Author: Burgess, Phil
Date published: June 11, 2010
Journal code: NDRG
The annual NHRA event in Englishtown is one of the oldest on the circuit, its lineage falling only behind that of the U.S. Nationals, Winternationals, and World Finals. Originally dubbed the Summernationals for its traditional sweltering mid-July date, the event changed names in 1993, when it was moved to May, and in 2000 first became known as the SuperNationals, but, honestly, it has always been a super race, and when I say "always," I mean it. Here's a look at the event's first three incarnations, which helped to create the race's legendary persona, one full of drama, upsets, and unforgettable occurrences.
Few people remember that the first event wasn't held in New Jersey but in neighboring Pennsylvania, at York U.S. 30 Dragway. The race's debut was part of NHRA's "Super Season," which also included new events in Gainesville and Ontario, Calif. (the original Supernationals), boosting the schedule from four to seven meets.
York U.S. 30 already was well-known to many racers as a topflight match race venue and host of the annual Super Stock Nationals - the legendary 1965 event is often referred to as "the largest oneday drag race" - and when NHRA's big circus came to town July 18-19, it didn't disappoint.
Ideal weather conditions and a strong crowd greeted drivers, and the racing, which included Pro Stock in its introductory season in NHRA competition, was first-rate.
Legendary "Sneaky Pete" Robinson, the thinking man's drag racer, broke a drought of nearly four years by winning Top Fuel with his Ford-powered dragster, ending a dry spell that dated to the 1966 World Finals in Tulsa, Okla. The Atlanta-based engineering ace, who had won the 1961 Nationals title, soloed for the trophy when Jim Nicoll - still a few months from his infamous U.S. Nationals final-round tumble - couldn't fire his dragster.
Nicoll was actually the favorite heading into the final. In addition to a runner-up in Dallas, where he had broken the rear end against Bob Gibson, Nicoll, the low qualifier at 6.72, had run a string of 6.7-second elapsed times at York and posted low e.t. of the meet, 6.71, in the semifinals, but was done in by a broken camshaft. Robinson's win was the last by a Fordmotored Top Fueler, and, sadly, he would lose his life at the following year's Winternationals.
Funny Car winner Gene Snow ended his frustration after runner-ups at the Winternationals and Springnationals and collected his first Funny Car title when he drove his Rambunctious Charger to a final-round victory against Vic Brown. Brown was behind the wheel of Gary Richards' Black Shadow Mustang, featured a few weeks ago in the "R" edition of this column's Misc. Files.
Snow qualified with a 7.23 and reeled off a string of steady passes - 7.34, 7.32, and, in the semifinals, a rousing 7.20, 214.24 to beat Phil Castronovo - before taking down Brown, 7.27 to 7.47.
The knowledgeable York fans, who were weaned on gear-jamming, wheelstanding Super Stockers, certainly welcomed the new factory hot rods with open arms, and they had plenty to cheer for as a whopping 60 entries challenged for a spot in the 16-car field. Dick Oldfield's nationalrecord- holding Motown Missile Dodge Challenger sat atop the field with a 9.93, and it took a 10.19 just to make the show.
Despite an army of East Coast drivers, the title went to cigar-chomping California racer Dick Landy with his Dodge Clinic entry. Landy collected the win, his first, on a red-light by Herb "Mr. 4-Speed" McCandless in the Sox & Martin team Plymouth Duster.
The first Englishtown event was memorable on so many fronts. It's probably best remembered for the husband vs. wife Stock final, which pitted Dave Boertman against Judi. She scored at the wheel of Dave's Winternationals-winning station wagon on her five-time-winning-hubby's redlight in his Gatornationals-winning Charger. The victory was only the second for a woman in NHRA national event competition, on the heels of Shirley Shahan's Stock win at the 1966 Winternationals, and the race remains the only husband vs. wife final in NHRA history.
Another major upset took place in Pro Stock when Don Nicholson ended Ronnie Sox's incredible five-race winning streak. Sox's run had begun with wins at the 1970 World Finals and Supernationals and continued through 1971 with victories at the Winternationals, Gatornationals, and Springnationals, but Sox didn't even make the final in E-town; Mike Fons was runner-up to "Dyno Don."
The 1971 season, of course, marked the introduction of the rear-engine Top Fuel dragster, and we all know that Don Garlits became the first winner in such an entry at that year's Winternationals and at the Springnationals, but few remember that the second guy to win in a rear-engine car was Arnie Behling in Bruce Dodd's Spirit dragster at the 1971 Summernationals. Almost as interesting, he did it on a solo after scheduled opponent Jim Harnsberger fell victim to heat prostration in the pits on a typical muggy Jersey day. Harnsberger had beaten Garlits on a holeshot in round two, 6.76 to 6.69, then narrowly defeated Herm Petersen in the semifinals in a bout in which both drivers ran 7.09. The win was costly to Harnsberger; though; he blew a rod and had no spares. While working on the car, Harnsberger almost passed out and was whisked to the hospital - against his wishes - in an ambulance but talked the ambulance crew into bringing him back to the track, where he watched Behling solo to the win.
Drag racing history was made at this event, and it continues to survive thanks to Top Fuel victor Jeb Allen, who, at the tender age of 18 years and 1 month, became the youngest NHRA Proclass winner in the sport's history. The recent Bellflower, Calif., high school grad - who nine years later would become (and still remains) Top Fuel's youngest world champ at age 27 years and 4 months - drove his family-owned Praying Mantis dragster to victories against redlighting Tom Crevasse, Winternationals champ Carl Olson, low qualifier and national record holder Clayton Harris, and, in the final, Tom "the Mongoose" McEwen, 6.36 to 6.51.
(Allen's record survives 38 years but has been challenged. GT Tonglet was 18 years and 2 months when he won the 2001 Madison event. Del Worsham is the youngest Funny Car winner; he was 21 years and 2 months when he scored his breakthrough first win at the 1991 Southern Nationals. Richie Stevens Jr. is the youngest Pro Stock winner; he was 20 years and 1 month when he won the 1998 World Finals.)
Harris' 6.20, 233.76 qualifying effort in Jack MacKay's New Dimension dragster set both low e.t. and top speed of the meet and new track records. The speed broke the longstanding 232-mph track mark of the late John Mulligan from more than four years earlier.
Funny Car boiled down to a pair of veterans who today are employer and employee. Don Schumacher defeated Ed "the Ace" McCulloch, who tunes the Don Schumacher Racing NAPA Auto Parts Charger driven by Ron Capps. Interestingly, both cars were battle-scarred. Both drivers had suffered match race incidents; Schumacher had crashed his Barracuda a week earlier, and the body of McCulloch's entry had been shredded in a blower explosion. Schumacher's victory snapped an impressive threewin streak for "the Ace" that had begun at the season opener; he also would win at the U.S. Nationals.
Larry Fullerton had fired off a jaw-dropping 6.40, 228.42 in round one, the quickest and fastest flopper pass of all time. He advanced to the semifinals before a loose water cap caused him to lose traction against Schumacher.
Bill Jenkins won Pro Stock for the third time in four events and did so in strange fashion when 1970 victor Landy lost the left rear wheel of his Dodge Challenger on the launch in the final. Jenkins' famed Grumpy's Toy Vega won easily with a 9.52.
The list of Englishtown thrills and spills hasn't relented, from the unforgettable wheelstands of "Jungle Jim" Liberman (1974) and Garlits (1986) to the amazing performances of Mark Oswald and Billy Meyer in 1982 to Kurt Johnson's breakthrough six-second Pro Stock run in 1994, upset wins by Cristen Powell and Kenji Okazaki in 1997, Brandon Bernstein's scary Top Fuel crash in 2003, Tommy Johnson Jr.'s amazing comeback win in 2007, and more.
As the old saying used to go, "Summernationals, and some aren't," and even with the name change, NHRA's annual trek to New Jersey always produces a memorable event. I wonder what 2010 will bring.