Author: Littlefield, Brad
Date published: March 4, 2011
requested by Robert Ayala
El Paso, Texas
Of all the larger-than-life characters who have participated in the sport of drag racing, few have been as unique as the late Joe Pisano. Nearly 20 years since he passed away due to a heart attack during the 1991 Mile- High Nationals at age 63, Pisano's footprint is still clearly visible. His persona as well as his contributions as a racer and manufacturer live through those who remember Joe P.
Throughout his career, Pisano fielded Funny Cars that combined the best of both worlds in being capable of taking home Best Appearing Car honors as well as the event win. Pisano did things on his own terms, never racing a full national event schedule but racing to win every time he pulled into the racetrack. Having built his first nitro flopper in 1967 on the ground floor of Funny Car racing in the class' Southern California hotbed, Pisano's entries have always been highly competitive. His most successful era in NHRA Drag Racing was easily during Mike Dunn's tenure as driver between 1986 and 1989, during which they scored five national event wins, four NHRA national records (three speed, one elapsed time), and three top 10 finishes despite running a limited schedule.
The accomplishments of many other racers were done with equipment designed and built by Pisano. Pisano bought Venolia Pistons in 1963 (which is still run by brother Frank), and he later developed the JP-1 block as a viable alternative to the Keith Black aftermarket Hemi blocks that were widely popular. In Pisano's first event running the JP-1, he won the 1985 Winternationals with Al Segrini driving. The JP-1 was later the block of choice for Eddie Hill when he made the sport's first four-second Top Fuel run in 1988.
Born in 1927, Pisano began racing in the late 1950s, along with brothers Carmen, Frank, Sam, and Tony. Every car Pisano ever raced, he proudly admitted, had a blower on it. He raced on the salt flats in the early 1960s and set a two-way speed record in Bonneville, Utah, with his '53 Studebaker at 201 mph, which held for 22 years. Pisano campaigned a '33 Willys gasser with Bones & Dubach in 1965 and 1966 before building his first Funny Car.
The original Pisano Bros. Funny Car was a '67 Camaro that rolled off a Detroit assembly line. Frank was the original driver, and he established himself as a lightning-quick leaver. Unfortunately for Frank, his driving career ended shortly after crashing their next car, a Corvair purchased from Doug Thorley, into Randy Walls in 1968. He gave way to Sush Matsubara in 1970, beginning a line of Pisano & Matsubara cars.
Matsubara was the longest tenured of Pisano's drivers with a six-year span before he retired in 1975. They were successful on the divisional and match racing levels. Notably, Matsubara set the national record at 6.49 seconds at Lions Drag Strip in 1972, won the Manufacturers Race at Orange County Int'l Raceway in 1973, and reached the semifinals at the 1973 U.S. Nationals. Model company Revell began sponsoring the team in 1973.
Jake Johnston followed Matsubara behind the wheel with great success, winning consecutive Division 7 championships in 1976 and 1977. In his 1977 title, he outdid "Lil' John" Lombardo and Don Prudhomme, who won seven of eight national events that year. Pat Foster drove for Pisano in 1978 before Tom Ridings drove Pisano's Plymouth Arrow and later Dodge Omni between 1979 and 1982. Ridings was runner-up at the 1980 U.S. Nationals and won the 1982 March Meet.
"We probably had more fun racing with Tom than anyone," said Pisano in National DRAGSTER in 1981.
"Between Mike Dunn and myself, I think we drove for Joe longer than anyone else put together other than Sush," said Ridings. "We had a lot of fun. It was a dream come true for me because I was in my early 20s getting paid to do something that I would pay to do. I used to think in my mind that it was the best unsponsored car in the country. It never lacked for anything. If there was some new part that was better, we always had it, no question."
Bridging the gap between Ridings' and Dunn's driving stints were cars driven by Craig Epperly, Tripp Shumake, Denny Savage, and Segrini. Shumake ran a 5.74 in Pisano's Camaro to set the track record at the fabled Orange County Int'l Raceway in 1983 before it closed. Segrini won the 1985 Winternationals, giving Pisano his first national event win while the team made the debut of the JP-1 block.
Dunn drove for Pisano from 1986 through 1989. In an era when the match race scene had diminished and corporate-sponsored race teams ruled, Pisano remained independent while increasing his presence on the national racing stage.
"Everyone asks what my favorite car was in my career, and that was it when I was driving for Joe," said Dunn. "It looked good, it ran well, and it pretty much turned my career around. My career was pretty much going nowhere when he picked me up. We had some success, and it got me back on my feet. It was the most fun car to drive. It was at the end of an era when we still had a two-speed transmission in it, a manual lockup on the clutch, and a line-loc on the brake handle for when we did the dry hop. You did a lot of stuff in that car."
Pisano's biggest win occurred when Dunn scored at the 1986 U.S. Nationals. Despite never running all of the national events, Dunn placed in the top 10 in 1987, 1988, and 1989. They won in Houston and Phoenix in 1988 and in Atlanta and Baton Rouge, La., in 1989. The car was known for its big speeds, setting the national speed record three times, and breaking the 280-mph barrier in Dallas in 1987.
Crewmember Glenn Mikres stepped into the driver's seat in 1990. He was replaced by Dale Pulde before the Denver event in 1991, and Pulde was only able to make one half-track pass before Pisano passed away. At the time of his death, Pisano held the national speed record with Mikres' 286.25-mph blast in Houston that season.
The brothers and longtime head mechanic Gary Slusser continued to race after Pisano's death with Pulde driving until parking the operation in 1994.
Pisano built cars that were iconic for looks as well as performance, be it the Pisano & Matsubara Vegas of the 1970s that were purchased as Revell model kits or the Olds Cutlass of the late 1980s that shattered speed records and beat up on teams that were competing for season championships. Rather than displaying decals of sponsors, his cars were hand lettered throughout.
Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, Pisano's cars have been replicated during the current craze of Nostalgia Funny Car racing. Nephew Danny, the son of late brother Carmen, put together a '74 Vega that was a tribute to the Pisano & Matsubara car and debuted it at the 2006 California Hot Rod Reunion. Cruz Pedregon later built a '78 Plymouth Arrow as a Pisano tribute car.
"His Funny Car was like a child to him," said Pedregon. "His cars were immaculate from front to back. You could eat off the chassis or the motor; it was that clean."
Pisano's cars and transporters were always spotless, and he never spared any expense for the components within the race car.
"He loved drag racing," Dunn recalled. "He didn't like running all the races. He didn't want to run for the championship or anything like that, but when we rolled to the track, he gave it anything he needed to win the race. He always had good parts. What was inside the car was as good as the car looked on the outside. It was one of the bestlooking cars I ever drove.
"All his drivers did the clutch while he and Gary Slusser did the engine. He'd point to the car and say, 'I don't ever want to see you in front of that motor plate.' When I first got over there, I was going through everything at the shop and made a list of what he needed. I went back and said, 'You need a lot of stuff. I have this big list, and it might be a little bit much.' He said, 'Don't worry about it. Give me the list, and if it's too much, I'll raise the price of pistons next week.' That's my kind of owner."
"He had a deep, inside passion to win," said Savage. "In the process of doing all that, he wanted to have fun."
Said Ridings, "Joe always had the attitude that he didn't want a sponsor because then he'd have to do everything. He wanted to go racing when he wanted to go racing. He didn't want to have to go to all of the national events and all that."
Being an engine guy, Pisano never lacked for horsepower. His independent mind-set carried over to the mechanical side of his race car, and he took great pride in having his ideas manifest into fast time slips.
"Gary and my brother, Carmen, and I are not copycats," Pisano said in 1991. "When you win with parts that aren't supposed to work, it's more of an achievement. We stuck with the transmission longer than anyone, and we ran faster with cast water heads and stock valves."
Racers knew Joe P. or "Papa Joe" as a man with a colorful sense of humor and a guy who, despite his tough exterior, was willing to help his fellow racers and the people around him.
"To drive one of Joe's cars is a privilege, and I felt honored that he thought I could do it," said Pulde in National DRAGSTER in 1991. "Joe lived, ate, and slept for that race car. If you were looking for a role model, someone you could really look up to and respect, Joe was your man. He was like a second dad to me. And he wasn't just like that for me; he was like that for several people, lots of racers."
Pisano was known for offering extended credit to fellow racers who were his customers. To the racers he helped, the gesture meant every bit as much as the help itself.
"He was one of those suppliers who I think had a soft spot for people he considered racers, people who did everything they could try to do to race the best they could," said Whit Bazemore. "He'd fix our stuff when we blew it up, which was every run, basically. He took care of us. To me, guys like Joe P., Bob Brooks, and Ken Veney are legends who were the backbone of our sport.
"It was kind of a verification that people who were way smarter than me believed in me and helped our team achieve our goals and survive. It's one thing to have a guy like Pisano send you a set of rods when you already owe him for five other sets. Opening up a new set of rods is like Christmas morning, and having someone like him helping me because he believed in me meant more than the set of rods."
Said Pedregon, "I've yet to meet another guy with his personality. He was a unique, smart guy, an entrepreneur in the industry, and very underrated as a crew chief. I've always considered myself lucky to have someone I really respected to learn key things from. There are certain things I pay attention to with my car that I learned from Joe. I don't know what he saw in me, but he made me feel like someday I could be a racer. He was the guy who introduced me to Larry Minor, and Larry was my 'Ticket to Ride,' as the Beatles sang.
"My dad was good friends with Joe's brother, Carmen, and he knew Joe from when they were both racing in the '60s," added Pedregon. "When my dad passed away, I reached out to Carmen to meet Joe and see if I could be on his team and pursue my career. Joe brought me in with open arms. I spent three or four years working on Joe's car. I was the truck driver. Even though it wasn't a Pro-sponsored team, it was a professional team nonetheless. He was proud of the fact that he didn't have to answer to anybody. He was definitely his own man."
"I had all brand-new everything when I won Pomona [in Pro Comp] in 1978," said Ridings. "We had gone there and qualified and cracked the domes on the pistons. Nobody had any, so we took the car home on Friday. We were done. Then, it started raining. I called up Joe, and he said, 'Bring one over, and I have them built for you tomorrow.' That cemented our relationship.
"He kind of played the hard-guy attitude, but he really wasn't a hard guy. I enjoyed racing with him tremendously. I equated it to living the life of a pro athlete to a greater-or-less extent because there was nothing better in my world. We always ate well. He knew every good restaurant in every town we ever went to. He had friends everywhere, so we always knew somebody wherever we went match racing."
Said Dunn, "He helped a lot of racers. When I got my license on alcohol in my dad's car in '76, he gave me a set of alcohol pistons and a camshaft because he was on a Crane Cams deal at that time. I went to Enderle and bought an alcohol barrel valve. We blocked off the manifold nozzles and ran it through the injector. We had two twospeeds and bought a kit from Lenco to make a three-speed. I spent $600 of my own money when all was said and done between the donations and everything.
"He was a bigger than life character. He had that personality where he could be intimidating, but he could charm the pants off you if he wanted to. He had that way about him. He had a love of life, a love of drag racing, a love of cars."