Story continues below this advertisement
The year was 1967 and I was a 15-year-old fresh into my third year of working at Thompson Drag Raceway. Each year my dad would try to plan a father-son trip. Those trips included things like going to the Ford Museum in Detroit or an overnighter to some city bigger then my hometown of Thompson, Ohio, which had a population of 445 people. The possibilities were endless. In 1967 my dad asked me where I wanted to go and it took me about 3 seconds to blurt out “U.S. Nationals.” My dad had never seen a drag race and now I was dragging (pun intended) him to the largest drag race in the world. Little did I know how magical that trip would be.
We got our tickets in advance via mail and I showed them to everyone I could. When the Labor Day weekend arrived I was on an adrenaline rush that wouldn’t stop. When we arrived at the track I proceeded to torture my dad by walking miles and miles to see the cars and drivers I had only read about in Drag News. When we got our seats I proceeded to educate my father on the “whys” of drag racing despite the fact he was near cardiac arrest from his 15-mile pit excursion.
I marveled at Willie Borch driving the Winged T with one hand. At that time Top Fuel was a 32-car field so I had more than my share of nitro. Any car from Ohio got a 15 year old’s standing ovation when the win light came on in their lane. But the story of the event was Big Daddy.
Don Garlits had never run a 6-second pass in his life. After a miserable DNQ at the Spring Nationals Garlits vowed not to shave until he ran his first 6-second pass. Tom McEwen was quoted as saying “Big Daddy’s beard will be six foot long and white before that happens.”
During qualifying Don ran some 7.00s and the crowd gasped knowing how close yet so far away the magical moment was. There was a back story that I heard several years later that made it more intriguing. On race day Big Daddy decided to switch from Goodyear tires to M&H. When he went to buy a pair he was informed that James Warren had purchased the last set. In those days you had to break the slicks in, so Garlits cut a deal with Warren and went to war with a pair of new tires.
As it turned out Big ran Warren in the finals and the rest as they say is history. Big Daddy stunned the drag racing world with a winning 6.77/220.58 run that produced one of the largest crowd roars I have heard in my life. Garlits came back to the starting line and the beard shaving commenced with the ABC Wide World of Sports cameras rolling. In a few minutes Garlits went from looking like Amos Byler Amish Drag Racer to the Big Daddy Don Garlits, fresh shaven drag racing superstar.
And what did my dad think? He thought it was interesting but cautioned me that it wasn’t a wise move to try and make drag racing a career. Like all 15 year olds, the advice went in one ear and right out the other. Thank God.
The year was 1972. I was entering my third year at Ohio University. My passion for drag racing was only topped by my passion for partying. Which led a group of 10 of us to make the trip to the Mecca of drag racing and partying -- the U.S. Nationals.
We took two vehicles and we each packed a small bag so there would be enough room for about 25 cases of Stroh’s beer and four large coolers. After stopping by a local eatery specializing in 25-cent chili dogs, we each got $2.00 worth and set off for Indy. This was my first vivid memory. As you may surmise, eight chili dogs produce enough natural gas to power a small town. This, of course, led to a contest and I will let you use your imagination here. I will only tell you that during the four-hour road trip to Indy the winner was well over 50.
Our accommodation for the U.S. National was not a Hilton, Holiday Inn or Ramada. It was the drive-in theater across the street from the front gate. I am here to tell you that everything you heard about this prime camping location was true. In fact it probably was understated. I was raised Catholic and it was going to take me hundreds of Our Fathers and Hail Mary’s to absolve me from these sins. But damn, it was fun.
After Saturday’s qualifying we decided to wash off the dust and odor by finding a motel with a swimming pool. We had no intentions of getting a room. We just wanted a place to swim and consume more beer. We found a place called the Deluxe Motor Lodge. As the beer flowed things got loud and everything seemed to be funnier than it really was. One of the funniest things was to jump in the pool, pull down your trucks, grab your legs and naturally float to the surface. We called them butt bobbers. It was very funny unless you happened to be the manager of the Deluxe Motor Inn. When a couple of bobber’s surfaced while he was yelling at us we had no choice but to return to our high-end accommodations at the drive in.
I do remember that Gary Beck won Top Fuel and Ed McCulloch won Funny Car. That’s about all the brain cells I had left. And I knew that my career in drag racing was all but cemented.