Posts Tagged ‘Orange County International Raceway’


November 3, 2008
Bob's Pawn Shop (photo by Cole Coonce)

Bob's Pawn Shop (photo by Cole Coonce)



November 3, 2008

1971. Jocko pokes his head back into the scene when his Allison-powered liner (now powered by a big-block Chevy and dubbed the Moon-liner, named not for its resemblance to a lunar module, but eponymously for its owner, performance parts magnate, Dean Moon) is used in a Budweiser commercial shot out at the Salt Flats. (Footnote: the stunt driver in the commercial is Gary Gabelich). There is another intellectual carrot dangling for Jocko: “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, having had half of his right foot blown off by an experimental transmission that exploded in his Wynn’s Charger Top Fuel car, has shifted the paradigm of dragster design, having drawn up a crude blueprint for a rear-engine Top Fuel dragster, a somewhat novel design. (Previous attempts would, as often as not, understeer and dart – or “push” – towards the drag strip’s guardrail, assuming it had one.) To avoid “pushing,” Garlits’ pit guy Connie Swingle installs a radical 10-to-1 steering system (for every ten degrees of steering input, the front tires would turn one degree) and Garlits dominates the Top Fuel scene. Jocko is piqued. Had Top Fuel cars finally caught up with his designs? Was the drag strip scene ready for streamlining for the first time since 1959? Maximum downforce with minimum drag? How fast could such a creation go in the 1/4 mile? Jocko — and the drag racing press — reckons it would go 275 mph — no jet engine, no rocket engine, but 275 with a blown hemi burning nitro. (The 1/4 mile record in 1971 was 243 mph, held by Garlits himself.)

Beginning that year, Jocko makes the mold for a fully-enclosed streamliner body in California. And Garlits agrees to pay for a body based on the mold and have Swingle build a chassis for the car. It will be known as the DON GARLITS WYNNS-LINER. In the same size type-face, the lettering on the front wheel-wells will read “Body By Jocko.”

But it takes forever.

1973. Fourteen years after Jocko sets the world on fire with his Jocko’s Porting Service streamlined AA/Fuel Dragster, Garlits finally unveils the WYNNS-LINER. It is overweight (the bane of streamlining being the weight penalty, as the added body work will cost the car performance, and often negate the benefits of the contoured air flow.) It is behind schedule and it is w-a-y over budget.

None of which is Garlits’ doing. Garlits tours the country with his Swamp Rat Top Fueler while Jocko and Swingle continue to build the car in Florida.

Amidst much anticipation, Garlits tests the car a couple of times before making the marquee debut at the well-publicized American Hot Rod Association race at Orange County, California, June of ‘73.

Before it is even loaded off the trailer, Garlits makes no secret that he is spooked by the car. During testing, he claims the rear tires were spinning at 9000 revolutions per minute, proof that the back of the dragster was not making contact with the pavement — a most frightening and scrotum-tightening phenomenon. Garlits says later that “the car wanted to fly.” Jocko is emphatic that the car is doing everything but lifting off the ground; the entire design was based on maximum downforce, thereby planting the massive slicks firmly on the track surface, just as the machines designed and driven had done when setting speed records in the 1930s and 40s.

But the lines are drawn: Garlits wants no part of driving the WYNNS-LINER, the radical and revolutionary car which he had so patiently patronized. Which is a problem: track promoters across the country have expressed a keen interest in what, in essence, looks like a spaceship driven not by an alien, but by the most famous drag racer on this planet: “Big Daddy” Don Garlits.

At the Grand Am, Garlits hires journeyman driver (and recent burn victim) Butch Maas to shoe the liner. Maas is certainly fearless enough (during his rehabilitation and surgical reconstruction, his hands were partially formed to grip a race car’s steering yoke), but for reasons that remain unexplained, Maas drove it once during qualifying and clicked the engine at half track and coasted to the finish line a tortoise roller skating uphill.

The car qualifies 32nd. Dead last. It loses in the first round after another aborted run. Two weeks later, Garlits parks it permanently. This time drag racing dropped the curtain on Jocko — and not the other way around.

“… (I) towed to Fremont for the AHRA World Finals. It was rained out and postponed until the following weekend, on top of the IHRA World Finals at Lakeland, Florida. I decided I would run my regular car at Fremont and have “Mad Dog” Don Cook run the ’Liner at Lakeland. I won Fremont… but poor Don Cook, even with all his experience, was never able to get the ’Liner to go straight. I had taken a couple of passes in it earlier in the weekend and vowed never to drive it again, so with Cook’s failure, the entire project was scrapped and the body and frame given to Russel Mendez for a rocket engine installation. I wished him good luck.” —“Big Daddy,” the Autobiography of Don Garlits.

It is important to note that “Mad Dog” Don Cook is out of his mind sufficiently enough to drive any piece of vicious machinery on wheels. Once, after a night of excessive libation, he drove a fuel-burning dragster like a true professional despite a whanging hangover and having vomited into his facemask and firesuit.

It is also important to note that 15 years after the WYNNS-LINER has been shelved as a tax write-off, Don Garlits is catapulted in the air on two different occasions by conventional dragsters.

Which is parenthetical. With the failure of the DON GARLITS WYNNS-LINER, streamlining Top Fuel dragsters becomes a lost art. Jocko claims sabotage: “Don Garlits’ ego could not stand to see another man design a car that was successful,” he says.


November 3, 2008

The X-1. The perfect nomenclature for a rocket-powered Land Speed racer. It’s moniker was appropriated from Chuck Yeager’s airplane, a piece of machinery that rode in the belly of a B-29 bomber until pod doors opened over the barren slate of the Mojave Desert, where every inch of air and space is a proving ground.

(Yeager proved that Mach 1 was not something to be feared, it was something to be penetrated. Breaking the sound barrier is an everyday occurrence for fighter planes nowadays and has even trickled down into the domain of consumer air travel in the form of the Concorde…)

In both instances, the “X” represented “experimental,” and was meant to be a precursor to the real deal: in the instance of the airplane, the X-1 was a means towards understanding and defeating the turbulence of supersonic buffeting. In the form of the rocket-powered dragster, it was an attempt at understanding exactly how much ooommmpphhh could be wrenched out of a rocket motor in a car.

The X-1 dragster (aka the Rislone Rocket) was merely a means to an end, the end being 1000 mph — well beyond Mach 1 — in a larger, more powerful vehicle: The Blue Flame.

Like Yeager, Gabelich was a hired gun, a fearless hot shot who climbed into an unfamiliar situation. (After the negotiations with another test pilot who demanded a nice chunk of change in exchange for powering through the unknown, Yeager got the rocket ride when he eschewed the need for a bump in his Army Air Corp’s pilot’s salary.) Gabelich was hired after Suba was killed in a Top Fuel dragster.

Gary Gabelich: Who was he? His reputation was that as the world’s fastest flower child. Was that accurate? This is the guy who whose parting words in a conversation were “Have a happy forever.” This is also the guy who, while driving the Sandoval Bros. Top Fuel dragster out at Fontana Drag City would greet the track photographers with “the Bone,” obscenely and mischievously sticking one finger in the air for the duration of the run…

What can you tell me about Gabelich, I mean you said he was personable and charismatic and fearless, but he was also, I mean, you guys are, you know, nice Midwestern people that uh…

PETE FARNSWORTH: The only time that we really spent a lot of time with him was at the Salt Flats. I mean he came to the Midwest here when we were fitting the car for controls, when we got everything in the right place, the window opening, you know, so that it was centered on where he was going to sit, and the depth of the seat and location of pedal controls, things like that so he could reach everything while he was strapped in. Other than that, he wasn’t out to the Midwest here very much and generally, he’d be out for a couple of days or so and we’d go and have dinner, but it was a whole bunch of people, a big happening.

LEAH: We heard that he was kind of wild in the California area when he was with his own element but that was not, he kind of segmented things, you know, he kept this group over here and this group over here and we weren’t in the group that was, you know partying with him or anything like that and so, you hear things.

PETE: When he came to the Salt Flats, he had his own contingent, you know, people that were right around him and we met a lot of them out there.

Or was there more, you know the hippie biker kind of contingent that he had with him?

PETE: I guess all of the above.

I mean without being a value judgment, it’s just that he was a different personality type.

LEAH: I would say from uh, as you said Midwest value type thing, that they were all the (clears throat) California crowd. They were from the other end of the country, you know, there’s the Midwest and there’s the California guys. No they weren’t really the hippie biker type, we had that around here, too, they were just, on a different stage, but it was…

PETE: … they were really good friends of Gary’s though, boy they’d do anything for him.

LEAH: He was very mindful of his image, because he wasn’t out there, he was the driver of the Blue Flame. That man was on from the time he got out of the car. When we went back to the motel, little kids would come up and talk to him and he’d pet their dog, he’d bend over to talk to the little old Grammas you know, get down to their level and talk to them.

PETE: Yeah, he was very good with people…

LEAH: … he could just sell everything, but…

PETE: When he got with his own group, then he did whatever they did, but we didn’t necessarily associate that much.

(stop tape)

After you guys set the LSR, Gabelich was hurt in a funny car crash not too long after that.

PETE: Yeah with the money he made driving the car, Natural Gas Industry paid him 50,000 bucks, plus they paid him for appearances too. He built the 4 wheel-drive funny car, they took it out and were testing it and he clipped the guard rail and crashed it and cut a foot off and a hand off and uh, pretty amazing that they put him back together —

Yeah there was a surgeon around that…

PETE: Yep, they threw him the car — and still in his firesuit and all the pieces — and went over there and there happened to be a neurosurgeon on duty who put him back together. As I understand he won the California State Handball, Racquetball championship after that — maybe it was for handicapped people or something, I don’t know — but just the same, you know it was pretty amazing. We had pretty much lost track of him by then.

I sent out e-mail queries to those who worked with Gabelich. Many went unanswered, a mute testament to how much his chums still respect him and continue to honor his privacy. The best and most informative reply read as follows:

I think I understand why those who knew him (to probably even the slightest degree) are “tight-lipped” about GG… it’s because we loved him.

Like all of us, he had his “failings” if you will, or his “weaknesses”… but unlike most, he was so very open about “them” (as well as everything else), with an almost child-like naivete that you could NOT help but love him and accept him with open arms… he was just Gabelich!

You’d find his picture in TWO places in the dictionary… the first is where it says “charm”… he was the most “charming” person I’d ever met! And I’m talking SINCERE charm… that is why he was so special… because if anyone ever had the opportunity to be “stuck-up” it would have been Gary, as he was “movie-star, drop-dead handsome,” famous, daring, and with a fantastic personality, he had it all.. yet he was TOTALLY unassuming, generous, and loving to EVERYONE and NOT just when he was in the spotlight… but ALL the time… what you got was the real Gary, ALL the time. With one bright white smile he’d charm your socks, shoes, pants and shirt off!

The second place in the dictionary would be where it says “fearless”… I don’t know what it was… if he actually thought he was indestructible, if he just didn’t care… or just loved doing what he did… I don’t know, but he truly had NO FEAR!

I was at Orange County International Raceway with him when he crashed… I know what really happened… but… I’m afraid that all I can do is tease the shit out of you, in that I was one of the fortunate ones who knew him and witnessed GG “events”… usually along with others, but sometimes just me and him… or me and him and a “friend” at the shop at 2 AM… He was a super-magnet to beautiful women… but he didn’t seem to overly care about the chicks… I think his “daring” lifestyle (as he did more than drive race cars… like doing stunt work in Hollywood, and being a human “guinea pig” for the Air Force… etc.) was his REAL passion…

And with that, I will have to tell you that I too will have to join the tight-lipped club, in that I can only tell those things that I can tell (and that wouldn’t be much)… the rest I will not tell, to protect him, because I loved him.


November 2, 2008

After setting the Land Speed Record, Gary Gabelich drives a 4 wheel drive Funny Car, a car doomed to make one run. During a closed photo-op for some drag racing magazines at Orange County International Raceway, it is agreed that Gabelich will merely “smoke the tires” for photographers. Caught in the moment, Gabelich stays on the throttle and the car climbs onto the guardrail and rolls, unraveling like a tin lid on a can opener. Gabelich’s body is not exempt from the slicing and dicing and a hand is severed as well as other limbs sliced open like so much canned fruit. Through a stroke of luck, after being stuffed into a station wagon and raced to the hospital with severed limbs in tow Gabelich is sewed back together by a crack team of neurosurgeons. He was said to never be quite the same, unfortunately. He is later beheaded in a motorcycle accident with a diesel truck on the streets of San Pedro, CA. As a testament to free-wheelin’ lifestyle, he is eulogized more in biker magazines than in any hot rodding publications.

“Gary was very upset when the car was sold because he wanted to attempt a sound barrier run with the car. In 1970 when they raced it, they had many mishaps. The most damning was they burned out the retro in the rocket and had to get a loaner or a gift motor to finish. As I remember the original rocket had about 40,000 pounds of thrust and the actual motor they used to set the record had about 14,000. That would lead you to believe that the car could go much faster given the space limitations of the Salt Flats, and the ground effects of going supersonic.

”I can’t even describe how many hours we spent talking about where the air goes (under the car). Would the air flip the car when supersonic ’splits the air?‘ They talked at great length about lengthening the rod on the front tip of the car to split the air farther out in front to prevent any negative effects. Craig Breedlove was a very close friend of Gary’s and he as well was always helpful in helping Gary advance his efforts. Craig and Gary where from the same town in California and I met Craig in 1966 on a water skiing trip. Most would think that they would be strange bedfellows when Gary got picked to drive the car, but Craig was one of his biggest supporters and fans.

“Gary was trying to figure out how to stop the new car going supersonic also.

“The problems are: no air for chutes and brakes won’t work over 400MPH. He was working on a splitting tail like the Space Shuttle and body panels that popped out. Of course, he never considered running anywhere but the flats.

”Gary‘s feelings about the car being sold was this: the car was owned by the Natural Gas Association as a publicity stunt. When the car got the record, they received millions of dollars in promotion which they never could have bought. They never saw it as a race car and felt that a return to the flats and the risk of an accident would become negative publicity. Hence, the car was sold.

”Gary even pursued contacting the new car owner about another run. Apparently, the car had been dropped while being off loaded from a ship when it left the country and there was some tweaking of the frame and that ended his interest.

”Gary then began trying to raise sponsors for a new car he‘d named The American Way. While he raised some eyebrows at the time, he raised no money for the project as interest in the LSR had waned by then. This was in 1979 nine years after the last true attempt and he wasn‘t breaking another guy‘s record; he would only be raising his mark and sponsors wondered how much interest this would raise. To raise the interest, he and Craig Breedlove stated they‘d create some new interest by building two cars and they‘d ’drag race‘ for the record on the flats. Wow, a 700MPH drag race! Of course, Craig would have to change his thinking to a rocket as a Jet vs. Rocket race would be no race in a drag event the best I can remember is something like 0 to 500 in 10 seconds (more than a few G forces).

”One of the reasons Gary was chosen to drive the car (Blue Flame) was because his full time job was he worked for Rockwell International in Downey, California as a ’Test Astronaut.‘ He tested all the space suits for the Apollo space missions. This is a glorious title to say he was the guy going around in the centrifuge. He was used to a lot of G forces, they were always concerned that the driver would blackout during acceleration.

”As far as Gary‘s life being cut short, while we all miss him lots, few of us could picture him dying an old man. Gary’s life was lived on the edge from the time he was 15 years old. Gary started racing by cleaning up the grease/oil mess for some kids in his neighborhood who had a drag car. He did this for a few years on the promise that someday they‘d let him drive it at the drag strip. That day came when he was 15, on the first pass he went faster than any run ever in the car. One year later, he had his own car and became a legend in California drag racing. He was the ultimate crowd pleaser being a lot ’nuts & wild‘ and being EZ to spot as he always wore an ostrich plume on the top of his helmet. He’d love to taunt his competitors on the starting line by shaking his fist and sometimes getting out of his car to yell something. Of course, it was all in good fun and I never met another racer who didn‘t love his magnetic personality.

”While setting the LSR made Gary infamous, many of his friends consider it a high point in his life that made the rest of his life chasing a dream. After the record, he didn’t know if he was a career LSR car driver or needed to return to his career in Drag Racing. Before his death, he nearly lost his life four times to my count. He flipped a drag boat @ 200MPH and as he went in the water the motor hit him in the back, nearly killing him. His kidneys were badly damaged and he was on dialysis for two years. He had two accidents in the same Funny Car (Beach City Corvette). Once, he lost the chutes and ended up on fire on a freeway and the second accident, the car caught on fire during a run and burned to the ground (he jumped out at over 100MPH). That accident burned holes clear through his goggles and helmet but he had only minor burns to his face and head. The fourth accident was a crash in his own Funny Car. It had 4 wheel drive which made it very fast off the line. On a photo shoot for a magazine, the throttle locked down during a ’burn out‘ and he lost control. At about 160MPH it went through a guard rail twice and flipped end over end.

”Gary had one of his hands cut off to the outside skin, one leg was behind his head and one was wrapped around the steering wheel. That leg became the problem. While his hand was re-attached and the leg behind him was dislocated, the surgeons wanted to remove the other leg as it was nothing but shattered bone from the ankle. Gary would not let them remove the leg, so they inserted a long rod to replace the bone. He adapted to the handicap, but spent about a year trying to get rid of gangrene.“ –Blue Flame crew member Paul Stringer.


November 2, 2008

”… supposedly when I lifted off the throttle, that was one fuel shut off device and when I popped the chute it was supposedly another one. Well, none of the fuel shut off devices worked so both chutes pulled off the car because it wasn’t very firmly anchored to the chassis and off I went, till I ran out of fuel. When I got down to the end, there were two guys waiting to pick up the chute and help me get off of the track. Well, here they start walking out in my lane, I‘m in the left lane, I mean, I knew I was in trouble, but they didn‘t realize that the chutes came off and then I steered the car — not knowing the chutes came off — I pulled over to the right and that aimed me, fortunately down a dirt road, when I went through a 14 foot cattle gate and missed a chain link fence. Otherwise I would have impaled myself right through the fence… I went up a hill and I don‘t remember anything else, I remember seeing blue, then that‘s the last thing I remember…“ — Paula Murphy, on her crash in the ”Miss STP“ rocket dragster when she set both a local speed and an altitude record in a race car.

Chuck Suba’s 5.41 second run remained drag racing’s all-time Low E.T. until November 11, 1971 when Vic Wilson clocked a 5.10 pass at 311 mph in the second hydrogen peroxide rocket dragster, Bill Fredrick’s Courage of Australia. This transpired during private testing at Orange County International Raceway in Southern California.

Despite the reluctance (actually, refusal) of the NHRA to sanction the rockets as a real class (the NHRA remains the de facto arbiters of all things drag racing and they refused to acknowledge or publish any jet car “records” as the cars were relegated to the “exhibition class” status (or “exploding clowns” as the dragster crowd sniffed)), the rocket car scene flourished like a comet. Its luminescence was just as brief. The triumphs, mishaps and tragedy left in its wake were legion and belie the brevity of the rocket car’s moment in the sun. To wit:

1972: Craig Breedlove crashed his English Leather Spl. (nee Screaming Yellow Zonkers) while testing an experimental aero package (sans wheel fairings); in her first (and only) pass in a rocket car, Paula “Miss STP” Murphy breaks her neck while setting both velocity and altitude records in Sonoma, California when the parachutes are ripped from the car’s chassis, and the car subsequently launches up and over the rolling hills of Wine Country…

1973: John Paxson tests a new motor in the Courage of Australia, and after a parachute failure, drives through the sand traps, pole vaults and lands upside down on the vehicle’s vertical stabilizer. Paxson was uninjured…

1974: Dave Anderson crashes in the Pollution Packer in Charlotte, North Carolina… Anderson’s chute doesn’t deploy and the dragster first slides into a parked race car at the end of the course — killing two crewmen — then impacts a retaining wall and nearly bends in half, killing Anderson…

1975: Upon impact, Russel Mendez frees his spirit and is beheaded by an aluminum guardrail in Gainesville, Florida as his body ejects from the Free Spirit

1976: “Fearless Fred” Goeske wrecks his Chicago Patrol rocket at a speed of 275 mph and merely bruises his collar bones from the shoulder harness…

1977: Stunt woman Kitty O’Neil rips a 3.72 at a crushing 412 mph in Bill Fredrick’s Rocket Kat dragster… Jerry Hehn is killed in his American Dream while doing thrust tests in a gravel pit; Hehn is strapped in with the vehicle anchored down, when the car breaks loose of its restraints and impales the side of a hill…

1981: Among the most bizarre of all rocket cars is the Vulcan Shuttle, a Volkswagen Bug dissected with a solid fuel rocket stuffed through the middle of the passenger compartment, which, unfortunately for driver Raul Cabrera is not throttleable. His destiny was the same as that of Mendez: Garish, ghastly and gruesome. The demise of both car and driver transpired while testing at an airport…

1994: The last hurrah for the rocket went down on an abandoned Royal Air Force air base in England. “Slammin’ Sammy” Miller stopped the clocks at mind-warping 3.58 seconds at 386 mph in the Vanishing Point rocket funny car. Miller, who had his crotch burned off in a nitro funny car fire in the early 70s, routinely kept his foot in the throttle until he would pass out (!) from the excessive g-forces, which was usually 660 feet into the run. According to crewmembers, Miller routinely got his thrills from waking up in the car after the car stopped accelerating, coasting through the speed clocks at nearly 400 mph.

(As an addendum, “Slammin’ Sammy” Miller possesses the only 1 second ET on a time slip; circa 1980, at an 1/8th mile drag strip in Holland, he actually tripped the clocks 1.60 at 307 mph. He was relegated to Europe after an NHRA blacklisting… )

Brent Fanning explained Miller’s method cum madness thusly: “He had the brake handle rigged with a brass knuckles-type grip (a push brake) so his hand would stay on the brake should he black out when the car ran out of fuel, which it had been calculated to do, at just past the 1/8th mile. Then the deceleration would move his arm and brake handle forward applying the brakes and also releasing the chutes which were attached to the brake handle in some manner. Thus slowing the car until he regained consciousness.”

Military grade hydrogen peroxide is getting used up. As with hydrazine, because of environmental concerns, no more will be doled out to those rocket car renegades. Even if the private sector could summon any more of it, the drag racing authorities and their insurers had no interest in sanctioning what they considered to be hyper-speed death traps.

But even Fanning alluded to a problem with the rockets; an actual lack of sturm und drang. Not enough noise, not enough walla-walla… “We always felt the fans wasn’t gettin’ their money’s worth, so we rigged up a little act to go along with the rocket car,” Fanning smirks through a cigar chewed to cud. “We’d tell the ambulance drivers to be ready because we had something special to race against the rocket car. We’d put my brother in the other lane with a firesuit on, strap a fire extinguisher on his back like he was Roger Ramjet — it wasn’t nuthin’ but baking soda packed into the extinguisher, y’ know, and we’d line him up against the rocket. The light would go green and the rocket would take off and my brother would pull the lever on the fire extinguisher and all that pressurized powder would begin spraying all over and my brother would begin runnin’ around in circles; he’d spin around like he was out of control, then bang into the guardrail, and flip over it. The ambulance would come down from the finish line with the bubblegum machines on and the siren blaring. That was nuttier than the rocket.”

1995: the Vanishing Point car is seen by the author parked at an auto repair shop in a bad neighborhood in Los Angeles (on Fairfax, two blocks south of Washington). Its tires are flat.