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Wed, 20 Dec 2017, 08:03 AM

Homegrown Top Fuel Dragsters Part VI
By Steve Reyes
Photo copyright 2017 Steve Reyes

Let us head up to Sacramento from the Bay Area for the California capitol's glut of top fuel dragsters. I know there were more than I am featuring in these next couple of articles but I am going with the cars that I saw race and the cars that I can identify. The Sacramento area had some great competitors in the top fuel class; Jim Herbert, Don Argee, Frank Pitts, and of course the kid from Oklahoma, Gary Ormsby driving The Vagabond.

I first saw Jim Herbert driving for Masters and Richter in 1964. He and Denny Milani shared the driving duties. Denny Milani often drove for Ted Gotelli but when they argued, he would drive for M&R. When Gotelli and Milani were lovey dovey, then Herbert drove for M&R and Milani was back in his regular ride the Gotelli and Milani AA/FD. When Herbert wasn't in a AA/FD he was wheeling Fred Sorensen's AA/FR. Herbert's first regular ride came about in 1966 with the first Bishop, Pitts and Herbert Lizard AA/FD. The team really stepped up for the 1967 season with a full-bodied gold flake painted Lizard. In 1968, partner Frank Pitts purchased the car from his partner's and went top fuel racing on his own. Herbert with his partners, Bill Bishop and Chris Raynor debuted a brand-new Lizard at the beginning of 1968. The saga of Jim Herbert would continue into the 1970s and a rear engine top fuel car would be in his future with Chris Raynor.

Don Argee was known as the Don of the Sacramento racing mafia. When I met him, he already had years of racing under his belt. In 1962, the Brocchini and Argee fuel altered roadster held the standard 1320 record at 9.58 at 164.88 mph. He was juggling his regular job as a cement truck driver, racing his AA/FD and was the president of the Sacramento UDRA Chapter. He was a very busy guy. When he wasn't in his AA/FD, Don shared driving chores with Herbert in Fred Sorensen's AA/FR

Then there was Frank Pitts and his top fuel racing adventures. Frank was a great guy who loved drag racing when he purchased the Lizard from ex-partners Herbert and Bishop. Frank was going to make his mark in top fuel. Well, one of his first times out, he crashed into the fence along the fire-up road, "hurting" his new AA/FD. A somewhat quick repair and he was off and running for a while until another crash destroyed his racer. Not to be discouraged, he and friend Nick Otto went and purchased Fred Sorenson's Warlock AA/FA and went fuel altered racing.

The Warlock was re-done from the ground up even though it already had a proven record as a very good running AA/FA. The duo raced the Warlock in NorCal and SoCal at fuel altered events for almost two years. As fate would have it a huge blower explosion ended any dreams of AA/FA greatness. The explosion and fire resulted in Frank losing control and crashing at speed. The crash left Frank in a coma for two weeks and when he awoke, he was paralyzed. It took two years for him to regain his health. He went on to become a lawyer but died in 1998 due to residual effects from the crash twenty years prior.

Another top fuel car from NorCal was The Vagabond AA/FD and it was named after a bar in Sacramento. With Walt Bumgarner, Gary Ormsby spun tales of quarter mile glory to the owner of the Vagabond Bar. The owner decided to get in on this drag racing deal and bought in a third of the Vagabond AA/FD. Now, you would think the Oklahoma kid, Gary Ormsby was the Vagabond's fearless driver but no, it was journeyman driver Larry "Shorty" Leventon. That however, changed when "Shorty" drank too many adult beverages and failed to show at a race. No problem, Ormsby who had never driven a AA/FD, hopped in with a borrowed fire suit and helmet and blasted down the quarter mile at 180 mph. Needless to say, Leventon never drove the Vagabond again.

Keep your eyes posted for the next installment of blasts from the past.

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Either a blown fuel burning roadster or the M&R Special AA/FD were Herbert's rides.
Then came the Lizard AA/FD's and Jim started the 1970s with his own AA/FD. When the
world of back motor fueler's came on the scene in 1972, he had one as well.

Another top fuel Sacramento driver who shared his seat time in a blown fuel burning roadster and his
own AA/FD, was Don Argee. The cement truck driving Argee was also president of the local UDRA Chapter.

Frank Pitts did love drag racing. After his stint as a part owner of the Lizard AA/FD, he purchased
the Lizard to go racing on his own. After crashing his AA/FD he partnered with Nick Otto and went
fuel altered racing. Racing the Warlock AA/FA almost proved fatal for Frank.

The transplanted Oklahoma kid, Gary Ormsby went top fuel racing for the first time in the mid-1960s
with the Vagabond AA/FD. Ormsby got to drive for the first time because regular Vagabond Driver
Larry Leventon failed to show for the race. Gary ran 180 mph on the first pass in the car. The rest is history.

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