The Nitro Joint w / "Chicago Jon" Hoffman

As Bob Hope said, “Thanks for the memories…”

“It was 20 years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play.”

- The Beatles,

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

Well, at this writing Indy is a week in the rear view mirror. My 'Indy tan' is snaking away, and I've finally gotten the gear cleaned and put away. Last week’s 95+ degree heat has mellowed to a "fall-adjacent" 64 degrees, and I am still processing another amazing Indy Nationals, which I began attending in 1972. And while the Lads from Liverpool sang about "20 years ago", this year’s event was a week-long love letter to the iconic Tom 'Mongoo$e' McEwen, who won this race FORTY years ago, almost to the day (one off). We are going to talk about that in a bit, but first and foremost, the biggest drag race in the History of the Planet will take center stage, and rightly so.


I had high hopes for my local friends TJ Zizzo and family with their Rustoleum Top Fuel dragster. Earlier this year at the Joliet race, they displayed an uncanny knack to lay down 3.85s, with consistency and no breakage. At Indy, the 'song remained the same', only better. The previously mentioned heat had the track a fickle beast, greasy and unyielding. Yet, my favorite Dago ever always laid down good numbers, even in that previously mentioned sauna. They rolled out the 'rock-star/red-carpet' every time I came by, and if you'd told me 40 years ago I'd spend Sunday morning at the Nationals behind the ropes bull-spitting with Kenny Youngblood -- well, I'd have said 'pass some of that over HERE', because I'd have been convinced you were WASTED! Their luck would disappear at the worst time during round one, but I feel their day is coming soon.


Benevolence, thy name is "Mugs". I mentioned my old campground friend in last year’s opus, and he bears mentioning again. Once again, his immaculate Hot Rod 'The Zookeeper', an absolutely BEAUTIFUL 1941 Willys, placed in the show at Bowling Green, earning him the right to display on the concourse at Indy. But he emailed me, asking if I'd like his "old pix & stuff". While it's been a brutal year fiscally, there is ALWAYS something under the "mattress", so when we met up and he gifted me with several milk-crates of vintage "schwag", I reached for my wallet. The phrase "Southern Hospitality" came home to roost, as Jim said "Chicago, I don't want any money...you're the only one I know who is still crazy as ever about this stuff. I've had my fun with it, now it's your turn." A truly amazing gesture, from a man who personifies "Southern Gentleman." Mugs, the world could use more men like you.


I had an amazing time at the DSR Open house, which raises much needed dollars for the Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University. Once I GOT there, anyway. I got waved into a field, and no, I don't mean a level, mowed field, I mean "shades of the Oregon TRAIL field"! Didn't break an axle in any of the wagon wheel ruts, but once I shut the car off, I could have SWORN I heard banjo music....


So, I'm schleping over to the sportsman pits, and I see what I think is a beautiful girl in a Papa John’s shirt heading my way on a moped. I suck in my gut and smile away. SHE smiles, and waves! As she goes by, I realize it wasn't A... 'hot pizza chick', it was THEE...Hot Pizza Chick!! Drag Racing’s own personal 'Mary Tyler Moore', turning the world on with her smile. Thanks, Leah Pritchett!


How cool was it for Terry McMillen to cue up some DOORS, and 'Break On Through, to the Other Side'. I've always rooted for that cat, and a guy that got his start at good old U.S. 30 ("Where the great ones...RUN, Run, run!!") is nothing but good for the sport in this reporter’s opinion. Congratulations, Gator-Man!

Which brings us back to The Mongoo$e. I've had the honor and privilege of encountering the man so many times through the years. The celebrated 'publicity-grab' I pulled off at Indy 2011 has been written about in several magazines, and led to a telecon I had with the Goo$e, where he counseled me with the advice, "Jon, stop giving the store away. Hold firm, and get your due." Said event was how I came to know and become friends with Peter J. Ward, editor at DRAG RACER and 'friend and wingman' to Tom. Talking with Pete at the race this year, well, Ray Charles could see that losing Tom has been tough for Mr. Ward. I think the outpouring of love was a good tonic for Pete. Everywhere, people had busted out their old or purchased new McEwen stuff.


Better yet, both the nitro teams of Shawn Langdon and Mike Salinas rolled out tribute cars, showing the silver & black scheme of Tom’s 1978 English Leather Corvette. Personal choice? While Tom’s win was with a funny car, I thought the Salinas car captured the look better, that it was number-one qualifier was just the icing on the...no, wait, SCREW icing & cake, it was the "Foster Grants" strategically placed, yeah, THAT'S the ticket! When the old crew was brought out to the line, and the original car was towed down track, EVERYBODY stood, and the applause was true and wonderful. There were no problems with rain on this particular Indy Nationals, but during those moments, there were more than a few small droplets of water falling downward…I know I had to wipe some off my face. Leave it to Don “The Snake” Prudhomme to break the tension, with a typical "Snake comment". When asked by Alan Reinhart if he was happy that Tom beat him in that 1978 final, Snake quipped, "Nah, I'm still pissed off about it!" The placed busted a collective gut.

There is a headline on the latest edition of DRAG RACER that reads 'Heroes Live On, Legends Never Die'. The issue is a tribute to McEwen, and as we of the racing community all begin approaching "a particular age" we begin to really explore the concept of our own mortality. Seeing a guy – whose model cars you bought, or you got up early every Saturday morning to see his toy commercial as MANY times as possible, or you stood at the ropes hoping for an autograph as a kid -- pass away, brings it home, and it’s hard. Hey, I've out-lived Elvis, and the self proclaimed "King Of Pop", little Michael. I've seen fate be cruel to good men like Al DaPozzo, Joe Rooks, and Scott Kalitta.


But nothing in life is a guarantee. What am I trying to pass along at this point? Maybe I'm stealing Bill Murray’s speech at the end of SCROOGED (1988) where maybe, you should pick up the phone and call an old college roommate, or give someone a blanket, and say HERE! (Or give stuff that you've enjoyed to a friend, like Mugs did) or just celebrate life a little more...because, much like an hourglass, sooner or later, the sands of time will indeed run out. Fact....Truth.......Life.


I AM the one and only Chicago Jon, time for me to say...CC-YAAAAAAAAAAA!  



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