Funny Car Pilgrim
By David Hapgood
Division 5 flopper stars. Drawing by David Hapgood
I write this tale from Minnesota where I have traveled for a family reunion. It's been a tough weekend. The problem is that I suffer from an odd addiction called drag racing. Non addicts --
THE REST OF MY FAMILY -- cannot begin to comprehend what it means to be a funny car junkie. Well it didn't take long for me to screw up our long-awaited reunion.
Everything was going smoothly. I was happy to see everyone and they were happy to see me. It was also exciting to add a new state to my list (number 43!) as I had never been to Minnesota before. And so, the morning after I arrived, all was well when someone brought out a Minneapolis city map and, as a group, we began to plan the day's sightseeing. Yup, this is when it all went to hell. You see, as I examined this map a name leapt off the
paper-- the suburb named Edina. Furthermore I could then see that the edge of Edina began just a few blocks away. At that moment, fuel funny cars were the last thing on my mind but then, suddenly, there was that damn name screaming at me from the
map -- EDINA.
If my memory served me correctly, Edina was the onetime hometown of Al Tschida's "CHEETAH" fuel funny car, driven by Carl Swanson, back in the seventies and eighties. As a kid in New England I had followed this distant team- and many others- by reading race reports from across the county. Minnesota was, at that time, a long, long way from home. Now, suddenly, the "CHEETAH'S" hometown began three blocks away. "Where's your phonebook?" I asked my sister. As I looked up from the map I could see that my sudden gear change (pun intended) had not gone unnoticed by my relatives. Most of them have seen me launch into some unwelcome (read DRAG RACING) tangent before and having it happen now was an unwelcome development. Here we were, an entire weekend ahead of us, a long-awaited family reunion and now I was going to ruin it.
"So, what is in Edina?" my sister asked, grimly. I knew that my answer would only sink me further (over the years she has refused to join me at any drag race. Once, in Florida, on our way back from the beach, I dragged her over to Paul Smith's garage where he proceeded to fire up his top
fueler -- on nitro -- and she had walked away from it, basically unimpressed (!!!!!!!!)). No, my enthusiasm didn't stand a chance, I was outnumbered, but I said it anyway. "To the best of my recollection, Edina was the home of the "CHEETAH" funny car way back in the great days of funny car racing." I could have added that the racing scene of the 70's was as powerful as god almighty, but there wasn't much point in saying more.
She informed me that today Edina is the most affluent suburb in Minneapolis and she doubted that anyone remotely connected to funny cars still lives there. But what did she know about any of it.
She handed me the phonebook. I sped through the white pages, searching for a listing under 'Carl Swanson,' the "CHEETAH'S" longtime driver. To my dismay, I found too many of
them -- no less than 17 listings for the name 'Swanson' with fist initial 'C' and no less than 10 under 'Carl' Swanson. This wasn't going to be easy, but one of the 'Carls' was listed for Edina and that is where I would begin my search.
My family looked on with some dread as I asked for a pen and paper and scribbled the number down, then dove back into the phonebook to hunt for the "CHEETAH'S" owner. As I searched I felt poised on the edge of a giant adventure. This was just great! Here I was, in an unfamiliar part of the country, launching into a mini-research project! I might get to talk to one of these guys today. Cool.
As I mentioned, my family was less than delighted. I knew what they were thinking: hurry it up, make whatever phone calls you have to make and get this over
with -- we have traveled from all parts of the country to be here. We have dinners to enjoy together, state parks and museums to visit. Get through this and, please, let's have the sort of weekend we've been looking forward to.
My relatives never fell in love with the funny cars.
I found three possibilities in the telephone book for Al Tschida -- an 'A' Tschida, an 'AH' Tschida and, most promising, an 'Al H' Tschida. I scribbled down these numbers while my relatives began to settle on the day's plans in spite of me! But I was becoming oblivious to their concerns. Instead I was charged up by the possibilities of who or what I might uncover if I dug far enough. A small fire began to
build -- my memories were coming back to life -- the old world of match race and divisional AAFCs. I wondered
what Bill Schifsky was up to. I know he's still alive and kicking and
living in Minnesota. When I arrived at the airport I had seen a vending machine selling "White Bear" beverages. I always knew that White Bear Lake, Minnesota had been the hometown of Bill Schifsky's legendary "BEARTOWN SHAKER" cars.
I had always assumed that the town was out in the middle of nowhere. Now, looking at the Minneapolis city map, I could see that White Bear Lake was, like Edina, a suburb of the Twin Cities! Everything I was interested in was right in town! I announced this 'discovery' with much excitement. My dad grinned and
chuckled -- of course, as my childhood chauffeur he had actually seen the "BEARTOWN SHAKER" race (and on fire at that!) and was my strongest ally at the moment. The rest of the clan was becoming more annoyed by the minute and I then encountered the first stage of an active resistance to my dreams. A telephone was thrust at me and I was practically ordered to start making whatever calls I had to make.
But I was not done! Just starting! I checked for one last number -- Tom
Hoover's -- and, surprisingly enough, found a listing and -- better yet -- it was in the town of Maple Grove, which I believe was his onetime (and possibly current) home. I scribbled down the number, grabbed my notes and, while the getting was good, went upstairs to start the calls. It wasn't until I got behind the safety of a closed door that I realized I had neglected to look up the listing for Bill Schifsky.
Hmmm -- was the reunion interfering with my research or was my research interfering with the reunion? I wasn't sure anymore. I also wasn't sure what I might say to any of the racers on my list if I actually managed to track them down, but none of it could be helped anyway. The all-mighty power of the 1970's circuit had taken hold almost as if it really were the 1970's again. It wasn't nostalgic. I had finally reached the shores of Division 5 and the experience was new. I had to tap into this while it was fresh.
Unfortunately the first number I tried for Carl Swanson dead-ended with the shrill tone of a fax machine. That left me with 16 other Swanson listings. I'd get back to it later. Next I went with Tom Hoover's number and got an answering machine. The voice sounded like funny-car-Hoover's voice, but what sort of message could I possibly leave? I'd try back later. I simply wanted to talk to these guys, ask them a few questions, see where the conversations led and thank them for being players in one of the coolest scenes of any kind that America has ever or will ever know. But by now my family obligations had started to weigh heavily on
me -- what the hell did I come to Minnesota for, anyway. Ahhh, my cursed addiction. I promised myself I'd get back to my 'research' later on and then returned to the reunion.
Twenty four hours later I'd run around a lot with the family, which was fine except that my 'research' had progressed little and I could see that if I wasn't careful the remainder of my visit would be planned out for me down to the last minute. I had gotten this far: Bill Schifsky, if he was still alive, was not in the phonebook. Two more calls to Tom Hoover had again reached an answering machine. A search through the yellow pages for "WHITE BEAR
DODGE" -- which I had always assumed was a Dodge Dealership -- had instead come up with WHITE BEAR ACURA/ WHITE BEAR ISUZU/WHITE BEAR SUBARU/ WHITE BEAR MAZDA/ WHITE BEAR LINCOLN MERCURY and WHITE BEAR PONTIAC GMC HYUNDAI. It seemed to me that if a WHITE BEAR DODGE once existed that it was now history. If only I had time to visit the local library and check out their archives of 1970's telephone books I could cover a lot of ground. But time was the one thing I did not have.
With yet another day ahead being planned for me I decided to take the initiative and drop the
bombshell -- I suggested that some of us might like to spend the morning together visiting the suburb of White Bear Lake, where I could at least pay homage to the hometown of a legendary car and maybe get a photo of a sign or two. We could all have a wonderful morning together. Certainly there was something for each of us at White Bear Lake.
This is when things could have gotten ugly if yours truly had not shown great restraint. My sister (a lawyer) informed
me -- and everyone else -- that I'd come up with a perfectly stupid plan, that White Bear Lake is a dreadful town of heavy traffic and strip malls and that I was the only person who stood to gain anything by visiting it. Furthermore, she added, because of the supposed bad traffic out there, and because it was located on the opposite side of the city, a roundtrip would take two full hours of driving.
This last bit seemed highly unlikely to me since, as the crow flies, the place is just a mere 15 miles away! But with everyone else nodding in agreement I realized that I was faced with a choice between my obsession and my family. As I had not seen my parents in two full years and would be flying out in just thirty six hours the decision was already made. I would, as they say, 'keep the peace.' I reigned in the spite I felt for my sister (ringleader and lead veto in the killing of my dreams!!!) and accepted fate: my will was broken and my short-lived pilgrimage to the old days of Division 5 AAFCs could have been spectacular but now it was finished.
Later in the day, trapped in 'my' bedroom, I was admiring a rusted out antique "Bubble Up" can which my brother in law had put out on display.
They never sold "Bubble Up" where I grew up and Gordie Bonin almost never ran his Bubble Up funny cars in my beloved Division 1 but he certainly ran the thing quite a bit out here in Division 5 and, obviously, they drank the soda here, too. As I admired this rusted can I wasn't sure if it was mocking my obsession with the past or reinforcing my faith in an era
which -- at least in drag racing -- meant so much more to me than any of today's scenes.
Tomorrow I will say goodbye to the family reunion and leave Minnesota with my 'research' completely unfinished. To all of those who I failed to contact this weekend (or mention in this tale) let me say this: please accept this small note of appreciation from a would-be funny car pilgrim.