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‘The Big Go-West’ Produced Big Memories

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, February 9 2010
Don Garlits, in the right lane, experiences engine problem at Pomona. (Photo courtesy of the Full Throttle NHRA Drag Racing Series)

Don Garlits, in the right lane, experiences engine problem at Pomona in 1963. (Photo courtesy of the Full Throttle NHRA Drag Racing Series)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

This was a time of cross-country road-trips, greasy spoon diners and “pit stops” wherever along America’s two-lane blacktop nature called.

Their wide-eyed to bleary-eyed adventures from Florida, Texas and Indiana transported Don Garlits, Kenny Bernstein and Bob Glidden, respectively, to the home of the National Hot Rod Association and the endless promise of a new season.

“You know, the Winternationals for me, being from Texas, we called it the “Big Go-West” back in the early days. That’s what they named it,” said Bernstein, recalling his first trip to Pomona, Calif., in 1973. “For all the kids back when we were growing up, we couldn’t wait to have our chance to go to Pomona for the Winternationals.”

Thirty-seven years later, the 50th Kragen O’Reilly NHRA Winternationals will kick off the 2010 Full Throttle Drag Racing Series season Thursday at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona. In recognition of the golden anniversary, NHRA icons Garlits, Bernstein and Glidden – whose on-track performances span all five decades of the Winternationals – recently reminisced about the event’s personal and historical impact.

For an innovator like Garlits, the Winternationals marked not only a trek that began in Tampa, Fla., but also a new round of tinkering for the larger-than-life character known as “Big Daddy.”

“It was a test-bed. The Winternationals was a special deal because that’s where we saw the new cars,” said Garlits, drag racing’s first superstar and the man who altered the direction of Top Fuel racing in 1971 via introduction of the rear-engine dragster at Pomona. “That’s where we tested our new stuff, like the rear-engine car. Well, I tested a lot of stuff there.  The first port nozzles in drag racing were tested there in Pomona.  The wing on the car in 1963 was tested there in Pomona.

“It just kind of set the tone for the whole year if you did real well. Of course if it didn’t work real well, you went home and regrouped and you had time because there wasn’t a race real soon afterwards. It was just a great deal because we loved it. The track was great, and there were lots of competitors.”

Among the Pro Stock competitors was Glidden, whose annual trip from Whiteland, Ind., marked a respite from another long Midwest winter spent in the engine shop, hunkered down with a dyno. But while Glidden’s Plymouth and Ford hot rods pretty much proved bulletproof, the same could not always be said about his tow-vehicle du jour.

“The racing-the-car part was easy,” said Glidden, a seven-time Winternationals winner. “I can recall the first trip we made out there, going home over the mountain at Needles, I blew the engine in my truck.  So the stress was really in getting there and getting home, not in racing the car.

“In Pro Stock we would spend the time from the last race, which was also at Pomona, to the first race trying to improve mostly our engine programs. Certainly it was proven to us that Pomona was a great springboard to the whole season.  And if we could go and run well at Pomona, we ordinarily ran well throughout the season.  Fortunately, for us, the track there was just a great place for us. Because we were lucky enough to win a lot of races there. “

Actually, Glidden flat-out dominated the Winternationals from the mid-1970s to the late 1980s. Those seven Winternationals titles are most by a driver in any of NHRA’s four professional classes. Glidden’s Winternationals victories spanned a 14-year stretch from 1975 to 1989, with wins in-between in 1976, 1978, 1979, 1981 and 1985.

“We were so fortunate over the years,” said Glidden, whose 10 NHRA championships –including nine in various Ford products – are the most in Pro Stock and second all-time only to John Force’s 14 in Funny Car. “I’ve said it many times – our career was like a storybook. If we were writing the script it wouldn’t have turned out nearly as well.  And we just appreciate all the wins that we’ve had.  And certainly the wins in the latter part of our career we remember the most.”

Bernstein, a Winternationals winner in both Funny Car (1987) and Top Fuel (1992), nevertheless pointed to his driving debut at Pomona in ‘73 as his favorite event memory.

“I was driving for Ray Alley’s Engine Masters Funny Car,” said Bernstein, a resident of Lubbock, in West Texas, who launched his racing career in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. “We made it to the runner-up position and got beaten by a little guy there by the name of Don Schumacher in the final.  What an accomplishment for three guys from Texas, trying to run a race car with Ray and having fun.

“I don’t think I’ll ever forget that because we had never been to a Winternationals before.  And to get to the finals was a really big deal.  The only thing that could have been better was winning it.  I almost felt like we did win it that day, to be honest.

“Bottom line, in the early days for me it was just fun to come out here and compete. I remember towing from Texas, man, 24 hours straight non-stop.  Me and one other guy, and never stopping in a hotel or nothing – just doing it. But that first one I came to in ‘73, I was just tickled to get out and have some fun in the sunshine; it was cold back in Texas in January and February.”

By time Bernstein concluded his career as the fourth-winningest driver in NHRA history with 69 victories, he also was firmly established as one of the sport’s most savvy businessmen. Bernstein won the first of four consecutive Funny Car championships in 1985, then re-invented himself in the 1990s as a Top Fuel driver in the famed Budweiser King Dragster. He first retired in 2002, but returned to Top Fuel in June 2003 when his replacement, son Brandon, suffered a season-ending broken back in a crash. KB then ran the 2007 season as owner/driver of a Funny Car.

Bernstein is the first driver in NHRA history to have won titles in Funny Car (1996) and Top Fuel (2001). And of course, he earned the title “King of Speed” as the first NHRA driver to break the historic 300-mph barrier, at 301.70 mph, at Gainesville (Fla.) Raceway in March 1992.

That was five years after Garlits bagged his fifth and final Winternationals title over a 24-season span. But long before corporate sponsorship changed the tenor of the season-opener, even the taciturn Garlits could not avoid approaching the Winternationals with a sense of wonder.

“In the beginning we came out for the fun of it, and it was fun,” said Garlits, first driver to win three NHRA titles, including the last at age 54. “It wasn’t any big deal about the sponsors –there were no great big sponsors.  It was maybe Wynn’s (Friction Proofing) gave us $1,000.

“We towed on open trailers and four-door sedans…the used ones, I might add. We were all good mechanics.  Most of those cars ran real good.  They didn’t look all that good, but they were pretty sound automobiles.  We could make that trip from Tampa to Los Angeles in 54 hours, me and Art Malone and me and Connie Swingle.  And we did it many times just like that. It was the ‘80s when everything changed and the big corporate sponsors came on board, then it got to be stressful.  It was not stressful up until then.  It was just a fun thing, and we were having a hell of a time doing it.”

Garlits posted his first Winternationals victory in 1963, by which time his winning percentage against West Coast regulars had led to the derogatory moniker of “Don Garbage.” Garlits added Winternationals Wallys in 1971, 1973, 1975 and ’87 in various iterations of his famed “Swamp Rat” rails. But it was a succession of painful events that led to introduction of the rear-engine dragster at the 1971 race.

“I made the move (to the rear-engine design) after I had that terrible accident in Long Beach, and I cut off part of my right foot,” said Garlits, referring to the transmission explosion that cut “Swamp Rat 13” in half and resulted in an extended hospital stay. Garlits famously drew the design of his first rear-engine dragster wearing hospital jammies.

“It really made me mad,” Garlits said of his sheet time. “You know, I saw so many of my friends getting maimed and killed in those cars. And I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to try to design something here that will make it safer.’ And I thought, ‘Why can’t we have a dragster that goes down a quarter-mile in a straight line just fine when they’re maneuvering around Indianapolis (Motor Speedway) at 200 miles an hour in rear-engine cars?’  It didn’t make any sense to me we couldn’t do it in drag racing, yet they could go in and out of traffic 200 miles an hour with a rear-engine car, and a short wheelbase at that.

“So with that thought in mind, I went to work on it. It was harder than I thought.  It took three months to work out the bugs.  Of course, I wanted to show it at the Winternationals. I always looked at it as a race that was the start of the season. Got to see all of the guys’ new stuff.  Got to visit all my friends at the manufacturing places, and then you go out to Pomona and you do your thing.”

As with any radical design, Garlits’ rear-engine machine – built in collaboration with TC Lemmons – was hardly met with universal approval in the Pomona pits.  “The wife of one of the Top Fuel guys came over.  This about sums up the deal,” Garlits said. “She walked around that car and she says, ‘I pray to God that this thing doesn’t work.  It is the ugliest dragster I have ever seen.’  And that just about sums it up.

“There were a lot of guys praying to God it wouldn’t work because they built brand-new cars.  I remember one team particularly had two brand-new dragsters – they were just really state-of-the-art slingshots  – but if this (rear-engine) car worked, that meant those two brand-new cars weren’t going to be ‘the cars.’  So it was a lot of heady feelings in the air, you know?  But I was determined.  I wanted to (sit) in front of all that stuff.

“I never will forget the first time I actually drove it down a drag strip, and we were push-starting in those days.  I remember we pushed down to the end to turn around and I motioned to my crew to come over to the car. They said, ‘What’s wrong?’  I said over in the lane I’m was fixing to make a run in – you were pushed down the lane you were going to run in and fire in the opposite lane and then turn around and come down that lane – I said, ‘Over in that lane is a three-inch bolt lying in the middle of my lane.  Would you go over and get it?’ And Swingle said, ‘Is it a fine-thread or a coarse-thread?’  I said, ‘It’s a fine-thread.’  That’s how good you could see out of those cars.”

Garlits, who retired in 1992 at age 60 due to retina problems stemming from decades of rapid deceleration, said each of his 35 career victories was the end product of a single thought process.

“I went to every race trying to win the race and still leave with the engines (intact); I never blew an engine up purposely just to get a round (win) – leaned on it beyond what I felt the thing could take,” said Garlits, who will turn 78 on Sunday, when final rounds will be run at Pomona. “Another thing I always did, I usually ran my car pretty close to what was right on the ragged edge of spinning the tires.  And I knew that it just wasn’t going to go much quicker than that without spinning the tires.

“So no matter who I came up against, whether the guy had a better time than me, I stayed with my game plan and planned on getting from Point A to Point B and have an engine on the other end.  And that won me more races than you could shake a stick at.

“A lot of times guys just gave up the race. They leaned on it because they thought, ‘Well, Garlits is going to do something tricky’… so they’d lean on it and spin the tires or break it or something.  And I’d just go on with my normal whatever I was running that day. Sometimes I ran a little better, but not very often.  If you look at my times, mostly they ran pretty consistent the whole day.  And that was pretty much what I felt the car could get out of the track on that particular day.”

Similar to Garlits’ line of reasoning, Bernstein and Glidden said they never allowed the winning to become routine.

“Winning never gets old, and never becomes habit-forming, believe me,” said Bernstein, 65, and owner of the Copart Dragster that will be campaigned by Brandon in 2010. “There is nothing better and a better feeling than having success on a racetrack in our line of work.  I mean, that’s what we do it for. In our sport you’re only as good as your last win, your last time slip.”

Glidden, whose 85 career victories rank third on the all-time list, insisted there was no rocket science to either his Winternationals success or to his championship run. That era covered a 12-season span between 1978 and 1989 during which Glidden’s Fords and the Chevrolets of Texans Lee Shepherd, David Reher and Buddy Morrison monopolized the “Factory Hot Rod” wars.

“I think that ordinarily we went there (Pomona) more prepared than most of the other teams,” said Glidden, 65. “In Pro Stock it was a little bit different than in Top Fuel and Funny Car.  When we got there, what we had for power is what we had.  And you just tried to use it as best you could.  Even though we won a lot of races, we probably lost a couple races that we should have won if we were really in a quicker car.”

Glidden, who retired in 1997 but made brief comebacks in 1998, 2002 and ‘03, reiterated that the wins toward the end of his career remain prominent in his memory. As it stands, his last competitive pass produced a DNQ time slip during the 2003 season-ender at – appropriately enough – Pomona.

“When we first got started, you know however many years ago – 40 years ago – of course the first win seemed at that point like it was the most important thing in the world that happened to us,” Glidden said. “So to think that in any way that winning would become routine… I don’t think any of us could win enough to get tired of it. I think that is really the answer to that question.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, February 9 2010
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