Remembering a Few Lost Friends
Three the hard way… er, make that four
My late father relayed to me the best definition of age I’ve heard. Many seasons ago he told me, “Don’t pay any attention to that number (age) after your name on the driver’s license. Doesn’t mean a thing. You’ll know you’re getting old when your friends start dying.”
That’s been especially true to this hammerhead the past few weeks. People I’ve known, dug, admired, etc, were peeling back at an alarming rate for the kid. Somewhere in the March 20s of this year, one of my favorite boxers of all-time passed away … one Art “the Golden Boy” Aragon. That hurt my feelings because in January of 1960 I attended his last fight with my father, who was an L.A. Mirror-News sports and “L.A. Confidential-ish” murder photog, and I got to witness ringside a rough ninth-round technical knockout loss to Alvaro Gutierrez. Put baby Chrissie in tears.
So you can imagine how I felt when I heard that Al Hofmann, Pat Foster and Leroy Chadderton got off the bus in the days that followed. Hey, not funny. What the hell is going on? Can we get a recount here? As with all things terminal, the results were irreversibly set in stone.
I’m aware of the omniscience and ubiquity of the Internet, so I’m not going to bore you with a lot of factoids. Certainly, Hofmann’s career is likely fresh in a lot of contemporary drag race minds and so a list of career accomplishments is not hard to come by.
In the 1990s, Hofmann was easily one of the top half dozen best Funny Car drivers. He finished in the top 10 of the, then Winston, now Powder Keg world standings, landing as many as seven times in that elite group during the decade stretch. His highest finish was a paid second on the tote board in 1995 after winning five national events. He was especially good at the big money races, winning three of the Big Bud Shootout races at the U.S. Nationals, 1994-1995 back-to-backers and one in 1992. He also is only one of two Funny Car drivers in the Slick 50 300-mph joining pioneer Jim Epler with a 301.70 lap at Firebird Raceway in 1994.
All in all, a way above average Funny Car racer.
Oddly, the only thing that bugged me about Hofmann’s career was the public’s perception of a racer who I considered a real good guy. Physically, the Umatilla, Fla., resident looked like the archetypal 1950s tough guy. An intimidator. The Elvis Presley-inspired rock n’ roll haircut, the black T-shirt (occasionally with a pack of cigarettes rolled in at the sleeve), black levis and alleged temperament to match. But to view him as that kind of hard ass was a big misreading of the guy.
Some of my younger pals at National DRAGSTER would put Hofmann near the top of their lists in racers whom they didn’t particularly want to interview at an event because of the rugged persona. Hofmann’s compound was always near the top of my list of places where I liked to stop. Hofmann, his crew chiefs -- first and foremost the intellectual-appearing Tom Anderson, a little later dog friendly Jimbo Omalovich and, of course, his ex-wife Helen -- were for me a wonderful mix of personalities, and as a writer I always got good copy.
Let me give ya two counter peeks at Al. In June of 1991, I successfully finished Roy Hill’s Pro Driving School in either (I can’t remember which) Level Cross or Julien, North Carolina, and I received a 5.140/131.48 eighth-mile time slip on the last pass, a run -- or make that experience -- that I’ll hang on to for a lifetime. People who knew me (and that included Hofmann) were aware that I could not drive a stick car (and still can’t for that matter).