This weekend at the 42nd Pepsi NIghtfire Nationals in Boise, Idaho, veteran dragster driver Jim Murphy attempts to claim the lead in the NHRA Heritage Series Points Chase.
Two session of fuel funny cars on Friday at Famoso Raceway. Here are some photos. (all images by Cole Coonce)
A feature on Chris “the Golden Greek” Karamesines — who is still driving Top Fuel dragsters at age 81 — has hit your local magazine rack: Page 58, the March 2010 ish of HOT ROD Magazine…. — CC
Godspeed to Darryl Jackman of Fast News Network and Drag Race Central. Besides being a vital resource and a reporter who did exemplary work, he was just a nice guy — an absolute mensch. The word I got is that he passed on Wednesday from pancreatic cancer.
I will remember him this way, posed next to the portrait of LA Times motorsports reporter, Shav Glick. Glick was obsequiously courted by the NHRA, who couldn’t go down on him fast enough, even though he sometimes got many things completely wrong, including confusing cubic inches with cubic centimeters. Regardless, besides a permanent parking space next to the tower, NHRA named the media center after him and hung his portrait next to Darryl’s spot in the press room. I guess the joke is how much Darryl was beginning to resemble the portrait.
The epochal full-length feature film American Nitro has been digitally remastered and released on dvd. Finally. I mean, it is really about time, because although many have tried to capture the hellzapoppin’ , explosive and dramatic essence of drag racing on celluloid — most have failed. This documentary is perhaps the sole exception.
After a successful theatrical run in 1979 (where it grossed over a million dollars — a rather unheard of and lucrative take for a documentary film), American Nitro was mothballed until VHS cassettes entered American living room and home entertainment centers. At that time (circa 1994), Steve Collison, editor of Super Stock & Drag Illustrated, enjoined yours truly to write an essay about the history of drag racing as portrayed in cinema. So I did, hosting a series of beer-and-popcorn catered parties made up equally of gearheads, pseudo-intellectuals and film buffs. The resulting story ran with the rather obvious headline of “Lights! Camera! Nitro!” Some of the thoughts on American Nitro, as commented on by the intelligentsia gathered in my Silver Lake living room, ran as follows:
Despite the Professor’s neuroses I sensed we were in a groove, the vibrations were positive, Ikky asked for more Cafe Gavina (a brand of bean juice that is particularly hard to find in Death Valley). “Don’t waste time with Hollywood Productions,” I told myself, “stick with the documentaries — they are far more surreal than anything the Film Studios could offer.”
I jammed in something called American Nitro into the VCR and hoped for the best. And I got it. This guy was not unlike Funny Car Summer, but ultimately more successful i.e., no maudlin folk music obnoxiously underscoring the plight of the independent drag racer, and no gratuitous sandstorm footage. Shot mostly at Fremont Raceway, this gem contained plenty of mid-70’s era funny car racing. Also included in this work, however, is an extremely chilling interview with engine builder Ed Pink who discusses the horrors of oil fires in the early days of drag racing, particularly the incident which claimed the life of Top Fuel hero John “the Zookeeper” Mulligan at the U.S. Nationals in 1969. That was a dark day for drag racing, and the footage from this segment rattled the collective soul and psyche of the race fans and film buffs gathered in my living room.
“This too was the ‘Spirit of America,’” Zukovic solemnly intoned.
“His passing was as tragic to the drag racing community as the school teacher’s who died in the Space Shuttle was to Middle America,” replied Sean Vigle.
“Beebe & Mulligan were the #1 qualifiers at that race with a 6.43, they had the rest of the dragsters covered by 2/10ths of a second,” Ikky mentioned.
He then whispered, “It was perhaps our Hindenburg crash.”
It got pretty quiet for a few moments.
“Wow, you guys really take this stuff seriously. Do any of you remember where you were when you heard about the news about his death?” Professor Prina wondered.
“Yeah…I do,” I said softly.
Yes, the “Zookeeper” pushed the parameters of a Top Fuel car in the 60’s and did not survive. His clutch exploded, a not-uncommon phenomena at the time, perhaps due to strain from the massive horsepower. But a lot of envelopes were subjected to stress tests during that era, both on and off the ol’1320. The racing movie that embodied the social chaos of that time would have to be Two Lane Blacktop. If Mulligan’s demise was symbolic of the end of drag racing’s innocence, then Two Lane Blacktop seemed to be a fitting segue out of American Nitro.
I have to be honest: I haven’t watched that film in over fifteeen years. Until…. After having been sent a “screener” copy, I popped in the new dvd of American Nitro a few nights ago, and was once again moved by the sequence about John Mulligan. But I also realized what a time capsule this film has become. Besides “Zookeeper” Mulligan after his passing, nitro-addled 1970s Americana is also something that is never coming back. And because that zeitgeist was captured by American Nitro’s filmmakers so eloquently, their film has been become not only a crucial document, but a eulogy for the passing of drag racing itself, which, in my opinion, is basically moribund, if not just dead. – Cole Coonce
(Look for the entire transcript of “Lights! Camera! Nitro!” to run in Volume 2 of Top Fuel Wormhole: The Cole Coonce Drag Strip Reader.)