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Wed, 12 Dec 2018, 08:27 AM

Farewell to Dick LaHaie- Top Fuel's "Ironman"
By Steve Reyes
Photo copyright 2018 Steve Reyes

Top Fuel racing's quintessential "tough" guy has left us after a prolific career. The guy that could do it all in top fuel; build, tune and drive, passed away on December 5, 2018 at the age of seventy-six.

The Michigan native won championships as a driver but also tuned Scott Kalitta and Larry Dixon to a combined four top fuel championships. LaHaie's road to success started at the early age of thirteen with a 1948 Mercury Coupe that he purchased with money he had saved up over a period of three years. It was followed by a few more door slammers and then in the early 1960s, Dick acquired his 1951 Henry J. The Henry J had a 476 Olds engine and it became a familiar fixture at Michigan drag strips. LaHaie's driving ability caught the eye of the Canfield and Johnson team who raced a well-known AA/MF roadster at local drag strips. That roadster became LaHaie's first nitro burning ride. Then in 1966, the Canfield and Johnson team debuted their new AA/FD with Dick LaHaie at the controls. After a very good year of racing, Canfield and Johnson decided to quit racing. Not having a ride was not a problem for LaHaie who had already made a name for himself and didn't mind doing his own thing.

Dick soon joined the Midwest UDRA circuit of top fuel racing. In 1970, he won his first of three (1970, 1973, and 1976) UDRA Midwest top fuel championships. Being a hands-on kind of racer, he built every car he raced from the ground up at Wayne Farr's Chassis shop. Farr was truly a life-long best friend. Unfortunately, the racing season of 1975 was not a banner year for LaHaie. He replaced the car that started the year with a lighter slicker version. Then at the Gatornationals in Gainesville, Florida, the throttle stuck wide open as it was going down the track. The only way to slow the car down was to push the clutch in resulting in an exploding engine which caused the car to crash. Dick survived the crash but was left with a broken right arm and a severed left hand. As luck would have it a group of medically trained Vietnam Vets were in Gainesville teaching limb replacement and they helped reattach his left hand. During his rehabilitation, Jon Thomas, of the Thomas Brothers top fuel team, drove LaHaie's car on the Midwest UDRA circuit.

By August of 1975, LaHaie was back in the cockpit of his top fuel dragster. However, fate soon stepped in again and almost ended his top fuel driving career. Dick had built a new car for the NHRA Nationals at Indy. The weekend before Indy, LaHaie ran and won top fuel at US30. His new ride was looking good for the nationals. Then on third qualifying run at Indy, the left rear inner liner of the tire failed on a 236 mph. pass. Needless to say, the car flipped upside down, hit the guard rail and he re-broke the right arm and lost three toes (two were re-attached). A month after the crash, a wounded but not defeated LaHaie, decided he still wanted to race. However, two major crashes had put a strain on the wallet. Old friend Marvin Rifchin stepped up and wrote Dick a check for a new top fuel car. That is a really good friend.

Top Fuel racing's Ironman turned things around in the 1980s. At Englishtown, New Jersey, he won his first major NHRA top fuel race. He also won NHRA's Eastern Region top fuel championship. Dick started off 1982 with a top fuel win at the NHRA Winternationals in Pomona, California and that year also marked the beginning of Kim LaHaie as her Dad's full-time crew chief. She also became a top fuel license holder and drove in the top fuel class. The father-daughter team did well in 1985, winning the Gatornationals and many top fuel races in the Midwest. They raced in six top fuel finals in 1986 winning two of the races and ended the year third in the points. The 1987 season proved to be LaHaie's best season as a driver. The team of Minor, LaHaie, and Miller Brewery laid waste to the to fuel class that year. Kim LaHaie tuned her dad to five NHRA national wins in Miller/Minor backed top fuel car. The big prize was at the end of 1987 when the NHRA top fuel championship went home with Dick and Kim LaHaie.

Between 1988 and 1991, the LaHaie's won five more NHRA races. After the 1991 season, LaHaie retired from the driver's seat and started tuning cars. A phone call from Connie Kalitta had LaHaie right back in the top fuel wars, NHRA style. Kalitta wanted a top-notch tuner for his son Scott and his old pal Dick LaHaie was the perfect choice. LaHaie made Scott into a top contender for a NHRA top fuel championship. In his first year as crew chief, Scott had a top fuel win in Topeka and a runner-up to Eddie Hill for the overall top fuel championship in 1993. For the following two years, Scott had the car to beat in NHRA top fuel racing. The team of Kalitta and LaHaie won back to back NHRA top fuel championships in 1994 and 1995. The duo just missed the championship in 1996.

Before LaHaie retired in 2005, he tuned Don Prudhomme and Larry Dixon's Miller Lite top fuel car to back to back NHRA top fuel championships in 2002 and 2003. The LaHaie family of Dick, Claudia, and their kids, Kim and Jeff have left one heck of a legacy in the sport of drag racing. Top Fuel's "Ironman" may be gone but he won't be forgotten!

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My first sighting of Dick LaHaie was at the 1971 Popular Hot Rodding Championships
in Martin, Michigan. LaHaie ventured to the West Coast for the NHRA Supernationals
at Ontario, California. If you look close at the burnout in Ontario, there is a guy sitting
on a mini-bike (right side of the photo). It is Don Prudhomme checking out LaHaie and
his Michigan-based AA/FD. LaHaie lost a close race to Wild Bill Alexander in
Bill Wishart's AA/FD that long-ago weekend in 1971.

LaHaie built his first rear engine top fuel car at his good friend Wayne Farr's shop in 1972.
This one at Indy was captured by photographer Clayton Taylor. It was the second of two
bad crashes for LaHaie. Taylor was right on the spot to shoot LaHaie's crash. The crash
was caused by a left rear tire failure. When it looked like Dick was out of business, his old friend,
M& H tire honcho Marv Rifchin wrote Dick a check to pay for a new top fuel car.

While LaHaie was mending from his first crash in 1975 at Gainesville, an old friend
and foe on the Midwest UDRA top fuel circuit, Jon Thomas, drove LaHaie's car.

Things started to look up for LaHaie in 1980 when he scored his first
NHRA national event top fuel win at Englishtown, New Jersey.
He also won the NHRA Regional Top Fuel Dragster Championship honors.
The year of 1982 started out great with a new car winning top fuel at the
NHRA Winternationals at Pomona, California. Also, that year, Kim became
Dick's full-time crew chief, thus becoming the first father/daughter to race in top fuel.

The father/daughter duo had Miller Brewery and the potato king Larry Minor came
on board in 1987. Kim, like her dad, could tune a top fuel car and she also got her
license to drive in top fuel. Kim became one of twenty women to obtain a top fuel license.

Dick and Kim had one heck of a year in 1987 with five national event wins.
They topped the year off with a NHRA Top Fuel World Championship.

At Indy in 1983, LaHaie squared off with Scott Kalitta.
Ten years later, LaHaie was Scott's crew chief and they
won back to back NHRA Top Fuel Championships in 1994 and 1995.
Then in 1996 they were runner-up in the chase for the Championship.
Connie advised his son very well by telling Scott to trust LaHaie as his
crew chief. Connie's old friend LaHaie didn't let him or his son down.

Before retiring in 2005, LaHaie tuned the Don Prudhomme owned, Larry Dixon driven, Miller Lite
top fuel dragster to back to back NHRA World Championships in 2002 and 2003.

Remembering Dick LaHaie? Yeah, I will always think of him as one tough as nails guy
who loved the sport of drag racing. He was someone who gave a hundred percent
whenever he had a wrench or steering wheel in his hands.
Dick was a Drag Racing Hall of Fame member of the class of 2003.

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