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Friday, March 28, 2008

50 years ago in Texas ....

The NHRA is in the great state of Texas for the O’Reilly NHRA Spring Nationals, making this an appropriate column to share some tall Texas tales, which I will shortly.

But first off, of course, is the sad news about Patty Foster taking his last ride. You know how I felt about him (see March 7 entry below; it's sad that I have to use that obituary after all). Pat went out his way, and, well, that’s just the kind of guy he was. As one of his friends suggested, maybe he was just ready to get on with his next life. Hopefully they have welding torches up there. He will be missed but not forgotten. I got a chance to send an e-mail to him at the hospital Monday to tell him just that, and I think it’s wonderful that everyone got to share their feelings about him –- in person, in print, and online -– before the final chute. I’m sure he went to hot rod heaven knowing how much he was loved and respected, which is pretty much the best any of us could hope for. RIP, Pat.

But back to Texas …

Garlits’ fabled Swamp Rat 1 (above) took on "Red" Greth and the Speed Sport Roadster (below) in the final at Wichita Falls.

(Above) Garlits’ SR1 in the pits in Houston. (Below) Pete Ogden in Romeo Palamides’ slick car.
I received an amazing package this week from Ed Mabry, a follow-up to earlier e-mail exchanges that began with the teaser, “I have pics of Garlits’ first meeting with the west. Are you interested?”

Was I interested? Did John Wayne wear a 10-gallon hat? The event, held 50 years ago this June in Texas, is regarded as being the episode that helped establish the phenomenon known as “appearance money.” Garlits was tearing up the East Coast with performances that those west of the Mississippi largely discounted as popcorn times, but, as Texans are wont to do, they put their money where their mouths are. The Red River Timing Association offered “Big” a cool $450 to come west to Wichita Falls, Texas, to take on the local competition.

So, who's Ed Mabry? He's a member of the Texas Drag Racing Hall of Fame, half of the famed Hunt & Mabry team that terrorized Texas in the late 1950s and early 1960s with blown and unblown fuel dragsters, and he later built chassis from his shop in Arlington for some pretty famous folks. That’s Mabry, right, talking with another pretty good Texas old-timer, Bobby Langley, of Scorpion fame, in a photo from about a year ago.

Mabry later became a founding member of the SEMA Chassis Builders Association and cranked out Top Fuel and Funny Car chassis through the 1970s. Among the cars he built were Kenny Bernstein’s first dragster for the Anderson brothers and the rear-engine car in which John Wiebe tangled with Jeb Allen at Tulsa in 1973. (“A third-member failure,” recounts Mabry, “before we learned to use a big one-piece axle.”)

Beginning in the mid-1980s, he built motorcycles (Web site) that have set 16 records at Bonneville (including the fastest ever, at 256 mph) and was inducted into the Dry Lakes Hall of Fame in 2004. “I've been building my own toys all my life,” he said. “I was born in '32, and when I grew up, there was no money for toys, so I hung around my granddad’s blacksmith shop and my dad’s cabinet shop. If I wanted something, I had to build it myself.”

It was June of ’58, and Mabry, whose own B/Gas dragster was not ready for the event, made the 100-mile drive from Arlington to Wichita Falls to have a look for himself. On hand were Langley, who was to Texas what Garlits was to the Southeast; 1956 NHRA Nationals champ Melvin Heath; Jack Moss with his twin-engine mount; the well-regarded Cook & Bedwell dragster (recently purchased by Meyers & Davis); and the famed Speed Sport Roadster of Lyle Fisher, "Red" Greth, and Don Maynard.

The final came down to Garlits and Greth, as told in Mabry’s words.

“After dodging each other all day the ‘stars’ were ready for the final round. A dragster and a roadster pushed off and came back toward the starting line. The dragster moved up first and waited. The roadster approached the line but never stopped. It rolled past the line and flagman and took off. The dragster tried to catch up, and almost did. The rerun proved that Don was the quickest.”

Garlits returned to Texas in August for a California Challenge against the vocal West Coasters at Houston’s Freeway Drag Strip. The opposition was formidable: Jack Ewell in Jim Kamboor’s machine, Pete Ogden in Romeo Palamides’ dragster, and John “Red” Case, in a mid-engine car, represented California; Langley was there again, with Scorpion II, to keep them all honest.

After struggling initially, much to the delight of the skeptical Golden Staters, Garlits took down all three California drivers in succession, finishing off Ogden in the final. He later also won the Texas State Championship, defeating Langley in the final.

All of this only led to further hue and cry from the California contingent, which wanted to battle Garlits on its own turf, which led to Garlits’ first appearance at Bakersfield in 1959 (paid, of course; he was guaranteed $5,000, against winnings, to run three western meets). His first Bakersfield ended early with a broken rod as he staged for the first round; some claimed that he had sabotaged his eight-Stromberg-carbureted engine rather than run against the supercharger-equipped West Coast cars. He added a blower before the next event, at Kingdon in Northern California, which he won handily, and he set low e.t. by a mile at the final event, held outside of Chandler, Ariz. (near the current Firebird Int’l Raceway).

It took Garlits seven more tries before he finally won at Bakersfield, which, for many, was still the race despite the ever-growing NHRA events in Indy and Pomona. In 1965, he beat good friend Marvin Schwartz in the final. It was the first of five March Meet titles, the last coming in 1987.

(Above) Jim Kamboor tuned on his Jack Ewell-driven machine. (Below) Bobby Langley's fearsome Scorpion II.

(Above) The Hunt & Mabry B/Gas dragster. (Below) "Red" Case wrenched his rather scary-looking mid-engine car.
I also got a kick out of the boards that Mabry keeps in his shop, filled with sayings he’s accumulated over the years and modified, when necessary, to fit his cause.

Some of the gems:

“If it breaks, make it stronger; if it doesn’t break, make it lighter.”

“Some people dream of setting records; some people stay awake and do it.”

"Success comes in cans; failure comes in can'ts."

“Good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment.”

"Think before you ask questions; ask questions before you guess."

“Think about how it looks; worry about how it works.”

“It’s better to be a has-been than a never-was.”

“If all you do is what you’ve always done, all you will get is what you always got.”

Priceless thoughts that have been the mantra of many a drag racer over the years, brought to you by a guy who's been there and done that.