Book Review by Richard Parks, Photographic Consultant Roger Rohrdanz
Number Seven in a series of excellent pictorial books by Don Montgomery is called Dragster and Funny Car Memories, Southern California in the Sixties. It has the same high-quality style that the author’s other books contain. Don began collecting photographs and history for books on the 1940’s and ‘50’s Southern California hot rod culture and in his last two books he has branched out to include fuel altered drag cars and now dragsters and funny cars. Dragster and Funny Car Memories, Southern California in the Sixties is a hard cover book with 192 pages. The pages are heavy bond, high quality, waxed paper, which makes the black and white photographs stand out. The cover of the book is his standard red with gold lettering, but it is his red, white and black dust cover jackets that make the book visually stunning. Keep the dust cover jacket and don’t abuse it or throw it away, because it gives the book that simple, but effective hot rod look. Montgomery writes the text and self publishes his books, creating an assembly line of books from the copious amount of photographs that his friends lend him. He also writes the captions to the photos in a clear, informative and tidy manner, which hot rodders like. Don has gathered 397 photographs, all in black and white and they are very clear and readable due to the high quality of the paper. Dragster and Funny Car Memories, Southern California in the Sixties measures 8 ¾ inches in width by 11 ¼ inches in height. The pages are woven into the spine of the book for extra durability. The price is forty dollars plus shipping and handling and you can order directly from the author or from the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum, in Pomona, California. Call the museum at 909-622-2133 and place your order by phone. The ISBN# is 0-9626454-6-X.
Dragster and Funny Car Memories, Southern California in the Sixties is composed of a dedication, table of contents, introduction, acknowledgments, five chapters and a profile of the author, but no index. Montgomery has not created an index for any of his books so far and it forces the reader to scan thoroughly to make sure nothing has been missed. Even without an index, Montgomery’s books have been well received, often prompting an author’s delight, a second reprinting. His books have a liberal amount of text to explain the story while the photographs are exceptional and wide ranging. The author is often envied by other writers for his networking skills in finding collections of photos and background material. Montgomery is now well-known among Southern California hot rodders, many of whom have gone on to success in drag, landspeed and oval track racing. His list of acknowledgments reads like a who’s who of drag racing. Some of his sources were participants, others were photographers and writers and he knows many that were track managers. They include; Don Prieto, Bob McClurg, Bob Muravez, George Schreiber, Jim Nelson, Tom Hanna, Steve Gibbs, Frank Pisano, Doug Thorley, Holly Hedrich, Bob Spar, Ted Cyr, Art Chrisman, Don Blair, Ed Osepian, Dode Martin, Gene Adams, Roy Fjastad, Kent Fuller, Doug Kruse, Don Hampton and many more early drag racers, officials, photographers and writers. But perhaps the best source for this book is Don Montgomery himself. He was in the action from the very beginning and he knew the people whom he was writing about. You get the feeling that Don could continue to write about what he knows and turn out a book a year into the foreseeable future.
Drag racing may owe its origins to sunny Southern California, but it has become a national and worldwide sport. Montgomery covers it from a local California perspective, but recognizes and applauds the competition, skill and quality of the drivers and race teams that ‘invaded’ California to do battle for the title of best in the sport. His preliminary chapter is a short seven pages, but well done. We are given a taste of what is to come as the author describes what led up to the frenzied racing in the 1960’s and the wars for local dominance among the racers and the sanctioning bodies. He gives a brief overview of the famous Southern California drag strips, including Bakersfield. Many of the racers had once raced on the dry lakes and at Bonneville and were now making a name for themselves on the paved quartermile tracks. Dragsters and Funny cars were not uniform as they are today. Owners, builders, mechanics and drivers were experimenting with radical and wild designs to become more aerodynamical, lighter and to develop power and tire traction. A breakthrough by one team would spell constant success until other race teams copied or improved on the technology. Growth in the sport came at a dizzying rate. Nothing stayed the same for very long. Speeds got faster and faster and elapsed times became quicker and quicker. Top fuel dragster drivers included Mickey Thompson, Don Garlits from Florida, Ted Cyr, Bobby Langley, Don Prudhomme, Tom McEwen, Chris Karamesines and many more. Leland Kolb, Tommy Ivo, Eddie Hill and the Warren/Coburn team ruled in Top Gas. Garlits retired after a long and lustrous career and opened up a drag racing museum in Florida, saving and restoring cars years before it became popular. Hill won championships in drag boats and cars. Thompson went on to success in motorcycle racing promotions until his life was taken in a hired assassination. The Funny Cars were truly funny looking in those early days, but their speeds and times were anything but humorous. They were built for speed. Racers such as Randy Walls, Doug Thorley, Paula Murphy, Hayden Proffitt, Big John Mazmanian, Dyno Don Nicholson, Jungle Jim Lieberman with his sidekick, Jungle Pam in her hotpants on the line, thrilled the throngs of spectators.
The names leap off the page as Montgomery tells their stories and the photographs take us back to the days when we were all young and anything and everything was possible. The world of drag racing was fierce, but unusually friendly, as competitors would often help each other. Many of these cars have been restored and are on display in museums, such as the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum in Pomona, California, or the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. Private collectors and old racers are finding their cars and restoring them for nostalgia racing or simply for car shows and cruises. The reunions and numerous car shows are bringing back the old racers and their stories are beginning to be told by men such as Montgomery. Sadly, many of the famous old dragstrips did not survive the transition into the 21st century and were torn down to pave way for housing tracts and malls. A few race tracks have opened recently at Irwindale and Fontana, but the glory years of drag racing in dragsters and funny cars is over. You can still taste the glory years at the NHRA races at Fontana and Pomona and in books, like Montgomery’s. These men and women would set the stage for a prolific growth in Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Car for those to follow. John Force, Joe Amato, Shirley Muldowney, Kenny Bernstein and other modern drivers would someday eclipse the records of those who came of age in the 1960’s, but never take away their achievements as pioneers of the sport of drag racing.
Gone Racin’ is at RNPARKS2@JUNO.COM