In this installment, we pay tribute to a drag-racing icon, an ingenious engineer and fabricator, and a racing innovator.
Drag racing is the most elemental form of motor-sports. But some- thing about the apparent simplicity of the action on the track fosters a cast of matchlessly memorable participants. Think about Don "Big Daddy" Garlits. John Force. Shirley Muldowney. Bill "Grumpy" Jenkins. But none of them enjoyed a longer career at the top than Don Prudhomme. He was dubbed "The Snake" because of his lanky frame and wicked-quick reactions off the line, but the sobriquet applied equally well to his ruthlessly competitive nature. He claimed his first Top Fuel win in 1962 -- when he was merely twenty years old -- and aspired to nothing more than owning a body and paint shop, then amassed a remarkable 230-7 record in the Greer-Black-Prudhomme rail that smoked all comers. He later segued into Funny Cars and won four consecutive championships, continuing to race until he was fifty-three. After hanging up his Nomex, Prudhomme added 63 wins as a team owner to his 49 as a driver. Still, he's best remembered for his long- running rivalry with Tom "The Mongoose" McEwen, which inspired a series of beloved Hot Wheels models and opened the floodgates for the major-league sponsorship that transformed drag racing into a sports-entertainment leviathan.
Jim Hall had the gambling heart of a Texas wildcatter, the hefty bankroll of an oil tycoon, and a precocious imagination tempered by a degree in mechanical engineering from Caltech. He was also a pretty fair race car driver, running a creditable season in Formula 1 in 1963, winning the U.S. Road Racing Championship in 1964, and dominating the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1965 in a car he designed and built himself. But the taciturn Texan is remembered best as the founder of Chaparral Cars. With a private test track in dusty Midland, Texas -- aptly named Rattlesnake Raceway -- and a pipeline leading to Chevrolet R&D, Hall pioneered several advances that revolutionized racing. His Chaparral 2 was built around a composite semi-monocoque tub. The 2C offered clutchless shifting. The daunting rear wing on the 2E opened up a new world of aerodynamic downforce. The 2J introduced ground effects via suction provided by a snowmobile engine. Later, Hall worked with John Barnard to produce the 2K that brought underwings to Indy. Modern rules no longer permit this brand of blue-sky innovation. Or maybe there are no longer any Jim Halls brave enough and smart enough to take the right kind of risks.
For a long time, Phil Remington -- master race car fabricator, mechanical wizard, and practical engineer par excellence -- seemed to be just about everywhere: running with the legendary Low Flyers of Santa Monica hot-rod club before World War II. Setting records on the dry lakes after returning from the South Pacific. Prepping the one-off sports car that won the first big road race on the West Coast. Assembling Indy roadsters and midgets with Lujie Lesovsky and Emil Diedt. Building the first American Formula 1 racing car and the last of the Scarabs, both for Lance Reventlow. Perfecting Cobras for Carroll Shelby. Ramrodding the massive Ford effort that overwhelmed Ferrari at Le Mans. Then, in 1969, he signed on with Dan Gurney at All American Racers, and he never left. Since then, he's worked on Indy cars; Can-Am cars; Trans-Am cars; GTO, GTU, and GTP cars; Formula Fords and Formula 5000s; even prototype motorcycles. At 91, he still logs a full day every day at AAR, most recently fabbing parts for the radical Delta-Wing Le Mans racer. Nobody ever did it faster, or better, or longer. "Rem's like a tornado," Gurney once told us. "He's just a great, unstoppable force of nature."