Donnie Bender stood there, clutching the front rim from a dragster, awed by the rare and unexpected discovery in automotive archaeology.
"It was like you had handed that man a piece of gold," Mike Brinkley said.
Brinkley, who never has drag-raced formally . . . yet, owns a couple of Top Fuel dragsters, a Funny Car, and a handful of parts of dubious origin and questionable relevance. The rim that so fascinated longtime NHRA dragster mechanic Bender came from one of Brinkley's cars.
It's not just any old Top Fuel dragster, this one that has been sitting in Brinkley's out-building in Trinity, N.C., since 2006. It's the 1993 Murf McKinney-built rail in which Scott Kalitta made NHRA history on the way to the first of his back-to-back Top Fuel championships in 1994. It was the very dragster that was first to register four consecutive victories.
"I didn't know whose car it was," Brinkley said. "I bought it from Roger Dean. I've had it for seven years now. It's been sitting around in a building all this time."
When Brinkley learned last year from McKinney that he had Scott Kalitta's championship car, he contacted Kalitta Motorsports representatives Jeff Arend and Jim Oberhofer and let them know, gauging their team's interest in it.
"We had sold it to somebody way back when, and it went to this guy and that guy. It was a turnkey car. And it came back around," Oberhofer said, pleasantly surprised. "He was going to run that, but once he figured out what it was, he was like, 'I can't race this car.' "
Said Brinkley, "You can't do history but one time. If I can work something out with the Kalittas, I want them to have the opportunity to get the car back in good condition. I could match-race it or race it in exhibitions, but when you race like that, things can happen. And if something happened to one of my cars, I would rather it happened to a car that had no sentimental value or history such as that. I know what it's like to find a special car again and to know that it ain't been crushed or destroyed. That's priceless."
Oberhofer said, "My intentions were to try to get down there and go check this thing out." But he was unable to get away from team headquarters at Ypsilanti, Mich., the Thursday before the Dollar General Four-Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway at Concord, N.C., near Charlotte. But his brother, Jon Oberhofer, co-crew chief for Del Worsham's DHL Funny Car, helped lead an expedition to Trinity. The town is near High Point, N.C., an hour or so up Interstate 85 from Concord.
Along with him went Nicky Boninfante, Worsham's other co-crew chief, and Bender, who's crew chief for Top Fuel racer Sidnei Frigo. They took along brothers Bobby and Dom Lagana, who work with Bender's crew today. The Oberhofer brothers, Boninfante, and Bender worked on that Scott Kalitta dragster under the tutelage of now-retired crew chief Dick La Haie.
"They went and checked this car out, and they say it's the car," Jim Oberhofer said. "My brother said Mike even had the wheels that we ran, the front wheels we ran back then. We used to get wheels from Weld Wheels, and Dick La Haie would lighten them all up. We would lighten them up at the shop, and they were there. So that was pretty cool deal.
"Donnie Bender, he knew exactly what some of the things were, and Nicky did and my brother did. So it's definitely the car," he said. "We confirmed with Murf McKinney the serial number. He told us what the serial numbers were on it, and it was."
Brinkley said of those original rims, "Donnie Bender, he spied them right off the bat. He said, 'I milled all this stuff out. You wouldn't believe all the time I spent . . . ' I was impressed by Donnie and his knowledge.
"They're all good people," Brinkley said of the Who's Who in Drag Racing contingent who visited him that memorable Thursday. "It was well worth it. I could really tell the joy they had and the enthusiasm, just watching them. You could tell they were remembering the enjoyment they had doing it back then. It wasn't so much a corporate-type thing. All that fun was coming up out of them.
"I just sat back and listened," he said of the fascinating history lesson. Boninfante and "Jon O." relived the day Kalitta's four-race streak ended with the camshaft broken in three places and the frame a bit messed up. "They were having a good time reminiscing," Brinkley said, adding, "I can't express it enough -- I'm really happy to see them so happy.
"They were really excited to see those parts," he said. The original clutch system had been moved by post-Kalitta owners, but it and the fuel system were intact. "The fuel cell had been modified, extended. And the mag [magneto] hat was different. They went over that car, every intricate detail," he said. "Come to find out, the parts I got are the parts they'd like to have to go along with the car."
Next month will mark five years since Scott Kalitta's fatal Funny Car accident at Englishtown, N.J. But next year will be the 20th anniversary of Scott Kalitta's first championship -- with the car that Brinkley bought like some Picasso work hidden behind a garage-sale painting.
"We're excited about it," Jim Oberhofer said. "My brother and Nicky and Donnie, they were really excited when they saw this car. It's a shame I didn't get to go with them to see it, but I was glad they were able to go see it. Hopefully we'll make something work out with Mike.
"What we would like to do is get this car, put it all back together the way it was, and have it where it runs," he said. "We probably wouldn't ever race it. But we'd like to have it together next year, because it would be 20 years since Scott won the championship."
Brinkley said the "fab five" who came to inspect the car "were ready to get right on it. I could see their enthusiasm. They were ready to start tearing it apart. If they hadn't had a race in Charlotte to go to, they probably would have. And I'd have said, 'Go right ahead, fellas.' "
Somebody else found out about the car and contacted Brinkley -- Don Garlits. "But I said I wanted to talk with Connie first," he said, referring to Scott's drag-racing pioneer father and the owner of Kalitta Motorsports. "He was cool about it."
Then, Brinkley indicated, Garlits alluded to the 1964 U.S. Nationals, where Connie Kalitta was the first to make a 200-mph pass at a national event. That upstaged Garlits' 201.34 mph from earlier in the year at Island Dragway at Great Meadows, N.J. Before ending his conversation with Brinkley, Garlits told him, "I'm the first to do 200, not Connie Kalitta."
So this find has netted several memorable meetings for Brinkley. His next big move will be to decide if he can part with the dragster and return it to Kalitta Motorsports.
Oberhofer said, "We're going to try to work some things out with Mike, getting him another car to where he can go race it, on the IHRA circuit, I believe, is what he wants to do. So now it's a matter of details of trying to work something out with him and trying to get it back together.
"I haven't even called up Dick La Haie yet about this. I wanted to kind of surprise him and see if I couldn't get him to be a little part of it because if anybody knew anything about that car, Dick La Haie would know more about it than probably all of us combined would know. He had little notebooks he probably still has," Oberhofer said.
"It'd be neat to get Dick-o involved and have Donnie and myself and my brother and Nicky involved and then get Corey Kalitta [Scott's older son] up there to sit in the seat and have Connie there. My wife [Tammy], she did all the PR stuff for the team back then -- [I'd like to] have her involved. I think it would be kind of a neat deal to do, especially-- I was thinking, 'Man, 20 years ago . . .' I think it would be cool to put that whole thing back together the way it was."
The gang of longtime friends and co-workers began buzzing about how to restore the car if they take possession of it.
"We were all trying to think, 'Well, what blower did we have on the car? Was it an SSI or a Mert Littlefield? So we're trying to think of all these things: 'We ran DART cylinder heads back then. OK -- how do we locate all this stuff?' " Oberhofer said. "We even talked about trying to find Connie's car from '94 and match race the two cars."
He said he thinks Top Alcohol Dragster racer Dave Hirata has Scott Kalitta's car from the 1995 championship and was considering restoring that dragster.
Sentiment is not one of Connie Kalitta's strong suits.
"Connie's not much into doing stuff old-time. He doesn't care what he did yesterday, let alone what he did 50 years ago," Oberhofer, Kalitta Motorsports vice-president, said. "But I think this is neat. This is a special car -- it's a neat car. It was a bad-ass car. Won a lot of races with it. Ran really well with it."
Brinkley said he also had heard Connie Kalitta wasn't much on nostalgia but said, "I think he'll be very, very glad to see this car. It was Scott's first championship car."
The journey for the current owner of this dragster is as fascinating as that of the machine itself and those of -- in Jim Oberhofer's self-incriminating lingo -- the "four clowns who worked on the car."
Brinkley had bought all the equipment, planning to race in IHRA competition. Just after he made his investment, the IHRA changed ownership and the traditional championship points system vanished. Eventually the nitro classes disappeared altogether. So Brinkley stowed his cars and parts and waited for another opportunity to race.
"My son was born in November 2007," Brinkley said, noting it was at about that time the IHRA was in transition away from Top Fuel dragsters and nitro Funny Cars. "I guess it was meant for me to raise my boy. I'm a single dad. I've raised him since he was about four months old."
Jason Rittenberry's West Palm Beach, Fla.-based group announced this January it purchased the IHRA and planned after this season to restore nitro-class competition. That rekindled Brinkley's interest in starting to drag race. And little Michael Brinkley appears to be well on his way to enjoying his father's passions, just like Scott Kalitta did with his dad, hanging out around the cars and tools.
Brinkley had been a street racer and for awhile was into the biker scene -- where he happened years ago to meet Scott Kalitta.
He was a pretty good ol' fella," Brinkley said. "He just had that charisma. He wasn't the least bit arrogant. He was an average everyday good fella, a good ol' cat."
Brinkley struck up a conversation with Scott Kalitta because he had "seen him a time or two" at one of his hangouts and thought Kalitta looked like a biker buddy of his known around town as Lightnin'. ("They would have passed for about twins," Brinkley said, "except Scott didn't have a beer gut.")
After learning Scott and Lightnin' were just look-alikes --right down to their "ol' raggedy jeans," he said -- they visited and Brinkley learned who Kalitta was and what he did. "And now to think I have Scott Kalitta's car. That's amazing."
He laughed at the thought of what he must have looked like to the established drag-racing entourage who came on the field trip to Trinity last month.
"I had on my old d*** joggin' britches. I have a rough ol' biker look with long hair and tattoos. I came out the door and my hair was flyin' everywhere. They probably thought, 'Oh boy --" Brinkley said.
But they seemed to get along famously, for they all appreciated the same sport and the craftsmanship of the cars and parts -- and they all had the same respect for its history.
"I'm trying to work with Mike here real soon, trying to work out some trading with him. He would still like to run a Top Fuel car," Jim Oberhofer said.
"I'd like to be racing next year, without a doubt," Brinkley said. "We're still talking about things. We'll see what me and Jim finish working out."
Said Oberhofer, "I'm hoping everything works out where we have Connie there and Dick-o there and us four clowns who worked on the car there," he said. "And Corey and my wife there. It'd be cool.
"I look at that car and that team . . . Guys like Connie Kalitta and Dick La Haie and Scott Kalitta made me what I am today. They made Donnie what he is today . . . And Nicky and Jon O," Jim Oberhofer said. "That car really made Kalitta Motorsports what it is today, I think."
And it's possible the car could be headed back to its glory-days home, at Ypsilanti, Mich.
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