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.
You would have thought it was Christmas around the National DRAGSTER office yesterday when the week's new issue arrived from the printer. Staffers were running around to one another's offices and cubicles like little kids with a new present.
The cause of celebration is the new-look National DRAGSTER that rolled off the presses this weekend at Conley Publishing in good ol' Beaver Dam, Wis.
I'll admit, after seeing more than 1,300 issues go to print, I might be a bit more jaded than the average staffer or reader. By the time each new issue lands on my desk each Monday, I'm more than intimately familiar with its contents, having been a major part of the planning and proofreading of most of the editorial pages. When the new issue arrives, I usually skim through it to see how some features actually look once they're printed, then I'll size up the overall presentation of the issue, then file it in my bookshelf.
But this one … this one had me – and everyone else -- on pins and needles.
Externally, you might not notice the difference unless you had last week's issue in your hands; it's about an inch shorter and an inch less across the striking image of Memphis Funny Car winner Jeff Arend's burnout and the photo of him and team owner Connie Kalitta celebrating what truly will be remembered as one of this year's most memorable moments.
But, like most things in life, it's what's inside that counts. For the first time in 50 years – we're talking 2,340 issues -- the entire inside of the magazine is not only presented on glossy, magazine-like stock, but it's full color throughout. It's a milestone day for our publication.
|NHRA national event Sportsman coverage ... in living color. [View PDF]
Even the Summit Series E.T. Finals are in color! [View PDF]
Yep, that's right. Sportsman stories from the national events? In glorious color! Summit Series Finals coverage? Yep. Member-track stories? You bet. Even the back-page column – by me this week – has a color headshot now. As we opened our issues for the first time, we each seemed to race to different sections and were yelling out and holding open our magazines to different pages … "Hey, look at this. Awesome!"
You might ask what the big deal is; most car magazines have been full color for years. Sure, but National DRAGSTER is not some monthly magazine that comes to you two to three months after it's printed -- that's no knock on those glossy print publications; just the way that business is – it's your weekly guide to your favorite sport.
No one – either in print or on the Internet – shows the love to the NHRA Sportsman racer the way National DRAGSTER does, and we're proud of that. Ask any of our writers, and they'll tell you that their post-event interviews with the Sportsman winners are often the highlight of their weeks. And now to be able to tell their stories and show off their cars in color is a huge home run for us.
Pro coverage, too, which was trimmed back earlier this year to a mix of color and black and white, has returned to its full glory. Even the Joni's Race Shop and Performance Directory ads are now full-color capable!
I've seen a lot of iterations of National DRAGSTER in my 27 years on the staff, 23 of them with me at the top of the masthead, and a lot of improvements, but I have to say that this week's issue has everyone on the staff all revved up – and it's just the beginning.
We'll finish the publishing year – nine more issues – at this size and with the features already in place, then we'll get hard to work not only redesigning the look inside but also in many ways reinventing National DRAGSTER and launching it as an exciting – and in some ways different – magazine in 2010. It's what we need to do and what you deserve.
It's no secret that print publications are struggling in this economy as advertisers and circulation drop off, and it's also no secret that through-the-mail publications such as ours no longer can be on the cutting edge of news the way that television and the Internet can be. By the time that National DRAGSTER is produced and delivered by the U.S. Postal Service, a week or more may have elapsed since the event was held or the story written. Today, that's not good enough. By then, you've seen the race on TV or read the news on NHRA.com.
For the last several months, the leaders of the individual National DRAGSTER departments have been meeting to help create the road map, following tried-and-true business methods. We painstakingly (and, in some cases, painfully) created a SWOT analysis, honestly and openly chronicling our Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (no, it did not involve uniformed men with silenced MP5s breaching the conference-room door, and no flashbangs were used in this exercise ... pity). We crafted a new mission statement and new goals and action items.
One of the clear things to come out of all of this was the need to change the way we do something. Because we already have a breaking-news vehicle – this Web site – to deliver important, accurate, interesting, and timely information to the NHRA membership, NHRA fans, and NHRA's other customers, there's no need for National DRAGSTER to compete with it as it has, on occasion, since its launch in 1995.
Everything you've come to enjoy and expect in National DRAGSTER will still be there -- behind-the-scenes coverage and awesome photos from the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series national events, in-depth interviews with the stars of our sport, tech, Lucas Oil and local track results, and all of your favorite columns – but we plan to make some changes – some subtle, some not-so subtle – to the way they're presented.
I don’t have a lot of details to share right now, just a million ideas running around my head that we'll put to paper in the coming weeks. I do know that I want to complete National DRAGSTER's metamorphosis from a newspaper to a magazine while having the best that both formats have to offer. What I think that means is more feature material, more thought-provoking stories, and more special features and regular columns. This column eventually probably will become part of that mix; it also will remain online, but I'm not sure in what form.
We have some very talented writers on our staff, each with his or her own style, and I plan not only to give them the freedom to use that voice in National DRAGSTER, but also plan to encourage it. I think we'll get a very interesting publication, written by people who know and love drag racing as much as anyone on this planet.
It would certainly be easier to keep doing what National DRAGSTER has done so well in the last 50 years, but what we want to create is not just a publication that you receive for being an NHRA member, but a publication that you want, period.
Sure, there will be growing pains as we stretch our editorial legs, and there may be tweaks and tune-ups along the way. I'm as excited as I am nervous about the changes, but I know full well that the time is now for National DRAGSTER to in many ways reinvent itself and reinvigorate its current and potential future audiences. A lot of exciting things are coming down the road that I hope will encourage current members to stay with us, former subscribers to give us another fresh look, and new readers to hop on the bandwagon.
As is always my style, whether online or in print, I would love to hear from all three types of readers. If you’re with us now, what do you like or dislike; what do we need more or less of? If you're looking at rejoining us, what made you stop reading us, and what kinds of things will bring you back? If you've never subscribed to National DRAGSTER and have been looking for the right reason, tell me what things will get you over the hump on that decision.
Drop me a line here; I'd love to hear from you. If you're already convinced, you can get yourself a subscription right here.
Senior Editor Kevin McKenna and I attended the memorial service for Shaun Carlson yesterday in nearby Chino. It was held at Shaun's regular place of worship and drew several hundred people whom he had touched in some way in his short 35 years.
There were a ton of his fellow former NHRA sport compact friends, his new drifting pals, and people for whom he had done work over the years. It was a great ceremony, filled with music – sung by his aunts and his two adorable nieces – poetry, and heartfelt remembrances.
His brother Trevor chronicled Shaun's life from start to finish, talking about how when Shaun got into Freestyle MX, he didn’t just go buy a bicycle like everyone else, he built his own (much to the detriment of Trevor's bike, which "donated" some parts). Same thing for skateboards. All of that eventually moved into mechanized mayhem, and the Carlson family garage quickly became "Shaun's shop" and a 24/7 hangout for some of the most car-crazy kids in the region. Tales were told about spare body parts cluttering the family living room, cars being painted in the backyard, and much more.
Many people spoke, including fellow racer John Mihovetz, for whom Carlson had fabricated a special manifold that helped his turbocharged Cougar crack the six-second and 200-mph barriers, and the guy known to most simply as Chip, who ran the NuFormz fabrication business with Carlson.
What came out through all of their words was Shaun's dedication to hard work and perfection in everything he did. No project was too tough, no deadline too tight, nothing impossible. He was a guy who would give anything to anyone, would help anyone, and was loved by everyone. As Kevin said to me on the ride home, spookily reading my mind, "Man, I wish I had known him better."
The service (which was followed by a reception at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum presented by Automobile Club of Southern California) concluded with a touching moment and the release of several white doves by family members. Sport compact racer Abel Ibarra – one of the first guys to befriend me and teach me the ropes and the players when I started covering the class for National DRAGSTER in 2001 – raises roller pigeons for relaxation and through a buddy got the doves to bring to the service. I watched Shaun's family cradle the doves lovingly, even planting small kisses on their heads, before releasing them to the skies. It was pretty special.
The response to my Fan Fotos offer has been overwhelmingly positive, and I already have a good stock of photos that, combined with other subjects I am working on and the culmination of the Misc. Files (thought I'd forgotten, did ya?), will easily see us through to the end of the year.
I'm really enjoying seeing everyone's submissions because, as I have mentioned, it's where I come from. I was a kid in the stands who fancied himself a future Leslie Lovett or Steve Reyes … if only I had a chance to shoot from the guardrail, dammit! Well, most of you never will (I was lucky!), but that doesn't mean that there aren’t some dynamite shots to be grabbed from the seats and the fences, as we've already seen. And, unlike looking at someone's home movies or vacation slides, they’re actually something we all love: race cars!
Steve Scott is today's guest photographer. A former resident of that current drag racing hotbed known as Brownsburg, Ind. – which would explain his many U.S. Nationals photos -- Steve and his wife have lived in Fort Worth since 2001.
"I saw my first Nationals in '69 and was absolutely hooked," he said. "Nothing like a nitro car to set its claws into you, and never let go. I traveled to races as much as finances would allow in those days, which wasn't nearly often enough. I always made the Nats, up to Byron once for the Funny Car championship deal, Springs in Columbus for many years, and Martin 131 for the Pop Rod Meets; even made it to Edgewater a couple of times, and US 30 once. Since moving down South, I've been to the Dallas race a few times, including this year. Went up to the Fuel Altered, Jr. Fuel race in Denton just the other night. Guess you could say I'm just a drag racing junkie, like so many others.
"In addition to drag racing, I always had fascination with photography, and it was a big day when I could finally afford that Minolta SRT101 and a 200mm lens. Man, I'm cookin' now! I can be just like Reyes, Blake, Lovett, Asher, Brady, et al. Those guys were my heroes in drag photography and still are to this day. So I shot the best I could from the stands for the on-track stuff. Even back then, the starting line was beginning to get real cluttered with all the 'real' photogs, vehicles, ladders, gear bags etc., and it was very difficult to get good clean burnout shots. After panning for the downtrack stuff, eventually it all started to look the same to me. I still tried to get some good pit shots, though. While still attending races, I just got tired of lugging around my camera equipment for results that were very similar to past efforts. And the drag racing photo stuff just stopped.
"I recently upgraded to the digital age with a Nikon D60 and a couple of lenses. Met Chris Graves of Max Cackle Photography, and he's been very helpful in learning this new camera and giving tips on racing shots. Maybe I can finally get as good at this deal as my old photo heroes are/were, even though I'm just an amateur."
I'd say he's well on his way. Here are Steve Scott's 10 favorite Fan Fotos, along with my background material and comments ...
The Custom Body Enterprises name had a deep history in drag racing from the late 1960s, from original shoe/owner Phil Castronovo through drivers like Rick Johnson, Tom Anderson, Tim Grose, Bobby Hilton, Al Segrini, and Denny Savage, but other than Castronovo himself, no driver is more closely aligned with memories of the Custom Body cars than Tom Prock. Prock drove it for five seasons – from 1972 through 1976 (when Castronovo again briefly drove it before putting Segrini in the car). Steve captured Prock in mid-burnout at the 1976 U.S. Nationals in perhaps the team's most successful car, this Dodge Dart. It was in this car that Prock, who never was fortunate enough to win an NHRA national event, was runner-up to Don Prudhomme three times – at the 1975 and 1976 Grandnational in Canada (which preceded Indy on the schedule) and at the 1975 Gatornationals. Longtime fans may remember the wacky outcome of that Gainesville final round, where Prudhomme was shut off on the starting line with an oil leak, affording Prock what looked like an easy solo run to his first win ... until the Custom Body car shelled the rear end on its dry hop. Both teams were given time to repair, but Prock couldn't make it back in time. Prock also owns the distinction of being the guy in the other lane in the final at the 1975 Summernationals when "Jungle Jim" Liberman won his only NHRA title. A lot of people know Prock today because of his son, Jimmy, who tunes Robert Hight's Automobile Club of Southern California Mustang for John Force Racing, but the senior Prock – who first came to fame driving the Prock & Howell Willys and later was known for his own hard-running car, the Detroit Tiger Monza – made plenty of headlines on his own.
Joe Pisano and driver/partner Sush Matsubara had a lot of good-looking Funny Cars, and this was always one of my favorites, even though Matsubara was not driving. Behind the wheel, again in 1976 in Indy, is Texan Jake Johnston, who took over the butterfly when Matsubara retired from driving in 1975. Although Joe P later became known for his high-speed Oldsmobiles in the 1980s, his early cars were all Chevys, including this Monza, which Johnson drove under the P&M name through the late 1970s, by which time Matsubara's name had disappeared from its flanks, and it became a Trans Am, then an Arrow (a replica of which Cruz Pedregon will drive at the California Hot Rod Reunion next week), an Omni, and a Daytona before that first Olds Firenza, driven by Mike Dunn, in 1987.
This great shot is from 1975 in Columbus, Ohio, at the annual Springnationals. The one thing about shooting from the stands is it's much easier to get these great "pan blur" shots than it is up close. No, that's not "the Snowman," Gene Snow, behind the wheel, or even the aforementioned Jake Johnston, who used to drive for Snow. The driver is a Texan (despite the 306 permanent number on this Vega), and it's fearless fuel-altered hero Dale "the Snail" Emery. Emery, who wheeled the notorious Pure Hell fuel altered in the late 1960s, drove a slew of early Funny Cars in the 1970s, including Jeg Coughlin's Ohio-based flopper (hence the Division 3 number), which was the subject of that famous body-tossing blower explosion photo from Ontario in 1974 where the fuel tank lid came uncapped (helping create the rule for locking fuel caps). Emery drove for a quite a few car owners around this time before landing in what would be his final ride, Mike Burkhart's Camaro, which spectacularly went on its head (after a giant nose grind) in Indy in 1977, leaving him with a broken arm. From there, Emery went on to fame as one of Raymond Beadle's key crew guys on the vaunted Blue Max.
Steve calls this photo "Fiberglass Forest" in a riff from one of Steve Evans' great radio commercials ("Man, I miss Steve Evans," he lamented; we all do), and this photo, too, was snapped at the 1975 Columbus event. Obviously (if you read the info above), that's Emery/Snow at front left, next to the Fireball Vega of Harland Thompson. Behind them are Tom "the Mongoose" McEwen's English Leather/Navy Duster, Shirl Greer's Mustang, Jim Nicoll's Good Times Vega, and barely visible, the Blue Max. Looks as if everyone is heading to the staging lanes; how much would you give to be in the stands getting ready for this?
Two great pit shots from the bicentennial-year 1976 Springnationals; at left is the legend himself, "Big Daddy" Don Garlits, checking the nitro percentage before another haul-ass run in his Swamp Rat. At right is a pretty historic photo as it shows Shirley Muldowney cradling her first NHRA Wally trophy after her initial Top Fuel victory. She shared the winner's circle with another legendary Don, "the Snake" hiss-self, as well as Pro Stock winner Wally Booth, who scored one of AMC's rare Pro Stock wins with his and Dick Arons' Hornet, and Miss Winston Mary Larson, who seems downright giddy about the outcome.
Looks as if Dale Funk is about to be wingin' it without the wing on the English, Frakes & Funk Kentucky Moonshiner digger in this fine shot from the 1976 Nationals. This actually was Funk's last race as he had announced his retirement beforehand, and it may have been a timely decision. Things got even scarier for Funk in round one when a massive engine explosion sent him through the lights sideways and on three wheels (as depicted in our recent Wild Rides photo greats book
) while losing to Lee Weller. Talk about going out with a bang! By the way, that's former Insider profile subject Bill Pryor
in the near lane in the Pryor & Narramore entry.
Steve says this Billy Meyer photo is from the Popular Hot Rodding
Meet in Martin, Mich., in 1976 or 1977, but I'm thinking it's more like 1976 based on the Mustang II body. Meyer ran a Camaro in at least part of 1976 and 1977 as I recall – the 1977 one got melted down in a big way in Montreal – which was followed by an Arrow and then the first of those pretty ugly Chevy Citation bodies. Based on the primered portions of the body, it's obvious from this photo that Meyer's Mustang was coming off some sort of nasty incident at a previous race.
Also from U.S. 131 Dragway is longtime Top Alcohol Funny Car standout Bob Gottschalk. Gottschalk had been racing Funny Cars since the early 1970s – first an injected car then blown alcohol cars – before jumping into an ill-fated stint in the nitroburners in the early 1980s. He returned to his alky roots later that decade and raced throughout the 1990s before a career-ending crash in Ohio in 2000.
And, finally, there's this amazing shot. The subject is, of course, "Jungle Pam" Hardy, the comely sidekick of master Funny Car showman "Jungle Jim" Liberman, who became as much a part of his popular act as his long burnouts, fast backups, and never-lift mentality. I've seen a lot of great "Jungle Pam" photos over the years, but I have to say that this one really stopped me for its candid nature and the amazing way in which it's composed, either intentionally or unintentionally. There's JP, surrounded, as usual, by adoring fans, dressed in her trademark halter top (this one from Trick Titanium), and it appears as if she's looking right past and through the multitudes to smile at our photographer, one of those great one-on-one eye-contact moments that we've all had (or at least imagined we were having) with drag racing superstars we can meet freely in the pits.
Okay, that's Steve Scott's super 10. (You can see more of Steve's pics here or visit his Facebook page here, where there also are a lot of photos.) I'm glad he shared them with us even though he admitted, "Getting specific on the details of these photos is a difficult deal, as they were shot 30-some years ago, and I never thought of cataloging or indexing, in some fashion. Like many other fans who took photos of that era, after the initial viewing, the photos/slides were tossed into shoeboxes and languished in a closet for years."
Which is exactly why it's time for YOU to drag out your old Kodachrome slides and FotoMat prints, scan them up, and send them to me here. These homegrown memories are the last great treasures of those golden days that we'll probably see unearthed, and everyone is just dying to see them.
Start sending, guys. I'll see you next week.