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Steve Carbone

by Phil R. Elliott

(Originally Printed in American Drag News)

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 was changing.

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 mediocre car.

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 pride.

But it wasn't until 1971 that the name Steve Carbone would be ever etched on the brains of dragrace fans and trivia buffs.

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 surely-about-to-blow machines.

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 money payouts.

The track still exists today as well, after several more transitions. Lets hope for a long time to come.

Flyin' Phil Elliott


Thanks for checking out the PhilZone portion of Draglist.com. If you have accolades, complaints, comments, questions, or if you want to share a story, please feel free to post it on the PhilZone Message Board. Phil

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