By Cole Coonce, Producer of “Dragstrip Rumble”
It came together a couple of week before the March Meet in Bakersfield, with a Skype interview folded into an NHRA Today webcast. NHRA “Stat Guy” Lewis Bloom had former NHRA Funny Car star Whit Bazemore on the line to critique the performances of Top Fuel and Funny Car racers at the season-opening Winternationals.
I thought it was thoughtful and thorough analysis, fair and balanced if you will, but after the episode aired the race-fan keyboard commandos with blueberry muffin crumbs in their beards went absolutely bonkers on the Internet. They were aghast at the cheek of “Baze” saying that this driver gave ‘er too much steering input or this shoe didn’t “pedal” quickly enough or whatever.
I thought he was just calling it as he sees it, but apparently, Whit’s critique was a little too “real” for the professional racing circuit.
But some of us like our drag racing real. And then is nothing more real than a front-engine Top Fueler — it’s like former slingshot shoe Gerry Steiner once said: “You pull the pin on a grenade and you have five seconds to put it back in.”
As a reporter covering the Nostalgia Top Fuel class back in the early 90s when the Goodguys VRA was the main sanctioning body for the class, I always knew that this was the circuit for the last of the 1960s’ Gunslingers. Front-engine Top Fuel cars are completely gonzo, and you have to have issues to even think about driving one of these things. “Swingin’” Sammy Hale. “Wild Bill” Alexander. “Nitro” Neil Bisciglia. Bill Dunlap. Those guys were all insane but came across as completely relaxed after one heroic save after another.
Now, all these years later, there is a fresh batch of shoes who have supplanted the original knuckleheads who were wheeling these unwieldy machines. Hale, Alexander, Denver Schutz, Dunlap, Steiner, and others have been replaced by the likes of Adam Sorokin, Mendy Fry, Dusty Green, and Tyler Hilton. These are relatively fresh-faced fueler drivers who are maintaining the tradition of nostalgia, which is not as contradictory as it sounds.
One of the constants going back to the 90s is the driving career of current points leader Jim Murphy. Drag racing nitro cars since the 1970s, he won the March Meet in 1998 and is on the cusp of winning his 5th, which would tie a mark set by Top Fuel legend Don Garlits.
So when the March Meet came around that year, I knew that there was going to be a lot of dramatic elements. Murphy trying to win his fifth, Adam Sorokin winning another one for his dear departed Dad, Mendy Fry taking it to the boys like Shirley Muldowney in 1981 and Lucille Lee in 1982, Tony Bartone’s quest to win his fourth consecutive Heritage Series Top Fuel Title, etc.
With all of those possible scenarios in place, there was going to be a rumble in Bakersfield, and my feeling was the Nostalgia Top Fuel wasn’t getting enough documentation, at least in the sense of video. Movie and television technology has come to a place where any couple of knuckleheads can cobble together some footage, lay down some commentary, music, and a voiceover, and get into some cheap video editing program on a laptop and bang out what in essence is a web-based TV show.
Still, even with this idea and my ability to network and wrangle some pretty hitter camera operators and editors, as well as patronage from the AA/Fuel Dragsters LLC and SCE Gaskets, there was still an element missing. The show needed a foil — a complement. Somebody who wasn’t afraid to get the story.
And when I say the Skype interview and the resulting Internet shitstorm, it hit me like a ton of oil dry. Get Whit Bazemore. He’s as nuts as any of these guys — and is not afraid to stick his head in the mouth of the lion.
Case in point, when three-time series champ Tony “T-Bone” Bartone whiffed at the March Meet against eventual event winner Mendy Fry, I got a text from Bazemore that read: “We need to interview Bartone. Just one camera.”
Bartone was so upset after his first round loss that he walked back to his pit from the shut-down area in his fire boots. After repeated brush-offs, Whit persisted and got a very raw interview with Bartone, a very passionate racer and one of the legends of modern drag racing.
And that’s the goal of the series: To get the story. And to let the world know what the Dragstrip Rumble crew considers to be the craziest and most dramatic drag racing on the planet, vintage Top Fuel. -30—
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