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Drag Racing Stories
Mar 12, 2006


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80s Funny Cars: West Coast Racers

By Danny White

Drag racing had its own wild and wooly characters. Mike "The Hippie" Mitchell was one of them. Mitchell used to sport a flattop before becoming "enlightened." Mike used to threaten drag racing journalists that brought up his past. He even painted "Impeach Nixon" on the back of his car, complete with a swastika replacing the x in Nixon’s last name. That did not sit too well with some drag racing conservatives. Mike Mitchell was a serious racer nonetheless. The wildly painted M&S Motors Corvette was his final race car. It was an average runner with best of 6.21 at 228.42. Mitchell and Lorry Azevedo both drove the beautiful machine in 1980 until Mitchell retired. (Photographer unknown; photo courtesy of www.nitrogeezers.com; info from Draglist.com files)

Ron Colson was one of the best funny car racers of the 1970s, driving the "Chi-Town Hustler" and "Hawaiian" funny cars to fame. In 1980, Colson raced the Jamie Sarte built "King’s Hawaiian Bread" Omni for Roland Leong. Leong had one of the first Omnis, but Colson crashed it in the middle of the year. Ron ran 6.00 at 240.64 before the accident. He finished out the year in the team’s old Corvette. Colson got the win at the last World Finals held at Ontario, after which he retired from full-time driving. Colson returned to race in match races every now and then. Ron now runs a consulting business that helps to build drag strips. (Photo by Norm Newgord, courtesy of Gary Newgord; info from Draglist.com files)

The "Super Star" team came from out of nowhere to win the 1981 Springnationals and finished in the top ten that year. Owner Don Tate had been in racing for a few years, first teaming with the Trillo Bros to run an AA/Funny Car and AA/Fuel Altered. The team achieved mediocre results, and in 1981, Don Tate got serious. He built a new Plymouth Horizon and hired Amos Saterlee to tune the car. Tate got unknown Craig Epperly to drive. He also raced a blown alcohol Monza with Donnie Holm at the wheel, as well as a BB/Altered Camaro that he shoed himself. The nitro "Super Star" ran a best of 5.92 at 242.58. After the World Finals in 1981, the team broke up and all went their separate ways. Don Tate retired from drag racing. (Photo courtesy of Walter Huff; info from Draglist.com files)

The Johnny Loper owned "Lil’ Hoss" series of funny cars was one the nation’s best from the late seventies to the early eighties. The Arizona-based car was one the first into the fives with Eddie Pauling driving. This success continued then Tripp Shumake took over the wheel of the Plymouth Arrow. Loper’s team found the five second zone with Shumake at the wheel, too, as Tripp ran a solid 5.99 at 243.90. An ill-handling Mustang replaced the killer Plymouth, and soon the Arrow was brought back to complete the 80-81 seasons. Loper and Shumake raced together into the 1982 season until Johnny ran short of cash after adding a Top Fueler to the team. Loper retired from racing while Shumake went on to a few more rides. (Photo courtesy of Mike Ditty; info from Draglist.com files)

Before John Force became the funny car king and NHRA’s media darling, he was just another struggling funny car racer trying to make ends meet. It is hard to image he had only been in one NHRA final at this time, the 1979 Cajun Nationals. It would be years before his first national event win. In 1981, John raced under the Mountain Dew/Jolly Rancher banner. The sponsorship was nothing compared to his current Castrol budget. Force held his own with the brick like Citation during the 80-82 seasons. He got the boxy Chevy to run low sixes with Harry Velasco doing most of the tuning. Force ran all the national event circuits and any cow pasture track that would pay him. Love him or loath him for his current success, nobody can argue that John Force didn’t pay his dues. (Photo courtesy of Walter Huff; info from Draglist.com files)

After the "Super Star" team broke up, Craig Epperly ended up in the "H.B. Gold Tobacco" Chevy Citation owned by Billy McCahill and tuned by the great Gene Beaver. This was one of the last funny cars to use the Milodon Hemi. Epperly did not have the same success in 1982 as he had in 1981, but he did run 6.04 at 232 in the car. McCahill later took over the driving and Beaver left the team. Billy raced the car through the 1984 season as match racer with direct drive. It has been said that McCahill’s life would have made a great movie, but we don’t have the space to tell that story here. (Photo courtesy of Mike Ditty; info from Draglist.com files)

This Dodge Omni is considered one the best looking funny cars of time. Although Joe Pisano never had an ugly funny car, this little Dodge stands out. Pisano, a Southern California regular, began his drag racing career with his brothers. Joe raced gassers before entering the funny car wars. Brother Frank drove the floppers at first, then AA/Fuel Altered driver Sush Matsubara took the wheel. After Sush retired, Pisano employed a series of hired drivers until the day he died. Joe hired Tom Ridings and later Craig Epperly to drive this beauty. Epperly ran a good 6.00 at 240.64 with the car in 1982. (Photo courtesy of Walter Huff; info from Draglist.com files)

Gary Burgin was one of the top funny car racers from the seventies into the early eighties. Burgin was one of the top independents of that era, but a money shortage sidelined him after the 1983 season. The funny car in the photo was the last "Orange Baron.” Gary used the much-maligned Iversen Trans Am wedge body. A Keith Black Hemi powered the car to a 5.78 at 254.28 by the end of the year. Burgin had a mediocre year in 1983, and he sold the car and equipment to enter the export business. Gary still exports parts to eager overseas racers to this day (Photo courtesy of Bob Plumer; info from Draglist.com files)

Tom McEwen is credited with ending the "Corvette Curse" with his 1977 Corvette, and his success continued his third version, this red and white machine. McEwen was one of the leading participants in the “beer wars” of the 1980s. Coors stepped up to sponsor Tom in 1979. McEwen got the Coors Corvette to run 5.89 at 249.30 in 1983, where he was a regular on the NHRA and AHRA circuits. Tom made side trips into IHRA races, too, and ran many match races. McEwen’s easygoing personality made him popular with fans, writers, and racers alike. (Photo courtesy of Mike Ditty; info from Draglist.com files)

After years of retirement from racing, Doug Cook returned as the tuner of the Miller and Palawelos owned "Red Baron" Dodge Omni. Clay Miller had driven funny cars in the seventies. The "Red Baron" will not be remembered for its performance, but for its immaculate appearance. The car was painted Candy Apple Red and was chromed and gold plated all over. Doug Cook got a best of 6.32 at 233.52 out of the car with "Rocket" Rod Phelps at the wheel. The car never qualified for a major race with either Rod Phelps or Ed White driving. The "Red Baron" raced on the West Coast from 1982 to 1985. (Photo courtesy of Mike Ditty; info from Draglist.com files) 

 

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