John’s Once In A Lifetime Event (1 Viewer)


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9 November 2001 – The temperature in California in November is usually in the mid 60s, but this year it was in the high 70s to low 80s. The second of three qualifying days at the NHRA Finals. At the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum this evening after the day’s racing the NHRA had invited all the Top 50 Drivers voted by a select panel. Relatives of deceased drivers were invited. Dave McClelland the voice of NHRA drag racing was calling out the Top 50, from 50 to 3. Numbers 2 and 1 wouldn’t be announced until Sunday at Pomona Raceway, but the L.A. Times had leaked the story that John Force was No. 2 and Don Garlits was Numero Uno.

Before the announcing began everyone went outside where in total darkness they fired up the “Magicar” front-engined top fuel dragster with Jeep Hampshire at the controls and the Weekly-Rivero-Fox-Holding “Frantic Four” dragster with Norm Weekly in the seat. With two foot flames leaping from the header pipes, the beautiful cackling sound and the smell of nitro, it was fantastic. I met James Ibusuki, the drag racing artist and friend I’ve known for quite a few years. It was great to meet him for the first time. I have ten of his lithographic prints, “Milestones and Mementoes,” which salutes the NHRA’s Golden Anniversary, is his best yet.

I met and got the autographs of the following Drag Racing Legends:

“Big Daddy” Don Garlits – Don Garlits is to drag racing what Babe Ruth was to baseball, Garlits could do it all, from building his own cars and engines to developing revolutionary concepts, such as drag racing’s first successful rear-engine Top Fuel dragster. Garlits won 35 NHRA national events and three NHRA Winston Top Fuel Championships and was the first driver to break the 170, 180, 200, 240, 250 and 270 barriers. He opened his Museum of Drag Racing, in Ocala, Florida, in 1984, and his Swamp Rat XXX dragster was inducted into the Smithsonian Institution in 1987. Garlits returned to active driving last year by recording his first four-second and 300-mph runs at the Mac Tools U. S. Nationals. “Big Daddy” nickname given to him over the PA by Bernie Partridge, long time NHRA national event announcer at an early Indy event. Swamp Rat 6B, the car he brought to England in 1964 with the United States Drag Racing Team is on display in the museum.

Shirley Muldowney – She started her career in the 1960s at a time when women were basically unwelcome in the pit area, let alone in the cockpit of a race car, Muldowney had to endure additional struggles than those faced by her male counterparts. Nevertheless, she prevailed on sheer willpower and became the first drag racer to record three NHRA Winston Top Fuel championships. The subject of the entertaining Heart like a Wheel biography movie in 1983, Muldowney continues to race in Top Fuel, and her appearances at the last two NHRA U. S. Nationals have been a highlight of the events for her legion of fans.

Bob Glidden – One of the hardest-working drag racers ever. Pro Stock legend Bob Glidden amassed a then-record 85 NHRA national event wins before John Force and Warren Johnson only recently surpassed him. He also held the former record of 10 NHRA Winston Championships, from 1974 to 1989, including five straight (1985-89), and he is the winningest driver in U. S. Nationals history with nine victories. Glidden raced with his wife, Etta, and his sons, Billy and Rusty, as his crew, and his unrelenting work ethic caused competitors and fans to call him “Mad Dog.”

TV Tommy Ivo – Ivo’s classic twin-Buick and later his Showboat, which featured four Buick engines and was a tribute to Ivo’s genius for synchronizing seemingly impossible combinations. The twin-engine Buick became the first gas-dragster to reach 160, 170, and 180 mph. In 1964, Ivo came home with the biggest prize from the historic tour of the United States Drag Racing Team in England when he defeated Garlits for overall honours and was crowned the International Drag Racer of the Year by NHRA and the British Hot Rod Association. In 1982, Ivo refurbished his famous four-engine ride that now had a Buick station-wagon body and went on tour. That year after his final tire-smoking run, at the Winston Finals at Orange County Int’l Raceway, he burned his driving gloves on the starting line. His twin-engined Buick and his four-engined Buick “Showboat” are on display.

“Mousie” Marcellus – First name Al, short for Alvin. Surviving partner and ‘keeper of the flame’ of the Marcellus & Borsch “Winged Express,” the most famous AA/Fuel Altered ever. “Wild Willie” Borsch was the most popular driver of the wild fuel altereds due to his amazing ability to control these wayward machines with one hand on the steering wheel and the other holding the door. Today, Mouise maintains the resurrected version of the Winged Express, along with driver Mike Boyd, and enthusiastically shows current day race fans what AA/FA racing was all about at nostalgia events. “Mousie,” was given his nickname when he was a teen and worked in an office. When he took a nap, he was “as quiet as a mouse.” The resurrected version is on display.

“Dyno” Don Nicholson – A true pioneer of the sport whose career spans five decades. Dyno first gained national fame as the best of the stock racers driving a ’61 Chevy Bel Air 409. He transitioned into the funny car movement and his “Eliminator I” Comet became the first flip-top style AA/FC. In the late ‘60s, he returned to carbureted Super Stockers and helped to pioneer the Pro Stock class. Today, he currently runs the nostalgia circuit in a Pro Mod version of his original ’61 Chevy Bel Air 409. “Dyno” Don became known as a very good Dynamometer operator for tuning racing motors in So. Cal. In fact, the ’61 Chevy 409 read, “Dyno Tuned by Don Nicholson.”

Doug Thorley – Best known as the originator of “Doug’s Headers,” one of the most popular racing hardware to be used on any style drag car. In the ‘60s, Doug had two well-remembered pioneer funny cars: the “Chevy Too Much” altered wheelbase ’64 Nova and the ’67 Doug’s Headers Corvair that won the first Indy Nationals Funny Car Eliminator. By winning that important race with his supercharged Chevy powered AA/FC, he essentially ended the era of injected nitro funny cars. Within months, every significant team switched from injectors-only to the injector/blower combination. The “Chevy Too Much” ‘64 Nova is on display.

On my NHRA 2002 Calendar, I got the following autographs:

Wally Parks – He founded the NHRA in 1951, drag racing’s most successful and influential sanctioning body. The first drag strip, the Santa Ana Drags, began running on an airfield in 1950, and quickly gained popularity because of its revolutionary computerized speed clocks. NHRA held its first official race in April 1953, on a slice of the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds parking lot in Pomona, California. Four decades later that track has undergone a $6-million expansion and hosts the NHRA Winternationals and the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals. Now in its fifth decade, the NHRA is the world’s largest motor sport sanctioning with more than 85,000 members, 144 drag strips, 32,000 competitors and nearly 4,000 drag strip events. A Wally Parks statue is outside the museum

Tom McEwen – By becoming the “Mongoose” in the 1960’s he, along with Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, created the most well-known rivalry in the sport. In 1970, they procured what is commonly considered the first major corporate sponsorship in racing, the Mattel Hot Wheels Toys programme. In doing so, they brought drag racing into many children’s’ homes which helped the sport to grow at a rapid pace.

Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins – He was the most beloved Chevy racer in drag racing history as a driver, engine builder, and team owner. He established his “giant killer” reputation with a 327-cid ’66 Chevy II that could outrun the fastest Dodge and Plymouth 426 Street Hems in A/S competition, and he enhanced that role by going virtually undefeated in the 1972 season with his 331-cid Pro Stock Vega. Jenkins is among the most honored individuals on the Car Craft Magazine All-Star Drag Racing team and has been inducted into practically every drag racing Hall of Fame. “Grumpy”, his nickname is pretty self explanatory. You know, one of Disney’s 7 dwarfs was Grumpy, which is very much Bill’s persona.

C. J. “Pappy” Hart – A true legend in drag racing that helped to literally form the sport. First, by creating and running the Santa Ana Drags, the country’s first commercial drag strip. He went on to manage the most famous drag strip of all time, Lions in the 60’s and after his retirement, was called back into action by NHRA to help run the Safety Safari. “Pappy,” got his nickname as he was always older than most and was the “caretaker” of Lions and earlier, Santa Ana drag strips.

Steve Gibbs – Although he worked ‘the other side of the fence,’ he was always respected and admired by the racers. As NHRA Competition Director for many decades, he orchestrated hundreds of national events and helped form what is known today as NHRA Championship Drag Racing. Today, Steve is the director of the NHRA Motorsports Museum, continuing to help the sport by preserving its rich history.

Richard Tharp – Truly a legendary fuel driver in drag racing. Although he raced many significant fuelers out of Texas, he really hit the big time as the driver of the Blue Max funny car in ’71. Along with “Jungle Jim” Liberman and the Chi-Town Hustler, the Max, with Tharp driving, became one of the top three in-demand funny cars of the ‘70s. He returned to fuelers to win the NHRA Winston Top Fuel Championship in 1976, driving for the Candies & Hughes team, which also, coincidentally, was a former funny car team.

Carl Olson – Although he drove front engined dragsters in the late ‘60s, his biggest win came at the ’72 Winternationals while driving the Kuhl & Olson rear engined fueler. He went on to be a key administrator for NHRA in manufacturer and international relations.

Alex Xydias – Another true pioneer of the sport. One of the first speed equipment merchants and early innovators from the 1950’s. His best remembered race car is the Southern California Speed Shop Special, a dry lakes belly tank.

Joe Amato
Bob Muvarez alias Floyd Lippincote Jr
Gene Winfield
Gary Beck

James Ibusuki – All of his original paintings are on permanent display in the NHRA Museum.

Many thanks to James Ibusuki for compiling each person’s profile.

This was a very special “ONCE IN A LIFETIME EVENT” that won’t be repeated in my lifetime.

You story is a wonderful read, glad you had a chance to take it all in. The Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum is a must see for a fan. My kids had to drag me out of there. I do believe that the old runway where the fist drag races were held is now known as John Wayne or Orange County Airport (SNA). Thanks for the story, I enjoyed it.

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