THOMAS POPE: BEEN THERE, DONE THAT
For my first column for competitionplus.com, I want to take you back nearly 42 years to my introduction to drag racing as a college student who was a part-time sports writer at The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer.
In the summer of 1977, my local track was to host a sanctioned event called the NHRA Country Boy National Open. It was to be headlined by the Pro Comp class, which (for you young’uns out there) was a class that combined what you now know as Top Alcohol Dragster and Top Alcohol Funny Car.
The track promoter contacted the newspaper for some ink, and the sports editor, Howard Ward, assigned me to hook up with him -- John “Peanut” Higgins -- and produce an ‘advance’ story. At that time, all I knew about drag racing were the names “Big Daddy” Don Garlits and Don “The Snake” Prudhomme. Otherwise, no clue.
I met Peanut at a shop a couple of miles from the track. That’s where a local Modified racer, David Surles, housed his Modified car, and he was a good interview to help preview the event. Then Peanut sunk the hook: He told me Don Garlits would be there.
That was partially true if you want to give him the benefit of the doubt. “Don Garlits” was there at the Country Boy -- a Norm Day-owned alcohol funny car with Garlits’ name on the side.
it was there that I met one of Day’s competitors, Roberta Schultz, a racer from Woodbridge, Va., who at age 19 was only a couple of years older than me. Female racers were still an oddity four-plus decades ago, so I figured that was my story angle for the next day’s paper.
Her dad, Tex, purchased a school bus, cut the back out of it, painted it pink and turned it into a car hauler. He converted the front part of the vehicle into something of an RV, and while Roberta or her mom, Barbara, drove, Tex could go to the back and work on the “Baby Imp” Mustang as needed while the bus was rolling down the road to its next destination.
It was a good idea for a story. United Press International got wind of it and a couple of days later moved it and a picture of Roberta across its teletype machines to papers around the world. Pretty heady stuff for a part-timer.
Combine Roberta’s knock-dead-gorgeous looks and charm with the sights and sounds of a funny car burnout from less than 10 feet away … man, I was hooked with a capital H.
That introduction to the sport left an indelible mark. Seemingly every drag racer I met was a great interview or had golden credentials or both. A regular Friday night show at the track featured some of the nation’s very best sportsman racers.
Bear with me while I reel off some names that old-school fans will recognize: Bobby Warren, who would earn his third NHRA crown the following year; future NHRA champs in brothers Charlie and Jeff Taylor; a future NHRA SPORTSnationals champ, Phil Hardee; Surles; Ronnie Yopp and his “Mighty Mouse” Camaro; a future NHRA Modified kingpin in Garley Daniels; George Duff; Surles’ teammate, Paul Mercure, Bobby Smith and the G/Gas (I think) “Widowmaker” Corvette; Earl Smith and his son, Curtis, who would go on to win 17 IHRA and NHRA national events and the '96 IHRA Stock championship; Tim Sloan and his wife, Sheila … what a show.
Then you’d get the occasional match race with such as Roy Hill vs. Harold Denton in Pro Stock, or Schultz vs. future IHRA Alcohol Funny Car titlist Carol “Bunny” Burkett. Virtually all of them not only tolerated my many questions, but they also filled my head with knowledge and an immeasurable appreciation for the passion they invested in the sport they loved.
That carried over on a national eventual level, too. I was fortunate to be about 50 miles from Rockingham Dragway and 100 from Darlington, and I’d staff all of their IHRA national events. I’d get a wild hair, jump in the car and drive 5 ½ hours to Commerce or Bristol because I couldn’t get enough of nitro, alcohol and wheelstanding sportsman cars.
Back in the day before Top Fuel cars had reversers in them, I’d crouch behind the wall at Rockingham or Darlington, shoot burnout photos, then jump over the concrete barrier and help push ‘em back to the starting line. (Eventually, that became a no-no. Must’ve been lawyers involved, right? That and the implementation of reverse.) I’d come home covered in rubber, reeking of nitro -- and loved it.
Dale Pulde, Mark Oswald, Garlits, Lee Edwards, Warren Johnson, Jeb Allen, Bobby Hilton -- all of them were great story material. And not once did I write about Kenny Bernstein that I didn’t soon receive a thank-you letter in the mail. How do you not have an appreciation for someone with that kind of personal class and professionalism if you’re in my shoes?
I occasionally touch base with some of those folks -- Schultz (who long ago married Maryland International Raceway owner Tod Mack), Burkett, Pulde, Clay Millican.
Crew chiefs such as Mike Kloeber, Bernie Fedderly and Dale Armstrong taught me a ton about nitro racing. The one lesson of theirs that stuck most vividly? Armstrong telling me that if you poured a puddle of nitromethane on the asphalt in the pits and threw a match in it, it’d drown the match. But if you took a big ol’ hammer and delivered a hefty swing to that puddle, it’d explode. That’s the kind of education I got talking to these folks.
Even a start-up racer with a dream could get my attention with a good story. Don O’Neal, a soldier stationed at neighboring Fort Bragg, used common sense to get a story in the Observer. In a bid to get his dream out in public -- and hopefully, generate some sponsorship -- he sought me out. He told me how much he wanted to race full-time and how he was launching his dream by turning his dad’s ‘55 Chevy into a piece for the strip. Fast-forward a couple of decades later and he’s a two-time NHRA national event winner in Top Sportsman.
It’s only human nature to be attracted to something that interests you. Drag racing and the people who make it go had that effect on me. That meant it colored my coverage of drag racing for the 41 years I spent at The Fayetteville Observer. It gave me an opportunity to write for publications such as National DRAGSTER, Drag News, Drag Review, Drag Racing Today, Super Stock & Drag Illustrated, and Performance Racing Industry …
… and now, CompetitionPlus.com.
So, racers, in some sense, the fact that I’m here and you’re reading is all your doing.