Tim Kushi Remembered
By David Hapgood
|Tim Kushi, May 1979|
It was with sadness that I heard the news that Tim Kushi had passed away. I knew Tim back in the days when he was running his “Yankee Sizzler” funny cars out of his Mold Master Engineering factory in Pittsfield, MA. Anyone who saw Tim drive knew they were in for an exciting time, and I’d like to share a few recollections from races at our home track, Lebanon Valley Dragway in upstate NY.
The first was on a May afternoon in 1976 during the track’s annual opener, the “Front Runner Classic.” Tim had gone out early, but of course in those days they had ‘consolation runs,’ and Kushi sent word to the tower that he was going to run 225mph -- pretty fast for a part time racer in those days. The fastest car that afternoon had been Tommy Grove, at 221mph. People in the stands were divided over whether or not Kushi could do it, and of course for those who knew he had a lead foot, it only added to the excitement. What in the hell was going to happen! Well, the car went perfectly straight, with a top end charge that was clear for everyone to see, and...ran 225mph for top speed of the meet. Fantastic!
This next story is from August 1976. It was a muggy Tuesday night show, and anyone who knows the sort of humidity that builds in the valleys of upstate NY on hot summer nights can pretty much imagine the conditions. The air was terrible. Kushi was paired against McEwen in the opening round. I was standing down at the top end. This was McEwen’s blue 'Dyna Gym’ car, the one he had just placed runner up finishes at Columbus and Englishtown. Of course, everyone expected Kushi to lose, but to their amazement it was McEwen who lost! Not only that, but Kushi won in convincing style, setting low ET of the round at 6.64, putting Prudhomme, Ivo, Prock, and others (McEwen!) to shame. I always cheered for the underdog and this was just brilliant.
Another story, this one from August 1977. Another Tuesday night show, late in the program, third round consolation runs. My dad was never a drag racing fan, funny cars made him nervous, and drivers like Tim Kushi (very heavy on the throttle) made him especially nervous. He was mentioning this right before Kushi’s final run of the night, something to the effect of this was something he would rather not watch. I don’t remember who Kushi’s opponent was. So the tree came down, and one moment Kushi’s Monza was in the center of his lane, the next moment it was hooking a hard right and then bouncing in the grass along trackside, off and on the throttle, header flames flashing, sound wave booming, grass flying -- my dad must have been shaking his head, I was just totally mesmerized. Thrilled. Again, fantastic!
The next story is from July 1978, again a Tuesday night show. For this one I was standing at the top end, and at Lebanon that was like looking down the barrel of a gun -- you were slightly elevated on an embankment and very close to the track (should I mention the wooden guard rails?). It was Kushi VS Bruce Larson, and while there was no reason to believe this match would be anything special, that’s not how it happened. About three or four hundred feet out, both cars drifted to the centerline at pretty much the same moment. They were side by side, more or less, but now they were Really side by side! Lebanon had a dirt oval adjacent to the drag strip, which meant that whenever a drag car got out of the groove it raised a little bit of dust. Kushi and Larson were both out of the groove and both were trailing dust. Again, this was at night, nice strong header flames off both cars, and they were so close together that their flames were almost touching, and I couldn’t believe that neither driver was lifting -- there wasn’t more than a car’s width between them. And that’s how they went down through the lights. I’d never seen anything like it before or since, and to this day I consider it the most exciting funny car race I have ever witnessed. It was truly the essence of what funny car racing and racers were all about.
I should note that this was also the year Tim beat John Lombardo in round 1 at the Gatornationals. He was having a pretty good season until body distortion pinched the throttle wide open at Epping’s top end and he ended up stuffing the Monza into the back of Ivo’s Arrow.
In 1979 Tim had a brand new Plymouth Sapporo built by Kevin Murray of Frame Up Engineering. Like all of Tim’s cars, it was gorgeous. I was 15 years old at the time and this was the year I started helping out at Tim’s shop whenever I could. It was a great learning experience -- I learned that it wasn’t my destiny to work on funny cars! I wanted to photograph them. I can thank Tim for speeding that process along.
|At Mold Master Engineering, May 1980|
I’ll end this with one more memory of Tim Kushi, this one is humorous. I had shown up for 'work’ one day at Mold Master -- important things like waxing the funny car and washing parts -- and since it was the weekend, nobody was around. I found Tim in the workshop area of the factory...sawing the corner off a wooden work table. Not because he wanted to saw it off (he never actually finished), but just because...well, he was a funny car driver, and I guess he felt a little destructive that afternoon -- the kind of thing you don’t have to explain to a teenage funny car fanatic like me! I used to look at that saw mark every time I passed that table the rest of the summer and chuckle. In fact, 33 years later, it still makes me laugh.
Anyway, it’s been almost that long since I last spoke with Tim. I moved out of the area and we moved on with our lives.
Well, lead foot, it was always a thrill. Thanks for the memories.