(Originally printed in American Drag News)
We all have heroes.
I have mine, and you certainly have yours.
They come in all sizes and from all walks of life. Sports stars.
Presidents. Inventors. Flying aces. Relatives. Daredevils. Sometimes our
hero worship is like a youthful crush, with no real reason except itself.
Other times, merits are taken into full consideration.
Since this is a dragracing publication, I'll stick to the acceleration
I suppose, like a lot of other young dragrace fans of the early '60s,
Don Garlits was my first hero. He went fast, seemed to be able to leap
everything in a single bound, and when he began running 200mph with
seeming ease, he tore his car into a million pieces so that Hot Rod
magazine could explore all the hidden secrets.
Funny thing though, there weren't any. The article was so thorough, it
made it sound as if anybody could head for there local junkyard, drag home
a $50 392, stack on a blower from a city bus, bolt it in a
torched-together bunch of tubing, and run 200mph! And to stop, it just
took a tiny parachute, and stock '50 Olds drum brakes.
Though his legends are genuine, "Big Daddy" Don Garlits built
them out of fairly simplistic stuff.
I first saw the "Swamp Rat" in 1963, on a day at Puyallup
(Washington) Dragway so foggy that nobody should have gone outside – the
friends I rode with had difficulty finding the track. But Garlits, and a
number of other foolhardy souls, made pass after pass in the pea soup. I
was impressed, but I suppose that's obvious or I wouldn't remember.
On the same "bill" that day was Chris "the Greek"
Karamesines, another name out of the headlines and the ads. I have no idea
from whence he'd driven that morning, nor how long he and his one-man crew
had been on the road. He rolled in about thirty minutes before all were to
run, unloaded out of a minuscule trailer and pushed downtrack into that
fog. There was a spotter at halftrack who honked his horn when Karamesines
was ready. The usual signal – headlights on the pushcar – couldn't be
seen from the starting line! That day, since no cars were running, there
was no fear of anybody going head-on into the dragster, it was just nice
to know that someone or something was coming out of that fog.
Several of the crews had chosen to push out, turn around, pushstart and
head back to their pit spot to warm things up and go through pre-race
prep. This guy from Chicago though, he had a different plan. He lit the
Chrysler but instead of heading back for the pits like his peers, he sat
while the man patted, then palmed the ends of the cylinder heads to check
their temperature. Did I forget to mention that besides the fog, it was
Then, the driver waved for something, and received his helmet. He then
turned around, edged close to the starting line (the clocks were not set
up) and added a plume of M&H smoke to the fog. He pedaled a few times,
but we knew he was still "makin' it." He'd never even seen
When he returned, everyone crowded around to see this man who seemed to
have X-ray vision! What we saw climb out was a man in black pants, street
shoes and a windbreaker. He'd worn just his silver mask with those cool
breathers on the front, and the aforementioned helmet. I can't remember
whether the helmet was buckled or not, but it would be a better story if
Well, I had my hero for that day. I'd already read loads about Garlits,
and some about the Greek, and I knew right then and there that these guys
were the best there was to be had.
There were plenty of others out there, but these were the best, I just
A few months later, at the same track, I saw "TV Tommy" Ivo.
He had a glass-side trailer towed by a Cadillac Coupe deVille, and a red
metalflake dragster that shone in the sun. It was a class act, above all
else in its day. Looks weren't all, 'cause the car ran like stink. He was
there as a headliner for an open Top Fuel show that had about 25 dragsters
trying to qualify, the most I'd seen in one place. He didn't win. Somebody
by the name of John Mulligan did, in the Ward & Wayre Longshot.
W&W had an innovative "bunk bed" trailer that carried two
cars, the aforementioned, plus the Shortshot, powered by a Chevy.
Mulligan was a few months from earning the nickname "Zookeeper,"
and a year or so before he earned "hero" status with me.
Ivo though seemed to have it all. Looks, money, class, gorgeous
racecars, and later I would see for myself, the only carpeted engine room
of the era.
By the end of the '65 season, Garlits, Karamesines and Ivo were still
at the top of my heap, and over the years, that hasn't changed.
None of the three race much anymore, though I recently was told the
Greek is currently putting together another topflight entry for NHRA
competition, and I wish him the best of luck.
But though major event competition was and is a big part of all three
gentlemen's' reputations, with Garlits ahead in wins by quite a long ways,
it is touring and match racing that helped me decide just who were the
real heroes. And I believe that a lot of you had the same ideas. With but
four national events in 1965 (just two before that), there wasn't much
chance for any of us to see these "name" drivers in any setting
but at our nearby dragstrips when they came to town to race our local
These three touring drivers, and many others, scraped and scrapped
their ways to every pot-hole-infested dirt path that anybody decided was a
dragstrip. Today, most of those tiny, narrow, poorly-lit, "cowpaths"
are gone, but I would venture to say that even today, there must be a few
wildcat operations running that shouldn't be. But back then any stretch of
macadam was a prime spot to "organize" a dragrace.
If you were given the opportunity to sit down and listen to those that
toured heavily, they could fill you in on the horrors of such deathtrap
strips, and, even worse, the promoters that ran some of them. Many ran off
with the gate receipts, leaving the racers to pass the hat among the
unbelieving fans, or borrow from each other for gas money to make it to
the next booking.
Besides Puyallup, which was a hole-in-the-wall albeit well-loved by
racer and fan alike, I will also go out on a limb to say that these three
drivers blasted down every dragstrip you currently support, unless of
course the place didn't exist in the mid-'60s. You met these folk just
like I did, and found them to be supermen, grease gods and heroes. You
also knew they breathed nitro fumes for breakfast, had ice-cold 50 weight
in their veins, and seemed willing to do back-flips anywhere, anytime, and
in any conditions. They made no excuses, and though later on a few touring
"names" developed reputations for double booking, just not
showing up, or not performing up to par, these three were the best in
every positive category.
Their experiences have filled volumes. I feel privileged to have
listened for hours at restaurant tables, motel rooms and trailers waiting
out the rain, and wouldn't trade the times and stories for anything.
I hope your chosen heroes have given you as many storied memories.