One thing that bugs me about contemporary drag racing is the lack of drama. Oh, there is some. Hell, Karen Stoffer’s somewhat unexpected recent romping in Pro Stock Bike at Houston certainly had elements of the on-track theatrical, and there have been others. However, I still maintain, they are few and far between. Today it’s not common to see a National DRAGSTER billboard something like: Schumacher, Kalitta, Dixon, Worsham, Pedregon, Force and Anderson (hell, it will be an upset if anybody flags down this runaway truck) win the NHRA PowerADE/Nutri-System/Whole-Grain/Full ThrowWeight Nationals. Not like you didn’t expect it.

Thirty-three years ago, such was not the case. In particular, I’m talking about the 1971 NHRA Nationals and what most refer to as “The Great Burndown” Top Fuel final between Don Garlits and underdog Steve Carbone. More competitive players and sponsorship wasn’t as big a deal.

Again, my knowledge on the pro end of the sport is decent, but I can’t recall right off had there ever been a refusal to stage for a final round of championship race before this one. That’s what happened, though, as, Carbone was going James Brown on “Big Daddy” at the ‘71 jaunt ... “The Big Payback.”

A “payback” from what you might ask?

Three years ago at Indy, Garlits and Carbone made up the final at the ‘68 Indy event, and a funny thing happened on the way to the winner’s circle. Garlits, driving the longer of his two “spider” cars, (the ones that looked like they were all frame rail and no nose) was set to race Carbone in the (I think) blue on blue Bob Creitz/Ed Donovan dragster, a very formidable dragster out of Tulsa, Oklahoma. As I remember it, Carbone pulled in and staged somewhat quickly, while “the old man,” held back. He let Carbone set at the line with the Rs up, while he took his own sweet time staging up. Nothing illegal about it, but it appeared to either rattle Carbone, or louse up the way the Creitz & Donovan dragster was to leave. At the green, Garlits was off and gone to a 6.87, 226.70, while Carbone buried the rear tires in smoke and coughed and gasped to a 7-second time.

Handshakes and picture snaps abounded that late afternoon, but Carbone vowed to all that were in listening distance that if he was ever in that situation again, i.e. versus Garlits in a final, he wouldn’t stage first if hell froze over.

“That situation” occurred again in 1971.

Again, as some know, the 1971 season was the year Garlits re-introduced the rear-engine concept to Top Fuel drag racing. Without question, he was outperforming everyone by a good .10 to .15 of a second from February through Indy. In that wake, he had won the NHRA Winternationals and Springnationals, the Bakersfield March Meet, and the AHRA Nationals at Green Valley Race City in Texas. Carbone was hardly a slouch, but hadn’t done a whole hell of a lot in 1971.

Not that he wasn’t capable. For example, in 1969 he was the NHRA Top Fuel World Champ in Larry Huff’s “Soapy Sales” dragster, and also won that year’s AHRA World Points Finale. He had also scored wins at the Hot Rod Magazine Championships in 1968, and garnered the laurels at that year’s Mr. USA Fuel Eliminator Top Fuel show in Cecil County, Maryland. In a few words, he was more than capable of defending himself against Garlits.

You never would’ve known it, though, going into the 1971 final. Garlits qualified No. 1 with a 6.21, light years beyond Carbone’s career best and (second best) 6.39. Moreover, the Floridian had stampeded the field with 6.25 and 6.28 times, and don’t forget, no one had run 6.2s until Garlits. Still, Carbone had a slim chance.

Back home in California, the L.A. Times began putting some drag racing qualifying in its sports pages, and I was aware that it appeared Garlits had the field blanketed. However, I was also cognizant that Carbone had the wherewithal to make them the final duo, and was equally aware of what he had said three years ago.

You know what happened. I think ABC’s Wide World of Sports (You remember them?) “The Thrill of Death and the Agony of Competition” covered this race, but I can’t remember if they filmed the entire burndown. Some say that it took nearly two minutes for them to both go into the lights. I think it was Garlits who went in finally, and when they got the light, it was his car that smoked the tires, while Carbone sprinted to a 6.48, 229.00 win.

I’m afraid you had to have been there to get the full impact. I heard the crowd was roaring as the two racers sat there refusing to go in. Chief Starter Buster Couch was gesticulating like a magician on acid trying to get the two concrete egos to subside.

In a day of alarming predictability, I would suggest that we need more great burndowns of their equivalent in the modern era.

Previous Stories

Martin's Time Machine — 4/8/04
"Hey, Martin, shoulda gone to Gainesville instead of Houston. Bernstein just went 301.70. You lose."


Cover | Table of Contents | DROstore | Classifieds | Archive | Contact
Copyright 1999-2004, Drag Racing Online and Racing Net Source