. 29 column below from when the car made its debut with a very low-tech aerodynamic attachment in front of the twin powerplants.

Dennis Friend, who runs the TwoToGo.com Web site that specializes in twin-engine machines from the past, has even more photos of the Bear (as well as the Dragmaster Two Thing) here.
 

Charting a bit of a new courseFriday, January 01, 2010
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Back in April, as part of our annual April Fools' shenanigans on NHRA.com, I wrote a column here called "The Insider … out," reporting that I was closing up the Insider because I was bored to tears with living in drag racing's past. No one who knew me really fell for it, which is a good thing, but today's start of a new year also marks a bit of a new era for the DRAGSTER Insider, and I hope you'll bear with me as I chart this column's future path.

First off – no, the column is not ending, but, yes, there are going to have to be some changes around here.

Over the last two-plus years, this column has come to mean a lot to me, as it has to many of you. It started out with quite a different mission – more like a blog about what was going on behind the scenes to produce National DRAGSTER --- and evolved into what it is today, mostly a fond look back at our history and a great community effort to not only keep the past alive by retelling stories told many times, but also to take a fresh new look at these stories with the type of introspection that sometimes only can be possible years after the fact. The tagline on this column used to be "The stories behind the stories," which I rather liked. I didn't want to just regurgitate the sport's past, but rather put a fresh spin on it through research and interviews and through the generous donations of memories and photos from the readers of this column.

Judging from your e-mails that come in every week, profusely thanking me for this gatekeeper role, I've accomplished that goal. I hear regularly from fans from the '60s and '70s thrilled to see some of the cars they used to root for, and I'm also quite pleased that a literal Who's Who of our sport – including heroes from the past and present – regularly follows the column. I never knew it would have such legs or create such a buzz, and my old pal Todd Veney, not one to heap praise or hyperbole, even went so far as to say something along the lines that this column would be my legacy in the sport, even more so than my decades at the helm of National DRAGSTER. That's all very flattering, but …

The column has become a bit of a victim of its own success. So many of you have written to my bosses or otherwise expressed your gratitude to them for a job well done and a column much enjoyed that I began to get asked the question, "If this column is so good, why are we giving it away for free?"

OK, don't panic yet. Deep breaths. It's going to be OK. Before you get all riled up at big, bad NHRA for messing with another of the things you love, take a moment to understand the motives.

It's no secret that print publications have taken it on the chin the last couple of years. Driven not only by the loss of advertising revenue as companies tighten their belts to get through the recession but also by spiraling costs for paper and ever-rising postage fees, approximately 450 titles ceased publication in 2009, according to online magazine database MediaFinder.com. Though that number is down from 2008's losses, it's still very troubling, especially when you look at some of the household names that have gone belly up this year: 68-year-old Gourmet magazine, 58-year-old Home, 27-year-old PC Magazine, and niche mainstays like Vibe and even Playgirl. Teen magazine, once read by every Shaun Cassidy-smitten girl in the 1970s, folded last year after 54 years of covering teenybopper heartthrobs. Even Editor & Publisher magazine, the authoritative tome that has covered the world of publications for more than a century, folded last month. The number of daily newspapers that has shuttered also sends a dismal message.

Certainly, that bleak scenario is cause for concern for anyone with a print publication, National DRAGSTER included. Although the cost of a membership brings you much more than just National DRAGSTER 48 times a year – you also get the live audiocast, live timing, insurance, and other goodies – we're continually looking for ways to make the actual publication portion of the package more valuable. I've discussed here several times our 2010 ambitions to make ND bigger and better (and readers already have seen and saluted some of the changes), and now part of that plan includes taking this column into print.

I'm not stupid or naïve or big-headed enough to think that this column is soooo good that people will plunk down their credit cards just to continue reading it, but the hope is that it adds enough additional benefit to an already great package that it'll push those fence-straddlers over the hump.

Even though your $69 membership doesn't come close to covering the costs of producing and mailing you 48 issues (the balance is made up through advertising), we all realize that $69 a year is a lot of money to some people. Heck, it's a lot of money to me. I picture a guy arguing with his wife at the dinner table while they sort through the bills, trying to figure out how they're going to get through the rest of the month, and him trying to convince her that it's less than $1.50 per issue, plus look at all the goodies. I think we all realize that, at some point, someone has to get out the checkbook or the credit card and commit to a membership, and that can be temporarily painful. Our goal is to make it a short-term loss, long-term gain, and if adding this column to our new efforts helps convince people to sign up, it's something we need to do.

(I'm not going to go into full-sell mode here, but if you used to subscribe to ND but gave it up for one reason or another or just have never gotten around to signing up, now's the time. It's going to have a fresh new look and more additions. We have some new columnists to complement last year's popular guest writers, more color, and pretty much more of everything.)

Worried yet? Don't be.

A rational person might just fold up shop here and go exclusively into print. After all, I've been writing this column twice a week now for a couple of years (it started out as three times a week ... what was I thinking?), and the sheer magnitude of some of the research is a huge time eater, so why not take the easy road and have to write just one column a week for DRAGSTER?

I can’t do that. I tried, believe me. Well, I thought about it, for sure. But when I go back and read some of the incredible e-mails I have received, I just can't turn my back on a loyal and supportive bunch like y'all. So I'm going to be brainstorming about how two columns can coexist and not rob from one another. I won't lie to you: The really, really good stuff – the in-depth features, personality profiles, history lessons, remainder of the Misc. Files, etc. – is going into ND. I owe that to the newspaper that has supported me and kept my cupboard stocked with more than Pop-Tarts and Diet Coke for more than 25 years.

I know that many of you eagerly await new columns each Tuesday and Friday, and I thank you for that diligence and attention; I certainly want to continue giving you a reason to come here. I want to hear from all of you about what you’d like to read here, keeping in mind the kind of limitations I've already laid out.

What I'll probably end up doing is more of a notebook-style blog, probably updated more often than this column, with various odds and ends that will interest you, most with a nostalgic spin. This actually will be helpful to me because, after losing two of my writers in our recent staff reductions, I'm probably going to be doing a lot more traveling in 2010, and putting together columns on the road is tough without full access to our photo libraries. Plus, I get an awful lot of little tidbits along the way that I'd like to share without having to create a whole column around them, so this new format will help.

I'm still twirling the ideas around in my head, but it might be a tease of what's appearing that week in the print version, maybe videos, links to interesting stories, and correspondence of different kinds from you all. A few readers have asked for more stuff about how DRAGSTER is put together each week or who I've been chatting with, so I'll probably do that kind of thing, too. I think I will keep the Fan Fotos feature going here, which should help any of you going through withdrawals for photos of vintage iron from back in the day, and other interesting contributions from the Insider Nation.

I think it’s a good plan and a decent compromise, and I hope you agree. Again, your feedback, which has helped make this column what it has become, is most welcome and, heck, very much expected.
 

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