The last thing anyone at Bandimere Speedway expected Sunday of Pro Stock newcomer Paul Pittman was that he would upstage first-round opponent Allen Johnson, especially when the top qualifier was setting the track record and clocking top speed of the meet on the same pass.
But that's what happened in Sunday's Mopar Mile-High Nationals.
Pittman's first elimination round in the Pro Stock class in his fourth try had disaster scrawled all over it. Johnson sailed down the left lane as pretty as a sunny Denver summer day, but behind him Pittman's run had turned into a fishtailing, lurching, barrel-rolling, wall-banging, scary, flaming mess.
Pittman's Pontiac GXP Pro Stock car had drifted toward the center line, and as he tried to coax it back into the groove, the car wagged its tail. It turned on its side and tumbled over, slammed into the left wall, shot into the right wall with a burst of fire, then slingshotted back into the left barrier with a bigger fireball. The scoreboard beside his lane flashed, "7.525, 155.17."
But this is where the long-awaited Legend of Paul Pittman emerged. This is where the longtime Super Gas and Comp Eliminator racer -- the man who won this Denver event in the Super Gas class in 1998 -- shaped his public persona as one tough cookie.
In those few frightening seconds, drag-racing fans got to see Paul Pittman, the self-described "ma-and-pa" race-team operator, as a multi-talented Superman: play-by-play announcer, rugged stunt driver, and hopeless romantic.
He said that at about 1,000 foot, "the car started pulling over to the center. I saw the cones coming, and I thought, 'Well, I don't want to hit them.' So I tried to pull over to the right, and I didn't snatch it over. But when I went over to the right, she started walking around. The back started washing around left and right. I thought for a split-second I could save it. When she went over, I knew the car was wrecked.
"The I saw the wall coming," Pittman said, "and I just told myself, 'Hold tight and don't go unconscious.' I said, 'Stay awake. Stay awake.' And I hit the wall, and after I hit the wall, I went, 'OK. Good. I'm still here.' And then it went to the other side and I saw the other wall coming up hard. And I told myself, 'This is going to hurt. Stay awake -- really stay awake.' I hit that real hard, then I saw flames. I think I came to rest at another part of the wall."
He said the flames didn't cause him to panic: "I had my wits about me that I knew it was in the carburetor area. All I was concentrating on was staying conscious."
He said he thought he "scrubbed off a lot of speed when it went through the traps. I don't know. I dare say that before all that happened we were probably going -- I'm only guessing -- about 170-something.
"It just happened. It happened quick. But like they say, everything was slo-mo," Pittman said. "You saw it coming. Nothing you could do. There was no control over it."
He had high praise for the swift arrival of the Safety Safari and said, "I knew everything was fine from that point on."
He exited the car on his own and walked around the top-end scene, although he admitted later he was a bit "dazed."
Soon his shaken wife, Pat Hughes, caught up to him and called his name as he walked off with emergency medical personnel. He stopped, wheeled around, threw his arms around her in a lingering and emotional hug.
And then, maybe not unexpectedly for Pat Hughes but certainly for the Bandimere Speedway crowd and the national television audience, Pittman dipped her and kissed her, Hollywood style. It looked like a 2000s version of Alfred Eisenstaedt's iconic 1945 photo of the sailor kissing the nurse in Times Square on V-J Day.
"That was intentional. I did it let her know I'm fine. She knew that when I did that," Pittman said. Then with a mischievous grin he said, "I tried to do it like Brando and Bacall. I do that all the time. I always used to grab her around the neck and waist and get her down and kiss her. That wasn't because I was almost falling down."
So does Pittman have a future as a comedian with a stand-up shtick and a stand-on-the-gas racing career?
He never said, "I saw Elvis at 1,000 feet." He never crawled from his burning wreckage, scrambled to his toasted feet, and beat a hot path, past loved ones waiting with outstretched arms, straight to the media center.
But Paul Pittman is just as indestructible as John Force, just as engaging, just as media-savvy, just as humble in his beginnings, and just as straight-talking. Force, at age 63, is the youngster of the two. Pittman is 66. Public-address announcer Bob Frey likes to urge, "Say hello to your new No. 1 qualifier!" But he might have to add to his repertoire, "Say hello to your new No. 1 press-room entertainer -- Paul Pittman."
Frey probably won't get much of a chance to say it during the rest of this year, for Pittman's car looks like Robosaurus chewed it up and spat it out at a Monster Truck exhibition. Like famous war correspondent Ernie Pyle, Pittman recognizes how a mass of scrap metal can become a car and, as of Sunday, how a car can turn back into just a piece of crumpled metal.
So he won't be back on the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series tour until 2013.
"We worked our butts off all year long to take this tour," he said of his plans to make the next six or seven races, including the entire Western Swing. "KB just did a motor for us. They had their guys working late. They worked their butts off to make sure we can do this. I feel bad for them and everybody else.
"We were going to try to throw in a little vacation with it to kind of decompress. I feel bad for my wife. She travels all over the world, and she made time all this time, incorporating a vacation with it," he said. "And this kind of ruins it -- BUT we're going to try to figure out how to get that [the car] back in the box. We're going to plug up everything, and we're going to jump in the truck" and head to a Rocky Mountain recreational area for a bitof R & R..
Pittman's pocketbook suffered more damage than his flesh and bones did. He estimated that a new car and alone will cost him close to $300,000. Racers in the über-competitive Pro Stock class often talk about "thousandths." They mean time, measured in thousandths and sometimes in ten-thousandths of a clock-tick. That 300,000 was in dollars, a price that would fetch a comfortable house in Pittman's hometown of Bloomington, Minn., or several fancy boats to try out his state's 10,000 lakes, or a lifetime of luxury vacations.
And there his $300,000 investment lay on the asphalt in Colorado, wadded and charred.
But he vowed he will be back. "It will not deter me," he said.
As for his immediate plan, Pittman said without hesitation, "I have to build a new car. This happened -- it happened. But we'll be [back] out. It won't be this year. But we'll be out with a nicer piece. I wanted to build a new one anyway. We run it for two years, sell it. Somebody gets a good price and that usually is enough money for me to build a new car, since I'm doing it myself."
Pittman is nothing if not optimistic. His story, he said, "ends well."
He said he and his wife "always said it’s safe. The important part is no matter what happens, the most important thing is to always walk away. These things are made to go 200 and some odd miles an hour, with doors, and they're made so that any mishap, you can actually open that door and they can get you out. You get back with your life."
He said people typically complain that they have to spend more money to include upgraded safety elements. Said Pittman, "You'd spend more money for a funeral, so forget it..
"The NHRA, with their rules and everything they're doing, they make it possible for me to do this and for me to be able to build another car and get back out here again."
And what 's a guy who's compared to John Force without a sense of humor? One of his biggest concerns, he indicated, was that he "didn't want to make it look like some doofus came out and . . . aaaaaaugh! We ran Pro Stock last year. We just hadn't been out all year because we were waiting for parts."
Now he's waiting for next season, when he'll be back out on the track with the likes of Allen Johnson.
All articles and photography published in CompetitionPlus.com are protected by United States of America and International copyright laws unless mentioned otherwise. The content on this website is intended for the private use of the reader and may not be published or reposted in any form without the prior written consent of CompetitionPlus.com.
|< Prev||Next >|