For many NHRA fans, Jay Howell may be among the most unsung drag racing heroes they never knew about. Regular readers of this column may be familiar with him from occasional mentions, but those old-time racers we all know and love certainly all knew and respected Howell for his ability to both build and drive race cars during a heady career in the 1960s.
Not only did he build or have a hand in building some of the most famous vehicles to traverse the quarter-mile on two or four wheels, but he also drove some of them. He's also one of very few trusted by Don Prudhomme to drive one of "the Snake's" cars in his early racing days, which says a lot about how people felt about Howell.
Howell was born in Detroit in 1942, and he and his brother, Jim, were raised by their paternal grandparents after their parents died. Howell found his calling early, cruising Detroit’s legendary Woodward Avenue as a teen, stoking his hot rod dreams.
Howell's first race car was a Buick Special that he bought new in 1962 from Carl Fischer's dealership, where he worked as a mechanic and which sponsored the car. He ran in D/Stock and the following year with a blower in C/GS. After General Motors dropped its factory support that season, Fischer's gave Howell all the engines and spare parts, and he used them to build a lightweight Buick-powered roadster that competed in Middle eliminator at Detroit and Motor City Dragways.
Jay Howell's early blown roadster at Detroit Dragway
He was introduced to drag racing in 1960 by Jim, who was driving Pete Seaton’s Seaton’s Shaker 1960 Pontiac Super Stocker. Howell and Seaton became good friends and later partners in Automotive Engineering, which Howell opened in 1966.
Prior to striking out on his own, though, Howell worked for Dick Branstner at Branstner Enterprises in Troy, Mich. Branstner and driver Roger Lindamood had just won Top Stock at the 1964 Nationals with their Color Me Gone Dodge, and Branstner hired Howell to run the operation, which built engines and did chassis work for Super Stock and A/FX cars.
Among the company's major contributions to drag racing lore was the refinement of the Little Red Wagon wheelstander, which didn’t actually begin life as a wheelstander; Howell's contribution is that he took it on one of its groundbreaking "flights."
"The Little Red Wagon was conceived and built by two engineers at Dodge Truck, Jim Schaeffer and John Collins," recalled Howell. "It was powered by a 426 Hemi on gas and carburetors, with a rigid rear suspension. We were playing around doing neutral starts -- transmission in neutral, go to wide open throttle, and punch the Drive button! -- and it would pick the front wheels up maybe a foot or two. Spectators loved it. The truck was more or less being passed around to various teams, and it ended up at Branstner's after the rear suspension had been improved. It was assigned to me for some 'development work.' I ordered a roll cage to be installed and replaced the stock 426 engine with an injected engine on nitromethane.
Howell at the wheel of the Little Red Wagon
"It was late '64, and we were at Motor City Dragway outside of Detroit. I pulled up to the starting line to make a pass, and in the right lane was my friend Tony Knieper in his GTO. The injected nitro motor didn’t require a neutral start to pick the wheels up, but this time, it went up and kept going! The truck always had a tendency to drift right, and, true to form, it proceeded to do its thing. I’m now on the tailgate, and somewhere underneath the front wheels is my buddy Tony. I stayed in it until I saw him drive out from underneath me. I lifted, and it came down like a ton of bricks. It was quite a day. Dodge PR had a photographer there, and one of the local TV stations got it all on film. It made the 11 o’clock news. The rest is history -- well, almost."
According to Howell, the truck was funded by Dodge PR, and Frank Wylie assigned the truck to Bill "Maverick" Golden to campaign nationally.
Continued Howell, " 'Maverick' arrived in town for 'driving lessons' about the time I finished the install of a nitro-fueled, supercharged 426. It was late fall when we all returned to Motor City, and it was cold. I made a couple passes but couldn’t get it anywhere near hooking up. Late in the day, I made a pretty good pass and mentioned to Branstner, 'I think it’s carrying the front end in the lights.' We had a rather vigorous discussion, which I concluded by saying something stupid like, 'Fine, I won’t lift, and we’ll see who’s right!' Next pass, straight up, 147 in the lights. 'Maverick' opted not to drive it that day. I reinstalled the injected engine, and 'Maverick' went on his way.
"I have to give Frank Wylie a lot of credit for being a man of his word. He knew I was less than pleased over his giving the Little Red Wagon to 'Maverick.' He came to the shop during the reassignment and took me aside and said something like, 'Don’t worry; I’ll make it up to you.' Did he ever!"
Wylie arranged a meeting with Branstner and Howell and asked Howell to describe the dream car he would like to build and drive. His answer became the Dart Charger, a mid-engine blown, injected nitro Funny Car.
"It was the first Funny Car I built," Howell recalled fondly. "Dick confided to me that the contract was the first million-dollar deal ever for drag racing by Dodge. We match raced it some and took it to Indy in '65 and set low e.t. and top speed with a 9.02 at 164 mph."
The mid-engine Cotton Picker was one of the many memorable cars that Howell built while working with Dick Branstner.
While working for Branstner, Howell also built a car shown previously in this column, the Cotton Picker mid-engine Dodge wagon, for stock-car heroes Cotton Owens and David Pearson, and several altered-wheelbase cars, including Bill Flynn’s memorable Yankee Peddler.
Howell left Branstner later that year to open Automotive Engineering. The Dart Charger was given to Don Garlits, who tabbed Emory Cook to drive. According to Howell, Cook turned the car overbackward in the lights at Detroit Dragway, totaling the car, but walked away unharmed.
Howell's successes with Branstner did not go unnoticed, and when Bill Shrewsberry went looking for someone to build the first L.A. Dart wheelstander, Howell's experience with the Wagon paid off in spades. The car was quickly built and on the way into drag racing annals. The staff at Automotive Engineering, including Howell's brother, Jim, turned out a number of highly memorable, successful, and innovative Funny Cars, including Don Gay’s Infinity GTO, the Ramchargers “Skinny Dart,” and the Seaton’s Shaker Corvair, which Howell even drove for a while and with which he set the speed record at Detroit Dragway in 1967 at 179 mph.
Business was booming for Howell, forcing him to move to a larger shop in 1967. His reputation and success caught the eyes of the famous chassis-building Logghe brothers, Gene and Ron, who – during one boys' night out over skeet (and bull) shooting at Ted’s Blue Rock Gun Club in Warren, Mich. -- offered to buy Automotive Engineering and hire Howell to run the combined operation. Howell agreed.
"It was one of the best decisions I ever made," he said. "They were very talented guys, and I thoroughly enjoyed knowing and working with them. We were turning out Funny Cars at an unbelievable rate, not to mention Top Fuel dragsters, altereds, street rods, and more."
The Prock & Howell F Troop Willys was one of Howell's most popular cars.
One of the Logghes' customers was Tom Prock, who had a '33 Willys A/GS machine. Howell quickly teamed with Prock, and, using a basic Stage I Logghe Funny Car chassis, built a tube-chassis Willys. Howell shortened and narrowed the chassis to fit a B&N fiberglass body, and Al Bergler did the tinwork. With a flip-top body (with one opening door) and a full roll cage, it was the envy of every team but wouldn't pass NHRA tech inspection.
"We took it to the NHRA Regional at Indy, and they wouldn’t let it run," Howell recalled. "Something about the framerails not being original or something like that. Car Craft magazine did a nice feature story on it, which included a cutaway drawing. We ran the car some in '68 and put it in the attic at Logghes that winter. The Hill brothers, Pete and Bill, contacted us about forming a four-car outlaw Nitro Gasser circuit featuring their Willys, our car, Jim Shore's Anglia, and Chuck Finders in another Anglia. We agreed to join, and I replaced the 427 Chevrolet with a 426 Chrysler, and the fun began.
"The circuit, many times, resembled a traveling circus. I was the only one of the group who had a full-time job. Getting back to work on Mondays was always a challenge. We also learned that '33 Willys want to fly from the rear at speeds above 165. That made for some very interesting rides. Picture being sideways in the lights, left rear off the ground, then Bill Simpson’s crossform would hit, and all was well again. The Logghes came up with the solution. A pair of small wings were fabricated and installed on the rear fenders. Tom and I showed up out East for a race. We rolled the Willys out of the trailer, and the Hill brothers and group crack up, pointing and laughing and then dubbing them 'Mickey Mouse ears.' First pass I laid down was a 178! Next week, they all had 'em! The car pretty much dominated the circuit, running consistent 8.0s and 185 plus while pedaling it.
This Logghe shop Funny Car served as a rolling test bed.
Photo by Ted Pappacena/www.dragracingimagery.com
That winter, Howell, Prock, and the Logghes decided to build and compete a rolling test lab in the form of a Mustang Funny Car. Prock and Howell sold the Willys ("A mistake," admitted Howell) and transplanted the Willys' drivetrain into the new Funny Car, dubbed Warhorse. With Howell driving and Prock wrenching, they finished fourth in the AHRA series, highlighted by winning all three days of the Summer Nationals in Detroit against a field that included Prudhomme, Tom McEwen, Gene Snow, the Ramchargers, and more. The Drag News headline read “Howell all the way at Detroit!” There's a pretty cool video clip of the car (and others) in action at New York National Speedway here.
Howell decided to retire from racing at the end of 1970, calling it a season even before the U.S. Nationals, but fate had other plans.
(Above) Howell had the honor of running Don Prudhomme's Hot Wheels Barracuda Funny Car in Indy in 1970. (Below) He was part of the first side-by-side six-second Funny Car pass there, running alongside the Candies & Hughes team.
"I was planning a Labor Day vacation with my wife and kids," recalled Howell. "Prudhomme approached me about Tom and me racing his Hot Wheels Funny Car for him while he would race his Top Fuel dragster. I think he offered us something like $250. I told him I’d pass and take the vacation option. We compromised and agreed on a better number (for us).
"He showed up with a brand-new Keith Black stroker motor in it. It was stout! No one had ever run in the sixes at a national event, and Tom and I wanted to be the first. The first pass, it launched, wheels up, right for the guardrail. I shut it off, coasted through, and we put it right back in the staging lanes. Next pass, we were paired up against Candies & Hughes. They were experimenting with a B&M/Crowerglide, and they laid down a 6.83 against my shutting-off 6.99. I had the dubious honor of being the first driver to make a six-second pass and lose!
"Our next qualifying run nearly got us thrown out of the race. Fire burnouts, once very popular, had been banned from NHRA events. We fired up for our final qualifying pass, and Tom’s got that baby hopped up. I pull into the bleach box, and Tom pours down the liquid traction compound on the right side. Normally (remember we’re talking about Tom here with 'normal' in the same sentence), he would come around and pour the left tire and then guide me forward into the liquid. This time, he never shows up on the left side. Next thing I realize, my butt’s burning. Tom has set the friggin' bleach box on fire! I hammer the throttle and did this giant fire burnout. When the smoke clears, Buster Couch is standing in front of the car, and he is pissed! Fortunately, 'Snake' was there and assured him it was an accident. Tom later told me that the engine was hittin’ so hard his ears couldn’t stand the pain, so he just threw the traction bottle at the left rear, and it splashed on the headers, lighting the box."
Howell qualified No. 5 and easily defeated Cliff Zink in round one but fell to eventual winner Don Schumacher in the second frame.
" 'Snake' came by and chatted with us and then went back to the dragster area to tend to his ride. When we fired the car for round two, it sounded like crap! No throttle response and would barely do a burnout. We were done! A month or so later, I asked 'Snake' what he found. He said there were TWO jets, one on top of the other, in the injector. I still don’t agree with Tom and 'the Snake’s' theory as to what happened."
Prudhomme, of course, freed of the distraction of running the Funny Car, won Top Fuel for the second straight time and third overall in Indy, defeating Jim Nicoll in that memorable final round that ended with the front half of Nicoll's digger sliding downtrack in front of Prudhomme after a massive clutch explosion.
Howell did retire at the end of the 1970 season and accepted an offer from the Ramchargers to launch its speed-shop endeavor. He worked there for four or five years before moving his family to northern Michigan.
A few years ago, Howell got a call from Dan Hix, who had come into possession of the F Troop Willys. The car had changed hands quite a few times and had even been raced in Hawaii before returning to the States. Hix found it for sale at a flea market in Wisconsin.
"Pictures were sent, and I was sick," said Howell. "It had been so hacked up! Dan was determined to bring it back to its glory days, and he really did. Steve Timoszyk of Belleville, Mich., is the owner. Steve invited me to attend the Bowling Green Hot Rod Reunion in 2005 to drive it in the Cacklefest. I hadn’t seen her for 35 years! It was a very nice reunion.
"In November 2008, I was honored with induction into the Michigan Motorsports Hall of Fame. It was, to say the least, a pretty humbling experience."
Howell operated a Goodyear tire service center and car wash in Gaylord, Mich., for 13 years and later became a certified financial planner. He retired in 2006, and he and his wife, Diane, sold their house, cars, hot rod, and most all of their stuff and moved aboard his sailboat.
"We’ve sailed the eastern Atlantic from Maine to the southern Bahamas," he said proudly. "If the world situation ever settles down in my lifetime, we'd like to sail to Europe and spend a few years there. Keep your eyes open for a 40-foot sloop that answers to 'Far Niente,' which is Italian for 'Without a care.' Hail us on the VHF and stop by for a painkiller. I’m still racing along, just a little slower now. About 7 knots."
Welcome back, race fans, to another installment of Fan Fotos. We're going to take you back a few more years than past installments today, thanks to reader Joe Kerr, who sent me a bunch of photos from his late-1960s Southern California race-going days, primarily at fabled Lions Drag Strip. The photos, true fan photos based on their location behind fences and poles, are cool; I don't think I've ever seen this exact view of Lions, and it gives a great overall look at the facility and how close the fans were to the action.
"The [Lions] pictures are from the 1966 East vs. West Championship. It was a match race weekend event. I don't remember who won the event, but do recall 'Dyno Don' was giving all the racers a workout. I shot the photos from the pitside bleachers, first row, using a 135mm camera, and I believe it was a Yachika. It was an accordion-type camera that pulled out. Nothing fancy; I just panned the camera as the cars were moving, though some were stopped after doing the burnouts.
"Oh boy, what can you not like about going to the drags in the '60s?" he added. "At Lions, you were just about sitting on the strip from the pit side, so you could smell the fuel and rubber from burnouts, and the tingle in your ears from the vibration would make you shudder. The race was close and personal. Back then, racing was not as commercial as it is today. Though I still attend and recently completed a B/FX '65 Mustang Fastback to run the nostalgia events, it's hard to replicate the era and racers of that day. I have been involved with drag racing since 1965 and at 65 will continue to enjoy the sport."
Here's a quartet of photos, all from the same vantage point, showcasing some of those mid-1960s Funny Cars. At top left is Steve Bovan in the Blair's Speed Shop-backed Chevy II, the first "response" to Jack Chrisman's awe-inspiring Chrisman's Comet. This lightweight monster was fitted with a blown 396 on alcohol and was a crowd-pleaser with smoky passes but probably wasn't a real threat to Chrisman's monster. At top right is header guru Doug Thorley's similar entry, the Chevy 2 Much (not to be confused with Ed Carter's Chevy II Much), though Thorley's ride was injected and Bovan's was blown. In the center is Pontiac standard-bearer Arnie Beswick's amazing Tameless Tiger GTO. That famous car was later replaced by a number of floppers through the early 1970s. Ageless Arnie resurrected the Tameless Tiger name in the 1990s with a hot-looking Pontiac Tempest and continued to put on a great show for fans into the new millennium. And finally, directly above is the topless '66 Dodge Dart of "the Flying Dutchman," Al Vanderwoude, who would go on to field Funny Cars under that banner into the late '70s and even loaned the name to a few cars after. This car is a wild one, and I've seen it in other forms, including one with its roof only partially removed, which probably was an aero nightmare. Unlike on a lot of "roadster" Funny Cars, Vanderwoude covered the engine and driver area with aluminum panels and had the headers sticking up through the panels.
One of Lions' true stars was the late Lew Arrington, who passed away early last year. His line of Brutus cars began with this altered wheelbase GTO out of Goodies Speed Shop. This is probably one of the earliest incarnations of that car as I do not see a blower sticking out of the hoodless engine bay. Power also was Pontiac-brewed. "Jungle Jim" Liberman used the blown version of this car as a stepping-stone to fame. There's a really great old home movie of the blown Brutus running at Fremont here
; be forewarned ... there's a one-minute segment left in the middle of this video that is a true home movie of someone's dog, but just keep watching.
A lot of more recent fans know Richard Schroeder from his popular Smokey Red and Emergency West wheelstanders or as a quality race announcer, but the big guy, who left us in August 2007, was a pretty good "real" racer back in the early '60s with a series of early Funny Cars like the all-steel Emerald Chevrolet-backed Bad Bossa Nova. The near-stock 427 ran 40 percent nitro and mid-nines.
Again, though newer fans may remember him for his exhibition antics – in this case, in jet dragsters, Hayden Proffitt, a onetime Super Stock racer, can truly be considered one of the early Funny Car legends in the early 1960s, and none of his rides was wilder than this Corvair. In its original incarnation, the car was -- how shall I say it? – unpredictable on the top end with a tendency to want to take flight. Solution: Remove the roof. Voila! Proffitt gets major props from me – a guy whose first hot rod was a Javelin – for following the Corvair by building a pure AMC Funny Car, from its Rebel body down to its powerplant. That's right, the Grant Rambler Rebel SST was fitted with 439 cubic inches of Kenosha-brewed power, and although the car eventually ran in the sevens, it was somewhat behind the pace of its Chevy- and Chrysler-powered peers.
Here's Richard Scott in the Scott & Hunter Malfunction '65 Chevy II, an injected-on-alcohol, rat-motored runner out of Glendale, Calif., in 1966. The venue is Carlsbad Raceway, a longtime SoCal dragstrip down San Diego way that lived in the shadows of its better-known rivals about an hour or so north up the freeway, Orange County Int’l Raceway and Lions Drag Strip, but it still drew a lot of quality cars. Its off-the-beaten-path location didn't help its popularity but maybe ensured its longevity as it outlived all the others before finally getting turned over for a business park in 2004. There's a great memorial site for the ol' gal here
, including some painful shots of the asphalt being ripped up and what it was replaced with.
More Carlsbad action, and a name that should be well familiar to most drag racing fans, Mopar ace "Dandy Dick" Landy. The perennially cigar-chomping SoCal hero, a pioneer in the Funny Car and Pro Stock ranks, studied mechanical engineering at San Fernando Valley Jr. College and got his start building high-performance marine motors, which led to the 1961 founding of Automotive Research. Although he's known as a Mopar guy, he actually began his racing career driving Fords but switched to Chrysler once Mopar got hot and heavy into drag racing in the early 1960s. This is a rare photo of Landy's altered wheelbase '66 Dart -- rare because all four wheels are on the ground – one of the forerunners of the Funny Cars that eventually hit the eights at 180 mph, but by 1970, Landy was already in the Pro Stock class and was one of the class' heavy hitters in its inaugural season in 1970, when he drove his Challenger to a win at the Summernationals. Landy, who passed away in January 2007, was eulogized by NHRA founder Wally Parks, who noted, "In his heyday, Dick Landy was every drag racing fan’s hero. His racing equipment was always of the finest quality, matched by his expertise behind the wheel. His trademark cigar and his ready smile were qualities that made him stand out among his peers. Landy will always remain one of drag racing's memorable heroes and an example of the drag racing sport at its finest."
Still more Carlsbad, but the subject is Top Fuel. That's SoCal veteran Gary "Mr. C" Cochran at the helm. Cochran, who drove both nitro dragsters and Funny Cars, owns an interesting piece of drag racing history as he raced Don Garlits in the final round of the 1971 Grand American event at Lions in the debut of Garlits' revolutionary rear-engine dragster. Not only did Cochran race "Big Daddy," but he beat him, too. A week later, he drove Carl Casper's All American Top Fueler to a final-round win over Garlits at OCIR's All-Pro Series event. Garlits, of course, went on to win the Winternationals and cast the die for the class' future, but Cochran at least had a hand in defending the old guard one last time. Cochran first came to quarter-mile notice in 1965 with a hard-running AA/Comp roadster in which he regularly battled the likes of Larry Dixon Sr. and "Flaming Frank" Pedregon at Lions. After a few years in Top Gas, he moved to Top Fuel in 1969 and ran his own car through the end of 1973. From then on, he sporadically drove cars in both nitro classes, the last of which was R.T. Mehlville's Tempo in 1987. Great photo; who cares about the stupid pole. That's what these Fan Fotos are all about!
Man, that was a fun trip back to the '60s; thanks, Joe, for giving us a reminder of how it all started for the fiberglass fantastics!
Former Funny Car racer Bobby Rowe, who died late last week at age 64, left behind not just a legacy as one of the many great Funny Car drivers to come out of the early 1970s, but also a story of hard work and perseverance. Many know him as the national-record-setting driver of Ed Willis' Mr. Ed Satellite, but he didn’t get there overnight.
Rowe didn't start out in a nitro Funny Car like so many in those formative days of the class, but once he got there, he certainly showed that he belonged. Rowe was Robert Hight before Hight was born, learning the ropes on the crew side of the sport, earning a reputation as a hard worker before getting his shot at nitro glory.
Rowe began drag racing before he had a driver's license. In 1959, at age 14, he registered 14-second times at Lakeland Drag Strip near Memphis with his C/Gas '50 Chevy and campaigned the car for several years. In the early 1960s, the Memphis native was hired by former Division 2 Director Buster Couch to work on the Division 2 certification team at national and divisional events. Rowe performed a variety of duties, everything from working the starting line to tech inspection and fuel check.
After spending four years as part of "Buster's Rebels," Rowe went to work for camshaft wizard Joe Lunati, grinding cams at the business and helping on Lunati's A/Modified Sports entry while fielding a pair of Studebaker M/Stockers, with which he set multiple national records.
His racing career was interrupted in the mid-1960s while he served his country for two years in the Vietnam War, but once Stateside, he returned to the quarter-mile with a P/S '55 Chevrolet, and he and Sportsman legend Dave Boertman traded the national record back and forth.
But the big circus was calling, and Rowe answered. He left Lunati to hit the match race trail, doing engine and transmission work for Bill Taylor's Super 'Cuda and Larry Coleman's Super Ford and for Roland Leong's Hawaiian team.
"I always liked Funny Cars," Rowe told National DRAGSTER in 1994. "I got a chance to crew for Coleman & Taylor's Super 'Cuda, and I just couldn't pass it up. I remember one time I had the ramp truck parked in my driveway, and my mother saw the car. I told her I wanted to drive one someday, and she said the thing looked like a coffin. I said maybe it does, but if I get killed in one, you'll know I died happy."
Bobby Rowe's first Funny Car ride was in Bill Taylor's Super Duster.
Rowe was tremendously successful on the match race scene in Don Schumacher's second Stardust 'Cuda.
Rowe set national records and almost won the 1973 NHRA world championship in Ed Willis' Mr. Ed Satellite. He crashed heavily in this car in Ontario later that year and suffered a broken back.
Rowe's final Funny Car ride was the Rowe-Henderson-Smallwood Vega.
Rowe knew Funny Cars from A to Z, which eventually landed him the ride in Taylor's Super Duster the next year when Larry Reyes left the team to drive for Leong. It wasn't an easy apprenticeship – he almost fulfilled his mother's fear when the car exploded the blower in a ball of fire on his first pass at Lakeland Drag Strip – but within a year, Rowe had reached his first final round at the 1971 Gatornationals, where he was runner-up to Leroy Goldstein and the Ramchargers.
When Hawaiian pilot Butch Maas suffered severe burns in a match race fire in the spring of 1971, old pal Leong came calling, and Rowe took over the wheel of the famed blue and white Dodge and later moved on to drive Don Schumacher's second Stardust Barracuda. The car was a big-time match race winner; Rowe estimated that he won 89 percent of all the Coca-Cola Cavalcade of Stars Funny Car circuit events in 1972. Rowe clinched the series title easily, set 26 track records, and posted the first 6.3-second Funny Car clocking, a 6.38.
In 1973, Rowe moved into the saddle of the car for which most remember him, the Fresno, Calif.-based Mr. Ed Satellite, in which he set the national speed record with a 232.55-mph blast at the U. S. Nationals, which he bettered at the World Finals with a 232.99 while setting the national e.t. record at 6.29. After winning the Division 7 championship, he just missed winning the world championship when he suffered a final-round loss to Frank Hall in Jim Green's Green Elephant Vega.
The year ended horribly, though, as a huge fireball in the car at the NHRA Supernationals carried him into the Ontario Motor Speedway retaining wall, and the impact broke his back.
During his recuperation, and despite still wearing a back brace, Rowe drove Jeg Coughlin's Ford Pinto Pro Stocker at the 1974 Winternationals. The day after the race, the star-crossed Rowe crashed his motorcycle near Ed Pink's shop in Van Nuys, Calif., breaking his leg so severely that he wore a cast for more than a year.
Rowe made his return to Funny Car racing in 1975, partnering with Gary Henderson and T.B. Smallwood on the Rowe-Henderson-Smallwood Hillbillies Vega Funny Car, first on nitro then on alcohol, but soon after hung up his driving gloves.
Although he was no longer driving, he remained in the high-performance industry. He formed a partnership with NFL quarterback – and soon-to-be Top Fuel racer – Dan Pastorini to race drag boats for a few successful seasons. They were blown fuel jet champions in the Southern Drag Boat Association in 1976 and in 1983 won Competition Hydro in the World Series of Drag Boat Racing.
In 1979, Rowe opened Crankshaft Specialties and ran it until selling to his brother, Doug, in 1985 to briefly reunite with Pastorini on the Quarterback Sneak Top Fueler. Although Pastorini won in Atlanta in 1986, Rowe never won a Wally as a driver.
"I would have liked to have won one of the big NHRA races," Rowe said, "but it didn't happen. Still, I can say I've driven a lot of cars, everything from M/ and P/Stockers to Pro Stocks and Funny Cars. I have no regrets about anything. Well, now that I think about it, I'd like to have avoided that wall at Ontario 20 years ago."
A funny line for sure, but there's nothing funny about losing another of our heroes.
Rowe is survived by his children, Jerene Rowe and Robert Rowe Jr.; granddaughter, Brielle; and siblings Jerene Sykes, Tina Dugan, and Doug Rowe.
Former NHRA Pro Stock and Sport Compact racer Shaun Carlson was lovingly remembered at the Formula Drift season finale – ironically dubbed Judgment Day – at Irwindale Speedway over the weekend. Carlson, who had transferred his copious talents into the drifting world as a car owner and builder after NHRA's Sport Compact program ended, had died two weeks earlier.
In Irwindale, Carlson's car, driven by Sam Hubinette, was wrapped with special red camo graphics featuring images of Carlson and his trademark Mohawk haircut on its flanks and on the hood.
Before the start of Saturday's action, a moment of silence was observed for Carlson, and a video tribute played. Hubinette's dream of a win to salute his friend ended in the round of eight, and the team finished fourth in the standings.
"I felt we got some extra strength from Shaun above," said Hubinette, who with Carlson won the Formula Drift championship in 2004 and 2006. "We wanted to win for him, and I'm bummed we didn't, but we made the Great 8, which I think is remarkable given all the things the team has been through. I'm so proud of the NuFormz team, and I know Shaun would have been, too."
The team's crew chief, Scott Stanwood, known to most simply as "Chip," added, "Shaun Carlson meant the world to me and this team. We nicknamed him ‘Dad' because he looked over us; he was our mentor. He was so iconic to the drifting and sport compact racing worlds; you can't even put words to it. Shaun would have never wanted us to miss a race. We pushed ahead and made a good representation of the team. We gave Shaun a front-row seat with this paint scheme is how I see it."
Top honors did, however, go to another NHRA connection as another former Sport Compact hero, Gary Gardella, whose front-wheel-drive Cobalt terrorized the Pro FWD ranks, got his second win of the season with driver Ryan Tuerck; they just barely missed winning the season championship with their Mobil 1-sponsored Pontiac Solstice.
Another team of former NHRA stars, Pro FWD world champs Ed and Ron Bergenholtz, also shined at the event as their driver, Justin Pawlak, was the runaway No. 1 qualifier after a near-perfect run in the brothers' Mazda RX8. "JTP" racked up a stunning score of 96.8 out of 100. Tuerck qualified No. 2 with 88.5 points.
That's it for today; see ya later this week.
I'm going to go all multimedia on you guys today with a couple of quick video reviews of some new stuff from NHRA. Because so many of you lean toward the nostalgic end of the sport, these will be right up your alley.
The First Fifty Years, originally produced for NHRA’s 50th anniversary in 2001, was a forgotten piece of work until it was rediscovered recently. It is an interesting compendium of footage that highlights some of the major stars and accomplishments in the sport since NHRA’s founding in 1951 and serves as the introduction to NHRA’s new line of 15 productions to be rereleased on DVD.
Hosted by motorsports veteran Bill Stephens from the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum presented by the Automobile Club of Southern California, the DVD doesn’t so much trace the roots of the sport as it celebrates the major performance milestones of the last 20 years while interweaving those narratives with features on some of the sport’s legendary stars.
Flag starters and the debut of the Christmas Tree are shown in some great footage.
Bob Glidden’s Pro Stock dominance is explored as Stephens discusses what made him tick, Don Garlits is explained largely through his breakthrough efforts, most notably Swamp Rat 14, the sport’s first truly successful rear-engine Top Fueler, and Shirley Muldowney is introduced via a discussion of the changing front of NHRA brought on by the emergence of female competitors.
The DVD features plenty of nice vintage footage of all three from the 1970s and early ‘80s to accompany the pieces as well as comments from their peers. Of particular note is Don Prudhomme’s candid comments about the first time that he and his peers heard about Garlits’ rear-engine wonder. Many had tried the approach, few successfully, so you can understand Prudhomme’s sentiment when he explained, “We weren’t going to laugh at it, but we were very close to it.” History has shown that “Big Daddy” had the last laugh.
Stephens proves a talented wordsmith, veering from obvious commentary and showing his verbal horsepower on occasion, such as calling the museum “a Smithsonian of straight-line speed.” My favorite line, if for nothing but its un-PC delivery, recalls the feisty Muldowney’s “snarky one-liners and pugnacious disposition.”
Also included is great in-car footage of both historic and modern nature, the former, of course, true rarities in the days before miniaturized cameras were routinely fitted in many cars.
A wonderful segment on flag starters allows newer fans to get an idea of some of the unique gyrations and gymnastics that they employed before the advent of the Christmas Tree. That electronic marvel is introduced via a nice and funny interview with the man whose NHRA career transcended both eras, the late great NHRA Chief Starter Buster Couch. For those us who knew him, I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to see and hear him again, to hear him spin a tale of the nefarious anti-Tree sentiment that pervaded those first years, in his distinct Southern accent.
The production explores in detail the breaking of the 300-mph barrier in Top Fuel and the four-second and 300-mph barriers in Funny Car and, via an introduction to the father-son team of Warren and Kurt Johnson, discusses the breaking of the 200-mph and six-second barriers in Pro Stock. A lot of this footage has been seen, but it’s still cool to marvel at, especially the in-car footage of Kenney Bernstein’s launch on the first 300-mph pass in Gainesville in 1992.
Two of the sport’s most loved and colorful characters, Gary Scelzi and John Force, also are featured, the latter in a hilarious montage of “What the heck did he say?” top-end interviews described by Stephens as “witty, incoherent, and sometimes mischievous.”
With a running time of 40 minutes, the DVD can’t really explore a topic in-depth, and fans looking for tons of vintage footage from the 1960s and 1970s will be left wanting a bit more. Other than the segments on the Tree and milestones noted by the achievements of Garlits and Muldowney, there’s no real tracing of the evolution of the sport, but then that’s probably not the purpose of the piece. It's a great addition to your library and is one of those DVDs you can pull out for your neophyte friends to give them a pocket history of the sport and the gains in performance.
The first official release is a dandy and a fine kickoff to the series. You probably couldn't pick a better year than 1986, which provided so many memorable moments, and Drag Racing '86 packs a lot into its two-hour season recap.
Hosted by the late, great Steve Evans and longtime partner and announcing legend Dave McClelland, it's a straightforward event-by-event romp. I was still relatively new to the DRAGSTER staff back then -- it was just my fourth full season on the staff -- but I witnessed a lot of these moments firsthand, and it's a treat to see them again.
This is the opening segment for Drag Racing '86 and includes the Winternationals.
By the time you get through the first three events -- the Winternationals, Gatornationals, and Southern Nationals -- you're already out of breath. Pomona, Shirley Muldowney's comeback event from her 1984 Montreal crash, featured her explosive first-round match with "Big Daddy" Don Garlits; the unforgettable body-popping blower explosion by Gary Ormsby's Castrol GTX streamliner; Dave Uyehara rear-ending Ron Correnti on a Funny Car qualifying pass; Ed McCulloch's body-shredding blower explosion in the red Miller High Life Olds Funny Car; and John Force, in his Coca-Cola Corvette, losing the Funny Car final to Tim Grose, his sixth straight of what would be nine bridesmaid finishes.
The Gatornationals, of course, was highlighted by the debut of Garlits' revolutionary Swamp Rat XXX streamliner -- "the design of the future," he calls it -- and Don Campanello's upset win in Pro Stock.
For anyone who was there -- and I was -- the Atlanta event left an indelible impression thanks to Bob Glidden's stunning series of top-end barrel rolls in the semifinals. Seeing Glidden's wife, Etta, horrified at the sight and being consoled by Arlene Johnson, it takes me right back to that day, standing on the starting line, hearing her cries and wondering if we'd lost another Pro Stock champ. We didn't, and, of course, Glidden did the unthinkable by stopping to cover his top-secret intake manifold with his fire jacket, an unforgettable episode in drag racing lore.
Aussie Funny Car racer Gary Phillips' wild ride off the end of the Columbus, Ohio, track also brought back memories for me; comparing my photo sequence to the film footage, they're almost identical. Ditto for Muldowney's scary top-end tire explosion in Montreal, two years to the weekend where she had her near-career-ending accident. I remember watching in horror then -- as I had in 1984 -- as things went wrong, but if you watch the video of this 1986 run, you can truly appreciate Muldowney's superior car-handling skills.
One of the most striking things about watching 23-year footage is how far the race cars have come, not only in technological sophistication, but also in safety. We no longer have blowers leaving the manifolds in a fiery explosion, and even the look of the cars, especially the roll-cage area and wings of the Top Fuelers, seems so long ago. It's also interesting to see some of the tracks we had back then and how devoid they were of things like massive towers and sky-high grandstands.
The most unforgettable moment of 1986 -- perhaps in all of drag racing history -- was Garlits' blowover in Englishtown, and it's captured from numerous angles. I've seen this footage dozens of times, and it never gets old.
As wild as that was, what follows from the Brainerd event is one of the wildest yet mostly unsung incidents of the season, which McClelland calls one of the most exciting moments of the season. Funny Car racer Norm Day lit up his Funny Car in big fashion, then slid off the track and barrel-rolled once, which jammed shut the escape hatch. Grose, who was in the other lane, joined the NHRA Safety Safari in trying to extricate Day, memorably trying to kick in the side of the body. Day got out with only some burns to his hand; the footage is truly amazing.
Indy has the legendary Top Fuel battle between Garlits and Darrell "the Wolf" Gwynn, Billy Meyer's devastating blower explosion, and Mike Dunn's big win. Current fans of the ESPN2 show will get a kick out of seeing a much younger Dunn actually doing what he so eloquently comments on each race weekend.
The recap shows just how dominant Garlits and Glidden were this season as well as the tight battles and different winners in Funny Car before Kenny Bernstein eventually grabbed the fuel coupe title. As the season wraps up, each of the season champs is featured in a nice spotlight with historic footage from their careers.
As Garlits himself said after clinching the season title, "It's been a great year; '86 was great."
And so is this DVD.
To order either of these DVDs, log on to NHRAdvd.com.