Features

Keeping it in the familyThursday, February 11, 2010
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Racers love competing at the Kragen O'Reilly NHRA Winternationals presented by Valvoline for a lot of reasons. Eastern-based competitors love to head to SoCal for sun and fun. And the facility is conveniently accessible from several major freeways, including Interstate 10, the nation's main east-west artery. The racetrack itself is consistently tight, smooth, and quick. The pits are almost all paved.

But for decades, there has been another, lesser-publicized reason that racers enjoy their twice-annual trek to Pomona, and it resides on Fairplex Drive, just outside the gates behind the tower complex. The El Merendero Mexican restaurant has been a favorite of drivers from all classes for years, not just because of its savory burritos, carne asada, and nachos but because of its convenient location. Back in the days before Pro teams had chow at their own hospitality trailers in the pits, it wasn't uncommon to see the stars of the sport trekking over there and returning minutes later with boxes piled high with spicy goodness. Back then, the street was named E Street, and, with my Bruce Springsteen leanings, I used to think of heading over there as "the E Street Shuffle." The task of fetching your south-of-the-border goodies was a lot easier then because you could exit the facility through a manned gate, but now you have to exit out onto Arrow Highway and head a block west, but it's still worth the trip.

Look familiar?
Uncle Everett and Aunt Elly
Uncle Everett working the grill.

I bring up all of this now not to ramp up business for the joint, but because it has an interesting connection to the National DRAGSTER staff. You see, long before the Merendero family began wrapping tortillas there, it was a hamburger stand called Elly's Quick-Snak, and it was owned by Everett Pace, the uncle of National DRAGSTER Photo Editor Teresa Long.

Beginning in 1964, Everett, the brother of T.L.'s mother, leased the new building from the owners of neighboring Lopez Liquor and named the place after his wife, Elinor.

"They did a great business back then because the Pomona drags used to run every Sunday in those days," Teresa told me after talking to her aunt Elly, who still resides in La Verne and just turned 80 (Everett passed away in 2006). "When the Winternationals was in town, they were really busy, employing more than 20 workers to help out with large orders. People would order 50 tacos at a time, and they wanted them in a hurry."
 
Their three sons helped, along with both grandmothers, preparing malts, shakes, and food. There was even a pool table and a jukebox for extra entertainment. "It was just like Happy Days," remembered Elinor.

After the Paces' five-year lease expired, the Lopez family (brothers Dave and Dan) opted not to renew the lease, planning to take over the restaurant themselves, but they eventually sold it to the Merendero family. Until the last few years, the place still looked virtually the same as these 1960s photos – "Same counter, same fireplace," T.L. pointed out. "And every time I went in there, I would tell my friends, 'My aunt and uncle used to own this place' " -- but just recently, an ornate front was put onto the restaurant.

It's still a great piece of Pomona lore, and I'd bet that any afternoon that you dropped in there around Winternationals or Finals time, you could do some pretty good star watching. Tell them Teresa sent ya.

But, hey, it's our secret, OK?

Response to Robert Nielsen's SoCal doorslammer smorgasbord was, as I suspected, hot and heavy. I think a lot of us nitro-jaded journos forget how popular and memorable some of these door cars were at local tracks, but y'all helped bring me back the warm 'n' fuzzies.

Insider regular Cliff Morgan, a Lions denizen from way back, wrote, "I saw a lot of those cars, especially at Lions. I used to like the really fast E.T. cars at Lions, and they put on a good show between rounds of the Pro cars. A really fast E.T. car could run 9.90s, and that was crazy fast back then. Glendale Speed Center used to have a Chevy Nova that ran 9.90s and did bumper-scraping wheelies at Lions.

"Also wanted to comment on Ted Wells' '54 Ford. I used to see it run at Fernando with the 352 motor, and the car was called Excedrin Headache #1320. This is like 1969 or so, and Excedrin used to have a series of TV commercials with a number assigned to each commercial. Example, you got a headache from traffic, so that was Excedrin Headache #1, etc., etc. That's where Wells got the name for that Ford because it was hard to make that motor run. My first car was a 1958 Ford four-door with that engine. I ran it at Fernando, and it went 16.80s at 86 mph on street tires. I saw Wells run a lot at Fernando. I also liked Tom Nicklin's Outcast Falcon. I saw that car at Lions a lot. I was trying to find a decent photo of the Vintage GTO, a late-'40s Pontiac with a Chevy rat motor in it, that ran Lions, and I was gonna send that in with the photos you published. I bet Robert Nielsen remembers that car. It was red and ran low 10s in Bracket 1, which was Lions' quick bracket. The slowest bracket at Lions was Bracket 6, and I ran that a few times with my Ford Falcon six-banger (low 20s ... once I was The Slowest Car At Lions -- argh). Also ran that bracket with a '71 Pinto, my first new car. Anyhoo, I really liked the photos. Those cars are as much a part of drag racing as the flops and fuelers."

A lot of love also was cast toward Wells' Ford as a number of readers, including Jeff Zimmer and Jeff Bolton, correctly remembered that the car was featured in the Adam-12 episode shot at Lions Drag Strip in the early 1970s.

"It was a show about the dangers of street racing," recalled Bolton. "At the end of the show, Kent McCord raced the car (in the show, it was 'his' car) against Gary Crosby, who was running a friend’s '67 or '68 Camaro. It was a grudge race. Crosby knew he could take that tank easily. It didn’t work out that way. I think the Ford ran an 11.11; it was a cool episode."

You can see the whole episode here on Hulu. The racing and some great looks at Lions (aka "Benson's Drag Strip") begin at about the 20-minute mark.

Steve Neal also dropped me an interesting note about Wells, whom he had confused with recently departed NHRA mainstay Dick Wells. "For the last few weeks and indeed for probably the last several years, whenever I heard the name Dick Wells, I had often thought that he being an old-time West Coast hot rodder, that he was also the guy that I remember reading about in an old car magazine that hand-fabricated a center section for a 9-inch Ford rear," he remembered. "My being a Ford enthusiast who had suffered a similar fate in my '61 Hi Po 390 Galaxie may have been the reason that this stuck in my mind for so long, but then seeing the car in your column, I almost fell out of my lounge chair with laptop to the floor.

"I remember the reference to the 352 engine, too. I didn't know about the 396 'destoker' though, but I did immediately recall that I and a partner at one time raced a B/Dragster with a similar 'destroked' FE Ford. As I recall, we used a 361 FE Ford truck crankshaft (steel) with a heavily machined front snout and a set of pistons that came right out of the Ford parts bin. My partner at the time was the parts and service manager for a small Ford dealer in Connecticut. If memory serves, these pistons were sold without wrist pin holes so that you could bore them for the proper compression height with the shorter stroke. We also later had a similar problem with the lack of appropriate intake manifold when we changed to the tunnel port heads for the FE with Hilborn injection. The medium riser heads had a manifold made for Weber carbs that worked with the injection, but for the tunnel port heads, we had to use a hand-built deal. We actually purchased one from another old Yankee racer by the name of Ed Prout (A/A FE Ford). Wish I had some pictures of some of those old cars from my Connecticut Dragway days. Now I am just rambling, but that '54 Ford sure got the memories flowing! Love it!"

I also heard from David Nicklin, nephew of Tom Nicklin, whose outcast Falcon was featured in the article. "The Outcast cars were my uncle's, and it is nice to see the Falcon again as all the photos from his collection are lost," he wrote. "I still have some from the Funny Car and the altered. If you have any other shots of the Outcast cars, I would like as many as I can for my collection. I hope someday to bring the name back to life with a car of my own."

I forwarded his e-mail to Nielsen, who sent him the image at right and will send him more images once he digs them out of his archives. Another successful Insider Connection!

The photo of the Outcast and of Nielsen's own Falcon inspired even more mail.

"Thanks for the pics, Phil," wrote Gary Crumrine. "It returns us to what we consider to be the golden years of drag racing. That '63 Falcon is just plain neat. When I attend a race these days, I spend very little time actually watching the racing. I am scouring the pits talking to door-car owners who are just plain good people. I’ve had a guy unload his '41 Willys so he could show me some of his handiwork. He had gone out early and was preparing for a long trip home, but he really wanted me to see his car, and my son and I really got a great look at a very nice car. All steel, by the way. I have run into guys like that all over the country. They are the backbone of the sport. I just wish we could do more for them, for without them, the NHRA would not exist."

"The Falcon photos reminded me of that bracket car named Just Falcon Around that ran at Lions," added Mark Wallace. "Great name!" Indeed.

Insider alert: The aforementioned Zimmer wondered if anyone had photos of a '70 Duster called Lil Jinx. The East Coast car competed at the 1976 Grandnational (he believed in D/MP) and ran a dual quad 340, four-speed with a Dana. Zimmer, who is overseas working in the Emirates, owns the car, which is still original but without the motor. Drop me a line here if you have pics of this car, and I'll forward them on to Jeff.

OK, kids, that's it for the weekend. Lucky me, I'll be neck deep in nostalgia all weekend at the Winternationals. If you’re there and see me, stop and say hey. If you can’t make it, we'll miss you. The weather looks to be great, and after recent rains (including Tuesday), the foothills behind the track are picture-postcard white with snow. It's gonna be some weekend!

 

Your Heroes, Part 1Tuesday, February 09, 2010
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Way back in early January, I asked the readers of this column to submit their list of racing heroes. (You thought I'd forgotten, didn't you?) Response to my request was a bit overwhelming, so I'm going to parcel these out in two columns.

I have to say that I'm truly impressed not only with the range of people whom you look up to -- everyone from the superstar pros to less-well-known mentors -- but your skill at conveying your admiration. I heard from all over the globe, including England and Australia. There are some very meaningful and deep-rooted emotions here, and I loved every minute of reading. I hope you all do, too.

"My all-time favorite motorsports personality is Gary Beck. #1: A great driver (two world championships, three U.S. Nationals wins, 19 national event wins, first to run in the 5.60s, 5.50s, 5.40s, and 5.30s). #2: A great mechanical mind (made innovations in nitro fuel systems still in use today and made the McGee quad cam engine competitive when it looked like it was always going to be an uncompetitive 'leaker'); I really think that if he chose the path, he could have become one of the all-time great crew chiefs after he left the driver's seat.

"#3: A great sportsman. He suffered absolutely painful final-day world championship losses in 1975, 1980, and 1981 but never felt sorry for himself and carried on to win again. He handed the bottle of champagne (for celebrating his championship if he won) to Shirley when she beat him out for the championship on the last day in 1980. #4: Great with the fans; I had many fascinating conversations with him in the pits, and he always made time to talk to fans. #5: He never made excuses; example: At the 1982 Springnationals, his chute came out when leading an engine-smoking Lucille Lee. Instead of saying it just vibrated out (happens all the time), he admitted that he pulled the chute by mistake when he was reaching for a fuel valve.

"What more needs to be said?" -- Al Kean

"Top of my list is still Mr. Darrell Gwynn. While Darrell accomplished some great things during his racing years, I strongly feel what he has done in the years since his terrible accident should be an inspiration to all of us. Had he not been hurt, would Darrell have won more races and perhaps even an NHRA Top Fuel championship or two? Almost certainly. However, since his accident, he has impacted so many people, in such a positive way, and despite his disabilities.

"It can be argued he has probably accomplished more in life since 1990 than he would have had he continued racing. Would any of us have been able to do the same and show the same attitude if we were in his situation? Something to think about for all of us!" -- Reg Kenney

"My hero in drag racing is Shirley Muldowney, which I know sounds very cliché, but I believe she has helped influence my favorites in other sports/arts. I was born in 1976, so while I was alive during Shirley's prime, I was still very young and have limited recollection of it. It has been as I have grown older and developed my feminist tendencies that I have been able to truly appreciate what I enjoy about her, and why she, pop icon Madonna, and figure skater Michelle Kwan are my 'trifecta' of female competitors.
 
"I was always a huge fan of female superheroes (Wonder Woman and She-Ra, later Buffy), and it's only been in the last 20 years that I have been able to appreciate how much of a superhero Shirley Muldowney truly was. To hear the tales of what she had to go through, to watch how tough she is in interviews, and to see her do it with so much passion for the sport she loves is truly inspiring.
 
"I think she infused a lot about why I like Madonna and Michelle Kwan. For Madonna, I think she has the outspoken nature of Shirley Muldowney that I truly admire. Also, there is a confidence level about Shirley Muldowney, and her capabilities, similar to Michelle Kwan on the ice. When she came back from her accident and Steve Evans asked her why she came back, the first thing she said was "Because I'm good at it." Fabulous!
 
"I think all three ladies have helped educate me and inspire me to live my life to the fullest. Confident. Fierce. Proud. Passionate. Resilient. Competitive. Controversial. Fascinating. And always striving for excellence.
 
"I know for me, going to the races hasn't quite been the same since I made the cross-country trek to see Shirley's Last Pass in November 2003. And it was truly an honor to be there." -- Billy Anderson

"As a sign painter, I was influenced by the works of Kenny Youngblood and Nat Quick (both worked at Kirby's in the '70s in Bellflower, Calif.). I wanted to work in a shop lettering race cars all day, just looking at their work. Their lettering and design skills influenced me and so many more to where I chose to self-teach myself the trade. I've been lettering race cars and signs since 1975.

"I've met Kenny [pictured right] a number of times, but I finally got to meet Nat at a get-together in Syracuse N.Y., in '08. What a wonderfully talented individual. It was and still is a highlight. He shared stories of the days gone by at Kirby's. He and Kenny are responsible for most of the 1970s Revell model paint designs and the actual paint and lettering of those cars.

"As a racer, Frank Mazi [below right] and Wally Clark are my heroes. I think Frank is a hero to many; Frank could and still can do anything. I met Frank at a little eighth-mile race track in Lancaster, N.Y., just outside of Buffalo in 1975. He had purchased Jimmy Oddy's BB/G Opel, and it was the first time I saw the car since the sale. Remembering that Oddy was the kingpin around here and the Opel was just the coolest thing at the racetrack (not to mention Oddy's talent of driving). Frank was so easy to talk to, and from that day, he and his family have done nothing short of adopting me. I'd drive the 180 miles from Buffalo to Eastlake, Ohio, just to spend a weekend sitting around Frank's garage taking in whatever was going on. He always took the time to explain and encourage not only me but many others. He pointed me in the right direction and to this day still takes no credit for it. He'll never know how much difference he has made in my life and career choice.

"I met Wally Clark, the Canadian Super Stock racer, when I was 12 years old at the old Niagara Drag Strip on the airport base in Niagara Falls, N.Y. Wally was one of the people at the track to pay any kind of attention to me. I loved the sport so much back then. Too many reasons to share, but I've lettered countless numbers of race cars for him, watched him win races, helped and travel with him after I stopped racing myself. He is also one of the funniest guys I know. Through all his kidding, there was always a serious side, and when I needed that, he was there, too, same as Frank Mazi. Wally encouraged and advised me when needed. I owe a lot to both of them.

"Finally, my dear friend John Oldfield. John was like concrete to the local drag scene. He was Superman to a lot of us younger racers. After my folks died in 1989, John and his family kept close to make sure I was all right. John was just one of those guys; hard to explain, but he was. I wanted to move forward with my sign business and build a standalone shop. With his advice, I did and found a piece of land and contracted out the project. John was a master plumber and guided me through the whole deal with what to do and what not to do (the what not to do being the key); I couldn't have done it without him. Sadly, John never saw me put the key in the door as he died in October 1991 at the age of 46. I finished the building shortly thereafter. I'm still heartbroken to this day. I owe a lot to him and for that reason the faith he put in me to succeed. I hope I haven't failed him. If his name sounds familiar, his brother is Dickie Oldfield of the Motown Missile fame. Dick lives in town here and we see each other all the time … talk about hero! Anyway, there you have it. Maybe these people don't mean anything to many people, but they do to me, and I don't know where I'd have been without them." -- Dan DeLaney
 


"My two favorite racers are two old-time competitors: fuel altered racer Mike Sullivan and front-engine slingshot racer driver and innovator Pete Robinson. Sullivan always had a commitment to the altered class even after fuel altereds were fading and Funny Cars were the coming thing. Who can forget his flag-draped Fiat. He brought class to the class and a record of fine performances."  -- Pete Oldengarm
 

"I guess my list has to start with a 'D.' #1: Don Garlits – Need I say more? #2: Danny Ongais – He did so much for bringing credibility to drag racing. He could win in just about anything he tried – Top Fuel, Funny Cars, Top Gas, IMSA, and, of course, Indy cars. At his peak, he could race side by side with Foyt, Andretti, Unsers, Mears, etc. (and beat them). #3: Dale Earnhardt." -- Mark Brenner
 

"One stands out among the rest, not only for drag racing, but in life. Like probably a million others, Don Garlits gets my vote. He always has appeared to me to be an example of a hardworking, extremely gifted, and, as far as I can tell, humble person. He rarely failed, and his perfection of the rear-engined dragster probably did more for the category than anything else.

"I could go on and on, but check this out. Back when I was in the eighth grade, a college student came to my middle school. I was selected for a poll that asked students different questions, like what do they like to do, friends, etc. One of the questions was who were my heroes. Besides my dad, who always is No. 1, I mentioned Garlits. This was in 1973, a few years after his great 1971 comeback. I explained to the student about Garlits' accident, his perfection of the rear-engined dragster, his comeback, and his success. Suffice it to say, she had never heard of Garlits but knew a lot about him after speaking to me. He's always been that way to me. I actually got to finally meet him in 2006 at a custom car show, where he autographed one of his books for me. I didn't tell him about the hero story." -- Joe Faraci

"I would like to add Tom 'the Mongoose' McEwen to your list. Tom paved the way for several of the heroes and legends to find sponsorship resources to make drag racing their lifetime careers. The Mattel Hot Wheels agreement was probably the turning point in drag racing. Media followed the sale of millions of Hot Wheels at the races and off the track as well. This was not the first non-automotive sponsorship Tom solicited. Tirend, English Leather, and others were signed up to start the marketing ball rolling for professional drag racing. These sponsors were convinced by Tom that exposure to their products was a valuable use of marketing resources, especially with the addition of television to the sport.

"Tom also was a true pioneer in this wonderful sport. Taking street racing to the track was the main reason the Lions Club of Long Beach opened Lions Drag Strip. Who did they convince to race at the track and not on Cherry Street? Tom, of course. The rest is history, including being inducted into two Halls of Fame." -- Dr. Rick Smith
 

"It's difficult to pin down just one hero to me, so I'll try to explain why I have several. Let me begin with local Rochester, N.Y., racer Ed Miller. In the '60s, Ed was one of the hot Super Stock racers and was of invaluable assistance in helping me when I was only 18 get so many Mopar parts for my old Plymouths and Dodges. He was always approachable and down to earth.

"Another big influence to me was Ronnie Sox [right]. I'm pretty sure that my first few cars were Mopars because of Miller and Sox. I even designed and had a car painted very similar to one of the Sox & Martin cars. I've written to his widow, and we've exchanged several e-mails. The most impressive thing to me about S&M cars was the preparation. Immaculate! You could eat off of the chassis. The attention to detail was second to none.

"One series of cars I used to admire, because they were so innovative, was the Motown Missile series of cars. This brings me to a man I never dreamed I would ever meet, let alone become good friends with. Dick Oldfield was the first driver of the Missile as well as a bunch of other Super Stock cars in the mid- to late '60s. I met Dick through my neighbor Jason Oldfield, Dick's nephew. Now Dick and I hang out with Jason, with and without his race car, on and off track. Dick thinks at a level most can't even begin to consider. I've been witness to what he's capable of at the track, and if someone could talk him out of retirement, he'd make one hell of a crew chief. If I ever return to racing cars, Dick is the first guy I want next to me at the track.

"I used to race a Pro Gas Suzuki. One of the my big heroes was Elmer Trett. I encountered him at many races and was very proud when he took the time to approach me in the pits and compliment my bike. To watch his wife and daughters work on the bike was to realize that they had probably forgotten more about motorcycles than I ever knew. I can't think of anyone who had a bad word for Elmer. Everyone just plain, flat admired him. I recall the sad news from the Nationals the day he died. I wept openly and can only imagine where motorcycle drag racing would have grown to if he were still with us.

"The last person on my list, though far from least, is Tommy Ivo [right]. I met him when he was sponsored by Honest Charley of America. Part of his deal was to leave his car and trailer at the nearest shop if he was in the area. I met him at our store and took him and his crew chief out to dinner. We all know that 'T.V.' was a cut above the rest. His rig was something to behold, and there were rarely better-looking cars. I've run into Tommy several times since we first met in 1973. I was 23 at the time then. In the times we've met since, he has always been very gracious and has remembered me, which is VERY flattering. He even introduced me to Don Prudhomme, Ron Capps, and Larry Dixon, and I was invited to breakfast with them at the Gators one morning.

"Drag racing is the one sport that ANYONE can walk up to their favorite driver, anytime they simply pay for a pit pass [ticket], and get an autograph. I've been lucky enough to have been around long enough to meet and even reacquaint myself with many of the racers I've admired. I'm almost 60 now and have been a fan of drag racing since I was 7 and a racer myself, in various forms, since I was 16. I may not be as famous as some, but I have certainly enjoyed the trip and will continue to do so." -- Paul Cuff

"My hero was local guy named George Warren here in the Phenix City, Ala., area. No football or baseball player could touch him as far as I was concerned. He could put on a show. I first saw him in 1970 when I was 13. He drove a 1970 AMX. I have seen the biggest names in drag racing who came through Phenix Drag Strip at that time from Don Garlits, Sox & Martin to Bill Jenkins and Larry Fullerton, but that white AMX was what I wanted to see. I am proud to have seen all the drag racers who came through Phenix City, but I'm even more proud to call George Warren my father-in-law." -- William Burch

"Has to be 'the Snake.' Seems to me he was always there. Every national event since 1964, except for one year, many division events even outside his own division (I hated when he raced Division 1), and match races out the kazoo. He raced front engine, funnies, rear engine, and did it successfully, plus he does quite well as an owner. I don't think in all the racing I've witnessed anyone who works harder or is cooler. I remember once at Maple Grove on a hot Saturday night he was racing someone, and back then, we could stand practically alongside the cars. His opponent decided to burn him down, and I could feel the heat and flames grow in intensity. I thought 'the Snake' would be getting upset, so I watched his hand on the brake to see if he flinched a finger. After all was said and done, he put a bad holeshot on his desperate opponent. Then there was a Summernationals at Raceway Park on a 90-degree humid day. He worked rebuilding, honing, changing motors, all without even a canopy, and after winning the event, I stayed to watch some more. He left the track after midnight, working with drop lights long after everyone was gone. He was generous with parts, never played games, and on the run above even asked what lane I wanted. Not that it mattered, he left me in the dust." – Frank Mancuso

"My motorsport hero has to be the late Sammy Miller. From that first awesome sight of Vanishing Point blasting away to an unseen or unbelievable speed/e.t at Santa Pod many years ago. He was a superb showman who was easily approachable and loved the fans. Always an innovator and a true hero never to be forgotten." – Karl Alcock

"I have always been a huge Ford fan, thus for me, Bob Glidden has always been a hero. When all others abandoned the Ford oval, Bob soldiered on virtually alone against first the huge GM contingent and later, to a lesser extent, the Mopar onslaught. His on-camera persona of proud but reserved competitor and always nice family guy was a breath of fresh air compared to some of the other egomaniacs. Bob always evoked the best example of good sportsmanship even in the face of almost insurmountable odds and showed them all in an understated way how it should and was done. He and his family will always be in my heart as the best example of what hard work, great manners, and family values bring to a family-oriented sport." -- Daryl Judd

OK, so there's the first batch of your heroes.Great stuff, guys. I'll probably roll out Part 2 after Pomona, depending on what happens the rest of this busy week. We're all keeping one eye on the skies as it's supposed to rain through Wednesday but clear up for the first day of the season Thursday. Everyone here is just so super excited for the season to kick off, especially with the caliber and depth of this year's 50th anniversary event. If you're coming, see ya here. If you couldn't make it, my condolences. 

 

Fan fotos: SoCal doorslammersFriday, February 05, 2010
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Long before there were nitro Funny Cars and even what we know as Top Fuel dragsters, door cars and roadsters often attracted the same fanatic love to which we now assign the nitro cars. I know that I have a fuel-racing mentality – particularly for 1970s-era Funny Cars -- but I also love a good doorslammer. So, apparently, does Robert Nielsen, who submitted the great photos below, with nary a digger or flopper in sight, and provided informative explanations for each.

For fans and racers who attended the digs, it's not always the showstoppers they remember but also some of the other cars, and I'm sure that anyone who frequented SoCal tracks will recognize some of these lesser-spotlighted but nonetheless interesting and nostalgic machines.

"I have more than 1,000 images of cars from Lions, OCIR, Irwindale, San Fernando, and other tracks in SoCal, Nor Cal, and Arizona," said Nielsen. "Most of these images were taken on occasions when I was not running my car but still traveled to the races to help friends with their cars and took along my 35mm Nikon FTN camera. For the most part, the photos that I took were of cars that were either friends' or cars I raced against. While I do have some photos of dragsters, Funny Cars, and Pro Stock, these are definitely only a very small portion of the images that I have. While I do not consider myself a photographer – I am a picture taker, the difference being a photographer knows what he is doing, and I just take a LOT of photos, and some turn out OK."

These definitely turned out OK, Robert. Thanks for sharing. The quoted parts below are Robert's notes for each photo.

"Here's Carl Smith’s small-block Chevrolet-powered All Star Tire Anglia as he makes another typical wheels-up launch off the line at Lions Drag Strip. I am not sure of the exact date of this photo, but it must be 1971 or 1972 as there is an NHRA sign in the background (prior to this time, Lions was an AHRA track). This car was an extremely hard-running bracket car and was at Lions every Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, almost without exception! I, too, spent a lot of time there and occasionally had my Nikon FTN camera with a 50-300mm zoom lens with me when my car was undergoing some periodic maintenance or update. The things that I have always liked about this photo are the front end being carried in the air, the rear tires slightly distorted from the forward launch thrust, and one can almost see the cool, calm, relaxed expression on Carl’s face as he drives his car down the track."

"This is Ted Wells' 1954 Ford. This car was unique. I raced with Ted from about 1969 until 1974. Ted was the shop foreman at Larry Orfia's Valley Head Service (in Tarzana, Calif., two doors down from Frank Huszar's Race Car Specialties shop). I spent a lot of time hanging around VHS and RCS in those days, much to the detriment of my college education. Ted’s car was originally powered by a 352-cubic-inch big-block Ford. This was later changed to a destroked 427 big-block Ford; actual displacement was 396 cubic inches. Ted was a master machinist and fabricated a lot of the parts on this car. He fabricated a custom aluminum tunnel ram intake manifold simply because at the time there were none available for a big-block Ford and partly because he liked a challenge. He also molded the entire fiberglass front end himself. This car weighed in excess of 3,800 pounds. It would launch so hard that it literally would pull the pinion carrier out of the third member on the 9-inch Ford rear end. To fix this problem, rather than changing to a Dana rear end (which was in vogue at that time), Ted fabricated a custom third member out of 4130 steel plate that he welded and machined himself as there were not any other options available to be purchased if you wanted to run a 9-inch Ford rear end back then. He also ran a Ford top loader 4-speed transmission that he had modified to the point where he NEVER missed a gear-change shift! This car ran consistently 10.70s, which was very fast for that era. In 1974, Ted was working on building a Super Stock 427 Fairlane, although I am not sure if he ever completed this project as he moved to Wichita, Kan., and I lost contact with him."

 

Nielsen knows that I have a soft spot for supercharged Opels after my short stint behind the wheel of Frank and Linda Mazi's BB/A in 1984, so he included this great shot of the Herrera and Sons AA/GS Opel, taken during one of the Sunday events at Lions. Bitchin'.

Nielsen could not resist including his own first car in this piece; of course, the photo was not taken by him (that would be some feat, eh?). I love the pic for its snapshot-in-time view of the Irwindale starting line and snack bar. Although the track is long gone, the road in the background that goes over the 210 freeway still pretty much looks the same, and I shed a tear every time I drive on it. Said Nielsen, "My car first car was a 1963 Ford Falcon powered by a 260-cubic-inch small-block Ford engine. It had a B&M Hydromatic transmission. This transmission had a 4.05 1st gear, and coupled with the 5.43 rear end, it launched real well and would rev way past 8 grand if I was not quick on the 1-2 shift (this was before I installed a rev limiter that I designed and built myself). I also modified the distributor so that it would retard the timing when I shifted into high gear. This car was much more competitive in the AHRA than in the NHRA as I held a number of AHRA national records, including the H/Stock Automatic record at 12.97 seconds and 109.35 mph in 1969. I did mange to hold the Irwindale D/Modified Production class record, which allowed me to participate in their annual Grand Prix race, and the OCIR D/Modified Production class record. I also held track class records at San Fernando Raceway, Beeline (Phoenix), and Fremont."

"Tom Nicklin & Sons Outcast. Being a Ford racer, I was always somewhat partial to other Fords. Anyone could make a Chevrolet run, but it took real heart and dedication to make a Ford run (some might add stupidity to that also). This car had a fuel-injected big-block Ford in it; I think it was a 427, but I might be wrong. This was another of the many cars that was at Lions every Saturday night and Sunday afternoon."

Nielsen took this photo in November 1970 in the pits at the inaugural NHRA Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway of Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins adjusting the valve lash on his Pro Stock Camaro. He said, "What I find rather unique about this photo is the total lack of ‘secrecy’ that is displayed by Pro Stock teams today. No trying to hide anything that is ‘under the hood’ that might give up some advantage you may have over the competition, unlike Bob Glidden when he crashed his Thunderbird and the first thing he did when he crawled out was take his jacket off and cover up the intake. I also like the duct tape being used to hold the beat-up plates on top of the carburetors. And if one looks closely at the interior, you can see that there are still some of the original factory door panels and interior parts in place – unlike today’s hand-fabricated from-scratch Pro Stock cars where nothing is stock anymore!"

Another pit shot from the 1970 Supernationals; this one shows Jim Stevens’ B/Street Roadster, which took Modified honors at the event. The car was powered by a fuel-injected Ford Boss 302. Stevens was a full-time Los Angeles County firefighter.

And yet another pit shot from Ontario, this time of the famed Marcellus & Borsch Winged Express AA/Fuel Altered. That's the wild man himself, "Wild Willie" Borsch, having a smoke. "I loved – and still do love – the fuel altereds," said Nielsen. "One never knew exactly which direction these short-wheelbased cars might actually go. They definitely were exciting to watch run and I suspect even more exciting to drive!"

Wally Parks always told me that everyone loves a good engine shot, and this one will make a believer out of you. Again from the 1970 Supernationals, this is the Boss 429 Ford Maverick in Dick Brannan’s Pro Stocker. "The Holley carburetors on this engine setup are inline – not crosswise – making them really difficult to rejet!" pointed out Nielsen. "Also, the magnesium valve covers are starting to look like they could have used a little TLC." Quite a far cry from today's Pro Stock engines for sure!

 

OK, race fans, that's it for the day. I hope you enjoyed the little non-nitro side trip down Memory Lane. I'm sure there are dozens of Lions denizens out there who fondly remember these cars, and I think they make for an interesting collection of early iron.

See ya next week.
 

This and that ...Wednesday, February 03, 2010
Posted by: Phil Burgess

First things first: I'd like to welcome World Products aboard as the presenting sponsor of DRAGSTER Insider. Bill Mitchell, whose name should be familiar to anyone who has been around drag racing the last four decades, created World Products in 1987, kicking it off with the now-legendary Dart II (now Sportsman II) cylinder head, an affordable cast-iron head for the small-block Chevrolet that delivered impressive performance gains. The head was an instant success and was named Product of the Year in 1988 by Hot Rod magazine.

From that point, Mitchell, who is pictured at right in the photo here, and his team of engineers created other Chevy-oriented masterpieces such as the Merlin line of cylinder heads and engine blocks and now intake manifolds. No one-trick pony, World then wowed the Ford crowd with its Man O’War replacement block for 302/351 engines, and Mopar lovers could look to World for enhanced versions of aluminum Hemi and Wedge engine blocks.

World also went back to its Chevy roots and introduced the Motown line of cast-iron and aluminum blocks and heads for the small-block Chevy. The company also recently launched its Warhawk line of replacement blocks and cylinder heads for GM’s LS1/LS7 and C5R offerings.

Check them out here, and tell them thank you!
 



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It was a packed house at the Parks NHRA Museum for Dick Wells' service.
 
Given the number of people whom he touched and the many causes that Dick Wells championed, Monday's Celebration of Life service for the NHRA board member and aftermarket icon who passed away two weeks ago Monday was, not surprisingly, a packed-house affair at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum presented by the Automobile Club of Southern California.

Emceed by NHRA great Dave "Big Mac" McClelland, the 90-minute salute was filled with laughter and remembrances of Wells, who also served as National DRAGSTER's first editor. "There was nobody who enjoyed what he did more than Dick Wells," "Mac" told us, and it was clear that many people enjoyed their time with Wells and many who benefited greatly from it.

NHRA employees present and past turned out to show their respect for Wells, led by Board Chairman Dallas Gardner, President Tom Compton, Executive Vice President/General Manager Peter Clifford, Senior Vice President-Racing Operations Graham Light, and every vice president who was in town. I saw a lot of old NHRA friends who had known Wells since he joined the board in 1979.

Industrywise, it was an all-star turnout, especially from among Wells' friends and co-workers at SEMA, including President/CEO Chris Kersting, Board member and President of Street Scene Equipment Mike Spagnola, and Trade Shows Director Gary Vigil. Also in the crowd were well-known figures such as longtime NHRA friend, supporter, and Museum board member Alex Xydias; legendary car builder Carroll Shelby; Tom McKernan and Rick Lalor of the Automobile Club of Southern California; LA Roadsters founding member Jack Stewart; “Speedy” Bill Smith (for whom Wells had worked before leaving Nebraska for his job with NHRA); Jim Adolph; Bob DeVour; Bill Holland; Roland Leong; and Linda Vaughn, just to name a few.

Many of the above-named also spoke, sharing funny Wells stories and remembrances, honoring a guy who loved good humor with much of the same. Many of them knew Wells for more than three decades and spoke from the heart about their admiration for and kinship with Wells.

Compton closed the service with a story about his young daughter, Rachel, whom Wells had "babysat" for hours in the NHRA suite in Pomona while her dad was having one of those million-miles-per-hour days. When Compton told her two weeks ago about Wells' passing, she was heartbroken and told him, "He was such a nice man." Amen.

If you're going to the Kragen O'Reilly NHRA Winternationals presented by Valvoline and you knew Wells, a special tribute is planned for him Sunday that you won't want to miss.

When I left you last Thursday, the National DRAGSTER staff was heading into our meeting to somehow construct an impossible list of Top 10s of our sport. Even with 10 lists on tap to construct, I somehow imagined that our 9 a.m. start would lead to a conclusion around noon, but when the first list – Top 10 cars, which I thought was going to be one of the easiest – took nearly an hour to agree on, I knew we were in trouble.

We didn't wrap until well after 4 p.m., and even though consensus on all 10 was finally reached, there were some sore feelings about cars or crew chiefs or drivers that didn't make the top 10 cut or didn't end up ranked as high as one or more of us might have believed they should have been.

We'll present our lists in Issue 5, the one between the Winternationals preview and the results issue. I'm tackling the write-up on Top 10 Upsets and Top 10 National Events. The lists are controversial for sure, and we're already bracing ourselves for the "How could you leave (fill in the blank) off that list?" kind of responses.


Is it time for the Winternationals yet? The clock on the home page shows seven days, which isn’t many considering that we began the countdown with 70-something just after the Finals in November, but still … eight days? Man, I can hardly wait. We're all anxiously scanning the extended weather forecast and hoping that we don't have a repeat of last year's rain-marred event. We're expecting rain later this week and some early next week, but I think the race will be fine.

We're putting the finishing touches on the Winternationals preview issue. My print nostalgia column has more great memories of "T.V. Tommy" Ivo, who recalls his historic (but painful) eight-second blast in Pomona, as well as Lori Johns' look back at her 1990 Pomona win. It's also our annual season preview, which includes a class-by-class look at the year ahead and so much more.

Our Winternationals Memorable Moments list is down to the top five, which will be revealed next week leading up to the big moment during Sunday's pre-race ceremony, where the top moment will be unveiled. Looking at the list of Nos. 6-25, I was surprised that moments such as Robert Hight's comeback victory of just four years ago – in which he just about burned his Auto Club Mustang to the ground in round two but came back and won the race – finished higher than almost mythical moments such as the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" of 1981 or the Hawaiian Funny Car taking flight in the lights in 1969.

In fact, two of the top 10 moments are from the 2000s, and every decade is represented in the top 10, which speaks volumes about the consistently great nature of the racing at the annual season opener.

Eager in the interim for some kind of motorsports competition, I took the kids and my 2-year-old grandson, Trevor, to Monster Jam at Angel Stadium in Anaheim Saturday. The little guy – like most little guys – just loves them monster trucks, and he wasn't alone. They put on a pretty good show – nothing like the sound and fury of a drag race, though – and I always try to observe how "the other guys" do their thing compared to the NHRA Big Show. I know that my fellow NHRA decision-makers do the same wherever they go, and it's interesting to compare notes. How was the pre-race ceremony? What did they do to fill any downtime? Were the sponsor mentions too egregious? How was the sound level of the PA? Did the drivers interact with the fans? Did the fans seem excited? How was parking? Ticket control? The list goes on and on. It's probably not something you’d even think about unless you also were in the biz, but try it next time from a fan perspective. There are a lot of differences but also a lot of similarities.

It's pretty clear, too, that the iconic Grave Digger is the John Force of their world. Even the mere mention of the name brought cheers from the crowd, especially from the under-10 set, including T-Rev. Even though it was Pablo Huffaker and not Dennis Anderson behind the wheel of the familiar black and green '50 Chevy panel truck (did you know that seven Digger drivers travel the circuit to ensure a Grave Digger at every major event?), you wouldn’t have known it by the cheers. He got smoked in the first round of the racing competition and came back determined to wow everyone in the freestyle portion. He was (predictably) the last to run and blew the right-front tire after a monster jump but kept the hammer down and ended up flipping end over end trying to make a jump on three wheels. Kinda reminded me of Force in the 1992 Dallas final.

Good stuff and a lotta fun, but I'll stick with drag racing.
 

From the Too-Good-To-Be-True Department: We started getting word here yesterday that Don Prudhomme had signed a last-minute deal to salvage his season and "un retire" with a return in Gainesville, but, sadly, tisn't true. Talked to Snake Racing General Manager Skip Allum on the phone this morning, who confirmed that although he has also been hearing the same rumors, that's all they are.

I can’t tell you how much I would have loved to have had "Snake" pull a Mark Twain ("The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated"), even after publishing our huge tribute issue to him two weeks ago, but, for now, "the Snake" remains in hibernation. I just hope that he remembers Don Garlits' famous quote, "Retiring is easy; I've done it dozens of times," and that fellow heroes such as Kenny Bernstein and Warren Johnson changed their minds, too, after hanging up their gloves.

I know y'all have been itching for more nostalgic stuff, so I'm proud to announce: Coming later this week --The Return of Fan Fotos!

See ya then.
 

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