Posts tagged ‘Jim Herbert’

March 6, 2010

Top Fuel Wormhole’s Soul-Tugging March Meet Memories

Publisher’s Note: In keeping with this weekend’s  motor-riffic machinations at the Bakersfield March Meet, here are some excerpted memories of that event from the pages of Top Fuel Wormhole. Specifically, this is Cole Coonce’s Top Fuel coverage from the 1998 and 1999 events, separated by a brief obituary of epic crew chief, Jim Herbert, who won the 39th March Meet and passed on suddenly days before the 40th, which he won, arguably, posthumously.



Jim Murphy and the WW Two Top Fueler @ the 1998 March Meet (photo by Cole Coonce)

Goodguys 39th March Meet, Famoso Raceway, March 13-15, 1998—Wam! Bam! Wallakazaam! What a rootin’ tootin’ drag race! And it all boiled down to two dragsters—the venerable awe-inspiring, Jim Murphy-shoed W.W. Two machine against the immaculate fresh-outta’-the-oven Foothill Flyer slingshot (shoed by “Nitro Neil” Bisciglia)—squaring off for all the prestige and glory that is part and parcel of winning Top Fuel Eliminator at the March Meet.

The box score will reveal that Murphy did a masterful job of negotiating W.W. Two past the traction-deficient bottom end and posted a quarter-mile elapsed time of 6.26 seconds to defeat the Foothill Flyer, which began spinning the tires about 300 feet into the run whereupon Bisciglia prudently shut off the engine while savoring runner-up status. But this doesn’t do the March Meet justice, and once the smoke cleared after this final pair of fuelers BA-WHAPPED their way down the quarter mile, it was hard not to reflect on a March Meet that was absolutely loaded with awe-inspiring moments…

Indeed, there were so many highlights, this writer is at a loss as to where to starting litanizing them; The beginning would be the logical place to start, I guess, but that was Friday night’s qualifying session, which was rained out—no epic moments there. But come Saturday, it was hellzapoppin’ right off the bat, courtesy of Denver Schutz. Schutz catapulted his way to the #1 qualifying position of the 8-car show (where he stayed) with an early shut off (!) 6.01 @ 209 mph, a run that was as smooth as a baby’s keister to the 1/8th mile—in fact, the Eirich, Schiller & Schutz Ground Zero fueler clocked an unprecedented 203 mph at half-track—before tire shake forced Schutz to abort the run. “Everybody’s accusing me of shutting it off early all the time, falling on my ass in order to save (the engine)—well, I’m tired of doing that! But it was vibrating so bad down there, the tires were so far out of balance, I couldn’t see,” said an exhilarated Schutz, champing at the prospect of driving it out the back door come race day. No matter how stunning, however, this wasn’t the run that sent the railbirds into orbit. Nor was the #2 shot by Mike McClennan, who wowed ‘em with a rod-tossin’, crank-charrin’ 6.09 @ 218…

The biggest damage to the spectator’s and participant’s sense of reality transpired during the final session of Top Fuel qualifying late Saturday afternoon, when the wheat began to separate from the chaff. Amongst the 21 cars entered, the list of non-qualifiers as of Saturday afternoon would make for a pretty decent hot-rod harvest unto itself: Champion Speed Shop, Fuller & Dunlap, Pure Hell, The Birky Bunch, the Foothill Flyer, W.W. Two, Steiner & Berger and others were all in line to get tickets to Sunday’s dance.

Dunlap punched his ticket early, clocking a 6.15 at 216 mph, which enabled the Mike Fuller MotorsportsFugowie fueler which was doin’ the monkey at 180 mph through the lights and playing pong with the guardrails while upside down. (Butch was okay… the once-gorgeous race car was actually fairly intact except for a missing rear wheel and slick, an obliterated set of front tires, a bongoed blower set-up and an inch or so of chrome-moly missing off of the top of the roll cage… yikes! Suffice it to say, Butch, who is an excavator and contractor when he ain’t running a Top Fuel dragster, operated very little heavy machinery the rest of the weekend; in fact, nothing more strenuous than a blender. Doctor’s orders!) machine to enter the show—and also kept him out in front of Butch Blair’s barrel-rolling

More high drama manifested when “Nitro Neil” attempted to qualify the brand new Stirling-chassied Foothill Flyer, which arrived at engine czar Ken Castagnino’s shop at 6 am the previous Monday morning—sans motor. It had been a tumultuous, topsy-turvy week for Neil, car owner Pete Jensen, engine donor Ron “Pro” Welty and the rest of the Foothill Flyer’s “Free Mexican Air Force,” as they thrashed on the dragster for five days, ultimately towing to Bakersfield without having even fired the engine.

More than one member of the nitro cognoscenti raised an eyebrow in disbelief as the FMAF worked like an Alabama chain gang to finish prepping the new car, only to smoke the tires during their first two qualifying attempts. All that overtime paid off, however, as Neil silenced the non-believers with an in-the-pocket 6.37 at 224 mph, a clocking which prevailed for 8th and final position on the eliminator ladder.

Once the euphoria of Bisciglia’s accomplishment was digested, the place went absolutely ballistic after the W.W. Two’s subsequent benchmark performance, the obliteration of the 250 speed barrier, as Jim Murphy turned a time of 6.25 seconds @ 250.00 mph. What makes this feat even more startling is the notion that is was all a mistake… “It was a little unexpected,” said W.W. Two czar, Jim Herbert. “We tried to soften everything just to get down the track—we weren’t in the program—the new combination (Mastodon aluminum heads) seems to be making a little different power curve.”

Herbert’s driver describes this momentous run as kind of a turkey—at last initially. “I held the brake, it was a screwed up run. it was real doggy off the start.” After Murphy let go of the brake handle, the tires started spinning again and the car veers toward the guardrail, so Murphy grabbed the brake again! “It was really screwed up,” Murphy reiterates. But all this tugging on the brakes loaded the motor REAL GOOD… when Murphy finally let go of the brake at about 700 feet into the run (while heroically hugging the guardrail) the motor was makin’ bacon like Farmer John on disco biscuits… “It was pullin’ and pullin’ and pullin’,” said Murphy later. “I was gonna run it right to the light—I wanted to make sure we got in. We didn’t want to be sitting out.”

“I don’t like a lot of speed; speed hurts things, luckily it didn’t this time,” Herbert revealed. (Actually, further evaluation proved they had hurt a main bearing.) “He got a little disorientated down there,” Herbert continued. “The car was still moving at half track on him, he kind of lost where he was at and when it did hook up it started to haul ass.” Herbert tersely doled out praise for his driver: “He drove the wheels off of it; we’re here to be in the show. I’m not a very good loser.” — Cole Coonce

(Originally published in Drag Racing USA)



Jim Herbert plugs his ears (photo by Cole Coonce)

MARCH 3, 1999—It is with great sorrow that I report that Jim Herbert, majordomo of the W.W. Two AA/Fuel Dragster, passed on this morning.

Details are still forthcoming, but apparently it was heart related. The timing of his passing is somewhat ironic because his health had been sketchy for years, but he really seemed to be getting healthier lately.

I was discussing benchmarks recently with some Internet bleacher bums and some folks mentioned the 6.000 that Ted “the Bad Lieutenant” Taylor recorded in the W.W. Two car as a definitive moment in drag-strip history. We would be remiss to mention that Herbert’s hot rod was the second slingshot in the 5’s. He also tuned his latest driver, Jim Murphy, to that 250 mph moon shot at Famoso.

I had the honor of “getting next” to Herbert during the course of my drag strip journalism endeavors—which is to say he would return my phone calls. Straight up, nobody commanded my respect more than this man—and I have had the pleasure of meeting a plethora of both abstract and forward thinkers in a variety of mediums. Herbert, however, had really been in a groove for the last decade or so. It was a real privilege to meet the man as he truly hit his stride.

One of the most epic sights in drag racing was watching Herbert snap the ground wire off the mag and WHAPP! WHAPP! WHAPP! the mighty, beastly W.W. Two fueler would awaken with a roar. Herbert would point the driver (Taylor, Gary Ritter, Murphy) into the beams and with these few graceful and economic hand gestures he would let everyone gathered around the starting line know exactly whom they were reckoning with.

“Epic.” “Graceful.” Hey! We should all hit our marks with such dignity and panache. Jim, the drag strip community will be poorer without your presence. You were truly a hero, whose penchant for setting racers and race fans on their ear was matched only by your humility and modesty.

I can’t tell you how happy I am for you. You had the opportunity to shine like a diamond, but you were never ostentatious. You will be missed. — Cole Coonce

(Originally published in Nitronic Research)

A bittersweet victory. (photo by Cole Coonce)


Goodguys 40th March Meet, Famoso Raceway, March 13-15—It was perhaps the most poignant final round in the history of the sport…

Facing off against “Wild Bill” Alexander for the honor of Top Fuel Eliminator at the Goodguys March Meet was the W.W. Two AA/Fuel Dragster, the defending champs, who were sans their esteemed point man, Jim “the Lizard” Herbert, who had passed on to the Great Flow Bench in the Sky a mere ten days prior, a victim of a heart aneurysm.

Herbert died with the secrets of his tune-up still locked in his noggin. Defense of the March Meet title was left to his surviving teammates (who were ambivalent about campaigning the dragster in Herbert’s absence but were persuaded to go racing by Herbert’s widow, Cheri) and their ability to unlock and decipher the secrets of a complicated matrix of nozzles, weights and measures that comprised the blown-Chrysler-on-nitro tune-up that had been taken to the grave. Befitting of a man of his stature, the winner of Top Fuel Eliminator at the March Meet was also the recipient of the Jim Herbert Memorial Trophy.

During qualifying, the chances of driver Jim “Holy Smokes” Murphy and the rest of the W.W. Two team transforming their appearance here into a proper wake seemed remote. After three qualifying attempts, they anchored the bump spot with an elapsed time of 6.23, far off the pace set by “Swingin’ Sammy” Hale in the Champion Speed Shop/Juxtapoz Chevy-powered fueler, who had rocketed to an unprecedented 5.87 at 232 mph to snare the pole position.

(As a parenthetical to Hale’s benchmark—“We’re going to bypass the .90s,” is how “Swingin’ Sammy” prophesied the run—bodacious manifold pressure kicked out both the ingress and egress lines of the oil system, creating a geyser of Torco that lubricated the left slick like a banana peel on a back-lot sidewalk. As an oil-blind Hale fought for control of his 230 mph Valdez, jettisoned oil actually doused the driver in the next lane, Circuit Breaker hot shoe Howard Haight, who was busy swapping lanes—not once but twice—with the caroming Champion machine. To reiterate, in addition to Sammy, Howard Haight also received an oil bath… from the digger in the other lane! Howard, who has cut his teeth on a variety of mean machines including the infamous Pure Heaven AA/Fuel Altered, said it was the scariest ride he had ever taken.)

Despite the performance of the W.W. Two machine being well behind the curve of Sammy Hale’s moon shot, during eliminations kismet, providence and perspiration intervened on behalf of Herbert’s survivors… Murphy began the afternoon by zipping past Gerry Steiner, 6.11 @ 215 mph to Steiner’s charging 6.13, 242 mph. (As a consolation, Steiner’s boisterous assault on the lights stood for Top Speed of the Meet.) In the semi-finals, Murphy upped the ante with a 6.09 clocking that dropped Denver Schutz’s trailing 6.29. (Note: FTN would be remiss in not mentioning Schutz’s first-round opponent, Jack Harris in the Dale “the Snail” Emory-tuned Nitro Thunder dragster; these guys qualified 2nd at a rollicking 6.04 but had traction problems against Schutz. . . )

On the other side of the ladder, however, Alexander, shoe for Frank “Root Beer” Hedge’s Mastercam team the unenviable #5 position on the elimination ladder and pitted Alexander against “Swingin’ Sammy” Hale. But in eliminations the Champion team made a strategic mistake as the Chevy put out a cylinder or two, lost and regained traction and sashayed to a losing 6.54 against Bill’s superior 6.17 at an impressive 234 mph. Despite an aggressive clutch set-up, fate continued to bless Alexander in the semi-final round of eliminations. His competition, Rick McGee in the Tedford, Hester & McGee entry, appeared en route to an easy victory as the Mastercam machine struck the tires on the launch and limped down the racetrack. At 1000 feet, however, as McGee was all alone ten yards from the end zone, he fumbled, striking the centerline cones and was disqualified. McGee’s transgression left Hedge & Alexander with the uneasy task of playing Snidely Whiplash to the W.W. Two team’s Dudley Dooright. . .

Indeed, as Hedge emerged from the undulating clouds of tire smoke en route to his tow vehicle and was informed that he actually had won that heat, he was noticeably shaken and appeared rather distraught. “This is Herbert’s race,” he said, moments before regaining his senses and cranking up both the nitro percentage and the lead on the magneto.

Despite any perceived trepidation concerning spoiling a Cinderella story, the Mastercam machine was loaded like an elephant gun in the final round. The motor was as loud, over-the-top and boisterous as it has ever sounded. The burnout was particularly deafening. As “Wild Bill” pulled ‘er into the beams, the blower straps caught on fire due to a leak out of the left header bank. Starter Larry Sutton (of Lions Drag Strip fame and an absolute Timelord of the Xmas tree) doused the flames with a fire extinguisher and motioned Bill into the beams (!); the blower straps caught on fire again and Sutton hit the extinguisher once more before giving Alexander the kill sign. Sutton then wheeled around and held up one finger to Murphy, signifying a solo shot to victory. It was a touching coda to one of the most emotional weekends in drag racing as crew members gathered around Murphy and the W.W. Two machine in a semi-circle, most of whom raised the right hand and the air and extended their index fingers in salute to their fallen leader. As Murphy popped the parachutes at the culmination of a 6.23, 208 victory lap, railbirds, racers and bleacher bums were openly weeping.

In general, the event was a slam-dunk success. The staging lanes, bleachers and porta-potties were all filled to capacity. Moreover, the impromptu tribute to Jim Herbert was as inspired as it was implausible. But the success of W.W. Two—in spite of the absence of their fallen leader—begs this question: When was the last time you cried at a drag race? — Cole Coonce

(Originally published in Full Throttle News)


TOP FUEL WORMHOLE is available here.

March 2, 2009


A Concentric History of the World’s Quickest and Fastest Chevy on Nitro…


by Cole Coonce


“Man from outer space or man trying to get there? No, he’s not an astronaut, but he drives a dragster just fast enough to go into orbit. The man is Sammy Hale, driver from South San Francisco who here displays his new fireproof driver’s suit which he donned Thursday after arriving at Quad-City Drag Strip for the World Series of Drag Racing. The suit features an airtight aluminum coating, is washable and costs about $150. ‘It’s worth it,’ Hale said. ‘Have you ever seen a man burned in a dragster?’ Hale boasts the world’s fastest and quickest Chevrolet, having turned better than 180 miles an hour” — East Moline Dispatch.

As experts in the fields of quantum physics and cosmology ponder the notion of whether or not Time Travel is possible, they would do well to study the South San Francisco-based phenomenon of the Champion Speed Shop AA/Fuel Dragster, a race team and machine that has torn a hole in the fabric of what we know as the third and fourth dimensions of space and time. They have claimed the honor of being the world’s quickest and fastest accelerating Chevy on nitro*… it claimed this honor first almost forty years ago and has reclaimed the honor now.

Beyond these claims, its one constant is the occupant of the dragster’s cockpit, one Sammy Hale. That’s right, race fans: The same guy who, quick as an outhouse mouse, steered the Champion car to 180 mph in 1962 whilst putting the Chrysler-powered machine of Top Fuel potentate “Big Daddy” Don Garlits on the trailer at Half Moon Bay, was the same guy who rocketed to 239 mph last year in another Champion-sponsored front-motored fueler. (To ratchet up the Champion team’s claim to utter domination, “Swingin’ Sammy” Hale threw down a real moon shot at this year’s March Meet in Bakersfield, turning an unprecedented 5.87 at 232 mph to claim Low E.T. of the Universe. . . )

But before we get into what launches Sammy into orbit, first we must set the way-back machine to intersecting co-ordinates of a) 1957, and b) Colma, California in the general vicinity of what the locals call South City. A sleepy, perhaps moribund town sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco Bay, Colma is known for its abundance of cemeteries (most specifically the Holy Cross, Cypress Lawn and Olivetti graveyards on Old Mission Road), and is a town where the population of deceased surpasses the number of actual living, breathing taxpayers.  It is where South San Francisco brings their dead. And in a charming paradoxical spin on the carbon cycle, some theorize that the preponderance of mulch and compost that seeped into the topsoil is why the “South City Hot Rod Experience” came alive here…

Although the creation of this scene was the local hot rodder’s Big Bang, its origins were certainly humble enough. “One day on the school bus I noticed this little shack on El Camino Real in South City,” Sammy Hale remembered. “There was this nice little ‘34 Ford pickup out there all painted red and striped and everything. A couple of more times we went by and noticed a sign and the next thing you know it’s like, ‘Hey, there’s a speed shop there.’ It was a big interest to see what they had so you’d go in and buy three feet of red plastic plug wire.”

Indeed, in the beginning Champion Speed Shop was nothing more than a shack, operated by a stocky, entrepreneurial President of the Pacers Car Club, Jim McLennan (aka “the Smiling Irishman”, aka “Papa Bear”). McLennan had married into the Padilla family, who ran one of the oldest plumbing companies in San Francisco. Patriarch Joe Padilla had been credited with rebuilding the town after various earthquakes and natural disasters. Although not necessarily blue bloods, they were pillars of respectability—and then their daughter up and married the scourge of society, a street racer. To appease the in-laws, McLennan began an apprenticeship as a plumber during the day. But at night and into the dawn, as Jim was burnin’ black rubber through the billowing fog that would shroud the slick, lacquered asphalt at either the Great Highway or Brotherhood Way, his true ambition became as clear and as obvious as the clanging bell of a cable car: Set up with the proper piece of real estate, McLennan had a hunch he could parlay his passion for hot rodding into a living. And yes, his was a post-WWII success story worthy of a Horatio Alger book. But the real windfall of the Champion Speed Shop was more than just the fruits of commerce. It engendered not only a cottage industry but some would maintain a friggin’ art movement. A renaissance. But not without some support from the in-laws…

“My grandfather went down there and said, ‘If you’re going to do this, you need to do it right,’ and they built this 10,000 foot tilt-up,” is how Bobby McLennan explains the Padilla family’s role as patron of the arts. The new building was on Mission, around the corner from the wooden shack the Padillas considered an eyesore. The new shop was a magnet indeed, attracting scores of young and not-so-young motorheads. And when not wrenching, polishing, fabricating or hanging out, the more mature gearheads would adjourn to Malloy’s, the watering hole where all the grave diggers and speed demons bellied up to slake their thirst and buy each other rounds. McLennan said emphatically that, “Every drag racer in the country has had a drink at Malloy’s. Kalitta, Garlits, Prudhomme, they were all there.” Beyond the touring professionals, guys with names like Bruno Gianoli, Don Cordo, Andy Brizio and others helped make Malloy’s a sort of satellite office of Champion. In ‘58, between discourse at Malloy’s and the Speed Shop, McLennan set up a partnership with “Terrible Ted” Gotelli (aka “the Goat”) to run a couple of rails, with Jim doing the driving.  In addition to driving Gotelli’s Chrysler-powered Organ Grinder digger, McLennan also campaigned his own dragster. Jim’s dragster was a wicked Scotty Fenn Chassis Research job, powered by a bored and stroke 364 c.i. mouse motor (“We started out with a 327 and put a 1/4” stroker in it,” Jim recollected) that Weber Cams dubbed the “World’s Fastest Chevy” in their trade ads.

Eventually Jim extended the forks and campaigned the Chassis Research car as a gasoline-powered twin-engined deal, a combination that lasted about six months. Regardless of the setup, the machine was the pride and joy of the neighborhood, attracting kids on bicycles every time they heard the motor turn over. Likewise, impromptu test-and-tune warm-up runs down Old Mission would wake the dead and bask the patrons at Malloy’s with a comforting mist of nitromethane that would secrete down the esophagus and seemed to complement whatever poison the bar patrons were imbibing at the time. In a commercial sense, the dragster acted as an attraction for the Speed Shop, where the scene continued to flourish and explode. McLennan partnered with Don Smith, a horse trader very adept at working the phones (and nowadays the proprietor of High Performance Distributors). Paint shops, body shops and other speed shops began to punctuate the landscape of this once-somniferous town, and McLennan branched out as a race promoter and speedway owner/operator. Out of the germination of his ideas, money and resources a renaissance flourished. Half Moon Bay, Cotati Drag Strip, Champion Speedway, and Fremont/Baylands Raceway were all under the Jim McLennan umbrella. The ripple effect was pretty profound: Andy “the Rodfather” Brizio, who mounted all the wheels at Champion’s shop, was the starter at Half Moon Bay.  He then set up shop as “Andy’s Roadsters” out of one of the side doors at Champion and then, ultimately, splintered off into his kit-roadster empire.

But beyond providing an opportunity for the regional craftsman, the new speed shop gave the local kids who were 21-or-skidoo’d out of Malloy’s a sense of place as well—it was the center of their universe. “Every street racer, every guy who would go to the drags was there,” is how Hale describes the energy at Champion in the 50s. “It was just a whole spectrum of personalities and man, there were a lot of crazy mothers who used to race on Wednesday and Friday nights out on Brotherhood Way. The nickname for the place was ‘The Zoo’ because there were so many people that came and went, it really was like a zoo. It was a social club.”

Ahh, but it was more than a club; it was a friggin’ hot-rodders’ skunk works, a proving ground for innovation, both in performance and in safety. Although in 1956 Jim Deist began mounting braking parachutes on dragsters down in L.A. and shortly thereafter began experimenting with aluminized firesuits, these innovations had yet to catch on elsewhere and were not readily available. But due to higher and higher-velocity dragsters running out of real estate while attempting to brake to a stop in the truncated shutdown area at Half Moon Bay, necessity became the mother of invention for McLennan. He envisioned stopping the dragsters with a parachute. The r & d for this device was utter slapstick, and transpired in the back of Ted’s pickup truck: “I had gotten over to Robert’s Surplus over in Oakland and gotten a great big 18’ foot ribbon-type chute for $12,” said Jim. Ted stomped on the gas and hauled ass own past Malloy’s and Jim, who had been hanging on for dear life, tossed a parachute anchored to the tailgate like a kite.  “Well, it deployed,” chuckled Jim, “but it tore the tailgate right off of Ted’s truck.” The bar patrons roared with laughter and the undertaker pondered future supply-and-demand, but the safety device caught on locally after McLennan scratched his noodle and settled upon a triangular ribbon chute. Security Parachutes from Hayward had a new customer. “It worked great—we sold a lot of them,” McLennan asserted.

Furthermore, two horrific digger fires on subsequent weekends at Half Moon Bay forced McLennan to consult with the safety crews at SFO Airport and brainstorm on fire protection. McLennan appropriated use of what the airport workers called a “proximity suit,” a silver aluminum suit that would retard fire for about half a minute—a lifetime to a drag racer. Insisting on field-testing these devices at Gotelli’s shop led to a literal trial by fire and more slapstick: Gotelli doused the shop floor with gasoline and set it ablaze, McLennan endeavored to sprint through the flames. Once in the inferno, he became somewhat disoriented, stumbled and fell before crawling out of the conflagration. “I didn’t get burned,” Jim related, “but we knew then that it worked. We did some goofy things…”

But even with distribution networks being what they were in those days, the concept of the proximity suit caught on amongst the dragster drivers. It could be argued that Deist came up with these safety features first, but the efforts of McLennan ratcheted up their profile in Northern California at the very least. And anybody who wore a proximity suit definitely remembered it. “You’d put that thing on and you’d itch for a week,” Sammy Hale said.


(Originally published 1999)