THE GREAT BURNDOWN
One thing that bugs me about contemporary
drag racing is the lack of drama. Oh, there
is some. Hell, Karen Stoffers 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 its 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
Nationals. Not like you didnt expect it.
Thirty-three years ago, such was not the case.
In particular, Im 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 wasnt
as big a deal.
Again, my knowledge on the pro end of the sport
is decent, but I cant recall right off
had there ever been a refusal to stage for a
final round of championship race before this
one. Thats 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
winners 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 wouldnt stage first if
hell froze over.
That situation occurred again in
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 hadnt done a whole hell of a lot in
Not that he wasnt capable. For example,
in 1969 he was the NHRA Top Fuel World Champ
in Larry Huffs Soapy Sales
dragster, and also won that years AHRA
World Points Finale. He had also scored wins
at the Hot Rod Magazine Championships in 1968,
and garnered the laurels at that years
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 wouldve known it, though, going
into the 1971 final. Garlits qualified No. 1
with a 6.21, light years beyond Carbones
career best and (second best) 6.39. Moreover,
the Floridian had stampeded the field with 6.25
and 6.28 times, and dont 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 ABCs
Wide World of Sports (You remember them?) The
Thrill of Death and the Agony of Competition
covered this race, but I cant 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.
Im 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.
Martin, shoulda gone to Gainesville
instead of Houston. Bernstein just
went 301.70. You lose."