The Nitro Joint w / "Chicago Jon" Hoffman

A U.S. Nationals Retrospective

"It's a hang on kinda ride, whispin' in through space and time,

Rockin' this big old rock just tryn'a have fun

So let's drink another beer, here's to another year,

Let's take another crazy trip around the sun"

- 'Trip Around The Sun', side one, track one of COSMIC HALLELUJAH, Kenny Chesney


Well, the 2019 Nationals is in the rear-view mirror. The forty-SIXTH U.S. Nationals and the SIXTY-fifth Nationals overall. (Sorry I'm into details like that, but for those of us old enough to remember, the U.S. thing started in 1973, in a power-play against the races run directly against Indy by the PRA, then the PRO to elevate racer payouts.) Somewhere in my tons of crap, errr, ARCHIVES I have the hilarious Pete Millar cartoon that ran in DRAG NEWS lampooning the whole arrangement. I personally have, I suppose forty Indys under my belt and some of you are going, WHAT? You weren't at the FIRST Nationals?? Nope, wasn't born yet, sorry.


We look back today and chuckle, spoiled rotten by all the immediate-media at our fingertips now to the days of waiting until December for ABC’s Wide World Of Sports to gift us with twenty minutes of highlights, usually hosted by the legendary Keith Jackson. (Quick survey: How many of you read that name and said it in his voice?)


Before Jeff Burk became my boss and editor, he was just the guy I drove nuts with phone calls and emails. One time, he's strolling down Marion County International Raceway for the first time, and I tried to amaze him with a story about the place, as I'd been there twenty-five years earlier. I then get sent to the corner in Hell, wearing a flaming dunce-cap because I proceeded to pronounce the 1971 Top Fuel Indy winner’s name the same way Keith Jackson did...which was incorrect! I still have that race that I recorded on my little reel-to-reel deck, holding the microphone up to the TV as Jackson yells, "Car-Bow-KNEE, wins over Big Daddy Don Garlits!!" Ooops!! Oh, and for the record, I used a Hot Wheels stop-watch to clock the famous burn-down from that 1971 Indy final, and if ABC did not do slight of hand with the editing, it was one minute, twenty-one seconds, thank you very much.


SO, let’s take a look at some stories from past Indy years, and how the players from then are faring today, starting with...

The year was 1983, and Ronald Reagan was president, the Eurythmics were atop the charts on Labor Day weekend, and Fred Hagen had his “DARKHORSE” at Indy. It was always way cool when a guy from your local track was at the Big Go; a fan next to you might go "Who's this guy?" and you got to look like Dave McClelland as you rattled off his numbers. I'm now friends with his son, Fred Hagen Jr., my kind of cat, a total rocker, with a wicked sense of humor. Very happy for him to be teamed up with Bob McCosh.

Summer of 1980 saw SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT 2 reeling in the cash at the box office, and maybe that is why The Golden Greek is rocking that giant 'Bandit' cowboy hat. He pulled into the lanes for the final session this year, needing an all-world time to get in. Someday The Burkster’s favorite Top Fuel driver will hang up the gloves, but not on this day.

“The Cowboy” Mark Pawuk (more Cowboy stuff?) from Ohio was at this year’s race in one of those Factory Stock Drag Paks, looking sharp with a Sox & Martin scheme in place. And what was OUT of place was some eighteen-year-old DOPE standing next to the Ronnie Sox/Billy Stepp collaboration back in 1976. Who is that clown anyway??

Inside that 1972 program you saw at the opening of this piece you'll find the ladders for Top Fuel frantically scrawled by my brother, 'Tom the Longest 8 miles', and while arguments could be made about racers who are still involved today, there's no disputing that Luigi Novelli was the only dragster at the 2019 Big Go that I saw at my first Indy Nationals. Barkeep, a round of Spumoni for everyone!

You can buy your child the biggest, most expensive toy ever, and they'll spend the next two days playing in a refrigerator box. That's me with the 2019 Indy Nationals. Never mind record fields, amazing this, amazing that -- because you see, media gets a free lunch, which I routinely miss. Hey,  I'm everywhere at once, and usually get there in time for the scraps and crumbs. But Sunday, I get to this dark little room (only one out of four light-bulbs are working!) and I am shocked by two things, first there is indeed FOOD. Never mind that these little skirt-steaks still have the marks "where the jockey was hitting it" on them, color me happy. But the real stunner is who is sitting there quietly having lunch, none other than three-time NHRA World Champion Shirley Muldowney! Now, never mind that internally I am, as 'Brother Bill' would say doing cartwheels and backflips, I know that the LAST thing that needs to be done is gush, blabber and act like a dope, while someone is EATING no less.


Supposedly, Vince Lombardi once told a player who celebrated after a touchdown to "act like you've been in the end zone before." We did make small talk (starting with the light fixtures!) and others came and went, all with their own little stories, this and that was offered up. When it was my time to leave however, I seized the moment to personally thank this living legend. You see, when the ink was still wet on the first Chicago Jon business cards, I knocked on every racer’s trailer door and pitched them a video package. And every, EVERY top-drawer racer declined, except one: That right, Shirley Ann Muldowney. I thanked her for that, and for giving this young knucklehead his first real paycheck, joking that the wife and I celebrated with champagne, albeit the crummy $4.95 stuff with the screw-on cap, but it was a huge deal for us, and I never forgot it.


And this photo? I've been wanting to print this for some time, waiting for the right moment, and this feels like the right moment. Taken at the 1974 Nationals (my third Indy) it shows Shirley’s pit, with Scott Kalitta and John Muldowney on Monday morning. Actually, John and I were the same age. One time at Great Lakes he and others asked me and Tom Harding for help swapping a motor. (We were helpers on the Paul Longenecker Top Fueler.) And to be honest, John didn't really like me very much, but that's not the point. No parent should have to go through losing their son, so if Shirley or Connie can see this never-before-published photo and think back and smile over a day gone past, I think that would be, as my favorite Italian, TJ Zizzo, would phrase it, "pretty bad-ass". Just as a typewriter does not write a novel, a camera does not take a picture, the photographer does.


You know, not everything in this great sport of ours is low E.T.s, trophies, fire-burnouts (a bunch of millennials just whipped their phones out to google THAT) or winner’s circles. Sometimes it is just two people in a poorly lit room, having lunch. One is thinking that the steak is fairly forgettable, the other is thinking I'll never forget this moment for the rest of my life. That's my 2019 Indy race report. Till next month I AM Chicago Jon, time to say...C-YAAAAA!! 



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