by Phil R. Elliott
(Originally Printed in American Drag
It was 1970, a time of transition.
Politics were changing, the world was
changing, attitudes and feelings were changing, music, styles of clothing
and definitions of freedom were changing. In similar manner, dragracing
Barely at legal age, dragracing had lived
through both the formative `50s and the positive `60s and evolution was
truly starting to show.
The most radical machines of the previous
years were showing their age. Lovely behemoths that replicated ancient
shapes were still running in obscure-sounding classes, but their numbers
were down. The best names from A/GS and AA/FA had mostly gone the still
burgeoning, high-in-demand funny car route, beginning its second year as
an accepted professional eliminator by NHRA. It was the year that NHRA
accepted Pro Stock as its own, actually a year after AHRA had stolen a
great deal of thunder by drawing the match race "Super Stockers"
to their major events.
Top Fuel was still a huge draw in most
parts of the country, although the recognizable FC was cutting into its
turf, as well as stealing many teams away from the dragster ranks. The FC
was still new and exciting, and by `70 had changed from awkward,
suspended, nearly unmanageable beasts, into something narrower, safer, and
faster. TF drivers were more able to make the move with ease, especially
as fragile, explosion-prone automatics were replaced by clutches and early
examples of planetary transmissions.
Sometimes, transition is good, and in 1970,
it felt good. We still had the `33 Willys and `48 Fiat, we also had new
Camaros and Barracudas.
A young man that called Tulsa home (still
does) was the reigning World Champion in NHRA. Many scribes and fans
believed he should have worn the AHRA crown as well.
You see, NHRA crowned divisional champs
back then and invited the top five or six points earners from each segment
to their World Finals. Steve Carbone, driving Larry Huff's Soapy Sales
entry ran enough Division VII (mostly California) events to be allowed
entry to the "invitational." He mowed down the field for the
loot, and the overall World Champion title for 1969.
Over at AHRA, they'd adopted an overall
points system. So when Carbone, in the dragster of the highly respected
duo of Bill Creitz and Ed Donovan, whipped everyone at the Tulsa-run World
Points Finale, the crowd went home pretty disappointed when some guy named
Leroy Goldstein was called the AHRA WC.
As a sidebar, NHRA had run their World
Finals at Tulsa from `65 to `68, and the fans were more in tune with the
invitational, winner-take-all format. The `69 event had been moved to an
all-new supertrack near Dallas.
Still, Steve Carbone was on top of the
heap, proven by driving two different cars to wins at the end of the
season. Certainly, as he thought over his past few years, he thought maybe
there was a transition in the wind for him as well.
He'd built a reputation over those years
for showing up at tracks with a cowboy hat, an overnight bag, his helmet
and firesuit, and find a ride. Stories are that in the heydays of SoCal
Top Fuel, Steve hopped in anywhere between a dozen and two dozen different
cars in a single season. He was considered quite the "shoe" too,
with multiple wins for myriad teams under his belt. And, though he liked
the best cars and rarely could be found in what was considered a
"leaker," he could be trusted to wring the most out of even a
His phone began to ring following those two
big wins in late `69, with calls from car owners and track promoters
alike. And the more he thought about it, the more it became obvious that
he should step up to the plate and build his own car.
It would be familiar, a 210" wheelbase
Don Long chassis with an Ed Donovan-built 392 Chrysler with which Steve
Carbone would have a decent season. It was black, with gold-leaf trim, and
had his own name splashed down its full nose. Between match racing and
major events, the new car – his car – carried him to victories and
But it wasn't until 1971 that the name
Steve Carbone would be ever etched on the brains of dragrace fans and
First, after much thought and research,
Carbone switched to a late-model Chrysler. It seemed to be the coming
thing, and most of the winners were riding the 426. It had been six years
since nitro R&D had been started, and the formerly breakage-prone
engine was taking over.
Former partner Ed Donovan was whittling
daily on what he thought would be the next step, an all-aluminum replica
of the `57-vintage 392 Chrysler, but it was still a few months away.
Don Garlits, exactly one year after his
foot-severing accident at the start of `70, debuted a strange-looking
dragster, with the late-model Chrysler mounted amidships, behind him. It
was for safety. No longer would he be concerned about fires and flying
shrapnel from blowers and experimental transmissions. He was runner-up at
his first two `71 events, but slam-dunked the NHRA Winternationals and The
U.S. Fuel & Gas Championships at Bakersfield. As the year progressed,
Garlits' car sprouted wings and literally began to fly.
By the time August arrived, Garlits had run
6.3s and Indy predictions were for 6.2s! It came true, with "Big
Daddy" whistling through the timers at 6.21 for the number one spot.
To prove how truly amazing the number was at the time, our Tulsa boy,
Steve Carbone, was second at 6.39.
In storybook fashion, the two marched
through one of the strongest fields in history to meet in the
all-important Monday final. Carbone was cagey. Though next to Garlits,
Carbone was a rookie. But considering all those cars, and all those tracks
in his recent past, Carbone wasn't rattled.
He had another ace up his sleeve, something
that few on the sidelines remembered at the moment. Back in '68, Steve and
Don had faced off at Indy, a race which on paper performance alone, the
Creitz & Donovan machine should have won. But the veteran out-psyched
Carbone, and the win went home to the swamps of Florida. Steve remembered,
and he wasn't about to let it happen again.
Whether we believe it or not, Top Fuel
drivers are some plenty smart people. Maybe in the present, they rely 100%
on their crew to dial-in the track's needs, and all they must do is make
the burnout properly, then get the car moving at the appropriate moment,
count to four, pull the chute and hop out to the waiting TV crew, it
wasn't always thus.
Those smart guys like Don Garlits and Steve
Carbone can be likened to the best of the bracket drivers of today, those
with their brains and bodies extended by seemingly tons of computer
gadgetry, timers, cross-overs, stutters and delays.
At any rate, Steve Carbone sat in between
the two big Goodyears and stared non-plussed at the eight thundering pipes
just in front of the tires. He knew first that Garlits' car had a
smaller fuel tank than his own did, and more importantly, new aluminum
heads. Both of those items on his opponent's thundering engine told
Carbone that he could sit idling longer than Garlits, and he decided to
use that to his advantage. He lit the pre-stage bulb.
Late-model Chryslers liked heat, and at the
time, a superb run would be preceded by tell-tale steam pouring out of a
dragster's or funny car's puke tank. With aluminum heads, the time element
was reduced, but few knew the exact numbers. Was it 60 seconds? The huge
Nationals crowd began to murmur. Was it 90 seconds? Fans knew they were
seeing something incredible, especially as starter Buster Couch began to
frantically wave crewmembers and lookie-looes further back away from the
As 120 seconds was surpassed with the two
combatants still sitting in the beams, Don Garlits moved in to stage his
mount. A still stoic Steve Carbone pulled in as well, and when the lights
flashed green, the two black cars moved, but Garlits' didn't move too far
before his tires spun, and the upset was played out. Steve Carbone had out
foxed the "old man" and the precedent-setting incident is still
called "The Great Burndown."
Those that couldn't see the magic in the
move, or the dominance of the mid/rear-engine dragster, must have been
stuck in the beer line, or just not paying attention. Another transition
was taking a vice-like grip on dragracing.
Steve Carbone went on to several more
successful seasons before hanging up his helmet to build customer engines
for sprint and other styles of racecars.
Tulsa, which saw controversy and transition
when they went AHRA, would see an even more controversial play acted out a
couple years later, when AHRA/PRA/Garlits went head-to-head with NHRA and
the U.S. Nationals in an incredible weekend of fires and crashes and big
The track still exists today as well, after
several more transitions. Lets hope for a long time to come.
Flyin' Phil Elliott
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