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Drag Racing Story of the Day!

Gary Omlin, Top Fuel Renegade

By David Hapgood

Gary slows at Spokane. Photo by Jim Burke
Gary slows at Spokane. Photo by Jim Burke

Gary Omlin has been running Top Fuelers down West Coast drag strips since 1975. I'd guessed as much three years ago when I first stopped by his pit and watched him fire the car up: the man's presence indicated a lifetime in and around Top Fuelers. A few months ago, when I first suggested doing this story, Gary matter-of-factly agreed to go along with it. He didn't have to tell me not to glorify his self-financed career. What follows is a basic account of his grassroots and unorthodox approach to Top Fuel racing.

Omlin is a lifelong resident of Quincy (population 3,738), a farming community in central Washington state. His racing career began in March 1974 with the purchase of an injected front engined dragster from a man who would become, briefly but significantly, the principal mentor of his career: Henry "Hank" Eisler Jr. Omlin had never driven any sort of racecar before climbing into the dragster for a series of checkout passes on the sealed gravel road in front of his farm (this WAS the 70s after all!). They ran the small block Chevy on gas that afternoon and, to put it bluntly, the first pass was an eye opener.

Driving a dragster was not at all what the young Omlin had expected. He brought the thing to a stop, wondering what the hell he'd gotten into. Gary was debating whether to undo the belts and abandon this scheme when Hank drove up in the push truck. Without asking Omlin whether he was enjoying himself, Hank manually turned the car around for a second pass in the opposite direction. In that single moment, Hank sent Omlin over the hurdle and into a lifelong pursuit of racing.

The duo next went for licensing runs at Deer Park Dragstrip near Spokane, tossed 25% nitro in the tank, and went 150mph on Omlin's first day on a dragstrip. Jeb Allen and Gary Beck signed for his initial licensing passes, while Terry Capp and alky racer Bill Phillips signed for his final licensing runs at Mission, BC. Over the next two summers, increasing the nitro doses incrementally to 90% produced time slips in the mid seven second range at over 180mph.

The Eisler and Omlin slingshot made its debut in 1974. Photo by Paul Hattig
The Eisler and Omlin slingshot made its debut in 1974. Photo by Paul Hattig

While it appeared that Omlin was on the way to becoming a regular in the Division 6 Pro Comp wars, fate intervened. In August of 1975, a Top Fuel car came up for sale and he purchased it.

And so, just a year and a half after stepping into his first racecar, Omlin had advanced to Top Fuel. The car was a 238" wheelbase vehicle built by Spokane chassis builder Ron Dixon and powered by a 478" Keith Black marine motor. Shakedown runs were conducted at Seattle International Raceway and Omlin's Top Fuel license was signed the following Spring in Yakima by none other than Shirley Muldowney and Don Garlits.

Racing was good in those years for a self-funded Top Fuel team. They had nitro fields at the divisionals as well as at the various National meets, not to mention the match races and independent meets. Omlin brought his car out as often as the budget would allow Top Fuel was expensive, even then. He hit between three and five meets per season at Northwest tracks like Portland, Seattle, and Mission, and made the occasional foray down to Southern California. Year by year, he improved his tuning skills -- sometimes the hard way.

As you can see, Gary's already left the scene of the crime. Photo copyright Ron Burch
As you can see, Gary's already left the scene of the crime. Photo copyright Ron Burch

Through trial and error, Omlin used these formative years to learn how to run a basic Top Fuel operation.

Gary at the 1979 NHRA Winternationals. Photographer unknown
Gary at the 1979 NHRA Winternationals. Photographer unknown

In 1979, Gary had one of his finest moments at the NHRA Winternationals at Pomona. Here's how he describes it: "Qualified #7 and lifted a blower. Garlits was in my pit on Sunday morning watching to see if we could fix it; he was first alternate. We made first round with Gar on the outside looking in! Raced Rob Bruins-Gaines Markley... smoked the tires. They won and went on to become World Champions that year -- my favorite little guy heroes. Still friends after all these years. These stories and a hundred like 'em are the guts of this sport."

As the 1980s rolled in, the sport underwent a period of dramatic change in how races were conducted and how racers got paid. Top Fuel was phased out on the divisional level and whatever match races were left dried up shortly afterwards. In just a few short years, it was a new game and many nitro teams didn't survive the transition to the National-Meet-Only format. Omlin, however, was really just getting started. For the 1980 season he added a business partner, upgraded the chassis, and headed for Pomona.

Here's the Omlin and Milliken car at Pomona. Check out the short wheelbase. Photo by Les Welch
Here's the Omlin and Milliken car at Pomona. Check out the short wheelbase.
Photo by Les Welch

The Milliken/Omlin car was campaigned across the Northwest that season, but the business partnership dissolved after one year. Omlin once more took sole ownership of the vehicle.

By the mid eighties, it was clear that the car had reached its potential. Barring a major sponsorship, ordering a new chassis was out of the question. So Omlin set out to build a new vehicle from the old one, a complete transformation. Things were about to get real interesting.

Gary fireballs the Sugarman car at Phoenix. Photo by Auto Imagery
Gary fireballs the Sugarman car at Phoenix.
Photo by Auto Imagery

In the mid 1980s, Gary took on the challenge of redesigning his racecar. He lengthened the wheelbase to 300 inches, did away with most of the body panels, and installed a unique airfoil on the cowl. Most dramatically, he did away with the rear wing. When the car was completed it did not even slightly resemble the original. It was one of the more unusual-looking fuelers.

Gary drops a cylinder but keeps on moving hard. Photo by John Shanks
Gary drops a cylinder but keeps on moving hard. Photo by John Shanks

For Omlin, the venture was an engineering challenge: how to push a chassis design to its complete potential. His lifelong inclination to upgrade and improve had resulted in what I consider his signature racecar.

When asked what it was like to drive a wingless Top Fueler, Omlin replied that it wasn't hard. Conventional wisdom dictates that a rear-engined fueler will almost certainly become uncontrollable without adequate downforce. The history of wingless rear engined cars is, essentially, a history of crashes. The Sugarman car, however, was not a product of conventional wisdom. The airfoil on the cowl acted as a mini-wing and Omlin felt that crashing the thing was just not going to happen. He knew his car and still stands by the design- for a fueler running in the 250mph range.

This phase of the vehicle came to an end several years later, not in disaster but due to the "unwanted attention" generated by the wingless design. To appease the tech inspectors, Omlin added a small rear wing. Gary finished out the 80s in the final, updated version of the car.

The Sugarman punishes the slicks on this awesome burnout. Photographer unknown
The Sugarman punishes the slicks on this awesome burnout. Photographer unknown

As the 1990s rolled in, Omlin finally said goodbye to his longtime racecar. An Al Swindahl frame -- previously a Shirley Muldowney ride -- had come up for sale and Omlin purchased it. Gary is still running this car today. Continuous upgrades throughout the decade have included a new back half and a dual element wing. He painted the car a monotone slate gray with minimal lettering, what he calls a "no maintenance paintjob." From a distance, it's easily mistaken for primer. The absence of decals completes the austere visuals.

Here's Gary at the 1999 World Finals. Photo by David Hapgood
Here's Gary at the 1999 World Finals. Photo by David Hapgood

And now, a story within a story. The first time I saw Omlin run (Spokane 1999) he'd just installed a larger fuel tank on the car. Gary was still working out some gremlins and was having trouble keeping the engine lit. Twice earlier in the day, Omlin had come out for qualifying passes only to have the motor stall before the car launched. For his final try, it was nighttime, and the stands were full. The pass was really something else: one of those fantastic moments when you can almost read a driver's mind by what the car is doing. After the earlier aborted runs, Omlin was a bit peeved and WAS going to put the car down the track this time whether it liked it or not. 

This time the car launched hard, but then, like so many other cars on that cold night, smoked the tires hard not long after takeoff. Real hard. I could see very well that this was in no way going to stop the run! Approaching half-track, Omlin had his foot all the way in it. The car was way up on its tires with eight foot header flames blasting out the pipes and the tallest plume of tire smoke I have ever seen in my life exploding off the tires. In a sport where the mechanical element generally obliterates the human element, I was pretty much blown away by this display of INTENT. I was at Englishtown the night Mark Oswald broke Don Garlits' SEVEN-year-old ET record. That was great. This was better.

Something finally went away on Omlin's motor as he blazed past, glowing pieces of metal skipping across the track while the crowd went nuts. What an ABRASIVE pass! Omlin was in the program. On raceday, he advanced in eliminations as far as the semifinals, running 5.90s all day long.

Which brings us to the present. To this day there's no clutch management in the car (he runs a Crowerglide and believes in the judicious use of the brake handle) and no fuel management (he runs a Scott centrifugal pump). He does not use -- and doesn't believe in -- a computer in the racecar. He's run a well-maintained Bowers 10-71 blower for years; originally, it cost him $300. He tells me he's been running from "the same two or three boxes of pistons I bought eight years ago." He runs a pair of low amp (8) Cirello mags. The equipment and tune-up on this car are probably like no other. One last thing- he's been known to run "can to can" - 100% nitro "Where it's legal." Reflecting on his current situation, he considers himself lucky to finally have three aluminum blocks (JP-1s) at his disposal.

Last summer, Omlin qualified 6th at the AHRA World Finals with a 5.636 at 252.30 mph, his career best and certainly one of the fastest runs on a 10-71 blower. He told me he considers this pass and qualifying for Pomona in '79 as the two highlights of his career -- so far.

Gary Omlin's current rear engine car at the AHRA World Finals. Photo by David Hapgood
Gary Omlin's current rear engine car at the AHRA World Finals.
Photo by David Hapgood

Gary Omlin will be racing again in the Northwest this summer with his all-volunteer crew. If you're into Top Fuel, you might want to stop by and have a look. Gary Omlin: Owner/Tuner/Driver -- the good old days aren't quite over yet.

The diehard Omlin crew gets ready at Spokane. Photo by David Hapgood
The diehard Omlin crew gets ready at Spokane. Photo by David Hapgood

David Hapgood
hapgood_d@hotmail.com

 

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