Nitro Revival 2021 explodes at Irwindale Dragstrip

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Howard Koby

“Alcohol is for drinking, gas is for cleaning parts and nitro is for RACING”  -“Big Daddy” Don Garlits

What is nitro? To the average layman it’s a fancy term that might as well mean “dynamite.” Perhaps a shorthand for “nitroglycerin” (the explosive), or even “nitro beer” that gets its fizzy smoothness from being “nitrogenated”?

To the seasoned “car geek” and the obsessed drag racing enthusiast, nitro means pure, unadulterated, absolute power. The name is short for nitromethane (CH3NO2-for you chemist geeks), that is like gasoline but is pre-mixed with nitrous oxide and burns better as it has its own oxygen atoms. A Top Fuel Dragster, a Funny Car or any “nitro-burning” drag racer usually houses a 500-cubic-inch Hemi engine designed to burn nitromethane. This fuel is so important simply for the fact that more power per stroke is delivered from each explosion inside the engine. Present day Top Fuel dragsters are capable of an uncanny 8000-10,000 horsepower. Recently at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Brittany Force, daughter of Top Fuel Champion John Force, crushed the old record of 336.57 mph set by legend Tony Schumacher and blasted an amazing 3.659 seconds at a startling 338.17 mph—the fastest in Top Fuel history.

Chizler smokes em
Howard Koby

We saw nitro in action at the new Irwindale Dragstrip on November 6–7, 2021, soaking in nostalgic reflections and witnessing a motorsports revival hoping to “bring back the sights and sounds of the early days of hot rodding” says event founder director and first executive director of the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum Steve Gibbs.”[It] lets fans experience a drag racing museum come to life not only through the vehicles themselves but through the presence of many of those who built, maintained and drove them.”

Steve, affectionately known as “Big Hook” has been “hooked” on drag racing since the 1950s and used to work at San Gabriel and Fontana Drag Strips while reporting for Drag News. By the mid-’60s, as coincidence unfolds, became manager of the original Irwindale Raceway, which was rebuilt and now relocated not far from that old location in 1999 and called Irwindale Speedway & Event Center, the location for the last two Nitro Revivals utilizing the 1/8-mile drag racing strip.

The Nitro Revival is enjoying its fourth successful edition with Steve and a dedicated staff of Cindy (his daughter and right hand), Don Ewald (media/website), Connie Johnson Braun, Tim Huddleson and the late Ron Johnson at the helm. The first edition was held at Barona Drag Strip near San Diego, California and was successful but had “logistical limits” as Gibbs put it. The second edition was moved North to the prestigious WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in the rolling hills of Monterey, California. This raceway is a great location with the calm, cool breezes of the Pacific Ocean feeding the blowers. The event was made even more memorable when drag racing legend “Big Daddy” Don Garlits made a rare West Coast appearance and sat in the seat of Sonny Messner’s Swamp Rat III dragster in a push-start exhibition. We’ll never forget what he said when he hopped out of the digger:

“I think I was just in heaven and if I wasn’t I’m not going.”

Garlits has 17 championships and in 2000, voted by the NHRA tip 50 drivers list NO. 1 and has his Swamp Rat XXX displayed in the National Museum of American History at The Smithsonian in Washington D.C. The Laguna Seca track in Monterey had a great turnout but many felt it was a bit of a trek from Southern California, where the roots of hot rodding and drag racing began on unused airport runways. By the end of the late ‘40s the late Wally Parks (1913–2007) formed the National Hot Rod Association in 1951 to organize and promote the sport on a national basis.

Outlaw Gassers lineup
Howard Koby

The Nitro Revival’s third installment in May of 2019 moved to the 1/8-mile Irwindale Drag Strip in San Gabriel Valley. There, Gibbs wanted to the feeling of the era—Lions, Pomona, Santa Ana, Fontana, OCIR, Irwindale, San Fernando, etc.—to resonate with the shared emotions of the “old timers” who raced on the bygone tracks with flames cackling thunder in the sky. Just the name “Irwindale” was enough to draw thousands to reminisce and entice the “old school” dragsters to come from afar. It was like a family reunion.

Because of the pandemic, it’s been nearly a two-year wait to fire up the “cackle crowd” at Irwindale once again with nearly 70 “cackle cars” that were registered to arrive from all over the country. Greg Sharp, curator of the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum once said that “A cackle fest is like a barely controlled atomic bomb. That exploding Nitro cracks like a gun shot and shoots header flames into the night sky.” Don “the Snake” Prudhomme once said: “Loud isn’t a strong enough word. It’s so overwhelming [that] your brain can hardly compute what it’s hearing and seeing. It’s damn near a religious experience.”

The “Nitro Flamin’” weekend was a needed step back in time for many older drag racers because, as we get older, happy memories become a cherished part of your life. Gibbs and Cindy along with an incredible crew put together a program Honoring Memories of San Gabriel and Irwindale Drag Racing, classic “cackle cars,” Hall of Fame All Stars Reunion, vintage 1/8-mile drag racing, and the Hot Rod Hangout hosted by Road Kings Car Club with pre-’73 classic cars. Fans and racers mingled and traded stories all weekend and we were curious as to what the Nitro Revival meant to some of the honored “old timers.” Some of the esteemed special guests included Ed “the Ace” McCulloch, “TV Tommy” Ivo, Ed “Isky” Iskenderian, Linda Vaughn, Bob Muravez, Don “the Snake” Prudhomme, “Fast Jack” Beckman, Tom Hoover, Kenny Youngblood, Don Ewald, Mendy Fry, Don Prieto, Ed Pink, and many more who also participated in an autograph session on Saturday morning where fans packed the area having items brought for signing.

Cackle cars and In-N-Out burger sign
Howard Koby

From Saturday evening into the night, the Line of Fire Cackle brought out at least 50 cackle cars, filling up the track as it hosted tributes to the dragsters from the ‘50s and ‘60s. The cars were lined up for static starts with thundering sounds and flames and fury shooting into the cool night air.

I managed to chat with the ultimate showman of drag racing, “TV Tommy” Ivo, who at the age of 16 was first attracted to drag racing. He built the radical four-engine dragster and in 1962 he became the first to break the 8.0-second barrier at the wheel of his “Barnstormer” Top Fuel Dragster. The late Ron Johnson recreated the striking dragster that was presented at Nitro by the Johnson family (Connie Johnson Braun, Kol Johnson and Christine Griffin).

Ivo’s eyes light up when he gets inside it. “It’s heart-stopping to me. I traveled for thirty years and had friends all over the country and not so many here because we were working on the cars all the time. How do you fly back to Chicago to have lunch so I see people here that I’d never see again. And guess what, Don Prudhomme was my tire wiper then. This event is very important for the friendships that can be preserved and to teach the young people how the race cars were back in the day.”

Bob “Floyd” Muravez was a special guest, but for an old-time drag racer he is surprisingly most famous for something else: the secret he kept from his father who was against him racing. To disguise his activities he adopted an alter-ego name, Floyd Lippencott (an idea from Steve Gibbs), for when he jumped in the seat of the “Freight Train” dragster.

“I’m either idling or full throttle,” he said. What does this Nitro event mean to Floyd? With a serious tone he said: “All these people are my family, it’s a family get together. The cars and the Nitro is second, it’s the friendships and family warmth revisited; the cars are the icing on the cake. This type of event is important for the first, second and third generation of the families of the people here. Now, all the kids and grandkids can now get to see the roots of drag racing because here, it’s three-dimensional. The people here can touch it, feel it and experience the old Geezers’ deep-rooted passion.”

John Peters portrait
Howard Koby

John Peters owns the famous “Freight Train” dragster, which houses a twin-engine gasoline small-block Chevrolet. The dragster  was once driven by Mickey Thomson and smoked the tires all the way through the lights. “We have to build a tire for this car,” Peters said.” “Seeing some of the old cars that ran in the ’50s and ‘60s and ‘70s, and also getting to communicate and revitalize old friendships, is really great. It also shows the public what drag racing was really about,” explained Peters.

Don Ewald—who was a winning Top Fuel dragster owner and driver back in the day piloting the noted BankAmericar dragster alongside his late brother John in the MasterCar—is part of the staff of the Nitro Revival. “The original concept created by Ron Johnson and Steve Gibbs was to revive the ‘Gathering of Cackle Cars’ from back in the day, and this edition of the cackle extravaganza was a sight to behold,” he said. “With all the old friends gathering to reminisce and looking forward to each revival, to me I can say its probable keeping me alive! Even though this is a niche market it serves a great purpose to teach the history of drag racing to younger fans.”

Steve Gibbs tribute at Famoso
Howard Koby

With this event, Gibbs was able to realize the vision he and Johnson had to create a chapter in the history book of drag racing to preserve the story. To pass on “the feel and knowledge of the way it was … a social gathering of “geezers” bringing back the glory days of drag racing with a full throttle propulsion. Like a museum coming to life.”

And last but by no means least, we talked to the “First Lady of Motorsports” and “Miss Hurst Golden Shifter,” Linda Vaughn. She said that the Nitro Revival meant the world to her, seeing all her old friends and the love and companionship that was so heartwarming. “I think this Revival is important for future hot rodders, and for the grandsons, sons and daughters because the next generation is seeing what we were all about.”

In my book, Top Fuel Dragsters of the 1970s, many of the photographs were shot at the original Irwindale Raceway so I’ve included some of the images actually shot at the strip in the gallery below. Enjoy!

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