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Tue, 19 Dec 2000, 05:28 AM

Steve Collison, Gone too Soon
By Jon Asher

For most of the people reading this, Steve Collison was the editor of Drag Racing USA Magazine. For anyone who had ever met the man, he was a friend. For everyone he was a friend of drag racing, a guy going a mile-a-second verbally and mentally, a guy who couldn't decide whether he hated "formal" sanctioning body-blessed racing to the point of repugnance, or loved it so much that he'd go down swinging in defense of it. Conflicted on some issues? Yeah, well, aren't we all?

There were two Steven G. Collisons, the one formally addressed as "Steve," and the one a pretty good-sized group of us were lucky enough to know as "Stevie."

That's the one I'd like to tell you a little about, because if you didn't know that Collison, you missed out on one very special dude. Stevie had three wonderful kids and a loving wife, which is pretty darn surprising in a guy I will never be able to think of as any older than 14 himself, and believe me, he was already well past that mark when I met him in the early 70s.

It was shortly after he'd been hired by Car Craft Magazine, and I was working an AHRA Grand American race at Epping when I spotted a tall, almost crane-like young guy frantically rushing around the track, camera dangling from his neck, shooting everything in site. I asked someone who he was. "Some guy named Collison," one of the track workers told me. "I think he's nuts."

I knew that name was familiar, but I couldn't figure out why until I walked out to my rental car and dug the latest CC out of my bag and checked a car feature I had in that issue. Unbeknownst to me, CC editor Terry Cook's first assignment for Stevie was to write the accompanying copy to my photos. To give him a little boost he's had his credit line set in about 20-point type, while sticking my photo credit line in the gutter in about 8-point type.

I walked up to Stevie holding my thumb and forefinger as far apart as possible and said, "Are you Steve Collison?"

"Yes," he said, making sure I was checking out his freshly embroidered Car Craft shirt.

"Well, I'm Jon Asher," I replied, holding the same two fingers about a millimeter apart. I then turned and walked away.

An hour later Stevie came walking up with his hand out and said, "I got that," and we were instant buddies.

The guy's enthusiasm for everything drag racing was so over the top that you had to love him and, I must confess, while I was a classic "fuel racing snob" who thought anything that wasn't supercharged on nitro wasn't worth even thinking about, Stevie loved it all, and had a particular affinity for bracket racing.

When I got lucky enough to join Stevie, Ro McGonegal, Rick Voegelin, Norman Mayersohn and Don Green at Car Craft in 1973 I found myself surrounded by guys who knew far more than I did about cars and every phase of sportsman drag racing. Luckily for me, they continually demonstrated tremendous patience with my lack of knowledge of "their" favorite part of the sport.

At the time I made light of one of Stevie's proudest souvenirs, a weekly program from Lions Drag Strip with his smiling face on the cover as he hung out of the door of a Pontiac looking backwards as he backed the car into the waterbox. He'd taken a test car right off the street and raced it into the final round of a huge field of cars, and although he lost, they didn't have a picture of the winner, so he got the cover.

I have a helluva lot more appreciation for what it takes to race and succeed in those classes now, and I'm glad that about 15 years ago I told Stevie that I realized he was one of the best. It made him smile, and that was good enough for me.

Few remember that it was that group of CC staffers who conceived the Super Modified and Econo Altered classes, with Collison providing valuable input. Those guys, particularly Voegelin and Mayersohn, took that concept and made it a reality with a Camaro that won two Division championships.

But for me, Stevie did something far more meaningful. One day in September of '73 he asked me if I wanted to go to lunch with he and his girlfriend, and I said sure. There was a fourth for lunch at Harry's Open Pit Barbecue that day, and 27 years later Carol Johnson and I are still together.

How do you thank someone for introducing you to the love of your life?

After I started living with Carol, Stevie remained a part of our lives, because he shared the house with us. But as much as we loved him, he was like the dinner guest who won't go home. After some months of hinting that it was time for him to get a place of his own we finally gave him a deadline for moving out. For years afterwards he'd tell mutual friends how we'd kicked him out on Christmas eve, which would usually produce a look of understanding on their faces and a "Sure, Stevie, I believe that" comment as they rolled their eyes. For all his craziness, Stevie also loved Carol's son Jason, and astonishing enough, he wasn't above being drafted as a last second babysitter. Despite the zaniness, when it came to caring for the little guy Stevie called "Pee-pee Head", a term that to this day cracks up Jason -- he demonstrated considerable maturity. At least, I think he did, because Jason grew up to be a muscle-covered almost-30-year-old who seems to have all of his faculties in tact.

I may not have ever put it into words, but Stevie knew how I felt about what he'd done for me with the introduction to Carol. Through all of those late nights at Indy, the nuttiness of the years we did the All-Star Drag Racing Team program together and everything else, he would get this little smile of satisfaction on his face when he saw how happy Carol and I were together.

Long after Stevie had moved back east and found his own true love, his job at Super Stock & Drag Illustrated, which became Drag Racing Monthly under his tenure, would bring him out to California, and he'd sometimes spend the night with us in Kagel Canyon. It was if he'd never left, although now his conversation was as much about his family as it was about racing or publishing.

I think if Stevie could have had his choice of occupations he would have been a full time bracket racer. Make no mistake about it, Stevie took a lot of pride in his work as a writer and editor. He might have claimed to care less about national event drag racing, but he knew who was winning and why, and often broke news stories well before any other monthly publication even had a hint that something was brewing. But underneath it all, he loved racing. He was no mechanical genius, as many will attest, but he loved figuring out how things worked, and wasn't above making late night calls to some of racing's most well known competitors to ask them questions about how to do things. I think he even asked some of those who helped not to let on that he'd asked, because he liked nothing better than to be able to dazzle someone like myself with his knowledge. But, in my case he had a gullible audience, because I don't know anything, anyone with even a modicum of knowledge seems like a drag racing Einstein to me.

In this age of instant news gratification we're not likely to see the likes of Stevie Collison again. Few writers covering the sport today have the kind of background Collison brought to his keyboard, because he lived the stories he told. He had, for lack of a better term, been there and done that. He not only lived his stories, he lived them with a force and fervor that the rest of us can only hope to emulate.

Steve Collison was truly one of a kind in the best sense of the word. I'm going to be missing him for the rest of my days. So are the hundreds of others who called him friend, and the thousands of others who just knew him as a damn good writer who loved drag racing.

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