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Gone Racin' - Bernie and PJ Partridge Bio

Gone Racin' - Bernie and PJ Partridge Bio


Their last meeting. NHRA legends Bernie Partridge (L) and Wally Parks visit after a Museum event in 2006. Wally will pass away in 2007.

   No one will ever forget the voice of former NHRA Announcer, Bernie Partridge, with his mellow animated delivery, as he made even the mundane sound exciting.  He was born on November 28, 1932, in Los Angeles, California.  The family moved to San Pedro, California, where Bernie, as he was called by his nickname, grew up.  His father worked in the shipyards at Terminal Island, near San Pedro, building warships for the Navy during World War II.  A year after the war ended, the family moved to China Lake, in the Mojave Desert of Southern California.  Bernie attended Burroughs High School and was a star athlete in track and field, setting records in the distance races that would stand for two decades, until his son, also nicknamed Bernie, would break them.  He was also an avid mountain climber, and climbed all of the local mountains, including Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the continental United States.  Bernie boxed as an amateur from the age of 15, until he turned 22, trained by Bernie Locker, out of the local boxing club at China Lake.  He mastered the shop classes and drafting courses, and graduated in June of 1951, and got married in December of that same year.  Bernie was dating a trio of young ladies, who decided to put him to the test.  They made a pact among themselves and would give Bernie an ultimatum.  He had to choose one of them, but they agreed beforehand that the one that he chose would dump him.  At the dance Bernie chose Phillis Jeanne Thompson, who changed her mind and decided that she loved Bernie too much to go through with the plan.

   Phillis was named after a favorite uncle, Phillip, but found it hard to correct the way people spelled her name, so she went by PJ, although her friends nicknamed her Peewee.  During the 1930’s and ‘40’s, it was common to acquire a nickname and it often superseded the given name.  They were sometimes outrageously funny, often they were wickedly witty and many were downright humiliating.  But once you were tagged with a name that your friends liked, you were stuck with it no matter how hard you tried to change it.  PJ would become a name everybody knew and loved in the sport of drag racing.  Bernie and PJ Partridge would become a team, and the success of one was enhanced by the presence of the other.  After high school, Bernie went to work as a forklift operator for the China Lake Naval Weapons Center.  He tells of the time he drove the forklift off the loading dock with a humorous grin, but at the time it probably wasn’t very funny.  He was transferred to the drafting department because of his skills in drafting and mechanics learned at Burroughs, and over the years he was constantly promoted.  Bernie and PJ were happy living in the high desert country and raising their growing family.  Their family grew with the arrival of four sons; Bernie Jr in 1951, Gary in 1954, John in 1955, and Jim in 1957. 

   Bernie and PJ missed the war, but they were proud of Bernie’s achievement in design and drafting of munitions and other weapons.  Bernie worked on projects concerning the atomic bomb and the RAPEC Pilot ejection system, among others.  Right after high school, Bernie joined the Dust Devils car club, and the following year the club voted him to be their president.  This was to have a far-reaching effect on the Partridge family, changing their lives forever.  The Dust Devils promoted many activities, but their most noteworthy was the opening of the Inyokern Drag Strip, on a service road next to the airport runways.  This dragstrip would stay in operation for 51 years, until it was shut down in 2005, a casualty of the War on Terror, as the Homeland Security was afraid that terrorists might use the dragstrip for nefarious purposes.  Young people had always raced each other on the streets, on the desert dry lakes, or on abandoned airstrips.  But in 1950, CJ Hart opened the Santa Ana Drag Strip on the old unused taxiway on the airstrip and instantly became a success with the kids.  The National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) was founded a year later by Wally Parks, and within months the new sport of drag racing sprung up everywhere in a tide that was unstoppable.  Inyokern was the second NHRA sanctioned drag strip, after Madera drag strip, but the first to be insured by NHRA.  Bernie would continue as President of the Dust Devils until 1961, setting precedents for operating a drag strip that would help to develop the sport.

   Bernie’s talents were obvious, and in 1961 he was hired by NHRA to be the Division 7 Director for the Southwest, which included Arizona, Nevada, Utah, California and Hawaii.  PJ was Bernie’s secretary and they were in charge of the racetracks and national events within their area.  They did all this out of their home in Ridgecrest, California, and traveled all over the western states.  The track managers would report to him and he kept the records for his division.  They would meet with the other Division Directors and with Wally and Barbara Parks, Farmer Dismuke and Jack Hart, in forming and creating policies to run the sport.  Sometimes rules would be made on the spot due to conditions or hazards encountered.  This early group of drag racing pioneers would operate in the Golden Age of drag racing and their input would be stamped indelibly on the sport forever.  Their favorite tracks were Pomona and Inyokern, but they worked at all of the early NHRA sanctioned tracks.  Bernie would be the announcer, PJ would take care of the paperwork, and the boys went to work at various jobs at the track.  A drag race requires various skills.  There is the maintenance of the track itself.  The racecars have to be checked by trained Technical inspectors who know the rules and have good mechanical knowledge.  The fuel check stand makes sure that the proper fuels are being used.  The timing slip stand or booth gives out the results of the racer’s run.  The announcer regales the spectators with information about the racers and explains particulars of the race.  A race track needs ticket takers, souvenir stands, food, beverage, security and guards.  Inside the announcer’s booth are other people who assist him, including the spotters, one person for each of the two lanes, who match up the record sheets with the car number and report it to the announcer.

   It sounds complex, but after awhile the workers at a drag race master many jobs and can be transferred from one assignment to another.  The Partridge boys started off as spotters in the announcer’s booth at the age of 10, and then learned to do the other functions.  They all worked in the fuel inspection booth by the age of 12, John became a Tech Inspector at 14, and Gary and Jim both worked on the starting line with the flagman.  The Partridge family was united in a sport they all loved, and the pride of their achievements bound them together in an ideal world.  In 1970 the family moved to Montclair, California, to be nearer the NHRA headquarters.  Their son, Bernie stayed behind and joined the Army.  This was during the height of the Viet Nam War, and the Partridge family supported their son’s decision, but with concern.  Their son went on to become a qualified Helicopter Pilot Instructor, and was assigned to units in the United States, training helicopter pilots who would fight in Southeast Asia.  Bernie’s talent as an announcer was well known before he went to work for NHRA full-time.  In 1958, while still working at the China Lake Naval Weapons Center, Bernie went to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to announce the Nationals.  He was always a hit with the fans, and his style of announcing was electrifying.  His trick was to put a lot of excitement into his delivery in order to get the crowds hyped up.  As long as he had the microphone in his hands, the crowds stayed in the stands.  He was hypnotizing in his delivery.  It is a family trait, for John and Jim have both announced at drag races and Jim is a part time stand-up comic. 

   Bernie would encourage the crowds to take sides, calling on the Ford fans to root for any Ford car in the race.  Then he would urge on the Chevy, Dodge, Plymouth or any other fans of other types of cars.  That was in the days when the Detroit Automakers fielded factory teams and put large amounts of sponsorship money behind the various motorsports.  He was one of those early announcers who helped to create the style of auto racing announcing that others would copy.  He would mention the girls on the race teams, like “Jungle Pam” Hardy, who lined up “Jungle Jim” Lieberman’s car on the track.  Hardy was known for wearing snug fitting “hot pants” that were famous during the disco tech period of the 1970’s.  “You can’t say the things today, that we said back then,” said PJ.  It was a time when people were more outrageous and daring and anything was acceptable.  Bernie never said anything malicious about anybody, but if he saw something he reported it and the crowd loved his honesty and artistic style.
     Bernie gave Don Garlits his nickname “Big Daddy.”  “Everybody called Garlits “Swamp Rat” because that was the name of his cars,” said Bernie Jr.  At the U.S. Nationals in 1962, Don was having a lot of trouble with breakage.  Finally he got off a run and set a record, and Bernie said to the fans over the loud speaker, “Looks like Big Daddy has his act together now.”  The name took and Garlits later had the nickname copyrighted.  Those were the happiest times of their lives.  They were part of a team that was the first Division Directors, and a management team that included Dismuke, Hart, and Wally and Barbara Parks.  They were part of the pioneers of a sport, and they were in on the decisions that helped to make the sport what it was to become.  It was the growth of the sport that created the change, most of the times for the better. 

   Bernie and PJ had an office in the old three-story tower next to the Pomona dragstrip, and it was here that they controlled the activities in Division 7.  Bernie was promoted to Western Field Director, over Division Directors 4, 5, 6 and 7; with Darwin Doll becoming the Eastern Field Director over Division Directors 1, 2 and 3.  Then he was promoted to National Field Director, then after 4 years he was made a Vice President and moved to the new NHRA offices in Glendora, California.  Bernie was placed in charge of Project Development.  This was a title that was suited to his ability; take an idea, original or from others, and make it work.  He was in charge of the new Jet and Rocket car programs.  There were limits on the speeds and elapsed times of these experimental cars.  They were used more for exhibitions than for actual racing, but they were so popular that a track promoter had to have a jet or rocket car to please the spectators.  PJ mentioned that they often got word that a jet or rocket car exceeded the speed limit and Bernie would call the promoter to repeat the rules again.  One of the rocket cars was Tony Fox’s Pollution Packer, driven by Dave Anderson.  Fox would line up the car on the track, using a musician’s baton and playing the music from the movie “2001.”  Bernie, announcing from the tower, said the immortal lines; “There’s Tony Fox, the maestro, maestroating.”  Announcers had to be quick with a quip.

   The jets and rocket cars had their heyday from the 1970’s until the 1990’s.  Jets are still around but the rocket cars bowed out when they could no longer get the catalyst needed to burn the hydrogen peroxide fuel, which was highly flammable.  The Partridges’ often witnessed hydrogen peroxide spills burning the shoes of the crew, and John Paxson’s car sprayed peroxide at Irwindale and set fire to the bushes next to the track.  Bernie developed the NHRA Street Legal Program.  Such programs had been around for a long time, but Bernie put it in its present day form.  “The Street Legal programs were the most fun to be involved in,” said PJ.  They had to show kids right off the street the very basics of drag racing, just as it was in the old days.  “The kids were so receptive and sincere,” said PJ.  Bernie started the “Get out of Jail Card,” and encouraged the “Beat the Heat” programs.  The Street Legals program evolved into a points system, and kids left the streets behind and became solid drag racers.  Sometimes they had to take actions immediately, and seek approval later.  PJ says they followed the advice of Glynanna Ham, wife of Division Director Dale Ham; “It’s far easier to beg for forgiveness later, than to ask for permission first.” 

   Bernie was assigned to the International Program, to develop ties with other countries and to offer advice on how to build and maintain a drag racing program.  He helped build a program in Brazil, England and Japan.  PJ recalls how they would take 40 people to Japan to give exhibition runs and match races against the Japanese racers.  The announcer would always give the winner, but there was never a “loser.”  To the Japanese, confidences were built up slowly, with respect, and to announce a “loser,” was to lose face and respect.  While the program was under Bernie’s direction, the relations with Japan ran smoothly.  They also developed Division 8, which was any dragstrip outside the United States and Canada.  Wally Parks suggested to Bernie that he organize the announcers at the drag strip so that they could learn from each other and develop more professional styles and deliveries.  Bernie started the Announcer’s Guild for NHRA track announcers.  They began to mentor and give advice and encouragement to the new announcers.  He discovered Steve Evans, Dave McClelland, Jerry Hart and others.  PJ and Bernie were the chairpersons for the California Hot Rod Reunion from 1992 through 1995.  There had been a succession of funerals that they had attended, when NHRA founder Wally Parks said, “we have to have a reunion of all of the old timers, instead of having to meet like this.”  PJ and Bernie formed a committee with Marilyn Lachman, Steve Gibbs, Wally and Barbara Parks, George Phillips, and John Jodauga.  The reunion was intended to be a one-time event, but the response was overwhelming and has since become an annual affair, drawing over 20,000 hot rodders and racers.  The success has spawned a second reunion, in June of each year, at Bowling Green, Kentucky. 

   It was decided that it would be unseemly for a Vice President of the NHRA to be announcing races at the National Events, and Bernie relinquished the job that he loved so dearly and put his full attention toward the administrative desk job until his retirement.  Their sons married and moved on, and the Partridges retired.  There were only 10 dragstrips in Division 7 when Bernie was hired, and when he left there were 38 thriving racetracks.  Bernie recalled the loyalty of the early day sponsors, including Schieffer Engineering and Hurst Shifters, two of the most steadfast supporters.  It was very hard on the Division Directors to keep independent tracks affiliated with NHRA.  The other sanctioning body was AHRA, and there was a constant effort by both organizations to win over the tracks and control the sport.  Bernie and PJ were proud of the fact that they worked very hard to expand NHRA’s control of drag racing in their section of the country.  Bernie was inducted into the California Hot Rod Reunion Hall of Fame in 1996, at Famoso Raceway, Famoso, California.  In 2000, Bernie was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame, located at Don Garlits Drag Racing Museum, in Ocala, Florida.  Bernie is also a talented yachtsman, and has sailed in the Catalina, Ensenada and other boat races.  He sailed to the Marquesas Islands and then on to Tahiti. The Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum opened in 1998 and a large section of the display cases showed photos of the original employees of NHRA, including the Partridges.  The seven original Division Directors were pictured with Wally Parks, the founder, in one photo.  In a second photo are pictured the seven wives in their division uniforms surrounding Barbara Parks, their mentor and leader.  It is impossible to truly explain to those who weren’t there in the beginning, just how important these men and women were in the founding of the sport of drag racing.  The Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum is a testament to their achievements.


Gone Racin’ is at [email protected]