Gary Burgin, A Tribute

Burgin 79 portrait Hapgood

I can think of few other funny car drivers who better personified the 1970s funny car scene than Gary Burgin. He didn’t have Jungle’s wild streak, or Prudhomme’s attitude, or Beadle’s monolithic “Blue Max” heritage to prop him up. But if Burgin was having a good day — and he had plenty — you really didn’t want to be in the other lane. Not even if your name was Don Prudhomme, who was then at the height of his career.

Which, of course, brings to mind 1976. As anyone who was around then knows, Prudhomme pulled into Indy on seven-race NHRA winning streak, a near-impossible feat in a nitro car. To put it all into perspective, to that point in the season, he had raced and defeated Tom Hoover, Larry Arnold, Tom Prock, Ed McCulloch, Tripp Shumake, Johnny White, Tommy Ivo, Shirl Greer, Larry Lombardo, Bob Pickett, Tom McEwen, Gene Snow, Dodger Glenn, Gordie Bonin, and Ron O’Donnell. Several of these drivers he defeated multiple times. People had begun to wonder aloud whether he was somehow unbeatable. Then there was the Indy final, and in their first pairing of the NHRA season, Burgin stopped him. The image of Burgin’s Mustang II coming into the traps ahead of Prudhomme, doing what nobody else could do that year was forever immortalized by photographer Norman Blake.

Burgin 76 Indy Blake

Norman Blake

I would think that from a statistical standpoint, the Indy final would be the top contender for the most important funny car run of all time. In 1976, Prudhomme had a chance at perfection, something nobody has ever done in the fuel ranks and most likely never will. He couldn’t have come any closer. Burgin singlehandedly ruined it.

Burgin 76 HO

Burgin ND cover X2National Dragster

Burgin 78 nose

Burgin HO X 2

What I always liked so much about Burgin was how he epitomized the classic hard-working funny car pilot of the era, guys who operated mainly out of the spotlight. What separated him from the pack was that his cars were so competitive.

Burgin pits 1George Johnson collection, courtesy Jim Wemett

Burgin SSDI X2Super Stock & Drag Illustrated

One of the more indelible memories I have of Burgin is from a match race one night in the mid-’70s. The generator in his trailer went out, plunging their pit area into darkness. They had to service the car between rounds by flashlight. After the engine maintenance was pretty much taken care of, Gary dug out the owner’s manual for the generator, which must have been ferreted away somewhere deep in the 5th wheel, in between spare slicks and suitcases. And then there he was, one of the top funny car drivers on earth, sitting in the dark in his trailer doorway, holding a flashlight up to the manual and studying diagrams. For some reason, it seemed perfect that he, the man in charge of the operation, was also in charge of getting the generator going again.

Burgin 80 Springnats program1980 Springnationals Program

Burgin 80 NDNational Dragster

I always thought it was kind of a shame that Burgin’s legacy was overshadowed by the bigger, more glamorous names of the era, that a guy who at times succeeded so dramatically was not mentioned in the same breath as Ace, Beadle and Mongoose and Snake, even when he routinely beat them. Then again, that was also what made him stand out: he could qualify number 1 and not get swept up in the hype. It earned the respect of many hardcore fans.

Burgin 81 Leb Val

— David Hapgood

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