Ten NHRA drag racing legends now stand alone, voted above all others as being among the Top 10 Drivers from NHRA's first 50 years of competition. The countdown, which began at the AutoZone Winternationals, the season opener for NHRA's 50th Anniversary season, will conclude at the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals in November with the naming of the No. 1 driver.
Alphabetically, Joe Amato, Dale Armstrong, Kenny Bernstein, John Force, Don Garlits, Bob Glidden, Bill Jenkins, Warren Johnson, Shirley Muldowney, and Don Prudhomme comprise the final 10, as decided by a panel of experts. The final countdown will begin Sept. 21 with the unveiling of Driver No. 10.
Through Thursday, Sept. 20, NHRA.com will offer its visitors the opportunity to weigh in on the subject through an interactive poll. Visitors can rank their own personal top 10 from among this list and have their votes tallied with others taking the poll to see how their picks stack up against the final list.
Below is a brief description of each driver's accomplishments.
Joe Amato is a five-time NHRA Winston Top Fuel champion and the first man to exceed 260 and 280 mph and to dip below 4.6 seconds. Amato, who began his career in the Sportsman ranks before moving up to Alcohol Dragster, where he won his first five national event titles, moved to Top Fuel in 1982, where he won a class-record 52 event titles in 102 final-round appearances. He is the only driver to win five NHRA Winston Top Fuel championships (1984, 1988, 1990-92) and the only one to win three straight.
Dale Armstrong is a former NHRA Winston champion in the Pro Comp class and one of the sport's great innovators. The winner of 12 NHRA national events and a former national record holder in the Funny Car class, Armstrong later became crew chief for Kenny Bernstein, with whom he won four consecutive Funny Car championship (1985-88) and the Top Fuel crown in 1996. Armstrong was the first Funny Car Crew chief to use wind tunnel testing and data recorders and developed the lock-up-style clutch still used today. He currently is the crew chief for Funny Car racer Jerry Toliver.
Kenny Bernstein is the only driver to win NHRA Winston championships in Top Fuel (1996) and Funny Car (1985-88). Long viewed as the most successful businessman-racer, Bernstein began in 1980 an association with the Budweiser brand of Anheuser-Busch, Inc., which today is the second longest racer-sponsor alliance in motorsports. The first driver break the 300-mph barrier and the first to reach 310 mph, Bernstein has won 52 NHRA national titles (30 in Funny Car and 22 in Top Fuel) in a career marked by his willingness to allow his crew chiefs to innovate and experiment.
John Force is the winningest driver in NHRA history with 97 career victories, all in the Funny Car class, where he is a 10-time NHRA champion. Force is one of the most popular drivers in NHRA history, a self-avowed "man of the people," yet one of the most successful sponsor gatherers of the last decade. Force, the first Funny Car driver to eclipse the 320-mph barrier, holds NHRA single-season records for 13 wins, 16 final-round appearances, and won 65 elimination-round wins, all recorded in 1996 when he was voted the national motorsports Driver Of The Year in 1996 in balloting by nationwide motorsports media, the only drag racer to earn honor.
Don Garlits is truly a racer who could do it all: Designer, engineer, engine builder, tuner, team manager, driver, and more, "Big Daddy" is one of drag racing's ultimate icons. Winner of three NHRA Top Fuel championships and 35 NHRA national events, the first to reach 170, 180, 200, 240, 250, and 270 mph, Garlits also was the first to perfect today's familiar rear-engined Top Fuel dragster. Garlits recorded perhaps the best run in drag racing history, a 5.637-second, 250.69-mph blast at the 1975 World Finals that stood unchallenged for more than five years. Garlits opened his Museum of Drag Racing in 1984, and his revolutionary Swamp Rat XXX dragster was inducted into the Smithsonian Institution in 1987.
Bob Glidden was the unrivaled king of NHRA accomplishments until 2000, when John Force exceeded his record of 85 NHRA national event wins. Glidden dominated the quarter-mile like few have. He won 10 Winston Pro Stock championships from 1974 to 1989, including five straight (1995-89) and is the winningest driver in U.S. Nationals history with nine victories. Although long known as one of Ford's most successful racers - winning in everything from Pintos and Fairmonts to Thunderbirds and Probes, Glidden also won the 1979 title in a Plymouth Arrow. The man his fellow competitors called "Mad Dog" for his unrelenting work ethic once went an entire calendar year -- June 24, 1978 through June 30, 1979 - without suffering a single loss in eliminations.
Bill Jenkins was to Chevrolet fans what Glidden was to Ford fanatics: simply the best. He literally put the small-block Chevy on the map while shutting down Chrysler's dominating Hemi in the Pro Stock class, of which he is considered one of the founding fathers. Considered by many to be Pro Stock's greatest innovator and one of drag racing's more popular personalities in his heyday, he also was the first Pro Stock racer in the nines. Known as "Grumpy" for his gruff demeanor, he revolutionized the Pro Stock class on a regularly with his innovations, most notably his tube-chassied, small-block Vega. After turning in his driving gloves, he became first a successful car owner and then engine builder, with his small-blocks a dominating force in Pro Stock Truck and Comp.
Warren Johnson, referred to by the panel as "the thinking man's drag racer" and a "latter day Jenkins," he earned his nickname "the Professor" largely for his scholarly study of all aspects of racing but also probably because he's a big believer in "homework," spending countless hours dyno testing his engines for the smallest horsepower gains. The five-time Winston Pro Stock champ is the second-winningest driver in NHRA history with 86 victories and was the first to accomplish 160-, 180-, 190-, and 200-mph Pro Stock runs. W.J., the winningest driver in Pro Stock history, has been responsible for much of the innovation in Pro Stock from areas he developed himself, including the DRCE engine and cylinder heads, which brought the class to where it is today.
Shirley Muldowney is the only female on the entire Top 50 list, but she didn't earn her way into the top 10 on novelty. One of the fiercest competitors to ever wage war on the quarter-mile, Muldowney is a three-time NHRA Winston Top Fuel champ with 18 national event wins to her credit. Often cited as a guiding inspiration by aspiring female racers, Muldowney cut her teeth in gas dragsters and fuel Funny Cars before becoming the first female Pro-class winner with a Top Fuel victory at the 1976 Springnationals. Crowd-favorite Muldowney, who won the U.S. Nationals in 1982, overcame life-threatening injuries from a high-speed racing crash in 1984 to return to the dragstrip.
Don Prudhomme is another drag racing legend of mythical proportions. Like Don Garlits and Shirley Muldowney, "the Snake" is synonymous with the quarter-mile. Prudhomme was virtually unbeatable from 1975 to 1978, winning four consecutive Winston Funny Car championships. Even though he retired from the cockpit at the end of the 1994 season, he still ranks seventh on NHRA's all-time win list with 49 victories (35 in Funny Car and 14 in Top Fuel). From the beginning, he has been a star in the sport and with his marketing with Army and Hot Wheels helped broach the gap between the hot rodders and the general public. Since his retirement, he has createdone of the best teams in the sport with drivers Larry Dixon and Ron Capps. As driver and recently as car owner, he's won races in five different decades in two different classes.
The panel of drag racing experts, from diverse fields including print and television journalists and longtime historians of the sport, were asked to cast their votes based of the following criteria:
1. Ontrack success as a driver (and, if applicable, as team owner, crew chief, or combination of the three) 2. Contributions to the growth of NHRA drag racing 3. Technological breakthroughs 4. Marketing/sponsorship breakthroughs 5. Fan popularity 6. Innovations or fresh thinking (regardless of success) 7. Miscellaneous
Each panel member supplied a ranked listing of drivers from 1-50. The votes were then tabulated using a weighted points formula and combined to arrive at the final list.
NHRA's Top 50 Drivers: Recapping the first 40
As part of NHRA's 50th Anniversary celebration, a panel of drag racing experts, including print and television journalists and longtime historians of the sport, were challenged to create a list of the Top 50 drivers from NHRA's first 50 years. The results have been unveiled throughout the year on NHRA.com and in National DRAGSTER, counting down from No. 50 to this week's No. 11.
The final 10 drivers, leading down to the announcement of No. 1 at the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals, are sure to provide lots of grist for bench-racing sessions for years to come. Below is a synopsis of the first 40 drivers to be honored.
No. 11. Mickey Thompson An imaginative innovator whose energy knew no bounds, Mickey Thompson designed and built the first American Land Speed Record car to exceed 400 mph while working on the graveyard shift at the L.A. Times and managing Lions Dragstrip on the weekends. Thompson as created the first slingshot dragster, set dozens of acceleration and speed records with a variety of Pontiac and Ford vehicles, and teamed with driver Danny Ongais and chassis builder Pat Foster to dominate the Funny Car ranks in 1969. After creating the concept of staging off-road events in major league stadiums, Thompson's brilliant career was cut short when he and his wife Trudy were murdered in 1988; the crime still is unsolved.
No. 12 Lee Shepherd Known by many as a soft-spoken Texas, Lee Shepherd personified the "eye of the tiger" syndrome when he got behind the wheel of a race car. A longtime teammate of David Reher and Buddy Morrison, Shepherd first won three national events in the Sportsman ranks before moving up to Pro Stock in the mid-1970s. He went on to win 26 titles as a pro and was the four-time defending Winston Pro Stock champion when he suffered fatal injuries in a testing accident in March 1985. Also a gifted mechanic, Shepherd did all the cylinder head work preparation for the R-M team and many other Pro and Sportsman customers as well.
No. 13 Pat Austin Few drivers of his generation have racked up more impressive statistics than Pat Austin. He is the winningest Sportsman driver ever with 68 Alcohol Funny Car wins, 25 more than anyone else, and his overall total of 73, including five Top Fuel triumphs, place him fourth on the all-time NHRA list, regardless of category. After winning his first national event title in 1986, he went on to win four championships in the five-year stretch between 1987 and 1991. He replaced the late Gary Ormsby in the cockpit of the Castrol Top Fuel car in 1991 and put together an Alcohol Funny Car win and a Top Fuel runner-up in his first outing at that year's U.S. Nationals and later became the first driver to win in two classes at the same event.
No. 14 Eddie Hill Easily one of the most popular drivers in any category, the ageless Eddie Hill was a proven champion with a combined total of championship titles on land and water. Hill began his career as a drag racer in 1956, but he switched to drag boat competition in 1959 and proceeded to win 86 marine events and also added more than 100 trophies during his eight-year career as a motorcycle racer. After racing blown-fuel hydroplanes from 1978 to 1984, Hill returned to drag racing in 1985 and became the first driver to record a four-second run with his 4.990 on April 9, 1988. His Winston Top Fuel championship at the age of 57 made him the oldest pro champion in NHRA history.
No. 15 Ronnie Sox Ronnie Sox was so good with a manually-shifted four-speed in the early 1960s that one of his regular competitors, Buddy Martin, asked Sox to become his partner and replace himself in the driver's seat. The duo went on to dominate A/FX and early Funny Car match races in the mid-1960s and Super Stock racing in 1967 to 1969. But Sox enjoyed his finest years in the early days of Pro Stock when he won nine out of the 15 races that were held in 1970 and 1971. His favorite race on the NHRA tour was the Springnationals, where he won three Super Stock titles and two Pro Stock victories in five consecutive years.
No. 16 Tom McEwen Though Tom "the Mongoose" McEwen never won as many racers as his longtime nemesis Don "the Snake" Prudhomme, he was certainly one of the most colorful drag racers of the 1960s and 1970s. The quick-witted McEwen, in fact, proved to be a perfect foil for the more pensive Prudhomme, and they gained popularity quicker as rivals than they might have done on their own. Their Mattel backing, which began in 1970, is generally regarded as the first major corporate sponsorship. McEwen's most memorable victory was defeating Prudhomme in the Funny Car final at the 1978 Nationals, just days after the death of his son, Jamie.
No. 17 Jim Liberman Years before the excitable John Force burst on the scene, drag racing's first master showman was the exuberant "Jungle Jim" Liberman. After first driving Funny Cars for Lew Arrington in the mid-1960s, Liberman began racing his own Chevy II in 1967. Giant wheelstands, fire burnouts in the staging area, and full-quarter-mile smoky burnouts that were followed by 100-mph backups were all a part of the Liberman mystique. When he added the voluptuous Pam Hardy, a.k.a. "Jungle Pan" to his act, his repertoire was complete. Like James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison, Liberman lived a fast-paced life that was cut short when he was killed in a car accident at age 32.
No. 18 Don Nicholson Perhaps no individual was listed by more drivers as their "toughest foe" than "Dyno Don" Nicholson, whose skills as both a mechanic and driver made him a dominant force in the pioneering eras of Super Stock, Funny Car, and Pro Stock. After winning consecutive Winternationals Top Stock titles in 1961-62, Nicholson became a top match race draw on the East Coast. His revolutionary Eliminator I Comet was drag racing's first flip-top Funny Car, and he was the only Ford racer to win a national event in the early days of Pro Stock with his 1971 Summernationals triumph. Nicholson's finest year was in 1977, in which he won the NHRA Winston Pro Stock title at age 50.
No. 19 Ed McCulloch As both a driver and tuner for Top Fuel and Funny Cars, Ed "the Ace" McCulloch has few peers. He began driving Top Fuel dragsters in 1964, and after switching to Funny Car in 1969, he won his first ever race at Indy in 1971. He went on to win four more U.S. Nationals Funny Car titles and then added an Indy Top Fuel crown in 1992. After serving as a test driver for the Kalitta clan in early 1995, McCulloch was promoted to tune first Connie and then Doug's car through 1999. McCulloch currently serves as the crew chief for both the Ron Capps and Tommy Johnson Jr.-driven Skoal Funny Cars of Don Prudhomme.
No. 20 Raymond Beadle Don Prudhomme was the unquestioned master of the Funny Car realm in 1975 when then-unknown Raymond Beadle convinced Blue Max owner/driver Harry Schmidt to hire him as a crew chief, but within six years Beadle not only replaced Schmidt, but he also knocked Prudhomme off of his roost. Beadle ended "the Snake's" four consecutive Winston championship streak of 1975-1978 with three of his own from 1979 to 1981. During his career, Beadle won 13 NHRA national events in 28 final rounds, the biggest of which was his U.S. Nationals victory in 1981. Beadle was also a successful NASCAR team owner, teaming with driver Rusty Wallace to earn a Winston Cup title in 1989.
21. Connie Kalitta In a career that spans all eras of drag racing, Connie Kalitta has done almost everything and done absolutely all of it his way: from humble beginnings in the 1950s to a factory-sponsored Top Fuel driver in the 1960s to a self-made multimillionaire in airfreight and a championship-winning crew chief for Shirley Muldowney in the 1970s to a satisfied multi-championship-winning car owner in the 1990s who still drove sometimes for the hell of it.
22. Pete Robinson Pete Robinson was one of drag racing's most prolific innovators, experimenting persistently with weight reduction and aerodynamics, earning him the sobriquet "Sneaky Pete." Robinson's easygoing nature, which made him popular among fans and fellow competitors, belied his intense demeanor as a racer, an asset that made him a three-time national event winner in five final-round appearances.
23. Jack Chrisman Jack Chrisman was NHRA's first big star and certainly one of its greatest pioneers. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was probably the premier gas dragster racer in the country and later played a major role in the development of the Funny Car class, introducing at the 1964 U.S. Nationals a machine that laid the foundation for the modern Funny Car.
24. Gary Beck Gary Beck won the first time he ever strapped himself into a Top Fuel dragster at a national event, at the 1972 U.S. Nationals. By the time he left the NHRA tour in 1986, Beck had won 18 more times and claimed the 1974 and 1983 championships. He still ranks as Top Fuel's sixth-winningest driver.
25. Tommy Ivo "T.V. Tommy" Ivo, one of the West Coast's fabled Top Fuel pioneers, never won an NHRA national event despite a career that spanned multiple decades, but the showmanship and professionalism he brought to the sport in stints in a variety of machines, including Funny Cars and jet dragsters, had a major effect on its early and continuing success.
26. Gene Snow Gene Snow was the first Funny Car driver to break the 200-mph barrier and the first Top Fuel driver to break the four-second barrier at an NHRA national event. Snow pioneered the use of direct-drive for his Funny Car, a configuration that is still used today, thanks to the second generation of pioneering he did in the late 1980s.
27. Jim Dunn Over a period of 40 years, Jim Dunn drove a variety of cars that were the hardest to drive, and he was a winner in all of them. When he quit driving, he taught others how to win. Dunn, who is still active as the owner/tuner of the Mooneyes-backed Funny Car driven by Al Hofmann, has a career final-round record of 10 wins and six runner-ups.
28. George Montgomery One of the most colorful chapters in drag racing history is the saga of the AA/Gas Supercharged coupes. The AA/GS class created some of NHRA's most intense rivalries from the late 1950s through the early 1970s and launched many stars, but none could match the record of three-time U.S. Nationals winner "Ohio George" Montgomery nor his technological advancements within the class.
29. Art Chrisman Hot rodding's earliest heroes built, maintained, and tuned their cars themselves, wiping their dirty hands clean before climbing into the cockpit to try out their handiwork. Few better exemplified this standard than Art Chrisman, the first to exceed 140 and 180 mph and the first winner at the Bakersfield, Calif., U.S. Fuel & Gas Championships in 1959.
30. Chris Karamesines What Chris Karamesines lacks in NHRA national event wins (none), he's more than made up for in near-mythical tales generated during a six-decade career. Equipped with a fearless driving style, "the Greek" has probably saved more runs in his popular series of Chizler dragsters from full-throttle wheelstands or sideways launches than any other driver would dare claim.
31. Dick LaHaie In a long, distinguished, and still ongoing career, Dick LaHaie has proven himself of championship caliber on numerous fronts. An NHRA Winston Top Fuel champion as a driver in 1987 and a two-time championship crew chief for Scott Kalitta (1994-95), LaHaie has been responsible for countless national event wins in a fuel-racing career that has spanned more than 35 years.
32. Darrell Gwynn Over the course of his 10-year career, from May 1980 to April 1990, only Bob Glidden and Kenny Bernstein won more NHRA national events than Darrell Gwynn. Gwynn was at the height of his career and already a 28-time national event champion when he was paralyzed and lost part of his left arm in a crash in England April 15, 1990. As a car owner, Gwynn's drivers have won an additional 15 races.
33. Brad Anderson Brad Anderson won 24 NHRA national events and three Winston championships in the Alcohol Funny Car class, but in addition to his own incredibly successful driving career, he was responsible for dozens more event victories and championships in Alcohol Funny Car, Alcohol Dragster, Top Fuel, and Funny Car as a purveyor of parts, especially his cylinder heads.
34. Willie Borsch For many, "Wild Willie" Borsch, one of the original Fuel Altered drivers, had to be included among NHRA's 50 greatest drivers. Anyone who drove a 94-inch-wheelbase nitro-burning monster one-handed for 10 years and could get Don Garlits to stop work on his Top Fueler to watch him run deserves to be on the list.
35. Terry Vance Terry Vance and longtime partner and engine builder Byron Hines were the heart and soul of NHRA two-wheel racing for the better part of two decades, and few would argue that without their influence, there might not be a Pro Stock Bike class today. Early on, Vance was the undisputed ruler of motorcycle drag racing.
36. Blaine Johnson Blaine Johnson had won four Winston Alcohol Dragster championships and appeared to be well on the way to his first in Top Fuel when he was killed in a qualifying accident at the 1996 U.S. Nationals. He already had amassed 30 NHRA national event wins and was destined for countless more.
37. Edmond Richardson Edmond Richardson ranks among the most successful Sportsman racers in NHRA history with three national championships, 12 division titles, and 38 national event wins; only 11 drivers have won more events. Whether racing in Super Comp, Super Gas, Super Stock, Stock, Super Street, or E.T. brackets, Richardson has consistently found a way to win.
38. James Warren James Warren was the driving third of the famous Warren-Coburn-Miller Top Fuel team that for many years was one of the best on the West Coast and equally formidable when they towed east. In addition to his ability to beat the best Top Fuel racers from around the country, Warren was the Division 7 champion five straight years, 1972 to 1976.
39. Danny Ongais Danny Ongais was an absolute master of the quarter-mile in the 1960s Top Fuel wars and had considerable success in Funny Cars in the 1970s, long before becoming a major figure on the major open-wheel circuit, where he gained peer recognition from the likes of A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, and the Unser family.
40. Frank Manzo Frank Manzo has won more NHRA national events in Federal-Mogul Funny Car (42) than anyone except Pat Austin (68) and has claimed more championships than anyone. He won his first national title in Alcohol Funny Car's first season (1981) and has won six altogether, including each since 1997.
41. John Mulligan Front-engined Top Fuel dragsters required drivers who were as fearless as they were skillful, competitors who could not only get the car off the line ahead of everyone else but who would hold the pedal down to the finish line. One of the best was the late John "the Zookeeper" Mulligan.
42. David Rampy David Rampy has won NHRA season championships in three classes. He's 10th among NHRA's all-time national event winners with 41 victories, is the winningest Comp eliminator driver in history, and is one of just six drivers to win in two different classes at the same event.
43. Frank Hawley It was Frank Hawley, not John Force, who first made Austin Coil a world championship tuner and gave Coil his first NHRA national event win. In his 10-year fuel career, Hawley scored seven NHRA Funny Car titles, the 1982 and 1983 Winston championships, two Top Fuel wins, and later founded drag racing's original driving school.
44. Dave Schultz Dave Schultz wasn't drag racing's most successful Pro Stock Bike racer by accident. Schultz, who died Feb. 11, 2001, after a battle with colon cancer, was one of an increasingly rare breed of individuals in motorsports who could build, tune, maintain, and race with equal amounts of success. Those skills helped him amass 45 NHRA national event wins and six Winston championships.
45. Scotty Richardson Scotty Richardson has never wrestled a 320-mph Top Fueler down the quarter-mile, but what the 30-year-old Goodlettsville, Tenn., racer has done in 12 years is win 33 NHRA national events in 44 final rounds in five Sportsman eliminators - Super Stock, Stock, Super Comp, Super Gas, and Super Street.
46. Ken Veney Ken Veney would rank among the all-time greats of drag racing as a driver if he'd never been a crew chief, or as a crew chief if he had never driven. Driving Alcohol Funny Cars and Dragsters, Veney was drag racing's seventh-winningest driver with 13 NHRA titles when he retired in 1985
47. Billy Meyer Billy Meyer won 13 NHRA national events and finished second three times and third three times in the Winston Funny Car points race, but he may be remembered for more than his driving - his lasting legacy will be the Texas Motorplex, a facility that helped redefine the face of drag racing.
48. Malcolm Durham In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball's color barrier when he became the first African-American player to sign a major league contract. In the 1960s, a drag racer by the name of Malcolm Durham accomplished a similar feat, establishing himself as the sport's first black superstar.
49. Richard Tharp In the 1960s and 1970s, an era that produced some of drag racing's most colorful characters, none was more colorful than Richard Tharp, the talented Texan who would go on to win the 1976 NHRA Winston Top Fuel championship for team owners Paul Candies and Leonard Hughes.
50. Elmer Trett
Elmer Trett was to Top Fuel Motorcycle racing what Jimi Hendrix was to the electric
guitar - a virtuoso, a pioneer, a genius, and an innovator. For the better part of
30 years, no one could match Trett's knack for innovation or his ability to make a
fuel-burning motorcycle perform.