VERN MOATS - THERE AT THE BEGINNING

3-13-08vernmoats.jpgAs engines throughout the garage fired up, signaling the start of the qualifying sessions for this year’s National Hot Rod Association Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., an older man, looking rather like a good ol’ country boy from Iowa, settled into the cockpit of a Top Alcohol Funny Car and as his crew  flop a 2002 Camaro body down over the chassis, history recorded a thirty fifth year.

As alky-powered FC racing enters its 35th year under the NHRA banner (the Funny Cars and dragsters were split into separate classes for the ’81 season), Vern Moats heads into his 35th year of racing alky-powered FCs – as far as we know, the sole racer still competing in the class from that first season.

0420-0742.jpg As engines throughout the garage fired up, signaling the start of the qualifying sessions for this year’s National Hot Rod Association Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., an older man, looking rather like a good ol’ country boy from Iowa, settled into the cockpit of a Top Alcohol Funny Car and as his crew  flop a 2002 Camaro body down over the chassis, history recorded a thirty fifth year.

As alky-powered FC racing enters its 35th year under the NHRA banner (the Funny Cars and dragsters were split into separate classes for the ’81 season), Vern Moats heads into his 35th year of racing alky-powered FCs – as far as we know, the sole racer still competing in the class from that first season.

For the 1974 season, NHRA and the American Hot Rod Association broke several high-powered classes out of Competition Eliminator – supercharged, alcohol-fueled funny cars, dragsters and altered and unblown nitro funnies and dragsters – to create a new, heads-up sportsman class called Pro Comp. (IHRA followed suit two years later.) Among the pioneers of that ’74 season, including stars such as Ken Veney, Dale Armstrong and “Wild Wilfred” Boutillier, was the Vega BB/Funny Car of Vern Moats.

Moats is living, breathing history not just because of his years in racing, but because how he races. He continues working on the car the old-school way, tuning his own engines, making small adjustments from his baseline and doing so without using a computer to tell him what to do. He hauls to and from the races in the same trailer he bought 20 years ago.

One shouldn't be fooled by the simplicity of his operation and the down-home attitude. Moats has raced a technically nonprofessional class professionally since 1981 and has done quite well. The 21st century has seen Moats struggle, but his resume includes 16 NHRA national event wins (the last coming in 2000 in Denver), 51 Division 5 meet wins and an incredible 15 D-5 points titles.

 

There’s not much round money. I would not know of anybody else who gets as much from sponsors and product manufacturers as I do. It used to be easy for anybody to get stuff; now, you gotta have credentials for anybody to give parts to you. Parts are worth as much as money, more in some cases. A lot of vendors are friends. - Vern Moats 

 


 

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T199.jpg “I would’ve never thought it was possible,” Moats said about making a living from a sportsman class. “I’m doing OK, doing what I want to do.”

He said his ability to race for a living comes mostly from cultivating relationships with sponsors and parts suppliers, along with his mechanical ability to test-run and modify parts. Kendall Oil, now his primary sponsor, has been with him for all 35 years in BB/FC and TAFC, and Moats often is one of the first to get the latest pieces from manufacturers such as longtime rival Anderson’s BAE engine parts company.

“It don’t come from winnings,” Moats said of the money he needs to support his racing operation. “There’s not much round money. I would not know of anybody else who gets as much from sponsors and product manufacturers as I do. It used to be easy for anybody to get stuff; now, you gotta have credentials for anybody to give parts to you. Parts are worth as much as money, more in some cases. A lot of vendors are friends.”

Moats started racing while in high school, street racing his ’54 Ford on a four- or five-mile stretch of country roads near his home, about 80 miles outside of Des Moines.

“My dad was a farmer, had a garage, worked on the neighbors’ stuff,” Moats said. “When I was a senior in high school, I took the car to a strip in Des Moines. My parents asked what I was doing, so I told them, and they said, ‘Yeah, sure, go ahead.’”

After graduating high school, Moats moved to Des Moines in 1964, started a towing service with his brother and kept moving up the racing ladder. The Ford gave way to a ’55 Chevy he ran at Des Moines, Fort Dodge, Cordova (Ill.) and other strips across the Upper Midwest. Then came an Anglia gasser in 1966, the “Super Jag” injected Jaguar altered and a Bantam-bodied car that ran A/Altered, then AA/Altered with a blown alcohol motor.

Going into the 1973 season, one year before Pro Comp came into being, Moats became a Funny Car pilot, replacing the Bantam body with a Dodge Charger.

“I wanted to run a blown engine, so I had the AA/Altered,” Moats said. “Then I thought, ‘That’s what they run in a Funny Car, so I might as well.’”


The Charger gave way to a Vega shell for Pro Comp’s debut season, and Moats won NHRA’s first D-5 Pro Comp points title while still running his towing service.

“We ran a lot of Pelligrini’s circuit out of Chicago,” Moats said, “NHRA, AHRA, points races, match races. Some weekends, we ran four times. Those were the years you really could make some money. I worked on engines, towed cars, raced.”

About this time, Moats also picked up sponsorship from Olympia Beer, leading to his running the “Oly Roller” Vega for the next couple of years. Interestingly, Moats’ next major sponsors also were beer companies; Hamms Beer, starting in 1983, and Pabst Blue Ribbon following that, all based again on Moats’ cultivating relationships.

“Oly was just coming into the Des Moines area (from its Pacific Northwest brewery), and I knew the guy who owned the distributorship,” Moats said. “He made me an offer that was so good, I thought, ‘Is this really true?’ They also furnished me a lot of stuff on the side. The same company ended up owning Hamms and Pabst, they were with the same distributor, so I got Hamms, then out of that came Pabst.”

Moats first national event win came in 1975, at the AHRA North American Nationals in Minnesota in what several media reports of the time described as Moats winning a game of “chicken.” Launching from the left lane in the final against Ron Book’s AA/Dragster, Moats spun his right rear tire, causing the car to turn sharply right and lunge hard at the center line. Book, apparently thinking Moats was crossing into his lane, braked and killed the motor, but Moats got the Oly Roller straightened out, missed the centerline and cruised to the win.

“Well, if you don’t touch the line, you’re OK,” Moats said with a laugh.



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83goldengatenats02.jpg While Moats racked up wins in AHRA and divisional competition over the next few years, wins on the NHRA national event trail didn’t start coming until 1983, a year after he sold his towing business and went pro, and two years after a devastating crash that nearly ended his career.

It happened in 1981 during the NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla. A broken front end joint caused a drag link to fall, sending Moats into, then on top of, the guard rail a bit past half-track. His Dodge Challenger then flipped several times, narrowly missing the scoreboard at the end of the track, before coming to rest right-side up and facing backward. Moats suffered serious injuries, especially to his arms.

“Both my arms got outside the roll cage,” Moats said. “They got pretty messed up. When I was in the hospital, one of the doctors was talking about taking the right one off. I got conscious long enough to say, ‘No, let’s keep it – we can take it off later if necessary.’”

Moats missed the rest of the ’81 season, but came back in 1982 with Hamms sponsorship, a sleek Datsun 280ZX body and a new primary occupation.

“I had a guy who wanted to buy the towing business,” Moats said, “so I thought, OK, let’s see if I can exist just by racing.’”

The first NHRA national win came at the ’83 Mile-High Nationals in Denver – the first for a foreign-bodied funny in either the nitro or alcohol ranks – starting Moats on a four-race national event win streak that included the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis and a TAFC record 6.36 elapsed time at the Golden Gate Nationals in Fremont. The streak started too late, though, for Moats to catch Fred Mandoline for the NHRA World Championship.

“I might have been a little bit ahead of other people on parts,” Moats said in explaining his hot streak. “We had a fuel combination that just seemed to work. It was just – everything came together.”

He describes the Denver win as his favorite moment in drag racing.

“My crew chief had quit a week before,” Moats said. “So I took this friend of mine who worked in construction, another race guy who ran a Super Stocker, out to Denver to crew for me. And I won.”
Moats’ best year on the national trail came in 1985. Armed with a Dodge Daytona body, he won six NHRA nationals and lost the world points crown to Anderson by a mere three markers.

“You could only claim (points at) the races. It wasn’t a best five-of-whatever deal,” Moats said. “Here I was winning all these races … but those wins didn’t count for any points. I had already claimed all my points for the year.




 

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0722-01350.jpg “I never count on anything ‘til I see it happen. I don’t like to be disappointed. But yeah, it was a little disappointing, especially the way the system ran.”

One thing Moats hasn’t done that many of his strongest rivals did through the years is go nitro. Veney and Armstrong left Pro Comp to race their own operations before working on other people’s AA/FCs; Armstrong notably for Kenny Bernstein in his 1980s glory years. Anderson ran a winning TAFC operation for his son, Randy, then moved up to the nitro ranks with a flopper for Randy and a Top Fuel dragster for daughter Shelly before his team lost sponsorship and folded. 1990s winners Tony Bartone and Todd Paton moved into the fuel ranks with limited successes.

“Yeah, I’ve thought about it,” Moats said. “But I knew I couldn’t afford it. What really got to Anderson more than anything was the cost of having six, seven full-timers on the crew. To do it, it’d have to be financially workable.”

Moats said of all the drivers he’s faced in his first 34 years of Pro Comp and TAFC racing, 11-time champ Manzo is the toughest, followed by ‘90s terror and former champ Pat Austin. The toughest era, though, was the Pro Comp years of 1974-80, when the BB/FCs raced heads-up against their alcohol dragster counterparts.

“Those double-A dragsters would run the hell out of the funny cars,” Moats said, “especially on those slick tracks the division races usually were on. I don’t know for sure, but I think I’m probably the only guy in a alcohol funny car to win the division.”

For this season, Moats plans on making seven to 12 national events and about eight divisional meets, including all five D-5 races. He and helper Dave Allison are busy in Moats’ shop preparing the ’02 Camaro while he contemplates selling a Mustang-bodied funny he bought last year to replace the Camaro. He thinks he hit on a transmission setup late last year that may see him return to serious competitiveness.

And when he rolled to the line in Gainesville, there were some new pieces on the car, some new rocker arms – from another of the many parts suppliers who helped Vern Moats survive to a 35th year in alcohol funny cars.

“I’m gonna try new rocker arms, but I’m trying ‘em for the (manufacturer),” Moats said. “I hear some people saying, ‘Why is Moats getting the new stuff? First it goes to Manzo, then Jay (Payne), then Moats.’ Well, I’ve been using their shit longer than anybody.”

And, in Vern Moats case, longer is just the tip of the iceberg.




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