Once Upon a Time in Drag Racing
By Stephen Justice

Orangeline

 

There was a time when I owned a substantial amount of memorabilia from what Don Ewald has called "The Golden Age of Drag Racing". However, for a lot of reasons, I was unable to hold onto hardly any of it. There was a complete collection of Drag News, Drag Sport Illustrated, and numerous 8 x 10s from the early great drag photographers like Phil Bellomy, Jim Kelly, Ron Stender, and Dave Shipman. The collection also included time slips from the fabled Lions Drag Strip that had been recorded by the Herbert Cam Spl. owned by Chet Herbert and Lefty Mudersbach. This was a twin-engine inline AA/GD driven by Allen (Lefty's real name) Mudersbach. He "owned" Lions Drag Strip in the later part of 1960 and throughout most of 1961. Chet Herbert was so approachable, that upon request, he would just casually grab the time slips off the dash of the push car and give them up. He even offered up the one from their Standard 1320 record run of 8.54 set in November 1960. But, without a doubt the most treasured item in the collection was a complete inventory of Drag Sport Illustrated newspapers.

When Drag Sport Illustrated was first published (March 1963), the initial offerings were available only at the drag strip. DSI was a highly esteemed publication at the time due to the quality of its photography. Circulation started the week before the Smoker's Meet at Bakersfield and Art Malone and Tommy Ivo graced the cover of Volume One Number 1. It was only after several issues had been released did subscription service start up. For those who don't recall, Art 'The Colonel' Malone would go on to win not only Bakersfield, but the Fremont and Kingdon events as well. Though Drag Sport Illustrated failed to survive the weekly drag racing periodical wars of the 1960s, it probably captured the essence of the sport better than any other publication of its time due to its emphasis on photographs. Unfortunately, few souvenirs remain from this massive inventory of memorabilia that was either sold, lost, stolen, or simply discarded. What remains is being shared here.

My association with drag racing began in 1960. The fortuitous time and place of my birth (Long Beach, California), coupled with my interest in hot rods (I was a Hot Rod Magazine hound) got me out to Lions Drag Strip when it was known as LADS (Lions Associated Drag Strip). This was during the time of the nitromethane fuel ban at LADS. I was content with the show even if the racers were restricted to using pump gasoline. There were so many drag cars of all makes and designs that it didn't make any difference to me what fuel they used to power their engines. This amazing array of ingenuity totally captivated me, so much so, that I rarely missed a weekly meet. It would take me about a year before I strayed away from my weekly trek to the track on 223 rd St. between Santa Fe Ave. and Alameda St. The date was January 1961; the impetus was the Drag News Invitational; and, the track was Fontana Drag Strip. An additional lure was Top Fuel Eliminator.

I had never seen a top fuel dragster having only read about them in Drag News. With the exception of maybe the twin-engined gas dragsters, spectators at Lions or any of the NHRA tracks that banned nitromethane, rarely got a glimpse of driver and race car totally immersed in a swirling mass of tire smoke. Plus, I had never experienced the hypnotic pulse and power of a nitromethane-fired engine. My rite of passage would start as soon as I walked through the gate at Fontana when Bruce Woodcock in the Rakers Car Club AA/FMC launched down the strip with a cacophonous and deafening roar. The old Kodak box camera got a real workout that day, and it's too bad that some of the images that graced my bedroom walls for so many years are all gone. But, I still remember that first nitro race like it just happened yesterday. This vision of Bill Crossley smoking down the track in the Hashim-Hylton-Crossley dragster. Dean Turk from Arizona with his Pontiac-powered fuel dragster trying to keep up with the Chryslers. And, still my favorite remembrance--Tommy Dyer in the seat of Ed Pink's Ansen Auto Spl. looking over at me the instant the motor fired and giving me a thumbs up. Now, no longer be content just to go to Lions for the gas dragsters, I spent Sundays at Riverside Raceway, Fontana, or Pomona to see the fuel dragsters. Mercifully, the Lions Club board of directors voted to lift their fuel ban and Mickey Thompson offered the first unrestricted fuel race at Lions on January 28, 1962. The $500 bond up for the winner enticed many of the big guns of the day to test the Lions surface including Chrisman Bros.-Cannon, Mooneyham-Sharp (Jack Chrisman driving), the brand new Prudhomme-Zueschel-Fuller, Ewell-Stecker-Kamboor, Ansen-Stuckey, Kolb-Frick, Greer-Gireth-Black (yes, Keith), and others.

On the gas side, the now restored Ernie's Camera with Tommy Ivo driving, Howard Cam Spl. (Glen Ward driving as Jack Chrisman had switched to nitro), Adams-McEwen, and all the other usual suspects were on hand that memorable day. In addition to Lions and Fontana, San Gabriel, Riverside, and San Fernando also offered fuel shows. NHRA has desperately tried to rewrite drag racing history to create the myth that the re-birth of nitro racing coincided with the addition of the class to their national events (1963). But, the fact of the matter is that nitro racing was alive and well long before NHRA added top fuel dragsters to the Winternationals. In fact, it would be another year before NHRA offered top fuel eliminator at Indy. By that time, the Smokers of Bakersfield that put on six highly successful events at Famoso in Bakersfield.

The week prior to the '66 March Meet, The Smokers ran this two page add in Drag News. The purse for top fuel eliminator was $1000 for Saturday; $1000 for Sunday; and, an additional $2000.00 for the overall winner.

If there was ever a moment when organized drag racing reached its apogee, it had to be 1965 and 1966. Such was the state of the sport that the Smokers Club offered a 64-car show in both 1965 and 1966. Still stinging from a final round defeat to Connie Kalitta in 1964, Don Garlits showed up at Famoso in 1965 with three cars. With Marvin Schwartz and Connie Swingle driving the other dragsters, Garlits was determined to get his first March Meet win. Yes, multi-car teams have been around for that long. Consider the Ward-Wayne "Long Shot" and "Short Shot" (1964) and, Champion Speed Shop (1962) as just a couple examples of that genre back then. Back to Garlits; he won the 64-car show on Saturday, Schwartz won the Sunday 32-car field, and they raced for the trophy. Garlits was not to be denied this time and he went on to win the first of five titles at the famed March Meet. Connie Swingle did not do too shabbily either, taking a runner up in #2 Eliminator to James Warren. The 1965 March Meet was just a precursor to the avalanche of fuelers that showed up for the 1966 edition. For those who were in attendance, and I was fortunate enough to be one of them, it was probably the greatest multi-day event in the history of the sport. Although The Surfers had been bagging titles all over Southern California, especially at Fontana "Drag City" Raceway, a victory at the March Meet was far from a foregone conclusion. First, they were nowhere close to being the low qualifier. That honor would go to Warren-Coburn with a 7.40; The Surfers slipped into the #7 spot with a 7.59. Frank Bradley would secure the 64th and final slot with an 8.04. In order to sit out Sunday eliminations, the Saturday winner would have to endure six rounds of competition. Mike Sorokin wasted no time staking his name to that honor when he dispatched Baber-Cassidy with a nifty 7.41. But, #2 qualifier Marshall-Vermilya (7.48) answered that challenge with a 7.41 of their own. Also looking good was Gotelli-Safford with an early shut off pass of 7.49. In the first pair in E2, James Warren announced himself as a player with a stout 7.48, also clicking it off early.

We will never know if Marshall-Vermilya would have ruined The Surfer's kharma that day because they were not able to return for round two. Sorokin-Skinner-Jobe were the 5th pair in E2, and Mike was up against Zane Schubert. This was when the boys from Santa Monica decided to up the ante. It would be a run that set all the others back on their heels. Running in their preferred right lane, Sorokin unleashed a promethean blast of 7.34-210.76. By E3, it was looking more and more like a battle between Warren-Coburn and The Surfers. Garlits had eliminated himself in E2 with a red light, and Don Prudhomme (#3) had also gone down. James Warren and Mike Snively (The Hawaiian) opened E3 with a titanic race that had James barely nudging out Mike with a 7.49-7.57 decision. Right behind these two were Sorokin and Dave Beebe. Again, we will never know if the Beebe Bros.-Vincent-Sixt could have taken out The Surfers because the purple car did not fire up. Sorokin saved the engine sputtering across the finish line with an 8.80-120.96. By E4, there were only two cars left that were capable of knocking off The Surfers and was Warren-Coburn and Gotelli-Safford. In the very first pair it was Sorokin vs. Warren.

It was probably Mike's finest moment of the entire event as he pasted James with a 7.47-209.30 run that left a bewildered Warren wondering what he needed to do to get the best of his antagonist. In the semis, five rounds of competition took its toll on Gotelli-Safford and they were eliminated by Jim Dunn. The Surfers got past the surprising Wulf-Maher (#44 qualifier) who had lasted this long with some luck and savvy driving. That all ended then and there for Greg Maher, and the Saturday final came down to Jim Dunn and Mike Sorokin. The Surfers settled this match quickly with Mike laying down a snappy 7.56-207.00 to humiliate the 7.98-159.85 for Dunn-Yates. There would be plenty of drama on Sunday as well as the top 32 returned to duke it out again. As it had been on Saturday, it was Warren-Coburn and Gotelli-Safford hanging around after all the pretenders had faltered. In the penultimate race that day, Warren beat Safford on a hole shot (8.02 to 8.00) to earn the right to race The Surfers. Warren-Coburn probably knew they had to overcome a lot of adversity going into that final round. They had gone through nine rounds, which included an engine swap from the Warren-Crowe dragster. James took a chance on the tree and disqualified himself with a red light. Mike cruised down the strip to a 7.74-196.06 and into the annals of drag racing lore forever. There have been lots of other events that could stake their name to the greatest drag race of all time, but for those of us who witnessed this event and have seen plenty of others over the years, nothing, but nothing, will ever come close to the 1966 March Meet.

The following pictures were taken with a simple little cartridge camera called the Minolta Autopak 500. Most of the pictures were shot at Bakersfield from 1973 through 1976 with a couple from OCIR and Ontario Motor Speedway. Though thoroughly amateurish, these images still chronicle a time when the graceful slingshot was being replaced by the less glamorous rear engine dragster. The rest of the souvenirs, found in a box in my garage a few years ago, also offer a tantalizing glimpse into the world of drag racing during its formative years.

 

Don Prudhomme in the pits at Bakersfield-1972

 

Chris Karamesines (Bakersfield '72) with Stephen Justice.

 

Campfire at Bakersfield-an awful lot of telephone wire found its way into those infernos back then.

 

Larry Fullerton; '72 March Meet

 

Don Cook in the pits at Fremont; Jim Davis car.

 

Lots of room available in the pits at Bakersfield back in the 1970s; Don Garlits with Robert Runne.

 

Tony Nancy won the March Meet with the last front engine dragster in 1970; took runner up in 1974 and 1976 with an RED

 

Roger Coburn prepping the Rain for Rent entry; Warren-Coburn-Miller won the March Meet in1975, 1976, and 1977

 

Petersen-Fitz; this is the way it looked in '75.

 

Petersen-Fitz redux; like the dragster,Olympia beer is a thing of the past, too. And, Hamm's from the "Land of the Sky Blue Waters."

 

"Gentleman" Hank Johnson was another bad-ass top fuel car from The Northwest.

 

What's that in your right hand buddy, Bubble-Up? Frank Bradley with Warren Crawford.

 

Frank Bradley a few years later-better equipment.

 

Ed McCullough (Pisano-Matsubara in the background).

 

Cornwall Bros. from Reno Nv.

 

"Kansas" John Wiebe

 

Gary "Blazin" Hazen ready to roll in the Panic car.

 

Jim Herbert (near side) with Hibbard-McCarthy

 

Keeling-Clayton's California Charger with Rick Ramsey driving.

 

Ewald-Trotter (Yeah, it's a hemi! Don worked at Keith Black Racing Engines)

 

Note: Don Prudhomme is using his Division 7 number (712), so this may be 1975.

 

Charlie Proite's Pabst Blue Ribbon Charger.

 

"Big" won Bakersfield five times: 1964,1971,1978,1986, and 1987.

 

Shirley Muldowney in the pits at OCIR

 

Buehl-Cirino-Rhodes (OCIR)

 

Burkholder Bros. at OCIR-I don't know who was responsible for the team uniforms, but they are butt-ass ugly!

 

Barry Setzer in the pits at OCIR.

 

Keeling-Clayton; "The California Charger" was the opitime of a slingshot top fuel dragster.

 

The photographer's view of the starting line at OCIR.

 

Ontario Motor Speedway-the drag strip was actually the pit road for the oval. The interesting aspect of OMS was the outrun which, of course, made a hard left at the end.

 

Don Garlits and his adoring fans in the pits at Fremont.

 

 

Rob Bruins in the pits at OMS wrenching on the R. Gaines Markley T/F car.

 

Scratchy shot of Garlits at OMS-God, my pictures suck!

 

Scott Kalitta in Connie's car at OMS.

 

Typical of the ads that appeared in the drag racing periodicals was this one for Lions Drag Strip in March 1963. The payout at the time was fairly generous, too, ranging from $500 to $1000 for the weekly show.

 

 

Lions may have been one of the first tracks to use direct mailers. What is so degrading about this one is how track management viewed funny cars at the time. If using a likeness of Bozo the Clown as seen in this ad was not enough of an insult, management would also play circus music over the loudspeakers when the funnys queued up to run.

 

Further proof that Lions track management had no clue of how the drag racing audience viewed and esteemed the funny cars-"funny car circus"? Please!

 

It took a while but management finally saw the light-fans wanted funny cars; and, the more the better.

 

Lions got fancy with their direct mailers using color and graphics. I was living in San Diego at the time and getting the mailer had a lot to do with whether I would make the two hour trek up to Long Beach.

 

Quite a number of tracks shown here including Fremont, Fontana, Irwindale, OCIR, and Riverside.

 

The pit pass from "Drag City" was Fontana; I want to say the "Official Chrondex Time" was from Riverside, but not sure of that fact.

 

Decals from two of the best multi-day drag races ever; not priceless, but close to it.

 

 

Often copied, but never equalled.

 

Note: the date of the decal (1967 Warner Bros./Seven Arts Inc.) pre-dates the first production model released in 1968.

 

This likeness of Baney-Prudhomme graced the program cover, but it was Bob Creitz and Vic Brown over Don Garlits for the win.

Though successful, the '68 PDA meet did not come close to matching the magic of the inaugural event in '67. For one thing, instead of one 64-car field, top fuel eliminator consisted of four 16-car fields; Jerry Ruth won the group for the top sixteen qualifiers.

 

Competition for the spectator's buck was so fierce between the SoCal tracks in the mid-1960s that they were constantly fiddling with the format-"home of the drag span"? Note: by this time, multiple events per week were already common practice as shown in the back cover of the PDA souvenir program.

 

A 1969 version of fantasy drags concocted during downtime at the Winternationals. From the handwriting, I have to say this was the creation of Robert Runne (Lakewood CA) who, apparently, was a big Jimmy Boyd fan (who knew)?


And, the winner's were ((left to right and top to bottom): Dunn-Reath, Beebe-Mulligan, Don Garlits and Dwight Salisbury.

 

……won by Kuhl-Olson.

 

Warren-Coburn-Miller won at Famoso and Don Garlits at OMS.

 

Event decal and design used for the t-shirt.

 

March Meet pit pass signed by Don Garlits; "Tampa" Don lost to Warren-Coburn-Miller 5.95 to 6.18.

 

If memory serves me correctly, Marvin "Who" Graham beat Garlits for the event win.

 

Cover of event program: Warren-Coburn-Miller defeated on Garlits for their third consecutive win at the March Meet.

 

Back cover of the 1977 March Meet program.

 

Dennis Baca broke the W-C-M streak in 1978.

 

Rob Bruins and R. Gaines Markley won the championship but "Big Daddy" won the race.

 

1966 Winternationals (Long Beach Independent-Press Telegram)

 

The 1966 UDRA race at Lions was lining up to be a real barnburner. Check those qualifying times including Sutherland's 7.38. Damned if it didn't rain on Sunday washing out eliminations.

 

Clip of Garlits' accident at Lions in March 1970 that eventually would lead to the development of the RED (Long Beach Independent-Press Telegram).

 

The Prudhmme-Nicoll final at Indy (1970).

 

The infamous Carbone/Garlits burndown final post race.

 


Clip about the 1971 Winternationals and Pete Robinson's tragic accident.
(Long Beach Independent-Press Telegram).

 

Warren-Coburn-Miller won the Div. 7 top fuel dragster title five consecutive years from 1972-1976.

 

From the San Francisco Chronicle (1975)

 

This story closes with a candid shot of Gene Snow in the pits at Sears Point during the Autolite Nationals in 1988.

 

Orangeline

 


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