Of Bean Counters, Bullshitters, and Bull Fighters
worked for the National Hot Rod Association from the middle of February 1975 to June of 1998, and in that period, attended 22 Indys. I have been to 30 or so overall. If you’ve read the screed in this spot, you know “Indy”, the U.S. Nationals, really was the biggest race in the world, except for 1962-1966, when the U.S. Fuel and Gas Championships in Bakersfield, Calif., held sway.
When the Funny Car shared top billing with the fuelers in 1967, the ‘fuel’ car quality fell off pretty much permanently at Bakersfield. At Indy, it took off and ruled for at least 30 years.
You’ll notice that the Top Fuel class is the lynchpin for me grading any event or race. Top Fuel (1st) and Funny Car (2nd) are what gives drag racing its public face. It hangs like a giant polar moon over the rest of the classes. You can’t avoid it.
The Bakersfield event in 1967 was a very good one. The late Mike Snively wheeled Roland Leong’s “Hawaiian” past 1966 West Coast’s winningest dragster Dave Beebe in the Beebe Bros-Vinson-Sixt car. There was good competition. Along with those two, there was Don Prudhomme, Mooneyham’s ’44 car, Jim and Alison Lee, Pete Robinson, Dan Rightsell, and West Coast Evergreens Gene Adams’ two cars, James Warren, Waterman & Hampshire, and many other regional terrorists… But an experienced eye can tell you what’s missing.
Look at the first 16 cars in the 1967 Indy Top Fuel field. 1. Ramchargers – Chuck Kurzawa; 2. Don “The Beachcomber” Johnson – Tom McEwen; 3. Connie Kalitta; 4. James Warren; 5. Jim and Alison Lee – Hank Westmoreland; 6. Prudhomme; 7. “Hawaiian” – Snively; 8. “Hawaiian II”—Mike Sorokin; 9.Bob Creitz – Vic Brown; 10. Shreve Auto – Dave Chenevert; 11.“Brewmaster” – Jim Messenger; 12. Mattison – Roche – Jerry Baltes; 13. Adams – Wayre – Mulligan; 14. “Burgundy Bandit” – Bud Dabler; 15. Earl Binns; and 16. Tommy Ivo.
Sprinkled in the bottom 17 were Larry Dixon Sr., “Telstar” – Freddy Welchmann, Toy Hoover, and a guy named Don Garlits who won it. I don’t know about you, but I probably would opt for Indy over Bakersfield.
By 1975, I had no doubt as to what the biggest fuel race in the world was. Those were my “bullfightin’” days. I championed the event; I sang the praises of Indy. The “Great Burndown of ‘71” (Garlits – Carbone); Don Prudhomme’s 5.63 (I know it was a Funny Car); Shirley’s ’82 win; Garlits’ ’84 comebacker, Beck’s ’72 and ’73 wins. More copy than a “Complete Works of Nora Roberts”.
I’d willingly fight any bull that claimed Indy was anything less than the best drag race in the world. However, some time in the recent past, that changed. If I still worked at National Dragster, I’d consider myself more of a bullshitter fueled by bean counters.
Now there are those among us who would say, and with some accuracy, that “Indy standards” were applied across the board in the “good old days”, and they’d be right. However, any house organ engages in bullshitting (i.e., “All NHRA races are classics, blah, blah, blah.”), but Indy deserved the hype. The Cajun Nationals, well… I mean, c’mon.
I left NHRA in 1998, and have only stayed marginally interested. The bean counters in Glendora made the moves they felt necessary to insure profits and longevity, and I suppose they’ve done that to a degree, but at what cost?
Except for a tiny handful of NHRA races, the rest are void of personality. I don’t know how I would’ve hyped a Mac Tools, O’Reilly, or Toyo Tires event. What makes them different from each other? They all have as much personality as a golf ball. The veterans still refer to the older events as Pomona, Columbus, Englishtown, and Indy, but rarely by the event name. If a fan said “Remember when Tony Schumacher won the Mac Tools race?” how the hell could you remember that, (and I made a career out of that kind of memory) or know what he meant for that matter?
I can hear the response. “The what?”
If the questioner then responded, “You know, Gainesville”, or some such thing, then the fog clears. “Corporate” has done to drag racing what it has done to so many sports: strip the events of their identity…and the biggest casualty in drag racing is Indy.
Yeah, the official title is the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals. And the verbal foreplay will feature the word “Indy” a lot. But will Indy be like the 1967 race in variety, diversity, or competition? No. How different will it be from any of their 24 look-alike (even the tracks!) shows?
Because the sport’s technological development has badly outstripped its ability to pay for itself, the cars will be nothing more than rolling corporate billboards. Lucas, Castrol, Summit, the Army, Matco, Mac, whatever, the winner will most likely be one or two of the three best-heeled dragsters in a familiar corporate backdrop, and now governed to run a lot alike.
I never advise anyone not to go to a drag race. I do say you’ll probably have more fun during qualifying (all the pro cars will still be there), and you do get one of those “Race within a race” deals at Indy.