It was in the late 1960s when William Lee Doner first visited Pacific Raceways, the gorgeous motorsports facility carved into the hills east of Seattle. At the time, Doner worked for Carroll Shelby's race team, which competed in the SCCA TransAm Series.
The heavily-favored Cougar Team, led by Dan Gurney and Parnelli Jones, was the odds-on favorite to win the title that year, but during the final weekend of the season at Pacific Raceways the ultra-fast Mustangs of Team Shelby, with drivers Ron Bucknam and Jerry Titus, roared by to win the title.
It certainly was gratifying to win the championship over Team Gurney and Doner organized a well-deserved celebration for the winning team.
Doner later met local auto dealer Alan Green and realtor Bob Yeakel, who had taken over the lease to Pacific Raceways. They looked to Doner as the potential track manager. Success had been hit and miss throughout the 60s and Doner was a guy that knew motorsports well and could bring his knowledge and skills to the Northwest.
A pitch was made and by the winter of 1969, Doner was relocating from southern California with his pal, Father Duffy, to take the helm at Pacific Raceways. The plan was to resurrect a failing racing facility that desperately needed some success. At the time it was financially unstable and bereft of a solid direction.
The '72 Seafair Funny Car Championships drew a huge crowd, that watched Ed "the Ace" McCulloch tune Dave Beebe to the win. (Photo by Russ Griffith)
Doner first renamed the facility Seattle International Raceway, and then focused on road racing, as the other promoters had done. But, just as those before him, he found little success. One event was such a major bust that Doner realized immediate changes were necessary if SIR was going to survive.
Often called "one of the best promoters the Northwest had ever seen," Doner scheduled a variety of events at SIR. He even brought in Evel Knievel with a heavily promoted motorcycle jump that nearly filled SIR to capacity. Over time, Doner began to understand the Northwest market and he continued to develop unique schedules for the future survival of the facility.
This is when drag racing entered the equation. Even before the drag strip opened, local racers used the road-course straightaway, going from west to east, the opposite of the current configuration, to get their drag racing fix. There were just a few grandstands, no timing tower or other major necessities for running drag races. Apparently it was an afterthought in the original design. But everyone seemed to enjoy the show.
Doner came up with the Northwest National Open – a Top Fuel and Funny Car event that included many stars of the sport in open competition. The risk for holding this type event was huge as it was scheduled in early May in order to attract the best cars and drivers before the regular summer schedules kicked off.
The "Funny Car Fire-up" -- where the crowd counted down the starting of the engines -- was a great bit of showmanship that caused a unique traffic jam. (Photo by Russ Griffith)
Seattles infamous weather made it such a high risk. Doner told me he remembers vividly waking up early one morning of the two-day event and hearing that familiar sound of rain pounding away on his roof. It had to be a wrenching experience as the massive media campaign was all paid for by credit card, essentially "floating" the money needed to promote this huge event.
Producing major drag racing events in the Northwest is certainly unexplainable to bankers and investors. In a place where it can rain at any time, something that brings drag races to a complete halt, the pressures on big-time promoters was sometimes more than a human being could take.
The annual Unlimited Hydroplanes were the big deal back then, with officials bragging that hundreds of thousands of fans annually packed the shores of Lake Washington. Of course, those were suspect numbers – as many questioned those figures over the years – but there certainly was a large crowd nonetheless.
It was called Seafair and it included several weeks of events in outlying communities leading up to the Hydro races. Doner figured with all of these race fans in the area that just maybe he could take the most colorful cars in drag racing and gather them together for a night-race extravaganza.
"There is nothing in all of motorsports like nitro Funny Cars at night," Doner rightly proclaimed.
The first magical move Doner made was the installation of lighting at SIR. A huge one-pole system was installed just behind the starting line, which made for a unique and different approach to lighting the entire quarter-mile. The night setting was unmatched anywhere as the cars would rocket down the quarter-mile and into the shadows as they clicked off their motors. This lighting setup added to the unique look that SIR would have in the soon-to-be night racing plans.
With the lighting set into place, the Seafair Funny Car championships were born. The "ground pounding" was about to get started as Doner started testing out the Seattle market in a whole different way.
The huge question to ask: Would it all work?
Doner was betting on it.
Editor's note -- "Part 2: 64 Funny Car fields" will be published in January.