"Fast Six" with Kuhl & Olson
Legendary Team to be honored at the Automobile Club of Southern California Hot Rod Reunion, Oct. 12-14
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (Sept. 20, 2007) Teammates, friends, champions: that describes Mike Kuhl and Carl Olson. Together they formed the famous and formidable drag racing team of Kuhl & Olson in the '60s and '70s. The two are being honored at the Automobile Club of Southern California Hot Rod Reunion, presented by Holley, Oct. 12-14, at Auto Club Famoso Raceway near Bakersfield.
Kuhl & Olson began their drag racing careers in the early '60s although at the time they were separated by thousands of miles. Kuhl first achieved drag racing notoriety with a blown gasser. Running out of his native St. Louis, his Buick-powered '38 Willys coupe ran impressive 11.70s at more than 132 mph in 1960. Moving to southern California in the late '60s Kuhl opened a very successful engine business specializing in superchargers. Olson began his career driving un-blown dragsters in Northern California while serving in the Coast Guard.
The pair enjoyed their greatest success in drag racing after teaming up in the early '70s to race a front-engine Woody Gilmore dragster. A series of great-looking and great performing Top Fuel dragsters soon followed. Among their most memorable seasons was 1972 with wins at the NHRA Winternationals, a runner-up finish to Tom "The Mongoose" McEwen at the March Meet and the Top Fuel win at The Last Drag Race at the legendary Lions Drag Strip. They came back to win the March Meet in 1974. Kuhl continued to run his business until his recent retirement and Olson became an industry executive with positions at SEMA, as a long-time vice president of NHRA and currently with SFI.
In this Fast Six interview, Kuhl & Olson talk about the Reunion and the excitement of vintage drag racing.
1. How does it feel to be named an Honoree at the 16th annual Automobile Club of Southern California Hot Rod Reunion, presented by Holley? What does the Reunion mean to you?
Mike Kuhl: After devoting my whole life to drag racing, it feels pretty damn good to be an Honoree at the Reunion. Drag racing gave me a living for the last 50 years. Being honored means a lot to me. What I like about the Reunion is that it gives me a chance to get together with friends I might only see once a year. Some of these people – friends, customers and competitors – I haven’t seen for 20 years. The Reunion is a way for all of us to stay with the program, to stay within racing.
Carl Olson: Being selected as an honoree is, for me at least, confirmation of the time, effort, money, blood, sweat, tears (of both joy and sorrow) and commitment that Mike and I invested in our racing efforts during the ‘golden years’ of our beloved sport. It feels great.
I’ve attended all but one of the 15 California Hot Rod Reunions held to date, and would have attended all of them if not for a business conflict that required my presence in another part of the world at that time. Mike and I also attended and participated in the first two National Hot Rod Reunions in Bowling Green, Ky. These Reunions are my favorite events of each year because I have a deep and abiding love of the unique and historic vehicles which have been so lovingly restored or re-created, and I have an even greater love for the people whom I competed both with and against back in the ‘good old days.’ I also cherish the fans who faithfully supported our efforts. I get to see all the cars and bikes, and spend quality time with so many people at these Reunions, which only seem to get better with time.
2. Are you surprised that people remember the Kuhl & Olson racing exploits?
MK: It is surprising to hear people tell you that you were their heroes years ago. I always hear someone say their dad took them to Lions Drag Strip as a kid and held them up to the fence to see us run. Being recognized after all these years shows we weren’t a fly-by-night operation.
CO: I never cease to be amazed by the things that people remember about the ‘K&O Fast Guys.’ Many of the people we chat with actually remember some of our exploits in greater detail than I do. Invariably, hard core racers and fans broach issues that recall long forgotten, but greatly cherished endeavors in great detail. Because media exposure was so limited back in the ’60s and early ’70s, it was easy to conclude that we weren’t making much of an impression in the world of professional motorsports. Evidently, we made a bigger impression than we thought, and that's very gratifying.
3. What are some of your fondest (and funniest) memories about drag racing? Any good stories you have about each other?
MK: There are so many stories it’s hard to pick one. Some might make Carl mad. We lived in a truck for a year and it smelled like a gymnasium. It was like being married. Sometimes we’d have to duke it out. But anytime we got to a race, we were considered a threat to win it. One funny story about Carl is when we were driving the truck to Texas for a race. We’d take turns driving and I had been at it for a while as Carl slept. He got up and took a turn and I went to sleep. I woke up after a while and it was quiet. As it turned out, Carl only drove 20 minutes, got tired and pulled into a rest area. I said, ‘dammit, let me drive and you sleep!’
CO: My single fondest memory is winning Top Fuel at the Last Drag Race at Lions Drag Strip in Long Beach, California. I attended my first ever drag race at Lions in 1957 at the tender age of 13. I practically grew up at that place over the next 15 years, and winning the last race there was an extremely fulfilling and emotional experience. I also count our 1972 NHRA Winternationals Top Fuel victory, our 1972 IHRA Nationals wins and World Championship, our 1973 NHRA U.S. Nationals runner-up, our 1974 Bakersfield March Meet victory and our entry into the Cragar Five-Second Club as career highlights.
My funniest memories involved all the crazy situations Mike used to get us into (and hopefully back out of) while touring around North America. I wish I could be more specific, but I fear that the statute of limitations may not have run its course on some of these situations. Suffice it to say we never went to jail, but probably should have on more than one occasion!
Mike taught me that to be successful in Top Fuel racing; you needed to get the car to run from the starting line to the finish line on eight good cylinders every time you went down the track. If you could do that (and 99 percent of the time we could), you’d invariably win your share of rounds and events. Also, I do believe that Mike found more uses for M-80 explosives than anyone else on earth. We never went anywhere without at least a case or two on board, along with a ‘wrist-rocket’ slingshot which he used to launch M-80s into places where they could wreak unimaginable havoc!
4. Are you surprised at the popularity of vintage drag racing? What do you miss the most?
MK: Not really. For competitors, it’s another chance to race again like they used to. How many people get a second chance to do what they love again? They did it before and are doing it again. For fans, people want to see the racing and guys can bring their kids to see the heroes of their youth. Plus, going to vintage races is more affordable than a national event.
CO: Not at all. There’s a lot to be said about the way things used to be, and the types of vehicles we built and raced in the sport's earlier eras. There’s something about a "slingshot" front-engine, supercharged, nitro burning, Top Fuel cars that set it apart from everything else in the world of motorsports. The current "nostalgia" cars in all categories are every bit as exciting (and terrifying) as contemporary dragsters. Evidently, there are a lot of people, like me, who cherish those never-to-be-forgotten sights and sounds.
What I miss most is the camaraderie we shared with our fellow racers. Things weren’t nearly as formal, structured or ‘politically correct’ as they are now, and there was a lot more time to enjoy life on the road. The people we traveled with and raced against were, and continue to be, the most interesting and entertaining people I’ve ever met. No two alike, that’s for sure. I also miss driving those cars at a high rate of speed, which was always the ‘big payoff’ for me.
5. Do you still follow drag racing? Do you still see any of your old drag racing friends?
MK: Sure, I still follow drag racing, but not like I used to. I’m in more of a kick-back mode. I watch it on TV. As for seeing my old drag racing friends, yes, I see some of them all the time. I have dinner every Monday with Tom McEwen, Tom Prock and Mike Thermos. I spoke with Pat Foster and Herm Petersen this morning. Yeah, I keep in touch with them.
CO: I still follow drag racing for three reasons: First, my duties and responsibilities at the SFI Foundation require that I stay abreast of safety related issues in drag racing, and maintain a close working relationship with all contemporary drag racing sanctioning bodies. Second, I still love the smell of nitromethane, the sight of a vehicle moving across the earth at great speed, and the highly competitive nature of all drag racers. Last, but certainly not least, I still have a lot of friends and acquaintances that I've met and worked with both during my years as a racer, and my quarter century as a vice president of the NHRA. I thoroughly like spending time with them, so I attend several major and minor drag racing events every year, and enjoy them all.
Because my career has been exclusively involved with motorsports, I regularly get to see many of my old drag racing friends at motorsports events (of all kinds), trade shows and industry events. With that said, I see more of them in one day at a Hot Rod Reunion than the rest of the year combined.
6. What do you think of today’s drivers?
MK: I have the utmost respect for them. They have to be in tip-top physical condition because today’s dragsters are like fighter jets. The drivers today are pretty sharp. You can’t just grab any kid and put him in the seat like you could when we raced. It’s much tougher today.
CO: I have nothing but the highest possible level of respect for today’s drivers. I readily acknowledge that fielding a competitive vehicle is so much more difficult and expensive than it was 35 years ago, and that winning is every bit as difficult as it ever was. When you consider that Top Fuel cars are going faster in the 1/8-mile today than we were in the ¼-mile back then, it’s easy to see that driving these cars is a huge challenge. Add to that the requirements of sponsor solicitation and support, media attention, travel and logistics and so much more, and it’s very easy to see why I hold today’s competitors in extremely high esteem.
The 16th annual Automobile Club of Southern California Hot Rod Reunion, presented by Holley, is part of the museum's Hot Rod Heritage Series which works to bring to life the sights, sounds and people who made history in the early days of drag racing, land speed racing and the golden age of American car culture.
Unique among motorsports events, the Reunion honors some of the top names in hot rodding from the past and features a fabulous array of cool drag cars, street rods, classics, customs and muscle cars of the historic and present-day hot rod eras.
A three-day credential for admission to all events is available for $55 by calling 800/884-NHRA (6472) or by completing a form found in the Reunion section of the Museum's web site. Auto Club members receive a $5 discount off Adult credential prices. Credentials include a goodie bag with a dash plaque, lanyard and event program. Children 15 and under are admitted free when accompanied by an adult.
Daily general admission tickets/pit passes will be available at Auto Club Famoso Raceway gate, (www.famosoraceway.com). Cost per person: Friday, $20; Saturday, $20; Sunday, $15. Children 15 and under are free when accompanied by an adult. Auto Club discount is also available at the gate: $2 off Friday and Saturday and, $1 off Sunday.
The Reunion features a wide variety of activities and events, including:
• NHRA vintage drag racing, featuring some of the sport's most famous and historic cars and drivers, racing in such classes at Top Fuel, Supercharged Gassers, classic Funny Cars and Super Stocks.
• Hundreds of gleaming pre-1972 hot rods, street rods, custom cars, rat rods, classics and muscle cars. "Memory Lane" will have a display of nostalgic race cars. The Justice Bros. Spotlight Award will fall on the U.S. Drag Teams that in 1964 and '65 introduced drag racing to the U.K. The teams included Don Garlits and Tommy Ivo.
• Automobile Club of Southern California Hot Rod Reunion Reception, held at the DoubleTree Hotel in Bakersfield, Fri., Oct. 12, from 7 p.m.- 10 p.m. Open to everyone at no charge, it's a tribute to the Reunion's Grand Marshal, legendary drag racing champion Ed "The Ace" McCulloch, and the other Honorees . The reception offers a chance for fans to meet some of drag racing's heroes.
• Cacklefest on Saturday evening, where nitro-burning historic, front-engine top-fuel dragsters and other classic race cars are push started just like in the "old days."
• The swap meet and Manufacturer's Midway are filled with vendors and manufacturers making it easier than ever to find that hot rod part or special souvenir.
A full activities schedule, entry forms, tickets and more information are available through the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum at http://museum.nhra.com Requests may be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Proceeds of the Automobile Club of Southern California Hot Rod Reunion, presented by Holley directly benefit the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum in Pomona, Calif. The museum houses the very roots of hot rodding. Scores of famous vehicles spanning American motorsports history are on display, including winning cars representing 50 years of drag racing, dry lakes and salt-flat racers, oval track challengers and exhibits describing their colorful backgrounds.
The Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum, presented by the Automobile Club of Southern California, is open Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., PST. Current NHRA members are admitted free. Admission for non-members is $6 for adults, $4 for seniors 60 and older, $4 for juniors six through 15, and free for children under the age of five. Auto Club members receive discounts on admission and at the gift shop: show your card and save.
The Museum is also available for private parties, meetings, corporate events, weddings and special group tours. The Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum is located at Fairplex Gate 1, 1101 W. McKinley Ave., Pomona, Calif. 91768. For further information on special exhibits, museum events or directions, call 909-622-2133 or visit http://museum.nhra.com.