Presto! Conjuring up 'the Wizard'Friday, November 06, 2009
Posted by: Phil Burgess

NHRA is often generous in providing a few extra days off for its employees throughout the year in short, fallow places in the schedule between races to give everyone a much-needed breather, but because of National DRAGSTER's inflexible publishing schedule, we're often not on the same schedule as the HQ building. Today is supposed to be one of those "floating holidays" at National DRAGSTER, and my peeps here have a three-day weekend to recharge their batteries for the upcoming season-ending Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals.

So, today, I'm alone in the Publications building, not to be a martyr or anything but to take advantage of the peace and quiet of a dark and empty office to catch up on some stuff. Project No. 1 is to complete a bunch of writing for the special Web site we'll be launching in the next few weeks in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the Winternationals. As I may have mentioned here, we're also producing a wonderful book to memorialize the special event, chock-full of great old photos, features, and a year-by-year recap of every Winternationals. It should be available before Christmas (stocking stuffer!).

To avoid duplicating the contents of the book on the Web, most notably the recaps and the scores of great photos, the Web site will have a different feel and original content. One of the key elements will be to take advantage of the multimedia potential of the Internet by showcasing a large number of historic Winternationals video clips. It's going to be pretty cool but a lot of work, so I'd better get cracking.

Although I have a full plate, I didn’t want to leave y'all with nothing today (another reason I came in), and I wanted to share what has become a pretty typical thing with this column, and one of the things of which I am most proud. In Tuesday's Fan Fotos edition from Mark Collins, we had a shot of Bennie "the Wizard" Osborn, and Mark wondered what had become of Osborn. Naturally, the Insider Nation was all over it.

One of the first e-mails I got was from Bennie's son, Tony, who assured me that his dad was still very much around and kicking and even enclosed these photos.

"I'm very proud to inform you that my father is doing just fine," he wrote. "He still lives in Sand Springs, Okla., and continues to do mechanic work at his own pace. We have been reliving the past a lot here lately. The championship car that you mentioned for sale was purchased by a gentleman from Tulsa and had it delivered to Dad's shop for a complete AUTHENTIC restoration. Plans are to have the car ready for Bakersfield March 2010 Cacklefest. The WIZARD was at the Hot Rod Reunion in Bakersfield a couple of weeks ago and actually cackled Raymond Godman's Tennessee Bo-Weevil car."

The top photo shows "the Wizard," in the blue and gray striped shirt, with the championship car at a car show on Halloween put on by The Hot Rod Shop in honor of The Tulsa Timing Association. I hope to have a more in-depth look at "the Wizard's" career in a future column.

Our good friend Glenn Menard, president of Texas Motorplex who also maintains the www.division4halloffame.com Web site – Osborn, naturally, is a member of that Hall of Fame -- sent me a link to some great Osborn photos that the man himself had submitted for that site. You can find them here.

Gary Osborn (no relation to Bennie), whose dad ran blown gas dragsters in the 1960s before he partnered with the Sewells and won the 1980 Cajun Nationals with A.J. Seruntine driving, dropped me a note and this photo, which shows Osborn at the Holley NHRA National Hot Rod Reunion in Bowling Green, Ky. Gary was there with Dick Venables, whose front-engine dragster had been restored and is now owned by Rip Wiley. In the photo, from left, are Wiley, Venables, Osborn, and Dick's son, current Al-Anabi Funny Car tuner Dickie.

Tulsan Brian Vermillion, who has an interesting history with Osborn, shared his "Wizard" tale in an e-mail: "Bennie Osborn is alive and well, still living in Sand Springs, in the same house he lived in 40 years ago. He gave up racing in the mid- '70s after his second rear-engine dragster crash and opened up a successful transmission-repair business in his old dragster shop in his backyard.

"I got to interview Bennie at his house over 40 years ago for an eighth-grade speech-class project. Since he was my hero back then, I chose him. He was finishing up his brand-new car for the 1969 season -- I believe it was a Woody Gilmore car -- and I got to sit in it and check things out. For a 14-year-old kid who was ate up with drag racing, it was definitely the thrill of a lifetime. A friend of mine, who is close friends with Bennie, told him this story of me interviewing him, and he remembered me. He even autographed the PR handout that he gave me over 40 years ago, and it still thrilled me today to get it.

National DRAGSTER has a great photo file on the two-time champ, but I especially like this 1970 photo of "the Wizard" enjoying some fine reading material.

"You spoke of the 1967 World Finals. I remember being there with my dad that weekend. I had just turned 12, and the drags were my birthday present. The final AA/FD round almost didn't get run. The skies were as black as I had ever seen them, and it just started to sprinkle as they were beginning to stage. Tree goes green, Bennie gets a slight holeshot and carried it through to the lights. But what I remember was that as soon as the chutes were out (they hadn't even got to the turnoff yet), the skies opened up, and the most godforsaken downpour hit, flooding the track, parking lot (which was a dirt field before the rain), and everything else. But hell, when you are 12, who cares!"

Added Barry Lester, "I live about 20 miles away and pass there almost every weekend and always look over and think I should go see him but never have. I picked up the phone and called him and told him that people were wanting to know where he was. We had a great visit, told him in 1967 he came to Amarillo to race 'Big Daddy.' My buddy and I were staying in the Cowboy motel on Saturday night and going to the races on Sunday. When they pulled that AA/FD in the motel on a flatbed trailer, I almost died! I was over there in a second and was lucky enough to be able to help the mechanic pull the panels off and drop the pan and change oil, which was milky; bored a little to close to the jacket water, he said.
"I asked Bennie if it was OK for me to e-mail you; he said, 'Tell them not to send flowers, I am still alive and in the same place.' "

One other quick note on the Texas Fan Fotos: I got a phone call from Gary Clark and an e-mail from Vince Long, who ID'd the car being push-started at Green Valley as belonging to the famed Oklahoma City-based Smith Bros., Frank and Charlie. Charlie drove the famed Plain Vanilla roadster that swept all national event honors in 1964 by winning both the Winternationals and U.S. Nationals, so this probably was Frank in the car, which had a T roadster rather than a Bantam.

Enjoy your weekend; I'll see you next week.

Fan Fotos, Texas-style!Tuesday, November 03, 2009
Posted by: Phil Burgess
Mark Collins now (above) and then (below), shown at right with partner Ralph Lewis in 1975.

Welcome back to Fan Fotos, shots from the private collections of fans everywhere. We're not talking pretty photos taken from the guardrail, but rather those gritty, lightpole-in-the-way, some-guy's-head-in-the-shot images that somehow better reflect our regular treks to the digs.

Today, we reach deep into the heart o' Texas for 10 great shots from Mark Collins of Dallas. Mark started going to the drags in 1964 while in high school. His older brother, Eddie, had been going to the drags at Green Valley Raceway, north of Fort Worth, with his buddies.

"I had been reading all the hot rod magazines and wanted to go check out drag racing, but being the little brother, it was a while before I was allowed to tag along with big brother and his buddies," he said. "That first Saturday night at Green Valley, I was hooked. Thereafter, I must have been at Green Valley Raceway every time they opened the gates. I could not get enough drag racing. The smells, the sounds, the competition, all of it, captured my imagination. I began taking pictures at the races with a six-dollar camera I had had since elementary school. As soon as I could get the film developed, I shared the pictures with my amazed friends at school.

"When I witnessed my first Top Fuel dragster, I thought that nitromethane was the most insane thing I had ever witnessed. The visual and visceral experience was astounding. The fact that the fans could walk right up to the cars and drivers in the pits had great appeal to me. It was easy to rub shoulders with the heroes I watched on the track. It didn't matter if it was a guy from the local gas station or 'Big' himself. Of course, I never really did talk to Garlits because he was too famous. I felt certain he would not be enlightened by a geeky high school kid. Even so, I had a strong desire to get into the driver's seat someday."

In the 1970s, Mark began driving a '23-T Ford roadster with a flathead V-8 built by his friend Ralph Lewis. "Those 12-second e.t.s weren't Top Fueler-type runs, but I was finally burnin' up the strip. We subsequently built a C/D for Competition eliminator and a AA/DA competing in Pro Comp with moderate success. I will always remember the first time we drove into the participant's entrance under the 1974 Winternationals banner. It was hallowed drag racing ground. I felt like I was participating in something special. There we were, just some unknown guys from Texas with a desire to compete on the national level. I'm sure that was the case with many of the other racers, too. Win or lose, I always loved going to the races. I'm still hooked even though I'm only spectating these days."

Here are Mark's 10 favorite Fan Fotos.

According to Mark, this cool image of Shirley Muldowney's Funny Car on a ramp truck was taken at Dallas Int'l Motor Speedway (DIMS) during the Springnationals, which would make it late 1971.

Although Muldowney ran almost exclusively in Mustang-bodied floppers (due, no doubt, to crew chief Connie Kalitta's long-running association with Ford), she ran this Plymouth Barracuda at the end of the season after burning up her Bounty Huntress Mustang in a fire at Dragway 42 in Ohio. The car was a loaner from Don Schumacher, one of his former Stardust entries. I couldn't find out which car it was -- whether it was one "the Shoe" himself drove or one of his team cars -- but Muldowney proudly claims that she got it to run both quicker and faster than it did for the Schumacher team.

When I first opened the image at right from Mark's e-mail, I was thoroughly puzzled. This didn't look like any kind of drag racing shot I'd ever seen, fan or otherwise. Mark calls this somewhat humorous photo "Duck," and once he explained it to me, it made sense. "This image was taken in April 1973 at a Top Fuel meet at DIMS. The point of view is from the hot-car push-start lanes at about the 1,000-foot mark of the track. A Top Fuel car had just detonated uptrack, out of sight of the camera. We could see parts in the air, so everybody was ducking for cover. In the seconds following, little pieces rained down, luckily with no injuries. I think the guy pictured worked at the track." Been there, done that.

More than 25 years after Mark snapped this early-1970s photo, Chris "the Golden Greek" Karamesines is still racing. Mark captured the legendary Top Fuel driver checking the spark plugs between rounds, which, in the era before onboard data computers, was part of how these cars were tuned. And, of course, in the days when the teams weren't working in a narrow valley created by a pair of tractor trailers, you could walk right up and snap a great photo like this.

"That full head of hair was still dark in those days," noted Mark. "I remember taking a few photos and getting the evil eye from 'the Greek.' I suppose he didn't like his photo taken. Take note of height and size of the rear wing. No shade, no awnings, and no power tools. And no teardown between rounds. If the plugs look OK, just pour some more nitro in the tank and go again."

Here's a definite "how it was" moment. The photo border on this antique reads "May 1965" and shows a car in full push-start mode at Green Valley. "The car is a Bantam body on a dragster chassis," he noted. "This Oklahoma car (owner unknown) ran in A/Competition class in Competition eliminator or Little eliminator. The hot car 'loop' for push-start cars at Green Valley Raceway was typical of most dragstrips of the era. The loop was where the fuelers and altereds came roaring to life in front of pickups and station wagons. It was a few more years before I was push-started down this same road in a C/Dragster. What a thrill when that engine came to life!" Lamented Mark, "I wish I had a dollar for every time I was at Green Valley in the '60s."

Here's another photo from that same May 1965 meet at Green Valley. "This was a Top Fuel meet with a 32-car field," he recalled. "In those days, 32- and even 64-car Top Fuel fields were not unusual. This is the intimidating Vance Hunt fueler. Hunt was a great tuner who always had excellent drivers, Watus Simpson among them. It appears that tiny pressure tank in front wouldn't hold enough fuel for a warm-up in modern fuelers. I recently spoke to Vance at the O'Reilly Fall Nationals at Ennis. He amazed me with the wealth of information he possessed about the current Top Fuel scene. It's always great to see some of the legendary figures of drag racing."

In addition to the aforementioned Simpson, Hunt employed the likes of Ted Arnold, Gary Bailey, Jerry Ellis, J.L. Payne, and some guy you've probably heard of, a young Texan named Kenny Bernstein, who I understand went on to a fair degree of success after his 1966 stint with Hunt. If DragList is correct, this would have been Ellis' ride, which was a Don Garlits chassis.

Mark snapped this photo in April 1973 at DIMS as Bennie "the Wizard" Osborn was climbing into his new rear-engine Top Fueler in the staging lanes. In his slingshot, the Sand Springs, Okla., racer won back-to-back NHRA world championships in 1967 and 1968 at his hometrack in Tulsa, back when the Finals winner was crowned the season champ. Osborn, who never won an NHRA national event away from Tulsa, put it to the big boys in the final at both of those races, beating none other than Don Prudhomme in 1976 and John Mulligan in 1968, denying both what would have been their first world titles.

"Bennie was testing his first rear-engined Top Fueler he built over the winter," recalled Mark. "He simultaneously built the front-engined C/Dragster for my partner Ralph Lewis, which I drove. In fact, he delivered the chassis on this trip, strapping it on the top of his enclosed trailer for the trip from Oklahoma to Texas. I think it was early the following year that 'the Wizard' went on his head in this car in a blowover close to the finish line, and the roll cage kept him from injury. Note the absence of a rear wing. I don't remember why he only had a front-axle wing. Does anyone out there know his status? I do recall that Bennie never cursed that I know of. When someone made him angry, he would call them a 'stinker.' He was always a real gentleman."

I don't know what has become of Osborn, but I know that his championship-winning Top Fueler is still out there; Prudhomme called me a few weeks ago to verify the results of that 1967 Finals because he had somebody trying to sell him the car. Funny, he didn't remember losing that final round. I guess when you've been in as many finals as "the Snake," it's hard to remember any one of them, especially one 42 years ago. Anyone know what became of "the Wizard"?

"Obviously one of the most unique dragsters in history, the Herm Petersen streamliner," noted Mark. "This image is at the 1974 Winternationals. This was my first national event as a participant. Although I didn't qualify in Competition eliminator, I did get to see many of the stars of the sport I had never seen and checked out the California culture."

This great-looking Can Am-inspired Top Fueler of Petersen and partner Sam Fitz made its debut in Pomona that year; the Woody Gilmore-built piece featured a swing-open back deck for easy access to the engine, but, more important, it marked Petersen's return to the cockpit after a horrible crash and fire at Orange County Int’l Raceway the previous July. Petersen was terribly burned – he had second- and third-degree burns over more than 50 percent of his body -- after an axle broke and his dragster overturned. Petersen spent three months in the hospital and almost died twice, but he persevered through the pain and skin-graft operations to bravely return to the cockpit in Pomona. Close friend Denny Bale was quoted in the Kitsap Sun newspaper a few years ago: "We had to lift him in and out of the car. His fingers were all fused. He couldn't hang on to things it hurt him so bad. At the end of a run, he'd have tears in his eyes, the pain was so bad."

Petersen is still out there, a fixture at nostalgia events and the coordinator of a decibel-busting cacklefest contest.

Here's another image from the 1974 Winternationals. You don't have to be a very serious dragstrip scholar to know it's Pomona from the snow-capped mountains in the background of this staging-lanes pic. "My subject was the injected A/D in the foreground that belonged to Jerry and Penny Dorman," he noted. "I thought it was the most beautiful dragster I had ever seen. Everything about it was flawless. It just so happened that Veney's Vega was in the background. Both cars ran in the Pro Comp classification before it split into the Alcohol Dragster and Alcohol Funny Car categories."


The Kuhl & Olson Da Revell Fast Guys model was the first large-scale (1/16th) Revell model I ever built (it even came with a Carl Olson figure!), so this photo of Mark's, which he says is from Amarillo in 1974, was special to me, too.

"The K&O team were hard runners and had a state-of-the-art trailer," remembered Mark. "It looks downright spartan compared to the pit layouts of today's Pro teams. Just having an onboard water tank was high tech in those days. Mike Kuhl could make it run fast, and Carl Olson was quick and straight down the strip. Take note of the spare engine door above the trailer fender."

I had the pleasure of working with C.O. for many years here at NHRA, and we have stayed in touch. He's a fan of the column (even the ones that don't include him) and a true hero.

And finally, this rather … um … unusually composed (and self-congratulatory!) photo shows driver Joe Monden and the Lewis-owned Foolish Pleasure Alcohol Dragster on which Mark worked in the pit area at the onetime home of the NHRA Cajun Nationals. "I took this photo when we won the Winston Championship Series race in Baton Rouge [La.] in 1976," reported Mark. "Joe is currently a very successful chassis builder and Top Alcohol crew chief working out of Gainesville, Texas. There are quite a lot of Monden chassis running in the Lucas Oil Series."

This car is sometimes incorrectly listed as Fuelish Pleasure, which was actually an A/Fuel Dragster out of Dallas owned by Charles Tunnell; looking at the full-sized pic, it's obvious this is with two o's. The Fuelish Pleasure moniker also was used by Washington state Alcohol Funny Car racer John Hughes and, more famously, by Gary Clapshaw on his strong-running nitro Funny Cars in the 1990s.

"We used the name Foolish Pleasure, which was the name of a famous race horse in the news in those years," Mark explained.

OK, race fans, that's another healthy dose of fan-tastic fotos. Thanks to Mark for playing; he'll receive the home version of our game (well, not really) and our undying thanks (really). I've really been overwhelmed by the response from y'all (keeping in the Texas theme of today's column), and I have plenty more where these came from. I've mentioned it before, but these types of photos, locked away in attics and dusty old photo albums for decades, might well be the last treasure trove from those golden days of racing, and I can tell you that the faithful out here would love to see yours.

See ya later this week.


This and thatFriday, October 30, 2009
Posted by: Phil Burgess

In anticipation of tomorrow's All Hallows' Eve, today's DRAGSTER Insider offers a mixed bag o' tricks … my treat to you. It's a mix of fond memories and a dash of this and that. And away we go ...

If there's one thing other than death and taxes that one can count on in this world, it's that everyone loves an underdog. For many of us who have been around this sport for a while, Tom Baum was loved. I've rooted passionately for other underdogs in my day – Rodney Flournoy, for example – but "the Bomber" was someone you couldn't not root for.

The Midwest dragster veteran passed away Tuesday, of congestive heart failure at the age of 67, and there'has been a touching outpouring of sentimentality about his loss that outstrips that of other, brighter lights who have preceded him to that Great Dragstrip in the sky.

I first found out about his passing from his nephew, Bill, who summed up his uncle this way: "Not a lot of success on the track but had more friends than anyone else I knew."

While it's debatable that he didn’t have a lot of success on the track – he was a regular in the UDRA top 10 and won the Olympics of Drag Racing in 1988 over a pretty good field -- there doesn’t seem to be any debating his second point.

"The Bomber," at his home away from home: Great Lakes Dragaway
I first met Tom Baum at the 1983 SPORTSnationals at Indy, where he was driving the Lloyd & Co. dragster. It was my first on-the-road race working for National DRAGSTER, and he obliged me with this nice wheelstand. Thanks, Tom!
Mark Bruederle sent me these five pics; Kepner says that MB has the world's largest collection of Tom Baum photos. I believe him!

Our ol' pal Bret Kepner, one of the Midwest's most notorious drag denizens, shared his thoughts, and probably the thoughts of many who knew "the Bomber," in this tribute.

It's a sad day for fans of the underdogs in the sport. As much as he was a determined drag racer, he was a true character. His personality always shown through even when things were worst. He was excited to wake up every morning as long as there was a race car in his garage. He could be hilarious, intense, or nearly nuts, but he was always a friend to anybody ... including those who'd never met him. 
"The Bomber" was one of the only individuals who made a living racing on the UDRA circuit through the 1970s and 1980s. He pushed his homebuilt engines to the absolute limit on nearly every run and, by his own admission, he blew up a lot of stuff. Still, when he'd saved up enough money, he would hit the road for the nearest AHRA, IHRA, or NHRA national event and give it a shot. He was a fixture at NHRA WCS events in Divisions 3 and 5 and booked himself for match races against anything including jets, Funny Cars, and fuelers.
Routinely, he would finish in the top 10 point standings in UDRA competition. At one time, he was the quickest driver in history at the wheel of a cast-iron Chevy blown Alcohol Dragster. His greatest moment, however, came when he won the overall TAD title in the grueling Olympics of Drag Racing at Great Lakes Dragaway in Union Grove, Wis., in 1988. He considered "the Grove" his home track and had a truly massive following there. Track owner "Broadway Bob" Metzler had a special place in his heart for Baum, who once crashed his first front-engined dragster off Metzler's property in 1960.
The Olympics featured category-specific competition for the first two of its four days but always deteriorated into a free-for-all for its last two days. In those final 48 hours, any and all pairings occurred, but the racers still battled for points to determine the overall championship. On the final day of the '88 event, "the Bomber" beat UDRA and Olympics kingpin Tony Zizzo, multi-time UDRA world champ Hal Canode, NHRA national champion Al DaPozzo, and the short-wheelbased Top Fueler of "Diamond Dave" Miller to win his biggest title. It was one of the few times "the Bomber" was ever publicly overcome by emotion.
During the 1991 Olympics at "the Grove," Baum barrel-rolled his Fel-Pro Gaskets Xecutioner four times on the first day of the event. He was battered and bruised but loaded the remains of the car into his ancient homemade trailer and headed back to his garage. Twenty-four hours later, he returned to the track and unloaded the same car, rebuilt by Baum alone, and continued to compete in the event.
It seemed everybody in drag racing knew him. He was a phenomenal promoter of his own racing team and often displayed his car for charitable organizations free of charge, feeling the "good karma" would come back to him someday. He was the kind of guy you couldn't dislike, even if he had just oiled the left lane from starting line to turnoff with an engine even he knew shouldn't have even been able to fire. He raced hard, drove all night to make an event the next day in another state, unloaded, and raced hard again. He laughed when he lost in the first round and was still smiling when he headed out the gate for an all-night drive home. He was as hard core as they will ever come. Tom Baum was one of a kind.

Jody Schmeisser, a fellow Illini of Baum and a longtime Super-class racer and owner of Pit Pal Products, shared his thoughts with me as well.

Anybody who had an opportunity to ever cross Tom Baum’s path would forever remember Tom as a great-spirited, warmhearted individual. He was known nationwide in the motorsports industry for his support and his character. If you ever had the time to talk to Tom, you would acknowledge that Tom was very intelligent and on top of current affairs. Tom had a sense of humor that can never be replaced; he could one-line you and clearly stop you for a minute because you were in pain from laughing so hard.

Tom spent his entire life in the drag racing community and was known and respected throughout the United States. Tom raced several different types of cars through his racing career. One of Tom’s biggest accomplishments was the first Chevrolet steel-block Alcohol Dragster to break the 200-mph barrier at the inaugural Joliet national event in his hometown Chicago with his famous Xecutioner race car. From the late '70s to late '80s, Tom was in charge of the NHRA display booth that was part of the major showcase in the famous Chicago new-car automobile show that would bring close to a million people in attendance. Tom would carefully pick some of the nation's top drag race cars (including his own) to display for fans and attendees to appreciate. Tom would prepare for months to attend these events and spend 14- to 18-hour days just trying to answer any questions to the best of his knowledge at these shows. He was always a true gentlemen and fun guy to communicate with. He always could bring the best out of anybody. Tom had a special way to always find out how you were doing and really listen. Tom had been a very special person to many people in his life to always help with no obligations in return. Tom will be well-missed forever.

As sad as we are to mourn Baum's passing, his nephew did assure me that "a lot of my schtick is based on 'the Bomber,' so in a small way, he will live on." Good news!

Hey, if you're a fan of good ol' Orange County Int'l Raceway (and who isn't?), if you're on Facebook (and who isn't?), a cool new group has been created that allows racers and fans to share their precious memories (and, best of all, their photos) from "the County."

The Memories of O.C.I.R. group has nearly 200 fans already and about 100 photos of varying quality and content (including some sweet pics from Auto Imagery's Rick Shute). Naturally, there are some fine photos of nitro cars, but also a lot of the bracket and other door cars that made their home there, including many early Pro Gassers. It's great stuff.

You'll see some pretty familiar names among the group's fans, including Roland Leong ("Good, bad and wild times but what memories. Crashed some cars but also won some races."), Roger Gustin, "Jungle Pam" Hardy, Gordie Bonin, Don Moody, Dean Skuza, Della Woods, Vic Edelbrock, Jon Lundberg, and many others. Come join the fun!


Former Funny Car owner and driver Jim Wemett, whose cars have been featured in past columns here, passed along this great shot of a current-day him, behind the wheel of his latest ride (a boat), which he's dry-docking for the winter. "Took boat out of the water today," he wrote me. "40 degrees in N.Y."

And how do ex-racers stay warm in those cool climes? Wemett dug out the jacket from his 1980s firesuit, of course. "My kids got a kick out of it," he said. "I knew it was the warmest thing I had."

Fans mostly know of Wemett as a car owner, most memorably of the Wombat Mercury LN-7 driven by Tom Anderson in the early 1980s. That car was an early star of the performance-rich 1982 U.S. Nationals, where Anderson booted it to the first 5.7-second pass by a flopper, a 5.79.at 236.22 on Friday. Don Prudhomme, of course, made that – and every run for several years after – look like last year's news when he rocked Indy with a 5.63 a day later. Wemett, though, also was a driver, wheeling his own cars from 1970 through 1975 before turning the wheel over to George Johnson from1976 to 1979 and Anderson beginning in 1980.


Watching the World Series, I've been intrigued by the Fox Trax stats, which measure a pitch's velocity leaving the hurler's arm and when it arrives at the plate (typically a five-mph decrease), but the stat that got my attention was the time it takes to leave the pitcher's hand and travel the 60.5 feet to the plate. The number, on a 90-mph fastball, was down around .41-second.

Being the drag racing geek that I am, two things immediately came to mind. First, four-tenths of a second in the time between the amber light and the green on our Christmas Tree and a driver's reaction to that accounts for our reaction time stat (which used to express .400 as a perfect light but today is flagged as .000). I know the mechanics of a drag racing reaction tie but wondered what goes on in that four-tenths of a second from a batter's perspective, so I asked the only real ballplayer I know on a first-name basis, former future big-leaguer Bob Wilber, team manager for Tim Wilkerson, who came thisclose to making the bigs. Wilber, as usual, was not at a loss for words.

From everything I hear from Funny Car drivers, I think the act of hitting and act of driving the car are similar in one key way: You make a ton of decisions in a short amount of time, but nearly all of them are learned and instinctive, because you don't have time to think things out.

Basically, those four-tenths of a second it takes a pitch to leave the pitcher's hand and then cross the hitting zone can be broken into two halves. The first two-tenths are all about recognition. You're watching arm angle, arm speed, the way the ball comes out of the pitcher's hand (slightly upward for a breaking ball, and downward for a fastball), and finally spin. The ball might be halfway to the plate before your eyes pick up the spin and your brain processes that into useful information.

The next two-tenths are the execution phase. Your brain has already registered "fastball, outside, good velocity," so now your hips, arms, hands, and eyes all have to coordinate to bring the bat through that exact spot, at precisely the right moment in time, to make contact with the ball. Deception is the pitcher's best tool, so he's trying to make you miss at least one of the judgments you made during the first two-tenths. That's why a good change-up is a brilliant pitch. All the indicators I just mentioned tell your brain "fastball" but the grip is different, and that alone takes 8-10 mph off the pitch. You swing for that fastball, but the ball's not there yet.

Great velocity will also change the methodology. Once you get up into the 96-100-mph range, the pitch is coming so fast you don't have time to see it, register what it is, and then start your swing. You have to start your swing before you've finished the analysis, and then you have to try to adjust as you go. Rule of thumb at the plate: Think fastball, adjust to the curve. If only it was that easy.

All of that happens in four-tenths, and then you have to take that wooden cylinder and make perfect contact with a round ball. Hard enough, even in batting practice, but in the game, there are nine bad guys out there (including the catcher) who are trying to catch what you hit, no matter how perfectly you hit it. No wonder a 70 percent failure rate will earn you a ticket to Cooperstown! Just talking about it, I wonder how I ever got any hits...

For the record, "Bloggin' Bob" spent six years in professional baseball, first as a player in the Detroit Tigers and Oakland A's organizations, and then as both a minor-league coach and a scouting supervisor for the Toronto Blue Jays, so he knows of which he speaks.

On to part two: The 60-foot thing obviously caught my eye as it's a common place for us to measure acceleration. Seeing as how a good Top Fuel 60-foot time is in the .82 range, can someone please explain to me how it's possible for a baseball to cover 60 feet in .4-second, which is less than half the time it takes a 7,000-horsepower Top Fueler to do the same? I was very much offended. So I did some digging.

Simple math tells us a slightly different story:

An object traveling 90 mph will travel 7,920 feet (1.5 miles!) in 60 seconds. Therefore

7920/60 = 60.5/x
x = .458

So, mathematically at least, it would take an object traveling a constant 90 mph .458-second to travel 60 feet, 6 inches.

Of course, however, no pitcher releases the ball right above the rubber. With their follow-through, the ball probably leaves his hand about five feet closer to the plate. Advantage baseball. Also, although the ball is not constantly at 90 mph, it starts being clocked when it's at its highest velocity (the pitcher's arm is in full motion before the release), and a dragster is going from a dead stop. Advantage baseball. Also, drag racers have to accelerate a 2,250-pound hunk of metal. A baseball weighs about five ounces. Advantage baseball. Still, why does this fact bother me?


And, finally, also in the notable losses column, we join our good pal Billy Meyer in mourning the loss of his dad, the can-do Paul Meyer, who passed away from cancer Monday. He was 81.

Paul was a longtime Waco civic leader, international businessman, and philanthropist, but race fans will recognize the name of one of his endeavors, the  Success Motivation Institute, which was branded on some of Billy Meyer's cars in the 1970s. It was the company that his father founded that instilled a basic mantra (if memory serves me) of "Whatever you vividly imagine, ardently desire, sincerely believe, and enthusiastically act upon must inevitably come to pass."

I'm sure that his son, a successful businessman in his own right, used those guiding philosophies to get to where he is in life, including giving drag racing fans, among other things, the lasting gift that is the Texas Motorplex, featuring a concrete surface that no one had ever built.

According to an online bio, Paul Meyer  also  adopted these words of theologian John Wesley for his own and lived them fully: "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can." Man, I really like that.

He is survived by his wife, Jane, and five children -- Jim, Larry, Billy, Janna, and Leslie -- brother Carl Meyer, and 15 grandchildren. Paul Meyer's life will be celebrated at a memorial service this morning at the arena previously named in his honor at the Baylor University Ferrell Center.

The life and times of Jay HowellTuesday, October 27, 2009
Posted by: Phil Burgess

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."

Previous Entries
Next Entries
  • 2014
  • 2013
  • 2012
  • 2011
  • 2010
  • 2009
  • 2008
  • 2007